Monday, 30 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #10-1

#10: Do The Right Thing – The Doomsday Clock of racial tension

This film genuinely gives me chills every time I watch it. The depiction of a tight-knit Brooklyn community in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave highlights so many real-world racist attitudes that it feels less like it’s painting a specific target and more like it’s depicting, with blinding honesty, how much everyone gets caught up in it. While community connections run deep, prejudices run even deeper, to the point where some people hold onto these bigoted beliefs because… well… it’s all that they know.

If this was simply a matter of showing white Americans out to be the absolute enemy of the people, that’d be one thing. But, in an eventually uncharacteristic move by racial firebrand Spike Lee, this highlights the underlying thought patterns of everyone in the neighbourhood. From the stubborn workers of the local pizzeria to the bickering bystanders on the street corner to the authority figures who only exude a pretence of that power rather than actually enforcing in any real productive way, we are shown a collage of racial and cultural attitudes that, quite honestly, still feel as true today as they did in the late 80’s when this film first came out.

Some people believe that racism is “dead” because, in America, an African-American politician was elected to the highest position possible. Some people believe that racism is “dead” because, in Australia, modern Australians aren’t the ones who forced Indigenous children out of the arms of their families in hopes of “integrating” them into white society. I fail to see the validity in either statement, regardless of how loudly some people try to profess it to be so. When this film stops feeling as painfully relevant as it does, particularly in regards to the haunting conclusion and its depiction of police brutality; maybe then, racism will finally be dead. Until that fateful day, if it ever even happens, best we can do is the right thing… whatever that thing may be.

#9: Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair – Style is substance

For the longest time, I had a far stronger attachment to the first volume of this story than the second, to the point where when originally drafting up this list, Vol. 2 was completely absent from here. But then, rather recently, I sat down and actually watched both halves in one sitting… and it finally clicked. No longer in my mind was this a production featuring an action-packed first half and a somewhat-middling second half. Instead, this film is such a cohesive experience that it is now impossible to separate it into its original releases in my mind.

This marked an important milestone in the filmography of Quentin Tarantino. Through an all-out embracing of his stylistic influences and the films that made him want to take up the camera in the first place, he went from someone who was capable of adapting his own scripts into a bona-fide filmmaker. Every beat found within this four-hour Goliath of a feature, from the cinematography to the editing to the numerous pop culture references to the deliciously bloody action beats to the phenomenal soundtrack courtesy of the RZA and Robert Rodriguez, hits at just the right mark and lingers for just the right amount of time to exact maximum impact. Tarantino went beyond just wearing his influences on his sleeve, same as the other modern proponents of grindhouse genre cinema, and fused all of these disparate elements together to not only highlight the glory days of his cinematic youth but just how much those elements have influenced each other throughout the art form’s history.

From classic Westerns to Japanese samurai flicks to Hong Kong kung-fu capers, the production twists and turns through all of these genres to entice, to thrill, to shock but also to educate. One of the reasons why I admire filmmakers who are this comfortable with admitting to where they get their tricks from is that it makes cinema out to be a far less elitist art form than it is perceived to be, especially when dealing with the more artistically-inclined filmmakers out there. It shows the bedrock that gave birth to something this awe-inspiring, connecting the dots effectively while still allowing the recreation to shine on its own merits. It’s style over substance, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but this particular effort ends up highlighting the inner substance that lies within that style.

#8: Arrival – To decode language is to decode reality

The act of watching this film is the sensation of feeling my synapses light up like a Christmas tree. Some films, including some that made it onto this list, engage me on such a mentally intense level that it feels like fireworks are going off in my brain. My habit of drawing endless connections between things, particularly films, can result in some of the greatest experiences I have yet to encounter. The film presents an idea, my brain gets to work on decoding it for the deeper meaning behind it, my brain forms a bridge between what I perceive in the film and what I feel in reaction to it… and then POP! The fireworks go off and I bask in that feeling of artistic revelation. So that’s what they were going for!

This film ignites those fireworks for me more than most of this list. This story of humanity’s first contact with an alien species and their attempts to communicate and share ideas is so brain-crappingly intricate that, upon first watching it, I had no qualms in declaring it one of the greatest films of the last several years. Upon rewatching it, I realised that my love for this particular production grew even deeper than that. The way it looks into how language shapes our understanding of time, space and reality really gets my brain working. The writing, courtesy of Eric Heisserer who gave us the blunt but ultimately fruitless Lights Out and the woefully misguided Nightmare On Elm Street remake, shows that this is a story that he cared very intensely about, as evidenced by how in-depth this film is as a look at the use of information and knowledge through language.

