Those familiar with this blog were probably expecting this entry in my list of ten significant films, and it is one that will likely provoke eye-rolling and nodding in equal measure. A bold statement, but this film is the finest example of cinematic art that I have ever seen. I didn’t see it until I was in my late twenties, which is a good age to first encounter 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the film carries a ‘suitable for all’ certificate, it is a smarter child than I was who would sit through a very deliberately paced (read: slow) and often barely comprehensible film. By the time I did see it, I was sufficiently mature and experienced in film viewing to appreciate it. Not that that stopped me from finding the film utterly baffling on first viewing, and deeply beguiling and thought provoking since then. I had a rule that I would only watch 2001 at the cinema because I thought TV would not do it justice, a rule that led to me seeing multiple screenings, often with an introduction from experts on the film. However, when I watched it on DVD, I found it just as impressive. I regard this film as the greatest cinematic achievement I have ever seen because it is pure cinema. The plot would fit on the back of a postage stamp – birth of humanity to dawn of new species – but the attention to detail in the mise-en-scene and the extraordinary combination of cinematography and editing make it a genuinely transportive experience. Furthermore, one of the major criticisms that the film receives is for me a great strength. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in the film is a computer, the HAL 9000. I don’t particularly engage with HAL any more than I do with the humans, and therefore I am not distracted from the experience of the journey, the Odyssey, itself. As I mentioned in my post on Titanic, lack of character and characterisation is not a problem for me, because the less character there is the easier it is for me to project myself into the film. The most powerful cinematic experiences for me are not where I follow a character’s journey, but go on one myself. I have similar experiences with Avatar, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Gravity, which also attract criticism for their lack of characterisation. Through Stanley Kubrick’s exquisite direction, I feel myself part of the revelation when Moon Watcher starts to use bones as weapons, myself on the journey to and across the Moon, I also spin through space away from the Discovery, and most memorably, I travel through the stargate and beyond the infinite. This sequence is the film’s pinnacle, where sound, colour, emotion and reason and the divisions between them merge into pure sensation, in possibly the most profound and compelling sequence I have ever encountered in cinema. I genuinely find this encounter hard to describe beyond it being an incredible and transportive experience, cinema taking me to strange new places. In addition, it turns out that 2001 is a great teaching text: when I ran a student debate on the film, the session was so filled with insight, argument and students sparking off each other that I was reminded of why I love to teach. Thanks, Stanley.
Sometimes a particular film highlights what you love in cinema. In the case of the latest film in our journey through ten films that Vincent Views as significant, I saw it knowing its rather twisty reputation, but completely underestimated just how involving and compelling it would be. I rented the film on VHS (remember those?) and started watching it leaning back in my chair. Within ten minutes I was leaning forwards with my elbows on my knees, completely riveted by what I was watching. I did not change my position until the credits rolled. This film cemented thrillers as my favourite genre, and is something of the gold standard when it comes to viewing thrillers.
Listing significant films inevitably means that they be memorable. Perhaps ironically, Memento is a deeply memorable film, mainly for its complex structure but also for its weighty themes, interwoven beautifully with the elements of neo-noir and modern tragedy. Repeat viewings as well as teaching placed this film within my top ten of all time, as each time I encounter the film I find something new and every discussion about it opens intriguing avenues. It was, perhaps as it was for many, my first exposure to Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker whose work continues to enthral and fascinate me. But while the extraordinary vision of Interstellar, the genre defining and then redefining Dark Knight trilogy and the intricate spectacle of Inception all have their time and place, Memento is perhaps Nolan’s finest work. It is a brilliant latticework of a film that merges form and content with crystalline precision, tells a deeply affecting story of a hopelessly flawed protagonist, and asks philosophical questions about morality, memory, identity and choice.
The seventh film in my list of ten significant films used to be among my top ten, and although it has been supplanted by another from the same director, this one still holds great significance for me. In 2000 AD, when this was released theatrically, I went through some bad times in which I felt that the majority of people were against me and that an institution I believed in was going to the dogs. Therefore, Ridley Scott’s epic tale of a general who became a slave, who became a gladiator, who defied an emperor, struck a deep, resonant chord with me. I went to see Gladiator five times on its original release, that’s right, five. While I have seen other films as many or more times in the cinema, those were due to re-releases and special screenings (yes, The Dark Knight, I mean you). ‘Gladiator’ offered me hope, inspiration, catharsis and the other positive feelings that one gets from bloody hand-to-hand combat and the deep-set rot of a once noble empire.
