“The point is that listmaking is a first step to an informed enthusiasm. Juggling, sifting, thinking about the best films leads to measured judgments, the plundering of film histories, a nascent critical acuity. That’s how a hobby becomes a craft, sometimes a career. Just add verbs and thoughts.” – Richard Corliss
“We here at Spotify love a good list.” – That damn commercial that plays every twenty minutes on Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spotify, but whenever I hear the word “list” this commercial comes to mind…and I hate it.
So, a few weeks ago Sight and Sound, the British film magazine, released their list of the 50 greatest films of all time culled from the opinions of hundreds of critics and filmmakers. They only release a new list every ten years so it’s a pretty big deal in certain circles. Each contributor submits an individual list of what they believe are the greatest films (Here are some cool ones) and each inclusion counts as a vote. This go round there were some grumblings and debate about Vertigo unseating Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time. The usual critics weighed in. You get the idea.
But all this got me thinking about the films that I think are the “greatest”. So I thought I’d write up a post with my personal top ten. But then I had a revelation. Perhaps to blunt my soapboxing I could recruit some friends to contribute their lists as well. These friends are all avid movie buffs and as you’ll see they have very different taste. I didn’t really give any parameters. I just asked people to list their ten greatest films with a short explanation for each.
The results are all surprising, insightful, basically any positive adjective. They’re also all over the map…as in Triumph of the Will to Dances with Wolves. You’ll see 2001:A Space Odyssey and The Godfather each received three votes. Also notable, no one included Vertigo but The Social Network made it…twice!
Many thanks to our contributors. Their names head their respective lists. Some actually ranked their top ten. Some didn’t. Here we go…
Ten movies on my mind at the moment listed, but in no particular order…
The Apartment (Billy Wilder,1960) …is such an odd love story between two lonely characters, told in that grand, romantic old Hollywood style that adds further punctuation to their isolation.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) “…we’ve never kissed before and I’ll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we’ll kiss now and get it over with, and then we’ll go eat. We’ll digest our food better.”
Being There (Hal Ashby,1979) …handles a somewhat demented satire with sadness. Peter Sellers is legendary.
Best in Show (Christopher Guest, 2000) …expresses companionship in such an endearing, goofy way.
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) …is socially confrontational as it is visually and rhythmically exhilarating. Nobody handles culture clash better than Spike.
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick,1964) George C. Scott. And, again, Peter Sellers.
Network (Sydney Lumet, 1976) …is fascinating for how it gradually descends from behind the scenes news drama to surreal, satirical madness. Genius screenplay.
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957) …conveys optimism in the face of the world’s cruelty better than any other story I’ve experienced. I’m floored just by thinking about the ending.
Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002) …a sweet, perhaps minor romantic comedy that places us in the eyes of a deranged mad man.
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) …is an exciting, propulsive damnation/ celebration of a generation. Masterful in every aspect, it’s among the most re-watchable movies ever.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Wiene
I love weird German movies and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is perhaps the weirdest. A masterpiece of German Expressionism, it’s harder to find a film that wasn’t influenced by Caligari than one that was.
Triumph of the Will (1935) – Riefenstahl
Triumph of the Will is one of the most impressive movies I’ve ever seen and one of the most revolting. If only Leni Riefenstahl had used her filmmaking superpowers for good instead of evil.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Fleming
I watched this movie so many times that my family’s VHS broke. The Wizard of Oz is gorgeous, heart warming, and far better than any film with six directors has any right to be.
Touch of Evil (1958) – Welles
That opening shot!
Psycho (1960) – Hitchcock
Psycho is so amazing that I can’t describe its value coherently, so here is a short list: shadows, framing, protagonist shift, Anthony Perkins, toilet flush, Bernard Hermann, stuffed birds, “wouldn’t even hurt a fly,” Janet Leigh’s unblinking eye.
Breathless (1960) – Godard
Even though Breathless openly borrows from American noir and gangster films, everything about it feels new. I love Godard – even at his most distant and self-indulgent – and Breathless is one of his best.
