Regular readers will know I often say no self-respecting film buff could ever say what their favourite film is. For one thing, it is entirely dependant on one’s mood. However, on this occasion I have decided to go against conventional wisdom and make an attempt at not only ranking my 100 favourite films of all time, but selecting that elusive favourite. Of course, there is only one criterion by which to judge this: by how much (on a good day) the film means to me personally.
For this reason, I must emphasise that what follows is most emphatically not a list of what I consider to be the hundred greatest or most important films ever made. It is, rather, a list of films that I enjoy and revisit more than any others. Their ranking does not represent increasingly superior quality but their increasing importance to me personally. Therefore you will definitely disagree with the list, simply because it is not yours. If for example you were to argue that Citizen Kane is a better film than Bringing Up Baby, I would probably agree with you. But I enjoy Bringing Up Baby more, so it is higher up the list. Again, if you were to say that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a much more important animated film than The Iron Giant I would agree, but I prefer to watch The Iron Giant. I consider 2001: A Space Odyssey to be the greatest science fiction film ever made, but because I prefer to watch Blade Runner, that is higher up the list. Equally there are some films that would no doubt appear on any list, and others that would only appear on mine.
To reiterate: there are major omissions here. Most cineastes would declare Brazil to be Terry Gilliam’s best film, but on my list it is removed entirely. Similarly, whilst I recognise that Psycho is undoubtedly Hitchcock’s most influential film, it is far from my favourite. Other great directors – such as Bunuel, Ozu, Fellini, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, David Fincher, Werner Herzog, Sanjit Ray and countless others whose work I admire greatly – are not on the list simply because other films have meant more to me personally. If this list were my list of the greatest films of all time, they would almost certainly be represented, but not here.
Since this list is so subjective, I have suspended my usual must-be-at-least-ten-years-old-to-qualify rule, so there are a few “new-entries”. Needless to say, it was very difficult to rank these films. There was much hand-wringing over whether this should be higher than that, and so on. In some cases there are films in the 90s which in purely objective terms are as good as or even considerably better than those in the top 20. But again, this is not a list of the greatest films ever made (which I don’t think I could ever rank in this way). It is a list of personal favourites.
When drawing up this list, certain things surprised me about the final selection. There are more comedies and far less horror films than I expected (hardly any horror in fact). There are also only a few non-English language films, and I deliberately omitted documentaries completely (so no High School, The Thin Blue Line, The War Game, Grizzly Man and other giants of the genre). I anticipated that the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would dominate the higher chart positions, but there are a few other key personal favourites that ended up much higher than I originally anticipated. Also there are several “just outside the top 100” films whose ultimate omission shocked me somewhat – including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Guys and Dolls, One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, La Strada, The Seven Samurai, Manhatten, The Lady Vanishes, Where Eagles Dare, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Graduate, Coma, Westworld, Les Enfants du Paradis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, West Side Story, Brief Encounter, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Don’t Look Now, MASH, Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun, Barry Lyndon, Aliens, The Sixth Sense, Batman Begins… I have too many favourite films.
Still, enough about what was left out. Herewith the final list.
100 – 91:
100. Amadeus (1984) – Milos Forman’s brilliant adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play, about the rivalry between Mozart and court composer Salieri. Try to see the extended version, which clarifies key plot points. Favourite Line: “I am a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not.”
99. A Fish called Wanda (1988) – A truly great heist comedy absolutely overflowing with hilarious scenes (dog assassinations, chips up the nose, Harvey Manfredjensenjen, etc, etc). The genius of the casting is the way John Cleese plays the most normal character, making Kevin Kline’s psychopathic Buddhist Rambo a brilliant foil. Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin are equally brilliant. Favourite Line: “The London Underground is not a political movement!”
98. Ran (1985) – Everyone has their favourite Akira Kurosawa film; The Seven Samurai for some, Rashomon for others. For me it’s his last great film, Ran. Basically King Lear with sons instead of daughters, it’s a magnificent and extraordinarily dramatic epic, which also packs in an amazing climactic battle scene. Favourite Line: “Man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.”
97. All About Eve (1950) – The tale of a fading star being superseded by a rising and manipulative younger rival remains a brilliantly bitter masterpiece. Bette Davis is superb, and there’s great support from good old George Sanders, playing the cad as superbly as ever. Watch out for an early Marilyn Monroe performance too. Favourite Line: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
96. To be or not to be (1942) – Ernst Lubitsch’s hilarious black comedy about a theatre company in wartime Poland impersonating Hitler and members of the Nazi top brass. A masterpiece of bad taste, and well deserving of a place on any list of the funniest films ever made. Favourite Line: “They do the camping, we do the concentrating.”
95. Les Diaboliques (1955) – The greatest Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made. George Clouzot’s nerve-jangling thriller predated Psycho by several years (Hitchcock saw it and was supposedly very jealous). Even though Psycho was more influential I prefer this, and it still has one of the best twist endings in the history of cinema. Favourite Line: “To commit suicide in the Seine, one doesn’t need to undress.”
94. Inception (2010) – Having seen this cerebral and thrilling science fiction movie several times now, my opinion of Christopher Nolan as a genius is firmly cemented. From zero gravity fights to collapsing dreamscapes, it is a truly staggering work of visual genius. Favourite Line: “They don’t come here to dream. They come here to wake up.”
93. Goldfinger (1964) – On points, my favourite James Bond film. Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, the Aston Martin, cool gadgets, rigged golf games, near-castration by laser, the heist at Fort Knox…need I go on? Favourite Line: “Do you expect me to talk?”/“No Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”
92. Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) – John Schlesinger’s hugely underrated take on the classic Thomas Hardy novel has been a personal favourite for years. Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and the rest of the cast are wonderful in this gorgeous romantic epic. Get the Region 1 DVD – it has a much better widescreen print. Favourite Line: “A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine.”
