This article appears courtesy of AwardsCircuit.com, which published this article in its original form, as a part of its staff-wide 10 Greatest series. This article was first published on June 8, 2012.
When asked to create a list of the 10 greatest films of all time, I watched Awards CIrcuit staff members create highly personal and impressive lists – one after another after another. I do not have the mental makeup to take something like this lightly. I pored through my Netflix ratings (approximately 2600 or so), went through my DVDs and Blu-Rays, looked at notes, and considered countless films. I redid the list more times than I care to admit and still can debate myself with what is here and what is not here.
Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter nearly made the list – a film that has reduced me to tears more than once and made me immediately purchase all of his films on DVD in the days after I experienced it. Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy Story series, each exceptionally crafted and designed, continually raised the bar and changed animation forever. To that extent, the hand-drawn animated films Beauty And The Beast and Spirited Away were considered. The go-to classics all got a look. The grandeur and flat out timeless nature of Gone With The Wind, spoken about so eloquently earlier this week by some of our staff, was a late scratch. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II just missed somehow. I even considered films as diverse as Apocalypse Now, Brokeback Mountain, Halloween, countless Hitchcock films, an interminable amount of documentaries, and even a couple of Christmas films.
Here’s what I have determined. At the end of the day, my Best Of/Greatest Of All Time list consists of films that made the most impact on me. They changed my worldview somehow. They made me recognize the intricacies and staggering detail that motion picture filmmaking requires, they presented viewpoints and political ideologies I had never previously considered. They made me appreciate the simple gift of a smile, the rapid loss of childhood, and the all too rare feeling of being so mesmerized and captivated by something you are experiencing that time stops completely and you do not want the experience to ever end.
So…with that said…these 10 films changed my life and perhaps changed yours as well. Spoilers may follow…
10. Do The Right Thing (Directed by Spike Lee, 1989)
A visceral cannon shot of a film which starts with the feel-good setting on the hottest day of the year in a New York Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and ends in a stunning and shocking race-related killing and riot scene, Spike Lee’s breakthrough film delivered a cinematic statement few, if any, saw coming. Following his 1986 black and white self-financed debut She’s Gotta Have It!, Lee showed a masterful sense of character, situation, and presented a mirror for our times – a mirror which preceded Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, and pulled the curtain back on contradictory multicultural relations and the discrimination that African-Americans were still facing with the powers that be. Do The Right Thing is not a film that defines easily. Lee’s ebullient opening scenes and distinctive color palette are brilliantly inviting, as we see a large ensemble of characters who, unbeknownst to them, will come together in the most shocking and tragic of ways. As the heat bears down on the neighborhood, the tension slowly ratchets upward and small, bickering disagreements become bigger and larger and explode like the popped fire hydrants which provide a refreshing break from the unbearable heat. Lee stars in the film as well playing Mookie, a pizza delivery man for Sal’s, and intertwines his deliveries with engaging and insightful interactions with several generations of Bed-Stuy residents.
What Do The Right Thing provides is an uncomfortable and unsettling look at a period of time that is essentially still with us today. Multicultural division, the racism which, while improved between whites and blacks, still recycles itself in subtle and not so subtle ways, the good in people never being good enough, misunderstandings, misconceptions, assumptions, and the loyalty to race, gender, and friendship all are analyzed and exposed. The results are numbing, the film still powerful and important 23 years later, and Do The Right Thing stands as a cinematic litmus test of where we stand as one community of people. Are we as divided as ever? Has progress been made? Spike Lee, for all the controversies and outspokenness that has defined his career, was never more focused, driven, and ferocious than he was here. Do The Right Thing is truth – whether we accept it or not makes it all the more relevant.
