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Film’s 20 greatest voiceovers – ranked! | Film

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20. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Sam Elliott found his signature role as the Stranger in the Coen brothers’ vision of a venal and anarchic early-1990s Los Angeles. Verbose and liable to wander off-topic (“I lost my train of thought here”), he establishes the laid-back mood and rubs shoulders with the Dude (Jeff Bridges), whose story he is narrating.

19. Trainspotting (1996)

The rocket-fuelled energy of the opening sequence in Danny Boyle’s Britpop-era pop-culture landmark comes from Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, Ewan McGregor running at full pelt and the actor’s own nervy, electrified narration. That is also where you will find the defiant “Choose life” monologue that adorned posters in a million student bedrooms.

18. Election (1999)

Alexander Payne’s savage black comedy benefits from an elegant and surprising use of voiceover, with the microphone passed like a baton between a flawed teacher (Matthew Broderick), a goody-two-shoes student (Reese Witherspoon), her gormless rival for the post of school president (Chris Klein) and his gay sister (Jessica Campbell).

Anne Baxter as the duplicitous Eve and George Sanders as the theatre critic and narrator in All About Eve.
Anne Baxter as the duplicitous Eve and George Sanders as the theatre critic and narrator in All About Eve. Photograph: Fox/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

17. All About Eve (1950)

It is fitting that many viewers seeing All About Eve for the first time will shudder at the sound of its narrator, the silk-tongued George Sanders, who later provided the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s 1967 version of The Jungle Book. He is no less carnivorous here as the theatre critic Addison DeWitt.

16. Apocalypse Now (1979)

John Milius wrote the screenplay, but it was the war correspondent Michael Herr who provided the narration for Martin Sheen to deliver. Either unavailable to record it or in conflict with the director Francis Ford Coppola (depending on whom you ask), Sheen was replaced by his own brother, Joe Estevez, who also served as his onscreen surrogate in some scenes.

15. Laura (1944)

“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” purrs the newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) at the start of Otto Preminger’s film, killing off the title character when we have barely taken our seats. Of course, it is not that simple. Nor is Waldo, who puts a queer slant on this seamy noir.

14. The Second Game (2014)

The director Corneliu Porumboiu (The Whistlers) and his father, Adrian Porumboiu, watch a soccer match that Porumboiu Snr refereed in 1988. All we see is the original, grainy TV broadcast while father and son banter in real time. “This match is like one of my films,” Porumboiu sighs. “It’s long and nothing happens.”

13. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Alfonso Cuarón’s road movie, co-written with his brother Carlos, is lent a harsh edge by the dispassionate narrator (Daniel Giménez Cacho, recently seen in the title role in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama), who interrupts the oversexed young heroes to place their lives in a socio-political context. A sobering example of how voiceover can complicate what we see.

12. London (1994)

Paul Scofield’s film appearances were few and far between, but his mellifluous tones enrich Patrick Keiller’s witty quasi-documentary, in which a stationary camera surveys the capital in the aftermath of the 1992 general election. In his playful narration, Scofield muses on the exploits of an unseen explorer-flâneur named Robinson and does so again in the 1997 sequel, Robinson in Space. Vanessa Redgrave replaced Scofield, who died in 2008, for the 2010 Robinson in Ruins.

11. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Robert Downey Jr announces his function at the start of this riotous comic thriller (“I’ll be your narrator”), instantly pulls rank (“I don’t see another goddam narrator, so pipe down”), chastises himself (“Damn, I forgot something, this is bad narrating”), orders extras out of the way of the camera (“Scat!”) and even criticises the film itself (“That was a terrible scene”).

