I want your feedback. Film is incredibly subjective. What makes a movie great? I will include a brief description of why I think each movie is one of the greatest ever made, and hope to pique your interest in critically enjoying every film on the list. Read the condensed list here.
Here is basically what I am looking for in ranking these films. Ranking them is seemingly senseless and subjective, but I do like some movies better than others, and I do think there is a certain shared sense of objectivity when looking at movies. I think just about everyone would agree, for instance, that Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) is a better film than Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Raja Gosnell, 2008), or Year One (Harold Ramis, 2009). What makes one movie better than another? Its a tough question to answer. My criteria for this list does not necessarily reflect a universal criteria, and for any given film one of these might outweigh another.
- Personal Preference: How much I purely enjoy the film. Can I watch this film repeatedly, and does the film demand repeated viewings?
- Technical Skill: How do all the elements of film (Editing, cinematography, sound, music, lighting, mise-en-scene, acting, screenplay/story, etc.) come together? All of these films exhibit high technical skill, but some are “tighter”, or “better”executed.
- Historical/Cultural Significance: Is this film important in the history of film? Did this film make a significant contribution to the art of cinematic storytelling, or make a profound or poignant statement of historical/political significance?
- Transcendance: (1) How does the film hold up? Is it still just as worthy of viewing today as it was when it came out? (2) Does this film speak to humanity collectively, crossing the boundaries of the ordinary to communicate something of our humanness? Or perhaps does the film give us an encounter with the Divine Other, something outside of us that spurs us to action?
- Popularity: How popular is this film? Did it receive acclaim from critics and moviegoers alike? Or perhaps made a come back as a cult classic, or originally misunderstood film?
This is my basic criteria, and like I said, on any given movie one or more of these will outweigh the others.
Here’s my thing: I believe that film is incredibly powerful. Films have the power to change people, to encounter people in a transcendant way, in a divine way. All things are ultimately God’s things, regardless of whether we believe they are or not. He can (and does) use everything to give people an awareness of Him, a sense of Him. We all have an awareness of the divine in us, whatever we choose to call it, and movies extend the parabolic/prophetic lens to help us understand ourselves on our own terms and in terms of the divine.
—Before I get blasted by serious cinephiles for having this in my top 100, this is one of the funniest, most purely enjoyable films I’ve ever seen. Before I get blasted by casual filmgoers for not having this much higher on my list, I have to say that though there’s so much here to love, there’s really nothing at all, because nothing really get accomplished in the film. Our questions aren’t answered, there’s no character redemption, no one really cares much about anything, and yet the story just buzzes along as though its going somewhere. It is an amalgamation of about six film genres rolled into one (western, sports film, film noir, ransom film, comedy, musical, etc.), and it doesn’t fulfill any of them. It is as though the Coen’s took every aspect they love about these genres and decided to turn them on their head. So just when you think you know what’s happening, the genres turn on us and defy the conventions of our thinking. And yet, isn’t that sort of just life; circumstances turning around on us, conventions challenged, best laid plans foiled, and all the toil sort of meaningless. But, as with the Dude, we must abide and find what joy we can… like bowling.
Directed by Joel Coen, 1998. Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore.
—First thing’s first, Batman is the best superhero of them all, everyone else sucks in comparison to him. Now that that’s established, the continuation of Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins, despite its several flaws, is such a breathtaking experience in every way that I don’t even care that it runs twenty minutes too long and some of it doesn’t make sense. Otherwise it is a brilliantly crafted film that almost makes us forget its a superhero movie. I felt far more concerned with the story and characters than I did the genre conventions. All that said Heath Ledger delivers a legendary, top 5 ALL TIME performance as The Joker, likely winning his Oscar in any year ever. This movie sets the standard very high for superhero films. Its Shakespearean scope coupled by crazy good cinematography from Wally Pfister and one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores give the film a depth of seriousness without dipping heavily into just plain goofiness. It’s the first superhero film that demanded we take it seriously, then sincerely backed it up. It is because of this movie that the Academy Awards expanded its Best Picture category to a ridiculous 10 movies—because this inexplicably didn’t get nominated. Stupid. This should have won. Best film of 2008, and best superhero movie ever. Winner of 2 Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actor (Ledger).
Directed by Christopher Nolan, 2008. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman.
—Field of Dreams is one of my favorite films because, (1) its a baseball movie, and baseball is far and away the greatest game ever conceived by man (think about it), and the closest sport that resembles the Kingdom of Heaven; (2) it’s a movie about a man who receives a calling and then actually has the courage to act on that calling, no matter how ridiculous it seems; (3) it’s a movie about reconciliation and restoration, fathers and their children, and sacrifice in the face of lost dreams. This movie has the power to change people, to help us see our humanness in realizable ways, and to help us interact with the Other in our midst, who is urging us to be the catalyst of this restoration. Its a film I really wish I had written, because it encapsulates all that is good about life and baseball. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, 1989. Starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones.
—This film changed the game in many respects, not least of which is its eye-popping (especially for 1991) visual effects. This film paved the way for life-like greatness in the field of visual effects, and allowed filmmakers to truly do whatever they want to do. This movie made possible the notion that if you can imagine something, you can put it on film. Now, as great as the visual effects are, this is also a pretty remarkable screenplay. The movie is built around 5 major sequences, and each sequence is just as creative and engaging as the last. With great skill, Cameron was able to turn a serious killing machine from the first movie, into a character that must learn the value of life, ultimately valuing the life of those he is programmed to kill over and above his own. Crazy good movie. Winner of 4 Academy Awards.
Directed by James Cameron, 1991. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton.
—I’m a huge fan of this story. Neo is a classic mythic hero, transformed by truth into a messianic figure; an anointed savior coming to believe who he already is and is called to be. Let’s not get into the second and third films, but the first has some very interesting religious questions and analogies, merging the art of Eastern film and philosophy with emerging Western postmodernism and a substantial budget. Oh yeah, the special effects are absolutely ridiculous! Some of the greatest of all time, hands down, totally changed the game again, just a few years after T2. Had people wishing they could live in bullet time. Winner of 4 Academy Awards.
Directed by Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999. Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss.
—This is the greatest pure action movie ever made. Its structurally perfect, with punch you in the face thrills, Bruce Willis’ breakout performance (and best?), and a villain so awesome it almost cost Alan Rickman his career (because he was so great no one wanted to cast him as anything but a killer German villain). It has some catchy lines, brilliant editing and outstanding cinematography as well. But the thing that sets this film apart is that for the majority duration of the Cold War, after the institution of the Motion Picture Association of America’s new ratings system, almost every action film was ideologically bound by an aggressive, juggernaut character. Think Rambo and Dirty Harry. These guys are cool customers, killing machines, and justice seekers (and winners). Die Hard came along presenting its hero as a vulnerable screw-up, in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing all he can just to survive and get his wife back. John McClane is no super-hero juggernaut, he’s just a normal dude, and there’s something about his character that resonated with people coming out of the Cold War in the late ’80s, and resonates with us today. Normal people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s pure cinema right there. Such an awesome flick. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards.
Directed by John McTiernan, 1988. Starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman.
—This is a very simple film, but it sucks you in; intriguing you and taunting you to continue watching. Like so many of those who cannot get the image of Devil’s Tower out of their minds, I really can’t get this film out of my mind. It is compelling, with fine acting and magnificent visual effects, as well as a sound performance by French film great François Truffaut (which I find to be a bit of a paradox because Truffaut and Spielberg are two completely different kinds of filmmakers). This is the film that forced Hollywood to really take a close look at this Spielberg kid, because he could be great. Low and behold he was, and is, helming some of the most powerful and affecting works of art of the 20th Century. Winner of 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1977. Starring Richard Dreyfus.
