They’re not, but they’re obligatory for this site. Last week, I was updating my FAQ page, and I realized that I’d talked about the worst movies I’d ever seen, but I’d never done the opposite. The process was revealing and forced me to be vulnerable. What if my readers hate my favorites? What if they scoff, saying I’m too milquetoast or, conversely, esoteric? Then I realized that if someone used those words to criticize my writing, there’s probably no pleasing them anyways.
Much like my end-of-the-year posts, I used Flickchart to rank every movie I’d ever seen, then put them head-to-head randomly until a clear pecking order had been established. I grabbed my top five… and had a pretty boring list. That’s because my favorite movies were mixed in with the “best movies of all time.” As far as filmmaking consensus goes, there are fairly definitive, largely repetitive rankings (any list without Citizen Kane or The Godfather, for instance, would be suspect). Therefore, I zoomed out to my top 20 movies and tried to pick the five that I thought best defined my taste.
David Huxley is a renowned paleontologist who needs just one more bone to complete his dinosaur skeleton. Without it, he risks souring his engagement to his fiancee, a potential donor to his museum. Huxley decides to play golf to take his mind off the stress, but his ball is sniped by Susan Vance, an heiress/maelstrom of a free spirit. Thinking that he’s a zoologist, Ms. Vance gifts Huxley an exotic leopard. Huxley just wants to give the leopard back and find that final dinosaur bone, but, for the high-strung paleontologist, accomplishing that task soon feels like herding cats!
As an aspiring filmmaker, when I first saw the other movies on this list, my thoughts were “This is awesome; I want to make a movie like that!” When I first saw Bringing up Baby, my thoughts were “This is awesome—but I could NEVER make a movie like that!” So much of this movie went pin-perfect right to succeed: comedic bits stretch and escalate with immaculate pacing, the co-leads mow through dialogue at cocaine-level speed yet have firecracker chemistry, the physicality and staging of the actors’ scenes dizzy the eyes. Many films have tried to replicate Baby’s style, but only a select few match its frenzied yet focused tone.
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of Baby’s legacy, though, is how much vitriol it received upon its initial release. This flick bombed so hard, Katherine Hepburn was labeled “box office poison” for two years! I couldn’t imagine creating an insanely creative movie like this, only for no one to care. Ironically, Baby did so poorly that when TV networks needed time to fill in the 1950’s, they often chose this film because the rights were cheap. More people finally saw it, and Bringing up Baby earned the love and respect it deserved… 15 years later. 85 years later, this movie is refreshingly silly, innocent fun—a roaring good time.
Historical tidbit: This movie is thought to be the first piece of media to use the word “gay” to mean homosexual rather than happy and festive.
Llewelyn Moss and his wife live humbly in a trailer in southern Texas. Trying to hunt some pronghorns for dinner, Moss stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong, complete with a suitcase containing $2 Million. Unbeknownst to Moss, the Texas mob hires Anton Chigurh, a hitman with a quirky yet inflexible set of morals, to get the money back. Unbeknownst to either party, aging sheriff Ed Bell is tracking both of them down to stop the source of evil and corruption infecting his community. Everyone’s goals are within their reach, but the true price of obtaining what each one wants is higher than many are willing to pay.
As has been well established on this blog, I love crime (movies). Watching Batman when I was a kid rushing home after school probably had nothing to do with it. Just as some folks can’t resist a good revenge tale, I could infinitely watch good people on the run from an unstoppable villain because they did one bad thing.
Something not-so-well established on this blog is my love for the Coen Brothers. Their quirky, downright surreal morality tales awaken my inner Sunday-School child—the one who loved bizarre biblical characters and thirsted for bloodshed. (Yes, Pharaoh’s army, go into the red sea, everything will be FINE…bwahahahaha!)
Though No Country was far from my first Coen film, watching Anton Chigurh pull Terminator-style recoveries while waxing philosophical electrified me. The Southern-fried setting adds delicious irony to each supposedly righteous character, blissfully unaware of how elemental the forces are against them. In a twisted way, I get a kick out of seeing morally flexible people who justify their harmful decisions get consumed by the gaping black maw of evil. This film presents a twisted world, though, so maybe I fit right in.
Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, are private investigators who receive a plea for help from Ruth Wonderly. She’s looking for a man named Thursby, so Miles agrees to find him. Sam is awakened that night to news that both Miles and Thursby have been killed. The police believe Sam killed Thursby as revenge for Miles’ death, so Sam hunts down Ms. Wonderly to learn the truth.
There, Sam discovers that Ms. Wonderly and Thursby were part of a treasure-hunting team looking for The Maltese Falcon, a golden bird encrusted with jewels. They, along with several other parties, believe the bird will arrive tomorrow in San Fransisco. If Sam is ever to clear his name and get justice for his dead partner, he’ll have to gather all the players together, then steal the treasure for himself!
Again with the Batman influence! This pulp classic not only perfected a ton of character tropes that I adore—the hard-boiled P.I., the secretary that’s sharper than the main character, idiosyncratic villains and henchmen, femme fatales—it suggests a world much larger than it actually shows. Shootings and globe-trotting chases happen off-screen while the main character has to constantly play catch up because he’s been drugged. Normally, I detest shortcuts such as these; why tell us when you could show us what happened? The Maltese Falcon, however, is about character interaction, the lies or half-truths that other characters may or may not believe. Matches of gamesmanship transfer between an odd glance or delivery of a line, delivering a tiramisu of treachery.
Fascinatingly, Falcon reveals myriad more layers of additional complexity when viewed through LGBT+ film theory. (I swear I’m not including this just for pride month; my trend-chasing post comes next week!) Peter Lorre’s character, Joel Cairo, is coded gay, though with as much subtlety as a gangster demanding protection money. While Sam Spade’s repeated hostility and abuse shown towards that character can be shallowly read as hyper-masculine homophobia, Sam is actually hateful towards this character’s participation in homosexual clichés.
That’s because Sam himself is bisexual, obsessed with his “partner,” even to the point of sleeping with Miles’ widow. Though Sam flirts with Ms. Wonderly and clearly has an ongoing affair with Ms. Archer, he keeps his female relationships cold, or, in the case of his secretary, sibling-like.
Additionally interesting is the villain, Mr. Gutman. Gluttonous, yet mentoring, his attitude towards Joel Cairo and a young, hot-headed thug (who Sam calls a “gunsel,” which refers to a hired gun, but has a double meaning as an inexperienced homosexual) is that of a hedonistic collector, hoping to add as many jewels to his repertoire as possible. Each member of Gutman’s crew tries to convince Spade to “join their team.”
Therefore, many theorists—I among them—have posited that Sam Spade is The Maltese Falcon. He is “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Sam just wants Miles back, though.
Luke Skywalker is a bratty farm boy who lives with his aunt and uncle on a desert planet named Tatooine. His uncle tasks Luke with buying two androids, cleaning them, then driving them into town to get serviced. Unable to even handle that, Luke tinkers with the droids as he’s cleaning them and finds a recording from a beautiful, hamburger-bun coiffed princess. She is desperate to stop the supposedly tyrannical Galactic Empire from building a planet-destroying space station called the Death Star, needed to keep order for precisely this reason.
Luke believes the message is meant for a local hermit named Ben Kenobi. In a horrific twist, Ben reveals himself to be the radical fugitive Obi-Wan Kenobi, war criminal and member of the extinct monk-warrior extremists known as the Jedi. While The Empire is able to track and neutralize the threat of Luke’s family, Obi-Wan and Luke escape with the goal of freeing the princess and joining the rebellion, a small group of power-hungry planets bent on maintaining their minority rule after our dearest leader Palpatine wisely disbanded the galactic senate, streamlining an outmoded governmental system. Luke then proceeds to be further radicalized by a fringe religious order, maiming and shooting anyone in his way, eventually slaughtering millions of working-class citizens by exploiting a flaw left by traitorous scum (this message brought to you by citizens for Sith, wishing you a more Imperial tomorrow).
Batman taught me to love pulp fiction. Pokémon taught me to love Japanese culture. Star Wars taught me to love science fiction. Unknowingly, Star Wars hooked me into sci-fi because it incorporated pulp and Japanese culture.
As mentioned on this blog before, a fun game for film historians to play is to trace the zig-zagging echoes of American film’s influence on Japanese media, then Japanese media on American film. The Western genre inspired great Japanese artists, specifically Akira Kurosawa, to include guns in their samurai epics. Sergio Leone then famously ripped off Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo, retitling it A Fistful of Dollars, skyrocketing Clint Eastwood’s career in the process. Fistful, therefore, is a quintessential example of the “Eastern Western.”
Adding a layer to the weirdness is Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, about two moronic thieves that must help a princess and a semi-retired ronin get stolen battle plans back to her home country. On their heels is a terrifying samurai who serves an evil Shogun. Sound familiar? That’s because George Lucas (with permission, unlike Leone) lifted Fortress’s storyline and put it in space. Darth Vader’s helmet is clearly molded after the traditional samurai riding headpiece, and light sabers are space-laser versions of katanas. Hence, Star Wars is considered a “Western Eastern…IN SPACE!”
Why does this byzantine history lesson make Star Wars one of my favorite movies? A New Hope honors and builds upon what has come before, then elevates the material into something wildly original—specifically adding a sense of wonder for the viewer.
Yes, storytelling is the backbone of film, and a good film needs a good story, well told. What takes a film from good to unforgettable, however, is spectacle—something the audience has never seen before. Star Wars: A New Hope has that in spades, then daringly muddies the moral waters, offering no easy answers in The Empire Strikes Back. Empire has one hell of a downer ending, but never loses its sense of wonder or hope. It’s a dangerous concoction, often repeated and failed (even by later Star Wars films), but, when it works, it’s sublime.
Cobb is an extractor, a dream thief who makes mazes inside other people’s minds as they sleep so that he can steal corporate information. He and his wife, Mal, used to be masters of this craft, but Cobb accidentally got too deep into a target’s subconscious. To get out into the real world, Cobb had to violate the number one rule of his trade. As a result, he had to leave his children and flee the country. Furious, Mal sabotages Cobb’s designs, ruining his reputation and fraying his sanity.
To find salvation, Cobb accepts a dangerous gig from Saito, a conglomerate head so powerful that he could clear Cobb’s name and arrange the return of Cobb’s children. The dangerous gig lives up to its name and threatens not only to kill Cobb and his team, but also destroy their minds.
Pulpy narrative? Check! Japanese culture obsession? Check! Sci-fi? Check! Twisted morality warnings? Check! Hijinks galore? Check! Wonder and spectacle laid on top of a beautiful narrative? Check!
Inception has everything already mentioned in this list, so what made this movie my number one? Timing. This film was released my junior year of college, a time when I was a filmmaker discovering my own voice yet discouraged because I’d been pumped full of cream-of-the-crop movies from the past while observing the industry shift to derivative, franchise-driven content.
Then Inception, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight, came. Inception was intricately constructed, yet mind-bendingly new (to those who weren’t familiar with Satoshi Kon, anyway). A smart, original blockbuster with an auteur fingerprint that grossed almost $1 Billion—Inception restored my young hope for the future. It also helped me define my voice. I watched that film four times in the theaters, each time saying to myself at the end, “I want to make a movie like that.”
These are my favorite films. As I wrote about them, patterns of my taste and the elements I value in film revealed themselves to me and, now, to you. Once again, favoritism is uneven, subjective, and sometimes hypocritical. I treasure these movies, though, as I’m sure you have your own. If you haven’t seen these, I implore you to watch them and hope you have a similar experience to mine. Otherwise, let me know why these didn’t work their magic for you, why they did, or what your favorite is.
The 400 Blows: Leftover from both January and April’s themes
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg: Leftover from April and September’s themes
Blow Out: Leftover from August’s theme
Why are PG Rated Movies from the ’70s and ’80s So Graphic? A “Why Does Hollywood?” Post/Oblogatory Deep Dive
Why Aren’t There More Family Sitcoms Nowadays? A “Why Does Hollywood?” Post
Adventure Time: Partially Obligatory
Why do European movies look different than American ones? A “Why Does Hollywood?” Post
Obligatory Animated Viewing from 2023
Obligatory Live-Action Viewing from 2023
Rocky: Yo, Adrian!
Midnight Cowboy: Hey, I’m Walkin’ Here!
Road House: Pain Don’t Hurt…
The Big Sleep: “You’re Cute.” “Gettin’ Cuter Every Minute.”