We both had a day off work after a lovely weekend away with friends, so we thought we’d take inspiration from some of the conversations we’ve had as a group over the past couple of days and put together an official ETHR list of our top 5 favourite films each, starting with…
#5 (Harri) - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, before you come at me, let me explain. Although one of the biggest movie hits of 1991, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has garnered a reputation over the years as a jarringly chaotic, wildly overblown and slightly misjudged mess of a film, branded by the Guardian ‘a joyless hit that should’ve stayed in the 90s’ and, to a certain extent, I’d say that’s absolutely bloody right.
However, it is also magnificent, and I don’t care.
In my memory, watching this film on back-to-back repeat as a 10 year old, I was totally caught up in the philosophical musings of Costner and Freeman at Sycamore Gap, the ingenious and over-the-top melodrama of Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham (‘I’ll cut your heart out with a spoon!'), experiencing my first major childhood crush on Christian Slater’s rebellious Will Scarlet, and, just generally, the idea of living in the trees with ya pals whilst firing off some impressive bow and arrow shots for a few giggles. It sparked off a significant era of imaginative play for me as a kid: fashioning bow and arrows out of twigs and string, oscillating my costume between a knock-off Kevin Costner and other similar bad-ass leads of the time (cue Antonio Banderas’ Zorro, Esmeralda from Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Charlie’s Angels' Drew Barrymore – don’t judge).
Rich: You’ve not mentioned the iconic title track ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’ by Bryan Adams and I’m wondering if there’s a reason for that. What are your opinions on the song?
Harri: Errrr, it’s only a stone-cold banger! Although, I remember playing the YouTube video to try and woo a boy a really fancied in Year 6 and he thought it was a bit shite. So mixed memories there.
The first spot on my list is occupied by two films, so not even one sentence in and I’m cheating already! I honestly couldn’t choose between these, and despite being wildly different films they occupy a similar category in my head - that of the ‘still only seen it once but it left such an impact I’d have a hard time excluding it from my list of top films’ (catchier category titles on a postcard please…).
The former is a full-throttle excoriation of the class divide in modern Korean society by director Bong Joon-ho, which follows a poor working-class family, the Kims, as they weedle their way from the inescapable harshness of the breadline into a vicarious (and highly precarious) version of upper-middle class living. The Kims scheme to live a 👀 parasitic 👀 life against the wealthy Park family; a plan which comes to fruition as each family member applies for, and successfully acquires, a different role within the Park family as a worker or servant. Things then spiral as the Kims take greater and greater liberties, and I won’t go into much more on that except to say that the plan to secretly live in the Parks' house while they’re away on a camping trip reminded me of The Greatest Store in the World in a way that only British kids of a certain age will understand 😂
There are also two scenes that I can’t unsee; one involving a banana and another involving a set of stairs that creeped me out more thoroughly than any horror movie (bar The Others which is the scariest film ever made hands down).
Shifting gears totally, Arrival is a thoughtful and totally compelling sci-fi movie, encompassing a grandiose scale of ideas and scope that only a director like Denis Villeneuve could pull off while still maintaining the full emotional core and narrative thrust (see Dune, Blade Runner 2049 etc.).
This film sees the simultaneous 👀 arrival 👀 of a number of strange, monolithic UFOs all over the globe, none of which really seem to do anything, but all of which, understandably, pose a problem to a human race that can make neither head nor tail of them. They seem like ominous harbingers of some unknown fate, whose inactivity makes them all the more troubling and mysterious.
As investigations get underway, a professor of linguistics, played by Amy Adams, is brought in to help decipher a set of strange glyphs, through which the alien race behind these UFOs seems to be trying to communicate. The film then starts to unpack the concept of time, and time travel, in a way that’s more convincing and believable than anything I think I’ve seen onscreen, which allows the film to take some turns that pack a genuine emotional punch while still being beautifully understated. I won’t spoil too much other than to say that it put me strongly in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five, whose alien race the Tralfamadorians experience time as a fourth dimension, allowing them to perceive any point in the past, present or future at will:
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.