—They went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. This film, though I did not live through it, seems to depict the spirit of the ‘60s as well as any other film. Drugs, promiscuous sex, and riding around on some hogs. It seems like a pretty simple film, but it launched an entire wave of new motion pictures in Hollywood. Bring on the revisionists: Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick and Robert Altman now had mainstream Hollywood to produce their artistic endeavors, and thank God for that. On a deeper level though, this is a film about men who seek life, and heartbreakingly don’t see it when it stares them in the face. It seems all-too-familiar that when we find what we’re looking for we reject it because it isn’t exactly what we’re looking for, or it’s too good to be true, or real life. Once we’ve rejected what we’re looking for, what is there but wandering? Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Dennis Hopper, 1969. Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.
—They just don’t make thrillers like they used to, at least not until this powerhouse film jumped to the big screen in March of ’91. This is one of only three films to win the 5 major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Anthony Hopkins holds the record for the shortest amount of screen time in a lead actor role, and still winning. He was on screen a grand total of 16 minutes, but his presence as the ruthless Dr. Hannibal Lecter lingers throughout the entire film in what is one of the most frightening performances of all time. Frightening because he shows that no mind is safe, and no heart strong enough to avoid being consumed by and with evil. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Jonathan Demme, 1991. Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.
—Peckinpah was great with telling stories about unchanging men in a changing time, and The Wild Bunch is certainly that. These are bad dudes, not to be liked by any stretch, but while we may not make the decisions they do, we can certainly identify with them. Peckinpah also pushed the envelope on violence under the new MPAA ratings system, and popularized something that was seldom used in movies before this—slow motion. Combine the elements of bloody violence and slow motion, along with terrific anti-hero villains, and you get one of the great and revolutionary films in cinematic history. Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Sam Peckinpah, 1969. Starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine.
—There aren’t many filmmakers like Wes Anderson who can so magnificently capture the pointlessness and absurdity of life, while paradoxically seeing it as a playground. Anderson is one of the most important filmmakers of his time, as his use of irreverent humor is among the finest of a generation of irreverent films and television shows, and I believe this is his best work to date. The line between humor and sadness is paper thin, but such is life. Life doesn’t always work out how we intend, and sometimes the consequences of our intentions are not what we expected. For Royal Tenenbaum and the rest of the family, there is a failure that exudes the whole of their lives and relationships with each other. Their pain, and pseudo-attempts at restoration, play out through humor, pulsing the nerve of something entirely human, while deeply working out something entirely divine—forgiveness. Great movie. Nominated for 1 Academy Award (Best Original Screenplay).
Directed by Wes Anderson, 2001. Starring Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, with Danny Glover and Bill Murray.
—In any screenwriting class the teacher will tell you to write what you know. If you don’t write what you know there’s no way you can connect with anything real in the world. Director Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran, saw all the evil that had been done under the sun, or the jungle in this case, and knew his material as well as anyone. Man needs a purpose and community. Stone points to a disconnect in both. Without community and purpose there is a vanity to life that can lead men to do unspeakable things. In this film, and Vietnam (so argues Stone), men do horrific things to each other in the absence of humanity. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Oliver Stone, 1986. Starring Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe.
—Akira Kurosawa is easily one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, creating stories of masterful depth, grace and beauty in the existential dilemma of post-atomic Japan. Does life have value in a world where one machine can obliterate entire populations, or in a world where one man can rouse the hatred and bigotry of an entire nation, leading to the deaths of over 6 million Jews? Is there beauty and justice in this world? That Kurosawa reshapes Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the element of man’s conscience lingering over his acts, as well as the ultimacy of the downfall of evil, fits achingly into the milieu of post-war Japan, and Kurosawa’s late ’50s philosophic framework.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1957. Starring Toshiro Mifune
—Forrest Gump is a powerful reminder of the magic of motion pictures. It is a funny, heart-wrenching, and inspiring journey. Robert Zemeckis directs with a steady eye, and Tom Hanks is affective at the most human of levels. What many people do not realize about this is that it boasts some of the best visual effects of the era. It is not used to draw attention to itself, but used to enhance the magic of the story by sucking the audience in even more (like Lt. Dan’s leg, and talking to and shaking hands with President Kennedy). It won the Oscar for its visual effects. Now, people will sometimes point to Jenny’s amorality as a reason to dislike what they believe is a fun, family journey, but the movie is anything but that. Forrest Gump gives us a lens by which we can see pain and hopelessness in the world in light of the joy also present. This movie, coated with movie magic, does not think its audience stupid, or its story trivial. Winner of 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Hanks).
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, 1994. Starring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise and Robin Wright Penn.
—The sensational sequel to the mega-hit Star Wars is perhaps the best of all the Star Wars films. It takes the same originality and great story and kicks it up a notch. The introduction of the iconic Yoda, and the classic line, “Luke, I am your father,” as well as the scream that proceeds it, are some major highlights from this classic. The first Star Wars film was just an introduction to this universe, but this second installment opens the audience’s eyes to a whole different side. It’s like getting swept away for the first time all over again. And I loved that the filmmakers were comfortable leaving the ending as precarious as it is. It’s a marvelously large film that knows how to stay within itself, because after all, story is king here, everything else supports. Winner of 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Irvin Kershner, 1980. Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.
—Ridley Scott’s incredible science fiction opus is one of the most refreshing and terrifying films of the 1980s. It not only sets a new standard in science fiction, but establishes the career of director Ridley Scott, and changed the way people thought about Harrison Ford. Up to this point in his career, Ford had played pretty much all good guys. Deckard is certainly the protagonist of Blade Runner, but he’s not necessarily a good “guy”. It just so happens that Ford was convincing enough to make it really count. Another thing that strikes me about this film is all of the layers, and all of the intrigue Scott puts into his characters. It is remarkable that this film is able to establish its credibility so early in the film so that it can vicariously earn the tenderness of its finale without heavy-handedly dipping too far into tickling our need for visceral sensation. This is a pretty magnificent piece of filmmaking! Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Ridley Scott, 1982. Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer.
—Some consider A Night at the Opera the Marx Brothers’ funniest film, and though I would give that distinction to Duck Soup, this is still certainly one of the funniest films ever made. The Marx Brothers pull off some of the funniest jokes and sight gags in cinematic history because they were masters with wordplay and visual comedic tension. They consistently generated and executed some of the most impressive [even by today’s (sorta low) standards] comedic sequences to grace our collective memory. The crowded boat sequence, the hotel room chase scene, the contract scene, and the final opera sequence are hysterically unforgettable! The Marx Brothers were easily my favorite comedians growing up, leaving teams like the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello to eat their dust. Watch all the Marx Brothers you can; your life will be greatly enriched by them.
Directed by Sam Wood, 1935. Starring Groucho, Harpo, Chico Marx and Margaret Dumont.
—Toy Story is perhaps the finest example of any children’s film ever as to the infinite value of friendship and community. Maybe any movie ever. I haven’t done that much research. This might not even be the best Pixar film, but without this Finding Nemo, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Up don’t get made, and don’t get made the way Pixar intended them: telling “true” stories that touch deep human realities. Though a fairly conventional American animated piece, Toy Story refuses to fit categorically as a child’s film. The leitmotif (musical motif) of Randy Newman’s You’ve Got a Friend in Me, while typical, is extremely affective. Through good times and bad, friends remain committed to each other. As new friendships form there is no amount of hate that can cover the committed love of friends. I believe this film is of parabolically biblical proportions. If I had children I would show them this film alongside of Scripture because its power lies in truth. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by John Lasseter, 1995. Starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.
—The Apartment is one of those rare mixes of incredibly intelligent, very funny, and dramaticly terrific. The film works as both a straight comedy and a straight drama, as writer/director Billy Wilder and his stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine do a magnificent job of displaying great human detail and emotion in even the funniest and darkest of scenes. It is a film that finds hope and love in the midst of the oppression and injustice of everyday life. Fred MacMurray also delivers a terrific performance, and Wilder’s script is as brilliant as they come! Winner of 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Directed by Billy Wilder, 1960. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.
