Welcome to TG10s. This year, echoing another publication, we are posting our top 10s, and taking votes from you. Keep reading The Twin Geeks for lists from our regular writers, as well as some extra special selection of lists from some amazing guests.
Making a top ten list is hard. There are too many movies that I love, and too many reasons to consider them among the greatest ever made. People change over time, as so do their tastes in art, literature, music, cinema. In this list you’ll find films I’ve kept with me for decades, but you’ll also find films that I’ve only found out about in recent years. Regardless of when and how I stumbled upon these films, they’re all terribly important to me – they operate as different examples of what I think cinema can be, should be, has been, and will continue to be. As of right here and right now, in the cold evening twilight of December 2022, these are my favourite films. Consider this a snapshot of who I am right now, and take these shining cinematic endorsements as me sharing a piece of myself with you all.
Films are listed in chronological order. Please don’t make me rank them.
Singin’ In The Rain
Make ’em laugh.
For years, I thought I disliked musicals. Even with a musical background, I never gravitated towards musicals because I just assumed they weren’t my thing. I was wrong! They are very much my thing. I owe my appreciation of soundstage musicals, raucous set design, movies about movies, and human expression through physicality to a little film called Singin’ In The Rain.
It operates so well as a movie about a transitional period in Hollywood – moving away from the silent era into a new exciting age of talkies, colour, and sync-sound. The brash technicolour picture, Kelly’s powerful control over his every movement, the swelling score and infectiously catchy original songs; all congregate into a picture that continues to inspire and delight. It’s a send-up of old tinseltown, a superficial vista that could only ever exist on-screen – sound and vision blending into something larger than life itself, but it still feels like a wonderful dream.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
George Méliès is often regarded as the ‘Grandfather of the special effect’ in cinema. To me, Karel Zeman has always felt like a spiritual successor to Méliès, and this film is my justification. Based on Rudolf Erich Raspe‘s adventurous tall tales of German noblemen, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is, for my money, one of the greatest flights of fantasy ever put to celluloid. Zeman was a window dresser before he turned his hand to directing, and he uses his prior expertise to fill the cinematic window with beautiful objects and images, spellbinding sights and sounds that epitomize pulpy, energetic, and downright fun adventure storytelling.
The narrative form is as inventive as the technical effects and filmmaking trickery used to create this dazzling marvel of sight and sound. A blend of stop motion animation, live action, post-production colourisation, hand-drawn backgrounds and superimposition is used to create an otherworldly delight that is simply a spectacle to behold. Part of me wants to know every little detail about the production of this film – and the other half of me wants the secrets of how Karel Zeman pulled off some of these tricks to remain a complete mystery. A purely incomparable cinematic experience that never fails to impress.
Cinema as an inkblot test.
The central narrative of Persona is bookended with a series of experimental images, which Bergman himself referred to as a visual poem. We see the beginning of cinema, a light, a projector, the very celluloid that films are made on; then references themes and visual iconography that are synonymous with Bergman’s filmography – spiders, a crucifixion, the lamb of god. Persona was written specifically with Liv Ullman & Bibi Andersson in mind, which explains why the characters of Alma and Elizabeth are so captivating to watch. The silent Elizabeth (played by the fantastic Liv Ullman) expresses herself solely through her eyes and lips. Ullman was a frequent Bergman collaborator (Cries And Whispers, Autumn Sonata, Hour Of The Wolf) but I’d argue that her muted portrayal of Elizabeth is probably her finest. Similarly, Bibi Andersson (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles Of A Summer Night) plays Alma with a broad range of emotions. Over the course of the film, Bibi explores and augments different elements of the human psyche, almost delving into tendencies of schizophrenia; similar to Lucky in Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.
This is arguably cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s best and most influential work. The photography of Fårö Island is stark and beautiful, with the majority of the film being comprised of solely longshots and closeups. Persona‘s iconic shot composition is still as visually striking as it ever was, and the lighting and shadow play really showcase how beautiful black & white films can look. The novel form of Persona isn’t just the main reason it continues to be studied and analysed for years. It is a dissection of identity and the polarity of violence and erotica wrapped up into a film that transcends the preconceived boundaries of cinema.
