Them: “Oh so you’re a movie nerd! What’s your favorite movie?”
Me: *Shrivels in existential dread at the thought of having to decide in the face of hundreds of fantastic films*
To be more realistic, I do not face such a mental crisis anytime I’m asked what my favorite film is. But the sentiment still stands: when it comes to my personal pantheon of greatest movies ever made, I find a distinct inability to keep a solid list. My opinions on films I’ve seen change on a near daily basis. Re-watches will move certain movies higher or lower, on or off the list. Discussions and debates with friends after viewings may reveal hidden gems or fouls, yielding the same result. Since the beginnings of The Master Shots, I’ve been attempting to put together a “Top 10” list of my favorite films, but the list would change so frequently that I could not keep a consistent article without having to re-write it. This all being said: it’s 2021, movies basically didn’t exist in 2020, and I’ve used that opportunity to try and catch up on movies I’ve been meaning to watch, as well as mull over the greats I’d already seen.
Voila: I present to you a list of my top 20 favorite films. Why 20? Because I’m that indecisive and these films will undoubtedly be drastically shuffled once again in preference by the end of the week. I also hope the large roster reflects the gamut of the types of films I enjoy the most: those which are distinctly artistically crafted, posses symbolic undertones, portray sweeping epics, give off the schlocky summer popcorn flick vibes, or are just plain absurd fun.
20. The Last of the Mohicans (1992, dir. Michael Mann)
Easily falling in the “sweeping epic” category is this brutal take on early colonial conflict. The script is barely present, but the lack of memorable dialogue proves as a case-study in just how critical visuals and score play in telling a story. The dark natural tones of the massive frontier setting pairs brilliantly with what is one of the finest scores of all times. It is the perfect backdrop for the sheer brutality of the film’s core story of love and survival.
19. Blade Runner 2049 (2017, dir. Denis Villeneuve)
I would easily place this movie as the greatest sequel of all time. I consider Blade Runner to be a bit lackluster, but that is likely because it was the archetype for so many sci-fi properties that followed that it felt like I’d already seen it many times over. What impressed me the most about 2049 was the plot’s centricity around a core psychological concept that evolved smartly from its predecessor. Without spoiling anything, these new themes in my mind validated those of the previous Blade Runner, rather than merely extending them. The artistry of the set design, light, and sound were immaculate, and put Denis Villeneuve on the map as one of the greatest modern directors.
18. Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme)
“Edge of your seat” is how I’ve defined this quintessential thriller. The dynamic between the cunning Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Special Agent Clarice Sterling (Jodie Foster) is nothing short of invigorating. There is a cat-and-mouse aspect to this entire film, with these two switching the aforementioned roles at numerous moments, and the tension just keeps building and building.
17. Dances With Wolves (1990, dir. Kevin Costner)
This is the first knockout directorial debut film in this list. When I say “sweeping epic” to people, this is the movie I use to define the genre. A 3-hour frontier behemoth, Dances With Wolves shares similar narrative DNA to Last of the Mohicans in its mode of storytelling. It is equal in its vitalization of classic hero archetypes in a frontier setting, but the distinctly polar dynamic between our protagonist John Dunbar (Costner) and the Sioux tribe does a great job of slowly reeling your attention in.
16. The Godfather Part I and II (1972, 1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
I’m cheating here a bit, but I truly see no distinction in quality between the first and second Godfather films. What can I say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before: these are masterpieces. The acting is stellar, the music is stellar, the tone and tension is stellar. That’s all I got, and its enough.
15. Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)
I had doubted this film’s denotation as “the greatest movie ever made” and deliberately did not see it for this reason, a mistake which you can read about here. The movie turns out to be every bit as good as they say it is, and is also a fantastic achievement as Orson Welles’ directorial debut. You’ll notice a lack of pre-60’s movies on my list, and that is because many are just simply not artistically invigorating to be, being golden-age films that were still learning to break away from the storytelling mode of stage plays. Citizen Kane broke that mold dramatically.
14. Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski)
This is another “great film” I avoided seeing for a while, most notably because its director is a fugitive from the US for raping a 13 year old, yet still manages to gain praise, a dynamic which I find wholly disgusting. I finally gave in, and for better or worse, I was far from disappointed. You’re lead into this 1930s detective noire movie thinking that you know all the tropes that are about to play out, but as soon as you are introduced to detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and the widowed dame Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the rug gets pulled out from under your feet. All the tropes are immediately destroyed, and everything is unlike what it seems. The dramatic climactic event earning the film’s title closes out the movie in a thoroughly satisfying way.
