Monday, February 16, 2009

Top 10 Movies of All Time

Below I have listed my top ten movies of all time, with a short write up on each of them. You have no idea how hard it is to pick just 10 movies. I have tried in the past to come up with a top 100 list, and was shocked by how many of my favorite movies couldn't even make that list. But, these are the 10 movies that I can watch at anytime, and I still get something out of them every time. I will try to post some stuff on other "older" movies from time to time, but I think that if you're going to read my site, you should know what 10 movies I love more than anything. My only rule is that I wasn't going to put anything from this decade on the list, or else perhaps number 9 & 10 would have been replaced by other films from the same director. So here goes.

10. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
When you watch a David Lynch movie, there is never any doubt about who directed it. And while I think that perhaps Mulholland Drive is his best movie - his most complete as it were - Blue Velvet will always be one of my favorites. It is a movie that seems to reinvent itself every time you see it. At times, it appears to be little more than a pastiche of old Hitchcock movies, most notably Shadow of a Doubt, albeit with much more graphic sexuality and violence. Other times it’s a dark exploration of human darkest, most twisted desires. Or perhaps it’s just Lynch being sadistic. But whatever you make of the film, it always plays like a movie that Lynch simply had to get out of his system, or else he'd go insane (or, at least, more insane). The filmmaking is breathtaking - Frederick Elmes cinematography alternates between almost blindingly bright to being mired in the shadows. The performances are top notch, from Kyle McLaughlin as a Lynch surrogate, drawn equally to the innocence of Laura Dern, and the darkness of Isabella Rossellini. And Dennis Hopper makes perhaps the scariest villain in cinema history. Whatever he was inhaling in that gas tank, it makes him go nuts. Like all of Lynch's films, its up to the viewer to truly decide what the hell happens and why. And that's what makes it so interesting, so endlessly fascinating.

9. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Boogie Nights is a film about pornography, but that doesn't make it a porn film itself. It plays almost like one of those old fashioned Hollywood musicals, about the rise and fall of a great star from humble beginnings to the top of his field, to the gutter and back again. Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is a kid born with one gift - a huge penis - and he uses that gift to make it big in the porn business, before drugs almost destroys him. His rise and fall follows the rise and fall of the porn business itself - from the heady heydays of the 1970s when it seemed like porn may actually go mainstream to the dark days of the 1980s when it became clear that no one really wanted a story to go along with their porn. Anderson's movies, like most of his work, is really about an extended family. Julianne Moore as Amber Waves, a "mother to all those who need love", Burt Reynolds as the alternately strict and supportive father, John C. Reilly as a surrogate brother for Dirk, Heather Graham's Rollergirl, a little sister you want to protect, and everyone else in the cast is more like a family than any of the characters real families, which they are hopelessly separated from. Anderson's camera swirls around these people endlessly, coming to a dizzying climax. Yes, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood are both deeper, perhaps even better, films, but I haven't seen either one as often as I've seen Boogie Nights.

8. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Picking a Hitchcock movie for this top ten list was hard. On a different day, it could be Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt or I Confess, but most days its Vertigo. I don't think Hitchcock every made a film that was this completely satisfying as Vertigo. Like all of his films, it’s a thriller, but it’s a thriller that essentially ends half way through, then gets darker than even Hitchcock usually got. Essentially, the "hero" of our movie is a police detective (Jimmy Stewart) haunted by his fear of heights, and the fact that he couldn't save the woman he loves for killing herself. When a woman who looks just like her reappears in his life, he is determined to remake her in the image of his dearly departed (has anyone else ever really made a film necrophilia before or since?). Like all of Hitchcock's films, it is a visual stunner (how many iconic images come from this film alone?), but what makes Vertigo Hitchcock's best is the fact that all in one film, we get all of Hitchcock's obsessions on display at once. Hitchcock delighted in playing audiences like a piano, but Vertigo feels like his most personal film, a film where he exposed a part of himself.

7. Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Ask me another day, and perhaps A Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey would be on this list instead of Dr. Strangelove, but most days, I will pick Kubrick's one comedy at his best film. Kubrick's film is the blackest of black comedies, about nothing less than nuclear annihilation. Peter Sellers plays three roles - the hapless US President, an ineffectual British Officer trying to control the insane General (Sterling Hayden) who launches an attack on the USSR because they are trying to sap his "precious bodily fluids" and of course, the title character, a former Nazi scientist who cannot control his arm from rising in a Nazi salute. Kubrick took all the Cold War Paranoia and turned it into a surreal comic masterpiece. Kubrick made a lot of great films in his career - in fact all of his films are great in one way or another - but none lasts as long in the mind as this one does.

6. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Everyone names Citizen Kane the best film of all time, so whenever someone puts it on their list, there is a sense that perhaps they are just doing so because they have to. Well, that maybe true of some, but it's not for me. Citizen Kane is one of those films that tells such a deceptively simple story - that of a man who sells his soul for success and ends up with nothing but regret - but does so in such a fascinating way that its possible to watch and re-watch the film countless times and get something different out of it each time. There is not a shot in the film that isn't some sort of conceptual masterwork, but Welles' film is far more than an exercise in style. As Charles Foster Kane, media mogul, Welles delivers a performance for the ages, and it’s amazing how much you feel for the man during his downfall. At this point, there probably isn't a line or shot in the film I don't know by heart, but the movie continues to fascinate and enthrall.

5. The Godfather/The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972/1974)
The first two Godfather films, like Citizen Kane, are another two of those movies that shows up on everyone’s favorites list. But there is a reason for that. Taken together, they represent the best rise and fall story in cinema history. So perfectly the two movie compliment each other, that no matter how good The Godfather Part III was (and it was a fine film, just nowhere near the other two) that it would seem unnecessary. The first film is a perfectly structured story about fathers and sons. Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cavalze) and Michael (Al Pacino) are about as different as they could be, but each in their own way try to please their father, Vito (Marlon Brando). The first film marks Michael’s ascendance from the son who wanted nothing to do with the “family business” to its new leader. The second film marks his downfall, as he gains even more but loses his very soul. Both films are masterpieces of storytelling and film construction, representing Francis Ford Coppola at his peak. Both films contain some of the best writing and acting in screen history. And both films never cease to pull you in. Is it cheating to put the films in a tie on a list like this? Perhaps, but for me the two films are inseparable, so on the list they go.

4. Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996)
The Coen Brothers are two of the strangest filmmakers in history. They bounce around from drama, with dark comedic undercurrents, to almost slapstick comedies, with drama undercurrents. There is not a film of theirs I wouldn’t gladly watch again, almost anytime, but I don’t think they ever achieved perfection like they did with Fargo. Was there a funnier movie in the 1990s? I don’t think so. Many scenes walk that razor thin wire of hilarity and tragedy, and amazingly, the brothers hold onto that tone for the entire running time. Was there a better acted movie that decade? Again, probably not. From Frances McDormand as the pregnant police chief to William H. Macy as the struggling businessman to Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as two polar opposite criminals to hire, to ever actor in even the smallest of roles, the people in the film feel like real people, no matter how far out they go. Add in brilliant cinematography and Carter Burwell’s best score and you have one of those movies that never gets old. I want to go watch it again, right now.

3. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
No matter how good The Godfather movies are, GoodFellas will always be the best mob movie ever made. That’s because, unlike The Godfather, this film concentrates on the day to day lives on its characters. The glamour, the power, the violence, the paranoia of it all. This maybe the closest Scorsese ever made to a musical – the camera swoops and twirls, and follows the characters in and out of clubs and robberies and everywhere else, all set to a pulsing soundtrack. Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino are all excellent in the film, but then so is everyone else in Scorsese’s world. There has never been a movie that pulses with so much excitement and danger from scene to scene – a sense that anyone could be killed at any moment. The last hour of the film is dizzying as the cops move in closer and closer to Henry, and it all comes crashing down. This is the film that I have probably watched more often than any other.

2. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Travis Bickle is probably the most memorable character in cinema history. A Vietnam war veteran, a lonely, violent, horny man who is at once turned on and repulsed by the filth he sees on the streets of New York every night. He has no idea to act around normal people – when he amazingly gets a date with the object of his desire, he takes her to a porn film. Later, when she rejects him on the phone, Scorsese’s camera pans and looks down a long hallway – the rejection is too painful to film. Bickle then decides he has to save a child prostitute (Jodie Foster), even though she doesn’t really want to be saved (echoes of John Ford’s The Searchers run through the film, much like they would in much of writer Paul Schrader’s work). The climax represents one of the most violent shootouts in cinema history, and turns Bickle, the man no one ever considered, into a hero, when really, he’s still just a lonely sociopath. Robert DeNiro, my favorite actor, gives what could just be the best performance in movie history as Bickle. Both frightening and real. Scorsese reached the apex of his powers with this film, and no matter how good the rest of his films were, they never would touch this one.

1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
It’s almost odd to me that Francis Ford Coppola made my favorite film of all time, and even has another spot on my top ten list shared between two of his films, because if I had to make a list of my ten favorite directors, I’m not sure if he’d make it. He undoubtedly made four of the best films of the 1970s with the first two Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, but after that he seems to have lost something. Perhaps he left his genius behind in the jungle after filming his masterpiece (the excellent documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse shows you just what he went through). But of all the films I have seen, none have ever really compared to Apocalypse Now. It is big, it is sprawling, it is enthralling and dark and unforgettable. It is perhaps the most ambitious film ever made, and it’s all the more amazing because somehow Coppola pulled it off. His movie about Willard (Martin Sheen) sent up the river in Cambodia to kill the crazy Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is the most crazed journey ever put on film. The war rages on all around the little boat he takes to get there, but Willard only thinks of Kurtz. The whole movie feels pulled towards him, and the climax is the only way the film could end. The original cut from 1979 represents the highest level of artistic achievement filmmaking would ever see. The Redux version, released by Coppola in 2001 is just as fascinating, but not nearly as good. Coppola took too many side journeys that distracted from the original goal of the film. In 1979 he knew better. Few directors would even attempt something of this magnitude, and even fewer would be able to pull it off. That Coppola did makes him one of cinema’s best directors, no matter what he did after. This is why Apocalypse Now is my favorite film of all time.

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