Watching and re-watching a film despite knowing the plot, the characters, the outcome and any surprise twists is one of my guilty pleasures. I get totally immersed in re-watching a film I enjoyed the first or tenth time, because it has that indefinable quality that inspires pleasure, joy, anticipation, the shared buzz of quoting favourite lines, laughing at the jokes you have heard so often yet which still raise a smile, or squeaking in fear despite knowing the fright that is just around the corner.
But for every film I love to watch more than once, there are films that I find so boring, predictable, poorly acted or with irritating lapses in internal logic that I wonder how they ever got made, and will never watch again. I wanted to share some of the films that have become part of my cultural identity, films that have quotes I can share with my closest friends and family, who will instantly get my reference.
My repeat viewing ranges from drama, action to comedy, from romance to science fiction. I watch The Martian every time it is on TV because I get so much enjoyment and satisfaction from seeing how Mark Watney (Matt Damon) will overcome the odds to survive alone on Mars while all those wonderfully skilled people back on Earth go to such incredible lengths to rescue him. It has humour, drama, wonderful character interaction, great pacing and a stirring, uplifting message without being preachy (as well as a groovy soundtrack and a laugh out loud reference to the Lord of the Rings, which just happens to be another film trilogy I can watch again and again). I will also watch Inception, The Abyss, Alien, ALIENS, Arrival, the original Star Wars trilogy and 2001: A Space Odyssey because they are all so well made, excellently acted, beautifully paced and crafted, with clever, thought-provoking premises, and just have that quality that enables me to become totally immersed in their worlds and what unfolds onscreen each and every time.
I also have a fondness for romance movies, both dramas and comedies. I love the older, classic film romances such as Random Harvest (1942) based on the 1941 book of the same name by James Hilton (who also wrote Lost Horizon). It’s about an amnesiac World War 1 veteran, Charles “Smithy” Rainier (Ronald Colman) who meets and marries a music hall performer Paula (Greer Garson) but through an accident remembers his pre-war life while forgetting those few years when he met and married Paula. It is incredibly romantic, schmaltzy, as Charles gradually remembers those missing years in a series of coincidences too incredible to be real yet they work. It is beautifully photographed in black and white, touching, heart-warming and with the two leads putting their considerable talents into convincing viewers this love affair is worth visiting time and again. There is one scene where Charles is preparing to marry a young woman, Kitty, sort of a non-blood-related niece (having forgotten he was ever married to Paula) and they are at the church discussing which hymns to play at the service. “O Perfect Love” is played and it is tear-inducing to watch how Charles blanks out, the music obviously carrying him back subconsciously to his marriage to Paula, while Kitty watches tragically, aware there is someone else she cannot compete with. There is a major difference between the character of Paula in the film, and how she appears in the novel (if you have read it) that just adds more complexity to how the movie makers overcame a key plot point.
Another repeat-viewing indulgence, a comedy this time, is 1942’s The Major and the Minor, about a young woman, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) who finally decides to leave New York City and take a train back to her home town of Iowa, but she has only enough money for a child’s ticket. She disguises herself as a young girl and, after being discovered by the train conductor, hides out in the car of Major Kirby (Ray Milland). Kirby believes she is a child and feels protective towards her. He escorts her back to his military academy where she is wooed by many young men not out of their teens, while she wants to win the Major’s love. It is such a delicate balancing act for Rogers and Milland, who must convince viewers that a grown man harbouring tender feelings for a person he has been led to believe is just a minor (hence the title) is not wrong or even uncomfortable. Because the audience knows the truth, and this is a comedy after all, we are willing to suspend our moral high ground and just enjoy this delicious confection of romance, comedy and misunderstandings.
I can also highly recommend another romantic comedy, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), not to be confused with the appalling 1992 remake starring Dyan Cannon and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The black and white 1945 version is another one of those mistaken situation scenarios, where Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth, a successful author of a popular magazine column, “Diary of a Housewife,” who lives alone in a New York apartment, cannot cook, yet writes about an idealised home life on a Connecticut farm for her legions of fans, including her intimidating boss (all her recipes are provided to her by an eccentric friend who is a great cook). Her boss insists she, her husband and baby (neither of whom actually exist) host himself and Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), an injured soldier over Christmas, and this visit will be featured in a future issue of the magazine. Poor Elizabeth must pretend to be like her magazine image, so an accomplished cook, homemaker and loving wife. What ensues is a series of misunderstandings, comic comings and goings, and a great cast really enjoying themselves. I am not a fan of Barbara Stanwyck in any other film as there is something too hard about her normally, but her acting here, being so out of her depth, is a joy to watch.
A few modern comedies I love to watch time and again include While You Were Sleeping (1995), starring Sandra Bullock as Lucy, a lonely transit worker who has a long-time and from-afar crush on Peter (Peter Gallagher), who she saves from being run over by a train and later meets his family at the hospital. Lucy is inadvertently mistaken for his fiancée, and as she cannot keep the unconscious Peter company while he recovers (and her crush on him continues) unless she has a relationship with him, she allows the misunderstanding to stand. This film works so well because it isn’t just about romantic love, but as Lucy admits later, also about having the love of a family, including parents and siblings, things she has never had. It is a comedy overall, but there is a poignant undercurrent running beneath that fits so well with a Christmas-themed movie. Complicating Lucy’s situation is her growing attraction to Peter’s brother Jack (the wonderful Bill Pullman), who is actually a perfect match for her, unlike the vain, shallow Peter. Lucy and Jack fight their attraction out of decency for the comatose Peter, but watching them fall in love, as well as Lucy and the family coming to love each other, makes for pleasurable viewing. This is one of those times where having a major misunderstanding not cleared up, thereby paving the way for true love, is totally acceptable because it is a necessary plot twist enabling all the events that follow.
Speaking of true love, I would be remiss not to mention The Princess Bride (1987), a perfect gem of a film, filled with romance, adventure, battles, escapes, revenge, death, miracles, comedy, fabulous quotes, gorgeous costumes, sublime music, and true love, naturally. A grandfather reads a book to his initially resistant grandson, who prefers video games, but soon becomes swept up in the adventures of an ill assorted group of people, unfolding against a backdrop of perfect comic timing, classic quotes (well, they have become classics now, “Inconceivable!”, “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” “As you wish,” etc.) and a fairy tale ending. The fact that the grandfather (Peter Falk) and grandson (Fred Savage) find common ground and grow closer as a result, reflects the growing bonds of the various characters who, similar to the trio of companions to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, redeem themselves or regain their self-respect. A beautiful, wonderful, endlessly delighting perfect little film.
There are so many other romance films, comedies or dramas that I could mention, one memorable offering being My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). What is not to like about this comedy with its clash of cultures, parental expectations, personal frustrations, loneliness, missed opportunities and finding someone who makes your life worth living? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched this wonderful film, and watch it whenever it is on TV, despite having the DVD. Nia Vardalos as Greek spinster Toula is such a delight, easily portraying a dowdy, frustrated, unhappy daughter living at home, who constantly disappoints her father because she hasn’t married “a nice Greek boy” (basically she has yet to meet one she likes, especially when those her father offers are too old, repulsive, self-absorbed, etc.). Toula’s decision to better herself, which includes going back to study, learning new skills, working in an occupation (travel agent) that she enjoys, leads to her blossoming and developing confidence. Meeting non-Greek schoolteacher Ian (gorgeous John Corbett) is both a wonder and an agony for her, as she experiences true and reciprocal love for the first time, but also knows her strict Greek family and relatives won’t accept a non-Greek person as her husband, and that she will cause them misery by choosing a man outside of their religion and culture. There are so many lovely comic touches, including a rogue grandmother, lamb being a vegetarian option, different customs, grotesque bridal dresses, Windex as a cure-all, and the way the secondary characters all contribute a delightfully rich layer of humour and conflict. This is a real guilty pleasure for me because I suspect real life never turns out this beautifully.
Other honourable mentions include:
Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Tom Hanks is a widower, Sam, still grieving the loss of his wife and left to raise their son Jonah on his own. He is lonely but not really prepared for the unseen challenges of getting back into the dating game. Meg Ryan is Annie, engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman) who suffers from allergies and despite being nice doesn’t set her heart on fire. Jonah talks on a radio chat show about wanting to find a new wife and mother for their little family, and from then on, the film follows the separate lives of Sam and Annie as they edge ever closer to actually meeting each other. For a film that leaves the two main characters separate for most of the running time, this is a surprisingly romantic film that explores the magic spark of true love, and finding out that waiting for the right person instead of settling for what is convenient can be hard but worth it.
Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) Alan Rickman is Jamie, a man who has recently died but is compelled to visit his grieving partner Nina (Juliet Stevenson), whose raw grief and blistering anger over her loss stops her from moving on. Her need for him keeps him in their home, although his habits, such as having the heating on full blast and inviting other ghosts around to watch videos, soon gets on her nerves. This isn’t a straight romance, more a study of the power of grief and loss, and needing eventually to let go. Both actors are incredible in their roles, especially Stevenson who isn’t afraid to appear as tear-ravaged and on the edge as possible. Watch something light-hearted after this one.
Up (2009) I watched this beautiful animated classic again recently, and the little montage sequence near the beginning showing the courtship and marriage of taciturn Carl and exuberant Ellie must rank as one of the most powerful depictions of a romance from start to end ever filmed. It is about moving on, too, letting go, finding new adventures and challenges, realising there are other lonely or isolated people out there that need love and support, and someone to value them. I dare you not to tear up watching that montage.
The Shape of Water (2017) Starring Sally Hawkins as mute cleaner Elisa and Doug Jones as the creature from the Black Lagoon (really), this is a romance right off the scale, so to speak. Utterly different, beautiful, evocative, with a delicate romance emerging from the nastiness of modern day life, and showing why men are so often revealed to be the real monsters. Elisa has grit and well-honed survival instincts, and her attraction to a gill man is so cleverly depicted that it makes perfect sense, especially her desire to protect and save him from evil military and scientific types. The imagery, production design and music all elevate this movie and make it a unique viewing experience.
An Affair to Remember (1957) Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr meet on a cruise while romantically involved with other people. They make a pact to meet six months hence at the Empire State Building if they are still interested, only an accident prevents one of them from keeping their appointment. A bit dated now, but the snappy dialogue and sizzling chemistry between the leads makes this a perennial delight.
Casablanca (1942) Humphrey Bogart is Rick, the embittered bar owner in war-struck Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman in the luminously beautiful Ilse, who broke Rick’s heart once and seems destined to do it again, but this time at his urging. Riveting, clever, engagingly acted, you get caught up in these lovers’ lives and wish that hill of beans would disappear. Hearing the French sing their national anthem in Rick’s bar over the Germans’ rendition of theirs is a highlight, guaranteed to stir the soul.
When Harry Met Sally (1989) Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play acquaintances who keep meeting each other while romantically involved with other people, after a disastrous first meeting initially puts them off each other. There is so much good humour, clever dialogue and wonderful acting in this film that it is thoroughly re-watchable. Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as a couple relieved to have found each other and not have to date any more are so charming in supporting roles, while the vignettes of older couples relating how they first met (played by actors) is heart-warming.
Pride and Prejudice (1995) This BBC TV version, starring Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Miss Elizabeth Bennet, isn’t a film, but it is as lavishly produced as one. Although my favourite version remains the earlier TV adaptation (1980) starring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie, this later version has superior production values, gorgeous costumes and lively music, and the advantage of actual English properties and interiors. But regardless of which version you watch, who can go past the wonderful, lively dialogue, the feisty, memorable characters, the depiction of values and a culture set in the late 18th century, and so very unlike our own? Elizabeth Bennet is spirited, intelligent and will only marry for love, and to someone she respects. Mr Darcy is too proud, but also too tightly wound, so needs someone to shake his world up a bit. They are a delightful match, eventually. Endlessly re-watchable.
About Time (2013) Tim (Domhnal Gleeson) meets the love of his life, Mary (Rachel McAdams) and screws things up so badly he has no chance to ever succeed with her. But then his father, played by the ever-wonderful Bill Nighy, reveals a family secret, that all the men in the family can time travel. While Tim uses this ability to woo Mary, there is a price to it, because each time visit inadvertently impacts on other aspects of the timeline, changing things just enough to have a huge outcome in other people’s lives, although only Tim or his fellow travellers know this. I thought this was just going to be a romantic comedy, but the very strong father-son bond and their bittersweet storyline broke my heart. There was so much thought devoted to the concept of using your time wisely, not interfering with things and making the best of what you had, so this was a lot more than a romantic film.
Waitress (2007) This film is difficult for me to watch on its own merits, as the director/writer Adrienne Shelly, who also played a supporting role as fellow waitress Dawn, was murdered shortly after filming ended. But putting that aside, there is also the very painful subject of family violence, with Keri Russell’s character Jenna being downtrodden and bullied by her oafish husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She finds temporary relief when involved in an illicit affair with her married obstetrician, Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion in charming form) after she accidentally becomes pregnant by her husband. She also seeks refuge in making pies that often have very unusual names. It is not an easy film to watch because of the controlling and abusive way Jenna’s insecure husband treats her, but it is also inspiring because the love she has for her baby enables her to become assertive and leave her husband.
50 First Dates (2004) I’m not a huge fan of Adam Sandler, but his character Henry’s efforts to woo Drew Barrymore’s Lucy all over again each day in this film was so sweet. Lucy had been in an accident that left her with no ability to acquire new memories (short-term memory loss), just to live over the events of every day prior to the accident. The lengths her father and brother went to in order to protect her and provide her with a stable, loving home were really touching, as was Henry’s efforts to keep reinforcing her memories and his place in her life.