12 of my Favorite Films (and why I like them)

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.

Unconventional romance

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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

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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!”

Magical Realism

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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!

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37 thoughts on “12 of my Favorite Films (and why I like them)

    1. Yes, it seems like everything that Guillermo del Toro is involved with turns out well! I need to watch “Biutiful’ at some point. Glad you liked “Silver Linings Playbook,” too – a shame that more people didn’t.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post and how connected you are to the movies you have listed. It is not often that people reflect on how films move them and change their perspective on life. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for the lovely comment! Truthfully, I am not always capable of realizing how a particular movie or book has changed my perspective. But in the case of these 12 films–because they were each so good–I had no choice but to acknowledge how they had shaped me. 🙂

  2. Ok, I finished your post. 😀 I have only seen Fargo from the rest of the bunch but the others have been several times recommended to me, so I need to see them.

    I don’t know if you’ll enjoy these but my favourite ones of the foreign language are Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También, El crimen del padre Amaro (Mexicans knew how to make riveting films about 10 years ago or so), La vita è bella & Låt den rätte komma in.

    1. Hello again:)
      Based on the movies you recommended, I would advise you to start with In Bruges and Beasts of the Southern Wild. They are all fabulous, though.

      I saw Y Tu Mama Tambien and El Crimen del Padre Amaro for my Spanish class. The latter was very hard to watch (what horrible ending!) but I enjoyed Y Tu Mama. I don’t think I understood it well enough—I should probably watch it again. Besides, Gael Garcia Bernal = yum. La vita e bella has been on my to-watch list for a while, and I’m so glad you mentioned Let the Right One In!! The best vampire movie, I don’t care what anyone says about the rest of them 😉 I should watch that one again, too.

      1. El Crimen del Padre Amaro is horrible, it was lika kick to your stomach. Amores Perros was, at least to me, even more horrible. But so good. I sat on my bed for an hour after seeing it and hugged my pillow. Bad world. And Gael Garcia, oh yeah.

        I like Coppola’s Dracula quite a lot. The story and Keanu Reeves are a bit weak but the setting and mood and Gary Oldman are not. So it might be my favourite even though Let the Right One In is better movie-wise. There’s just something beautifully goth in Dracula.

  3. I loved your picks in the first category (I haven’t read the others yet because I was so eager to comment). And the fact that you wrote in the beginning of Eternal… that you won’t write much and ended up writing the most. 😀 I don’t think I have any recommendations of foreign films but have you already seen Her? You have to like it if you like those you mentioned (which I like a lot too except Stranger than Fiction cos I haven’t seen it; it might be too strange for my taste). Others that I would recommend are In America, Wall-E (might be a bit too lovely for your taste, but I want to recommend it anyway), Up (same goes here), Wonder Boys, Almost Famous, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Sideways and The Descendants (anything that Payne has done but especially those). Philomena, Midnight in Paris, Moonrise Kingdom… Yeah, I’m gonna go read the rest of your post. Sorry, got carried away.

    1. hehe well, half of the paragraph on Eternal Sunshine is written by someone else , so perhaps that makes it less bad 🙂
      I haven’t seen “Her” yet and I really, really want to! I have a hard time convincing my boyfriend to go with me to the cinema. Darn.
      Stranger Than Fiction is not really that strange; definitely not as strange as Eternal Sunshine, in my opinion. Besides, it’s so sweet! I think you would enjoy it.
      I love Wall-E! It’s beyond adorable. I didn’t like Up as much, but that’s ok, it was still very good. I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris, Moonrise Kingdom, Almost Famous, Dallas Buyers Club, The Descendants, and Sideways, too!! We really do have similar movie tastes!! I’ll add In America, Wonder Boys, Nebraska, and Philomena to my to-watch list. Though “Her” is still at the top! 🙂

      1. The mood in Her is a lot like in Lost in Translation. Ja yes, we seem to have similar taste. Good to know! We can share recommendations to each other. 🙂

  4. Love your inclusion of two of the best foreign films there, Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth. Now you need to see Life is Beautiful, Amelie and Philippine’s Magnifico if you haven’t done so.

    1. I love Amelie!! I thought about putting it on this list. It’s definitely in my top 20. I’ll watch Life is Beautiful & Philippine’s Magnifico when I get the chance!

      Btw, I found a used copy of “Persepolis” at a bookstore this weekend. I plan to read it before watching the movie 🙂

  5. Great list! I agree with a lot of your choices. I loved Silver Linings Playbook. AND I have yet to watch 12 Years a Slave for the exact reasons you write about. I haven’t felt ‘ready’ to deal with it yet. Two of my favourites are: Run, Lola, Run (German film), and Requiem for a Dream (dark and unrelenting).

