Desert Island Movies

harrison-ford-mosquito-coastQuick: You’re about to be stranded on a desert island…and you can only take 10 movies with you. What movies are making your cut? Will they be your “Top 10” favorites? Will they be movies that you feel best represent “you”? Will you be bringing any movies along for the family? Let’s assume all other creature comforts are normal, so you don’t have to worry about going into Stephen King-style, “Survivor Type” mode. You can go alone, or bring your friends and family. But only 10 movies can come with you. It’s time to make your Dewar’s Profile, take your Rorschach test, call it whatever you will.

Here are my choices, in alphabetical order:

age_of_innocenceThe Age of Innocence

How tough is it to choose between Martin Scorsese’s many, many masterworks? Really, really tough. As tough as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Tommy DeVito rolled into one. How does one tag this, of all his pictures—his 1993 romantic drama set in the 19th-century, based on the Edith Wharton novel—as the one that goes to the desert island? Where’s Taxi Driver? Raging Bull? I had to leave them behind, along with two of my favorites, The King of Comedy and The Last Temptation of Christ, and choose the movie that absolutely no one had any confidence he could direct with any authority. I recall reading one appraisal of the film that remarked that its success came because Scorsese, already a master of onscreen physical brutality, effectively dramatized the often subtle but unmistakable emotional violence of the story. This picture whisks away the stuffiness and boredom often associated with tales set in this era, infesting the narrative with the filmmaker’s trademark visual audacity. In the central role, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a performance of simmering intensity that boiled over into full-on madness during his great turn in Gangs of New York; Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography is ripe with luscious color; and Elmer Bernstein’s score brims with passions breaking free of the flat stateliness typical of the genre.


The Bride of Frankenstein

bride-of-frankenstein-elsa-lanchesterHorror movies are a must with me, and I have a deep history of enjoying them and working with their many motifs. As much as I appreciate the nearly exhausting dread brought on by The Exorcist and the relentless intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original, of course); as much as I treasure revisiting the classic chillers starring Bela Lugosi, Chaneys Sr. and Jr., and the Vincent Price shockers of the Corman Poe cycle; and as much as I revere the opulent decadence ushered in by the Hammer era, I have to single out James Whale’s marvelous 1935 fright film. One of those rare sequels often said to better the original—not quite sure I’d agree, as they each have their distinctive achievements and charms—Bride enriches the Monster’s character by allowing him the power of speech (which Boris Karloff first protested), and includes nearly as many chuckles as chills, a careful balance Whale similarly perfected in both The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. The Franz Waxman musical score (his first for an American film) is an ingenious array of instantly recognizable themes that presaged the celebrated work of John Williams.

burdenofdreams_ccBurden of Dreams

As difficult as it was to select a favorite Scorsese picture to take with me to my desert island, it’s well-nigh impossible to pick among the numerous beguiling films of Werner Herzog. With this documentary by Les Blank—a hypnotic account of the German filmmaker’s struggles making the 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo—I’ve decided to fuse my appreciation of Herzog’s entire body of work with my love of great nonfiction films. In the midst of an unforgiving wilderness and civil war breaking out all around him, Herzog is both burdened and energized by his blinding obsession to complete this film, the story of a man possessed by visions of constructing an opera house in the midst of the Peruvian jungle. Herzog has shot a good portion of the film when his leading men—Jason Robards and Mick Jagger—both leave the production. It is then that Klaus Kinski takes over the title role and brings his own brand of madness to the already chaotic proceedings. This film is a monument to everything that drives Herzog’s work and one of the best accounts of making movies ever released.

hannah_and_her_sistersHannah and Her Sisters

Woody Allen has had many a “comeback” cycle since he first starting making his “earlier, funnier” movies in 1969 with Take the Money and Run. His penchant for mixing deeply challenging dramatic material into his comedy reached its apex, I believe, with this 1986 film boasting Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Carrie Fisher, Maureen O’Sullivan, Max Von Sydow, and Allen himself in the ensemble cast. I would suggest that Crimes and Misdemeanors, released a mere three years later (though in between, he’d made Radio Days, September, and Another Woman) serves as the darker side of this same delicate coin. The film also contains what might be the single wisest and funniest line of his mind-boggling array of scripts. Spoken by Von Sydow: “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”





It’s been said we go to the movies to see stories and characters that reflect our own experiences. While I don’t share the ultimately bleak outlook reflected in director Michael Winterbottom’s rich adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel “Jude the Obscure,” I connected to the character and story of Jude Fawley (played with uncommon intensity by Christopher Eccelston) in clear and elusive ways that have remained with me long after I made six trips to the theater to see it (taking different friends each time) and completed many subsequent viewings on both laserdisc and DVD. It’s not the specifics of the tale I relate to, exactly, but the ways that stonemason Jude’s aspirations to be a scholar against societal expectations fueled his passions were utterly authentic to me. I was never in love with a cousin, but I completely understood the bliss and frustrations of his unsteady romance with Sue Bridehead (Kate Winslet). Terrible things happen to Jude and Sue after they manage to acknowledge their true feelings for each other, but there are no romantic flourishes to their fates that make the tragedies “ennobling” in any way. The film was only Winslet’s fourth feature since her marvelous film debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, and she is quick, captivating, and luminous here in the same manner as Ingrid Bergman, a comparison I think not to be made lightly. The musical score by Adrian Johnston is a treasure; the cinematography by Eduardo Serra envelops you in inviting warmth and icy gloom; and Hossein Amini’s script is crisp, blunt, and impassioned.

