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. That said, yesterday I ranked my bottom fifty or so best films out of a hundred. So let’s finish this list out like a boss, yeah?
49 Five Easy Pieces
Bob Raeflson nailed this portrait of a genius who has given up but can’t quite let go. A man with father issues, he’s the man who can’t help but lose. Jack Nicholson gives an all timer here.
48 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
There is no better film about how relationships fall apart and how we have our petty jealousies but that we hope we can still fit together than this film. Well, maybe there’s another one or two on this list, but still, when you put Michel Gondry together Charlie Kaufman you get screen magic.
47 Singin’ in the Rain
Not only a great history lesson about the evolution of cinema (even if it creates a myth as much as it tells the truth), it’s simply one of the great musicals of all time. Gene Kelly dancing in the rain is one of the purest expressions of joy to be found.
First time filmmakers often have a f- you contempt for what’s come before, but how Jean-Luc Godard breaks the rules and obeys genre conceits with panache makes this the greatest (and sexiest) senior thesis of all time.
45 Pulp Fiction
This makes for a good double feature with the last film. Though I could have gone with the indelible Inglourious Basterds, simply for its zeitgeist status Pulp Fiction trumps — if only because pork chops taste good.
44 Only Angels Have Wings
Howard Hawks, as I’ve said, is one of the greatest directors of all time, and this is the purest example of his love of showing people working. Of People who are good at their jobs, and know the risks. Who’s Joe?
43 The Big Red One/ Come and See
There are basically two filmmakers who ever went to war as grunts in America and became directors. Sam Fuller and Oliver Stone. What makes The Big Red One a great movie (especially in the director’s cut) is that everything in it is something that happened. On the flip side is Come and See which shows the truth from another side, a side that was beaten even when it was victorious. I don’t want to sound flippant because I’m not, Come and See is one of the most haunting and powerful war films ever made. Together they show the horror and power of war.
If the late Gordon Willis shooting black and white anamorphic widescreen wasn’t enough to make this an all-timer, it’s also Woody Allen wrestling with himself and what is of value in the world. Some may see his turn Tracy as a triumph, for me it’s about a middle age man realizing that a seventeen year old girl might be smarter than him. Also Gershwin.
41 La Dolce Vita
If I am to pick one Fellini, it’s the one I relate to most (though I Vitelloni makes this a hard choice, as does that one about the director). The scene grows old, and not everyone is who you think they are, both famous and not. It’s hard to connect as a human being, and the nightlife goes on forever.
40 Citizen Kane
It would be too easy to put this Orson Welles film at the top of my list, but there’s no denying this is perfect and like so many great films, causally hilarious. It’s also playful, but its status as THE BEST has worked against both the film and Welles. It’s still great, though.
39 Straw Dogs
As we’ve seen recently, pop culture, and even the intelligentsia often wants art to hold their hand. Wants it to make the viewer feel smart without actually challenging them. Racism is bad. Rape is bad. Brute force is bad. But great art often puts your face in the crap for purpose. And there’s nothing wrong or bad about looking into the abyss, even if we don’t like what we see. Sam Peckinpah, with this film, wants to make the audience uncomfortable. He wants the audience to have conflicted feelings about rights of masculinity, and to push buttons. How much pleasure that’s derived from that draws into questions the purpose of art.
38 The Adventures of Robin Hood
And to about face on that, Hollywood was often a pleasure dispenser, and few films deliver that as well as Michael Curtiz’s Robin Hood. I could have just as easily included Casablanca in this spot, but the spirit of high adventure and the perfect casting makes this the ultimate great film made by good artists.
37 The King of Comedy
There are few films I’ve seen on this list as infrequently as The King of Comedy, but that’s also why it deserves its place here. Martin Scorsese takes many ideas that he had been playing with and takes them to a whole new level with Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. Like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, this is one of the most insightful films about celebrity and fandom.
