Monday, September 24, 2012

The Top 50 Films that Made Me

“Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire - it tells you how to desire.”
Slavoj Zizek

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes after his involuntary "nosejob"

Is there a better way to understand a man than looking at his favorite films? Originally, that was my inspiration but not only was it impossible to rank movies, I found it a rather conventional effort. So I started thinking about which pictures had the greatest influence on me-- as a storyteller, sure, as a fan, definitely, but as a way to live too. A modern man's philosophical outlook is much more a composite of acquired culture rather than bearings gleaned from the Church, school, or elders-- the way to live isn't so much handed down anymore as it is observed in flickering images in a dark room.

I've always loved the movies. My earliest cinematic memory is going to the theater to watch The Empire Strikes Back, but the projector failed and we were ushered to the adjoining room to enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark (both childhood favorites and probably on many others' lists but not on mine). My second oldest memory is being annoyed with the teenaged girls sitting in front of me during E.T., sobbing at the ending. I thought they were saps but I would, wouldn't I? Anyone who has Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Irreversible, and A Clockwork Orange on such a list is not the world's best person.

Top 50 Films lists are like two snowflakes-- no two are exactly alike. Maudlin metaphors aside, a Top 50 Films list is by its very nature a provocation as nearly everyone is likely to be irritated by some of the listmaker's choices as well as his omissions ("Irreversible? And what the hell is Cisco Pike and Punishment Park? No Star Wars? And no Pulp Fiction? What about The Shawshank Redemption for crying out loud? Well, fuck you, buddy...")

I wanted to put together the list somewhat casually-- the following films immediately came to mind because I believe they've had the strongest effect on me. Though cinema is more than a century old, on this list you'll find only six films predating 1960. From the last twenty years there are only nine films. On the other hand, there are twenty-nine films between 1960 and 1980. This was a time of upheaval for the studio system, which, when unraveling in the late sixties, funded some very unusual projects for a politicized, sexualized audience coming of age in protests, riots, and lifestyle experimentation. It was a remarkable time for the arts that sputtered out in the Reagan years and is yet to recur. (In the event of a Top 50 albums foray, it is likely 80% of the list would come from the same generation.)

Just a few more notes about my choices: There are no animation films. There are also no documentaries, which though I watch often, do not have the profound impact as a dramatic story well told. There are six foreign films. At least thirteen of these films I watched on the big screen (mostly double-bills at The New Beverly in Los Angeles). From the list, Robocop and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are the only films I watched before turning eighteen years old.

I'd originally wanted to limit my selections to one director but abandoned that option as the list became riddled with Sophie's Choices (choosing just two Kubricks was difficult enough!) Directors with two films on the list include Kubrick, Orson Welles, Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski, Hal Ashby, and Martin Scorsese. Orson and Jon Voight star in three of the films, but Jack Nicholson tops the list with four.

Again, the list is not ranked, so my selections are alphabetized. Films shortlisted for my personal Top Ten are marked by a *. Not surprisingly, eight out of the ten films shortlisted as favorites were released between 1969 and 1979 (The Third Man, from 1949, and The New World, from 2005, being the exceptions.)

The best hospital bed in the world.

1. All That Jazz*: (1979) Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical look at a philandering, debauched theatrical director may be the best film ever made. I write more about it here.

"Charlie don't surf!"

2. Apocalypse Now*: (1979) Not sure if I prefer the original release or the Redux version. No screening  will ever compare to the time I saw it in Santa Barbara, when a homeless vet stood up during the famous Ride of the Valkyries air attack and hooted and hollered, cheering the bombs bursting.

3. Baraka: (1992) When I saw this at an IMAX screen ten years ago, it was like an invitation to see the world. So I did.

4. Barfly: (1987) Mickey Rourke should have gotten the Oscar for this. He does Bukowski proud.

Barry Lyndon

5. Barry Lyndon: (1975) No one's ever made a period piece come more alive than Kubrick does with this rapscallion!

The title swingers

6. Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice: (1968) Dated perhaps, but hilarious, as wife-swapping with your best friends inevitably is.

