As you may have gathered from the lack of content, this is a new blog. I’m eager to start things off fast and get right into a routine of covering a variety of aspects of the film world. But I also don’t want to rush you. We’re still in the ‘getting to know you’ stage of our relationship. I’ve hardly given you enough information to decide if this is a blog you could see yourself growing old with. So what better way to break the ice than by sharing my favourite films of all time?
My favourite movies say a lot about me. What they say, I’m not sure nor do I truly want to know. But these are the movies that have helped to shape me in some small way and informed my tastes. Any piece of work that I create on my own owes something to these movies, and while my list often shifts here and there, in this moment these 15 films are the best in my mind.
15. The Last Waltz
The greatest movie about rock ever made. Martin Scorsese, one of Hollywood’s most infamous music-lovers, chronicled the farewell concert of The Band during the height of their talents. Not much in the way of exploring the group itself, Scorsese is more inclined to let the music do the talking, and we’re treated to so truly electrifying performances. On every new viewing, I’m amazed at how much fire is still there. Every vocal performance from Levon Helm still explodes off the screen, every technical mishap is still charming, I’ve even grown fond of Neil Diamond’s out-of-place appearance.
Of course, the film comes with a lot of baggage, and as a look at The Band it’s a complete failure. What the film fails to mention is that guitarist Robbie Robertson strong-armed his bandmates into retirement and the documentary, which paints him as the leader, was his idea. Scorsese shares a lot of the blame as anyone who knew The Band at all would have understood they are uniquely leaderless. But all that nastiness actually makes me appreciate the film even more. I now see the tension, the look of betrayal on Helm’s face, and it becomes a bittersweet goodbye. Yet as misrepresented as they are, when The Band is on stage, Robertson nor Scorsese can’t hide the collaborative genius at work.
While still very new, once I saw this film I knew it was staying with me. It’s not often I see a movie so bold. I don’t just mean the subject matter of the film, but more in its restraint. This film stands apart because it could have so easily been “any other movie”. In any other movie, we would have gotten the scene with a priest and a victim. In any other movie, the investigating team would have been cut down to two people instead of four. In any other movie, the reveal that Michael Keaton’s character buried the story years ago would be a “surprise villain” shocker instead of a poignant human moment. The film has the courage to let the story tell itself without pandering. It’s refreshing.
Tom McCarthy, in both his direction and his script (co-written by Josh Singer), plays it conservative to amazing effect. This is not a flashy picture by any means, but instead goes for sharp dialogue scenes and thriller-level pacing. That’s not to say the film doesn’t carry a wallop with it. There are scenes that will make you gasp even if you already knew the story going in—a telltale sign of a good fact-based film. On a more personal note, the film succeeds in the complicated task of articulating exactly what it felt like to be a Catholic at this time; angry about hypocrisy, horrified by the crimes, and an uneasy guilt by association.
13. Four Lions
When I heard of a comedy about wannabe suicide bombers, I had probably the same reaction you did to reading that sentence; cheap, tasteless shock value. That’s a big part of the reason so few people saw Four Lions coming. The film tackles subject matter that would seem impossible to wring a laugh out of and produces one of the funniest films you’ll ever see. Honestly, the performances and the absurdity of it all will have you forgetting you shouldn’t be laughing at stuff like this.
As a statement on this heavy subject, the film wisely goes for the simple yet cutting commentary. This is not a story of radical religious thinkers and a debate on the merits of their own religion versus others, it’s a story about idiots who don’t know what they’re fighting for. Their blind trust and devotion to something they can’t quite understand is actually a fairly truthful look at radicals. But again, the film knows what it is and it is a comedy through and through. I didn’t leave the film with a changed opinion, but rather a question; would there be less religious-incited violence if more people were willing to admit they don’t really see the big picture?
12. Dazed and Confused
There has never been a more perfect hang-out movie to date. Unlike most high school party movies, Richard Linklater’s tale of young indulgence isn’t on a mission to get laughs, but rather to capture a certain feeling. And I’m not talking about the 70s setting. Dazed and Confused isn’t looked at as a piece of nostalgia by baby boomers, it was embraced by a much younger generation who recognized and experienced many such nights as this.
The last day of school adventure is a new take on American Graffiti with less purpose (totally intentional). Linklater isn’t asking us to sympathize with these characters or care about their journey, he just wants us to say “Oh yeah, I know a guy exactly like that”. That’s part of the great magic of this film; instant familiarity even on your first viewing. It’s so fun to watch these people hangout together that whenever I rewatch it, it feels like I’m catching up with old friends.
11. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
I got to this film much later in life than I’d like to admit, and yet I always knew I would love the hell out of it once I finally did see it. High expectations for any film but it pulled it off effortlessly. And that’s the best word I could use to describe this film, “effortless”. We all know to make something look easy takes a lot of hard work, but that’s the feeling that permeates through the whole thing. Redford and Newman find such perfect chemistry and make us love these guys as soon as we meet them. The script is so light and smooth in its journey. And that music will put a big goddamn smile on your face.
