As I’m off for a while, I thought I’d leave with a post that can get readers involved in a mutually beneficial way. I’m speaking of a list of favorite movies. I’ve given below my twenty all-time favorites, and since I’ve seen a lot of movies let me just call these the “best movies”.
And yes, I know this isn’t about biology or atheism or cats. And I also know that many of you will take issue with these choices, and argue that better movies were left out. I plead that this list is of course subjective, and also constructed this morning from memory.
To point us all to good films, do post your own list of five (or more) of your favorite movies, highlighting your all-time favorite with a few words. When I return I’ll send an autographed paperback of WEIT to the commenter who provides the best list (which of course includes a good blurb for the top movie).
For each movie I’ve added a link to the group of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, my favorite movie-rating site.
The Last Picture Show. My all-time favorite, a haunting black-and-white essay, at once hilarious and ineffably sad, on our loneliness and failure to connect with others. It’s set in the oil town of Archer City, Texas (called “Anarene”) in the 1950s, and has an all-star cast—before many of them became stars. I’ve put below a YouTube clip of my favorite scene, Sam the Lion’s (Ben Johnson’s) soliloquy. Shoot me for saying this, but I find the scene the emotional equal of anything in Shakespeare. Because of this movie I made a pilgrimage to Archer City in 1972, and found it exactly as it was in the movie.
The Passion of Joan of Arc. The only silent movie on this list, and the best silent movie of all time. Maria Falconetti gives a fantastic performance of Joan during her trial and execution. You won’t believe that a movie without sound can be this good.
Chinatown My favorite film noir, a wonderful interaction between Jack Nicholson, who plays a detective, and director Roman Polanski. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel really unsettled as you leave the theater.
Wings of Desire Wim Wender’s masterpiece. Angels hover over post-war Berlin, listening to the thoughts of its inhabitants and sometimes falling in love with them.
The Best Years of Our Lives. This was a “popular” movie, made to entertain Americans after WWII. But it far transcends entertainment. It’s a gripping story of three veterans as they return from the war and try to put their lives together. Harold Russell, a genuine vet and non-actor, who lost his hands in the war, gives a stirring performance.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Klaus Kinski’s best performance in Werner Herzog’s twisted tale of a group of conquistadors, led by a madman, trying to find the city of El Dorado.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). You won’t have heard of this movie, for it’s simply been forgotten. I was put 0nto it by my film-maven nephew after telling him how much I liked Tokyo Story (see below). Like that movie, it’s a meditation on age—specifically, the rejection of aging parents by their children. Parts of it seem a bit cheesy now, but it will still break your heart. There are no reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, so I’ve linked to Roger Ebert’s review.
Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Early Spring, and Late Autumn. If you haven’t heard of director Yasujiro Ozu, you’re in for a treat. These four movies are, I think, his best. They’re slow moving essays on family life in postwar Japan, and not for fans of quick-cut, fast-paced plots. Tokyo Story, which deals with the relationship between aging parents and their children, may be (along with Ikiru) the best foreign film ever.
Lawrence of Arabia. The best Hollywood blockbuster of all time. Great acting (especially by Peter O’Toole, who was born for the part), great photography, great story.
The Wizard of Oz. Any list of best movies that leaves this out is deficient. Have you seen it lately? This is the only movie on the list that’s a masterpiece for both children and adults.
The Godfather Parts I and II. We all know that Part III sucked, but Part II is the best sequel ever made (unless you consider Ozu’s movies as sequels). I still consider Part I the best, but others disagree.
Y Tu Mama Tambien. Loosely translated as “So’s Your Momma,” this is a Mexican film directed by Alfonso Cuarón. It’s the only coming-of-age movie on this list (I suppose The Last Picture Show might qualify) but it’s more than that. It’s a depiction of class differences in modern Mexico, set within a comedy that includes a tragedy. Oh, and it’s the most erotic movie here.
Ikiru. I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s “epic” films, but this, an early black-and-white movie, is far better—perhaps the best foreign film ever made. It’s about a Japanese bureaucrat who finds meaning in life only after discovering he has terminal cancer. Unless you have no feelings, it will make you cry. The last scene is unforgettable.
Here are two movies that don’t come up to the others as world-class films, but I love them nonetheless:
Comedy: Annie Hall. Outstrips by a huge margin all other movies by Woody Allen. Every scene is a classic, and just thinking about them makes me smile. The Marshall McLuhan scene, the lobster scene, the dinner scene from Alvy’s childhood contrasted with that from Annie’s—sheer comic genius.
Musical: Yankee Doodle Dandy. You didn’t know that Jimmy Cagney could dance? He could—brilliantly, and his singing, dancing, and acting skills all make for a high-energy story of the songwriter George M. Cohan. As a kid I used to watch this every fourth of July (like It’s a Wonderful Life, it was always shown on the appropriate holiday), and I still have to watch it whenever it’s on. (Singin’ in the Rain runs a close second).
I’ve left off some universally acclaimed movies because I either haven’t seen them (e.g., The Bicycle Thief) or I can’t evaluate them properly because there’s been too much hype (Citizen Kane).
Now, tell us what you like.
Finally, a scene from The Last Picture Show: