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What's eating Gilbert Grape

Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp with Juilette Lewis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

I’ll be honest, I love watching good films; films that transport me to a different place. Films that, for a couple of hours, I am elsewhere; immersed in places, feelings and emotions that are outside my everyday existence. The overdue bills and family problems are all forgotten for that brief interlude.The film might be about a wealthy woman who is suddenly faced with a life-threatening decision; a street kid who finds love; a salesman grappling with survival, or a world-class concert conductor going through a midlife crisis. You may be getting the idea that my favourite films are not high action or violent dramas. And you’d be right. The films I love; that I connect with, tend to be engaging stories. And at the heart of an engaging story – in my opinion – is a heart in need of satiating. And the only way a heart can be satisfied is through love. So I hate to say it, but I think you will find that the essence of these stories is love – in whatever form that may be.

Whatever the story, a well-executed script makes a great, timeless film that stays with me. I find myself reflecting on the characters days, and even weeks, later. Sometimes years later I still get a warm fuzzy feeling from the joy experienced by these characters. Jimmy Stewart as the tormented father in It’s a Wonderful Life; the high school graduates grappling with life and death during the Vietnam war in The Deer Hunter; the struggles of an elder brother trying to hold his dysfunctional family together in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Or the young boys in search of a dead body during summer holidays in Stand by Me.

It has made me think about today’s teenagers. They rush to the cinema to see the latest sugar-coated offering from Hollywood, to be consumed with over-priced popcorn and drink in hand, only to leave the cinema two hours later having forgotten the story and characters before the ticket stub has hit the bin.

A few years ago while on summer holidays with our teenage kids, one wet day they wanted me to grab some DVD’s from town. Being a lover of op-shops, I swung by one first to see what I could find, and I came across an old video of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. I thought it was such a good film when I watched it years earlier, so I took that back instead (along with a couple of other titles I found). After the initial berating from the kids, they reluctantly settled in to watching it and were pleasantly surprised. No one left the room. No one decided to wipe down the bikes and go for a ride instead. They actually loved it. Leonardo DiCaprio became one son’s favourite actor and to this day he is indignant that DiCaprio (pictured) has never won an academy award.

Leonardo DiCaprio

It made me think about all the great film our kids have never been exposed to because they were born in the wrong decade. In cinema terms they missed the hype that surrounds the film’s release before they settled on the bottom shelves to collect dust. But these stories are timeless enough for anyone to watch and enjoy if they knew about them. This isn’t the first time this has occurred to me, but I thought it was time to share my thoughts with others. My What’s Eating Gilbert Grape video was hot property among my kids’ friends that year and I still get requests for it. And Bringing Up Baby, one of the first Rom Coms made.

I’m not talking about the obvious classics. This is my list of movies, I think, everyone should see at some point in their lives. My other criteria are the films have to be entertaining, (and my definition of entertaining is not that they are a laugh, but they expand our emotional landscape), and timeless stories that I can watch over and over. Before you berate me for the omissions on this list, let me qualify it by saying this film is compiled from films I’ve seen and, it’s fair to say, I’ve missed a lot. Also this list is in no particular order. So my list of top films (with links to their trailers):

1. Bringing Up Baby (1938) – This film not only is a great laugh, but it stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant at their finest. Their comic timing is impeccable. Cary Grant forged his father’s signature and left school at 14 to join a comic troupe touring England. The skills he learned really pay off in this film. My young nieces love it and repeatedly ask to see it when they visit.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby.

2. The Gods must Be Crazy (1980) – the most successful South African film made. It is a crazy romp set in Botswana that tells the story of a Kalahari tribesman trying to keep track of his children. Throw in the setting of the desert and it’s abundance of animals (all with different personalities superbly explored), a few dippy scientists, some animal poachers and a coke bottle. What could go wrong?

Nixau Toma with the coke bottle in The God's must be Crazy

Nixau Toma with the coke bottle in The God’s must be Crazy

3. Stand By Me (1986) – One of my son’s favourite films. As the boys in the film journey to find a dead body, circumstances reveal each character’s greatest fears, which, of course, they have to overcome to continue on the journey. It’s a little like Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz when you think about it.

Stand By Me

Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and River Phoenix in Stand By Me.

4. My Girl (1991) – Kids faced with situations that adults would find hard to deal with. This is such a moving film. Starring Macaulay Culkin – the year after he shot to fame in Home Alone – but the real star is Anna Chlumsky in her first film role. Of course Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis who don’t let the team down. (Curtis is married to Christopher Guest who made this list for Best in Show).

5. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) – For a long time I avoided this film because, coming from a large family myself, I thought its depiction of the dramas of family life would be too close to the bone, but after seeing it, I loved it. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s first big film in which he plays Arnie Grape, a mentally challenged teenager and brother of Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp). The acting is fantastic and brings to life the very moving novel by Peter Hedges.

6. Boys Town (1938) – This is a great film about a man’s campaign to help street children. The lessons are surprisingly relevant today. It stars Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney (who died last year) – actors everyone should know of.

Spencer Tracy and some of the cast in Boys Town.

Spencer Tracy and some of the cast in Boys Town.

7. As It Is In Heaven (2004) – This charming Swedish film about a famous conductor who retreats to the tiny northern village of his childhood where the members of the church choir rekindle his interest in humanity. Don’t be put off by the subtitles. It’s worth the journey.

Michael Nyqvist with the church choir in As it is in Heaven. Four years later he starred in the first of the trilogy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Michael Nyqvist with the choir in As it is in Heaven. Four years later he starred in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

8. Best in Show (2000) – It is hard to fault this hilarious mocumentary by Christopher Guest that shines a spotlight on some quirkier aspects of some fictitious dog show enthusiasts. And no, this love story is not about a love of dogs. There’s much more to it than that.

The very talented ensemble cast in Best In Show ad libbed the scenes in the film after workshopping them with writer director Christopher Guest (top left) - co-written with Eugene Levy (top right).

The very talented ensemble cast of Best In Show ad libbed the scenes in the film after workshopping them with writer/director Christopher Guest (top left). It was co-written with Eugene Levy (top right).

9. Ordinary People (1980)- Talk about a change of tone – this powerful family drama illuminates the fragility of family dynamics as it depicts a son who struggles to cope with the death of his brother.

Timothy Hutton plays Conrad, who is such a tortured soul. Here he is pictured with his mother played by Mary Tyler Moore.

10. The Wedding Date (2005) – Before you start yelling at me, yes this is a guilty pleasure, but the scene where Dermot Mulroney (pictured) as Nick Mercer explains to Debra Messing (pictured) as Kat Ellis how he earns his money as a male escort makes it worth it in any money – OK – I admit it for chicks.

The Wedding Date

11. The Intouchables (2011) – This French film is based on a true story about a rich French aristocrat, who became a quadriplegic after an accident and hires an unlikely carer. Don’t be put off by the subtitles, they are no big deal. This is such a great film.

Francoir Cluzet and Omar Sy form and unlikely friendship in this very watchable French film.

Francoir Cluzet and Omar Sy form and unlikely friendship in this very watchable French film.

12. Babel (2006) – This slowly unravelling film is such compelling viewing. For me the big names, Brad Pitt including our own Cate Blanchett, are the low point- such is the quality of the acting and story in this film. It shows the global ramifications of one shot fired in the remote Moroccan desert.

13. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – Starring Jimmy Stewart this is such a moving film about a frustrated businessman who gets to see what life would be like for his family if he didn’t exist.

It's a Wonderful Life

Jimmy Stewart with Donna Reed and his family in It’s a Wonderful Life.

14. Some Like It Hot (1959) – I’ve included this film by Billy Wilder not just because it is a great script, or a fun romp, or stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, (two fine actors) but because everyone should see at least one Marilyn Monroe film. For a self-made woman of her time, who was abandoned by her father before she was born and orphaned by her mother (a woman plagued with mental illness), Marilyn, was famous for her apparent naivety and her beauty, yet she was smart and talented. I am grateful to Elton John for writing the song Candle in the Wind in her memory.

Some like it hot

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in disguise as female musicians with Marilyn Monroe in her all-girl band.

15. 12 Angry Men (1957) – a court room drama starring Henry Fonda that is really a study in human behaviour. Fonda should be included in the list.

16. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) – Starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man on rape charges in the deep south. He tries to teach his children not to be prejudiced. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Harper Lee, this film shows us we can find humanity and kindness when we least expect it.

17. The Deer Hunter (1978) – My favourite portrayal of the Vietnam War it shows the impact of the war on a group of high school friends from industrial America. Starring Robert De Niro who has never failed to impress, and Meryl Streep before she started doing weird accents and strange things.

18. To Sir, With Love – This is probably my favourite coming of age film. Set in an slum is London’s east end, it stars Sidney Poitier and Judy Geeson, and has a beautiful title song. My son recently bought me this DVD for my birthday. It was the first time the kids got to see the film.

Can a black teacher teach a class of tough, prejudiced high school students how to be dignified young adults? Sidney Poitier certainly has a go at it.

Can a black teacher teach a class of tough, prejudiced high school students how to be dignified young adults? Sidney Poitier certainly has a go at it.

Lulu’s rendition of the title song is worth listening it. Here is a link to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTapoA5RQyo

19. Fargo (1996) – I just like this film. Not for kids, but older teenagers. The list had to include a film by Ethan and Joel Coen.

Frances McDormand is married to director Joel Coen. She  won an academy award for her role in this film. She is also in a second film on my list North Country.

Frances McDormand is married to director Joel Coen. She won an academy award for her role in this film. She is also in a second film on my list North Country.

20. Double Jeopardy (1999) – This list wouldn’t be complete without a Tommy Lee Jones film on it. This one is very watchable. And it was directed by Bruce Beresford (an Australian so maybe I’m a little biased).

Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd in Double Jeopardy.

Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd in Double Jeopardy.

21. Tender Mercies (1983)- Ditto for Robert Duvall – another Bruce Beresford film. Ok so maybe the fact that I lived in Texas has made me partial to country music.

Robert Duval won as Oscar for his performance in Tender Mercies. He is pictured with Tess Harper and Allan Hubbard.

Robert Duval won as Oscar for his performance in Tender Mercies. He is pictured with Tess Harper and Allan Hubbard.

22. The Piano (1993) – I love the passion of this film. It stars Harvey Keitel, Holly Hunter, Sam Neill and a very young Anna Paquin in her first film. The piano23. Brassed Off (1996)- Set in a northern English mining village, the local brass band struggles to survive as the coal mining industry is closing down around it. It’s a great script and stars the late Pete Postlethwaite – a fine English actor.

Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite in Brassed Off.

Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and Pete Postlethwaite in Brassed Off.

24. Thelma and Louise (1991) – It is so nice to see women take the lead in such a strong film. It’s got a great script and excellent performances from Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel and Brad Pitt. Everyone actually.

Susanne Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise.

Susanne Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise.

25. Amadeus (1984) – The conflict between the supremely talented Mozart and the powerful, but awfully jealous Salieri is painful to watch. This is another fine film from Milos Forman the director who brought us The People vs Larry Flynt (another powerful film starring Woody Harrelson as the Hustler magazine) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (another powerful film. It stars Jack Nicholson. I’m so pleased I managed to get a Jack Nicholson film on the list.)

Tom Hulce as Amadeus.

Tom Hulce as Amadeus.

26. North Country (2005) – I don’t normally see films without getting some head’s up on what they’re about, but it was an evening trip to the cinema with a girlfriend and I didn’t know what we were going to see till the last minute. What a surprise. This is a really powerful film (starring South African born Charlize Theron) that fictionalises the first successful major sexual harassment case in America.

27. When Harry Met Sally (1989) – Watching Meg Ryan’s idealistic bubble slowly implode through the course of the film is moving. The list had to include a Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal movie – he is of course another fine actor.

This is a classic scene from the film When Harry Met Sally.

This is a classic scene from the film When Harry Met Sally.

28. Local Hero (1983) – This gentle character-driven feature is a charming film.

Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster put in excellent performances in Local Hero, but the real star is the music by Mark Knopfler. This is his first film soundtrack. It sold better than the film did.

Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster put in excellent performances in Local Hero, but the real star is the music by Mark Knopfler. This is his first film soundtrack. It sold better than the film did.

And the Mark Knopfler music score is sensational and worth getting in itself. A nice note to end on. 

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