One of my favorite topics of discussion regards favorite books and movies. Personally, I love having a numbered list of favorites. It provides a barometer of measurement when experiencing a new piece of art, and it can be fun shuffling things around on the list as new things are released. Though this list changes gradually over time, here is a list of my top 5 favorite films.
5 - A Dark Song
My number 5 slot is the most frequent game changer and actually just shifted very recently. A Dark Song was written and directed by Irish film-maker Liam Gavin in 2016. It follows the mystical exploits of Sophia who contracts the services of a man named Solomon to help guide her through the most intense magical ritual in occult lore: the Abramelin Operation of the Knowledge and Conversation of one's Holy Guardian Angel. You can actually read my full review of this movie here, but here's why it made my top 5 list . . .
I love magic, and this film provides the most realistic depiction of magic in the occult arts that I have ever seen on the screen. Magic is not about turning invisible or shooting fireballs out of wands; it is subtle, psychological, and maneuvers between reality and dream-time. Not only does A Dark Song show us how magic really works, the script is tight, the cinematography stunning, and the music riveting. If you're looking for a Hollywood-esque portrayal of magic with tons of colorful CGI, go watch Dr. Strange. This film pulls no punches about the brutal realities of the mystic arts and delivers its message in a pristine, yet intense, viewing experience that is impossible to forget.
4 - The Lord of the Rings
I will never forget the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in movie theaters. I had never seen anything like it before. Although sci-fi had made its mark in Hollywood, it seemed fantasy films could never graduate from the campy inanity of B-movie status with atrocious examples like the box office embarrassment of the Dungeons & Dragons movie starring Marlon Wayans (God forgive humanity for such a tragedy). The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a spectacle to behold, nothing like it had ever been accomplished on film: an essentially 12+ hour movie filmed all at once, then parsed down into three separate volumes. It is cohesive, with an incredible production value, and changed the fantasy film genre for good, much in the same way its literary predecessor did for fantasy literature.
Without the cinematic accomplishments of The Lord of the Rings we would never have Game of Thrones or the other silver screen epics of today. I am not sure any fantasy film has ever been able to surpass its breadth and heart. What I have found most remarkable about this movie (or movies; I might be cheating here by lumping them all into one, but not really) is that it is highly re-watchable. Even films I regard as pristine works of art may not necessarily be something I want to re-experience over and over. The Lord of the Rings is an exception . . . I re-watch the entire trilogy just about once a year and it never gets old. Hats off to Peter Jackson for ensuring J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination lives on forever!
3 - Dead Man
Back before Johnny Depp became Disney's butt-monkey, he had a fairly decent portfolio of independent work under his belt. My favorite by far is Dead Man, directed by Jim Jarmusch in 1995. Dubbed a "psychedelic Western," Dead Man follows the story of accountant William Blake (played by Depp) who runs into an occupational quagmire and ends up escaping the Law by trekking into the wilderness. There he runs into a Native American outcast called Nobody (played by Gary Farmer) who mistakes the mousy accountant for the famed English poet William Blake. The two end up wandering the wilderness in a series of off-beat adventures.
Dead Man is essentially a vision quest told in cult film format. It's stylized, yes, but there is an intense journey hidden inside its black-and-white frames that is worth surrendering to. Its slow pacing begs even more from the audience, so you have to invest every ounce of your attention into its silences, which is where the heart of this initiation resides. Very few people I know like this movie as much as I do, and often get bored while watching. You have to be ready for Dead Man, but if you understand the movie is not about entertainment, it's worth the experience.
2 - The Shining
Stanley Kubrick is the Mozart of film. Truly trying to rank his films by their aesthetic merits would be an interesting feat of art criticism. However, my personal favorite is his adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. I love this film not for being an adaptation of King's work, but for the liberties it took. This is a prime example of Kubrick taking material and going mad with it, just as the character Jack Torrence does in the story. One of the first films to ever use the Steadicam, the visual acuity of the cinematography is stunning in its smooth tracking shots. Each frame looks like a master painting, alluring and suffocating at the same time.
What makes this film ever more intriguing to me is the accompanying documentary by Kubrick's daughter Vivian: Making "The Shining." Watching Kubrick at work is a treat to behold; he is well known for pushing his actors to the brink in order to get the most authentic performance out of them, and the results are revealed in this film. Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall's performances are a testament to Kubrick's own landscape of madness, which very clearly can be mapped in the landscape of the Overlook Hotel on screen. Again, it is not so much the horror aspects of this movie that appeals to me, but the art of Kubrick's film-making itself.
1 - Brazil
Finally, we come to the number 1 spot, what I consider to be the greatest film ever created! This slot could only be reserved for my number one favorite film-maker: Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. Known for such classics as Holy Grail and Life of Brian, Brazil was Gilliam's attempt to cement his own film career outside of the Monty Python brand. Released in 1985, the film recounts the dystopian adventure of Sam Lowry (played by the venerable Jonathan Pryce) as he struggles through the monotony of his repetitive life, but then comes into contact with Jill Layton whose rebellious nature against the government inspires Sam's own rebellion against his dull and banal existence. One wonders when this story even takes place, as it seems to be a postmodern mish-mash of future and past, and that particular quality of time displacement lends itself to the malaise which besets this world that Lowry struggles to free himself from.
Gilliam's dream-like settings, constructed by deco-style monoliths, paint the landscape of Brazil. Its emphasis is on the liberation of imagination from the chains of industry and commercialization. The problems in Brazil are the same problems we face today: that citizens become blind to their own humanity for the sake of keeping the gas in the cars and the bills paid. We've lost our hearts due to expediency; the dark side of modernization. Although it was a box office failure at the time of its release, Brazil has since become a cult classic. Its amalgamation of quirky humor mixed with dark, haunting imagery wasn't something that American audiences were able to wrap their heads around at the time. So, it was after this that Gilliam broke from Hollywood to become a respected film-maker in Europe. He has continued to make many other wonderful films (some of which remain as honorable mentions) but Brazil will always be timeless in its craft and ingenuity.