While you’ll see that I’m giving myself a lot of leeway in the following list (one of the ten isn’t even technically a film), the general idea is that the list that follows singles out films that go beyond simple narration, but rather identify themselves as stories being told either in the universe or even at times outside of the universe. Narration to a film is like a frame to a painting, and while all frames hold their painting in place, there are some that do it with a little more style than others. These are some of my favorites.
10. The Royal Tenenbaums
This is as literal as a movie gets without ever actually showing someone telling the story to anyone else. The film is like a presentation of a book form of itself, making it technically the retelling of a story. It has a prologue, chapters, and an epilogue all visually laid out for the audience. Each character is not only presented with flat-out exposition upon their introduction in the story, but also introduced ahead of time in a single montage that simply sums up their name, who plays them, and gives a visual representation of their character.
Clearly the line is a bit blurred with this one, but I wanted to talk about it mainly for the reason.
This seems to be a regular thing for Wes Anderson films – his films exist in this weird semi-reality where through editing and sometimes characters the story is presented to us in this odd, made up formality – almost like a fancy three course meal that consists only of candy.
Alec Baldwin is the chocolate.
9. Forrest Gump
It feels like nowadays poor Forrest wouldn’t even stand a chance to get a fellow bench partner’s attention, let alone be able to keep their interest with a story. No – now we have something called smart phones and they are designed to keep the Forrest Gumps of the world safely muffled in the background. Don’t get me wrong, 9 times out of 10 that’s probably a good thing, but then there is that one time where the slow guy at the bus stop happens to be worth more than the lives of you and everyone you love – such as the story of Gump.
Of course what makes the entire story he tells so endearing is that along with his personal story, it’s the story of the United States – but through his eyes. That’s really the key to the whole film, following this one very simple, very kind man through every important historical event of the last several decades. He participates in it but almost as an outsider due to his lack of full understanding of the specifics. Because of Gump’s disinterest in the bad, we get a telling of history without any cynicism in the mix – a child’s perspective.
Over the course of the story you never really suspect that this Jenny, his number one priority throughout the entire film, is the reason he is sitting at that bus stop. Where he sits is actually the threshold to this love story’s third act, and it’s only in the last few moments of the story does that become apparent. Once it does – the story seamlessly transitions out of Gump’s narration and continues into the present, and for the first time we get to watch it all play out at the same time our hero does.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
8. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
This…probably doesn’t actually count. I’m not sure…
I’m not even sure how to classify the narration of this film, because it’s done by Robert Downey Jr. from the perspective of his character, but is also self-aware that the movie is well, a movie. It’s as if while all the events and characters and action and such exist in the universe of the film, the narration exists beyond the fourth wall. He’s not telling us a “story” – no, he’s telling us a “movie.” And while doing so he even comments on how well he is doing it – sometimes even commenting on the quality and believability of the plot itself. At one he even loses it when a character that you think is dead makes a cheesy recovery, talking about how studios executives are too scared to kill likable characters off and that they might as well bring everyone back – which for a moment the film actually does per his request.
It’s actually kind of the way you’d expect Robert Downey Jr. to narrate any film – he skips around, goes off on tangents, he even messes up a part and curses himself before getting back to it. In the end they do finally break that wall and show him telling the story – and yes, it’s just him sitting and looking right at us, recognizing us as people watching a movie.
7. Big Fish
Okay, it’s fifty/fifty with this one, as half the movie is a told story and the other half of the film exists in the world that the story is told in, with an eye to how the stories effect the characters.
This is not so much about the narration itself, but more about the personality of who’s telling the story. In this case it’s a man with a talent for exaggeration. This is, of course, kind of the point of the whole film, as it follows the struggle the man’s son has dealing with a father who never quite tells the truth about anything. It actually reminds me of an article on The Onion about the woman who regrets dating someone spontaneous. It’s all fun in games at first, but then if you have to deal with him regularly suddenly it’s a real pain in the ass. That’s the deal with this character – the stories are wonderful until you actually want to get a true account of something, then it’s incredibly frustrating.
Of course as the audience we could care less how much he exaggerates – which is why it’s so fun to watch the entire retelling of a man’s life done in grand form. It’s fitting as the storyteller is doing so at the very last days of his life – leading up to his son finally understanding the value of embellishment. The payoff is when the son starts actually investigating the man’s life on his own and finds that his exaggerated life story is actually surprisingly closer to reality than one would expect.
6. The Singing Detective
So, if I really wanted to, I could make this fit the film genre by choosing the Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson movie remake of the original BBC miniseries, but frankly I just can’t do that. Whatever – I’m not excluding this, so you’ll just have to sit there and take it.
The story being told in this case is rather unique – it’s your classic serial detective story, but the narrative is that of a man telling the story back to himself – or rather, thinking it all up. This is because this man, a novelist, happens to be in the hospital bedridden and covered in sores due to a skin condition. Refusing any painkillers, we not only follow his story in the hospital but also the detective narrative that runs in his own agony-diluted brain. Along with this story we also get to follow his memories as a child dealing with a mother who has an affair with his father and leaves him.
Things get especially fun when, due to our narrator losing his mind, the stories of his childhood and the singing detective begins to slowly melt into each other as well as coming into the waking world of the hospital. Suddenly you can’t tell what’s real and what’s just paranoid delusions as characters begin to scheme behind his back in the real world as they would in on of his novels. This is one of those things you kind of have to watch a few times – not only because the actual detective story, like any good detective story, is hard to follow – but also because the entire series is just one big beautiful mess.