Anthony Minghella’s little movie, made for TV, has one of the most perfect first acts of all time for anyone interested in exploring the themes of love and loss. In my opinion it blows the larger and more commercially successful Ghost. The first act is a tour de force performance by Juliet Stevenson as the recently widowed partner of a fellow musician played in excellent arch style by Alan Rickman. Stevenson’s longing and cello playing briefly brings Rickman back from the dead. Unfortunately he brings with him several other spirits whose idea of fun is watching old movies while being undead couch potatoes. Only when Stevenson is ready to say goodbye to her one true love, can she rid her ramshackle house of its extra inhabitants.
The heyday of the great epic war movie was certainly the late 1960s and early 1970s, but as the list below attests, every now and again a big, beautiful movie still comes along to prove that story and action can still live side by side in the same film and that it’s not all about exploding helicopters.
1. Cross of Iron
“I’ll show you where the iron crosses grow”
Peckinpah’s magnificent, trippy war-opera about the Eastern Front. Written by Julius Epstein who also penned Casablanca. James Coburn, in one of his greatest performances, plays a jaded German veteran who despises all officers and fights only for his own men. He faces an ambitious and very nasty Prussian officer, out to make a name for himself regardless of the cost in lives. Wonderful supporting performances in this platoon-level look at a war already lost.
2. The Wild Bunch
“If they move, kill ’em.”
Pekinpah’s celebrated story of violent men with a code of honor who have outlived their time and head south of the border in the early years of the 20th Century. While it was famous at the time for its ultra-violent starting and ending scenes, with the passage of time it has become a classic meditation on loyalty and integrity in a messy, violent world. The relationship between gang leader William Holden and his wingman Ernest Borgnine is particularly powerful: “Get up you lazy bastard!”
3. Memphis Belle
“Sir, if they found out they’d put my hot dog in a bun and chow down.”
Shot by my good friend the late David Watkin, this is another story of the bonds within a small unit, in this case the crew of a WWII bomber in Europe who are living on borrowed time. Much of the movie is shot within the confines of the bomber, giving a pressure-cooker quality to the relationships of the very different characters thrown together by the war.
4. Man Who Would be King
“Now, the problem is, how to divide five Afghans from three mules and have two Englishmen left over.”
John Huston’s magnificent wide-screen movie manages to be cinematic, operatic, dramatic and funny, often all at the same time. More than 20 years in development, Huston finally got lucky with Connery and Caine, but at the top of their game as two ex soldier reprobates in Kipling’s India, determined to carve out their own empire in the unexplored Himalayas. Visually gorgeous with an impossibly clever screenplay by Huston and Gladys Hill from Kipling’s story. Also a wonderful star turn by Saeed Jaffrey as Ghurka rifleman Billy Fish.
5. Lord of War
“The first and most important rule of gun-running is, never get shot with your own merchandise”
This terribly under-rated movie was let down in my opinion by a marketing campaign that tried to paint it as an action movie in line with its name. It certainly has its fair share of action, but it is above all a meditation on how someone can lose everything they love by going after what they think they want. Nicolas Cage is wonderful as a self made monster of an arms dealer and Jared Leto plays his fragile junkie brother very well. The African scenes in particular capture the crazy reality of the proliferation of small wars there in the 1980s where the only winners were despots and arms dealers.
“A prayer’s as good as a bayonet on a day like this.”
Yet another “proper picture”. Everything about this film is epic, from the sweeping African scenery to the shots of vast swarms of Zulu warriors bearing down on the beleaguered handful of soldiers trapped in Rourke’s Drift. Yet the movie never wallows in jingoism. The bravery of the Zulu’s armed largely with spears facing modern rifles is also recognized. As they retreat and one character exclaimed “It’s a miracle!” another points out “If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer-Henry point-four-five caliber miracle.” Just a wonderful movie – exciting, moving and visually magnificent.
7. Last of the Mohicans
“No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.”
Daniel Day Lewis tour de force performance is at the heart of this movie. He plays a half-white half indian trapper who falls in love with and saves the daughter of a British general. From its operatic battle scenes to its tense fights, often literally on cliff edges it has all the great elements of an action-romance. My friend Ned Dowd was Production Manager on this and deserves a medal for some of the epic scenes such as the indian ambush of a retreating British column in a clearing in the woods – a masterclass in location, cinematography, action directing and stunts.
8. Little Big Man
“That was the end of my religion period. I ain’t sung a hymn in a 104 years.”