10. Clueless (1995)

Amy Heckerling’s update of Jane Austen’s Emma comes with Rodeo Drive shopping bags full of charm, most of it radiating from its star, Alicia Silverstone. Central to the film’s success is her ebullient narration, which unpicks the script’s teen-speak terminology, but is always prone to distraction. Breaking off from a voiceover steeped in emotional contemplation, she passes a window display and wonders: “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

9. Adaptation (2002)

Charlie Kaufman proved himself a master of voiceover long before I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Nicolas Cage is the sickly, anxious, self-abusing screenwriter — Charlie Kaufman, no less — whose interior monologue is a stream of frantic self-loathing. At one point, he is interrupted by the screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox): “God help you if you use voiceover in your work,” fumes McKee. “Any idiot can write a voiceover narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro in Casino.
Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro in Casino. Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

8. Casino (1995)

Martin Scorsese is a master of voiceover, using it to plunge us into the mind of a sociopath (Taxi Driver, The Irishman) or to evoke a richness of perspective, such as in Goodfellas, one of the few movies in this male genre to pass voiceover duties from a gangster (Ray Liotta) to his wife (Lorraine Bracco). It is Casino, though, which exhibits the director’s most audacious narration: it is divided among the main actors and heard almost continuously throughout this three-hour phantasmagoria. It even features one character being murdered before us in the midst of delivering his own voiceover.

7. Jules et Jim (1962)

Scorsese learned his extraordinary freedom with voiceover directly from François Truffaut’s love-triangle drama, with its copious, rule-breaking narration delivered at breakneck speed by Michel Subor, star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat. The freewheeling nature of that voiceover licenses the camera to dart every which way at once; while the narrator introduces us to the characters and explains their motives and interactions, the image is cutting, panning, changing location. “It’s pushing the images forward, pushing all of this storytelling forward,” Scorsese noted. “Anything can happen at any moment.”

6. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder’s acidic Hollywood hit-job begins with the body of the screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a swimming pool. Meet your narrator for the next two hours. “Why not?” Wilder exclaimed. “We just did it. Nobody got up and said: ‘Now wait a minute, a dead man speaking, rum-rum-rah-rah, I don’t want to see that …’ They listened.” Some did more than that: the voiceover-from-beyond-the-grave device was later adopted by films as varied as American Beauty, Auto Focus and Grave of the Fireflies.

5. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

No fully intact version of Orson Welles’s doomed drama has survived the butchery of RKO Pictures. One of the many consolations, though, is the wry, knowing narration by Welles himself, which bookends the action. Delivered in what the critic Tom Shales has called “that mighty Wurlitzer of a voice”, and reportedly recorded in a single night, it establishes not only character and setting but tone, introducing a vital hint of the sardonic. It is a fine example of a director narrating his own work (lend an ear also to Carol Reed at the start of The Third Man) and one of numerous ways in which Welles’s film influenced Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, where Alec Baldwin talks us through the comings and goings of another wayward privileged clan.

Martin Sheen with Sissy Spacek in Badlands
Martin Sheen with Sissy Spacek, whose narration gives a strange spin to the pair’s murderous exploits in Badlands. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

4. Badlands (1973)

Terrence Malick’s first three films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) revolutionised movie narration. But it was this lyrical debut, in which a gun-toting killer, Kit (Martin Sheen), goes on the run with his baton-twirling girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek), that first signalled an innovative approach to voiceover. Spacek’s narration doesn’t support what we are seeing so much as daydream about it in dazed, affectless tones. “When they’re crossing the Badlands,” Malick said, “instead of telling us what’s going on between Kit and herself, she describes what they ate and what it tasted like, as though we might be planning a similar trip.”

3. The Opposite of Sex (1998)

Never was there a naughtier narrator than Deedee Truitt (Christina Ricci). “I don’t have a heart of gold,” she warns us at the start, “and I don’t grow one later, OK?” Narrating a gay kiss, she warns female audience members that if their boyfriends react in disgust to the sight of two men smooching, they may just be protesting too much. She also tips us off about what to notice (“This part where I take the gun is, like, duh, important”), but has evidently never seen Sunset Boulevard: “What did you think – I’d be the dead one? I’m the fucking narrator, guys, keep up!”

2. Blue (1993)

Derek Jarman’s final film, made when Aids-related illness had eroded his sight, is a tangled soundscape of music, ambient noise and the voices of the director and his regular collaborators (Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry and John Quentin), all set against a screen of rich, unchanging blue. The narration drifts between reflection, poetry, ribald chants (“I am a cock-sucking/ straight-acting/ lesbian man!”) and, most movingly, several highly charged lists: one of the bewildering potential side-effects of Jarman’s medication, another of the friends and lovers lost to Aids.

