Wednesday saw the release of The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis’ reworking of French crime thriller, Anything For Her (2008). Despite the bad rap they frequently receive, remakes can be quite a thrilling prospect. Whether the original be a little-known gem or a disastrous failure, an outdated spectacle or flat-out classic, all areas are covered by this list – there’s bound to be debate from my very first choice, but these are all exemplary cases of filmmakers revising a work and boosting its profile – artistically, critically or financially. This list is a celebration of the times they got it right…
10. Solaris 
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
There will be Tarkovsky fans up in arms even now, but Soderbergh’s film is half the length, just as smart and twice as accessible as the Soviet original. The casting of George Clooney in a film about identity is really the key to its success, but American critic Roger Ebert summed it up best when he said that this version is “like the same story freed from the weight of Tarkovsky’s solemnity.” Soderbergh is a concise, literate and technical filmmaker – his tale of long-lost love and intelligent design is freed from a ponderous, academic weight, and places emphasis on surrounding and feeling. The visuals are gorgeous and the score by Cliff Martinez is a work of art unto itself, but most important is the investment in character, as opposed to theme. Tarkovsky was obsessed with cold minimalism and intellectual ambiguity. But Soderbergh’s version is like the ultimate romantic jigsaw – it’s about a man in love with a dead woman, who appears only in dreams. The only question that remains is where is he loving her? Heaven or Solaris?
9. Speed 
Dir: Jan de Bont
Most people don’t realize that one of the best action movies of all time is a remake, based on the 1975 Sonny Chiba vehicle Bullet Train. Speed relocates from train to bus, and reaps the rewards of a leaner, faster-paced thriller that can take in the scope of a whole city. With more action in its opening five minutes than most films deliver in their running time, Speed is really notable for being the film that introduced Sandra Bullock to audiences – in her last likable role. It’s a shame she cashed in on dull rom-coms and TV Movie Of The Week tearjerkers, because she has charisma to spare here, proving the perfect match to Keanu Reeves’ wooden tough guy. The direction is tight, the editing fast, the music pulse-pounding… if Speed doesn’t have you on the edge of your seat then you should probably give up on chairs and cinema altogether. It pays homage to it’s original source in the train-set finale, which also holds one of my favourite one-liners of all time; “Yeah, but I’m taller.”
8. Ben-Hur 
Dir: William Wyler
The 1925 original is pretty good too, but Wyler’s Technicolour remake is one of the finest epics of all time. The surprisingly violent chariot race became one of the most famous set-pieces ever filmed. Second Unit Director Yakima Canutt deserves the praise for that sequence however, as he devised and shot it. It’s a thrillingly paced piece of work, cut within an inch of it’s life to deliver maximum tension and excitement. The set and costume design is also grand and magisterial, richer and more realistic than the CGI touched-up worlds of contemporary swords ‘n’ sandals actioners Gladiator and Troy. The 212-minute running times breezes by with romance and action in equal measure, and despite his famous inability to cry on set, Charlton Heston won a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts.
7. John Carpenter’s The Thing 
Dir: John Carpenter
John Carpenter is arguably the master of horror, and his finest work is this 1982 remake of a production-line sci-fi, allegedly directed by credited producer Howard Hawks. What really brings this version up to date is the stunning collaboration between the mechanical effects team led by Roy Arbogast, and the make up effects of Rob Bottin’s team. The shape-shifting alien in this version is a horrifyingly ugly son of a bitch, which ensured the film got stamped an 18 certificate upon release. Who could forget the scene where the creature detaches itself from a host in vine-like form, extending to the ceiling with its spindly legs and extending it’s bulking neck, just before Kurt Russell takes it down with a flamethrower. Soon the head of the subject grows legs to become a spider-head. The effects work still stuns and scares today – a revolutionary work and one of the most purely enjoyable films ever made.
6. Funny Games U.S. 
Dir: Michael Haneke
Some may call it pointless, but Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 film hits its intended target much harder in the English language. Marketed as a slick thriller with Naomi Watts – smartly cast right off the back of King Kong (2005) – it’s basically the exact same film as the excellent original, except with much more technical polish. This was probably an intentional move on the part of Haneke, who knew what his audience would be attracted to. Although it’s a furiously smart dissection on the vacuousness of American action/exploitation cinema, one of the most enjoyable ways to watch Funny Games U.S. is as a straight-forward thriller. The setup, after all, is pure Hitchcock, as is the obsidian-black streak of humour running through the film. Far more than a dubbing job, this thriller also has one other notable comparison, in terms of it’s lead antagonists. All I shall say is… Droogs.
