Favourites

 

Drawing inspiration from Social Networking Websites, I have listed below my favourite books, films and music, along with a few remarks.

Books

I was about fifteen before I read anything more substantial than a newspaper or magazine article. Like most boys I considered books as just day-care for girls and sissies. After all, why waste time reading when there were bikes to ride, rugby to play, model aeroplanes to build or bushland to explore?

But then I had to miss a few days of school due to illness. I had to stay in bed, so out of boredom I decided to tackle Herman Wouk's The Cane Mutiny, an unwanted Christmas present from a couple of years before. To my great surprise I found it fascinating, and within a month the floodgates opened. In the following years came Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Austen's Pride and Prejudice (both for school and thanks to Mr L-Cawsey); a translation of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur; Grebanier's The Heart of Hamlet (still a favourite, see below) and then a couple of books later, Tolstoy's War and Peace. After a late start I was finally on my way…

The Andromeda Strain

(1969, Crichton)

I generally avoid Science Fiction because it almost never gets the science right! A-S is pretty good however. Based on a fascinating idea, it has reasonably good science (for the late 60's) and is only spoilt by a flaccid ending: it would have been much better had the "safety nuke" under the lab gone off despite everyone's frantic efforts to stop it. Andromeda was the first of many Crichton SF thrillers — a shame the rest never matched it. Carl Sagan's Contact (1985) also has some good science. Its central idea of messages hidden in Transcendental Numbers is brilliant, but unfortunately the religious tangents and overall sentimentality is a drag.

American Visions

(1997, Hughes)

Maybe not as famous as his earlier The Shock of the New (1980), but by only focusing on the development of USA visual art, the narrative has a greater scope and ideas are explored at more depth. A fun read and like a lot of Hughes' other work it is knowledgeable and wildly opinionated. Unfortunately it's also hampered by a blindness toward popular art-forms like photography (only rates a page or two) or movies (which are completely ignored). BTW here is something unusual: on pp.250-252 Hughes praises John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo (1882), and rightly so. How many know that John Wayne recreated the painting as a scene in his movie The Alamo (1960) ?!

America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918

(1976, Crosby)

The standard reference on the 1918-20 pandemic. A bit dated in its understanding of how the virus works (eg. there is nothing on cytokine storms), or the location of ground zero (currently thought to be Haskell County, Kansas), yet it meticulously reconstructs the progress of H1N1 across the USA, Alaska and Oceania. John M Barry's more recent The Great Influenza (2004) is also worth a read, although parts I and IX are useless padding and should be skipped.

Anna Karenina

(1877, Tolstoy)

The Cranky Count at the height of his powers. What it lacks in scope — it's just a yarn about bourgeois lurv + adultery — it makes up for with its incredible psychological depth, at times even breaking into "stream of consciousness" to depict the inner turmoils of Anna, Alexi or Kostya. Thankfully it is also (mostly) free of the philosophising and tangential waffle which bogged down so much of War and Peace (1869), or the self-righteous moralising which spoiled most of his later work. Speaking of things Leo Nickolayevich, see also Henri Troyat's spectacularly detailed biography: Tolstoy (1967).

Anxious Decades

(1992, Parrish)

One of the better American accounts of the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression. The tone is a bit Left-leaning, but it still covers a lot of ground to explore the popular culture and parade of big names; the social and economical upheaval; the endless political machinations, and especially the ethical dishonesty of the US Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly a lot of the Twenties material is lifted from Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday (1931), another favourite. Allen's followup Since Yesterday (1939) continues with a social history of the Great Depression, written while it was still happening!

Assignment in Utopia

(1937, Lyons)

Lyons was the United Press correspondent in Moscow during 1928-34. Having secured his job via impeccable Leftist credentials, it is fascinating to watch the scales fall from his eyes as he relates one grim Commie anecdote after another. The book also features eyewitness accounts of the era and a rare interview with Stalin, making it a unique reference about the NEP, initial show-trials or first five-year-plan. Even George Orwell was influenced by this book — ever wonder where 2 + 2 = 5 in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) came from?…

Best Short Stories of Ring Lardner

(1957, Lardner)

While F. Scott Fitzgerald concentrated on the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age, his friend Lardner dwelt on its darker side: the Junior league baseball players; the clerks, shopkeepers and assorted Babbitts; their frustrated girlfriends and wives; the Irish cops, petty bootleggers and other Prohibition rat–bags. The stories are mostly satirical and funny, but there is always a hint of despair, and sometimes even a vague premonition of the Great Depression just around the corner.

