Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Blue Lamp (1950)

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An inordinately popular crime drama that begat Dixon of Dock Green, the long-running TV show – despite the fact that Dixon (Jack Warner) is killed by ambitious thug Tom Riley (Dirk Bogarde) while he tries to reason with him during the robbery of a cinema.  Basil Dearden was directing from a sharp screenplay by T.E.B Clarke, who adapted a treatment by Jan Read and Ted Willis (of TV fame). There was additional dialogue by Alexander MacKendrick. This was the rather parochial but BAFTA-winning production that earned the ire of critic Gavin Lambert writing (pseudonymously) in Sight & Sound of its “specious brand of mediocrity.”  And it’s certainly true that it cannot hold a candle to the noirs coming out of Hollywood at the time. Nonetheless, its value lies precisely in the cosy post-war vision of England being promoted by Ealing Studios, the documentary approach, the narrative style of interlinking stories, Bogarde’s startling impact as the glamorous crim and the lush photography of London by night shot by Gordon Dines. How wonderful to see Little Venice, the White City dog track, Paddington and the dazzling lights of the West End. Mmmm… Look out for Anthony Steel as a constable.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.

Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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Tarka the Otter (1979)

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Henry Williamson resisted Walt Disney for years and eventually succumbed to having his nature classic adapted by wildlife documentary maker David Cobham when he was persuaded by his son Harry, a musician. Narrated by Peter Ustinov from a script co-written by Gerald Durrell we are presented with the life cycle of an otter:  from his birth, through the death of his father, separation from his mother, the gruesome death of his sibling in a trap, mating with White Tip who is the mother of his pups, to an epic conclusion against the otter hound bent on his death. We see Tarka through the seasons and experience the world from his perspective, a kind of anthropomorphism that Williamson resisted. As my own little Tarka (named after this wonderful hero) slept on the couch throughout, I wept.

Tracks (2013)

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I just want to be by myself. If you read books like The Heroine’s Journey you’ll learn that what every girl really needs at some point is some time by herself – a separation of sorts, from the noise, from the world, from the patriarchal expectations …. all that jazz. And in 1977 Australian Robyn Davidson had just about enough of all the rubbish in life and decided to trek 1,700 miles from Alice Springs via Ayers Rock and the Western Desert to the Ocean – with Diggity the dog and Dookie, Bob, Sally and Baby Goliath, four camels that she trained and befriended. The problem of financing necessitated a sponsor and that came in the form of National Geographic magazine which sent freelance photographer Rick Smolan to shoot the story and he met up with her once a month, in various states of disrepair and anguish. Mia Wasikowska has the role of her life, encountering her real self, solitude, loneliness and loss. It’s a remarkable, demanding performance in this adaptation by Marion Nelson of Davidson’s memoir, which took 25 years to get to the big screen after many false starts. Adam Driver is the unfortunate guy whose expressions of concern for his occasional travelling companion are so regularly rebuffed while the inevitable publicity brings unwelcome meetings with an inquisitive public and there’s an especially amusing incident when Robyn’s mentor Mr Eddie (Rolley Mintuma) scares them off with a presumably typical Aboriginal attitude. This is a beautifully crafted film, memorably shot and simply bewitching, with layers of meaning about personhood, the environment and the ecology of animal and human friendship. One of my favourite films of 2013. Directed by John Curran.

Last Cab to Darwin (2015)

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Rex (Michael Caton) is dying and his days are spent with his friends down the local boozer and his nights with his dog (Dog). Polly (Ningali Lawford) his Aboriginal neighbour across the street is the woman in his life and they enjoy some banter about his difficult ways. His pain has led him to pursue euthanasia, not legal in New South Wales. He sets off in his taxi to the Northern Territory to the one doctor who is prepared to assist his death. En route he picks up Tilly (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal drifter who’s also a talented footballer;  and British nurse Julie (Emma Hamilton) who’s keen to experience life Down Under.  The three develop a very particular kind of friendship on the 2,000 mile road trip. The mordantly witty tone ensures that this never descends to bathos and when Doc Farmer turns out to be the splendid Jacki Weaver you are assured that Reg Cribb’s adaptation of his 2003 play (based on a true story) gets the treatment that it deserves:  a terrifically game cast performing this considered, humane, very contemporary subject of self-determination with great dignity. It even has a twist ending. Engaging and compelling. Directed by Jeremy Sims.

Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

Jaws (1975)

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Ibsen by way of a Peter Benchley bestseller and an adventurous and gifted director called Steven Spielberg. I got caught up in this again late last night and was gripped, as ever, by this visceral tale of beachside terror which hasn’t aged a day and in many respects remains my favourite Spielberg movie. There is so much to relish. The atmosphere, aided immeasurably by John Williams’ stunningly suggestive score – which was the soundtrack in the bathroom of the late lamented Museum of the Moving Image in London – utterly terrifying!. The performances:  who doesn’t love Richard Dreyfuss as the marine biologist? Roy Scheider as the seaside town police chief who’s scarified of water? Robert Shaw as the drunken shark hunting Captain Quint? And those hellishly cute kids. And what about the titles sequence? There’s the politics of the summer season and the mayor who doesn’t want word to get out. The anger of the bereaved mother. The bloodied water and beach toys. The track-zoom of realisation. The clear storytelling. White sharks got a bad press out of this epic battle but there has rarely been a better exploration of the ecology of man and beast. Quite literally sensational. Classic, brilliant, the original of the species. Written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with a little assist from Spielberg, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins and Hal Barwood, and John Milius.