7. Boogie Nights: (1997) Not only does Paul Thomas Anderson bring the late 1970s into clear focus, he humanizes the adult industry with love and pathos.

8. Breathless: (1960) Who hasn't wished he could ever be as cool as Jean Paul Belmondo?

9. Carnal Knowledge: (1971): An overlooked masterpiece directed by Mike Nichols about two friends (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) and their acquisition of said knowledge (Nicholson being the faster learner and oh so dickish about it...)

10. The Celebration: (1998) Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's Dogma 95 story of a 60th birthday of a patriarchal pedophile is one of the most uncomfortable films ever made. When I saw it in the theater, the credits rolled, the lights went on, but most of the audience remained paralyzed, utterly unable to move.

11. Chinatown: (1974) The best film noir picture ever made! And in color too!

12. Cisco Pike: (1971) A dark horse candidate for any Top 50 List, but I really love it. Kris Kristofferson is an ex-con trying to go legal in Venice Beach, but a crooked cop (Gene Hackman) just won't let him. Kristofferson also contributed the music (from his album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I), which is terrific, as is the seedy, hippie vibe of Venice pre-gentrification. I write more about it here.

13. A Clockwork Orange*: (1971) I've seen it probably fifteen times and I see something new or enjoy some previously hitherto unknown revelation every time. Also on my shortlist for the greatest movies ever made.

14. Coming Home*: (1978) There's something about this little film about a guy (Jon Voight) returning to LA from 'Nam, falling in love with a volunteer nurse (Jane Fonda), only to have to deal with her militaristic, shellshocked husband (Bruce Dern) when he returns to his wife off-kilter. The most dangerous love triangle story ever told.

15. Deliverance: (1972) Terrifying. Burt Reynolds peaks in his career with his performance as a survivalist taking out some weekend warriors rafting in the woods before "civilization" dams it. But civilization turns out to be a lot friendlier than the woods.

16. Dog Day Afternoon: (1974) A bank robbery gone awry, inspired so that Sonny (Al Pacino) will have enough money for his boyfriend's sex change operation. Have always loved this one deeply, particularly the opening credits sequence, perfectly encapsulating New York on a hot summer day, circa 1972.

Free dudes

17. Easy Rider: (1969) No film has ever inspired the joy of the road quite so much as these motorcycle hippies did. Is there a scene more purely expressive of a beautiful, elusive, nearly extinct freedom as this? I've seen it at least a dozen times and it holds up after all these years.

18. Eating Raoul: (1982) One of the funniest movies ever made: Mary Woronov (of Warhol factory fame) and Paul Bartel are a couple of prudes who discover that swingers have a lot of money, and therefore seduce and murder them (hoping to make enough to get their own restaurant). They pay a dubious locksmith, Raoul, to dispose the bodies.

19. F for Fake: (1975) Orson Welles' examination of the life and times of history's greatest art forger, Elmer de Hory, opens up a can of worms about the value of art and the nature of authenticity. This two-hour mind-fuck is beautifully narrated by Welles in a black cape and tophat, with plenty of interviews with his conspirators. If nothing else, watch the trailer.

20. Fast Times at Ridgemont High: (1982) It will probably always be the best High School comedy ever made. Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli remains the mentor for all aspiring stoner-surfer-slacker dudes.  Has hometown resonance as it was filmed in the Valley.

21. The Graduate: (1967) I've been there, Ben. I know what it's like not to know what to do with your life. And O how sweet that Simon and Garfunkel will always sound. Wes Anderson's probably seen this movie a thousand times. He's built a career out of its themes (particularly that of delayed adulthood) and zooming camera techniques.