Harri: Two excellent films so I’ll let you off having a cheeky sixth favourite squeezed in. That scene in Parasite with the dark stairway: my spidey senses knew that something wicked this way was comingeth, so I hid behind me fingers to watch your reaction instead. I’ve never seen so much unbridled terror in your eyes 👀 What was it about the scene that made it so scary? Did Parasite hark back to any other horror films to you?
Rich: Funny you should choose that particular emoji in asking the question, since eyes are what made the scene in question so creepy. It’s hard to put my finger on why it was that scary since Parasite obviously isn’t a horror film, but something about the balance of the darkness of the stairway against the whiteness of the eyes peering back, and the fact that the size of the eyes seemed to be ever so slightly exaggerated in a way that was unexpected really caught me off-guard and was very chilling!
In terms of horror films it puts me in mind of, thematically I’d say maybe the aforementioned The Others or the recent The Invisible Man remake. I didn’t think the latter was that great of a film, but both these films carry themes of an unwanted guest that is seldom seen or heard but whose presence is always felt.
#4 (Harri) - The Kings of Summer
This film came completely out of left field for me. I was feeling particularly stressed as a final year uni student and, having just dramatically exited a tutorial at my wit’s end (it was a drama module, so, surprisingly fitting), I fled back home to fall in a heap and escape into a film. The Kings of Summer was a completely random choice. I was only swayed by the thumbnail: three boys jumping triumphantly off a cliff into a river, bathed in sunlight and looking gloriously free and wild.
I would describe this film as a perfect remedy for melancholia. It is, at its heart, a coming-of-age film, following three misfits who are trying to find their freedom and independence by building their own world out in the woodlands of Ohio. It is certainly not always as dreamy as the front cover makes out, there are feuds and fallings-out along the way, but with some gorgeous nature-based montages, a few gentle laughs, and a welcome feature of Nick Offerman as a slightly over-bearing but well-meaning father figure, it greatly lifted my spirits and took me out of my own worries for a while. And I think that is really the sign of a good film.
Rich: In the film the boys build an actual house in the woodlands (or a close approximation of one). What would be the make-up of your perfect woodland hideaway?
Harri: OK, think of walking through a thick mass of sweet-smelling pines until you stumble out into a bright, sun-dappled meadow overlooking a bountiful, winding river and even more trees. Trees for miles! I would salvage old wooden windows to create some kind of Frankenstein biodome, so I could see nature from every angle. There would be a separate music studio (of course), an outdoor bath, and a huge screen we could pull down from the trees so we could have cinema nights!
Rich: That sounds incredible. My follow-up question is that if Nick Offerman filmed himself reading the entirety of the Yellow Pages would you watch the whole thing? I know my answer.
Harri: Yes, of course. But don’t kid yourself, we’d just be waiting for him to reach McCracken, Phil.
#4 (Rich) - Gladiator
This is a film that just works for me on every level. It justifies its place in my top 5 every single time I revisit it, despite my shamefully hipster-ish feeling that it can’t truly be in my top 5 compared to all the other brilliant, less mainstream movies out there (and especially when people often seem to slam it as being overrated).
And yet I’d put this up there amongst Ridley Scott’s best films every time. Alien and Blade Runner are also there for sure, but there’s something about this particular narrative, combined with these actors, combined with THAT score that just hits right for me without fail. Not to mention the fact that we’re living at a point in time where a leader like Maximus Meridius (Russell Crowe) would be a massive breath of fresh air:
Marcus Aurelius: “Won’t you accept this great honour that I have offered you?”
Maximus: “With all my heart, no.”
Marcus Aurelius: “Maximus, that is why it must be you.”
Yes please. #strongmanleadersinthebin
Also, if this film doesn’t make you want to run your hand through every field of wheat you’ve ever come across then you might not be human (or you might be Theresa May).
Harri: Ahh, what a film! One of my favourite aspects of Gladiator is the incredible Joaquin Phoenix who makes my skin positively crawl in his role as Emperor Commodus - one of the most irredeemable on-screen villains in my book. So, my question to you is: if you found yourself on the warm sands of the Coliseum with a hefty salmon, a tennis umbrella, and pack of slightly gone-off duck eggs, which would you choose as a weapon to fight him?
Rich: Hmm, assuming I only get to choose a single weapon and not a combination, I’d have to go with the duck eggs. Commodus is a weedy boi and all talk, but he is pretty handy with a blade so any weapon that takes me within range of that is asking for trouble. If I can land a good, solid duck egg to the eyes and/or groin I think I’ve got a strong chance of disarming him and taking things from there.
#3 (Harri) - No Country for Old Men
A Coen Brothers spectacular with the. best. villain. (probably). ever. I mean, that is basically what makes the film for me. Javier Bardem is an unwaveringly calm and composed presence in the film, albeit being, ya know, the literal personification of Death. It’s the perfectly coiffed helmet hair. The murder weapon (a bolt pistol, normally used to stun livestock) that leaves no trace of evidence, that is completely silent and that looks as innocent as a tank of oxygen. He kills his victims like cattle, never once disrupting that silky bob of his.
But OK, OK, there’s more to this than Bardem’s brilliant performance (and Cormack McCarthy’s literary creation of hitman Anton Chigurh). The film has this heavy and mesmerising weight to it, winding its way through themes of fate, destiny and the inevitability of your past catching up to you: your fate is decided by a coin toss, there is no place in which you can escape or hide from Death (not even in that secret *second* motel room you’ve rented out), and also, IF YOU TAKE A BRIEFCASE CONTAINING 2 MILLION DOLLARS FROM A DRUG DEAL GONE WRONG THEN BAD THINGS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU.
Upheld by an excellent cast, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson, it is a tense, heart-racing and beautifully shot piece of film that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
Rich: Do you think the bob was an intentional choice on the part of Chigurh or did his mother decide to crack out the old bowl n' scissors that morning? He looks like a scary mushroom.
Harri: I am so glad you asked about scary mushroom hair because I recently learnt a very interesting thing about Javier Bardem’s hairstyle in this film. Reportedly, Bardem was originally against playing hitman Anton Chigurh because of the tricky dialect and the character’s propensity for violence. However, he changed his mind as soon as he saw the Coens' idea for Chigurh’s haircut. He said:
‘“Yes, I have to make this movie.” I mean, this is such a Coen brothers look. And, because it was funny, it was ridiculous, it was fun. And then that in comparison with what the character is, would make a very good Coen brothers character to play.’
#3 (Rich) - Inception
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a HUGE Chris Nolan fanboy. Like card-carrying fan club member, swooning anime GIF-level fanboy. So it’s no surprise that choosing a favourite film of his is a bit like choosing a favourite child.
However, I’m confident that Inception is the right choice. I’ve seen this film possibly upwards of ten times (albeit not for a few years sadly), because it just seems to be the film that has it all: huge ideas, thrilling large-scale action sequences; emotional pathos, story beats that make sense despite all the carnage; great acting and dialogue, the list goes on.
I think the primary reason that the film works so well is that for a sci-fi film that involves mind-heists, dreams within dreams and mind-bendingly nonsensical landscapes and architectures, it’s always clear where you are and why you’re there (as long as you’re paying attention as you should be). There is a decent degree of exposition while the film sets up its rules and concepts, and while this verges on being too talky in places, for me it never truly gets in the way and looks positively restrained when compared to Nolan’s more recent Tenet.
The central character of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is also a great protagonist around whom to centre a film. To my mind he occupies the perfect middle ground: not morally immaculate enough to be the traditional hero, but neither flawed nor questionable enough to be a proper anti-hero. He’s also got enough of a redemptive arc to carry the story forward, while not having so much personality or investment that he steals the limelight from the excellent supporting cast of characters (Tom Hardy, Elliot Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the list goes on…). While he may not be the silent protagonist by any means (certainly no Gordon Freeman anyway), he also exists in that sweet spot where you can project enough of yourself onto him to feel as though you truly exist in this world (or maybe I’m just exposing a latent desire to actually be Leo DiCaprio - I am a 90’s kid after all and saw Romeo + Juliet like the rest of us…).