Big Bangs

(2001, Goodall)

The book to accompany the 2000 television series, examining five turning points in the development of Western music. Obviously it is far more detailed and analytical than the TV show, for Goodall knows his stuff and is not afraid to show it. Luckily he does it with a light touch! In fact it's a relief to find a contemporary artist (in this case a composer) who can elaborate on the history of his field with such humour and warmth.

Chaplin: His life and Art

(1985, Robinson)

Chaplin was one of the great but seriously flawed geniuses of the 20th century. Like most comedians his humour grew out of despair, here a childhood in the slums of Victorian London, where he and his brothers were abandoned by an alcoholic father and (ultimately) insane mother. As an adult there were the hugely popular movies, the failed marriages, sex and political scandals, and eventually finding the love of his life in Oona O'Neill when he was fifty-four. Robinson's book is balanced and dares to show glimpses of his subject's darker side, unlike Chaplin's own Autobiography (1964), which at times reads like clippings from a celebrity gossip magazine.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome

(1941, Carcopino)

The capital city of an empire which lasted centuries, yet we know so little about it. Carcopino's book — practically the only one of its kind — tries to capture what it was like to live there, and he does it reasonably well. What I found most fascinating was learning that the majority of Rome's one million inhabitants were hopelessly idle. Unemployed and politically marginalised, they spent all their time collecting handouts or howling at Colosseum spectacles, or shivering in eight-storey tenement slums, so poorly built that they often collapsed in a strong wind.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds

(1841, Mackay)

A famous book, mainly for its analyses of the 1636-7 Tulip Mania and 1720 South Sea Bubble. Yet there is so much other good stuff: the chapters on the Crusades are hilarious (and eventually led me to Runciman), while the sections on Witchcraft or London Fads are difficult to read without shaking your head. Another interesting thing is that Mackay uses such wonderfully arcane high-Victorian language that at times you can't help laughing.

The Family of Man

(1955, Steichen)

The book of the 1955 MOMA photographic exhibition, which inspired a generation to take up candid photography. Some might sneer at its overly sympathetic and optimistic tone, but only misanthropes would want to depict everyday people any other way. That said it is disappointing there are no colour images, or to notice (with adult eyes) that more than three-quarters of the images were posed. A Day in the life of Australia (1981) also has its flaws, but a lot of the colour photography is quite beautiful.

The Great Crash 1929

(1954, Galbraith)

Focuses on the supreme meltdown of the Roaring Twenties, the Wall Street panic in October 1929. Thoroughly researched and documented (Galbraith still had access to key players), there is one curious omission though: he seems to gloss over billions of dollars of Great War debt repayments flooding into the USA. Meanwhile for a more in-depth analysis of pre-crash shenanigans by Wall Street operators, nothing beats Ferdinand Pecora's Wall Street Under Oath (1939) and Once in Golconda (1969) by John Brooks.

The Great Shark Hunt

(1979, Thompson)

Oh-ho-ho… A collection of short stories and articles by HST before the drugs took over. Hilarious, random and anarchistic, but also intelligent and with something to say, unlike more recent Gonzo Wannabes like P.J. O'Rouke. With Hunter S. you get the impression that deep down he was a bit of a moralist who really did care about the state of his country, even if you also marvel at his kamikaze-like self destructiveness.

The Guns of August

(1962, Tuchman)

Should be read alongside Edmnund Taylor's The Fall of the Dynasties (1963) for a thorough analysis of the diplomatic manoeuvring which filled ten million graves by the end of the Great War. Tuchman also wrote a couple of other favourites: A Distant Mirror (1978), a Francocentric history of the Fourteenth century, and The March of Folly (1984), a perceptive analysis of historical bungles until it also gets bogged down in Vietnam.

The Heart of Hamlet

(1960, Grebanier)

I am much more an Ibsen man than a Shakespeare fanboy. Grebanier's book is an old favourite though because it so ruthlessly dissects Ye Bard's play and the many ridiculous myths surrounding it. It also puts the boot into Laurence Olivier for his cracked interpretation of the Prince. All good fun, and the full text of the play at the rear of the book is riddled with pages of footnotes and asides. BTW speaking of whacko interpretations, check out the backstage existentialism in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!

A History of the Crusades

(1954, Runciman)

At @ 1300 pages, Runciman has everything you could possibly want to know about the Crusades, and then some. The rise and fall of Outremer; the twilight of Byzantium; Mongol tourism in extremis; Papal/ Italian city-state/ Holy Roman Empire intrigues — it is all here in stunning pre Politically Correct detail. Another interesting read is The Leper King and his Heirs (2000) by Bernard Hamilton, which uses more recent scholarship to re-examine the reign of Baldwin IV in the last years of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (the era loosely depicted in the movie The Kingdom of Heaven (2005)).

Lindbergh

(1999, Berg)

The Pulitzer prize winning biography of one of the more enigmatic characters of the 20th century. CL was an autodidact with profound self–discipline and curiosity, and yet could also be aloof and a borderline white–supremacist. Some of Berg's descriptions are beautifully written, especially the 1927 trans-Atlantic flight or the 1932 baby kidnap saga. Unfortunately no mention is made of Lindbergh's seven illegitimate children from three German mistresses (a family secret only confirmed by DNA analysis in 2003). I guess he wasn't so aloof after all…

The Loneliest Mountain

(1989, Hall & Chester)

What happens when a bunch of flaky Australian environmentalists, more used to charity work in koala-suits than planning an expedition, decide to climb an Antarctic mountain in 1988. Basically you get a woolly–headed shambles from beginning to end (eg. on the way back they managed to hit an iceberg, then got so blown off course that they actually wound up in New Zealand!). Luckily Chester was a talented photographer, while Hall used the 1988 experience to earn further distinction on Mt Everest in 2006.

Louise Brooks: A Biography

(1989, Paris)

The downward trajectory of a brilliant and gorgeous woman, who turned her back on love and success to completely self-destruct. Paris' book also captures the heady atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties quite well; in New York, Hollywood and Weimar Germany. Towards the end of her life "Brooksie" wrote intelligent movie-criticism articles with a strangely narcissistic tone — see for example her The Other face of W.C. Fields (1971). She also gets her own chapter alongside Clara Bow, Coco Chanel, Lois Long and Zelda Fitzgerald in Zeitz's Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity… (2006), an interesting study of "flaming youth" before the lights went out.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

(1986, Rhodes)

The intricate story of how the Manhattan Project came about, as well how science was harnessed by good-natured men to create devices to incinerate entire cities. Alongside The Bomb, Rhodes broadens his narrative into the industrialisation of war in the 20th Century; eg. area-bombing or the engineering behind Oak Ridge. He also spends a lot of time discussing the output of all this technology: the efficient production of megacorpses. A few years later Rhodes wrote a followup about the Hydrogen Bomb in Dark Sun (1996). Sadly it lacks the focus and indignation of his earlier book and far too much time is spent on Soviet espionage and not enough on Teller and Ulam. The third book in the series — Arsenals of Folly (2007) — is an improvement, especially in the descriptions of the diplomatic manoeuvring which led to START I. It will be interesting to see if the fourth book, The Twilight of the Bombs (2010), will finally match the impact of the first one in 1986.

A Man on the Moon

(1998, Chaikin)

As a counterpoint to the Cold-War Nuclear Terror, Chaikin narrates one of the great triumphs of civilisation, the Apollo Moon program of 1967-72. Each mission is covered in detail, and about half way through you realise you are reading about an achievement which will endure forever. Chaikin mainly focuses on the public face of the project — the astronauts — but thankfully Murray & Cox Apollo: The Race to the Moon (1989) tell the story from the other side: the technicians and engineers who made happen. What I find fascinating about Apollo was the ferocious effort put into simulation training: many astronauts claimed that it was so intense that it almost turned the real missions into an anti-climax!

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

(2003, King)

A panel by panel analysis of Michelangelo's fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in the Vatican. It also carefully debunks the myth that the work was done by a single man, for it appears Buonarroti had a team of tradesmen and apprentices to do the lesser scenes or flat areas of colour. Thankfully King goes easy on another lazy myth — that of Michelangelo's supposed "homosexuality". The bloke never married and painted a lot of male nudes, so he must have been queer, right?…

The Origins of The Second World War

(1962, Taylor)

Greeted with hoots of derision on publication, Taylor suggests that WWII grew as much out of Western ineptitude as it did from Nazi megalomania. To me the arguments appear self-evident: Hitler didn't operate in a vacuum; the Treaty of Versailles was a joke; the League of Nations were a useless talking shop; and career-focused bureaucrats do tend towards timidity! Taylor's next work, The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963), again raised eyebrows. Another iconoclastic favourite still in print, some of the photo captions are savagely ironic.