looking-for-richardLooking for Richard

I dig Shakespeare both on the stage and on the screen, and I enjoy seeing filmmakers succeed in the difficult attempt to realize either a “faithful” production–Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is a real mixed bag, but oh, is it ever faithful, incorporating each and every word of the text–or a wildly imaginative reinvention, as stage director Julie Taymor did when she mounted her aggressively bizarre reworking of “Titus Andronicus,” simply branded Titus. That makes it awfully difficult to establish criteria in narrowing down my desert island pick in this category. So, I’ll go to this unusual and satisfying fusion of adaptation and documentary, director and star Al Pacino’s 1996 chronicle of his exploration into “Richard III.” Going in, you might not think Pacino the ideal candidate for an exhilarating study of classical theater, but ideal he is, both performing the title role and as a teacher and guide through the labyrinthine challenge of mounting a Shakespearean work. It’s rather difficult to describe exactly what the movie is, as it truly does deliver both the story of the play in what I’d call a fully realized performance as well as an illuminating documentary about stagecraft, script analysis, the art of filmmaking, and much more.


SinginInTheRain5Singin’ in the Rain

The music. The singing. The dancing. Gene Kelly. Debbie Reynolds. Donald O’Connor. The music, the singing, the dancing. Jean Hagen. Cyd Charisse. The literate, funny script about the emergence of “the talkies.” The music. The bold, sunny cinematography. The singing. The knowing jabs at celebrity worship and the celebration of moviemaking. The dancing. The teary ending. Did I mention the music, the singing, and the dancing?




bond-the-spy-who-loved-me-02The Spy Who Loved Me

“Watch this,” my dad told me, “You’ll like it.” Was he ever right! I first saw Roger Moore’s third outing as 007 when it aired on cable television, and have been hooked on the exploits of Ian Fleming’s superspy ever since. Bond fans love to rank ad nauseam the movies, the actors, and the women, and I’m no exception, but I’m of the mind that every era has gotten the Bond it requires. Daniel Craig represents perhaps the closest interpretation of the literary character—and I loved both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace—but for me, this film manages to encapsulate nearly everything Bond lovers love to love about Bond. Sure, it’s been pointed out that Spy is something of a bald “remake” of You Only Live Twice (Fleming had explicitly prohibited Eon Productions from using anything from the novel except for the title), but it has one of the finest title tunes in “Nobody Does It Better”; a spellbinding array of exotic locales; the devastatingly alluring Barbara Bach, whose centerfold beauty is augmented by well-written character; perhaps the greatest single stunt in movie history, during the pre-title sequence; and a screen villain as outlandish as they come in the shiny-toothed Jaws. Yes, yes, I already hear dissenters growling, it hasn’t a score by John Barry, an integral part of the series’ success. Marvin Hamlisch’s score is sassy enough, though. And wasn’t the Bond theme really composed by Monty Norman? And…oh, forget it. This is my desert island list, and I choose “Bond 10.”


For some, the launch of the Lucas/Spielberg era of the late 1970s is best represented by Star Wars. Though I’m a (first) trilogy fan and Jaws remains my favorite movie of all time (and yet, curiously to me, wound up missing from this list), the movie that made the excitement of those times live and breathe for me was director Richard Donner’s triumphant realization of DC Comics’ flagship superhero. With a rather ungainly word serving as their guidepost—verisimilitude, meaning “the appearance of truth”—Donner and his ambitious production team created a world in which the fantastic was made utterly believable. Moviegoers by the millions did indeed “believe a man could fly,” and bought the adventure’s magnificent escapism primarily through the sensitive, hilarious, and dynamic performance of Christopher Reeve in the title role.





Tarzan the Magnificent

My grandmother’s favorite Tarzan was Johnny Weissmuller, though she always made it a point to remind me that his performances were not at all faithful to the Edgar Rice Burroughs books (which she had read and enjoyed, along with the John Carter of Mars series and the Oz books). Fans debate their favorite Tarzans in much the same manner as Fleming fans debate the best Bonds, and though I’ve watched every Weissmuller jungle epic over and over again (with Tarzan and His Mate my clear favorite), I’m selecting Gordon Scott’s sixth outing as the apeman (his third in color) to take into my desert cinematheque. Producer Sol Lesser’s ambitious reinvention of the series made Lord Greystoke more articulate and the action more cosmopolitan, and this 1960 effort finds Tarzan escorting notorious criminal Coy Banton through the jungle with the outlaw’s equally villainous father and brothers in hot pursuit. Scott’s captive was played by future Tarzan Jock Mahoney, who would inherit the loincloth for 1962’s Tarzan Goes to India. Legendary John Carradine portrayed Banton’s murderous father, and character actor Al Mulock (who battled Scott in the preceding picture Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure along with a then little-known actor named Sean Connery) returns for a memorable turn as the Banton brother who gains a conscience.

And…(yes, it’s cheating to add an 11th):


The Mosquito Coast

Just to remind me what can happen to a man when he spends too much time romanticizing about life on a desert island. Harrison Ford’s greatest performance.