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The best films I have ever seen

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Wednesday, 27 Mar 2024, 16:21

Two people seated at a large table in a garden room, reading newspapers

Citizen Kane

You can watch almost any film ever made since 1941 and there will be an echo of Citizen Kane in it. Focus and it’s there, as resonant and specific as the dying gasp of ‘Rosebud’ which punctuates the entire film. Have you ever seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? The Godfather? Aftersun? Then there will be something in Citizen Kane you recognise.

The juggernaut-like legacy the film has left behind has rather obscured the poignancy of the story: a very broken man whose entire existence is an attempt to recapture senses of security, joy and love. It is an unemotional argument for the necessity of unconditional parental love and how misunderstandings can ruin a person’s life. In fact, it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it is neither tragic nor melodramatic, especially when you consider Orson Welles watched Stagecoach as research.

Citizen Kane is so intricately constructed that I reckon it invented academic film study. What is so unnerving on first watch is the sheer specificity of embellishments, of snowglobes, jigsaws and breakfasts surrounded by pot-plants. This is because everything you see on screen, the order in which you see it and the way it is presented to you, can be identified as purposeful with an attached meaning which adds to the appreciation of the story. This is the influence the film has over every other: that filmmaking is not only an art, but one of such intricate and spiralling possibilities that if a woman dressed in white is just a woman dressed in white then, quite frankly, watching is a waste of time.


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Fruit

The best films I have ever seen

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 12 Mar 2024, 09:27

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, both angsty and on the telephone in His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday

People always say to me of Shakespeare: ‘He’s a classic, but of course things seem unfunny/misogynistic/antisemitic/trite/boring as hell, because you have to appreciate him in the context of his time.’ Yeah, well, for me, that’s not good enough. A piece of art ceases to be a classic when it ceases to speak to its audience – by which I do mean me. A classic must entertain beyond its time. I believe Shakespeare is rubbish because his contemporaries are so much better: Aphra Behn, Ben Jonson and Thomas Kyd wrote plays with more accessible language, better constructed plots and HAMLET ISN’T IN ANY OF THEM.

But I digress. The point is that a classic should remain so for as long as it entertains, enraptures or engages the audience. Whilst some comedies from the Golden Age fail to raise a chuckle (My Man Godfrey, I’m looking at you), His Girl Friday is so whip-smart, fresh and feisty that you’re almost afraid to laugh lest you miss another brilliant zinger. It’s the comedy Shakespeare wished he had written. The idea to have the characters speaking across each other throughout the film is such an audacious move that even today, it’s almost never done, even in Aaron Sorkin.

To give away even an overview of the plot seems a crying shame, but basically Rosalind Russell is a journalist who divorced Cary Grant, her ex-editor who now wants her to cover one last story. What’s so fresh, even now, is that Russell’s professional talent is explicitly rated by all other characters (except Paul Bellamy’s stock doofus) above her beauty and fabulous dress sense. Considering that this is a woman in 1940 – Simone de Beauvoir hadn’t even written The Second Sex yet! – makes it even more exciting politically. This is only one way in which this still topical film resonates: there is also a fascinating exploration into the morality of owning firearms. I showed this film to friends who typically hate screwball comedies whose socks were knocked off by this film. Seriously: watch.

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The best films I have ever seen

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Cyrano (2021)

There’s a terrible trend in the visual and musical arts at the moment: the idea that beauty is an overrated, outdated concept. Better for an artwork to shock or disturb. Things don’t have to be beautiful to be art, they say: things don’t have to be beautiful to have an impact.

I condemn this idea. The achievement of beauty through art is not only a showcase of skill; it makes art worthwhile in the first place. What is the point in creating something which looks like a manifesto – or worse, a reactionary piece to somebody else’s – if nobody wants to look at it because you have made it ugly? Ugliness is not a mode of expression; it’s a statement of artistic quality.

The exception to this trend is in film. I put it down to the existence of Cinematography film awards, which force filmmakers to consider the aesthetic qualities of the production. And I have seen no film more beautiful than Cyrano

Given its plot is so dependent upon aesthetic appreciation, it is no wonder that beauty is threaded into every piece of production on the film – the effect is utterly heart-stopping. Beauty is coded into every frame, the presentation of the actors, the songs they sing and the words they say. The handling of the theme of love is breathtakingly beautiful in itself and the ‘Every Letter’ scene is so palpably moving that I don’t watch it so much as feel it, feel it in every inch of my body. I find it hard to write about a film which had such an unstoppable effect on me, but it has seared me to the core in a way that no other film has.

Cyrano is a drastically under-appreciated film, and works as an irrefutable argument in favour of the importance of beauty.



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The best films I have ever seen

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 12 Mar 2024, 09:29

Wallpaper flare free download poster, depicting Wall-E and EVE from the film 'dancing' in space

Wall-E

Children’s films have a commitment to truth which ‘adult’ films typically refuse to have. Upon passing puberty, the true mark of artistic quality is ambiguity, as if the inability to accurately sum up stuff indicates maturity. Citizen Kane is characterised by an avoidance of easy answers; The Godfather can be read to both demonise and exult the Mafia. Children’s films bypass such intellectual cop-outs by telling concrete stories with specific moralities. The best example of this is Pixar’s Wall-E

Wall-E, were it not for human characters, practically counts as a silent movie, and its titular protagonist reminds us of the Little Tramp. In fact, the film refers to classic cinema throughout, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hello, Dolly! and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wall-E is literally a rubbish robot left on Earth after humanity evacuated in 2105 who, when searching through the detritus of human civilisation, learns senses of curiosity, beauty and emotion. When a scout robot named EVE comes to Earth searching for evidence of plant life, Wall-E appears to fall in love with her and her mission becomes his.

Not only does the film constitute a manifesto on the benefits of unadulterated love, but carries a heavy (but by no means heavy-going) moral message on the intellectual and emotional cost of sacrificing our planet to consumerism, wastefulness and human-driven climate change. The film is heartbreaking without being desolate and uncompromisingly comical. On that note, it is always a good idea after watching the main feature to see the associated animated short, Burn-E, which just proves that everyone’s a protagonist in their stories!

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