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An endless source of inspiration for novels, scripts and short stories. A major cultural influence.

Citizen Kane - Orson Welles

A firm favourite with film makers and critics for nearly 80 years now, often at the top of best picture polls. I wager most of my generation have never seen it in the cinema, but I was lucky enough to catch one of those "classic" screenings at some multi-plex a few years ago. Never has black and white film looked so plush, so ripe, the perfect canvass for the saga of Kane's life: lost childhood, lust for power and fatal corruption. Even the largest of modern day TV screens can't do the movie justice. This huge movie demands the huge screen. A brilliant script, crisp, polished players, the astonishing photography and Welles's stunning, innovative direction. Simply a masterpiece.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - John Ford

Even if the subtleties of the American politics of the frontier pass you by, there's still villains and varmints on one side and the good and the righteous on the other, as there should be in any western. Only trouble is, it's not as clear cut as it appears at first who is where in the divide. Sure, Liberty Valance is an out and out bad guy and Lee Marvin has a riot projecting the character's extreme malevolence through every sweaty pore, sneaky leer and threatening growl. But Wayne's Tom Doniphon is an altogether more ambiguous figure. He's the toughest guy around, tougher than Valance, but disinclined to interfere with Valance's reign of terror unless it directly impinges on him. Doniphon's interests are his cattle and horses, and his love, Hallie, a nominal good guy if only because John Wayne's playing him, but an unalloyed hero? Hardly. He condemns himself as a cold blooded murderer when confessing to Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) that it was he and not him, Stoddard, who killed Valance, because Hallie wanted Ransom alive. So Stoddard wins the girl, befitting the good guy and becomes the delegate to Washington on the back of being The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It only takes him 25 years to get round to admitting his stellar political career was built on a queasy lie. Yes, it's a western, and it's got John Wayne in the starring role, but it's also undoubtedly a subtle and thought provoking essay on moral equivocation despite the genre, despite the star.



Cabaret - Bob Fosse

The song and dance routines are terrific, superbly crafted, stylishly choreographed and brilliantly performed. Minnelli as the street wise, talented Berlin night-club singer and wannabe femme fatale, Sally Bowles, has never been better, and Joel Grey is magnificent as the morally ambivalent MC. Michael York, an actor I've rarely found compelling or convincing, is here more than tolerable as Brian, Sally Bowles's naïve, bisexual love interest. The whole piece is set against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, something Sally gives little thought while preoccupied with advancing her career. At the beginning the MC finds it expedient to ridicule the Nazis, but by the end has apparently thrown in his hand with them, mocking their enemies with even greater cruelty. Brian provides a "neutral" commentary as he surfs the political debate of the times while pursuing his doomed affair with Sally. That Fosse successfully blends the twin strands of the seedy Berlin night-club scene and the relentless, inevitable Nazi conquest of Germany into a convincing and highly entertaining whole is a testament to his genius as a choreographer and director. It's long been my favourite film and I've seen little that comes close in the 47 years since I first saw it.

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The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola

A film replete with iconic scenes and stand-out performances. The opening wedding party scene at the Corleone estate, the attempted murder of Don Corleone outside his office, the murder of Sollozzo in the restaurant, the murder of Sonny Corleone at the toll booth, the severed horse's head in the film director's bed … these scenes, and many more, are unforgettable. It revived Brando's career, showcased the burgeoning talent of Al Pacino - the rest of the cast were outstanding too - and its success ushered Coppola to the front row of the new generation of Hollywood directors. It was a fresh take on the Mafia story, where the violence visited upon the enemy is not primarily an instrument of revenge but a "business" decision - business not personal is a recurring refrain - and is therefore not seen by the participants as reprehensible, nor by many of the passive observers for that matter. An all-round classy affair which, for the record, I prefer to The Godfather Part II.

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El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) - Guillermo del Toro

Profound, stylish, thrilling entertainment from the masterful GDT. The overlapping and interweaving of the little heroine Ofelia's fantasy world, a magical place packed with wondrous creatures, with the grim realities of 1940s Spain in the tightening grip of the ruthless Falangists is expertly handled. Though there's terror in both worlds. Ofelia's encounter with the child devouring Pale Man is an epic scene that is truly frightening. But it's nothing in comparison with the horrors perpetrated by Ofelia's murderous step father Vidal. In one world there is redemption, the resurrection of Ofelia, the reincarnation of Princess Moranna. In the other, the real world, death awaits the tragic Ofelia and redemption is a far trickier concept. True, the hideous Vidal gets his comeuppance, but history tells us where Spain went from there for 3 miserable decades. In real life you have to wait a little longer for redemption.




