My good pal Watson made a list of his top 25 movies off all time recently.
What the hell…it’s my turn now!
OK, just to let everyone know, I’ll follow Watson’s pattern of saying what the movie is and why it matters to me, but I am also going to say that, unlike Watson, I don’t count all the movies in a series if I list one of them.
25. Raising Arizona
What is it? An early Coen Brother’s comedy about a childless couple kidnapping one of a rich couple’s quintuplets to raise as their own.
Why I love it: It’s just a blast of crazy from start to finish. Clever word play, and perhaps the most hopeful ending to a Coen comedy ever made. It’s also pretty close to a live action cartoon, and I have a weakness for those (see below).
Memorable Moment: About halfway through, there’s a chase scene that involves Nicholas Cage running from trigger-happy cops, well-armed clerks, and a pack of barking dogs after a half-assed attempt to rob a convenience store goes way, way, way wrong. And that yodeling music in the background is just the icing on the humor cake.
24 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
What is it? It’s the classic Western where Jimmy Stewart becomes a bad ass lawyer that brings civilization to the Wild West after getting credit for killing rotten bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Or did he?
Why I love it: I’m not a huge John Wayne fan, but I do like me some Jimmy Stewart. Ultimately, it’s about a man’s man (Wayne) realizing he isn’t the way of the future. That’s for Stewart’s civilization-bringing lawyer who gets the credit and the girl both men love when Wayne lets Stewart take credit for the title action. Marvin’s as downright evil and nasty as the bad guy who gets what’s coming to him, and director John Ford even manages to take a couple quick shots at Jim Crow laws when Wayne defends the right of his black sidekick to drink at the same saloon bar.
Memorable Moment: When Wayne relates what really happened the night Stewart thought he shot Liberty Valance, you can hear the heartbreak and sacrifice the macho Wayne made to preserve a necessary future at the expense of his personal one.
23. Bonnie and Clyde
What is it? It’s the 60s counterculture-retelling of the story of Depression era criminals/lovers Bonnie and Clyde
Why I love it: It’s a movie that goes from lighthearted crime caper to dark, violent bloodbath at the drop of a hat. Beyond great performances from Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, the rest of the gang in the form of Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael J. Pollard is pretty good, Gene Wilder makes his film debut, and Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazard is the cop determined to bring the gang down. Plus, the banjo music.
Memorable Moment: Bonnie and Clyde’s death at the end is probably the most famous scene in the movie and for good reason. The pacing and the suddenness really slams the whole thing home for the audience, and in a movie with its fair share of violence, it’s a shockingly violent moment.
22. The Bridge over the River Kwai
What is it? It’s an epic war movie about some British POWs who decide to show off how good their engineering skills are by building a better bridge for their captors while an American escapee is sent back with a commando group to blow up that self same bridge.
Why I love it: Alec Guiness is brilliant as the proud British officer who appears to go a bit insane in his efforts to show off his national superiority to his Japanese captors. And heck, I learned recently part of this story was based on real events.
Memorable Moment: “What have I done?”
21. The Seventh Seal
What is it? It’s the Ingmar Bergman film about a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) who challenges Death to a game of chess for his life in a plague-ravaged countryside.
Why I love it: You’d expect a movie like this to be deeply philosophical, and it is. But it’s also got some wonderful moments of comedic relief. Seriously. The knight’s squire is rather funny.
Memorable Moment: When Death cheats.
20. The Shining
What is it? It’s Stanley Kubrick’s loose take on Stephen King’s horror novel, where Jack Nicholson goes insane through demonic influence and cabin fever in a lonely mountain hotel where he and his family are snowed in for the winter.
Why I love it: Most people who aren’t Stephen King love this version of the story, but it’s creepy and has a wonderful slow build as more and more spooky stuff happens to a psychic kid and his parents. By the time Nicholson takes an axe to the door Shelley Duvall is hiding behind, it’s almost a relief. Almost.
Memorable Moment: In a movie with so many, let’s say it’s two girls asking a boy to come play with them. It’s that or the woman in room 237. Or the blood on the elevator.
19. Pulp Fiction
What is it? Quentin Tarantino’s second movie, one where the director told multiple stories involving lowlifes and pop culture conversations.