“The history of film as an art is mainly a history of films that lose money.” – Charles Eidsvik – Film Among The Arts 1978
Playtime is art.
This film has a scale unlike any previous Tati film. Whereas there was some level of malleability and improvisation in earlier works, this is pure clean-cut Tati. An unfiltered, realised vision from an incredibly ambitious director. Every minute detail, every extra, every lampost, every paving slab is under Tati’s control. For Jour de Fête he had to convince villagers to be part of the film, for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday he had to pay hotel guests to stay out of shots, and when Tati couldn’t find a suitable place (or a place that would allow him) to film his fourth feature film, he built his own.
Tativille is a marvel. The clean, pristine working city built from the ground up is unlike any film set I’ve ever seen. The main reason Playtime was a financial flop for Tati was the sheer amount of money spent building and rebuilding the Tativille sets. It appears to be such a simple modern 60’s city on the surface, but it plays almost like an abstract canvas for Tati’s detail-oriented gags and stupors. The sterile mise-en-scene of this contemporary Paris paves the way for a film that once again takes a sideways look at modern living and the advancement of technology and gadgetry. Now, technology here isn’t necessarily presented in a satirical light, nor is it a sinister warning of a future to come, but it is more a childlike bafflement at the 60’s futurist aesthetic. To me, PlayTime is like a more modern Modern Times.
Again, Playtime has no real story. But the story is far from the point of Playtime. It has a narrative frame similar to Jour de Fête and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, in that there is an arrival and departure of American Holidaymakers coming to Paris, and a swift 24-hour microcosmic look at 60’s life. They only see the sights of Paris as we know them through glass doors and mirrored reflections; caught up in the ludicrosity of modernism.
Playtime is theatre of life, the purest act of people-watching.
An absolute masterpiece.
The Muppet Movie
“Kermit, does this movie have socially redeeming value?“
The Muppet Movie begins and ends with cinema. It is a celebration of the magic of movies, and the power that art holds. Kermit and his cohort of felted friends sit in a Hollywood screening room and watch a film about the Muppets. A movie within a movie, wheels within wheels. The film is an origin story that shows ‘approximately how it happened’, a road movie in the style of the Crosby/Hope ‘Road To..’ movies, a takedown of big business, and a celebration of art as a vehicle to make people happy. Littered with fabulous celebrity cameos, it is apparent that Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the rest of the production team wanted to tip their hats to those that came before them – the comedians and artists that inspired and motivated them.
What is it that draws me back to this movie, and The Muppets as a whole, again and again? Is it the vaudevillian comedic styling? Is it Paul Williams’ masterful songs? The daring and nuanced camerawork? The technicality and showmanship of the puppetry? The whimsical, wholesome nature? It’s obviously all of these things and more; but there is an earnestness to these movies that I rarely find elsewhere. An antiquated approach to spectacle and jokes, in productions that rely heavily on physical design and craft, done with nuance, care, and polish.
Cinema is a magic store, and I’ve found a home here.
Life is like a movie, write your own ending. Keep beliving, keep pretending.
The Legend of Drunken Master
If you deserted me on an island with nothing but martial arts films, I’d be absolutely fine, just make sure Legend of Drunken Master is one of them.
This is a collaboration between two titans of Hong Kong cinema, Lau Kar-Leung, and Jackie Chan. Two distinct styles are blended together to create something brand new, and utterly mesmerising. Within this film, you have the synthesis of Lau Kar-Leung’s often heavy, realistic kung fu style, and Chan’s light and fluffy kung fu comedy. Kar-Leung brings the grounded cinematic style which was showcased in some of his epic works like 36th Chamber of Shaolin, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, or Dirty Ho. But rather than working with Gordon Liu, a fantastic leading man who could play stoic and powerful, we have Jackie Chan, the clown prince of Kung Fu. There is a drastically different sense of scale with this sequel. Drunken Master was filmed in grass-outback planes of Hong Kong and Southern China, but with the sequel director Lau Kar-Leung travelled northwest, to the city of Changchun, and there was real money behind this production. Filming in the countryside of Changchun gives the film an authentic period setting, with its grand sets, working railway, hundreds of extras, and stuntmen. We are miles away from the grassroots production of the original Drunken Master. Jackie is at the height of his powers here, money isn’t really an issue. Reports from the production say that they would often film for days and days, to secure perhaps three seconds of footage for the final movie. That ‘striving for perfection’ attitude is really showcased in the final edit, the action is sharp, well-executed, and generally enthralling.
