What truly makes a top 10 film of all time? This was a question my colleagues and I asked ourselves when composing our lists. Many will point to a film’s technical merits, where it stands with critics, or how the film makes them feel. The mark of anyone’s top/best/favorite 10 films should reflect their viewpoint as they stand as a film goer and their critical reasoning. I, for one, can’t distinguish the difference between “best” and “favorite” when it comes to creating a list like this. Implying that one film is better than another is a subjective process that takes in the technical aspects of film criticism as well as your affinity for the material. Just because a film is labeled “classic” or “best” does that mean they should be included on every list? Isn’t eschewing personal feelings for a movie an affront to your own critical thinking process? From this viewpoint, of which I share, there’s no such a thing as a wrong list or a definitive one for that matter.
So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of All Time.
10. The Strangers (2009)
It’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen and that alone would guarantee it a high ranking in any movie list I made. But this film is in the top 10 because it embraces both classic and modern horror conventions. Actually presenting a thrilling story seems to be an overrated concept in today’s horror films and The Strangers bests them all with an incredibly vivid portrayal of the meticulous hunting of a couple by three masked assailants. This movie is crafted for maximum tension; there are jump scares and sight gags a plenty, but they’re derived from an incredibly tense and unsettling narrative, all without any major gore or violence. Furthermore, this movie is an incredible exercise in restraint: from the sound design (there’s no score) to the lack of gore to the fact we never see the killer’s faces. The direction and execution of this film make you feel as though you are in the picture, but as invisible silent partners tied up and drug along through the film, unable to help as Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s terrorized couple escape.
9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
To date, this is the funniest movie I have ever seen. No one does absurdist, irreverent, dry British humor better than the Monty Python gang and they’re clicking on all cylinders in this romp through medeival and religious tropes. This film is a riot from start to finish, pulling from the endless pits of creativity form the Python crew and the fantastic script. The guffaws come from the beginning as we meet Arthur, King of the Brittains and his Knights. Following these well meaning clowns around, this film will have you crying from laughing so hard as they travel through the lands of fair maidens, killer bunnies, rude Frenchman and knights who say Ni. In an era where we’re getting revisionist tales left and right, this film truly revised the Arthurian legend, folding in Holy Grail and comedy to great success. There are so many iconic sequences in this movie and the punchlines still land with the same power as they did when the film was released. The ending to the narrative is outrageously curt, eschewing a nice wrap up for a more narratively relevant, and gut busting, approach. Technically, this film isn’t just some slapped together picture. Editing is such an unsung hero in the success of comedies and this film manages to combine live action foolishness with animated and musical sequences fit seamlessly in the narrative.
8. Cruel Intentions (1999)
Yes, I know. But this film is so 90s, so instantly quotable, and so irresistibly bitchy that it had to make my list. This adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses set in the high scoiety of Manhattan’s Upper East Side has such fantastic script and all of the actors deliver. Speaking of actors, it seems that everyone who was someone in the 90s is in this movie. This movie starred (takes deep breath) Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair, Sean Patrick Thomas, Joshua Jackson, Eric Maibus, Louise Fletcher, Christine Baranski, and Tara Reid. The standouts are far and away Sarah Michelle Gellar (at her bitchiest) and Ryan Phillippe (in perhaps his best role) as the Valmont siblings. While both have had varying degrees of success, these were roles of a lifetime and they both chewed the scenery. There are few things more fun to watch than pretty people doing bad things and we root for these characters to manipulate each other to the point of no return. That this movie is incredibly sexy as well is not lost on me, and it never once feels out of place. This is the world of the Upper East Side, and we’re just watching it.
7. Sin Nombre (2009)
This film just destroyed me when I first saw it and I’ve still yet to decide whether it’s violently beautiful or beautifully violent. Sin Nombre is the devastating portrayal of how the quest for a better life is often fraught with danger, especially if your journey is on a train to illegally immigrating to the US. Paulina Gaitan and Edgar Flores give such heartbreaking performances as an immigrant and an ex gang member. Flores does well as the bad boy with the good heart and his emotional scenes are fantastic. Showing acting prowess beyond his years, his eyes are like pool of sadness, you just get lost in the pain and anguish they are able to show. By the time this film reaches it’s climax, you’ve bonded so well with the main two characters you don’t know whether to be happy or depressed. That’s also a testament to how well told and gorgeously rendered this film is. Cary Fukanaga directs this movie with such a keen eye for how to frame the intimate story against the lush scenery and brutal gang violence.
6. A Separation (2011)
I thought long and hard about not including this film since it came out last year, but there hasn’t been a day gone by since I’ve seen it that I have not thought about Asghar Farhadi’s masterfully made film. It has invaded my mind so fully that I had to place it on this list. Writing about this movie is so difficult because to just present the narrative does a disservice to its complex nature, and also spoils the movie. Farhadi’s script begins with the divorce proceedings of a couple and then takes off to some very unexpected places. This is a movie that wades in the depths of societal conflicts in modern day Iran, painting a picture of a country and a people both prospering and at odds with itself. But what is so great about this film is that it doesn’t shy away from situations or dialog that might be controversial, instead laying out issues like class conflict, religion v secularism, and the failings of a justice system, with such nuance and grace. A Separation is like the Beast’s flower constantly peeling away layers till you get to the conclusion and still are left to wonder about what exactly you’ve been dealing with.
