Not long ago I watched Remains of the Day on DVD. A quiet, sad but profound Merchant-Ivory picture filmed in England, I’ve seen this movie probably 50 times or more over the course of my life since it first came out in 1993, and it is one of the few films I love so much, and so utterly unconditionally, that the moment the end credits begin flashing on the screen I want to rewind the disc to the beginning and start watching it all over again. This last time as the film ended–and I felt sad, not just at its melancholy conclusion, but because it was over–I came to an interesting realization: Remains of the Day probably now qualifies as my favorite movie of all time. Moreover, it’s attained this distinction after waging an epic, ferocious, 20+ year battle with its rivals, a battle I barely realized was going on but which epitomizes, in many ways, the harmonies and contradictions that lie at the bottom of my soul.
I’ve always been a movie buff, and “my all-time favorite movie” is, at least in the privacy of my own mind, a coveted award that is not given out lightly. For many years–throughout college, law school, my 20s and well into my 30s–I unhesitatingly claimed that my favorite movie, the one I could never get tired of and which could continue to thrill, amaze and entertain me upon the 50th viewing as much as the first, was Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Part of this stems from the almost transcendental experience of seeing it for the first time. I first saw that film on the very day of its release, July 3, 1991, and it was a really amazing experience at the movies. I assumed that a memorable first-time experience was critical to anyone’s estimation of their favorite movie. I had a similar experience four years later the first time I saw Braveheart, another longtime contender for my favorite movie, but you know how that eventually turned out. The other candidates for my favorite film–Dances With Wolves, Titanic and Gangs of New York–also fit into that “amazing first-time viewing experience” category.
It’s surprising, then, that Remains of the Day steadily ascended my list, year by year, until fairly recently it was in striking distance of “all time favorite” territory, because I don’t remember the first time I saw it. It came out in 1993 and I know I certainly didn’t see it when it was in theaters, so my first-time experience was on video, but I recall nothing about it. Sure, it was a good movie, but whenever I saw it first I had no inkling that it even had the potential to be an all-time favorite. This quiet film is the story of Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the chief butler at a stately British mansion called Darlington Hall in the 1930s. Stevens hires the tempestuous Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) as housekeeper, and the two of them, largely unbeknownst to each other, fall in love, but neither is willing to admit it; in the meantime their boss, Lord Darlington (James Fox), a proud British gentleman, is gradually duped into cooperating with Nazis and their appeasers in Britain, who continue to hoodwink him as the dark clouds of World War II gather. The emotional tone of Remains of the Day is so subdued and so incredibly delicate that it’s beautiful for its purity as opposed to its intensity. This, I think, is another reason why I didn’t consider it favorite-worthy.
By the mid-2000s, it’s fair to say that Terminator 2, despite its thrilling action scenes, awesome special effects and profound thought-provoking implications, ultimately fell a couple of pegs off the favorite list. I’d see it maybe once, maybe twice a year, and enjoy it, but it never had the “Wow, this is still so amazing!” quality of equally entertaining but artistically superior films like Gangs of New York or Dances With Wolves. Yet without even noticing it, Remains of the Day was steadily ascending. Beyond merely maintaining its power over the years, as those other films, Remains of the Day actually became more profound and more emotional with each viewing, something Terminator or Dances With Wolves couldn’t quite do. This should’ve been a tip-off.
I’m in my 40s now. It is said that a person’s musical tastes crystallizes at a certain part of their life, where their repertoire of favorites becomes established and static, and it’s unlikely for other, newer bands or albums to make inroads into the pantheon. This happened to me a few years ago; my music collection does evolve slightly over time, but the old favorites have remained remarkably static for the past 5 or 10 years. I now feel this happening with movies. When I realized, after watching Remains of the Day and marveling at how incredibly emotional and fulfilling and perfect it is as a piece of art, that it was now my favorite movie, I had the strong sense that the long battle was over. Remains of the Day edged and clawed its way to the top of the heap and now it sits there in comfortable solitude, with remarkable confidence that neither Arnold Schwarzenegger with his blazing miniguns nor Kevin Costner in Sioux buckskins will ever seriously challenge it. There’s a certain serenity in it now as well as certainty.
So in the years to come I look forward to knowing Remains of the Day even better. I can almost already cite every line of its dialogue from memory. (“Mr. Stevens, the Chinaman from the cabinet room is now outside this door!”) Each lavish shot hovers in my mind like a Luminist painting. But I know there are other subtleties, other moods, other profundities to explore in this amazing film. I have chosen my cinematic life-mate and, like getting married, it’s not the flash and pizazz I look forward to, but the tranquility.