I have seen lots of movies, some 1500 films from many eras and genres. When people ask me what my favorite film is, it’s not an easy answer. I have a group of 30 or so exceptional films that I think represent a wide range of film subjects and styles, and often they change with how I’m feeling that day or week. On this list, I tried to stay away from the obvious ones… I mean, I know The Godfather and Citizen Kane are great movies, but we’ve also either seen them a hundred thousand times or seen them on other top-films lists.
So I tried to pick some movies maybe some of you haven’t seen, or haven’t given a chance. And keep in mind they’re really in no particular order. So if you’re looking for a film to watch this week, here are some suggestions for you! Enjoy!
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, US/UK 1968)
Ok, I know I just said I was going to stay away from obvious picks, but this film is on here because it is probably my favorite film of all time. This film didn’t just make me think differently about our place in the universe, it also made me want to be a filmmaker. Kubrick’s attention for detail & realism are always stunning, even after multiple viewings. I have my own thoughts about the “meaning” behind this film, but I won’t attempt to press them on you. Because the beautiful thing about 2001 is that each person who sees it walks away with their own interpretation. Kubrick doesn’t want to provide all the answers for you. He brings you into the world of the film, and hopes that you will ask your own questions about existence, consciousness, and infinity. Conceptually, the film is easily forty years ahead of its time, and continues to be relevant in our contemporary discussions about artificial intelligence, the origins of life, and the nature of the known & unknown universe.
Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, UK 2000)
Jonathan Glazer is a director to keep an eye on. After stunning us with his exceptional Radiohead music videos and Guiness Beer commercials, Glazer burst into feature filmmaking with Sexy Beast. Aside from Ben Kingsley’s frightening performance as a short-tempered British gangster, Glazer’s smooth direction and knack for pacing & dialog really makes this film. The thick British accents are something American audiences might have a tough time with, but this is but a small caveat. The film is strongest when Kingsley appears on the screen, but the latter half of the film finds the lead character in the midst of an impressive heist that recalls Soderberg or Scorsese.
This is England (Shane Meadows, UK 2006)
This Is England follows Shaun, a young Brit who falls in with a crowd of Skinheads in Thatcher-era Britain… not the discriminating Skinheads of today, but the fun-loving Reggae-influenced non-discriminating Skinheads of the time. But when a nationalistic relative of one of the gang members shows up unannounced, Shaun and his cronies are forced to question their dedication to the lifestyle. I love this film because it is one of the few where I feel really close to the main characters. I really have an interest in what happens to every one of them. That is rare in filmmaking these days. The characters are not totally innocent, but they play their roles with such genuineness that one might mistake this film for a documentary. A comedic and moving look at the politics, trends, and styles of 1980s Britain. Four years later, the film was followed by a Channel 4 miniseries, This Is England ’86, which continues the story of the film — surprisingly, the TV series is just as strong as the film (two episodes are also directed by Meadows, and Jack Thorne faithfully helmed the remainder).
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, US 1974)
Francis Ford Coppola might be known for his Godfather Trilogy and the Veitnam War film Apocalypse Now (exceptional films in their own right), but the 1974 film The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman as an undercover surveillance expert ranks just as highly. Coppola is not the only formidable artist involved in this film. Richard Chew’s meditative editing, combined with Walter Murch’s meticulous sound design, do more to immerse you in the world of surveillance than anything else. The film will hypnotize you with its long, drawn-out scenes, the camera fixed on Hackman as he strains to listen in on the secret conversations of a high-profile couple through his ultra-sensitive surveillance microphones. Highly recommended as a film that boldly disposed of traditional filmmaking cues in favor of setting a new precedent and creating a mood.
Being There (Hal Ashby, US 1979)
Peter Sellers is one of cinema’s most outrageous performers, but it might be his most subtle role that’s his best. Sellers plays the childlike Chauncey Gardener, a real gardener who might or might not have a few screws loose. After he finds new employment at the home of a wealthy Washingtonian, he impresses his superiors with his terse responses, which are mistaken for clever aphorisms. Eventually Chauncey is the talk of the high-society in DC, who, unbeknownst to him, have plans to make the gentle man president. While a quiet film it is not short on humor, and the film’s conclusion leaves you with chills.
The Player (Robert Altman, US 1992)
Robert Altman’s best film is also a scathing indictment of the modern film industry. Filled with inside jokes and dozens of cameos (many famous actors agreed to do walk-ons for little or no pay), the film follows a slimy Hollywood producer (Tim Robbins) who is being stalked by a rejected screenwriter. This film succeeds not just because of Altman’s stellar directing, but because the film blatantly points out all the hypocrisies and stupidity of the Hollywood system, which on one hand hungers for sex and action-filled scripts, and on the other hand sleazily appropriates indie filmmaking by forcing auteur trends into Hollywood films. Of course, Altman’s point is that anything Hollywood touches turns to shit, even if they’re trying to be “artists”. But the film takes a turn when Robbins commits the unspeakable, causing him to question his entire career–and life. Also famous for its lengthy opening shot, in wich the camera swims in and out of a busy film studio (apparently, the shot was largely improvised, with cues only for actors and camera, and very little scripted dialog or action). This kind of spontaneity, combined with the improvised cameos, give the film an authenticity that would otherwise be absent.
Short Cuts (Robert Altman, US 1993)
Based on the collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, Robert Altman directs a series of overlapping dramas on a single, hot day in Los Angeles. With excellent performances from his ensemble cast, which includes Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Robert Downey Jr., and Tim Robbins, and Tom Waits, the film takes us on a tour of the LA Basin as emotions and experiences come to a head for the cast. With some of the more memorable dialog of any Altman film, the actors really carry this film, with Altman’s camera hovering on the sidelines, most scenes playing out in as little as one or two shots.
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, US 1999)
Clearly inspired by Altman’s Short Cuts, this film seems to encapsulate all the emotions and uncertainties of the 1990s. The film’s first 25 minutes are so packed with story information and fast-moving tracking shots that it seems like the it would be hard to digest everything. On the contrary, this onion of a story unfolds clearly and quickly, underscored at all times by Jon Brion’s dirging score, or Aimee Mann’s lilting songs — sometimes, both the score and the songs play over each other, filling the soundtrack with a dense cacophony of sounds and music. The result is that the film plays out much more like an opera or musical than a movie. Expertly photographed by Anderson regular Robert Elswitt.
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, US 2007)
If Magnolia is Anderson’s fast-paced look at life in modern America, There Will Be Blood is his meditative and foreboding study of early 1900s American capitalism. Delivering one of the finest performances in any film of the last twenty years, Daniel Day Lewis plays the serious and cutthroat Daniel Plainview, who founds an oil town on the California frontier. Despite his vice grip on the tiny community he is exploiting, Plainview finds his match in a zealous teenage preacher. Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit wisely chose to shoot the film with lenses from the era, providing the images with the look of 1900s photographic glass plate negatives. The scene in which an oil derrick explodes during twilight is completely unforgettable, and nothing like it has appeared on the screen since Terrence Mallick filmed the burning of the locusts in Days of Heaven. And while the cinematography and performances are stellar, Johnny Greenwood’s frenetic score is the glue that keeps the film together. The latter third of the film benefits from some very efficient storytelling, leading to a conclusion that fails to disappoint. An all together perfect film in almost every respect.
The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, US 1998)
Is this the funniest film ever made? I certainly think so, and I must say it’s mainly because the film gets funnier and funnier on repeated viewings. The Coen Brothers’ exceptional script and dialog is by far of the movie. It is so packed with jokes, jokes within jokes, side jokes, etc. that you can easily watch the film a dozen times and catch something new and funny each time. Bridges delivers by far one of the best comedic performances in any film as The Dude. The film also encapsulates many of the trends of Reagan-ear America. I don’t have to say too much about this film, because you’ve either seen it or heard of it. But it’s on this list because the film has just not gotten stale for me — in fact, over the years, it’s just gotten better and better. Check it out again and you’ll laugh more than you did the first time.
Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, US 1990)
I absolutely love the work of Phillip K. Dick, and I think this is actually one of the better adaptations of his work. Now before you all stab me to death, let me explain. For one, I always have a great time watching Total Recall, and that goes a long way for me. Movies like this should entertain, make you laugh, keep you on the edge of your seat. But this film goes a little further. I think Verhoeven expertly blends the schlocky action and Schwarzenegger tomfooleries with the mind-bending themes provided by Dick. This film hurls around all kinds of tantalizing questions about life and reality. That is to say, the film (and, of course, Dick’s source material) asks us this: if we believe, with the very core of our being, that something is happening, does that mean it really happened, even if we’re told that the ‘reality’ was just an illusion? Or to put it another way– if the real and the unreal are indistinguishable from each other, then does it mean that they are both the same?
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, UK 2006)
Possibly the best sci-fi film of the last ten years, Children of Men takes place in an all-too-believable near future where humans have become infertile. As the human race slowly dies out, people seem to just want to live the rest of their lives as normal. But heavy government regulation and immigration policies stir a resistance which hopes to preserve human life. Noted for its numerous lengthy and complexly-choreographed tracking shots, this film marks a watershed moment in contemporary cinematography. Director Alfonso Cuarón leads us on a thrilling adventure through a world being torn apart by fear, irrationality, and disaster.
