I’d like to think that the majority of people who go to university choose their degree based on having a vague interest in the subject. People who choose to study history will likely want to learn more about the past, people who choose to study maths will likely want to learn more about numbers and even people who choose to study a vocational degree like nursing will still have chosen this path due to having a desire to learn more about a subject they love, the job at the end is just a bonus. Sadly, the niche and often underestimated film degree is one that does not guarantee a job at the conclusion of its study. What it did provide me with however, is a rather rich exposure to an abundance of films spanning from the silent era right through to the contemporary and that is something I can share with you. A job at the end would have been nice though.
This blog post is a very short summary of how studying cinema has opened my eyes to films I probably never would have chosen to watch on my own accord. I found it extremely challenging narrowing this list down to just 10 films, considering I had to watch several films a week for 3 years. The following 10 films may be ones you are already familiar with or you may have no knowledge of them at all, nonetheless I want this post to illustrate how my degree didn’t just deepen my knowledge of the subject but had a lasting impact on my attitude towards film. Overall, studying something I had huge interest in didn’t just give me a degree at the end of it, it gave me a burning desire to learn more. Hopefully, introducing you to these films will encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in something you never dreamed of watching.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
(Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Set in 1980s Romania during the communist rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a fascinating signifier of the Romanian New Wave with its evident realism approach. Two female students named Otilia and Găbița attempt to obtain an illegal abortion, as Găbița has fallen pregnant at a time where strict abortion laws had been decreed by a harsh dictator. Many have praised the film for its gritty representation of such a dark time for many Romanian women, a characteristic typical of the Romanian New Wave. At a time where women’s rights are being placed on a seesaw of political uncertainty, this film sadly still has cultural relevance today. It is a moving depiction of female friendship and an all too realistic critique of past and present society.
(Ron Fricke, 1992)
Baraka is one of the more unique and special films that appear on this list. It is a feature length wordless documentary simply yet intricately depicting the wonders and tragedies of our planet. It is a visually stunning piece of cinema and I am forever grateful to my degree for putting this on my radar because a “97 minute wordless documentary” wouldn’t normally fall at the top of my list of exciting must-see films. However, the sheer extravagance of this picture coupled with a deep exploration into every crevice of the Earth, takes viewers to incomprehensible places leaving them speechless at the power of cinema. Now that environmental concerns are higher than ever before, I urge you to watch this masterpiece because it will without a doubt enlighten you on the beauty of our planet and how we must save it from its decline.
Bringing Up Baby
(Howard Hawks, 1938)
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are exceptionally funny in this screwball comedy. Based on a short story of the same name, Bringing Up Baby tells the tale of David, a rather angsty palaeontologist and his aim to secure a hefty donation for his museum but he encounters all kinds of slapstick mishaps when he meets Susan and her pet Leopard, Baby. Susan tries to pursue David but try as she might she always ends up getting him into trouble instead. It exudes a charming and timeless type of comedy that utilises its lead cast, Hepburn’s persona brings a breath of fresh air to the female characters present throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood and its often male-centric stories. For the younger readers, if you didn’t think old black and white films could be funny, give this a go and see if it changes your mind.
(Ruggero Deodato, 1980)
This next one is not for the faint hearted. I mean it. Please don’t partake in this if you have issues with watching violence, gore, animal abuse, rape, cannibalism … pretty much anything nasty really. I know I’m probably not selling this to you but underneath all of its controversies Cannibal Holocaust is an excellent film with a cleverly gripping story. This Italian horror follows Professor Harold Monroe into the Amazon rainforest, as he investigates the whereabouts of a missing documentary crew who were there exploring the rumoured monstrosities of an indigenous cannibal tribe. The film has been banned in over 50 countries and has triggered outrage from many, particularly with regards to its genuine mutilation of animals. Director, Ruggero Deodato was even arrested shortly after its premiere for obscenity. This picture isn’t for everyone but I thoroughly appreciated its underlying messages, do I think its exploitation of violence and rape was necessary? No. But have I intrigued you? Yes.
Dimensions of Dialogue
(Jan Švankmajer, 1983)
The last film may have been a perverse example of graphically surreal horror but you’ll be happy to know this next one is just plain surreal. If you read my first blog post about my top 10 most influential films, you’ll know I’ve always had an appreciation for Czechoslovakian director Jan Švankmajer. So with this in mind, maybe I would have watched this without the help of my degree but luckily I got to experience it on a large screen in a lecture theatre with my mates instead. The short stop motion animation is told in three sections: Eternal Conversation, Passionate Discourse and Exhaustive Discussion. There are many ways one could analyse this film, as it is certainly an artistic critique on societal relationships or evolution for example. However, it is primarily just fun and bizarre to watch as it fully utilises the possibilities and the rule breaking that comes with animation. The film is on YouTube and is under 15 minutes long, you won’t regret it.
