I've spent a lot of time at work on this list. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed putting it together. The ultimate portion begins... now.
20. American Beauty (1999): What happens when you take your average suburban family and you twist everything just slightly? Sam Mendes' story of midlife crises, adultery, latent homosexuality, and a stray plastic bag. The first time I saw this, in the theaters, I had this sudden urge to applaud randomly in the middle of the movie. It's that good.
19. WALL-E (2008): When I first saw this last year, I wrote a very long review that discussed the movie's place in the history of animated films. This, the newest movie to show up on my list, is so far beyond any other animated film in terms of depth of theme and story that I have a hard time thinking of it as an animated movie at all. It is a great movie. Not every movie in these final twenty movies is going to be remembered as an all-time classic thirty years from now. This one will be.
18. Aliens (1986): James Cameron took Ridley Scott's dark, mostly boring space thriller and blew it the hell out of the water. Everyone can think of a few movie series in which the sequel is better than the original, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a sequel that is as better than the first as Aliens is to Alien. It's scary, it's exciting, it has a great star (Sigourney Weaver). Plus, thanks to a South Park episode, it has an unintentionally hilarious scene:
17. The Empire Strikes Back (1980): This is an interesting one, in that many people believe this to be a better movie than the original. It's certainly better directed; Irvin Kershner was one of George Lucas' professors and Lucas asked Kershner to helm the second part of his grand trilogy. Kershner's commentary on the Empire DVD is a master class, full of descriptions of his techniques. Particularly interesting is how they shot the Hoth scenes right outside of the front door of their hotel (it was too cold for the cameras to go outside). Also on that commentary, one of the crew talks about how poorly-received Empire was when it was originally released. Because it ended on such an unresolved, dark note, Lucas and company knew that it couldn't be fully evaluated until after the trilogy was complete. In the end, the movie becomes a story of Luke's growth from boy to man -- his apprenticeship under a mystical creature (common in myths) and his discovery about his past that allows him to eventually become fully self-actualized in Return of the Jedi. It has one of the great romantic lines in movie history -- Han's "I know" -- and it has the ultra-gross moment at the beginning when Leia kisses Luke. There are a lot of twist endings on this list, but this one may be the most underrated. We take it for granted to such an extent that it's almost never mentioned with The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, but it should be.
16. Saving Private Ryan (1998): I couldn't find exactly how long the D-Day sequence is, but let's say it's thirty minutes. Those are the best thirty minutes ever. This movie has been ranked by countless publications and polls as the best war movie ever and you'll get no argument here. I've never been in a battle, but I imagine that the sequence, if not the whole movie, is as true to a "war is hell" reality as anything ever has been. I can talk about the great job by the actors used for the unit who, besides Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore, were relative unknowns who have gone on to be successful actors (Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies). I can talk about the overall camera work, which is superb. I can talk about the use of a somewhat-twist ending, since the older James Ryan's eyes at the beginning fade into Tom Hanks' eyes. In the end though, it can all come down to the D-Day sequence.
15. Jaws (1975): The first true summer blockbuster, Jaws was Steven Spielberg's first major movie. The production designer had put together a mechanical shark to use, but the shark kept breaking, so they had to use it as little as possible. It's hard to imagine what this movie would be like with the full shark shown throughout the movie. Instead, the shark hangs over the film as a menace that could be anywhere and the movie becomes a more character-driven story about the police chief, the young scientist, and the crazed fisherman. Peter Benchley's original novel included some nefarious personal dealings that Spielberg did not use in his adaptation, but all the better. There's no in-fighting except for in terms of their hunt for the monster. Everything is about that presence and how the characters come to grips with their inevitable battle to the death with it. Spielberg's blockbusters have always been set apart by the depth of his characters and Jaws set the stage for that.
14. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): "The creators of Jaws and Star Wars now bring you the ultimate hero in the ultimate adventure." Three Spielberg movies in a row. Lucas and Spielberg collaborated on this modern-day take on the classic serial adventure films. Take a hero, throw him into a crazy adventure, and have him dodge certain death time and time again. This movie is so exciting, so well-written, so well-shot. Not only is it the best adventure film ever, but any number of scenes would qualify as the best adventure scenes. Other people have been trying to rip this movie off for decades, but they always seem to fall short. Not just because this movie is so much better, but because it is so timeless and so familiar to everyone that it feels like it was just released yesterday.
13. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) : I saw the posters and the previews and I thought that it might be funny, but it might also be really lame. I decided one night to go see it in the theaters, just to see. After all, Will Ferrell had been on a roll with Old School and Elf. I had never and still have never laughed so hard in a movie theater. There are comedies that are great the first you see them, but have no staying power. There are comedies that you don't get right away, but seem to grow on you. This movie doesn't fade and it doesn't grow, because it is as funny as a movie can be every time I see it. So many classic scenes, so many classic quotes. To top it all off, I bet you think the movie is rated R. I did. Wrong, it is rated PG-13. As great as the mature comedies since Anchorman have been, this didn't need nudity or the f-word a billion times to be as funny as it is. I love this movie so much that I feel like I need to romance it. Say, by putting on a little cologne:
12. Do The Right Thing (1989): The biggest error that the AFI made in their original Top 100 list was to leave this Spike Lee film off, but they fixed it in their tenth anniversary edition. A look at a day in the life of a multi-racial neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film is unforgiving in its portrayal of everyone as both aggressors and victims walking the tenuous line between tolerance and violence. It throws extreme language and situations into the audience's face as a wake-up call to the problems of the inner city. The writing and movie-making are top-notch, but the acting is especially superb, including Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. In some ways, this might be the least celebrated of the movies in my top twenty. A shame.
11. Gladiator (2000): This movie was released to extraordinarily high expectations and, boy, did it live up to them. I have a very vivid memory of watching this in the theaters, looking around the audience, and noticing that people were frozen still at the edge of their seats, completely silent. Russell Crowe gave a performance for the ages in perhaps the last truly epic film that has so far been made. The monologue when he unmasks himself is as powerful as it gets. It's my favorite film of this decade and the one I also consider the best.
Ninety films down and only ten to go. What you don't know is that I actually employed a team of interns to help me with this project. With so little time left, things have fallen apart. They don't feel like writing, I'm tired of finding YouTube links, one of them even got beat up. In a word, it's over:
10. Animal House (1978): The greatest comedy of all time also happens to be my favorite. It set the stage for every comedy that has come after it, with a mixture of classic one-liners, raunchy humor, and a drunk fat guy. It was the first feature film written by Harold Ramis. I mentioned great writing in the blurb about Ghostbusters. After Animal House, Ramis' next five screenplays were Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School. He also directed Vacation and wrote and directed Groundhog Day. I don't think I need to say a lot about this movie, so I'll just give some love to Harold Ramis and his extensive contributions to comedy.
9. Casablanca (1942): This is the newest addition to the list, since I first saw it only a couple of weeks ago. I raved about it then, but that's kind of dumb. Here's a movie that's ranked #3 on AFI's latest Top 100 list, a movie that many people consider their favorite, and I'm writing about how good it is. A little late to the party. With Psycho, I wrote about how Hitchcock had no wasted motion in his films. Casablanca is the epitome of that. A quick 102 minutes, each scene builds towards the ending and each part of each scene is vital to the whole. Everyone has a lot of movies that they want to see, I understand that. I've obviously made a number of recommendations throughout this list. It can be hard to find the time and even if it's not, the time you do take weighs on your mind. If you watch this movie, there's no chance to think about that. It's short and it feels shorter.
8. Die Hard (1988): My favorite action film of all time, Die Hard is the rare Christmas movie where a guy shoots and blows up terrorist after terrorist. The action itself is as good as or better than anywhere else, with the confined space in which the movie is set adding to the suspense. What sets this movie apart is the comedy. Bruce Willis made his name doing comedy on Moonlighting and that attitude was perfect for a wise-cracking New York cop stuck in an Asian company's headquarters in L.A. Similarly, Alan Rickman's bone-dry wit and delivery were perfect foils for Willis.
7. Vertigo (1958): Most people might say that Psycho is Hitchcock's best movie, but I'll go with this one starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. Stewart plays a private detective with a phobia for heights, hired to trail the wife of an old classmate. When Stewart falls in love with her and then the wife dies, Stewart descends into madness and becomes obsessive over a young woman who looks eerily like the dead one. Unlike most Hitchcock films that flow straight through, the split in the movie after the wife's death (marked by the famous animated dream sequence) makes you feel like the movie has lost its way. The twist makes you realize that this break is necessary for the second half to have the power it does. From the opening chase scene to the final shot of Stewart's horrified face, the movie is full of iconic shots. My favorite is this one; the use of color, one of Hitchcock's greatest strengths, is integral to the feeling of the scene, the ghostly light coming from a neon sign outside the window (3:00 mark):
6. Pulp Fiction (1994): Tarantino's masterpiece changed pop culture, makes us laugh, desensitized us to almost any movie violence, and changed our pop culture. It gave John Travolta an improbably comeback, made Samuel L. Jackson a superstar, and introduced the word "gimp" into slang. I'm sure people used the f-word a lot when they spoke before this movie (just watch Beverly Hills Cop), but I feel like this movie helped us down the path to where we are now, where it's almost entirely acceptable in many situations. Pulp Fiction which, along with The Shawshank Redemption, lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump.
