I decided to write about this almost as much for myself as for anyone else, to get out and think about why I connect with these films more than any others. I imagine this top three will change soon, I can imagine Oldboy and Night moving aside in the future for other works (my top ten shifts weekly), but I do think Star Wars will stay there forever (its impact is too great).
Anyway without any further ado this is my top three favourite films ever list, and I hope you enjoy reading it (and if you haven’t seen the films in question this is obviously spoiler territory and I implore you to rent/buy them immediately).
3) Oldboy (2003 – Dir. Park Chan-Wook)
This was a film that I caught late one night on I believe Film Four whilst a little drunk from a previous session. I expected whilst tipsily surfing the channels that I would fall asleep pretty quickly but I came across an intro card promising something along the lines of ‘mature themes and strong violence’ so settled in.
Then I saw it was subtitled, and I retreated back into the sofa, ready to surrender myself to a deep, open-mouthed sleep.
Yet, then something funny happened. I noticed that this was not like anything I had seen before (at this point I am around sixteen) as a film fan. The camera work was different, the colours muted and yet retained a neon vibrancy, the acting was both perfectly pointed and yet seemed almost improvised. My first foray into Korean cinema was with something that most would agree is like no other film anywhere.
Oldboy is technically daring and dazzling, with a central performance that is as electric as it is poignant (with a fantastic supporting cast, including an assured villain performance). Choi Min-Sik is the pathetic Oh Dae-Su, a lay about who one day is snatched from the street and kept in a cell for many years with only a TV and regular druggings to keep him entertained.
He invariably goes crazy, before he one day wakes up on the roof of a tall building (inside a suitcase no less) and rolls out into Seoul to find out who locked him away.
To explain the plot here would be a detriment to the flawlessly executed story, it is a twisting narrative that flows in a way one could compare thematically to something like Fight Club (which I would also call its closest Western comparison visually) but is yet entirely its own beast. Indeed the most I need to say about it is that it is quite shocking throughout, but always completely and utterly gripping.
To say this film impacted me is a gross understatement. This film grabbed me by the collar, pulled me up and said in a firm voice “you think you know filmmaking?” before knocking me against the back wall with a huge blow from a narrative sledgehammer that left me both stunned and eager for more.
Oldboy is a technical masterpiece, with completely assured direction from Korea’s best filmmaker Park Chan-Wook. It is a gruelling and sometimes disturbing trip into a horrific tale of lust and vengeance, but there is nothing quite like it anywhere else. This film had more technical impact on me as a filmmaker than any other, and any time I watch a film I have made I can see natural thematic and visual parallels with this film throughout.
2) Night of the Living Dead (1968 – Dir. George A. Romero)
Night was the first UK 18 rated film I ever saw all the way through (I had sneaked down to see bits of Aliens before as my dad watched it) as an eight year old, and is one that truly stunned me, the experience of watching it for the first time still affects me today.
My father, ever the part time film buff, recorded a late night showing of the original sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers for me and my sister to watch late, knowing that it would be scary enough to excite us and yet tame enough to leave us alone with. What he did not realise was that this was the first part of some kind of ‘sci-fi paranoia’ marathon, and would be followed by George A. Romero’s seminal zombie horror film ‘Night of the Living Dead’.
My sister and I loved Invasion, it is indeed a classic and probably as good if not better than Night so should be found and watched immediately if you have yet to do so. However the film that followed was something else, something completely new to us. It had a documentary style realism that felt even more authentic to young eyes, and it followed a film where the violence was all completely off screen and only ever implied. It wasn’t in this film, it wasn’t at all…
I can very much empathise with the children described in this segment from Roger Ebert’s review of the film “The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.”
This was a film where the young attractive couple who should survive are instead quickly immolated whilst surrounded by reanimated corpses, where a child kills her own mother by stabbing her (over and over again) to death, and where the final hero, the only one left in this horrific and terrifying world, is shot and killed by the very men (police) we have been taught to trust.
We cried, we cried a lot. We stayed up all night not knowing what to think, it wasn’t like we didn’t understand what was going on in the film as it is quite simple; the dead wake back up and kill the living (in a house and neighbourhood similar to our own). Unlike most kid fantasies and horrors this felt real. The people felt like people, and the monsters looked like people too. What was this film? What was this horrific reality we had been subjected to?
Night taught me the power a filmmaker wields when he chooses what to put on screen. This was a film that subjected me to themes I could scarcely imagine prior, it showed us things we were too innocent to even dream of, and it did it using one location and a group of amateur actors. As an adult I appreciate it as a technical marvel, George Romero created one of the most prolific and enduring monsters in fiction history with very little resources and as a first time filmmaker, but what has stuck with me is the proof of the power of film. It taught me the power of film, a powerful and affecting lesson indeed.
1) Star Wars (1977 – Dir. George Lucas)
There is very little I can say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said. There are countless books and other media that examine both the technical and thematic impact of Star Wars, and the fictional universe in which this film and its surrounding sequels and prequels inhabit.
I adore this film; I have seen it more than any other by a large scale. My father hunted down VHS copies of the trilogy when I was very young, and I do not remember seeing them for the first time. However I remember watching the videos constantly throughout my childhood (I can pretty much perfectly recite the adverts that preceded the feature presentation for the Lost in Space and Twilight Zone VHS collections) until they finally died.
So rather than go into the story or the background of this film, I will instead explain why this one? Why not The Empire Strikes Back, probably the ‘best’ of the three (in terms of technical filmmaking)? Why not Return of the Jedi, clearly the one most aimed at children (Ewoks, Ewoks everywhere)? Star Wars (or Episode IV-A New Hope) is a simple hero’s journey told completely un-ironically with the simple aim of being a good, compelling story well told.
It has a beginning, middle and end, and doesn’t waste any time; the film moves at a pitch perfect pace and never wastes time with any more exposition than it needs. It knows when to relax and have Obi Wan explain succinctly the rules of the universe, but also just through the a longing look and use of probably the greatest film score ever tells more about the main character than any exposition ever could.
For me Star Wars is as perfect as a film can get, it is perfectly cast, perfectly scored, perfectly paced and perfectly executed. I love this film like I love a family member; it is there to comfort me and help me in difficult situations, and to keep me entertained when I am otherwise feeling vacant. Star Wars is a cultural milestone, but for me it is simply a story that has helped and continues to help guide and follow me through life.