Why I love it: It’s just so damn clever in its wordplay. I studied theater in college and wanted to be something of a writer, so I’ve always been attracted to movies with great scripts, and Tarantino’s are often masterpieces of swearing and tension.
Memorable Moment: Sam Jackson’s Bible verse.
18. Raiders of the Lost Ark
What is it? It’s the first appearance of Indiana Jones, the reincarnation of the 1930s movie serial hero for the modern audience.
Why I love it: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg manage to capture the look and feel of the old serials on a much bigger budget than those old films could have ever hoped for. The cocksure attitude of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones makes for a compelling hero, and we get to see some Nazis melt. That’s always worth it.
Memorable Moment: That opening scene manages to tell you more or less everything you need to know about Dr. Jones before he even goes on the movie’s real mission of finding the Ark of the Covenant.
17. The Silence of the Lambs
What is it? It’s a horror/suspense movie where a rookie FBI agent gets valuable insight for one loose serial killer from another possibly scarier one.
Why I love it: Considering he’s in the movie for less than 20 minutes, Anthony Hopkins leaves an incredible impression as Hannibal Lecter. He’d been in movies for a years, but this was a star-making turn, and he takes his place in the pantheon of horror movie actors forever associated with one great role alongside the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Memorable Moment: Lecter’s escape is something else, but considering the final reveal as to how he got out of that hotel…
What is it? It’s the original big budget superhero movie.
Why I love it: I’m a big Batman fan, but there’s no denying the absolute charm of this movie. It takes its time, not showing the hero in his costume until well into the movie, a move that would get any superhero movie made today highly criticized, but the one thing that really puts it over the top for me is the performance by then-newcomer Christopher Reeve. He actually managed to play the incorruptible Silver Age Superman like he was a real person, and that’s no small feat.
Memorable Moment: After finally revealing himself to the public, Superman catches Lois Lane from a bad fall and then goes off to do various good deeds around the city of Metropolis, such as preventing Air Force One from crashing, catching a couple thieves, and rescuing a cat out of a tree, and all with a steady smile on his face. He’s just here to help.
15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
What is it? It’s an ode to freedom against authoritarian power in a mental hospital.
Why I love it: Nurse Racthet may be one of the nastiest villains in any movie, and she has so much control over the inmates. Then in comes McMurphy, and man, is that going to be one for the ages. Considering there are a few familiar faces floating around the ward, it all comes down to an irrepressible man trying to exert some control over his life against a completely unflappable woman. Though, between this and The Shining, Scatman Crothers should have learned Jack Nicholson hanging around always makes his life worse.
Memorable Moment: I’m tempted to say it’s when the Chief finally speaks or makes his bid for freedom, but instead I am going to go with Nicholson’s attempts to watch the baseball game in the ward. Ratched seems to keep getting the upper hand during the process by going by following the rules to the exact letter, but McMurphy still manages to pull off a victory against her.
14. The Dirty Dozen
What is it? It’s The Expendables if it was made in the 60s and was a good movie.
Why I love it: OK, the movie maybe only develops 7 or 8 of the characters in the Dirty Dozen, but it’s well-paced and has a really action-packed ending, with a bunch of guys who may be criminals but are (mostly) a fairly likable bunch the audience can (again, mostly…lookin’ at you, Maggot) root for.
Memorable Moment: Most of the dozen die, but are any given more pathos than Jefferson (Jim Brown), the unit’s lone black member, sent to prison for racist reasons, getting shot as he makes a final break for the getaway vehicle?
13. The Bride of Frankenstein
What is it? It’s the sequel to the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie, giving the monster a bride…sort of.
Why I love it: It’s the rare sequel that outshines the original, in part because it gives us a crazier scientist than Henry Frankenstein to make things even campier, introduces a second classic monster to Universal’s famous horror pantheon, and expands on the themes of the original, often in ways that are even more transgressive than the original, particularly for the time period.
Memorable Moment: The Bride doesn’t appear until the end of the movie, and she makes quite an entrance (though the actress playing her had appeared earlier in the movie), and even her hissing and rapid head movements are highly memorable, but I’m going to give this designation to a line from the original monster, now possessing the ability to speak: “We belong dead.”
12. The War of the Worlds
What is it? It’s the 1953 retelling of the H.G. Wells classic about Martian invasion.