There’s also the classic Hans Zimmer score. The song Time that plays over the final sequence will always hold a special place for me, and it’s worth remembering that all the BWAAAAAA stuff deserves a pass as this was the film that did it first, before every action film of the 2010s copied it and it became a massive meme.
You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter.
Harri: If this is your favourite child, what is your least favourite? And will you pay the therapy fees?
Rich: Eesh… Least favourite would have to either be Tenet or The Dark Knight Rises, neither of which is a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. I do admire Tenet for putting a storyline that difficult to follow in a major Hollywood blockbuster, so maybe The Dark Knight Rises wins out as my least favourite by a hair.
Bruce Wayne can afford the therapy fees.
#2 (Harri) - First Cow
When Rich and I were in the process of trying to narrow down our top 5 favourite films, I had been settled on four for a while and was looking for that elusive fifth. I had ideas (I’m looking at you, Wes Anderson), but couldn’t truly commit to a decision until this gentle, slightly off-beat film quietly meandered into our lives: First Cow. It opens with a quotation from William Blake: ‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship’, and that idea of human connection, our desire for companionship is slap-bang at the very heart of this film. It follows two such companions, Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz and King-Lu, in 1820s rural Oregon, dreaming of making their fortune together. And the possibility of that fortune comes in the shape of a humble cow, the first cow to ever be brought into the area. I have reflected several times since that the cow’s first entrance in this film is one of my favourite film entrances of all time, she comes quietly floating downstream on a simple raft, bathed in morning sunlight, contentedly surveying the many curious and awe-filled faces of the local townspeople on the riverbanks. The depiction of her is almost god-like: a precious and profound being to be revered. And rightly so, as she provides a lifeline to Cookie and King-Lu (and she’s so dang gorgeous).
The relationships between Cookie and King-Lu, and Cookie and the cow, get me right in the heartstrings. There is tenderness and intimacy, fierce loyalty, and deep-rooted connection and these themes truly culminate in the very final moments of the film. I was left thinking about it over and over for weeks afterwards.
(Also, TOBY JONES IS IN IT! We love Toby.)
Rich: First Cow is a great example of slow cinema, a style director Kelly Reichardt is known for. Scenes that would normally play out fairly quickly in a conventional edit are left to play out for quite a long time; scenes such as Cookie and King-Lu milling about outside of their house doing chores, seen through two windows and a door and therefore sometimes with no-one directly in shot. Do you have any tips on how to watch a film like this as we increasingly find our attention spans being shortened by endless accessible information on social media etc.?
Harri: Such a great question and I’m not sure I have a great answer! If it’s good slow cinema, I think it can feel like no time has passed at all. That’s how I felt with First Cow. No fidgeting, no itching to reach for my phone or to even eat snacks, I was just enveloped in their world, savouring their ordinary conversations and everyday routine. Who knew it would be so damn relaxing to watch people peel potatoes or harvest blueberries or to slowly milk a cow?
I guess for instances where it’s not that easy, it’s sometimes easier to approach a slow film as some weird intellectual exercise and explore your internal narrative a bit: what is it I’m not connecting with here? Why is this film making me feel restless? I think it’s better to engage this way with a film rather than reach for your phone for an easy dopamine hit. Not every film is going to feel revelatory – or even satisfactory – but I think it’s normally good to be patient and try and see it through to the end (unless it’s 27 Dresses, my only cinema walkout to date).
Rich: Great answer. Follow-up: is Toby Jones always better than No-by Jones?
Harri: Always. Just like Snow-Dad is better than No-Dad. Hello to Jason Isaacs. Eyyy!
#2 (Rich) - It’s a Wonderful Life
OFFICIAL BEST CHRISTMAS MOVIE EVS.
Too sentimental?? GET LOST.
- Good man spends two hours of movie runtime getting dumped on by life
- Good man seriously contemplates suicide and would have acted were it not for divine intervention
- Bad guy is total douche-canoe to the very end with zero redemption
- Bad guy arguably isn’t even ‘bad guy’ but a product of the consistent application of entirely unempathetic political beliefs (MORAL GREY AREAS AIN’T SENTIMENTAL BRO)
(I’m aware the above list has spoilers but come on, the film’s literally 76 years old.)
