This article first appeared as a feature in the Telegraph in March 2018.
“When you go to the cinema, you look up,” preached Jean-Luc Godard. “When you watch television, you look down.”
Granted: almost everything Godard ever said was unbearably pretentious, and he clearly failed to predict the existence of wall brackets. But he hit on a great truth here. The silver screen commands wonder and respect; characters and emotions are writ larger than life while you are engulfed in sound. For all television’s undeniable pull, there are still many for whom the cinematic experience is irreplaceable – which explains the recent outcry at Paramount Pictures’ decision to send its latest sci-fi film, Alex Garland’s Annihilation, straight to Netflix across all countries except the US, Canada and China.
Ever since the first films were projected in the 19th century, technicians have been finding ways to make movies look larger and larger, with 70mm film stock regularly replacing 35mm for big-budget extravaganzas from the 1950s onwards. Peak immersion was reached in 1971, when – after a group of Canadian whizzes developed a projection method that ran film horizontally rather than vertically – the world’s first permanent IMAX cinema was opened in Ontario, Canada. The world’s largest IMAX cinema, in Darling Harbour, Sydney, is currently closed for refurbishment; when it opens next year, its screen will measure 35m by 29m at the very least.
Fortunately, we don’t have to cross oceans to be overwhelmed by colossal images and thundering sonics. On Saturday 10 March, the IMAX Film Fest will screen – across Cineworld’s 20 UK IMAX cinemas – a selection of five recent films for £3 each. They are Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, It, Beauty and the Beast, and one film that was designed specifically for IMAX projection. Helmed by one Christopher Nolan, it kicks off our list of films that need to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
However helpless the French appear in Chris Nolan’s latest, they have an untranslatable adjective that nails the experience of watching this film as it was meant to be seen: bouleversant. For all its historical and narrative limitations, Dunkirk is an astonishing technical achievement – particularly in the sound department.
The majority of non-dialogue sounds you hear was recorded separately from the visuals, giving the aural dynamics a raw power that, thanks to the Oscar-winning sound mixing team, meshes stunningly with the visuals. Sound editors Richard King and Alex Gibson packed the interiors of functioning Spitfires with two dozen microphones, yielding a comprehensive sonic coverage for conveying “the physical sensation of being in the plane”. IMAX cinemas, with their precisely placed speakers and multi-thousand-watt amplifiers, make you feel the vibrations before you hear them.
And let’s not forget the visuals. Due to the aforementioned way IMAX film runs horizontally, giving the projection higher resolution and a 1.43:1 aspect ratio (i.e. a huge image), you’d be seeing a cropped version of the film if you were to see it outside of an IMAX. Unnecessary haircuts, anyone?
Last April, I got over my aversion to the cheesier strain of Indian cinema and went to watch the re-release of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, the definitive Bollywood movie. Intrigued to see how a seminal 1975 film would survive a 21st-century makeover – it was restored and converted into 3D at a cost of ₹250 million (£2.5m) – I took my mother and sister to see it. I wasn’t the only one. The Barbican’s largest auditorium was packed with families: older viewers who’d seen the film dozens of times, middle-aged parents who’d seen the film as kids, and young people who’d never seen it before.
I can’t lie – it’s a pretty bad movie, even if the BFI did name it the greatest Indian film ever in a 2002 poll. But the 3D screening was a revelation, and we were only in the back row. The eye-popping visuals begin with the credits, and the famous scene where the handcuffs binding our two heroes are blown away by a bullet is more spectacular than ever. The re-release is still touring the UK – it can be seen in Birmingham in less than fortnight. Even if you’re a Bollywood sceptic, this redux is not to be missed.
Like Sholay, Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half-hour 1927 masterpiece Napoléon proves that films can work better when treated as living, adaptable artworks rather than untouchable relics. Not only was the Bonaparte biopic subject to periodic restorations by film historian and preservation champion Kevin Brownlow (a process that took several decades), it was regularly kitted out with new scores by Carl Davis.
Whether or not you get to see it with a live score, it’s a deeply rousing experience. Make it past the five-hour mark and you’re in for a serious treat. The finale – breathlessly edited, tinted in the colours of the tricolour, featuring magnificent crowd scenes and stirring symbolism, all set to Davis’s tasteful bombast – is three screens wide. Curtains peel away to reveal a triptych image that is, in formal terms, like nothing you’ve experienced at the cinema before or since.
Gance suffered from overweening ambition: despite being the length of almost four back-to-back football matches, Napoléon was intended as simply the first of a six-film series charting the Corsican’s career. Much as I love the film, I’m glad Gance ran out of money.
Lawrence of Arabia
There are many reasons I love David Lean’s sand-swept masterpiece, not least because it premiered on the same day my mother did (10 December 1962, if you’re interested). I took my parents to see it last year in a 70mm print; neither had seen it in that format before, and both agreed that that’s the only way to do it justice.