For years and years, Jackie’s films were marketed in the West with ‘This is the only man who does all his own stunts!’ Whilst that isn’t necessarily always true (Chan has a swarm of doubles and stuntmen in many of his films) this film is one of the main reasons why this is a common claim. He takes flames up the body, he walks across hot coals, he falls, he bends, he flings himself backward, he tumbles. Jackie doesn’t want to appear as an invulnerable superman on screen, you need to see him take some pratfalls to be really engaged when he gets the upper hand in a fight. He’s the Charlie Chaplin of chop-socky. There is a more authentic representation of Chinese fighting styles in this movie too. The first film was preoccupied with comedy through physicality, but there are some really impressive showcases of several different fighting styles throughout this film. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a ton of fantastic comedic moments, especially in some of the fight sequences, but there is an emphasis on fighting styles like Hung Ga, Shaolin Kung Fu, Taekwondo, and of course, Drunken Boxing. Unlike other productions, the action is choreographed on the set, on the day. It’s a real on-the-ground, collaborative production, with cast, crew, stuntmen, anyone and everyone, pitching in ideas on how to craft the most visually engaging fights or stunts. There is no time to storyboard out things in an office somewhere, it’s real-time stunt work, and it’s pure magic. The climactic fight in the steel factory at the end of the film is arguably the greatest action sequence in a JC film. The way he gives out hits is one thing, but it’s the way he TAKES hits that really sells this sequence. It’s so down and dirty, as he drinks kerosine and spits flames and hiccups bubbles, it’s hard to believe this man was ever being brought up to be the next Bruce Lee. He could never be the next Bruce Lee, he’ll always be the first Jackie Chan.
A Moment of Innocence
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was my first real introduction to Iranian cinema. Some of you might know this, but most won’t. I actually grew up in Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East. Most of my formative years were spent relatively immersed in Arabic culture and communities but I was never really exposed to Middle-Eastern cinema until much later. I was browsing a film forum years ago, and found an essay titled An Introduction to Iranian New Wave Cinema, and found A Moment of Innocence.
This is a semi-autobiographical film from 1996, that deals with the director, played by Makhalmbaf himself, casting and producing a film based on an event that happened when he was 17 years old. At a protest rally against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also known as The Shah, who had run an imperial regime in Iran for 30-odd years, Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman and was imprisoned. He had formed his own urban guerilla group in 1972, attacked a police officer in 1974, and remained in prison until 1978. Two decades later, the director reflects on this time of naivety and frustration, and tracks down the policeman he had stabbed at the age of seventeen. This film is a dramatised staging of those events, bleeding into some sublime meta-textual drama, resulting in a beautiful film that harnesses the power of cinema, and is an act of therapy through storytelling. A distinct hybrid, of docufiction, biographical, feature, coming-of-age drama, and slice-of-life realism. This second wave of the Iranian New Wave sees directors like Makhalbaf and the legendary Abbas Kiarostami blending these genres to tackle sociopolitical problems in Iran, and it crafts this process and film genre within itself, which is so fascinating and influential.
A Moment of Innocence is a reminder that great cinema exists all across the world, and you should go out of your way to seek it out.
It’s hard to imagine my life without Spirited Away. Dad brought the DVD home in the mid-2000’s, and I’d revisit it constantly. Completely enthralled by its compelling blend of dark tones, fantasy worldbuilding, and a unique kind of storytelling I had simply never come across before. Spirited Away was my introduction to anime, and world cinema in general, so I’ll always be thankful for that. It wasn’t until the early 2010’s that I realised Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki had made films OTHER than Spirited Away. To me, this was just a singular piece of cinema, sent from a divine being above, to me – a boy feeling somewhat lost in this strange world.
