I'm selecting one obscure movie from every year since I was born to watch and recommend.
The AFI has their top 100 movies list, as do many other sites, critics and sources. This is my attempt at doing my own personal favorite top 100 movie list. I’m not super fond of trying to rank movies of different genres and eras against each other, but here is an attempt at doing so. I guarantee I’ve overlooked obvious entries that I’ll slap my forehead about at some point.
I’ve attempted this list before in previous years and given up part way through. Over the month or two that I’ve been tinkering on and off with this list in its current form, some movies were on and off the list at various points. So to movies like Better Off Dead, The Iron Giant, Colossal, Riddick, Inside Out, Shaun Of The Dead, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, A Clockwork Orange, Below, Isle Of Dogs, Rear Window and numerous others that have been on the list at various points, sorry about that.
Also, as is often the case on lists like this, it’s hard to figure out what to do with franchises. I mean, Back To The Future is on the list, but neither of the sequels are. Am I being fair to rank the rest of the list over those 2 entries? I dunno, maybe. Or including my favorite 2 Star Trek films, but none of the others. Or the fact that I couldn’t single out a movie or two from the Bond franchise to include. It’s hard to determine where that line is in the sand. I just kinda went with gut reaction, then changed my mind, then changed my mind again. So, take some of the ordering of choices, both in what didn’t make the list and to ranking of stuff that did make the list, with a big ol’ grain of salt.
Also, I know that much of my list would get sneers and condescension from “film nerds” and cinephiles. Yeah, my list is primarily mainstream, big studio and modern era movies. While I enjoy independent and more “art house” style cinema, that’s rarely at the very top of my lists. Most of that industry of films are character and emotion focused, and as anybody who knows me can vouch for, I’m one of the least emotional humans you’ll meet. So, while I generally enjoy and appreciate indie films, and the fact that many of them nearly made this list, this is how it shook out.
And as far as golden and silver age cinema, I can certainly appreciate much from those eras, but aesthetically and stylistically, it just isn’t as much my cup of tea. There are certainly movies of those eras that I absolutely enjoy (Metropolis, Spartacus, His Girl Friday, Modern Times, Duck Soup, etc), they just don’t quite cut it in making it into my top lists. Clearly, the movie industry revolution of the ’70s was a turning point for the kind of movies I would gravitate towards. I know others who are golden age cinema fanatics. If that era and style works for you, then that’s fantastic. It’s just very likely that our top lists will have very little overlap.
Oh, and I’m also eliminating documentaries and non-narrative films (Baraka, Samsara, Koyaanisqatsi, etc) because, well, I already have enough to try to cram into this list and they seem comparatively out of place.
Click the title of a film for its trailer.
#100 – A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
A fantastic cast is the highlight of this crime caper comedy, including what is probably my favorite Kevin Kline performance. It features many great scenes and is inventive enough with double crosses and playful plotting to work very well. It even manages to pull of a nearly cartoonish subplot along the way involving Michael Palin and a trio of dogs.
#99 – Thank You For Smoking (2005)
The feature directorial debut of director Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman). This wildly dark comedy features some of the most cynical humor you’re likely to find, performed by a wonderful cast.
#98 – Finding Nemo (2003)
While Albert Brooks and the rest of the voice cast was great, the real discovery this movie made was Ellen Degeneres as the constantly-forgetful Dory. It’s one of those moments of highly specific and brilliant bits of voice casting. And as always, PIXAR spends the movie showing off with their animation skills, this time moving their tech skills into the world of water.
#97 – North By Northwest (1959)
As a Hitchcock fan, there are a number of other films that very nearly made the list as well (Read Window, Vertigo, etc). As this is my favorite of his films, it gets to be the one that made it onto the list. It’s a fun and entertaining action thriller movie that puts the lead character through a fun adventure.
#96 – Downfall (2004)
I’m a World War II nerd (and to a bit of a lesser extent, a World War I nerd). There are a number of great WWII movies, with a few making it onto this list. This is one of the most specific in setting and moment in history, telling the story of Hitler’s bunker during the final days of the fall of Berlin. With an amazing performance from Bruno Ganz as Hitler, as well as a great supporting cast and phenomenal production, it puts you right there for that insane and notorious moment in time.
#95 – Kingpin (1996)
Yeah, I’m a big fan of Dumb & Dumber, and I like some of the other Farrelly Brothers movies. But Kingpin is my favorite. It’s one of the more forgotten comedies, which is a shame. Yeah, it’s crass (as are most of their movies), but it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Woody Harrellson, Randy Quaid and Vanessa Angel are all great, but it’s Bill Murray’s supporting performance that is the real scene stealer.
#94 – Leon: The Professional (1994)
Luc Besson’s best film makes it into the list, with others like La Femme Nikita falling a bit short from getting onto the list. Jean Reno and Natalie Portman are excellent in the lead roles, but it’s Gary Oldman that really steals the show.
#93 – Run Lola Run (1998)
The movie that thrives on raw energy and desperation was a breakthrough for director Tom Tykwer and star Franke Potente. With a wild blending of techniques (even including bits of animation) and a spectacular high-energy score from Tykwer and his frequent collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, this movie is a fantastic ball of energy.
#92 – Patton (1970)
A historical classic and a key piece of World War II cinema. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with a fantastic music score by his frequent collaborator, the great Jerry Goldsmith. Fantastic cinematography and a landmark performance from George C. Scott bring it all together into an excellent movie.
#91 – Dredd (2012)
While the 2000s have been stuffed full of superhero and comic book movies, it’s this movie that has been my favorite of the bunch. It’s also very atypical from the rest. It’s not Marvel or DC, and it is hyper violent, dark and very edgy. Olivia Thirlby is good as the rookie partner and Karl Urban, as always, turns in a wonderfully dry performance (incredibly, with his mouth being the only part of his face to ever appear in the film). Sadly, this movie didn’t do too well, snubbing much hope for a sequel (which does still keep managing to try to get off the ground, but no luck so far as of this writing).
#90 – Requiem For A Dream (2000)
If I were to know somebody who was in danger of drug addiction, I would strap them to a chair and make them watch this movie with their eyes forced open, Clockwork Orange-style. This is a stylistic, dark and deeply unflinching look at characters who are spiraling out of control from their addiction. It features amazing performances from Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn. Heck, it’s so darned good that it even features a good performance from Marlon Wayans. And Darren Aronofky’s direction is highly inventive and engaging.
#89 – Inglorious Basterds (2009)
As a Quentin Tarantino fan, of course a couple of his movies made the list. This is my second favorite of his movies (I bet you can’t guess which is the other one farther down this page). A great ensemble cast is highlighted by daring performances from Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz.
#88 – Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
I’m a huge fan of director Wes Anderson. His movies are very unique and are typically a love ’em or hate ’em kind of thing. Well, I’m definitely in the love ’em category. When I initially heard that he was going to be directing a stop-animation movie, at first it was surprising. But the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that it would have lots of potential. It seemed like a good combination. Then, when I saw the trailer, I definitely saw the potential. And then, when I saw the movie, it was clear as could be. What a fantastic and fun movie. His second stop-animated movie, Isle Of Dogs, was on and off this list a number of times, but barely missed making it in the end. It’s also fantastic.
#87 – Tremors (1990)
This is the very definition of a simple little movie coming out of nowhere and surprising everyone. The core idea is fun, and it makes for a somewhat simple production. It’s oddly able to kinda capture a Jaws style danger, with the dangerous creature rarely being seen. Michael Gross, who has showed remarkable loyalty to the franchise (having starred in all 7 movies that have been made to date, and even the short-live 2003 Sci-Fi Channel series), is a wonderful highlight in his supporting role. But for this first film, the real key that elevates it beyond being a low-budget creature feature is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as the hilariously charming handyman buddy antiheroes.
#86 – The Descent (2005)
I’ll just say it: this is my favorite horror movie. The production is taught and inventive, the cast is solid and the direction from Neil Marshall is spot-on. Toss it on a good display at midnight with the lights off and the sound up.
#85 – Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Director Michel Gondry (whose sensibilities tend to be hit-or-miss) is at the top of his game, lending this curious little sci-fi romantic comedy the kind of quirky edge you would expect. And Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet turn in some of their career best acting.
#84 – Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Not quite the most stylistic of Anderson’s live action films, but pretty darn close. For me, it’s the one where all the elements come together most perfectly. As of the time of this writing, it is my favorite of his films.
#83 – Forrest Gump (1994)
The great Robert Zemeckis lends his industry-leading technical talent to this sprawling and esoteric life story spanning decades of American history. Tom Hanks turns in one of his career highlight performances and Robin Wright turns in a great performance as Jenny, the character you love to hate. And, since it’s a Zemeckis movie, of course it has a fantastic music score from Alan Silvestri.
#82 – The Great Escape (1963)
The classic WWII POW camp escape movie featuring an excellent cast led by Steve McQueen, with great supporting performances from the likes of James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Cobern and many others. It’s a very well produced movie and features a fantastic music score from Elmer Bernstein.
#81 – Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Don’t care what anybody says. This one is a comedy classic. It’s a totally crass and genius approach to sci-fi comedy, both mocking and embracing the ’80s. It appropriately cast John Cusack in the lead, given that he actually was an ’80s comedy star. The rest of the cast is also great. It also features one of the greatest running gags in cinema history (the running subplot about Crispin Glover’s arm).
Great white buffalo
#80 – Contact (1997)
Robert Zemeckis comes through with another groundbreaking production. Carl Sagan’s book makes the jump to the screen with style. The movie did well enough, but the very ambiguity at the core of the plot, and the ending in particular, probably didn’t work for everybody. Obviously, I was a fan. And, of course, being a Zemeckis movie, we also get a great Alan Silvestri music score.
#79 – Twister (1996)
I’ve watched this movie at least once a year (typically during tornado season). I consider it an all-time classic action movie. Jan De Bont lends it a great energy level and gives it a top-notch production. While it’s one of those movies that features a scene I absolutely hate (the “you’ve never seen it skip this house and that house and come after you” scene), I’m willing to forgive a movie a weak moment. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, the VFX still hold up impressively well and Mark Mancina’s music score is a masterpiece.
#78 – Ed Wood (1994)
Yes, this is my favorite Tim Burton movie. So sue me. It’s a perfectly assembled biopic about the wonderfully over-eager filmmaker, Ed Wood. Burton throws a proper amount of glee into the production. It features one of Johnny Depp’s best performances and a properly award-winning performance by Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. It also features a great score by Howard Shore, and is the very rare example of a Tim Burton movie with a non-Danny Elfman score.