Why I love it: It was my favorite movie back in my middle school days. For the period, it had great special effects and some creepy-looking ships. Spielberg’s remake isn’t terrible, but he did plop this movie’s stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, into it as Tom Cruise’s ex-wife’s parents.
Memorable Moment: Three men try to make nice with a pulsing thing coming out of the crater. Everyone knows what’s coming because of the movie’s title, but the tension and build-up before we get to the first human casualties is undeniable.
11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
What is it? It’s a bizarre and somewhat whimsical look at love and memory from writer Charlie Kaufman.
Why I love it: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie examine the two-fold pain of a messy break-up and the memories attached to it as this one did. Good times are made bad by the knowledge bad times are coming. Bad times feel worse because you know they used to be good. Factor in a completely faux happy ending, one that isn’t really a happy ending at all if you think about what it’s saying, and well, you have this charming oddity.
Memorable Moment: So many of them occur in Jim Carrey’s head as the machines force him to forget Kate Winslet, but let’s go for a creepy one as Carrey’s Joel is sitting in an increasingly dark room when he glances over and sees the person he is talking to no longer has a face.
What is it? It’s director and star Clint Eastwood’s last Western, a film about the cycle of violence and how ugly it is.
Why I love it: There are few if any heroes here, and the movie doesn’t really try to create any. When Eastwood’s Will Munny finally picks up a bottle, it isn’t a relief that a great Western hero is coming to save the day or something; it’s dread that an even worse monster is coming out.
Memorable Moment: Munny has a great bit about what killing a man does, but nothing tops the final scene as a rain-soaked Eastwood slips into the brothel/saloon and scares the crap out of everyone before gunning down at least a half dozen men.
9. Army of Darkness
What is it? It’s technically the last movie of a trilogy, but you don’t need to see the other two to enjoy this horror/slapstick comedy about a moron from the present going back to Medieval England and making a royal mess of everything as he continues to run afoul of a demonic book and the minions it creates.
Why I love it: Like Raising Arizona, this one is basically a live-action cartoon, though it’s a much more quotable one. That’s what makes it so disheartening that I used to send Gabbing Geek emails talking about this or that and sign off with one of the many great lines from this movie only to learn two-thirds of the Geeks didn’t catch the reference…
Memorable Moment: After being subdued by tiny versions of himself, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is forced to swallow one and finds a new versions of himself, a “Bad Ash,” growing out of him. His initial solution to the problem is a pure Ash-move. Jimmy knows the (highly-quotable) line there.
8. The Manchurian Candidate
What is it? It’s a Cold War era thriller where a group of soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed by Commies in Korea to ensure a stooge of theirs is elected to high office due to the connections of the commanding officer’s family.
Why I love it: The brainwashing sequences are suitably bizarre, Frank Sinatra is great as the heroic lead, and Angela Lansbury is probably the scariest evil mother in movie history.
Memorable Moment: The costume party when the poor patsy’s love interest accidentally wears the worst costume possible. But given the nature of the movie, a viewer could be forgiven to at least initially thinking she was in on the plot, too.
What is it? It’s a mob story based on a true story, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring (among others) his original frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro.
Why I love it: This movie is just the perfect way of showing the rise and fall of a young man in a criminal organization. Perfectly structured, great soundtrack, wonderful performances, and it doesn’t for a minute really glamorize the mob since there’s always the threat of violence hanging underneath everything.
Memorable Moment: Joe Pesci wants to know how he’s funny.
6. A Clockwork Orange
What is it? It’s Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel about a violent young man living in a futuristic England.
Why I love it: Burgess was something of a stuffy college professor type who wrote the book mostly as an experiment to see if he could develop his own slang (he could), and he included a final chapter where main character Alex basically decides he’s outgrown being ultraviolent, and he’s going to settle down and raise a family or something. Kubrick thought that was a bad ending, and I am inclined to agree, so Kubrick didn’t even film the last chapter where the character voluntarily chooses redemption. Malcolm McDowell has never been better, and he got the book’s patois down perfectly. I’d seen the movie first and actually found the movie makes following the book easier as Alex is the narrator of the novel and he uses that slang through most of the book.
Memorable Moment: A “cured” Alex goes for a walk through his old stomping grounds, and everyone he messed with in the first half of the movie comes to get their licks in now that he cannot in any way defend himself.
5. Taxi Driver
What is it? It’s Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro’s collaboration into how loneliness and mental illness factor into one man.