And then there’s the visual efforts of director Denis Villeneuve, DOP Bradford Young and editor Joe Walker, who expand on that core notion of the importance of language and applies to the art of filmmaking. While the script is busy expounding on the use of verbal and written language, Villeneuve, Young and Walker use visual language to create a production that highlights the sheer potential of that language. The big signifier of this is how the film uses traditional editing techniques like flashbacks and flash-forwards to basically rewrite time as they see fit, turning what appears to be an innocuous bit of character background for Amy Adams’ Louise into a complete mindfuck of a reveal by the conclusion. As far as films that make me think outside of the boundaries of the narrative, no other entry on this list can measure up to the sheer unbridled perfection that is this film.

#7: Requiem For A Dream – One hit is all it takes

Some films require an additional viewing to really warm up to. Some films require an additional viewing to even comprehend on a surface level, let alone any deeper thematic touches. Some films require an additional viewing for the blatant flaws of the work to really present themselves. But some films, very rare exceptions, are so direct, so poignant, so absolutely soul-crushing, that one viewing is really you need to fully understand what the ultimate point of the production is. This film, more so than not only any film on this list but any film that I have ever sat through to date, fits into that latter category.

This is Darren Aronofsky at his most grounded, and yet, at his most cerebral. A deeply personal look at the effects of addiction on the human mind and soul, this is a film so good that it even convinced Marlon Wayans to actually try and act for a change. And sure enough, this marks a real high point for a lot of the actors involved, from Jared Leto’s central junkie to the depressingly manipulated Marion played with shocking efficacy by Jennifer Connelly, right down to Ellen Burstyn’s diet pill-affected shut-in. It also marks a high point for Aronofsky’s “hip-hop montage” style of storytelling, combining the beautiful framing of DOP Matthew Libatique, the laser-guided editing of Jay Rabinowitz to create an almost-spiritual experience that is horrifically kept in reality through our reliance on drugs and other substances just to give our life some meaning.

I made a similar statement when I first looked at Where The Dead Go To Die, but I mean it with absolute sincerity with this one: This is the greatest film I’ve ever seen that I never want to watch again. WTDGTD was traumatizing in a very real sense but I still managed to watch a few times after that initial assessment, and found enough to justify doing so. This film? I genuinely don’t think that I could take a second hit of this incredibly potent offering. I still remember watching it for the first time and feeling a mixture of nausea and existential dread throughout the entire thing. Part of that is down to Clint Mansell’s iconic and astounding soundtrack, which is definitely one of the most immersive I have yet encountered, but it’s mostly because this film is just that affecting that I don’t think my heart could take the repeat.

#6: The Aristocrats – Comedy is the universal handshake

Not only do I remember the first time I watched this movie, I remember the step-by-step process I went through to even find it in the first place. It started with a random YouTube clip of Eric Mead doing a card trick rendition of the titular infamous joke. After trying (and failing) to find a how-to video on how to pull off that trick myself, I found out the film that clip came from… and the closest store where I can buy it. At 15 years old, I walked into a JB Hi-Fi, plucked this R18+ film off the shelf, and went up to the counter. I didn’t get carded. If I had been carded that day and legally denied the purchase, if I hadn’t had the sense of mind to dig for the source of that clip, or even if I hadn’t found the clip at all, I likely would be a completely different person than I am today.

This documentary is just about the roughest production on this entire list from a sheer technical standpoint. Grainy camera stock of people sitting in their offices or sitting on park benches, just talking to the camera about what makes a joke work. In particular, the Aristocrats joke. What starts out rather innocuously with a family walking into a talent agency to pitch their new performance act, depending on the twisted mind that decides to tell it, can turn into this sprawling nightmare of non-PC language and imagery. It’s basically what every wannabe Internet edgelord beats off to at night, knowing that they will never measure up to it in actual comedic value.

I tend to treat most if not all social situations as a chance to make people laugh, and with this addition to my repertoire, I discovered that while pushing social boundaries is the very essence of comedy, it should also be tempered as far as who is in ear-shot. I can make myself laugh rather easily, but I always get more enjoyment out of making others laugh. Along with being a rather brilliant look at the comedic process and just how fun it can be to dip into darker and more vulgar material, shown through a slew of stand-up comedy legends like George Carlin, Jason Alexander and Billy Connolly, it also presents the genuine power of comedy. Humour is often a way that we deal with exceptionally bleak parts of human life, and while it’s understandable that people don’t want genuine victims to be made into the butt of the joke, being able to make light of dark moments is something of a necessity.

