Friday, June 1, 2012

Alex's Top 20 Favorite Summer Films

Every year, as this time rolls around, where the days grow brighter and the air hotter, I feel a certain hankering for several films.  Usually this is because of actual settings of the film, but many times it also comes down to a personal remembrance of days gone by or a nostalgia caused by these films.  Sometimes they get you in the mood to go out on a warm day's adventure, or to unwind after one.  Quite often I find myself wanting to watch some of these after walking through an antique store or a flea market on a hot, June day, or after a trip to the beach.  The summer just seems to amplify the nostalgic atmosphere in these films, and its not always best to over explain the personal reasons why.  So here I'm just going to go through the top 20 films I find myself eager to watch this time of year and give small recommendations for them as well.  

20. Urusei Yatsura The Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

Starting the list off is a fine, classic anime (from the magical year of 1984) which more people should know about.  I remember I bought this film the summer I attended my first anime convention.  I'd loved the TV show and thought it wouldn't hurt to delve into the theatrical outings of the series.  This movie is thrilling, haunting and best of all, memorable.  It was one of Mamoru Oshii's first times directing a feature and one can see a lot of his signature visuals, as well as signature dialogue (for better or for worse).  The animation is impeccable when needed and the complex narrative is told rather well for a film not 90 minutes long.  From the opening of the film your attention is fixed and the bizarre tone set with a strange, waterside scene populated by characters seemingly indifferent to the surroundings.

19. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Years ago I discovered this film through the video store, it had been one of those titles I'd see all the time as a kid but never actually be interested in, even though I should have.  It was always left to my mother to rent it and expose me to something different than what I was used to.  This film was indeed quite different from what I was used to.  Though it begins off with the nice, cozy sci-fi feel which I knew and loved from other films of the era, it spins out of control into a crazy adventure.  Quite avant garde scoring by Jerry Goldsmith and weird sets, its truly something I'm surprised was made by a major studio, though it seems 20th Century Fox was always willing to try new things.  Plus, I'd never seen Charlton Heston so desperate before, mainly associating him with Moses or some great historical figure.  I went on to rent the rest of the films and I was immensely entertained by them.

18. Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
The same summer I found Planet of the Apes, I also found this gem while watching PBS.  Immediately this film entertains with the animated title sequence.  Its an exhausting chase across the West coast, but also exhaustively funny.  The best thing about this film is that it keeps going and constantly mounts upon itself.  The sequence before the Intermission is a masterpiece of erroneous hilarity.  You wouldn't think a movie that's almost 3 hours (or 3+ hours, depending on which version you're watching) wouldn't be as quotable as some other, shorter comedies, but oh, how untrue that is.  Almost every line in this film is memorable.  I know that I can recite Colonel Hawthorne's livid "Brassiere" speech word for word.  Dozens more scenes also stick out due to the dialogue.  Its definitely great for spending a summer afternoon.         

17. Contempt (1963)
Also from 1963, but from across the Atlantic is Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris.  It is clear from this film that Godard was expressing his frustration with his relationship with Anna Karina (and it wouldn't be his last film to do this).  All the tension in the marriage we watch fall apart is palpable.  Brigitte Bardot has real venom to the spiteful remarks she gives to Michel Piccoli.  All throughout this, an air of impending doom hangs over the proceedings thanks to Georges Delerue's gorgeous music.  The cinematography, with its stark, empty spaces and bright colors reminds me of the paintings of David Hockney.  Not a feel good movie by any stretch of the imagination but it certainly has a lot of summer activities enacted by Bardot, from sunbathing to swimming just off of a sea cliff.  It even has the always entertaining Jack Palance! (And that's got to count for something)

16. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Back in the summer of 2006 I fully discovered the work of Hayao Miyazaki.  Though Spirited Away (2001) was what got me excited to look into more of his work, Nausicaa is what cemented my enthusiasm.  The film reminded me vaguely of some of the animated fantasy movies from the 70s I'd seen, like the Rankin Bass Hobbit, (not surprising since they were actually both produced by the same production company, Top Craft) so there was instant nostalgic draw.  I really love this film for the most part, its got memorable scene after scene and a sense of mystery about the post-apocalyptic world of the film.  The animation is unique for its small attention to minute gestures or mannerisms and incredibly spectacular towards the end, though that's mostly thanks to Hideaki (Evangelion) Anno.  I enjoy Nausicaa's character to a point, she gets a tad annoying with her environmental, borderline anti-human speeches.  Besides that, its a fine animated film, with plenty of imagery that sticks with you.

15. The Omega Man (1971)
If there's anything I've always wanted to do, its go through a city in mid-summer, completely alone.  I know I'm not the only person to want this, but that's what makes this film so immediately appealing.  Charlton Heston's got it right, cruising along in a convertible, listening to a sweet jazz arrangement of Max Steiner's "A Summer Place", with his trusty submachine gun at his side.  One of the most appealing things about The Omega Man is the happening score by Ron Grainer (who composed the Doctor Who theme, by the way), its quintessentially 70s and definitely grows on you.  The main strength of the film is with Heston and the inevitable love interest, Rosalind Cash, who employs the hip "black power" attitude in vogue at the time.  Of course its not as faithful to the novel I Am Legend as the Will Smith film was, but honestly, I found this one had more charm, and a bit more humanity to it.  Just a tad.  Also it actually had a real villain (or maybe he wasn't a villain, it was the 70s after all), Matthias, played to perfection by Anthony Zerbe.  

14. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Already discussed somewhat on this site, this film never fails to keep my attention from start to finish.  Its about as close to an animated James Bond film as ever there was, sometimes is looks like it could turn into the best episode of Scooby Doo ever.  As someone who's never watched anything to do with Lupin III before, this film works absolutely fine on its own.  Whatever the characters may be outside of this film, they work well enough to serve the film.  What makes this film so fun is the sometimes absurd, but always fascinating means which Lupin employs to get from point A to point B.  The castle itself is complex but believable thanks to Miyazaki's thoughtful planning.  Watching this movie reminds me of how much fun adventure films could be.  

13. The Killers (1964)
I love calling this film The Killers '64, it makes me think there's going to be a MIDI rendition of the James Bond theme when I start it.  I only discovered this film last year but I adore its over the top, excessive visuals and storytelling.  Since it was originally a made for TV movie, its lighting and overall visual style reminds me of some of the Disney live action films of the time.  Lee Marvin is literally awesome in this.  He's a hurricane of violence and intimidation throughout.  Its also funny seeing Ronald Reagan in his last film role before going full into politics, he looks exactly as he does when he became president, suit and all.  Even though the main title and end credits music are borrowed from Henry Mancini's score for Touch of Evil (1958) the film's music is done by a young John Williams, whose music would only be recognizable if you'd known his other TV scores, like Lost in Space.  The sun bathed locales of this film bring high contrast to some of the gaudy colors and make the film feel like a modern graphic novel brought to life.  Plus, it has what must be the greatest death scene ever captured on film (though its more thanks to alcohol than acting).  

12. Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Parts of this film should be used as travel advertisements for the South of France, it sold me.  The film, though morose at times, is filled with lots of fun.  Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina frolic through the trees, hide under the sand, swim in the gorgeously still waters, get mixed up in the machinations of gun runners and other unsavory people...  Okay, maybe not that last part, but this film really gets one in the mood to just run out onto the sand or drive a car into the ocean, whichever comes first.  Anna Karina, at her most lovely, enjoys life as best as she can, though Belmondo sometimes quenches her spirit.  I find that this film still resonates with young people, even though it uses an often confusing, sometimes alienating storytelling structure.  Also, what could get you in the mood for seafood better than Anna carrying back from the sea, a large, freshly caught fish on a trident? 

11. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This was one of the first epics I sat through all the way.  I considered this MY epic when I was younger.  The film which I watched by myself throughout an afternoon and emerged from with a hankering for adventure.  This film satisfies in all areas, from staggering scenery, to compelling performances.  I've yet to see the desert for myself, but this film really peaks my interest, especially for filming there one day.  David Lean really undertook some courageous directing when he chose to film in such a hostile environment.  That environment is perfectly romanticized by Maurice Jarre's score.  By the way, I've always wanted to try that trick Lawrence does, where he does it with his fingers, but the cooler way does seem to be extinguishing it by film cut.  

10. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
For me there's always been a mystique surrounding Australia, in how its been portrayed in films and paintings.  This film exploits that mystique and then some.  I've discussed how heartbreakingly beautiful this film is, but it is also slightly terrifying at points.  A wonderful example of a film going places you could have never imagined.  The oppressive heat of summer is also something which is portrayed vividly, you can almost feel the humidity.  Looking at the girls in those thick, constricting, Victorian clothes doesn't help either.  Because it drifts through reality and dream-like states, I'd recommend this film for a hot summer's evening.  

9. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Here's what I consider the greatest mythology film ever made.  This movie epitomized the sense of wonder I've come to crave from the cinema since I was a child.  The characters in this film don't venture much outside of representing the heroes and myths of legend, they're not complex.  They all serve to create something which could be a motion picture equivalent to the ancient illustrations of men battling monsters.  In an era today where special effects aren't so special since they're all being done the same way, its refreshing to go back and see the personality automatically attributed to something hand made.  Ray Harryhausen, the living legend behind the special effects once said that fantasy is a dream world and doesn't work if you try to make it too real.  Not that the movements of his creations aren't convincing, on the contrary, you can sense an intelligent presence behind each monster the crew of the Argo encounter.  

8. The Black Hole (1979)
No introduction necessary here.  However, a quick story is.  Back when I had first heard of this film I was very intrigued, I even saw a movie poster of it at a memorabilia store in Disenyworld (I am now kicking myself for not getting it).  That summer I found a VHS copy of it at the video store and rented it so many times that the store gave it to me because no one else was renting it.  Ah well, more for me! 

7. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
One of the most entertaining Bond films ever.  Its got almost everything, skiing, underwater scenes, helicopter chases, Caroline Munro.  The aquatic element is actually the major part of the story.  The now famous Lotus, submersible car is used in a key sequence and Bond even takes a ride on a spiffy jet ski at one point.  The main highlight of the film is Atlantis, the underwater base of Stromberg.  Tons of extravagant sets, including the largest ever built at the time, give an unprecedented scope to a 007 film.  As a side note, the film also boasts one of the largest models of all, a 70 ft. model of an oil tanker.  The blazing disco "Bond 77" theme arranged by Marvin Hamlisch is a joy to the ears.  

6. A Day at the Races (1937)
The Marx Bros. are my favorite comedians from any era, ever.  All I have to do is look at them and I start chuckling.  For some reason I start watching their films whenever it gets warm out.  A Day at the Races is one of my favorites of theirs.  Following in the success of A Night at the Opera (1936) (and now you know where Queen got those album titles from) this film followed a similar formula.  The best part of any Marx Brothers picture is the set pieces which rise in madcap fervor to an insane conclusion. In this film you can take your pick: The hectic dating scene which ends buried in wallpaper, the absurdist examination of Margaret Dumont and my favorite, Harpo's disembowelment of a piano, the strings he then uses as a harp.  When I first saw this part as a kid, late at night on television, as Harpo proceeded to smash the piano while playing it, I couldn't stop laughing hysterically.  Some of the musical numbers fall flat but I like them, the piece which Harpo plays is rather beautiful and the big number "Tomorrow is Another Day/All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" is a lot of fun. 

