Part 2 of a new series – each Film & Media teacher will list their favourite films and explain why. What better recommendation for all film students than an amazing selection of films from film teachers?
Part 2 is brought to you by David Thornthwaite.
Blade Runner, 1982, Ridley Scott. This was both the easiest choice and the hardest. Easiest because it is hands down my favourite film, hardest because after limiting myself to one film per director, I had the miserable prospect of excluding six of my favourite films. There was no doubt which of Scott’s films would be remaining however. I haven’t read reviews of Scott’s films, or read even brief plot synopses, since before Gladiator and have enjoyed them all the more as a consequence. There’s not much to say about this film that hasn’t been gushed at great length by many other men aged sixty to thirty. Scott’s films have been misunderstood by critics who have accused him of being ‘too visual’, an embarrassing admission that reveals how overlong cinema has been trapped in literature’s orbit. So it’s quite odd in a way that my undergraduate degree is in English Literature and that I like Scott’s films so much, especially this film where the mise-en-scene does so much of the heavy lifting of storytelling and not the script. I grew up in a heavily industrialised area, the Hoo Peninsula, and my view north over the river Thames at the oil refineries at Canvey Island, or south at the Gas Tanks and power stations along the Medway, had more than a passing resemblance to the opening sequence of Blade Runner. Maybe it’s that. It’s been one of privileges of teaching Film at RIC that I’ve been able to share this with students for the last couple of years.
Streets of Fire, 1984, Walther Hill. Overshadowed by Hill’s more famous and more successful films 48 Hours and The Warriors, Streets of Fire has a lot in common with my first entry, Blade Runner. Both were extremely influential in visuals and editing on subsequent music videos, which then fed back into feature film making. They are, both of them, the mature development of the Lucas-Spielberg blockbuster, before the genre gave way to Simpson-Bruckheimer bombast. It’s almost like a chimera of Lucas’s films American Graffiti and Star Wars, but simultaneously a musical, and I prefer it to both.
Witchfinder General, 1968, Michael Reeves. Tigon Films doesn’t have the brand recognition that Hammer Horror films do, which is a shame as, along with Amicus, they form a vitally important part of British film history. Lacking Hammer’s gaudy colours and campy fun to defang the violence, Tigon films are superficially nastier, but at their best more morally serious. They don’t make violence seem fun. Nonetheless, Tigon’s owner the flamboyant Tony Tenser was close to being the BBFC’s public enemy number one and this was only released in 1968 after extensive cuts. Alan Bennett and Ken Russell both hated it, which is funny, as I find it a far more moral film than Bennett’s abuse comedy The History Boys and Russell’s boring nun porno The Devils. So why do I like it? Well, it’s one of very few treatments of the English Civil War on screen, and I think probably the best (although Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England comes close). It’s part of a distinctly British genre, what Mark Gatiss has called Folk Horror. But I think most of all, it’s that this film was made by a 24 year old Reeves, whose life was cut tragically short within a year. Part of the same generation as Ridley and Tony Scott, Adrian Lynne, Hugh Hudson and Alan Parker, he had produced this excellent film while they were still making adverts. This film has to stand for the many that died with him.
Grizzly Man (2005), Werner Herzog. “I believe,” Herzog intones, with a voice like the Angel of Death’s own brand Bavarian sorbet, “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” He’s narrating his documentary about the wildlife activist and filmmaker Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell captured hundreds of hours of extraordinary footage of bears and other wildlife in Alaska for thirteen years, before he and his girlfriend were fatally attacked and eaten by a bear in 2003. This is an extraordinary tribute from one maverick filmmaker to another.
Shadow of the Vampire, (2000) E. Elias Merhige. I love films about film; Le Mepris, La Nuit américaine, The Player, Bowfinger, Inception. Set during the making of the 1922 film Nosferatu John Malkovich plays German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau and Willem Defoe the vampire he has discovered in Caparthia and cast in the film, unbeknownst to the rest of the cast or crew. Herzog made an interesting response with Klaus Kinski (obviously) as the vampire, but this has more to say about not only Murnau’s film, but what the vampire has to say as a metonym for cinema.
Brief Encounter, (1945), David Lean. This film divides people equally; either it showcases the best or the worst of English emotional life. It’s hard to imagine a film about adultery could be so beautiful. The Second World War is the elephant in the room, never alluded to, but informing all of the film’s depictions of opportunity and experience sacrificed for a greater good. It was the inspiration for my next entry.
The Apartment, (1960), Billy Wilder. Wilder was spot on when he identified Jack Lemmons’s weakness as overacting. Wilder knew how to help him cut it off however, and Lemmon was never better than he was here. The casual cruelty and entrenched misogyny of erotic life and the heartless void at the centre of the American corporation, give this often hilarious comedy proper weight.
Secrets and Lies, (1996), Mike Leigh. I sometimes find Leigh’s Brechtian methods frustrating. Take a look at Life is Sweet, everyone except Jim Broadbent overacts the film to death. This time though everyone gets it right. It’s a simple enough tale but, like The Apartment, it takes the events of ordinary lives and treats them with the moral seriousness they deserve.
A Dangerous Method, 2011, David Cronenberg. I’ve been a fan of Cronenberg’s films for years, all the way back to Videodrome which I had, appropriately enough, on VHS. But what I like about this is that it’s a film about the history of ideas, in this case the ideas at the heart of one of the most important debates within psychology. Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud are both fantastic, while Keira Knightley has never been better as Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s patient and, in time, in the development that brings Jung and Freud into conflict, lover.
The Lavender Hill Mob, (1951), Charles Crichton. Picking one of the Ealing Comedies was difficult. This was the first one that I saw and maybe that’s why it’s made its way to the top. A witty, deceptively gentle parable. It’s the antithesis of the heist-film as Pardoner’s Tale, so wonderfully done by Ealing in The Ladykillers, as the relationship between the ‘mob’ becomes touchingly close.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
A Life Less Ordinary
Shaun of the Dead
Best of Enemies
The Fog of War