If any of these posts has inspired you to give even one of these movies an initial chance or a second look, then my effort has been rewarded immeasurably.
I don’t regret my choices for a moment, especially since this list was never meant to be carved in stone. With so many of my favorite writers, directors, actors and cinematographers still working, odds are good that I’ll happily be making adjustments.
A few parting thoughts.
Technology never gets worse (except for whatever those shit farmers were getting up to in the Dark Ages). I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find a way to work an animated film into the 10. So many delight and amaze me, like The Incredibles (2004). Computer-generated Imagery (CGI) offers filmmakers an ever wider palette for projecting their imaginations into the world, provided they don’t get lost in the tech or the pace of its lifecycle. There must be something liberating and utterly terrifying about having the ability to create an entire film literally from nothing.
Technology always gets cheaper and more accessible. Movie studios will likely be with us for a long time (effects-laden blockbusters with exotic locations more or less require them), but here-now-today we have never had a more hospitable environment for independent filmmaking and distribution. That’s exciting, because there are more and better stories to tell than Hollywood (or its international equivalents) has the imagination or risk tolerance to greenlight, and there is enough of an appetite for good storytelling to make these movies profitable.
Never start with the technology. To stage a play all you need is a story, light, air, actors, gravity (optional) and an audience. While I love having my mind blown by the scale of movies like The Avengers (2012), I am made equally happy (if not more so) by movies like Sleuth (1972). For Pete’s sake, start with a worthwhile story and then embellish it with great acting and visuals. Anything else is like trying to polish a turd. And Hollywood, please stop systematically ruining my happy childhood memories with your cynical failures to cash in on my nostalgia. Or don’t. The days of your captive, artificially-propped-up business model are numbered. Maybe. Previously.
Bonus fun 10 movies (not otherwise mentioned) that might have made the top 10:
- Blade Runner (1982, 1992, 2007 or whenever the last time was that Ridley Scott stopped fucking around with it)
- Brazil (1985)
- Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
- The Fifth Element (1997)
- Forbidden Planet (1956)
- The Name of the Rose (1986)
- One Night at McCool’s (2001)
- Ronin (1998)
- Strange Days (1995)
- Zombieland (2009)
I have developed a significant personal connection with this movie and I can only watch it every so often because I can’t not weep openly every time I do. I’ve had some experience with loss and watching Harold and Maude stirs all that shit up.
I tell people it’s two movies. Upon first viewing, it’s a quirky, somewhat dated black comedy. The sexual relationship between 19-year-old Harold and 79-year-old Maude has shock value and all, as does Harold’s elaborate staging of mock suicides. It’s a solidly entertaining (if a little uneven) irreverent movie.
Upon every subsequent viewing, however, when you know what’s coming, it’s the saddest, most beautiful film I ever hope to see.
Scored entirely by Cat Stevens, directed by Hal Ashby ‒ who got a fantastic performance out of Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail (1973) ‒ co-starring Bud Cort (a promising young actor whose career suffered a tragic setback) and Ruth Gordon, released in the year of my birth, Harold and Maude is my answer to the question, “MrPikes, you’re into movies, what’s your favorite?”
Harold and Maude is my favorite. When my beautiful bride and I threw a balls-out gala to celebrate our marriage, we gifted copies to all the guests and staff. Harold and Maude is one of the ways we got together.
So, the movie I love most is actually hard for me to watch. I’ll be damned.
Given Steven Soderbergh’s popular projects ‒ the Ocean’s Eleven movies (2001, 2004, 2007), Erin Brockovich (2000) and, going further back, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) ‒ I guess I’m a little surprised Out of Sight did not make it into more people’s queues. It’s a proper heist movie (based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name) starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle, with excellent supporting performances by Luis Guzman (Cheadle’s conjoined acting twin), Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina (one of my favorite working actors), Steve Zahn and a swell cameo from Michael Keaton.
Mssr. Soderbergh is a player/manager (back in the day, some baseball managers also played). He seems to be most comfortable with a steadicam in his hands, inserting himself on the viewer’s behalf into the scene in a way that few directors do. This investment pays dividends in lots of his movies, but Out of Sight is dense with these…moments. A particular sequence with Lopez and Clooney in a Detroit highrise hotel kills me every time it’s so beautiful. It’s the most candid, vulnerable thing I’ve seen captured on film. In the words of one of my favorite authors Neal Stephenson, it leaves me feeling “naked and weak and brave.”