#9. Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Attempting to pick your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is almost like trying to pick a favorite child, if you are a parent. I cannot think of any film fan who does not have appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock and there is no shortage of options to select from his always impressive canon of work. Vertigo, Psycho, Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious, The Birds, Rope, North By Northwest, the list in truly endless. In selecting Rear Window, I harkened back to one of the first films that I truly got on an emotional level. As I became a teenager and started convincing Mom and Dad to rent me more and more movies, a local video store owner finally arranged for a VHS copy of Rear Window for her store. For whatever reason, she didn’t rent it out and it happened to be sitting on the counter when we were checking out. My mother talked about how much she loved the movie and I had never heard of it, so the owner of the store let us take it for free with our other selections. Naturally, we watched it first and I sat transfixed, nervous, anxious, and panicked – all while my mother sat silent, undoubtedly smiling behind me as she knew where Rear Window was heading. And thus, Rear Window brought Alfred Hitchcock into my world and nudges its way to the top of my personal Hitchcockian favorites and, in turn, this Top 10 list.
Rear Window speaks to the voyeur in all of us – and everyone has an inherent suspicion and curiosity of what someone else is doing somewhere…down the street, across the hallway, next door. As it manifests itself in a slowly rolling avalanche of fear, anxiety, and untenable situations, James Stewart plays Jeff, the photographer with a broken leg, confined and bored in a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village apartment, who bides his recovery time monitoring and observing the other apartment residents whose windows all face a central courtyard. During a staggering heat wave, Jeff shares his observations and clever nicknames for the tenants with his attending nurse and wealthy girlfriend until something seems to happen in the apartment of Lars Thorwald’s apartment. Lars and his wife engage in a bitter argument and Jeff soon discovers that not only is Lars’ wife no longer in the apartment, she may be, in fact, no longer alive. As much as I love Alfred Hitchcock, I cannot effectively speak to the techniques, trademarks, and distinctiveness of his work as others on this site and across the world of film theory and criticism can. What I can say is that Rear Window nails down every second flawlessly and the film remains relevant today, in a culture where YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and cell phone cameras and texting place countless windows for us to peer into and check in on from a distance. And like Jeff’s discoveries in Rear Window, you never know what you are going to find.
#8. Bicycle Thieves/The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette) (Directed by Vittorio di Sica, 1949)
The lone foreign language entry on my list, I suppose this would be my de facto greatest foreign film of all time. While I am not sure I can make that leap, no Top 10 list of mine feels right without Bicycle Thieves being included. Vittorio di Sica’s heartbreaking and moving Italian story about a father and his son in a depressed post-World War II Italy is the standard bearer for the Italian Neorealism movement of the mid-1940s, which attempted to document the stories of the working poor and tell stories in real settings, with natural lighting, and often saw non-professional actors landing leading roles. While the neorealism was relatively speaking a blip on the cinematic radar, its effects were profound and can still be seen today in Hindi and Bollywood filmmaking, as well as earlier French New Wave efforts.
Starring Lamberto Maggio as Antonio, a factory worker making his acting debut, Bicycle Thieves details in unrelenting fashion, the struggles Antonio has in trying to provide for his wife and two children. His oldest son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), stays by his father’s side as Antonio finally lands a job as a poster paster. Finally finding work, Antonio acquires a bicycle only to have it stolen, thus rendering him unable to perform his duties. Antonio and Bruno walk through the town trying to find the thief and his bicycle and encounter challenges at every turn. What I love and champion most about Bicycle Thieves is its uncompromising vision in telling a story that not only reflects the time period it finds itself in, but does not cop to any preconceived notions that somehow the issues Antonio is facing will magically get better. This is a gritty and grimy film emotionally and the power it possesses is how honest and unassuming it is. As a character study, it is richly compelling and while it may not end up in the places you wish it to go, Bicycle Thieves is a staggering and moving exhibition in what life is like when the deck of cards seems stacked intolerably high and the simple wants feel unattainable.
I am honestly not the biggest fan of Charlie Chaplin, although I do greatly appreciate his contributions and devotion to mastering his craft. I recognize his significance and the realization that so much of what we experience in comedic filmmaking and sensibilities originated with Chaplin’s films and his Tramp character. Chaplin’s Tramp appears in City Lights, what I find to be one of the most romantic and heartfelt films ever made, and released three years after the conditional demise of the silent films which made Charlie Chaplin the biggest star in Hollywood.
