For some reason this list always seems like the big one – even though I’m not that much of a film person. You can tell by the way I have a reasonably secure top ten list!
It’s an eclectic list, and one with surprisingly few SF entries. Most of them are films I watched for the first time as a young-ish teenager, which isn’t that much of a surprise. There’s one big exception (in the number three slot) and the fact that it makes this list continues to boggle me. Most of them are genres and types of films I don’t usually like. I don’t know what that says about me!
A few quick honourable mentions: The Princess Bride (1987), West Side Story (1961) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
10. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
I don’t know why I like this film so much. On some level I actually kind of hate it, its weird saccharine tone blended with with out-of-place attempts at grittiness – it’s an awkward film.
It’s also my go-to comfort film. I don’t know quite why; it just seems to hit all the right emotional highs and lows. It pushes all the right buttons. It’s brightly-coloured and upbeat and I love it to bits. I’m not going to lie: I once watched it three times in one day.
Not exactly one of the best fantasy films ever made – but it’s a really good adaptation of one of my childhood favourites. Throw in some brilliant casting – James McAvoy could not be more perfect as Tumnus – and you’ve got a film I can’t help loving.
9. Dirty Dancing (1987)
Is this my favourite romance film? Yes, I think it is.
I’ve come back to Dirty Dancing a few times as I’ve gotten older and it reads differently each time. When I first watched it Baby was a grown-up, sophisticated teenager I admired; then I began to appreciate the romantic and sexual side of the film more and she became subject to a cheerful kind of envy; now it seems very much a film about being right on the threshold of adulthood. (As I write this, I’ll be formally graduating from university in about eleven hours…) Who knows – maybe in a few years I’ll come to appreciate the sense of nostalgia more.
The romance; the music; the dancing; the wonderful pinkness of it; I love this film.
8. The Truman Show (1998)
The Truman Show is one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen. I was probably too young for it when I first watched it. It’s chillingly paranoia-inducing. And… it’s a Jim Carey Comedy.
This is a brilliantly constructed film. The television set that is Truman’s prison is beautifully realised; you can tell, after watching this film, just how it’s organised, how it’s funded, how actors and crew members move around it without ever alerting Truman to the truth.
It’s also one of the few films that manages to get the same emotional response out of me every single time I watch it. The sense of creeping paranoia, the gradual slippage of reality, and then the beautiful moment of catharsis that is the ending – ‘say something, damn it! You’re on television!’
7. The Blues Brothers (1980)
This film was part of my childhood long before I watched it. My parents had the soundtrack and liked to play it in the car. I remember it as a strange and disjointed collection of songs I didn’t understand.
Then I was finally allowed to watch the film – it’s rated 15 – and my god is it funny. I always forget till I re-watch it just how funny car pile-ups can be. Or how weird and wonderful Carrie Fisher’s murderous cameos are. And of course as I get older I understand more and more of the jokes – naturally.
But it’s the music, I think, that really makes this film as good as it is – the music and the sheer calibre of the performers who were on board. It’s not just a comedy, it’s a musical comedy – a musical comedy of the highest order.
6. Grosse Point Blank (1997)
Grosse Point Blank is like The Princess Bride – more or less every scene in it is memorable and quotable, to the point that I sometimes wonder why none of them have gone memetic. Oh, well. Popcorn!
It’s primarily a comedy, but it’s also a thriller; it has genuinely good action scenes; it’s a romance and it’s a redemption story. Martin Blank is a fascinating and complex lead – as well as one of the most relatable cold-blooded killers ever put to film.
And it has a great soundtrack. The slightly discordant selection of eighties songs permeates the whole film – I could make a list just for film soundtracks and Grosse Point Blank would be up there.
5. The Station Agent (2003)
I always find it very difficult to explain what it is that makes The Station Agent so good. ‘You see, it’s about a man with dwarfism who loves trains, and then his only friend dies and leaves him a disused train station – and then he meets a woman who’s just lost her son and a man who runs a roadside food truck – and then, well, things happen‘.
It was not just my introduction to Peter Dinklage but, I think, the first time I’d seen an actor with dwarfism in a serious role. It’s certainly the only film I know of that treats dwarfism as a serious subject. It’s very quiet. It’s low on dialogue and high on visual storytelling. It’s very gentle – but also, at times, emotionally harrowing.
4. Jesus Christ Superstar (2000)
I’m cheating a little with this one because it’s technically a filmed stage version rather than a film – and a direct to video version, at that.
Admitting to preferring this film to the more acclaimed 1973 production can get you a lot of flack in some circles – but I saw this version first, I grew up with it, and I love it in all its cheesy glory. For the longest time I didn’t even know there was another film.
I love Jesus Christ Superstar in all its guises, but for whatever reason the 2000 revival has the edge for me. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I love the post-apocalyptic, gritty visuals, I love the Darth Vader-esque Roman soldiers, I love the soundtrack, and I love the way it blends film and stage musical. It has close-ups and camera tricks, but also the surreal tone and visuals of a stage production.
3. Spartacus (1960)
Best Roman epic of all time or best Roman epic of all time?
Spartacus might be the oddest choice on this list. I’m a queer woman – and Spartacus is an unapologetic testosterone-fest. But it’s a self-aware testosterone-fest.
The Classical Epic is generally an idealistic genre. And Spartacus is idealistic, but it’s also realistic. The realism in part comes from the constraints of history – the Spartacan revolt was ultimately a failure and the mass crucifixion depicted here really did happen, though Spartacus himself was mercifully spared on account of already being dead – but the film just owns it.
It’s also a great piece of visual storytelling, neatly sidestepping the wordiness of many Classical Epics. The silent shots of the Roman army advancing speak louder than words ever could. It’s a truly great film.
2. Serenity (2005)
I’ll be honest: my love for Serenity is partly due to my love for Firefly, the tragically cancelled sci-fi series it’s sequel to. Which is strange, because as a sequel to Firefly I find it quite unsatisfying.
But as a science fiction film on its own terms, Serenity is incredible. It’s a dark thriller, a western and a sci-fi epic. It masters the ‘used future’ and what I’d call the ‘useable future’ – you can imagine what it would be to live in this world: what you would eat, how you would get around, what your life would be like.
I’d read Serenity as a meditation on the nature of evil. There’s no single villain here; the closest is the Operative, but as he himself acknowledges, he has little real agency. What there is instead is the Alliance, a group of politicians who honestly and earnestly believe that they are doing what is best for the people – by creating monsters.
1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
What can I say? I’m that kind of nerd.
The second act of the trilogy is usually the strongest and this is no exception. Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. In fact, I’d say it’s the only truly objectively good film in the series. After the shaky awkwardness of A New Hope but before the odd Ewok-filled wackiness of Return of the Jedi – perfect.
What I love about Star Wars in general – and Empire in particular – is that everything feels big. It feels heavy. You look at the spaceships knowing they’re models, but they feel heavy and metallic. You can imagine how they fit together. There’s a strong sense of space (ha) throughout the film; it’s like Serenity in that you can imagine what it would be like to be in the space ships and buildings depicted. Everything feels solid.
And to me, that’s the essence of SF: making the unreal feel real.