Soderbergh has demonstrated that he can make commercially successful movies more or less at will and he has ready access to Hollywood’s top shelf. My hope is that he will use this platform to continue taking risks on less mainstream fare. As with Out of Sight, when he nails it he nails it hard.
A hugely underrated comedy, trampled by critics, this movie has never failed to delight anyone with whom I have shared it. Star power? Liam Neeson, Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt (who hands-down steals it), Richard Schiff, Mitch Pileggi, but enriched by the excellent performances of every single supporting actor.
The comic timing is superb, the dialogue is inspired and the story is novel while keeping its place, i.e., it keeps things moving while not getting in the way of what this movie is really about, which is a series of moments between characters, backed by a fantastic soundtrack and New York City serving as the best backdrop I’ve seen short of Woody Allen.
From what I can tell, this was Eric Blakeney’s one directorial shot. He made a superlative movie for $10M, it lost money and he hasn’t sat in the chair since, which is a goddamn shame. If you haven’t seen it, then catch yourself in the mood to laugh and pop up some popcorn.
It’s impossible to settle on a single Coen Brothers movie as a favorite. I could go with any of half a dozen. Using a broad brush, Coen Brothers movies break down into two categories:
- Dark and epic
- Dark and goofy
Some are both. I have a soft spot for some of their perhaps lesser known movies like The Ladykillers (2004), Burn After Reading (2008) and especially Blood Simple (1984). Some of their movies are significantly better than others but, at the end of the day, I’ll watch anything that has the imprimatur of Joel and Ethan Coen purely on spec because I trust them completely.
Miller’s Crossing is an early movie in their careers. It is the most visually rich film I have ever seen ‒ Barton Fink (1991) comes in a close second ‒ thanks in part to fellow NYU graduate Barry Sonnenfeld’s role as director of photography. When Sonnenfeld directs his own movies his style is unmistakable ‒ Addams Family (1991), Men in Black (1997) ‒ but he is an extremely talented cinematographer in his own right.
Set as a Prohibition-era gangster flick, Miller’s Crossing is told through a combination of frenetic exposition (laden with eye-watering period slang) and intense, violent action. Huge performances, huge shots.
It’s wonderful to me how many top shelf actors flock to Coen Brothers’ projects. Steven Soderbergh (more on him in a later installment) is another director with whom actors seek out opportunities, and some actors (like George Clooney) have gotten to work with each.
Bonus fun film fact #1 about Miller’s Crossing: John Turturro allegedly based his performance in Miller’s Crossing on Barry Sonnenfeld.
Bonus fun film fact #2 about Miller’s Crossing: Albert Finney apparently had such a good time making the film that he hung around after his shooting schedule was finished. He appears (in drag) in the scene where Tom (Gabriel Byrne) walks into the ladies’ room to confront Verna (Marcia Gay Harden).
As I understand it, the original Reefer Madness (1936) started life as a church-group-funded PSA morality tale entitled Tell Your Children which ran out money. The property was then bought up by Dwain Esper who supplemented the footage and retitled the project. It’s fucking awful. The whole thing is a jingoistic reactionary caricature inspired by the anti-marijuana agenda of the 1930s, spearheaded by newspaper magnate and bastard-about-town William Randolph Hearst.
The 2005 musical film borrows from the fundamental plot points of the original (which appears as a special feature on the DVD) but it otherwise bears no resemblance. The ensemble cast includes Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer and Steven Weber and it features hilarious and brilliant performances by heaps of supporting actors including John Kassir, an accomplished voice actor popularly known as the voice of the Cryptkeeper.
Financed and released by Showtime, the scale and complexity of the movie is genuinely impressive. If hilarious irreverence with a sizable dollop of social commentary is your thing then please don’t let this gem pass you by.
Oh, and it features Kristen Bell’s seriously sweet ass in an all-too-brief S&M fantasy sequence that will give you and the Mister or Missus something to dine out on in bed for days.
