10 The Muppets Christmas carol
Because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Victorian novella turned into a musical featuring jolly brightly coloured puppets, would it? Christmas also wouldn’t be Christmas if Dickens hadn’t more or less invented it. He decided it was a family time, mainly about giving presents to children and feeling vaguely charitable, and that we should all eat a specific meal. And we’ve carried on like that ever since. That’s even freakier than Michael Caine’s singing, eh?
A woman flees Paris and is taken in by an poor and austere religious community in windswept nineteenth century Denmark. Years later, she wins the lottery and celebrates by preparing a spectacular, decadent gourmet feast for 12 of the villagers. The guests worry that it’s all so luxurious that some kind of devilry may be involved. The agree to eat the meal out of politeness, but never to praise the food or show any sign of pleasure in it. But the food isn’t devilish at all: it heals old wounds, elevates the human spirit, and brings the diners together. This humorous, wonderfully acted film is subtly religious and a wonderful hymn to friendship and to cuisine as an art form.
This movie charts Oscar Wilde’s successes and final fall from grace. Stephen Fry and Jude Law are perfectly cast as Wilde and his childish, petulant lover Lord Alfred Douglas or ‘Bosie’. It’s like watching Greek tragedy or a car-crash in slow motion: we all know that Wilde has only got one place to go and that it’s Reading gaol. Character is destiny, and Wilde just can’t help pursuing a totally lost cause, despite the protestations of his friends, despite Bosie being awful, despite all common sense. A moving and complex portrait.
David Lynch directs and John Hurt and a massive amount of prosthetic make-up star in the story of Joseph Merrick, a man disfigured and disabled by a mystery illness. Merrick is rescued from a freak show by surgeon Frederick Treves. It’s beautifully shot in black in white, but like many films dealing with disability it tends towards the sentimental and *cringe* ‘inspirational.’ We don’t know much about Merrick’s life or feelings. We’re not even sure whether he was called John or Joseph. Was Treves exploiting Merrick even more than the freakshow, just in a more respectable way? Do we keep on exploiting him by re-telling his story in our words? For all that, it’s an interesting and affecting film.
6 The Age of Innocence
Martin Scorcese, more usually associated with ganger films, makes a fine job of adapting Edith Wharton’s novel about the repressed upper classes in late nineteenth century New York. The word ‘sumptuous’ is often bandied around in relation to costume dramas, but in this case it’s deserved. The costumes and sets are incredible, and the camera lingers on every beautiful surface. And that’s what’s this story is all about: the extreme disconnect between the beautiful, respectable surfaces of society, and what truly lies beneath.
5 Sherlock Holmes
Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law obviously had the most fun ever in this crazy, silly, souped-up steam punk version of the great detective’s adventures. It’s set in a very contemporary pastiche version of the nineteenth century and played half for laughs, half for action. The fight and chase scenes are brilliantly inventive, there’s a dark, sexy edge to it, and an amazing bit of slapstick when RDJ falls off a horse. I was quite literally ROLFing.*
*For the benefit of my Dad, that means ‘rolling around on the floor laughing’.
4 A room with a view
This is cheating, because it’s set in the Edwardian period, but what’s a few years between friends? Merchant Ivory’s lavish 1985 version of EM Forster’s novel is lush and romantic. Helena Bonham-Carter takes the lead role, torn between two men. She is engaged to boring, uptight Daniel Day-Lewis, who wears a monocle, read a lot and won’t even attempt to play tennis. She has a secret passion for a holiday fling who snogs her so passionately in a field of flowers above Florence that her hat flies off. He’s pretty good at tennis and likes to swim naked in rivers. No prizes for guessing which one she ends up marrying!
3 Dean Spanley
Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam star in this odd little film. Northam is the put-upon son of cantankerous O’Toole, and Sam Neill is clergyman Dean Spanley, who only has to be plied with a rare Hungarian wine (Imperial Tokaiji) to get total recall of his past life as a dog. A whimsically bizarre but heart-warming movie.
2 The Piano
Jane Campion’s 1993 film stars Hollie Hunter as a mute Scottish woman sold as a mail-order bride to a repressed Sam Neill in nineteenth century New Zealand. She brings her grand piano, and her daughter, who acts as her interpreter, with her. Full of passion, mystery, evocative images, and with a memorable piano score, this film is more than the sum of its parts. It questions the nature of communication, love, violence, and what it really means to be truly alive. Hunter won the best actress Oscar for her silent role, played the piano herself during the film, and taught sign language to 11-year old Anna Paquin. Paquin was the youngest ever winner of the best supporting actress Oscar, and Campion won the Oscar for best screenplay.
1 The Prestige
This dark tale of rival magicians in Victorian London is one of my all-time favourite movies. Christopher Nolan brings gothic flair to the direction, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen bring brooding sexiness. Michael Caine just brings Michael Caine. The film features murder, madness, magic, obsession, passion, David Bowie as Tesla, a twisty-turny plot and an incredibly clever script build that builds towards of climax of pure, existential horror.