13. Zero Dark Thirty (2012, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
I’m a sucker for political thrillers, as you’ll see elsewhere on this list. This dramatic retelling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden definitively captures the Global War on Terror. As I wrote about here, this movie frames every decision and action of the CIA and Special Ops teams under the emotion and terror in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and does a good job of navigating the waters of controversy in trying to tell an honest story, which is a nearly insurmountable challenge given how much of it is still secret.
12. Titanic (1997, dir. James Cameron)
This is my biggest guilty pleasure movie, mostly because its dumber than James Cameron wants you to believe it is. Titanic is a disaster movie first, and a steamy romance second, not the other way around. The romantic plot is absolutely cornballs, as stereotypical as it gets, but it is so excessive that you can’t help but love the “relationship” between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet). As it is best known for, this is movie magic at its finest, boasting some of the most incredible set pieces and special effects of all time. The cumulative product is a sheer feat of film engineering that set the benchmark for film special effect standards.
11. Breathless (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
One does not simply write a “greatest films” list and claim to be a movie fanatic and not include something of Godard’s. For those who do know: yea I’m that dork who put your film school staple on his list of favorite movies. For those who don’t know: “A Bout de Souffle” is the film that kicked off the French New Wave. Everything everyone says about this movie is true: it was the bold, revolutionary movie that changed movies forever, a benchmark that redefined what it meant for a story to be told on screen. I need not delve too much further in its significance, but often understated in my mind is the divergent nature of the plot. This is a simple story: a ragtag tramp named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) kills a police officer, and turns to his American lover Patricia (Jean Seberg) in recoil. The thing I love about this movie is how the concept of vanity plays out: we originally see Michel’s failed aspirations to reflect the macho of Humphrey Bogart to no avail, but are surprised when Patricia’s introduction as “the virtuous one” gradually fades away as her own vain insecurities are revealed. Its a fun little romantic piece that, when paired with the first “jump cuts”, literally never wastes time. Of course this film is also packed with that good pretentious French existentialism that I love so much. Case in point – Patricia: “What is your greatest ambition in life?” Author: “To become immortal…and then, die.” Patricia: *stares ominously*
THE TOP 10 (most consistent ranking on this list):
10. Jackie (2016, dir. Pablo Larrain)
This is the film that I get poked fun at for liking the most, specifically for being so high on my list. The movie chronicles the hours and days immediately following the assassination of JFK, entirely from Jackie Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman’s) perspective. Beyond some excess in “sad Jackie is sad” sequences, this is a master class in non-linear storytelling. I have never seen a movie that so clearly communicates loss, but specifically in a relationship that was not without pitfalls, as expressed by Jack Kennedy’s infidelity. Director Pablo Larrain brilliantly communicates the emotional weight of Jackie witnessing her husband’s murder right before her eyes, and her following memories become scattered in sequence of emotional depth and significance, rather than in terms of time. There are conversations that the viewer is lead to believe contributes to one thing, but end up attributing to something completely different. It is a beautiful and emotionally captivating piece, and Natalie Portman’s acting in my mind is the best I’ve seen in a leading female role. Also of note is Mica Levi’s incredible score, and I hope to here more of this avant-garde musician’s work in the mainstream.
9. The Graduate (1967, dir. Mike Nichols)
Ah yes, the film that I learned about as a kid only from my parents telling me to never watch it. Why? Because on surface level this is a movie about recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) who sleeps with the infamous Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a married woman nearly twice his age. Beyond the IMDB-plot, this movie is a triumphant work of dark comedy that is packed with valuable symbolism. In my mind, it defines the penultimate struggle of youth entering the world of capitalism: expected to be driven towards a distinct end-goal, with a plan of action to become successful in wealth and marriage, but without this calling, being completely lost and without a sense of purpose. Benjamin is drawn to Mrs. Robinson due to this lack of interest in pursuing “The American Dream”, and Mrs. Robinson draws Ben in as a vain sense of fulfillment because she was destroyed by “The American Dream” in her own hasty marriage. This message is conveyed smartly in clever cinematography and visual cues, paired to an A+ screenplay. Comedically, this film also firmly stands the test of time. The soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel is also legendary and cannot go without mentioning.
8. The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Dude this movie, like, man if you’ve seen this movie…if you have SEEN-THIS-MOVIE, you like, uh…KNOW, that like, it is, it is the BEST comedic screenplay ever man! I like, seen this movie maybe, 2, 5, 3, hell I don’t know how many times, and like, MAN, this movie is SO good. But like, I don’t really know what’s going on MAN, but who ever REALLY knows what goes on in uh, LIFE, like in a general sense, maybe, as they say a cosmic, uh, inclination or something…or, maybe that is to say, generally speaking, so…I mean its a DAMN good movie Man!
