For this entry in the Top 6 Words series, I asked my friend ThePhan to pick a word for me. She chose the word “life,” apparently because she (at the time she chose the word back in March!) has seen 11 “life” movies, including a few favorites.
My favorite movies with the word “life” in the title follow the jump, but try thinking up some “life” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.
The word “life” is apparently a funny one: of the 25 titles I thought of, 15 were comedies.
Missing the cut are a number of substandard efforts by name directors: That’s Life (1986) by Blake Edwards; Life Stinks (1991) by Mel Brooks; The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) by Billy Wilder. There is also a pair of good Albert Brooks comedies, Real Life (1979) and Defending Your Life (1991), a pair of enjoyable Blondie movies, It’s a Great Life (1943) and Life With Blondie (1945), and a pair of Monty Python movies, Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983). Life With Father (1947) is a good comedy with one of William Powell’s most memorable characters. Life With Mikey (1993) is considerably less memorable, as is the Laurel and Hardy misfire, The Private Life of Oliver the Eighth (1934). Tarzan’s Fight For Life (1958) is one of the weaker Tarzan movies, but Where There’s Life (1947), with Bob Hope, and Proof of Life (2000), with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, are unsung pleasures. I have a weird affinity for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003), but I’m under no delusion that it’s a good movie.
If it’s not obvious by now, I had a lot to choose from, which is why I omitted It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Life Is Beautiful (1997), on the grounds that they made my earlier “it’s” and “is” lists, respectively. That leaves:
6. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
The Best Picture winner for 1937 is The Life of Emile Zola, relatively obscure as best picture winners go. It’s a biographical film, which the Academy still likes to honor today. These kinds of movies have a way of feeling important at the time but not leaving a lasting impression. This one is no exception: it’s a fine, well-crafted film with a great performance by Paul Muni, who plays Zola over many years, but it’s power is transient; the film does not linger in the mind.
Zola was a French writer, who struggles between the opposing goals of becoming a popular success and exposing legal injustice through his work. This is also a courtroom drama of sorts, as he is at one point brought up on charges of treason.
5. Waking Life (2001)
This is one of the most cerebral animated movies you’ll ever see. It’s done in a fluid, evolving style, most or all of it rotoscoping of live footage but with fluctuating levels of realism. The film has no story to speak of, rather a stream of consciousness journey in and out of different discussions with different characters in different environments. It’s extraordinarily dreamlike, except that dreams aren’t usually this eloquent and thoughtful. Pretty much the entire movie consists of philosophical ramblings about what the world is like and why we’re here. It’s not for everyone, but if you like, say, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, this will probably be up your alley, too.
The main character is primarily a listener. He listens to all these people talking and gradually becomes aware that this doesn’t quite feel right. But that awareness fluctuates over the course of the film. In one particularly lucid moment, he even recognizes that his awareness is fluctuating. He wonders if he is dreaming. Someone tells him how he can test that theory — amidst lengthy asides on the nature of dreams and existence, of course. Some key revelations seem to occur at the end to explain what’s really happening, but I’m not sure they really do. But that’s kind of the point. Answers seldom complete our understanding; they merely lead to further questions.
What does Waking Life really mean? Perhaps the clue is in the title. Whether this is a dream or not, it can be seen as a picture of life when we’re awake. Our awareness of the larger questions of the universe is always in flux. Sometimes we’re wondering what we’re doing here and taking part in that investigation, and other times we’re merely in the presence of other people’s ideas. I’m not convinced this is necessarily what the filmmakers intended, but it doesn’t matter: this is the kind of film that leaves us free to impress our own thoughts upon it. Come to think of it, it’s a film about that very freedom.
4. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Less intellectual but more fun is Pixar’s second feature film, A Bug’s Life, which transposes the broad outlines of The Seven Samurai to the world of insects. It seems that grasshoppers are terrorizing a colony of ants, until one decides it’s time to go find some warriors who can stand up to them. There are moments of great humor and action, and despite that this is a movie about bugs, it feels human.
3. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
One of Danny Kaye’s most celebrated films, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a joyful ride through an bookish man’s imagination. It falls in the same category as The Seven Year Itch (1955), Paris When It Sizzles (1964), Secondhand Lions (2002), and Big Fish (2003), other fantastical flights of fancy through negotiable levels of realism. For that matter, it’s not all that far removed from Danny Kaye’s own Hans Christian Andersen (1952), although that film’s reverence for its fantasy is unpunctured by farce.
The story the film is based on was written by James Thurber, but it’s a little surprising it wasn’t Damon Runyon (Guys and Dolls; The Lemon Drop Kid; Little Miss Marker), what with all the colorfully mysterious thugs sneaking around the city.
2. Imitation of Life (1959)
Douglas Sirk’s last film was this great melodrama about fame and race relations. The characters all strive to belong somewhere. Where they want to belong isn’t always where they should and never where they are. Is this film a savage criticism of human ambition to be anyone but who we are, no matter who gets hurt in that pursuit? On paper, it certainly looks like it would be. But as with all Sirk films, its great compassion for its characters feels absolutely sincere and blunts what would otherwise be a satirical coldness.
Although the film is unmistakably Sirk’s, it’s actually a remake of at 1934 film by the same name. I have not seen it yet, but I understand it’s also probably good enough to qualify for this list.
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, jointly responsible for some of the greatest British films of the 30s and 40s, made a lavish, colorful epic before they came into fashion in the 1950s. It chronicles the life of a military man from the turn of the century right up to the middle of World War II, when the film was made. Most of the film is told in flashback, which is key to its effectiveness: by showing a glimpse of the man in his later years first (disrespected by a brash young upstart who mocks his pomp and bluster), we key in on what we’re supposed to look for in the main story: How did this man become who he is?
The film is episodic, chronicling his life through a remarkable but plausible series of defining events, each of which is entertaining in its own right. Slowly but surely, the gap between the rashness of youth and the reflection of age is closed. So many films chronicle the life of a single character over a broad span of time, but few are as convincing and perceptive about how people change with time as this one. “With age comes wisdom,” it is often said, for example, but this film recognizes that it is not necessarily wisdom that age brings but self-awareness.
Because the film is so spry and adventuresome and romantic, it may come as a surprise afterward to think back and realize that there are no battle scenes. The world wars are felt, rather than seen, remaining in the background but tangibly shaping the lives of the characters throughout.