Imagine that capricious aliens conducting an incomprehensible experiment snatch you away from your home and plunk you onto a desert island. But the aliens are not insanely cruel; they create a small, comfortable home for you, with hot and cold running water, toilet facilities, a kitchen stocked with an inexhaustible supply of food, and oddly enough, a luxurious home theatre with 7.1 surround sound, a blu-ray player and a 100 inch high-definition display.
But there's a catch: the aliens will allow you to choose just one film per decade, beginning in 1900 and including the decade of the 20-teens, which we've just entered. Each film you choose will be made available in high definition for your viewing pleasure, even if it hasn't been released on disc by humans yet. Every decade you'll be able to choose one additional film from a list provided to you by the aliens. Of course, not having seen any of these films, your new once-a-decade choice will be essentiall random, excepting of course new films with titles that make the subject obvious - "Star Wars Episode VII: Legacy of the Force," for example, will almost certainly be a new Star Wars movie. "Hamlet" will probably be a new adaptation of the Shakespearian play.
You can't leave the island, nor are there other entertainment options, unless you decide to start writing or drawing for your own pleasure (the aliens have provided plentiful paper, pens and pencils) or craft some kind of sport from the island's natural resources. Your film choices are, therefore, quite important - these are the only movies you'll get to see for a long, long time.
Here then, are my choices:
The Great Train Robbery (Directed by Edwin S. Porter, 1903) - It's silent and 12 minutes long, but I've never seen it, and since there aren't a lot of exemplary choices from the early days of film, I may as well give this one a shot. Certainly it's one of a handful of films from the era to retain some awareness in the popular consciousness, so it must have some redeeming virtues.
Intolerance (Directed by D.W. Griffith, 1916)
I've already seen Birth of a Nation, so Griffith's response to his earlier controversial film seems like a good choice. And it's three and a half hours long, which will eat up a tiny slice of the interminable years to come.
The General (Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926)
From here on out the choices get much tougher. I wavered between The General and Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but in the end I think Keaton's genius for slapstick humour would serve my long-term mental health better.
King Kong (Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
A fantastic decade for film made this one of the toughest choices. This was the decade of the great Universal monster movies - Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man. It's the decade of The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Chaplin's City Lights, the Tarzan films, Captain Blood and so many other wonderful films. But in the end, I chose King Kong, one of the great monster movies and one of the great tragic love stories.
Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder, 1944)
This was the decade of film noir, and Double Indemnity is one of the finest examples of the genre. The script is full of snappy dialogue, the mood is darkly atmospheric, the story is compelling, the acting superb. Eminently rewatchable.
The Searchers (Directed by John Ford, 1956)
The 1950s were chock full of fun B-movie science fiction thrillers and the best of Alfred Hitchcock's magnificent ouvre, as well as classic dramas such as The African Queen, Sunset Boulevard, Ben-Hur...in the end I had to choose The Searchers, a film whose power and beauty remains undiminished.
West Side Story (Directed by Robert Wise, 1961)
This is the decade of Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, the early James Bond films, the early Pink Panther films, the great exploitation cheapies of Roger Corman...but if I'm going to be on a desert island with only a handful of movies, I'm going to need a musical to sing along with. And West Side Story is my favourite musical of all.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Directed by Robert Wise, 1979)
The 1970s started off as a time of experimental cinema in Hollywood, and then Jaws and Star Wars started the age of the blockbuster summer hits. My short list includes Dirty Harry, Network, The Conversation, All the President's Men, Mad Max, Logan's Run, Enter the Dragon, Chinatown, and most especially, Superman. But I need one Star Trek film on my list, because the characters and stories of the original series shaped who I am. Plus this first feature outing is the last time Star Trek really attempted to tell a true science fiction story, before lapsing into space opera. Choosing between this film and Richard Donner's Superman was the toughest choice of this entire exercise.
Big Trouble in Little China (Directed by John Carpenter, 1986)
These were my teenage years, and I remember many films of this era fondly - the Star Trek, Star Wars and Superman sequels (well, just Superman III, really), the Indiana Jones movies, a slew of great horror and science fiction films from John Carpenter and some of the best work of David Lynch. I chose Big Trouble in Little China because of its tongue-in-cheek humour and over-the-top dialogue and action. It's a ridiculous but fun film that will ease the burden of my isolation.
Pulp Fiction (Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
The 1990s is perhaps my least favourite film decade. Though there were certainly a number of good films - The Shawshank Redemption, Shakespeare in Love, The Big Lebowski, The Usual Suspects, Twelve Monkeys, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, among others - most of the decade's offerings haven't stuck in my mind. But Pulp Fiction does, with its non-linear storytelling and trademark Tarantino dialogue.
Serenity (Directed by Joss Whedon, 2005)
The first decade of the 21st century, on the other hand, has been great for film.The Lord of the Rings trilogy brought back the epic scale and feel of the big pictures of the 1930s. David Lynch returned to form with Mulholland Drive. This was the decade of There Will Be Blood, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Memento, the enormously fun new take on Star Trek, No Country for Old Men, and the delightful but flawed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Serenity, though, is another film featuring familiar old characters I adore, characters who will help see me through the island's isolation.
Source Code (Directed by Duncan Jones, 2011)
As unfair as it is for the aliens to force me to choose a movie for a decade that's only a couple of years old, these are the circumstances of the hypothetical. So I choose Source Code, a film I haven't seen, based on the strength of reviews and my admiration of Jones' first film, the enjoyable Moon.