“Lives” is the word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series. This is a tricky one, as it is a heteronym. Compare “a cat has nine lives” with “he lives in New Hampshire.”
My Top 6 list follows, but try coming up with a list of your own before peeking. Share what you come up with in the comments section.
All the titles on my list use “lives” as a noun. Apparently the verb form only appears in bad movies, like Fletch Lives, King Kong Lives, and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. The seven noun movies I could think of were at least marginally good: the missing title is Taking Lives (2004), a generic but passable serial killer thriller. Four of the seven are great films. The top three are powerful tearjerkers, although not necessarily sad.
6. The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca (1958)
Robert Loggia plays the title’s western hero in this episode of “Disneyland,” which was later released theatrically as a feature film.
5. The Time of Their Lives (1946)
Abbott and Costello’s second ghost story (the first being Hold That Ghost) is a bit of an oddball. The usual formula would have been to have Costello as a live person being comically scared by ghosts, but he’s the ghost this time — and still, somehow, being comically scared. The unusual premise of the story paves the way for some fresh comic material, and the result is probably one of the duo’s better efforts.
4. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
A great old-fashioned adventure story about three British soldiers on the frontier in India. Their personal lives lead them into individual adventures that intersect and conflict with their military duties. The visual spectacle is more than you’d ever expect from a movie from 1935: there some gorgeous landscapes and architecture in this, some spectacular battle scenes, and wild mass destruction. Despite that, it remains a personal story. Check this out if you liked Gunga Din (1939).
3. Nine Lives (2005)
Nine Lives tells nine stories about nine women. Each story is told in a single unbroken steadicam shot, lasting about ten minutes. Some of the stories intersect with each other, making it almost a hyperlink film, while others stand alone. Collectively, they paint a pretty comprehensive picture of life. It’s astonishing to me that this, one of the best films of its kind, should only clock in at #3 on this list, but that’s what happens sometimes when the pool of candidates is so arbitrary.
The film’s conviction is perhaps what makes it so powerful. Most movies feel contrived on some level: arranged and packaged to reward us with complete understanding and closure about the stories they tell. But these stories truly feel like ten minutes out of real people’s lives. Important ten minute spans, yes. None of these stories feature ten minutes out of anybody’s commute to work. But it’s clear that these characters had lives before we started watching them, and they continue on after we’ve stopped. We do get complete stories, but only as complete as life allows. In real life stories, something always leads up to them, and something always results as a consequence. We don’t really get all that from the stories Nine Lives tells, but we get enough to know these characters, and love them, and care deeply about them.
As with any anthology, some of the stories are stronger than others. Here, the weakest still work, and the strongest are unforgettable. The final story ends with a 360 degree pan, but it’s not just a fancy camera move: it’s a powerful revelation that had me choking back tears. What kind of tears, you might ask? Happy or sad? But it’s not so simple.
2. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the most important and timely movies ever made back in 1946, when World War II was just ending. That it’s just as meaningful and resonant today is a tribute to its greatness. The film is about soldiers returning home from the war — three in particular, played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell. It concentrates not only on their hardships in readjusting to everyday life, but the struggles endured by their families and loved ones, as well.
I don’t know what it’s like to come home from a war — particularly from one so cataclysmic as World War II. I’ve never done it. I don’t presume to know what it’s like from watching this film. But this film did a spectacular job in making the experience real to me. What’s it like to come home to one’s wife and children after long years at war? This movie is a tearjerker before it’s even gotten started.
This is a technically simple movie. There’s no flash, no glitter, no sweeping sentimental manipulation. The movie doesn’t need it. A camera is plunked down in front of who seem to be real people, and their lives and thoughts and feelings are revealed with the sobering ring of truth. That’s a great tribute to the film’s cast (including Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Hoagy Carmichael), who all turn in excellent performances. And I must be careful not to slight the camerawork. The cinematography is absolutely wonderful — artistic and effective. But it’s invisible to the absorbed viewer, as it should be, contributing effectively to the unseen “movie magic” at work.
I must bring up one of the three returning veteran characters again. Fredric March and Dana Andrews were established actors, of course. The third, played by Harold Russell, was not. He was a real-life amputee, playing the part of a sailor who had lost his hands in the war and instead had mechanical hooks that sufficed for most everyday things but weren’t enough when it came to doing up buttons or embracing the woman he loved. What’s surprising and inspiring is that Russell could actually act. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for this film but did not make another movie until 1980.
1. The Lives of Others (2006)
Stephen and I talked a lot about our admiration for this in Special Episode #1 of the podcast. It’s about an East German agent, circa 1984, who runs surveillance on a writer identified as a risk for anti-communist leanings. The bulk of the film tells the two stories of the writer and the agent in parallel. Gradually, we come to learn about these two men just as the agent gradually comes to know the writer. But quantum physics can teach us something about human nature: there is no such thing as an impartial observer. The act of observing causes changes to both the observer and the subject of observation.
The film’s chronicle of this change is masterful. There is never any single event, as there is in many lesser movies, that triggers a complete change of character. These men are firmly entrenched in their ways. But lots of little changes add up over time. Therein lies the film’s power, which sneaks up on you. At the end, it’s astonishing to think back and realize how far you’ve come.
The ending is as perfect an ending as any movie has ever had. There are no great twists or revelations or shoot-outs, just the perfect note that the movie has been leading up to all along. Few films have moved me more.