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, US/UK 1975)
2001: A Space Odyssey might be my favorite movie ever, but Barry Lyndon is possibly Kubrick’s best film (I know that doesn’t make much sense, but Kubrick fans will understand). The film, while not well known in Kubrick’s filmography, is a handsome adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s picaresque novel of the same name. By utilizing modified lenses engineered for space satellites, Kubrick and his cinematographer John Alcott shot many scenes in extreme low-light and succeeded in capturing some of the most painterly images ever seen on film — not to mention set a new standard for low-light cinematography that has only recently been fully embraced. But this film isn’t just an assemblage of beautiful images. Every element of the film exudes the spirit of the era, from the music, production design, and costumes, to the dialog, which is not just historically accurate, but also comedic. To round it out, Barry Lyndon contains one of the most nail-biting duel scenes in film history. Give this film a chance and you won’t be disappointed.
Alien (Ridley Scott, US/UK 1979)
What to say about Alien that has not already been said? Still unsurpassed after over 30 years, the film is not just about a vicious alien let loose on an isolated cargo spaceship. It is a film about human fear, the fear of the unseen, the fear stalking us in our nightmares. But my opinion–the thing that really makes this movie resonate is a female lead. While Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is certainly one of the more formidable females to appear on film, the alien’s tendency for violent, surprise attack is reminiscent of rape; its unusual elongated head is unmistakably phallic; its method of impregnating the crew with chest-bursting aliens… well, it’s all very wrapped up in themes of birth, rape, and sexuality that makes the female Ripley seem all the more vulnerable. Yeeks. And the fact that the alien design has changed very little over several films is a testament to HR Gieger’s iconic artistic direction. Also worth seeing again: Jim Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, in which Ripley, instead of fleeing the aliens, faces her fears head on.
The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia 2003)
Like many Russian films, The Return draws us in slowly. Two brothers are hanging out in small-town Russia when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, their long-lost father returns to take them on a fishing trip. He attempts to turn the boys into men by taking them deep into the Siberian wilderness, but the further they get from society. When one brother confronts the father for leaving them to live alone for years, the film takes an unexpected turn. A little film with a big impact. Seek it out.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, UK 1989)
Peter Greenaway is one of cinema’s most eccentric filmmakers, despite his low profile in the US. This film follows the exploits of an oafish restauranteur and gangster, Albert Spica, who insists on verbally and physically abusing everyone from his wife to the wait staff. But when he becomes too bold for his own good, those around him plan a disturbing and unforgettable revenge. Ben van Os & Jan Roelfs’ impeccable production design, combined with Jean-Paul Gautier’s elaborate costumes and Sacha Vierny’s lush cinematography make this one of the most visually arresting films of the 1980s. Helen Mirren, Tim Roth, and of course Michael Gambon as the relentless Spica all deliver outstanding performances. Another unforgettable Greenaway film: A Zed & Two Noughts (1985).
The Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1968)
Bergman might be well known for films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona, but this is one of my favorite of his lesser-known works. Starring the unbeatable Max von Sydow and Bergman regular Liv Ullmann, this haunting film has all the elements that make Bergman’s other films so good — stark black-and-white cinematography, the musings of a man caught in a web of conflicting thoughts, a few strange dream sequences… But it is the ‘smallness’ of this film that I really like. It primarily takes place in one location, and rarely do more than just Von Sydow and Ullmann appear on the screen. One seaside dream sequence–really, a nightmare–is one of the most unsettling ever filmed. Like real nightmares, this one affects you somewhere deep inside your subconscious. Well worth checking out.
Birth (Jonathan Glazer, US/Germany 2004)
I’ve already mentioned Jonathan Glazer’s first film, Sexy Beast, but his second film, Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, is really spectacular as well. Kidman plays a widow who suddenly finds herself falling for a young boy who claims to be reincarnation of her dead husband. It is almost surprising that the films share the same director — the British gangsters and fast-paced editing of Sexy Beast are traded for a female lead and a Kubrickesque pacing. In fact, this film almost seems at first to be a “lost” Kubrick film, and it is one of the most well-done homages to the late director. Cinematographer Harris Savides paints the film with a warm patina by heavily diffusing his lights, which also frees up the actors to walk anywhere about the expansive apartment set. Alexander Desplat’s curious score is also worth mentioning. A beautiful film.
