the empire strikes back Writing lists, the actual act of ranking films, is absurd. For most of us who aren’t OCD, there’s really no way to rank one film above another. Sure, there are the aesthetic and technical merits, but any list is going to be essentially about preference, one that can change in a moment’s notice. Spoilers, both Jaws and Vertigo make my hundred, but who’s to say which is better? Both are hugely influential, both have great performances, etc. So which outranks the other? Today one, tomorrow another.

But why am I writing this list? Well, for one I’ve seen thousands of movies at this point, and it’s worth sharing the gold. And it pains me to leave many off the list. But it all depends on why you read lists. If you want my taste to rank up with yours, you’re pretty much screwed. No, more than anything (besides establishing a canon), this list is meant to be a resource for people who like movies, and want hot tips. But also there’s another reason, to be revealed later.

And also, in this summer of a steady string of disappointment it’s worth focusing on why I love movies, and why I love writing about them. I don’t go to films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Godzilla expecting dross (even if that’s what I got), but because I love the cinema I hope to be wowed. But I also don’t think it’s worth lowering my standards to appreciate something that was obviously not (narratively) crafted to be a great film.

I believe in this list, but I should offer some disclaimers first

  • The list is more of a top 90: The bottom ten are all meant to be fun pictures, films that I love unequivocally, but really have no place amongst the greatest films of all time, still, they are some of the greatest films of all time for certain moods.
  • What I’ve discounted: Look, for some you’re going to be annoyed that I didn’t include more (or any) Superhero films, few films from the last ten years, and any animated or short films. With the latter two it just struck me that it’s not fair – though if I had to pick a best animated film, it’s a toss up between Bambi and Spirited Away, and Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country would be my pick for the best short. For the most part I’m not including that many modern pictures, because they have not stood the test of time. I wish I had room for Galaxy Quest on my list, I really do, but that’s easily one of the best films of 1999. But if you look at lists from that year, it was less likely to place as films like Boys Don’t Cry and American Beauty, which have not stood the test of time as well. Of course some films are of their moment, and if you live through that moment those films have a greater value for that. Alas.
    At the end of the day, it’s a mixture of great and Great: It pains me that this list doesn’t include any Mizoguchi or Ozu. Tokyo Story is a brilliant film, of that there is no question, but list-making is intensely political, and I would rather have certain films on here because this is my list. But there are a number of all timers I didn’t include because they don’t speak to me as strongly as others. Were I to write this list in five years, I might revisit some of these films and find that I wouldn’t put them on here, and perhaps age will make me appreciate Ozu’s masterpiece more. But eventually you run out of space, and as a Westerner, I’m more likely to fall in love with an Akira Kurosawa film.
  • I am Wrong: Don’t tell me I’m not.

All right, with that out of the way:

100. Knock Off

I wrote about this film for Badass Digest, I recommend reading that.

99. Shaun of the Dead

Edgar Wright’s filmmaking debut is one of those films I showed to everyone I knew, and will show it to people who haven’t seen it at the drop of a hat. It’s just that much fun and well constructed. =

98. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Conquest is as close as we’ve come to someone adapting the story of Nat Turner to the big screen, and when the monkeys conquer (what amounts to) Century City, it’s one of the most thrilling scenes in cinema – something amplified by the film’s original ending, which is now on the Blu-ray.

97. The Driver

Walter Hill understands that action defines character, and here that is made abundantly clear. One of the great car movies.

96. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Temple of Doom is just a funhouse ride. Spielberg delights himself by throwing the kitchen sink into the movie, and it’s for the twelve year old boy in my heart.

95. Cemetery Man

Part horror movie, mostly existential comedy, but visually this film is off the rails, as if director Michele Soavi enjoyed interpreting a comic book movie like none other.

94. Velvet Goldmine

If I had to pick my desert island films, this tribute to glam rock would definitely make the cut. On top of it being the most eloquent commentary on how the gay revolution in the sixties and seventies was partially silenced by the back to the future aspects of the eighties.

93 Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan

I’m not the world’s biggest Star Trek fan, but there’s no denying that this is a perfect movie, and playful in its construction.

92 Top Secret!

Pound for pound the goofiest and most silly movie ever made. The closest thing someone’s come to capture the manic energy of Duck Soup.

91 Certified Copy

It’s hard for me to place a film from the last five years on a best of list, but if I had to pick one film since 2009, it would easily be this film.