91. What’s Up Doc? (1971) – One of those all too rare comedies that are so funny you feel physical pain from laughing so hard. Peter Bogdanovitch’s throwback to screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby makes me cackle hysterically just thinking about it. Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand have never been funnier. Favourite Line: “I know I’m different, but from now on I’ll try to be the same.”
90 to 81:
90. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) – A first-rate modern western directed by the underrated John Sturges and starring the excellent Spencer Tracey. It also provides an interesting modicum of food for thought regarding the appalling treatment of interned Japanese Americans during and even after World War II. Favourite Line: “I know what your trouble is, son. You’d like me to die quickly, wouldn’t you, without wasting too much of your time; or quietly, so I won’t embarrass you too much; or even thankfully, so your memory of the occasion won’t be too unpleasant.”
89. Jurassic Park (1993) – As a relentless thrill ride, Steven Spielberg’s mega-hit blockbuster is hard to beat. Yes, the characters play second fiddle to the dinosaurs, but this is one case where simpler was better. Astonishing on every technical level; not just direction and visual effects, but also the best use of sound I have ever heard in a film. A very satisfying piece of pure entertainment. Favourite Line: “I hate being right all the time.”
88. Apocalypse Now (1979) – Still the best film about Vietnam in spite of all its flaws. Coppola’s genius was to make a film that wasn’t a political axe grind, but an entertaining yet hugely disturbing tale about the evil in men’s souls, much like the Joseph Conrad novel on which it is loosely based. A must-see on a big screen. Favourite Line: “You have a right to kill me, but you have no right to judge me.”
87. The Terminator (1984) – The rule of thumb with James Cameron is the bigger his budgets get, the less interesting his films are. By that token, the comparative peanuts this cost means it’s still his finest work. A truly stunning slice of science fiction time travel techno horror – lean, mean, thrilling and with emotional punch to boot. Also by far Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most iconic role. Favourite Line: “Come with me if you want to live.”
86. Wall-E (2008) – This contains both an environmental message I actually agree with (about over-packaging and needlessly buying in bulk), and a warning about overdependence on automation. But these messages are implied and never preachy, nor do they drown out the central love story between the two robots. Ben Burtt deserves a special mention here for his sound effects genius, and the achingly beautiful animation represents a high water mark for Pixar. Favourite Line: “Foreign Contaminant.”
85. Dead Poets Society (1989) – Peter Weir’s drama about an inspiring English teacher in a stuffy, repressive boy’s school in the 1950s has become a perennial favourite. Still my favourite Robin Williams performance, he wisely restrains himself and takes a back seat to his pupils. Ethan Hawke in particular is superb, especially in the finale when he overcomes his shyness to lead the boys in their defiant “Oh Captain my Captain” standing on desks routine. It remains powerful and stirring. Favourite Line: “We’re not laughing at you. We’re laughing near you.”
84. Unforgiven (1992) – In many ways, this film represents the end of the western, in the way it strips the genre of its mythology (everything from the fast draw to the penny dreadful tales of heroic derring-do). Instead it shows gunslingers for the disturbed and evil characters they undoubtedly were. Clint Eastwood’s greatest film as director, one of his best performances, and one of the greatest westerns ever made. Favourite Line: “We all have it coming kid.”
83. The Wild Bunch (1968) – Another great western, and the one that more or less invented modern screen violence. Yet this is about so much more than the bloody massacres that open and close the film. Peckinpah’s westerns had no place for false nobility, but the moral code by which Pike and his gang of thieves live, and their loyalty to one another nevertheless provokes a certain admiration. It’s also an elegiac, melancholy work about the end of an era. Brutal and brilliant. Favourite Line: “Let’s go.”
82. Dirty Harry (1971) – Clint Eastwood’s most iconic role was softened in the four sequels that followed, but this tough as nails original remains the vastly superior work. Harry’s equal opportunities political incorrectness and brutality is bearable only because the sniper villain he is tracking down is even worse. Some have argued the message of this film amounts to little more than a fascist end-justifies-the-means argument, but it remains a hugely entertaining (if violent) thriller. Favourite Line: “Well now, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”
81. The Big Sleep (1946) – Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall have genuine chemistry in this fantastic noir thriller, with a plot that is so complicated that apparently even the author Raymond Chandler didn’t know who committed one particular murder. Still, it’s riveting stuff, and endlessly rewatchable. Favourite Line: “Somebody’s always giving me guns.”
80 to 71:
80. The African Queen (1951) – Bogart again, this time alongside Katherine Hepburn in a preposterous but brilliant romantic adventure set in Africa during World War I. His drunken boat captain and her prim missionary remain iconic characters, and yes – at first they hate each other but inevitably… One of director John Huston’s best loved films. Favourite Line: “I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.”
79. Whisky Galore! (1949) – One of the greatest Ealing comedies, this delightful, whimsical film has the brilliantly un-PC premise that drinking is good for you (it encourages one of the main characters to stand up to his domineering mother for one thing). As whisky deprived Scottish islanders go about raiding the whisky laden cargo vessel that is about to sink around their shores during World War II, hilarity ensues. Favourite Line: “It’s a well known fact that some men were born two drinks below par.”
78. On the Waterfront (1954) – Director Elia Kazan’s film is sometimes seen as an apologia for informing (given that he testified before McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities). Regardless of whether or not this is true, Marlon Brando is brilliant in this searing drama, as are Rod Steiger and Eva-Marie Saint. Favourite Line: “I could have been a contender”.
77. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – One of the two greatest anti-war films ever made. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is that it scarred me for life (in a good way) when I first saw it at the tender age of about 8. It single-handedly destroyed any gung-ho ambition I might have had to join the army. Favourite Line: “Me and the Kaiser, we are both fighting. The only difference is the Kaiser isn’t here!”