The talent behind Gladiator have to an extent gone off the boil. Russell Crowe was a known figure but became a star and an Oscar winner with this film, while Ridley Scott came as close to an Oscar as seems likely. Their subsequent collaborations such as American Gangster and Body of Lies failed to bottle the lightning of Gladiator. That said, it is fair to say that Joaquin Phoenix has become a more respected presence as time has gone by, not least by seeking out interesting projects from Walk The Line to The Master to You Were Never Really Here. Writer John Logan recently did us all proud with the excellent TV series Penny Dreadful, and The Martian demonstrated that Scott still has some decent work left in him (the less said about The Counsellor and Alien: Covenant, the better). But Gladiator remains undimmed in its epic grandeur, an awesome spectacle that works on a pure visceral level and has moving emotional depth. Furthermore, the film makes interesting comments about the proper uses of power and even our own violent appetites. Are you not entertained? I certainly am.
One of the fun things about identifying ten significant films is remembering why they are significant. In this case, the film is interesting because many assumed that I had seen it when I was far too young for such things, because I often talked about eating people (I felt it was more creative than threatening to beat people up). Many kids I knew when I was young did watch horror films in the 1980s, but I was too much of a wuss. It wasn’t until I was nearly in my 20s that I saw such delights as Scream, The Blair Witch Project and this early 90s classic. The viewing experience was remarkable: in May 1999, I watched the film on a small black and white television, with one speaker and not the best reception. Despite these less than ideal viewing conditions, I was utterly transfixed and on several occasions quite petrified. Whether The Silence of the Lambs is best defined as a horror or a thriller is a matter of some debate. Narratively, it has the structure of a detective thriller, our plucky heroine investigating one serial killer with some advice from another one. In terms of mood and atmosphere, it works as a horror film through its production design, music and perhaps most of all through its cinematography and editing. Although there are some monstrous scenes such as Dr Hannibal Lecter’s escape from custody and the climactic basement sequence, I struggle to think of any filmed conversation as terrifying as those between Dr Lecter and Clarice Starling. Yet director Jonathan Demme never overplays his hand, shooting with a sparseness that makes the psychic wounds all the more cutting and open. A palpable sense of menace hangs over the entire film, but despite the potential for melodrama (as demonstrated in other entries in the series), the film is a masterclass in restraint and suggestion, which is so much more horrifying than outright gore. The Silence of the Lambs can be described as a detective thriller, but for me I think it will always work first and foremost as a psychological horror, and one of the most significant that I have seen.
Almost inevitably, listing ten important films will include one’s favourite, so anyone familiar with me or this blog will have known this was coming. It is probably the most significant film I ever saw, because it was literally life-changing although I did not know it at the time. When I first saw Heat in early 1996, it essentially x-rayed me. As the credits rolled, I felt what can best be described as a wave of energy complete its journey through my body, leaving me profoundly affected. To all intents and purposes, it was a transcendent experience. As a direct result of seeing Heat, I gained a new appreciation of what film is and what film can do, started studying it seriously and, after a few years, decided I wanted to be a film doctor. Heat drew me to Michael Mann and he was the subject of my PhD and subsequent monograph. While my interests have broadened since then, Mann in general and Heat in particular remain of great importance to me.
Why do I love Heat so much? Several reasons. Firstly, it works on every level – plot, character, performance, theme, setting, production design, editing, cinematography, sound, music, direction, location – all are harmonised with utter perfection. Secondly, every time I watch it I find something new, whether it is noticing a lingering shot in a room left empty, spotting a bottle on a table, even identifying a stunt performer. Thirdly, it works on multiple levels and therefore I can watch it as a crystalline piece of cinematic craftwork, or as a gripping crime story, a sociological examination of post-industrial America, a modern urban tragedy, a philosophical investigation into hyperbolic masculinity, and the film rewards all these readings and more. If that’s not reason enough to love a film, I don’t know what is.
In the 1990s, I became a big fan of action cinema in general and Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular. Some derided this because ‘action movies are stupid/boring’ and ‘Arnie can’t act’. These criticisms were important because I did not accept them, liking what I wanted and developing my argumentative skills in explaining why other perspectives and indeed other standards of quality are available. While Kindergarten Cop, Commando and The Running Man prompted such derision, one film that did not is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, because apparently this one is OK to like. T2 was also the beginning of my love affair with James Cameron’s cinema, and while his work is divisive, T2 is seemingly one of the good ones.
One of the reasons I adore Cameron is his skill at delivering sustained action set pieces, and T2 was my first exposure to this, especially in the film’s final act that begins with our heroes approaching the Cyberdyne building and DOESN’T STOP UNTIL THE END CREDITS! Despite multiple viewings and indeed analyses, like the earlier films mentioned in this list, T2 stands up to repeat viewings, its pioneering CGI as fresh and startling as it was the first time. A 3D re-release in 2017 wasn’t exactly necessary, but it did give me the chance to see this masterpiece on the big screen which was a delight. Terminator 2 remains a blistering action movie and a wonderful investigation into what counts as human and as a person, exploring the fluidity of identity, gender, roles, embodiment, voice and vision, technophobia and technophilia. It’s the finest type of film to me – a blockbuster with brains to match its bombast.