#77 – We Were Soldiers (2002)
The underappreciated Vietnam war movie. It’s actually a faithful adaptation of the book, written by the colonel and journalist main characters. It does a great job telling the story of the first major battle of the Vietnam war, and shows the development and first key test of the Air Cavalry, which would be the key component of the conflict. It’s a solid production and well made all around.
#76 – The Fall (2006)
An absolutely stunning movie from Tarsem Singh, made as a true passion project. The great Lee Pace is excellent in the lead. The story is playful and fun. But it’s pointless to praise all the great things about this movie when there is one thing that is enough all on its own to make it an absolute must see: the cinematography and location shooting. You simply will not find a better looking movie. Period.
UPDATE: After featuring this movie on the list and making a number of recommendations to people to watch it, I learned that it actually isn’t on ANY of the main streaming platforms. So, I did my own good quality rip of the blu-ray to share via this link. Unfortunately, the audio encode ended up quite low in volume, so you’ll have to crank the sound (particularly at the beginning). I might replace the encode with louder audio at some point.
#75 – Galaxy Quest (1999)
The definitive example of being able to both parody and embrace a subject matter. This movie equally satires Star Trek while at the same time being one of the best Star Trek movies made. It’s hard to not love the simple enthusiasm and playfulness this movie oozes. And the cast is spot-on. Oh, Alan Rickman, you are missed. By Grapthar’s hammer, you shall be remembered!
#74 – Gravity (2013)
A landmark production that walks the fine line between realistic life in orbit along with some liberties with reality for dramatic narrative. Sandra Bullock turns in a great performance in a highly unique production method.
#73 – Superman: The Movie (1978)
The movie that defined how superhero movies are done. Richard Donner lends a highly solid quality to the ambitious production. John Williams turns in a career highlight. The VFX were breakthrough for the time (and hold up so-so). Were it not for the lame deus ex machina ending, it would be a nearly perfect superhero movie. And Christopher Reeve will always be the definitive Superman.
#72 – Election (1999)
Alexander Payne’s hilarious and biting story of an overly ambitious high school student, brilliantly performed by Reese Witherspoon, and the beloved high school teacher, played delightfully by Matthew Broderick, that can’t let her get away with her ambitions. A hilarious supporting performance by Chris Klein is icing on the cake.
#71 – Face/Off (1997)
John Woo goes so far over-the-top with this movie that you can’t help just sitting there and admiring the audacity. And as with pretty much everything about this movie, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta are pushing their performances so far over the top, it’s hard to imagine how they could have managed to tweak it any more. The movie is chock full of style and action set pieces, and John Powell absolutely nails his first major big studio solo scoring job.
#70 – WarGames (1983)
This classic cold war tech thriller is oddly still one of the most faithful movies in terms of computers on film. It takes dramatic liberties where it has to for plot, but otherwise stays quite grounded. Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are great in the lead roles, with fantastic supporting performances from the likes of Dabney Coleman, John Wood and the great Barry Corbin. John Badham does a great job directing and the underappreciated Arthur B. Rubinstein turns in a career highlight music score.
#69 – Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
There is so much great stuff in the movie. It’s packed with quotable dialog, performed by a fantastic cast, and it’s such a goofball premise that you can’t help but love it. This is one I watch frequently.
If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.
#68 – The Hunt For Red October (1990)
One of those big studio movies where everything seems to come together in a way that is hard to replicate. From casting to cinematography to editing, all under the steady hand of John McTiernan (who was coming off the high of Die Hard at the time). Even the more outlandish bits of the movie somehow manage to totally work.
#67 – Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom was a decent follow-up, but it still fell a bit short of the classic Raiders Of The Lost Ark. This third film managed to elevate the franchise back into striking distance of Raiders. Adding Sean Connery as Harrison Ford’s father (never mind their ages in real life, or their mannerisms, accents, etc) works very well. And the holy grail makes for a fun follow-up to the ark.
#66 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The movie classic that revolutionized a great many things. It’s definitely one of the key turning points in both sci-fi and cinema and launched the brilliant careers of people like VFX genius Douglas Trumbull. It’s also one of those movies that dares to cause more questions than it answers.
#65 – Idiocracy (2006)
I still have no idea why 20th Century Fox completely buried this movie, barely releasing it or calling any attention to it. Sure, it plays to the lowest common denominator, but for once it does it for an actual reason. The opening of the movie keeps you laughing until the moment you realize, “hey, wait a minute…”
#64 – Tombstone (1993)
One of those movies that suffered through a bit of production troubles, but managed to somehow come out of it better for it. A great cast brings the historical tale wonderfully to life. The line between fact and legend is tricky to define, with the movie folding in the pieces that serve the plot best. Add in a masterpiece music score from Bruce Broughton and you’re left with what is my favorite western.
#63 – Office Space (1999)
A classic for anybody that’s ever worked an office job. You need to look no further than the scene involving the brutal destruction of a printer in the middle of a field as a prime example of the odd clash of styles the movie loves to use, and thrives on.
#62 – Toy Story 3 (2010)
The Toy Story movies are probably the most consistently excellent movie franchise ever made. The second or fourth movie could easily be on this list as well. Let’s just say I’m a huge fanboy. The last act of this movie is pretty much perfect. It’s one of the reasons why I hesitated when they announced the fourth film, but thankfully they managed to nail that one, too.
#61 – Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
This is one of those movies where I just love it more than most anybody else does. It’s one of those things where I can only properly defend how much I love this movie with, “I dunno, I just do.” Mira Sorvino & Lisa Kudrow are in absolute top form, and they work so well together. The writing is fun, the production is playful (including some inventive cinematography) and the plot is wonderfully ridiculous. In fact, it’s probably the way it get progressively more and more surreal and ridiculous as it goes that I love so much.
#60 – Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s landmark World War II movie was the first to really go all-in on putting you in the experience of being a soldier in the conflict. The plot works well as a framework for portraying the life of a soldier on the European battlefield. It’s the cast and top-notch production that really bring it home, including, of course, a fantastic music score from John Williams.
Also, I defy you to find another ranking list that has Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion and Saving Private Ryan next to each other.
#59 – Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s big breakthrough still holds up decades later. It’s a stylistic and playful film made by somebody who was clearly a movie fanatic. The eclectic cast makes the material shine.
#58 – Pitch Black (2000)
OK, so here’s one that probably surprises you to not only be on this list but be nearly half the way up it. While Vin Diesel is definitely best known for the Fast & Furious franchise, but I was already a fan before the Fast & Furious franchise existed. His stark and menacing performance in the role of Riddick works perfectly. Director David Twohy lends his typically solid hand to a stylistic production that does a great job of putting it’s modest budget in all the right places. What can I say? This is just another one of those ones that completely works for me.
#57 – Serenity (2005)
This is one of those movies where it’s hard for me to objectively evaluate it and how much I enjoy it. As a die-hard Browncoat (aka, fan of the spectacular series, Firefly), I can’t really objectively evaluate the movie separate from the series. Regardless, I know I thoroughly enjoy the movie.
#56 – Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott landed a consecutive one-two punch on the world of sci-fi cinema. The first hit of those two was Alien, which rewrote the rules of portraying sci-fi, and blending it confidently with horror & suspense. It properly made a star of Sigourney Weaver and was a kind of anti-Star Wars in the wake of every movie wanting to be Star Wars.
#55 – The Big Lebowski (1998)
“Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there’s a man, sometimes, there’s a man…”
That’s pretty much all that needs to be said.
#54 – Spaceballs (1987)
The definitive sci-fi movie genre parody movie, and Mel Brooks’ best film (in my opinion, of course). This one nails the style of the genre of the era. It’s full of in-jokes and fourth wall breaks and is filled wall-to-wall with quotable dialog. And the great cast doesn’t hurt.
#53 – Fletch (1985)
Clark W. Griswold. Ty Webb. Pierce Hawthorne. All fantastic Chevy Chase roles. But for my money, Chase is at his best as Irwin M. Fletcher, investigative journalist. I love this first Fletch film as well as the sadly underappreciated sequel, Fletch Lives.
#52 – Hot Shots (1991)
While Top Secret is the most underappreciated film of the ZAZ (Zucker / Abrahams / Zucker) universe in general, I consider the Hot Shots movies to be the most underappreciated ones when it comes to parody or even ZAZ fans. This Top Gun parody is spot-on, and it is densely packed with jokes, with most of them landing. The cast is great and the silly writing and production really makes it work.
#51 – Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
Very easily the best of the Next Generation films in the Trek franchise (side note: Insurrection is better than it gets credit for). From Jonathan Frakes’ solid direction to Matthew Leonetti’s dazzling cinematography to Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, it’s one of those examples of things properly coming together.
#50 – Groundhog Day (1993)
A movie that’s so successful, it is the very definition of a subgenre and experience. When you say it was a “Groundhog Day” kind of situation or experience, people will know what you mean. What makes it work is a career highlight performance from Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis at his best.
#49 – UHF (1989)
This is another one that I can’t be objective in evaluating. I’ve been a massive Weird Al Yankovic fan since I was a kid. So, it’s not a huge surprise that I love the movie. Surely, some of that is just by the simple fact that I enjoy his music comedy sensibilities so it stands to reason that I enjoy his on-screen comedy sensibilities. It’s a silly movie, which is fine, because that’s exactly what it’s trying to be.
#48 – Titanic (1997)
I know, the cool thing is to mock this movie. As usual, I don’t care what other people think of something or if I’m “cool” for liking or not liking something. I thought this movie was fantastic when I saw it on opening day, as well as the other theatrical viewings I did at the time. I’ve seen it numerous times on video as well. I still consider it a fantastic film. Would I make any changes to the film? Yeah, I’d tweak a couple things, particularly at the end, but they’re not a big deal to me. James Cameron doesn’t get enough credit for the simplicity of his script and the story structure it uses to explore the entire incident and environment of the ship and the era. As is the case with pretty much any Cameron movie, it’s also one heck of an impressive production. And James Horner nailed the music score.
#47 – The Dark Knight (2008)
Having relaunched the Batman franchise successfully the the great Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan upped his game for this pinnacle of his DC films. There are many great things about this movie, but the key piece that elevates it to that next level is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker.
#46 – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron, as usual, takes the opportunity to revisit his 1984 breakthrough, The Terminator, and push film-making technology forward in the process. Impressively, he manages to up the game in pretty much every way, making a sci-fi action movie classic. It’s the peak of the franchise with a number of movies have tried to live up to in the years since, and failing.
