If you’re a film major you get this question a lot. You get it at parties, in classes, on the subway, in taxis, at urinals. You get it every time you tell someone what you study. You don’t have to be a film major to appreciate the quandary here. Anyone who loves movies knows what a trick/impossible question this is.
I love movies: plural. To choose one raises so many questions, to choose one makes me immediately think of 5 others that I “love more.” I was just asked by one of my girlfriend’s friends “what’s your favorite movie?” I answered but in a way, I lied. I said that it was a tie. I gave her two of my “stock” answers, two films that have enough name recognition and that I love enough to rank as my hypothetical favorites. As soon as I answered my girlfriend, always the contrarian troublemaker, says : “that’s not what you said last time.”
I chuckled and changed the subject, but it got me thinking. I’ve always disliked getting this question, but I’ve never fully articulated to myself why. I’ve tried to pick a favorite, but it’s impossible. I could probably narrow it down to twenty or so, but ranking those top twenty would be impossible. The list would be a patchwork of different genres, time periods, languages and tones. All the films make me feel great, that’s all there is to it.
You ask “well, what were those two ‘stock ‘answers? Where is that hypothetical twenty?” I’m not going to give you the twenty, I’ll give you the two stock answers plus three more from the list, then I’ll tell you another secret.
“Either Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy,” that was my answer to the girl’s question. In fact, it is my go to answer most of the time. Some days, if I’m feeling especially mentally spry or have been talking to a person about a specific genre of films (Westerns, Horror, etc.) I could very well answer something completely different. It was not a lie, per se, Tax Driver and Midnight Cowboy are my favorite movies. Just not all of them.
I will now give you those five, and a (all too) brief rundown of why each one is special to me. These are all perfect films in my eyes, so order doesn’t matter, neither do exceptions.
Taxi Driver (1976), as it probably is for many young cinephiles of my generation (I’m not inferring that my list is wholly original or unique, it is simply mine), is not the film that made me love cinema, but the one that made me long to be a part of it.
It is the film that mathematically, undeniably proves the well-worn film school cliche that “film is a collaborative medium.” Taxi Driver is and isn’t Martin Scorsese’s film. The young master is integral to the film’s greatness but no more or less so than Paul Schrader’s incredible script (his first unless you count his collaboration on the Sidney Pollack film Yakuza, which is awesome but would not be on any favorites list of mine), Bernard Herrmann’s score or Robert De Niro’s performance.
I think the reason I list this film first, when asked, is its ending. The faux “happy ending” to Travis’s story is possibly the most disturbing and realistic part of this already dark and realistic film.
Further viewing: I’m sure you’ve seen Taxi Driver, but Schrader is also an amazing filmmaker in his own right you may not have seen his biopic/dark comedy Auto Focus (2002), another favorite. If you want more De Niro/Scorsese genius, sit down with The King of Comedy (1982).
Probably the most emotionally manipulative movie on the list, but not in a bad way because it is also the one most likely to move you to tears. Lots of people are familiar with Harry Nilsson’s theme from the film (“Everybody’s Talkin'”) and know the trivia bit that it was the first X rated movie to win best picture, but it seems that less and less people have actually seen John Schlesinger’s 1969 film.
For example, my sophomore year, after one of my first few film classes, I was talking to a handful of my classmates. The deadly, aforementioned question came up. Not a single one had seen Midnight Cowboy. It’s not their fault, but that just kind of bummed me out. It is a film that deserves and requires at least one viewing. If you are one of the unfamiliar: you don’t have to like it, and I have a feeling that many won’t, but you should at least give it a shot.
Further viewing: If Ratso and Joe Buck have you all cried out, relax with one of the best thrillers ever made: Marathon Man (1976) which reunites Dustin Hoffman and Schlesinger.