22. Hannah and Her Sisters: (1986) This has always been my favorite Woody Allen film. When I rented it the first time, I'd checked out The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup the same time coincidentally, the same film Allen's character watches after a failed suicide attempt, the film a revelation that the meaning of life is joy and laughter.

If only he were wearing his Technicolor Dreamcoat

23. The Holy Mountain: (1973) Speaking of the meaning of life, the most bizarre attempt to explore that slippery slope is Alejandro Jodorowsky's masterpiece. If you still have an open mind after viewing the trailer, you might want to 'go there.' I've also written in depth about my interpretations of the film here.

24. Hud: (1963) What makes this morality tale about a womanizing rancher (Paul Newman)--who wants to unload his pestilent cattle on an unaware market-- so good is that in spite of Newman's self-regarding antihero schtick, we the audience love him regardless. It also evokes an America that hardly exists anymore. I've written more about the film here.

Bautista's babes didn't fare well in post-revolutionary Cuba

25. I Am Cuba: (1964) A Soviet-Cuban collaboration, the greatest propaganda film ever made-- director Mikhail Kalatozov dramatizes the end of Cuba's Bautista regime and the beginning of the Castro revolution with a very clear schism of good vs. evil. Whatever melodrama it suffers from overly wrought politics is compensated by its groundbreaking cinematography.

The inimitable Peter Sellers

26. I Love You, Alice B. Toklas: (1968) Peter Sellers is a straight edged lawyer who eats pot brownies and joins the hippies in Venice Beach. Like a time capsule, nothing encapsulates the silliness of the sixties so well as this. Austin Powers has nothing on Howard Fine. And I confess to a long-term crush on Leigh Taylor-Young's flower power hippie girl. I write more about the film here.

27. Irreversible: (2002) I tried turning this off three times within the first forty minutes of the film. I was so angry by the time of the 8-minute anal rape take that I'd wanted director Gasper Noe's head on a pike. But I persisted and by the end of the movie, I was moved beyond reason. Such a trick. How the hell did he pull it off?

28. It Felt Like a Kiss: (2009) Some might take issue with this inclusion, as it was designed for an arts festival. Nevertheless, it is the best mashup of U.S. ascendance and decline archival footage with American pop music montage on record, motion picture collage art par excellence. Here's a snippet.


29. The Last Picture Show*: (1971) A black and white film of 1950s small-town Texas life beautifully (if improbably) recreated by a 1970s hipster. I truly love this scene--in which Ben Johnson reminisces about a "wild lady" with whom he was "pretty deep"in his youth, a woman who he's loved and lost but is still worth cherishing nonetheless because "being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do."

30. Life Lessons: (1989) Another dubious selection as Life Lessons is a short film, one third of New York Stories (the Coppola contribution is unwatchable, the Woody Allen Jewish mother comedy similarly atrocious). But I love Scorsese's story of an big-league artist (Nick Nolte) who can't paint because his young assistant (Rosanna Arquette) won't sleep with him, partly because he can't tell the young woman her work is good. Anyone who's ever struggled in NYC will feel some "Oh, man..." moments.

Lady Macbeth

31. Macbeth: (1971) The first film Roman Polanski made after the Manson Family murdered his wife, Sharon Tate; his version of the paranoid king is probably the goriest Shakespeare production ever made. Eleventh century Scotland will never again look so windswept, cold, and cruel.

32. Melancholia: (2011) Perhaps the most subtle apocalyptic film ever rendered, I write more about Lars Von Trier's underrated masterpiece here.

Two hustlers (though nowadays we'd call 'em hipsters)

33. Midnight Cowboy*: (1969) Such a lonely film. So many of us have a bit of Joe Buck in us, naive optimism, relentlessly hopeful in spite of the overwhelming evidence that life is hardly fair and often brutally punitive.

34. Nashville*: (1975) Another shortlist candidate for the greatest film of all time-- and the most Altmanesque of Robert Altman's oeuvre with its anarchic overtones, ensemble cast, antiheroes all over the place, the comedy of American life. This is also the last hurrah for country music before it's rampant commercialization and, thus, inevitable mediocritizing. The film's three hours long and worth every minute. More here.

35. Natural Born Killers: (1994): Celebrating the cult of violence has never been so weird. A Nashville for the 90s, America through the looking glass.

36. Network*: (1976): My favorite demagogue, Howard Beale. Another contender for the top spot and a film I learn something from every time.

37. The New World*: (2005) Watching all of Terrence Malick's other films, I want to like them as much as I should but it's not always easy. But The New World is not just a great Malick film, it is one of the greatest, another shortlist entry. Consider the opening sequence when the settlers are docking in the Virginia tidewater on the verge of encountering the Potomac Indians. It is just a day but a day that will evolve into the transformation of the world. At the moment, however, the indigenous are curious and a little anxious about the development, the settlers relieved and happy to have survived the voyage across the sea. And it happens to one of Wagner's most dramatic pieces, his Prelude to Rheingold.

38. The Passenger: (1975) Via Jack Nicholson, Michelangelo Antonioni explores the issue of self when Nicholson's character, a frustrated journalist, takes on another man's identity when he finds his corpse in a hotel room in Africa. Every man has a past of course, and some are the harbinger of disaster. A quiet, patient, lyrical film, the kind just not made anymore.

39. Punishment Park: (1971) A mockumentary about a German film crew documenting the implementation of an authentic piece of legislation, the McCarran Act of 1950, not dissimilar to today's Patriot Act, which gave the government sweeping powers to detain individuals deemed "a risk to internal security." This is Nixon's America and the war the kids are protesting is Vietnam but, unfortunately, it feels all so relevant to today's calls for suspension of due process in the war against terrorism. The trailer and my review for it here.

Mr. Putney Swope: Chairman of the Board

40. Putney Swope: (1969) Through some fluke in the voting system, a Madison Avenue advertising firm elects Mr. Putney Swope as the new chairman of the board, the sole black executive, who promptly fires all the old white guys and hires Black Panther types to run the agency, now renamed Truth and Soul, Inc. Directed by Robert Downey, Sr. an overlooked masterpiece in "black" comedy.

41.  Robocop: (1987) I loved it at 12 years old and I love it today. A highwater mark in the action genre, due its humor, spoof, and truth be told, spectacular urban violence. Clarence Boddicker: one of cinema's great arch-villains.

42. Scarface: (1982) I've seen it ten times and though I think I've outgrown it as a shortlist candidate, I love this American Dream twist of beguiling decadence. Pacino's Cuban immigrant rises to the top of the Miami cartels by virtue of having cajones bigger than anyone on the street. Eminently quotable.

The danse macabre

43. The Seventh Seal: (1957) Ingmar Bergman's tale of a medieval knight (Max Von Sydow) returning home (Sweden) from the crusades in the midst of a Black Death epidemic-- he's mainly concerned with winning his game of chess with Death. My favorite Bergman film, which says a lot, considering he is one of my very favorite auteurs.

44. Shampoo: (1975) Hal Ashby's hilarious story of a handsome Beverly Hills hairdresser (Warren Beatty) whom all the men assume is gay (due his profession) but is sleeping with everyone's wives. Set during the day of Nixon's election in 1968, Shampoo explores grass-is-greener virtues between free love and commitment.

45. Singin' in the Rain: (1952) Arguably the most charming movie ever made. The entire film-- a story of Hollywood making the uncomfortable transition from silent to "talkies"-- is terrific but Gene Kelly singing in the rain might be the greatest revelation of happiness ever visited upon an audience.

46. Sullivan's Travels: (1941) The oldest film on my list, Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels is about a successful director traveling Depression-era America to get an idea of the common man's experience so that he can make a truthful film about their plight, only to learn that comedy is what he does best and that making people laugh is a wonderful thing.