The performances in this film are excellent, each actor revealing so much about their characters but holding back so much. In combining with Farhadi’s fantastic script, their performances each make up a fractured psyche of the human mind. The tug and pull of honor and duty and desire for freedom and a better life pore out from their performances.
You won’t really understand the impact this film has on you till about 15 mins after you watch it, but after that you’ll remember it forever.
5. 8 1/2 (1963)
The conditions in which I first saw this film weren’t common considering that I watched it without subtitles. But maybe that’s what gave me such an appreciation for the striking imagery, compelling characters, and a wonderfully complex script. 8 1/2 is as much a fever dream about filmmaking as it is an autobiography of it’s famous director. It’s a lyrical fantasy, blending dreams, memories and movies into a warped reality. In my short viewing of Felinni films, this stands above his other classics because of how personal and reflective this movie is. The plot for this film is stated as such: Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a film director, is trying work through “directors block” while balancing the women in his life including his wife, his mistress, his muse, a whore from his youth and his mother. Fellini manages to pull excellent performances out of all his actors, never letting them get lost in the weaving nature of the narrative.
The fantasy/memory sequences are scripted and filmed in such a way that they standout from the narrative (you can easily tell when things are veering into fantasy land), but due to Fellini’s neo-realist style, they feel as though they are a part of the present day. Often times they reflect Guido’s problems made real like the opening scene which finds Guido floating away from a traffic jam, only to be pulled back down to earth by his producers who want to know about his next film. Other scenes like Saraghina’s tease and the harem battle provide fun fantasy alternative to the rather drama filled narrative. While Fellini takes us on plenty sojourn between reality and fantasy, he never forgets that we are dealing with the struggles of a man mired in both creative and life crisis, presenting us with several gut wrenching scenes near the finale. Reading this you might think this is some dour film a la Umberto D., but Fellini’s sense of humor finds its way through often like when Guido has to fight off a harem of the various women in his life. One of my favorite scenes is when the little boys meet Saraghina because she’s such a larger than life figure in his life but he presents her in such a playful way. This back and forth makes for as powerful an ending you’ll see in films, with the parade of characters we’ve met all coming back for a parade on the set of a movie we’ve long known Guido won’t shoot. It’s a testament to Fellini’s power as a writer/director that he could pull something like this off, and he does with incredible aplomb.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
While this isn’t the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen, The Exorcist wins the award for “Most Well Made” horror film ever and certainly deserves it’s top rankings on horror lists. This movie is way more than just a scary movie, it’s an immersive experience. It’s interesting that unlike scary movies now, The Exorcist takes it’s time preying upon its audience’s fears and misgivings. The filmmakers take every opportunity to present things to the audience as though this was real life and that it’s impossible to believe that something like this could happen to anyone, much less a little girl. We as an audience don’t even get to see the possision start till halfway through the film and after the film has built up that cache, it keeps topping it with iconic scene after iconic scene. The Williams (Peter Blatty and Friedkin respectively) create such a claustrophobic story that even with the shocking imagery, like the crucifix masturbation scene or the head spinning, you can’t turn your eyes away.
The acting in this film is superb, especially considering how difficult this must have been to make. Ellen Burstyen is so good at histrionics (see Requiem for a Dream) but she’s really contained here. Sure she gets a yell in and cries a lot, but you really see the character’s mental unravelling at how helpless she is to help her daughter. Linda Blair had the monumental task of being the possessed child and she really delivered. Though she’s aided by great makeup and another woman’s voice, the intensity she brings in the scenes before she’s really possessed is wonderful. Were it not for the precociousness of another child actress she would have won the Oscar. The real MVP, and co-lead character, of this movie is Jason Miller as Father Karras. While Regan may be possessed, its Karras who carries much of the narrative weight as the priest questioning his own beliefs. In his character, the film’s battle with faith and the devil is made literal as he makes the most powerful choice at the end of the film.
It was said that Friedkin was meticulous in making this movie, like filming the exorcism scenes on a refigerated set, and his direction is a big reason why this film was nominated for 10 Oscars. In the original cut, there’s not a shot out of place or used for an exploitative reason. The “Version You’ve Never Seen” is a bit more gratuitous in including that infamous spiderwalk scene, but still a powerful film.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
There’s something to the claim that movies can transport you to different worlds and this film might be a prime example of that adage. I can still remember going to see this at a theater in Emeryville, CA and just being absolutely blown away, eyes wide with a big grin as people actually flew onscreen. This movie was my first introduction to mature cinema this side of Titanic, first foreign language and subtitled film. And yet I sat with rapt attention the entire time as the love stories, fanciful fights and that wonderful ending took place. Ang Lee’s Oscar winning opus (yes it’s better than Brokeback Mountain) is such a well told story that we believe the physics defying elements of the story are completely organic. I could write all day about the technical merits of those fight sequences, but what makes them so memorable is that they come from the story. You know people can’t fly through the air fighting each other but this film makes you believe that it’s possible.
