10 Greatest Films of All-Time (Mark Johnson)

The 10 best films of all time. Think about how profound that claim is when considering the seemingly unlimited amount of movies that have been made – and from that, the 10 best. It is such an elite group of films, and yet there are many worthy of being considered. I always find such lists to be so intriguing, as it says a great deal to me about a person. Their list becomes their cinematic fingerprint, as it never seems that two lists are the exact same.

For me, the biggest challenge is to separate what may be my favorite movies ever made from the actual best. It might sound silly, but there is a big difference. For example, while The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite movies ever made, I would never argue that it is anywhere near one of the best films ever made. And conversely, I might not be an enormous fan of Gone with the Wind, but how can I deny its greatness? Especially considering the era in which it was made. Ah, another dilemma. How does one compare the smallness of something like Chaplin’s City Lights to the eye candy that contemporary times and technologies have gifted us with something like Cameron’s Avatar? As far as I am concerned, you MUST consider the era a film was made when disputing its relevance in a top 10 list.

In the end, you must accept that there is no such thing as a correct list. And yet while there is absolutely no way to make a correct list, there certainly are many ways to make a wrong one. For example, whether Citizen Kane is #1 or #7 on a list shouldn’t be something we look at and say, you are wrong! It’s apples to apples at that point. But if you have something like Battlefield Earth in your top 10, then surely you deserve a bit of a beat down, no?

Aside from that, to each their own. No pressure, right? It’s in the eye of the beholder, after all.

Have a look at the 10 films I consider to be the best ever made after the jump…

10. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

George Lucas’ epic space opera was about as groundbreaking a film as there ever was. From its mind blowing special effects and sound to its avant-garde editing techniques, Star Wars is one of the most influential films ever made. From the opening title sequence, we are magically taken back “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and introduced to some of the most memorable characters ever brought to the big screen (Darth Vader, Han Solo, C-3PO, etc.). It didn’t hurt that we were ushered in by one of the best original scores ever written (by John Williams). At the time of its release, Star Wars was the highest-grossing film (passing Jaws), and ranks second all time (U.S.) when adjusting for inflation (behind Gone with the Wind). Nominated for 10 Academy Awards – and winner of six – Star Wars is a rare breed of film that is not only hugely successful financially, but critically praised the world over.

I was born the year it was released (1977) and thus grew up a child of the Star Wars era. Everything I owned – from bed sheets, to curtains, to clothing, to the toys we played with – were Star Wars themed. As a result, it should come as no surprise to learn that I named my second-born son Luke in honor of the central character.

9. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

While Stanley Donen often gets credited with having directed Singin’ in the Rain, star Gene Kelly played a big hand in the direction as well as the magnificent choreography. The movie, which was a small hit at the time of its release, has become one of the most celebrated song and dance films ever produced, and includes one of the most iconic images in film history (see above picture). Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of a successful silent film star learning to evolve with the transition to “talkies” (no, I’m not talking about 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist). Mix in hilarious numbers like “Make ’em Laugh” (performed by Donald O’Connor) and “Moses Supposes” (performed by Kelly and O’Connor) with love ballads like “Singin’ in the Rain” (performed by Kelly) – not to mention the memorable “Good Morning” (performed by Debbie Reynolds, Kelly, and O’Connor) – and you have the makings for one of the best films of all time, let alone musicals.

8. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s hard to imagine, but Frank Capra’s classic Christmas tale was a box office flop at the time of its release. It has since grown into a classic film and is a staple of Christmas in most homes. Named the most inspirational film of all time by the American Film Institute, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the magical story of George Bailey (James Stewart), whose suicide attempt is intervened by his guardian angel, Clarence (the delightful Henry Travers). Clarence shows George what the world would be like if he had never been born, revealing how many lives he has made better and how important a man he has been to so many people. It’s a Wonderful Life features one of the greatest heroes in film (Bailey) as well as one of its biggest villains (Mr. Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore), while reminding us how sacred and important love, family, and life all are.

7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece took us to Jupiter space nine years before Lucas took us to a galaxy far, far away. To say that 2001: A Space Odyssey was ahead of its time would be a vast understatement, and the film would go on to win the Oscar for its cutting-edge special effects, deservedly. The cryptic story deals with technology, artificial intelligence, and our existence and evolution as a species – from our humble beginnings as primates to our ability to travel into space – all while being watched and guided by large, black monoliths, whose origin and purpose are a mystery. One such monolith, discovered on the moon, is transmitting the signal that will lead us on a mission to Jupiter space. The ship transporting the astronauts is controlled by the unforgettable Hal-9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), a cognizant computer who will stop at nothing to ensure the mission’s success. 2001 is as deep and profound as it is still and beautiful, and if Star Wars is a space opera, then 2001 is a space ballet. The soundtrack contains “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, which leads into “The Blue Danube” waltz by Johann Strauss II in one of the most brilliant cuts in cinematic history.

6. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Perhaps there has never been a better original song put to film than Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” performed the incomparable Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Based on the children’s novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz is as beloved and cherished as any other American film, and was a pioneer of early special effects and the use of Technicolor. The film has aired on television every year since 1956, expanding its legacy to generations of new fans. With so many classic characters (including The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion, and, of course, The Wicked Witch of the West, played by the unforgettable Margaret Hamilton), lines (“There’s no place like home” and “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”), magical moments (most notably the transition from the dry, bleak, sepia of Kansas to the brilliant and vivid Technicolor of Oz), and all of those wonderful songs (“Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” “Follow the Yellow Brick Road/You’re Off to See the Wizard,” and “If I Only Had a Brain“), the imagination behind The Wizard of Oz is as unique as the film itself is timeless.

5. Gone with the Wind (1939)

Avatar can call itself the highest grossing film of all time all it wants, but when you consider that the average price of a movie ticket in 2009 was eight dollars, and the average cost of a movie ticket in 1939 was 23 cents, it is hardly a fair fight. For you math wizards, it would take about 34.78 Gone with the Wind tickets to cancel out the price of one single Avatar ticket. When adjusting for inflation, Gone with the Wind is the highest grossing film ever, at just over $1.6 billion dollars. Similarly, Avatar adjusts to just over $770 million, at 14th all-time. Not as impressive after all, Mr. Cameron (whose Titanic adjusts to 5th all-time).

Based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind is a Civil War-era epic with one of the most memorable female characters in cinematic history at its core, Scarlett O’Hara. At the time of its release, Gone with the Wind was the longest running American non-silent film at three hours and 59 minutes (which includes a 15 minute intermission), and would also go on to hold the record for most Oscar wins (10) until Ben-Hur topped it with 11 in 1959. It is the longest Best Picture winning film to this date (based on the running time of its original theatrical release). It is said to have taken the production two years to settle on who would play the two lead roles (competition and contract rights being the main reasons), but one can’t even imagine someone other than Clark Gable in the role of Rhett Butler, let alone anyone other than Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara. With an incredible cast rounded out by Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, and Hattie McDaniel, broad landscapes that delivered award-winning cinematography, and one of the best scores of all time (Tara’s Theme), Gone with the Wind is lavishly filled with memorable images and dialogue, including the greatest line ever delivered in a movie. And if you disagree with that, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

4. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean’s epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, is based on the life of the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence and is among the largest productions in film history. Peter O’Toole gives one of the greatest performances ever as Lawrence, as the story follows the legendary Major through his campaign in Arabia during World War I. The role of Lawrence was originally offered to Albert Finney and subsequently Marlon Brando (I can’t even imagine that), but when both turned it down O’Toole became their man. And thankfully so. Maurice Jarre’s majestic score and Freddie Young’s breath-taking cinematography mesmerize the viewer both visually and audibly, while Lean’s direction is both precise and immaculate. The rest of the all-star cast includes Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Claude Rains, and Arthur Kennedy. Nominated for 10 Oscars, Lawrence of Arabia would go on to win seven, including Best Picture. O’Toole lost the Lead Actor Oscar to Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) that year. If ever there was a tie at the Oscars…

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, the film that many people consider to be the greatest of all time walked away with only one (Best Writing – Original Screenplay). As innovative a narrative that has ever been placed to film, Citizen Kane embodies the story of the American dream. Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles, who also wrote – with Herman Mankiewicz – directed, and produced the film) was a newspaper magnate based “loosely” on real-life newsman William Randolph Hearst, who in the aftermath of the film’s release prohibited it from being mentioned in any of his newspapers. Kane’s rise and fall from power is told primarily from the surviving people in his life, via flashbacks, to a news reporter tasked with uncovering the mystery behind Kane’s bewildering dying word: “Rosebud.”

Welles came into the project following his notorious radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and was given a very unusual contract which allowed the young auteur the privilege of casting his own actors and crew as well as say in the final cut of the film. The technical brilliance is revealed with his (and cinematographer Gregg Toland’s) extended use of deep focus, in which nearly every frame of the film manages to keep everything sharp. But my personal favorite element to Citizen Kane is the way he used low-angle shots to make powerful people look larger and more almighty, and the reverse effect to shrink a weaker, smaller person down even further. The documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane is a must-watch for any Kane enthusiast, as it investigates the relative box office and awards failures the film had, attributing them almost solely to Hearst, while at the same time exposing the sad truth that in the end, Kane’s story resembled Welles’ even more so than Hearst’s.

2. The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime film was based on Mario Puzo’s novel, starred Marlon Brando in the titular role, and told the story of the Don’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), and his rise to power as the head of the New York based mob family. His rise is one of the more interesting character arcs in the history of film. In the beginning of The Godfather, Michael is a college graduate returning home from the war (World War II) who wants nothing to do with the family business. As he tells his girlfriend Kay (played with grand naivety by Diane Keaton), “That’s my family Kay, that’s not me.” But soon after an attempt on his father’s life, Michael shifts gears and evolves into the ruthless mob figure his father had hoped he would never become. The rest of the cast includes James Caan, John Cazale, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, Richard S. Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, and Al Lettieri.

