2. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s love-conquers-all fantasy sweeps you off your feet with a combination of heady romance, striking imagery and very British wit.
The main character doesn’t often die in the opening sequence, but that’s just what happens to Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) who is shot down over the English Channel during WWII. But that’s only the beginning of this story, when thanks to a bureaucratic cock-up in the afterlife, Peter is missed, plunged into limbo and must stand trial for his life at a heavenly court, dependent almost entirely on his love for June (Kim Hunter), a woman he has only just met.
Limbo stories have been common for centuries across cultures, but A Matter of Life and Death has to be among the most poignant, playful and ultimately powerful examples out there. We may be unable to understand the true meaning of life, the universe and everything as a species, but to understand the workings of the human heart this should be considered an essential text.
It has a fascinating relationship with time and space, the laws of the known universe, landing on the side of love being able to transcend every more tangible force. It’s a war film, a humanist fable and a startling evocation of the afterlife, an endless colour-starved monochrome bureaucracy in contrast with the Technicolor passion of the living world.
As one of the great genre collages, this is also a wonderfully written courtroom drama-meets-philosophy and ethics debate which is always thoughtfully and logically argued by great orators from history but never at the expense of its beating heart. As Dr Reeves so eloquently puts it, “Nothing is stronger than the law in the universe, but on Earth, nothing is stronger than love.”
Recommended for you: Where to Start with Powell and Pressburger
1. Memories of Murder (2003)
Almost a decade before Parasite swept the Oscars on a revolutionary night for World Cinema, Bong Joon-ho dramatised his home country’s trauma and social upheaval in one of the most affecting, gut-punching and darkly funny true crime dramas of all time.
In 1980s Korea, a period of unrest and widespread protest, a serial killer stalks the countryside and murders women every time it rains. An inept and corrupt team of police detectives headed by Detective Park (Song Kang-ho, never better) struggle to bring the killer to justice in an outdated system before he strikes again.
It takes a lightness of touch and clear intentions to include brutal cops as comic foils and their torturing confessions out of innocent suspects into bleak sitcom material, but Bong manages it. I love dark comedy well-deployed and it’s fascinating how Bong uses it as part of this national trauma therapy, always as a scathing critique of the dark place South Korea once was.
At the time of the film’s making, this was a cold case and as such we are intentionally denied any kind of satisfying resolution, only fleetingly seeing the killer and presented with many possible and plausible suspects. Real life isn’t tied up in a neat bow and the ambiguous ending allows for one of the all-time great final shots; Detective Park looking down the barrel of the camera, at the audience, searching for an “ordinary looking” killer.
Memories of Murder is, for me, the best film of all time, not only for being the primary reason I fell head-over-heels in love with Korean films at university, but because it’s among the most slickly constructed, exciting, hypnotically captivating and most challenging crime thrillers there has ever been. This was a true calling card for Bong Joon-ho’s talent at deftly balancing competing styles and tones in the service of complex, human, masterful storytelling.
Recommended for you: Bong Joon-ho Films Ranked
Ask me another day and I may come up with a very different list of the Best Films of All Time. It has killed me to pick just one animated film when I couldn’t find room for Howl’s Moving Castle, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Iron Giant, Beauty and the Beast, Coco, Mary and Max and more. My favourite Guillermo del Toro film is actually Hellboy II: The Golden Army even though I concede that Pan’s Labyrinth makes a better case for cinema. There was also, agonisingly, no space for Akira Kurosawa, Pedro Almodóvar, Mike Leigh, Wong Kar-Wai, Clio Barnard, Paul Verhoeven, Kelly Reichardt, the Coen Brothers… come back to me for a Top 100 some time.