5. The Godfather (1972): The story of immigrant life in post-war America. Okay, not just any immigrants. If this were a list of the best movies of all time, The Godfather would be #1. What makes it so great? Because it's a three-hour movie that feels like thirty minutes? Because it incorporates so many all-time lines and scenes? Because maybe no cast has ever acted as well as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire, and company? Every second is lusciously, delightfully perfect.
4. Platoon (1986): The story of a young man (Charlie Sheen), his time in the jungles of Vietnam, and his maturation from boy to adult at the hands of two polar opposite officers (Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe). Oliver Stone's Best Picture winner uses the war to reflect themes of personal growth and the loss of innocence of our nation as a whole. How good is the acting in this? I always swear that if I were to see Tom Berenger after having watched this, I would punch him in the face. He's as hate-worthy a character as I can remember in a movie. The scene in which Willem Dafoe's Sgt. Elias dies is one of the best shot, most memorable scenes of any movie.
3. A Few Good Men (1992): Remember how I said that Ocean's Eleven was a 98 on the rewatchability scale? This is at least a 100. I can't tell you how many times, on DVD or cable, that I've watched this movie, but every time it comes on, I have to watch it again. And again. Aaron Sorkin's writing, based on his play, is what makes the film. Rob Reiner's direction is superb as are the performances, but it keeps coming back to the script. "You can't handle the truth!" may be the most memorable and annoyingly yelled-by-everyone line of the last twenty years, but every time I watch I find something new. Right now, my favorite line is from the part right before the trial starts when Demi Moore's Galloway is trying to convince Tom Cruise's Kaffee to try the case and Kaffee lashes out: "Oh, I forgot. You were sick the day they taught law at law school." Of course, an old stand-by is the inexplicable yelling at poor Lt. Weinberg that Nicholson's Col. Jessep does from the witness stand. Like I said, way back at the beginning of the list, I'm a big Tom Cruise fan. Is it possible for a star that big to be underrated? Maybe.
2. Star Wars (1977): We come to the film that has probably had more impact on my life than any other and yet I underrate the hell out of it. If someone, for the longest time, were to ask me my favorite movies, I'd say a couple and they'd say, "Star Wars?" and I'd say, "Oh yeah, and Star Wars." Maybe I thought that it sounded too nerdy to say that Star Wars means so much to me or maybe I just take it for granted. Even on this list, it started at #3 and I kept staring at the spreadsheet until I realized that it needed to be switched with A Few Good Men. I am a popular culture fanatic and this movie is a larger part of our popular culture than any other movie. Every second of the movie is cherished, beloved, studied in detail, memorized. Yet it still comes in at #2 for me. Maybe I'm still underrating it? I think I'm okay with this. Being my second favorite movie of all time is exceptional. I am equally, if not more so, fanatical about the next movie.
And so, finally, we reach my favorite movie of all time, #1 on our week-long list. And what is it about #1 that I love the most? What draws my admiration? Is it dames? Music? No, it's baseball.
1. The Untouchables (1987): Brian DePalma's hard-edged, bloody tale of the men who took down Al Capone during Prohibition. It is fast-paced and unflinching. Not only do DeNiro, Garcia, and Connery turn in some of their best work, but even Kevin Costner is very good. I could probably write paragraphs on just the memorable lines in this movie, from, "That's the Chicago way!" to, "Your friend died screaming like a stuck Irish pig," to, "I want him dead! I want his family dead!" From the first raid to the scene at the Canadian border to Connery's death to the Battleship Potemkin homage to Costner's revenge on the roof to the courtroom scene ("You're nothing but a lot of talk and a badge! YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A LOT OF TALK AND A BADGE!"), I love every second of this film. My favorite film of all time.
My 100 favorite movies, surely a fluid list, but tough to crack. My favorite movie of this year, The Hangover, wasn't that close. Some wrap-up thoughts tomorrow night. Until then, as Eliot Ness said in one of my favorite last lines, "I think I'll have a drink."