It isn’t just that you’re dwarfed by the Jordanian mountains, or feel the full impact of Anne Coates’s unforgettable match cut – the magic of the cinema begins before you even see anything. The lights go down, and Maurice Jarre’s bruising score thunders out of the speakers for over a minute before the curtains open. The same happens after the intermission. It’s a hell of a thrill.
2001: A Space Odyssey
“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed,” said Stanley Kubrick in 1968, the year he changed cinema forever. The only Oscar the maestro ever won was for Best Visual Effects, and though some of the set design has dated a little, Kubrick’s setting of his visionary visuals to the strains of Strauss and Ligeti will be an emotional experience for as long as humans are around – maybe even longer. But it’s a cerebral film too, and big ideas deserve a big screen. It’s worth noting that of all the myriad analyses of the film, the ones Kubrick found most stimulating and appealing were by a 15-year-old girl named Margaret Stackhouse.
You can catch the film next month at the Southbank Centre, where it’ll be accompanied by a live score. If you miss it, don’t worry – the Prince Charles Cinema screens it in 70mm several times a year.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (singalong)
It isn’t just visual masterpieces that work best on the big screen: a large auditorium befits any movie that gets an audience involved. Outside Australia, Jim Sharman is known for one thing and one thing only: the devilish sense of participatory fun he brought to Richard O’Brien’s musical Frankenstein’s monster of a play The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A hit in London in 1973, the play was made two years later into the film we know and love.
Straightforward screenings may seem oddly discomfiting: you may at first be slightly put off by the hardcore fans in the front row shrieking “Slut!” and “Asshole!” mere seconds into the film, and flinging rice at the screen minutes later. But singalongs – which the Prince Charles Cinema hosts every few weeks – are much more fun. Singing along at home just isn’t the same, dammit.
Stop Making Sense
The greatest concert movie ever made, Jonathan Demme’s film of Talking Heads’ tenure at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre is nothing less than a story of creation. Unlike the films of Elvis, Prince or the Beatles, there’s no plot – but there is a sort of musical narrative, as each successive song summons another musician or two, until the stage is packed with singers, dancers and players having the time of their life.
Demme’s direction complements the music rather than distracting from it: instead of dialogue and character building, he gives us suspenseful tracking shots, expressionistic lighting and increasingly grand spectacle.
You needn’t be a Heads fan to have an absolute blast; it’s like a great party, or the ultimate gig. I saw it at the cinema a few years ago; there was dancing in the aisles. I can’t wait to go again.
The most depressing entry on the list; perhaps the most depressing film ever made. It is also arguably the most important. A Holocaust documentary like no other – there’s no archive material and no voiceover, only contemporary interviews and eerie footage of former sites of atrocity – Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work of testimony cut over 350 hours of footage into ten.
Lanzmann made the film at great personal risk. As well as interviewing survivors and witnesses, he went after concentration camp officers; when one former commandant discovered he was being filmed covertly, he had his son brutalise the quinquagenerian director and his assistant. Lanzmann spent a month in hospital recovering. His film will forever bear witness to how low humanity can sink.
The big screen is appropriate for several reasons: not only does it “do justice” to the enormity of its subject, it provides a space for people to assemble for warmth in the face of the coldest of realities. The film’s countless talking points mean that between halves – the film is chillingly split into ‘First Era’ and ‘Second Era’ – and afterwards, you can discuss it with your fellow viewers. It makes the pain a lot easier to bear.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Peter Jackson shot these three game-changers back to back, and that’s how they should be seen – not for any other reason than the psychological spell weaved by spending over nine hours in Middle Earth. Seeing it in the cinema will trigger Stockholm syndrome – when you stagger outside, reality feels like a film, and you ache to be back among the elves and the hobbits where things made sense and cars and phones didn’t suddenly seem so futuristic.
The Prince Charles Cinema regularly screens the extended editions in marathon format – the end credits of each film are the only breaks you get. (To be fair, they are pretty long.) Sure, the extended edition of The Return of the King features a bunch of unnecessary scenes. But Aragorn did not risk life and limb to summon the Army of the Dead so you could watch him on a TV screen.
The awe-inspiring set pieces of the Lord of the Rings films can be traced back to this ground-breaking 1916 epic (though Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen is also worth checking out). D.W. Griffith is best known today for his Ku Klux Klan puff-piece The Birth of a Nation, which is a shame – Intolerance is a better film in every way.
The film comprises four intercut narratives dealing with the theme of intolerance. Two – set during 16th-century France and Jesus’s last days respectively – are fairly forgettable. But the “modern-day” (i.e. 1910s) scenes are thrillingly edited, and the ancient Babylon narrative is the most impressive of all, its set design and camerawork conjuring a sense of tangible scope and grandeur that is beyond the current capabilities of CGI. To see it on the big screen is to put yourself in the shoes of viewers from over a century ago, and feel the same gobsmacked awe they felt.
But for all its weighty themes, remember that it contains the line: “Tish tish! ‘Tis no place to eat onions.”