Five Films I Watch Every Year

There are five films that I watch every year because I learn something new every time I see them.

These films are rich in content and they reflect a style in their acting, art direction, cinematography, costuming and sound.

1.) Touch Of Evil
2.) Amadeus
3.) M
4.) A Woman Under The Influence
5.) Once Upon A Time In The West

Everyone has their own list of films that influence them or that they learned from but I don’t know how many films you can watch over and over and get something new or spot something you never noticed before.

Touch Of Evil – we all know the famous opening shot that goes on forever and sets up the movie. Since this film was made in 1960 and shot in 35mm I still marvel at how they were able to do that opening considering both the weight and the bulk of the equipment. A scene that is just as amazing to me is when they find the dynamite in the apartment. That scene is also a long single take and the camera is incredibly active going from room to room to track the action. I have been told that grips were literally moving set walls so that the camera could move uninterrupted.

Check out the lighting and the way Orson Welles is always lit from below to give him a more hideous feel. He was a big man but in this film he padded himself to look even fatter and he is constantly sweating. Study all of the actors and see how they’re dressed, how they act and look at the sets. When Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin restored the film based on a fifty-eight-page memo from Orson Welles they re-did the sound to more closely match Welles original intentions. I have seen both versions and think that the original version was amazing and the restored version is even more amazing.

Even a low budget quickie in Orson Welles hands is amazing.

Amadeus is one of those films where people say, “I don’t like that kind of music but I really loved that film.” I love Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart. It was unexpected to me and that is what I like about it. To me the performance shows Mozart as someone who is a head of his time, or perhaps not in sync with the time that he lived.

I find the editing and sound are seamless. Pre-lapped sound leads us in to the next scene quite often. The post crew worked on this film for a long time and they would edit and mix a scene then take it in to a theater, screen it, take notes, and tear it a part and work to make it better. A lot of time and care was put in to this film and it shows. Watch it a couple times and you’ll see what I mean.

Fritz Lang’s M is one of the creepiest films of all time. Peter Lorre is perfectly cast as a crazy child murderer, which was quite a choice at the time. We know Peter Lorre from later films, he sounds funny and looks odd but at the time he was one of Germany’s leading comedic actors.

This was the first film Lang did with sound and he uses it amazingly. The killer whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg and that is the only use of music in the film. (Think about The Jazz Singer released a few years earlier, music plays a much bigger part in the film.) Lang keeps M very spare as far as sound.

His shots are composed with an eye towards architecture, design and geometric angles. Look at the montage when the police are looking for clues in the park area and see how the park itself has hard lines separating the bushes from the sidewalks. His police use a crime lab to go through clues, pre-dating all of those CSI shows by about sixty or seventy years.

The film seems slow today but if you take your time watching it and see what’s going on within the frame it’s a great watch. It seems that EVERYONE SMOKES in the film. It feels like there is a cloud of smoke over everything.

John Cassevettes film A Woman Under the Influence is an acting tour-de-force. Watching Gena Rowlands trying to maintain her sanity and Peter Falk trying to keep the family together is a train wreck that you can’t look away from. At the end of the film you’re exhausted.

There are many times you wish that Cassevettes would cut away during a scene but he doesn’t and that’s the point. He makes watching this film difficult and when I show it to students they either love or hate it. Some think it’s too long but they always understand why it’s long. It makes them uncomfortable and that’s the point.

Cassevettes says that “the camera serves the actor” and in this film it certainly does. No pretty angles or beautiful lighting, just hand held grittiness that feels right.

I love Sergio Leones, Once Upon A Time in the West for its grittiness. I think it’s beautifully shot and when Leone wants a close-up you get a close up. Anytime you have Henry Fonda as the bad guy (he is amazing) and Jason Robards and Charles Bronson as the less bad guys you’re in for a treat.

The sound and the visuals work so well together in this film (I love the effects work) and the musical score is right on the money. Leone is an original and his vision was never truer than in this film. There is so much to see, from camera angles to lighting to art direction and editing and sound. I always get so much out of this film.

So there you have it. Five films I watch every year. I believe that studying these films has made me a better filmmaker.

Think about your own five.