My Five Favourite Films, With Explanations
I’ve been a film buff since I was nine. In 1996, my grandfather gave my family the Cinemania ’95 CD-ROM. This was an encyclopedia about movies, containing movie reviews, filmographies, capsule biographies of those involved in the business, film stills, clips of dialogue, clips of music, and even a handful of film clips. I was mesmerized. I soon became obsessed. For four years I spent at least two hours on Cinemania every day.
Then we got the Internet, and my obsession about movies got completely out of hand.
This list of five movies is part of a much longer list- currently, a list of 55 movies. The precise number of movies- as well as the movies on the list- has fluctuated considerably over time. I’ve made fourteen versions of this list over the last decade and a half.
For all the countless hours I’ve spent reading about movies and watching them, my top five list of favourite movies hasn’t changed all that much since I was a kid.
These are the films which shaped me and helped to turn me into the person I am today. They helped determine the way in which I see the world, and my sense of humour, and my value system.
I suppose that’s why it’s been difficult for new films to break through: it’s harder to be changed when you’re older.
1. Mary Poppins (1964)
This has always been my favourite movie (though for my first ten years it was tied with #2). It is also (along with #2) the movie I’ve seen the most often. I don’t know what appealed to me about Mary Poppins at the start, since it’s been a part of my life since almost the very beginning.
There’s something haunting here, and sad, and a little mournful. Serious mistakes have been made before the movie even begins. People have already been fundamentally compromised. Mary Poppins is about the slow process of rebuilding and learning to be better. This process is hard.
It is a movie about ideas and values. Mary Poppins believes that it is better to live a life away from the expectations of mainstream society. If you absolutely must deal with mundane reality, manipulate it to fit your whims.
Mary Poppins believes that weird is better than normal. Poor is more fulfilling than rich. Creativity is more important than commerce. And you must always, always, always feed the birds.
It is shockingly non-conformist.
2. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
This movie is insane.
It is enormous, unruly, and totally undisciplined. That’s why I love it. That’s why I have a soft spot for all crazy, overambitious movies. That’s probably why one of my key writing philosophies is, “If you think you’ve gone too far, it’s because you haven’t gone far enough.”
It all starts here.
The movie is partially a treacle-sweet story of an eccentric inventor and his moppets having adventures in a flying car.
But there is a villain ripped straight out of a Bond movie, a castle dungeon full of kidnapped children, multiple plots that don’t go anywhere, a song and dance number in an outhouse, a handful of characters who seem to have wandered in from other genres, and most of the movie doesn’t actually exist within the world of the movie.
You show this to a kid before the age of five and it’ll ruin them.
“You mean all of these things can exist side by side?”
“You mean a story is allowed to be this over the top?”
“You mean a story doesn’t have to make sense?”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang made me permanently unsatisfied with that which was merely possible.
3. Pleasantville (1998)
After my depression, my world view turned toxic. Life was a bad place where bad things happened. I was tired and burned out and inconsolably angry.
Then I saw Pleasantville. It saved me.
Pleasantville is a fantasy in which two teenagers from the ‘90s are sucked into a sitcom from the ‘50s. Their modern sensibilities unravel this utopic society, and then the teenagers and the characters in the TV show gradually create something new and stronger.
Like Mary Poppins, it is a movie about ideas. Pleasantville believes that the world can be a better place if people work to make it that way. It values change, diversity, and creative expression.
My grandmother took me to see Pleasantville on a whim. I’d seen a commercial for it on TV and thought it looked good. But after seeing it, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pleasantville for months.
I came to believe in its ideas, at first tentatively and then wholeheartedly. Pleasantville kick-started the rest of my life.
4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
I didn’t understand what in the holy hell this movie was about for the first twelve years of my life. It didn’t make sense. People seemed to do things arbitrarily, scenes changed randomly. There were astronauts. People hiding in closets. A boy in the woods. A strange fucking alien.
But there was still something mesmerizing about E.T. I think it was the cinematography. The movie’s use of light and shadow creates a distinctive feeling which is hard to articulate. It is slightly more heightened than ordinary reality; simultaneously naturalistic and dream-like.
When I finally understood that E.T. and Elliot were psychically connected, the rest of the movie snapped into place.
Then I was free to appreciate the relationships between the characters and the conflicts in their lives. Here too there is a blend of the realistic and dream-like. The kids have to worry about their parents’ divorce, as well as the safety of an alien.
The combination of real and not-real is transfixing to me for reasons I don’t fully understand. E.T. goes beyond knowing, deep into the realm of feeling.
5. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
When I was a kid, this movie was in the rotation heavier than anything except Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I drifted away from Beauty and the Beast for awhile, but came back to it a few years ago and it felt like home.
I love how rich it feels. The use of colour, the characterization, and the music are all vibrant and plush. Beauty and the Beast is such a comfortable movie.
In addition to that, there’s Belle. When I was a kid, I liked her well enough, but as an adult I identify with her more than maybe any other Disney character. I feel separate from other people, happier in my own private world, and I yearn for the great wide somewhere.
It’s awfully nice to have a movie that understands you so well. It’s nicer still to be able to leave a movie behind and, upon returning to it, find that it’s grown alongside you.
Note: I just came across this article on vulture.com:
It seems that empathizing with Belle is not at all uncommon among folks on the spectrum. Not only do the autistic people in the article quote Beauty and the Beast, but they quote the same scene I linked to above- which is the scene I relate to the most. I’m not sure what this means.