Benedict picked 6 movies he likes to revisit often for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ digital magazine A.frame. Check out his reasons for picking each one below:
Benedict Cumberbatch: 6 Movies I Can’t Stop Thinking About
Benedict Cumberbatch has played Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Vincent Van Gogh, a superhero sorcerer, England’s most famous detective, the Prince of Denmark, the last great dragon of Middle-earth and The Grinch.
In The Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch yet again dons a new persona as Phil Burbank, a 1920s Montana rancher whose most repressed truths are surfaced upon the arrival of his new sister-in-law and her son. The performance earned him his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
The films that have inspired the actor are just as wide-ranging. These are not his favorite movies—he doesn’t choose favorites, he points out—but they are the ones that he finds himself coming back to time and time again, containing performances by actors that Cumberbatch considers seminal to his own career. Below, he shares with A.frame those films.
The Piano (1993)
It really had a seismic effect on me. The last time I saw it was before my first meeting with Jane [Campion], and it’s a transformative experience for a viewer. I remember when I first saw it being blown away by how overloaded sensorially I felt. It felt like five-dimensional movie experience. I felt like I was smelling and tasting and touching the clothes, the weather, the people, the piano keys, the water, the fire, the blood, all of it. And it really, really burned into my imagination. It felt all-consuming.
There’s just a wonderful synergy in that film, between the acting, the story and the delivery. It is a remarkable feat. That [Michael] Nyman score is phenomenal. It’s such a sensual trigger into that world and the passion of Ada and the self-imposed constraints on her but also the societal constraints on her—and then the freedom, the majesty and how the strings meet that central theme in the score are just magical. It literally sends shivers down my back and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I think of it.
And the raw honesty of all of those performances. The technical mastery of Holly Hunter, but also how she bared her soul. She rips your heart out. She absolutely rips your heart out. Her relationship with a daughter, with her husband [Sam Neill] and with the man [Harvey Keitel] who steals her piano one key at a time and her with it. It’s a phenomenal portrayal of resilience, of tolerance and intolerance, of abandonment to the senses of femininity, of motherhood, and of being a woman in an era where a woman’s something to be used or owned or conquered.
It’s just such a f****d-up love story, and that’s Jane all over. She knows how to tell these searingly, painfully honest and real and really brutally sensual stories, with violence and sex and love and beauty all tied into one single shot often. It burns so deep and so bright.
The Shining (1980)
I’m a huge Kubrick fan. The Shining, to me, is such a titanic film in my life. It’s where I really began to understand the cinematic craft [and] the ability of the camera to be not just a witness but an onerous presence. It’s as if it is the soul of the Overlook Hotel, whether it’s chasing Danny down corridors on his tricycle to meet the twins or through the maze of snow at the end—and with that incredible score. It’s a score that’s so strikingly modern and relevant still and yet so daring.
It just took the genre of horror to another level. Yes, it’s got jump scares and elevators of blood and mummified corpses staggering towards you. But it spoke to society about things that were well beyond just being a scare story, that was much to do with the breakdown of the nuclear family and the position of the patriarchy in this new order and capitalism gone wrong nd the failures of the American Dream. It is as much about the emotion and psyche of a man and the terror that he then brings to his family, as it was an all-out horror.
And Jack Nicholson’s performance in that film is just something else. There’s such an ease with it. There’s such an underlying tension. The way he finds the possession of anger and lets it come through him, talking to himself and whipping himself up into a furor and letting that evil—letting The Overlook Hotel—come in and contain him. It’s just breathtaking.
I wrote my thesis at the end of my dramaturgy on Kubrick, The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Kubrickian philosophy is quite a bleak one, but it really opened my eyes to the sort of meta narrative of humanity. It just shook something up on me as a young man. I just felt so influenced by his, yeah, quite despairing view, but then in among that there are seeds of hope and otherness and love that do come through in his films.
I’m a huge Terrence Malick fan. I think, like Jane and like great filmmakers who integrate nature and landscape, there’s a wonderful philosophy to that, to seeing the detail of us as a species and not just focusing on the human condition. And he manages to do all of it with such elegiac beauty and poetic poise cinematically. He’s a poet of cinema.
And the honesty and naturalism of those performances are so grounded. Sissy Spacek is extraordinary in that film. You believe her innocence and her youth and the hopelessness of their situation. Martin Sheen is extraordinary. There’s this wonderful, youthful James Dean quality that looks as easy as breath. It’s the ability to really ground a piece of drama by doing so much with so little. And you’re gunning for them, despite every wrong turn that this murderous teenager takes, just trying to destroy any obstacle to misunderstanding or his love. It’s terrifying, but also utterly seductive.
I see Malick’s influence on so many other filmmakers, like David Lowery. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is another film I’d love to include on this list, but I can at least say I love the correlation between the two. Number three is actually a tie between Badlands and Paper Moon. They’re different, but thematically, two sides of the same coin.
Paper Moon (1973)
Paper Moon just blew me away. The composition of shots, the music, the performances—the naturalism and just how charming and quick and fast and funny and believable that relationship is between Tatum and Ryan [O’Neal]. And giving equal tradeoffs between this small orphan girl and this vagabond, Bible-selling trickster, it’s just magic to watch those two onscreen together.
It’s a film that Sam Raimi wanted me to see, funny enough, and I ended up seeing it with Wes Anderson, to name drop. I don’t know why it’s taking me so long to see this film. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, uplifting, heart-wrenching and very, very funny piece of perfection.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the all-time greats for me. What he’s managed to tackle thematically in terms these grandiose themes of capitalism, of love, of the California experience is, both now and before, is extraordinary. With this film in particular, it’s the isolation of a man, what it is to be a pioneer in that landscape, the risks involved and the great riches that it brought people who dared. And how that wealth corrupts—the great tragedies is whilst he has everything at the end, he’s incapable of love and being loved.
That relationship between Daniel Plainview and his son is devastating. It’s a phenomenal piece of acting by Daniel Day-Lewis—just breathtaking—and Paul Dano and the kid who plays the young son [Dillon Freasier], as well as the adult son [Russell Harvard].
And then the sparseness of Robert Ellsworth’s cinematography and the score! A score of such unexpected brilliance from Jonny Greenwood. That percussion when the oil rig is exploding, it just comes out of nowhere. It seems like it belongs in a completely different world, and yet it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. There’s just such poetry.
Taxi Driver (1976)
It’s Scorsese and De Niro and Paul Schrader and Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd. And the slo-mo shots of the yellow taxi with that voiceover and steam coming up through the vents in the ground, it is quintessential New York. It transported me to that era. I mean, it is such an incredible feat of cinematography. And that score—what Bernard Herrmann did with those clashing cymbals, it’s like a deconstructed Aaron Copland “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
But at the center of it is this masterclass. We can talk about Brando and Day-Lewis, but for me, De Niro in this film does something extraordinary. He grabs you by the throat and the heart. It just says so much about how masculinity can become toxic and how we take care of our ex-military and what a problem it is to brutalize someone into being somebody who serves their country by killing and then expects them to reassimilate into civilian life. In a way, it’s as much an anti-war film as it is anything else.
Especially talking about The Power of the Dog, I realized how influenced I’ve been by Nicholson and Brando and De Niro and Day-Lewis in all their portrayals of various forms of toxic masculinity, these troubled men who can’t find a place for their masculinity in whatever dilemma it is—whether it’s the failure of the American dream, whether it’s the failure of society to look after its returning soldiers, whether it’s a man to cannot understand women because of the poisonous culture of masculinity he’s in, in the sense of Stanley in Streetcar [Named Desire]. They’ve steeped in. They’ve gone into my bones. And I think Taxi Driver was the first of those films I saw, and it horrified me. It transfixed me. And it educated me. It made me feel in a way I don’t think any film had until that point.