—American Beauty is, in my estimation, often a misunderstood film. I remember when it first came out, the talk surrounding it was naturally about Lester’s (Kevin Spacey) infatuation with a high school girl, and the celebration of his mid-life crisis. To view the film as such completely disregards the tag-line urging us to “…look closer.” There is so much more here than we often want to give it credit for because, while hilarious at times, is a difficult movie to absorb. The film asks that we too press into the pointlessness of life. There is nothing in this existence except, as the the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes mentions, a chasing after the wind. All things are vanity. We work and work and struggle, and for what? Death. Who can truly enjoy the life they’ve been given in a world full of so much pain, hopelessness and strife? Unlike many of us, Lester recognizes this, and in light of death’s inevitability, and life’s vanity, he decides to find out what it means to live again. And while he decides to take a route of amorality, he discovers the inexplicably bewildering Transcendent beauty in the world that leads to peace. The paradox of life’s simultaneous beauty and pointlessness is a profound tension to find yourself living in. And the film (as well as Scripture) implore us to look closer and discover this seemingly mystifying beauty. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Sam Mendes, 1999. Starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening.
—Like looking in a mirror, this hilarious satire is a pretty fascinating look at the TV business, especially now. Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, all those judge and lawyer shows… none of it existed until after this film. Legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, like a great prophet, saw where all the things we hold dear would lead us, and its an absurd future where we consume primarily that which tickles our senses and entertains our fickle impulses, and a future where the only virtue is (as it has been before) money. Great cast! Great story! Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Finch) and Best Actress (Dunaway).
Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1976. Starring Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall.
—This is a largely controversial film with as many detractors as fans. The movie is long, at a little over 3 hours, a bit one-sided in view, and excruciatingly violent, but the beauty of the film lies in the honest, committed friendships the men share. Cimino plunges us into the hell of war, contrasted by the security of home, and leaves us to cope with the brutal intensity. In isolation we have almost nothing, but with people we love there is very little we can’t overcome. Seems simplistic, but it is simple. The cast is stellar, as De Niro rounds out a decade of brilliant performances, Streep is… Streep, and Walken is at his heartbreaking best. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Michael Cimino, 1978. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep.
—This is the second most depressing film I have ever seen*. Jon Voight’s magnificent turn as an optimistic cowboy heading off to New York City to hit it big as a high class prostitute is tremendously heartbreaking. Likewise, Dustin Hoffman’s turn from the teen angst of The Graduate to the ratty, homeless bum, Ratso Rizzo is one of the most daring career decisions in movie history. Most actors just starting, which is what Hoffman was at the time, will take all the roles they can get, but he decided to hold out for this, which got him cast in other daring roles later. Though the film may seem strange, and certainly outdated at times, the payoff at the end is tragically revelatory. Also, this is the first and only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, though by today’s standards it is fairly tame (still a solid R though). Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by John Schlesinger, 1969. Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
—I don’t know the life-story or inner-workings of Stanley Kubrick, but he was either searching for something deeply profound, or he was just a closet Nietzschean. I think part of the allure of this film, and why it has remained popular for over 40 years, is that it is extremely divisive, and no one can seem to agree whether the film has any merit. It may well be a film with absolutely no redeeming value, handsomely featuring characters who enjoy rape and murder, and are ultimately left unreformed. But it may also be a film with a glimmer of something, hoping to be seen and heard in the horror of nihilism and amorality. Perhaps it is precisely in its absence that something transcendent is present. What does the film as a whole stir inside of us? Is this ultimately who we are and where we’re going as humans? Or is there something in us that screams to choose life in a world where death is the only given? How then should we live? Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1971. Starring Malcolm McDowell.
—The most iconic of the only three films James Dean starred in before his life was tragically cut short, this film taps into youth angst before any film in Hollywood dared go there. Dean brilliantly captures the angst of a generation lost in the wilderness of post-War modernity and perfectionism. To quote Roger Ebert, who speaks as intelligently about film as anyone ever has, “Like its hero, Rebel Without a Cause desperately wants to say something and doesn’t know what it is. If it did know, it would lose its fascination.” Part of the grip of this film is that its angry about something that every one of us sense at some point in our lives, but we don’t know how to articulate it. And because we can’t articulate it there is nothing we can do but recognize it, and recognize that we are in the midst of it together, whether we want to be or not. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, 1955. Starring James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.
—Eastwood’s gritty, magnificent homage to Westerns of the past plays almost like Shakespeare. However, unlike westerns of old, this film does not necessarily stick to the Western genre conventions. There is no clear hero in the film, as everyone’s agenda is a bit muddy. Eastwood plays an ex-hired hand who gets an offer from his old partner (Morgan Freeman) that he can’t pass up – avenge the honor of a prostitute who got cut up by a couple of cowboys. Gene Hackman (brilliantly) plays the brutal sheriff Little Bill, who means to viciously prove that the town is his by stopping anyone trying to kill the cowboys. The film asks the difficult question of whether you can ever change a man’s character, no matter how reformed he may be. Are the sins of the past absolved, and how are the sins of the present framed in light of personal or spiritual reformation? The ending is haunting and savage, and the film overall displays some of Eastwood’s greatest acting and direction. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, 1992. Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris.
—This is a movie that ought to remind us of the joys of movie-going. It is a wholly fascinating, rewarding, shocking and genuinely entertaining experience. The movie is a revelation of the reality of post-War anti-jubilation, as well as a philosophical shift toward existential amorality. Orson Welles delivers one of his greatest and most horrifying performances in this film; horrifying because of how much we actually like him and how slyly he convinces us that its all rather inconsequential. The dazzling finale is one of the most outstanding sequences ever shot, and the zither music is awesome. Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Carol Reed, 1949. Starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles.
—This is a movie about the road (la strada) of life, and the purpose of each person’s life. Every thing has a purpose, says the fool (Richard Basehart), but in this particular case, the purpose is not clear at all. Sometimes life is utterly cruel, sometimes there is no rest, sometimes it doesn’t work out. What is the value of a life purposed for destruction? Anthony Quinn’s Zampanò is the very definition of self-destruction. He could have had a wonderful life; he could have been happy, but he took himself too seriously and his decisions buried the lives of those closest to him. Gelsomina (Masina) tries to be happy, but when the fool is gone, so is her spirit. Terrific early film from the legend, Fellini. Winner of 1 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Directed by Federico Fellini, 1954. Starring Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart.
—This fast paced narcotics thriller is one of the finest films of the 1970s, which produced many of the greatest movies ever made. It is terrifically paced, with excellent writing, acting, cinematography, editing and direction. Gene Hackman’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle is legendary as a character amalgam between the “tough-as-nails” cop who always does the right thing, and the morally ambiguous/amoral anti-heroes that seemed to wedge their way into American cinema at the time. His Oscar-winning performance, which drives an already pulsing, action-heavy story, produces, especially for 1971, a highly unsettling world; one where the bad guys are bad, but the good guys aren’t all that good themselves. It is a world reflective of the intrinsic confusion caused by the Vietnam “conflict”. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Hackman).
Directed by William Friedkin, 1971. Starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.
—French New-Wave doesn’t get much better than this tale of adolescent rebellion. This is one of the major films to spark the era of post-war French cinema, showing the world there is a different way to make films that deeply, sometimes unexplainably move us. It helped inspire a new breed of Hollywood filmmakers to break the classical Hollywood style of invisible editing, and start making faster, less linear films. It is Truffaut’s (who was a film critic prior to making this) most personal and affecting effort, as many of the things that Léaud does in this film has relation to Truffaut’s own childhood. This is a heartbreakingly sad film that ought to be experienced by everyone, and a transformative film in the arena of world cinema. Nominated for 1 Academy Award.
Directed by François Truffaut, 1959. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud.
—Charlie Chaplin was an absolute genius. He created some of the funniest, most imitated routines and acts in film history. He wrote, directed, produced, starred in, edited and wrote the music for most of his movies, including this completely unmissable gem. It is one of the funniest, most affecting movies ever made. Chaplin, with many of his films, was one of the first filmmakers to show that you can both make people laugh and cry at the same film. This film, City Lights, The Great Dictator, Modern Times and The Kid are some of the most moving, hilarious films in history, even to this day! Seriously, get yourself acquainted with Chaplin’s work, he is perhaps the earliest, most consistent cinematic master, and still a source of inspiration for people in all fields of the film industry.
Directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1925. Starring Charlie Chaplin.
—This film has a sense of it’s own granduer from the opening dance sequence. The music, direction, cinematography and choreography are so magnificent that words are not necessary to understand the scope of what is going on. This modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a screen masterpiece all in itself, but updates it to fit the racial tensions of the time. It aims to show that in this age it doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are, love and fellowship transcend all things, echoing the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 10:12, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all.” Winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961. Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.
—Shane’s power resides in the mysteriousness of its characters, and the brilliant employment of the western mythos. George Stevens’ masterpiece is one of the most endearing motion pictures around, in a genre that forced endearment, mostly due to the humanity of the characters. The problems are human problems; problems that create moral dilemmas. Stevens gives the villains a reasonable motive for their actions and attitudes, but doesn’t condone that they’ve chosen to withhold life rather than preserve it. Shane rides in, the other from the outside, and in great tenderness does what needs to be done to restore an embedded moral order. But in saving the people, he cannot be one of them. This is the great western mythos. A savior cannot be like those that he is saving, he must be something more. Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by George Stevens, 1953. Starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.
—This is an absolute acting clinic. I’ve seen this movie several times and am still catching many of the nuances to these brilliant performances. This is around the starting point of method acting in film, of which Brando was a champion. By simply (actually not simple at all) becoming his character mentally and emotionally, Brando dominates every scene with raw power and painfully precise emotion. Vivien Leigh gives every ounce of her soul to Blanche, in her finest screen performance. And Karl Malden, who I’ve always felt is underrated, gives an honest and pained performance as well. This script is so incredibly challenging as an actor, but this cast pulls it off flawlessly. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Leigh).
Directed by Elia Kazan, 1951. Starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter.
—This is a significant post-World War II film following the lives of three men, and how their experiences in war effect their domestic life. The impact is profound, startling, and a heartbreaking. Actual World War II veteran Harold Russell gives a very real, crushing performance, as an amputee struggling to adapt, knowing that none of his loved ones can possibly understand the horrors he’s seen. It is a moving film experience, that though runs a little long, uses its time well to allow the tender details of their strife to unfurl. This is one of director William Wyler’s finest films, in a career full of magnificent films. Winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by William Wyler, 1946. Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright.
—This film is hugely significant for a number of reasons. For one, this film is incredibly entertaining, and one of the most effective thrillers ever made. Spielberg allows John Williams’ haunting score tell the story during many of the most shocking, and intense scenes, allowing the suspense to build in our imaginations. But also, with Jaws came a new era of Hollywood film. This film was really the beginning of what is know as the “revivalist” movement in Hollywood, which would go on to create high concept, big budget blockbusters. It is not only super entertaining, but also highly marketable, which was really what Hollywood was looking for at the time of their economic crisis. While the early 70s produced some of the greatest films and filmmakers ever, the movies were largely inaccesible. Because of this film, and this movement, films such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were made much more easily, and helped launch Spielberg into the stratosphere of popularity. Winner of 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975. Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus.
—Indeed, all the world’s a stage, and these characters are not mere players, but will do what it takes to rise to their ambitions. This is a bitingly funny film, laced with supreme sophistication, eloquent prose, and fiery performances, featuring some of the finest dialogue of any film out there. It’s an extremely intelligent movie that knows how intelligent it is and doesn’t apologize for it. The deceit is so thick and layered, that it makes for one of the finest dramatic films ever produced. Winner of 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950. Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and George Sanders.
—This is a great film! A man alone to face the bandits who want to take over the town, Cooper portrays our hero with grace and courage in this “real-time” western noir. And his character certainly is a hero. He is a man faced with an imminent threat, who, foregoing his honeymoon, stays to do what any citizen in his situation ought to do. He is a man willing to stand up for justice and life in the face of wickedness, deceit and death, and much to the chagrin of his new bride. He holds the value and safety of the community over and above himself. That’s heroic. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Cooper).
Directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1952. Starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
—What is it about this film that makes it so great? Is it that you can watch it over and over again and it still makes you feel just as good as the first time? I think its the combination of thrills and pathos that has made the film grow astronomically in popularity since its release. Ranked #1 on IMDb‘s top 250 list, it features one of the finest buildups and sharpest twists in modern movie history, and its endearing message of hope against all odds is as universal as they come. As Robert Johnston suggests, The Shawshank Redemption isn’t just a movie about hope, the movie gives you hope. Real hope. Hope that the injustices around you and in your own life are surmountable. Hope that, at the very least, there are still things in this world to hope for. Hope is a beautiful thing, and as Andy says, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Frank Darabont, 1994. Starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
—This is an absolute dream cast. This is like having Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep all performing at the top of their game in the same movie. In fact, Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime-drama The Departed is the modern dream cast this film was (though totally different types of movie). This is one of the funniest movies out there, and really launched the careers of Hepburn and Grant, who to that point hadn’t really been taken seriously. Stewart’s career was already on its way after You Can’t Take it With You (Frank Capra, 1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939). This is, however, Stewart’s first and only Oscar win for Best Actor. Shame, really, he should have won a few more, but thats how it goes. This movie is just a lot of fun, has great acting, a blistering script, and will leave you thanking yourself for taking the time to watch this classic. Winner of 2 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Stewart).
Directed by George Cuckor, 1940. Starring James Stewart, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
—The power behind 12 Angry Men is that Henry Fonda’s character knows how and when to fight, and that he has the guts to actually do it . He doesn’t know if the man on trial is innocent or guilty, but he knows that everyone has prejudices that cloud judgment and morality, and does not want that to effect the decision making process. The film moves fast, but is not rushed. Lumet captures the intensity through little gestures and moments that build in a series of brilliantly photographed and played climaxes. This is one of the most unique and powerful films ever made, exposing the deeply held cultural prejudices in all of us, hoping that we too will stop to weigh the man, not just our perception of him. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, 1957. Starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.
—This is a funny, fast-paced (for most of it), excellently acted and directed film. Newman and Redford create one of the greatest screen duos in film history, making one of the finest buddy films ever. This is an extremely modern film (for 1969), and enjoys the early days post-Production Code. Hill treats Butch and Sundance as heroes even though they are clearly a hindrance to society, and treats the Super-posse as a great black cloud over their freedom, following them forever. The movie speaks to the growing amount of “freedom” the late 1960s produced, but also begs the question of what becomes of a man once you’ve taken his purpose away from him. The sins of the past are always the sins of the present until either they are put to death, or you are. Winner of 4 Academy Awards.
Directed by George Roy Hill, 1969. Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
—Perhaps the greatest film ever made about greed, and the hardening of the human heart. Humphrey Bogart delivers one of, if not his absolute best performance. The plot slowly boils and teases until Bogey finally goes mad, creating one of the best final 30 minutes in film. The film shows the horror of isolation, not that these characters have been ostracized by the society at large, but that they’ve taken themselves into the wilderness and believed the lie that they are the only person who matters, and thus are the only person they can trust. Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
Directed by John Huston, 1948. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt.
—The incredible thing about Chaplin’s films are that they remain as fresh as they ever have. This movie is just as funny and poignant now as it was in 1936. With Modern Times he was somehow able lock out the cultural hindrances that would erode his film, while also poking fun at all of them. Chaplin wasn’t a huge fan of sound in film, and understandably so. Many of today’s films simply want to talk at us, rather than shows us, and this is especially true of comedies! We get so bound up with words, words, words, that we have, in a sense, misplaced our ability to tell great stories through action. Chaplin was a master at this, and will continue to be remembered as one of the greatest, most influential filmmakers of all time.
Directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1936. Starring Charlie Chaplin.