#45 – The Road Warrior (1981)
Not dissimilar from Terminator 2, George Miller took the success of his low-budget breakthrough movie, 1979’s original Mad Max, and distilled the strongest elements into a raw, action movie landmark. Like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, or George Lucas’ Star Wars, this movie was responsible for a lot of spectacularly cheesy and low-budget knock offs.
#44 – Top Secret (1984)
The extremely underappreciated masterpiece of the ZAZ (Zucker / Abrahams / Zucker) universe. It’s Val Kilmer’s breakout role, rightfully so, and is a movie I’ve watched countless times over the years. You would be hard pressed to find a movie that packs in more gags per minute than this one. And even more impressively, most of them work. This movie’s particular strong suit is visual gags, and in my opinion has no equal (including what is probably my all-time favorite).
#43 – Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1978)
Spielberg rewrote a number of genre rules with this movie, and he did it with some amazing cinematography, top-notch editing, spectacular Douglas Trumbull VFX and yet another classic score from John Williams – a score that is actually a major plot element.
#42 – Black Hawk Down (2001)
Sometimes, it’s kinda amazing to see an experienced Hollywood director confidently mount a ridiculously challenging production with seeming ease. It’s like watching Ridley Scott’s brother, Tony, directing something like Unstoppable. In this case, Ridley is taking a story that’s narratively simple but logistically insane and making every last bit of it work.
#41 – Fight Club (1999)
There’s something fascinating about a stylistic perfectionist like director David Fincher working on a movie that is intentionally messy and gritty. What you get is highly unique, subversive and amusingly aggressive.
#40 – LA Story (1991)
My favorite Steve Martin movie. Like a good number of the movies he starred in, this one was written by him as well. It seems to have the closest to his most natural comedy sensibilities of any of his films. The absurdity works very well, and it’s chock full of Los Angeles satire. It’s certainly a unique movie.
#39 – Pleasantville (1998)
One of the most underappreciated movies ever made. What starts off as a retro teenage fish out of water comedy slowly evolves into one of the most transformative allegory films in recent years. Director Gary Ross figures out a way to come at the material kinda sideways in a way that sneaks up on the audience in amusing ways. And if there was ever a movie that lended itself better to the music scoring style of Randy Newman, other than the Toy Story films, it’s this one.
#38 – Strange Days (1995)
The highly talented Kathryn Bigelow shows off her directing mastery with this gritty techno-thriller, co-written and co-produced by her ex-husband, James Cameron. Matthew Leonetti’s cinematography is amazing and the cast is spot-on. And it’s a bit depressing that the plot of the film is still so relevant.
#37 – Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan absolutely loves to screw around with narrative flow and structure. Similar to his use of different different rates of time in Inception and Interstellar, this one tracks 3 plot lines of different duration and edits them across the movie to eventually sync together. The production is absolutely spectacular and the ensemble cast does a great job with nicely restrained performances. What I wouldn’t give to see Nolan make a Battle Of Britain movie.
#36 – Tron: Legacy (2010)
As you’ll see farther down, I’m a huge fan of 1982’s original Tron. After many years of sequel rumors, I was amazed that one not only eventually got off the ground, but that Disney actually put a good budget behind it. The movie pays a proper amount of respect to the original, adds in some fun new layers and is spectacularly designed and produced. And the cast does a nice job with the material. And hey, Daft Punk had a blast with the music score.
#35 – The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad (1988)
Another entry for this list where the sequels could easily have worked their way onto the list, but didn’t quite. Having not caught on in series form in 1982, with only 6 episode, the brilliant Police Squad series fought its way back to life in movie form. And thankfully it was a huge success in movie form, as the series always should have been. It’s more of the ZAZ team comedy brilliance at work, and Leslie Nielsen in top form.
#34 – Star Wars (1977)
The original Star Wars was rightfully a major turning point in cinema history. It’s an odd combination of throwback and retro sci-fi that pushed the industry into a new production era. It’s probably the most significant blindside the industry ever got hit with. The franchise has lived on for decades, for better (see below) or worse.
#33 – Jurassic Park (1993)
Another groundbreaking movie that revolutionized the industry. While it’s not the first movie to utilize CGI, it was definitely the moment that the entire industry, and the viewing public, sat up and took notice of the fact that the movie industry was about to have another big shift (again, for better or worse). Most importantly, the VFX work, both CGI and practical, still holds up to this day. This movie is Spielberg doing a lot of what he does best.
#32 – Deathtrap (1982)
This one probably sticks out a bit on the list as you’re scrolling along. “Wait, Death-what-now?” Yeah, this is one of those movies that I love more than most do, if they’ve ever heard of it at this point. It’s a wonderfully playful script, with tons of infinitely quotable dialog, performed by Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve at the top of their game. It’s mostly a single-set story, which is appropriate given the Broadway play context.
#31 – Die Hard (1988)
The landmark action movie, starring the (at the time) unexpected hero, Bruce Willis. Director John McTiernan lens a steady hand during his peak years dominating the action movie genre (until everything fell apart a couple decades later). Willis proved himself more than capable as an action star. But the person who really stole the show was the magnificent Alan Rickman as antagonist Hans Gruber.