This makes my list because I’ve watched it every single Christmas for the best part of 15 years and it never gets boring. I look forward to this every time it comes around and every single time it gets me. Given how long it’s been around for, the fact that it hasn’t aged at all means it probably never will, and it’s hard to see how a message of selflessness and the importance of relationships could ever not be relevant in some way.
I was also lucky enough to watch it with Harri at the brilliant Maltings art centre in Berwick a few years ago, just two days before Christmas and it was quite a magical experience. There are a number of teary moments in this film but I’ll always remember the palpable sense of ‘trying to keep it in’ that the entire room seemed to be experiencing during the final scene, until someone a couple of rows in front of us broke with the loudest sob and the entire room was in bits. Truly cathartic ❤️
Remember no man is a failure who has friends.
Harri: Yep, I’m not sure I’ve ever cried so much in the cinema (except perhaps for my first viewing of Pixar’s Coco where I left our local Vue positively dehydrated). Has your experience of watching this film changed over the years? What is it that keeps bringing you back to it again?
Rich: I don’t know that I necessarily get something different out of it every time I watch it. It’s just that what I do get is so rejuvenating and wholesome that it’ll last me forever I think. There are just some basic, profound truths here that it’s easy to forget over the course of a busy year filled with busy-ness, and it readjusts your focus towards what truly matters (friends, family, gratitude for simple pleasures etc.) in a way that all the best Christmas films inevitably do.
#1 (Harri) - Brave
Oh, where to begin. It’s set in Scotland. There are bows and arrows and caber tosses. Riding horses through forests. Some fine-looking blueberry tartlets (be careful now). Our protagonist, Merida, is a strong, fierce, brilliant feminist role-model (apart from turning her mam into a bear, although I suppose feminists can do that too). There are folk songs and lullabies that make me weep like a little babby. It’s funny. It’s magic. It’s Pixar!
I first saw this film on one of my very early dates with Rich, so it has some pretty great memories attached to it in that respect too (although I’m fairly certain he ate all of my Minstrels – the lil scamp). I have seen this film countless times and it is like wrapping a big ol' comfort blanket round your shoulders. It’s a sigh of relief and a breath of fresh air.
I’ve realised that all my top five films are predominantly based outdoors, where at some point the protagonists are residing in nature (the Robin Hood treehouse village, the Kings of Summer ramshackle forest dwelling, the rural desertscapes of No Country, Cookie and King-Lu living off the land in First Cow). Brave is no different: it follows the joys and sorrows of a mother-daughter relationship in a backdrop of beautiful Scottish pine forests, rivers, standing stones, waterfalls and witch’s cabins. The music is also a massive draw for me, I canny listen to Julie Fowlis' Into the Open Air without feeling my bottom lip wobble.
Brave holds a special place in me wee little heart and it’s a guarantee that I always feel better by the time the credits roll.
Rich: This is an interesting choice for favourite Pixar movie but makes total sense given the themes. Out of interest what would your runner-up be and why is it Inside Out?
Harri: Ya beggar! OK, so yes, I’m maybe the only person we know to not have really liked Inside Out. I’m not a total psychopath, I just didn’t feel much empathy towards a fluffy pink elephant called Bing Bong. I did, however, feel vast amounts of empathy for a big, fluffy, blue monster and a big green eyeball called Mike. Monsters, Inc. is my undisputed second, closely followed by Coco (*wail* ‘remember meeee’ *wail*).
Rich: Follow-up statement in defence of my Minstrel-snaffling – if it’s over halfway through the movie and you haven’t finished the bag like a normal person by that point, I’m going to assume you’re done.
Harri: You’re a monster! Such a Randall.
#1 (Rich) - Chef
Oh boy. This one tops the list because it’s that once-in-a-blue-moon film that feels like it’s made specifically for you. It’s not one that I watch often as I want to make sure it always remains as special as it was on first watch, but it’ll take a lot to knock it from the top spot.