—Classic noir. Classic, fantastic Bogart. The story is as good, as adult, and as sinister as any detective story ever caught on film. And I just love the uninterrupted, invisible filmmaking of the classical Hollywood period in this film. It really works well. Based on Dashiell Hammet’s novel of the same name, the film follows Bogart’s Sam Spade as he searches for the elusive Falcon that apparently has some worth, all the while dealing with double-crossing, deception, false identity and murder. With WWII came a darker breed of film. Nothing was as it seemed anymore, and this is perhaps the first great film noir, a genre that in part dominated a period of film history. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by John Huston, 1941. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor.
—I am in love with this movie. It’s funny, twisted, huge, intimate, beautiful and tragic, with magnificent direction, and great acting from the two leads. It is an interesting fictional look at the life, and possible murder of Mozart as told by his self-described murderer. It is big, colorful, passionate, and hypnotic. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune put it this way, and I thought it was well said: “Reminds us that movies can be lyrical as well as vulgar, ambitious as well as playful, brilliant as well as down and dirty — just like Amadeus himself.” It is a grandiose film filled with subtle moments of absolute emotional and rhythmic genius. The movie understands with brutal honesty the harsh reality before us all — there is always someone better than you. What pain there is in envy. What pain there is in constantly asking “why?”, and never receiving an answer. Winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Milos Forman, 1984. Starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.
—Fargo is the tale of a kidnapping gone horribly, horrifically, hysterically wrong. Its a film that will leave you bleeding out face down in the snow, and it does this while being one of the most sensational examples of controlled filmmaking around. Each and every shot has purpose, each line is delivered with uncanny precision, and the pacing is as smooth and purposful as any film out there. Macy, Buscemi and McDormand turn in the performances of their careers, and the magic of the Coen brothers is at its best. Winner of 2 Academy Awards, including Best Actress (McDormand).
Directed by Joel Coen, 1996. Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi.
—The first of the Rings trilogy, and my favorite. This is the one to get the ball rolling. The Star Wars of my generation, Rings broke all the rules and then re-wrote them. Taking a monstrous risk, New-Line Cinema decided to produce all three Rings films at the same time in order to achieve a continuous flow from one film to the next. So in essence, you can really look at all three movies as one 10-hour film. The visual spectacle is enormous, but the performances are so precise, and the pathos for this character who has been reluctantly thrust head-long into the adventure that will define his life, is moving. It’s the Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and Star Wars of my era and I doubt we will see anything that matches its all-around excellence for a long, long time. Winner of 4 Academy Awards.
Directed by Peter Jackson, 2001. Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean.
—This is one of Hitchcock’s funniest, most purely enjoyable films. It’s fast-paced, thrilling, and Cary Grant is as magnificent as Cary Grant always is. The film has produced some of the most iconic visual sequences ever. Stuff that is still getting satirized today. There’s too much praise to heap on the airplane in the field scene, or the whole sequence in Plot Point I, and the scene at the UN, the sequence at the Vandamm house, and the final sequence on Mt. Rushmore. I love the question mark ending too. I don’t know if it’s a question for anyone else, but I love to think that perhaps the ending is not a happy one. It’s so quick and artificial that I don’t buy its reality. I don’t know, I wouldn’t put it past Hitchcock to do something like that, especially since he is the master of every frame and nuance of the film. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1959. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
—This is a classic adventure road comedy, and one of the first great romantic comedies. This is one of only three films to win all five of the major Academy Awards, and it is well deserved. Clark Gable is unpleasantly hilarious, and Claudette Colbert is snobbish, but in the end, through a series of events and circumstances, you really fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. I watched this movie again recently and couldn’t get over how funny I still think it is. It’s easily a top 30 funniest movies ever. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Frank Capra, 1934. Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
—This is a landmark film in American cinema, and really helped turn the tide from conventional filmmaking to edgy, fast, intricate, French New Wave style films. The tone of the film throughout is as if no one has a care in the world, and yet they rob banks and kill people. In a modernist sense, we are defined by the choices we make, and Penn does a wonderful job of capturing the smallness of moments and choices that end up burying us. The ending is one of the most iconic, unique and innovative in film history, with its tremendous employment of slow-motion, real-time audio, jump cuts and rapid-fire editing, which really stepped up the bar for violence in American cinema. Winner of 2 Academy Awards including, Best Supporting Actress (Parsons).
Directed by Arthur Penn, 1967. Starring Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons.
—Its a timely film that, along with Bonnie and Clyde, helped to shape the direction of American cinema in the late 1960s. It is an incredibly funny film, working off a sharp script and terrific performances from Anne Bancroft as the seductive Mrs. Robinson, and Dustin Hoffman in the role that launched his career. What I find particularly interesting about the film (other than its awesome Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack), is that like many of us in our youthful rebellion, we have no where to go once the rebellion is won. This satire is not only poking holes in 1960s bourgeois America, but also in the shortsighted rebellion of those who really have nothing to fight for in the first place. Winner of 1 Academy Award, for Best Director.
Directed by Mike Nichols, 1967. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross.
—The greatness of this film lies in Gregory Peck’s remarkably humane and nuanced performance. He delivers one of the top-notch performances in movie history, creating a very memorable, tangible Atticus Finch for all lovers of the book. The whole trial of Tom Robinson, especially the final defense, makes me (almost) cry every time. This is also a monumental film, much like the book, in that it courageously tackles race issues at an extremely turbulent time in the United States’ racial struggles. It is a moving example of how film can help shape and/or change the social and cultural landscape. Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Peck).
Directed by Robert Mulligan, 1962. Starring Gregory Peck.
—Gloria Swanson is illuminating and chilling in this classic Hollywood satire/noir/romance/tragedy. Her obsession for Holden’s character goes from a controllable crazy, to full out psychotic murder in one of film’s great character studies. This is a film that cuts the crap in regards to Hollywood, and the people disillusioned by its artifice. There is only truth in knowing who you are so long as you are willing to be honest with yourself. Many of us in an enlightened age would never admit to being our own god, but that tends to be the way we will. Constantly thinking of self leads to the fool’s delusion that you are worth more than the people around you. Its a lie. It’s a lie that, believed and reinforced leads to disaster. Such is Sunset Boulevard. Winner of 3 Academy Awards.
Directed by Billy Wilder, 1950. Starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson.
—When I first saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, I was mesmerized and horrified. Mesmerized, 1) because Daniel Day-Lewis gives perhaps the single greatest performance in film history, 2) because the film is so magnificently shot and paced that I’m drawn into every action and movement of the camera, and 3) because Johnny Greenwood’s score is tremendously complex and riveting. And I was horrified because the ending of the film appears as soulless as Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. It appeared the film was implying there is no god in these proceedings. But perhaps the presence of His absence is everywhere. Kutter Callaway does a remarkable job of breaking the film and its music down in his forthcoming book, Hearing Images, and urges us see that the film intentionally points to a reality beyond what we simply see. Winner of 2 Academy Awards including best actor (Day-Lewis) and best cinematography.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano.
—War is hell, but hell is not war. Steven Spielberg’s passionate, horrific, violent film about a group of soldiers commissioned to save the life of one man is one of the most breathtaking achievements in cinematic history. Saving Private Ryan is bookended by two tremendously sequenced and shot battle sequences, but Act II, the middle, is what breathes life into the action. The doubt and humanity of our heroes is transcendent as they recognize the beauty of life in the frailty of their existence. This film seems to pick up where Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List left off. The tagline for that movie is, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” The tag for this film is, “The mission is a man.” The film is about people, and in all circumstances, people have the opportunity to engage with life or death. Thus, even in the hell of war, there are glimpses of heaven. And that’s what Tom Hanks’ Cpt. Miller is; a glimpse of something greater than the circumstance. Winner of 5 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1998. Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns and Matt Damon.
—This is the ultimate “fight for what is right” film, and one that some don’t like because it is so idealized. James Stewart is marvelous as the everyman who tries to take down the very same greedy politicians that attempt to use the Congressional seat they gave him for their own personal agendas. This is not just a moral triumph, and a great film to watch in high school government class, but is a fitting look at high American ideals that some now seem to let go of. It is a film that pleads for what it good and stands up for justice in an age (and even into today) where justice has been confined to grey areas. Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Frank Capra, 1939. Starring James Stewart and Claude Rains.
