30. Vertigo. Our annual viewing. We were trying to convince Juan to drop by San Juan Bautista and “reenact” the body on the roof, but the drive to San Simeon took longer than he expected.
31. Philomena. Written by Steve Coogan, directed by Stephen Frears, based on true events, Philomena could’ve easily been a diatribe against the terrible crimes of the Catholic Church. Instead, it gives the villainous nuns of the story the compassion they never gave Philomena, an Irish woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock, is put to work without pay in a convent, and has her son taken away from her and given to adoptive American parents. Philomena is brilliantly portrayed by Dame Judi Dench in the most un-Dame Judi performance we can remember, and Steve Coogan continues to surprise. (See What Maisie Knew)
32. Stranger by the Lake. You think it’s gay porn, but it’s a thrilling psychological drama about how some kinds of love make us want to live, and others can’t be distinguished from the longing for death. Definitely NSFW.
33. The Lady Vanishes. We could recite this. We talk to the screen. “Look at the window! The win–” (merge with train whistle).
34. The Avengers. We had to decide which movie in the Marvel cinematic universe is the best.
35. Captain America: The First Avenger. Even better when you see it again! Chris Evans has been seriously, seriously underrated. Maybe no longer.
36. Byzantium. A contemporary vampire story starring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton that may be Neil Jordan’s apology for the excesses of Interview With The Vampire.
37. Prince of the City. Treat Williams plays the police detective turned whistle-blower in this Sidney Lumet film from 1981. He thinks he’s making like Al Pacino in a previous Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon. Turns out that to overact like that, you have to BE Al Pacino.
38. The Thirteenth Tale. Vanessa Redgrave and Sophie Turner (Sansa) in an entertaining contemporary Gothic tale.
* * * * *
39. Excalibur by John Boorman is still one of our favorite adaptations of the Arthurian tales. Because of Excalibur and The Once and Future King, we would’ve majored in Medieval English Lit (Fortunately we realized that the curriculumn would include lots of Piers Plowman ugh).
The Boorman movie is cheesy in parts (Nicol Williamson as Merlin is a runny Stilton), and it takes liberties with the source materials—Arthur himself becomes The Fisher King, Morgana is merged with Nimue—but it is wildly entertaining and it gets the spirit of the legends.
This wonderful scene in which Arthur awakens from his long stupor and rides through the land, awakening it, introduced us to O Fortuna! from Orff’s Carmina Burana.
We had to watch Excalibur at the cinema twice so we could memorize the Charm of Making.
In Old Gaelic: Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha. (Serpent’s breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making.)
Yes, that is Helen Mirren, who played Morgana.
Here she is with her then-boyfriend Liam Neeson, who was Gawaine. Here’s a funny story about them.
Gabriel Byrne was Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father.
And Patrick Stewart and Ciaran Hinds were King Leodegrance (father of Guinevere) and King Lot (husband of Arthur’s sister Morgause and stepfather of the bastard Mordred, but not in the movie).
Ah! We know what illuminated manuscript we’re going to make: The Sword in the Stone, the first book of The Once and Future King by T.H. White.
If you are interested in the Arthurian tales, White is the best place to start. Mary Stewart’s Merlin series—The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment—is excellent, and Lloyd Alexander’s children’s books The Chronicles of Prydain are a great introduction to the Welsh myths The Mabinogion.
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones, which was the cover of Possession by A.S. Byatt.