#30 – Baby Driver (2017)
The fact that this is (at the time of this writing) only my second favorite movie directed by Edgar Wright makes it unsurprising that he’s a contender for being my favorite active movie director. The hook of the movie is its use of music, both thematically and structurally. The choreography of nearly every element to the music is mind-blowing in its detail and execution. The cast is great, the production is spot-on and being an Edgar Wright film, of course the editing is flawless.
#29 – Blade Runner 2049 (2018)
Like Tron: Legacy, this sequel had a heck of a challenge. Had you asked me until this was made if anybody should ever attempt a sequel to Blade Runner, my answer would have been no. For the couple years leading up to the release of the film, I slowly started to have hope that it might actually work. Once I saw it, I was extremely impressed. Not only had it done a decent job at embracing the original, it had brought a lot of new things to the mix. I had been impressed with director Denis Villeneuve via previous films like Sicario and Arrival, but this one cemented him as a clearly talented director (fingers crossed that his upcoming Dune makes it onto this list).
#28 – 1917 (2019)
Director (and co-writer) Sam Mendes took years of experience and brought a highly talented crew together to use every modern trick to construct a marvelously tricky narrative and production together into a non-stop flow. The story is cleverly constructed for the concept, and the production manages to make it all work remarkably well.
#27 – The Truman Show (1999)
Jim Carrey has plenty of notable roles in film. While his more comedic characters are more recognizable or quotable, it’s his role in this movie that is the most impressive and important. He’s done comedy, and he’s done drama, but in no other movie does he make both work so perfectly together. The concept was ahead of its time, and was playfully realized. Ed Harris does a great job as the loving antagonist (something of a unique element of the film). It’s also one of those movies that has fun asking as many questions as it answers.
#26 – Toy Story (1995)
Just as Jurassic Park revolutionized the live-action movie industry via its use of CGI a couple years before, PIXAR’s Toy Story revolutionized the animation industry. Quite frankly, the impact it had was probably more significant, given how little traditional animation is made in any more these days. PIXAR has remained king of the game to this day. For the most part, they have done so via the same approach that worked so well for Toy Story – by realizing that the computer animation trickery was only a tool for a good story. While some of the animation feels a bit dated, it doesn’t matter, because everything else in the movie still holds up perfectly.
#25 – Inception (2010)
Another entry for director Christopher Nolan on the list. I consider this one a masterpiece. Sure, you can pick apart some of the more fantastical concepts if you want to, but the fact that it’s playing in the world of dreams gives it a lot of flexibility in messing with logic. The movie is spectacularly produced, the cast is top-notch and it just has a lot of fun with ideas. Really love this one.
#24 – Jaws (1975)
The mother of the summer blockbuster, and the movie that made Steven Spielberg a household name. Given the production troubles, it’s amazing it turned out so well. As many have theorized over the years, the production problems probably helped the end result, oddly enough. It forced the shark to remain off screen most of the time. That, combined with John Williams’ music were just the alchemy the movie needed to pull it all off. Spielberg has rightfully credited Williams’ music to being the key element to making the movie truly work. The great cast is another key element.
#23 – Heathers (1988)
When it comes to dark comedies, it’s hard to find one that pulls it off better than this unexpected low-budget movie. It’s also a highly unusual blend of tone, from goofy and silly to edgy and offensive. It never pulls its punches, and isn’t afraid to offend anybody. And Winona Ryder and Christian Slater are fantastic.
#22 – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
One of the most beloved movies of the 80s, and easily the most freewheeling and unrestrained of John Hughes’ filmography. It’s certainly his biggest love letter to Chicago as well. The trio of Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck and Mia Sara are excellent, and the supporting cast also nails it. I’ve seen this movie many, many times. It’s still just as fun.
#21 – Monty Python & The Holy Grail (1974)
I know proper critic top movie lists tend to include Monty Python’s Life Of Brian as much or more often than The Holy Grail, but this is definitely my favorite (though Life Of Brian is quite good). There is so much highly quotable silliness in this movie. The cast is having an absolute field day with it. And it’s also one of those movie that not only makes the best of its lack of budget, but even makes jokes of it (such as the hilariously idiotic banging together of coconut shells rather than having actual horses to ride). It’s just one of those movies that somehow manages to make it all work in a way that just can’t be replicated.
#20 – Ghostbusters (1984)
This particular lightning in a bottle has tried to be recaptured in a number of different ways, some more directly than others. Like many of the greatest comedies, it’s just one of those movies where happenstance, limitations and timing all came together in some weird moment of perfection that nobody could have really anticipated. The end result was a legitimate phenomenon, appropriately.
#19 – United 93 (2006)
When I learned that only 5 years after the events of 9/11, two major studio movies about it were going to be released, I had pretty low expectations. Amazingly, both movies (this and the Nic Cage movie, World Trade Center) were good. Not only was this movie good, it was incredibly good. What really makes it work is how it just does a “fly on the wall” observational approach to the events of the day. It’s not interested in offering opinion or anything like that. It is just recreating it and putting you in the middle as it unfolds. The only criticism I would make is that it uses too much handheld camera work. Or, at the very least, that handheld camera work is too unstable. The movie isn’t interested in any notable casting, opting to even use a number of the real life people as themselves, recreating their experience of the day. I consider this movie a masterpiece, and I have watched it every year on September 11 since it came out in 2006.