Raging Bull - Martin Scorsese

Oceans of ink and forests of paper have been spent analysing and praising Marty's boxing epic, though the great trick, of course, is that it's sod all to do with boxing, save for the protagonist happening to be a boxer. I heard someone remark that the genius of the film is that Scorsese forces you to sympathise with and care about the hateful, despicable central character, Jake LaMotta. I can think of no better way of describing the emotional roller coaster you experience watching this movie. Naturally, LaMotta's destructive abuse of Vickie is central to the piece, but the slow disintegration of the brothers' relationship is a torrid and heart-breaking affair too. It helps tremendously, of course, that not only is Scorsese on top form but so is De Niro as Jake, along with Joe Pesci as the boxer's brother, Joey.


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Volver -  Pedro Almodóvar

A treat from the Spanish master. Penelope Cruz plays Raimunda, fanatically protective (for good reason) of her daughter Paula. When Paula stabs to death her step father when he attempts to rape her, Raimundo sets to work to cover up the crime. The situation is complicated when Raimunda's mother, Paula's grandmother, returns from the dead. The family's history and secrets leach into the open. Acceptance, forgiveness and reconciliation follow. The powerful female roles are uplifting and heart-warming and Cruz manages to portray Raimunda convincingly as both exceptionally sexy and deeply maternal. The script employs a light comedic touch which helps make the dark themes of child abuse and incest more digestible.



It's A Wonderful Life - Frank Capra

It's a wonderful movie. I still cry at the end even after watching it a hundred times, and if you don't then you're a soulless monster. The script addresses a bewildering array of human traits and conditions - ambition, honesty, dishonesty, greed, power, love, lust, cruelty, kindness, duty, devotion, and on and on - ending with the triumph of the good and righteous over the mean spirited and dismal. It's a story packed with so much observation, as we follow George Bailey's rise and fall and rise again, we could suppose (almost) by the end there is little about human nature we don't now know about. We meet every one of every type, from the bumbling but well-meaning Uncle Billy right through to the greedy, malicious Potter, mediated not so much by the supernatural angel Clarence, but by George rediscovering himself and finally choosing to stand by what he truly believes in. And James Stewart is simply awesome.


Mary Poppins - Robert Stevenson

Almost 60 years later no one has yet worked out what Dick Van Dyke was thinking when he produced the worst cockney accent ever recorded. He's not saying and the film's editor and director obviously couldn't be arsed to do anything about it. However, it's a mark of the movie it survives and surpasses the excruciating embarrassment of that voice and has established itself as one of the all-time great movies. Julie Andrews is at her sweetest best, perfectly cast as the prim and proper but fun-loving magical nanny. The mixing of live action characters and cartoons works a treat, and the special effects hold up well even after all these years. But, of course, it's the song and dance numbers, expertly executed by everyone, led from the front by Andrews' awesome delivery, sweet tones and perfect diction, a treat for the eyes and ears.




One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Milos Forman

For the nuthouse, sorry, mental institution read whatever allegory you like: it's post war Eastern Europe and Nurse Ratched is the communist party, as the director Forman had it; or it's modern America with McMurphy the incredulous renegade; or it's purgatory, McMurphy and Ratched, angel and devil, battling each other for the souls of the inmates. It doesn't matter; it's still McMurphy crazy in the way the only sane person on the beat can be; it's still Ratched, wretched in her tyrannical petty power plays; it's still the other inmates, lonely, sad and miserable until McMurphy arrives; it's still the Chief, silently observing, waiting for a reason to escape. And it's Jack Nicholson at his incomparable best, wild eyes, wild voice and wild gestures, bludgeoning sense into the madness of the story. And there's a bravura performance by Louise Fletcher as the ultra-bad, probably mad, Nurse Ratched, skilfully avoiding clumsy caricature, presenting a believably sinister, ice-cold, villain. The ending is superlative, the Chief smothering to death the lobotomised McMurphy before finally finding the strength to wrench the giant hydrotherapy fountain out of the floor, hurl it through a window and escape into the night. A breath-taking finish I remember stunning the audience I was a member of when I first saw it.

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