But this movie is much more than battles. While the fights and visuals get the headlines, they would be all for naught without the love stories in the movie. Between the forbidden love of Ziyi and Chang’s characters to the eternal longing of Yung Fat and Yoeh, this movie carries a fantastic emotional weight you might not have expected from a martial arts epic. Add to that Tan Dun’s amazing score, and you have the recipe for a fantastic film.
2. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Clashing acting styles, bold cinematography and a deliciously taut script highlight this adaptation of Tennessee Williams greatest play. Elia Kazan’s claustrophobic camera allows us the experience of watching a movie with all the feelings of a stage play. The four principal actors dive so fully into the material, eschewing vanity and over the top-ness, in favor of complete transformation. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden are marvelous in their supporting roles, threatening to steal the movie every time they are on screen. Stanley, played with searing intensity by Marlon Brando, is the audiences vessel into the basics of human nature. He’s overwhelmingly brutish, intensely sexy, and completely territorial.
But the reason best part of this film is Vivien Leigh as Blanche. I look at this character as the continuation of the Southern Belle she played in Gone with the Wind. Blanche is delusional in all the best ways and hanging by a thread, she wants the world desperately to be perfect but alas its not. Its amazing to see her interactions with Mitch, whom she gravitates to because she enjoys being admired. I love when acting is about emotion rather than technical precision but Vivien makes some remarkable choices with Blanche. Take the scene where she’s seemingly confessing her sins to Mitch. She’s warding him off with her usual light voice and quick charm, but when she finally reaches her breaking point she loses all pretenses. The swish of her arms is no longer dainty, her voice deepens drastically, and we are transported into the lair of “Tarantula Arms”. Vivien brings out Blanche’s vulnerabilities as well as her confidences in a vivid portrayal.
I cannot rave enough about this film, everything about it is great. the set design, cinematography…I could feel the heat through the screen. This movie is landmark cinema, and I can’t recommend it more highly.
1. Gone With the Wind (1939)
I realize it might be hard to believe that after that intro paragraph and the previous nine choices you’ve just read that Gone With the Wind would be my top film. It’s a long (almost 4 hrs with the overture and intermission), overly melodramatic, and not incredibly historically accurate film. But Gone With the Wind is just so damn epic, a fantastic exercise in filmmaking that takes my top slot. The merits for it’s high placement are there: it won 10 Oscars in 1939 (considered the golden year of films) and it made $400 million during it’s theatrical run and 70s re-release and is the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. But more than that, it’s a rich adaptation of Margret Mitchell’s ridiculously popular Pulitzer Prize winning novel that tells its story in a sure way and never apologizes for it’s mistakes or excesses.
For those who might be unfamilar with the story, it tells the story of the Civil War and reconstruction from a Southern point of view as well as the torrid love quadrangle of Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, Rhett Butler, and Melanie Hamilton. I watched this movie one day on TCM and fell in love with its epic grandeur and marvelous storytelling. Every scene in this movie seems to have that je ne se quois which makes talking about the movie so interesting. There’s the unsung choreography and framing of the excited Southerners at Tara when they find out about the War, that incredible pull back shot of the dead men in Atlanta, and of course that escape from the city burning. One could overdose from so much muchness, for lack of a better term, but under Victor Flemming’s sure hand the picture keeps and even keel; there isn’t a scene out of place or length too long.
While so much of the attention for this film is built around the incredible phenomenon that the film was and it’s epicness, what really grounds this film are the performances that manage to both blend in with AND outshine the film itself. Leigh gives a performance for the ages as Scarlett, balancing the character’s inherent unlikability and childishness with some real powerful dramatic flourish. There are many scenes in this film that a lesser actor would overplay such as the scenes of incessant pining for Ashley Wilkes, but while Vivien doesn’t overplay the role, that doesn’t mean she shied away from going for it all. THIS is what a technicolor performance should be about: drama, grand gesture, and searing intensity. Its no wonder she won the Oscar and continues to be the standard for which performances in the Golden Era are gaged. Vivien is matched by one Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, as dashing a leading man performance as one could give. The leads of this film often much of the praise (and deservedly so), but the supporting actors in this film are outstanding as well. Olivia De Havilland, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, and Hattie McDaniel (who won the Oscar for supporting actress) all bring impressive acting turns that balance perfectly with the melodramatic nature of this story.
When all is said and done, whether you like great acting, a fantastic score, excellent direction, or a great story, Gone With the Wind has it all. This film for all the reasons I have listed and more, is unquestionably the greatest American film ever made and my number 1 choice.