My top 10 films

I got nominated in a thing going around Facebook lately, of listing my top 10 films over 10 days. The idea was to simply post a picture from that day’s film but of course I went further and shared my thoughts/feelings about each one, the word count getting longer as the days went on. Anyway, I figured I may as well compile the posts and turn them into a blog post, so here we are…

Day 1

“I have been nominated by Marty Wawrzynczak to post 10 of my favourite films over 10 days. I must post one movie poster for each of my choices and nominate someone new each day to do the same.”

The original rules state that no explanation’s required but I’m gonna break that. My day 1 pick is ‘The Shining’, simply because I don’t think there’s another movie I’ve watched quite so many times. Few movies reward a repeat viewing like this Kubrick masterpiece does, and even once you think you’ve picked up on every last little detail, the foreboding alpine atmosphere of this horror classic never gets old.

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Day 2

Today’s movie came out at a perfect time: in 1999 my friends and I were in our angsty late teens, and Tyler spoke loud & clear to the angry young men inside us… Although these days we probably relate more to the perpetually sleep-deprived white-collar slave narrator. I think Fight Club’s enduring cult following comes from its prescient damnation of the ‘superficialization’ of our society, which has reached staggering heights over the course of this new century that even the twisted genius of Chuck Palahniuk could’ve barely anticipated… One can only imagine how Tyler would react to an age where Starbucks cups litter not only our bins but our Instagram feeds. In replacing ‘safe spaces’ with bloody basements, polished social media narcissism with existentialist self-destruction, and obsession with status and possessions with a lust for raw experience, Fight Club remains a necessary movie for our time: dark, forceful & sardonic, yet never losing its mischievous schoolboy sense of humour along the way.

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Day 3

When I was 12 I noticed ‘The Exorcist’ scheduled for a midnight broadcast in the Green Guide. Even though I knew next to nothing about it, the paranormal title & R rating convinced me to record it – I remember even having to learn how to program the VCR as I’d never bothered to do so for anything before. I watched the tape the next time I was home alone and, needless to say, it freaked the shit out of me. Yet I remained intrigued by what I’d seen and returned to the tape some time later, this time watching it the rest of the way through and becoming mildly obsessed (not possessed) with the film in my early teens. These days, ‘The Exorcist’ no longer warrants its ‘scariest movie ever’ tagline, but it remains an unnerving and timeless horror flick that taps into some very deep themes – of death, losing one’s faith, of puberty and the nature of evil – all brilliantly explored in William Blatty’s novel of which this is an adaptation. The fact that novel, in turn, was based on a true story (whether it really involved possession or not) makes this account of a young girl taken over by a demonic entity all the more compelling.

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Day 4

‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring’ was recommended to me by Attila Zeeman years ago. I d̶o̶w̶n̶l̶o̶a̶d̶e̶d̶ legally acquired it, prepared a plunger full of jasmine tea, and sat down to watch it with Kic late one night… And sure enough it was brilliant. This Korean movie follows a young boy who lives with his father (or some sort of guardian monk) in a traditional house in the middle of a remote lake. There’s very little dialogue throughout the film, which makes its striking cinematography, and its succession of simple scenes coalescing into a tale about growing up and growing old, all the more poignant and profound. The overall effect of watching ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring’ is like absorbing a documentary, poem and sacred text all at once… Not a movie to watch over and over, but definitely a movie to watch at least once in your life.

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Day 5

Historical epics don’t get much better than this. Based on the first of a trilogy of novels whose place in Polish culture is akin to that of Shakespeare in English, ‘Ogniem i Mieczem’ – ‘With Fire and Sword’ – follows the exploits of a Polish lieutenant during the 17th-century Khmelnytsky Uprising, when the Polish Commonwealth came under attack by a coalition of Cossacks, Tatars and Ottomans. Part war movie, part love story, part historical drama, Ogniem i Mieczem thrusts you back into a long-lost world of winged cavalry, chivalry, witches and swordfights, when Poland lorded over eastern Europe but ethnic tensions were tearing deep and bloody fissures in the fabric of its multinational commonwealth.

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Day 6

Today, another historical epic most people would be much more familiar with: ‘Gangs of New York’. Focussing on a young lad taken under the wing of a mob boss – a classic Scorsese narrative – what fascinates me about ‘Gangs of New York’ is its hugely ambitious, dynamic, sprawling recreation of mid-1800s New York in all of its madness, violence and vice. Above all else, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher is hands-down the greatest character acting I’ve ever seen, bringing to life with extraordinary mastery a charismatic, brutal yet paternal gang leader who controls the ‘Five Points’ neighbourhood where the film’s set. So taken was I by the movie back in 2002 that I remember walking past the Dendy Brighton cinemas one night, realising it was about to start playing, and sneaking into the cinema to watch that incredible opening scene again, a gathering of rival gangs that culminates in a street brawl analogous to a medieval battle.

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Day 7

It’s a travesty more people don’t know ‘The Magician’ – so much so I can’t even tag it on Facebook. Combining the quintessential Aussieness of ‘The Castle’  with the violence and black humour of ‘Chopper’, ‘The Magician’ is a mockumentary about Ray Shoesmith, a Melbourne hitman who allows a film student to document his daily life on the agreement he can release the footage if Ray gets killed. And it really does feel that way – the movie was shot on a shoestring budget, the dialogue largely improvised, and the result: a lo-fi masterpiece brimming with grit, authenticity and the recognisable flavour of inner-city Melbourne. It also conveys a plausible sense of the unglamorous lower rungs of the underworld, where deals are made in pub corners and death is dispensed casually and abruptly by folks who could just as well be your local electrician or bottle-o attendant…

Yet it’s also funnier than most comedies I’ve seen, drawing on relatable everyday absurdities and nuances of character that a fly-on-the-wall approach affords. To my great surprise, in Googling the trailer to accompany this text (going for a trailer today since I know virtually no-one’s seen this film), I’ve stumbled upon a brand-new TV series – ‘Mr Inbetween’ – that resurrects Ray Shoesmith as a central character. Check it out!

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Day 8

Wanted to include a childhood favourite here and there are numerous contenders, including the weird & wonderful ‘The Dark Crystal’, the dark, gorgeously animated ‘The Secret of Nimh’, the intense (albeit highly fictionalized) ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’ – even ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Street Fighter – The Animated Movie’. But I’ll settle on this one: the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’. First, it was probably THE defining kids movie of the early 90s, bringing the half-shell heroes to the big screen in a script saturated with the buzzwords of the 80s as it evolved into the 90s (Gnarly, dude! Awe-some!) But there are two things in particular I like about the film, and I say that in the present tense having re-watched it as an adult a few years ago.

1) For all its apparent silliness (I mean, man-sized pizza-eating turtles running around with medieval Japanese weaponry) TMNT’s a pretty dark film atmospherically, set in a crime-ridden New York City where masked ninja thugs are potentially lurking around every corner. Shredder himself is presented with all the chilling ominousness of his similarly masked, sinister-sounding villain compatriot Darth Vader. But what earns this slapstick action blockbuster a place on my list is its distinct Buddhist undertones, personified in the wise, Yoda-like Splinter, who – at one point in the film, mentoring the angsty and troubled Raphael – speaks some of the most beautiful lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie:

‘My master Yoshi’s first rule was, “Possess the right thinking.” Only then can one receive the gifts of strength, knowledge, and peace. I have tried to channel your anger, Raphael, but more remains. Anger clouds the mind. Turned inward, it is an unconquerable enemy. You are unique among your brothers, for you choose to face this enemy alone. But as you face it, do not forget them, and do not forget me… I am here, my son.’

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Day 9

Goddamn, day 9 of my movie challenge and still so many to choose from. What about my favourite horror movie, ‘REC’? How can a Mateusz Buczko top 10 not feature a World War 2 film? The moment I thought about it in terms of something I’d like to watch one day with my kids, though, an answer immediately popped into my head: ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’.

I’m not big on American comedies but PTA is proper funny. As a kid the slapstick’s hilarious; as an adult you totally relate to Steve Martin’s gritted-teeth frustration and sarcastic outbursts as he deals with all the lemons life hurls at him over the course of three calamitous days. Two things really make this movie though: First, the dynamic between Steve Martin and John Candy – two comedic legends of the 80s & 90s – is perfect. But the fundamental magic ingredient is the movie’s big heart. There’s the ‘I like me’ speech Del (John Candy) gives Neale (Steve Martin) in the motel room. There’s Neale taking pity on Del despite everything the latter’s put him through, and sparing him spending the night in his car by inviting him up to share his hotel room again. Finally, there’s the absolute tear-jerker of an ending that you’d have to be stone-cold not to lose some saltwater over. PTA’s a rare comedy in that it delivers as many feels as it does laughs, and it serves up both in abundance. Nice job, John Hughes.

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Day 10

I left this movie til last coz at the end of the day, it’s probably my favourite. There’s so much to love about ‘Lost in Translation’. It’s got Bill Murray pretty much playing himself. Its opening shot is Scarlett Johansson’s bum in pink Bible-page-thin undies. It’s got an awesome soundtrack throughout, adding poignancy and tenderness to an already visually gorgeous, beautifully shot film. It’s set in Japan, a weird and wonderful world unto itself that manages to combine serene, timeless tradition with its own crazy, cutesy, high-octane version of hyper-modernity. But what really elevates this platonic love story of sorts into the ‘most memorable movies’ category is the unusual lead pairing and the relatable narrative, perfectly scripted and portrayed, that brings them together.

LoT is about two people – of different ages, genders, and at very different points in their lives – who nevertheless share the same affliction of feeling lost in life and disconnected from those around them; a situation exasperated in the immediate term by the plush but sterile hotel in which they find themselves spending long hours alone. Striking up a conversation at the hotel bar, the seeds are planted of a connection that blooms into something between a friendship and an unconsummated romance, as the two go on to share a series of adventures and intimate moments through which they end up finding themselves and making peace with their lives again. The film’s ending is the ultimate in bittersweet – I love how it has a ‘false end’ of sorts, before Bob grabs a fleeting second chance to deliver the proper goodbye they both crave – and his beaming grin at the end is intensely moving; the weary, sullen face we got to know at the start of the movie transformed into radiant joy. I should note that the film is also very much an ode to Japan – while some have accused Sophia Coppola of using the Japanese as mere comic relief, I completely disagree and believe her portrayal of the country in all of its whackiness, strange sensibilities and (at times, in stark contrast) Zen stillness comes from a place of great affection and familiarity, and indeed was a huge factor in motivating me to visit Japan for the first time back in 2008.

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Move The Body, Still The Mind

Many years ago I read a book my mum had bought or otherwise acquired, called Clearing Sacred Space with Feng Shui. It was very pink and from memory, had some flower petals and a brass bell on the front cover – not exactly what you’d think a teenager obsessed with military history would find interesting. But I was already shedding my belief in Christianity and have always had a spiritual nature, so I picked it up and began reading. In a sense, what I read germinated everything I’m writing now.

The book was my first introduction to what you might call ‘New Age’ concepts, describing how to raise the energy in living environments so that they impact positively on your well-being and on the various spheres of your life. These days this concept no longer raises eyebrows, even if many people still don’t believe it, but in the late 90s when I first read this, feng shui was only just taking off – most people mispronouncing it ‘feng shoo-ee’ – and it was considered pretty out there; in the same kooky boat as Tarot cards and chakra cleansing. Yet I not only grasped the concept immediately; I knew that it was true. On a practical level, I’d always been acutely aware of the draining effect of clutter and poor organization – and, conversely, the uplifting qualities of tastefully, practically and spaciously arranged living areas.

Fast-forward a decade and we’re at New Year’s Eve, 2010. 2010 was probably the most pointless year of my life. Nothing changed, even though I really wanted it to. I wanted a more rewarding, better-paid job, but barely even got any interviews. I wanted a girlfriend, but didn’t meet any girls with that sort of potential. After writing off my first car during the one month it was uninsured, my new one turned to be a complete piece of junk, draining me of hundreds of dollars and endowing me with a powerful desire to murder car dealers. Not to speak of the pain (financial as well as physical) of tattoo removal, topped off by my general disillusionment with Melbourne’s bar scene and the same old drink/talk-shit routine of Saturday night.

So I knew when 2010 wrapped up that spiritually and psychologically I couldn’t afford a repeat of it, but at the same time I realized that the change had to come from myself – that you can’t just go through life wanting, hoping and expecting. The hard truth is that the Universe doesn’t give a shit how desperate you are and if anything, that sort of desperation only destabilizes your ability to tune in to the forces that Make Stuff Happen. In other words, to make stuff happen, you have to begin with yourself.

Though it took me a few more months, probably the most tangible fruit of this mindset is that I began attending Buddhist meditation classes and kung fu lessons – and they’re two of the best things I’ve done in a very long time. All of a sudden, the absence of a new job or partner in my life didn’t matter as much. I felt more energized and didn’t need things outside of me to happen to feel that good energy – it came from myself, from being active, from committing that one hour a day, two or three times a week, to Moving the Body and Stilling the Mind – when all too often, in the West, we’re incessantly moving the mind while the body sits stagnant. Then we wonder why we can’t sleep, why even the smallest obstacles stress us out, why we can’t focus on the smallest tasks – and why we can’t manifest. It’s interesting to realize, literally just as I’ve been writing the above, that I finally got that new, better-paid job less than a month after starting the meditation/kung fu.

Only a couple of weeks after I started, I was amazed at myself that I hadn’t done this earlier. I’d been reading about meditation for years – about five years ago I listened to Wayne Dyer’s Manifesting Your Destiny, a set of lectures that prescribed regular meditation to its listeners; a couple of years later I lapped up Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book entirely focussed on how and why one should practice zazen. But as is so often the case, I guess, it took a crisis – hitting a level of desperation about where my life was going, or rather why it wasn’t going anywhere – that pushed me into not just reading and listening to this stuff, but actually practising it.

Similarly with martial arts. My first favourite ‘adult’ movie was Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a biopic about the most famous and influential martial artist in history. I read Fighting Spirit, an excellent biography of Bruce Lee, several times as a teenager, relishing in particular the final section of the book, which examined Bruce Lee’s personal philosophy of life and well-being. Again though, it took the crisis for me to make that leap from cerebral absorption to physical emulation. And as with meditation, I’m very glad that I did.

