The Top 10:
The Top 10 is pretty much stable. I love all of these films dearly, have watched most of them many times (I’ve probably seen Roger Rabbit more times than any film), and don’t see any of them falling off this list anytime soon. MAYBE I’d swap Jaws and Pulp Fiction or The Manchurian Candidate (I’ve only seen Jaws twice, and am well overdue for a rewatch), but that’s about it. Snatch is perfect, Roger Rabbit is perfect, 2001 is probably the greatest film ever made, In the Loop the funniest…if you know me, you know why most of these are here.
1. Snatch – I can explain the greatness of Snatch the way I’ve heard some people explain the greatness of Casablanca: it’s not the most ambitious or most profound film, but it’s a perfectly crafted piece of entertainment. The way Guy Ritchie juggles so many characters and plotlines, with scarcely a slip-up, AND manages to make it so constantly hilarious and engaging is a wonder to behold. And the cast is sublime: Alan Ford, who I’ve otherwise seen very little of, gives us one of the great all-time villains in Brick Top. His “greedy as a pig” monologue is perfection. But then again, so is the film.
2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit – I grew up with this film, so it’s hard for me to be objective about it. But, I hasten to add, my affection for it is hardly based on nostalgia alone. It’s fantasy of the highest order, delving into our great cartoon heritage and touching on the costs of urban development while being endlessly entertaining. Roger and Jessica Rabbit make as much impact in this one film as many cartoon stars did in their whole career. And Bob Hoskins will always be Eddie Valiant to me (which is what made The Long Good Fridaysuch a disheartening experience). And remember: “A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it’s the only weapon we have.”
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey – I don’t even know what to say here. Fitting, since this film relies far less on dialogue than on imagery. But I’ll go ahead and say that this is probably the greatest film ever made. In terms of pure ambition and realization of that ambition, it’s virtually unsurpassed in all of cinema. Yes, it’s a slow and sometimes trying watch, but the Stargate sequence is the awe-inspiring, polychrome reward; even as a child, baffled by the ending and doubtless missing many of the nuances, I was enthralled by this. And it’s not just pretty colors; it’s a wholly believable (if stylized) conception of what traveling across unfathomable space and time would be like. One other note: some will likely argue that the characters of Bowman and Poole are thin and that Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood give wooden performances. But I disagree. They’re entirely convincing as men who have had, for 18 months, no company but each other, a computer (and Douglas Rain’s work as HAL is nothing short of perfect), and three cryogenically frozen bodies. How sprightly do you think YOU’D be?
4. Inglourious Basterds – As soon as I knew what this film was, I knew I would love it. It was gravy, then, just how great a film it turned out to be. The catharsis of the film’s climax is only heightened by the beautiful narrative chess game Tarantino plays to get us there. Told in five parts like the five acts of neoclassical drama, moving its characters deftly towards an explosive finish, the occasional lulls of the first two hours are burned up with a whole lotta nitrate. As an added bonus, it introduced Christoph Waltz to an appreciative world audience. To conclude: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdSBZ5WtSJc
5. In the Loop – As you might have guessed from my #1, I love British humor. And here’s more. Some of the very greatest. It’s a political comedy that doesn’t really take a side, because corruption and dirty dealing is on all of them. It’s not just bile, though—the characters, horrible though they can be, are fully developed (and perfectly acted, of course—Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is one of the great comic creations of recent years) and believable, and like many great films, it grows in complexity with each new viewing; Toby (Chris Addison), whom I initially felt some measure of pity for, is really a terrible person, one who compounds every error he makes with cowardice and buck-passing. It’s not uplifting by any stretch of the imagination, but it IS hysterical—vulgar, savage, rapid-fire hysteria, very, very slightly marred by an excess of topical references—but everything else is so marvelous that it doesn’t matter.
6. Fight Club – Fight Club is, like Snatch, a superbly put-together entertainment above all. It does have a lot of intellectual gristle to chew on—one can certainly debate what stance, if any, it takes. And it’s a fascinating meditation on the role of violence and savagery in the male psyche. But above all, it’s just a blast to watch. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter have never been better, and David Fincher has virtually never topped his work here (MAYBE The Social Network was better directed, but I think it’s less inventive). Add to that an emotionally satisfying ending (when they so easily could’ve gone for something darker and nastier) and you’ve got a film that will always be dear to my heart.
7. GoodFellas – It’s Scorsese, and he’s at his best. Few films are this full of energy and this much fun to watch, and yet it pulls no punches either. The hell that Henry Hill leaps happily into is brought to life so well that you aren’t repelled by it—rather, you love the vicarious experience. Ray Liotta (shamefully not nominated for an Oscar) and Joe Pesci (rightfully winning an Oscar) give performances for the ages (and Lorraine Bracco is pretty damn good, too).
