I’m a movie nerd from small times—my parents had an impressive betamax collection growing up, and a dearth of actual cable led to my worshipping the sacred VCR. In college (okay, and for a few years beyond) I managed an independent video store called Video 21—it was and is a great little rental joint that caters to both FSU’s film school elite and the more salacious tastes of Tallahassee’s underbelly. The stories I could tell of some of our regulars…but that would be akin to breaking the physician-patient privilege, and so mum’s the word. You can learn a lot about people from their taste in movies, is all I’m saying, but then who am I to judge if an otherwise upstanding member of society gets their kicks watching 2 Fast, 2 Furious on a bi-weekly basis?
Right, so I’ve digressed. The point is, while I could make a blog post about the process of writing The Folly of the World, the ins-and-outs of negotiating a blurry historical record with creative license, the unique struggles one faces when working primarily in shades of grey, or even just cataloguing my literary inspirations for the novel, I’d much rather talk about movies. Sure, I could tie all the films I want to talk about into a cohesive essay touching on the salient points of each and the greater cinematic quilt they contribute to, but because certain things are hallowed by usage and consecrated by time (points for whoever gets that reference), I’ll just lay them out in a top ten list instead. The Top Ten what? The top ten films that might vaguely relate to my new novel in ways both obvious and obscure, of course, laid out in an order of my own inscrutable devising. So poke through the list below and see what inspiration you might find for your next movie night, and in the event you’ve already seen them all, well, have I got the book for you.
10. Paper Moon
A flimflam man and a young girl who may or may not be his daughter travel around the dustbowl during the Great Depression, fleecing suckers and exchanging banter. A tough-beyond-her-years youngster and an embittered grifter forging an unlikely bond and possibly finding redemption even as they continue to use one another and anyone else who gets in their way? Uh, no comment.
Kurosawa’s fast and loose play on the Prisoner of Zenda set-up is pretty goddamn great—not the director’s best three hour long samurai epic, but a close second. As war and social upheaval throw a land into turmoil, a lower-class crook takes on the role of an important man and loses himself in the process, to results both tragic and wry. Brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed.
Not a great film per se, this debut from Ridley Scott’s son Jake is a load of cheekily anachronistic fun, with Robert Carlyle and Johnny Lee Miller reuniting from Trainspotting to play the titular infamous highwaymen. The level of factual inaccuracy is staggering, but frequently used to amusing result, such as Alan Cumming’s turn as John Wilmot … some sixty years after said debauched poet died. Add in Craig Armstrong’s instrumentals and the Tiger Lillies on the soundtrack and you’ve got a good time in the making, assuming you enjoy seeing dashing fellows shake up the aristocracy with some help from Liv Tyler.
7. Black Death
Once upon a time, the witchsniffer picture was a fairly popular subgenre of horror cinema, ranging from more fantastical fare such as Blood on Satan’s Claw to fact-based offerings like Witchfinder General. After an extended deficit of such movies, Christopher Smith, one of Britain’s best contemporary horror directors, took a crack at this long-neglected niche and delivered one of the very best examples of its kind. Sean Bean is a brooding knight (natch) who leads a band of hard menä into a desolate marsh to follow-up rumors of necromancy run amok in a remote village. Tagging along is the ever-fine Eddie Redmayne as a young monk torn between the church and his love for a young village girl (natch). In the misty heart of the fen this sullen crew discovers an idyllic hamlet presided over by Dutch badass Carice van Houten (whose henchman is none other than Black Adder’s Percy!). Whereupon terrible things ensue, as you might expect.
6. Sexy Beast
A blisteringly intense, riotous performance from Ben Kingsley is only part of the charm of this nasty, occasionally surreal crime picture—it’s anchored by Ray Winstone and Amanda Redman, and then pumped into overdrive by the late game appearance of Ian McShane. It just goes to prove that even when you think you’re out, retired from the game and living the life of luxury, a deranged ghost from your past can turn up to drag you back in. Great heist scene, too.
This curiosity piece from Polish director Lech Majewski is an art film in every possible sense, fusing a subdued biopic of Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder with a cinematic recreation of his painting The Procession to Cavalry. Certain effects work much better than others, and having been fortunate enough to see this on the big screen I worry that watching it at home may further reduce its majesty, but for fans of Bruegel, experimental cinema, and the history of the Low Countries, this is pretty essential. With Rutger Hauer as Bruegel!
4. The Magician
Narrowing it down to one Bergman film was tough, especially since Persona and Hour of the Wolf would both be right at home on this list. I opted for this underrated masterpiece partly because of its themes of illusion-versus-reality, mundane-versus-fantastic, partly due to its playing with identity, and partly because its tone is so much lighter than other potential choices. Bergman clearly had a ball, as did Max Von Sydow and Ingrid Thulin, with the deceptively straightforward story involving a troupe of traveling entertainers (“Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater”) arriving in mid-19th century Stockholm, and the local authorities trying to unmask them as mountebanks.
As with my Bergman indecision, I was torn between a few Peter Greenaway films, but decided on including this one because it seems to be woefully under-watched by people of my acquaintance. That, and because it’s about a decidedly shifty protagonist who becomes embroiled with his betters in lavish noble estate, replete with seductions, murder, and bizarre flourishes. A visually sumptuous and devilishly clever late-17th century period piece complimented by a grand Michael Nyman soundtrack, gorgeous costumes and sets, and more fops than you can shake a swagger stick at.
When I first encountered this unique Finnish gem I gushed about it at length (http://mr-earbrass.livejournal.com/35711.html), and in the years since my enthusiasm for the film has only increased. Black Death owes it a little something, methinks, but it is entirely its own beast, as beautiful and grim a horror film as I’ve ever seen. Assuming one even classified it as such, and not as a dark fable about guilt and sin—two brothers, a soldier and a cartographer, set off on a mapmaking expedition and soon find themselves stalked through unnavigable territory, a dismal swamp both literal and moral. Rich, striking, and creepy as all hell.
Absolutely worthy of its reputation, this noir classic is an even more indulgent foray into cinematic expressionism than Kurosawa’s aforementioned Kagemusha. Postwar Vienna is a sinister, twilit realm where echoing footfalls and long shadows dog the protagonist as he investigates the death of an old friend, a friend who was obviously involved in some rather shady schemes. As gorgeous a film as was ever etched onto the screen, with style to spare and an aura of desperation and menace as thick as the mist drifting through the sewer tunnels…
Honorable mentions and also-rans: