Sandra Visser: my top 5 movie picks

By Lindsay de Freitas
20 November 2015

My love for movies comes from my parents.The first movie I remember seeing at the cinema was The Jungle Book, which must have been a re-release since it came out in 1967 and I was born only 15 years later. I was entranced and tried to recreate the plot and setting with building blocks and figurines. As George RR Martin said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one,” and this I apply to watching films as well.

The movies I’ve chosen aren’t the ones that would necessarily make any top five list of the best cinematic works of all time. My choices are films that have had a lasting influence on me, that I’ve rewatched many times and which always give me immense joy and satisfaction.

1. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991)

When I was a kid a live-action film was a “grown-up movie”; animation was for kids. This was the first “grown-up movie” I went to see in the cinema and it’s really had a huge influence on me. Okay, I know Kevin Costner has a mullet and speaks with an American accent but when you’re a kid you don’t notice. I think it would have been more problematic had he tried an English accent and anyway the sheer entertainment value overwhelms any quibbles about historical accuracy.

Because of this film, adventure stories have become my favourite kind: there’s action, there’s romance but the heroine isn’t just a meek damsel in distress, there’s a conflicted hero fighting for what’s right, there’s some comedy, there’s great music, the scenery is beautiful and the setting transports you to another time and place.

It made me fall in love with Morgan Freeman, the wry yet compassionate and calm voice of reason who supports the young, brash hero in his quest (see also The Shawshank Redemption, Seven, The Dark Knight trilogy), caused a crush on Christian Slater (who’s thankfully redeeming himself in Mr Robot) and gave the world high-camp scenery chewing at its finest in Alan Rickman’s despicable but mesmerising Sheriff of Nottingham, who almost stole the movie from Costner by threatening to cut his heart out with a spoon and cancelling Christmas. Every time I hear the opening theme I still get a thrill.

2. Beauty And The Beast (1991)

After The Jungle Book the first Disney movie I was obsessed with was The Little Mermaid (1989) but as I’ve got older I’ve realised my favourite animated film is actually Beauty And The Beast. Mermaid had catchy music and a fantastic setting but its heroine is quite immature and I could never understand why she’d want to stop being a mermaid and leave that wonderful world under the sea behind for mundane reality. Ariel also fell in love with Prince Philip at first sight and risked everything because she believes it’s meant to be. There’s not much of a meaningful relationship there.

Like Mermaid, Beauty has the same gorgeous animation, lovable sidekicks and beautiful musical score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman but its love story is much more meaningful and its main characters much more nuanced. And Belle is a great role model: she doesn’t conform to her town’s narrow-minded views nor does she fall for Gaston – another great villain who you can’t help but enjoy even while he’s being horrid – even though everyone else thinks he’s the greatest catch in town. She loves to read and dreams of a wide outside her quiet village. And what about the Beast’s mansion is she most impressed by? The massive library.

Plus she’s a brunette but still the most beautiful girl in the village, which is just awesome as the epitome of beauty is stereotypically blonde. Every time I watch it I realise just how progressive it really is.

3. Aliens (1986)

Since I can only choose five movies this one represents my love of sci-fi and action. When done right the action genre is one I really enjoy but sadly it’s one of the most overdone categories of film and contains a wealth of utter rubbish. It’s thanks to my dad’s influence that I started to appreciate a brilliantly choreographed fight scene or car chase and the visceral impact it can have on the viewer. Which brings me to Aliens, one of the most visceral and unrelentingly tense films ever made.

I first saw it when I was eight and wasn’t really supposed to. My folks had really wanted to watch it on the TV but what to do with me? They checked the age restriction and the TV guide said 12 so they figured it would be okay as long as I hid under the duvet during the really scary bits. The problem was that most of the movie is really scary and spending most of it under a blanket hearing bloodcurdling noises is actually worse as your imagination runs rampant. The next day they checked another guide and this one said 18. Oops.

But although I did have nightmares, far from putting me off it made me want to face the movie again and when I did rewatch it at a more appropriate age I came to appreciate its tight script, interesting characters and fist-pumping action sequences. In Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley it also had an action heroine for the ages: a woman tough enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys but who never lost her femininity. It’s also one of the best sequels ever made.

James Cameron took the ideas from the first film, the brilliantly creepy Alien (1979), and reinterpreted it as a war film, making it a completely different but complementary companion piece. Cameron is a great action director and his heroines are always strong and capable (see the first two Terminator films, True Lies, Avatar and even Titanic). I just wish he would stop faffing about in a little submarine on the ocean floor and make more films.

4. Gladiator (2000)

Another movie that evocatively recreates a time and place and represents my love of ancient history, which I studied at university. Russell Crowe is magnetic as the stoic general who becomes a slave and then a gladiator and Joaquin Phoenix is another great despicable yet charismatic villain. The battle and fight scenes are heart-pounding, the script some memorable exchanges and the recreation of Rome in all its glory and corruption is superb, as is the rousing, Oscar-nominated score by Hans Zimmer (one of my favourite film composers).

Some people harp on a lot about historical accuracy and though I agree that broadly speaking filmmakers should try to get the period right, a film is an interpretation and is supposed to entertain you so I don’t mind them taking some liberties just as long as they don’t completely jolt you out of the story.

Ridley Scott is another one of my favourite directors – for all the qualities I’ve listed above – and he also has isn’t afraid to focus on strong female characters (see Thelma & Louise, GI Jane and Alien).

5. Ever After (1998)

Yes, another interpretation of a fairytale, but a damn good one. Drew Barrymore is utterly charming as the determined and brave Danielle, whose loving father dies and leaves her at the mercy of her snooty stepmother and stepsisters.

This is Cinderella as it could really have happened, set in 16th-century France and peopled by three-dimensional, witty characters sashaying about in sumptuous gowns. Anjelica Huston is delicious as the nasty, conniving stepmother. Her version is nuanced and all the more convincing because she’s not an outright monster but a vindictive, passive-aggressive manipulator you could encounter in the real world.

This more rounded characterisation extends to the stepsisters. The eldest is just as irredeemable as her mother but the youngest sister goes through some character development. Dougray Scott as the prince is just as charming and likeable as Drew, plus he has great hair. It’s a shame the actor has never had another role as good as this one.

Like Belle, Danielle is a brainy beauty with a fondness for books and she doesn’t just fall at the prince’s feet; she charms him with her wit and independence and kindness. The evil stepmother’s downfall has also never been rendered as satisfying before or since. Plus Leonardo Da Vinci pops up as Danielle’s version of a fairy godfather who helps her on her way. Always leaves me with a gigantic grin.

Honourable mentions: The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the original Star Wars trilogy, Blade Runner, Avatar, Pacific Rim, True Lies.

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