One question I’m often asked when people find out what I do is what I think are the best films of all time. Much like the whole ‘desert island disc’ thing, it’s a question I usually duck because there are so many films I think are great works and so many I adore that coming up with a top list seems impossible.
This week a fellow writer requested my ‘Top 10 of All Time’ list for a feature he’s planning and I decided it is finally time to bite the bullet and come up with one I can live with. In the process of assembling it, I went a bit further than I expected and came up with justifications for each of my choices – something they will probably find useless.
Nevertheless it’s a list that essentially works as a good guide into the world of my taste and cinema in general. While there’s probably several hundred films I could easily list, these ten represent a healthy range of cinema at its very finest – all fairly mainstream films and each with a special and personal meaning to me. I can’t recommended these highly enough and I would consider all of them essential viewing for even the most casual film fan.
1. Aliens (Special Edition)
The single film most responsible for my love of cinema and my desire to work in this industry in some capacity. I know every frame intimately, every character beat, every strobe flash, and I still could watch it over and over. Ridley Scott’s first film may be the superior bit of filmmaking (and make no mistake I absolutely adore it), but it doesn’t have anything close to the lifelong affection I have for this.
2. Lawrence of Arabia
Sorry Orson Welles, but David Lean’s epic is the single great piece of filmmaking ever done bar none. Nothing else comes close, and nothing else demands to be seen on the biggest screen and with the cleanest print possible. Its key moments from the slow emergence of a person from the shimmering heat of the desert, to the reveal of the killer of one of Auda’s men are genius in their own right. Yet it’s the overall experience that one remembers, one that’s both transportive and revelatory.
The yin to Lawrence of Arabia’s yang, “Casablanca” is the other perfect work of cinema in a completely different way – compact, verbose and emotionally immediate to Lawrence’s epic, spartan and removed approach. “Casablanca” boasts a truly perfect script, bold but never showy direction, and stellar performances from not just Bogie & Bergman but every single member of the supporting cast. From Renault and Rick’s verbal interplay to the anthem stand-off scene – it’s simply flawless.
4. Rear Window
Out of Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, none is more faultless than this single-set thriller which deftly exploits human voyeurism and its central hero’s lack of mobility to masterfully manipulate suspense on a level akin to art. It helps to have utterly beguiling performances from both Jimmy Stewart and the impossibly beautiful Grace Kelly, but Hitch is the real star here and it shows with every frame.
5. Apocalypse Now
Up there with his first two “Godfather” films, Coppola’s epic remains the best war film ever made, mostly because it avoids the usual trappings of the genre and turns it into something else entirely – a road movie without a car. Masterfully transposing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to South East Asia during the Vietnam war, it is really a collection of set pieces built around a dark soul that finds true horror in emptiness.
Without question James Bond is my single favourite film franchise of all time and nothing epitomises the heights this series can achieve than the double punch of the second and third films in the series – “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger”. Yet while ‘Russia’ is perfect in its own way, “Goldfinger” is the more accessible and arguably influential of the two – setting up a formula that many films would follow in the decades to come. It’s also endlessly entertaining.
It was a real toss-up between this and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but I ultimately went with this masterpiece of terror that changed the way the entire world thought of going to the beach. From what is probably the most identifiable musical cue of all time, to the memorable performances by its three male leads and admirable restraint with showcasing the shark – this landmark of a film remains as perfect today as it did almost forty years ago.
8. Once Upon a Time in the West
Westerns are a genre I rarely like, but the few that have clicked with me have REALLY clicked with me such as one of the greatest TV series ever made – HBO’s “Deadwood”. While Leone’s trilogy with Clint Eastwood is more popular, it’s this darker and more ambitious masterpiece that utterly floors me. The sound design of this movie is without question the best I’ve ever heard, and the drawn out pacing combined with great performances make it simply one of the best filmgoing experiences one can have.
The single greatest biopic ever made, “Amadeus” works because it subverts the genre at every turn. What could’ve been deathly dull turns into a dark and riveting exploration of envy and art, F. Murray Abraham delivering one of the great onscreen performances of a man seething with resentment and rage at his own limited talent in comparison to the genius that effortless flows out of his rival. Lushly photographed, scored with some of the best music ever created, and masterfully executed – it’s one of the few Oscar award sweepers that truly deserves all its honors.
10. Spirited Away
My favourite animated film of all time, filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has created numerous masterpieces and while “Princess Mononoke” comes close, this is his greatest work. Endlessly imaginative, effortlessly inventive, and beautifully enigmatic, it’s a work so rich I always find new wonders to inspire and depths to explore on every single viewing. Perfect for all ages, not even Pixar or Disney at their best have reached this echelon of filmmaking.