The rule is that there are no rules. The year, director, genre – nothing is of consequence, these are simply my favorite films of all time with brief explanations why. Thank you, as always and forever, for reading!
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh
You can cite Soderbergh’s Traffic as one of the main reasons I am so taken with films. Period. I first saw this masterpiece when I was 15 and it marked the first time I literally thought, Oh, okay, maybe I can do this.
Will I ever make a film as accomplished as this one? Ha, I should be so lucky. What I mean is that Traffic, with its digital photography, layered storytelling, purposeful coloring and naturalistic acting, is the film I was born to love. If I can ever have anything to do with a movie that moves me a fraction as much as the final two scenes of Traffic does, then I will have made it.
9. Deliverance (1972)
Dir. by John Boorman
Boorman’s Deliverance is the scariest film I’ve ever seen. Bar none. It destroyed any form of peace and enjoyment one can acquire from the woods (let alone camping), but with this, I wholeheartedly admit that I love everything about it.
You have Burt Reynolds as the personification of ‘70s swagger, John Voight as the perfectly petty yuppie, Ronny Cox as the voice of reason and Ned Beatty as the poorest son of a bitch who has ever lived. And the woods. Those remorseless, thick woods, that spawn American derangement at its most horrific.
Calming, terrifying, oddly endearing – this is a film that has it all. And then some.
(Note: the picture I have used for this film is the direct result of my favorite zoom shot in the history of cinema. I cheer everytime I see it.)
8. Cries and Whispers (1972)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman
Not unlike most of Bergman’s best films, Cries and Whispers is a movie about fractured relationships. The time is the 1800s, and poor Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is slowly losing a battle to an unforgiving bout of cancer. She screams, wails, and moans in pain as her sisters, the shallow Marie (Liv Ullmann) and the cold Karin (Ingrid Thulin), try their best to pretend that they know what to do. The compassionate maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), proves to be Anges’ only remote form of solace.
That’s a crude plot summary, and if you’ve ever seen a Bergman film, you know that plot ain’t the half of it. The movie is in the faces. The delicate emotions that define us, even if no one is watching. The way blood is spread across a mouth, or eyes are rolled with modest hesitation – from gorgeous frame one, Cries and Whispers is as unforgiving a film as I can recall. And a flawless one at that.
7. Psycho (1960)
Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho, along with the number two film on this list, is the film that wins my personal Watch on Repeat award. I can view it ceaselessly, anytime, anywhere, in any mood, and never grow tired of it. I’m completely fascinated by its subtle trickery, its technical prowess, its shocking deceit, and, of course, it faultless acting.
I was rather young the first time I saw this movie, and when Vera Miles spun that chair around to reveal Mrs. Bates, chills ran down my spine and I let out an audible gasp. I’ve seen Psycho upwards of 100 times, and that is the same exact reaction I have to that scene to this day. THAT is saying something.
6. Blood of the Beasts (1949)
Dir. by Georges Franju
By far the most obscure movie on this list is Georges Franju’s relentless documentary Blood of the Beasts. The concept is simple: the film cross cuts peaceful shots of a post-war Paris with extended scenes in various Parisian slaughterhouses. And inside the walls of the slaughterhouses, you see everything. Everything.
The film, which is (thankfully) shot in black and white and (thankfully) clocks in at just 20 minutes, represents the single most visceral movie going experience I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget sitting dumbfounded and horrified in my History of the Documentary course in college, as carefree butchers went about their work, smoking cigarettes and cutting the heads off of calves.
Funny story: the Christmas after I first saw this film, I gave it to most of my friends and family members as a gift. They thought it was a joke, but I was dead serious. Blood of the Beasts singlehandedly redefined what the documentary art form could achieve. For me, anyway.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Dir. by Stanley Kubrick
Science fiction is by long and far my least favorite film genre, so in listing Kubrick’s masterpiece here, I truly think that speaks highly for the brilliance that this movie contains.
There’s no limit to my affection for this film. From its wordless, ape-laced prologue, to its wordless trip to Jupiter (and every in between and after), 2001 is a milestone of cinematic wonderment. I could quite literally pick any single scene and expand solely on that moment as a means of explaining its power. But, alas, this is a film that is far better appreciated as a whole. I never fail to enjoy the trip.
4. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Dir. by Michael Cimino
Steven Spielberg tells an interesting story on the Lawrence of Arabia DVD in which he recounts the first time he watched David Lean’s epic. When the film was finished, he knew he appreciated its scope, but was otherwise indifferent toward the picture as a whole. It took him literal months before he fully acknowledged the impact that the film had over him. And that is precisely what The Deer Hunter did to me.
When I first saw the film, I respected it, but I found it long, boring, and rather misguided. Months later, a friend asked me about it and I found myself tearful while describing one of its final scenes. That emotion came from nowhere. So I went home, rewatched it, and knew I was in the midst of a classic.
To this day, there is no film that I find more disturbing than The Deer Hunter. That’s not exactly a compliment, but it certainly isn’t a slight, either. Better put: this film moves and rattles me to no end. For better or worse, I am forever married to its pain.
3. Persona (1966)
Dir. by Ingmar Bergman
Bergman is my favorite director, so it may not surprise that two of his films occupy spots on my Top 10 of All Time list. I’ve seen all of his films, and none of them speak to me more profoundly than his confounding work of art, Persona.
The film is essentially about two women: an actress who has fallen mute, and the nurse who cares for her. During its packed 85 minutes, the audience is often confused by what is real, what is a dream, and what is simply imagined. I would never confidently assert what the film is all about, because, quite frankly, no one except Bergman can dissect Persona with such confidence. The film is a moving poem that dare not be tirelessly scrutinized, but rather, respected like a sneaky fever dream that won’t escape your mind.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Dir. by Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction is my favorite movie of all time. That statement itself warrants explanation as to the difference between “favorite” and “best,” the former being the one movie that I can watch on Monday, laugh about on Tuesday, watch on Wednesday, laugh about on Thursday, and repeat for, well, as long as time will provide.
Take away the cultural impact the film had on the American independent film landscape (you know, how it singlehandedly proved that movies made for nothing could completely change the cinematic game, while making a shit load of money), and simply take it at face value, and you still have a film of enormous weight.
There is no line of dialogue or facial expression that doesn’t fail to entertain. It’s the type of movie that you hear more of with every viewing. Everything in it is rooted so deep in pop culture (and in a basic appreciation for human intelligence) that nothing is said or done as filler.
Pulp Fiction is as fine and purposeful a contemporary American film as there is.
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
Dir. by Martin Scorsese
I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that Taxi Driver has been my favorite film since seeing it nearly two decades ago. But I’ve purposefully avoided writing about it for any extended length because, quite simply, I have no idea how to express how much I value this movie.
From the moment I hit play and the screen is black before the studio logos appear, Taxi Driver has me. For nearly two hours (and however long it takes me to come out of my stupor after) I am completely entranced with the world Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and star Robert De Niro (and cinematographer Michael Chapman and musician Bernard Hermann and costume designer Ruth Morley) create. The film is some kind of pseudo noir riff on the American dream, while not being about that at all. It aims to tell little, but manages to speak volumes.
Travis Bickle, who represents my favorite movie character of all time, is the incarnation of confusion representing itself as vengeance. This man is angry. But why? What motivates him to do what he does, and say what he says? Why does he take his new girlfriend to a porno theater? Why does he want to kill a Presidential candidate? Why does he feel the need to protect a young prostitute or put peach schnapps in his cereal? Maybe he knows something we don’t. Maybe he’s just bored. No matter, I’ve fallen under the spell of Taxi Driver any number of times and found myself equally (if not more) impressed with all that it accomplishes.
Maybe I’ll see you again sometime, huh?
You can count on it.