36 Jackie Brown
Post-Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino made his best film while people were too ready to pre-judge a sophomore slump. Instead he made his deepest and most realized film about people. Didn’t he blow you mind this time?
35 Miller’s Crossing
There aren’t too many directors who got two films into my top one hundred, but the Coen Brothers deserve it. This slot could just as easily go to Blood Simple, Fargo, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading or Raising Arizona, but this was the film that made me fall in love with the duo, and their love of language. “Take your flunky and dangle” is just a taste of the film’s elegant construction.
As someone who love films that play with structure, no film has done a better job of messing with an audience that Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough effort. And no film has done a better job of creating an earthquake under an audience’s seat. Alternate: The Prestige, which is a great film and easily Nolan’s most underrated.
33 Barry Lyndon
Look, 2001, Paths of Glory, The Killing and Eyes Wide Shut are all great films. That said, if you want to know the best Kubrick film of all time, it’s Barry Lyndon.
32 The Conformist
What is the best shot film of all time? Acceptable answer: This. Also, it’s a great story about a coward in the midst of war told with the visual gusto of a director (in this case Bernardo Bertolucci) at the height of his powers. Though I could have just as easily put Last Tango in Paris here.
By the time Jean Luc-Godard made this film, his relationship with Anna Karina was ending and so he made the greatest film about both hating your ex-partner and hating yourself and selling out. On top of which it’s gorgeous, and widescreen and Bridgette Bardot gives her finest performance and Jack Palance and also everything else about it.
30 To Be or Not To Be
Ernst Lubitsch, known for his elegant sexual touch, was mad as hell at the Nazis. And so he made a film that was as elegantly constructed as his best work, but wanted to grab Hitler by his package and squeeze and twist. In doing so, he made an angry comic masterpiece.
29 Annie Hall
It’s one thing to make the one of great films about relationships, it’s another thing to do it while breaking every rule of cinema, and having a blast while kicking at conventions. Regardless of how you may or may not feel about Woody Allen the person, this move is alive in ways that are only comparable to new waves. This is revolution.
28 The Long Goodbye
I was torn between putting this film or Nashville in this spot, but I went with the noir, perhaps because I love Elliot Gould’s performance in this film so much, and because the coke bottle scene — which has been stolen repeatedly — has never been topped.
27 Blue Velvet
David Lynch is a master of form and this film, which walks the line between parody and melodrama, is one of cinema’s great Bildungsroman because it tackles our complicated relationships with sex and how sex makes people adults and how that creates fetishes and the good and bad of that. On top of having an avant-garde filmmaker working at the height of his powers.
26 The Right Stuff
Perhaps the greatest portrait of the America I love (though it’s definitely a warts and all presentation) it also showcases that history is made by humans. On top of which it’s epic and hilarious, with one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled.
25 Happy Together
Wow, I struggled between picking this and In the Mood For Love, which may be the better film, but this is my list, so I’ll go with the Wong Kar-Wai that first made me fall in love with the master director. This story of a couple who loves but can’t live with each other is a heartbreaking portrait of how relationships can both work and not work at the same time. Also, the music. Astor Piazzolla. Frank Zappa, so much greatness.
24 Grand Illusion/The Great Escape
Jean Renoir is the best director to ever touch a camera, and it’s partly because he is such a humanist that he even has sympathy for the Germans. This portrait of gentlemen in war is perhaps overly sentimental, but it’s deeply felt and deft. It’s also a prison break-out film, which is why I’m tying it with one of my favorite ensemble efforts. I could and have watched The Great Escape on more weekends than I care to count.
23 Army of Shadows
And if Grand Illusion and The Great Escape are too nice and too fun for you, then Jean Pierre Melville’s greatest triumph is the flip side. Following the French resistance, there is a job to be done, one that costs lives and one that sends most to their graves in pursuit of liberty. Listmaking makes me sad to leave off Melville’s other great films like The Red Circle and Le Samourai.