With 81 years of distance between City Lights and today’s romantic comedies, the distance between this film and the genre seems as vast as the universe. It is ridiculous to claim there are traces of City Lights in today’s films, but what exists here is the magical believability that love transcends stereotypes and simple gestures and actions can speak louder than words or pictures ever can. Meeting a blind and unnamed flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), the Tramp purchases a lone flower from the girl and sets in motion a series of events that not only find Chaplin’s Tramp in a series of ridiculous and unbelievable situations but also trying whatever he can to help someone who seems so senselessly stricken with a debilitating ailment. As the Tramp tries to find ways to obtain money to assist the Flower Girl and her grandmother, the two lead characters travel around one another with the Flower Girl not aware of everything that is being done for her and her family.
The final moments of City Lights are among the finest five minutes ever put on screen, as the silent film reaches a final sequence that exhibits palpable and believable emotion and about as honest a depiction of true love and appreciation as has ever been captured on film. When one learns that Cherrill and Chaplin were not at all friendly with one another, and often adversarial during the making of the film, including Chaplin’s firing of Cherrill from the film and attempting to reshoot all of her scenes with another actress, the chemistry and shared moments generated are nothing short of extraordinary. Still a gem all these decades later, City Lights is maybe the finest romantic story ever told on screen.
#6. A Clockwork Orange (Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
There is nothing nice whatsoever about Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. It is abrasive, corrosive, and shocking in its arrogance and hubris. Redemptive characters do not exist in this dystopia, the good do not win, the bad are smarter and more successful, and evil lurks in every frame. When I saw A Clockwork Orange, I thought it was some goofy and silly film, not knowing of the Anthony Burgess novella and certainly having no earthly idea what was going to play out before me. To this day, Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Alex and the sheer audacity of the film shakes me to my core. I honestly do not know how this film got made and if it could be even made today. Kubrick bucks all conventions, messes with minds, and along the way, presents one of the most chilling indictments of society I have ever seen depicted on screen.
McDowell is a ruthless psychopath, who leads his gang of “Droogs” through a rampant expression of Ultra-Violence before he is arrested and apprehended and then placed into a special experimental program of aversion therapy utilizing the Ludovico Technique, about the most unconventional and frightening scared straight attempt one can ever imagine. For those who experienced the film, Beethoven never sounds the same, those who are supposed to keep us safe are suspect, and the definition of what is good and proper is ripped up, tossed away, and left completely in the air. As defiant and rebellious as A Clockwork Orange is, it counterbalances its human-induced horror with a breathtaking cinematic beauty that is equally as compelling and fascinating as it is horrifying and unsettling. Arguably, this may be the greatest horror film ever made.
The film that made me hate Gandhi. The Ben Kingsley version anyway. In my mind, that stupid Gandhi guy made my first ever Academy Awards viewing experience a nightmare. I cried when E.T. was not named Best Picture and some stupid movie with a guy wearing a sheet was supposedly better. While time and knowledge has allowed me to make a complete 360 on Mahatma Gandhi as a person, and while I am firmly a Ben Kingsley fan, I still hold Sir Richard Attenborough’s esteemed Best Picture winner at more than an arms length. As I write this, I’m kinda hating that Gandhi guy all over again.
E.T. was my first and I loved this film more than anything else. Born in 1974, I did not experience Star Wars on the big screen as we did not have much money to spend even then at the movies, so E.T. was my Star Wars or Toy Story or Titanic or Avatar or even The Avengers. For me, I believed from the first moment to the last. I wanted to be Elliott, I wanted to have this incredible friend show up in my cornfield (I didn’t have a cornfield by the way) and I wanted to keep a secret like this. This film spoke to me, and in all honesty, few films have spoke to me in the same way. E.T. is a film that I think has a place in cinematic history and yet, I find people overlook it as one of those films that parents pull out and share with their children.
