Wednesday, March 09, 2005

25 GENRE MOVIES YOU SHOULD WATCH BEFORE YOU DIE

Couldn't get to sleep the other night, so round about 1am I decided to list 10 movies you should watch, a la Grant Watson's recent list except more sleep deprived and less justifiable. Which is how I ended up with 25. It'd be more if I'd not decided to stick roughly to the speculative genre, left out sequels for the most part, and decided not to include anything that began life as a comic book. My only real rider (Hey, it was 1am...) was that I must have seen them. Anyway, for what it's worth, here they are in no particular order. They're not the best, necessarily, or the most outstanding, I just think they're damn good and you should watch them, 'k?

The Terminator: Unlike its inferior sequels, this movie remains tense, claustrophobic, with a consistent sense of paranoia and fear. And even if you've watched it multiple times, you're still gasping with the possibility that the good guys won't win. This franchise lost it when it became two machines thumping each other, instead of fallible and frail humans desparately trying to stave off an implacable and terrifying enemy. James Cameron has never directed a better movie.

Starman: Forget the cloying diabetes induced by such saccharine efforts as ET. This is a simple, sweet movie, centred around Jeff Bridges' performance as an alien, dropped off in the wrong spot, who must travel to a pre-arranged pickup destination. No flashy effects, no demographic-aimed cuddly toy masquerading as a character. A simple plot, fine acting, and a genuine sentimentality that never becomes mawkish or manipulative. Sometimes explosions are not all there is.

A Clockwork Orange: Not an SF film? Ho yus, my fine friends, from the super-milk Moloko to the raging social satire. An angry, hilarious, gonzo piece of film-making, with a performance by Malcom McDowell that ruined his career: he simply could never be better, and wasn't. This is a mesmerising film, and possibly the funniest black comedy ever made. The director, Stanley Kubrick, also delivered Doctor Strangelove, or I How Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, which could easily have made this list. I plumped for this one instead. Cheat: watch them both, they both make my top-10 favourite movies.

12 Monkeys: Like Kubrick, I could have picked any number of Terry Gilliam's disturbing and insane SF visions: Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, or Jabberwocky. But this is his best film by far, a circular, hallucinatory, complete, ride through past, present and future, that leaves more questions with each viewing. A suitably dazed and beaten performance by Bruce Willis is set against Brad Pitt's manic, popping sidekick, in a role he's only bettered once (And Fight Club would have made this list with ease, had I been able to call it Spec-fic). A personal top-10 favourite.

The Thing: Aaah, Kurt Russell. So many roles, so much to hate. And yet, this 1982 adaptation of Donald Stuart's classic "Who Goes There" is a fantastic movie: unrelentingly claustrophobic, relentlessly logical, and with a final scene that should be rememberd as a minor classic of the "Nothing good can come of this" variety. The SFX creaks a little, but thankfully is not the focus of the work: instead it is the slowly unravelling interpersonal relations of a group trapped by death with no way to get out that makes this such an inspired film.

The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy: Okay, for those who complain about how long the ending to the third movie is, take note: try treating the films like you treat the book. This isn't really a trilogy, it's a massive, sprawling, 9 hour epic film. And while it has its faults, and its detractors, its fair to say that no film has been SO epic, SO sprawling, and SO simply magnificent, as this. Take a day out from life, watch the three extended versions one after the other, and see what I mean.

Alien: The greatest monster movie ever made, or "There's something bad hunting us down, let's go alone into this dark room."? It doesn't matter, really. You can't not engage, can't not feel the fear and threat leaking out of the screen in the last 45 minutes of this film, even after 25 years of knowing what the monster looks like. The cinema of paranoia at its best.

Princess Mononoke: Like Kubrick, Scott, and Gilliam, Miyazaki is a film maker from whom I could have picked any number of movies. Princess Mononoke may not be his best (Spirited Away is undoubtedly that), or his most loved (Have you ever met anyone who didn't fall in love with My Neighbour Toturo?) but it is his most mythic, his most magnificent, his grandest. There are epics within epics here, and multiple viewings lead only to multiple interpretations. The power of animation to harness storytelling on a massive scale at its best.

The Returner: How can you not love this insane, kitchen-sink-and-all, piece of God-knows-what from Japan? Time-travellers, aliens, giant transforming 747s... Nothing makes any sense, once you stop to think about it, yet the ride is so delirious, so damn enjoyable, that it doesn't matter. Bubblegum SF taken to its illogical extreme. Too damn fun for words.

The Princess Bride: And on the subject of fun, this Rob Reiner-directed, William Goldman-scripted take on Fantasy is so hip and self-aware that it can't bve anything other than fun, funny, and when it takes the time to be sweet and romantic, genuinely so. It's hard to say what inspires such fondness in me for this film. It's just that everything fits so perfectly together, so believably, that I can't watch it without wanting to take part, just for a little while.

Willow: What is it with me and fun fantasy movies? Here's another one, a silly little tale made watchable by delightful performances from the likes of Val Kilmer and Kevin Pollack. The story, such as it is, is not the point: there's magic and quests and dwarves and warriors and sword fights thrown about with such gay abandon that everyone involved seems to be having the time of their lives, and you can't help but get involved. Watch it with friends. Watch it as a double feature with The Princess Bride. Have sword fights in your backyard.

Akira: There are so many moments of sheer brilliance within anime SF that I could easily fill a list with them: Jin-Roh, Metropolis (don't get it mixed up with the classic live-action movie of the same name), Vampire Hunter D, Cowboy Be-Bop... This is the movie that started it, and for sheer dystopian magnificnence, it's never been bettered.

