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Desert Island Discs

The ever wonderful Andy over at Fandango Groovers has put together a rather excellent little project among film bloggers where we’re all essentially playing ‘desert island discs’. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it sees the person in question stranded on a desert island somewhere with only a handful of items – in this case films. Each person will then choose their own eight films that will presumably see them through the rest of their lives in something resembling tranquility. Of course, the kicker is if we arrive on the island and there’s no DVD player.   

The Losties were less than pleased when Darren phoned ahead with his movie choices...

Note: I’ve also compiled a list of movies and bloggers, so you can see if anyone else shared your picks.

My list is, of course, below. But I have to admit I’m most fascinated by the logic used to reduce a list down to eight essential films. How we reach that decision rather than what that end decision is. How would you choose eight movies to see you through the rest of life on some tropic paradise?   

The easy answer is to pick your eight favourite movies. I mean, you love them so much that you should be able to watch them until the end of time? Well, I’m not even sure I could pick my eight favourite movies. And the bigger question is: will I want to watch them all back-to-back?   

I love crime movies. There’s one on my shortlist (arguably more), but there would probably be a few more on my list of favourite movies ever. Hell, Collateral doesn’t get a look-in, despite being my favourite movie of the past decade. Because I don’t want to spend the rest of my natural life stuck in a noir state of mind. It just seems like a waste to reduce cinema down to just one subgenre.   

On the other hand, this isn’t a broad spectrum of films we’re talking about either. It’s not my job to serve as some distorted National Library of Congress offering a cinematic cross-section in just eight movies. I don’t think it’s possible to hit on even just the major themes of cinema in just eight films. And besides, these are my films, not films suggested for historical note. I’d like to imagine if some other island dweller pops over for a beer (I imagine they’d have to bring it themselves), I’d have something we could watch – but this is fundamentally my list. This means that some genres don’t feature at all. Horror and romantic comedy stand out to me as absent from my selection. This isn’t a commentary on either genre, just a result of the fact the haven’t produced a film essential enough to make my shortlist.   

I want variety. That’s the key. I’m going to want to watch these movies again and again and again without getting headaches and also while minimalising deja vu between films (as much as it’s possible). As such, movies that (though excellent) leave me wanting a clean shower afterward will not make the cut – as, despite the fact that water is abundant, I probably don’t want to hang myself after suffering a mental breakdown from watching Se7en ten times in a single week.   

There’s also the issue of how the eight films work as a group. I’m borderline OCD when it comes to my multimedia. I arrange my DVDs alphabetically (seriously, it freaked my better half out when we started going out). So I’ll be wanting to watched themed runs or to organise the film showings in such a fashion that they don’t got too overwhelming. I think my selection fits together quite well and that the movies somewhat compliment each other. Although I am somewhat afraid of what anyone attempting to psycho-analyse me will deduce from the combined titles I have selected.   

Length isn’t a key factor, but – looking at the list – there’s quite a large number of these movies running over two hours. Maybe it’s because that’s the length needed to tell the stories contained, or maybe it’s because I never really feel satisfied by a short movie (unless it’s a really funny commentary), but that’s more than by accident than by design.   

The list is fast approaching, so looking at it, I note that these are all quite ‘heavy’ films, at least in a philosophical sense. I don’t mean depressive, but just in a ‘food for thought’ way. Zoolander, for example, though amazing, didn’t make the list. Nor did Demolition Man, my personal guilty pleasure. It wasn’t exactly a conscious thought, it just kinda played out that way.   

Anyway, I figure I’ve made you wait long enough…   

I didn't have the ball(s) to put Castaway on my list, even ironically...