Ariel (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland 1988)
You might never have heard of film director Aki Kaurismaki, but ask anyone in Helsinki and they’ll tell you he’s a national hero. Finland’s most prolific (and possibly only) film director, Kaurismaki has influence the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Sophia Copolla. His films are brimming with quirky characters who seem to question their existence in lonely Finland. While he is perhaps better known for the comedy Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Kaurismaki’s earlier film Ariel is a stellar piece of filmmaking. When a man is wrongfully accused of a crime, he escapes from jail with plans to start a new life elsewhere. But not everything goes to plan, and his (sometimes comedic) failures are seemingly an allegory for the Finnish peoples’ own struggles with balancing the love of their home country & family with a desire to find a more exciting life elsewhere. Also recommended by Kaurismaki: Match Factory Girl (1990); The Man Without a Past (2002).
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, US/UK/France/Germany 1982)
A man wanders out of the desert, with no explanation for his sudden appearance. His brother finds him and brings him back to Los Angeles. Wim Wenders’ look at 1970s America. It’s about facing the past and answering for it. Much of the film takes place in and around the infrastructure that connects us all — expansive freeways, soaring interchanges, airports, train tracks, power lines, drive-thrus. The revelation is that the things that are supposed to connect us only separate us further from each other. Not easy to explain this film in a few words. And that’s appropriate — Harry Dean Stanton speaks his first words some 30 minutes into the film and the film is pretty light on dialog. But its unforgettable for its look at the not-so-obvious side of the human experience.
Gummo (Harmonie Korine, US 1997)
Despite its disturbing content and disconnected and meandering storyline, this is an impressively surreal and enjoyable film. Shot on location in Ohio, the film is more a series of vignettes of the everyday exploits of a group of tangentially-related white-trash deadbeats. While some content is staged, other scenes are captured documentary-style. The “bathtub scene” might just change your life, as will one in which a bunch of disorderly drunks recklessly destroy a chair in a tiny kitchen. Other great trash movies from Korine: Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) starring director Wernor Herzog in an shocking performance as a sadistic father; and Trash Humpers (2011), a collection of home movies captured by a group of sociopathic elderly people.
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, US 1999)
1999 was a great year for movies. We had Magnolia, American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix. Then there was Being John Malkovich. Spike Jonze took a big chance helming Charlie Kaufman’s outrageous screenplay about a secret door that leads one to the head of real-life actor John Malkovich. At first, the film seems like a big joke, but the story flourishes as the film progresses. Conceptually, the film is closer to Phillip K. Dick, posing questions about the nature of self and reality. A great blend of humor, tragedy, and fantasy. Excellent filmmaking.
Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, US 1995)
Before she directed the Best Picture-winning Hurt Locker (2009), Kathryn Bigelow made her mark with a little-known 1995 film that anticipated the Y2K hysteria of the the turn of the century. The sci-fi action flick–which does have its moments of cringe-worthy dialog–is overall a brilliantly-directed film. The crux of the film revolves around a new technology that allows you to record not just visual information, but also touch, smell, feel, and taste–the entire experience of the human brain. We follow a dealer of ‘tapes’ containing some of the darker material available — sex, crime, and murder. But when he comes across a tape that could indict the entire police force and usher in a new revolution, he must protect himself and the tape, and find those responsible. Really a fun film.
Fitzcarraldo (Wernor Herzog, West Germany/Peru 1979)
I couldn’t have a list of my favorite films without mentioning Herzog. It was tough picking a single one of his films for representation on this list, but Fitzcarraldo is a brilliant film in so many ways. Of course, genius Klaus Kinski delivers one of his most intense performances as a maniacal rubber baron intent on colonialising backwoods Peru. Herzog tackled themes of colonialism in a few of his early films, notably in the fantastic Cobra Verde (1987) and Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1971), but Fitzcarraldo is one of his more ambitious works. The movie’s on-set antics are as legendary as the film itself. Instead of utilizing effects to show Kinski forcing hordes of natives to drag a riverboat up and over a mountain, Herzog actually staged the tremendous stunt for real with local natives. And Klaus Kinski often offended the natives to the point that they nearly killed him. The natives weren’t the only ones who wanted Kinski’s throat — Herzog himself famously threatened Kinski with a gun when he was being uncooperative. Some of my other favorite Herzog films: Little Dieter Learns to Fly (1997), Lessons of Darkness (1992), Stroszek (1977).