I’m not gonna deny it’s difficult to make this leap at first. As Westerners in the 21st century, we’re constantly bombarded with movies and music and billboards and crowds and alcohol. We get a genuine adrenaline rush from watching the latest Jason Bourne movie or playing the latest GTA. We get a tangible cosy feeling watching Barney playfully tease Ted in that familiar booth in that familiar bar in How I Met Your Mother. Warm evenings like we’re having now must be spent drinking schooners of Hoegaarden in some hip bar on a graffiti’d side street, with hundreds of other people who feel the same compulsion. Yet we’re not actually doing anything in any of these scenarios. We’re just sitting. And this attitude of sitting as doing – whether it’s watching, playing, drinking – extends to reading. Reading a book about meditation is actually pretty damn useless unless you end up doing some meditation. Watching martial arts films is all well and good, but if it gives you such a kick (no pun intended), why not try martial arts itself?

For so long I made the same wrong assumption most of us make: I was already tired much of the time – tired from work, from shopping, from social and family obligations, whatever – and I simply didn’t have energy to spare, certainly not on activity as intensive as push-ups and star jumps and shadow-boxing. It would only tire me out more, deplete me of my very last kilojoule reserves – right? Wrong. As all fitness junkies know (and we who wonder how they’ve got so much energy don’t) is that the opposite is true. By engaging in exercise, you get energy – or ch’i, as it’s called in Chinese – moving around the body. Just as you need to Still Your Mind to settle the blinding ink of negative emotion, so you need to Move Your Body to shake around the ink of positive energy. People are exhausted after long days sitting in the office or at uni lectures or on long flights because they’ve just been sitting there. Still water stagnates and becomes heavy; flowing water remains fresh and dynamic.

Before I was ready for the MA-rated violence of something like Dragon, one of my favourite movies was the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Watching it as an adult for the first time last year, I could still see – despite its surface silliness, revolving as it does around four human-sized, English-speaking, pizza-guzzling turtles – that the movie is quite deep and dark, with distinct Buddhist undertones. In one moving scene, Splinter says to Raphael in words whose simple beauty and depth put many adult movies to shame:

My Master Yoshi’s first rule was: Possess the right thinking – only then will you possess the gifts of strength, knowledge and peace. I have tried to channel your anger, Raphael, but more remains. Anger clouds the mind; turned inward it is an unconquerable enemy. For you are unique among your brothers because you choose to face this enemy alone. As you face it, do not forget them and do not forget me… I am here, my son.

Splinter personifies Buddhism in the movie – the wise ancient force that guides the four young, brash turtles, instilling the necessary discipline and moral intuition necessary for maturity. We all need a Splinter in our lives. It’s all too easy in such a noisy, demanding and atomized world to become miserable, frustrated and run-down. But the moment that black inks starts squirting into your mind, it’s essential to identify it, to observe what’s happening, and rather than shake it up with aggravating hateful and resentful thoughts, to let it settle until the mind is clear and calm once more. It helps, of course, to visualize a counter-force, which is why we have religion and why people call on Jesus, Krishna, Allah, the Archangel Gabriel or whatever. Me, I think of Splinter 🙂

If Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of my favourite childhood movies, one of my favourite teenage ones was the Street Fighter II animated movie – like TMNT, a movie that went deeper than one might credit given it’s based on a video game. Its first depiction of Ryu, the main all-round good guy of the video game, shows him meditating on top of a mountain peak in the Himalayas, gathering his ch’i, then letting it burst out in a brilliant surge of energy… only to return to his former contemplative position to patiently muster it again. Part of me feels cheesey using this as an analogy but it’s a genuinely inspiring scene, and together with flashbacks to his training at a remote Japanese dojo, encapsulates the inherently dignified, internal and peaceful nature of martial arts and its necessary fusion with meditative practice.

To wrap up: we all know that old adage of turn off your TV and go read a book. I applaud that, but I’d go one step further: put down the book and sign up for a fitness class – martial arts, tai chi, yoga, gym, whatever takes your fancy. The point is to give the mind, which is always thinking What should I say at that meeting? Who do I have to call back again? How do I look? What are all these e-mail notifications? a much-needed rest – and a great way to suspend the mind is to activate the body. It’s almost impossible to stress about your overdrawn credit card or your boss’s criticism when you’re skipping rope or kicking pads. You’re completely in the moment. When you’re kicking pads, your focus is on channeling ch’i up from your leg through your waist and down your arm into your fist, and that’s a beautiful thing – simple, pure. After that hour, you feel far more sure of yourself – your mind has ceased to question why? and when? and how? and just accepts that whatever is, is, and that your situation will evolve and resolve in due course. No point in worrying… just be and let be.