Say, for instance, that you were a detective, charged with figuring out my “favorite” movie by clues left in my room. Get Carter (1971) would be your first guess because of the not one, but two large, prominently placed posters hanging on my wall (one is the one pictured above and the other is a poster sized blow up of a black & white production still, Carter putting a woman into the trunk of her own car after dragging her out of her tub, not as misogynist as it sounds).
I was never much for the genre of “gangster” films. I like them alright but I certainly don’t prescribe to the college male “broski” aesthetic of plastering your wall with quotes from De Palma’s Scarface (a fine movie, but one that I believe works best as a semi-parody of the genre). That’s why I would define Get Carter as a revenge film, the person getting the revenge just happens to be a gangster.
Endlessly quotable, unbelievably scuzzy, and with one of my favorite scenes of all time (Carter finds a major clue to the puzzle to why his brother was murdered by watching a homemade pornographic loop, which we see reflected in the mirror behind him, nicely framed and Michael Caine’s performance is devastating) Get Carter is a film you will really like or absolutely despise.
Further viewing: Ever wish you could combine your love for mediocre horror movies and Michael Caine? Then Oliver Stone’s dirty little secret The Hand (1981) is for you, it may not be great, but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in certifiable insanity (not a favorite, for those keeping score). Want to see the softer side of Caine instead? He also stars in one of the best sex comedies from the 80s, Blame it on Rio (1984).
Here’s the most recent movie on the list, a sprawling semi-biographical epic about the porn industry in the 70s and 80s that is also a gifted filmmaker’s meditation on movies in general. Putting aside the marvelous soundtrack, the unbelievable cast (proof that Mark Wahlberg can act, despite what he tried to tell you with The Happening), and the strong sexual content (which may be outputting to some, pffft) and you still have an expertly constructed film.
A strange film in that it is both nostalgic and brutal. We are presented with characters that we identify with and like but we also see them in situations that we can’t immediately identify with (nor would we want to) and watch as some decisions turn tragic. By the end you mourn for the loss of Jack Horner’s (Burt Reynolds) theater-based livelihood, you curse VHS and then you stop, think about it for a second and realize that even the “good old days” weren’t so great.
Further viewing: Just so you don’t think I only like films that are over thirty years old, here are some more favorites from the last few years. No Country for Old Men (2007) I think the Coen’s are the best American filmmakers working today, this is quite possibly their masterpiece. J.S.A (2000) Korean director Park Chan Wook’s most restrained work is also one of my favorites. Up (2009) I’ve yet to see Moon or A Serious Man and I do love The Hurt Locker, but I think that if I had to “gun to my head”-it Pixar’s latest effort is my favorite film of the year.
In the end of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), he inadvertently (Romero has sworn up and down that this was never directly this intention) made one of the most incendiary social critiques in horror by having his black protagonist…well you know (I still can’t bring myself to spoil the ends of movies, but if you haven’t seen NOTLD and are reading this blog, there really is no hope for you).
In his 1978 follow-up he turns up the social criticism knob to 11, has Tom Savini ride into town in an oil tanker full of blood, shoots in technicolor that makes the Emerald City look like Newark, has his buddy Dario Argento lend a hand with the music and creates the ultimate zombie movie in the process, hands down.
I recently read a discussion online (some forum or twitter or blog, I really don’t remember) where a bit of a backlash against this film flared up. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but comon fellas, are you nuts?
Some complain that it’s dated, but as someone in my early 20s I think I’m allowed to poo-poo that without running up against the “what do you know? Old man” argument that us kids are so fond of.
Further viewing: well, in my opinion, there’s really only one other horror movie that can give Dawn of the Dead a run for it’s money and that’s The Exorcist (1973). Generic, I know, but they really are my two top spots (until I think of another 20).
There you are. There are the five I promised (plus some bonuses). Debate amongst yourselves.
What’s the secret I was babbling about?
Well, in two years I’ll look at this list, still love the movies on it, but probably construct an entirely new one. That’s one of the wonders of cinema and the joys of loving it.