Star Wars (1977) – Lucas
Star Wars may lean too heavily upon Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, but there is pleasure in a well known archetype. Lucas took something old, added a space station, some aliens, and the Force and turned it into something new and exciting – so what if he kind of ruined it later.
Sixteen Candles (1984) – Hughes
John Hughes’s movies were great because they took teenagers seriously. His movies were about more than just winning the dream guy or girl, they were about class, power, family, identity, and rebelling against authority.
The Princess Bride (1987) – Reiner
I you don’t love The Princess Bride then you are a robot that can appreciate neither humor nor romance. Castle storming! Kissing parts! R.O.U.S.’s! What is wrong with you?
Elephant (2003) – Van Sant
I enjoy all of Gus Van Sant’s death trilogy (really!), but Elephant resonates more with me. The horrific nature of the story (about a school shooting) and the accompanying violence are rendered thoughtfully – even beautifully – without seeking to justify or condemn such actions.
Network (1976)– It goes without saying, but it is really scary how prophetic Paddy Chayefsky’s script is. It’s amazing to me that upon release, people saw it much more as an outrageous comedy. Of course, Chayefsky knew better—he knew what he was creating. And the performances just don’t get better than this. Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway are the most notable, but to me William Holden’s performance always stuck out. The sadness that he carries in his shoulders and purveys in his line delivery is just pitch perfect. Network is my favorite of Sidney Lumet’s films, which is alone reason for inclusion on this list.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)– Man what I wouldn’t give to see this film in theaters in 1968. Not just to see it in its full 70mm glory (though that would be incredible) but for the communal thought of what the hell did we just watch. This movie still creates the best debates with people on both (several?) sides probably being just as “wrong” as they are “right.” I’ve seen the flick countless times and I still have no idea how he pulled off a lot of the shots that he did—and to be honest, I don’t want to know. I love living in the mystery of it all. Kubrick majesty is on full display here and the best part is how close to the chest he played the whole thing. Something I wish more filmmakers would take note of these days.
Taxi Driver (1976)– As a kid who never got to actually see the ‘70s I had to define it through history books and cinema. In my eyes Taxi Driver defined the entire decade. Angry, sweaty, dirty, ballsy, violent, and at times really sweet. The pulse of Bernard Herrman’s score gives the entire film a dream-like quality, with smoke and rain pervading the streets of New York’s underbelly. And of course at the center of it all is our hero Travis Bickle played brilliantly unhinged by Robert DeNiro. I always go back and forth between which I like more from Scorsese, this or Raging Bull. If you asked me next week I may give you a different answer. But right this very second, Taxi Driver to me is Scorsese not giving a single fuck, and the movie couldn’t have benefitted from it more.
City Lights (1931)– How many movies can we say not only defined a genre, but pretty much created it. Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece, almost 80 years later, is still one of the sweetest and funniest love stories ever committed to celluloid. I apprehensively took a class on silent film in college. I respected the hell out of the pioneers of cinema, but I just didn’t think that there was any way that I, a product of the MTV generation, could actually enjoy a silent film. This was the film that did it. I am convinced that Chaplin is one of the greatest storytellers of all time. All time. The way he infused pathos with comedy, without ever being mean spirited or demeaning is something that we all can learn from. City Lights is still not only the best romantic comedy, but also one of the best movies of all time.
Paris, Texas (1984)– To a lot of people Paris, Texas is overly long and ridiculously pretentious. To me it’s just about as perfect a look at the male role in family that you can get. Ry Cooder’s score (my personal favorite) just drenches the film with beautiful southwestern guitar licks that perfectly complements the amazing vistas on display. Texas is very much a character in Paris, Texas; beautiful, unforgiving, and seemingly-neverending. Harry Dean Stanton is one of my favorite actors of all time, and this is, in my opinion his best movie. Wenders’ camera wisely spends a lot of time on Stanton’s face, focusing on the wrinkles and the sunburn. This is a man who has been beat to hell, and you can see it on his blank empty stare.