—This film is a stroke of genius, and one of the most legendary movies ever made. How Victor Fleming pumped out two of the greatest, most iconic films in one year (the other being Gone With the Wind of course) I will never know. It is one of the first films to use mainstream colorizing of the film, and by God does it use color to a phenomenal effect. The songs are absolute classics, making us all kids again and filling us with the joy of recognizable days gone by. The film is magnificently parabolic, and gives us the chance to identify with any of the characters at any point in our lives. They are us and we are them. You simply don’t know movies, nor should have any say in any sort of American pop-culture if you haven’t seen the movie at least once. Winner of 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Victor Fleming, 1939. Starring Judy Garland.
—This “children’s” fantasy epic is so grand and intimate, and the emotions so beautifully real and raw, that everyone is drawn into it’s majesty. John Williams’ Oscar-winning musical score is amazing, carrying us through an air of wonder, playfulness and fear in a single block of music. Spielberg ingeniously crafts the film through various point of view shots, identifying us with E.T. and Elliot. So by the time we reach Act III, we are so tethered to our young heroes that all of our childlike sentimentality comes rushing back in a flurry, suspending us in a magically spiritual place that feels more real than reality. Winner of 4 Academy Awards.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1982. Starring Henry Thomas.
—City Lights is one heck of a film! Chaplin’s comedic genius really shines in this one, but more important than that, he uses the comedic moments to make the dramatic ones all the more extraordinary. The final heartbreaking scene just would not have been the same had Chaplin not done everything in his comedic and dramatic power to set everything up. We really fall in love with the little Tramp as the film progresses, and the crazier things become in his life the more dramatic and almost hopeless things get as well. It may be Chaplin’s most emotionally affective and engaging film, but don’t let this fool you; this is a very funny movie!*
Directed by Charlie Chaplin, 1931. Starring Charlie Chaplin.
—This is certainly one of the most thoroughly entertaining of all the film noirs. The dialogue is fast and fresh, Stanwyk is seductive and ferocious, Robinson is slick and relentless, and Fred MacMurray is pure gold in a role that gets more and more complex with each viewing, just like the film itself. It is absolutely terrific filmmaking by the master Billy Wilder, because the movie is so nuanced. As entertaining as the movie is the first time around, it becomes more impressive with multiple viewings. We are continually torn on what the true intentions of the characters are, beneath the explicit. There’s duality in so much of the psychology of the film, and the constant struggle amongst the ego, super-ego and id are fascinating. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Billy Wilder, 1944. Starring Barbara Stanwyk, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.
—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.
—Quentin Tarantino shook up conventional filmmaking with his first directorial effort, Reservoir Dogs, but blew the door in with his second feature, Pulp Fiction. The story is jumbled and confused, seemingly having no plot, but as the film progresses the stories and characters become intertwined, each connecting to another by way of Marsellus Wallace. This is easily one of the greatest screenplays ever written, both in content and in structure. Though it seems confusing, it is actually a perfectly structured screenplay with a lone narrative thread. All of these morally debased characters are strung together by a man closely associated with Satan, Marsellus Wallace. The film’s conversation with the audience, much resembling any of the entertaining conversations throughout the film, seems to center around what to do with the opportunity of grace, when evil is the only paradigm you’ve ever known. Winner of 1 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 1994. Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis.
—SPOILER ALERT Psycho is a scary movie. It is quite scary. One of the amazing things that this film does which films before it hadn’t had the courage to do is completely change the focus of the movie halfway through. Audiences have expectations, now as they did back in the 50s and 60s. We spend 45 minutes with Marion Crane, so when she is murdered in the legendary shower scene, the original audiences were left is utter shock. Which makes the next scene so brilliant, as Norman methodically cleans up the hotel room. This ranks right along side Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector and the Wicked Witch of the West as the greatest movie villain ever. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960. Starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.
—Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai has long been classified one of the greatest action movies ever made. In today’s age of big blockbuster action movies of little depth, and heart, this can be a bit misleading. Though it can rightfully be called an action movie at the end, it is a film of brilliant staging and depth. Kurosawa absolutely mastered the art of the long unfolding narrative with his 3 ½ hour epic, as he makes sure to take his time and tell the story the way it needs to be told. Though the film lasts well over 3 hours, it is a story of urgency, told urgently, but with a reserved style, and if you stick around to see it through, the end of the film has a brilliant payoff! Kurosawa, much like Ingmar Bergman in many respects, liked to let the camera run to capture life, and force the audience to be an active viewer. Every shot is framed with exactness, and every scene is filmed with a beautiful elegance that only a master filmmaker can achieve. Seven Samurai is an absolute cinematic masterpiece! A marvelous achievement! Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1954. Starring Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune.
—This is a magnificent film. It boasts what I think is James Stewart’s greatest, most unnervingly intense performance. Alfred Hitchcock was a genius, which goes without saying, but this film is all that he wanted and loved about movies done as well as he could. Voyeurism, intrigue, suspense, and a film with characters that could be seen psychoanalytic test subjects. The way he mysteriously introduces us to our female lead foreshadows the great obsession later to come. This obsession is one of the most frightening examples of human passions and compulsion in film history. Absolutely ingenious! Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958. Starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.
—This is a very compelling story from the standpoint that almost everyone involved was cited as having communist ties. Many of the filmmakers, including Kazan, were pushing for people with communist ties to come clean about them so that they do not bring trouble upon themselves. This is essentially what this film is about, except it involves a mob boss and the waterfront, instead of the American government and the entire nation. Marlon Brando’s Method performance is one of the seminal performances in film history. This is can’t miss, historically infused American drama. Winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Elia Kazan, 1954. Starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger.
—This film is a monster. It is a 4-hour beast that you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s spectacle is so monumental that even by today’s rigid standards it is a crown jewel. The only reason I don’t have this in my top 10 is because, while Hollywood is generally ahead of the curve on issues of social injustice, this film does little to debunk the vociferous racism of the time. It didn’t enable it, like, say, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, but it wasn’t active in its shout for equality (though it does feature an Oscar-winning performance by Hattie McDaniel as the strong, vocal house servant). It features some of the most famous sequences and dialogue of any movie ever made, including 2 great lines right at the end of the film that pretty much sum up both Rhett and Scarlett. This film won Best Picture in 1939, perhaps the most represented year on this list. Winner of 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Victor Fleming, 1939. Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland.
—Rashomon is a film of smoldering intensity. The performances are magnificent, and Kurosawa’s circular direction is simply flawless. The sequences of choreography and framing have the elegant perfection of Japanese jidaigeki (films set in the Edo Period 1603-1868) that you expect from a cinematic master, and Kurosawa was certainly that. This film is a fascinating examination of truth and reality, as it recalls the same events from four different accounts. Winner of an Honorary Foreign Film Academy Award.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1951. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori and Takashi Shimura.
—Goodfellas is a tour-de-force masterpiece from the legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Roger Ebert, in his review of it, called it the greatest mob movie ever made. Think about that for a minute. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this film is that it doesn’t take us on a tour of the arche of mob life, condemning its evils along the way, it invites us to be a part of a worldview, to be part of a family, taking us under its wing and just letting us experience it all. The frightening thing is that we actually enjoy it! We want to be part of it. We see true realities of life that we all desire in these characters, with family, community and commitment. The problem is that these are the very things are can turn against you, leading to isolation and murder. Winner of 1 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Pesci).
Directed by Martin Scorsese, 1990. Starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
—This Cold War masterpiece almost didn’t come out in the form we have now. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a stirring, harsh, Cold War drama, and the story for the dramatized Strangelove was ready to shoot… until they discovered that another studio was already well on the way with a similar drama. So they just decided to make this a comedy. And as fortunes would have it, it’s one of the five funniest movies ever made. Many consider this Kubrick’s finest film, and I can certainly make an argument for that, but if nothing else this certainly shows his incredible range. Watch it once, absorb it, then watch it again, because this movie gets better with each viewing. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1964. Starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott.
