Brother David and Francis Lu have co-led 20 film seminars at Esalen Institute since 1990. Here is their list of twenty favorite films in numerical order spanning all of the great films from all twenty seminars. All have been shown at several seminars except for those four marked with an *.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film is about an elderly man’s transformation of consciousness from a persona figure to the transpersonal as he realizes that he will die in six months from stomach cancer. “Ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese and herein lies the paradox of this profoundly moving film. You will never forget the swing scene. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
Here is Francis Lu’s article on Ikiru.
2. Tokyo Story
This 1953 film by Yasujiro Ozu is about the serene acceptance of the transience of life through a contemplative, compassionate love of the now. His great masterpiece tells the story of an aging couple who travel to Tokyo to visit their grown children. The film contrasts the behavior of their biological children and their daughter-in-law, who treats them with kindness. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
3. Bagdad Cafe
“Nothing’s so tragic; it’s all about magic, at the Bagdad Cafe.” Set in southern California desert country, it is both light-hearted and profound.
4. Harp of Burma
Transformation of a Japanese soldier at the end of World War II into a Buddhist monk intent on burying the dead. Very moving tunes played on the harp with songs that signify farewell. One of the great ones from Japan’s golden era of Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi. On the 1995 Vatican’s “Some Important Films” list.
5. Babette’s Feast
The transformation of a small religious community set in rural Jutland, Denmark, in the late 1800s through a magnificent feast created by a housekeeper, who was a former chef from Paris. Based on an Isak Dinesan short story, it won the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. On the 1995 Vatican’s “Some Important Films” list.
6. City Lights
Charlie Chaplin’s great masterwork of 1931; get this version with Chaplin’s original score re-recorded in 1987. The tramp helps a blind flower girl first by purchasing flowers she sold and then finding the funds eventually to have an operation to see once again. They meet again in the final scene. It is one of the greatest endings in all of cinema. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
7. Queen Christina
Greta Garbo’s greatest film in which she plays a 17th century Swedish queen who learns about life outside court duties. The ending is magnificent as the camera slowly zooms in on her face filling the entire screen showing courage, serenity, and mystery. Link it with a similar scene in Titanic and the Greek sculpture “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” in the Louvre.
8. The Joy Luck Club
Four mother-daughter pairs telling stories that transmit resilience from mothers born in China to their American born daughters in four “I-Thou” dialogues reminiscent of the ending of City Lights (see above). Based on Amy Tan’s novel, it is both specific to the Chinese and universal.
9. Rhapsody in August
Healing across three Japanese generations and between Japan and the US through the memories of the Nagasaki bombing from an elderly woman survivor. Heidenroslein (Goethe’s poem/Schubert’s music) is the key healing motif seen especially both at the Buddhist service for the dead and in the penultimate ending that only Kurosawa could have created.
10. The King of Masks
Set in 1930’s Szechwan in rural China, it depicts the attempt of an aging childless street performer Wang to transmit his legacy through the purchase of a child. “The world is a cold place, but we can bring warmth to it.” and “A drop of compassion deserves a wellspring of gratitude.”
Rick is transformed from a bitter hardened man (“I stick my neck out for no one.”) by chance encounters both with a young couple desperate to leave Casablanca and his former love Ilsa. Wisdom and compassion prevail! Oscar winner for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay with 5 other nominations. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
This 2008 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film allows the audience to experience the mourning of the death of loved ones with compassion, tenderness, and touches of humor. Beautiful cello tune and wonderful acting. Very moving! A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
13. To Kill a Mockingbird
In 2003, American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as portrayed by Gregory Peck the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. Peck won the Best Actor Oscar for a role forever connected with him. Oscars for Best Art Direction and Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote) with 5 other nominations.
14. Grapes of Wrath*
In 1989, this film was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” One of Henry Fonda’s greatest roles in this classic 1940 John Ford film. Oscars for Best Director and Supporting Actress with 5 other nominations. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
15. The Apu Trilogy*
Ray’s trilogy traces the life of Apu from a small boy to being a father despite life’s inevitable losses. Music by Ravi Shankar. Ray’s 1991 Honorary Oscar: “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures…his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.” A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
16. The Passion of Joan of Arc
One of the greatest of silent films with an optional 5.1 soundtrack of the 1994 Richard Einhorn oratorio “Voices of Light” written to accompany the film. Resilience and faith of Joan seen in one day condensed from months in 1430 of her trial and events leading to her death. On the 1995 Vatican’s “Some Important Films” list. A Roger Ebert Great Movie.
17. Twenty-Four Eyes*
This 1954 film is imbued with Buddhist aesthetic sensibilities of the beauty of the transience of life. First, we see the increasing fondness of 12 first-grade students (hence, 24 eyes) for their young woman teacher on an island in the Inland Sea in 1928. The second part shows the inevitable losses as World War II approaches and recedes. Then after the war, a moving reunion.
18. Roman Holiday
Audrey Hepburn as a princess who briefly experiences life as a young woman through her encounters with a newspaper reporter played by Gregory Peck. His shining integrity comes through at the very end as underscored by director William Wyler’s ending. Hepburn won an Oscar as Best Actress. Oscars for Best Costume Design and Writing with 7 other nominations.
19. The Straight Story
Based on a true story, Alvin Straight is a 73 year-old man who drives 500 miles on a tractor lawnmower to reconcile with his ailing brother. Along the way, he meets ordinary people who helped him on his journey from which a winsome sense of gratefulness emerged. The film’s dramatic climax is at the end of the film when both elder brothers meet. Farnsworth was a nominee for Best Actor Oscar.
20. Tuesdays with Morrie
Based on Mitch Ablom’s best-selling memoir about his real-life visits to his former college teacher Morrie Schwartz as he dies of ALS. Starring Jack Lemmon two years before his death, it showed the growing gratefulness this pupil had for his teacher as he conveys the importance of living meaningfully everyday in the face of death.
See also: Twenty More Favorite Films
Francis G. Lu, M.D., is the Luke & Grace Kim Endowed Professor in Cultural Psychiatry at the University of California, Davis. As of 2011, he has co-led 26 film seminars at Esalen, 20 of them with Brother David.