My greatest weakness as a filmmaker – aside from my inability to land an agent, a good producer, or substantial funding – is that I'm bad at titling my work. Foreign Correspondents and Claustrophobia are, frankly, real mouthfuls, awkward to say and vague about their content. Of my shorts, 20 Matches is the only title I'm really happy with, though Ron and Nancy and The Closest Thing to Time Travel are all right. What then, makes a great movie title? The following nine examples may answer this burning question.
- La La Land. For his musical about a pair of showbiz dreamers, writer/director Damien Chazelle adopted a slightly derogatory nickname for Los Angeles and let the "La La" allude to his film's chosen genre. He could not have picked a more perfect title.
- Mulholland Drive. For all his accolades, David Lynch doesn't get enough credit for his knack for coining great titles: Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire evoke rich imagery, roll nicely off the tongue, and are relevant to the stories that they tell. Mulholland Drive is the greatest of all: it refers to a key scene's location while drawing a parallel – literally – with Sunset Boulevard, one of Lynch's favorite films. Lynch also understands that the real Mulholland Drive, a hilltop street lined with movie stars' homes, both geographically and metaphorically represents the pinnacle of Hollywood success. (Lynch himself lives just around the corner.) It also separates the sexy, exciting Los Angeles Basin from the anonymous, workaday San Fernando Valley, symbolically dividing the dream life of its protagonist, a struggling actress played by Naomi Watts, from her nightmarish reality.
- Apocalypse Now. It's hard to beat Heart of Darkness as a title, but I am limiting this list to titles devised specifically for movies, not for books that movies are based on (and there are many such great titles). Francis Ford Coppola's loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is one of the strongest. Look at how the two words play off each other: the epic, grandiose "Apocalypse" vs. the blunt, urgent "Now". If the film were about the literal end of the world, it would be too on-the-nose. Instead it makes the Vietnam War feel like the end of the world.
- Daughters of the Dust. Julie Dash's 1991 indie is celebrated as the first film directed by an African American woman to get theatrical distribution. The title refers to the female protagonists, members of the isolated Gullah culture off the coast of South Carolina, who are about to leave for the mainland in 1902. It's mostly sand that's on display in the film, but "dust" suggests the characters' connection to the earth, the color of their skin, and the uncertainty of migration. And there's that alliteration, too: "Daughters of the Sand" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
- Bottle Shock. Even a bad movie can have a great title. The story is a smarmy dramatization of the so-caled "judgment of Paris", when little-known California wines unexpectedly beat out French wines in a 1976 competition, turning the entire industry on its ear. "Bottle shock" is actually an oenologist's term for wine with a temporarily mixed-up, "tired" taste after recent bottling or a long journey. Anyone who's seen this insipid dramedy will agree that it too is mixed-up and tired. But the title takes on a rich double meaning when applied to California wine's stunning triumph.
- South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. I'm serious: this is an amazingly clever title. First, it promises everything that the film delivers: it's an episode of the South Park TV show, only its story has a broader scope, its run time is four times as long, and the content is freed from the shackles of basic cable censorship. And of course the obvious phallic joke in the title is totally in line with the show's bawdy, so-stupid-it's-smart humor. It also represents creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker's unceasing attempts to push the envelope as far as it will go, in terms of what they can get away with in a mainstream marketplace.
- Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal's brilliant turn as a sociopathic wannabe news cameraman is paired with a superb double entendre title. Not only does his character make his living at night, at times literally crouching in LA's darkest corners to get a shot, he also metaphorically crawls through filth to get what he wants. A nightcrawler, of course, is also a kind of worm.
- Throne of Blood. Back in 1957, Akira Kurosawa released his Samurai version of Macbeth, and the English translation of the title drips with gory imagery. Throne of Blood: a warlord whose rise to power is built on murder. It packs more punch than the literal translation of the Japanese title, Spider Web Castle. Though that one's kind of cool, it mostly suggests a throwaway haunted house movie.
- Lost in Translation. Speaking of Japan, I'm not a fan of Sofia Coppola's travelogue romance, but it's got a top-notch title, which alludes not only to the cultural disconnect of being an American in Tokyo but also to its two lonesome characters being "lost" in their own lives. And how they feel about each other is literally lost in translation, as if there isn't a word that can describe their mixture of father/daughter tenderness, soulmate-level friendship, and physical attraction.