My top ten favourite movies

The Shawshank Redemption

This movie is an outstanding ensemble piece, with our innocent Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) playing beautifully off the prison scrounger Red (Morgan Freeman) and his cell-mates. The film is long, and very slowly paced by modern standards, which may be why it didn't do very well at the box office - it is a child of the home video age, where excellent word of mouth gave it a success it could not achieve at the cinema. This is a movie about a guy doing two life sentences - of course it has to be long :-)

Often unpleasant and sometimes shocking, the movie really succeeds with an evocation of just how unpleasant prison life (in the forties, fifties and sixties) could be, juxtaposed with stunning cinematography and an intelligent script. It is adapted from a Stephen King story, and those who have not read the story should know that King's original ends with Red on the bus to Mexico, which is really where the movie should have ended as well - Hollywood sugar-coated their ending.

The film is narrated by Morgan Freeman, and I have a particular fondness for narrated movies, which is probably why I like much of the noir genre.

Leon (a.k.a. Leon The Professional)

This is a weird movie by Hollywood standards. It's the story of a professional "cleaner" (assassin) Leon, played by veteran French actor Jean Reno, an expansion of a role from Luc Besson's earlier french-language film "Nikita". Leon unwillingly adopts the daughter of a drug dealer (Natalie Portman) whose whole family has been murdered by a crazed and corrupt DEA agent played by Gary Oldman. This was Natalie Portman's first big role, at only 12, and she is extremely good. Gary Oldman also gets mentioned in dispatches, if only for having cornered the market in psychotic loons. The movie, while having its fair share of violent action, is really about the relationship between the killer and his surrogate daughter, who asks him to train her as a cleaner so she can take revenge for the murder of her family. Two things troubled the studio, and those two reasons are why they hacked 26 minutes (!) out of the middle of the film for U.S. theatrical release:

  • Our darling adolescent asks Leon to take her virginity. Leon of course refuses, which is why if you watched the cut version you'll see them sharing a platonic bed halfway through the film for no apparent reason.
  • They didn't like the idea of a 12 year old being involved in murder, which is why the best training scenes are also missing.
Sadly the uncut version also includes Portman's only piece of duff acting (the restaurant scene). When you see it, you'll know what I'm talking about. The uncut film IS available on DVD, and I implore you to seek it out : look for "Leon The Professional (uncut international version)". If you buy anything else, you'll get the substandard experience.

Oh - by the way -  you should also see Nikita, but for Gods sake watch it in the original french with subtitles. The English language scene-for-scene remake "Assassin", whilst not a genuinely bad movie, isn't a patch on the stylish original. It's got Bridget Fonda though, so your time isn't entirely wasted.

Ferris Beuller's Day Off

An eighties "teen" movie directed by the master of this genre, John Hughes. It has a genuinely witty script, and centres around Ferris (Matthew Broderick) bunking off (playing hooky) for a day from high school, and the attempt by his obsessive headmaster (principal) to catch him. Also contains the luscious Mia Sara, not that I'm suggesting you should watch it just for her, oh no.

It is mostly remembered for the way Ferris turns around and talks to camera at intervals throughout the movie, addressing the audience and passing on little gems of his wisdom. Oh, watch the credits through right to the end, there's a small suprise.


Writer-director Kevin Smith's most coherent movie, this follows the attempt of two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) to gain re-admittance to heaven via a dogmatic loophole. The kicker is that by doing so they will destroy all of creation, and the forces of light recruit Linda Fiorentino to thwart the angels. Smith's trademark style of witty and intelligent dialogue combined with lewd jokes is well in evidence.

Plus it also has Salma Hayek, diminutive hotness personified.

The Duellists

This was Ridley Scott's first big-screen picture, and it is beautiful, as you might expect from someone who did his apprenticeship shooting adverts. The story is episodic, and relates the tale of two officers in Napoleon's army (Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel) who fight a series of duels throughtout their lives, over a minor slight when they were both quite junior. The period is evoked beautifully in both squalour and elegance, and the sabre duel in semi-darkness is a masterpiece. Everybody drones on about Alien and Blade Runner, but I still think this is his best work.

Grosse Pointe Blank

A masterly black comedy, this is the story of Martin Blank (John Cusack), an ex-government-turned-freelance hit man who returns to his home town of Grosse Point (A rich town in Michigan) for his high school's ten-year reunion. The film weaves together three plots - Blank's strained relationship with his high-school sweetheart (Minnie Driver) who he abandoned without a word on prom night to join the army, a mission Blank has accepted in Grosse Point against an unknown target, and his battle with another hitman (Dan Akroyd) who is trying to form an assassin's union. The running gag in the movie is that Blank keeps telling everyone that he's a hitman, but everyone thinks he's just joking.

Martin wants out of the business... but can he win through and get a life? Watch and find out.

Get Shorty

Another black comedy, about Mafia loan-shark Chilli Palmer (John Travolta) who is obsessed with the movies, having to travel to Los Angeles to collect a debt owed to his boss by a washed-up director played by Gene Hackman. When he finds out that Hackman has a gold script he wants to make but lacks the backing, Chilli sees a way out of his criminal lifestyle. But of course things aren't straightforward, otherwise there wouldn't be a story. Chilli is being pursued by a mafia "made man" whose nose he broke, and whose hair he parted with a .38 - and he has competition for the script from some heavies who are also owed money by the director.

A Matter of Life and Death (USA: Stairway to Heaven)

Set in (and made during and just after) the second world war, A Matter of Life and Death is a fantasy about a British bomber pilot (David Niven) who is supposed to die when he jumps out of a burning aircraft. But an error by the angel of death means that he is washed up alive, and gets to meet the American radio operator who handled his final call. Romance ensues. But the pilot keeps having blackouts in which he meets the angel, who is trying to persuade him to leave earth behind. His new girlfriend recruits a doctor (Roger Livesey) who disagnoses a brain tumour requiring surgery. The film plays out as a battle for the pilot's soul between the realms of life and death, culminating in a trial in heaven where the now-dead doctor acts as defence counsel for the pilot who has become his friend.

The scenes in heaven are shot in black and white (actually a cost-cutting measure) while those on earth are in colour, and this works suprisingly well. The eerie recurrent theme music is also very good. Altogether a little gem, and technically very advanced for its time.

Road House

This is my guilty bit of self-indulgence. I used to do martial arts many years ago, and this film is one of the more tolerable and westernised of the genre. It stars Patrick Swayze as night-club security manager Dalton (head bouncer, in English parlance). It also has a standout rock soundtrack from Jeff Healey, the always reliable and gravelly Sam Elliot as Dalton's old mentor and some good (if rather sloooow - I did say it was westernised) fight scenes.

It also has a hackneyed small-town-boss-owns-everyone plot, a god-awfully wooden performance as the love interest from Kelly Lynch, silly eighties big hair, and the obligatory scene of Swayze's naked arse. But you can't have everything. Even with all these faults it's still moronically enjoyable.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

A masterpiece from the Ealing Comedy stable, this is the blackest of black comedies (anyone spotted a tendency here yet?). Alec Guinness plays eight different members of the same aristocratic family - the D'Ascoynes - who disowned a minor female relative years before and forced her into penury. Her son (Dennis Price) decides to gain his fortune and his revenge at the same time, by killing all the remaining members of the family in turn, and thereby inheriting the title for himself. The ending is ingenuity itself.