90 Ball of Fire

Howard Hawks is the greatest Hollywood director, and though this is a formula film, watching Hawks dot the i’s and cross the t’s has been one of my greatest pleasures. I can revisit this film at the drop of a hat.

89 The Straight Story

David Lynch has made many great films, but the purity of The Straight Story, and how he’s able to channel himself into a G rated Disney movie is one of the great examples of an auteur at work.

88 Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee’s love story between cowboys will hopefully come to show how far we as a society have come. If you watch this film and don’t feel for its star-crossed lovers, you may be a terrible person.

87 Bottle Rocket

If I have to pick one Wes Anderson film, I’ll pick this one, only because it’s the one that has so few mannerism, but also is a pure but most easily palatable version of so many of his films. Dignan is sui generis. But then also, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel could be swapped for this spot.

86 Seven Men from Now

Budd Boeticher made a lot of westerns, many with Randolph Scott. Though the Ranown cycle of films he made with Scott are all great films worth checking out, Seven Men features Lee Marvin at his absolute best. And also, the economy is something to be studied. No wasted moments or gestures.

85 Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Horror is the most subjective genre in cinema, but Tobe Hooper’s 1974 stalk and kill film makes you believe that it’s either a documentary or made by a madman or possibly both. And as a Northerner, it plays on my fears of taking the wrong road in a bad location.

84 Wages of Fear/Sorcerer

Let me cheat this one time. Both films are excellent, but as a double bill you can see how two master directors take on the same material, while also imbuing both with their own different but similar sense of fatalism. Essential.

83 Memories of Murder

The serial killer genre has twisted and turned throughout its history – though has become the province of television of late – but Bong Joon-ho’s take on a series of murders in Korea is a profound work that shows a director who understands how to manipulate tone better than anyone working today.

82. The Roaring Twenties

If I am to pick one Raoul Walsh film (it was between this and White Heat), I’ll go with this one as it does (as Martin Scorsese pointed out) show how genre material can transcend its stockness.

81 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The richest of meals, Andrew Dominik’s film is everything at once: a commentary on our fascination with anti-heroes, and a treatise on celebrity culture and on sycophants. Both Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck give all time performances in this film.

80 The Thing

And if I have to pick one John Carpenter (which is really f-ing hard), it’s the one that – unlike most horror films – has imagery that still causes me to shudder in its awesome grotesqueness. Most movies scare you by using your imagination against you. This shows you things that seem unimaginable, and as it was done pre-CGI, it’s impossible to deny.

79 Animal House

The preeminent slobs versus slobs movie still holds up because it’s about a bunch of pigs who were righteously stupid. Also, it’s hilarious.

78 The Insider

As is the case with much of this list, I’m picking one film by a great director, and if I have to pick one Mann, it’s his portrait of a man pushed to the limit, simply for telling the truth. It’s easy to say “not since The Passion of Joan of Arc,” but in this case….

77 Stop Making Sense

The greatest rock musical of all time. Say what you will about The Last Waltz, but I’m team Stop Making Sense because it’s infectious.

76 Dawn of the Dead

Horror works best when it explores a metaphor, and no one explored the problems in America better than George Romero. Though all of the first three in his zombie cycle are masterpieces, the pop art sensibilities of Dawn make it one of the great films of the seventies (and of all time).

75 Once Upon a Time in the West

Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. “We’re one horse shy.” “No. You brought two too many.”

74 Pickpocket

The most accessible of Robert Bresson’s amazing roster of cinema, here he was inspired by Samuel Fuller, and tried to understand the art of the steal, while also staying true to his sensibilities. It’s hard to think of Bresson making a commercial film, but this is it, and by doing so, he made a masterpiece. But, again, the body of work is all worthwhile.

73 Footlight Parade

Though James Cagney was often cast as a tough guy (and he did it as well as anyone), the man was a dancer, and this is the best of the Busby Berkley films in terms of structure, and it could have some of his best dancer numbers. It’s a hoot.

72 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created some of the greatest movies of all time, but this film is rare in that it’s about the passage of time, and about how people grow out of fashion and stuck in their ways. It’s a perfect movie, as are all the rest of the films on this list.

71 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Though there’s an argument to be made that John Ford made better films (My Darling Clementine, Three Godfathers, The Searchers), this comes homes strongest for me, because it suggests so much of America was built on fiction.

70 North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock directed many great films, but this is the smoothest ride of them all. It’s just pure pleasure from the first sound of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the final shot that symbolizes the main characters are having sex.