Scott and Amundsen

(1979, Huntford)

Still the best dual biography of polar explorers Amundsen and Scott. It thoroughly debunks the Scott-as-hero myth to reveal him as a muddle-headed martinet, albeit with some charisma. Many have subsequently toiled mightily to refute this (see for example Fiennes: Captain Scott or Solomon: The Coldest March), yet the facts speak for themselves: the Norwegians got to the Pole and back without trouble; Scott's team stumbled and suffered all the way, and then died of gangrene, scurvy and starvation on the way back.

Sergeant Lawrence goes to France

(1987, Lawrence, Ed. Yule)

Cyril Lawrence was an Australian engineer who served in Gallipoli in 1915 and on the Western front from 1916 to January 1919. Of all the Great War memoirs I have read, this is my favourite. An edited collection of letters and journal entries, he writes with brilliant clarity about what he saw, experienced and felt. His leave-visits to England or Paris also provide a fascinating snapshot of the era. As a companion piece, my choice from among the more famous subaltern memoirs is Guy Chapman's A Passionate Prodigality (1933). Again directness and clarity is used to tell the story, rather than the Oxbridge aestheticism so typical of Owen, Sassoon, Blunden etc.

Skunk Works

(1996, Rich & Janos)

Ben Rich tells the story of the Lockheed Advanced Development Projects Unit, where the U2 and SR-71 spy planes were designed and built, and where also the F117A stealth fighter was developed. It's Boy's Own stuff for sure, but some of the anecdotes are hilarious (eg. at the height of the Cold War, the CIA set up a raft of dummy corporations to secretly purchase Titanium for their spy-planes from the USSR!) or eye-opening (the endless problems they had getting the SR-71 to cruise at Mach 3.2 without incinerating the pilots). Big Blues: the Unmaking of IBM (1993) is another interesting corporate history, this time about how one of the world's great technology companies was almost trashed by endless team playing and bureaucracy.

The Story of Art

(1995, Gombrich)

A brilliant overview of the development of western art over the last four thousand years: the Classical period; Middle Ages; Renaissance; Enlightenment; Modernism… it's all here. My only real gripe is against its overly judicious tone (no opinionated writing here!), and that the narrative stops in the 1920s, just when things are getting interesting.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

(1985, Feynman)

Rhodes book (see above) dwelt on the dark side of Science; Feynman explores its brighter side with fun and exuberance. A transcript of a bunch of audio interviews, the chapters can be somewhat disjointed, but the picture that emerges is one of a loopy and mischievous bloke who also happened to be a brilliant physicist. Along the way he cracked safes at Los Alamos, challenged an abacus expert at mental cube-roots (and won), played the bongo semi-professionally and eventually shared a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. If you think all Scientists are dull nerds, then read this to get a More Enlightened Perspective! It will be interesting to see if the RF biography Quantum Man (2011) will be able to capture his unique mixture of analytical brilliance and humour.

The Worst Journey in the World

(1922, Cherry-Garrard)

An eyewitness account of Scott's 1911 Antarctic expedition, and arguably one of the best travel books ever written. It is also the first and final nail in every Scott-apologist's coffin — they might carp at Huntford being an unqualified Anglophobe, but they can't dismiss Cherry, who admired Scott and was actually there. Some of C-G's descriptions of the frozen continent are beautiful, and his muted criticism of expedition's shortcomings are very sobering. The book actually takes its name from a horror sledging expedition to collect Emperor Penguin eggs, which departed mid-winter in 24hr darkness. BTW to get an idea of why there is so much fuss about Antarctica, see the documentary La Marche de l'empereur (2005).

Movies

Even as a small boy I was fascinated by movies. I particularly remember the first time I saw Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, especially the scene where a ship on the Suez canal appears to sail through sand-dunes… Magic! Alas finely–tuned sensibilities when young can often lead to disappointment. When the first moon-landing was broadcast at school in 1969, in miserably ghosted B&W, I was outraged: What does the moon look like? You can't see anything! Miss, this is rubbish! My kindergarten teacher was not amused.

In 1985 I had a chance to become a film-director when I was short-listed for the AFTRS three-year directing course. Aside from my youth (twenty-one) and complete inexperience, what flunked me out was my ruthless honesty. When the interview panel asked what I would do if I didn't get in, I told them: Frankly, I would go do something else. Eyebrows rise, and a line goes through my name. Oops. Despite the setback, in 2005 I worked for a few months on the Hollywood blockbuster Superman Returns. A small consolation perhaps, but a good taste of what might have been…

Ägget är löst!