Sometimes big original ideas make big original movies. Dustin Hoffman stars in this wonderful tall tale of a movie about a wild west character being interviewed at the age of 116 in an old folk’s home. But the plot is just a flimsy excuse for a great, epic western, from the earliest days of the frontier to the Battle of Little Bighorn, lampooning every Wild West cliche along the way from gunslingers to fallen women and from mad generals to mule skinners. As well as being very funny it manages to land some serious blows on the way the Native Americans were treated. Occasionally bits of the 1960s seem to leak in to the Wild West, but over all it is a remarkable and ever-entertaining piece of cinema.
9. The Good the Bad and the Ugly
“In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”
As a kid, I fell in love with the widescreen operatic quality of what became known as Spaghetti Westerns, even though many were filmed in Spain. The contrasts between super wide vistas and huge face close-ups of odd looking characters made these movies unmissable. Great stories filled with almost cartoon violence and wit at every turn. Great actors like Clint and Lee Van Cleef. Even today, If I want a good dose of escapism and pure cinematic joy, I will reach for this movie. Both the score and the sound effects add greatly to the overall experience.
“The horror… the horror…”
I sat stunned (or was it stoned) in a dark Belfast cinema the day this movie first came out. It is a masterpiece of of a country, a personal and a mind gradually fragmenting under the pressure of an insane war. Based on Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, it tells the tale of Martin Sheen’s special forces soldier given a mission to ‘terminate’ a brilliant officer (Marlon Brando) who has gone mad in the jungle. But the real story takes place in the heads of the the protagonists and the audience, played out against a visual intensity rarely equalled. Quite simply one of the best movies ever made.
Call it magic realism, or a mix of gritty reality and the fantastical, but every few years there is a wonderful movie that blurs the edges between the everyday and the magical. Ever since Toto departed Kansas, the compelling stories that rely on an understanding of real characters facing hardship as well as something fantastical and beyond normality has fascinated modern audiences.
1. O Brother Where Art Thou
“I don’t want Fop, goddamit. I’m a Dapper Dan man!”
A great Coen Brothers concoction of smart comedy and tall tale, with a nod to their hero Preston Sturges. Three cons escape a Deep South Depression-era chain gang to chase a treasure in a valley about to be flooded. Their half-assed oddyssy brings them up against some wonderful characters, including John Goodman as a one-eyed itinerant bible salesman. George Clooney is superb as the verbose self-appointed leader of the escapees.
2. Billy Liar
“It was a big day for us, we had won the war in Ambrosia. Democracy was back once more.”
A funny, crazy 1960s miracle of a movie. Tom Courtney plays a compulsive liar who escapes his dreary home life and even drearier work life as a clerk at an undertakers by living in a make believe world in his head as the hero of an imaginary country called Ambrosia. His real love life is complicated and his layers of porkies eventually catch up with him, though it looks like he may escape after all thanks to his aspirations as a joke writer and his love of free spirit Julie Christie, at her loveliest. Directed by John Schlesinger from Keith Waterhouse’s excellent script.
3. Green Mile
“We each owe a death – there are no exceptions – but sometimes the Green Mile seems so long.”
A great exploration of love, loss and forgiveness, wrapped up in magical realism. The execution scenes are pretty harrowing but the collision of Death Row realism with the fantastical nature of a “Sin Eater” is compelling. Tom Hanks is great as ever and the supporting cast was chosen for acting ability rather than A-list names.
4. Big Fish
“I’m trying to make a metaphor here.”
Another fine exploration of Magical Realism, though much more fun and whimsical than Green Mile. A dying man’s tall tales come to life with his son as an audience. Fairytales for grown-ups, with great performances by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney, directed by Tim Burton.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
“He would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning.”
6. Time Bandits
“I should do something very extrovert and vengeful to you. Honestly, I’m too tired. So, I think I’ll transfer you to the undergrowth department, brackens, shrubs, that sort of thing… with a 19% cut in salary, backdated to the beginning of time.”
7. Planet of the Apes
“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
8. Red Violin
“What do you do when the thing you most wanted, so perfect, just comes?”
9. It’s a Wonderful Life
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
10.Company of Wolves
“Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.”
Gangster movies are much more than a genre. They give the movie-goer a chance to see life on the edge without ending up behind bars. Characters who are at the same time charismatic and reprehensible, dangerous yet compelling, tend to make for memorable movies, and very often there is a violin case, a mob or a heist not far away.
1. Road to Perdition
“There are only murderers in this room! Michael, open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
2. Sexy Beast
“No. No no no no no no no no no! No! No no no no no no no no no no no no no! No!”
3. Long Good Friday
“You don’t crucify people! Not on Good Friday!”
4. The Godfather
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”
“I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven.”
6. A Bronx Tale
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
“Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.”
“Who? Who? What are you? A fucking owl?
9. Godfather II
“I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen”
10. Usual Suspects
“I’m telling you this guy is protected from up on high by the Prince of Darkness”.