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How We Choose Our Favorite Film, and Why Mine is Joe Versus the Volcano

Do you know your all-time favorite film? Does the answer come to you as easily as your social security number?

It's okay if you don’t.

For the last couple decades, I didn’t really know my answer and as a film critic, that always bothered me. It showed a lack of commitment and, most troubling, a lack of identity. How do I not know my all-time favorite movie? How do I not yet know who I am? When someone asked me, I always hemmed and hawed and gave an indefinite answer and a different one depending on who I talked to. If I talked to someone with a deep enough knowledge of film, I would answer “probably ‘Brazil’.”

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Probably?

If it was someone who was just asking out of curiosity or politeness, I would become even more stressed out. This person has probably never heard of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” which means their follow-up question would be, “I’ve never heard of that. Who’s in that? What’s that about?” I mean, who has time to explain “Brazil” to someone who will most likely never seek it out, and why waste the energy? So, I would just say something like “Oh, I don’t know … I love the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. ‘E.T.’ was the one that got me into movies in the first place, so maybe that, too.”

Then there’s that part of the question, “all-time,” an overused bit of hyperbole that people use in the same way “literally” gets tossed around. To me, “all-time” means just that. It means it’s been a part of your life for a big chunk of your time on earth. It never goes away. It can’t be replaced. It shouldn't be taken lightly.

Don’t get me wrong. “Brazil” had been a legit favorite for a good 15 years. Ever since I saw it multiple times on video in 1986, it had a spot somewhere in my Top 10 while other movies on that list came and went. "Brazil" reflected my view of the world and had an astounding aesthetic that rewarded with repeat viewings. It also gained potency with time as we entered the War On Terror and made advances with technology faster than we could keep up with. The film remains rich with ideas; I could talk about it all day.

Yet, for the past 10 years, I have had little urge to go back to it. Maybe it doesn’t speak to me the way it once did. Now that I’m older and in a different mindset, maybe I have a different view of the main character. Also, Gilliam’s recent work hasn’t shone as brightly as it once did, even though I admire much of it. I’m certainly not writing it off in any way. It just feels less like a part of my identity as a film lover. How did that happen?

Perhaps I had been somehow conditioned to pick something that would give me credibility as a film critic. Well, I’m 47 years old and only in the last few weeks, during its 30th anniversary, have I come to realize my favorite film of all time is John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe Versus the Volcano.” I am obsessed with it and always will be.

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Film critics are a finicky bunch and we know it. We can get pretty judgmental when we see a fellow critic’s Top 10 list or their pick of the “best movie ever made,” as if there could ever be such a thing. It’s like there’s a secret, unspoken criteria for a film to be an acceptable “best” or “favorite.” My newfound all-time favorite movie, on the surface, doesn’t fall into that criteria. It’s a somewhat forgotten and largely dismissed Hollywood product, a fantasy produced by Steven Spielberg that stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. "Joe Versus the Volcano" just barely escaped a Certified Rotten rating with a 63% score from the critics and a 54% from the audience. It has often been used as a punchline when talking about Hanks’ lesser works. The film, along with the likes of “The Man With One Red Shoe” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” had been left out of the clip reel during the Golden Globes when Hanks picked up his Cecil B. DeMille Award earlier this year.

At the same time, I have read wonderful appreciation pieces, a few on this very site, that have explored the philosophical and religious components in "Joe Versus the Volcano" as though Scorsese had directed it. Others have compared the movie’s cinematic elements to that of Gilliam, as well as Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,” Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” two movies that would give a critic instant credibility if they mentioned it as their all-time favorite film. How do other critics miss these comparison points and dismiss it as a dumb comedy with pacing issues while others frequently use the words “weird” and “widely misunderstood” to praise it? I will never know.

I can vividly remember seeing it for the first time at the Town & Country Theater in Arlington Heights on Saturday, March 10th. I was a depressed teenager (not in the clinical sense, but in the teenager sense). I had bought a ticket for Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V,” a fine movie I had been eager to see that finally made it to the suburbs. I left a half-hour into that film because I realized I didn’t have any interest in the complexities of Shakespeare that I thought I did. I wandered into another theater for something lighter and less demanding. I had modest expectations. Ebert gave it 3.5 stars while others were in the 2.5 camp. “Why not? Might be cute.” Within the first few minutes of watching Shanley’s directorial debut, I felt like I had discovered something truly extraordinary, something special. Also, I’m pretty sure I laughed a lot more than the audience surrounding me. I got it. The opening sequence helped me laugh at my own teenage sadness. The film spoke to my soul in every way possible and still does to this day. 

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Roger Ebert and I had bonded briefly over our love for this movie. I have a few stories about run-ins with people who also had an affinity toward it. I quote it all the time. It reflects my philosophies of life and how to live it. I have (re)introduced it to countless friends who either once dismissed it or never saw it because it looked dumb. I have gone through periods where I couldn’t get enough of the appreciation pieces on it, and there are many out there. And if I had to choose which final movie I could watch before I die, it would be this one.

Having a definitive answer to the question “what’s your all-time favorite film?” feels liberating and I look forward to meeting more people who either look at me with confusion, with admiration or with curiosity. It feels good to not really care anymore about what people think and to openly embrace a movie that I can defend for many reasons to anyone I talk to. You can point out flaws in "Joe Versus the Volcano" to try and talk me down, but I will never see them. Not because I think the movie is flawless and perfect, but because the film is the film and I cannot imagine it being any other way. Does it have pacing issues? Is it uneven? Is Meg Ryan overdoing her accents on two of her more goofier characters? Hell if I know. 

Do you have an all-time favorite film? How did you choose it? Or do you feel like it chose you? Has it been with you your whole life? Do you have stories to tell about your relationship with this film? Do you watch it every year and do you notice new things every time you watch it? Are you still obsessed with it? Did it change your life in a big way or small way? Do your ears automatically perk up when someone mentions it in conversation? Is it the cinematic qualities that move you? Is it simply the best source of comfort food you can always depend on for those glum days?

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For me, it’s everything. It’s the cinematic language, the unpredictable nature, Shanley’s dialogue that sings in every scene, the unabashed romanticism, the freeness of it, the first shot, the final line of dialogue, the moon scene, the originality, the distinguished look, Georges Delerue’s score, the pop music choices, Bo Welch’s art direction, Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography, those awful fluorescent lights giving off the dank, green texture to the opening scenes (Warner’s Blu-ray cleaned it up a little too much), every walk-on, every gag, every dialogue exchange, Hanks, Ryan, Ossie Davis, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, the melancholia, the joy, the absurdities, the adventure, the fairy tale nature, the recurring images of the zig-zag and the ducks, every shot, every line, every nuance, every flavor. I still haven’t seen anything else like it in 30 years and it gets me every time.

It’s my movie.

I’m not arguing it’s the best one ever made. Why would I? This has nothing to do with making an argument for it or ranking it. I’m just glad I know this about myself and can feel confident in my answer. Those of us in the “Joe Versus the Volcano” cult have our own stock reply when someone declares it as his/her favorite film of all time: “I’m not arguing that with you!”

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