There is a strange kind of amnesia that overtakes me in certain shops: bookshops, DVD shops, CD shops. I stare hopelessly at the rows of titles, usually becoming desperate to spend a penny within a matter of seconds, before buying something I’ve never heard of, or have read/seen/heard already, and rushing out to find a lavatory.
At this time of year every magazine carries lists of recommended books — but what of films? Don’t we all watch films at Christmas? And, if we don’t, we should: what better way to let the love back into the home, after the over-indulgence and the disappointments that make up Christmas, than a couple of hours of hush time in front of a brilliant film. And I don’t mean, watch a bit with the lights on, take a phone call and then go and have a bath. I mean you all sit down in the same room, shut the door, kick the dog off the sofa and turn off the telephone.
Regret no more that fourth mince pie, eaten just to finish up the brandy butter on the side of your plate. Lie back on the sofa, pillowed by tangerine peel and chocolate money shells. Snatch the remote control from Little Jimmy. Put the baby where her crying won’t disturb you. Ask your wife/husband to switch off that light, no, not that one, the other one, it’s reflected in the screen. Turn up the volume and ignore Granny bleating about having to sit on the floor.
Now, savour this glorious moment: the lion roars ‘MGM’, or the stars twirl around the Paramount mountain, or the searchlights flare up ‘20th Century Fox’… We’re at the movies! What could be more blissful? Out of the way, Uncle Walter, you’re a better door than a window. Hurry up, darling, the film’s starting!
Before you all write in and complain that I’ve left off Tarkovsky, Fellini and Scorsese, this is not a list of the best or most significant films of all time, but just a small selection of films which you might have overlooked; films to amuse, entertain and engage rather than improve; films which will help you to forget the inappropriate (and clearly last-minute) presents given you by your loved ones.
The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
Some of Hitchcock’s films are slicker than this, and some are more clever, but The 39 Steps (his breakthrough film) has a freshness that was unrepeated. Robert Donat is perplexed and honourable as Hitchcock’s ‘wrong man’, and Madeleine Carroll is his unwilling accomplice. Handcuffed to him, she longs to get away until she can, when she finds she doesn’t want to.
The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks, 1946)
Bogart and Bacall are a high-scoring pair, and here their quality backchat is the glory of an already excellent movie. Bogart sounds as if he doesn’t care, and Bacall looks as if she can’t be bothered. Strange, dark and wonderful. Almost impossible to watch without smoking, but maybe that’s just me.
Tom Jones (dir. Tony Richardson, 1963)
So good is Tom Jones that before it was available to buy on DVD I rented it from my video shop on VHS and kept it out for two years, incurring a fine of nearly £1,000. I did eventually return it after tense negotiations on the telephone with the proprietor of the shop. Tom Jones is an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel. A great book; a film to do it justice. John Osborne, who wrote the screenplay, has captured exactly the mood of the book, the charm of its hero, and the tone of its author. Hilarious, naughty and vivacious.
Dr Strangelove (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
‘You can’t fight in here, this is the war room!’ Worth seeing for that line alone, Dr Strangelove is funny, frightening and seems always on the verge of hysteria — rather like Sellers himself. It’s like the babbling lunatic who sits next to you on an empty bus, or the dinner-party guest who weeps into his soup. It steps over the mark and barges in on you. A bristling satire; an incautious, rioting comedy.
M*A*S*H (dir. Robert Altman, 1970)
Of all the great films directed by Robert Altman (who died in November), this is one that’s often overlooked — I suspect because of the endless, dreary TV series which came after it. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland are outstanding as the leads. A haphazard, anarchic comedy about war, featuring Martinis and golf. What more do you need to know?
Play It Again, Sam (dir. Herbert Ross, 1972)
Written by Woody Allen and with him as its star, this is not on the same level as Manhattan or Annie Hall, but that doesn’t stop it being very funny indeed. Allen’s character, Allan Felix, is trying to get over a failed marriage. He is assisted by his married friends Dick and Linda (Diane Keaton) and the ghost of Humphrey Bogart. The scene in which he takes a date back to his house and makes a complete and utter nonsense of the proceedings has been known to rouse me from a deep gloom.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dir. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975)
A mad confection. Not so self-conscious as The Life of Brian, it boasts a wonderfully slapdash air — as if it had been thrown together for a fiver on a wet afternoon. In particular I love the mud, the sex-starved nuns, the clip-clop of the coconut shells and the extraordinary, shambolic finale.
Splash (dir. Ron Howard, 1984)
If only Ron Howard and Tom Hanks had been able to reprise half the magic of Splash when they tackled The Da Vinci Code. By my reckoning, Tom Hanks has been memorable in three films in his career: Splash, The Money Pit (1986), and Big (1988). He was a gangly comic genius in the Eighties, not the frowning ham he is now. In Splash he is an adorable moppet who falls in love with a mermaid.
Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis, 1993)
It’s hard to recommend a film which features the irredeemably awful Andie MacDowell, but even she can’t ruin Groundhog Day. Cynical weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is condemned to repeat the same day until he learns how to behave. It’s just brilliant.
Rushmore (dir. Wes Anderson, 1998)
Bill Murray again. To anyone who thinks that Sofia Coppola invented Bill Murray, I say, ‘Phooey’. Better in this than in anything else (except possibly Caddyshack), he is ably matched by the charming Jason Schwartzman. The good news is, all Wes Anderson’s films have been equally good. And he’s only 37.