76. Annie Hall (1977) – Still my favourite Woody Allen film, and a brilliant, surreal, hilarious romantic comedy. Diane Keaton has never been better. Favourite Line: “I have to go now Duane. I’m due back on planet Earth.”
75. Top Hat (1935) – The greatest Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical, and an absolute delight from start to finish. Favourite Line: “Alls fair in love and war, and this is revolution!”
74. Time Bandits (1981) – A band of renegade dwarfs, who have stolen a map of time from God, fall in with a young boy who accompanies them on their adventures. A wildly surreal, funny, thrilling and scary journey ensues as they encounter Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agemennon, the Titanic, God and Satan. Its message – parents should listen to their children – is put forward with frighteningly uncompromising conviction. The darkest, cruellest children’s film ever made. Favourite Line: “Oh, so that’s what an invisible barrier looks like.”
73. The Sound of Music (1965) – Another perennial favourite nigh-on guaranteed to put you in a better mood for having watched (or re-watched) it. Obviously the songs are great, but once the Nazis turn up and spoil everything the story gains dramatic weight, especially in the character of Rolf who goes from lovestruck youth to brainwashed Hitler youth puppet. Favourite Line: “You bought music back into this house.”
72. Citizen Kane (1941) – The oft-cited “greatest film ever made” is a work I have seen, studied and torn apart so many times that it has become comfortingly familiar. Orson Welles astonishingly innovative techniques – both in direction and screenplay structure – are now less important to me than story’s well-worn themes of rise, fall and the loss of innocence. Favourite Line: “I always gagged on the silver spoon.”
71. Spartacus (1960) – My favourite sword and sandals movie. It’s too long and it isn’t Stanley Kubrick’s most personal film, but there’s loads of fighting and pontificating about “What is Rome?” (as in all great sword and sandals pics). Kirk Douglas is iconic, the supporting cast (especially Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov) are brilliant, and the last half an hour in particular packs phenomenal emotional punch. Favourite Line: “Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?”
70 to 61:
70. Mary Poppins (1964) – The truly brilliant thing about Mary Poppins (something that also applies to the best work of Pixar) is the way it appeals to adults as well as children for entirely different reasons. Children love the songs, the jumping into chalk paintings, etc, but for adults it’s the poignant character arc of Mr Banks that really tugs at the heartstrings. The “Let’s go fly a kite” finale is an absolutely brilliant metaphor for the pure joy of rediscovering what is truly important in life. Favourite Line: “Kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts!”
69. Shane (1953) – The great gunslinger-assists-homesteaders-against-cattle-hands movie, which of course has been endlessly rehashed (in the likes of Pale Rider, and reversed in the underrated Open Range). Alan Ladd Jr does what a man’s gotta do, and Jack Palance has an iconic and particularly nasty supporting role. Favourite Line: “A gun is as good or bad as the person using it.”
68. Dances with Wolves (1990) – Kevin Costner’s magnificent epic is a deceptively simple tale of a Yankee soldier who befriends a Sioux tribe on the frontier, and slowly becomes one of them. Stunning performances and set pieces abound, and the film is set to one of John Barry’s very best music scores. There’s a surprising amount of humour too, as well as a powerful, tear-jerking finale. Favourite Line: “I am Wind In His Hair. Do you see that I am your friend? Can you see that you will always be my friend?”
67. It Happened One Night (1935) – Frank Capra’s wonderful romantic comedy features Clark Gable (on loan from MGM as punishment after offending Louis B Mayer) alongside Claudette Colbert. Favourite Line: “Why didn’t you take your clothes off? You could have stopped forty cars!” “I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.”
66. Toy Story 2 (1999) – One of the very few sequels to surpass an excellent original, this remains my favourite in the Toy Story trilogy. Overflowing with thrills, spills, wit, invention and poignancy, it’s a masterpiece for all ages – even after the number of viewings are well into three figures on account of one’s children. Favourite Line: “How do you spell FBI?”
65. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – Whilst Snow White isn’t my favourite Disney heroine, and the Prince is something of a non-entity, the seven dwarfs remain truly brilliant creations. Plus the scary stuff – notably the witch and the flight into the forest – remain properly terrifying, even to today’s post-modern, media saturated children. Seventy-five years after its original release, the animation remains extraordinary, and the songs are still wonderful. Favourite Line: “Why the whole place is clean!”/“There’s dirty work afoot.”
64. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) – Another Ealing classic, this time about Alec Guinness’s scheme to rob a convoy of gold bullion, melt it down into paperweights and smuggle it out of the country. A first-rate heist comedy, slightly let down by the ending (imposed by the censors), but nonetheless hugely re-watchable. Favourite Line: “By Jove Holland, it’s a good job we’re both honest men.”
63. The Untouchables (1987) – Brian DePalma’s stunning reinvention of the eponymous TV series, featuring a breakthrough role for Kevin Costner who is perfectly cast as goody-two shoes Elliot Ness (something that is often forgotten given the presence of Robert De Niro and Oscar-winning Sean Connery). An absolutely brilliant (if violent) tale of good versus evil. Favourite Line: “Don’t let him clean himself until after he talks!”
62. Doctor Strangelove: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1965) – Quite possibly the greatest black comedy ever made (the other contender being Kind Hearts and Coronets), Stanley Kubrick’s scathing satire treats the Cold War – rightly – as material for farce. Peter Sellers is truly extraordinary in his three roles, and the speech where he is on the phone to a drunk Russian President making polite conversation whilst trying to tell him that American planes are about to drop nuclear weapons on his country is nothing short of side-splitting. Favourite Line: “If you don’t get the President of the United States on that phone, you’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.”
61. The 39 Steps (1935) – Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s espionage classic bears little resemblance to the book, but it doesn’t matter a bit. Robert Donat is brilliantly cast as the quintessential Hitchcockian man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, and what follows is still a hugely entertaining romantic thriller. Favourite Line: “There are 20 million women in this island and I get to be chained to you.”