The centrepiece of the film, and the reason why this production exists in the first place, is Gibert Gottfried at the Friars’ Club roast of Hugh Hefner. This took place in September of 2001, only a short time after the events of 9/11. He tried to tell a joke in relation to that, one that was met with awkward silence… and then, he launched right into a rendition of the Aristocrats. On live, national television. From the perspectives of the people who both saw it for themselves or even remember that it happened, that was a moment of revelation. A moment where, even if edited for broadcast, it made it perfectly clear that boundary-pushing, risqué and even gross humour exists for a reason. A very, very good reason: Because we need it.

#5: Mary And Max – The complete package

This is a story about Mary, an eight-year-old girl from rural Australia, and Max, a fourty-four-year-old man from urban New York, how they became pen pals and, subsequently, how they managed to make a major impact on each other’s lives. As far as depictions of autism in film, with Max being diagnosed in-film as having Asperger’s Syndrome, this is easily my favourite. It gets across the genuine hardships that such a condition entails, regardless of how “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” a person may appear to be, but also that living life with that condition isn’t a death sentence. On top of that, it also shows sparkling clarity in regards to other areas of mental health like suicidal depression, anxiety and alcoholism, all done with the same care as the depiction of ASD.

But that’s just the headier details. The film itself is balls-to-the-wall weird. I have no other way to describe this film’s sense of humour other than “it makes sense if you’re an Aussie” with how willing it is to (respectfully) take the piss out of anything that comes to mind. Almost literally, as the scenes where Mary and Max type letters to each other are done in this smooth stream-of-consciousness fashion that allows all the details to stick… even the ones that are straight-up weird, like the old woman who wins the lottery but ends up dying when she crashes her jetpack.

And then there’s the acting, and seriously: Best. Voice Cast. Ever. Barry Humphries, AKA Dame Edna Everidge, gives a pleasing baritone with the narration, while Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette as the young and adult Mary respectively keep the sunny depiction of rural Australia from being too saccharine. To add to this, we have the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, in what I have no hesitation in saying is the best performance of his career. This is basically the reason why the idea of actors “passing” as having certain physical or neurological conditions ultimately doesn’t upset me that much: Because Hoffman may not have had autism, but that doesn’t make his portrayal here feel any less real. Indeed, with how he admits to his own faults and even gets enraged when Mary betrays his trust about his diagnosis. This feels like my own experiences, save for the consumption of chocolate hot dogs, reframed through some of the most mind-blowing Claymation work I have ever seen. Laika and Aardman are damn good, but this is a whole other level.

I’ll put it this way: That typewriter in the poster? That is an actual, working, miniature typewriter. Writer/director Adam Elliot spent nine weeks building a functional miniature Underwood-brand typewriter for this film, and it gets used in all of the scenes where Max is writing letters. How fitting that one of the best depictions of autism on film would benefit from a near-inhuman level of attention to detail.

#4: Dogma – My cinematic bible

Every attitude that I have towards religion, faith and philosophy in general can be traced to three key moments in my life. The first was a conversation I had with a high school scripture teacher that basically told me all I needed to know to intensely dislike organized religion. The second was reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where I learnt about the subjectivity of a person’s beliefs and how, even if they spring from a common source, are often wholly unique to each person.

The third, as you can probably guess, is this film. Over the years, whatever blanks existed between those two events, this ended up filling them in. Done as a means for writer/director Kevin Smith to iron out his own thoughts and beliefs, particularly those connected to Catholicism, this showcases a lot of different perspective on one’s own faith. We have Bethany’s tired apathy, feeling that God (if she even believes in him anymore) has abandoned her. We have the fallen angels Loki and Bartleby, who flat-out know that God abandoned them to the mortal hell that is Wisconsin. We have the Metatron, the voice of God (played brilliantly by Alan Rickman), who works directly with the Almighty but sometimes regrets what he must do in His name, like having to tell the mortal Jesus that he would have die for the sake of humanity. We have the muse Serendipity, who sees Catholicism as dictated by the Bible to be gender-biased and not accurate to what really happened. And then we have the demon Azrael, who sees the oblivion of nothing to be a better fate than serving in Hell, a fate given to him by God no less… and is more than willing to manipulate everyone to make it happen.

Between all of these different perspectives, and Kevin Smith’s very John Hughes-inspired sense of world-building and social humour, the film presents a patchwork of religious ideals that, however conflicted they are against those of others, still come together with a central idea in mind. I don’t know if this film is truly accurate to Catholic dogma, or if it even should be given the presence of characters like the Golgothan, a demon made of literal shit. However, considering this film’s stance on personal belief and how much it can strengthen (or weaken) the one who possesses it, I don’t think it ultimately matters. Aside from always giving me a good laugh when I need it, this film also serves as my own personal reminder that everyone’s beliefs are different and, so long as no one gets hurt, it’s all kosher.