After both Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich passed on directing the film, Paramount Pictures turned to then 30 year old Francis Ford Coppola. The story behind this marriage is quite fascinating, however, as Paramount threatened several times to replace the young film-maker, and had him shadowed on the set by a replacement director in the event that they would fire him in mid-production. Regardless of the intense pressure the studio applied on him, Coppola managed to produce one of the finest films ever made, and when the studio gave him breathing room on the sequel two years later, Coppola was able to nearly duplicate his masterpiece. The Godfather would go on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning three (including Best Picture). Marlon Brando won his second Oscar (Lead Actor), but refused to attend the ceremony, sending Sacheen Littlefeather (a.k.a. Maria Cruz) to bring attention to the wrongful stereotyping of Native Americans in film. Nino Rota was nominated for his powerful score, but was later declared ineligible for reusing his score to Fortunella. The Godfather was a movie about an Italian family that was made by an Italian family. Additional music was written for the film by Francis’ father, Carmine Coppola, and Francis’ sister Talia played the role of Connie. Francis’ sons have a cameo in the film playing Tom Hagen’s children, and his infant daughter Sophia can be seen in the baptism scene standing in as the son of Connie and Carlo.

And the film that I feel is the greatest of all time is…

1. Casablanca (1942)

When asked why I feel Casablanca is the greatest movie of all time, the answer is fairly simple: Casablanca is the perfect storm of unparalleled writing, acting, music, and timing. The film is set during World War II and was released shortly after the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca, Morocco. Talk about tapping into the cultural zeitgeist! Director Michael Curtiz’s film features nearly every aspect you could want in a movie: It is a romantic love story that is highly comical while creating thrilling suspense, and it features the greatest bad guys of all time – the Nazi’s. The incredible cast includes Humphrey Bogart (in his first romantic lead role), Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, and Conrad Veidt.

Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an expatriate biding his time in Casablanca as the owner of a saloon titled Rick’s Café Américain. That is until Ilsa Lund (Bergman), the love of his life, shows up at his bar after having mysteriously left him in the rain years before. She is now on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Henreid), a fugitive leader of the Czech Resistance who has escaped a Nazi prison camp. The pair are desperately trying to leave the country for America, but in order to do so require “letters of transit.” It just so turns out that Rick previously obtained said letters via a crook named Signor Ugarte (Lorre). Rick is now faced with the decision to keep and use the letters for Ilsa and himself, or do the noble thing and hand them over for Ilsa to use with Victor so that he can continue to fight his cause from America.

Based loosely on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, and written for the screen by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (and Howard Koch, depending on the source), I consider Casablanca to be the greatest screenplay of all time as well. The story alone is simply brilliant, especially when considering the fact that even the writers had no idea how the film would end as they went along (would Ilsa choose Rick or Victor?). That uncertainty played well for the actors, and we can feel the purity in their spur-of-the-moment decisions. The characters are easily among the most iconic to ever grace the silver screen, and the music is just as memorable, including Max Steiner’s score and Dooley Wilson’s versions of “It Had to Be You,” “Knock on Wood,” and “As Time Goes By“. Not to mention the use of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” in a duel against the German tune, “Die Wacht am Rhein.” However, when thinking of Casablanca, the first thing that comes to my mind is the unsurpassable dialogue. The countless classic lines include:

  • Ilsa: Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.”
  • Rick: I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
  • Rick: (when asked if he could imagine Germans invading New York) Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.
  • Major Strasser: What is your nationality?
    Rick: I’m a drunkard.
    Captain Renault: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.
  • Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
    Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
    Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
    Rick: I was misinformed.
  • Rick: I’m the only “cause” I’m interested in.
  • Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
    Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
    [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
    Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
    Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
  • Rick: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
  • Rick: Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Captain Renault: [seeing a uniformed French officer talking non-stop to an Italian officer] If he ever gets a word in, it’ll be a major Italian victory.
  • Captain Renault: Round up the usual suspects.
  • Rick: We’ll always have Paris.

And, of course:

  • Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
    Rick: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
    [Ilsa lowers her head and begins to cry]
    Rick: Now, now…
    [Rick gently places his hand under her chin and raises it so their eyes meet]
    Rick: Here’s looking at you kid.

Casablanca is a great reminder of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood and is a film that is as beloved as it is perfect. It is the film I consider to be the best ever made, as well as the film I would call my personal favorite. Casablanca is a film that I believe transcends its era and remains relevant now and always, as time goes by.

Look for the rest of the staff and their choices everyday this week and next week!  Also, include your picks as well!

What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Mark Johnson

Lover of all things film and Oscar. Fantasy sports’ equivalent of George Steinbrenner. Your very own Han Solo, making friends all over the movie-loving galaxy in spite of himself. When he’s not ranking just about everything or dominating boardgames, Mark is breaking down the Oscar race 24/7 with Rain Man-like stats and knowledge. In his downtime, you can find him commiserating with other Northeast Ohio sports fans because a hero isn’t complete without a little heartbreak. If Game of Thrones, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Survivor are your style, then congratulations, you have something in common with this inglourious basterd.


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