Favourites

I often get asked what my favourite movie is. Frustratingly, it’s usually the first thing people ask when they find out I’m a film critic. But like my Dad once explained when I asked what his favourite song was, it’s just an impossible question. The answer depends on a number of factors (what mood I’m in, what I’ve seen recently, which way the wind is blowing) and changes regularly. However, since “it depends on a number of factors” isn’t really a satisfying answer, I attempted a top-ten without any definite order. As this escalated, I narrowed it down to a top-twenty. And then added some honourable mentions. I now understand why Tarantino has trouble editing scenes out of his films.

Now, before anyone nit-picks, these are purely my personal (key word) choices. I’m aware that a film buff’s top-picks are ‘supposed’ to be made up with certain predictable choices (like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pulp Fiction, Citizen KaneThe Godfather, and so on), but these are the ones I enjoy most. The ones I love re-watching. The ones I identify with and quote to death on a regular basis. Anyway, enough jibber-jabber, here’s the list:

Top Ten Movies

Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Usually, I prefer movies that take themselves utterly serious, but the playful tone in Back To The Future just works. Definitely superior to the sequels (especially the overly complicated future-set second), the original has a brilliant duel storyline. Yes, it’s about a kid from 1985 accidentally sent to 1955 and trying to get back, but it’s also about him trying to make sure his parents (as their younger selves) get together after messing up their supposed first meeting. Heavy huh? And that’s not even to mention the thought-provoking idea the movie was based on - if you met your Dad when he was your age, would you get on? Chris Lloyd is also brilliant as the madcap Doc Brown, whilst Michael J Fox is impossibly likeable as ultimate slacker Marty McFly. Wonderful stuff.

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

I’m frequently surprised by how many modern cinema fans aren’t even aware that Jaws is actually good. Let alone great. Predictably, the same folk will moan that the first hour is too talky. Probably, they’ll also lazily moan that the shark looks fake (possibly without having seen the movie). But yet, the first hour is all about building character and tension, before the second (where our trio head out to sea in search of the killer beast) masterfully ramps up the latter and grips us till the heart-stopping climax. Before lazy CGI, Spielberg used a variety of sources to create the terror (animatronics, real sharks, John Williams’ score), whilst not actually seeing the creature for so long creates genuine suspense. Yes, the franchise sank with progressively-worsening sequels (Jaws IV is painful to watch), but the original remains hugely affecting. I still don’t like going in the water.

Rocky (John G Avildsen, 1976)

Though the series gradually descended into a sea of camp training montages, the original was something different. Modern audiences will probably find it slow and boring compared to the MTV-style later efforts (where Balboa takes on increasingly-invincible opponents), but Rocky is more about human drama than boxing. A beautifully-told, sometimes heartbreaking story of chasing your dreams, it’s ultimately about one man willing  to go the distance for one shot at making something of himself. Despite endless parodies, Bill Conti’s ’Gonna Fly Now’ theme remains among the most motivational music pieces ever (if you go to the gym, chances are it’s on your iPod), whilst Stallone is infinitely rootable as the ultimate underdog. As for the “I love YOU” climax, it’s one of the few moments guys are unashamedly allowed to cry at during movies.

Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978)

The modern superhero genre might have exploded after the likes of Blade and X-Men, but it was Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie that showed them the way first. Before that, we had Adam West running about in tights and fight scenes assisted with graphics that read “KA-POW!” or “Zzzzzzwap!”. Donner’s approach, however, was to take the material 100% seriously and put the unreal (a near-invincible flying man) in a real world. There are faults (the ludicrous globe-spinning time-reversal which makes zero sense), but there’s also so many iconic elements that just won’t be bettered (the swooshing credits, John Williams’ score). As for Chris Reeves, he’s simply perfect in the titular role. Perfect. Many justifiably question Superman’s modern disguise (IE, a pair of glasses), but Reeves convincingly plays two separate personas. Just swell.

Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995)

No, this isn’t here just because I’m Scottish. I didn’t expect much from Braveheart, but a few minutes in I was utterly captivated. Stuffy historians will bleat on about history being wrong (“But Wallace didn’t exist at the same time as Robert The Bruce!”). Cynics will moan that Gibson’s accent breaks. But these nit-picks hardly ruin the involving saga of a Scottish commoner challenging the English throne for his country’s (clears throat, adopts Glasgow-type brogue) freeeeeedom! There’s also some truly breathtaking scenery, a handful of unforgettable moments and a score so hauntingly beautiful you’ll want to cry. No really, you will. Plus, Patrick McGoohan steals the movie as the r-r-r-r-rasping Edward Longshanks.

Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)

Many film fans rave about Scarface,  but for me Carlito’s Way is the superior Al Pacino / Brian De Palma movie. Yes, Carilto is like an older, mostly-reformed Tony Montana, yet he’s infinitely more likeable and sympathetic here as the rehabilitated badboy trying to get out for good. Pacino is arguably at his coolest here too, while Sean Penn is so good as the wannabe-gangster  lawyer that he simply vanishes into the role. As for De Palma. his phenomenally-executed train station chase is a masterclass in how to create suspense.

Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991)

Now this is how you do a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie. Stuffy arthouse fans could pick away at it for hours, but Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is as rousing an adventure as you’re likely to find. “But Costner’s got an American accent!” some will whine. So what? As Robin and his band take on the Sheriff Of Nottingham (played to scene-pinching perfection by a never-better Alan Rickman) you’ll truly want to join their merry gang out in the woods. Plus, the two arrows at once shot is unfeasibly cool.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

Whilst the more-actiony sequel was my favourite growing up, I now lean towards the original. Sure, it’s definitely not as polished, epic or (ironically) timeless as the second, but the first is still a thought-provoking work of genius. Like many people, I love the twist in T2 where Arnold’s T-101 is re-programmed to become the good guy. Who doesn’t? But yet, there’s something purer about how The Terminator pits his killer machine against Kyle Reese’s human solider. Man versus machine, just like the war. Though playing like a chase-horror movie, it’s bursting with ideas, tension-filled set pieces (see the suspense build before the Tech Noir shootout) and brain-twisting paradoxes (such as going back in time to impregnate a woman whose son will end up being the one to send you back…!). Modern directors take note, action doesn’t have to be dumb.

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)

Most people name Die Hard as their favourite action movie, but for me McTiernan’s Predator is better. It’s less dated (the jungle tends not to date you see), the dialogue is endlessly quotable (insert your favourite here) and there’s genuine, edge-of-your-seat tension as you wonder who’ll be carved up next. As Ar-nuld (at his bicep-popping peak) and the elite team get stalked by one of cinema’s most memorable villains, the paranoia is the definition of palpable. There are lots of naff Arnie actioners from the ’80s, but this certainly isn’t one of them.

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

In terms of modern reboots, I think Batman Begins is a superior movie. No question. But yet, Casino Royale is special to me as it gave James Bond a depth I never thought we’d see. I agree, Begins also gave us the first real look at who Bruce Wayne is and why he does what he does, but to do so with Bond was something else entirely. Aside from the odd attempt here or there, the world’s most famous spy remained a caricature and was teetering dangerously on the verge of becoming unessential to cinema. But then came the reboot that got undeneath the tuxedo (explaining his attitude towards woman, drinking habits, fondness for suits) with gritty realism (here 007 can actually be hurt) and a brave, heartbreaking ending. The first few action sequences feel a tad overlong and like they belong to the Brosnan-era, but this was the first instalment in many years to boast any real danger. And with an utterly triumphant debut, it was a joy to see Daniel Craig sticking two fingers up at the naysayers. In tiny blue trunks.

Second Ten

The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)

Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989)

Road To Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002)

Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997)

Batman Begins (Chris Nolan, 2005)

The Dark Knight (Chris Nolan, 2008)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

Four Weddings And A Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994)

Honourable Mentions

Memento (Chris Nolan, 2000), My Name Is Joe (Ken Loach, 1998), Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), Rounders (John Dahl, 1998), The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999), Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002), Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003), The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003), High Fidelity (Steven Frears, 2000), Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002), 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986), Planet Of The Apes (Franklin J Schaffner, 1968), Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, 2004), About A Boy (Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz, 2002), Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000), Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964), Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006).

Favourite TV Shows

Though many film buffs deal exclusively in movies, I’m just as keen on television. And when I say television, I don’t mean Eastenders and Hollyoaks. Like my movie choices, these aren’t predictable critic’s choices, just my own personal favourites. As time goes by these might change, but at the moment my favourite TV shows are:

Lost (2004 – 2010)

The first few episodes or so didn’t fully capture me, but from the minute the survivors discovered that hatch out in the jungle, I was addicted. Layered, deep and brilliantly-constructed, it was bold TV that made you think about big questions (faith and destiny or science and chance?) while affecting you emotionally (enhanced by Michael Giacchino’s beautifully poignant score) before leaving your head spinning with a killer twist. Remember that season three finale anyone?

As such, the huge number of outspoken haters aren’t just frustrating with their outdated moans (“I gave up in season two”, “they’re just making it up as they go along”), but in their ignorant resolution that it should be more like every other show out there. I’ll concede that the finale inevitably wasn’t everything I’d hoped for. But how could it be? The ongoing riddles and mysteries are what made Lost, well, Lost. That said, for a show which seemed so plot-driven (and later years were), it was equally devoted to character with the lengthy use of flashbacks to ensure we cared about this huge ensemble. Matthew Fox’s obsessive de-facto leader Jack and Josh Holloway’s Southern badboy Sawyer were two favourites, but it was Terry O’Quinn’s majestic performance as the enigmatic John Locke that always captured me. There’s been plenty of pretenders offering themselves as “the new Lost” (Heroes, Flash Forward, The Event), but none have come close. Maybe in another life. Brother. 

Life On Mars (2006 – 2007)

Despite operating with a crime-of-the-week format, Life On Mars gripped me with its brilliant over-arching, high-concept mystery: a modern copper gets knocked down and wakes up in 1973. Is he dead? Or in a coma? Has he time-travelled? Whilst most shows would’ve dragged this out for years, the Beeb’s time-slip drama admirably decided to let story logic dictate (today’s showrunners, take note), finishing the occasionally-haunting journey after two brilliant seasons.

