This is part one of a four volume series highlighting some of cinema’s finest works and some of my personal favorites. Today I’m posting my first 25 picks. Stay tuned for more.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick’s most important work, 2001 is a film so revolutionary that many were puzzled and pissed off by it during its initial release. Rock Hudson stormed out of the film, shouting, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” Like A Clockwork Orange, it may have lost its ability to scandalize us, but it’s haunting cinematic power remains.
See also: Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket
2. A Separation (2011)
An early contender for film of the decade, Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian masterpiece is a melodrama with the pacing of a thriller, a nail-biter of conflict and raw human emotion. I’ve seen it four times and it gets better, more profound and more gripping with every viewing.
3. All About Eve (1950)
To those who haven’t seen it, I describe All About Eve as “like Black Swan, but without all the drug masturbation dreams.” It’s a tale of ambition and betrayal, a caustic comedy-melodrama about the costs of success. All About Eve also features Bette Davis’ most iconic performance, as an aging starlet who is watching fame slip away but always manages to find time for a drink and a zippy one-liner.
4. All About My Mother (1999)
Almodovar has lots of films that deserve to be on this list (Talk To Her, Volver, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), but All About My Mother has long been the fan favorite because it’s everything you could want in an Almodovar film. It features lots of drag queens, Penelope Cruz as a pregnant nun and a beating heart at the center of all the mayhem. It’s kitsch with feeling.
5. Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall has been long regarded as “everyone’s favorite Woody Allen movie” for a reason. It’s a film with the power to change how you look at cinema forever, a film that seems slight and sweet but whose emotions are bittersweet, conflicting and true. Like the later Chasing Amy, Allen shows us that the most meaningful relationships might be the ones that don’t last.
See also: Interiors, Manhattan, Another Woman, Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sleeper, Love and Death, Bananas, Zelig, Match Point, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Stardust Memories, Radio Days, Husbands and Wives, Everyone Says I Love You
6. The Apartment (1960)
Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, Ninotchka and The Seven-Year Itch prove Billy Wilder to be one of the finest comic talents of his generation, and The Apartment (one of the only comedies to win Best Picture) shows us why. The Apartment is a flawless study of loneliness and depression, a comedy of manners rooted in our universal feelings of not belonging. If it sounds sad, it’s actually lovely and wonderful, featuring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon at their most charming. It’s a romantic comedy with a dark side.
See also: The Lost Weekend, Marty
7. Being There (1979)
Director Hal Ashby’s crowning achievement is an absolute miracle, a film that’s both philosophically deep and absolutely hilarious. It’s the rare movie that completely confounds any expectations that you might have for it, ending in one of the most quixotic and memorable finales in history. I’ve seen it at least ten times, and I still find that surprises me each time. Peter Sellers only gets better with age.
See also: Coming Home, The Last Detail
8. The Before Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013)
This is the only series in history that gets better with every installment. Richard Linklater gave us his first masterpiece, Before Sunrise, in 1995, so he followed up with an even better one nine years later with Before Sunset. Released a few weeks ago, Before Midnight is scoring the best reviews of the year, because it’s one of the best films of this or any year. It’s the only movie I’ve ever cried at, simply because I was so happy to have seen it. Time will tell, but I have a sneaking suspicion it will end up my personal favorite movie ever.
9. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Bicycle Thieves (aka The Bicycle Thief) is one of those movies that they make you watch in almost every film school class — and for good reason. In addition to being a hallmark of neorealism, it’s the kind of movie that people always lament we don’t make anymore. That’s not exactly true. France’s Dardenne Brothers are keeping De Sica’s proud legacy alive with films like L’Enfant and the aptly titled The Kid With a Bike.
10. The Big Heat (1953)
I put this on the list over M not because it’s a better film but because it’s proof that Fritz Lang didn’t stop making great movies when he came to America. One of film noir’s strangest entries, Lang pushed the boundaries of what the genre could do, erupting in moments of brutal and shocking violence, sometimes involving coffee.
I don’t know how this movie passed through the censorship boards, but I’m glad it did. It’s perfect. Just don’t drink Starbucks afterward.
11. The Big Sleep (1946)
This and The Maltese Falcon prove why Humphrey Bogart was the master of film noir. While not being traditionally sexy, Bogart has a magnetic coolness that’s the perfect embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s novel. It helps that in addition to having Howard Hawks behind the camera, literary genius William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay.
See also with Bogart: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny, To Have and To Have Not
12. Blue Velvet (1986)
To this day, Blue Velvet is a divisive film — between those who see it as exploitative and misogynistic and those who view it as one of the best films of the 1980s. Like every David Lynch film, Blue Velvet is a tonal mystery, a movie that forces you to figure it out along with its characters. You’re just as clueless as they are. Blue Velvet was an introduction to what would become the Lynch style and three decades later, he’s just as poetically elliptical (see: Inland Empire). We haven’t been able to figure him out yet.
See also: Twin Peaks (his TV show), Mulholland Dr.
13. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Cary Grant movies have a reputation for being quick in the tongue (see: His Girl Friday), but Bringing Up Baby is on another level. In addition to being fast of wit, Billy Wilder throws almost everything in his comic imagination at the screen. It’s breathlessly paced and so full of gags that there’s no way to catch every joke your first time around. Perhaps this is why the movie flopped in its initial release and only caught on later. Without Bringing Up Baby, Arrested Development could have never existed.
See also with Grant: Arsenic and Old Lace, Charade, Notorious, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Operation Petticoat, Gunga Din
14. Cache (2005)
Michael Haneke has made a name for himself as the bad boy of Austrian cinema with art house stunts like Funny Games and Oscar-bait like Amour and The White Ribbon, but Haneke is at his best when’s at his most Hitchcockian. Cache asks a great deal of patience from its viewers, but the rewards are many. It’s a brutal indictment of our surveillance era and the secrets we uncover when we only look. If there’s any foreign film I can think of that demands an American remake, it’s this one.