(1975, Alfredson)

After an argument with his teenage son, Max Von Sydow ties him up and throws him into a lake. Rather than drowning, the boy gets stuck upright, with his head just above water. His arms and legs are bound, so he cannot move. He calls for help but no-one comes. Days, weeks pass. Water-plants start to grow and fish come to live in the folds of his clothing. Eventually he becomes integrated into the aquatic environment. Seasons pass. When in winter the lake freezes over, he hibernates; ice-skaters trip over the bump where his head is. With Spring the ice thaws and he finally breaks free… I saw this film over twenty years ago and I still find this sequence astounding.

Amadeus

(1984, Forman)

Okay we all know Peter Shaffer's play is a travesty-bio littered with historical inaccuracies, but Forman's movie is done with such vigour and attention to period detail that you've got to love it. WAM as a giggling pop-star? Why not! Favourite anachronisms? The non-performer orchestra conductors (a century too early) plus musicians depicted using period instruments, yet the soundtrack blasts from steel-strings (they would have actually used catgut, which gives a much gentler sound).

L' Appartement

(1996, Mimouni)

Usually French movie + French director = Bullshit Alert. Thankfully Mimouni did a fascinating and stylish job. The timeline runs forwards and backwards, and for a while you really do wonder just who is doing what to whom. But you get Paris in winter and Monica Bellucci with black bobbed hair, miniskirts and red high-heels… Almost a decade later the movie was remade in a Chicago suburban context as Wicker Park (2004) → avoid. Finally, if "Paris in winter with Monica-babe" is too lovey-dovey, then Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris (2007) should set you right.

Artificial Intelligence: AI

(2001, Kubrick & Spielberg)

Despite the Spielberg credit, this has Kubrick's fingerprints all over it. Some might hesitate at the child-focused Pinocchio theme, but look deeper — Ai continues Kubrick's pet obsession with human evolution, this time into sentient machines (as opposed to 2001's "star-child"). BTW for a really cracked retelling of Collodi's fairy-tale, check out Pinocchio (2002). I advise wearing earplugs though, for director/star Benigni spends the entire film yelling…

Band of Brothers

(2001, Frankel et al.)

Private Ryan done right. 700+ minutes, but thankfully spread over ten parts so you don't have to digest it all in one go. IMO it is the best WWII movie made from a USA perspective, encompassing the period from training in England prior to D-Day, until de-mobilisation following VJ. The way lead actor Damian Lewis grows in moral authority and stature as the story progresses is amazing. BTW for a more meandering and poetic take on WWII, about two hours of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) is also brilliant. Meanwhile for footage of the Real Thing, see the documentary They Filmed The War In Colour — France is Free! (2005).

Baraka

(1992, Fricke)

Probably the least preachy among the non-verbal “atsi” films. Beautiful 70mm cinematography, brilliant editing and a range of urban, industrial, Third World and natural locations. My favourite sequences are the Balinese Kecak dance/chant, the “breathing” traffic in Manhattan, and the (almost) bell ringing at the Ryoan-Ji Temple in Kyoto. Samsara (2012) should have been better (cinematography-wise it indeed was), but the large amount of deadpan posing for the camera is disappointing.

Barry Lyndon

(1975, Kubrick)

There are many favourite Kubrick films, but BL gets the nod because: (i) it is such a wild non sequitur after A Clockwork Orange (1971); (ii) John Alcott's brilliant cinematography with a Zeiss ƒ0.7; (iii) its fanatically perfectionist recreation of 18th century Europe. Not only the sets and costumes, but even the timing evokes the era, in huge contrast to knowingly anachronistic rip-offs like Plunkett & Macleane (1999) or (shudder) Marie Antoinette (2006). Okay not everyone admires the incredibly slow pace, but some critics and filmmakers do =)

Best Years of Our Lives

(1946, Wyler)

What happened after the Band of Brothers got home. It takes a while to get going and it is a bit soapie in places, but Gregg Toland's deep focus cinematography; the sense of waste; the reluctance to rejoin society; unemployed Dana Andrews wandering through a field of scrapped aeroplanes, Frederick March drifting towards alcoholism, Harold Russell trying to cope with the amputation of both hands… amazing. The post-Vietnam (and miserable) Coming Home (1978) tries hard to explore similar ground, but isn't in the same league.

