Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Top 20: My Favorite Movies of All Time

Yesterday, I gave you all my personal Bottom 20 list, the worst movies out there for me. Today, I am focusing on the positive side: these are my very favorite movies. All of them are films that I can watch any time and get enjoyment from, films that I learn about the world from or about art from, and films that I hold dear to my heart. I wouldn't say all of them are necessarily the BEST out there - classics such as Casablanca, Citizen Kane and others do not feature here - these are just my favorites; the ones that have shaped me as a person. With no further ado, I present to you...the list!

20. Primal Fear

A legal thriller mixed in with some very deft twists and turns that make it one of the more unforgettable, go-for-the-throat thrillers of the 90s. Richard Gere is great and Edward Norton is just awesome in this, in one of his first roles ever. Primal Fear is a classic of mystery/thriller films.

19. The Hitcher

Just an all around winner of a movie, The Hitcher rocks some great Nevada desert settings, a killer, suspenseful plot and a great Rutger Hauer performance. It’s just a meat-and-potatoes good movie, and if you haven’t seen it, you should get on it now.

18. Rosemary’s Baby

Another essential horror film, Rosemary’s Baby is the tale of a young married woman pregnant with her first child. When she starts noticing strange things, she begins to suspect a plot against her and her baby. The reason this is so scary is because it could very well be all in her head. Maybe she is just being paranoid – for a lot of the film, it’s really not that clear. And once it is clear that there is something more going on, that fear is replaced by the even graver, more serious fear of a mother on the verge of losing her child. A true monument of fear.

17. Die Hard

This is another one that doesn’t get on the list for any one stand-out reason, but just for how good all its elements combined are. With Bruce Willis’s working-man charisma, the non-stop suspense and the well constructed action scenes that get more and more explosive as the film goes on, one Die Hard is worth ten thousand Transformers movies. Smart, fun, action packed to the core, Die Hard is a bona fide classic.

16. Halloween

John Carpenter’s 1978 classic is my personal pick for the scariest movie of all time. This film just shows us a nice suburban neighborhood in which hell breaks loose one night. Unlike the later films, this has no backstory for the killer and no real explanation for why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s just on a rampage through this unsuspecting ‘burb and kills innocent people in horrible ways. The next time you turn this on, just imagine your own neighborhood in a similar scenario. Imagine a silent, unstoppable killer stalking your streets and picking off your friends one by one. Yeah. That’s why this movie is on the list. Essential horror.

15. LA Confidential

Just a killer crime movie. LA Confidential is actually based on a book written by the same guy who wrote Black Dahlia – which was also made into a movie, which made it onto my ‘worst movies ever’ list. Funny how this one is on my ‘best movies’ list. I guess it just goes to show you how much a good director can change things. LA Confidential is the story of three cops in the 50s and their involvement in a huge crime ring bust. I love it for how intense the pacing is and how good the characters are. Just an awesome, awesome movie.

14. Mulholland Dr.

Probably the darkest and most insane movie on this list, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. was the first film by him that I saw. Filled to the brim with ghastly imagery, nail biting suspense, and a plot that appears to get darker and darker with every turn, Mulholland Dr., like Eyes Wide Shut, is a great horror film, even despite not being a horror film at its core. At its core, this is a deeply twisted character study and a brilliant avant garde film that captivates me every time.

13. Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s last film is one of his very best, and one of the most captivating experiences I have had with a movie as of late. Eyes Wide Shut is a great film for its surreal atmosphere and the creativity of its whacked out imagery. It is also a great horror film on one level and a great romance film on another: with bizarre, mysterious intrigue and lustful, achingly beautiful scenery, Kubrick crafted an unforgettable experience.

11. The Seventh Seal

I’m a newbie to Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, but when I saw The Seventh Seal last year, it was definitely an eye opening experience. For one, the film talks about death – how much larger of a theme can you even have? – and two, it talks about it in such an all encompassing, larger than life, down to Earth way that I doubt you will ever find any other film like it. It is an epic tale of medieval crusaders who grapple with death and their very finite mortality – being in the Middle Ages, it’s not like most of these people will live very long either, so the drama is higher. The Seventh Seal is a breathtaking, life affirming experience, and you should go see it.

10. Scott Pilgrim VS the World

This will probably be the most surprising choice on this list, but I really think this is one of the most important movies of the last few years. In every generation, there are a few films and books that just define it entirely – they show what was culturally important, what people talked about, what was wrong with the generation, and more. Scott Pilgrim is like that for the last half of the 2000s and the early 2010s – you know, the “hipster generation.” With a very funny script and batshit insane directing choices, this basically tells the story of Scott Pilgrim, a Canadian guy who falls in love with a girl named Ramona and has to fight her “evil exes” in order to win her heart. With references to everything people our age (early 20s, late teens) like, from music to gaming to dating, this comes out as a very deft, subtle satire of our culture of hipsters, gamers, anime fans and everything in between. But it does so in a respectful way that allows us to look at ourselves critically without getting too spiteful or malignant. In addition to being important and intelligently written, it's also stylistically gorgeous, gut-bustingly funny and a hell of a lot of fun. One of my new favorites.

