My movie-pal Jason gave me a terrific book for my birthday, the TimeOut guide to "1000 Films To Change Your Life." Visually lively, with lots of really punchy writing from a broad range of film critics and film-makers writing about movies that move them. They look at films "through the emotions they trigger: the instant, unthinking, gut reactions, the Geiger counter cliks of a movie's power. That's why 1000 Films is shaped by the nine emotions people are most likely to feel at the cinema; there's one chapter dedicated to each. And a tenth chapter, entitled Food For Thought, assesses the thinking responses that are often just a short distance behind the visceral ones."
There are longish survey articles, considering how various emotions are tackled in a variety of films, or surveying the work of a particular film-maker. There are lists (yay!), and brief entries by a whole lot of film-makers who talk about a specific film that changed their life.
They've got lots of pithy things to say about lots of films that I consider Soul Food Movies. Here's a sampler plate...
Time Out: 1000 Films To Change Your Life
Jonathan Romney on “popcorn movies”: It’s an equation that’s been made in countless adverts: cinema as a purely ephemeral delight, an air-light fancy that melts into nothing on the tongue. The association does disservice both to a perfectly nutritious foodstuff and to an art form that – even when not at its intellectual peak – generally demands a more sustained and discerning process of consumption than it is sometimes given credit for. Cinema is not always to be bolted down and forgotten, but sometimes calls for an extended digestion process that only properly begins after the end credits. ... There is, of course, a thoughtful cinema that also fulfills the dietary requirements of the popcorn movie: films that work as genre entertainment, that offer immediate pop-culture pleasures, while leaving enough narrative and theoretical loose ends to chew on long afterwards. (pg 56)
Several characters cross paths and exchange fates in a mosaic concocted by director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, upping the complexity ante on their previous AMORES PERROS. Mathematical and metaphysical preoccupations combine in a theological narrative of American crossed destinies. (Jonathan Romney, pg 64)
AMERICAN BEAUTY: Stagey direction, clunky symbolism and madly histrionic performances from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, all in the service of a hackneyed message: suburubia is for hypocrites. Thank you, Sam Mendes. (pg 38) [Note from the chef: let me offset this glib, misconceived attack on one of my favourite films with equally pithy grabs from two Georgia Straight critics’ Top Ten lists for 1999. "A lovely, funny, and strangely sweet film about a depressed Everyman and his masturbatory fantasies, which lead him to a genuine spiritual rebirth" (Ron Yamauchi). "The characters in this suburban nightmare are little more than cartoon critters, but their meltdown eventually reveals a transcendent vision of life" (Ken Eisner).]
The most affecting experience I’ve ever had with a film was when I first went to Romania on a cultural exchange in the early 1970s, at the height of he Ceausescu regime. I’d heard of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV, and I asked my translator if she would take me to see it. Her entire family had been killed by the Soviets, and so she was violently anti-Russian and said she wouldn’t go. But she knew that if I went, she had to go. It was her job. I told her she had to go. We were halfway through this incredible, epic anthem to huymanity and I noticed her sobbing beside me. By the end, she had experienced a conversion: for the first time, she was able to see Russians as human beings. (Richard Eyre)
Not nearly as documentary as it first appears, Abbas Kiarostami’s film is an investigation into the way that we invest our dreams in cinema. Following up the true case of a man who masqueraded as film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami creates a complex panorama of gullibility, social difference and reconciliation. (Jonathan Romney, pg 64)
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS
Of all Woody Allen’s ‘serious’ (or half-serious) films, this is the most substantial – the Dostoevskian story of a man who commits a crime and gets away with it. Allen ‘remade’ it, after a fashion, in his glib MATCH POINT, but it took older actors with the gravitas of Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston to give it the heft that this uncomfortable moral drama demands. (Jonathan Romney, pg 64)
One of the simplest and most direct moral comedies by Eric Rohmer, an anatomist of French social mores at their most delicately absurd. A seemingly banal anecdote about a woman trying to go on holiday, THE GREEN RAY really looks into bigger questions – what people want, whether they know what they want, and the role of language as a help and a hindrance in the pursuit of happiness. (Jonathan Romney, pg 64)
Catholicism hasn’t worked, Judaism has failed him, Krishna didn’t cut it either. For Woody Allen’s despairing comedy writer in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, the answer is Marx. That’s Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx, by the way, since it’s during a matinee of DUCK SOUP that he finally pulls out of an existential tailspin precipitated by a recent medical scare. Watching the inspired tomfoolery unfold in this classic Hollywood comedy of the ‘30s, Allen catches himself laughing, and suddenly, as his voiceover explains, it all starts to make sense: Look at the people up there on the screen, they’re so funny... What if the worst were true, there’s no God, you only go around once, and that’s it? Well, don’t you want to be part of the experience? It’s not all a drag. I should stop ruining my life looking for answers I’m never going to get, and just enjoy myself while it lasts... (Trevor Johnston, pg 8)