Michael Hordern, the omniscient narrator in Barry Lyndon.
Michael Hordern, the omniscient narrator in Barry Lyndon. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

1. Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s 18th-century picaresque was set to be narrated by the feckless protagonist, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). In the finished version it is an unseen, omniscient narrator (Michael Hordern, who also became the voice of the Paddington Bear TV series in 1976) who provides a doleful commentary. Never has a switch in perspective had such a transformative effect. Much of the film’s humour comes from Hordern’s dry observations: “Though this encounter was not recorded in history books,” he says of one military skirmish, “it was memorable enough for those who took part.” More radically, his voiceover pre-empts everything that happens on screen, extinguishing potential suspense. That’s how Kubrick wanted it. “What is important is not what is going to happen,” the director argued, “but how it will happen.”

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Synchronic review – tiresome time-travellers going nowhere | Film

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Here is a squawking, gobbling, factory-farmed turkey, and it’s a shame because its co-creators Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are a film-making duo known for interesting sci-fi horror fantasy. In 2017, they gave us a very intriguing indie movie called The Endless, in which they also starred as two thirtysomething brothers who 10 years previously had been freed from a sinister cult, but make a strange decision to revisit this creepy brotherhood whose world now seems more interesting than their current banal existence.

That was a very atmospheric, if confused film. Sadly, all the problems with it seem to have magnified for this muddled and exasperatingly slow and pointless drama. Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan play Steve and Dennis, two careworn paramedics in New Orleans having to deal with the casualties of a new synthetic drug called Synchronic with time-travel powers. The problem with “imaginary drug” films is that they’re an easy and unearned route to excitement, and only a very rigorously clear and consistent narrative, and preferably a humorous script, can make them work. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s Project Power (2020) was another imaginary-street-drug-in-New-Orleans film that was successful because of bright performances from a cast headed by Jamie Foxx. Similarly, Neil Burger’s Limitless (2011), with Bradley Cooper’s washed-up loser getting a mega-IQ boost from a brain pill, was viable as raucous satire.

But Synchronic is frankly just silly and tedious, with faintly absurd and jeopardy-free time-travel scenes and a dramatic focus hopelessly split between Dennis and Steve’s separate but equally tiresome lives. There is a laugh when Mackie’s exhausted time-traveller comes back to the present and declares to his video diary: “The past fuckin’ sucks, man.” As does so much else.

• Synchronic is available on digital platforms from 29 January.


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Beginning review – shocking but shallow tale of religion and bigotry | Film

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This is the much-admired feature debut of Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, part of the official selection for last year’s cancelled Cannes film festival, where it might well have been a shock-cinema talking point had the event gone ahead. It is co-produced by the Mexican film-maker Carlos Reygadas, whose influence is very apparent, and the movie as a whole is an intensely, indeed overbearingly, curated and controlled experience. It is a succession of disquieting tableaux, shot mainly from fixed camera positions in which the relevant action can be happening very far away, and one of the speakers can be off-camera for long periods: a cinema in the high style of Haneke, Farhadi and Kiarostami.

Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) and David (Rati Oneli, the co-writer) are a devout Jehovah’s Witness couple with a child who preside over a newly-built prayer house in a remote community. When a religious meeting is firebombed by bigoted locals, David makes an official complaint to the (equally bigoted) police about their marked lack of effort or interest in finding the culprits, and makes a trip to Tbilisi to discuss matters with community elders. Meanwhile, Yana is left behind and is menaced and assaulted by someone claiming to be a cop.

The central rape scene is very disturbingly shot and there is also what I admit is a potent final sequence, imagining some kind of retribution or spiritual degradation happening to the assailant in geological time. But there is something inert and frankly shallow in the film: a refrigerated mannerism in which rape and religious beliefs are both kinds of arthouse artefact, not made any more authentic or compelling by the suggestions of Yana’s own ambiguous attitude to what has just happened.

Kulumbegashvili’s style is confident, if derivative. Her technique now has to evolve away from these self-conscious influences.

Beginning is available on Mubi from 29 January.


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Would You Eat These 11 Cartoon And Anime Soups?

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What if we kissed…at the Pokémon Cafe?


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