As a Western, I think it did a lot to break the mold of the tired genre. It’s funnier than any Western ever tried to be, happier than any Western tried to be, and allowed the heroes to drift away from that John Wayne crap. Back in the day, Roger Ebert criticized the movie for not wanting to admit it was a Western, but really it just didn’t want to be “their” Western. The hats and horses are them admitting it’s a Western, the rest is the film showing us what else it can be.
10. Out of Sight
So, I dabble in writing myself. I know, I know, an aspiring screenwriter starts a blog to criticize those who actually made a career out of it, very unique. But I bring it up because it pertains to this particular entry. No writer has influenced my work more than Elmore Leonard. His funny yet real take on both sides of crime is always a breath of fresh air. I think he deserves a lot of credit for how fine a film, this adaption turned out to be. His witty dialogue and colourful characters give any filmmaker a lot of ammunition before cameras even start to role.
Of course, Steven Soderbergh, the man behind the camera deserves a heap of praise, too. He infuses the whole thing with a slick and sexy coolness that doesn’t get in the way of some of the silliness of Leonard’s world. And the cast is stacked with knock-outs. This remains the perfect role for Jennifer Lopez and, while George Clooney may have always been destined for success, I argue without this role he would never have been the epitome of cool he is today. But with all the praise I could throw, I always come back for Don Cheadle, playing a terrifyingly violent man who doesn’t realize he’s punching above his weight in the crime world.
For all the crimes Scorsese is guilty of with The Last Waltz, he is forgiven with Goodfellas. As a filmmaker, he’s always been fascinated with sinners and none of his films have better explored the reason why. You cannot have sinners without seduction, the type of seduction that leads one to a life of crime. I’m always amazed at how expertly the film tricks you into going on the exact same journey as Henry Hill. We’re introduced to this exciting, intoxicating world and even though the violence scares us, we want to stay there. It’s not until this world begins to crash down on Henry that we remember the ugliness of it.
Stylistically, Scorsese is having a field day with this one. I rank it as highly as Citizen Kane for it’s sheer ability to imprint distinct shots and frames in your mind for years. And, no, it’s not style for style’s sake, it’s storytelling in itself. The dizzying excitement of the long-take restaurant entrance, the whallop of Tommy’s death, the mayhem of Henry’s cocaine-fueled paranoia—we feel it all thanks to the editing and direction. It’s a rough-and-tumble marathon of a film that seems over far too quickly.
8. The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson emerged as a filmmaker with a vision all his own, but this was the film where we saw what that vision could birth. There are so many dysfunctional family comedies with everyone forced under one roof to confront each other’s insecurities and quirks. What rises this above the rest is the strength of the characters Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson created. Each of these unusual individuals lives in their own strange shell and during those rare moments when they emerge, they break your goddamn heart.
In the character of Royal Tenenbaum, Anderson perfected that protagonist he still seems to be hunting after; the hard-headed anti-hero with more pride than good sense. Hackman plays the role beautifully and the rest of the cast fit just as well into the difficult storybook reality that Anderson creates. In the end despite yourself and their problems, you fall in love with the Tenenbaums.
7. Die Hard
There is no film I have watched more times than John McTiernan’s much-imitated action thriller. I’ve lost count of the exact number of viewings but I do remember first seeing it as a young (probably too young) boy and being electrified by the whole show. There’s too much I love about this film to describe in a discernable way, so allow me to ramble for a bit. Brice Willis introduced a new action hero, one who gets hurt, gets scared and is a bit unhinged himself. The violence is extreme but thrilling and staged to perfection. The score is pure 80s action greatness. The holiday setting is inspired and supplies a surprising amount of fun. McTiernan is a master at tension. And Alan Rickman created a villain who mixes the charm and sophistication of a Bond villain with some strangely admirable practicality. He’s the true star of the show.
Now after seeing it so many times, the cracks do show a little more. The cheese is a product of its time and the recent sequels have begun to sour the milk, but this stands as the pinnacle of the action thriller genre.
In lesser hands, yet capable hands, Jaws could have become a classic of just one genre. Gone down through the ages as a fine horror film. I don’t know too many people willing to pigeon-hole this film in such confined terms. And that’s because Spielberg makes it a bigger and better picture than it has any right to be. The screenplay is exceptional, but you can feel that now trademark Spielberg tinkering, making it a story about family, an adventure, a small-town tale, and yes, a terrifying thrill ride.
Much has been said about Spielberg’s ingenious use of the shark, making us fear what we can’t see, so I won’t add anymore than necessary to the conversation. What I will say is that Spielberg and all those who contributed to the atmosphere of the film succeeded I creating the greatest movie villain. In every frame of the film, you feel that shark circling the island waiting for its next meal.
5. No Country for Old Men
The Coen Brothers sit just below Elmore Leonard on the list of my greatest influences in terms of writing. Ironically, this film being one of their greatest works, owes much of the credit to another writer, Cormac McCarthy. It’s impressive how well his prose fits the sensibilities of the Coens. The characters and the dialogue is right at home in the rest of their filmography. It’s the bleak atmosphere that sets it apart.
The violence throughout is so impactful and the Coens don’t let you off easy, focusing on the carnage for an uncomfortably long time. And when you think the bleakness will let up, we get the shot of Llewelyn dead on the motel room floor. This marks what I think is one of the best and most effective third acts of all time. The more I watch it, the more my heart breaks for the Sheriff Bell character, and his desperate yet futile attempt to understand the world he’s trying to police. It’s a beautiful tale of bad decisions, the consequences of them, and the people caught in the middle. And Javier Bardem is pretty good too, I guess.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
Like Spotlight, this is a relatively new film to be hitting my best of all time list, let alone ranking so high. But then again, a movie like Fury Road doesn’t come along too often. In fact, this was a movie that was so unexpectedly unique that I didn’t fall in love with it right away. I honestly felt bulled over by the film on my first viewing. It sets a full throttle pace and doesn’t check to see if you’re keeping up.
Truly, this movie was a surprise. Not just for the long-gone franchise it belongs to, but the action genre. Not to disparage today’s CG-filled action films, of which I love many, but I didn’t know we were allowed to have films like Fury Road. Who knew such amazing film moments were just trapped inside George Miller’s head, waiting for him to make them reality?
It’s amazing how a film that puts so much into the action achieves so much in other facets of the film. Miller is so effective at establishing the world and builds compelling characters with little dialogue or exposition. All of it helps to shape a thrill ride that cements a new cinematic milestone.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Spielberg has made a career out of making dreams into films, and this one in particular seems like his own personal dream come true. The tale goes that Spielberg wanted to do a Bond film, but friend George Lucas persuaded him to bring their own original globe-trotting hero to life. The result is an infinitely cooler and more interesting character than Bond. He’s smart, he still gets the girl and he beats up Nazis. Tell me this wasn’t Spielberg’s dream come true.
The pulpy, Saturday morning serial feel of the film does it a lot of favours. It really feels taken out of a by-gone era and helps add to the film’s fun energy. It’s silly at times, frightening at others, but never loses sight of being just a big rolling ball of fun. With absolutely no ego in sight, Ford made Indy a hero we love even when he’s losing. I believe in all honesty that based on what this movie makes us feel for Indy, they created the greatest cinematic character of all time.
Does the film have a lot of substance to it? No, but when you’re the most fun film ever made, you can get away with a lot.
2. The Guard
These days, it’s increasingly hard to go into a movie blind, especially if you stay as connected to the film world as I do. That rare experience was how I saw The Guard for the first time. I was drawn to it simply my affection for Brendan Gleeson and was curious about writer-director John Michael McDonagh, since I was a fan of his brother, Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths). The result, I was utterly charmed by this little Irish caper and immediately wanted to watch it again. And I have revisited a number of times, and it holds up so well. That comes down to the talent of McDonagh. Few things please me more than a writer who loves dialogue, and McDonagh has a ball with his. It’s so playful and colourful, like listening to a favourite song over and over.
Aside from the dialogue, I fell in love with the character of Gerry Boyle, brought to life with equal shares from McDonagh and Gleeson. As a large, stoic character actor, Gleeson rarely gets a chance to be as light as this and he is charming as hell in the role. It’s a unique take on the world-weary cop trope, where instead of being “grumble-grumble” and drinking hard liquor to forget his past, he’s in more of the “fuck it” stage of his life. He’s really just a guy bouncing from pleasure to pleasure and occasionally bumping up against his conscience along the way.
The plot, involving an arms deal, is surprisingly standard, playing like The French Connection if Popeye didn’t really care, but McDonagh’s writing, Gleeson’s performance and the sheer Irish charm of it all makes it a real gem.
1. Miller’s Crossing
A risk I ran while making this list was that it could very easily become a list of Coen Brothers films. There are at least five other films of theirs that could have easily been included, but this one always stands above the rest as their greatest work and the movie I admire most.
As I said before, No Country showcases the director Coens, but the writers in them shine through in this case. This script encompasses the two main things I think makes the Coens the greatest screenwriters of all time; dialogue and characters. Their dialogue is so distinct in the way it hits your ear. It’s like a very realistic speech but adapted to a world that isn’t quite like our own. Amazingly, they are able to transfer that distinct style into whatever story they’re telling. Hearing them make a meal out of the 30s gangster language just tickles me and engrosses me in the world. The characters are among the Coens’ finest. I love each and everyone of them for how rich they are. From Tommy who sits at the center of the whole thing, to a one-scene character like Mink, they all feel real and believable in this world.
As brilliant as I find the script, the movie just looks fantastic. The cinematography from Barry Sonnenfeld does so much for some very key sequences in the film. I have rarely seen cinematography add so much to the drama at hand. And of course, the stylish nature of the Coens is on glorious display. It’s astounding how they can go from a gripping set piece like the “Danny Boy” sequence to an absurd scene like Leo’s punch-up with Tommy without jarring the audience.
If any movie is the full package, it’s this one. A treat for the eyes and the ears, I admire every frame and every line, and can only hope there are some out there that enjoy as much as I always do.