60 to 51:
60. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – Originally I anticipated that this would be far higher up the list, but competition was just too strong. Still, it remains an absolutely iconic, hugely influential science-fiction masterpiece, in spite of some character development flaws that Spielberg himself acknowledges. It really, really needs to be seen in the cinema though – not just for the staggering spectacle of the finale, but for the sound effects in the stunningly eerie opening credits and the mysterious beginning scenes. Favourite Line: “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
59. Goodfellas (1990) – This brutal and foul-mouthed masterpiece detailing the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill is my favourite Martin Scorsese film. The acting – principally from Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – is nothing short of flawless, and Scorsese’s endlessly innovative direction grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. Favourite Line: “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”
58. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – One of the great Powell/Pressburger films sees war pilot David Niven miraculously survive a plane crash after a clerical error in heaven. A supernatural romantic comedy drama with visual effects that look remarkable even now, this remains an absolute classic of British cinema. Favourite Line: “A weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad.”
57. The Incredibles (2004) – My favourite Pixar film sends up the superhero genre, but is also a first-rate superhero movie in its own right. Aside from the stunning action set pieces, I find the plight of Mr Incredible – a superhero forced into anonymity as a result of lawsuits – particularly poignant, as he rails against a world that “celebrates mediocrity”. The film also features the best baddies base this side of You Only Live Twice. Favourite Line: “You sly dog! You got me monologing.”
56. The Man with Two Brains (1983) – Without question Steve Martin’s finest hour. As a brain surgeon who falls in love with a telepathic disembodied brain, he has never been funnier. Kathleen Turner, as his femme fatale wife, is equally brilliant, and the film is absolutely stuffed with hilarious set-pieces. Favourite Line: “If the murder of ten innocent people can help save one life it will have been worth it!”
55. Die Hard (1988) – When Bruce Willis appeared in this genre defining action blockbuster, he was not a star. This helped the film greatly, since there is a real sense of danger throughout – a feeling that John McClane isn’t Schwarzenegger, and could go under at any moment in his perilous game of cat and mouse with terrorists thieves who have taken over a skyscraper; trapping him and several hostages inside. Alan Rickman is a hugely memorable villain, and director John McTiernan builds suspense brilliantly with increasingly explosive set pieces. Favourite Line: “Do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza?”
54. Vertigo (1958) – As far as I’m concerned this is infinitely more disturbing than Psycho, in that it deals with something all too human: destructive romantic obsession. On a first viewing, there is a sense that Hitchcock has let the cat out of the bag too early, but on repeated viewings one can see that this was a very wise choice, as it allows far more emotional investment in the characters instead of the usual attempts to second guess what the answer to the big mystery will be. An extraordinary work in that it is both a superb studio product with a big star (James Stewart in a career best performance) and a very personal work for Hitchcock. Great Bernard Herrmann score too. Favourite Line: “Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”
53. The Wizard of Oz (1939) – When I saw a cinema re-release in the 1990s, I wondered if the children in the audience would still find the witch frightening. They did. There is something about that cackle and the green makeup that remains absolutely terrifying. Scary villains (and monkeys) aside, Dorothy’s trip to Oz remains as enchanting as ever. The twister scene is more exciting than anything in Twister and the songs and characters still delight (as my own children will testify). It’s also incredible to think that the Over the Rainbow song almost got cut by the studio, as they thought it held up the action. One of cinema’s greatest fairytales. Favourite Line: “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”
52. 12 Angry Men (1957) – Henry Fonda had his best ever role in this ultimate shot-in-one-room movie. It remains indelibly cinematic despite its theatrical origins, because of Sidney Lumet’s subtle but brilliant direction (for example, building tension by bringing the walls of the set closer and closer as the film unfolds). It has fascinating insights into both prejudice and the fallibility of the legal system before reaching its brilliant, emotionally satisfying conclusion. A masterpiece. Favourite Line: “Do you think you were born with a monopoly on the truth?”
51. Some Like it Hot (1959) – If this Billy Wilder’s classic isn’t on everyone’s list of the ten greatest comedies of all time, there is something seriously wrong with the list. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are both hilarious as orchestra performers forced to go undercover in drag to escape mobsters after inadvertently witnessing the St Valentine’s Day massacre. The film also features Marilyn Monroe’s most memorable role. Favourite Line: “Nobody’s perfect.”
50 to 41:
50. The Searchers (1956) – John Ford’s greatest western, and to some the greatest western ever made. Certainly John Wayne was never better as the embittered, Indian hating ex-Confederate who would rather kill his niece than rescue her, since in his opinion she has already suffered a fate worse than death in being forced to marry an Apache chief. But Jeffrey Hunter is equally brilliant as Wayne’s partner and the one who ultimately tries to thwart his murderous quest. Monument Valley has never looked more menacing, and that final shot is unforgettable. Favourite Line: “That’ll be the day.”
49. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – The greatest science fiction film ever made, although admittedly something of a marmite film. It has been criticised for being cold, obscure, surreal and lacking in humanity – wrongly in my view. It is, actually, a profoundly human film (ironically, since the strongest character is HAL the homicidal computer). Kubrick’s genius was to tackle the question of are-we-alone-in-the-Universe as an intellectual rather than melodramatic one. A truly unforgettable piece of pure cinema (even if you hate it), that simply must be seen in a cinema to be properly appreciated. Favourite Line: “My mind is going…I can feel it…”
48. Once upon a time in the West (1968) – Another great western, and one that was inexplicably roasted by critics on its initial release. Many prefer Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but for me this operatic masterpiece is his greatest work. The cast are terrific – especially Henry Fonda playing against type as a stone cold killer. Ennio Morricone’s music is astonishingly beautiful too. Favourite Line: “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”
47. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – David Lean’s brilliant war film about the Burma railway contains Alec Guinness’s greatest performance as the honourable but stubborn POW Colonel Nicholson, who loses sight of reality (to say the least) when he assists the Japanese building the eponymous bridge of the title. The nail-biting finale in particular is an absolute knock-out. Favourite Line: “Do not speak to me of rules! This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”
46. Rear Window (1954) – One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most nerve-shredding pictures is not only a stunning exercise in suspense, but also a fascinating examination of voyeurism and paranoia. Whilst recovering from a broken leg, James Stewart becomes convinced one of his neighbours has murdered his wife and cut her into pieces. After an unforgettable romantic entrance, Grace Kelly joins him in his obsession. The flash-bulb finale is absolutely unforgettable. Favourite Line: “You know, if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see: you and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife.”
45. The Magic Box (1951) – An absolutely lovely film about cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene (beautifully played by Robert Donat) that featured cameos from anyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time. The scene where Donat drags a policeman (Laurence Olivier) off the street to see the moving picture camera he has just perfected is a wonderful celebration of the sheer joy of invention. Favourite Line: “Enjoy yourselves!”/“We are going to church William!”
44. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – David Lean again, this time with his staggering, vast, iconic film about TE Lawrence. Peter O’Toole has never been better, but the desert in all of its splendour is the real star of the picture (without so much as a single CGI pixel). There also ought to be a law against watching it on television. It absolutely HAS to be seen in a cinema and on a HUGE screen. Favourite Line: “Of course it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.”
43. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) – This astonishingly dark comedy, about a man murdering his way to becoming a Duke, is both hysterically funny and a scathing condemnation of a class system that punishes virtue and rewards cruelty. Alec Guinness in a tour-de-force plays every single one of Dennis Price’s victims (even the women). Favourite Line: “I shot an arrow in the air. She fell to Earth in Berkeley Square.”
42. King Kong (1933) – Even after all these years, this is still an absolutely thrilling piece of filmmaking. Yes, the script is corny and outdated, but once Kong appears there is no let up in the action as the eponymous giant gorilla fights assorted dinosaurs and later the mechanised monsters of the big city. Fay Wray remains cinema’s greatest screamer of all time, and the Empire State building finale provides one of the screens most memorable climaxes. Favourite Line: “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
41. Superman (1978) – The greatest superhero film of all time (Batman Begins would be a close second for me). Christopher Reeve, a much better actor than anyone ever gave him credit for, simply is Superman, although in some ways his bumbling Clark Kent is even better. The tone of the film – epic, exciting and funny, with just a touch of send-up – is spot on, and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a brilliant brains-vs-brawn nemesis. John Williams absolutely stunning music score (so much more than just the magnificent main theme) is an added bonus. Favourite Line: “We all have our little faults. Mine’s in California.”
40 to 31:
40. Alien (1979) – Ridley Scott’s peerless horror classic remains a textbook example of how to scare the daylights out of an audience. All that is needed is one spectacularly gory moment to let the viewers know what the alien is capable of, and the rest can be left to the imagination (as the crew try to hunt the creature down in the dark nooks and crannies of the spaceship). One of the film’s greatest strengths is the way the characters are not heroes or even friends but simply colleagues who want to survive the nightmare. Sigourney Weaver’s best role. Favourite Line: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathies.”
39. Bringing Up Baby (1938) – The quintessential screwball romantic comedy with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, involving a comedy of errors too convoluted, ridiculous and downright hilarious to explain. Favourite Line: “When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run!”
38. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) – A strong contender for the funniest film I have ever seen. Certainly, I will never forget the first time I saw it. I laughed so much I was in physical pain afterwards. You know you’re in trouble when the opening credits alone are so hysterically funny you are weeping and falling off your seat before the main story even begins. What more is there to say? The Monty Python crew’s send-up of the King Arthur legends is – for me – their finest hour. Favourite Line: “You must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with…a herring!”
37. Blade Runner (1982) – Ridley Scott again, this time with my favourite (as opposed to the greatest) science fiction film of all time. This is also a rare case where the post-release tinkering was actually worth it. Five separate cuts of the film exist, and incredibly the most recent is the best version. Every time I watch this massively influential, visually stunning masterpiece, I notice something new. As Harrison Ford tracks down escaped replicants and ponders what it means to be human (as all good science fiction stories should), the film builds to a stunning climax and that extraordinary, emotionally devastating “time to die” speech by Rutger Hauer. Favourite Line: “All those moments will be lost, like tears in rain.”
36. The Third Man (1949) – The stylish monochrome visuals blew me away when I first saw it. Now, countless viewings later, Carol Reed’s dark thriller in post-war Vienna just gets better and better. It features what is arguably Orson Welles finest performance as a man who has deliberately chosen evil. Not a line is wasted in the brilliant, spare screenplay, and the downbeat climax is absolute cinematic perfection. Favourite Line: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo di Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
35. The Truman Show (1998) – This milestone film anticipated reality television and also provided Jim Carrey with what I consider to be his greatest performance. But this isn’t just superbly satisfying entertainment and prophetic satire. Truman’s journey is also an allegorical quest for spiritual salvation, with Ed Harris’s Christof character standing in for the devil. As Christof says, if Truman really wanted to escape, they couldn’t stop him. Favourite Line: “The last thing I’d ever do is lie to you.”
34. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – The best of all buddy movies pairs the immensely likeable Robert Redford and Paul Newman as the eponymous outlaws. I particularly like the sepia bookends and the thrilling chase in the middle, culminating in the famous jump off the cliff. But the finale, when they are surrounded by the entire Bolivian army, is what really makes this unforgettable. Favourite Line: “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him!”
33. Chinatown (1974) – Roman Polanski’s greatest film is also a strong contender for the finest screenplay ever written (by Robert Towne). This exceptional thriller is so much more than a noir private detective story. It has understated but profound things to say about greed, corruption and the political situation at the time it was made (Watergate casts a dark shadow over the entire plot). Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are both brilliant (especially in the scene where Dunaway’s terrible secret is revealed), and John Huston makes a hideously evil villain. Favourite Line: “Of course I’m respectable, I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
32. Paths of Glory (1957) – This is not just an anti-war film. Nor is it merely an attack on the class system that contributed to the unfairness and misery of the First World War. It is, at its heart, a scathing condemnation of the military mentality itself – a mentality that in this case enables a foolishly ambitious French general to randomly select soldiers to be tried and shot for cowardice after the failure of an ill-conceived attack on an impregnable German position. The battle scenes are brilliantly realised, Kirk Douglas gives his best ever performance, and every frame of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece seethes with anger. Favourite Line: “There are days I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one of them.”
31. North by Northwest (1959) – My favourite Hitchcock film is the ultimate “wrong man” story, as mild mannered advertising executive Cary Grant gets mistaken for a spy. Twists and turns ensue, along with some of Hitchcock’s most memorable set-pieces including the Mount Rushmore finale and the crop-duster plane attack (the latter absolutely has to be seen in the cinema to be properly appreciated). Eva Marie Saint is wonderful as the is-she/isn’t-she-a-villain romantic interest, and Bernard Herrmann provides a terrific music score. Favourite Line: “I’m an advertising man, not a red herring!”
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30. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – My favourite musical is both a wonderful romance and a fascinating insight into what happened in Hollywood with the coming of sound. Memorable songs galore, not just Gene Kelly in the famous title track, but also Donald O’Conner’s brilliant Make ‘em laugh routine, You are my lucky star with Debbie Reynolds, and many others. Sheer joy from start to finish. Favourite Line: “She can’t act. She can’t dance. She can’t sing. A triple threat.”
29. The Great Escape (1963) – Largely unsung director John Sturges helms this fact-based, star-studded account of the greatest allied POW breakout during World War II. I just never get sick of watching it. Besides, I’m convinced if I watch it enough, the ending will change and Steve McQueen will make it to Switzerland. Thrilling, funny and poignant, this remains, after all these years, a great evening’s entertainment. Favourite Line: “We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully.”
28. Gone with the Wind (1939) – Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh play arguably the most famous screen couple in the definitive romantic epic of Hollywood’s golden era. It remains a glorious wallow of a film, and one that I am drawn to again and again. The first time I watched this, I didn’t feel particularly sorry for Scarlett O’Hara, but for some reason, with repeated viewings, I feel more and more sympathy for her. Anyway, it’s wonderful stuff with epic scenes, memorable characters and also my favourite crane shot in cinema history. Favourite Line: “I can’t go all my life waiting to catch you between husbands.”
27. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – So many comic book or adventure films today feel the need to introduce their heroes with a drawn out origin story, but this proves such an approach is not always necessary. We are introduced to Robin Hood the outlaw immediately, without any of the tedious nonsense about him fighting in the crusades or post-traumatic stress disorder that has plagued recent versions. This definitive version of the story understands that it is a romantic myth and rightly treats it as such. Errol Flynn was an actor of limited range, but he was a perfect Robin Hood. Here he is matched by an equally brilliant cast including Olivia de Havilland as Marion and Claude Rains and Basil Rathborne as the villainous Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne respectively. Simple but hugely effective thrills and spills ensue, culminating in the most iconic sword fight in cinema history. Favourite Line: “You speak treason!”/“Fluently.”
26. Doctor Zhivago (1965) – This is the film that introduced me to the directorial genius that was David Lean (at a very young age). I remember urging my father afterwards to show me every single one of his other films. One of the things I love about the story is that it isn’t political. Instead it shows the appalling human cost of the Russian revolution by letting the atrocities speak for themselves. Against all of this is the monumentally tragic tale of the eponymous Zhivago and the two women he loves (the real tragedy comes from the fact that whilst he does love his wife, he loves his mistress even more). It’s worth noting that this was also the first film I saw that had an unhappy ending, and it had a huge impact on me for that reason too. The cinematography is truly stunning (it really, really needs a cinema), and the cast – Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay et al – are all wonderful. Favourite Line: “Wouldn’t it have been lovely if we’d met before?”/“I think we may go mad if we think about all that.”/“I shall always think about it.”
25. Bambi (1942) – In my view, the greatest of the early Disney features. The quality of the animation remains staggering, and the death of Bambi’s mother (“Your mother can’t be with you anymore”) is still one of the most traumatising, childhood defining moments in cinema history. Great supporting characters, especially Thumper the rabbit, and the forest fire finale is terrific. Favourite Line: “I was talking to myself about you the other day. We were wondering what became of you.”
24. Black Narcissus (1946) – Sexually repressed nuns go mad in the Himalayas. Well, perhaps that’s oversimplifying it a bit, but this is a truly astonishing piece of cinema, and my favourite Powell/Pressburger collaboration. It’s also visually stunning, all the more remarkable considering it was almost entirely shot on studio sets. Favourite Line: “Do you think it’s a good thing to let her feel important?”/“Spare her some of your own importance…if you can.”
23. The Iron Giant (1999) – My favourite animated film of all time is this criminally underrated gem from Brad Bird (who also directed The Incredibles). Very loosely based on Ted Hughes The Iron Man, it was a huge flop on its original release (my wife and I saw it in a virtually empty cinema). Set at the height of the McCarthy communist paranoia of the 1950s, it tells the simple but superb story of lonely boy Hogarth who befriends a gigantic amnesiac robot from outer space. Unfortunately, when the government find out about the giant they think its Russian and want to shoot first and ask questions later. Since the giant is programmed to defend itself, it transforms into a War of the Worlds type killing machine and goes on a rampage, with Hogarth trying to persuade the army to stop attacking it. This is a brilliant, brilliant film because for once the story doesn’t encourage children to cheer at violence. The moral – about choosing good over evil – is understated but clear, and as the film builds to an inevitably tragic climax, it’s a heartless soul indeed who won’t complain of something in their eye. Favourite Line: “You stay. I go. No following.”