… well, almost. Here’s some trivia about my list:   

  • The total runtime of the films on the list (taking the versions I’d want) is 1144 minutes. That’s 19 hours and 4 minutes. Assuming watch the movies non-stop, while living the average lifespan (67.2 years) and sleep an average of 8 hours a night, and that I am stranded on the island the day this list is published, I will watch each movie 13,519 times. Yep, numbers are fun.
  • There’s a very loose anti-establishment theme running through all these films. Which is odd, because I’m ridiculously conservative.
  • Though the films are only produced from 1967 through 2008, with five of the films produced during my lifespan, they sample a rich selection of history (though remain focused on America with one exception), being set from (approximately) 1861 through to the ‘not so distant future’. There’s a focus on the West Coast of America, with five of the eight set there.
  • Although none of the films share the same directors, one of the directors wrote two of the films. There’s a lot of films on the list written and directed by the same person – or at least “storied” (is that a word?) and directed by the same people. I seem to favour creators of their own work.

Without further ado, here’s the list, presented in alphabetical order. There’s nothing too “out there” present.   

The Big Lebowski   

   

If I am going to be stuck on a desert island for the rest of my life, I’m probably going to be feeling some frustration – nay, some anger – with world. Possibly even righteous anger. If I need to know one thing at that particular moment, it’s simply that “the Dude abides”. The Big Lebowski was  acult hit from out of nowhere. Even the film makers – the fantastic Coen Brothers – can’t really explain it. Perhaps it’s as the Stranger (as played by a gravelly-voiced Sam Elliot observes), “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” Perhaps The Big Lebowski just fit right in with my generation – being in the right time and place. I know everyone in my secondary school loved that movie and more than half of the them have never seen another Coen Brothers film.   

The Big Lebowski is a small movie full of wonderful and big things. Since I can’t imagine how I would end up on a desert island (I don’t travel much), perhaps the haphazard circumstances which put the lead character in motion will resonate with me. Or maybe I’ll just laugh at the movie which finds new ways to make me smile everytime I watch it. It’s a light and whimsical meditation on the strange wonders of life, but it’s never beaten down by it. Jeff Bridges embodies the Dudes wonderful ability to, well, abide.   

And, if I’m spending time on the island, I can’t think of anyone better to help me abide.   

The following castaways thought like me:  The Film Cynics, Phil on Film 

Brazil   

   

Ideally, I’d like all three versions of this movie shipped with me to the island – because variety is the spice of life. I can’t imagine watching the godawful ‘happy ending’ version that the studio produced when they saw Terry Gilliam’s original downer ending, but maybe it will cheer me up by osmosis. Brazil is, for those who have never seen it, a retelling on 1984, but skewed through the lens of Monty Python. Michael Palin has actually never been better (no, not even in A Fish Called Wanda).   

As you can imagine from the description above, it isn’t exactly a shiny happy film. I won’t be buzzing around the place afterward – in fact I imagine I’ll be applying The Big Lebowski liberally afterward. Still, the magic of the movie is that director Terry Gilliam manages to make the movie just about ridiculous enough to avoid being the most depressing two hours of your life. Sometime somewhere a bureaucrat did something very wrong to a young Mister Gilliam and that has stayed with him through his life. I have never seen a better, nor more biting, satire of red tape than this magical movie – witness the marvel that is Robert DeNiro’s superhero rogue plumber, who doesn’t fill out paperwork! Our Michael Palin as the charming interrogator who plays with his son while wearing a blood-splattered apron.   

And that’s not even mentioning the wonderful and often ignored Jonathan Pryce as the lead character. It’s a fantastic film from a fantastic director and – for my money – the only time that Gilliam has ever had his reach match his grasp. Beautiful piece of cinema.   

The following castaways thought like me:  The Film Forager, 

The Dark Knight   

   

I don’t like having sequels on my island without the original, because I’m OCD. I’ll elaborate on that below. All you need to know is that The Dark Knight is good enough that, tonight, I’m gonna break my one rule. See what I did there? Anyway, The Dark Knight stands enough as its own film that it doesn’t entirely depend on Batman Begins, though it does complement it. There’s enough going on here that you could picture it as a film starting a franchise, with new characters and plot threads and actors and so on.   

So The Dark Knight satisfies my basic lust for testosterone on the island. Because as exciting as flexing your mental muscles with adaptations of 1984 can be, sometimes you want to watch Batman flip a truck in the middle of Chicago, because he’s just bad ass. Seriously, it’s an iconic story of good versus evil and bat versus clown that just plays perfectly as a superb action movie.   