I mean, you’ve got George Carlin playing a cardinal, a role he took because it meant portraying someone so douchey that he would ask God to bless his golf clubs so he could play better. It can be vicious as far as religious commentary is concerned, but it never feels undeserved when the claws actually do come out.

#3: The Breakfast Club – My social Swiss army knife

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced, and indeed continue to face to this day, when it comes to being autistic is the simple act of talking to other people. I’ve mentioned how much emphasis I place on comedy in social situations earlier in this list, but that mainly came about through necessity rather than choice. Humour came rather easily for me after a while, but the rest of what socializing involves? The highs, the lows, the endless run-arounds that can take place in a single conversation? I still struggle with that to this day. No matter how well I come across on video, on this blog or even in the real world, that perception ignores the genuine effort I put into every single social encounter I find myself in. Add to that the advent of social anxiety, where I find myself endlessly questioning every little thing I say or even think during those encounters, and you have someone who started at the bottom of the hill and had to trudge his way upwards.

So, how does that apply to this film specifically? Well, aside from this being one of the first films I can even remember watching, the way this film depicts high school sociopolitics via a group of seemingly-different teens stuck in school detention on a Saturday gave me a desperately-needed push up that hill. It showed me the many unseen intricacies of regular human interaction; the things that aren’t immediately noticeable, but nonetheless affect how people interact with each other. In some cases, it’s social class: Molly Ringwald’s Claire struggles with her place as the “princess” of the school, being held to an immediately-higher standard to her peers. Sometimes, it’s academics: Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian is considered to be the smartest guy in the room, but the expectation to be the smartest wears down on him in horrific ways. Sometimes, it’s based on gender stereotypes: Emilio Estevez’s Andrew is pressured by his father to be a top wrestler, but he secretly wishes that something out of his power would force him to retire. Sometimes, it’s based on awkward social graces: Ally Sheedy’s Allison, the epitome of all things reclusive and isolated, turns out to be one of the more knowledgeable people in that group, not to mention being more than sociable when given the chance.

And then there’s Judd Nelson as John Bender, a character whose dialogue I memorized as early as kindergarten. As much as that connection meant that I ended up unintentionally teaching school children how to swear (learning what is and isn’t appropriate to say in casual conversation was one of the first steps I had to take up that hill), I also see something of the necessary in his character. Considering this same guy pretty much sexually assaults one of the other characters during the course of the film, you can decide for yourself how awful that statement makes me, but hear me out.
John Bender is a bad person. He knows it. He comes from a rough family and he wears that on his sleeve. He only sees those social boundaries as something to break down, as all of his initial dialogue to the other four involves him trying to break through a certain façade that they put up.

Between those five, with the addition of the increasingly-vile Principal Vernon, I got a snapshot of the typical social gathering, and even though this is a film soaking in its own 80’s aesthetic, its depiction of social cliques and barriers remains true to this day. I went to high school in the late 2000’s-early 2010’s: These ‘stereotypes’ still exist, just in different forms, and the boundaries keeping them from each other remain as well. It’s a grim lesson about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, but it’s one that I kept with me for as much of my life as I am able to recall.

#2: Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Eternal – A tragic love story like no other

Part of me doesn’t want to include this on the list. It’s a slightly-remastered retelling of a TV show, and only the second half of that retelling at that: With how much I’ve harped on about the efficacy of movies, and my re-examination of Kill Bill, this shouldn’t qualify. Well, maybe in that sense, it doesn’t. However, when first putting this together, I knew I had to include this here by any means necessary. Why? Because this specific film, one that covers the latter half of the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, is my absolute favourite story of all time. Not just my favourite show or my favourite film; my favourite story.

I have emphasized the term ‘story’ to describe a lot of entries on this list because that is how I view the art of filmmaking: A means to tell stories. Stories themselves can have a profound impact on their audience, influencing individuals and groups in ways that no other outside force can dare to touch. For me, I highlight this as my favourite story because not only does it provide me with the most intense emotional experience, it also taught me what I hold as the most important lesson I ever learnt: What it means to be a friend.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have to go into personal details to explain why this is as brilliant as it is. The visuals from director Akiyuki Shinbo and animation studio Shaft combine the usual bounciness associated with magical girl shows with sequences that look like Dave McKean and Terry Gilliam got together on one hell of a drug trip and decided to animate their visions. The voice cast is among I’ve heard for an English dub (and yes, bite me, I’m one of those guys who prefers the English dub over the original Japanese), from Cassandra Lee’s deceptive cuteness as the alien creature Kyubey to the heart-breaking determination of Christina Vee as Homura to the unshakeable optimism of Christine Marie Cabanos as Madoka. Then there’s the writing by Gen Urobuchi, who crafted such an amazing piece of tragic fantasy that, when watching the show for the first time, I was absolutely floored by what I had just witnessed. That sensation only grew as the series went on, specifically the second half which is why I chose it to highlight here.