There is a magic that Steven Spielberg finds here that few films can ever hope to achieve. This is transformative filmmaking and it is next to impossible to not be swept up in the world it offers you. The notion of an imaginary friend or a secret friend that you have all to yourself is a desire of every child growing up and for a time, Elliott, and we, get to experience what that is like. When the film takes a darker turn, panic and fear sets in until the realization that friendship and moments shared can last a lifetime, no matter the distance, brings up emotions no one truly can be ready for. E.T. strikes a perfect balance of everything we want our movies to be and I love it still as much today as I did as an 8 year old boy eating his first container of movie theater popcorn.
The definitive holiday film, I do not know what more I can offer about this classic that has not already been written. Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life continues to play on network television every Christmas season and its legacy is unparalleled in American cinema. Curiously, the themes present in It’s A Wonderful Life never seem to become antiquated or time-locked. The desperation, the sacrifice, the mistakes, the wanton drive to make life better for those who love you the most is timeless; the film never failing to bring forth emotion and still as essential today as it was back then.
I remain fascinated when I revisit the fact that critics and audiences were rather mixed on the film initially. Released on December 20, 1946, Frank Capra was reportedly thrown by the poor reception and upset by those who felt the sentimentality was treacly or illusory at best. Receiving five Academy Award nominations helped turn the tide, as did a New York Daily Times Op-ed that trumpeted the film and Jimmy Stewart’s performance as Oscar worthy. Thankfully, the tide did turn and people embraced Capra’s film, now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Families devote time to watching this either on home video or network television, and even people I know who do not believe in celebrating the Christmas holiday like and appreciate the film. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s entry on this list, Frank Capra has no shortage of films that could be worthy contributions to a 10 Greatest list. At the end of day, acknowledging my thesis that my 10 Greatest List consist of films that made the greatest impression on me personally, It’s A Wonderful Life stands far and away as the finest Capra film for me and a film that has proven time and time again to be one of the greatest stories ever told on screen.
There is truly nothing left to say about Star Wars, the film which changed science-fiction filmmaking and grand and epic adventure tales forever. Star Wars redefined history, made countless characters, scenes, and situations lasting and entrenched pop cultural icons which are still celebrated 35 years later. This is the definition of a gamechanger, like The Beatles, Elvis, or when folks figured out that starch, when heated, makes an edible substance later defined as bread.
So many of my peers and colleagues have cited Star Wars on their 10 Best lists and who could possibly argue against it. Even if it is not one of the 10 Best films of all time in your estimation, no one can discredit its prowess and stature as a compelling, quotable, and unforgettably riveting masterpiece.
For newer audiences, the impressiveness of the film is lost on George Lucas’ maddening inability to leave well enough alone. Constantly tweaking this and that to his initial three films in the six-film saga is aggravating to purists of the original film and the underwhelming Episodes I, II, and III which arrived from 1999-2005 make this fourth episode feel less important perhaps. The cultural relevance notwithstanding, Star Wars Episode IV never lacks energy or excitement, and can proudly stand on its own as its own distinctive achievement. While I never had the bedroom set and I did not collect the action figures, I look back on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and remember it being one of the first films that made me recognize the cross-generational potential a film has. While certainly I acknowledged that as best I could with E.T., seeing Star Wars a year or two later, allowed me to broaden my infantile understanding of the true power of cinema. And, truth be told, I remain awestruck by it all and the same.
I am honestly not all that big a fan of science-fiction filmmaking, which is to say I do not hold it in any higher regard than other areas of storytelling. That 2 of my Top 3 films of all time come from this genre surprise me a great deal. And yet this feels right. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is immersive, confusing, at times unexplainable, and yet completely accessible. In my mind, it is the most adventurous, risky, and breathtaking epic ever made. If you have not seen it, you must try to watch it one time. You may not like it, you may not understand it, but you will certainly recognize that some of those most fervently in its camp cannot explain everything either.
