Five Classic Movies for a Desert Island

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To any film lover, the thought of being limited to a mere five movies for an indefinite period is nightmarish. Even when given a choice of titles, countless favorites have to be left out, not to mention the seemingly infinite number of films that remain unseen. After much debate, here are the five classic movies (i.e., from the 1970s or earlier) that I would want to compose my desert island library.

Guido

(1963) Naturally, I need to have my all-time favorite movie, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece about a director coping with a creative crisis and a variety of other personal and professional issues. (To be honest, I could have picked five Fellinis — namely this, I VitelloniLa StradaNights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita — and been content, I think, but that would have made a pretty dull list.) Although I’ve seen it many times, it’s such a rich film that I never fail to get something new out of it. With its effortless weaving of art, life, comedy, tragedy, past, present, memory, fantasy, dream and reality, it seems to operate on a kind of subconscious level, and it’s almost overwhelming at times — truly a unique viewing experience. Plus, if I were ever to tire of the film itself (unlikely though that is), I could listen to Nino Rota’s marvelous score or just admire Marcello Mastroianni. Has any other man ever worn a suit so well? (No. The answer is no.)

Late Spring

Late Spring (1949) As was the case with Fellini, I could have filled this whole list with movies directed by Yasujirô Ozu, and even at that I would have had a hard time deciding which ones to leave out. Limiting myself to a single title (sigh), I settled on Late Spring, which is really the quintessential Ozu. You get Setsuko Hara as a woman pressured to marry (see also Early SummerTokyo StoryLate Autumn and The End of Summer); you get Chishû Ryû, a ubiquitous presence in Ozu’s films, as her widowed father, who’s reluctant to lose his daughter but wants what’s best for her; the nearly as ubiquitous and always delightful Haruko Sugimura plays a meddling aunt; there’s a sassy best friend; and the plot is strikingly similar to that of Late Autumn and also has a great deal in common with An Autumn Afternoon. Fortunately, it’s much more than an “Ozu’s greatest hits” package. Putting the appeal of his films into words is difficult, and though it may sound silly, I wouldn’t hesitate to say there’s something sublime about this one.

The Spirit of the Beehive

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) To use another potentially silly-sounding adjective, “magical” is a good way to describe this film by Victor Erice, a director with an all-too-short filmography. (According to IMDb, this and 1983’s El Sur, an instant favorite when I watched it last year, are his only non-documentary features. A pity.) In post-Civil War Spain, a screening of 1931’s Frankenstein captivates a little girl’s imagination and impacts the way she sees the world. Quiet, mysterious, haunting and beautiful, it can also be interpreted as an allegory about Spain under Francisco Franco’s rule — plenty to ponder during my island exile.

Jules and Jim (1962) After wavering between this and The 400 Blows, another François Truffaut film, I settled on this one, if only because I haven’t seen it quite as recently and I’m overdue for a rewatch. Spanning a number of years in the early twentieth century, it’s the story of two best friends in love with the same woman and the many vicissitudes that these relationships undergo. A love triangle is hardly an original subject, of course, but there’s a marvelous lyricism in the way this one is depicted. Also, as in , the score — by Georges Delerue in this case — can stand perfectly well on its own if I ever feel like listening rather than watching.

Woman in the Dunes

Woman in the Dunes (1964) At first, I was hesitant about picking this film, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. It’s excellent, certainly, and one of my favorites, but if I were trapped on a desert island, would I really want to watch a movie about a man’s futile efforts to escape from a hole in the sand? (In short: An amateur entomologist is offered a night’s lodging at a woman’s house situated deep in the dunes. The next morning, he discovers that the rope ladder on which he descended has been removed, and now he’s a prisoner forced to shovel sand for the local villagers’ benefit.) Then I reconsidered. The story is, among many other things, a warning against complacency, just the sort of inspiration a person needs on a desert island when there seems to be no chance of rescue. “Even if it’s only a lie,” the man muses at one point, “it helps to have hope that tomorrow things will change.” With Woman in the Dunes as a cautionary tale, I would never stop trying to find my own means of escape — so that I could get back to the rest of my movie library.

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This post is part of the 5 Movies on an Island Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.

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21 thoughts on “Five Classic Movies for a Desert Island

  1. Some marvelous choices, Erin. I saw SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE in a film class in the 1970s and found it be a haunting, hypnotic film about childhood. It’s hard to think of another director that loved cinema as much as Truffaut (his Hitchcock interview book is an all-time favorite about film as literary art). JULES AND JIM is one of Truffaut’s best. And speaking of filmmaking, 8 1/2 is a classic look into the creative process. (Still, it’s hard to not pick NIGHTS OF CABIRIA for my Fellini pick). Loved reading your post!

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    1. Thanks so much, and thanks for hosting the blogathon! Picking out five films was challenging but fun. (And for the record, Nights of Cabiria — which I just rewatched last week, as it happens — would have been my second Fellini choice.)

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  2. I would say that yours is a very grown-up list full of amazing images and brilliant films. Personally I don’t gravitate to international titles as much as I once did or should and now I remember what I’m missing. These are wonderful choices and your island will be a thoughtful and deep retreat! A lovely list and I need to re-watch all of these! Classic film lovers’ work is never done, is it? There are always so many movies to discover and rediscover, thanks to great lists like this!

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    1. Thank you! You’re right — no matter how many classic films you’ve seen, there are always more out there, both well-known and more obscure.

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    1. Thanks! Comedy-wise, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the first title that springs to mind, along with Bringing Up Baby, A Hard Day’s Night, Il Sorpasso, and any number of others.

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    1. Thanks, though I doubt that that’s true. 🙂 I just looked at your list, though I haven’t read the post in-depth yet, and you made some great choices!

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  3. Look at’chu with the fancy schmancy international eclectic titles. French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish. You will have a cornucopia of sights and sounds and cultures during your island stay. “Rescue?! We don’ need no steeeenking rescue!”

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  4. That I couldn’t include my favorite Fellini on my Desert Island list pained me. Maybe you can come live on mine. Very much enjoyed the international flavor of this list. Hard to argue with Fellini, Truffaut and Ozu. I must admit that I’ve not seen Woman in the Dunes, despite owning the Criterion since it’s release. I am shamed.

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  5. What a wonderful list! I suffered a lot because I left foreign language movies out of my list, and yours is just superb – you collected classics from several countries and masters of cinema. I share your love and admiration for both 8 1/2 and Late Spring.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

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