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Jim Miller: Five MORE movies that every filmmaker should see

If you're here, you've probably already read Ben's previous posts in this area (here and here). I thought his selections were great, but these choices are inevitably individualistic, and so are not quite the same as the ones I'd make. We tossed this back and forth, and concluded I should write my own post.  So, here we are -- I've got five more for you. Unlike Ben's list, some of these may have been made before 1985 (snark, snark), but I promise I won't just say "go see The Godfather and Casablanca". Except when I do. And, if I do, there'll be a reason.

So, In no particular order:

(1) Dark City. Yes, it's another riff on the "future noir" theme, but it's one of those movies I can't turn off when I stumble across it. Gorgeous imagery, great world-building. Not much more to say -- it's a gut choice; see it on the biggest screen you possibly can.

(2) The Day of the Jackal. Fred Zinneman's adaptation of Frederick Forrester's novel about an attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle. Just, stop whatever you're doing RIGHT NOW and go watch this. Fred Zinnemann pulls off two magic tricks in this movie, right in front of you, and you have no idea how he did them.

First: He brilliantly transitions us from the real world where the movie is set into the fictional world of the movie. In 1960's France, a terrorist group puts together a plan to assassinate Charles deGaulle, the president of France. DeGaulle was of course a real person, the terrorist group was real, and the group did do many of the things shown in the movie. But not all. Somewhere along the way, he slips from things that really did happen into things that are completely fictional, and the storytelling is so seamless that, for all we can tell, these could all be real events, and the movie could be a documentary. But it isn't. He completely sells the idea that this really happened. But it didn't. We think, anyway. Plus, he's able to keep the tension of the hunt going throughout the movie, even though we know how it has to end: the plan must have failed, because deGaulle was, of course, never assassinated.

Second: Zinneman changes the protagonist IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MOVIE. It starts off as something of a heist movie, where we're following The Jackal, the assassin hired by the terrorist group to carry out the hit. All the tropes of a heist movie are touched on -- making the plan, finding partners, getting equipment -- and we're subconsciously hoping that he succeeds, because, after all, he's the protagonist. But, of course, the police get involved, and, somewhere in the middle, we realize that we're no longer watching from the perspective of The Jackal, but from that of the main detective. We no longer want The Jackal to succeed; we want the detective to catch him. The switch is masterful, how he does this, and where it happens, is impossible to tell. It just happens.

(3) The Godfather, with some homework. WAIT, WAIT, come back!  I promised I'd give you a reason. Of course you should see The Godfather (and already have, right???), but, this time, you need to first go read Mario Puzo's book that was the basis of Francis Coppola's adaptation, or at least as much it as you can bear. The book, with apologies, is trash -- a summer beach read at best, with little if anything to recommend it. But somehow, Coppola was able to find in this mess a magnificent Shakespearian story about a father looking for a successor among his three sons, and knowing that the right choice was the only one that he couldn't possibly choose. The result is a great story, but you can't really admire the greatness of the movie until you've experienced the awfulness of the book.

Actually, there are some clues available: The Godfather Notebook is a reproduction of Coppola's prep work for the adaptation, capturing his hand-written notes in the margins of a copy of the novel. You can see him grasping at the materials, trying to find what's important and what can (and should) be lost. Lots of fun to work through, if you're interested in that level of detail. (And please spring for the hardcover, or at least paperback, version.)

(4) The first ten minutes of Casablanca. Again, DON'T RUN AWAY. Sure, I know. Casablanca. Edgy choice. My rationale for having it on this list: This movie has one of the best openings of any movie I've ever seen. There are a lot of characters, major and minor, in Casablanca, but, after the first ten minutes, we know everything about them -- who they are, what their motivations are, and where the story's conflicts are going to come from. You can, of course, stick around and watch the rest of the movie, and nobody will think the worse of you, but there is much to be learned here in the first 10 minutes about how to introduce your characters and your story. Casablanca was also a complete product of the old studio system of the 30s and 40s, showing that you can make a great movie under almost any circumstances, even money-crazed, dictatorial studio heads.

(5) Birdemic: Shock and Terror: James Nguyen's $10,000 feature about birds attacking a small California town.  Yes, it's easy to mock Birdemic; this usually happens right after you've finished trashing The Room. But, two points:

  • Say what you will, but Nguyen MADE A MOVIE. He wrote it, got the money for it, cast it, shot it, cut it, and got it into distribution. So, ahem, cut this guy some slack until you've done the same, or better.
  • Having offered that respect, we have to acknowledge that this movie is, well, really bad. In fact, it's so bad that it's a great teaching tool for film. You can, at any time, stop the movie and ask, "what's being done wrong, right now?" There's always something wrong -- direction, editing, lighting, blocking, you name it -- and you can find it with just a bit of thought. Show this to your non-filmmaker friends, and let them play the game, too: They'll come away feeling like film geniuses.

So, there's five. And I didn't even get into Ronin, or The Freshman, or Shoot 'Em Up, or any of the others that I might have put there. Maybe another time. See you here later, or, like they say, at the movies.


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