—One of the most entertaining films ever made, even to this day. Every song and dance number is colorful and magnificent, the performances are big and boisterous, and the script is incredibly sharp and very funny. This is easily the best film Gene Kelly ever made, and I would argue is the greatest musical of all time. This recount of the end of the silent era has dazzled anyone who has seen it for decades now, and I doubt there will come a day when this film is no longer relevant. Go see it now. Nominated for 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952. Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Conner.
—This is one of the most beautifully poignant social criticisms ever brought to the screen. It is a very rare film in that it does not try to add or change anything to an already magnificent story. Henry Fonda’s performance is as good as any performance by anyone prior to the arrival of Method Acting in the early 50s, and has continued to be one of the greatest well after that. Cinematographer Gregg Toland is perhaps the greatest cinematographer from the classical Hollywood period, and the beauty of his images in congruence with director John Ford’s masterfully elegant vision is nothing short of stunning. It is easily considered one of the greatest American movies. Winner of 2 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
Directed by John Ford, 1940. Starring Henry Fonda.
—The Seventh Seal is art-cinema perfection from first frame to last. Bergman’s result is one of the most richly complex films ever made. The film is titled The Seventh Seal, a clear reference to the breaking of the seventh seal by the Lamb in Revelation 8:1-5, but these verses, much like the film, are difficult to grasp. The film is about a returning crusader faced with a seemingly godless world, who plays an ongoing game of chess with Death. As difficult as the questions are, again, note the title, and take another look at Revelation. It seems to me a film not so much about the seventh seal, but the present silence between God and man that produces a deep longing for it.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1957. Starring Max Von Sydow.
—Extremely funny, and extremely smart. I’d say this is the second funniest movie ever made. This is one of the most remarkable screenplays ever written, and its remarkable on a number of different levels. It’s highly intellectual, dealing not just with the philosophy of existentialism, but the life of existentialism. It’s also remarkably imaginative, featuring sequences of animation, personal asides, flashbacks, split-screen and characters finding themselves in each other’s memories. But it’s also a very personal film; a film with a simple plot and simple message. Allen understands the intellectual side of life, and recognizes its simultaneous pointlessness and joy. “Our brother thinks he’s a chicken, but we keep him around because we need the eggs.” Oh yeah, and this beat Star Wars for Best Picture of the year at the 1977 Oscars… and I kind of agree with the decision. Winner of 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Woody Allen, 1977. Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
—Many consider Fellini’s episodic masterpiece to be his greatest achievement, and one of the greatest achievements in film history. I agree. The film is the definition of the director and the modernist era of European cinema. Fellini’s semi-autobiographical look at a filmmaker struggling with his next project is perhaps the greatest movie ever made about filmmaking, and is a wonderful meditation on the things and people that drive us. It is not a stretch to say this is as much a spiritual experience as you’ll have watching a movie. Winner of 2 Academy Awards including Best Foreign Language Film.
Directed by Federico Fellini, 1963. Starring Marcello Mastrioanni.
—This is my favorite movie of all time. So why is it 16th on my own list? It’s in this position because the top 15 are crazy good. In there are some of the most influential movies ever made, and movies that had an uncommon impact on me (but not much more). I genuinely believe this is the funniest movie ever made, and I’ll fight for that my whole life. The first several times I saw this I laughed so hard in moments that I would miss a handful of jokes. Then I would notice the other jokes and laugh so hard that I’d miss more. As funny as Charlie Chaplin was with visual comedy, the Marx Brothers were the very best with dialogue. I think they may still the best. Then to be able to combine that dialogue with hilarious visual gags is pure cinematic and comedic genius. This movie opened my eyes to the greatness of films pre-1990, and I’ve probably seen it close to 200 times. I don’t mess around when I say this is my all-time favorite movie. I just couldn’t put it at 1 because of the genius of the top 15.
Directed by Leo McCarey, 1933. Starring Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo Marx and Margaret Dumont.
—Based on Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, this is the luckiest film ever made in Hollywood. Coppola was so depressed at points during the production that he wanted to kill himself. The shoot lasted over 200 days, and did not have an ending for most of it. Conditions were so miserable in the jungle, and morale on the set so low, that people wondered if the project would ever be finished, and/or if it would end up finishing Coppola’s career. What resulted is one of the most visually striking, operatic war masterpieces ever made. The madness of the shoot translated to the madness of the characters. It is one of the most beautifully photographed films of Hollywood’s greatest decade, and has a soundtrack (both with music and effects) that will drag your soul to a place we all never hope to actually experience. Watch this on the biggest screen you can, with the best sound you can. It’s a horrifying film, with one of the most haunting endings in film history. “The horror… the horror.” Winner of 2 Academy Awards.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979. Starring Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando.
—Much like 8 ½, this is as much a religious experience as any film around, not necessarily because the camera has a “spiritual” glide to it like 8 ½, but because the magnitude of the images, interactions, scenes and sequences have the collective power to transport you, body/soul combo, to a seemingly “other” realm of existence. Famous for its use of Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz”, it is equally famous for its lack of sound, and cacophonous chorus. We are suspended in the unsettling tension with no easy way out. The whole second Act, especially every sequence with HAL 9000, is masterful. To be able to create a truly dynamic “character” out of a machine with one red eye and a monotone voice is one of the marvels of film. It is one of the most mind-blowing science fiction films, changing the way they’re made, and setting a new standard for visual effects. Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Starring Keir Dullea.
—This is just a crushing, heartbreaking film, and I think the greatest Italian film of all time. This is one of the most formative films ever released, inspiring scores of filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Woody Allen. Though the story is one of the simplest ever told, de Sica perfectly captures the heart, and depth of suffering in a hopeless and unjust post-war Italy. This Italian Neo-realism gem boasts miraculous performances from non-actors Maggiorani and his 4 year-old son, played by Staiola. Winner of 1 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, even before there was an official category for foreign films. That’s how influential this film is.
Directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1948. Starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola.
—One of the all-time classics of the cinema. It’s as deeply rooted in the American narrative as any film that’s ever been made, and has the power to do something most movies only wish they could do—make us recognize that our lives matter. This film is not simply about a realization, this is a realization. It’s not about a revelation, it is a revelation. It is generally shown (I believe on NBC) every Christmas Eve, of course because the bulk of the film takes place around Christmas. But it’s not a Christmas movie in the traditional American sense. It’s a Christmas movie because it exemplifies in large part what Christ came to do—defeat evil with good, love your neighbors as yourself, and give us lives of individual significance within a loving, committed community. I never, ever get tired of this movie. It’s one of the most significant films any being can watch. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Directed by Frank Capra, 1946. Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore.
—This is Martin Scorsese’s first true masterpiece. This tale of urban alienation never compromises, nor gives us an easy way to decipher what we’re seeing. De Niro’s Travis Bickle is driven. By what, exactly, is unclear, as his actions are confusing and contradictory. His sense of social acceptability and virtue are not simply creations of his isolation, but rather of the morally depraved culture that surrounds him. This is a film of incredible care and quality, confronting us with the underbelly of our culture and making us realize that it is us. Travis Bickle is one of the most socially and emotionally disturbed characters in all of film, but to engage with him is to engage with our darkest, most secret selves. Is this the sort of darkness and depravity that our narcissistic individualism eventually produces? This, we must come to terms with, then press deeper to find the savior we know we cannot be. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, 1976. Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shepherd, Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel.
—This may well be the greatest screenplay ever written. It’s extremely smart, perfectly-paced, highly visual, and nothing goes unused. Robert Towne gives us a perfect example of film noir, but it plays in a way that the central characters are not simply agents, or victims of their own doing, but victims of the powerful sins of the community. Chinatown has a single through-line that binds the whole story—”You have to be rich to commit a crime.” Those with power will do everything in that power to retain their power. Morality is defined by those in power, and what may be immoral, illegal or disgusting for the common man to partake in, is not only acceptable for those with power, but wholly justified. The story here is enveloped by a reality that ought to outrage us, but doesn’t because we either believe we are powerless, choose to be apathetic, or realize that we are the ones in power. Winner of 1 Academy Award.