At its core, more so than anything to do with schoolgirls fighting monstrous witches or Homura being all kinds of badass in how much firepower she throws at her enemies, this film is about what people are willing to do for those that they love. Not ‘love’ in a romantic way, but ‘love’ in the platonic way; the love that one has for their closest friends and family. Homura, having been mentored by Madoka in the ways of witch-fighting, puts herself through a seemingly endless loop of events, restarting over and over again just for a chance to save Madoka’s life. She nearly breaks under the pressure, ready to give everything up… until it becomes apparent that all that effort, all that dedication she put into saving the life of one person, a person she loved, had paid off in a major way. All that love that she channelled into her quest meant that Madoka could do the impossible and save everyone. I’m literally getting teary-eyed as I’m typing this out, it affects me that much.

That, more than any other virtue I’ve extolled over the course of this list, is what I set out to do in life. I don’t want to make enemies. I don’t want to be made an example of. I don’t want to leave this world knowing that I could have done more. I want to reach out to those who could use a helping hand and provide whatever they may need. I want to make friends; people who I can rely on when I need it and that they can rely on when they need it. Homura is one of my few fictional heroes because, and there isn’t a drop of hyperbole in this statement, I would do the exact same thing if it meant saving someone else. Even if it meant I’d be risking my own life in the process. Because that, to me, is what a friend does. I may be a dangerously self-defeating personality with a history of bad decisions and even worse thoughts… but I want to be able to do at least that much for someone else. I want to be remembered not as the guy who kept putting himself down out of depressive thoughts, but the guy who lifted others up when they needed it.

But hey, since I’m autistic, I apparently have no empathy, so what the fuck do I know?

#1: Planet Terror – The film that started it all

So… here we are. My No. 1 favourite film of all time. But why? I mean, I’ve ranked it above what I consider to be my favourite story of all; what could possibly top that?

Well, in a way, this doesn’t. Unlike a lot of entries on this list, why this appeals to me isn’t because of some appeal to higher ideals or even an examination of a fascinating central character. I like this film primarily because of how unbelievably fun it is. The best kind of dumb zombie action flick, this has a great cast of characters, where even the bit parts like Fergie’s Tammy end up being pleasantly memorable, a relentlessly creative approach to action beats, an incredible soundtrack and the kind of writing that allows for just enough characterization for everyone to get their fair share, but never skimps on the humour and even a bit of pathos.

But that, ultimately, isn’t why I hold this film in the highest regard. Instead, I draw the reader’s attention to the crew members who put this production together. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez had a hand in basically every aspect of the filmmaking process here: He directed it, wrote it on his own, composed the music, did the camera work, co-edited the film alongside Ethan Maniquis, produced it under Rodriguez International Pictures and Troublemaker Studios, and even led the special effects team. That level of involvement, especially in a film this stylistically fruitful, is impressive enough, but here’s the thing: Imagine how much work all of that is to pull off, whether it’s one person heading the charge or a collaborative effort of hundreds. Writing the script, rehearsing the scenes with the actors, filming the scenes, editing the scenes, adding effect to the scenes; a lot of work goes into every single film that gets released, and even the ones that ultimately don’t get released.

When I watched this film for the first time, on a scratched pirated DVD I found in my dad’s house, I was so engaged by everything this film had to offer that I just had to look into who I should thank for the experience. I did my research, started looking into other films Rodriguez had been involved in, and came to a crucial realisation when it comes to films: All films, even the lowest of the low, take effort to make happen. Through my personal experience with it, this film taught me not only what makes up a cinematic production but also how much work goes into each individual point. That is why this film is my No. 1 pick: Because it gave me an understanding of the filmmaking process that I have applied to literally every single film I’ve seen since. I may have gotten a taste for critiquing film from watching YouTubers in high school, but it was this that made me understand film. This was the first major step I took as a lover of cinema, one that led to a series of others that have so far culminated in this list. In fact, without having experienced this one film, this list and this entire blog would not even exist.


  1. I completely agree with you about Mary & Max! I love that film!! I think what they've done with the colours is really clever too- how the red stands out so brightly against the browns in Mary's world & the greys in Max's- that moment where they merge is just brilliant!!

  2. Wow! After reading this list I have some serious movie watching hours ahead of me. You have a fantastic way with words and a great ability to draw the reader into your reviews.