"I can remember everything," says the actor Joseph Cotten, playing the character of Jedediah Leland in Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece of cinema, Citizen Kane. "That's my curse, young man. It's the greatest curse that's ever been inflicted on the human race: memory."
Citizen Kane is the 14th of 111 films featured in David Stratton's new book, My Favourite Movies. Leura-based Stratton is arguably Australia's best-loved film critic, a man who has watched tens of thousands of movies over a career that has spanned nearly 60 years. And unlike Jedediah, for Stratton an encyclopaedic memory was a crucial tool as he looked back on a lifetime of film appreciation for his latest tome. Even if, as he says, he rewatched every last one of his selected movies as he prepared his book during lockdown.
My Favourite Movies contains mini-essays on all of its films, ranging from Metropolis and The General (both 1927) through to more recent works such as Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the Netflix-produced film, Roma (2018). The book encompasses the ubiquitous and fabled, such as Jaws (1975), as well as the relatively obscure, such as The Brothers Rico (1957). It also includes films in various languages, while 10 Australian films made the final cut.
In compiling the book, Stratton gave himself a number of rules. For instance, he was only allowed to include one film per director. "If I hadn't done there might be five Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford films," he says.
He is also keen to point out that the book is a subjective and personal exercise, rather than any work of film scholarship. He has included, therefore, plenty of films from the 1950s when he was a teenager, a time when the world of cinema was first opening up to him.
"A big difficulty was making the distinction between a favourite movie and what I would call a great movie - they're not necessarily the same thing," says Stratton.
"So this is a book of favourite movies, movies that meant a lot to me, partly because of the circumstances in which I first saw them, which is why I've listed in the book the place and the date that I first saw a film. In a number of cases there are links between the circumstances in seeing a film, and how much a film stays in my affections."
My Favourite Movies is Stratton's fifth book. Perhaps best known as co-host with Margaret Pomeranz of the television programs At The Movies and The Movie Show, Stratton also served as director of Sydney Film Festival from 1966 to 1983, and is a former president of the International Critics Jury at Cannes and Venice film festivals. With such a career behind him, he has come into close contact with many of the most illustrious names in cinema history - and My Favourite Movies is replete with absorbing anecdotes from such interactions, including occasions with the likes of Groucho Marx, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, Billy Wilder, Federico Fellini, Claude Chabrol and many others.
"I think one of the most delightful experiences with a director - although none of his films are in the book - was with a Hollywood director called Raoul Walsh, who made all sorts of films, including thrillers with Humphrey Bogart back in the 1930s. He started his career as an actor in silent films. I had dinner with him in San Francisco in 1972, and he was full of amazing stories about early Hollywood, about him and Charlie Chaplin going out on the town in 1914, working with Mae West and Errol Flynn, and so on.
"I've also known Clint Eastwood reasonably well over the years. I met him for the first time in 1971 or 72. I've been on the set of one of his films, I've had dinner with him and so on. "
One of the interesting things to ponder from Stratton's book is the directors and films he has omitted because of his self-imposed restrictions. He particularly regrets leaving out John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) and Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight (1986).
The Gazette also indulged in a touch of sport with Stratton, throwing at him the names of a few directors, either critical favourites or those with a cult following, who did not find a place in My Favourite Movies, for his expert opinion of them. For example, the pioneering Soviet director of the 1920s and 30s, Sergei Eisenstein.
"Of course, a great innovator. Films like Strike and Battleship Potemkin (both 1925) and October (1928) are magnificent, but they wouldn't be favourites. You admire them, but they're not something I would sit down with a glass of wine on Saturday night and watch again."
The Mexican creator of hallucinatory, mystical, avant-garde films, Alejandro Jodorowsky.
"He's wild and crazy. When I was directing the Sydney Film Festival I showed his first film, Fando y Lis (1968), and that was pretty wild and crazy. He's an original. I wish he'd finished his version of Dune, it would have been interesting to see what that would have been like. But he's a one-off, Jodorowsky.
The American director John Waters, whose films such as Pink Flamingos (1972) famously pushed the boundaries of acceptability and taste.
"He's a hell of a nice guy, I met him a few times. A very funny guy. But again I can't say that Pink Flamingos would be one of my favourite films. I quite liked the Smell-O-Vision one [Polyester, 1981], the one where you had to scratch the card and smell."
"Back in 1994 I was on the international jury at Venice and David was president of the jury, so we spent two weeks having dinner together most nights - him and his then wife and me and my wife, so I got to know David pretty well.
"Unlike people like Martin Scorsese or Stephen Spielberg, David doesn't really like movies very much I don't think - or at least other people's movies. He's not terribly knowledgeable about movies. He's a really interesting guy, and quite an eccentric. Blue Velvet (1986) I have very strange reactions to. It is in many ways a brilliant film, but in others an ugly film."
"Very talented. I thought that last film of hers, On the Rocks (2020) with Bill Murray, was just delightful. I'm not so keen on Marie Antoinette (2006), I thought she made a bit of a mess of that. I loved Lost in Translation (2003), I think that's her best film. "
As for current films on release, Stratton says that we are amid "one of the most exciting periods for some time" as a result of many films being subjected to COVID-related delays. He picks out new works by Jane Campion, Wes Anderson, Stephen Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Pedro Almodovar. All films to be filed away in Stratton's memory bank, and his vast critical hierarchy.
"Maybe if this book is successful I can do a sequel. I can easily do another 111."