See also from Haneke The Piano Teacher.
15. The Century of the Self (2005)
This is one of the best documentaries ever made, a social history of spin and advertising and how the industry of psychotherapy shaped how we educated desire and how we see ourselves. The Century of the Self runs 240 minutes, but it will change the way you look at everything. Get ready for a four-hour mindfuck.
16. Casablanca (1942)
There’s a reason that Casablanca continually tops lists of the greatest films of all time. It’s one of the few unquestionably perfect movies ever made, a movie that can unite film geeks, nostalgists, octogenarians and kids in utter adoration. One day I stayed home sick and only watched Casablanca on repeat. At the end of the day, I felt much better.
Also, yes, you should probably see Citizen Kane. But don’t you already know that? It’s great, you’ll love it, watch it already.
17. Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown is one of those movies that the less you know about it going in, the better. Roman Polanski’s masterpiece is a watershed moment in American film, when movies made at the studio level could be gloriously weird, make a bunch of money and win Oscars. Although it doesn’t quite have The Godfather’s stature, Chinatown dared to make Hollywood dangerous again.
Fun fact: Faye Dunaway once threw urine in Roman Polanski’s face during an on-set dispute. He wouldn’t let her go pee. If only you could have done this in elementary school, not getting the lavatory pass would have been way more awesome.
18. City of God (2002)
Most directors don’t make two masterpieces in their entire career. Fernando Meirelles made two great films in a row, between this and The Constant Gardener. City of God is a surprise entry on IMDB’s Top 100 list (currently at #21) because it’s a crowd-pleaser with an urgent social message. For those interested, check out the TV series and the follow-up film, City of Men. They’re slightly derivative but worthwhile additions to the film’s depiction of life in Rio.
19. City Lights (1931)
If you want to introduce someone to silent films, this is the movie you pick. Although Charlie Chaplin is known for his slapstick and crack comic timing, Chaplin (who also served as director) is a master storyteller with an eye for cinematography. Woody Allen is said to have based his memorable Manhattan opening on City Lights and it’s easy to see why. City Lights is a beautiful film, from it’s surface down to the longing underneath.
Also see: Modern Times, The Great Dictator, The Kid, The Gold Rush
20. The Crying Game (1992)
Even today, The Crying Game is an extremely controversial film and a movie that’s as much fun to watch as it is to watch people watch it. Every time you think you know what The Crying Game is about, it changes on you. It’s also one of the most complex and human portrayals of romance I’ve ever seen — about what it means to love someone and to embrace their past. It might come off as a shock film — because of a now famous twist that makes it easy to dismiss.
I still can’t decide how I feel about some of it, but The Crying Game that needs to be seen and discussed. It’s just simply too powerful to ignore.
21. Days of Heaven (1978)
Days of Heaven is one of the most visually stunning and rich films I’ve ever seen — from the cinematography that would become Terrence Malick’s trademark to Richard Gere’s sultry gaze. Like the equally sumptuous Lawrence of Arabia, if you ever have the chance to see it on the big screen, you must take it. Your local art theatre usually plays Days of Heaven at least once a year.
Also see: Badlands, The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life
22. Dead Ringers (1988)
It’s hard to pick your favorite David Cronenberg film as the man’s catalog is an embarrassment of riches (Videodrome, Scanners, The Fly, A History of Violence), but Dead Ringers stands out not just because of the usual Cronenbergian verve. Dead Ringers gets one of cinema’s best performances out of Jeremy Irons, who won a catch-up Oscar two years later for the deliciously gauzy Reversal of Fortune. Irons plays identical twins and he’s so good that you can instantly tell which he’s playing at any given time. Dead Ringers is like the creepiest Olsen twins movie ever.
See also: Spider, eXistenZ, Crash (but not the one you’re thinking of, trust me)
23. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
2007 was one of the best years ever for cinema — with titles like Ratatouille, Juno, The Bourne Ultimatum, Zodiac, The Savages, Hot Fuzz, Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James, I’m Not There, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Michael Clayton, Eastern Promises, Knocked Up, Away From Her, The King of Kong, No End in Sight, Persepolis, Lars and the Real Girl and Breach all garnering wide acclaim.
There are even five on this list (none mentioned above), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the best, an impressionistic display of exactly how far cinema can go. It’s like Enter the Void, but with a plot, and one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
24. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s recent career has been so spotty (see: whatever was going on in Miracle at St. Anna) that it’s easy to forget he’s one of cinema’s most important filmmakers. Do the Right Thing was one of the few times Siskel and Ebert ever agreed on their Best Movie of the Year pick, the movie that encapsulated the racial tension that would lead to the 1992 L.A. riots. Over two decades later, it’s just as relevant as it ever was. The times have changed, but the politics haven’t much.
Also check out from Lee’s filmography: She’s Gotta Have It, Malcolm X, Bamboozled, Inside Man, 25th Hour, When the Levee Broke and Jungle Fever, still as controversial today as when it was released.
25. Double Indemnity (1944)
Double Indemnity sounds like the name of a Bond film, but it’s one of Billy Wilder’s finest cons, a thriller comprised of double crosses and shifty femme fatales. Barbara Stanwyck steals the movie as one of cinema’s most delectable bad girls, a reminder that as much as classic films repressed women, they wrote real roles for them. Stanwyck might play the villain, but bad never looked so good.
I can’t possibly put every movie on this list, but you’ve got three more volumes ahead. In the meantime, what movies speak to you? Which movies changed your life? Sound off in the comments.
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