9. Taxi Driver

A portrait of a man’s life in grimy 1970s-era New York, Taxi Driver is my favorite Robert DeNiro performance as well as my favorite Scorsese movie. This is just so fascinating to me because of the character Travis Bickle, who has got to be one of my favorite movie characters ever. An unstable and mentally wired creep, the film just sort of tells the story of his life, and it appears by all accounts that he’s going downhill…until he meets Jodie Foster’s character, a 12-year old prostitute, and decides he wants to save her. Taxi Driver is a film about fate, exploring it as a coin toss. By all logical trains of thought, Travis Bickle was a man headed for a blowup, teetering on the edge of complete disaster. But instead, he saved a girl and became a hero at the drop of a dime. It’s a brilliant character study and one of my favorite movies of all time.

8. The Sandlot

I think this is probably the only movie on this list that I’ve known about since before I turned 10 years old. I loved The Sandlot back then, and I love it even more now. The mark of a good movie for me is if it can take something mundane or ordinary and turn it into a big epic, which this does. It’s just about baseball, yeah, but at the same time, it’s about a kid moving to a new place, finding friends and discovering what becomes a lifelong passion. Everything in this film is treated with a huge larger than life sense of adventure, and having great characters and a funny, fast paced script doesn’t hurt either. I love baseball, I love these characters and I love The Sandlot.

7. The Big Lebowski

Simply the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. Every second of this is packed with jokes, references to previous jokes and simply witty, wry moments. Frankly, this goes way above and beyond what the usual comedy formula is with incredibly intelligent writing and surprising complexity, at that. There is so much going on here that I notice new things every time, and the characters and acting are so good they are impeccable. I can’t decide whether John Goodman as Walter or Jeff Bridges as The Dude is funnier. Fortunately, such a choice is unnecessary: they’re both amazing. Nothing else to say about this one; just a great comedy from the masters of bizarre, off-kilter films, and one I can watch any time and enjoy wholeheartedly.

6. Thank You For Smoking

Not quite as laugh out loud funny as The Big Lebowski, but I’m putting Thank You For Smoking higher on my list because I feel it is a rarity in movies: it is completely objective. It has no slant, no bias. This movie talks about censorship and the smoking industry and how people are persuaded by advertisements and the media. It takes a very level headed, mature viewpoint and respectfully lambasts and makes fun of both sides of the argument. The script is very, very good, and the film is so clever that it actually fits in some genuine character development and drama into what is otherwise a deeply satirical, witty movie. Aaron Eckhart is just a gem in this as seemingly amoral lobbyist Nick Naylor, as is Cameron Bright as Joey Naylor, his son. On the surface this is just about smoking, but really this is more universal: it’s about arguing, morality, right and wrong and, ultimately, parenting. It makes its points almost seamlessly in the context of the film, and people who don’t pay attention at first will grossly misread what this is actually about. Frankly, I still don’t think I’m quite done discovering what this film has to offer, and I’ve seen it a bunch of times now. Thank You For Smoking is a treasure.

5. Stranger than Fiction

One of the funniest, most clever and best written romantic comedies of the last decade, Stranger than Fiction is just a great experience. I love the weird, offbeat directing (pretty similar to what Scott Pilgrim would do a few years later), I love the great characters, and I love the oddball storyline. It’s about a tax man, Harold Crick (portrayed brilliantly by Will Ferrell of all people), who begins to hear a woman narrating his life, who says offhand he’s going to die soon. On his adventure to figure out what’s happening to him, he ends up discovering there’s a lot more to life than just his boring job. This movie is basically a longer version of the old adage “live every day like it’s your last,” but for all that, it’s very well put together and the story is charming, funny and deeply likable. I also dig the complex and deeply funny deconstruction of how narrations in movies usually work. Most movies that have a narrator over top just have the characters going about their lives unaware of the narration, but in this film, by some accident of the universe, Harold Crick hears his narrator and responds to her, shouting up at the sky at her in the middle of a crowded street. It’s a great plot point. One of the smartest movies of its genre that I’ve ever seen, and one of my favorite feel-good movies ever.

4. Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s crowning achievement, Lost in Translation is something I think is very much akin to 1920s-era American literature: stuff like Fitzgerald, or Hemingway, or even some of Faulkner’s works, in which not a lot happens on a plot level, but the film remains fascinating and engaging through the characters and their interactions. This movie could easily have been very, very dull, but the directing is amazingly good, the disparate, cluttered Tokyo setting works like a charm, the acting is first-rate and most of all, the characters are some of the greatest ever put to film, in my opinion. I am just totally into this movie every time I turn it on, as it has the basics for any good movie done incredibly well. Above all, there is something poetic in it – the simple, random chance meeting of two lost souls in a big city they’re only visiting, and how they affect each other’s lives. It’s a beautiful and affecting picture of two people and their relationship. Humane, enlightening, uplifting.

