Congratulations. Despite my best efforts at self-deprecation, somehow you wanted me to make another list. Even more disturbing is that I received a request for this specific list. I worry for you if you really want to hear my opinions. But who am I to deny the 3 whole people who read that last list, and the 2 whole people who read my Oscar picks? Those people were there with me from the beginning of the week. You can’t buy loyalty like that.
I am going to try my best at this list. There are so many genres of film and it is really hard to compare a comedy that doesn’t take itself to seriously to an 80s action movie or one of those pretentious period dramas that all the rich assholes love. With that in mind, I am going to try to be as varied as possible, including as many different genres as I can, otherwise this list might consist solely of Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. There is no correct way to do this so give me a break if this looks nothing like the list you would put together. (Note: I reworked this list four times because I couldn’t come to a one person consensus with myself.)
Special shout out to the movies you couldn’t pay me to put on this list but your film professor insists are perfect: “Citizen Kane”, “La La Land”, “Titanic”, “The Breakfast Club”, “Forrest Gump”, and “12 Angry Men”. And a much more deserved shout out to the Honorable Mentions crowd: “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “There Will Be Blood”, “Inside Out”, “V for Vendetta”, “Anchorman”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Shawshank Redemption”.
10. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)
Wow! I’m starting out with a black-and-white film from the 40s? I must be so intellectual, unique and mysterious. I bet everyone thinks I am cool. I should wear a fedora and get a pocket watch too. Well hypothetical onlooker, who am I to tell you that you’re wrong for thinking that?
While I may be auditioning for your local annoying hipster with this pick, there is a reason this film is so fondly remembered. As optimistic as the title suggests the movie is, the plot centers around the contemplation of suicide. Fun times. The main character, George, is considering taking his own life on Christmas Eve, 1945, and a guardian angel descends from heaven to help show him how his life has impacted others and the world around him.
I am not a religious man in the slightest so the heaven aspect is just fluff to me. However, the power this film has to give anyone’s life perspective is incredible. As someone who struggles with depression on a daily basis, it is a story I want to connect to.
George sees how his life saved so many others’ lives from death and prison, but it also doesn’t forget to show where he went wrong. The film doesn’t lie to you and say that your impact is all positive because that isn’t true. No one has lived life to perfection. The point is to look back and see what you’ve done right because it’s easy to forget that when all you can feel is the wrong.
The angel shows George what life would be like if he was never born at all and it wasn’t what he expected. In fact, it was unrecognizable because his absence meant all of the positive influences he made were gone.
This film can impact your life, the way it impacts George’s. Sometimes you need this kind of perspective to help you. Most films inject positivity just by being positive, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” is reflective and can appeal to absolutely anyone.
9. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
This is a film that has aged gracefully. Apparently, people had mixed feelings upon its initial release, but since it came out during the legendary Gerald Ford administration, who can fault all those hippies for not knowing what quality looked like? Take that all you boring Gerry Ford fanatics out there. I bet all three of you are crying now.
Monty Python is a famous British comedy group that released numerous films that were either sketch compilations or satire. This film falls into the latter. In a spoof of the legend of King Arthur, Monty Python produces a notoriously low budget tale that is so self-aware of itself, you’ll be in physical pain (in a good way). One of the funniest gags they implement is the use of coconuts as an onscreen prop in place of horses. Obviously, the budget for horses didn’t exist so the writers decided “let’s just roll with that” and it is so satisfying to watch.
In so many brilliant maneuvers, the writers and cast know they are dictating their own rules as they go along and can have the viewer so confused. I know it sounds odd if you haven’t seen it, but it just does its own thing. This ultimately comes to a head when at the final conclusion of the film, a lowkey side-gag of police investigating a murdered character actually stops the main climactic duel to arrest the protagonists and throw them in a modern police car. And that’s it! The movie ends like that!
The film is littered with cheeky British wit that is not just limited to small gags. The dialogue is virtually perfect and very quotable, and the comedy will have you tearing up. With respect to all the Mel Brooks comedies out there (I’m looking at you Spaceballs), this is the greatest parody film, in my humble opinion, of all-time.
8. “Spirited Away” (2001)
Have you ever watched a movie and it just makes you feel some type of indescribable way? “Spirited Away” is a film that will give you that experience. Although my knowledge of Eastern films is limited, and I am sure there are others that I have not watched that deserve to be mentioned here, this film is my personal favorite of those films and I cannot think of many films in general that gave me a sense of wonder quite like this.
There are a multitude of comparisons to “Alice in Wonderland” that can be drawn, and for a good reason. The sheer oddity and creativity that went into designing the world in which the stories take place are both upper-echelon. It is truly a beautiful sight that mystifies at every frame. I recall watching “Spirited Away” for the first time as a kid home on a Saturday night and having the strangest, yet enjoyable dreams that night, which might be the point of the film: A strange, dream-like adventure to help children go on their own strange, dream-like adventure.
On paper, the film is a coming-of-age, animated fairy tale that takes place in the spirit world. But if you haven’t gotten it yet, this film is so much more than what it is on paper. This film is enchantment in its rawest and most pure form. As a 23-year old, I still feel moved by even the mention of this film’s name in casual conversation. I could explain the intricacies of the plot and characters, but I believe wholeheartedly that doing so is just a distraction from the point I am trying to make.
I encourage anyone and everyone to watch this film with an open-mind, don’t ask questions until the end, and just absorb this with your eyes and ears. Trust me, you’ll understand then.
7. “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
Time for an unexpected 180o turn from all the light-hearted positivity is was spewing in the previous entries. Optimism sucks anyways. “A Clockwork Orange” is on the total opposite end of the spectrum from all that junk and I am here for it.
A film that can be described as overwhelming and desensitizing, “A Clockwork Orange” walks a path that no other film prior had even treaded near, and really no film since has tried to approach. Critics, at its release, claimed it was “pornographic” and “dehumanizing”. When boundaries are pushed, the boundaries often push back.
But somehow, despite being so removed from the mainstream, this film is actually quite positively regraded by most people who aren’t the president of their church’s book club. In college, my History of Cinema professor was an old, holier-than-thou woman, who didn’t much care for opinions that weren’t her own. You always wanted to ask “who hurt you?” whenever she scolded your thoughts. Even this woman, unprovoked, raved about this film as a masterpiece to a class that she told she didn’t enjoy Harrison Ford’s work to. Who hurt you, professor? Who hurt you?
Underneath its controversial subject-matter and depictions comes a legitimate criticism of censorship, psychology, humanity, free-will, and morality. The main character Alex is not a good person at all. He is a murderer, thief, and rapist who shows zero remorse about his actions. The story is about the dubious nature of his reconditioning back into a society he utterly demonized, via the means of traumatic psychological conditioning that limits his free will and thinking. There are heavy questions you must ask yourself of the absolutes of your morality and just how far you think it is acceptable to go to execute that morality.
6. “The Shining” (1980)
I don’t believe I am going out on a limb here when I declare that “The Shining” is the best horror film ever. You may disagree, but (A) you’d be wrong in doing so, and (B) most people would agree with my assessment.
Not relying on the usually jump-scares that litter modern horror, “The Shining” is a great story that doesn’t create fear by hiding things in what you cannot see and what you do not know, but instead by presenting it all to you. The threats feel real because you see it develop and you watch it encroach. Found footage horror has a niche and I understand the appeal, but this is a narrative, a full, well-told story that does more to create its horror on its own than any other film of the genre, at least that I know of.
Jack Nicholson does a brilliant job portraying the steady decay of Jack’s (conveniently the name of his character too) psyche, and Shelley Duvall, who was basically tortured by perfectionist director and utter psychopath Stanley Kubrick, gives the purest portrayal of fear I can recall in film. The atmosphere of slowly impending doom makes you feel paranoid as if you are really having visions of bloody waterfalls coming out of elevators or being chased down by an axe-wielding, crazy, if not realistic depiction, of Jack Nicholson on a given Tuesday.
A testament to how important this film is for the genre of horror and pop-culture is how often it is referenced still. Just for reference, 2018’s “Ready: Player One” had a major aspect of its plot centered around the recreation of the film in video game form. On top of that, there is an absurd amount of parodies of the film due to how recognizable so many of its scenes really are. This film has a powerful and lasting legacy.
5. “Back to the Future” (1985)
Has anyone ever said anything bad about this film? Ok, aside from the suggestion of an incestuous attraction between Marty and his mom and how she was definitely being raped by Biff, this might be the most universally beloved film ever. And ignore the fact that one of the main, goofy protagonists was hired by Libyan terrorist to steal Uranium and build them a nuclear weapon while you are at it, because no one cares, nerd. It is the weird, forgotten subplots like that one that add to the charm.
It may not be number one on my list, but it is borderline impossible not to enjoy yourself watching “Back to the Future”, regardless of what genre of film you generally prefer. The characters of Doc and Marty are one of the greatest “odd couple” duos in any medium ever. Doc’s wacky antics create all the zany possibilities while Marty, as the viewers’ point of reference, constantly gets himself into trouble seemingly only by existing. Marty, especially, has to learn on the McFly (Sorry. I hate myself too) and his improvisations are incredibly entertaining.
This movie, and its subsequent sequels help the imagination explore time in a way that can appeal to every moviegoer, not just the usual science fiction niche that typically explores the topic. I’m sure that it is a fantasy that we’ve all had at least once to explore eras before you and some that have yet to happen. And that is what this is: an adventure!
There are lessons about being careful what you wish for and how actions have unintended consequences, but that’s not why the film is special. No one watches this film to learn anything. You watch it to be entertained! That is the goal of watching movies, after all, and “Back to the Future” is, without question, one of the most universally entertaining films ever made.
4. “Star Wars” (1977)
I have zero tolerance for disagreement on this one. If you have an “alternative” opinion, you are instructed to kiss my ass. I love “Star Wars” and so does everyone else because as the saying goes “Nobody hates ‘Star Wars’ more than ‘Star Wars’ fans”, meaning you either love it or you criticize it because you love it and want more for it. I’m glad we cleared up the fact that everybody loves “Star Wars.”
With “Star Wars” we have the original blockbuster, the genesis of all modern movie franchises, and the emperor of pop culture. You know that little group of Indi-films called the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Well, that simply does not exist without “Star Wars”. The idea that a film could impact society in an economic and cultural way was laughable before “Star Wars” and now it’s counted on by film studios. The toy aisles at Walmart, filled with LEGOs, action-figures, and posters, all are the way they are because of “Star Wars”. I will shamelessly admit to owning multiple custom-made lightsabers and a wall displaying my Star Wars LEGOs in my room. Judge me.
Aside from the soul-crushing and wallet-killing economic leviathan that is franchise merchandising, this film was groundbreaking in its advancements for special effects and world-building. The modern film industry is where it is now because of Director George Lucas’s experimentalism with miniatures, pyrotechnics, and post-filming editing techniques. But as George himself said “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing”.
The story of “Star Wars” inspires hope, follows an ideology (albeit a simple one) that everyone can get behind, and has so many memorable, surprisingly deep characters to root for. This film burgeoned into possibly the largest pop culture franchise to date, with TV shows, video games, books, comics, and too many movies than the producers know what to do with, because the story is fun. It captures the imagination and teaches you that it is never too late to be a hero.
Now the sequels… Much to everyone’s surprise I have some thoughts on those too, but we can talk about them another day.
3. “The Departed” (2006)
Martin Scorsese has directed more fantastic movies than I have had actual moments of happiness in my life, and I do think it is criminal that I only put this one film of his on my list. If that’s the crime they finally get me for, I’ll surrender peacefully. I deserve what I’ve got coming. Frankly, Scorsese could direct 3 hours of uninterrupted static and I’d probably watch it.
“The Departed” (the legal pronunciation is with a heavy Bostonian accent) is an utter masterpiece of the highest caliber. Consisting of one of, if not the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, the movie executes its story as close to perfection as humanly possible, which include Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and Anthony Anderson. The acting is stellar, and the on-screen chemistry between actors is beyond exceptional.
At the heart of the story is a two-way cat-and-mouse chase between an undercover cop in the Boston Irish Mafia, and an undercover mafia member in the Boston police department, both of whom are tasked with finding the rat in their organization. I’ve been told that this is a remake of the plot from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, but as I haven’t seen the original, I can’t comment on how the two compare to each other. Either way, the movie is filled with tension, unexpected changes of the status quo, and incredibly written dialogue, and we should appreciate the quality in which all of those were undertaken. This film is long but it doesn’t let up at any point. The pacing is consistent and every moment shown on screen is there to give you necessary information.
I love this movie. My friends and I go around asking each other “Are you a f*cking cop?!” (again, a heavy Bostonian accent is necessary) just randomly just to make sure neither one of us is a rat. If you give this a chance, maybe you’ll be doing that with your friends soon enough.
2. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Is this a modern blockbuster that is also a poignant detective movie with Oscar-winning acting? Yes.
What, you want more? You’re so needy. That’s a really unattractive quality.
“The Dark Knight” is arguably the finest work in the filmography of Christopher Nolan, of which he has objectively made zero movies that are even below average. He takes a character and stories that have been told and retold for more than seven decades prior to its release and somehow sets the bar. The movie was so good, that when the Oscars inevitably snubbed it for a Best Picture nomination, the entire Academy reformed their nomination process so films like “The Dark Knight” could get the recognition it deserves. Getting an organization that is so stuck in their ways that are probably still mad at Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation (#OscarsSoWhite) to go home and rethink their life is an accomplishment equal to that of the Herculean tasks of Greek myths.
What this film does is create the first blockbuster that can also be taken seriously as a sophisticated drama. Nolan does an amazing job creating a fictional city that very easily could exist. Somehow, he turns a story about a mentally scared man who dresses like a bat in military-grade super armor, drives a tank to work at his multibillion-dollar company which he owns, and beats up Italians and mentally ill people in his down time seem real. Because that’s reasonable.
The legend of Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t do it enough justice. He creates a psychological villain in the Joker that is without question belonging in the Mount Rushmore of movie antagonists. His unfortunate passing is a shame for many reasons, but the fact that he was not able to see his best and final performance on the big screen is truly heartbreaking.
There is honestly too much to say about this film and why it is so amazing. Other films have tried to emulate it in hopes of creating a formula for greatness, and yet none have yet to succeed. The Dark Knight is my personal favorite film of all-time, and it juuuuuuuuuuuust missed out on the number one slot.
1. “The Godfather” (1972)
Remember when I said “The Departed” had “one of, if not the finest cast”? Well, this film is the reason I used the qualifiers. Sorry, but it is hard to top Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Diane Keaton.
What can I say about “The Godfather” that hasn’t been repeated thousands of times before I wrote this? Nothing. Okay, cool. Well, then I guess I’ll be unoriginal.
The film centers around the gang wars of the 1940s and 1950s, and the New York crime families that head them. The story tackles themes of power, family, revenge, and criminality. Honestly, you ask any random person and chances are this is what they would call a perfect movie. It’s violent, it engaging, and it sets the standard for the genre of crime-based gangster films that is so well-remembered that it is unlikely that a film can reach the near hyperbolic accolades we’ve bestowed upon “The Godfather”.
Maybe it’s unfair that I give a film credit for being a literal living-legend but it is part of the package that is “The Godfather”. Its impact cannot be denied and it has had enough time to fully saturate itself into our American culture, more so than the other films I put in the top 3. But “The Godfather’ has no faults in my eyes so it is not like it hasn’t earned its placing up on top. If they are tied, I give this the edge because it is the standard that was set, and still to this day, has been unbaled to be surpassed.