47. Taxi Driver (1976)  What scene in any film better exemplifies alienation than this? And has New York ever looked scarier? Wrote a ten-page paper in college comparing Travis Bickle's morality to Holden Caulfield's. Got an 'A' too.

Joseph Cottens' Holly Martins ("I haven't got a sensible name.")

48. The Third Man* (1949) A writer of Zane Grey-style pulp westerns comes to Postwar Vienna looking for his friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), learning he's mixed up in some disreputable black market business, then falls in love with Lime's woman. Nothing better recommends this perfect film than its perfect ending.

49. Touch of Evil: (1958)  Charleston Heston's Mexican cop, Vargas, investigates a murder at the border, but he's stymied by a crooked cop, Quinlan (Orson Welles, who also directs). Film noir at its very best, including arguably the best long tracking shot in film history.

50. Y Tu Mama Tambien: (2001) Two Mexico City nineteen-year-old boys of different class backgrounds go on a road trip with a broken-hearted but sensual older woman to visit a legendary beach. If only American teen comedies could combine pathos, humor, sexuality and political outrage as well as this, we'd have a much more interesting cinema.   


Please feel free to express yourself in the comments section. This entry, after all, is about sharing.


  1. Replies
    1. The closest David Lynch came to the list was 'Blue Velvet,' which I love. But I must admit I'm not a great fan.

  2. A few I've never even heard of in there! Great list though, not a clunker amongst 'em as far as I'm concerned.

    I'd probably stick in a few more comedies, horror movies and musicals myself. I love films with a lot of talking, but also really grimy and sleazy flicks. Glengarry Glen Ross, Twelve Angry Men, Withnail and I, The Breakfast Club, all very verbose in different ways. Dawn of the Dead and some early Cronenburg for the horror. The great lost Pacino movie 'Cruising' has sleaze up to the armpits. Not exactly highbrow, but Airplane, Trading Places and National Lampoon's Vacation still crack me up. West Side Story makes me cry, and either The Apartment or Irma La Douce because Shirley Maclaine was so cute. And some crazy Japanese stuff like House, Female Yakuza Tale or Stray Cat Rock.

    I'm sure there are more!

    1. Many good candidates there. 'Glengary Glenross' nearly made the list. 'Dawn of the Dead' is terrific but haven't seen it in years. Totally forgot about Billy Wilder, though if he'd cracked the list it would have been Sunset Boulevard. I've seen 'Cruising...' didn't love it. It's Bill Friedkin, whom I felt bad for leaving off the list because I love 'The Exorcist' and 'The French Connection.' I know, I know: no Japanese stuff, but if there had been, it would've been Ozu or Kurosawa. Haven't seen those films you mention though 'House' has been on my mind awhile. Ferris Bueller was a very close also-ran.

      As you say, there's always more...

  3. Somehow the list misses Brasil and 12 monkeys.

    On the other hand I haven't seen more then 5% from your list ...

    1. A Gilliam fan, are you? My favorite Gilliam pictures are 'Time Bandits' and 'The Fisher King.' As I mentioned, people are strange...

  4. Great list. Here's a few more I'd add. 'North by Northwest' imminently watchable, Hitchcock's most accessible film. 'Run Lola Run' a movie which stretched the boundaries of film-making on every level. 'Sexy Beast' a minor masterpiece by acclaimed music video director Jonathan Glazer. 'The Limey' a great indie film made by Steven Soderbergh just prior to achieving mainstream fame with the Ocean's 11 series. Also, you missed 'Singin' In The Rain', come on! I clearly remember three of us skipping out of Campbell Hall after seeing that film - never been so happy! And of course, you gotta throw a nod to Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis', the reigning champ of the silent era.

    These are the big ones, but a few more that deserve some honorable mention: 'True Romance', 'Raging Bull'. '8 1/2', 'American Beauty'.