(Steven Spielberg, 1971)
As someone who hates action films and isn’t the biggest fan of Steven Spielberg, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this next film. Action thriller Duel originally premiered on American television as an ABC Movie of the week and was actually Spielberg’s directing debut. It is of no surprise that this picture was the one to catapult Spielberg to fame and begin his career as a Hollywood director. The film is essentially an extended car chase sequence between innocent commuter David and an anonymous hostile truck driver. I honestly think that plot summary encapsulates my worst cinematic nightmare and prior to watching it I was dreading having to sit through an hour and a half of futile engine revving and tire screeching. However, I am also a lover of a simple yet effective storyline and that is the beauty of Duel. This film effortlessly has you hooked from beginning to end. If someone who passionately hates action films and repeatedly yawns at car chases found herself on the edge of her seat, I guarantee you’ll love it even more.
(Alex Garland, 2014)
Okay, give me a chance to explain why this one is on the list. Of course I’d heard of Ex Machina prior to being at university and I’m not exactly shining a light on some unknown masterpiece considering its an Oscar winner. However, I decided to include this in my “top 10 discoveries” list regardless of it being well known because as a film graduate I have a sinful confession to make: I don’t really like sci-fi (gasp – shocking, I know). 2001: A Space Odyssey was even a stretch for me to enjoy, so I never would have thought to watch Ex Machina in my own time. When a programmer named Caleb is selected to take part in an experiment involving the analysis of human qualities in an advanced AI, Ex Machina touches on many sci-fi motifs including the old favourites: “what does it mean to be human?” and “should we fear technology’s rapid development?”. This is all well and good, but it’s been done before. Nonetheless, Ex Machina spoke to me in ways other sci-fis failed to do because not only is it visually captivating, with stunning colour palettes and seamless visual effects but its utilisation of the classic noir genre to tell a story occupied with themes of the future, added far more charm and intrigue to a genre I personally find lacklustre.
(Charles Vidor, 1946)
I could just write “Rita Hayworth’s hair flip” as the justification for this addition to the list and leave it at that but I’ll try and dig a bit deeper. Gilda is a noir that really defines the Golden Age of Hollywood for me, set in Buenos Aires a gambler called Johnny is hired to work at a casino owned by a man named Ballin Mundson. Ballin befriends Johnny but it soon becomes apparent that Johnny has history with Ballin’s seductive wife, Gilda. The love/hate relationship the two share behind Ballin’s back provides a riveting story and the sheer glamour of the picture is enough to make anyone fall in love with it. My admiration for the film lies mainly on a superficial level as the captivating costumes, extravagant song and dance numbers and a deep obsession with Hayworth makes for a truly iconic film in my eyes and I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Some Like It Hot
(Billy Wilder, 1959)
Some Like It Hot was a film that completely took me by surprise. Going into university I hadn’t heard much about it before, the only thing I knew was that Marilyn Monroe was in it and at the time that was not enough to arouse my curiosity. After two musicians, Joe and Jerry, get into trouble with a mob gang, they are forced to leave the state. In order to keep their cover, they choose to join a band that is exclusively female and in turn disguise themselves as the lovely Josephine and Daphne. Their situation is further complicated when they meet the ditsy blonde bombshell (feminist icon, I know) Sugar Kane and both inevitably fall for her. Some may want to play devil’s advocate and say its treatment of gender blurring was handled carelessly and framing it within the subject of comedy was not at all progressive however this was the 50’s, we can’t have everything. The film was ahead of its time in my opinion and the type of humour the film operated on was in fact why it took me by surprise, it was refreshing to see a black and white film depicting two men having fun in drag.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
(Robert Wiene, 1920)
To conclude, I’ve chosen a film that actually marks the first stepping stones of filmic history. After watching George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon when I was 16, I’ve always had an intrigue in the very early period of cinema. I found it so interesting that these time capsules existed where you could literally watch a part of history unfold on screen. However, unless you’re a real film buff, early silent cinema isn’t going to fall at the top of your bucket list. Even though I had an interest in it, I wouldn’t exactly be binge watching it. Nonetheless, I was very happy to watch The Cabinet of Dr Caligari as it exemplifies the surreal nature of German Expressionism that I have come to love. It is a dark and unnerving story about hypnotist Dr. Caligari, who uses a sleepwalker (who has been asleep for 23 years) named Cesare to commit murders for him. Not only is the story meticulously clever but it has some of the most striking set design I have ever seen. I strongly recommend this one to anyone who is a fan of Tim Burton as it bears many similarities to his work, reminding viewers that the past and present of cinema is not as distant as you may have first thought.