22. Jaws (1975) – This undisputed classic of the genre is arguably even more extraordinary today. For one thing, it is the most terrifying, disturbing and gruesome film to ever get a PG certificate, apparently on the basis that psychologists concluded it would be more likely to disturb adults rather than children. As a child, I thought this was nothing more than a first-rate adventure story, but as an adult I think it’s both horrifying and upsetting (especially the death of the young boy early in the film – a very dramatic and brave inclusion). This perhaps indicates that the censors got it right. Anyway, Spielberg’s water-level direction is nothing short of genius, the cast are brilliant and John Williams’ iconic score is the icing on the cake. This is also an example of a film that is vastly superior to the book it is based on. Oh, and it’s got may all time favourite jump-out-of-your-skin shock. Favourite Line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
21. Casablanca (1942) – This is another contender (and possibly the one with the strongest case) for the greatest screenplay of all time. Certainly there are lines in this film (“We’ll always have Paris”, “Play it Sam”, “Here’s lookin’ at you kid” etc) that are quoted as much as Shakespeare. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are the former lovers who must put duty over their feelings in this terrific wartime romantic drama, which remains as wonderful now as the twentieth time I saw it. Favourite Line: “Round up the usual suspects.”
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20. Cinema Paradiso (1988) – A favourite of anyone who has ever fallen in love with the cinema, and I am no exception. This simple, poignant story of a Sicilian war orphan and his friendship with the local cinema projectionist is funny, dramatic and heartbreaking, especially in the longer cut which expands on the latter part of the story, explaining what became of the girl Toto fell in love with (some claim the shorter cut is better – wrongly in my opinion). The characters are wonderful, and Ennio Morricone’s achingly beautiful music is my personal favourite amongst his many brilliant scores. Anyone who doesn’t have tears in their eyes during the “kisses montage” finale should seek urgent medical attention. Favourite Line: “Life isn’t like in the movies. Life is much harder.”
19. Double Indemnity (1944) – The quintessential film noir, and my favourite Billy Wilder film. Insurance salesman Fred MacMurray conspires with the ultimate femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband and get rich on the insurance claim. But shrewd claims manager Edward G Robinson unravels their plans. Great performances, a razor sharp script, and brooding atmosphere all add up to a first-rate thriller. Favourite Line: “I couldn’t hear my footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
18. High Noon (1952) – My all time favourite western is a stunningly tense masterpiece from director Fred Zinnemann starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The wait for the killers on the noon train as Cooper’s cowardly friends desert him unfolds in real time, but for once this gimmick actually works and the building of suspense is phenomenal. High Noon is also an allegorical condemnation of the McCarthy communist witch hunts, so its little wonder John Wayne hated it. Favourite Line: “You’re asking me to wait an hour to find out if I’m going to be a wife or a widow. I say it’s too long to wait! I won’t do it!”
17. It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) – The perennial Christmas favourite, and Frank Capra’s greatest film was, incredibly, not a big hit on original release. Yet years of television screenings and re-releases have given it the reputation it so richly deserves. James Stewart is brilliant, particularly in the darker moments, such as when he irrationally rails at his family. The parallel universe sequence, where he is shown by an angel what his home town would have been like had he never existed, is also superbly realised, so that by the time the punch-the-air, feelgood finale arrives, it really feels earned. At the risk of sounding trite and patronising, this film is really good for you. Favourite Line: “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
16. The Godfather (1972) – What is brilliant about this undisputed masterpiece is the way we are asked to admire the Corleone family for their sense of honour and family loyalty. Yet these are criminals and murderers. It is a superb piece of audience manipulation on the part of director Francis Ford Coppola. The cast are equally superb, not just the Oscar winning Marlon Brando, but all the others – James Caan, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall et al – and especially Al Pacino. The screenplay is loaded with classic lines, and this is another example of a film that is much better than the book it is based on. From the opening wedding to the horses-head-in-a-bed, the romantic Sicilian interlude, the tollbooth shooting, and the bone chilling finale (the massacre intercut with the baptism), this is absolutely gripping stuff. Favourite Line: “Never take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”
15. The Godfather Part II (1974) – For once, the sequel is even better than the original. The second Godfather film isn’t so much a gangster movie as a chilling study of power and corruption. A film that features my favourite performances from both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro is nothing short of miraculous, though for me Pacino wins by a nose. His turn is absolutely electrifying, all the more so because this time we aren’t convinced that what he is doing is for the good of his family. Nor, I think, does Francis Ford Coppola intend us to be convinced. Everything about this film is darker and colder than the first. Take for instance the opening party. Compared with the colourful, fun-filled wedding that opened the original, it is full of bitterness, recrimination and a sense of impending doom. As Michael ruthlessly eliminates his enemies this story is brilliantly contrasted with the younger Vito Corleone’s rise to power at the turn of the century, adding fascinating layers of irony to the tale. Favourite Line: “I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!”
14. The Lives of Others (2006) – This riveting story of a ruthless secret policeman rediscovering his humanity in 1980s East Berlin is a both a powerful affirmation of my belief in the power of redemption and a brilliant condemnation of communist ideology. An amazing performance from the late Ulrich Muhe and brilliant direction from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (quite a mouthful) deserves special praise, though the film is outstanding at every other level too. No other recent film has affected me as deeply and profoundly. I vividly recall walking out of the cinema speechless with admiration – not something that happens often. Anyone who believes the ludicrous if-you’ve-done-nothing-wrong-you’ve-nothing-to-fear argument should be forced to watch this. It is a film that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Favourite line: “To think that people like you once run a country.”