3. Se7en

This is simply a flawless film. It has pretty much everything I like in it, from complex characters to a seedy, noir-esque setting and a story that shows a tragic Shakespearean arc of a man whose flaws end up in disaster. Everything about Se7en is tragic and poetic. Both Brad Pitt as Detective Mills and Morgan Freeman as Detective Somerset are impeccably textured, well done characters and are acted really well on top of that. They both have their own things going on, and both of them are so realistic you’d swear they were based on actual people. The film chronicles their investigation of a strange serial killer case as Somerset is about to retire and Mills is just getting started.

Se7en has this dark majesty about it, this idea that while the world is a sewer, and while a lot of terrible things may happen, it’s still worth trying to save. This movie wades through the mire of the dark by saying that you should hold to idealistic values and you should try to be the best you can be, even if the world is never going to repay you for it, even if things don’t turn out all that well in the end. The way this pieces everything together and unifies its themes by the end is just great. David Fincher’s best work and probably my favorite film of the 90s except for…

2. Pulp Fiction

This simply is. Pulp Fiction is an icon of movies simply because of how stylized and idiosyncratic it is – nobody ever saw anything like this before its debut in the 90s, and even though Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeves, taking cues from crime movies as well as boxing movies and tons of other stuff that was at least 30 years old when this came out, the way he blends everything together in Pulp Fiction is just ace.

The directing is good, but really what makes this so great is the script and the acting. Every character in this has hilarious lines and memorable quotes, and the script moves along like a fire-blazing chariot from the heavens, traipsing through seemingly nonsensical scenes and making them all count, simply by virtue of how entertaining they are. This is simply a movie that revels in the joy of storytelling, weaving together a ton of goofy, roguish characters and turning everything up to 11. It’s funny, dramatic, heart-wrenchingly tense and everything in between, and the insane thing is that the styles all blend together as one amalgam mostly known as ‘Tarantino style.’

Pulp Fiction is so good that Tarantino has spent his career up to now just trying to make something anywhere near as good, but as enjoyable as some of his work is, this was simply his magic moment – his shining star. Not putting this as one of my favorite movies of all time would just be a lie, as Pulp Fiction is iconoclastic, unforgettable and deeply, maniacally enjoyable.

And my number 1 choice is...

1. City of God

For a long time, I had a tough time pinpointing why City of God was my absolute favorite film. The first time I saw it, back in 2008, I was just blown away, and no other film had quite the effect on me that this one had. Just everything about it was spellbinding – the rough, raw directing style, the witty and down to Earth way it looks at brutal life conditions, the very well written characters, the multi-faceted story which remains constantly interesting even when it goes off in different directions every ten minutes or so…objectively, yes, this is a great film. But was it enough for it to be my favorite film of all time?

Well, all of those things factored into it. But I think the real reason goes a bit deeper. For one, this is a ‘based on a true story’ film that actually has something to say and has a reason for boasting that. And unlike a lot of films, it doesn’t get all depressive and preachy about the state of South American slums, where the entire movie is based. It simply tells the story of these kids in a slum and how they grow up in the middle of a violent gang war, and the result is something that feels much more mature and well-rounded than the majority of films ever get close to. Main character Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues)’s journey to becoming a photographer is funny, interesting and dramatic – as he points out, he is putting his life on the line to get these pictures of this gang war.

There’s just no bullshit in it; it’s got no pretensions and just shows a great real life story in a larger than life way. The way the script is paced is brilliant: the story moves through several different peoples’ lives in this crappy slum and just shows the way this drama unfolded. It takes a mundane, depressing reality and turns it into something profound in its honesty, in its brevity. There’s always something going on and the film is easy to get into even when the story jumps around from character to character so much that it seems like it’s going to come off the rails. But City of God never loses focus, and each story just adds to the colorful palette of stories.

Further, it’s just a joy of cinematic creation – there are so many memorable shots and moments in this film, and they’re put together so well that it really becomes a work of art. Being that the movie is about a young photographer, it makes sense that the mise en scene is so memorable and evocative. What else would it be? Every scene in this film just glows, and the whole thing is the most stunning film experience I’ve ever had. As a writer and storyteller myself, the way City of God tells these stories and just has so much fun doing it, even when the stories get depressing or dark, is just really admirable and worthy of respect for me. Storytelling is the bedrock of our civilization, and City of God shows exactly why it is such an important art. There is not a moment of this film where I am not completely captivated and enthralled. City of God is my favorite movie of all time.

And that's my Top 20 list, my favorite movies of all time. I look forward to seeing even more movies that will hopefully make the list in the future, and I hope you all enjoyed these lists.

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