15 Movies For a Desert Island
You’re headed off to spend eternity on a remote desert island by yourself, with nothing but a DVD player and a coconut, and you know you’re going
to tire of playing charades with the coconut soon enough. So here are the 15 best movies to bring along* — a bracing mix of quality, camp, froth, drama and pure entertainment.
The surreally beautiful documentary about screen legend Marlene Dietrich, directed by Oscar winner Maximilian Schell, manages to intricately tell her story despite one interesting challenge: The self-consciously aging Dietrich refused to let her face be directly seen as she speaks. So there’s lots of the elusive star in shadows, in slivers and in darkness as she looms in the ether like a screen goddess answer to “The Phantom of the Opera.” Repeat viewing through eternity might help nab a better look.
“Female Trouble” (1974)
Forever would be worthless without Divine, the plus-size riot, in this John Waters classic about Dawn Davenport, who goes from longing schoolgirl to a hardened criminal with a scarred face, jumping on a trampoline while rubbing her crotch with dead fish. This is my kind of Oscar movie.
“Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
Even better than “All About Eve” (or “Marlene”) as a blistering glimpse into the horrors of celebrity aging, this is Billy Wilder’s mordantly funny and scary account of a legend gone mad. Gloria Swanson is brilliant as faded screen star Norma Desmond, and William Holden is just perfect as her all-too-willing prey.
“Umberto D.” (1952)
You have to have at least one foreign-language film on the island (in case you’re rescued by Europeans), so why not one of the greatest ever crafted? It’s Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking film about an old man and his dog trying to survive in Rome as the world conspires against them. In its simple directness, this becomes a towering work of art.
Runners-up: “The Tin Drum,” “The Marquise of O,” “Veronika Voss,” “The Spirit of the Beehive,” “Cria Cuervos”
“Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)
Rather than go for one of Woody Allen’s fizzily neurotic comedies, I’d pick this trenchant and textured work about infidelity and (blurred) vision. A married ophthalmologist strays, while a married filmmaker becomes smitten, and throughout it all, Woody, Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston give superb performances that make this one of Woody’s three best (along with “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters”).
“Postcards From The Edge” (1990)
This comedy/drama/roman-a-clef bears endless revisiting. Mike Nichols flawlessly directed from Carrie Fisher’s book, casting Meryl Streep as a detoxed actress moving in with her hard-drinking survivor mom, Shirley MacLaine, leading to conflicts and conundrums. It’s priceless stuff which would hold up well on the edge of the earth.
You’ve got to have a musical, and the Carol Reed-directed adaptation of Dickens’ picaresque novel “Oliver Twist” is one of the best ones ever filmed — well cast, beautifully staged and utterly absorbing whether they’re singing, acting or begging for more. You will be, too.
“The Great Dictator” (1940)
Way before Mel Brooks made fun of Hitler, Charlie Chaplin played Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania, and made mincemeat of him. He also portrayed a poor Jewish barber trying to stay alive in Hynkel-land. Chaplin’s film manages to be bold, brave, hilarious and inspiring all at once. A landmark — and it was done before the U.S. even entered WWII.
A swirling mosaic of America as mirrored through the prism of country music, this one rivets with its quirky, important brilliance and insight. Robert Altman somehow pulled together multiple plots strands, overlapping dialogue and multiple musical numbers for a stinging sociopolitical satire that remains one of the best American films ever made.
Terry Gilliam’s films are hit and miss, but they always have kicky visuals and truckloads of imagination. This is one of his finest, landing us in a futuristic bureaucracy that deftly lampoons our own culture.
“Imitation of Life” (1959)
An actress (Lana Turner) and her new housekeeper (Juanita Moore) deal with their bratty daughters in this lush social drama that has some real dignity to offset the delicious near-campiness of it all. Juanita’s daughter (Susan Kohner) is an imitation of white — she tries to pass and succeeds at it — leading to much heartbreak and drama. The Claudette Colbert 1934 version is also sublime; the film’s pancake recipe really works.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985)
Pure escapism — a guiltily pleasurable “movie movie” — perfectly encapsulated by its IMDB description: “A group of friends, just out of college, struggle with adulthood. The main problem is that they’re all self-centered and obnoxious.” And absolutely beautiful, too. Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and the gang are all at their most lustrous as they go through the ’80s paces. Just try to take your eyes off them.
Diablo Cody wrote it, Jason Reitman directed it, and Ellen Page knocked it out of the park as a sardonic young lady with an unexpected pregnancy. The result is a classic comedy, even if you disagree with the politics.
I already know “Psycho” and “Rosemary’s Baby”by heart, so there’d be no need to bring either of those along. Instead, for some late-night chills, this is the best bet — a mountingly terrifying road trip flick with Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski and Paul Walker feeling the brunt of all sorts of unwitting mistakes. They’re CB radio-ing it with a trucker who turns out to be psycho-stalking them, and that’s just the beginning.
Something up to date is in order, so I’ve handpicked this brand-new genre flick by Damien Chazelle, who’s put together something startlingly watchable. Miles Teller plays a virtuoso teen drummer who wants to be the next jazz legend, and J. K. Simmons is his sadistic, manipulative and often evil instructor/conductor who’ll stop at nothing to get him to that level. To those who admiringly say, “Well, his techniques seem to work,” I’d have to respond, “Maybe so — but you need to see a therapist.” In any case, the film is taut, well-edited and grabs you from the second Simmons appears with a sneer. Enjoy!
* Or just get Netflix on the island and watch whatever you want.
Michael Musto is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.