5. A Soft Self-Portrait (1970)
A documentary makes its way onto this list, but not just any documentary.  This special film, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty, is perhaps the most fascinating, bizarre and entertaining of its kind I've ever seen.  The world of Salvador Dali is made real at his home in Port Lligat, Catalonia.  Dali basks fully in the exploitation (Dalisploitation?) of what his capricious mind conceives and the attention it brings.  Various aspects of his paintings are explored, from the double image, to the specter of death.  Making it all the more compelling is a narration by Orson Welles, whose dialogue reminds me of that in F for Fake (1974).  Dali recounts certain events where they took place with eccentricity that extends beyond the moon.  In one scene he is even explaining the trauma of birth!  The climax of the film is Dali, followed by his loyal fans paints the "Angel of Extermination and Redemption" onto a clear, plastic dome.  The scene is made near sublime by the amazing music of Jean Claude Pelletier. 

4. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968)
I'll never get over how much this film reminds me of Little Italy in Wilmington, Delaware.  Besides that, its and incredibly gripping piece of cinema.  I usually can't stand Westerns.  In fact, I loathe the most generic formulaic ones and only a few which are unique examples I've warmed up to (Jeremiah Johnson (1972), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971))  It seems that with the "Spaghetti Westerns" the genre really came of age.  This film is incredibly famous so it seems pointless to say much about it.  What partially makes it such a classic is the unforgettable music by master composer Ennio Morricone.  I'm not just talking about the main theme, the other scoring in this film is prime Morricone (though I'd say its not his absolute best).  The landscape of a dirty, war weary country is aptly portrayed and somehow the dubbing of the Italian actors also helps to distance one from the past, like an echo.  

3. Head (1968)
My enthusiasm for this film never wanes.  Its incredibly original, maniacal, trippy and has an awesome soundtrack.  It could be called the Monkees career suicide as it completely betrays the image they held (it shows, uncut, the famous news footage of a Vietcong being executed, for crying out loud).  It does have some very potent things to say about them as musicians struggling to escape their current image, to break out of the "box" they had been put into.  Many different filming techniques are used in pioneering fashion, from spastic editing to using a form of color solarizing for the first time.  The film is also peppered with strange guest stars from Tor Johnson to Frank Zappa(!).  I'm so glad Criterion put it in their collection.  Also I get the feeling 1968 must have been one of the most exciting years for cinema ever.  

2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
This I consider to be the finest film Disney has ever produced.  It is a glorious film, and the movie that got me into movies.  I'll never forget being 5 years old and sitting on a couch, stunned by the image of the giant squid emerging onto the screen.  The writing in this film is something which such films in general don't achieve today, let alone Disney's.  The characters and subject matter incredibly mature and something which isn't usually attributed to the studio.  Magnificent art design and special effects got the film two Oscars.  I do believe that Harper Goff's Nautilus design singlehandedly launched what would amount to steampunk.  Though, since it is a Disney film from the 50s it does have a song, though it makes sense in a narrative sense and "Whale of a Tale" is one of my favorites.  If you've never seen the giant squid in this film, you're in for a magnificent surprise.

1. Thunderball (1965)    
This is my 2nd favorite Bond film, but one which I get to see a lot more. Thunderball is everything I wish the franchise would return to.  Gadgets, larger than life villains with their own title theme songs, epic climactic battle scenes, oh and memorable music, yes that's always a plus, from John Barry or otherwise.  Now this film really gets me in the mood for the summer, hanging out on the beach or swimming around never looked so exciting and filled with possibility for adventure.  The film flows well, and has a wide array of set pieces and vehicles to carry 007 from scene to scene.  You've got great use of an actual jet pack in the pre-credits sequence, the hijacking and sinking of a Vulcan bomber plane and not the least of which, an underwater battle which one might expect to find in a war movie.  Every time I see this film, I'm utterly astounded they pulled of this sequence.  There is a definite chaos that an underwater skirmish would bring and the danger is self evident.  You've also got Claudine Auger as Domino, the beautiful red head Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe (who is probably the most well written femme fatale in the whole series) and Adolfo Celi as the delightfully devious Largo.  There would be no Thunder in Thunderball without John Barry's score, which I find to be one of his best for Bond.  As a tradition,  I always start of the summer off with this film, its definitely best before or after a swim and certainly essential for any cinephile's pool party!   


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