Fortunately there’s so much more at work here. When I stop marveling at the amazing stunts (skydiving, bat bikes, Batman vs. SWAT), Nolan gives me some chewy stuff to get me thinking. Stuff like the nature of man or the role of government and private individuals in our protection, or the balance of rights in a democratic society or the stability of the justice system. Yes, all this is far from practical on a one-man island (I would probably organise due democratic process with myself to prepare for my eventual mental breakdown and the introduction of my new best friend, Wilson the beachball), but it’s interesting and complex. There’s a lot to think about, and I’ll have a long time to think about it.   

The following castaways thought like me: The Dark of the Matinee, Let’s Go to the Movies, Ramblings of a Recessionista, Detailed Criticisms

Gattaca   

   

I loved Gattaca as a teenager. You know when you have good days and bad days as a kid and little set backs seem like the end of the world? Or when huge accomplishments somehow happen and you fear that people will assume you’re way more talented than you are? Gattaca is supposed to be a science fiction parable about the dangers of genetic engineering, but – like all great science fiction – it is so much more.   

Vincent is a fraud – a man who has convinced the world he is so much better than he has any right to be. Eugene is a failure by twist of fate – but for an accident, he could have had the world at his feet. On any given morning between the ages of ten and twenty, I was Vincent or I was Eugene. I was the guy who was bluffing his intelligence and his charm, scared to death of being found out as the nerd I so truly was; I was also the guy who had all these great opportunities, but they never seemed to come together. I think that’s why Gattaca spoke to me.   

It’s also just a gorgeously made film. It’s very clever and very clean – it’s a retro-chic future which isn’t all up in your face about how future-y it is or isn’t. It also helps that it has a killer cast. And it is one of the few narrated films that I don’t find particularly pretentious, perhaps because it’s written so well, or perhaps because it was delivered so well. I don’t know.   

And, odds are – having found myself on a desert island – I’d be feeling more than a bit like Eugene.   

The following castaways thought like me:   

The Godfather   

   

We can sit here and argue all day about whether The Godfather, Part I or The Godfather, Part II was better. I’m not sure. Part II is undeniably more epic in scope. Plus it has a donkey show. All joking aside, though, I personally prefer the first film. And yes, it might be because the second film doesn’t really make sense without the original (seriously, would you share the same connection with Robert DeNiro as Vito is you hadn’t just seen Brando?), but it may also be that the original has an elegant simplicity to it.   

The first can exist without the second. Sure, having seen the two movies together, it’s somewhat hard to imagine, but Part I tells a much a clearer story – the story of a son replacing his father. The second story – that of a son holding on to his empire – is arguably grander and deeper, but it lacks the same beautiful simplicity of the first part of the trilogy. The Godfather is rightly considered a cinematic treasure and I would bring both (or even, at a push, all three – because I’m OCD about having complete and matching sets), but that would be cheating.   

If it has to be one of these films, it has to be the original.   

The following castaways thought like me: The Dark of the Matinee, Detailed Criticisms
   

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly   

And here we have another argument. One which suggests that Once Upon a Time in the West is a more mature exploration of Sergio Leone’s themes about the desire by men to tame the world, while remaining unable to tame themselves. Once Upon a Time in the West is a grander story about railroads and civilisation and visions of the future. It is undeniably a bigger film than The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, and perhaps a more epic one.   

However, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is a better story for its simplicity. Three bandits searching for buried treasure has launched many a hackneyed adventure story, but very few with the wit and charm of this cinematic masterpiece. It works purely on the level of badass involved, like The Dark Knight above. Indeed, it’s the first film on this list to feature undeniably happy endings for its deserving characters. It’s hard not to smile at the ending.   

