I keep a fairly rigorous and unchanging list of Top 10 films, which I’ve never bothered quantifying, but which bears describing in some form or fashion, if only as a means of keeping score. We all keep Top 10 lists — books, bands, albums, abstract artists, portrait photographers, US presidents, favorite restaurants (or, more fun, least favorite restaurants) — and I have others in addition to movies. But movies are perhaps the most interesting to analyze, and I KNOW that everyone has ten favorite films.
There’s no real standard that these movies had to satisfy in order to score a place in my Top Ten, nor am I able to rationalize, explain, or justify my criteria. A good movie must first of all do its primary task of entertaining, and these ten are nothing if not entertaining. They must also be well-written and well-acted — in so far as the acting satisfies the requirements of the story. I also require a movie to be visually appealing and not just tell a good-to-great story. Finally, it must be about something larger than itself — it must speak to some essential truth or contribute something to society or the greater conversation about film. It must stake something out, take a stand, be brave, change the form, point out new possibilities. It must also withstand the test of time. There’s nothing more depressing than a 10-year-old movie that might as well have come out sometime in the early 1950s.
There shouldn’t be any surprises on here. These are not esoteric films that no one can find. Most of them met with insane popular success, but for a reason — they are good films that people wanted to see. If no one wants to see your movie, I probably won’t want to, either. Obscurity is not, in and of itself, reason for reward. And so, in alphabetical order, because trying to figure out a No. 1 is too damn hard:
American Beauty (1999): This came out in the greatest year for film ever and remains my favorite, and never mind the fact that it won Best Picture — that’s just a coincidence. The movie knows a lot about growing up in the suburbs in the late 1990s, and what it is like at all times to be father to a teenaged daughter. Kevin Spacey might be a real-life piece of shit, but there are so many other beautiful performances here — from everyone in the whole movie. The music is hauntingly engaging, and the cinematography is peerless. But it’s the dialogue that makes this movie so great, and the mournful tone of it all. You feel like something is ending, and in a way, it is: The Nineties.
Blade Runner (1982): The greatest science fiction movie ever made, asking hard questions about the differences (if any) between artificial and human life — questions that will come to bear in our own immediate future. It’s also the most stunningly beautiful film ever shot. There are several different versions out there with different endings. I prefer the original, 1982 release, complete with Harrison Ford’s characteristically bored but somehow-just-right V.O. narration. As to the sequel, Blade Runner 2049? It’s nice fan fiction, but that’s about it.
The Godfather and The Godfather II (1972, 1974): I’m not going to burn a lot of space extoling the virtues of these great films. To leave them off a list like this would be to devalue the list. Suffice to say, they belong here, and share equal ranking — one is just as good (or great) as the other.
GoodFellas (1990): Martin Scorsese’s best film is a hilarious black comedy about what it’s like to be a gangster. The movie itself is gangster, with all-time-career-best performances from Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta (was he ever in anything else?), and enough great scenes and scorching dialogue (all involving the F-bomb) to put Tarantino to shame. Sure, Scorsese made other great films, but this one tops them all.
James Bond 2006-2020. Or, in other words, the Craig years. Yes, this listing constitutes five different films, but given Daniel Craig’s magnificently masculine portrayal of 007, I’m including them all, as I wouldn’t want to be without one of them. (Okay, Quantum of Solace isn’t great, but it benefits from the other four.) Oh, and, yes, I’m aware that neither I nor anyone else has seen Bond 23, which doesn’t come out until April 2020 — but I’m willing to tuck it in here. As to my rationale? Come on! These are the greatest action movies of the last 15 years, and Craig is absolutely in command of the legendary role.
Saving Private Ryan (1998): The greatest war movie I’ve ever seen; no Top Ten list of my design would be without it. Yes, Spielberg brilliantly recreated the Normandy landing, and Tom Hanks effortlessly embodies American goodness as an ordinary soldier, but this movie did something else. It changed the way I look at pictures of the war. For example, I recently tried watching The Great Escape for the first time. I thought the Germans came across as a joke and the good guys as well-dressed, well-fed funsters — in a POW camp setting. It didn’t work for me (in spite of my admiration for Steve McQueen). SPR was like the scales falling from my eyes. War would never be fun, or convenient, or clean, or Hollywood-ized again. War is an apocalypse, and Spielberg drives that point home with blood and tears.
Schindler’s List (1993): Spielberg again, and I shouldn’t have to justify the inclusion of this one. It’s his best film, which speaks volumes. It’s also an angry, unflinching look at human depravity. I can’t watch this one unless I’m in the mood for it, which is just as it should be.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991): This was probably the most influential movie of the 1990s, in that it ushered in a slew of FBI dramas, police procedurals, criminal genius flicks, rookie-cops-in-distress novels, and gruesome serial-killer thrillers that focused on blood while missing out on soul. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are endlessly watchable, and the movie has a calm humanity about it that makes the people-eating scenes more horrifying than the average slasher. Also great dialogue.
The Star Wars series (all 9 episodes): Yes, I’m including all nine Star Wars movies as a single listing, as there is no other way of thinking about them. Some are better than others; the prequels have poor acting and some genuinely bad dialogue; and I can’t get a handle on the overall story arc of the sequel trilogy. Nor have I seen The Rise of Skywalker. No matter. Everything begins and ends, for me, with Star Wars.
Taxi Driver (1976): Here is a true horror film, viewed through the eyes of a lost soul. Robert de Niro’s best performance and Scorsese’s other best film. Grimy, gritty, harsh, ultra-realistic, and ageless, there will never be another movie like this one.
Heat; Patton; Jaws; The Godfather III; Dances With Wolves; Rio Bravo; Toy Story; Batman (1989); Thief; the Mission: Impossible series; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011); Citizen Kane; Apocalypse Now; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; The French Connection; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining; Magnolia; The Blair Witch Project; Alien; Pulp Fiction; Unforgiven; Zodiac; Platoon; El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story; Jackie Brown; Gladiator; No Country for Old Men; The Right Stuff; Goldfinger; Fargo; Sling Blade.