22 The Purple Rose of Cairo
Woody Allen is one of two director to get three films on my list, but there’s a case to be made for many more. But the film of his I love most is Purple Rose because it’s about fantasy versus reality, it’s both one of the greatest and most damning portraits of the power of escapism. Is the ending happy or sad? Either way, it’s a powerhouse.
21 Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s revolutionary third film was explosive at the time, and now – some twenty five years later – it’s sad that it didn’t provoke a stronger cinematic dialogue. Regardless, Spike Lee dealt with race relations in a way few attempted before or since. On top of making a sexy, provocative, relateable, hilarious film that culminates in a number of tragedies.
F.W. Murnau died too young, but this American made silent film showcases why visual poetry is what can make a movie great. This is visual storytelling in the most powerful and emotive way, but is also so simple in its presentation of a marriage going through a bad patch that might not be salvageable.
19 The Godfather I and II
Francis Ford Coppola’s two Godfather films are just great storytelling. Cinema is pulp and the first film is brilliantly executed at that, material which is deepened by the second volume that shows how much power can corrupt. I really shouldn’t have to convince anyone these are great movies, though, right?
Alfred Hitchcock’s much maligned Marnie takes Freudian ideas and uses them in distinctly cinematic ways. This film is the heart of Hitchcock (as Robin Wood has always said) as it finally gives a reason for Alfred’s ice princess blondes to act as they do.
17 Blow Out
Which I’m putting right next to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out for a reason. The oft-mocked ‘cock disciple understood the power of tragedy and melodrama and mystery, and this film showcases the director using visual storytelling to create one of the best thrillers in cinema. It’s also amazing how De Palma can create one of the greatest sneak attack endings of all time. That’s hiding in plain sight. That said, I’m sad to leave off Femme Fatale, Body Double, The Fury, Phantom of the Paradise and more from this list.
16 Trouble in Paradise
Romantic comedies are often garbage narratives about people the poster tell you will be together by the end. Rarely are they about the carnal pleasure and attraction in the way Ernst Lubitsch told it eighty some years ago. The elegance of this film is unparalleled, but then so was Lubitsch. This is a movie about f-cking. It’s about wanting to f-ck, it’s about how much fun it is to be wanted, and how much fun it is to circle and about sets ups and payoffs that you didn’t know were being set up.
15 The Passion of Joan of Arc
Falconetti has long been shorthand for great central performances because of the work of Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc in this film. Asked to deny her beliefs, asked to deny that she heard the voice of God, Joan’s faith is so strong she would rather die than betray it, and the cumulative power of this movie is such that it’s impossible to deny. Though I could just as easily put a handful of Carl Dreyer films here because he was a master.
John Cassavetes is one of the great gods of cinema in that he can film something that feels alive in ways that few other filmmakers can (even if the events are much more plotted and scripted than his reputation might suggest). This portrait of love and loneliness feels so lived in and so revolutionary that it’s both surprising and not that it inspired numerous attempts to recreate that magic that most failed miserably.
13 McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman’s “western” took a familiar narrative of the end of the west and turned it into one of his greatest accomplishments. With an impeccable cast that includes Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, the ending of this film is still one of the most bleak and powerful put to screen. This is violence that’s about pain and death, not excitement.
12 Taxi Driver
God’s lonely man Travis Bickle is one of the greatest antiheroes, a man who helps create his own alienation, a powder keg primed to blow. Sadly, the film’s portrait of an alienated loser seems more relevant than ever. The film might not be watchable if Martin Scorsese’s visual sense didn’t make every scene electric.
11 Seven Samurai/Laurence of Arabia
I swear this is my last bit of cheating, but it’s hard to do this, and really who’s going to play police here? These feels like the shortest epics ever made. Both paint on a large canvas but also are great in how they lay out their stories. The former is the master of construction as it pulls back the bow in the first two hours and change as it sets up its warriors and then lets them fly into combat, the latter is the reason why people like me revere the widescreen frame.
I could talk about how this really isn’t the template for summer action movies to follow, or the character work, or the direction, but I saw this film when I was eight and it was the movie that made me love movies. And for a good reason. It’s a masterpiece.
9 The Earrings of Madame De…
Max Ophuls moved a camera better than anyone. Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino swear by him, and it’s a film like this that cements his reputation as the master. The Reckless Moment and Caught also deserve to be mentioned here.
Destructive obsession at its most cinematic. Few moments are so perfect as the final confrontation, while Hitchcock shows everyone that suspense is more powerful than surprise. Also it’s a contender for the greatest score ever. Alas, picking three Hitchcock meant leaving off The Birds, Rear Window, The 39 Steps, and so many more.
7 The Wild Bunch
Many westerns were about the end of the west, but few people could end it as spectacularly as Sam Peckinpah. Mixing the new rating system with a sense of outrage at what was going on in Vietnam, this story of antiheroes who just want to go out on their own terms (to enter their house justified, as it were) not only features some of the most breathtaking editing of all time, it is fantastically entertaining to boot. But if you’re tired of this film his Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is equally brilliant.
6 Swing Time
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together is why cinema exists, and though there’s a case to be made for Top Hat and more, this is my favorite of their films. That said, my favorite number in this is when Astaire dances with his shadow. The skill….
5 Touch of Evil
Orson Welles is one of the great geniuses of cinema, though it might be hard to tell that from his movies, most of which were either made with no money or were cut to shreds by the studios post-Kane. The restoration of Touch of Evil gives Welles his best on screen role, while also showing why he was one of the most inventive of directors. He could throw every trick at the screen but it never felt like a man whipping out his junk because he does it for purpose, and the film’s story of the downfall of a terrible but not unredeemable man is always gutting for me.
Speaking of misunderstood geniuses…. This is a perfect film noir, has one of the greatest endings of all time, brilliant performances and is one of the great poison pen letters to California. Like so much of this list, this is as close as anyone’s come to making a perfect movie in how it has so much to say, both about the time it was made and the time it was commenting on.
3 Duck Soup
The sublime anarchy of the Marx Brothers in this movie makes this the greatest comedy of all time:
Secretary of War: How about taking up the tax?
Rufus T. Firefly: How ’bout taking up the carpet?
Secretary of War: I still insist we must take up the tax.
Rufus T. Firefly: He’s right, you’ve gotta take up the tacks before you can take up the carpet.
2 Rio Bravo
The ultimate hang out movie, Howard Hawks opens the film with a three minute sequence with no dialogue and yet you never feel like he’s making a show of it. It’s because all acts are done with purpose in what might be the most rewatchable film ever made “took you two!” Howard Hawks even makes a musical number seem like the most natural thing in the world, on top of giving John Wayne his sexiest role. That’s how you know this is a master work: Hawks makes John Wayne sexy.
1 Rules of the Game
With France on the verge of war, Jean Renoir made a supposed bedroom farce that was actually about the world and power and privilege and the human condition. The film is famous for the quote “Everyone has their reasons.” And that’s the philosophy of all great cinema. It’s the philosophy of Jean Renoir, and it’s the reason why he can twist the knife when he needs to. Seventy years later – for those who are paying attention – this film is alive and dangerous.
Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Klute), To Kill a Mockingbird, One False Move, Yasujirō Ozu (Late Spring, Tokyo Story, etc.), Kenji Mizoguchi, Pier Paolo Passolini (too many), Rian Johnson, Never Let Me Go, Vittoria De Sica (too many), Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, John Waters, extra Johnathan Demme (Something Wild, Married to the Mob, Melvin and Howard), Louis Malle, The Crowd, Sweet Smell of Success, Charlie Chaplin, American Graffiti, Straight Time, Nicholas and Satyajit Ray, George Cukor’s A Star is Born, Unforgiven, so many Carol Reed films (The Third Man, Odd Man Out), Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Evil Dead 2, David Cronenberg, Dog Park, The Way of the Gun, Ridley and Tony Scott, Mean Streets, and many, many more.