Brief Encounter

(1945, Lean)

What fascinates about Lean and Coward's film is its severely repressed Anglo Bourgeois sexuality. When the couple should have been getting it on, instead they wasted each other's time as "Just Good Friends". Those who swoon at the platonic romanticism of this, or else balk at its hypocrisy, misunderstand the film's central point: If You Have An Unhappy Marriage Then Do Something About It! Thankfully the message wasn't lost on the makers of the B-E inspired Falling in Love (1984).

Cast Away

(2000, Zemeckis)

It is not an extended shill for FedEx, nor some bloke stuck on an island with Wilson the Volleyball. Quite simply CA is a brilliant metaphor for terminal illness. Seriously! Ever wonder what people go through when the biopsies come back? This is it, The Phases of Grief in pictures: busy-busy Flying High, then Crash, Abandonment, Bitterness, but also — with time and luck — Acceptance and maybe even Escape. I'm amazed such a hopeful film about this topic was ever made by anyone, let alone mainstream Hollywood.

Летят журавли

(1957, Калатозов)

Rodchenko at 24fps! This B&W Soviet WWII drama features some of the most dazzling camera-work prior to CGI. The spiral tracking shot up the staircase; the single take from the interior of a crowded bus to overfly a column of roaring tanks; the conscription and welcome-home crowd scenes; the death-rattle fantasy of a longed-for marriage which never had a chance to happen… amazing! What impresses even more is that it was made without the usual Commie Agitprop, at a time when both sides were working hard to wipe each other out. A classic way ahead of its time, it is disappointing it has never made any of the top 100 lists.

The Elephant Man

(1980, Lynch)

A brilliant early effort from Lynch. Toning down the industrial-bleakness of Eraserhead (1977), it's the story of the ultimate Victorian social outcast, Joseph Merrick. Yet what could have easily been an art-school freak-show, instead becomes a sensitive portrayal of a man adrift in laissez-faire England. As it was only Lynch's second feature, great things were expected. Alas he flopped with Dune (1984) and then imploded during Blue Velvet (1986). BTW the executive producer on T.E.M. was comedian Mel Brooks (!), the same man responsible for "Young Frankenstein" (see below).

Gold Diggers of 1933

(1933, LeRoy & Berkeley)

It is hard to find a decent film about the Depression made while it was still happening. Dead End (1937) was good but obviously stagey; The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was safely delivered after the storm; while Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933) was a trivialisation which alienated everybody. GDo1933 might appear to be escapist fluff, but look closer — director LeRoy never let the economic disaster drift out of sight. The New Deal aphorisms; the hints of poverty-driven prostitution; the long line of men tramping to Remember My Forgotten Man; Berkeley's kaleidoscopic dance routines, in which everyone appears to be trapped in an uncontrollable machine… We're in the Money! — oh no they weren't.

Heat

(1995, Mann)

Cut forty minutes of relationship-waffle out of this and you get a masterpiece. Despite that, what fascinates about Mann's "Heat" is its underlying theme of Criminals are Businessmen Too. They wear suits, attend meetings, pour over earning projections and even carry briefcases. Then the bank-heist shoot-out in central L.A., with its echoing automatic gunfire, is almost as exciting as the real thing. Another interesting crime movie is The French Connection (1971), with its cool documentary style cinematography by Owen Roizman. Just don't think too hard about how they lit the interiors…

Kagemusha

(1980, Kurosawa)

I prefer Kurosawa's underrated 1980 film to his more famous Seven Samurai (1954), mainly due to its colour cinematography and more personal tone. Many (including the director) might claim it was just a dress rehearsal for Ran (1985), but there is more to Kagemusha than that: the false-identity plot; the thief's insecurity in living up to his master's greatness; the son who cannot escape his father's shadow; the waves of unknown enemies attacking in darkness; the army sent to its destruction; the thief's cruel rejection and final sacrifice… clearly there was more on the director's mind than just a simple "trial-run".

