If You Could Only Watch One Movie for the Rest of Your Life, What Would it Be? Or, in other words: What is Your “Deserted Island” Movie?
There is a thought experiment that many people undertake, asking themselves and others what movie they would take with them if they went to a deserted island alone. I am beginning this article without knowing which one I would take. I have, over the years, made various lists of my favorite movies and that list has shifted quite a bit over the last 15 or so years as I have upped my movie watching and grown out of some phases and into some others. Through it all, however, I have always maintained that my favorite movie of all time is George Roy Hill’s The Sting because of the impact it had on me as a 12-year-old when I watched it for the first time. The Sting is not considered an all-time-great movie by many people because it is light entertainment: clever and enjoyable but meant to go down easy and evaporate a few days after you consume it. That may seem like damning with faint praise, but I have long considered The Sting (which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, thank you very much) to be one of the most perfectly constructed movies ever and it benefits immensely from great filmmaking in every aspect of its production.
That being said, this article is not about which movie is your “favorite,” it is about which movie you would watch if you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life. To truly consider this, we must break down the various criteria people will (and must!) consider in deciding what their answer is.
Entertainment Quotient: The first criteria would be the overall entertainment value of the movie. For some, this might be laughs-per-minute, for others this might be the excitement and adventure of the plot, and still others might love the merriment of a good romantic comedy. While on a deserted island, you might crave escapism more than catharsis, to be honest. If you decide that you want to watch the movie that is the most entertaining, you might mentally page through various blockbusters and comedies that do not aspire for much more than giving their audience a good time. (I am not slandering the quality of any of these movies, simply stating that their goal is more about diversion than about changing the perspectives of the audience members.) This would include movies like The Sting and, for many, movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps movies in the Star Wars saga, maybe one of the Indiana Jones films, perhaps an animated Disney musical such as The Lion King or The Little Mermaid or maybe even a crowd-pleasing Pixar film like the oft-celebrated The Incredibles. For me, this would include movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, Ocean’s 11, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and School of Rock.
Length: Others may decide to choose a movie that is especially lengthy, trying to maximize the amount of viewing they would get on each repeat viewing. This would slightly lessen the repetitive nature of only watching one movie for the rest of your life. On the extreme end, someone might choose curiosities of world cinema that have set the record for the longest movies of all time. (A quick Google search reveals some of these novelties.) But in trying to choose something with a recognizable story arc that would still be appealing, some might choose Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, any of the extended editions of Lord of the Rings, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, Gandhi, Schindler’s List, or Lawrence of Arabia, to name a few. Most of these lengthy films do not include the breezily entertaining films of the previous paragraph, instead containing movies with greater ambition. My list of possibles that fit the time criteria include Boyhood, Inception, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (especially if I am watching on the DVD or Blu-Ray, where I can also watch the deleted scenes), and Roma. If this criteria is the most important to you, you may choose something less good for the purpose of getting all the length you can.
“Rewatchability”: The third criteria on which to judge the one movie you would watch for the rest of your life is “rewatchability.” If you were going to be forced to rewatch the same thing over and over, you need to make sure that you will not grow tired of it. What makes a movie grow old in the eyes of a viewer? This question is difficult to answer and is probably different for each person. Comedies sometimes grow stale as the jokes become too familiar. Movies with hidden twists or shocking surprises can sometimes age more quickly than we would like as the mystery that fueled the first couple viewings disappears and the romance between us and the film fizzles out. Other movies can appeal to someone when they are young and then cease being relevant as they grow older. There are many stories of rewatching movies years later and realizing what a fool you had been for ever thinking it was a good movie. As this criteria is more personal, it is hard to say what movies might be easy to rewatch for a large section of the population. I don’t feel as comfortable stating general movies that might fulfill this criteria. But here are a few that I love and have rewatched countless times and yet they never seem to grow stale: The Sting, A Little Princess, Unbreakable, The Big Year, The Artist, Pride and Prejudice, The Way Way Back, The Silence of the Lambs, and Sneakers, to name just nine.
Relevance/Thematic Resonance: A fourth criteria on which to judge the one movie you would watch for the rest of your life is relevance. If you were never going to be able to watch new movies or revisit old favorites save one, you would probably want that one movie to touch on world topics that would always feel fresh to you. It would have to explore the human condition in a way that would allow you to continue to ruminate on its themes and ideas and find new ways to apply it to your worldview. If you prized this criteria above others, this would cause you to look through those movies that really seemed to challenge you thinking the first time you saw them and then felt even more electrifying the second time. This is a rare class of film that stands the test of time through its refusal to just give the audience what it thinks it wants. Some commonly celebrated examples of this are Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Moonlight, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown. Some of my favorite challenging and thematically resonant examples are Telling Lies in America (looking at the gray morality that rules our world), The Truman Show (looking at the reality of the way we use and abuse celebrities and real people for our pop cultural enjoyment), The Village (looking at the way fear drives us and causes us to make morally dicey choices), Inside Out (looking intelligently at the mind of a child and the power of our changing emotions), The Winslow Boy (looking at the definition of the word “right” and what we might go through to protect our good name), and The Apostle (examining faith in the context of mistakes and redemption).