Traditionally regarded as the least entertaining of Hitchcock’s films, this story of a priest facing the death penalty in an oppressively doomy Quebec because of his refusal to break the secrecy of the confessional is th emaster’s most explicitly theological and ethical treatise, and as such sheds its somber light on the philosophical ramifications of the entire oeuvre. (Jonathan Romney, pg 63)
Take a closer look at Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, one tough movie for much of its running time, since it shows how irrepressibly decent James Stewart has had to sacrifice his own dreams of travel and achievement to sustain his family’s loan company on which the local community depends. Decades of self-denying service lead him to, well, contemplate suicide from a bridge at Christmas since his insurance policy seems the only thing able to rescue the operation from financial doom. Not such a wonderful life then, after all, until Henry Travers’s passing trainee angel shows him the corruption and misery which would have overrun his home town Bedford Falls had he not been born. The climactic affirmation of genuine friendship and mutual reliance is so affecting precisely because it’s so darn hard-won. (Trevor Johnston, pg 12)
Some films present themselves as luxuriating in ideas, yet actually purvey thought as some sort of top-of-the-range consumer item: notably, Godfrey Reggio’s ‘revelatory’ KOYAANISQATSI trilogy, with its Discovery Channel mysticism. (Jonathan Romney, pg 62)
A MAN ESCAPED
Robert Bresson’s portrait of a Reisstance fighter trying to escape from a cell. Minimalist cinema in which every gesture takes on maximum weight – an essay on the phenomenology of things, but also a tribute to the human mind’s capacity for patience, sanity and lucidity. (Jonathan Romney, pg 63)
Working with his ANNIE HALL cinematographer, the talented Gordon Willis, Allen chose to shoot MANHATTAN in black and white. Its timeless, almost gothic feel is balanced by Allen’s usual innovation of this period. Shooting most scenes in one long take, Willis finds wonderful compositions again and again. The characters wander in and out of shot, and sometimes there’s no one in the shot at all – we just hear them. All of which adds appropriately to the mood of a film which turns out, in a strange way, to be about faith: faith in ourselves and our choices, and faith in the ability of others to see and accept us as we are. (Connor McPherson, pg 27)
Let’s not discount the authentically provocative mind-bending of the first episode (but the first only) of the MATRIX trilogy. (Jonathan Romney, 62)
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (AKA STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN)
Forget Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, here’s a genuine passion transcending the boundaries of this world and the next. The celestial court decides the fate of shot-down air force pilot David Niven and radio operator Kim Hunter as mavericks Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger take the viewer on a stairway to heaven. (pg 13)
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
By concentrating on close-ups of faces at their most extremely expressive, from ecstatic to agonized, Carl Theodor Dreyer produces a sort of phenomenology of the human face, while dismantling all the preconceptions that already surrounded the historical epic in the silent era. (Jonathan Romney, pg 63)
There is, of course, a thoughtful cinema that also fulfills the dietary requirements of the popcorn movie: films that work as genre entertainment, that offer immediate pop-culture pleasures, while leaving enough narrative and theoretical loose ends to chew on long afterwards. ... There are boffinish teasers such as Shane Carruth’s hyper-low-budget PRIMER, in which riddles of time, identity and the ethics of technological research are couched in the form of a teasingly fractured weird-science drama. (Jonathan Romney, pg 63)
You know I have a clip from STALKER in UZAK? Well, the first time I saw a Tarkovsky film was when I was at university in Turkey. It was SOLARIS, and I left in the middle of the film. I thought: “What is this?” But later, I came across the same film when I was in London. I was alone here, hanging out in bookshops and going to the NFT a lot; that’s where I saw the film again. And I couldn’t believe it – I was so impressed by it this time.
For three days the film was constantly with me. This shows that if something is different from what we are accustomed to, it firswt seems almost like an alien; but with time, if you have the chance to go into it, it can open new windows. SOLARIS was so strange for me the first time; but the second time, it was almost as if it made me a new person. It shows something else too: if you’re alone, you are very receptive. You tend to look more deeply into things, and that’s important. Maybe that’s one reason I was able to connect the second time around. The film helped me to understand myself better. (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, pg 73)
There are films that seek to popularize abstraction and yet manage to take wing: withness the imagistic stoner fugue of Richard Linklater’s WAKING LIFE, with its dreamlike interface between live action and animation.
There are very few movies where I remember how I felt when I left the theatre – how I physically felt after it was over. Seeing WINGS OF DESIRE is the exception. I remember I saw it in a theatre in New York that no longer exists, on the corner of 68th and Broadway, where Broadway and Columbus split. It was playing in a small art-house cinema, and I went to an evening show by myself. It was a transcendental experience. I felt I was a different human being when I left the theatre. I remember how the sidewalk felt under my feet, walking away. I felt viscerally, sensorially changed – all of my senses were different. How things tasted, felt, smelled, how I looked and heard the world, everything had been just slightly altered like I’d taken a very subtle drug that just heightened the senses. And the world was new. It was such a delightful occurrence, and I’ve rarely felt that in my life. It says a lot about what a movie can do. (Holly Hunter, pg 17)
Have a look inside or order yourself a copy at the TimeOut website