8. Black Narcissus – The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have a distinct, yet ethereal quality that makes them so special; I might call it “directness”. Because they put forth outlandish, ambitious premises and treat them with an almost innocent boldness. Their work seems all the more sensational because it doesn’t sensationalize itself—it takes itself seriously (though not to the point of being self-serious). Here, telling the story of a group of nuns struggling to maintain a convent school in the Himalayas, struggling against themselves, each other, and the forbidding environment, they don’t soft-pedal (beyond the restrictions of the 40s) the sexual tension—the earthiness—that is eating away at their austerity. And the use of color is miraculous, perhaps most in a climactic moment when a character appears, their skin literally as pale as death. It’s a moment that remains stunning 65 years on. I used to think this was the greatest film ever made. But making the Top 10 isn’t too shabby.
9. Jaws – Of all the films in my top 10, this is the one I’ve seen the least, and I haven’t seen it in a couple of years. So I don’t have a ton to say right now. Suffice to say that Spielberg, here at his least sentimental, crafts a perfect thriller from an apparently trashy novel, with a perfect cast, crisp editing, an iconic score, and some of that same unassuming directness that makes Powell & Pressburger’s films so great.
10. The Blues Brothers – “Shit.” “What?” “Rollers.” “No.” “Yeah.” “Shit.” (“Soothe me, baby, soothe me…”)
The Next 15:
Most of these are solidly Top 25 films, though I could quibble about the order. A lot of these are films I haven’t seen in a while (in the case of Babe, a very long while) and so I can’t rank them with the same certainty I ranked my Top 10 with; certainly my recent re-evaluation of The Dark Knight gives me some room to doubt Inception‘s future on the list.
11. Pulp Fiction – It’s a classic for a very good reason. I rank it below Inglourious Basterds purely for personal reasons—it’s just as good a film otherwise.
12. The Manchurian Candidate – One of those films that fits together perfectly. MAYBE it shouldn’t be this high, but the last time I saw it I was really blown away.
13. Touch of Evil – For me, this is Orson Welles’ best achievement. Delightfully seamy, beautifully shot, perfectly acted, and just about air-tight. It has all the invention of Citizen Kane, but it’s a much more mature and controlled work—and that, to me, makes all the difference.
14. The Producers – “That’s our Hitler!”
15. The Godfather – Duh.
16. Fantasia – My favorite Disney. Uneven, yes, but it still has some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. And that’s not even mentioning the music.
17. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels – A friend of mine (I forget precisely who) suggested that whether one prefers this or Snatch is simply a matter of which one sees first, and I can go along with that. It’s a little rougher around the edges, and the central villain here is less compelling, but it’s otherwise just as impressive (and hilarious) an achievement—especially considering it was Ritchie’s first feature.
18. Inception – Haven’t seen this one in a couple of years. Maybe the bloom will have worn off the rose—certainly even now I’ll admit the first hour is a bit sluggish. But the dream heist is such an amazing feat of writing, directing, and editing that I’ll leave it here for now. And I still love the ending—a simple one, but a brilliant one.
19. Koyaanisqatsi – Listen to Philip Glass’ score. That alone should make my feelings clear. That it happens to be a masterful look at modern society and the conflict of nature and technology is just a bonus.
20. The Godfather Part II – See #15. Probably objectively the better of the two, but they’re both Top 20.
21. Stalker – Like Inception, it takes a while to get cooking. And it took me about three tries to really get into it. But it’s one of the most intellectually rich films I’ve seen. Slow pacing used properly really draws me into a film, and Tarkovsky was a master of it.
22. Melancholia – The first eight and last two minutes would be enough to put it here—the ending is literally one of the best and most thrilling in any film. But there’s so much more here—von Trier’s witty, thoughtful, idiosyncratic writing, the gorgeous cinematography, and the astounding acting (Kirsten Dunst was robbed of an Oscar, no joke). Besides, if you know me, you know Lars had to get on here.
23. Raiders of the Lost Ark – Come on.
24. Hausu – Such a wonderfully insane movie. My cousin Martin has written about it at greater length, and to him I owe my having seen it at all. So I’ll just link you to his reviews: http://martinteller.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/hausu-house/ http://martinteller.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/hausu-rewatch/
25. Babe – I haven’t seen it in a LONG time, but this, along with Roger Rabbit, was among the most beloved films of my childhood. Because pork is a nice sweet meat. (mouse laughter)
The Next 25:
Here’s where things get shaky. There are even more films I’ve only seen once or twice, or not in years. I’m going to try and rewatch as many of these 50 films as possible in the coming months, but #26-35 are almost certainly not leaving the list. From #36 onward, it gets wobblier (and Imitation of Life might be a bottom 10 on this list on rewatching—which sounds much harsher than it is), and the bottom 10 are particularly tenuous. Again, these are all great films for which I have great affection, but it remains to be seen if they truly deserve to be here.
