Alas, 2021 is proving to be a continuation of 2020’s swift kick in the groin at random intervals. Earlier this week, England was put into a third lockdown, and with it comes a groundhog day insofar as restrictions are concerned. However, despite the sour note that the year has started on, the show must go on, and at my humble blog, I intend to do that with full gusto. We can beat Covid by being staying at home, and not letting it crush our spirits.
My first top five lockdown films list was a mixture of comforting favourites and movies that I attempted to relate to the crisis, whether it was art somewhat imitating life in 28 Days Later or the personal connection established between Jessie and Celine (via walking around Vienna) in Before Sunrise. For this reason, I thought a second list felt redundant.
However, the prospect of a New Year inspired an idea. Rather than pluck five movies out of the air with a vague connection, I thought I would use this list to pick movies that introduce the viewer to something: be it a genre, actor or even a whole cinematic trend. I’ve also ensured that all these recommendations can be found on various streaming services (UK versions).
5) Mortal Kombat (1995)
Mortal Kombat is the epitome of Pauline Kael’s wise quote on the medium- “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The movie serves as a fascinating introduction to the often maligned video game adaptations. Kombat takes a measured approach to adapting the fighting game series with its high spirited action, performances, and earnest commitment to the goofiness of its source material. But above all, it’s a snapshot of how the budding sub-genre was treated in a period of time when video games were slowly evolving. The 1995 movie is available to stream on Prime Video.
4) Stripes (1981)
It goes without saying that Bill Murray is a unique screen presence. He’s someone who can charm with a sardonic wit, and emotionally resonate with an inherent melancholy that makes his later characters relatable in their weariness and sadness. Stripes is the missing link between these two qualities of the actor. The film’s best moments illustrate this dichotomy, and is an excellent introduction to how we see Murray in films such as Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. Stripes is available to stream on Netflix.
3) The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
From the small crop of Hammer Horror films I’ve seen, The Curse of Frankenstein is the best introduction to the studio’s horror output. In part, this is due to the film’s distinctive approach. It’s a slasher film with manners, with the central monster being Peter Cushing’s debonair and wolfish doctor. At the same time, it also contains the studio’s famed overt innuendo, garish colour scheme and general winking silliness. The film is available to stream on Shudder.
2) The Sword in the Stone (1963)
There are countless animated movies that could be your gateway drug into getting hooked on Disney. Heck you could pretty much pick any movie from the studio’s 90s era. However, I think The Sword in the Stone is as good a candidate as any. At the heart of the movie, is an emphasis on education being important for a child’s development. At the same time, the film greatly illustrates the studio’s charm with its amusing physical gags, charming characters and imaginative spirit.
But above all, the movie is slyly subversive insofar as the hero’s journey is cast aside in favour of something far more interesting. We know that Arthur will become king, but the movie establishes the building blocks of what will make him a great man, one whose defined by intelligence and not heroic deeds. The 1963 animated feature is available to stream on Disney Plus.
1) Rashomon (1950)
Where do I start with Rashomon? Well, its story about four unreliable accounts of a murdered samurai is a wellspring for future cinematic endeavours. It’s also the film that introduced Japanese cinema to an international audience, Akira Kurosawa to many notable filmmakers, and the actor- Toshiro Mifune to the mainstream. The fact that it birthed a whole storytelling style (the Rashomon effect) and its imprint can still be traced in films as diverse as The Last Jedi and Isle of Dogs make it a must watch. For these reasons and many more, Rashomon is a perfect foundation for thinking of cinema as art. The 1950 film is available to stream on the BFI Player.