    1. I also enjoyed (enjoyed? is that the right word?) watching Requiem for a Dream. But it’s very dark like you said, so I haven’t wanted to re-watch it! 12 Years a Slave is very similar in that regard. Glad to hear you liked Silver Linings Playbook – not enough people did. 🙂 Added Run, Lola, Run to my to-watch list!

  6. In Bruges and Fargo are two of my favourite films – I’m a sucker for quirky violence, apparently! I also adored Up in the Air – it was grown up, somehow, and though I know what you mean about it sort of being nothing special, but it was that simplicity that I appreciated. It didn’t need bells and whistles, and it knew it!

    1. Quirky violence all the way! I’m American, that’s my excuse for liking those films haha. Yes, I find it hard to describe why I liked Up in the Air so much. I think part of it is what you said—the film didn’t try to be something it wasn’t.

      1. I’m Scottish – I think we invented quirky violence 😉

        It put me in mind of movies of the 30s and 40s that I love – they’re often very straightforward, but strong on character and wit – what more could you ask for?!

  7. Thanks for this…There Will Be Blood is epic and fantastic…it seems to say that oil has a psychotic hold on our society, and Paul Dano does a great turn I agree – nice to see him (briefly) in 12 Years a Slave recently. Beasts of the Southern Wild is just heartbreaking, partly because you just wish the little girl’s Dad was a nicer to her, even though he obviously loves her, he is too damaged a person; she on the other hand is incredibly (perhaps unbelievably) strong…well done, looking forward to your next posts x

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, I think part of the reason I like TWBB so much is that people in the U.S. really are crazy about oil, and don’t even necessarily realize it beyond saying “Oh no, the price of gasoline has gone up 10 cents again.” The movie demonstrates just how nasty the whole business really is. And yeah, I thought Dano was great in 12 Years a Slave, too! And in Little Miss Sunshine.
      I think the father/daughter relationship in Beasts of the Southern Wild is amazing because it feels realistic, sad but so sweet at the same time, because you’re right; the dad does have trouble expressing his affection. Did you know it was Dwight Henry’s first film? One of those all-natural actors who didn’t need any training at all.

  8. Great list!
    A couple things:
    – Up in the Air: You say it’s unremarkable visually, but I disagree. I think it looks great like all of Jason Reitman’s films, only it’s not as “in your face” as a Tarsem Singh film. I like that his films are more subtle and he tends to look for an aesthetic that suits the story like you say with the colors.
    – I think you might like Spike Jonze’s films, seeing that you have Stranger Than Fiction and a ‘Sunshine’
    – Lost in Translation: Great choice first of all 🙂 The ending you know it doesn’t matter what he says, it’s like the end of La Dolce Vita. If you have to know what he says I think you can find it online, but it’s random and irrelevant.
    – Other recommendations for you.. let’s see.. I think Kubrick is a director you’d like, I mean I’m sure you’ve seen some of his films, but they’re all worthwhile. I’m sorry that’s so lazy.. but I can’t think of anyone else at the moment.

    1. Thanks for the comment!!
      -Up in the Air – I think you’re probably right about the visuals. I’ve only seen the film once, that that was before I had any knowledge of the formal/stylistic elements of movie-making. I suspect that when I watch it again I’ll appreciate it much more. 🙂
      -I love Being John Malkovich! In fact, if I made a longer version of this list it would surely be included. Can’t wait to watch “Her”!
      -You’re right, of course. 🙂
      -Yessss I love Kubrick. “The Shining” is my favorite horror film. I need to watch “Lolita” since I’ve read the book, and I’m also curious about “Eyes Wide Shut.” All in due time!

      1. Nice 🙂 I LOVE Lolita. Seriously it’s scary how much I adore that movie 🙂 Since however we tend to disagree or view films completely differently sometimes I’d love to hear your take on it!

      2. Uh, also since you like Being John Malkovich and ‘Sunshine’ check out Charlie Kaufman’s other work like Synecdoche, New York. It’s a bit bleak, actually a lot, but I think you might get something out of it!

  9. I am a bit out of the loop when it comes to films so your list here is very helpful. In terms of foreign films, one favorite comes to mind, and that is Shall We Dance (Japanese). It’s about a lonely and empty ‘salaryman’ who finds some purpose and meaning in his life when he starts taking ballroom dance lessons. I found it funny and poignant and uplifting in a non-Hollywood way.

    1. Ahihihi. They Hollywood version of this is awful! Same with Old Boy. Old Boy is good in ots own, but it’s terrible as a remake. America needs to refrain from remaking Japanese movies.

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