Five Favorite Films

Five Favorite Films with Michael Phillips

The new co-host of At the Movies also talks about audiences and a special HBO cameo.

by | September 22, 2009 | Comments

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Chicagoans Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert changed the face of movie criticism with At the Movies; now, another critic from the Windy City, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, is ready to take up the mantle on the venerable show. Phillips was a theater writer at the LA Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Dallas Times Herald before taking over as the movie beat at the Tribune. In 2006 and 2007 he was a frequent guest on At the Movies, filling in for Roger Ebert alongside Richard Roeper. Now he’s a full-time occupant of the critics’ chair, alongside New York Times pundit A.O. Scott (find out what Scott’s Five Favorite Films are here.)

Phillips spoke with RT about his favorite films (he’s a sucker for Orson Welles and musicals) as well as the joys of watching a movie with an audience and what it’s like to make a cameo on a popular HBO series.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928,
97% Tomatometer)

The Passion of Joan of Arc

It is the most vexing challenge because I just find that, depending… I’m not so psychotic that my mind changes constantly on that subject, but it really depends on where you are in your life. You sort of have a rolling list of a few dozen that you cherish for different reasons. All you try to do is avoid interviews like this so you don’t get pinned down. [laughs] No, I always have trouble pinning anything to a fixed list. Why is it hard? Is it easy for you? You start thinking about the directors you leave off the list and your heart starts breaking.

In chronological order, The Passion of Joan of Arc. The last time I saw that film, it struck as me as if it was an artifact from the period itself that it’s depicting. It was like a medium unto itself, and [Maria] Falconetti’s performance, it really cannot be compared to anything else. It’s beyond naturalism, it’s beyond melodrama, it’s beyond everything. It’s just coming straight out of her soul. But mainly, the last time I saw it I just had this weird time slip kind of experience where I felt like I was really seeing a mad visionary from the time who somehow invented the movie camera. [laughs] Putting on this intense pageant on this subject of intense religious devotion. I find that film a knockout. You can’t watch it lightly, but that’s all right.

His Girl Friday (1940,
97% Tomatometer)

His Girl Friday

I’m desperately trying to find a way not to include His Girl Friday because it’s kind of been touted a lot. But it’s my favorite romantic comedy couple on screen. I think Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in that picture are roughly as great as Beatrice and Benedict in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. That’s how great they are. It’s my favorite Cary Grant performance because it combines the leading man side of his persona with this crazy farceur. I just love hearing people talk as fast as most people think. And I love the fact that they condense this three-hour play into whatever the running time is — ninety, ninety-two minutes — and they basically didn’t cut anything; they just got it all in. I adore this film.

That first scene… You watch that first scene when she comes back to the office, and it’s 10 of the greatest minutes of romantic byplay ever, and it’s beautifully performed. I revere Hawks more highly than I do John Ford, and that’s saying something. For me, if you don’t have a Hawks film on that list, you’re lying.

Citizen Kane/The Magnificent Ambersons (1941,
100% Tomatometer)

Citizen Kane

I really was trying to avoid Citizen Kane, but I would say Kane and the first fourth, the first half of The Magnificent Ambersons, for, you know, reasons that are obvious. I mean, it’s all miserably compromised after the first half — actually after the first third, I think — but I think the first twenty, twenty-five minutes of Ambersons is in many ways richer than anything in Kane, and that really is saying something. It struck a tone in American moviemaking; it was just absolutely new to me as a kid when I first saw that. I had never seen that kind of lightly ironic, very bittersweet, but achingly nostalgic… It’s just great, it’s just great. It’s also got probably one of my single favorite shots in cinema, that silhouette combined with the two couples after the ball. It’s the most incredible moment, and you just can’t believe you’re seeing it, and it lasts only as long as it could humanly last, and then it’s over. It’s great.

Do you have any hope that they’ll actually find the missing full-length version of Ambersons?

No. You know, I keep hearing it’s turning up in Brazil, or I heard a story that some idiot destroyed a copy in the 1980s. You know, there’s a lot of urban myths going around, but nothing would make me happier. Well, not nothing, but with Wells, nothing would make me happier. But look at Wells! I mean, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight

The Band Wagon (1953,
100% Tomatometer)

The Band Wagon

I gotta throw a musical in there, and I’d go with The Band Wagon. Singin’ in the Rain is more exuberant, but [Vincent] Minnelli is one of my favorite stylists in cinema. You know, I love {Fred] Astaire, and I’m crazy about that film. I’ve loved it since I was in high school. Often, these favorites come and go, and they change position on your list, and you make room for other things that maybe you didn’t appreciate as strongly when you were younger, but I’ve always been crazy about that movie.