Spirited Away can be read as the final chapter in a trilogy of Miyazaki films about growing up, which began with My Neighbor Totoro and continued with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Strong female characters learning life lessons in colourful, fantasy landscapes. Miyazaki creates a distinct contrast with the parenting shown in My Neighbour Totoro. In Totoro, Mei’s father accepts his daughter’s view of the world and the creatures that he simply cannot see; he is supportive and attentive. Chihiro’s parents practically ignore their daughter; they seem self-absorbed, driving an unnecessarily large, polluting car and doing little to pay their respects when they encounter the Shintō shrines. If My Neighbour Totoro is a sincere and nostalgic look at Japan’s past, Spirited Away is a lament for it from the perspective of the present. An earnest cry from Miyazaki; the future lies in the hands of the children. On this rewatch, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the bathhouse and Studio Ghibli in general. The main bulk of the film spends time exposing the behind-the-scenes of the bathhouse, in which hard and thankless work is done to keep the front, which the general public sees, shiny and beautiful. Miyazaki and his team spend YEARS of their lives painstakingly crafting these beautiful hand-drawn scenes, as documented in the brilliant documentary The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness. In regards to the animation style, Spirited Away marks the point where Miyazaki is comfortable with his techniques, but not afraid to experiment where necessary. Some of the more elaborate sequences do in fact use CGI, only ever to enhance, never to overthrow. Things like 3D tracking shots and some of the sequences that require steam/smoke were rendered in CGI, to elevate the gorgeous hand-drawn animation. The textural quality of this film is simply beautiful; a whole plethora of colours and shapes comprise this mystical fantasy landscape.
It’s hard to choose, but this is probably my favourite score from a Ghibli film. From that opening 7th suspended 4th chord in ‘One Summer Day’, Joe Hisaishi sets the entire mood for the film. A mystical sense of wonder, an ethereal presence with slight undertones of darkness and intrigue. There is something so embracing about his music, quietly beautiful and uplifting, with dashes of the unexpected and eerie when required. A modern-day fable to warn against the powers of greed and corruption, Spirited Away will remain not only one of my favourite films, but also one of the most important and formative films in my life. Every time I revisit this film, I get a slightly different read on things. Sometimes I concentrate more on Chihiro’s character, sometimes I think more about Haku and Yubaba. Every single time I watch it, I’m thankful for its existence – I have no idea if I’d have the same burning passion for cinema without it. I thank my lucky stars practically every day I was fortunate enough to grace this earth at the same time as Hayao Miyazaki.
Don’t Let The Riverbeast Get You!
Those familiar with the goings on at The Twin Geeks will no doubt know the podcast series Don’t Let The Moterncast Get You! A series of conversations dedicated to the filmography of Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley. This film is the primary reason that podcast exists, Did you ever make films or little projects with your friends and family as you were growing up? Pulling together a few resources, putting some time aside, and just having fun with a camera in your back garden and the local community? Well, Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh never stopped doing that. Don’t Let The Riverbeast Get You is a next-to-no-budget homage to monster movies of a bygone era. The film isn’t necessarily interested in the monsters at the heart of those films, but more so the strange, awkward connective tissue in the middle of those movies. Awkward acting, awkward choices, strange turns of phrase and word choice, using the English language as a sandbox for comedy, a style of writing and filmmaking that coined the term ‘grammarspolitation’. It is sincere and charming, a reminder that commerce doesn’t trump creativity. Make art for art’s sake.
Cinema belongs to everyone. Go grab a camera.
Cameras are powerful tools.
Kirsten Johnson is a director, cinematographer, and camera operator who has worked on a wealth of fascinating documentaries. Cameraperson focuses primarily on the relationship between cameraperson and subject through a series of out-of-context camera clips from Johnson’s cinematic journeys around the world. The form of the film is scattershot – it is a visual memoir unbound by structure, presenting itself as a collage of sights and sounds, leaving the viewer to unpick the documentary ethics and personal connections at play on screen. The film provokes questions, and seldom gives responses. Should this person be filming this? Has this stepped over a line? When does the cameraperson stop being a passive bystander and start being an affecting force? Johnson packs a lifetime of footage into one film, but at no point does it feel overwhelming. It is naturalistic in the sense that anyway with access to a camera could make something like this, given the right circumstances and time, footage becomes more than just footage – these small snapshots of life speak volumes, they tell stories, they provoke thought, they share important experiences with the world.