As a way to celebrate Cinapse’s tenth anniversary, members of our writing crew will be naming ten films that define what makes us tick as film fans.
When constructing this list, it was interesting to see what themes and genres appeared. There is a fair smattering of “genre” film throughout, but primarily as an avenue for presenting social commentary. There is also a bit of a nasty streak in some of my choices, especially towards the top of the list, which mostly surprises me because I like to think of myself as a most optimistic, upbeat person.
Overall, I tried to balance out my choices here to reflect a selection of films that highlight the broad craft of film as an art form. Some films might have a script I love, or a visual dynamic that pops, or be packed to the gills with performances that demand your attention. But this list is meant to reflect a series of films that highlight all those aspects of cinema, and how when they work in concert, they can create something truly spectacular.
Amores Perros (2000, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
I recognize Iñárritu is a director who is not to everyone’s taste, as he can make films that often take a rather unsympathetic view of the human condition. And his debut film, the caustic triptych Amores Perros, is no different. Its depiction of humans as violent, selfish and ultimately flawed creatures, especially when compared to their ever-loyal canine companions, is a brutal examination of humanity’s flaws alone. But add to the mixture an unflinching look at how social strata separates the haves and have nots, and the lengths people go to for whatever they define as love, and you have a film that is both a captivating and difficult watch. Iñárritu has gone on to make more masterfully executed films (Birdman would be another potential appearance on this list), but his first feature in many ways remains his most biting and demanding.
Wizard of Oz (1938, dir. Victor Fleming)
At the other end of the spectrum for this list, you have one of the most awe-inspiring productions ever committed to film, an unapologetic love letter to visual spectacle and childlike wonder. There is a lot to admire about Victor Fleming’s (and a few other directors’) eye-popping children’s epic: the way it weaponizes technicolor for maximum emotional oomph, it’s perfect blend of earnest whimsy with enough of its tongue in its cheek, a cast that are all perfectly pitched and locked into the material, and a soundtrack that is nothing but American songbook classic. But an undersung aspect is actually the film’s script, a hodge-podge of multiple approaches that condenses a sprawling, unfocused novel for children (sorry, Baum-heads) into a coherent, breezy structure that moves beautifully. There is a reason this film has stuck around as an all-time children’s classic, as it is still as spellbinding today as it was 85 years ago.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, dir. Steven Spielberg)
A rule I set for myself for compiling this list was that no director could have more than one entry, which for the most part wasn’t too difficult; there are few directors that I struggle to name their absolute best work. Spielberg, the father of the modern blockbuster, certainly is tricky. I could go with the quiet but torturous tension of Jaws, the cinematic wonder of Jurassic Park or West Side Story, or the soul-crushing drama of Munich. But at the end of the day, I have to default to the film the Spielberg and collaborator George Lucas referred to as a movie that was “only the good parts” of other movies. And it indeed feels that way, as each moment just plays like a highlight reel of perfectly calibrated action-adventure sequences that plaster a smile across your face, all the way up to its surprisingly gruesome climax. Plus there are few movie star performances more iconic than Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, a captivating character that immediately feels like he’s always existed.
Babette’s Feast (1987, dir. Gabriel Axel)
There is a beauty to a film with perfect patience. And there are few films that pull you along, through seemingly disconnected story beats and strange asides, only to ultimately reveals its hand than this Academy Award-winning Danish film. Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, the film follows the strangely cold lives of a small town of faithful Pietistic Lutheran community, whose adherence to restrictive doctrine has led to increasingly bitter lives for all involved. Eventually this is disrupted when Babette enters the story, a maid who is sent to this quiet town to assist the elderly daughters of the community’s founding pastor. The titular feast explores how authentic fellowship can reignite seemingly dead communities and how enjoying some carnal pleasures aren’t necessarily sinful but serve rather joyous ends. A beautiful film that, with patience, will warm the heart of the most cynical curmudgeon.
Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
In the intervening years since Cuaron’s difficult meditation on the nature of human existence, and the difficulty of finding hope in a seemingly hopeless world, its vision of a society that seems on the brink of collapse has only become depressingly more relevant and relatable. The high concept premise, that after two decades of complete human infertility, all social structures have broken down and all human civilization is a mess of desperate and angry mobs. But with the promise of a new baby, a new chance for humanity, Clive Owen’s Theo goes through a disorienting and disheartening journey to literally find Tomorrow. The film could rely too heavily on clichés and heavy-handed symbolism, but Cuaron’s masterful hand as a director with technically impressive but never showy cinematic feats never allows it to feel like a cheap trick, but rather a desperate plea for a future free of chaos and disorder. A plea that still rings true today.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, dir. Michel Gondry)
I have a soft spot for “relationships are hard” movies, be it family, communities or romantic entanglements. And there is no more towering testament to the difficulty of living life with difficult people than Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s intentionally swimmy, dreamlike masterpiece. When Jim Carrey’s Joel decides he just wants to forget his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslett), his own mind rebels, reminding him that there is sweetness along with the pain, and that letting go of both cheapens life. It is a powerful statement about how human connection, despite its myriad of complications and pain, are well worth holding on to even in the wake of devastating loss. Add in Gondry’s hip, visual inventiveness, and it is a one of a kind work that sticks to your bones.
Strange Days (1995, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Bigelow is my favorite director, and I could easily fill this list with two to three of her films. But if I am limiting myself to one, unlike Spielberg, there is no question which Bigelow film I pick. The first piece I ever wrote for Cinapse was a retrospective on Strange Days, Bigelow’s politically activated cyberpunk noir film, and how it forces its viewers to be active participants and witnesses to racially and gender-informed violence. A prickly piece of work that incorporates so many ideas, between the addictive nature of nostalgia, the powerful sway of dismay, violence that is often overlooked at large, and corrupt systems that protect status quo at the cost of human life. It is gripping and unsettling, and despite its premise centering around a fictionalized New Year’s Eve 1999 that has now come and gone, it feels more vital now than ever. And good news: unlike when I last wrote about it in 2020, it is now easily available on HBO Max!
Robocop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven)
Keeping in the sci-fi dystopia as cultural commentary space, Robocop is a film that I have come back to over and over again. First seeing it as a young child, I was so horrified by its extreme violence that it seared itself into my brain as just gnarly trash. But coming back to it in college, I was able to understand its witty satire of Reagan-era America, where corporate interest rules over actual public good, and forces of privatization threaten full-on fascism. The magic of the movie is that’s kind of both of those things. Unquestionably violent and exploitative, but also deeply engaged and concerned with a particular cultural moment, the film stands as a hallmark of the late 1980s. The fact the film was such a success that it became a decades spanning franchise that diluted or intentionally misread the original film’s subversive text does little to diminish the original’s power, a gnarly portrait of a gnarlier political moment.
Network (1976, dir. Sidney Lumet)
There are several films in this list that I have commented on having aged gracefully, feeling more relevant today that even in the age they were produced. None of them hold a candle to the depressing relevancy of Network. Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay imagines a world where the forces of entertainment invade and infect editorial news, one of the few public services that television provides, and forcing news itself to be a form of entertainment. The infection comes into the form of manipulating and exploiting Howard Beale, a mentally unstable news anchor who after getting fired threatens to kill himself on air. When Beale’s unhinged political diatribes make for big ratings, however, the news department leans more and more on making sure that the news is as entertaining as any scripted programming. The spiraling effect of this has disastrous, if exhilarating, results.
I doubt in Chayefsky’s worst nightmares he could have imagined entities such as CNN, Fox News or MSNBC, where entertainment, outrage and othering of one’s fellow countrymen was not just a by-product of the broadcast but the intent. Network is presented as darkly comical satire, and outsized nightmare version of Chayefsky himself saw in the television production world in his day. But Beale’s rantings and diatribes aren’t far removed from the doomsaying of the Tucker Carlsons of the world today. And the violent consequences of that rhetoric has constantly shown itself, a dedication and determination to drawing ratings than serving the public poisoning the whole well.
But this sharp, prophetic script is only bolstered by an equally amazing cast. Boasting three Academy Award winners and a staggering five acting nominations, every individual performance across the film is captivating, hilarious and devastating. Peter Finch’s Howard Beale is one of the great performances, which won him a posthumous Oscar; Faye Dunaway, winner, embodies the destructive power that success, and the hunger there of, can drive people towards. And William Holden as Max Schumacher, a news producer who tells himself he is doing the right thing but finds himself roped into the machine, serves as both viewpoint character and tragic figure.
The magic of Network is that it stands as both fully realized social commentary and character study, telling a story of fully realized characters who play out the impact that a corporate-run media empire must concern itself with profit first, foremost and solely. By blending an anticapitalist fable, grounded human performance and a fearless visual style, Network is unlike any other movie, a perfectly balanced satire that equally entertains, amuses and horrifies.