Bride of Frankenstein: James Whale's Frankenstein is a deserved classic of cinema, and everyone should watch it. This sequel is better. Karloff's performance is sublime, and Whale's direction is at its best in this gloomy, prophetic piece of noir genius.

The Wizard of Oz: Flying Monkeys! What else do you need? Seriously, this is just about the perfect blend of music, fantasy, character, and storytelling. I don't think there was a real contender for the "Most Wonderfullest Family Movie" title until Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory a thousand or so years later. What's more, it still holds up: it's as fresh and joyful now as it was when it was first made. A truly generation-spanning piece of entertainment.

Quatermass & The Pit: Nobody does it like the British: makes paranoi and claustrophobia a filmic art form. And here's where the template really hit form: a low budget forcing the filmmakers into a tightly controlled filming that draws you in and refusus to let you go until the inevitable consequences have been followed. It creaks a little now, but hunt it out next time you want to watch a Will Smith film: at the very least you'll save your IQ from leaking out your ears. If you can, double-feature it with The Quatermass Experiment.

Dark City: Alex Proyas' homage to all that's dark and noirish about classic SF, with the best cast of weird-looking actors since The Name Of The Rose, and a plot that genuinely defies description on its first viewing. Fantastic performances from Rupert Everett and Keifer Sutherland, and a breakout role for Jennifer Connelly make this intelligent, darkly pessimistic film a top 10 for me.

Shadow Of The Vampire: Willem Dafoe did not win an Oscar for this movie. Keep that in mind as you watch, becuase I defy anybody to explain how his hypnotic, creepy performance didn't guarantee him a gong. Based on a simple premise (What if Max Schrek from Nosferatu really was a vampire?) this stylish and perfectly realised movie is a testament to balanced, perfectionist film-making.

Cronos: An odd little movie about a scarab, and the strange powers of time and space contained within. With an appearance from one of my favourite wierdoes, the fabulous Ron Perlman, this is a weird and wonderful delight with which to surpise unwary friends.

Planet of The Apes: It's become something of a joke over the years, but watch it and you'll wonder why. It's bloody good. Ignore the multitude of sequels: they were crap. This original has power, prediction, and a strong central performance from Charlton Heston at the peak of his much-maligned powers. The ending, of course, is as classic as classic can be. If you've not seen it, or not seen it for a while, get it out. You'll be surprised.

Plan 9 From Outer Space/ Robot Monster: Told you they wouldn't necessarily be good :) Depending upon who you listen to, these two films are the worst and second worst of all time. Only the order changes. Watch them as a double feature, with all your friends and the biggest bucket of popcorn you can find. Save some to throw at the screen.

Forbidden Planet: Ignore the wood shavings flying away from Leslie Neilsen's performance in this 50s classic, and there's a dark, brooding, story lurking beneath the surface. It holds up pretty well, all things considered, and there are few vistas that excite the geekboy inside me as much as the tour of the abandoned Krell city. Intelligent and ambitious, this is one of the movies that made it possible for SF cinema to stay alive when the rest of the world had dismissed the genre as bad stuff for retarded children.

Bladerunner: The only thing that people forget to say about this film, amongst the millions of words that have been written about it, is that it's bloody good. Watch the Director's Cut, sure: the voiceover was always unnecessary, and there's more meat on the bones. But in either version it's a visual treat, with perfectly mannered performances for the leads and a visual aesthetic that remained unmatched, imho, until the first Matrix movie.

Metropolis: There are a raft of silent, expressionsit, movies, that have informed the American film culture, and deserve to be watched. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, M, Nosferatu... I've picked this one because it's likely to be the easiest to find in Blockbusterworld. Try to find the original, rather than the mid-80s re-release with the dire electronic soundtrack, or if you can't, watch it muted (Hey, it's a silent film). There's something obscene and shivery in the scenes of robotic workers marching in perfect unison, hundreds at a time, into the operating cubicles of the great machines. You'll remember it, I assure you.

Men In Black: Yeah, so fuck it, I broke my own rules and included a comic book movie. So sue me. Thing is, this is a genuinely funny, enjoyable movie, with an SF theme that simultaneously pokes fun at, and glorifies in, the pulp SF tradition. Yes, it has Will Smith, but that's balanced by Tommy Lee Jones giving perhaps the best performance of his career, with a pan so dead it could be the result of Botox, and a voice so monotone he could have borrowed it from Keanu Reeves. The end is a little rushed, and not so well thought out as the rest of the film, but it's all such a lot of fun. Remember: Elvis isn't dead. he's just gone home.

The Day The Earth Stood Still: Another intelligent, thoughtful classic from the cauldron of post-war Americana. And that rarest of things: a quiet SF movie. No super-battles, no crap mysticism about universal forces, just a visitor from another place trying to treat insane, paranoid, terrified creatures (Humans, or more specifically, Americans) with decency, and not understanding why they just don't get it. A riff revisited to great effect in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is also worth watching.

Well, there you go. Have fun.

Weird moment: While I was typing this, Alice Cooper's The Ballad of Dwight Frye came up on the playlist. Now there's something to listen to whilst you bang on about Frankenstein and 30's noir classics...

2 comments:

John said...

"Who Goes There?" Was written by John W Campbell Jr, wasn't it? Was DOnald Stuart a pen name?

Lee Battersby said...

Yup, written by Campbell under a pseudonym. Most of his stories after about 1934 were written under the pen name, with 'Who Goes There' in 1938 being pretty much the last tale he published under any name, as he'd taken up the editorship of Astounding the year before.