From potential modern classics to films that have and will stand the test of time, these are my Top Ten favorite films.
Much is to be said about the role of cinema in our lives. Certain moving pictures have ways of showcasing what our innermost feelings contain. A truly great movie that resonates with an audience is one that can pierce through any and every aspect of our emotional core: love, fear, curiosity, death, and desire.
For me, a good movie is one that speaks to life in a unique and memorable way. I judge a film based on its storytelling elements just as much as its filmmaking elements. If a movie sits with me long enough afterwards, reflecting in my psyche, that means it's an affective film and the director created a cinematic confection that works, for better or worse.
We each have relationships with films for many different reasons. A movie you watched as a child may always have a note of nostalgia attached, whether the film was actually great or not. I've had many of these moments throughout my lifetime. The Wizard of Oz will always resonate as the first movie to truly surprise, shock and awe me as a child. Seeing my own niece experience that same sense of wonder some 30 years later just shows how irreplaceable Victor Fleming's masterpiece and Judy Garland's performance are to our modern lexicon. The low-budget Irish musical Once will always resonate as the last movie I watched with my sister before we lost her. Hearing the Academy Award-winning song, "Falling Slowly," immediately resurfaces certain emotional memories and moments.
La La Land was the movie that helped sealed my current obsession with Los Angeles and was a driving force towards my ability to make the move from the South to the West Coast in 2017. But, it was Singin' in the Rain and Gone with the Wind that first gave me an inkling that I was destined to be in L.A. at some point in my life. The sights and sounds of the 1952 musical were captivating to my younger self. Debbie Reynolds' cheery voice was enough to break your heart and charm your soul. The filmmaking behind the 1939 classic Oscar winner gave me my first taste of how big a storytelling tool film is and I wanted to be a part of that. Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park would become the filmgoing experience to signify in my small mind how incredible a film can make you feel, from fear to glorious beauty. The music, the special effects, every inch of that film and the experience of seeing it, in 1993, on the big screen created a desire in me to learn how to tell stories in that way.
These are the 10 films, some already mentioned, that have shaped my mind over the years and driven my creativity. From stunning cinematography to clever story tropes, each of these are the epitome of the definition of masterpiece.
Agree or disagree with my choices? Sound off in the comments below.
10. AMERICAN BEAUTY
1999, Sam Mendes, dir.
Mendes is no stranger to incredibly staged plays and musicals, getting his start directing on London'd West End. His first feature film took 1999 by surprise, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and beating other modern classics like The Sixth Sense. Despite current politics involving the film's star, Kevin Spacey (who shows up on this list twice), what makes American Beauty an important film is its use of storytelling as less of an arch and more of a morality play. Spacey stars as a very average, normal adult suffering with the tropes of adulthood in modern America. As his wife, Annette Bening equally shows a desperation for life through her way of trying more of life outside of her miserable and boring reality. The film takes a quick turn at the end, with a focus on how our actions can lead to our deepest regrets, but its the subtleties that make even the most outrageous moments feel perfectly muted, just like life. The cinematography is impeccable and the performances are ace. If there ever was a film that speaks to what modern day storytelling is, it's American Beauty.
2008, Andrew Stanton, dir.
Pixar's most adult-friendly work is also its most hauntingly beautiful. The tale of a robot sent to track and clean-up Earth after us humans have basically destroyed it is one of the most astounding artworks I've ever experienced to show loneliness and the desire for connection. The titular robot is sincere and sweet, not knowing what his innermost "feelings" mean until he comes across another robot, Eve, sent to Earth to find any sign of living plants, which would signify the planet is possibly capable of supporting humanity once again. It's before Wall-E makes his way to the spaceship holding mankind where the film truly soars. His attention and care to his responsibilities and how he spends his evenings watching Hello Dolly! are sweetly innocent and endearing. While not everyone may find a personal connection to this sentiment, I, a severe Virgo, can find my own self in every piece of his personality. I'm a definite schmuck and Wall-E is a great companion in the club. The cinematic approach to creating the first half of this film, complete which a reaching score and classic music pieces, sets the stage for some of the new millennium's most beautiful cinematography. Soaring space ballets and a timely message about serving each other and the environment seal Wall-E's place among the animated greats. While the Toy Story franchise has its place in history, one day it will be known as the films that set the stage for Pixar's greatest work.
8. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN
1952, Stanley Donan & Gene Kelly, dir.
I was too young to understand the story as a kid and, most of the time, I was more excited to see the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain that the other aspects of the film, but even those few minutes of cinematic glory were enough of a staple of my childhood to shape my early taste in films and spark a subconscious love of the moving image. It wouldn't be until I was older that I learned just how much of a treat this film is to the senses. It's colorful and cleverly shot. It's choreographed better than most. And, it's acted with such charm that it's impossible to not get lost in the humor, sincerity, and sugary sweetness of each and every scene. Debbie Reynolds shines as the innocent newcomer to Hollywood, perfectly grasping the hit-the-streets tenacity of a young person following her dreams. This same drive would find itself appearing throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. Though I didn't have the same fortune as young Kathy, the wide-eyed appetite for Hollywood still exists in my blood. This is and will always be one of those movies that immediately elicits nostalgic feelings of excitement and bewilderment, every time I watch it. Decades after my first experiences with the film, I'd get to see it screened at the Hollywood Bowl with a live orchestra. A meeting of the two worlds, if you will. It's not every motion picture that can pack out theaters and amphitheaters 60 years later. It's a breath of fresh air and one of the only films that can help lead me out of a dark day.
7. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT
1988, Robert Zemeckis, dir.
My first taste of a whodunit came in the form of this whacky and artfully created modern masterpiece that melded the minds of Warner Bros. and Disney, plus changed the game when it comes to what a family film could and should be. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized how irreverent Robert Zemeckis' comedy noir really was. The jokes land for kids in their slapstick form, with Roger's seismic energy lampooning the best of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse cartoons. His heightened and shrill voice and endearing eyes were enough to keep even the smallest of children engaged. The sexy and adult-hinged humor was enough to keep the nearest parent from rolling his/her eyes. Plus, the based-on-a-novel story captures the Golden Era of Hollywood mystery like the best of them. The sets are magnificent, cementing this picture among other, pre-superfluous digital effects films of the same nature. And, the animation seamlessly interacts with reality in such a clever and groundbreaking way. I overplayed this VHS tape as a kid. I can distinctly remember how worn the cardboard VHS case had gotten over the years. The horror of the scene with the cartoon shoe still resonates. The drama and intrigue of each and every scene is still enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. This was perhaps the film that allowed me to graduate from strictly kid films to something of a more quality motion picture. Plus, its honest tribute to the era of the 30s and 40s private eye tales gave me my first taste of this time and place I'd grow to love.
6. SUNSET BOULEVARD
1950, Billy Wilder, dir.
Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond is one of cinema's greatest characters, rich in absurdity and grounded in sincerity. Billy Wilder's classic is a mixture of 1950's drama/comedy and noir. Hollywood has always had an infatuation with itself and Sunset Boulevard is hard to beat. Desmond is an aged-out silent film star thirsty for a comeback. In her fight for a new life of fame and fortune, her mental state gets the best of her. There's a set-up. There's a murder. Plus, the cameos by Hollywood greats like Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, and gossip queen Hedda Hopper are fun Easter eggs. I didn't see this movie for the first time until I was in college and I was immediately enraptured by its poise and structure. It's a masterclass in proper film noir tropes, with the cinematography and music to boot. Wilder's fascination with delivering pieces of the plot in such a slow, but meaningful way carry the film beyond a standard black-and-white drama. Swanson's over-the-top performance as Desmond seals the picture. It's fascinating to see how Hollywood already knew to not take itself too seriously even back in 1950. Fame and stardom are fleeting for most. Perhaps Sunset Boulevard will always be the warning sign of what can happen to someone whose ego is groomed too much over the years. There's no denying how this film changed the course of filmmaking for years beyond its premiere. It's sweeping and romantic in its own way and, even with repeat viewings, still stands today as an immeasurable film-going experience. This film is the epitome of Old Hollywood in all of its glory.
5. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL
1997, Curtis Hanson, dir.
It's no secret that I have an affinity for anything Los Angeles-related. Just look at this list and you'll see a mixture of movies influenced by and/or set in the City of Angels. With Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, the sights of Hollywood and its glamour are joined by the intrigue of a clever noir, which is in itself a classic piece of the fabric of the town. The cast is impeccable, with newcomers (at the time) Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe chewing scenes with the likes of Kim Basinger (who eats up every bit of her Oscar-winning performance), Danny Devito, and Kevin Spacey. It's beautifully shot and such a storytelling treat that repeat viewings get even better. Hanson's decision to shoot on location throughout L.A. adds t the sincerity of each frame. Seeing some of Hollywood's most iconic locales sharing the screen with period cars, fashions, and accents, is just as nostalgic as it is perfectly dingy and dark. Clear homages to earlier classics like The Bad and the Beautiful and In a Lonely Place are clear in the style of the picture. But, where some homages to classic films can feel too overdone, L.A. Confidential treats those classics like fibers in its existence. This film came out the same year as Titanic and, while it may not be sweeping, it's effervescence sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. This is a piece of storytelling magic that doesn't make it to the modern day cinema enough.
4. JURASSIC PARK
1993, Steven Spielberg, dir.
If ever there was a moviegoing experience that shaped me, it was seeing Spielberg's prehistoric masterpiece on the big screen in 1993. I can still remember most of the details from that night: filing into the two-screen theater in my hometown with my mom and older brother, the smells of the movie theater, the mix of fear and excitement while watching a 'real' t-rex take the screen, and the feelings of passion and desire to be a part of this movie-making magic. Still, 25 years later, Jurassic Park holds up well. It's in the smallest details where Spielberg lets the film shine. The rippling of the water in the glass. The haunting image of the claws of the t-rex snapping off of the electric fence. Laura Dern's relief turned horror when she meets the dead body of a former acquaintance. The ENTIRE KITCHEN SCENE. This is what today's summer blockbusters try to imitate, without fully achieving. Even the special effects hold up well this many years later. Only certain scenes are made obvious of its use of digital effects available at the time. This film has become, like many others my age, a specific part of our cultural makeup. I loved the feeling of being thrilled and scared. I loved how intimate even the grandest of island settings could feel due to the pacing and the cinematography. My younger brother and I used to recreate scenes of this movie in our living room, the coffee table doubling as the smashed in car roof. When I realized I had to be a part of the film industry in some capacity, it was solely after experience Jurassic Park for the first time, and every time since. It may not have much to say about society or morals and it may not be an emotional drama, but it's impossible to deny the power of the moving image after seeing films like this. It ranks up there in importance for the art of filmmaking as other Spielberg masterpieces Schindler's List or E.T. or Jaws and dutifully fits in a list of greats like The Godfather or Gone with the Wind.
3. CITY LIGHTS
1931, Charles Chaplin, dir.
I've been enamored by Charlie Chaplin since I first grew an affinity for Hollywood history and the Golden Era. Silent films aren't the easiest thing for a modern audience to embrace, but there is something electric about Chaplin's style and the earnest heart of his stories. With City Lights, one of his greats, he's mastered his tropes and delivered a piece of film that has easily shaped what comedic movies became and exist as today. There's a level of clever slapstick that sticks each and every time you view it. It never feel patronizing to the audience or cheap. The tricks are well-thought out and unique, which is a breath of fresh air when you think of today's general offerings. The storyline is as innocent and endearing as they come. Chaplin channels his popular Tramp character, who's looking for ways to pay for the medical expenses needed to fix the sight of a woman with whom he's fallen in love. It's a romcom, before romcoms were even a legitimate genre in pop culture and movie lexicon. It's heightened with thematic elements that catapulted the film to popular status even back then. The closing scenes are enough to pull your heartstrings until you, too, are crying. There's a subtle line between heartbreak and joy that Chaplin mastered, leaving you feeling all too similar to the Tramp and also longing for a redemptive end. This journey through emotions is what made Chaplin a king in his time and a lasting figure in Hollywood. You can't drive down a street in Hollywood without seeing some semblance of Chaplin, be it a painting on the brick wall outside of a bar, an impersonator on Hollywood Blvd., or even the Chaplinesque Kermit the Frog that sits atop the entrance to Jim Henson Studios on La Brea, formerly Chaplin's very own studio grounds. His impact has lasted for generations and will continue on because of its simplicity and effectiveness. City Lights has become a favorite go-to on a lazy afternoon or when I'm wanting to remember what it was like to fall in love with the idea of Hollywood.
2. THE TREE OF LIFE
2011, Terrence Malick, dir.
I have a general rule that you aren't allowed to put things on a 'greatest of all time' list until it's been around for at least a decade. It's usually impossible to know the grandeur and scope of something beyond its initial buzz until it's lasted that long. In fact, the National Film Registry follows this strict rule before preserving a film, guaranteeing the piece of work is in fact significant beyond its current setting. That being said, from the moment I saw Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, it has played a very significant role in who I am creatively. And, for that, it gets to be the exception to the rule. Malick is known for his effervescent and forcefully meandering approach to capturing reality amidst his stories. His use of imagery and how he develops a seamless and flowing scene has made him an auteur all on his own. Filmgoers know what they're getting into when they settle in for a Malick film. With The Tree of Life, Malick builds on the genius tropes he utilized on previous films like The New World, and elevates each and every frame to become some of the most beautiful moving images ever to hit the silver screen. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt shine in their natural performances that utter shear emotion with every breath. And, it's Malick's haunting, monologue-heavy script that shapes the story, or lack-thereof. Some critics point to Malick's structure as a fault, but for me it's what allows this film to become very personal. The way it somberly flows through each frame, I find myself immersed in the beauty of the cinematography and the enchantingly beautiful score. The film's commentary on youth and growing up render my own memories of being a kid and highlight what it's like still learning every day how to be an adult. There's a curiosity in the way Malick explores his characters. The images have shaped my own photographic eye. The writing has shaped my own style in how I've learned to put my thoughts and feelings to paper. When I'm in need of a burst of creativity or spark of idea, The Tree of Life does this for me. It's an emotional ride that I've never experienced before and have yet to experience since.
1. THE WIZARD OF OZ
1939, Victor Fleming, dir.
The greatest of all time? Perhaps. Many may argue that title, but The Wizard of Oz is, without a doubt, at the least the film that sparks the most nostalgia in every person on the planet. You'd be hard-pressed to find many grown adults who've never experienced the magic of Dorothy's journey to the Emerald City and the wonder the sights and sounds inspire. As a kid, I remember watching this, standing near the TV, enraptured by the sights and slightly mortified at the Wicked Witch. Her evil laugh and face may have been reminiscent of our next door neighbor, but even beyond that, she's so dauntingly designed , she shaped the modern day idea of a fictional witch, pointed hat and broom, et al. For our culture, The Wizard of Oz is the most groundbreaking piece of film. It's use of technicolor and sepia to designate the differences in location and time are not only unique, but quite startling. It's scope in storytelling structure and character development has undoubtedly left its mark on storytellers who've come since it first debuted back in 1939. For every memory of a time you saw the movie, there's a reference to it in another piece of film or television. Dorothy and her friends, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Toto, have all become just as equally relevant as pop culture references as the film has and is to filmmaking. There are so many lines from the movie that are used as modern-day English language idioms. Plus, hearing Judy Garland sing "Over the Rainbow" will always have the power to ring with nostalgia, eliciting even the hardest among us to feel a tug of emotion. But, what really makes The Wizard of Oz the film that resonates the most for me is its message of home and what makes a home. Is it the memories we share in the physical place, city, or space that we call home? Is it the people who you grow to love, whether related by blood or by a certain bond? Is home in one specific locale? Can home be anywhere, as long as you and your heart are content? As a child, I cried watching the film because I was worried Dorothy wouldn't make it back to her Aunt Em and I couldn't imagine ever being in a place where I couldn't crawl back into the arms of my mom if I needed her. As an adult, watching, I get emotional thinking of how my life has shaped and formed over the years and the nostalgia of each of those chapters. While home may mean different things throughout life, there's a very certain through-line that's attached through it all. Sometimes finding rest and home may mean going on a journey. And, after that journey, you find home, or you realize you were already home the whole time. Every journey is different, which may also explain the draw to Dorothy's adventure. What is beyond the rainbow is significant for each of us in its own way. Just shy of celebrating its 80th anniversary, The Wizard of Oz, in all its colorful Hollywood glamour, will always stand the test of time as the film that speaks most to what we, as humans, desire: love, acceptance, and hope.