Days of Heaven (Terrence Mallick, US 1978)
These days, people are raving about Terrence Mallick. His film The Tree of Life has provoked some strong reactions from around the world. Mallick man only be known by the general public now, but he is nothing new — people have been debating his work for decades. Working in extreme secrecy, with long shooting schedules, Mallick produces a film, on average, about once every 7-10 years. He works with various “rules” on set for the cameramen — capture whatever might be relevant or beautiful, unscripted or not, and typically at “magic hour”, the moments before sunset and after sunrise when the light is just perfect. The result is that Mallick’s films are visually beautiful — but that does not mean they lack in story and content. On the contrary, 1978’s Days of Heaven is an engaging character study that is so convincingly realistic it seems to actually have been shot in early 1900s Great Plains. The film is about a wealthy land owner who falls for one of his field workers. I love Mallick’s other work, particularly his first film Badlands (1973) and his second-to-latest film The New World (2005).
The Elephant Man (David Lynch, US 1980)
When I first saw The Elephant Man, I was just a young boy with a curiosity for filmmaking and strange stories. This was definitely one of the most moving and fascinating films I had seen in my young life. I was so shaken by Joseph Merrick’s tragic story that I sought out Sir Frederick Treeve’s original writings to find out more info. And what I found was that David Lynch’s 1980 masterpiece is an overall faithful dramatization of the life of the world’s most disfigured human. David Lynch might be known for his bouts of surrealism in his films, but this film is overall much more tame and representative of the real life of Merrick. John Hurt delivers one of the most incredible performances of his career. And this film has always stuck in my mind as a turning point for me and my appreciation for filmmaking. I love David Lynch’s other work (particularly Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986)) but this film is my favorite of his.
Die Hard (John McTiernan, US 1989)
This has always been one of my favorite films, since I was a young boy. I am a sucker for action flicks, but this one takes the cake for me because it’s just as funny and entertaining today as it was when it first came out. This set the precedent for the action genre for the next couple decades, and its influence can be seen far and wide. To me, the idea of being trapped in a half-finished skyscraper is what drew me in. I have always loved how architecture and filmmaking cross paths. Before I wanted to be a filmmaker, I dreamt of being an architect. To me, they are very similar — teams of technicians and artists working together under the direction of a single auteur for a limited period of time on a large, multi-million dollar product that will either sell or fail. Anyway, this film is well worth watching again if it’s been a few years, if only for its high entertainment value.
The Thing (John Carpenter, US 1982)
John Carpenter’s films typically cross into the exceedingly corny, but The Thing is the director’s most brilliant and serious work. When a South Pole expedition uncovers an alien ship, the crew slowly begins to be taken over by a virus-like biological life force. Slowly we lose trust of each and every one of the crew members — who is an alien, and who is still human? As the crews’ trust degrades, so does their sanity. Soon we lose all recognizable aspects of the human beings we met at the beginning of the film. With 30-year old special effects that rival those created even today, and an ending that will leave you with chills, this is definitely one of the better sci-fi films of the 1980s.
Crash (David Cronenberg, Canada 1996)
No, I’m not talking about the (absolutely crappy) 2004 Oscar-winning race drama Crash. I’m talking about the 1996 surreal psych-sexual thriller Crash, based on the book by JG Ballard and directed by David Cronenberg (of Videodrome fame, also an exceptional film). This film is about a group of people who share a sexual attraction to car crashes. If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will. Cronenberg has never been afraid to tackle sexuality head-on, but this is an entirely different realm. The film’s believability is what keeps you glued — none of the fleshy creations seen in Naked Lunch or Videodrome here. The film is engaging and bizarre, and entirely unique.
Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada 2006)
One of my favorite documentaries, exploring a subject near and dear to me — industrial archaeology photography. This film follows Edward Burtynsky, the king of industrial photography, as he travels Asia in search of new subjects. We visit the Three Gorges Dam during its construction and the relocation of surrounding cities. We peek inside a bizarre Chinese appliance factory. We see the clearing of the slums in Shanghai. The rusty ship graveyards in Bangladesh. A film that will change the way you see the world around you.
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, US/France 2007)
Gus Van Sant is one of my favorite working directors. This film follows a young skater kid in Portland who accidentally kills a train yard worker and must deal with the possible consequences. Van Sant delivers another meditative piece, remniscent of the earlier Elephant (2003), but this film benefits from some astounding cinematography from the wildly eccentric genius Christopher Doyle, a lush and textured sound design, and stellar performances from non-actors all around. An interesting film for its mood & presentation.
Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, US 1987)
No favorite films list would be complete without this Detroit-based sci-fi action flick. Like Verhoeven’s other work, the film contains a balance of schlocky action, excessive gore, exceptional special effects, and brainy themes about the self and reality. While 1980s Huston stands in for future Detroit, the film feels wholly part of the Motor City experience. Some of its themes of political corruption, lackluster police support, and wholesale urban planning ‘fixes’ (in the form of Delta City, a kind of jumbo-sized Renaissance Center) are still more than relevant today. A classic.