by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Counting down my favorite 100 films of all time in answer to a challenge from Jim Johnson. Here’s part 3, numbers 50-26.
50. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) – Quentin Tarantino’s gleefully revisionist World War II revenge fantasy/thriller makes no claims at historical accuracy, except when it comes to popular German films in the 1940s. If you can accept that fact, then just sit back and bask in the non-stop pyrotechnics, both visual and verbal. ESPECIALLY verbal. The dialogue in this film rivals Pulp Fiction as some of the best QT has ever written. Christoph Waltz is a revelation as the main villain. And the finale will keep you laughing when you’re not gasping at the rampant violence. You know. Typical Tarantino stuff.
49. LOOK WHO’S BACK (Germany, 2015) – There are dark comedies and there are DARK comedies. Look Who’s Back is a DARK comedy about the completely unexplained materialization of Adolf Hitler in modern-day Germany. Think of the Sacha Baron Cohen comedies that film the main character interacting with real people, then imagine that the main character isn’t somebody who THINKS he’s Hitler, he IS Hitler. The comedy takes a dark turn as he suddenly becomes a media darling all over again and when the real people being filmed start agreeing with some of his policies. It’s been said that satire is impossible to define. Look Who’s Back comes pretty damn close.
48. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s ninth film is a lot like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: It’s big, bombastic, and goes the long way around the barn to get to the finale, but in the end it all comes together and becomes a transcendent experience. What had been reported in the trades as a movie about the Manson murders starts out as a Goodfellas-esque travelogue of late-sixties Hollywood, with Sharon Tate merely a bit player on the sidelines. The beauty of the film is how it involves you in the story of a fading star and his long-suffering stuntman while the terrible fact of what’s about to happen lurks in the background. Taken as a whole, it’s a love letter to “old” Hollywood with a middle finger to Manson and his cronies thrown in for good measure.
47. UP (2009) – A widowed senior citizen keeps a promise to his dead wife (shown in a heartbreaking prologue) by literally flying his house to South America using thousands and thousands of helium-filled balloons. Ridiculous, right? Did I mention the stowaway? And the dogs who can speak English through an electronic translator? And the mountain lair of a madman? How did this material work? I can’t explain it. I can only report that it’s one of the best animated films I’ve seen, with several emotional beats that rival anything in Terms of Endearment or any other classic “weepie.” Yet another triumph from Pixar.
46. THE IRON GIANT (1999) – Due to a horrible ad campaign that dumbed the material down to the level of an MTV video, this modern classic sank at the box office and vanished from memory except from the minds of its creators and the critics who praised it to no avail. Thankfully, it’s been rediscovered by a new generation of animation fans who recognize greatness when they see it. Brad Bird’s story of a giant metal robot stranded on Earth and befriended by a little boy has unavoidable similarities to Spielberg’s E.T., but it still feels brand new. And that ending still has the power to choke me up a little bit. “Superman…”
45. MATCH POINT (2005) – Call this the Woody Allen movie for people who hate Woody Allen movies. (Or just Woody Allen, for that matter.) In this loose adaptation of 1951’s A Place in the Sun, a struggling tennis pro falls in love with and marries the daughter of a wealthy family, but when his lust is triggered by an absurdly sexy Scarlett Johansson, he finds himself willing to do anything to be with her…as long as he doesn’t lose the affluence of his wife’s family. This starts out as a soapy drama, but it undergoes an astonishing makeover into an examination of how much our lives are governed, whether we like it or not, by pure chance or luck. If you can guess the twists in this film before they happen, you should be playing the lottery.
44. TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) – Taken on its own merits, To Be or Not to Be is one of the funniest comedies ever made. But also consider that, while it takes potshots at Nazi Germany and Hitler himself, the characters and the movie never let you forget there is real danger afoot. And also consider that this film was made and released just after America had entered World War 2. It would be akin to making and releasing a screwball comedy about Osama Bin Laden in January 2002. That extra level of subtext makes this original version of To Be or Not to Be one of my favorites of all time. (Don’t get me started on the Mel Brooks remake…God love Mel, but ugh.)
43. BREAKING THE WAVES (Denmark, 1996) – Lars von Trier is celebrated for his eclectic, taboo-breaking films, but I feel those attention-grabbing films tend to distract from what may be his greatest film, Breaking the Waves. The story focuses on a naïve young woman who marries a rough oil-rig worker. When the worker is paralyzed in an accident, he tells her to go out and have sex with other men and come back and tell him stories about her various trysts. Other reviews of this film seem to forget that he has a very good reason for doing this…but watch the movie and see what I mean. This is one of the most spiritual films I’ve ever seen. Not religious…SPIRITUAL. It’s transcendent.
42. PSYCHO (1960) – Every slasher movie from Halloween to the upcoming Scream VI can trace its point of origin back to Alfred Hitchcock’s most frightening film. By smashing traditional norms of Hollywood storytelling (wait – she’s DEAD??!!), Hitchcock not only breathed life (ironically) into the horror genre, but also put audience members on alert: even the stars can get killed, so check your expectations at the door. I still remember myself literally holding my breath as Lila walked down into that corn cellar… And if that final exposition-laden monologue at the end spells things out a little too clearly…well, when you consider the audience at the time, I give it a pass.
41. NOTORIOUS (1946) – Now THIS is Hitchcock’s true masterpiece. In a story generously “borrowed” from by John Woo’s Mission Impossible: II, a suave spy coerces the beautiful daughter of a jailed Nazi sympathizer to get chummy with one of her father’s friends in hopes of uncovering a plot involving…well, it’s one of Hitch’s famous MacGuffins, ‘nuff said. The clockwork script is one of the masterworks of the screenwriting form. And don’t forget that wowie-zowie tracking shot soaring from the top of a chandelier and ending on a close-up of a crucial key. If I say any more, I’ll give something away. Notorious is far and away my absolute favorite Hitchcock movie.
40. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999) – Remember what I said earlier about 1999 having a bumper crop? Here’s another case in point. Spike Jonze’s surreal serio-comic masterpiece has all the trappings of a rejected Twilight Zone episode, but somehow it manages to transcend its slapstick tendencies and becomes something incredibly insightful, asking unanswerable questions about what it truly means to be human. Or alive. I’m not doing it justice. Look, so this guy finds a portal on the 7th-and-a-half floor of a building, a portal that mysteriously carries you into the head of John Malkovich. You know, that guy who played a jewel thief in that one movie…?
39. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993) – In the annals of tragic romances, this one takes the cake for me. A no-nonsense butler and a slightly more impulsive head of housekeeping on a stately British manor, sometime before World War II, slowly bond, all appearances to the contrary. But the butler’s sense of duty to his master forces him to keep any ideas of romance at arm’s length. (There’s also a subplot about his boss being a Nazi sympathizer, necessary but sometimes distracting.) The emotional dance between Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson is powerful to behold; it reminds me of Lost in Translation in terms of paying attention, not to what is being said, but to what is being withheld. When that bus pulls away at the end, with someone weeping…I didn’t cry, but my heart broke all the same. The fact it won zero Oscars is astonishing.
38. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) – Hands down my favorite Woody Allen movie of all time. In classic fantasy fashion, Gil, a disaffected novelist in Paris with his fiancé, wanders the streets alone at night and inexplicably finds himself in the 1920s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, to name a few. As a fan of all things nostalgic, this is heaven for Gil…but when morning comes, he’s back in the present. The message of the film resonates with me: it’s easy to look back and say, “Those were the days.” But back then, those folks looked back even farther and said the same thing. Bottom line: our glory days weren’t 20 or 30 years ago. We’re in our glory days right now. (You know what, just click here to read my review: https://2unpaidmoviecritics.com/…/midnight-in-paris-2011/ )
37. CHINATOWN (1974) – One of the darkest film noirs ever made. I’m not talking about the scenery, which is mostly drenched in the stark sunlight of the California desert, but the material. A cut-rate private eye in 1937 Los Angeles stumbles backwards into a labyrinthine plot involving orange groves, water reservoirs, and “apple cores.” At the heart of the mystery is Evelyn, a cool-as-ice femme fatale with more than enough secrets of her own to power TWO movies. To describe the film’s ending as “fatalistic” does disservice to the word: it’s a f*****g DOWNER. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. A happy ending for this movie would have felt incredibly phony. (It’s been said the screenplay by Robert Towne is still used as an object lesson for screenwriting classes.)
36. NETWORK (1976) – Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient satire about the lengths to which a TV network will go to maintain a ratings hit doesn’t feel as satirical as it did 46 years ago. In a time when some evening news programs are little more than talk shows without the live audience, the “Howard Beale News Hour”, featuring psychics, gossip, and endless op-eds, feels less like satire and more like a documentary. But even if Network didn’t have that clairvoyant vibe, it would still be one of the funniest, most literate movies about the entertainment business since Sunset Blvd. Not to mention it’s only one of two films to win three of the four acting categories at the Oscars. Talk about a powerhouse.
35. SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927) – If you’ve never seen a classic silent drama before, this is the place to start. (I’d recommend Buster Keaton and/or Harold Lloyd for total rookies, but I digress…) F.W. Murnau’s powerful melodrama stirred my emotions like no other silent film has, before or since. I could cite the camera’s freedom of movement at a time when movie cameras weighed as much as a medium-sized horse. Or the liberal use of visual effects to convey the state of mind of the characters in ways that rendered dialogue pointless. Or the emotional power of the story about a married man driven to madness by a city woman of questionable morals, but who comes to his senses on the brink of murdering his wife. There’s more to it than that, of course, but the combination of story, technique, and direction makes for an unforgettable experience.
34. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT (France/Chile, 2010) – This one is going to be hard for me to pin down in a short paragraph. The subject matter and storytelling method combined to create one of the most sobering, most thought-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen. One half of the storyline involves Chilean women combing the Atacama Desert for the remains of loved ones who were “vanished” by Pinochet’s regime during the 1970s. The other half presents astronomers using powerful observatories in the same desert to probe the night sky for answers to the origins of our universe. How the two stories are linked, I leave for you to discover. This movie was made to inspire long talks around the water cooler.
33. BARAKA (1992) – This movie is the single best argument ever made for purchasing and owning a big-screen TV with a powerful sound system. A five-person crew shot footage on 70mm cameras in 24 countries across 6 continents for 14 months. The result is one of the most transcendent film experiences I’ve ever seen. With no dialogue and an ethereal musical score, the viewer is treated to some of the most fantastic images ever captured on film. The overall effect of the movie is one of overwhelming realization that we are all traveling together through space and time on a chunk of uniquely life-giving space rock. I’m not making sense. Just read my review: https://2unpaidmoviecritics.com/2021/11/26/baraka-1992/
32. PULP FICTION (1994) – Watching Pulp Fiction for the first time was like riding a brand-new rollercoaster at night wearing a blindfold. I had absolutely no idea where it was going, but I was having a blast getting there. Its influence on future generations and filmmakers is undeniable. Its non-linear structure confounded some viewers (including me) the first time around, but like taking a second look at a painting, everything comes together upon repeated viewings. The shocking violence, the salty language, the tracking shots, the faultless dialogue, the Gimp, the gold watch, the twist contest…I could go on and on. If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is QT’s equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth, Pulp Fiction is Beethoven’s Fifth. (If you’re not a fan of classical music, Wikipedia is your friend.)
31. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) – Followers of the Oscars (me included) have yet to forgive the Academy for not awarding Best Picture to this gritty, ultra-violent tribute to the soldiers of the “Greatest Generation” who landed at Normandy on D-Day. It’s yet another showcase of Spielberg’s mastery of the cinematic form, presenting stomach-churning tension and blood-soaked battle scenes in a way that still manages to entertain without cheapening the message. Saving Private Ryan can lay legitimate claim to being the best World War II movie ever made.
30. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) – Now, having SAID that…David Lean’s epic World War II adventure tale NARROWLY edges out Saving Private Ryan in my rankings for the same reason Jaws edges out Aliens: the earlier film accomplishes the same objectives as the newer film, but with fewer resources in the visual effects and technology department. In my eyes, they’re equals, but I must play by the rules, so…there you have it. Anyway, The Bridge on the River Kwai was one of the first epic “old” films I ever saw, along with Ben-Hur and West Side Story. I was stunned by the finale, which was edited so well it felt like a modern film, not a film from the classic era. (And yes, that was a real train on a real bridge over a real river.)
29. THE DEER HUNTER (1978) – The best movie about the Vietnam War I’ve ever seen. That’s right. I said it. Go ahead and list all the other greats in this sub-genre, but none of them cover all the emotional bases we see on display in The Deer Hunter. Director Michael Cimino’s masterwork gives us the home life of the soldier, the soldier in combat, and the soldier trying to assimilate back home, all in unsparing detail. History buffs deride the infamous Russian Roulette sequence, but I see it as a metaphor for the chances any combat soldier took on any given mission in that jungle. I could go on, but I won’t. Click here instead: https://2unpaidmoviecritics.com/…/18/the-deer-hunter-1978/
28. SPIRITED AWAY (2001) – Picking my favorite Miyazaki film was no chore at all. This was the first one of his films I had the opportunity to see on the big screen, and it was stunning. Still is. The story is basically Alice in Wonderland by way of Terry Gilliam: a young girl must figure out a way to restore her parents to human form (long story) by working for a powerful witch who runs a bathhouse for creatures from the spirit world. The various spirits and creatures who visit and inhabit this bathhouse run the gamut from little soot sprites to giant walking turnips to talking frogs to three disembodied heads. The whole movie is a riot of color and imagination…and about 99% hand-drawn, at a time when CGI had established itself as the new box-office king of animation. Miyazaki has created some amazing films, but Spirited Away set a bar that he has since approached, but never surpassed.
27. UNITED 93 (2006) – I can count on two or three fingers, depending on my mood, that can bring me to the verge of tears (or past it) every time I watch them. United 93 is at the top of that list. I was skeptical when I first heard about it, thinking it was still too soon for Hollywood to cash in on the story of that tragic day. But United 93 is not just a film. It’s a genuine tribute, starring a handful of people who were involved in the background, including Ben Sliney, the newly-hired Ops Manager of the FAA…September 11, 2001, was literally his first day on the job. The decision to shoot the movie in a semi-documentary style was inspired and is one of the reasons it’s able to pull me into the story every time. It feels immediate in a way that other films on the same subject have never been able to capture, and that’s why that final sequence brings me to tears every time. Any movie that can do that deserves a place on this list.
26. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) – Darren Aronofsky’s tour de force. Requiem for a Dream reaches a point where you want to look away, but you just can’t. There have been many movies about addiction, but I can’t think of any I’ve seen that put all the consequences on display like this movie does. Three connected storylines show the spiral from those initial highs down to the deepest lows…and then below that…and then below THAT. It’s wrenching and the ending is a downer, but it’s a visual feast. Aronofsky uses flawless editing to convey every character’s state of mind, especially when it comes to the mother and that refrigerator. Friends have asked me, “What’s the POINT of this depressing movie, and why do you love it so much???” The point of the movie, I guess, is to serve as a warning: anyone who has ever even considered doing hard drugs should be forced to watch this movie first. Why do I love it? Because it’s electrifying filmmaking, even considering the subject matter. But…maybe don’t watch it on an empty stomach.
…to be continued…