#18 – Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)
This is director Edgar Wright in absolute top form. What could have been a simple, cute graphic novel adaptation was turned into a cinematic masterpiece by Wright. Utilizing endlessly creative ideas and techniques, the movie is dynamic, hilarious, charming and fun. And it should be studied in great detail in ever editing class ever taught. The editing is simply perfect, and is thought out to incredible detail from script to shooting to the actual final edit steps. The huge ensemble cast is wonderful and completely nails it. Everything in this movie works exceedingly well, and it’s packed full of incredible uniqueness.
#17 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
While Robert Downey Jr’s big comeback was 2008’s Iron Man, this wonderful modern detective noir comedy as filtered through modern Los Angeles works as a wonderful framework for what Shane Black does best, a buddy comedy. Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer are at the absolute top of their game, and they work very well together. Michelle Monaghan is equally up to the task playing off them brilliantly. The rest of the cast also works very well. Add in a great production and a wonderful John Ottman score, and you have one of my all-time favorite movies.
#16 – The Princess Bride (1987)
The king of the “once upon a time” movie genre. One which has become a genuine movie classic. There’s so much in this movie that works perfectly. From the charming, quotable William Goldman script to Rob Reiner’s delightfully fun direction to the simple-but-effective production, it all works so very well. But it’s the cast that really brings it all together. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are delightful as the fairy tale couple at the center of the story. They are surrounded by an amazing supporting cast.
#15 – The Right Stuff (1983)
This ambitious telling of the beginning of the American space program is told with style and a pinch of poetic overtone. It’s extremely well crafted. The cast is fantastic. Bill Conti’s music score is excellent. And it does a great job of covering a lot of the historical events in an engaging and entertaining way. In my opinion, the best decision they made was they way they used Chuck Yeager as a counterpoint framework to the rest of the story and events.
#14 – Apocalypse Now (1979)
Movies that go through as much trouble as this movie did have no business turning out so well. It’s a miracle that a finished movie of any kind came out of the end of things from this hellish production. I suppose it’s appropriate, given the subject matter it was portraying. Director Francis Ford Coppola pretty much went through is own personal Heart Of Darkness experience in making the movie. The documentary his wife shot of the production, Heart Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, is also fantastic and worth seeing.
#13 – Apollo 13 (1995)
The textbook example of making a historical drama. Not only is it factually accurate, it even makes a completely engaging movie about something where the ending is already well known. Everything about this movie is well done. The VFX still hold up fantastically well, the cast is spot-on, James Horner’s music score is a master work, and Ron Howard’s directing is at the top of his game.
#12 – Aliens (1986)
James Cameron made a name for himself with The Terminator. But it’s this movie that proved he was somebody to pay attention to. Taking the original Alien in a new direction, from horror/suspense into action, he really goes all in. The end result is an action movie masterpiece, replacing the threat of one alien to an army of the creatures. Rather than carefully avoiding and hunting down the single alien, the humans are defending themselves and retreating from walls of them coming at them. It made a franchise of the Alien universe. One which, sadly, has never figured out how to come close to the greatness of the original 2 films.
#11 – The Abyss (1989)
Following up on his success of The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron decided to make a movie around what was developing into a personal obsession of his – the world of the ocean and deep diving. It would end up being one of the most challenging shoots in movie history. And like Apocalypse Now, it’s amazing that any finished movie managed to escape the production process. The theatrical cut of this movie suffered due to big cuts to the ending of the film, but those were thankfully finished for the director’s cut of the film a few years later. I love this movie more than most people do. I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times (more than 100, perhaps).
#10 – Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
For many years, when people asked me what my all-time favorite movie was, this was my generic answer. One of the reasons I would give this as the answer was that it would rarely get any argument or push back. In finally forcing myself to make a real attempt to assemble this list, I’ve decided to slide it down the list a bit. That hardly means I don’t love the movie, because obviously it’s still in the top 10 list of the thousands and thousands and thousands of movies I’ve seen. I don’t really thinks there’s much need to describe this movie or what works in it. It was the movie that truly turned a surprise hit into a full-on franchise, and even managed to figure out how to build upon and elevate the material.
#9 – Back To The Future (1985)
If ever there was the case of something where everything just came together, it’s Back To The Future. Not only that, but it managed to take an element that didn’t properly come together and make the tough choice of replacing it a decent way into production, replacing Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox in the lead role. Once making that change, the rest just fell into place. The movie has lived on impressively well, as one of the most notable and well-loved movies of the 80s.
#8 – Airplane! (1980)
The ZAZ team’s big break that revolutionized the entire comedy movie genre. It is very often at or near the top of many best comedy movies of all time lists, as it should be. The wonderful approach of casting dramatic actors and having them play all the material straight-up dramatically, and having Elmer Bernstein score it an an equally dramatic way, makes the absurd comedy of it all work perfectly. It even changed the career of a few of its cast, most notably turning Leslie Nielsen from a dramatic actor to a comedic actor. Like many of the movies on this list, particularly at the highest ranks, I’ve seen this one many, many times.
#7 – Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
As he had for Star Wars, George Lucas went back to the world of adventure serials and films for his Indiana Jones script. And so it began the most directly collaboration between him and his friend, director Steven Spielberg. And if Harrison Ford wasn’t already a becoming a huge star thanks to George Lucas, this movie would be sure of it. And yet again, John Williams comes through with a masterpiece music score.
#6 – Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)
After the cerebral, big budget original Trek film, which was something of a box office disappointment (I’m a fan of the film, for the record), Paramount originally slated this sequel as a TV movie, being produced by their TV division. Then, after bringing in director Nicholas Meyer (who also did uncredited rewrites) and getting into pre-production, it started to become clear that things were suddenly coming together and the movie made an unusual jump back into theatrical mode. Unlike the cerebral sci-fi of the original film, Meyer made a lean and efficient revenge film, following up on The Original Series’ episode, Space Seed, with Ricardo Montalban making a fantastic return as Khan. The movie enjoys pushing its nautical overtones and puts its literature inspirations front and center. The cast is at their peak, the production is surprisingly good for the budget, Meyer’s direction is solid and James Horner turns in a magnificent score that was the big breakthrough for his career.
#5 – Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)
This movie is the one I get the strangest looks for when I mention it up near the top of my all-time favorite movie choices. Respected writer John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Alive, etc) made his directorial debut with this wonderful movie. While it’s a little bit a product of its era, Shanley’s fairy tale approach gives it a nice, timeless quality. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are at their best together in their first on-screen pairing (with Meg Ryan doing a nice triple role performance). Other supporting roles are fantastically performed by the likes of Ozzie Davis, Abe Vigoda, Lloyd Bridges doing what he does best, and an absolutely hilarious and brilliant deadpan comedy from Dan Hedaya. A wonderful music score from Georges Delerue and some gorgeous cinematography round out the movie. I’ve seen this one many, many times. Probably more than 99.9999999% of the planet has seen it. For some proper respect, check out Red Letter Media’s re:View video about the movie (language warning), with one of the few other people out there who also has it in their top 5 movie list.
#4 – Dark City (1998)
The ONLY good thing about seeing Mortal Kombat: Annihilation theatrically was the fact that it was the only time I ever saw the awesome trailer for this movie in a theater. I instantly knew I wanted to see the movie. Much to my disappointment, the movie wasn’t a big hit. I saw it a number of times in the theater, where it disappeared too quickly. I’ve seen it countless times in various video formats since. Director Alex Proyas comes through with this stylistic, intelligent sci-fi masterpiece. So much of this movie is dripping in timeless and creative style. The Fritz Lang influence is well handled. The cast is a curious collection of actors, all of whom lend it an interest tone. And Trevor Jones turns in a career highlight music score. Here’s a decent video in defense of the movie. And yes, the director’s cut is the superior version.
#3 – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
As a big fan of the Mad Max franchise, I spent decades following the on-again-off-again troubled pre-production of Fury Road. When it FINALLY began production more than a dozen years after first trying to get off the ground, it had gone through some changes, all for the better. After a long, grueling shoot in the middle of nowhere in Namibia, weathering management changes at Warner Brothers (which ultimately worked out in the favor of the production), 70-year-old George Miller put forth his action masterpiece, which would easily school a couple younger generations as to how to make an incredible action movie. Of course, the incredible production is a huge key to making the movie work, but at the heart of pulling it off are Tom Hardy, taking over the role of Max, and even more importantly (and impressively), Charlize Theron as Furiosa. Add in a wild, stylistic and aggressive score from Tom Holdenborg and you’ve got an unbeatable action movie.
#2 – Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott came through with the one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner, pretty much re-writing how sci-fi films and productions would look for decades to come. Alien was a huge hit, but sadly Blade Runner fell flat at the box office. Thankfully, in the years that followed, the movie would eventually come to be recognized as one of the best ever made. Ridley Scott put a modest budget to great use, and finding ways to make Hollywood backlots become unrecognizable. Scott enlisted the excellent Vangelis for a highly unique and spot-on music score, the master of VFX Douglas Trumbull for the incredible groundbreaking model visuals, and fought the odds to make it all work. Harrison Ford turns in one of his career best performances. Many other great cast members make it all work brilliantly, including an acting masterwork from Rutger Hauer. I’ve seen the various editions of this movie a great many times. The recent “The Final Cut” is the one to go with.
#1 – Tron (1982)
Over the decades, when asked what my favorite movie is, I instinctively always want to answer with this movie. I just never felt like taking the time to defend my choice. And part of it is that while there are a great many ways I can defend the choice, I know that it’s not “the greatest movie ever made”. But that’s not the title of this list. This is the list of my personal favorite movies. And I might as well just finally make it official and declare this to be the answer to that question. I’m sure a few of you reading this aren’t surprised by the fact that I put this as my top choice. It’s one of those movies that will forever be unique, with no other movie ever being like it (not even the sequel), because as those involved in making it would be happy to admit, nobody would ever attempt to make another movie the way they did. The production was WAY ahead of its time. So much so that the CGI sequences were done in insanely difficult ways, and a heck of a lot of material people would assume to be CGI was actually hand animation and RIDICULOUSLY complicated optical compositing techniques. This would be one of those rare examples of a big studio just taking a flying leap on something truly unique. It’s a shame it wasn’t a hit at the box office, but as is the case with movies like this, it would slowly earn the respect it deserved in the years that followed. I could go on forever about all the details that make this movie great, or the endless supply of crazy details about the challenges of the production (if you wanna learn about that insanity, check out this documentary made for the great LaserDisc special edition released in the 90s). I’ll just let my placement as my all-time favorite movie say as much as it needs to.