    1. Man, I agree with you on many of those picks (especially 'Singin' in the Rain', which is on the list). But I'm not a fan of 'American Beauty.' I liked it the first time out but subsequent viewings kind of turned me off-- something about its artifice...

  5. my god, "Time Bandits"...Sean, your complexity endlessly blossoms. I've yet to see Polanski's Macbeth which sounds interesting given the context. I highly recommend Kurosawa's interpretation if you haven't had the pleasure, 'Throne of Blood'. The encounter with the prophetic spirit ranks among the most sublime/terrifying scenes I've come across. And, of course, Kurosawa's ability to transpose Washizu's (Macbeth)all consuming paranoia into the claustrophobic and penrose stair-esuqe set is just...awesome.

    1. I have seen 'Throne of Blood.' The end is pretty traumatic. It was actually tough love that Kurosawa did not make the list but I'm a longtime fan...

  6. Good Sir. Looking at this compendium I know not what criteria you judge by. Are your evaluates born from personal preferece, artistic merit, some nostalgia for the past, or sheer desire to impress us with your knowledge of films which are so obscure I would have to think them unwatchable? And while that might be a good thing in some people's books many of these films do not belong on the same list. It is like two people made this list. Scarface and Melancholia on the same list does not make sense. And I am cuba is a terrible movie a novelty for film school students only. Also the ranking is very unusual. All That Jazz is number one? Not a chance! What should be here is The Godfather. That is the best movie ever made. Just google search best movie ever made and that is number one on most every major critics list. You could also benefit from some more comedies - Like when harry met sally and also inception is a great movie but not a comedy per say. All in all this is a list which has pretty gaping flaws. I would not recommend it.

    1. Thank you for your consideration as well as your comment, though I'd argue that one can love both Melancholia and Scarface.

      As far as The Godfather, I believe it is a great movie, but it is not among my favorites and anyways, googling for 'best movie ever made' never made anyone's list very good.

      You are right not to recommend my suggestions if some of your favorites might be When Harry Met Sally and Inception. This is true...

    2. The Godfather is still the best movie ever made so it should be included in my opinion it would help give your list more credibility overall.

      And I do believe you need some more comedies as your preferences are very dramatic. Love Actually was quite enjoyable and I recommend that you see it. When Harry Met Sally is a superb film and it deserves to be on here as well. The diner scene is one of the most hilarious moments ever captured on film. What a shame that Meg Ryan has chopped her face up so and is now unrecognizable. Billy Cristal hasn't had a good movie in years but still he is the best comedian who has ever lived as most people would agree with Bill Murray and Steve Martin being close behind.

  7. "Two hustlers (though nowadays we'd call 'em hipsters)"
    LOL... so true ! JAWS is full of hipsters too !

    Biggest surprise on the list for me was "The New World". I do love that film, though not as much as "Days of Heaven", "Badlands", or even "Thin Red Line" [though I've only seen that in the cinema once and need to revisit].

    Can't wait to see the 2 Venice Beach films... on my radar now!

    Notable omissions: Blade Runner, Alien/ Aliens, In the Mood for Love, The Shining [since you love Jack and you're a writer!], no Bertolucci [The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris?], no Fassbinder [Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is revelatory], personally prefer L'Aventtura over The Passenger, have you seen "The Misfits"?, Kramer vs Kramer [as a child of divorce?], no Haneke?, Before Sunrise/ Sunset, Sideways, and really, no one from Japan represented ?!

    Love the list, thanks for writing/ sharing !! Look forward to unearthing some of these gems *

    1. True, the shark-hunters in 'Jaws' are very cool. Had Spielberg broke through the list, he would have done so there.

      One of the good things about putting a list like this is you're reminded of how much you haven't seen. Don't know Fassbinder's films at all and yet to see much of Haneke's work.

      Bertolucci almost made the list with 'The Last Emperor.' Like 'The Misfits.' Love the Before Sunset/ Sunrise films. I should watch 'Kramer vs. Kramer' again. It's been too many years.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Eva...