69 No Country For Old Men

2007 produced a number of masterpieces, but The Coen Brothers portrait of unstoppable and mercurial evil is one of their great works, and was a great yelp in the midst of a pointless war and a country that seemed to lose its way.

68 The Naked Spur

Jimmy Stewart gives a top three performance in this Anthony Mann western (the two worked together a lot and all their films are worth a perusal). Here Stewart is a desperate man who’s on the verge of losing his soul by going on a bounty hunt. Also, Robert Ryan is amazing in the film .

67 Ace in the Hole

If I am to pick one Billy Wilder film, I flipped a coin and it was between this portrait of how journalism can prove self-serving when a story becomes bigger than the truth, and The Apartment. I’m sorry, The Apartment.

66 Modern Romance

Stanley Kubrick once told Albert Brooks that his Modern Romance was a perfect movie and that it said everything about relationships he ever wanted to express on film. Who’s to argue with Kubrick?

65 The Band Wagon

The elegance of Fred Astaire mixed with the gams of Cyd Charisse and the assured direction of Vincente Minnelli led to one of the great cappers to the song and dance genre. Astaire and Charisse were never better, and the film is a pip.

64 Scenes From a Marriage

If I am to pick one Ingmar Bergman, I’ll go with the one that speaks to me most. As a movie, it shows a marriage crumble and how the pieces can sometimes come back together (even for a moment) while the television version goes more in depth, but either way it’s my favorite of his work.

63 The Killer

John Woo revolutionized action with this film, as he combined the kinetic editing of Sam Peckinpah with the fluidity of Vincente Minnelli’s musical numbers, and a Catholic’s guilt. The results make for one of the greatest action movies of all time.

62 Shoot the Piano Player

Francois Truffaut made so many great films (watch the Antoine Donnell series as well) but his playful early effort Shoot the Piano Player tickles the structuralist in me as he toys with genre as well as Quentin Tarantino.

61 Orpheus

Jean Cocteau made many great films, but the poetry of this film, which uses all the tricks in cinema for this modern retelling of a myth seems like everything the director ever wanted or hoped to say with a camera.

60 Used Cars

I love the prankish spirit of early Robert Zemeckis, and his clockwork precision as a writer. Though there’s no denying that Back to the Future is immaculately constructed, not only is Used Cars equally perfect, it’s a more pointed satire of America. And that’s what Zemeckis did well… at least, he used to.

59 All That Jazz

Bob Fosse’s autobiographical musical is possibly the last great musical, plus also about something.

58 Goodfellas

If I have to single out one detail that makes this a masterwork, it’s the shot of the car sighing with relief when the fat gangster gets out. Gripping from frame one until the credits roll.

57 Sherlock Jr.

If I am to pick one Buster Keaton, it’s the one that plays with formula like a genius. It must have seemed like a revolution at the time, and it’s still perfection.

56 Scarlet Street

If I am to pick one Lang to make the list, it’s shocking that I think his version of the Jean Renoir film is better than the original, but my god is this one of the bleakest and best film noirs.

55 The Leopard

Luchino Visconti’s mastery has few parallels, but this film, which celebrates the end of an era and how change is inevitable, but also how the past had its pleasures (for those who could afford it), is simply breathtaking cinema.

54 There Will Be Blood

There are few performances as pure and true as Daniel Day-Lewis in TWBB. Paul Thomas Anderson uses everything he knew to create this piece, which is one of the great American pictures. If he was trying to make a new version of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, he surpassed it.

53 Naked

Speaking of great performances, David Thewlis in Naked is one for the ages. It’s a character so complete, so complex and so terrible that it is singular in cinema.

52 High And Low

Akira Kursosawa (who will chart higher, I promise), was a master of genre, and this twisty-turny kidnapping procedure proves itself profound in the final stretch.

51 The Empire Strikes Back

Perhaps my only paean to fanboys on this list outside of the bottom ten, let’s make no mistake. This deepens, and twists George Lucas’ original, while also taking the original’s workmanlike visual sense and turns it beautiful. The shots of the door closes as Leia looks on is cinema.

50 Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton directed one movie, but it’s great to bat 1.00, isn’t it? Drawing from silent cinema (made explicit with the casting of Lillian Gish) everyone is amazing in the film, with Robert Mitchum in top form (which is saying something).

49 through to the best film of all time tomorrow.