Taxi Driver (1976,
98% Tomatometer)

Taxi Driver

So here’s where, for me, it comes down to either the second Godfather, Taxi Driver, which is [Martin] Scorsese’s best film, I think, or one of two or three Altmans, I guess. And of those three, I’d probably go with Taxi Driver. It’s pretty great, and it’s one of the most dangerous films ever to come out of this country, I think. And it’s got great performances, and it’s got such electric ambiguity in what it’s saying about this guy. For me, that film marks, probably, the end point of that great period of the 1970s. So many fine directors; Altman, Coppola, the freedom of expression. I almost didn’t have the resources to deal with Taxi Driver when I first saw it . I don’t go back to it all the time, because it’s such a handful, but I think that’s Scorsese’s best film.

Next, Phillips talks about how different it is to watch a film with an audience and what it was like guest-starring on Entourage.

RT: Now, about the show: what’s different this time?

MP: The show has always changed, depending on who’s on it, and I think what we’re finding as we get our footing in on this is I really do sense an appetite on behalf of Disney, on behalf of everybody we’ve heard from since the announcement for a show that really goes back to why people love talking about the movies in the first place. We’re being encouraged to, within the format, to really find ways to talk about all the new releases, but also connect it to film history and the classics we love, the classics that most people really don’t know about. We’re not wildly reworking the formula — to the degree it makes sense, we’re really going back and embracing the formula — but also just embracing the idea of the right kind of discussion, the right kind of argument. I think it has been nothing but reassuring to kind of hear from the folks at Disney ABC and our producers in Chicago that, “We’re not trying to make you into anybody you’re not.” And with the idea of, we have these online exclusives every week, which kind of gives people even a better sense of what’s really on our minds with the given subject on film. It’s been really lovely and heartening to hear from a wide range of people, “Yes, it’s good. Thank you. We were waiting for this kind of discussion and argument and passion to come back to the show.” All we have to do is try to find ways to make it more polished, but not more slick.

RT: After you guested with Richard Roeper, was TV a medium you wanted to continue in, or were you sort of like, “Oh, I’m back to my print reviews now?” Was there an idea of going back to television eventually?

MP: Oh, it was a lot of fun. Richard was an excellent sparring partner, and I think Tony (A.O. Scott) and I, separately, both learned a lot from working with him. And again, separately, Tony and I have learned a lot from the friendship and the collegial relationship we’ve enjoyed with Roger [Ebert]. I was really thrilled. You don’t hire guys like me and Tony for a show like this with the idea of trying to package them in such a way as to win over an audience that may not have any interest in that show in the first place. I don’t know, I just feel like the pressure’s on because we want to make it good, and we want to try to make it the best show we can, but in another way, we’re not being pressured to turn this thing into something it shouldn’t be.

RT: What’s the best thing you’ve seen so far this year?

MP: I really loved Sugar. You know, so far, the two American pictures that come to mind most immediately are a big hit, Up, and a little flop, Adventureland. I love them both. Yeah, so far, those are the two. I found Up just extraordinarily moving and it’s not perfect; I think that action climax is a little attenuated and that feels more like, not a shock to the audience necessarily, but… Well, actually it does feel like a little bit of a shock to the audience. But I also think Michael Giacchino is the best contemporary film composer we have, and that’s his best score. Because music means a lot to me, that’s reason enough for me to recommend that film.

RT: Do you always try to think of yourself as a member of the audience primarily and a critic second, or the other way around? How do you balance that?

MP: Good question. No, you are both, but really I’m just trying to work out my own responses clearly so that they make sense to me and they’re going to make sense to whoever’s listening to my opinion. What I like doing, too, over the course of a year — because, you see what, 300 films — I find it crucial to see a fair number of those films with an audience, and it doesn’t really matter what kind. I don’t really believe in the phrase “audience picture,” because I think any kind of film changes somewhat depending on the situation you’re seeing it in. Sometimes I go a week or two and I think, “Yeah, you know what? I need to see a movie with a crowd.” And it doesn’t have to be a comedy. For me it’s still a social endeavor.

RT: I have just one more question, and it’s been on my mind for a long time. When you did the fake review on Entourage, was that ad-libbed?

MP: You know, that was actually kind of a pleasant experience because Richard and I did it once as scripted by the Entourage folks, and they also allowed us to revise it and rewrite it our own way, and they ended up going with that version. And Doug Ellin, he was very gracious in some interview. He said, “Those guys really punched up that scene, and their version was much better.” And that was just a very gracious thing to say. And of course it was a real honor to be called a d— on the show.

And if you talk to Tony again, tell him he’s really not right about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That shouldn’t be on anybody’s list.

Check out our interview with A.O. Scott. For more from Michael Phillips, read our Meet-a-Critic interview from 2007. And be sure to check out all the reviews from At the Movies on RT.