But along the way there’s food for thought. The trek across the wilderness may as well be a descent into Dante’s Inferno, inhabited by the brutal, the damned and the lost. This is an America still bleeding and raw, a country waiting to be forged. It’s hard not to see facets of its future in the three leading characters, each fighting for their chance at the prize. More than that, the film is a packed with superb performances. Lee Van Cleef has never been better. Eli Wallach is criminally underrated. Clint is just beginning to demonstrate his dramatic flare.   

It’s a movie with heart, but a cold and bitter sense of humour. One might say there are two kind of people in the world: those trapped on desert islands without hope; and those with a copy of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.   

The following castaways thought like me:   

Heat   

Heat is a cinematic classic. It’s easy to look back and pick it apart, or make disparaging comparisons between the film and any number of underrated Michael Mann films. I’m sure somewhere there’s a commentator who believes Miami Vice is better than Heat. I’m not going to bother looking, because it would depress me, and I don’t want to be depressed while cast away on a desert island. I want to be watching Heat.   

Remember when Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino were good? Well, by bringing this movie with me, I can pretend they never sank to making films like Analyse This or Righteous Kill or 88 Minutes. I’ll be working damn hard to make sure DeNile isn’t just a river flowing into the ocean where I’m stranded.   

All joking aside, Heat is an epic. It’s a sprawling film. Perhaps too sprawling for its own good. But at least I’ll have to contemplate each and every one of the several thousand plot and character arcs that Mann crams into the movie. Heat works best as what it is: a cops and robbers movie. Or, to personalise it, a cop and robber movie. Because we’re all thinking of one scene in particular, aren’t we? In a coffee house, no? Man, is this movie going to make me crave coffee?   

Having DeNiro and Pacino on screen together with a script not written in crayon is reason enough to get excited (yes, I just zung Righteous Kill… again!), but the movie is the quintessential cop and criminal crime epic. You’ll notice that a lot of the movies on this list can be perhaps reduced to fundamentally basic core concepts and archetypes. They are all, after a fashion, fairytales about a prince trying to succeed his father, or a lone wise man amidst scheming fools, or a brazen masquerade. Despite the complexity suggested by all its moving parts, Heat is a simple story, and it’s the stronger for it. The entire movie can be summated in a single line: “I do what I do best, I take jobs. You do what you do best, you try to stop guys like me.”   

The following castaways thought like me:   

The Truman Show   

For the world is hollow and I have touched the sky.   

   

Let’s face it, putting a bunch of bloggers on random desert islands while forcing them to make sadistic choices about what to take and what to leave sounds like a reality television show. A crap, mid-season-replacement-for-a-Joss-Whedon-show type of reality television show, but a reality television show nonetheless. As I’m lying there in the sand, baking in the sun, I’ll probably get to thinking that way. From that point of view, The Truman Show is essential viewing.   

All joking aside, The Truman Show is probably the most prescient movie of the nineties. We laughed at the concept of such a cynical and exploitative show all those years ago. How little we knew. The Truman Show works as an exploration of the inherent violence and maliciousness of reality television (as it exploits the individual for entertainment), but also works as a profoundly religious metaphor. Kristof may as well be God, living up in the moon and looking down upon poor witless Truman, who sends trial after trial to deter the young man from the pursuit of truth (the truth that the world he has been raised in is ultimately fake). Despite all it’s modern and timely trappings, The Truman Show arguably works best as a fairytale of a boy inside a fake world and the man who lived in the moon.   

To say nothing of Jim Carrey’s amazing performance. He deserved an Oscar for this. He’ll have to settle for pride of place on my small desert island shelf.   

The following castaways thought like me:   

Hey, thanks for reading this far. There’s a lot in here, with some ranting and some rambling. A very sincere and heartfelt thank you to Andy for putting all of this together. The man is a legend. We should do this sort of thing more often (assuming this goes well, which it will). Anyway, I’ll be flicking back and forth through the lists of my esteemed colleagues and I suggest you do the same:   

I’ll be compiling all the choices later today to see what the most (and least) essential Desert Island DVDs are (with an updated version here). Thanks to Andy again for all his work. 

Even if my list bored the pants off you, you’ll find something more out there and exciting with them.   