It follows a man named Carl Casper (played by the multi-talented Jon Favreau, who also directed the film and is better-known to many as Happy Hogan from the MCU), who’s a chef at a high-profile LA restaurant, but quits when he won’t compromise on his integrity for the sake of the commercial concerns of the owner (a nice little feature from Dustin Hoffman).
Carl also has a young son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), with his ex-wife Inez (Sofía Vergara), with whom the break-up is assumed to have been amicable since they still get on perfectly well. Percy mostly lives with Inez but gets to visit regularly to spend time with Carl. The movie then follows Carl’s journey to discover what it is he really wants to do with his skills and talents, revolving around the core relationship between him and his son, who gets the excitement of joining him for an epic road trip across the southern states in a food van selling Cubano sandwiches in colourful locations such as Miami, New Orleans, Austin and LA.
I may not be much of a chef (just ask Harri), but there’s a reason this film resonates so strongly with me. While he was alive, my Dad used to live and work in the US, which was the case pretty much ever since my parents' marriage ended, not too long after my brother and I were born. The main time we would get to see him would be the summer holidays, when we’d go over and spend the entire 5-6 week period living with him, firstly in Hawaii for a few years, then Mobile, Alabama, and finally Atlanta, Georgia. Exciting times for sure, but also tinged with sadness since we knew the whole time it was happening that this would be really the only time we’d get to spend together in person until next year (with some exceptions). As a result, the time would often be crammed with things that were obviously outwardly fun and exciting, like theme parks, road trips, eating out etc., but I always felt there was a sense of guilt from my Dad’s end if we ever weren’t doing something ‘fun’ and were lounging around his flat in our undies watching films (pasty UK boys struggle with that southern heat, even accounting for air-con), or were just entertaining ourselves while he was working nearby. However, I always thought these times were the best because it felt like being a normal family just doing normal family things.
Which is one of the many things this film gets exactly right about this kind of happy but distanced father-son relationship. Favreau conveys that compulsion to be always entertaining his son (there’s a montage of them doing things like riding a rollercoaster, eating candyfloss etc. which is edited to convey almost a sense of going through the motions), but you see the real connection in the sense of awe as Percy watches his Dad’s incredible craftmanship in assembling something as simple as a grilled cheese (in what must undoubtedly be the most mouth-watering footage of a grilled cheese ever committed to film). This is something that’s then flipped on its head as the son is able to adeptly navigate his tech-illiterate Dad through the minefield of social media on his iPad, which he barely knows how to use and has, as a result, caused him to become embroiled in an accidental and hilarious Twitter spat. The film perfectly highlights the difference between things that are fun but unusual, and the normal moments of quiet substance that actually make up life, the latter of which is valued so much more highly by the son, who actually tells this to his Dad in one scene that absolutely kills me every time.
Quite aside from the accuracy of the father-son relationship though, is the fact that this is also a genuinely good-hearted, warm film with a mature script and characters that come across as totally real through the way they speak and act. There aren’t good guys and bad guys; it’s a film about people who are trying their best in sometimes difficult situations, and getting along despite those things. It’s also really funny and sharply-written, and it’s the sum of all these parts that make Chef a true feel-good film, as opposed to the numerous examples that just feel somehow empty and a little emotionally manipulative. Also, as someone who adores food of just about every variety and considers it one of life’s great joys, the whole aesthetic of kitchencraft and the pleasure of cooking and eating is one that really hits the spot for me!
(If you need yet another reason to watch this film, consider the fact that it prominently features John Leguizamo, who brought us the voice of Sid the Sloth in Ice Age.)
Harri: Absolutely beautifully put. Such a great, warm-hearted, human film and much agreed about the cheese toastie - I remember us both salivating through that scene. Okay, question: if you owned a food truck, what cuisine would you serve and what would you call it?
Rich: Ooh good one. Well it’d have to be vegetarian so that rules out a lot of things, and on the name front it can only be a pun… I think Thai has to be my favourite overall cuisine so let’s go with that. Name-wise it’s a choice between Suit and Thai (I serve the food wearing a full three-piece suit), Don’Thai Look Good (again probably with the suit) or Thai Your Mother Down.