Directed by Roman Polanski, 1974. Starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
—The follow up to the greatest gangster film ever is darn close to being better than the original. Al Pacino is stellar here as the new Don Corleone, carrying over every nuance from the final shot of Part I into his Part II performance, and Robert De Niro is standout brilliant as the young Vito. It is a startlingly different film than the first, but equally tragic. It is one of the most astonishing pieces of dual-story filmmaking ever created, as Coppola weaves a compelling father/son parallel, engrossing not because the narratives need each other, but because they so often don’t, and we wish they didn’t. That they do takes each individual tragedy and places it in the context of the larger generational narrative, creating a complex comment not only on the lives of these individuals, but on all of our collective narrative. The sins of the father become the sins of the son. This is still (easily) the greatest sequel ever made. Winner of 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974. Starring Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro.
—Star Wars is perhaps the most influential pop-culture film phenomenon of all time. I only say perhaps because who likes dealing in absolutes? It’s the most influential. This is absolutely essential viewing for all human beings. The story is the epitome of the “Hero’s Journey,” featuring all the elements of classic hero mythology from age to age. The reason we identify with it so much is because of these classic hero themes. This is not just the stuff of novels and movies, but hero mythology is identifiable in all of life. We yearn for transformation, physical and spiritual; a death and resurrection; moving from one thing to something greater. It is good elevating to great in order to triumph evil. And here’s possibly the most important aspect of all—John Williams’ brilliant musical score is one of the greatest, most recognizable pieces of music not only in film history, but among any music ever written and recorded ever. Ever. Winner of 7 Academy Awards.
Directed by George Lucas, 1977. Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness.
—This film is so remarkably complex, that upon first viewing it seems too simple. And it is. But it’s also tremendously complex and richly layered. Released in 1939, with Europe on the eve of the Second World War, this farcical look at the sexual gamesmanship of the French aristocracy was originally reamed by critics and audiences. I’ll refer you to Roger Ebert’s review of the Criterion DVD release of the film for a much more detailed look at why this was the case, and what makes the picture so tremendous in retrospect. The film was way ahead of its time, taking seriously its role as both art and entertainment. It’s a film by a director who rightly recognized his satire as tragedy and his tragedy as satire, standing as an intricate parable in the midst of both pro- and anti-Nazi sentiments prior to the occupation of France. All this marks it as easily one of the greatest films ever made.
Directed by Jean Renoir, 1939. Starring Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir and Marcel Dalio.
—I’ve thought hard about how to describe what is great about this film, and as great as the sequences are, and Peter O’Toole is, the things that stand out to me about this movie are single shots. Peter O’Toole blowing out a match, lavish shots of the desert landscape, a single shot overlooking the hundreds of extras in the raid on Aqaba. This movie sears itself into your mind. There are shots and scenes so spectacularly visionary that they rate in the upper echelon of anything ever captured on celluloid. If you ever get a chance to see this on the big screen it will change your life. That’s not a hyperbole. Winner of 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by David Lean, 1962. Starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness and Claude Rains.
—This film is so burned into the collective pop-culture conscious of America (and film culture in general), that to see it once is to sense its already potent familiarity. There are lines of dialogue that we have all heard, that we all know and use, and have no idea where it came from. Chances are really good it came from this movie. This wartime national anthem, though, is the ultimate Hollywood paradox. Michael Curtiz was a very respectable director, but not amazing, the film was churned out very quickly, and usually when a movie has 6 writers it is a total disaster. Yet, this is a glowing masterpiece planted firmly on the Mt. Rushmore of cinema. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, 1943. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.
—Perhaps the most important film ever made, this is Spielberg’s most personal and powerful work. The choice between love and hate, death and life, is a delicate one, but one that becomes overpowering. Our thoughts are generally shaped by our position in the surrounding social milieu, but if we allow ourselves to see through the eyes of a human being on the other side, we are better equipped to make the decision of whether we will bring life or death, because now that other person is not just an object of our demise, but a fellow brother or sister. It is in this tension where Oskar Schindler resides, confronted with the horrifying task of doing what is right; saving life rather than taking it. “The list is good. The list is life.” Are we selfless enough to choose life over death? Because invariably, to choose our own life is to choose another’s death, and to choose another’s life is to choose our death. Are we willing to die to ourselves? “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” Winner of 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1993. Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes.
—Largely considered the greatest film of all time, and it’s hard to argue against that. Orson Welles produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in this masterpiece at the age of 25. It was a masterfully executed conglomeration of all the emerging techniques of the new sound era, which would be enough to make it a great film, but that it took all of these elements to a level that no other film before and for a very long time after could touch, makes it perhaps the greatest movie ever made. The film was so far ahead of its time (and is very much ahead of ours too), that it got lost under the weight of its own greatness for nearly a decade. Though deep-focus photography was a technique first attempted with Renoir’s previously mentioned The Rules of the Game, it is perfected here by legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland. Everything in the background and foreground is constantly in focus, forcing audiences to take an active viewership in the way Welles and Toland distort everything we think we know about our characters. The film doesn’t cut us any slack, and it doesn’t tell us how to think and feel. We are on our own, just like Kane. Watch it as many times as you can, taking note of all the little details; it’s a film so marvelously complex that it may just bring us to a greater plane of thinking about art, film and people altogether.
Directed by Orson Welles, 1941. Starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton.
—What is it about The Godfather that consistently puts it at or near the top of every “greatest films” list? It’s attention to detail is flawless. It’s editing is benchmark setting. Nino Rota’s musical score is haunting and lingering. The atmosphere is perfectly captured in set design and costume. But the two things that make this movie uniformly considered a true masterpiece are Coppola’s carefully measured, deeply personal direction, and the barrage of brilliant performances. Coppola turns the Mafia into a genuine American family. There is not much sense throughout that these are bad people, they’re just people. Everything is justifiable. Though we see the signs of it, it is in the (brilliant is too weak an adjective) ending that we fully realize the horror of what’s happened, and can then go back and watch the rest of the film for the tragedy that it is. Marlon Brando delivers an iconic performance as Don Vito; a man content with his ethic, never apologizing for doing what he believed needed to be done. But I think it is Al Pacino who steals the film. His Michael Corleone is at once, paradoxically one of the most tragic and terrifying characters ever brought to life. Like Kay (Diane Keaton), it grieves us to empathize with the man Michael has become. This is as perfect a film as you’ll ever find, so watch closely. Winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Cann.
—The greatest film ever made, and one of the most transformative films I’ve ever seen. Highly influenced by French New Wave, Italian modernist and neo-realist, and German expressionist styles of filmmaking, the incomparable Martin Scorsese uses the editing room, his camera and lighting to phenomenal effect to create an atmosphere of self-loathing, sexual inadequacy, paranoia, collapse and redemption. De Niro turns in one of film’s greatest performances as boxer Jake LaMotta, going from a finely tuned boxer to a heavily overweight comedian, gaining 50 pounds for the role. Inside the ring, LaMotta is an animal; a violent id unleashing pent up fury on his prey. Outside the ring, he’s the exact same, he just refuses to recognize it. What makes this film so transformative for me is that through Scorsese’s guiding hand (and naturally all the other production elements) the Transcendant Spirit plays the role of active observer, waiting for that moment of release when He comes in as the reconciling force. For all of us, it takes losing ourselves to truly find ourselves. We don’t have to live in paranoia and hate, as an uncontrollable animal disregarding a latent humanity. Life is so much simpler and more beautiful when we embrace others in love. Because it is in loving others that we come to love ourselves, almost never the other way around. Winner of 2 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (De Niro).
Directed by Martin Scorsese, 1980. Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty