The cream of the crop! See the full list here. Or on Letterboxd.
20. Hoop Dreams
That’s why when somebody say, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me”, and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, “if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.”
Since this list is a yearly tradition and really like using quotes to introduce a movie and I’ve been a big fan of Hoop Dreams since first watching it while I was in college all those years ago, I’ve always struggled to find a variety of quotes for movies that perennially make the list. Especially when a documentary like this one has such a profound and compelling summary of the 3 hours a viewer must invest to see the full stories of the two young basketball phenoms at the center of this film. Those three hours give it room to breathe and consider all facets of their drive to become famous basketball players, including one’s inspirational push for his mother to receive her nursing certification in the film’s best scene. It’s all great.
19. The Exorcist
There are no experts. You probably know as much about possession than most priests. Look, your daughter doesn’t say she’s a demon. She says she’s the devil himself. And if you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you’d know it’s like saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte.
Some great movies are scary and some scary movies are great. This one falls into both categories quite easily. Half family drama and half spectacularly scary horror film, it is a classic for a billion reasons. Just check the set design in those later scenes for a truly tremendous transformation.
18. Raiders of the Lost Ark
What a fitting end to your life’s pursuits. You’re about to become a permanent addition to this archaeological find. Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.
If Jaws is Spielberg being perfect technically and Jurassic Park his attempt at proving that movie magic exists, Raiders is him simply having a blast. It is the cinema’s most fun film. Again, I got to see this on the big screen this year and it was a great experience. It’s old and new, an exciting throwback to the serials of the 30s and 40s with some slick writing and Spielberg’s propulsive style carrying anything Harrison Ford can’t lift on his own (which, it turns out, isn’t much).
17. Miller’s Crossing
All in all not a bad guy – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.
Miller’s Crossing is much closer to the fast paced dialogue of something like the Howard Hawks Scarface than it is the Brian De Palma version of that film. It concerns itself with seedy people at least pretending to be upstanding citizens, double and triple crosses, and some excellent machinegun fire to go along with the motormouths in the cast. It’s a credit to the film that it is steeped in a genre that I generally hate and still it maintains a spot in my top 20 of all time. Of course, the Coen brothers have a large part to play there, focusing on the inherent silliness of organized crime and emphasizing that the violence they perpetrate is ultimately quite stupid. “Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.”
16. The Sixth Sense
And the tiny hairs on your arm, you know when they stand up? That’s them. When they get mad… it gets cold.
I guess I had forgotten how great this movie is until I rewatched it this year. What had faded in my memory was the emotional impact outside of the obvious ghost stuff and the thing that everybody talks about with this movie. Those are important, sure, but it’s the mother-son relationship that catapults this film so high on my list. The scene when Cole and his mother, played marvelously by Toni Collette, are stuck in traffic and Cole finally confesses his ability to see ghosts is garanteed to make you cry. It becomes a conversation about death and the difficult roles mothers must play in their kid’s lives. It’s a truly beautiful scene, one which lifts the otherwise great movie into near-masterpiece status.
15. The Iron Giant
Sorry about the crowbar, kid. You’d be surprised how many people want to steal scrap. But, man, once I make it into art, I can’t give it away. I mean, what am I? A junkman who makes art or an artist who sells junk? You tell me.
You may notice a trend as we get closer and closer to my number one: the films become a little less think-y and a little more feel-y. It’s not on purpose and it’s not to say that this film or the examples still to come are dumb, of course, but they are often more concerned with making you feel something than making you think about something. Movies have a unique ability to do that with not only words but also images and sounds, combining the strengths of books, photography, and music into one super-powered medium for making the audience feel what the filmmakers want them to. And as a work of feelings, few are as good at making me feel happy and sad at the same time as The Iron Giant which features a great vocal performance from Vin Diesel as an alien robot guy who must try to understand people or pay the ultimate price.
14. The Shining
Do you have the slightest idea what a moral and ethical principle is? Do you?
The feeling Stanley Kubrick is trying to get us to feel while watching The Shining can best be described as an unsettled, primal fear. There are forces at work here, including the strange geography and the power of alcohol to mess up a man faster and more thoroughly than nearly any other thing, which go beyond the ghosts that inhabit the Overlook Hotel. Though those are scary, too. It’s pretty crazy how the majority of the film contains very little in the way of actual scares, only the events in room 237 and some brief visits from those poor, bloody young girls qualify as typical horror stuff in the first two hours of this film. But those two hours are still deeply off-putting thanks to the near constant score which keeps the audience perpetually on the edge of their seats and Kubrick’s masterful compositions. It’s a simple family in the process of breaking apart story with trappings of psychological horror and pitch-black comedy (see: Dick Halloran). And those last 15 minutes are the scariest things in all of movies.
13. The Searchers
Well, Reverend, that tears it! From now on, you stay out of this. All of ya. I don’t want you with me. I don’t need ya for what I got to do.
The old west isn’t as lush as the Irish hills in The Quiet Man but The Searchers is no less starkly beautiful for it. It’s a harsh land and people must be harsh to survive it. John Wayne is atypically sad throughout this film, though he disguises it with anger and unwavering dedication. To save his family he must be alone, an idea echoed in the final shot and foreshadowed in the early goings. Wayne isn’t a good guy here as his racism belies his war hero past. Of course, as Zero Dark Thirty reminded us last year, depiction doesn’t equal endorsement and Wayne’s character is clearly shown to be an outsider in the slowly civilizing society of the old west.
12. Princess Mononoke
Ah, you’re awake. I was hoping you’d cry out in your sleep, then I would have bitten your head off to silence you.
Princess Mononoke appeals to so many of the things I like in films. It creates a fantastically detailed world which feels real and vibrant at the same time, steeped in traditional Japanese culture and ideas about industrialism. It’s a mythic story which concerns itself seriously with gods and monsters and forest spirits alongside iron forges and the development of advanced war machines. But it’s the smaller things, the kodama pictured above and the peaceful woodlands that are portrayed so specifically and wonderfully which make this movie so great.
11. Lucky Star
I guess you can make somethin’ outta just about anythin’, can’t you?
The third Frank Borzage film on this list is his best one. Lucky Star is Borzage at his melodramatic peak, a place where love rules all and can make even the worst of situations into a chance for magic to happen. The dresses, the amazing set design and cinematography, and the super fantastic performances from Janet Gaynor (also great in the more popular but less awesome Seventh Heaven) and Charles Farrell combine wonderfully into this simple, silent tale of love and loss and, ultimately, snow. Best ending ever? Perhaps.
10. Blade Runner
It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?
Ok, maybe that last statement was a bit rash. Roy Batty’s final monologue is one of the best ever written for the screen and goes a long way towards cementing this film as an all time classic. Of course, the rest of the movie helps there, too, with its wildly inventive future-noir look – neon lights and a constant rain/fog combo – and compelling story involving hunting down androids that just want to be treated like real people. It’s got all kinds of existential questions (a theme you’ll see popping up throughout the top ten movies on this list) plus some pretty great action scenes. There’s not much better than Blade Runner.
9. There Will Be Blood
There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone.
There are two levels, at least, going on here and each informs the other in fantastically intricate ways. The first is the historical battle between commerce and religion for the soul of society at large. These are embodied in the skins of Daniel Plainview, the ruthless and relentless oil tycoon, and Eli Sunday, a young preacher trying to bring his own twisted version of Christianity to the wild west. As money and faith duke it out we get the second layer, the portrait of a deeply flawed but somehow admirable man (Plainview) who must figure out who he is and what he actually wants from life. Unlike most films, it’s not exactly a pretty end to that part of the story. The stark beauty of the turn of the century west provides a perfect background to all of these elements, ensuring that nothing is hidden from its harsh winds for too long.
8. Pan’s Labyrinth
The captain has been so good to us… Please, Ofelia, call him father. It’s just a word, Ofelia, just a word.
Those of you who have been following this list as it evolves from year to year probably aren’t surprised to see any of the last 5 or 6 entries on this list, but their placement might be a bit of a shock (as much as this kind of thing can be shocking). For the longest time Pan’s Labyrinth was my number two film of all time and deservedly so. Its artful melding of the real and fantastic, wars and fairy tales, is only one of the multitudes of reasons why this film is so great. Guillermo del Toro moves his camera so fluidly and purposefully that we feel like we’re being carried along by the story rather than just told it. It should be noted that this 6-spot drop isn’t because I love it any less, I just grew in appreciation for some other films.
7. Inglourious Basterds
It seems I’ve created a monster. A strangely persuasive monster.
Not only is this movie more entertaining than any other in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre so far, it’s also the deepest by a very long shot. His typically talky scenes often frustrate as we want to get to the bloody action quicker but here they speak volumes about the power of cinema and stories and spectacular showcases for the best cast he’s ever had. It’s a nutty propaganda movie about propaganda and revenge fantasies overflowing with historic and filmic references as he so often likes to do. The climax is an amazing confluence of these ideas and supremely bloody violence. It’s everything I want from a World War II movie.
6. Where The Wild Things Are
There were some buildings… There were these really tall buildings, and they could walk. Then there were some vampires. And one of the vampires bit the tallest building, and his fangs broke off. Then all his other teeth fell out. Then he started crying. And then, all the other vampires said, “Why are you crying? Weren’t those just your baby teeth?” And he said, “No. Those were my grown-up teeth.” And the vampires knew he couldn’t be a vampire anymore, so they left him. The end.
So many coming of age movies on this list! I guess it just appeals to me, that transition into becoming who you’re going to be is one which can only really be appreciated in retrospect and movies give us a great way to transport back to those moments for a few hours at a time. This one is filled with imagination and uses the classic children’s book as a jumping off point rather than a blueprint. At its time of release there was some talk about whether a kid would actually enjoy this movie. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know I love the hell out of it with all of its melancholy and anger and beautiful happiness.
I lost my gun today when I left you and I’m the laughingstock of a lot of people. I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to know and it’s on my mind. And it makes me look like a fool. And I feel like a fool. And you asked that we should say things – that we should say what we’re thinking and not lie about things. Well, I can tell you that, this, that I lost my gun today – and I am not a good cop. And I’m looked down at. And I know that. And I’m scared that once you find that out you may not like me.
I think I’ve identified most with Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) in this movie. He’s just a guy trying to do the right thing, perhaps a little blind to the darker elements of his surroundings and shy. This quote, outlining his faults in his rambling and oversharing fashion, is a really fantastic portrait of the man. But the best part is how it’s put up against Claudia Gator’s own failings and triumphs. This 3+ hour film has 8 or 9 main characters and each is slowly fleshed out so that the climax can bring them together in unexpected and potentially insane ways. Any movie that can get Tom Cruise to feel as vile as he does here and then twist that into a fascinating relationship between a father and a son is one that will always be special.
4. Black Swan
Because everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.
Aha! I think any movie that has occupied my top 4 or so has been bumped down a few spots at this point, so here at the very peak we have some fresh faces. When I first saw Black Swan I really liked it. As time has passed I’ve continued to think about it, there’s a kind of insidious simplicity to it that turns a pretty basic story of obsession and perfection into a movie about art itself, and what artists would do to achieve greatness. It’s also a pretty rocking horror film, full of frightening imagery and psychologically unsettling touches that worms it further and further into masterpiece territory. Have we talked about endings enough here? Not yet! This one is a spectacular example and at once inevitable and surprising.
3. Take Shelter
You think I’m crazy? Well, listen up, there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it.
If it weren’t for the next two movies on this list I’d be able to declare this the best family movie I’ve ever seen. That isn’t to say it’s a movie for families. I don’t think children will really enjoy the psychological horror that the father’s dreams portray nor will they understand the destruction they portend. But as a portrait of a family only two films top it. Michael Shannon gives an all-time great performance as a father struggling with keeping his family afloat amid a sea of bills and potential mental illness. Or are his visions which spur him into creating an underground shelter more than just dreams and is he a modern day Noah? The film is ambiguous when it comes to answering that question, but nobody can doubt that he and his wife (Jessica Chastain in a more down to earth portrayal than the same year’s Tree of Life) will meet the storm – real or metaphysical – together.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
Poems don’t always have to rhyme, you know. They’re just supposed to be creative.
Last year, the year Moonrise Kingdom came out, it roared onto my list at around the 50 spot. This year it takes a similar jump, all the way up to the penultimate spot. If you told me three years ago that a Wes Anderson movie would be my second favorite of all time I’d tell you to shut up with your lying lies. Impossible! Possible! All it took was a visit to the local theater to bask in Moonrise Kingdom‘s studied quirk. Critics often use that word and its variants (quirky, mostly) as an insult but with Wes Anderson it is more of a statement of purpose. He’s bringing his distinct point of view into the world of cinema and doing it with a nearly unmatched sense of artistry and detail. He likes broken families and this film is no different. Sometimes our families aren’t perfect and it is in those moments that we must rely upon friends and romances for our stability. This movie makes the point delightfully and thoroughly.
1. Fanny and Alexander
Therefore let us be happy while we are happy. Let us be kind, generous, affectionate and good. It is necessary and not at all shameful to take pleasure in the little world.
I already wrote a two–parter post about this movie and why it’s my new number one, so go read those for a detailed explanation. For those that don’t want to read the nearly 3,000 words there, know that it’s a movie that hits each and every one of my buttons, has a fantastic Christmas celebration and a few horror elements, and is as comprehensive a family movie as I have ever seen. Good parents and bad parents and good parents gone bad, children coping with the world shattering changes they can’t avoid, and plenty of stuff about storytelling in the middle of it all. It’s glorious.
And that’s all folks! Another year and another list. This one was a bit of a shakeup and I like that a lot. It’s as much a list about me as it is about the movies on it and since I’ve changed in the past year I think my list should as well. Have anything to say? Do so in the comments! And stick around, the big movie season is just beginning.