The list goes on! As always, one of the overriding tenets of making the list is the phrase “You haven’t seen this? Siddown, this is our night now.” This week shades, as perhaps such lists always much, into just a drop of the personal.
10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Ofelia and her mother are summoned to live with her mother’s new husband, a captain serving under then-dictator of Spain Fransisco Franco. Miserable in her new home, Ofelia often escapes to the surrounding woods. There she finds an ancient ruin and a faun, who tells her that she is a lost fairy princess, and must prove her nobility by completing three tasks before the full moon.
Dark fantasy is inescapable anymore, as the genre shifts and groans and tries to define itself outside of (and yet often still in relation to) the rules set out by JRR Tolkien. Most often that shows itself as continuing to play within the medieval societal structure and then ham-fistedly reminding the reader/viewer that hey, there was a lot of disease and violence and people died young and also rape (but women still had perfect teeth and shaved legs – I have a few chips regarding Game of Thrones, okay?).
By contrast, Pan’s Labyrinth not only moves to an infrequently used period in history (the Spanish Civil War), but also strikes a chord wherein its fantastical elements, while fully infused with the terror of original Grimm, remain the reprieve from the ugliness of the real world. The big fantasy setpieces (most of you, even if you haven’t seen the entire film, have likely seen the Pale Man sequence) are, at least in the early going, firmly separated from the “actual” plot. But there’s also an element of bleeding, with magical realism reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez coloring Ofelia’s attempts to cope by using fairytale logic.
And those brief spots of struggling help prevent the viewer from tuning out of the fascist rebellion plot, which contains some truly harrowing scenes of violence. The script smartly makes a large, abstract struggle into a very personal story, personified by the wonderful Maribel Verdu as double agent Mercedes. Even if you don’t understand the historical context, there are multiple layers of narrative to invest in. And whether it’s bleak reality or fantastical beasts, I can’t overemphasize how gorgeous the film is. Top tier physical actor Doug Jones bring life to both the faun and Pale Man (though his dialogue is dubbed over), and the fantasy sets always find a balance between the grotesque and the hypnotic. It’s a one of a kind aesthetic, a true achievement in making a “fairytale for adults.”
9. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Sisters Jane and Blanche Hudson have always had a tumultuous relationship: “Baby” Jane was a vaudeville hit and the family breadwinner as a child and Blanche’s tormenter, but it’s Blanche who found stardom during Hollywood’s golden era as an adult, while her increasingly alcoholic sister is kept on only on Blanche’s insistence. Things shift again when Blanche is paralyzed in a car accident where Jane was at the wheel, leaving the guilty and resentful Jane as her sister’s caretaker.
While initially released as part of the wave of films trying to out-shock value Psycho in the 1960s, Baby Jane is so much more than that. It’s a skillfully executed example of black and white filmmaking after the practice had mostly fallen out of favor, a strong character-based thriller that holds audience attention even at an astonishing length of just over two hours; and, most importantly, it’s anchored by two of classic Hollywood’s most skillful actors. And I cannot tell you how much Bette Davis and Joan Crawford really, really hated each other. Like, “Joan Crawford put weights in her clothes in scenes where she had to be dragged around, cause Bette Davis to throw her back out” hated.
While the on-set goings on of classic Hollywood are often intriguing to me, I bring it up here mostly because of how much that rivalry ends up contributing to an electric onscreen dynamic. The film is a constant and varied rollercoaster of tension that holds up well to repeat viewings, from straightforward scenes like a Misery-before-Misery moment wherein a chairless, battered Blanche tries to reach the phone before Jane returns; to brilliantly played psychological drama in moments where Jane suffers dissociative breaks from reality, often in her the face of her cruelest actions.
It’s well worth seeing for the leads alone, even without knowledge of their Golden Age work (though that certainly adds its own layer of engaging subtext). And as much as a certain strain of critic has tried to claim this as a camp film, it holds its simmering horror as well today as Psycho or Silence.
8. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Shortly after stealing $10,000 (in the Depression, mind you) to feed his family and hiding it on his property, a man is hauled to prison to face the death sentence. On his last night, he rooms with Reverend Harry Powell, recently arrested for car theft – but not for swindling and murdering the widow he was driving away from. Intrigued by the man’s story but unable to find out where the money was hidden, Powell decides to make the recently bereaved family his next stop.
Readers, a brief touch of context. I was raised Catholic, and while I still consider myself an agnostic theist and enthusiastic researcher of various cultural spiritual traditions, I generally avoid fictional depictions of faith. Sure, once and a while you get a Dogma (a wonderful balance on the rejection of archaic doctrine but an embrace of the positives of faith as a concept), for the most part it’s dreck like God is Not Dead on one end of the spectrum and Paul on the other – and almost none of them capture with any kind of honesty the vibrant tapestry of spiritual and humanist people I’ve known and loved. I say all that to say that this film is the best thematic mediation on Christianity specifically that I’ve ever seen captured on film.
Reverend Powell, y’see, is just about televangelism before its inception – with a winsome smile and a well-honed patter (if you’ve ever seen the LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoos in pop culture, this is where it comes from) that charms everybody in town even as he menaces a broken hearted widow (who he sweet talks only to shame her for even thinking about feeling desire once he’s got her) and two children. Contrary-wise, the film’s moral role is Rachel Cooper, a prickly older woman who takes in orphans, children of single parents who can’t support them, and eventually our main characters; her use of the Bible is loose at best, told as bedtime stories she’s not afraid of bending a little so that they offer comfort to an individual child’s struggles; and she has no time at all for Powell’s slimy appearance of piety. It’s an elegant battle of the violent, exclusionary face of Christianity versus the pragmatic inspirational aspect that (ideally) inspires people to help others, and abstracting it within the movie’s format makes it that much more effective.
Because the film is a fairytale at heart, with Powell an implacable and lurking evil in pious clothing and the two children he torments tasked with outlasting them. It’s a quintessentially American fairytale at that, bound up in vast, lonely landscapes and hellfire-and-brimstone religious showmanship. The soundtrack is laced with haunting lullabies, the sets alternately full of ominous wilderness and little ranch homes that look as if they’ve come from a popup storybook, shot through with an unmistakable dose of expressionism in the black and white cinematography. It’s a beautifully composed and shot piece, the first and final directorial work of actor Charles Laughton which was a financial flop on its initial release.
Also outside of his comfort zone, arguably for the only time in his career, is Robert Mitchum as Reverend Powell. Mitchum is most remembered for playing grumbly, emotionally reserved cowboys, roles far removed from the sleazy, black-hearted charmer he plays here. Mitchum’s performance contains both slow boiling menace behind poisonous sweetness and instant snaps of genuinely frightening rage, and while he takes a few opportunities to add a trace of ham, it never detracts from the effect of the character (by the way, for those of you keeping track at home, this is the second film on this list referenced by Gravity Falls).
Lillian Gish’s Rachel is no slouch either, playing both that uniquely pioneer-era pragmatism alongside a gentleness that never feels incompatible with the former, a real iron-spined hero. And perhaps most importantly, the film sports very gifted child actors, who feel genuine and sympathetic in an era where a lot of on-screen kids got away with being gee-whiz cloying. It’s not a chore to spend time with them, and they feel real even as their circumstances spiral into the nightmarish. Not unlike Wirt and Greg, to pull out another animation reference.
Two brothers, Elwood and Jake Blues (the latter recently released from prison), return to their childhood orphanage only to discover it’s about to be shut down. Determined to save the place, and convinced they’re on a Mission From God, the two take a road trip to get their old band back together and play one big show to raise the money they need.
You ever have those movies that you watch because your parent really like them, and it’s kind of a bonding thing, and then before you know it they’re an indelible part of your identity’s DNA? Well, my father (whom I have before and will likely again refer to as Ron Swanson with Jon Stewat’s politics) never quite sold me on his love of Cool Hand Luke, but this was a pretty good secondary get. There are very few things in life that cannot be fixed with a well placed Blues Brothers quote, readers.