Blade Runner (1982)– Honestly, is there a better opening sequence in sci-fi cinema? One could make the argument for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but for sheer jaw-dropping factor, Blade Runner takes the cake. Taking two of my favorite genres and perfectly melding them (as well as adding a bit of cyberpunk in there), Ridley Scott creates a film that is as much science-fiction as it is film noir. Harrison Ford perfectly places the retired cop brought in for the classic “one last job.” But the real star of the film is the “villain,” Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. I put “villain” in quotes because to me he is actually the hero of the film. He not only wants to bring life to his small group of replicants, but to the drab inert human race as well, in his own twisted way. Brilliantly told with visuals that still look incredible even when held up to today’s special effects, Blade Runner is an absolute masterpiece. Just make sure you stick to the director’s cut and stay far away from the theatrical cut with Harrison’s Ford god-awful voice-over. I shudder just thinking about it.
The Godfather (1972)– Is there any top ten list that is complete without this crime opus? This movie is perfectly paced, perfectly acted, and perfectly written. It’s simple, yet complex. Tender, yet terrifying. Serious, yet pulpy. Legend has it that the studios thought they would be getting another B mafia movie. What they got instead was an intense look at family, violence, and a scathing critique on capitalism told through the lens of a ganster movie. With iconic performances from Al Pacino and Marlon Brando, The Godfather deserves all of the acclaim is receives, and then some.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)– The perfect adventure movie. This to me is the best blockbuster ever to grace the screen. That iconic score matched with a tight and creative script, Raiders could not be more fun. I mean sit and think about anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indy. Absurd, right? He embodied the hero that all boys wanted to grow up to be. Smart, funny, badass, he nailed the entire thing. My favorite aspect of Indy though, is that he very much is a nerd when he is in normal clothes, its only when he dons the fedora and whip that he becomes our adventuring hero. The best popcorn-movie ever made.
Manhattan (1979)– I had to include Woody on this list, and this is my absolute favorite. The beautiful black and white cinematography matched with those great Gershwin compositions its just a sensorial masterpiece. Woody Allen loves New York with every fiber of his being and this is his love letter to it. Filled with his signature sense of humor and neurosis and with all of his filmic influences on display, to me Manhattan is the definitive Allen film, and the first one I always tell people to watch when they are looking to get into his work.
Chinatown (1974)– Mysteries don’t get better or more intoxicating than Roman Polanski’s LA masterpiece. Robert Towne’s ace script is incredibly complex, yet air tight and perfect. This was one of the first movies that I ever saw where when the crime solved, I wished, just as much as I presume Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes did, that I could go back to sweet ignorance. It elevates the idea of “entertainment.” It is as much fun as a detective story can get, yet it never sacrifices story for cheap thrills or plot twists. Everything is earned. I rewatched this film a month ago and when it ended, and that beautiful sense of gloom permeated my mind, I had a single thought: they really don’t make them like they used to.
And you thought Tom Cruise did a lot of running in the new Mission Impossible. Mel Gibson shoves us face first into the ancient world of Central America. Every thing about this movie is wonderful, the characters, the setting, and…oh yeah…the ending. What an insane period of time to live through.
In no particular order, and without any real criteria, my Top 10 Greatest Films:
This was the first movie I found myself completely immersed in. It’s the best summer spectacle, showing audiences visuals they’d never seen before, and integrating CGI and practical effects with such mastery, that it looks better than some movies released this summer. But more than anything, it’s the awe and wonder. I’ve seen Jurassic Park hundreds of times, without exaggeration, and I still get goosebumps when we first see the Brachiosaurus.
Raiders of the Lost Ark:
Fun throughout, with characters that have deep, rich histories and motivations that go beyond “save the day” or “rule the planet.” Aside from the federal agents and generic Nazi villains (did Raiders make them generic?) everyone we come across feels like a real person. That, more than anything else about Raiders, is why it’s one of the best.