Favorite Filmmakers: Finally, when considering what movie you would theoretically choose, you often feel like you want to pay tribute to one of your favorite filmmakers. This stems from wanting the other people participating in said thought experiment to understand your appreciation for that writer or director or even actress or actor. By giving them your “one slot” on the deserted island, Ii is like a badge of honor that declares your fandom and can never be taken away. So this would include masters like Scorsese or Coppola or Hitchcock or Kubrick or Tarantino or Woody Allen or Kurosawa or Bergman or Sergio Leone, etc. For me this includes Damien Chazelle (La La Land or Whiplash), Christopher Nolan (Memento or The Dark Knight), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men or Gravity), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds or Munich), and DPs Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life) and Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James or Blade Runner 2049 or Sicario).
So, to decide for yourself what movie would travel with you to the theoretical deserted island, you need to find the perfect intersection of all the above criteria or decide for yourself which one of these criteria takes precedence for you. For instance, my son said that he would likely choose Remember the Titans, even though it is not very long. For him, the sports aspect and the examination of race coupled with its humor, outweigh the length. My wife also mentioned that she might tend toward picking a very sad film so that it would make her dire circumstances on a deserted island seem less terrible. To each his own! For me, thematic resonance and favorite filmmakers are very important, but I would want to find the perfect intersection of all of them. My biggest issue is that I feel incredible loyalty toward all movies that I love and I can feel their combined sadness at being left on the mainland when I travel to this island with only one Blu-Ray disc. It hurts them and, therefore, it hurts me. But it must be done for the good of finishing this article by choosing an answer!
So let me give this a try: I want to find a movie that is entertaining and long, infinitely rewatchable, resonant and relevant, and directed or shot by one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. Sheesh. My favorite movie of all time gets eliminated by its slightly shorter running time, its lack of real resonance, and by its director (who is fantastic, but not in Chad’s pantheon). Shyamalan’s movies are all a little too short, Spielberg’s movies don’t speak to me on a deep enough level most of the time, and as gorgeous as Lubezki’s and Deakins’ movies are, they cannot sell me on their movie all on their own. That leaves me with Chazelle, Nolan, and Cuaron. Chazelle’s films are not quite long enough (I mean, if we are talking about literal Blu-Ray discs, I could watch special features on the disc, but that is not a part of our thought experiment). This leaves me with my two favorite directors of all time, Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan. Which of their movies are both relevant and long enough, while entertaining me and being easy to watch over and over and over? I first looked at the length and, for Nolan, this included Interstellar (almost three hours), The Dark Knight Rises (also almost three hours), and Inception (about two and a half hours). For Cuaron, this includes Roma (two hours and fifteen minutes) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (two hours and twenty-two minutes). I immediately eliminated Interstellar, which is one of my least favorite Nolan movies and also Roma, which is brilliant and gorgeous but not entertaining enough for my island. Next, I eliminated The Dark Knight Rises, which I liked more than most, but which cannot compete with Nolan’s Inception.
So, as I pack my suitcase for my hypothetical lifelong exile on a deserted island, I am left with either Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending blockbuster heist film Inception or Alfonso Cuaron’s literary adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is — for me — the unequivocal best film of the Harry Potter series. Inception is slightly longer, but only by six minutes, which means that category is negligible. Azkaban is breezier for me and includes a brilliant turn from Gary Oldman. Inception, however, is twisty and layered in ways that will keep me thinking for days afterward; it also features a star-making performance from Tom Hardy and one of my favorite Leonardo DiCaprio performances. Azkaban examines the way we approach revenge and redemption, while Inception delves into the psyche of dreams and the ways we deal with trauma. I give a slight nod to Cuaron as my favorite director of all time, but Nolan has consistently crafted blockbusters that have more brains and heart than your average, run-of-the-mill summer popcorn flicks. Oh, man, this is a torturous decision. I don’t want to leave one of these movies back home, but sometimes we must make difficult choices no matter the consequence. If I could only watch one movie for the rest of my life, I would choose Christopher Nolan’s challenging, ambiguous, lively, dark, and action-packed Inception. Apologies to Daniel Radcliffe, Alfonso Cuaron, and Gary Oldman. I still love you.