Léon

(1994, Besson)

Jean Reno has the world's coolest job; Gary Oldman is Captain Flakey; and 12yr old Natalie Portman is the bob-haired girl of every boy's dreams. BTW the original theatrical release had Oldman humming Ode to Joy during the raid on Natalie's apartment, hence the incongruous remarks about Beethoven and Mozart when he stops shooting (at the time Oldman was also working on the Beethoven bio-pic Immortal Beloved (1994)). Later releases had the humming overdubbed with Eric Serra's music. BTW2, get the Uncut International Version as it's more fun. A pity Besson didn't remove the seriously creepy "charades" sequence though…

The Lion in Winter

(1968, Harvey)

A Man for All Seasons (1966) is more intelligent and moving, but watching "Eleanor of Aquitaine", "Henry II" and "Cœur de Lion" tear strips off each other is simply more fun! Recently remade for TV, the new movie is an interesting counterpoint in that it uses the same dialogue as the original, but in a far less insulting manner. BTW the 1968 "Lion" is a bit of a sequel to Becket (1964), where O'Toole got his first chance to chew the scenery as the Angevin Henry.

Match Point

(2005, Allen)

Most of Allen's films tend to capsize from the sheer amount of talk, but MP is unusual in its restraint. Despite unfavourable comparisons with Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), it is still pretty good, for beneath the simple Adultery Gone Wrong plot is a bitter critique of yuppiedom, where people are discarded as easily as last year's mobile phone. The self-absorption, conceit, cruelty, lies and then horror when Rhys-Meyers realises he cannot escape this hell, is priceless. 2005 must have been a big year for yuppie bashing: Kristin Scott Thomas as a shopaholic solicitor's wife in Chromophobia (2005); Nicholas Cage the target of projectile junk-food in The Weather Man (2005).

Mister Roberts

(1955, Ford & LeRoy)

It is fascinating to compare this film with The Caine Mutiny (1954). Both have malevolent Captains, but Caine suggests that bad leaders can still be decent men, and that ultimately The System Is Alright. No such thing with M-R, whose James Cagney is hopelessly rotten, as is the bureaucratic apparatus which nurtures him and destroys Henry Fonda. Aside from its political undertones, the film is also plain fun — cowardly Jack Lemon going out of his way to avoid Cagney; William Powell at his laconic best.

My Fair Lady

(1964, Cukor)

Don't be fooled by the studio gloss, for beneath its carefully polished surface this 70mm bonbon ticks with misanthropy and social mayhem. Everyone has such contempt for everyone else that they sing about it, in detail. Even the love songs have a dark twist: Freddy adores Eliza precisely because he knows nothing about her. Audrey Hepburn is luminous, until they dress her up for the Grand Ball to look like an aluminium Christmas tree, whereas Rex Harrison's Professor Higgins is a masterpiece of barely repressed psychopathy.

Network

(1976, Lumet)

Paddy Chayefsky's script is the real star here: a satire of TV and Corporate values, bristling with sarcasm and bitterness. It is also an early critique of the role of television in distracting, reassuring and ultimately tranquillising society. Although dismissed by a few snooty critics for being "as vulgar as the medium it satirises", who would have thought it would virtually become a Reality TV manifesto?… I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! Indeed.

Oh! What a Lovely War

(1969, Attenborough)

A scathing condemnation of the Great War, with songs, laughter and despair. To be honest I hated this film when I was young. I didn't know much about WWI, so I wrote it off as a crass trivialisation. Yeah well, it took twenty years for the penny to drop! The soldiers singing as they dig their own mass-graves; the cricket-score casualty figures (Ground Gained: 0 Yards); Red Vanessa's self-parody soap-box lecture; the relentless use of actual Haig quotes; and then the closing sequence in the Field of Crosses… staggering. For a long time the film was hard to get on DVD, in early 2008 I had to import a region-2 copy from HMV in the UK.

Our Hospitality

(1923, Blystone & Keaton)

Keaton (and to a lesser extent Chaplin) manage to avoid obsolescence by creating incredibly elaborate gags where you laugh as much at the "mechanism" as the joke. Although The General (1927) is considered Keaton's better film, O-H won me over when I saw the gimcrack train Keaton had to ride to get home: at one stage using completely mismatched wheels to cope with warped and buckled tracks. This is almost as insane as the open-air cocktail lounge at the rear of W.C. Fields aeroplane, in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

The Pianist

(2002, Polanski)

Schindler's List (1993) was very good, but Polansky's film has a more authentic European feel. It is also a more balanced work, extending its themes beyond the holocaust to the effects of war on all sides. Admittedly an uneven filmmaker (eg. Che? (1972)), another Polansky favourite is Tess (1979), with its brilliant cinematography and art direction, and a sad reminder of Nastassja Kinski before the night-clubs.

