ILLUSTRATION BY KATHERINE STREETER
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Mary Elizabeth Williams:
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favorite movies, like certain songs -- or, for that matter, the sense of smell -- seem to slip in under our rational faculties and head directly for the most primal parts of our brains. It's telling how many of the contributors to Salon's latest Personal Best issue seek to pin down a mood, something almost as hard to describe as perfume. "Holiday," one of Hollywood's classic romantic comedies, makes Stephanie Zacharek sad, and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," one of Robert Altman's '70s masterpieces, has a similar effect on Charles Taylor. "This is Elvis" made Gary Kaufman want to drive 100 miles an hour, and "Psycho" gave Mary Elizabeth Williams a permanent case of the unholy Freudian creeps. We all know that each of these is "only a movie," but sometimes film works so much like a drug it makes you marvel that the stuff is legal.
But unlike drugs, movies have an effect that's so unpredictable and idiosyncratic that a concept like Personal Best seems the only way to write about them. For an art form so saddled with numbers (budgets, box office grosses, video sales) and technical terminology (dolly shots, fades, steadicams), film is, ultimately, sheer voodoo -- what really matters is whether or not you believe. At Salon, we've argued, and heatedly, about movies like "Leaving Las Vegas," "Breaking the Waves" and "Lone Star" over the past year and a half, the Fors and Againsts eyeing each other across the table with a mixture of bewilderment, derision and hurt. This stuff really is personal. Perhaps that's why top 10 lists consistently fascinate us even though they vary wildly and it's simply impossible to name the "best" moves of the year, let alone of all time. Reading those lists is really just a covert way of snooping around in other people's fantasies. Our choices reveal more about us than they do about the movies themselves, so we hope you'll return the confidence by sharing your own Personal Best with us in Table Talk.