I used to have favorite movies when I was a kid. When you haven't lived that long, and haven't therefore seen many films, it's not that hard to choose favorites. When I was ten, my three favorite movies were John Wayne's 'The Alamo,' 'The Three Hundred Spartans,' and 'The Journey to the Center of the Earth' with James Mason and Pat Boone. Later in life, when you have a goodly number of movies under your belt, say in your twenties, you stop having a top three or top five and start categorizing: five best westerns, my top three monster movies, and so on.
If you're an avid movie watcher, you stop doing even that when you reach your thirties. You've just seen too many, loved too many, hated too many, to grapple with a 'best' or 'worst' list. Still, in the back of your mind, unbidden, there lurks an all-time top fifteen or twenty films that have survived the test of time and the vagaries of your evolving tastes. 'Picnic,' 'The Bridge on the River Kwai,' 'The Searchers,' 'To Have and Have Not,' 'Rear Window,' 'Stalag 17', 'West Side Story', 'The Man Who Would Be King,' 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,' John Huston's 'The Unforgiven' are always among these, shifting places from three to seven to five...you refuse to ever let a film occupy the elusive number one slot: It's just too important a place to actually have to name a film. Other movies pop in and out of this nebulous list as you see more new candidates, or as your tastes for genres expand, as when I 'discovered' Japanese films like 'Ran' and French flicks like 'La Balance', still one of the best gangster movies out there. Anyway, whenever someone would ask me (and they didn't know me very well, obviously), "What's your favorite movie of all time?" I would usually just look at them in irritation and rattle off five or six titles without thinking, and turn away.
All this a wordy preamble to the subject at hand, how recently one movie emerged to the forefront of my thoughts, as, on re-viewing it, for I think the fifth time, I idly realized it fit all my exacting requirements to take its place as my favorite movie of all time.
I'm talking about Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain," based on Charles Frazier's award-winning novel of life on the home front during the Civil War. A beautiful, haunting, meticulously crafted feast for the eyes, it has earned its place atop the thousands of films I've seen throughout my lifetime. How does ‘Cold Mountain’ satisfy all my criteria for the best of the best?
First, it is primarily an adventure, my favorite genre of film. It’s male protagonist, Inman. undertakes a grueling Odyssey on foot to be reunited with his sweetheart, Ada Monroe, near the close of hostilities between the North and South.
Second, like most of my other all-time favorite movies, it is adapted from a book. I’d read the novel ‘Cold Mountain’ a couple of year’s before the movies’ release, and, at first, I was dismayed at the thought of what Hollywood might do to this wonderful story. My fears were groundless; I loved the movie version when I first saw it in the theater, and it stayed with me for days, even weeks after that first viewing. I couldn’t get it out of my head, which is number three in my requirements for Numero Uno.
Fourth, It has great action scenes. Although there is only one major battle represented, it’s a doozy of a set piece, highlighting the futility and horror of war like no other film set in this time period. Five, it has a romance that approaches greatness.
The shy, awkward love between the practically wordless Inman and the beautiful, ingenuous Ada is touching, and utterly real as handled by two gifted professionals like Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.
Six, all the supporting characters are rich with depth and nuance, from Rene Zellweger’s Oscar-winning turn as Ruby, to the matchless Kathy Baker as Mrs. Swanger, James Gammon (Is there anyone out there with a speaking voice like his?) as Mr. Swanger, to Brendan Gleesan’s Starbrod Thewes; and absolutely wondrous cameo performances contributed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lucas Black (Does he die young in every movie he’s in?), the marvelous Eileen Atkins, and the one that packs an extraordinary emotional wallop, drawn by Natalie Portman.
Seven, it is also a first-rate study of friendship. I love movies like ‘Gallipoli,’ and ‘The Mighty,’ where the aspects of friendship are explored. Ada and Ruby, an unlikely pair of young women, one genteel, the other po’ white trash, grow to like, appreciate, and finally love each other as they struggle to survive a bleak existence on the war’s home front.
One of my main criteria for a good movie has always been the background music, ever since I saw, and heard, ‘The Big Country,’ scored by Jerome Moross, as a child. Big, sweeping soundtracks from the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, or sly, beguiling ones from composers like Bernard Hermann, for me, make the movie, as much as the acting or cinematography. And ‘Cold Mountain’ is no exception. Featuring heart-breakingly beautiful vocals from my favorite female singer of all time, Alison Krauss, legendary musician and producer T-Bone Burnett fills the landscape with music that matches the period and the story perfectly. Eight.
Nine, there is humor that is plot-driven, deriving from the characters’ all too human foibles, and is therefore genuine, and giving well-earned emotional breaks from this sometimes tortuous journey.
Ten, y’all know I’m a sucker for any book or movie that offers a single father/single daughter relationship, and ‘Cold Mountain’ has two, Ada and her kind and gentle minister father, nicely underplayed by Donald Sutherland. And the flip side, the stormy, funny pair, Ruby, and her itinerant Daddy, Starbrod Thewes.
Finally, and this is no small requirement from a stickler like me, what the people in this story do, and what they say, is accurate to the period in history it represents. No women spouting 1990’s feminism disguised as loquaciousness. If a character like Ruby Thewes is outspoken, it is still confined to the social mores and strictures of the 1860’s South United States. And there are no slaves offering up self-serving liberal, historical hindsight, just because some producer’s nephew felt it ‘needed to be said.’
So, why all this verbiage nine years after the release of ‘Cold Mountain?’
Like I said, it just kind of snuck up on me after watching it again the other night. And it occurred to me that there still might be some of you out there who haven’t seen it yet, and might be encouraged to put it in your Netflix queue, or pick up the paperback, after reading these musings. There are worse ways to spend your time…