Some reviewers picked holes in the finale, but the final hour is probably the most emotional and satisfying ending this writer has seen on the small screen. Anchoring it all in the lead, John Simm’s turn as the isolated DI Sam Tyler is also among the best dramatic performances I’ve ever seen. He makes holding onto a TV set heart-breaking. And, though most viewers know Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt from ’80s spin-off Ashes To Ashes, the hilarious icon belongs in the 1970s, busting heads in his Ford Cortina while chewing out some gloriously un-PC put-downs. Funny, human, smart, moving, original… as far as television is concerned, this really was from another planet.

Entourage (2004 – Present)

On the surface, Entourage looks like a show about four guys who party and shag really hot girls. And whilst to some extent it is (or used to be), underneath it’s actually a pitch-perfect depiction of male friendship and how males connect with one another. A Sex And The City for guys if you will.

Aspects of it will date badly in a few years (all the name-checks will be lost on tomorrow’s audiences), but for now it shows the Hollywood industry working exactly as you’d imagine. Though having such frequent cameos might sound like stunt-casting, the amount of big names who send their public image up actually makes it feel all the more real. Plus, while most shows are lucky to get one memorable character, here we’ve got two: Jeremy Piven’s rant-happy super-agent Ari Gould and Kevon Dillon’s loveable loser Johnny Drama. Watching it just makes you want to hug it out, bitch.

Peep Show (2003 – Present)

Like most people, I ignored Peep Show for the first few seasons. Undoubtedly, it takes times to acclimatise yourself and acquire a taste for it. But ever since I got into it, finding a fellow fan is now like an instant validation of good taste. At times, it’s too cringy for my liking and the story is as routine as they come (two flatmates get on with life), but what elevates the show to greatness is the internal character monologues.

As David Mitchell’s Mark and Robert Webb’s Jez muse over anything from the trivial to the super-trivial, it’s scarily realistic. Journeying inside their heads, it’s like someone’s written down those un-edited observations and too-truthful truths that we make all the time - but would never, ever admit. Seriously, the amount of times Mark’s voiceover contains something I’ve thought (or similar) is frightening. Showrunners Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong should be knighted for their writing. It’s that brilliant.

The Office (2001 – 2003)

The Office is the most significant, well-observed and impressively-written comedy of this generation. Fact. Now, the humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes (mention it and someone will chime in with “I prefer Phoenix Nights“), but for those of us who love subtle humour more concerned with character tics than lazy catchphrases, it’s golden. Like all their other work, co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant aren’t just aiming to make us laugh, as they know that any decent story (comedy or otherwise) needs a decent dramatic backbone. And we’ve got that. At times you can really feel the frustration of Martin Freeman’s under-achieving Tim, stuck among these ambitionless drones, whilst his love story with Lucy Davis’ Dawn is so beautifully underplayed that a mere glance feels more charged than your average Hollywood snog.

And of course, there’s David Brent. Whilst the ridiculous army of needless Ricky-haters would argue otherwise, it’s a stunning performance from someone with no acting training whatsoever. Many will site his infamous, impromptu dance as the highlight, but for me it’s the long-awaited moment of self-awareness where he tells Finchy to fuck off. Despite having watched the show to the point I know the dialogue verbatim, this scene still gives me chills. Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth doesn’t have any real arc or development, but that’s the beauty of the writing – his character wouldn’t. I liked Extras and the excellent Cemetery Junction, but if The Office is the best thing that Ricky and Steve do together that’s fine with me. Please no third season, unless they want to hire Karl Pilkington as a janitor…

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983 - 2004)

Given how blatantly dated Auf Wiedersehen, Pet is, modern viewers probably wouldn’t last five minutes. But yet, despite the dubious editing and occasional down-time, the first few years of the ’80s Brit classic had something magical about them. Set during the grim, spiralling-unemployment years of Maggie Thatcher’s Britain, the tale of seven boozing brickies who seek work in Germany (and various other locations later) was a brilliantly-written character comedy about male friendship. Since much of the humour is understated, many will frustratingly miss the laughs. But, it’s the dialogue and interplay that really sparkles, as the best scenes are often those where the lads sit around discussing everything from the socially relevant to the inconceivably irrelevant.

Though the cast was bulging with raw, about-to-be-famous British talent (Timothy Spall, Christopher Fairbank, Tim Healey, Pat Roach, Kevin Whately), the real find was Jimmy Nail. As Oz, the uncouth, borderline-uncomprehensible Geordie with an opposition to all things German, he stole nearly every minute of screen time. The BBC’s three revival seasons nearly two decades later might not have been able to re-capture the magic, but it was still nice to be back with the boys again. Plus, as an older, slightly-wiser version, there was plenty of good material on the value of enduring friendship and the frustrations of getting older. Or, as Barry put it; “When you get to our age, you know you’re never going to bonk Buffy The Vampire Slayer”.

Honourable Mentions

I’m Alan Partridge, Breaking Bad, Mad MenThe West WingPolice Squad!, and Spaced.