by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Part 4 of a 5-part series counting down the list of my 100 favorite movies of all time. I started to run off at the mouth the closer I got to #1, so the top 10 will get their own post. Let’s get started:
25. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) – One of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction is anything to do with a post-apocalyptic Earth, or an Earth approaching some kind of apocalypse. Children of Men, from visionary director Alfonso Cuarón, uses an ingenious plot device of sudden female infertility to depict a near-future global society facing extinction within a generation. This plunges our hero, Theo, into a conspiracy surrounding an explosive secret and those who will kill to keep it. Cuarón uses subtle CGI effects to show the viewer some advanced everyday technology, and to present three astounding long-take tracking shots where the camera placement sometimes appears physically impossible. This clinical description does the movie no justice. It’s full of ideas, questions to ponder, and gorgeous imagery. It’s one of the finest science-fiction films of the first half of our young century.
24. WALL*E (2008) – …and speaking of great science-fiction films of our century… Pixar hit yet another home run with this sci-fi comedy about a diminutive robot, designed to clean up Earth’s trash, who busily goes about his duties even though no humans remain. They have long since vanished, some 700 years earlier, from the face of their terminally polluted planet. And when a strange spaceship unexpectedly lands nearby one day…well, on the off-off chance you’ve never seen it, I’ll stop there. As is nearly always the case with Pixar, the visual splendor and detail are complemented by adorable characters and a plot that is much more than just a clothesline on which to hang those characters. I watched it recently, having not seen it in quite some time, and I had forgotten some of the little story details. When Wall*E forsakes his own welfare in favor of the “directive”…I gotta tell ya, I got a tiny bit choked up. This may be Pixar’s crowning achievement. When they make a movie better than this one, I’ll let you know.
23. THE EXORCIST (1973) – I have been seeing more and more pundits and “Greatest Movies” lists that cite Rosemary’s Baby as the scariest movie ever made. I have seen Rosemary’s Baby, and I’m here to tell you: Rosemary’s Baby is to The Exorcist as Alfalfa from the Little Rascals is to Henry Cavill. The Exorcist is flat out the scariest movie I have ever seen. Yes, scarier than The Descent, The Babadook, Hereditary, Alien, Jaws, all of them. The reason is only partially due to the subject matter, regarding a little girl who seems to be possessed by an unspeakably evil spirit and the priest who must wrestle with the demon while wrestling with his own self-doubts. The other reason The Exorcist is so effective is director William Friedkin’s decision to shoot the scariest scenes almost as if a documentary crew were filming it spontaneously. It’s hard to put into words, but it makes those scenes feel so real, it becomes almost disturbing to watch. Even now, after having watched it multiple times, those initial scenes where Regan’s possession really takes hold are still capable of making me wince. (And to those who might still decry the movie on religious grounds, I would invite them to actually watch the movie and see WHO ACTUALLY WINS.)
22. PROMETHEUS (2012) – During the Covid lockdown, I found myself watching certain films over and over again: Interstellar, Arrival, The Martian, and a few others. One of those films (which is still on heavy rotation) was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-anticipated prequel to his landmark 1979 film, Alien. I won’t say Prometheus is a perfect film. (There’s only one of those, as you’ll see.) But I will say it’s that rare breed of sci-fi horror that delivers on just about every level. Terror: this will scare the bejeebers out of you, full stop. Visual: Prometheus boasts some of the very best visual effects, practical and CGI, I’ve ever seen. Intellectual: not content with just frightening the hell out of the audience, Prometheus tackles the greatest questions of our existence. Are we here for a reason? If something or someone out there created us…why? And who created THEM? And how great a role should one’s spiritual belief play in seeking the answer to that question? Improbably, all those elements blend together in a supremely re-watchable movie experience. Best prequel ever? It’s certainly in the top three.
21. THE LAST EMPEROR (Great Britain, 1987) – Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece is a glittering example of one of my favorite kinds of dramas: an intimate examination of one person’s life against an epic background. And it doesn’t get much more epic than China in the last years of its imperial glory in the early-to-mid-1900s. Depicting the life of Pu Yi, the titular emperor, from the age of 2 until his death, The Last Emperor miraculously gained permission to shoot inside the fabulous Forbidden City in Beijing, the first Western film to do so. As a result, Pu Yi’s day-to-day life as a revered, but essentially powerless, figurehead gains enormous impact from such a massive, exotic backdrop. But the spectacle would be meaningless without its heart, the story of this poor child, raised to be a ruler, then cast out to fend for himself in a world he has never experienced, and which is about to undergo massive changes. Others may complain about this movie’s length, but I find it mesmerizing every time I watch…it’s like falling into a favorite book. But like a really THICK book.
20. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) – This is another film that was in HEAVY rotation during Covid lockdown. It’s a sequel that I never knew I wanted, that I never thought could work, but director Denis Villeneuve succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. In a future Los Angeles that looks just as bleak as the one from the original Blade Runner (yet still paradoxically beautiful), new versions of replicants who can’t disobey are used as blade runners themselves to hunt down older renegade replicants. One such cop makes a world-shattering discovery that will lead him to track down the one person who might be able to tell him if he was made…or born. Filled with the kinds of trademark visuals for which Villeneuve has become justly famous (look at 2021’s Dune) and aided by a terrific story that meshes with the first movie as neatly as you please, Blade Runner 2049 is a sensory and cerebral delight that rewards repeat viewings as much as the original Blade Runner did…and does.
19. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) – I was six years old when this movie came out. I didn’t get a chance to see it in theaters, but I remember watching it for the first time when it was aired as an ABC Sunday Night Movie. It was three hours long, so I had to ask Mami and Papi for permission to watch the whole thing. And, man…talk about having your mind blown. I mean, Star Wars had done pretty much the same thing a year earlier, but there was, and is, something about Close Encounters that reaches something primal in my heart and soul. Sure, I was terrified by Barry’s abduction – who wouldn’t be! – but the concept of UFOs coming to Earth and communicating with something as universal as music, and the look of those ships, and that enormous mothership…man, there were times I really wanted to be Roy Neary. I TOTALLY would have jumped aboard in my school days. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is my absolute favorite sci-fi film of all time.
18. PARASITE (South Korea, 2019) – Parasite may be the greatest “head-fake” in modern film history, at least as of the end of 2022. What starts as a social comedy/satire about class divisions in modern society becomes…well, it’s still a comedy/satire, but to say it suddenly goes in a different direction is putting it mildly. Describing the plot would be pointless, as half of the enjoyment of the film is delighting in the U-turn it executes at a crucial moment. Don’t be put off by the subtitles (this is a South Korean film…the first foreign film, in fact, to win both Best Foreign Film AND Best Picture at the Oscars that year). If anything, the subtitles serve the story by making it feel more like an anime film, which it sort of resembles in the last half. This is yet another movie that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved. (I mean…there are no blonde bombshells, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.)
17/16. THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974) and THE GODFATHER (1972) – Probably the greatest double-act in movie history. [I am compelled to acknowledge the existence of The Godfather: Part III (1990) as the concluding chapter of the Corleone saga, but I don’t have to like it.] Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s massive bestsellers tells the story of one of the most paradoxical characters in filmdom: Michael Corleone, a passionate family man who mistakenly believes that love for his family is equal to the ruthlessness with which he pursues wealth and power. The first film is notable for, among MANY other things, Marlon Brando’s iconic performance as Michael’s father, Don Vito Corleone, stuffed jowls and all, but look at the movies as a whole, and it’s clearly Michael’s story. Godfather II is even more ambitious, combining Michael’s rise in the world of organized crime with a flashback to Vito Corleone’s origins in Little Italy. Made at the height of Hollywood’s second Golden Age, The Godfather I and II are manifestly well-acted and directed, but they also look phenomenal, with opulent set design and costumes supplemented by Gordon Willis’s legendary cinematography which took advantage of natural lighting and shadows, and which earned him the nickname, “The Prince of Darkness.” Combining my favorite sub-genre of drama (Life-of-a-Man-Against-Epic-Backdrop) with gorgeous visuals and expert storytelling, The Godfather I and II are my favorite crime dramas of all time.
15. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) – The next time someone says, “All remakes are garbage,” remind them that the greatest action thriller of all time was conceived as a tribute to the old Republic action serials from the 1930s and ‘40s, which thrilled Steven Spielberg as a child. In what may be the best-ever example of putting old wine in a new bottle, Raiders of the Lost Ark took ancient action tropes and gussied them up with the best VFX money could buy and, as a bonus, created one of the most enduring action heroes ever. Careening from booby-trapped caves in South America to the most isolated tavern in Nepal to a Nazi archaeological dig in Egypt, Raiders is a shining example of Howard Hawks’ legendary definition of what makes a good movie: Three good scenes and no bad ones. Pretty much ALL of the scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark are good ones, so…mission accomplished.
14. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (2003) – I don’t do much channel-surfing anymore, but I can absolutely guarantee you that if I were to channel-surf, and I came upon this movie, at virtually any point in its running time, I would stop and watch to the end. There has always been something compelling or hypnotic or SOMETHING about Peter Weir’s movies that tend to make me stop and stare (apologies to OneRepublic), and this movie is no exception. Adapted from a popular series of novels, unread by me, Master and Commander follows Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his crew aboard the sailing warship HMS Surprise during the Napoleonic Wars. Tasked with sinking a French privateer, Lucky Jack pushes his crew, his ship, and his close personal friendship with the ship’s doctor to their limits. No movie I’ve ever seen has depicted life aboard a sailing ship with such detail and, during battle, such a potent combination of excitement and fear. All due respect to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but I can’t think of any other film that has come close to the convincing reality on display in this, one of Peter Weir’s best films.
13. CLOUD ATLAS (2012) – This one was a surprise for me. I went into Cloud Atlas with moderate expectations because the Wachowskis had not had a hit since the Matrix franchise ended nearly 10 years earlier. To say my mind was blown is an understatement. In an editing feat rivaled only by that in Everything Everywhere All at Once, Cloud Atlas connects six similar, yet vastly different storylines separated by decades or centuries starting in 1849 and stretching to a post-apocalyptic 2321. Any further explanation of the plot would require a full review – which, conveniently enough, can be found here: https://2unpaidmoviecritics.com/2021/11/27/cloud-atlas-2012/. Cloud Atlas reached into my soul and became something that transcended itself and became more than just a movie-watching experience. I know that sounds sappy and woo-woo and cliched, but it’s true. I found myself asking the kinds of questions that belong in a philosophy class, or at a Starbucks coffee klatch, or in bed at night contemplating life, the universe, and everything. That doesn’t happen to me very often, so when a film brings that kind of thinking to the forefront, I don’t take it lightly.
12. PAN’S LABYRINTH (Mexico, 2006) – Hands down my favorite foreign language film of all time. Director Guillermo del Toro may have finally won his Oscar for The Shape of Water (2017), but Pan’s Labyrinth will stand as the pinnacle of his career until something better comes along. Telling an even darker and more suspenseful version of Alice in Wonderland than the one in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth spins a fantasy tale rooted in the real world: in Spain, an 11-year-old girl and her pregnant mother move to the countryside to be with her new stepfather, a sadistic captain in Francisco Franco’s army. One night, at the center of a crumbling labyrinth behind her house, she meets a friendly but menacing-looking faun who assigns her with three tasks…and more than that I shall not say. According to del Toro, the making of this movie nearly killed him, but the results were worth it. I like to think of it as the best Stephen King story that Stephen King never wrote. And I’m talking about vintage King, the good stuff. (And by the way…the “Pale Man” is one of the most flat-out horrifying fantasy creatures ever created.) Some of the more gruesome and sadistic material is understandably hard to stomach, but it’s all worth it for that majestic final sequence that, under the right circumstances, will get me choked up.
11. THE RED SHOES (Great Britain, 1948) – Some of my love for this film has to do with the unexpected nature of the ending, but mostly it’s because it’s one of the most beautiful movies ever made, and it’s one of the greatest backstage movies I’ve ever seen. Granted, it’s all about ballet, but I love, love, LOVE the various rehearsal scenes showing the orchestra getting notes from the composer/conductor, the dancers being put through their paces, and so on. The first time I saw it, I had not yet seen many films that showed the nitty-gritty of the rehearsal process, and I found it oddly thrilling. That’s not truly the point of the film, but those are the kinds of details that make it great. The main story is a tale as old as time, where an aspiring ballet dancer meets an impresario who offers to make her a star…but only at the expense of her personal life, for how else can one achieve, not just fame, but GLORY, without leaving something behind? The centerpiece of the film is a 15-minute sequence depicting a ballet scene in which the ballet dancer performs on stage, then slowly moves into fantasy where her passions and her fears threaten to overwhelm her. It’s literally impossible to describe in words; you should see it for yourself. [This would make an interesting “contrast-and-compare” double-feature with Black Swan (2010).]