Cheers and I hope I gave you something to think about.

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31 Responses

  1. Hi Darren,
    Great list. This was a great idea alright and such fun!
    Gattaca, loved that film. I was a big Ethan Hawke fan at the time of the film release. I’ve seen it several times since then.
    Loved The Truman Show too, it just shows that Jim Carrey is more than a comedian.

    • It was great fun, wasn’t it? Andy did good. Nice list, by the way. I almost had Die Hard as well. Why only eight? It’s like Sophie’s Choice with DVDs!

  2. i like your trivia breakdown Dazza, and your ‘castaways who thought like me’ bit.
    some dark choices though, not sure thered be too many laughs on your island

    • Ah, the Big Lebowski is funny enough to outweigh all the other dark and depressing stuff. Though, looking back at the list, I’m beginning to think the guy who described my as a “closet goth” may have been on to something (apparently despite the fact I’m always dressed neat and – I hope – stylishly without makeup or piercing or moping, I do tend to have a capacity to make depressing observations).

  3. Damn, great call with Brazil. I need to see that one again, that might be a 10 out of 10. Same goes for Good Bad Ugly. Well played, good sir. Well played indeed.

    • I love that film, it was my introduction to Gilliam – and, in my opinion, still his finest. “Might be” a 10/10? For shame, Aidan, for shame!

  4. Ahh…Gattaca. I miss that movie. I haven’t seen it a while.

  5. DAMNIT… I just realized Batman is not on my list and am sort of hating myself right now… UGH!!!
    Anyways, love the list. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is a great choice. Brazil was very interesting. I still haven’t gotten all the way thru that film. Don’t know why I can’t.
    Also, even though it didn’t make the cut, I’m glad you threw some props to Collateral… such a great film!

    • Because it’s soul-destroyingly depressing? There’s some serious mood whiplash going on in Brazil where the first hour or so is wonderfully satirical, and then the second hour seems to exist solely to convince you that any vaguely individual decision you make will be ground into the concrete by the authoritarian state.

      Collateral was close, but there are bigger and better crime films out there and I didn’t want the island to become like a crime-themed paradise (though there is a strong sci-fi thing going on).

  6. Fantastic list Darren! Officially my favorite out there and I might just risk my life swimming in shark infested water to come to your island! The only movie I haven’t seen is Gattaca and among those great movies, I must now check it out!

    • Thanks Castor! I don’t know how I picked just 8… I’m having survivor guilt about dropping Collateral to make room for other stuff and I’m sure Godfather, Part II is getting lonely on my shelf at home while it’s compadre is stuck on my island. Imagine spending eternity with Godfather, Part III? In many ways, Godfather, Part I is the lucky one.

  7. Heat! My favorite Mann film. This is a list I could really sink my teeth into– especially with the inclusion of The Big Lebowski and Brazil, two of my all-time favorites.

    • Thanks Andy, it’s good to see I’m not alone in liking Heat – though Mann’s filmography is so expansive and generally of such high quality it’s hard to pick favourites. I think Heat gets a bad rap because it was so big and so popular when it came back, even though it has some very large flaws (mainly that there’s a great deal of the film that seems to exist for no real purpose – these scenes don’t advance the plot and feature characters who ultimately go nowhere). Still, I love it.

      And I’m surprised at all the Brazil love (I’m not surprised people like it, just that so many adore it like I do). I always figured I was alone in the sheer scale of my love for that film.

  8. The Dude?, Heat? and Gattaca? Awesomeness.

    The Godfather is on a lot of peoples lists, and while I love it I couldn’t see myself watching it over and over again, though I do get the love for The Dark Knight, I’m surprised to see it on so many peoples lists.

    • The Godfather is one of those sacred cows, but I’ve always found it hugely rewatchable – but different strokes for different folks (for example, it takes considerable focus for me to organise a rewatching of the Lord of the Rings, for example).

      And Godfather II is kinda the same for me – great film, but not as easy to watch and enjoy as the first.