But don’t let the fact that I have nostalgic memories of this movie lead you to thinking that it’s not incredibly funny. It’s about the only film based on an SNL sketch that actually worked, which has a lot to do with two things: a basically functional plot to backbone the thing (you’d be surprised how often that isn’t followed), an amazing array of famous singers popping in (it is, functionally, a musical), and the best car chases on film before Fury Road came into being.
Most of the film doesn’t call for John Belushi and Dan Akroyd to do much besides look cool in shades and deadpan at the wacky characters around them, but they rise above and beyond that with a surprisingly warm bond between the brothers and some amazing one-liners in the midst of brute-forcing their way through the state of Illinois. And that cool act balances well against a growing line of pursuers that include some really dedicated highway patrolmen (and later the whole Illinois PD), a band called the Good Ol’ Boys, and (fucking) Illinois Nazis. The stakes never stop escalating, and the unabashed absurdity of it is glorious to behold.
Besides the two stars the movie is packed to the gills with great comedic actors, each given (for the most part) single scenes to steal. And while humor is by its very nature subjective, the marriage of deadpan, absurdity, and brilliantly executed stunt scenes scratches my itch something fierce. I mentioned that Fury Road outdoes this movie as far as scope and intensity of chases go, but I think this film still holds the record for sheer amount of nuts-and-bolts automotive carnage in a motion picture.
And then there are those musical numbers, featuring some of the greatest R&B and Blues artists who ever lived: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James, Brown, Cab Calloway. They’re all given space to do their thing with the brothers playing backup, ultimately creating lasting and loving portraits of great artists that are no longer with us. And that’s without even getting into the members of Jake and Elwood’s band, all real and talented musicians in their own right. It’s a can’t miss if you have any respect for the blues.
Chihiro and her parents take a detour while driving to their new home and come across an old train station. On the other side, a seemingly deserted city. Chihiro’s parents are waylaid, and when night falls the girl finds the city full of spirits, the exit covered by a great river, and her parents turned into pigs. Chihiro’s only hope to survive and save her parents is by getting a job at the bath house in the heart of the city.
I’m inclined to agree with anyone who calls this movie Miyazaki’s magnum opus, and as a fan of the director there’s no denying that I appreciate what might be the pinnacle of his ambition (at least as far as fantastical scope is concerned) but, in keeping with the theme of this post, my fondness for this film is ultimately rooted in something more personal. There are two fictional characters I associate pretty unwaveringly with my younger self, y’see. Once is Shinji Ikari. The other is Chihiro.
Watching that sort of spoiled, awkward, good at heart kid become a hero spoke to me in a way that no Disney or 90s adventure movie ever had, and that certainly affected how invested in the story I became. On top of that, this was the first time I was able to see an anime film on the big screen which, along with the Oscar buzz later that year, gave a sense of legitimacy to the thing I was often mocked for liking.
Those kinds of things don’t preserve loving a movie forever, which is why it’s good that this is also an impeccable piece of filmmaking. It’s blend of various aspects of Japanese folklore is inspired, it has the keen eye for fairytales (not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth) that allows its fantasy world to be both dangerous and enchanting – and never more the former than the latter. Chihiro’s relationships, not just with Haku but all the major players, add layers to both what we know of her as a character and to the emotional truth of the film. This film might be the best execution of Miyazaki’s “no villains, only antagonists” policy, with each individual working with a set of desires that feel fully realized even when they’re only hinted at, which makes their eventual warm sides feel as honest as they do earned. It’s a film of many small subtleties, one that respects the audience watching it no matter their age.
It has, arguably, the most memorable of a very strong line of soundtracks in Miyazaki’s lineup, and an incredibly excellent dub (barring one or two weird and minor translation hiccups – it was a masterwork compared to what we were getting at the time, lemme tell you). The backgrounds are lush and beautiful, their intense and minute detail playing well off of the simplistic character designs. And I cry. Oh how I cry, every time. Chihiro and Haku have a touching relationship that feels meaningful and intense without ever dipping into trite romantic tropes (another Miyazaki trait, and one that the Steven Crewniverse cribbed to wonderful effect), and the ambiguous ending is a melancholy, beautiful thing that ends the film as the same wistful note as waking from a dream.