Chattaway's all-time movie favorites

The top ten

Being a compulsive list-maker, I have, at various times in my life, drafted several lists of my favorite movies. After a few years of trying this and trying that, I finally came up with a list of three films which, I said, best summarized "me."

Then, in 1998, Books & Culture asked me to come up with a top ten list. The first three were a cinch. The next two were films I had long speculated might appear in such a collection. But choosing the remaining five wasn't so easy. I could easily think of a dozen or more films that might qualify, but I didn't have room for them all. In the end, I cheated slightly and went for a top eleven -- resulting in this list:

1. Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962). A grand, visual spectacle backed by Maurice Jarre's majestic music and supported by perhaps the greatest international cast ever assembled, yes, but also a thoughtful, incisive look at the tensions that exist between nationality and personality, power and identity, destiny and free will.

2. The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985). A "minor character" steps off a movie screen and into Depression-era New Jersey, stranding his fellow characters while offering perfect, but imaginary, love to an abused housewife. A delightfully comic exploration of the difference between movie fantasy and harsh reality, but also a remarkably canny parable about a created world that is deemed good yet loses its sense of purpose once its inhabitants "chuck out the plot."

3. The Family Way (Roy Boulting, 1966). A poignant, funny, bittersweet look at newlywed woes in working-class England that touches gently on a few hot buttons, notably impotence. John Mills delivers a superb, many-layered performance as real-life daughter Hayley's father-in-law, and Paul McCartney -- in the first solo Beatle project -- provides the tender, melancholy, and hauntingly perfect score.

4. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983). No script, no actors, no plot -- just pure cinema, set to Philip Glass's mesmerizing music. The title is Hopi for "life out of balance," and Reggio employs a grab bag of camera tricks to convey the idea that modern technology -- including moviemaking! -- has thrown the created order out of whack. A dazzling film that seems to recreate itself with every viewing.

5. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980). Not your typical sequel. George Lucas took a lot of risks with the middle chapter in his space opera and created a more successfully convincing parallel universe than Star Wars ever hinted at. The confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker is striking for its moral complexity, and it ultimately opens the door to Vader's redemption. Who could have predicted that?

6. When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner, 1989). Forget Seinfeld. Reiner, Nora Ephron, Billy Crystal, and Meg Ryan scooped that so-so series with this surprisingly perceptive and frequently amusing dissection of modern relationships -- platonic and otherwise -- between the sexes. A treat for cynics and romantics alike.

7. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, 1938). Swordfights, romance, swashbuckling derring-do, and a subversively patriotic idealism -- what more could one want? Still the best film of its kind, even if Basil Rathbone is less menacing here than he is in The Court Jester (Melvin Frank & Norman Panama, 1956), Danny Kaye's witty, affectionate send-up of the genre.

8. Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979). Not as irreverent as some might think, this intelligent, albeit raunchy, satire of big-budget Bible epics is, if anything, sympathetic toward Jesus. It taps into a subversive critique of shallow faith, personal ingratitude, and misplaced political zeal that is as old as the Gospels themselves.

9. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988). Morris's dreamlike documentary is much more than a stylish, neonoir, real-life account of an innocent man convicted and almost executed for a murder he did not commit. It's a remarkable piece of investigative journalism and a probing study of the construction -- and deconstruction -- of memory.

10. Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989). A sometimes gentle, sometimes biting, allegorical tour-de-force about the postmodern quest for meaning and the tensions between integrity and compromise that plague both art and religion. Tight, complex, and richly conceived, every scene seems to be pregnant with multiple meanings.

Honorable mention goes to the animated shorts of Chuck Jones, especially Rabbit Seasoning (1952), One Froggy Evening (1955), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957). Jones is a master of restraint; his characters can speak volumes with little more than an arched eyebrow or a blank stare. Would that writers could do the same.

© 1998-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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