Four chapters tell this story and to the uninitiated, the first 25 minutes will seem baffling for a film with “Space” in the title. Naturally, “The Dawn Of Man” sequence makes its point, as simple and uncompromised creatures are introduced to violence, power, and intimidation. The most iconic match cut of all time brings us to an orbiting space station and the discovery of a staggering and unexplainable monolith, also seen by the apes in the beginning of the film, which emits an insufferably loud radio signal which pierces the soundtrack for a wealthy length of time. The longest portion of the film documents a secretive mission to Jupiter where Keir Dullea’s Dr. Bowman travels with a crew, assisted by the unforgettable ship computer, HAL 9000. Finally, upon arriving at Jupiter, the film takes its most polarizing and debated turn, delivering a final sequence that is perhaps the most ambiguous and obtuse ending to a film ever.
I love every second of 2001: A Space Odyssey and I have watched it countless times and still find new discoveries whenever I am in front of it. Few could ever hope to create a film as technically flawless and as focused on telling its story without fear or worry of criticism or retribution from the public. Kubrick’s genius was that he did not care and studios allowed him whatever resources he needed to create art. To me, 2001 is not just a movie or a DVD on the shelf, it is a commodity, a treasure, and the boldest film I have ever witnessed.
Citizen Kane is admittedly the conventional, “Oh, of course he did!” choice when compiling lists such as this, but I am unrepentant in my love and support of the film. To me, there is nothing that matches it, in terms of what the film meant for the time it existed in, the cinematic innovations it brought life to, and the impact this one story had on an entire film industry. In many ways, Citizen Kane changed Orson Welles and not necessarily for the better. To understand cinema is to recognize Citizen Kane. Even if you find it to be middling, overwrought and nothing special, a specious and convenient argument when people are constantly told of how great it is, it deserves one viewing at least. With an open mind, Citizen Kane starts to emerge from scene to scene and moment to moment as one of the most groundbreaking films of all time.
Essentially Welles was white hot, following his 1938 radio broadcast “The War Of The Worlds”, which crippled a nation in fear for much of the fall that year. At just 21 years old, Welles was given a contract with right of final cut, unheard of for a first-time filmmaker, and Citizen Kane was his feature film debut. Welles had no idea that his implementations were unconventional and simply went about telling his tale of a cutthroat, enigmatic newspaper tycoon the way he wanted. He played with conventional cinematography, instructing his cinematographer to shoot every shot possible in sharp focus, so everything had the same degree of focus on screen. Welles tells Kane’s entire story in flashback and the non-linear approach to storytelling, and the asides given by multiple narrators who knew Kane well, was never truly done before. And Welles’ extraordinary use of miniatures and organic visual effects left industry types, filmmakers, and moviegoers astounded at what they were witnessing. Kane’s Xanadu complex looked so real to viewers that people tried to figure out where it was located. Equally as impressive was how Welles was able to create the shots he utilized in capturing the opening sequence that introduces us to Kane on his deathbed.
Inciting rage and controversy, people did not know how to take Citizen Kane and Welles made strong and defiant statements in modeling his leading character after untouchable newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst. Hearst banned advertising and any mentions of the film in his newspapers and ordered a smear campaign against the upstart Orson Welles. The hyperbole reached an epic level of insanity when Hearst was rebuffed by RKO Studios, the film’s distributor. RKO was then banned from ever appearing in a Hearst newspaper again.
At the Oscars, Citizen Kane received 9 nominations and was the favorite to win several of its categories, including Best Picture. It walked away with Best Writing, losing Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley. The crowd booed loudly whenever the film’s name was mentioned at the ceremony and reports surfaced that Hearst had orchestrated a campaign that threatened voters with their livelihoods if they voted for the film. He denied it but many have spoken about the toxicity of the Citizen Kane period. To learn about Orson Welles’ life is to find eerie parallels between Charles Randolph Kane and what Welles ultimately became, making this film’s legacy even more incredible, sad, and fascinating.
And with that, I conclude. What a difficult but cathartic experience and I hope you enjoyed my take on what I feel may in fact be the 10 greatest films of all time. Tell me your thoughts, pick my brain, and let’s talk about these and any other films you happen to love. Always here for a chat.
And one last thought for all of you… See. More. Movies.