Dude. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth (back when they were young and so goddamn pretty) and Richard Dreyfuss (deeply talented, reputedly-difficult-to-work-with and never accused of being pretty) together on a shoestring budget. Written and directed by playwright Tom Stoppard, this movie is a nonstop onslaught of hilarious, mind-bending existential dialogue.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bit characters. They’re cannon fodder called into existence to move the story (and Hamlet) along (to England). As title characters, the story of Hamlet flows around them while they simultaneously come to grips with having self-awareness thrust upon them and arriving at the inexorable conclusion that they lack free will.
If you’re not already familiar with Hamlet, I recommend absorbing the Cliffs Notes highlights before watching this movie.
Two of my favorite (of many, many) interactions:
Rosencrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is “not.” Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not being. You can’t “not be” on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, what you’ve been is not on boats.
The Player: The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: Good God. We’re out of our depths here.
The Player: No, no, no! He hasn’t got a daughter! The old man thinks he’s in love with his daughter.
Rosencrantz: The old man is?
The Player: Hamlet… in love… with the old man’s daughter… the old man… thinks.
Co-written by Joss Whedon (of whom I am in awe) and Drew Goddard (in his directorial debut), Cabin in the Woods does a fantastic job of pairing the genuine fear I felt watching horror movies in my childhood ‒ I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks after watching (I shit you not) the edited-for-broadcast-television version of Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981) ‒ with my adult appreciation for homage and the self-referential.
Goddard and Whedon collaborated on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and Angel (1999), two television series that affected my world view, which is the highest compliment I know how to pay. I love me some quality television and maybe I will post another series on that, but the topic at hand is film so let’s march on.
Cabin in the Woods starts off with all of the classic horror movie tropes (executed with sincerity and reverence) but then it grows. It becomes all horror movies and a commentary on all horror movies, all the while simultaneously entertaining and terrifying the viewer (in the way all the good ones do), and then sets a new bar with the mother of all endings.
One way that I evaluate movies (or books or plays or albums) is whether or not I’m still thinking about them days later. Another measure is whether or not I learn new things upon subsequent viewings. Cabin in the Woods delivers in spades on both counts. Oh, and they used 200,000 gallons of blood and you will never hear REO Speedwagon’s Roll with the Changes (1978) the same way again.
Bonus fun film fact #1 about Cabin in the Woods: At a fan Q&A, Goddard was asked, “Will there be a sequel?” Goddard replied, “Have you seen the ending to my movie?”
Bonus fun film fact #2 about Cabin in the Woods: Fran Kranz, who plays lovable hero stoner Marty, is so cut that they put baggy clothes on him and covered him up for the lake scene so he wouldn’t show up the other male leads.
Movies have been around for about 125 years. Singin’ in the Rain basically comes in the middle. If you haven’t seen it then do yourself a favor; it has qualities representing the best of what movies can be. No matter how many times I watch, it still gets my undivided attention. It’s a straight-up entertaining romp offering hilarity, breathtakingly physical dance numbers and people who are pleasing to look at (Gene Kelly, ‘dat ass). It’s also the first film of which I am aware that goes meta, exploring the making of movies and the politics and personalities of Hollywood. My favorite example of this theme is Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) which, while it did not make my top 10, is absolutely fantastic and probably should have (picking 10 is hard).
Made in a period when American film was transitioning to projects of more substantial content such as On The Waterfront (1954), Singin’ in the Rain represents perhaps the pinnacle of the film age that came before. That was the age of the triple threat; actors who could sing, dance and, um, act. One of the numerous tales to come out of making Singin’ in the Rain is Gene Kelly reducing Debbie Reynolds to tears when he told her that she couldn’t dance. Making movies can be a harsh, cynical business (and Gene Kelly had a reputation for being a perfectionist who ruled through fear) but I can’t argue that the finished product is anything short of delightful.
Bonus fun film fact about Singin’ in the Rain: The bit about them putting milk in the rain so it would show up on camera for Gene Kelly’s signature number is bunk. The rain was backlit.
Bonus fun personal fact about Singin’ in the Rain: I refuse to screen A Clockwork Orange (1971) for my wife because I fret it would forever ruin subsequent viewings of Singin’ in the Rain for her. Does that make me a controlling, paternalistic dick?