This week we talked to Sydney based film-lover and critic, Damien Straker. Here's what Damien had to say....
I have been writing for the website Impulse Gamer (www.impulsegamer.com) for six years now, which is a website dedicated to both films and video games. I would recommend that any serious film fan place themselves onto a media list. It’s a great opportunity to see films for free and write or talk about them, and you will also find likeminded people with whom you can enjoy the movies. I hope that by sharing these ten impressionable films that people will have insight into what types of films I like and be encouraged to read more of my writing on the website.
You should be scared when going to the movies. Some people say that films are just there to entertain us and nothing more. After all, they don’t want to think too hard following a long day of sitting in their cube. What a terrible waste of an artful medium that would be. Movies are indeed about relaxing and can become a social gathering in the same way people use church or join a political party. But how many, with a monocle pasted over their eyelid, have ever walked into an art gallery, raised their paw to their mouth and post-yawn announced: “I’m far too tired for anything dark or challenging. Please repaint that hideous piece”.
Yet despite being an artful medium, films are subjected to popularist standards, where nothing should be too challenging or different. If film is about socialising, sharing the experience with friends and being “entertained”, then what are the types of films that are most likely to do that? They are the ones that will excite and disturb us with images and scenes we do not expect; these can be funny or serious but it’s the films that surprise us that will endure. To relax at the movies is complacency, the same sluggish familiarity that Marvel thrives off where we recognise every beat and time our watches to the downfall of the next moustache twirling villain. We never leave the safety of the past.
Most of the films on my list are dark, very dark—even the funny ones. This is because if film is still an art form, it must be willing to take chances and surprise us with the bleakest and most uncomfortable facets of life. The world would be far more boring and less “entertaining” without moments of risk. If you feel anxious before a movie starts, you’re in for a good time.
10. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
One of the greatest family comedies ever. It’s about the American Dream and the ruthless means in which a person will achieve their life goals, including providing for their family. It addresses this in the most hilarious and self-depreciating ways. The comedy is black, sarcastic and never sentimental. Even after all these years, it’s disappointing that Wally World remains closed.
9. 12 Angry Men (1957)
9. 12 Angry Men (1957)
A masterclass in film economics. The story runs for roughly 90 minutes, which also allows it to become the tightest and most intelligent of political thrillers. All the clues of the courtroom case are precise and logically constructed and the characters are sharply drawn. It’s an assessment of the power of doubt and analysis.
8. Gran Torino (2008)
This film was a huge box office and critical success for Clint Eastwood. It seems even more pertinent now than it did when it was released in 2008, given how ugly the world has become. The reason for its global success, including here in Australia, is how universal it is. This story of a racist man who learns tolerance is tense, funny and completely timeless. It is applicable to any contrast in cultures and for that it deserves to be applauded.
7. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
A near perfect, subversive Western. Timely themes, beautiful photography and another great ensemble cast. The style of it reminds you of the types of films made decades ago and makes you long for that quality again. This features Heath Ledgers’ best performance, topping even that of the Joker from The Dark Knight because of the difficulty of playing such an introverted, hidden characters. One of the best films I’ve seen in the last ten years or more.
6. The Pianist (2002)
It’s about survival and the moral complexity of being passive to combat. Is it right to stand idle and watch people die in order to protect your own skin? Few modern films have looked at violence in such a confronting and unflinching way. A deeply personal story on display.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007)
It tackles enormous themes (religion and capitalism) with clarity and cinematic flair. It’s also interpersonal, dealing with two men who are more similar than they’d ever care to admit. It possesses incredible attention to detail, particularly in its period setting, and has two of my favourite characters on the screen. It’s hilarious how similar they are and how much they hate each other for that very reason!
4. Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Propelled by its high energy, the film makes time for being both a hilarious black comedy and a tense family drama about obsession. Bradley Cooper’s performance is completely unexpected and affecting. It’s also about the way people use each other but find the positives through their life structures. Jennifer Lawrence has made a lot of films recently but this is still the very best of them and it’s one of the strongest films David O. Russell has made since Three Kings.
3. About Schmidt (2002)
Dear Ndugu…what difference can an ordinary man make in the world? About Schmidt is the perfect mix of humour and tragedy. Its follows a man who doesn’t wish to die alone and has one simple solution: to ruin his daughter’s wedding and win her back! The tone is perfect and the humour always lands. A small, well observed film, led by Jack Nicholson’s career-best performance.
2. Mystic River (2003)
A superb, mature crime thriller that’s also a great character study about damaged childhoods and the power of destiny. It features brilliant performances from the entire cast. It revitalised Sean Penn’s career in monumental ways and finally gave Kevin Bacon his due as a major dramatic actor.
1. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
This is the very best film I’ve seen since 2004. It is one of the greatest underdogs stories in recent memory and features the most dramatic and unexpected final quarter in modern cinema. The way it shifts into a European-style psychological drama is effortless, touching and unforgettable. It showcases the director’s classic, unfussed shooting style at its very best. Mo chuisle.
Honourable mentions: Donnie Darko, The Virgin Spring, various Terrence Malick films (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life), Election, Birdman, Nightcrawler, Amour, The Last Picture Show, Kramer vs. Kramer.