  9. Not just an impressive list but an impressive, thorough all-around post. You clearly took this seriously and it shows. Moreover, though we didn’t “think like each other” for a single pick, I’d gladly take yours just as much as my own. A lot of movies on here that I haven’t watched in some time (even if I own them). Anyway, I appreciate the time you took for your list and others.

    • Thanks Fletch! I just figured that I get to pick eight movies, so I should pick them in isolation – they should be a collective that work well together.

  10. A most eclectic and entertaining rundown of films, Darren — very well-rounded. You’re not the first to include “The Dark Knight,” but I’m reminded again of how dumb I was to forget it! Oh, if only we coulda had nine movies…

    “The Big Lebowski” is a classic pic, though it was so impossible for me to pick JUST ONE Coen film that I didn’t pick any.

    • Thanks M., I appreciated your genre-break-down method as well. Like I’ve said, I don’t think it’s really feasible to make any sort of empirical argument for The Big Lebowski as the best of the Coens’ work, but it’s the one that has stayed with me longest (and I think we all remember our first loves).

  11. THE TRUMAN SHOW is an excellent choice. Great balance of poignance and humor. Also, DEMOLITION MAN is awesome. :-)

    • Demolition Man is probably my single greatest guilty pleasure. And it isn’t that it’s bad, but that it manages to be sooo good despite not having a lot of elements working in its favour. If you try and break it down, you can’t find why it works. The script is clumsy, the acting is so-so, but somehow they combine to make magic.

      I’m surprised The Truman Show didn’t make more lists, to be honest.

  12. I have never been able to get that excited about The Truman Show but love all the other picks. I could happily watch them all over and over again, great job. Thanks for taking part and for taking up the mantle and doing the analysis after.

    • Thanks Andy – it was all your work, just my nerdishness requiring to sort it out. I should update it with those who missed the deadline next week.

  13. This is a pretty sweet list! We are the only people who chose Brazil, and because of that I respect your list more than many others (it’s one of my absolute favorite films). There’s a good mix of sci-fi, comedy, and drama and I think The Truman Show is a really cool choice.

    Also, your exceptionally well-organized and color-coded spreadsheet made me incredibly happy!

  14. Your list is a masterpiece.

    I was going to leave it at that and be cool, but I needed to add that despite my love for some of the movies that are on your list, but aren’t on mine, I wish I could have joined you in solidarity with Brazil. Gilliam didn’t make my list at all, and that’s strictly because I limit the number of times I watch his movies so I don’t burn out on them.

    Having just come back from the birth of my second child, I loaded up one film on my ipod to watch at the hospital: The Dark Knight. My wife asked me why, and I told her because all of it is so great, so I can drop in and out of the movie throughout everything happening with the baby, and still be completely entertained. Now that’s a movie I’d want on a desert island… if I could bring 9.

    • Thanks Steve – it is. I remember flicking through the movie channels with my brother (there’s never anything on) and Sky were showing the Dark Knight. “We’ve already seen it about twenty times,” he noted, before adding, “but I could watch it again”.

      Congratulations on the baby, might I add.

  15. Hey Darren.

    I did have the ball(s) to put Castaway on my list, but purely for practical reasons :-)

    The Truman Show is one of the movies on my list that might inspire me to escape from the Island, either that or it’d make me paranoid that it was all a big conspiracy.

    Great list.

    • Just like Ross, eh? Survival skills. No, it’s a good movie, but I didn’t think it was a classic.

      The Truman Show on the other hand I just fell in love with. And, given I was twelve at the time, I’ve actually ‘got’ more of it as I’ve grown up, if that makes sense (and yes, I was the only twelve year old that didn’t care Jim Carrey wasn’t being ‘as funny as he normally is’ – the kids at school loathed this movie).

  16. FUn list – which I would have known about this project in time to participate!

    • Rumour has it there’s another in the planning over the next few months. Not too soon that we all get sick of each other, but sometime in Autumn, I think…

    • RC, The next event (that I am organising) will be towards the end of the year but there is still time for this one if you want to get involved we are still taking late entries. Just post your list and send me a link.

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