As we were ringing in 2008 I
thought about doing one of those “Ten Best, Ten Worst” lists for the
year's end, and then I realized that I haven't seen ten movies in the
whole year. Some film critic – disgraceful.
Then I realized that I needn't be stuck just with
movies from the past year, and voilà, the solution materialized: a list of
favorite movies, all out on DVD, for those looong winter evenings.
These movies are not necessarily on my
Ten-Best-Of-All-Time list (though one certainly is) but they're ten
films that I have a fondness for, and you might develop a
fondness for them too if you give them a chance when the night wind
howls in the chimney cowls, and the snow whips past your window. So
herewith, in no particular order:
IMPROMPTU -- James Lapine directed this comedy of very ill manners
among the rich and famous. In the 1840s Emma Thompson is a
culture-vulture French duchess who invites all the famous artistes to
her château for the weekend. George Sand shows up with Chopin, Liszt,
Delacroix and a few other performing lions, and they proceed to drink
far too much, have outrageous liaisons, and tear the place to
smithereens. More fun than you can imagine.
HIGH SPIRITS -- Another example of why Peter O'Toole is one of
our greatest comic actors. He owns a derelict Irish castle hotel, and
plans to make a fortune by touting it as haunted. Things become
miserably predictable when the real ghosts show up, but the first third
movie, when the hotel staff are rigging the mechanical spooks and
O'Toole is hitting the bottle, is worth the rental.
THE COMPANY OF WOLVES – Neil Jordan, who directed High Spirits, also
did this quiet little Jungian horror tale, where Red Riding Hood is not
so Little, and the archetypes are sometimes exactly what you're afraid
THE HISTORY BOYS – The most recent film on my list, but if you blinked
you missed it. It's the original London cast of Alan Bennett's
play about a pack of rowdy British schoolboys preparing for The Big
Exam. They're tutored by an old rakehell who believes that learning
should be fun as well as important, and by a young impostor who teaches
them flashy academic tricks. Real wit and real comedy get across real
BEING JULIA – The wonderful Annette Bening is a wonderful aging actress
who gives in to the blandishments of a much younger admirer, only to
twig (at last) to the lesson that Norma Desmond never learned.
WALK ON WATER – In 2004 American-born Israeli director Eytan Fox gave
us this quiet little shiver-inducer about an Israeli assassin who
becomes romantically involved with the grandkids of an aging Nazi who
is on his hit list. A harrowing study of why there are no easy answers.
Not any. Ever.
GREY GARDENS – The creepiest movie that was never scripted, this is the
Maysles Brothers' 1975 documentary about Big Edie and her middle-aged
daughter Little Edie, destitute cousins of Jackie O. When the camera
wanders around their decaying Long Island mansion it's way scarier than
The Blair Witch Project.
KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS – You must have at least heard the title of
this one, the most famous of the Ealing comedies from England in the
'50s. Alec Guinness plays all eight members, male and female, of
a noble family who are systematically, and hysterically, eliminated by
a pretender to the title. Was murder ever such fun? Can I do this at
ALICE IN WONDERLAND – This one is Jonathan Miller's straange 1966
version, in black-and-white, which really is an Oxford don's Victorian
dream. No talking animals here, just famous actors who look uncannily
like them, including Sir John Gielgud as the Mock Turtle – pure genius.
With Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey) as the pugnacious Duchess, and
Peter Cook as a Mad Hatter who seems to be caught on a repeating loop.
Read the book again, but see this too.
CHILDREN OF PARADISE – LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS – Whether you leave the
subtitles on, or whether your French is good enough to turn them off,
this is the Right Stuff. On my Best-Movies-Ever list, and maybe –
probably -- my choice for best movie ever made. Marcel Carné's
1945 study of the theatrical world of Paris in 1828 was filmed in
secret during the Nazi occupation of France, and it says nearly
everything you can say about how art imitates life, and the other way
around. If Jean-Louis Barrault's hopeless pursuit of the enchanting
Arletty doesn't wound your soul, you may be Dick Cheney and no longer
As soon as the National Weather Service predicts
another 15 inches of snow, why don't you decant the port or put on the
tea kettle, run down to the local video store for one of the films on
this list, and invite me over? I'll bring the popcorn.