26. Airplane! – Also one of the funniest films ever made.
27. A Matter of Life and Death – Powell & Pressburger at very near their best. Not quite as perfect as BLACK NARCISSUS, but a beautiful and ballsy film nonetheless.
28. 8 1/2 – Films about films are not really my thing—they tend to feel overly self-referential or like failed attempts at self-reference. This one, by being only partially about film and more about creativity in general, transcends my objections. I’ve only seen it once, but it made the appropriate impression.
29. Lawrence of Arabia – What do I even say here?
30. Watchmen – Almost certainly the most underrated film of the last decade. A brilliant adaptation of a brilliant book, whose one major change to the narrative is, I think, wholly justified.
31. Taxi Driver – I need to see this again, but it’s not the quality of it I doubt, just my precise feelings towards it. So for now I’ll just recommend you go listen to Bernard Herrmann’s score.
32. Topsy-Turvy – I love Gilbert & Sullivan so much. This makes such good use of their music. I have some caveats (there’s one scene towards the end that’s REALLY ham-fisted), but for the most part, I adore this.
33. The Red Tent – I would love to see the original Russian version, 35 minutes longer and with a different score, but this is still a wonderful film, a great tale of survival and a fine portrait of the Arctic (which makes it even more relevant now).
34. Imitation of Life – Soap opera at its finest, from the master, Douglas Sirk. Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner give absolutely heartbreaking performances.
35. Patton – Admittedly, aside from George C. Scott’s performance it’s merely a good film. But Scott’s performance is more than enough to elevate it to greatness.
The bottom 15 I’ll just provide a favorite line or moment:
36. Blue Velvet– “What kind of beer you like?” “Heinken.” “HEINKEN?! Fuck that shit! PABST! BLUE! RIBBON!”
37. Hot Fuzz – “What’s it like being stabbed?” “It was the single most painful experience of my life.” “What’s the second most painful?”
38. Blade Runner– “All those…moments…will be lost in time, like…tears, in rain. Time to die.”
39. The Big Lebowski – “God damn you Walter! You fuckin’ asshole! Everything’s a fuckin’ travesty with you, man! And what was all that shit about Vietnam? What the FUCK has anything got to do with Vietnam? What the fuck are you talking about?”
40. Toy Story – “Great! Now I have guilt!”
41. Singin’ in the Rain – “Oh Donny! You couldn’t kiss me like that and not mean it just a teensy bit!” “Meet the greatest actor in the world! I’d rather kiss a tarantula.” “You don’t mean that.”“ I don’t—hey Joe, get me a tarantula.”
42. Dr. Strangelove – “Well, I, uh… I… I… first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love. Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I… I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh… women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh… I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I… I do deny them my essence.”
43. RoboCop – “BITCHES LEAVE!”
44. Pennies from Heaven – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raoHt0AD-dQ
45. Dark City – “You know something, I don’t think the sun even… exists… in this place. ‘Cause I’ve been up for hours, and hours, and hours, and the night never ends here.”
46. Fitzcarraldo – “I’ll tell you a story. At a time when North America was hardly explored, one of those early French trappers went westward from Montreal, and he was the first white man to set eyes on Niagara Falls. When he returned, he told of waterfalls that were more vast and immense than people had ever dreamed of. But no one believed him. They thought he was a madman or a liar. They asked him, ‘What’s your proof?’, and he answered, ‘My proof is that I have seen them.’”
47. Enter the Void – “Do you remember that pact we made? We promised to never leave each other.”
48. Fiddler on the Roof – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBHZFYpQ6nc
49. There Will Be Blood – “I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little, Henry… to have you here gives me a second breath. I can’t keep doing this on my own with these… people.”
50. The Tree of Life – “If you do not love, your life will flash by.”
Here is a list of films that didn’t make this first iteration of the list, or which probably should have been considered, but which I haven’t seen in too long or am still unsure about my absolute feelings towards. In no particular order:
- Ivan the Terrible (and Part II)
- Synecdoche, New York
- Days of Heaven
- The Shining
- Apocalypse Now
- The Wizard of Oz
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- Revenge of a Kabuki Actor
- Seven Samurai
- Some Like it Hot
- Elmer Gantry
- The Seventh Seal
- Grand Illusion
- America America
- Goldfinger (or From Russia with Love)
- The Dark Knight
- Andrei Rublev
- The Aviator
- Bad Boy Bubby
- War and Peace (1968)
There are many, many others, of course, but this is where I think I need to start.