The Social Network:
Compelling. Absolutely compelling. Masterfully put together, from script to score, The Social Network makes you care about writing computer code. The performances are incredible. Jesse Eisenberg’s eyes tell as much of the story as Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. And what a job by Andrew Garfield. Great score, great directing, great everything.
2001: A Space Odyssey:
The first time I watched this, I was disappointed. It seemed generic and bland, with a bad ending. The next time I watched, it was with the realization that 2001 created the elements I’ve seen before in every science fiction film. How often does that happen, that one film revolutionizes an entire genre? HAL’s deterioration frightens, but his pleas as Dave shuts him down are tragic, and made even more due to the voice work.
The Empire Strikes Back:
Surprise, surprise. Another nerdy mainstay. Empire shows how high a movie about space wizards and laser swords can reach. Rising beyond its material, Empire does great things for its characters, taking them from archetypes in Star Wars to people, with quirks and problems and motives. Like I said above, real people make the most outlandish settings believable.
Beauty and the Beast:
Tale as old as time, and told with the mastery of Disney animation. I haven’t seen this in years, but will find myself (and my coworkers) occasionally humming or singing the songs. It stays with you, even if all the details fade a bit. It’s one of the best pieces of animated film and balances, like a lot of these movies, being simple enough for children, but deep enough for adults.
Calling Ghostbusters a comedy limits it because too often, all a comedy has are its laughs. Yes, Ghostbusters is funny. Hilarious. But again, strong characters. Great characters. The movie, like The Empire Strikes Back, rises above the confines of its script and genre. It treats the story seriously, making the outlandish plausible. And the laughs aren’t crude or slapstick or silly. They’re earned.
What can I possibly say here that hasn’t been said already? If we’re being honest, we all know that some older, classic movies can be hard to sit through. Casablanca is a joy to watch. Even before I saw the movie, I knew how it went. But that didn’t detract from my first viewing. It made it somewhat like watching history happen in front of you.
This is always a toss up with The Godfather, Part II. What usually decides it is which film I’ve seen most recently. In this case, it’s The Godfather. What a slow burn for Michael. The entire transformation is beautiful. Watching Walter White on Breaking Bad these days reminds me of Michael’s fall: Slow, steady, and the entire time we’re rooting for a good person who makes increasingly poor decisions.
So I’ll of course be the only person to annoyingly include an introduction. Whatever.
This list was, of course, subject to external factors apart from the films themselves, in my case, things like: the current economic climate, 100+ years of historical context (that I’ll completely disregard), availability (i.e.have I actually seen it), was my stomach upset during the screening, do I find John Paul Belmundo kind of lame?, etc
Also, I wasn’t sure if I should spread it around. Obviously I love the 1970’s, but should I include a silent film as a token gesture to the past? (my answer is no). Should I include animation since it’s such a large part of filmmaking and a completely different skill set than live action? (my answer is no). Anyway, here they are:
10) Sideways (2004, Dir. Alexander Payne): Sideways is rich with complex characters who’s motivations are often unclear even to themselves. Paul Giamatti gives a phenomenal performance and Thomas Hayden Church is fucking hilarious. Sideways is full of so many tiny moments that enrich the most basic actions. Instead of just the driving the car, the characters put their hands out the window allowing their hands to surf the air. How many times has everyone done this, yet, have you ever seen it in a movie?
9) Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001, Dir. Alfonso Cuaron): The most honest, brutal depiction of a friendship I’ve ever seen. The final scene does more with a few lines of dialog and voice over narration than any scene in possibly any other film. The sexual honesty is unlike anything else. The tracking shots are delicate and consuming. Every part of this movie feels lived in. Someday Alfonso Cuaron will be get his critical due.