Why I love it: It’s perfectly paced to show Travis Bickle’s slow coming-apart. He doesn’t know how to deal with people and just sees corruption everywhere, deciding only he can clean up the streets he’s so obsessed with. DeNiro is brilliant, Jodie Foster is great, and I even heard the theme music playing on an episode of Friends for no reason once aside from the fact there was a taxi onscreen.
Memorable Moment: Travis finally snaps and goes on his rampage, and it’s easily the most realistic gun battle I’ve ever seen. The colors are muted, the music cuts out, what sounds there are are amplified, and the whole thing comes across as brutal, violent, and raw. The scene after that gunfight may or may not be real depending on who you ask, but the bigger implication is this: Travis will do this again given half the chance.
4. Star Wars
What is it? You know what this is. You shouldn’t be at this site if you don’t.
Why I love it: I know I’d been to the movies before, most likely for Disney cartoons, but this is the first movie I distinctly remember seeing in the theaters as a kid. I was well on way to being a Geek and probably a movie buff, but movies like this helped. Put a gun to my head and I’ll admit Empire Strikes Back is a better movie, but this one gets some points for firing my young imagination.
Memorable Moment: Nothing in the movie, but the circumstances I saw it in. My dad took me to see it, just the two of us. That didn’t happen very often, especially as he would, in the future, take at least two of my younger siblings along for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But that day was just the two of us. That was nice.
What is it? Writer Paddy Chayefsky’s satirical look at television, when a struggling fictional TV network hands the news division over to the entertainment division, only to find ratings success with an anchorman literally going insane on the air.
Why I love it: The tagline for this movie when it comes on television these days seems to be “More true today than when it came out.” That’s pretty accurate. The movie fairly accurately predicts trash news and reality television, where ratings mean more than content or information.
Memorable Moment: Most people would choose when the anchor comes in, dripping wet from the rain, and tells his home audience to go out and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore!” But I’m going to go with the other really famous scene, when Ned Beatty berates and belittles the anchorman into obedience in a darkened boardroom. I’ve seen it redone a dozen times or so, but the original has this great, somewhat over-the-top, power to it. And it’s Beatty’s only scene in the movie, so he definitely makes the most of it.
What is it? It’s an updated film noir where a private detective sees corruption in the form of one monstrous man ruining so many lives in so many ways from the most innocuous of public works positions.
Why I love it: It’s stylish and cool, and Jack Nicholson (on this list again) as P.I. Jake Gittes is pretty much onscreen for the entire movie. That means the audience watching it for the first time only knows as much as he does. There’s a lot of evil and wrong in the world, symbolized by Chinatown not as a place, but as the idea that anything there goes and there isn’t anything a righteous person can do about it. I hear this is especially fantastic to watch in a home cinema, trinnov dealers in london offer some great home cinema solutions. But I digress
Memorable Moment: When Gittes, tired of the lies and evasions, finally gets the truth out of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray. I’ve played this movie for students, and that moment often gets a much-justified gasp of shock and horror.
What is it? It’s an examination of human nature disguised as a murder mystery.
Why I love it: Director Akira Kurosawa wasn’t interested in saying who killed the samurai. He was instead interested in the fundamentals of human nature. Are human beings fundamentally greedy or good? Each of the four witnesses to the crime gives a completely different story as to what happened, none of them match up, and all of them are at least a little self-serving for the individual teller. The true story never comes out, as the real purpose is something else entirely about what it means to tell the truth.
Memorable Moment: Each of the stories strikes a different tone and style to fit the individual teller, but I’m partial to the final story as told by the peasant woodcutter. After the bandit’s bravado, the widow’s hysteria, and the dead man’s ghost’s honorable resignation, we get a story that turns into a pure slapstick comedy in one of the most inept sword fights ever committed to film.
So, that’s my list. Did I get everything? Probably not. There’s plenty of great movies out there. Christmas classic Die Hard is both the epitome of and the deconstruction of the 80s action movie. Arsenic and Old Lace is probably the funniest movie ever about sweet old ladies murdering people. Airplane! is just hilarious. One the Waterfront makes us question what deserves our loyalty. The Dark Knight perfected the big screen supervillain. The Godfather is The Godfather. Apocalypse Now shows the futility of war. But for now, this is my list and I am sticking to it.