One of the writing tasks I like to give to my students—new ones in particular—is to write about their favourite films or TV series. It’s a nice way to get to know them better, find out what sort of things they are interested in, and perhaps find some commonalities. It’s a very versatile and vocabulary-rich topic that students usually enjoy writing about. It can also be used as a speaking activity, obviously, and not only as an ice breaker or a time filler.
As I was discussing films with my intermediate students the other day, they were curious to find out about my favourite ones. I did mention a few, but I promised to produce a more complete list for homework. So, here it goes: my all-time favourite films (in no particular order).
Directed by Alfred Hitchock, The Birds (1963) is one of those classic films I revisit every year. Typically classified as a natural horror or thriller, it’s also surprisingly amusing. (I ascribe that to Tippy Hedren as much as to Sir Alfred.) It describes strange events in Bodega Bay, California, as large flocks of birds suddenly start violently attacking people. The film is loosely based on a short story by the English writer Daphne du Maurier, which I can also warmly recommend.
This British dramedy released in 1997 was directed by Mike Leigh, starring Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman. It follows the story of two college friends who meet again after six years apart. There are flashbacks to their late-1980s life together as roommates, and then back to present-day (i.e. the mid-1990s). You could say there isn’t much of a plot there; the film is more about establishing connections between the past and the present. Nothing really gets resolved; both women remain in limbo as they eventually go their separate ways. Although the film is very funny, it’s also quite moody and reflective.
Impromptu is a 1991 period drama with a fantastic set of characters (and actors). I’ve never bothered to check how much of it is historically accurate: set in the 1830s France, the film is about the controversial French writer George Sand and her romance with the famous composer Frederic Chopin. There are other 19th century notables in it, such as Franz Liszt, Alfred de Musset and Eugene Delacroix. The film is directed by James Lapine and the cast includes Judy Davis, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Mandy Patinkin. Believe it or not, I still have it on VHS tape. (And my VCR works just fine!)
A Place in the Sun
Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, this 1951 film adaptation was directed by George Steven, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters. It’s a tragic story of a love affair gone very wrong. The film won numerous awards, including six Oscars. I’m partial to it, because it was that film in particular that inspired me to explore the films of the Golden Age of Hollywood; and those films are unbeatable, in every sense. It also sparked a life-long interest in all things Monty Clift, who will forever be my favourite screen actor.
Dead Poets Society
Released in 1989, this drama set in the 1950s was directed by Peter Weir, starring Robin Williams. I remember first seeing it as a high school kid in the early 1990s, and I was very impressed by it. The main character is an English teacher whose approach to teaching literature inspires his students to think for themselves. The film happened to be my very first encounter with the poetry of Walt Whitman, who has since been one of my favourite poets. While I haven’t seen it recently, this film often comes to my mind.
Reflections in a Golden Eye
Liz Taylor and Marlon Bardon… It doesn’t get better than that! (Actually, Montgomery Clift was supposed to be in it, which would have made it even better. Sadly, he died before the movie went into production.) Directed by John Huston, this 1967 drama is a film adaptation of the 1941 novel by the American writer Carson McCullers, and it deals with repressed feelings and hidden sexual desires. I’m always surprised to read that the film didn’t get more positive reviews when it was first released; I suspect it had more to do with 1960s sense of sexual morality than the actual quality of the film. Anyway, I find it superb.
The Witches of Eastwick
Another film I traditionally watch once a year—typically around Halloween. Part comedy, part dark fantasy, The Witches of Eastwick is a film adaptation of John Updike’s novel by the same title. Released in 1987 and directed by George Miller, its cast includes Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Jack Nicholson. It’s a hilarious story of three women who discover their witchy powers with the help of a mysterious newcomer to their small New England town. I never get tired of it, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it.
Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw has seen quite a few film and television adaptations, but none as good and psychologically insightful as the 1961 film The Innocents directed by Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr. Everything about this gothic horror is perfect, from the opening scene right to the very end. (Having Truman Capote as one of the writers surely helped.) I’ve blogged about this film earlier, and you can read more about it by clicking here.
The Village is a period thriller directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Released in 2004, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, and Adrian Brody among others, the film is about a small, isolated, pseudo-religious community led by ‘the Elders’. The village is encircled by woods supposedly inhabited by dangerous creatures referred to as ‘Those We Don’t Speak Of’. Any contact with the outside world is strictly prohibited. This may sound like a horror story, but it’s more of a psychological thriller: it ends up being a rather moving tale of coping with grief and trauma.
There are other films that I’ve really enjoyed over the years, from pretty much any movie starring James Dean to irreverent black comedies such as John Waters’ Serial Mom. (My love for silent movies needs to be a topic for a separate post.) Based on the list above, you can see that I like predominantly dark films with troubled characters; the sort of films that make you wonder and question rather than just entertain.
How about you—what kinds of films do you like? Any favourites? Do share about them in the comments section below!
Cover photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash