Devotees may remember that I have a history of releasing a "Personal Canon," where I rank my favorite films from 1-250. It's a project I started in 2008 and did annually through 2012. I took a break because I wasn't watching as many new movies as I did through undergrad, and I was really busy working on a Masters degree. I'm still really busy (busier, even), but it felt important to return to this idea, to mark in some way the films that are most important to me right now, in the Summer of 2014. I just turned 25, and for some reason that's made me particularly contemplative and had me rethinking a lot of experiences over the last ten years of my life.
So I've done something different this time. To paraphrase from High Fidelity, I've arranged these somewhat autobiographically. You could still say these are my favorite movies, but I've tried to take time and think about what they mean to me and why I love them. I've tried to begin to express that in the small caption accompanying each film. If it seems rambling or lacks the finesse of my other writing, again, I'm really busy. This seemed, however, as good a way as any to try and convey what these fragments of cinema have meant to me over the years. I could write lengthy essays on each, but I've tried to limit it to a handful of sentences. If the choices seem obvious, I've tried to explain how they're not really obvious. This isn't a list that's trying to conform to a standard, but if the standard has meant something important to me, then so be it. These are, to borrow from Truffaut, a stab at identifying the Films of My Life
Thanks for taking the time to skim it and read it. I hope it inspires you to reflect on what cinema means to you.
50. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
I kind of think Alien may be perfect. It's terrifying, it's visionary, the sheer design of it is overwhelming and claustrophobic. It plays with gender roles, it sharply critiques the idea of the cyborg and the corporatization of space travel, its visual effects are still incredible, and it scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid (okay, and as an adult).
49. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)
Of these 50 films, Something Wild is the one I have most recently discovered. I first saw it in 2012, somewhat randomly through Netflix. I've watched it least six times since, and I love showing it to people. I don't think there is another movie like it -- half classic screwball, half suspense-thriller, it's a road movie that zig-zags along the northeast with a startlingly clear portrait of America in the mid-1980s. It's the movie I currently most enjoy showing people, because everyone seems to find something unexpected in it.
48. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Look, I know this will inspire some scoffs from the peanut gallery, but there are actually very few that matter more to me than The Dark Knight. I saw it opening day in 2008, having just finished my first year of college as a wide-eyed Film Studies major. The politics and allegories resonated so deeply that this film was the inspiration of my undergraduate thesis--"America Behind a Mask"--that was the inspiration for my first SCMS presentation, my first book chapter, my first edited anthology, etc. My professional life and my personal philosophy about the importance of pop culture owes a lot to Mr. Wayne.
47. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
There Will Be Blood is an elemental film. It is pure epic in a way that I can hardly put my finger on. It's about the end of the American landscape, the birth of a particular kind of evil. It's shot so vividly, scored so hauntingly, acted in a way that pushes you away and pulls you in all at once. It's the kind of large-scale cinema I eat up with a spoon and ask for seconds.
46. Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)
I've had a large affinity for Hawks's Scarface since I first saw it in high school -- the energy of it and the creativity of the filmmaking are enough to draw anyone in -- but it wasn't until I taught the film in Winter 2013 that I really saw the intricacies of it. It builds so many layers of associations and motifs -- some more obvious than others -- that it is truly one of the most exemplary films Hawks ever made, and one that amazes me each time I watch it.
45. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
When I became very serious about movies in high school, I worked through a lot of the "Best Ever" lists that were largely composed of Classic Hollywood. After seeing many of the seminal movies, I turned to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the "New Hollywood." The first Altman film I saw was M*A*S*H, which I found almost impossibly funny. After taking to the Internet and learning how Altman used the Korean War to comment on the absurdity of the Vietnam War -- and being amazed by that idea -- I sought out some of his other movies, including Nashville and The Long Goodbye. I didn't see McCabe until I was in college, but I think it's the most haunting of his early-70s revisionist works. The way it reimagines the Western as this desolate economy as opposed to a vast landscape of opportunity is remarkable and elegiac.
44. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
43. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943)
It's really hard to identify what's so remarkable about Casablanca. Like Scarface, it's a film I've really liked since I first saw it -- I first admired the screenplay and the romanticism of it all. It wasn't until I taught it -- for an American Film History course -- that I was able to really sit down and take the film apart for myself and for my students. As we analyzed exactly how Rick's Cafe works as a socio-political microcosm of war-torn Europe, we realized together how much political purpose is injected into this work. It was one of my favorite weeks of teaching to date, and for that reason alone the film sits on this list.
42. Dr. Strangelove, or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
In truth, I've had a weird relationship with Dr. Strangelove. I didn't get it at all the first time I rented it. I found it boring, and even though I "got" some of the jokes, I didn't understand why everyone called it the best comedy of all time. As I've learned more about the Cold War, I've come more and more to appreciate what this film pulls off, and especially how it's not really a comedy. It's a horror movie that dares you to laugh. It's about the absolute absurdity of Cold War rhetoric. For me, it's an essential piece of how cinema can construct and critique ideology.
41. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
JFK was a birthday gift from my mother. She just told me she thought I would like the movie. I was, I think, 15 or 16. I hadn't seen it. Its 200 minutes riveted and astounded me. I probably bought into its wacked-out conspiracy theories about Kennedy being killed for wanting to end Vietnam a little too much the first time through, but there was something about the crazy editing, the black-and-white and tinted footage, the lengthy monologues about evidence and reconstruction that really hit me. As I've gone on through school and the problem of historical representation has become more important to me as a media scholar, I love JFK even more. I don't think Stone necessarily believes Garrison's theories in the film, and I don't think that's the point: This is a movie about the impossibility of historiography, about all kinds of contradictory evidence cut up and reassembled into a bizarro jigsaw puzzle that only 1990s-Oliver-Stone could have made. I hope my mom knows how much that gift ended up meaning to me.
40. The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)
I can't remember exactly when I got into Luis Bunuel -- likely my freshman or sophomore year of college, when I started devouring European Art Cinema from the 1960s -- but The Exterminating Angel was a high point of working through his films. I love Viridiana and Discreet Charm for their satiric pleasures, but there's something remarkable about Exterminating Angel I've never been able to vocalize. It hits such a feverish pitch, but it's a very calm, very contained film. It's a gold standard for social satire and surrealism, and one I hope I'll never be able to explain to someone else.
39. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Has there ever been a mainstream Hollywood narrative as angry as Network? Yeah, it's funny, but it's also a deeply pissed off movie that sees "the tube" as the harbinger of doom. And in many ways, it was dead-on. Its take on news-as-variety-show is startlingly close to CNN and Fox News hijinx. Its rambling monologues are things of beauty. I saw Network because somewhere I read it was the Best Screenplay Ever Written. It's hard to disagree, but it's also a film that gets harder to watch because it gets less funny as time goes on (or maybe because it gets funnier as time goes on, depending on your perspective). Everything about it seethes.
38. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
I remember buying the Criterion DVD of Contempt on a whim -- this was before I had a Netflix subscription, and I had just seen Breathless and been totally taken aback by it. Godard was someone who energized me, who really made me think about "cinema." I had just finished high school and was about to leave home for the first time. There's nothing about Contempt that really connects emotionally to that moment, but there was something about its art -- its very purposeful visual construction (a feature that is largely unique to the rest of Godard's jazzy early-60s output) was a way for me to feel "good" about what I was about to try to do with my life. Somehow. It doesn't make sense to me, either.
37. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
Still massively under appreciated, at least in my book, Shadow of a Doubt says almost everything Hitchcock ever said about America in one place. He would certainly take the ideas in different directions as he worked with different collaborators on Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds, etc. but Shadow does great, inventive things with the idea of a hidden darkness beneath an idyllic ideology. It takes me aback every time I watch it.
36. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
When I was a kid, I had a fedora hat like Indy's (I believe my grandmother bought it for me). My brother and I would take turns dressing up as close as we could to Dr. Jones -- with a little whip, a leather satchel, a gun holster, etc. Indiana Jones was a definitive and enormous part of my childhood. He inspired many backyard adventures and many flights of fancy. He captured my imagination in ways few things ever have or ever will. To me, Raiders is one of the most uncynical, one of the most "pure" films ever made -- although I readily acknowledge my childhood brain comes back every time I watch it. In 2011 I had the enormous fortune to see it at L.A.'s Egyptian Theater in one of the front rows. My neck tilted back, my eyes wide, I marveled and fell in love all over again.
35. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
I saw Fight Club when I was 14, and it changed my life. I don't mean I went out and got ripped and started a fight club -- I got that it was criticizing the violence. I didn't understand it was a satire of consumer culture. I was too naive to get the social commentary. I was totally blown back by the aesthetic of it -- that dirty, grimy coloring with the crazy impossible camera movements and the razor-sharp rapid editing. The whole experience just washed over me, such that when the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" comes in at the end, my whole body started to tingle. Yeah, I missed a lot about what the movie was about in that first viewing, but I bought it immediately and watched it every month for at least a year. I still love watching it, even recognizing all its contradictions and ideological incomprehensibility. For me, it's part of the point, and part of what continues to make it such a meaningful and impactful film.
34. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
I've gone back and forth on my feelings about Allen and his work over the years, but my opinions of three of his films have never changed: this, Annie Hall, and The Purple Rose of Cairo are and will always be very special works that mean a lot to me. I could justifiably put any of them in this spot, because they all strike the same kind of bittersweet tenderness that has become increasingly absent from Allen's films. Manhattan ultimately wins because it's one of the ultimate city symphony movies. Gordon Willis turned New York City into this dreamy world of high angles and soft lighting; it's like a world that could never exist but through the magical capacity of celluloid. It breaks my heart and gives me a "little faith in people" all at once.
33. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
For my money, City Lights is the ultimate take on Chaplin's deep humanism. Modern Times and The Great Dictator are more politically daring films. The Kid is more of a tearjerker. Monsieur Verdoux is by far the most underrated. The Gold Rush may be funnier. But of all his "major" works, I love City Lights the most because of how he uses The Tramp to edge towards something profound about how we relate to each other. Perhaps because -- jokes about class aside -- it lacks the political thrust of a lot of his work, it succeeds in ways those others don't. And that last shot.
32. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
Like with Red River, The Searchers, and a handful of other classic Westerns, I'll never be able to watch this -- my favorite of Ford's Westerns -- without thinking of the class on the Western and the Nation I took at University of South Carolina. It was a provocative, wonderful class that inspired me to think about many things I never had before; it's on the shortlist of my most influential classroom experiences, and watching the coda of Liberty Valance -- "print the legend" -- always brings back a flood of great memories.
31. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
It doesn't really make any sense that I came to truly love Sunset Blvd while living in Los Angeles, but driving on Sunset Blvd. always made me think of the film. I probably watched it more in that two-year span than at any other point in my life, and came to understand it in ways I previously hadn't. It's the favorite film of one of my L.A. roommates, and I remember it was his suggestion -- "the monkey is the key to the whole movie" -- that both shifted how I thought about it and also blew open my students' minds when I asked them to decipher the monkey during our discussion of the film.
30. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
I distinctly remember the first time I watched Taxi Driver. I was too young to really get the politics of the film, or really grasp the whole ideology of it, but I'll never forget how devastated it made me feel, how absolutely dark and relentless its worldview is. Its final act is so violent, so cruel, and so weirdly touching that I still, after ten years of watching it, have no idea how to really react. It's my favorite of Scorsese and De Niro's collaborations -- the one that pushes farthest, demands the most, and has the most lasting impact. It's still rattling my 14-year old mind.
29. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
I was fourteen and we were discussing the Vietnam War in my World History class. That weekend, I rented Apocalypse Now. It horrified me. I had seen Platoon (gosh, I watched these movies when I was young) and so expected Apocalypse to be more of that -- a 'straightforward' combat movie about the harshness of war. I felt the movie float over me in impossible-to-describe ways. I didn't know enough about Vietnam, I hadn't read Heart of Darkness, I didn't really understand what this film meant culturally when it was made. Now that I know -- or feel like I know -- more about those things, it resonates me with as how war should be represented: as irrational insanity.
28. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
"In dreams, you're mine. All the time." David Lynch was a director whose work I consumed in the span of maybe a month (including all of Twin Peaks), ordering everything one disc at a time from Netflix. Blue Velvet is an exhausting movie, but it's also -- weirdly -- the closest he's come to making a mainstream narrative film (I think). It's about the dirt that hides beneath the white-picket facade -- yes, the first shot is the key to everything, as it so often is -- and every step it makes through its twisted American underworld is filled with a weird mix of terror and heartbreak. It's a film that can be about so many things all at once, it inspires me every time I watch it to think below the surface while at the same time being careful about what I'm gazing at.
27. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
It's now known as "The Greatest Movie of All Time," and one could certainly make the case for it. For me, Hitchcock was the first "classic director" I really worked my way through, when I was 12. I saw this, Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, and North by Northwest -- one per weekend, rented from the local Hollywood Video. The copies were worn-out VHS tapes -- we didn't own a DVD player yet. I've owned Vertigo on DVD (it was among the first 10 DVDs I bought) and Blu Ray. I've seen it in a theater, twice -- once, projected as a DVD; the other, as a DCP. While it's always "easy" to go with the canonical films (and don't worry, there are more to come for me to justify), every second I spend watching Vertigo I am in love with it.
26. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
It's impossible for me to describe all the ways this movie means to me -- as it will be for the rest of the movies on this list. The early sequences were filmed near to where my mother's family comes from. The De Niro character shares several traits with a grandfather I never knew. The story of veterans struggling to adjust rings true to me more and more as I learn more about my parents' own work helping veterans. There are certainly many criticisms one could level at Cimino's film, but I simply don't see them. The first time I watched this movie, I was so completely drained. I cried heavily and for long after. It has a very special place in my heart, largely because it's a portrait of things I will never hope to understand, yet float around the periphery of my existence.
25. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
When I first saw The Graduate in high school, I suffered from the "tragic misreading of the final scene." I saw optimism in Benjamin and Elaine's rash decision. I, of course, see none of that now. But it's a testament to how films change over time as we change. I had the fortune to watch The Graduate again very recently, and was just so amazed by everything Mike Nichols crams into this film -- its use of the widescreen frame is impeccable, the music and the cutting so purposeful, and Dustin Hoffman acts so perfectly as this cypher for early-adult angst. I watched The Graduate a lot from the time I was 16 to the time I was 23, and I'm glad I've lived with it so thoroughly through those years. It's a weird take on insecurity, sure, but it's one that never stops feeling relatable.
24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Eternal Sunshine celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, and I reflected quite at length about my own relationship to it back in March. It might be the most perfect film about love anyone will ever make, and how painful and beautiful and hard it is to love someone and try to keep it all in your head. I once tried to write about Eternal Sunshine academically, and simply couldn't. It's one of the handful of films I can't bring myself to interpret or analyze in a removed kind of way, because every time I watch it is intrinsically bound up in who I am and what I'm feeling before I watch it.
23. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
I think I saw No Country four times in the theater. I bought it the day it came out. I didn't have access to a car that day, and I walked over two miles to the nearest store selling it. I've watched it at least twenty times. I can't explain why I have such a huge connection to it. It might have a lot to do with seeing it the first year I was in college and really starting to take film seriously. No Country was the basis of my first conference presentation ever, in my sophomore year of college. I analyzed the last act and how the ending is actually about intertextuality and subversion -- probably an obvious point, but for me it was among the first times I'd worked so closely with a film text. As my love of the film turned to analysis of it, I came to love the film more, which helped me analyze it more closely. That's when I knew I was in the right major.
22. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Ask me again in two years, and I can almost say for certain this film will be higher on this list. I'll readily admit that I wept for most of The Tree of Life; not because it's a particularly sad film (it isn't), but because it felt so resonant to things I felt as a child and still felt when I was 22 and saw it in the theater the summer after finishing college. I've spoken to many people about the film who also feel that moments or passages of it feel startlingly similar to their own experiences, which is either proof -- as the film suggests -- that we are all part of some unknowable fabric, or that Malick really managed to cram all of human existence into a movie.
21. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
Earlier this year, my friend Danny introduced a 35mm screening of Last Year at Marienbad by discussing his own memories of watching the film. It was a poignant and personal way to begin to enter the work -- I've only seen it about six times, despite always wanting to watch it again right away after I finish it. It's a movie I tried to decipher manically the first two times I watched it, before giving up completely. It's not made to be understood, because our lives can't really be understood, except through the frames we choose to understand them. Does that make sense? Not really? Yeah, neither does Last at Marienbad, but it's still beautiful.
20. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Does it get better than Brazil? I vividly remember the first time I watched it with my undergraduate roommate. He thought it was incredibly weird -- and I think a little off-putting -- and I was simply glued. The weirdness all fit into this absurd dystopic vision of a bureaucratic world gone haywire. I had loved 1984 in high school, and this pseudo-adaptation of it is as visually lush and creative as one could hope to make. It amazes me that more people don't seem to put Brazil on their "Best Of" lists; for me, it's a transcendent experience.
19. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1991)
GoodFellas is one of those movies that inexplicably gets better every time I see it. I have fond memories of watching it with many different groups of people and in many different settings -- basements, dorm rooms, and classrooms chief among them. I literally cannot listen to "Layla" without thinking of this movie. The way the camera pushes in, the dream-like tracking shots, the cutting that gets faster and faster -- this is what cinema is to me. It's Scorsese's best movie, the one where he brings all his tricks into play and pushes and pushes until the breaking point.
18. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
This is another choice that might feel too obvious, and it probably is, but there are still few films that surpass the singularity and scope of 2001. It renders the future as, by turns, banal, magnificent, threatening, and confounding. Its structure is impeccable, the way it charts man's relationship with technology still rings profound and important, and the sheer impenetrability of the film has sparked me to try to debate and decipher all its intricate compositions. I've heard many times that 2001 is the perfect intersection of popular culture and art, that it turns something as "silly" as science fiction into a grand tapestry. Maybe that's true, but that does a radical disservice to how 2001 has propelled popular culture in general, and everyone who sees it in particular. I think it's impossible not to find it transformative.
17. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Herzog's films have pushed at the relationship between man and nature in a number of ways, but it is hard to top Aguirre, which -- apart from Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn -- was my first foray into Herzog's work. It's a film about madness, ostensibly, but the way it gets there is so strange, the experience of it so unlike anything else I feel like I've ever watched, that only someone like Herzog and Kinski could even approach it. I remember lying on my couch in my sophomore year of college and watching this alone, in the dark. I remember feeling so drawn in, so a part of it, that the final sublime shot hit me so hard I backed the DVD up so I could watch that scene and that shot again immediately.
16. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
La Dolce Vita is one of those supreme classics; the kind of movie that serves as a perennial touchstone for Fellini's, Italian cinema's, and film in general's high-point. It's beautiful, evocative, and stunning in its depiction of a certain culture and a particular space and time. There was a time when I was remarkably into Italian Cinema and Fellini, and there are so many moments of La Dolce Vita --most of them, actually -- that represent the full potential for what this certain mode of cinema could transmit. Fellini's work in general is a gold standard for how to think about people relate to the world around them, and though La Dolce Vita may be a bit more acidic than some of his other work, it is also among the biggest canvases he ever spread.
15. Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Maybe it's an unpopular opinion, but Week End is the ultimate Godard film, and my absolute favorite of his works. It's an attack on everything -- film, politics, class, economics, literature, consumer culture, and on and on and on it goes -- strung together in an aesthetic that balances his traditional subversion with an outright radicalness of form (that would later take over his work, for better or for worse). This movie was a punch to my gut when I first saw it in college -- after seeing Godard's early 60s films, I had little knowledge of how political his work got over time. By the time I had to teach it in my M.A. program, I was full on in love with everything that gets thrown on the screen.
14. Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
Bonnie and Clyde is more than an incredible aesthetic work or a howling political cry for the counterculture. It's a whole way of thinking about and being with film. It sees representation as a political and cultural catalyst for thinking about the possibilities and failures of change and revolution. It's a film about revolting against hegemony, about trying to undo some kind of capitalist power. It's a manifesto and a death wish in a way that predates and beats the pants off almost all the other New Hollywood films that would follow. Bonnie and Clyde is inseparable from the system that created it and the sociopolitical backdrop of its release, and I love it not only for helping me see all the ways media is connected to the world it enters into, but for helping me feel how those connections evolve beyond the time and space of 1967.
13. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965)
If I'm remembering things correctly -- and who knows if I am -- The Battle of Algiers was the very first film I ever taught in my very first discussion section as a Teaching Assistant. It was the perfect film to teach. Everything about the form works in conjunction with the political statements the film wants to make in accessible, definable ways. It's a movie that helped my students understand the basics of how to politically analyze a film's aesthetic, and it's a movie that helped me discover how to teach.
12. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
And so, we've come to Star Wars. I really, truly debated about where this would go on the list. Would it be a Top 5, a Top 10, or somewhere in the Top 30s? Star Wars is my love. I will never forget the first time I watched it when I was six, with my dad and my brother, or when I saw the 1997 restored edition in the theater with my mother. I watched it endlessly, until the tops of our VHS tapes were worn thin. I know the movie by heart, every beat. It's the film of my childhood, and the film that made me want to initially think, "oh yeah, I want to make movies." If it's cozied in at No. 12, it's because I've chosen to focus on films that have defined me largely since high school in the final rounds of this list, but it's forever No. 1 in my heart.
11. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Rear Window seems to reward infinite viewings. It's one of the most purely watchable, enjoyable films I've ever seen, and I've seen it many, many times. From the first time as 12, to the time when I wrote a paper on it in my undergraduate Film Theory course, to the times I've shown it to friends who haven't seen it and watched it alone as I worked and wanted something familiar on in the background, Rear Window is one of the simplest and most effective films ever made -- it was either Hitchcock or Bogdanovich (maybe?) who said the whole thing is just a man looks, we see what he looks at, and we see how he reacts. A bit reductive, sure, but it's the ultimate film about what it means to sit and look at stuff.
10. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
Of all the films I've chosen for the Top 10, this is the one I thought the longest and hardest about. On the one hand, it's literally the one that made me think the most after watching it -- what's up with that demon behind the diner? What's the blue key? What the hell happens in the last third of this movie? What is Silencio? Um, who is this Cowboy? -- but also whether or not I really wanted it to be on that most coveted slot of the Final 10. It's in many regards the ultimate puzzle movie, the ultimate meta-movie on Hollywood, and among the best L.A. movies. It swings a bat at the "Dream Factory" rhetoric in an amazingly unique way. This is Lynch's pinnacle, to me. It's demanding and strange and weirdly enjoyable even when it doesn't make a lick of sense. It's this high on my list because it continues to challenge and mesmerize me; it stands for many things that I believe pop culture and art cinema can both strive to be.
9. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
The first time I saw The Shining was on the tail end of a huge horror marathon: The Blair Witch Project, Halloween, and this. I watched it first on television (the SyFy channel back when it was the Sci-Fi Channel), and that almost feels necessary now, because it was so much scarier the second time I saw it on DVD without any safe commercial interruptions. Over time, I've moved beyond the sheer visceral impact of the film to really think about its brilliant depiction of a haunted space, and how a hotel contains a bounty of disturbing history that ultimately gets localized into one man. I get somewhat giddy when I watch the film, marveling at its geometry and its peculiar staginess, its amazing soundtrack, and Jack Nicholson going bananas.
8. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
This was also a film I watched for the first time on the Sci-Fi Channel. I loved the story, but at 13 or 14 I hadn't really developed an appreciation for the design of the spaces, the incredible way the background constructs this whole class-based society that focuses on economic disparities and multiculturalism (if ever there was a film "about" the politics of the 1980s, whoa boy, this is it). Over time, I see more and more of the brilliance of its lighting and framing, the way it turns L.A. so perfectly into a dystopic space clinging on for dear life. The humans and robots at the center are certainly important -- and Harrison Ford's limited dramatic range has never been put to better use -- but for me Blade Runner is a movie that demonstrates the importance of looking beyond narrative, of seeing the beauty (and the dirt) of the space.
7. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
I believe 8 1/2 was the first Italian film I ever watched. I was working my way through a list of "Best Movies Ever"and this was, understandably, very near the top. I read that it was kind of surreal and very autobiographical, and about the making of a movie. It sounded cool. I wasn't ready for it. The carnivalesque nature of it, the tortured surrealism, the self-psycho-analytics about desire and childhood, and -- most importantly -- that crushing feeling that what you're doing doesn't matter. Even at 13 or so, that resonated with me. Watching 8 1/2 is to be transported into someone's mind, to see the world through one perspective completely for its runtime. What I love about Fellini's films is how they dare to be autobiographical, or at least construct the appearance of being so. Only a handful of other directors have been able to make films that feel like they burst from personal anguish and personal memory so vividly.
6. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
I would call it "perfect." This is another film that knocked me flat on my butt the first time I watched it. I had no idea what to expect. I can't even remember where I was or why I watched it -- maybe Turner Classic Movies? Maybe a video rental from the ever-diminishing "classics" section? Between the canted angles, the deep shadows, and the impeccable mystery, I was fully exhilarated. This was one of the first Criterion DVDs I bought, and I remember loving the making-of documentaries and the commentaries. I wanted to learn how this film was made; how it was possible to look the sublime way it did. It fueled the fire of my cinephilia.
5. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
When I was teaching American Film History, we watched Citizen Kane (as one does). I opened my discussion by asking the students, "Why do you think people say this is the Greatest Film Ever Made? What would bring someone to say this film is Number One?" One of the students who was not having what Welles was serving said bluntly, "I think this is a movie people say they like to seem cool and cultured. I can't imagine anyone actually liking it." I smiled and retorted, "but this is one of my favorite movies." She said, unbelievably, "Is it really?" And it is. It really, truly is. I've readily acknowledged many times how "obvious" it is to have Citizen Kane in a Top 10 list, but I truly believe it deserves to be there. Everything in it contributes to everything else; it is perfectly constructed; it is so beautiful; it is about almost everything all at once -- the whole confounding experience of trying to know someone, and how that knowledge gets constructed.
4. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
The Seventh Seal is as close to a religious experience as a film is ever likely to give me. Its portrait of a plague-ravaged, desolate Europe trying to find rationality amidst the irrational is one of the most amazing picaresque journeys I've ever seen. The power of the film, however, is in its debate about the relationship of people to God, and specifically God's silence. This is, of course, a perennial theme in Bergman's work, but this is its best representation. The Knight's crisis of faith is, while not a mirror to any of my own experiences (at least, I would hope I'm not playing chess with Death), immensely resonant. Watching this film puts a pain in my heart. I feel his prayers on a fundamental level. I will forever relish the experience of seeing a 35mm print of this screened at L.A.'s American Cinematheque. I sat in the second row, and it was overwhelming.
3. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
In high school I did a research project on Sergio Leone because I really liked The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was a cool movie. So I sought out the other "Dollars" films and this. Once Upon a Time in the West is a riveting experience. It says almost everything the Western genre ever said about masculinity and femininity, about civilization and the wild, about landscapes, about communities, about violence, about revenge and codes of honor, etc. etc. all in one nearly three hour opus. Everything about it -- the music, the widescreen frames, the immense style -- is impressive. I'd never seen anything like it before, even after watching the "Dollars Trilogy." It felt like it was a movie that had something incredibly important to say about cinema and America, and even if it took me a while to figure that out (I was 16 when I first saw it), it's become very close to my heart. Every time I watch it with baited breath, waiting for all my favorite moments.
2. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Chinatown is almost impossibly perfect. I first fell in love with it because it's a great stylish mystery. I later fell in love with it because it has a relentlessly unforgiving third act and the script is brilliant. I fell in love with it again when I watched it as a film not about a detective, but about the building of a city, and how everything in it operates allegorically or parallel to the attempts to build a civilization in the desert, to paraphrase. It's about the weight of people's decisions and corruptions, about the inexhaustible exertion of power on all sorts of bodies. It's a film made to be seen again and again, so deep is its well of meaning. My deep fondness for Polanski's work has backed me into a corner several times (notably when I wrote an article about the aesthetics of his work in The Daily Gamecock the week after he was arrested in 2010. That was a fun week.), but despite everything morally and ethically difficult about watching his work, I don't think anyone else in the world could have directed this. It's a movie that feels so singularly of its moment in 1974, and yet the true punch may be how its ideas about social power still seem so relevant. This is almost American cinema's supreme gem to me; it has many profoundly tragic things to say about how the world operates.
1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
And so we come to it at last; the alpha and the omega. My favorite movie. There are four Hitchcock movies in this Top 50, which might seem excessive, but he really is the "genesis moment" of my very intense passion for cinema. Movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark ignited my imagination, but his films showed me what cinema could really, truly do and be. They opened new worlds of experiences, of aesthetics, of ideas. Psycho was not my favorite the first time through (Rear Window had its hooks in me immediately), but I couldn't shake it for days after seeing it. I rented it again. I bought the DVD as soon as I owned a DVD player. I've seen it projected, I've watched it with people on Halloween, I've watched it alone in the dark with just one other person, I watch it by myself at least once a year, I've taught it once, I wrote my very first film analysis paper on it. My love for Psycho is unbridled; it is as big as my love of cinema. Hitch called Psycho "pure cinema." Every inch of it is.