One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 100
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
It’s been nearly 30 months since I jumped at the opportunity to write about all things cinematic for The Insider, which was launched at the beginning of the pandemic as Covid swept the nation and people began retreating indoors for the foreseeable future.
Out of the gate, I began writing about the digital streaming landscape and how its wide variety of choices perfectly fed my intensifying stream-of-conscious viewing habits. After a daily dose of CNN (and occasionally MSNBC), I could dive into cinema’s 100-plus year history with abandon, hopscotching from newer films to older ones to foreign flicks to documentaries and so on.
Through it all, I would happily produce a weekly Reel Streaming column, summarizing what I had streamed that week, be they random, unrelated titles or a collection of thematic mini-fests. As Year One of the pandemic came to an end and we entered Year Two, I expanded my reach to include new movie reviews, interviews (including a goodie with filmmaker Abel Ferrara), tributes to recently deceased artistes and features on vital reissues (like Francis Coppola’s revamped edition of his 1984 musical crime saga The Cotton Club).
As the countdown to Covid’s three-year anniversary (oy!) begins, The Insider continues to razzle and dazzle, with no less than a dozen regular contributors offering their insights into all manner of news, politics, arts, global issues and cooking, as well as, oh yes, pandemic coverage (lest we forget how this all started).
And so, in celebration of my 100th column of Reel Streaming for The Insider, I have created my Top Ten List of Favorite Films. One might think that a Top Ten list is fun, yes, but not such a chore. Hell, listicles are all over the Internet and Reel Streaming has featured some of its own Top Tens over the years (most recently, one on Elvis Presley films and another on French Revolution cinema, in honor of Bastille Day). But a personal Top Ten list of favorites is something I have avoided doing for the past 2 ½ years—and, indeed, most of my life.
Having a favorite title at the ready when you’re asked, “What’s your favorite movie?” is a perfectly viable reaction to the question. A film critic should always have a movie in mind for the inevitable inquiry, as well as a quick explanation as to why. My response to the question is always Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the abbreviated reason being that it was “the movie that got me into movies.”
But a Top Ten list of favorites? At first consideration, it appears easy, but any cinephile worth his weight in buttered popcorn will tell you that a favorites list can never be etched in stone—it’s forever living…and changing. The associations one makes with a film on a list always shift as time rolls on. The movies never change, but the viewer always does and a favorite today could very well be reduced to simply being a “good one” tomorrow.
Then there’s the consideration of the filmmaker and his or her body of work. Composing my list this week, I included David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I might have just as easily swapped it out for Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). I love both films dearly, but Lawrence popped into my head and then onto my screen first, so it was the winner.
I could also include River Kwai, I suppose, but that would mean my list would contain two David Lean productions. Is that really fair to the works of such filmmakers as Walter Hill, Federico Fellini, Alan Parker, Katheryn Bigelow, Ingmar Bergman, Peter Hyams, Oliver Stone, John Woo, Amy Heckerling and so many others whose movies I love but who didn’t make it onto my list? Or, rather, didn’t make it onto my list today?
Nor do I want to throw in a bunch of “deep cuts”—personal choices that have special meaning for me but that couldn’t or wouldn’t be regarded as substantial choices. Am I cheating myself by not putting them on my own personal Top Ten? Maybe, but high-end choices are truly the thing of film snobbery and it’s really not necessary. Besides, I can name films like Karel Reisz’s The Gambler (1974), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Nicolas Meyer’s Star Trek ll: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) right here and simply feel good that I mentioned them.
For now, let me define my Top Ten List of Favorite Films as any movie that I could stumble upon on TV or pop into a device at any time or in any form (VHS, anyone?) and easily watch the entire thing. And then maybe watch it again.
Here are 10 of them. Give me a call tomorrow, and maybe I’ll have a different 10 for you!
North by Northwest (1959)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Crop dusting, cliffhanging and Cary Grant. Hitchcock’s definitive adventure thriller is filled with masterful set pieces, a stunning cast and a delicious story. It was a most unusual day for Roger O. Thornhill, indeed.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The mysteries of the universe unfold before both Discovery astronaut David Bowman and wide-eyed audiences in the speculative science fiction masterpiece that truly grows richer with every viewing. Staggering—and, for me, strangely comforting.
The Conformist (1970)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
In 1938 Italy, Fascist secret police agent Jean-Louis Trintignant uses his honeymoon as a cover to travel to Paris to assassinate his former college professor, an outspoken anti-Fascist intellectual. Secrets are revealed and lives are changed in Bertolucci’s striking and baroque adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s 1951 novel.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Directed by David Lynch
Disturbingly strange and unsettling, Lynch’s neo-noir-ish portrait of the dark underside of Americana’s white picket fence façade had everyone leaning forward and taking notice of the formidable new filmmaker in their midst. Further, Isabella Rossellini was unforgettable and Dennis Hopper scary as hell.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
Directed by John Landis
Flawlessly scripted and perfectly cast down to the one-line walk-on roles, the finest American comedy of the past 50 years continues to garner belly laughs, probably because it was made before everyone starting taking things so seriously.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed by David Lean
The great David Lean’s magnificent epic historical drama about British officer T.E. Lawrence’s role in the Arab Revolt of 1916 finds its power in maintaining the mystery of its central figure (brilliantly portrayed by Peter O’Toole) until the very end. A pretty remarkable feat for a nearly four-hour long movie.
Annie Hall (1975)
Directed by Woody Allen
Following a decade of comedies and an earlier career as a stand-up comic, joke writer and TV sketch scribe, Woody let loose with the first of his many serio-comic films on romance and relationships in the city he calls home. It’s still the only one of his 50 movies to bring home the Best Picture statuette on Oscar night.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Inspired by Southern California’s water wars of the 1930s, Polanski’s richly complex neo-noir comes to the plate armed with Robert Towne’s brilliant multi-layered screenplay, one of the greatest of all time, and the one-two punch of Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway as a smarmy private eye and his wealthy, ill-fated client. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
The revered revisionist Western from one of the genre’s greatest directors finds an aging outlaw gang trying to survive as the modern world of 1913 comes gunning for their livelihoods. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates have never been better as they walk the final mile to their inevitable violent ends.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
More than 40 years following his directorial debut, the mighty Kurosawa crafted this late-career epic masterwork set in Medieval Japan and derived from Shakespeare’s King Lear. Following all the battles and bloodshed, the lesson here is that if you’re a Japanese warlord, be sure to never hand over the kingdom to your three sons.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.