As a bit of a disclaimer, I realize this list isn’t terribly varied. The oldest film that made the cut is from 1979, and all but 3 are American (though 3 of the American films were made by American/Canadian, French, and German-Swiss directors).
I’m going to blame unintentional myopia for this, as well as ease of viewing: simply put, the movie industry in the United States is incredibly robust and produces many, many films every year, and most of the advertising I’m exposed to is for American films. Even when I was in Buenos Aires, the most popular movie was The Dark Knight Rises; when I was in South Africa, everyone was excited about Transformers: Dark of the Moon. So, if you read through this list and think of some “foreign” (I use foreign as a relative term) films that I might enjoy, please feel free to make recommendations in the comments section!
I’ve divided my favorite movies into 3 broad categories: 1). Unconventional romance; 2). Psychology of Violence; and 3). Magical Realism. I hope you’ll see some of your own favorites on the list.
I hate the constant barrage of rubbish rom-coms that Hollywood churns out on a sickeningly regular basis. But these 5 movies give me that warm feeling inside without making me want to puke because of bad writing and melodrama.
1). Up in the Air – American film, dir. Jason Reitman (American/Canadian).
I’m a little surprised I included this film, because there’s nothing spectacular about it, really. Aesthetically speaking, I think the film is on the simpler side. Not that that’s a bad thing–with its cool blue/white colorization, the whole film feels like you’re trapped in the uninspiring corporate world. Eventually, the main character (played by George Clooney) recognizes the emptiness of his life and accepts an important lesson: Life is better with company. I used to have an ironclad loyalty to the concepts of individualism and independence, and this film helped me realize that it’s not only ok, but better, to rely on other people.
2). Stranger than Fiction – American film, dir. Marc Forster (German-Swiss).
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a movie more meta than this one. A man realizes that his life is being narrated by an omniscient voice, and the increasingly unlikely developments blur the line between reality-as-presented, reality-as-recorded, and reality-as-experienced. It’s absolutely the best thing Will Ferrell has ever done, and, now that I think about it, the movie has a similar white-washed, orderly aesthetic like Up in the Air‘s. Which makes sense, because it’s a story about an employee stuck in a soulless job. It’s also set in Chicago, which automatically makes me like it even more.
3). Lost in Translation – American film, dir. Sofia Coppola (American).
I like this film largely because of Bill Murray, and also because it’s hard to predict. The ending is profoundly unsatisfying (what did he whisper into her ear?!?) and the movie is at turns wittily comedic and subtly dramatic. Lost people, wandering around in Tokyo, with no easy resolutions for their restlessness. Also, I can’t believe Scarlett Johansson was only 18 when she made this!
4). Silver Linings Playbook: American film, dir. David O. Russell (American).
I heard a couple of girls in my political science class complain that this film was “too weird” for them to understand or enjoy. Well, I think they probably just weren’t intelligent enough to appreciate it. The unlikely combination of a working-class Philadelphia setting with an inexplicable dance competition and mental illness makes for a charming and quixotic film. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are both amazing.
5). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – American movie, dir. Michel Gondry (French).
I think everyone loves this movie, so I won’t say much about it except that it will appeal to even the most unlikely romantic. It’s astoundingly creative, extraordinarily complex, and Kate Winslet looks, I think, more stunning in this than in any other movie she’s ever done–orange hair and all. In keeping with my dislike for certain comedians, I confess that Jim Carrey is not only not despicable in this movie, but actually endearing. A film reviewer I admire has described it much better than I can: “We are well into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before we realize what a crazy kaleidoscope of memory, projection, and fantasy we have entered; we are long out of the theater before we’re able to shake the tugging, altogether remarkable mood of rueful romanticism that nimbly encases all the hilarity…[it] is either the most side-splitting sad movie Hollywood has ever made, or else the most plaintive comedy, I’m not sure which.”
Psychology of Violence
6). In Bruges – British film, dir. Martin McDonagh (British/Irish)
I’m realizing a pattern as I move through this list: I tend to prefer genre-bending films. In Bruges is nothing if not that. I consider it a gangster satire; others might call it a poignantly comedic story about a man who is doomed to die. It gets categorized under “Psychology of violence” because the main character (played by Colin Farrell) must cope with a horrible, and accidental, crime. It also has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen; ambiguous, but heart-wrenching and not at all unsatisfying.
7). Apocalypse Now – American film, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (American)
This one should come as no surprise. It’s considered Coppola’s masterpiece (unless you prefer The Godfather, that is), and has been hailed as one of the most accurate depictions of the Vietnam War. I know it’s supposed to be a re-telling of Heart of Darkness,, but since I haven’t read the book, I’m sure there’s loads of symbolism/imagery/allusion I’m missing out on. I’ll have to re-watch it once I’ve read Conrad.
8). Fargo – American film, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (American)
A stunningly hilarious film about two twisted hired killers set in frigid Minnesota. Great Lakes accents are used to full effect–Aww gee, Margie. You’re darn tootin’! Probably the best performance of Frances McDormand’s career (though she was also amusing in Burn After Reading). McDormand plays a pregnant police chief who, despite her intelligence, is often underestimated. Throw in a wood chipper, a botched ransom plot, and the Coen brothers’ signature slow-paced cinematography, and you have a very unusual dark crime comedy that is equally entertaining, perplexing, and disturbing.
9). There Will Be Blood – American film, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (American)
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, TWBB shows Daniel Day-Lewis at his finest. We watch the greasy, moustached Day-Lewis build an oil empire struggle by struggle, sacrificing his humanity in the process. I cannot get enough of the moral de-evolution and must rewatch the film at least once a year. Shout-out to the incredible Paul Dano for his turn as an unhinged preacher, and to Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead for composing my all-time favorite film score (listen to those terrifying violins here!). Noted for the line: “I drink your milkshake!”
10). Beasts of the Southern Wild – American film, dir. Behn Zeitlin (American)
I’m probably not using the term “magical realism” entirely correctly to describe this last trio of films, but that’s how I think of them–as infusing reality with magic, or having two versions of reality intersect. I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild for the first time over Christmas break and was sobbing for probably 20 minutes. (In Bruges also had me in tears, btw). It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen; it looks like a fairytale, all light and lush and imagination. Yet it’s also incredibly sad, a tale of death (like most of these films, I’m realizing), starring a brave, adorable, and intrepid little girl who must conquer all sorts of demons. On top of that, it’s a film about Louisiana’s poor, and the fate of people who live on the edge of a world that perceives them as less than human.
11). Spirited Away – Japanese film, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (Japanese)
Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, and all of his films are stunning. I could have easily picked another one to include on this list–Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke–but Spirited Away is the one I saw first and it has haunted me ever since. I was 9, living in Okinawa, Japan, and it completely terrified me. But I was always curious about the movie, and wondered what it all could have possibly meant. Even now, I haven’t sorted out all of the story’s complexities.
12). Pan’s Labyrinth – Mexican/Spanish film, dir. Guillermo del Toro (Mexican)
Another very frightening film; another tear-jerker. When I learned that del Toro had intended to make a film about the dictator Francisco Franco, and later overlaid the mythological story, I was baffled! I was so, so sure that the myth was the primary purpose, and the Spanish Civil War was a convenient setting for said myth. Well, at any rate, I think the dark & twisted fairytale aspects are more compelling than the “real” events being depicted, and it’s certainly more comforting to interpret the tragic ending of the film in that light.
Well! This ended up being a longer post–and ended on a darker note–than I intended. I’d love to hear about some of your favorite films. Cheers!