8) Out of the Past (1947, Dir. Jaques Tourneur) : Aside from dramatic comedy, film-noir might be my favorite genre. And while I love Humphrey Bogart, Billy Wilder, Lee Marvin, whoever. Out of the Past is the greatest indivdiual film noir ever made. This was probably the hardest decision on my list. It was between Out of the Past or The Maltese Falcon. The Maltese Falcon has more iconography but Out of the Past is too gorgeous, along with incredible performances by Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. It also includes the most cigarettes ever smoked in one film. And nothing looks better on film than cigarette smoke.
7) When We Were Kings (1996, Dir. Leon Gast): Definitive proof that real life is as compelling, if not more so, than fiction. Muhammad Ali is a man bursting with contradictions. When We Were Kings captures him at his most redemptive. Includes an awesome selection of talking heads. You will love this movie.
6) Jaws (1975, Dir. Steven Spielberg): The scene when Hooper goes searching through the wreckage and finds Ben Gardner’s rotting body still gives me nightmares. All you ever needed to know about great filmmaking is the device where the yellow barrels pop up one by one up to the surface.
5) The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola): Stanley Kubrick called it the greatest cast ever assembled. One of my middle school friends called it “that old movie with the chick who has the white nipples” (Hey but it made an impression on him right?). I call it endlessly rewarding, beautifully shot, and stagger-inducing in its completeness. Every single scene is perfect. A film that appeals to the meatiest bro and the most studied scholar. It’s pure cinema.
4) The Last Picture Show (1971, Dir. Peter Bogdonavich): A slow burning dose of nostalgia shot in masterful black and white. Sam’s monologue is incredible. Time Magazine called it the greatest film since Citizen Kane. I think it’s better. It finds grand themes and stunning depth in the everyday life of a small town rather than in some epic newspaper magnate.
3) Annie Hall (1977, Dir. Woody Allen) : The end is so bittersweet that it’s physically painful… and how Allen manages to do that along with making one the funniest movies ever is unknowable. Annie Hall remains the one film where I can recall almost every single detail. I truly understood how great Annie Hall is after watching When Harry Met Sally. That film is a cringe monster in its attempts to be Annie Hall. Everyone is doing these lame impersonations of Woody Allen characters. Right down to the green Army jacket that Billy Crystal wears in almost every scene.
2) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Dir. Stanley Kubrick): So I can vividly remember watching the Superbowl at a friends’ house as a kid and this weird Apple commercial came on. I didn’t get it. Then my friends Dad said, “That’s HAL from 2001, c’mon Will, you can’t be into movies and not know that”. He was exactly right. Some films do things that you can’t articulate in any other language than cinema (maybe that’s an obvious point) but 2001: A Space Odyssey is the first film where I realized this fact. A mesmerizing intersection of music, photography, story, theme, and sheer epic fucking scope. I’ll never totally understand 2001 but what makes the film great is that I never want to stop trying.
1) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Dir. Frank Capra): To think of this as a holiday film is to do a great disservice to perhaps the most complete depiction one man’s life. I mean we literally go from childhood to late middle-age. From the brightest highs to the darkest lows. A film with the the courage to transcend easy cynicism. It’s uplifting. It’s haunting. Donna Reed is beautiful. My stomach drops every single time that squirrel perks up when Uncle Billy starts crying. Jimmy Stewart utterly inhabits George Bailey. His dissolution with his life is so raw. Capra does so many subtle things like filling the early scenes of the film with extras and children so when George returns to the empty Bedford Falls his isolation is that much more pronounced. Just think, you’re seeing the same shots of the same streets except now they feel cold and foreign and even scary. He’s presenting the dual nature of society, community vs. the individual. We want and need our independence… but without other people who know your name, invest in you, and care about your well being, what are we left with? And finally, some people dismiss the positive ending to this film, the sentimentality. But I actually find it rather grim and entirely truthful. George Bailey has learned to live with his compromises. His life will never be what he wants but it will be just enough of what he needs.
Well, there you have it. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. And if you feel so inclined please vote in the poll. Because isn’t that what these lists are really all about, judging each other.