7. No Country for Old Men (2007, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
In the pretentious realm of cinema, films have somehow managed to divide themselves into “Rollercoaster Movies” (a la Martin Scorsese) and “Higher Cinema” (aka those movies that cause you to sit and think, usually slow-burners or thematically dense movies). I hate outlining that structure as such, but I can’t find a better way to do so. No Country for Old Men, another testament to the Coen Bros mastery of filmmaking, is what I’d call a “stepping stone movie”, in that I’ve never met anyone who has seen this movie and didn’t at the very least appreciate its high quality, regardless of what their general taste in movies is. You can read a more comprehensive review here.
6. Minority Report (2002, dir. Steven Spielberg)
It is ironic to think that the greatest movie in Film Noire history was made nearly half a century after the golden age of Film Noire, but if anyone can pull off such a feat, it would be Steven Spielberg. Thematically and visually, Minority Report was well ahead of its time while still taking major cues from classic detective movies of the 50s such as The Maltese Falcon and North By Northwest. There is an unnerving seedy quality to every shot in this movie, and like Chinatown, manages to smartly subvert your expectations along the way. Tom Cruise is fantastic as ever in playing Himself, but Tom Cruise, framed in delightfully copious Dutch Angles, is exactly the character that this film needs to carry the twisted sci-fi story of precognitive crime hunting.
5. Airplane! (1980, dir. David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams)
No other film has made me laugh out loud from start to finish, in any circumstance, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. This is the funniest movie of all time, bar none. It is absurd comedy at its finest, a spoof film engineered to perfection to boldly and unabashedly make the dumbest and most perfectly timed jokes, most of which shocking in the best way, and brutally relentless in pacing. I’m literally laughing to myself like a crazy person just thinking about Airplane!
4. The Nice Guys (2016, dir. Shane Black)
Co-publisher Burnt Orange and I both agree to how underrated The Nice Guys is. This is the quintessential buddy cop movie. Who would have thought that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling investigating the disappearance of a closeted porn star in the 1970s makes for one of the most absurd, rambunctious, and clever crime movies ever? This is a great “party movie”; we’ve both shared this one with friends numerous times and everyone always has a blast watching it. Crowe and Gosling deliver a screenplay that is rife with self-aware and sarcastic humor. It’s some of the best on-screen chemistry I’ve seen, and that applies to nearly every actor’s interactions with each other. I can tell that the whole cast and crew had a lot of fun making this movie, and that’s something refreshing to see nowadays.
3. Clear and Present Danger (1994, dir. Phillip Noyce)
This is the greatest political action-thriller of all time. Based on the revered novel by Tom Clancy, Harrison Ford plays the best screen version of Jack Ryan, as he investigates a series of incidents that reveal a shadow war waged by the US on Columbian drug cartels. I have not seen another movie as many times as I have Clear and Present Danger. It is perfectly paced, balances action and intrigue with skill, and is superbly acted. It is a very serious movie that interjects moments of levity that feel organic. I first saw this film when I was 12 or 13, and at the time it felt extremely realistic. Now that I work in an industry similar to what’s depicted in the movie, I am shocked at how that sentiment turned out to be true, at least tonally. It doesn’t shy away from action sequences that just barely skirt the edge of reality, but they play out perfectly to captivate the audience within its dense world of spy tradecraft.
2. There Will Be Blood (2007, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
My second-choice of film should come as a surprise to nobody who knows me well. Director Paul Thomas Anderson departs from his previous work by boldly stripping away set-pieces and environment down to the bare bones: an empty desert, oil, and the greatest villain of all time: Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day Lewis. This is a 3-hour epic on the sentiments of hatred grown from ambition, and revived ambitions grown from natural hatred. It it is a brutal story to witness and reflective on a deep level. Daniel Day Lewis carries the film in the greatest screen performance of all time, but is aided by an incredible environment crafted by cinematographer Robert Elswit, a chilling score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, and an arch nemesis found in the conniving Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).
1. Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
I’m sure my choice for greatest film of all time will be even less surprising to those who know me. I still have trouble defining what kind of movie this is: it is not a strict war film, but it diverges into the realms of horror and psychological thriller, in the process breaking huge barriers on the definition of genre. It is the most visually, thematically compelling movie I’ve ever seen. The film demands your attention, and snares you into its vividly psychedelic and murderous world without releasing you. The audience descends into madness following the journey of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) as he pursues the traitorous Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) deep into the jungles of Cambodia during the height of the Vietnam War. Every scene is packed with so much symbolism that it takes numerous viewings and dedication of thought to perceive all its themes. Even so, the movie stands on its own triumphantly on first viewing. You can read my thoughts on the theatrical re-release from 2019 here, and some of my analysis on the core themes of the film here. Apocalypse Now is the literal perfect movie in every sense.