5. Heat 
Dir: Michael Mann
A remake of a TV movie named L.A. Takedown (1989), this is by far Mann’s most accomplished tale of cops vs. robbers – an epic saga famous for it’s café-set showdown between two of the worlds greatest actors. It’s much contested which of the two are on better form, but Pacino’s hysterically OTT work is what wins it for me; “Cause she’s got a GREAT ASS.” It’s almost as if he’s acting in his own movie and everyone else is working by the script, but that gives the film an unexpectedly offbeat charm that counters Mann’s intensely serious and moody visuals. But it’s the psychological relationship that develops between good and bad, and the recognition of respect that really makes the film stand out from the crowd. Most crime movies end with the good guy shooting the bad guy and walking away with the girl. Heat ends with the good guy shooting the bad guy, holding his hand and waiting with him… one of the most poignant goodbyes in all of cinema.
4. A Fistful Of Dollars 
Dir: Sergio Leone
Although many would disagree, this is for me the best of Sergio Leone’s ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy. The story is adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but essentially plays on a classic genre trope – an unnamed rogue rides into town and plays rival factions against each other for personal gain. Leone performs a classy move in shredding the honour that Kurosawa’s ronin Kuwabatake (Toshirô Mifune) retained and making The Man With No Name a lonely spirit possessing human qualities such as anger and greed. A mostly silent presence, his steely glare is only occasionally interrupted by the sound of gunshots ringing through valleys. The fluid camerawork and scorching photography, combined with Ennio Morricone’s classic score, create one of the most exciting films of all time. At only 99 minutes it’s also the most tightly constructed of the three films, exploring character through camerawork and gleefully indulging in the Spaghetti-red violence that gave the sub-genre its name.
3. His Girl Friday 
Dir: Howard Hawks
Okay, so it’s the second version of an original stage play – originally adapted to the screen as The Front Page in 1931 by Lewis Milestone – but it still counts. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are both outstanding, spitting insults and observations at each other with a lighting pace – in fact, it may be the fastest spoken movie of all time. Brilliantly shot by DoP Joseph Walker, the film is also a fascinating social commentary on the age of the editor and the US justice system. More than that though it’s just one of the funniest films of all time, averaging as many one-liners per minute as Airplane! (Abrahams, Zucker, 1980). The finale, where Burns (Grant) and Hildy (Russell) hide Earl Williams, a convicted murderer who never meant to do anybody harm, is stinging social satire, but the real Joy comes in Grant delivering lines like “Listen, you insignificant, square-toed, pimple-headed spy.” Just wonderful.
2. 12 Monkeys 
Dir: Terry Gilliam
The original film, La Jetée, consists of a series of black and white photographs that tell the story of a time travelling slave looking for supplies in the wake of WWIII. In Gilliam’s contemporary update war is replaced by famine and disease – specifically a man-made virus that wiped out humanity. Featuring a career best performance by Bruce Willis, and an Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt, it’s an incredibly intelligent sci-fi thriller with some of the most inventive imagery ever committed to celluloid, courtesy of the visionary Gilliam – a contemporary to Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer even when he was working on Monty Python. It has a genuine air of dystopian madness – the snow-set scenes of Cole (Willis) emerging to the surface only to find a lion mounting the rooftop of a building has a peculiar sadness. The paranoid tone, constantly moving camera and batshit crazy performance by Pitt all build to create one of the most underrated films of the 90s.
1. Nosferatu. Phantom Der Nacht 
Dir: Werner Herzog
F.W. Murnau’s 1922 original may be the more important work, and a more established masterpiece, but Herzog’s ethereal remake is one of the best horror movies of all time. Amping up the atmosphere, it also injects a good deal of sex into proceedings with the presence of Isabelle Adjani, who pouts and sulks her way through the movie in a silk gown. Klaus Kinski makes a formidable vampire – his wired, rat-like features and pale makeup create a ghostly presence – a lurking danger, he’s both terrifying and sympathetic. Best of all though are the beautifully shot scenes of a plague ridden town – completely empty except for funeral parades and rats, they’re given a haunted air by the original score, a creepingly delicate series of orchestral pieces by Popol Vuh. It’s alternately scary, erotic and emotionally poignant – by the time Nosferatu perishes in the sun, this superbly directed masterpiece has bettered the original in almost every sense.