We’re into the top 40 now, and at this point, or really from about 45 down, these are largely considered the greatest films ever made, give or take. Do yourself a huge favor and continue to get to know all of them. There are some that are more easily accessible than others, just in terms of enjoyment, but they are all remarkable achievements.
—This is a film of undeniable power and grace. Renoir’s camera never seems to convict, but merely glides from character to character, person to person. Though the film is about French prisoner’s of war trying to escape from captivity, Renoir does not take sides, but rather paints the characters in an all too human light. It’s a film that, on the cusp of war in Europe, makes light of war’s gamesmanship, and presents it as a crippling, inescapable reality. For all of man’s “civilization” cannot keep him from the horrors of one turning on another by any means necessary. The film is a model of cinematic mastery—the images are stunning, and the script is subtle and touching. Nominated for 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Jean Renoir, 1937. Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim.
—I my opinion, and the opinion of many others, this is the greatest Western ever made. It’s the greatest for a number of reasons: 1) it twists the genre conventions around (genre conventions for the American Western, Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns starring Clint Eastwood don’t necessarily fall in this category), giving us incredibly complex characters, 2) it makes phenomenal use of its space, utilizing the deep red valleys and snowy forests to create a sense of isolation and hoplessness, and 3) John Wayne—the ultimate Western star—gives his absolute best, most affecting and complicated performance. He’s definitely the hero, but man oh man is he tough to digest. Incredible movie.
Directed by John Ford, 1956. Starring John Wayne.
—Funny and heartbreaking, Nicholson delivers a knockout Oscar winning performance as the rebellious mental patient Randle McMurphy, while Louise Fletcher plays his foil as the cold Nurse Ratched. Much is said of this film’s allegory to the culture wars of the 1960s-70s, with the hospital ward serving as a microcosm for American society at large. While this certainly plays, and plays extremely well, it also plays beautifully as a picture of a man determined to live in freedom, and determined to see his compatriots live with the same freedom. Though it does come out of a sort of debunked, relativistic modernist mindset, the film deals more with compassion, and human decency than philosophy. It’s a film that rightly deserved to win all of the five major Oscars. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Milos Forman, 1975. Starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
—No Country For Old Men is a perfect film. It’s absolutely flawless. I don’t know if I can count on all my fingers and toes the number of films I think are flawless. This is one of them. It works perfectly as a straight-line thriller/western/comedy about a man who finds $2 million at a drug deal gone wrong, the psychopathic killer chasing him, and the old sheriff trying to put all the pieces together, but also paints the portrait of the horrifying yet inevitable death of modernity. The film is an enigma not easily solved, raising many more questions than it answers about humanity, culture, society, good and evil, and our ever-changing postmodern world. In many respects it reminds me of an Ingmar Bergman, or Federico Fellini film. It is an absolute American masterpiece! Winner of 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin.
—The return of the great adventure movie! What a crazy awesome idea to have a James Bond-type archeologist who goes on sweet adventures and foils the Nazis. There’s not much that need be said about this film because the movie pretty much speaks for itself. Its legendary greatness is unmatched by nearly every other film in its genre by several miles. This may be one of the five or so most purely entertaining movies ever made. Its one where you can tell the cast and crew had as much fun making it as we have watching it. Its one of the fastest paced, highest energy films to come out of Hollywood’s new era, and epitomizes the high concept revivalist style of filmmaking that emerged in the late ‘70s. Winner of 5 Academy Awards.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1981. Starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen.
—Considered by many the funniest movie ever made, it is certainly one of great style and bravado, and one of the most meticulous and outstanding scripts ever written. Its seamless blend of genre is inspiring: a buddy film about two musicians who have to go on the run by cross-dressing and joining an all-girls band after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago 1929. And as they’re running from the mob, you guessed it, they fall for the same woman (Marilyn Monroe).Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are hysterically funny (particularly Lemmon), while the smaller roles were cast to perfection. It boasts one of the most classic lines of any movie. “Well, nobody’s perfect.” Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Billy Wilder, 1959. Starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.
—Alfred Hitchcock was truly a visionary director. He was using some of the most interesting and creative filmmaking techniques years before they became popularized. Not to say that Hitchcock wasn’t popular, because that would be an outright lie. The thing that is so incredible to me about this particular Hitchcock film, is that virtually everything takes place in James Stewart’s apartment, from his perspective looking out at everything going on in the apartment complex. The shot that just kills me every time is the one where Stewart is looking through his camera at Grace Kelly pointing to her ring finger, and then he pans over to see the antagonist notice the gesture, and slowly turn his glare straight into his camera. It’s just an incredibly nuanced and sequenced film. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954. Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
—M is very important in film history, and also a remarkably riveting thriller. In 1931, with the recent coming of sound in 1927, the film industry was still trying to figure out how to most effectively work with the new toy. Toward the end of the silent era, cinematography had become very complex and interesting, but this great cinematography was sacrificed when sound came due to the complications of the microphone. The cinematography was so complex in fact that its artistry was generally lost for several decades after. M, however, sacrifices nothing. It has both magnificent sound, and terrific cinematography, not to mention an extremely complex plot with highly stylized editing. It is a marvel of early sound film, and to this day a sensational and truly unnerving motion picture experience.
Directed by Fritz Lang, 1931. Starring Peter Lorre.
—If we are given a taste of things to come with Truffaut’s 400 Blows in 1959, in 1960 Jean-Luc Godard wastes no time in blowing everything up. The film (though even by today’s inspired standards can be difficult to follow) is about a thief who identifies himself with Humphrey Bogart, and the unwitting American who falls in love with him despite his completely amoral tendencies. This is the true beginning of French New-Wave filmmaking; a launching point that came to later inspire some of the greatest American films and filmmakers. Most filmmakers who throw conventional filmmaking traditions, rules and trends completely out the window end up with a total mess. Godard’s film is a masterpiece, shifting the paradigm, literally making us think differently.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960. Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.
—It’s a war film that doesn’t take sides, and doesn’t stand on a soapbox screaming, “War is hell!” It is a film that deals with individuals in a community, and the actions of those individuals. Alec Guinness takes a heartbreaking turn as a British general having to build a bridge for the Japanese during his stay in a POW camp. People’s behavior and beliefs are generally determined by their community. The men in this POW community were ripped of their humanity, and given a reinterpreted one. And it is done thus, not to show us the evils of the alternative, but that we may be moved with compassion. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The ending is one of the most fascinating, brilliant and tragic endings in film history. Winner of 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by David Lean, 1957. Starring Alec Guinness and William Holden.