The Public Eye

(1992, Franklin)

Set in 1940s New York and loosely based on the life of press-photographer Arthur Fellig, it is one of the few movies which captures the main point of photojournalism — something more thoughtful than "click" and move on. Lead actor Joe Pesci also does an excellent job portraying the self-sufficient and manic obsessive nature of artistic creativity — definitely not a life for Those Who Like To Play In Teams.

Ryan's Daughter

(1970, Lean)

Derided by "New Hollywood" fanboy critics (Kael, Goodman, Ebert), yet it is easily the most beautiful and subtle of Lean's films. Many missed the point that the story wasn't really about the 1916 Oirish Troubles, but rather a simple love-triangle done on a spectacularly epic scale; with the music and Freddie Young's 70mm cinematography used to capture the emotional highs and lows of the relationship, nothing more. All the lingering shots of beach, ocean, sunlight, seagulls, storms etc. might be sentimental overkill, but what can you expect from a director who married six times! Appropriately enough, the DVD transfer is also stunning.

Touch of Evil

(1958, Welles)

Citizen Kane (1941) is the obvious choice here, but I find ToE more interesting. Welles used his last opportunity as a Hollywood director to completely run off the rails. The result is a noir freak-show, a patchy extravagance loaded with self-degrading humour, Kane references, seediness, failure and despair: just like Welles' life. C'mon, tell me my future!" he barks at Dietrich, Honey, you haven't got one… she calmly replies (maybe she had seen the rushes for Ferry To Hong Kong (1959)?). Other noir favourites are Scarlet Street (1945), with Edward G. Robinson destroyed by a cruel and shallow woman; and Odd Man Out (1947), with James Mason on the run as a wounded IRA operative, in wildly expressionistic night-time Dublin.

Trzy kolory: Bialy

(1994, Kieslowski)

Of all the films about the 1989-93 Eastern Bloc social transition, TkB captures the spirit of the time best. Maybe it is not as popular or artistically ambitious as the other films in the "Red, White and Blue" trilogy, but the wintry mood, melancholy humour and shady black-market / real-estate dealings make it far more entertaining. The presence of goddess (and nobody's fool) Julie Delpy also helps. Another "Retro Commie" favourite is Das Leben der Anderen (2006); a sombre reminder of claustrophobia and drabness during the last years of the GDR.

Война и мир

(1968, Бондарчук)

Выдающийся! 402 minutes and a hundred thousand extras, making it perhaps the most expensive and elaborate film ever made. Admittedly there are a few "Clumsy Soviet" edits and camera moves, but these are compensated for by dozens of beautiful moments: eg. Natasha's dance while her uncle plays the guitar; the lateral tracking shot during the battle of Borodino (probably inspired by Roubaud's panoramic painting); the Burning and then Retreat from Moscow. Despite Mosfilm semi-restoring the movie in 2003, the image quality is still rough. The Russian 5.1 soundtrack is pretty good though, and is the only way to watch the film (the English dub is weird). In 1970 Bondarchuk rounded up the Soviet Army to tackle Bonaparte from the other side, this time in Waterloo (1970). A sequel of sorts, it is also a pretty good film, provided you overlook the "rocking horse" battle close-ups…

Smultronstället

(1957, Bergman)

In a series of dreams an old man thinks about his life's disappointments and wasted opportunities. Heavy stuff, but amazingly for Bergman it is done with a light touch. The usual doom and gloom is replaced by humour, warmth and (gasp) hope, and since most of the film is a road-trip, the characters even get to move about, free of the posed rigidity which suffocated Saint Ingmar's later films. The famous dream sequences are also some of the most believable and haunting in cinema — miles ahead of the Dali silliness in Spellbound (1945).

Young Frankenstein

(1974, Brooks)

Is set in a mythical past so painstakingly stolen from Bride of Frankenstein (1935) that at times it looks like it was actually made in the 1930s! Brooks and Wilder's film delivers its humour on so many different levels: from childish puns to obscurity to the openly bizarre Kenneth Mars, whose Inspector Kemp appears to be from another planet. Best of all, the Putting on the Ritz vaudeville sequence is one of the funniest things you will ever see! Another more obvious comedy favourite is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), not so much for the "Black Knight" silliness, but rather the Marxist peasants, migrating coconuts and unexpected medieval authenticity!

Music

I haven't provided commentary for the following as I don't listen to as much music as I used to. In fact I sometimes go for weeks without playing anything — I guess it's just a part of growing older. Nevertheless the following are favourites in one way or another. It is an unusual mix for sure, but like I said I don't listen to these things every day!