13. The Remains of the Day (1993) – Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson long for each other as they dutifully serve Nazi appeasing Edward Fox in the 1930s. As far as I’m concerned, the best story of unrequited love in cinema history. It would be almost too heartbreaking to bear if it weren’t for the gentle humour and wit contained throughout, as Hopkins absurdly repressed character gradually moves the audience from laughter to tears. If there was a film to epitomise the expression “sad is happy for deep people” this would be it. Favourite Line: “We may never meet again, that is why I am permitting myself to be so personal, if you’ll forgive me.”
12. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – The third instalment in Peter Jackson’s magnificent, monumental adaptation of Tolkien’s classic is undoubtedly the most spectacular. The battle scenes with their catapults, horsemen, armoured trolls, giant elephants and swooping Ringwraiths (not to mention ghost armies) are so visually stunning I actually couldn’t sleep after my first viewing as my brain was still racing with the sheer eye-popping-ness of it all. But it is also the most emotionally involving of the three films too, with Frodo and Sam’s journey to destroy the ring reaching its cataclysmic conclusion. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is that I would like to craft my own edit of the film, incorporating some but not all of what was included in the extended version (many of the additions were redundant, but I really wanted the romance between Faramir and Eowyn back in). That said, whatever version you see, it is a phenomenal achievement. Favourite Line: “I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are evil.”
11. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – The second instalment of Peter Jackson’s staggering Tolkien adaptation is every bit as brilliant as the first, but it is lower on the list simply because of the initial “Wow” factor the first one had. From Gandalf’s spectacular freefall duel with the monstrous Balrog to the epic battle of Helms Deep, this is an incredible achievement in epic filmmaking. But the most astonishing element for me is the character of Gollum, played brilliantly by motion capture artist Andy Serkis. By acting the part as though he were a crazed schizophrenic drug addict, Serkis adds genuine pathos and tragedy to the villainous role – aided and abetted by the superb adapted screenplay (it surprising how much of Tolkien’s wonderful song and poetry was worked into the dialogue). Away from the spectacular action scenes, I also particularly liked the poignant and beautiful “flash forward” to the love story between Aragorn and Arwen (as detailed in the appendixes, for those who have read the books). Oh, and Treebeard’s attack on Isengard is a cheer-out-loud highlight as well. The extended version is actually far better than the cinema cut, as it allows the film to breathe and clarifies important plot points. Favourite Line: “Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. They days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?”
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10. Return of the Jedi (1983) – The final chapter of the Star Wars saga is only marginally less brilliant than its predecessors, but not for the reasons generally given (ie Ewoks, who contrary to popular belief enhance the David and Goliath element of the saga with their triumph of primitive but innovative weapons over faceless technology and thus underscore the entire point of the story). The only nit I can pick in this film is that Princess Leia’s relationship to Luke is revealed rather clumsily. For this reason there is actually an argument for someone coming to Star Wars for the first time to watch the saga in this order: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back then go back to watch the vastly inferior prequels in order to see the birth of Leia at the end of Revenge of the Sith – a far more dramatically satisfying way of revealing who she really is – before finishing with Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that nit aside, this remains absolutely fantastic stuff and a hugely satisfying conclusion. With monsters and space battles galore, the special effects are truly eye-popping, and of all the Star Wars films this one above all must be seen in a cinema (for the speeder bike sequence alone). The space battles (done with models rather than CGI) remain the most visually stunning ever put on film even now, almost thirty years later. But the emotional heart of the film is provided by the epic confrontation between the Emperor, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. The stunning finale, as Vader finally turns the tables on his evil master, is as unexpected and punch-the-air triumphant as ever. At the same time, the tragically high price for redemption is deeply felt. Luke framed against Vader’s funeral pyre remains the saga’s most poignant moment. Favourite Line: “Just once, let me look on you with my own eyes.”
9. Schindler’s List (1993) – Incredible though it may seem, there are some pseudo-intellectual types who condemn Schindler’s List because in making a film about the Holocaust, rather than tell a story about the millions who were killed, Steven Spielberg chose to tell a story about a (comparative) few who were saved. That is a completely ridiculous argument, because the story of Oskar Schindler – the businessman who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi death camps by employing them in his factories, systematically bankrupting himself in the process – absolutely deserves to be told and Spielberg told it brilliantly. Shot in monochrome, the film remains every bit as powerful today, and every bit as relevant. Liam Neeson has never been better, and Ben Kingsley provides superb support. But the real revelation here is Ralph Fiennes as odious commandant Amon Goeth. Spielberg took real-life monster Goeth and made him one of the screens most memorable villains because he refused to make him a one-dimensional Nazi thug. There are moments here – especially in his treatment of his beautiful Jewish maid – where flashes of humanity buried deep beneath the demonic Nazi ideology struggle to get out, but are then stifled again by the evil that he has become. Such characterisation makes his monstrous actions all the more diabolical, and this certainly isn’t a film that shies away from Nazi brutality. Indeed, there is no editorialising or comment on the many horrifying sequences – such as the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto – simply because the atrocities speak for themselves. Spielberg’s restless, often hand-held direction was a huge change of pace from his previous work, and indeed marked a change in his style that characterised many of his subsequent films. This is one of the most riveting, chilling, upsetting and almost unbearably moving experiences I have ever had in a cinema (I saw it five times on its initial release). The overall message (one man can make a difference) is delivered with a power and authority unmatched in film history, and there are moments and images here that will stay with me for the rest of my life. In particular, the girl-in-the-red-coat sequence and its subsequent payoff is emotionally shattering, and Neeson’s final breakdown as he laments how he could have saved more has the power to make a paving slab weep. On a spiritual note, I feel this scene also reflects how many Christians will feel when they stand before God in eternity. Favourite Line: “This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. For this…(weeps) I could have got one more person…And I didn’t! And I…I didn’t!”
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – There are perfectly good arguments favouring the other two instalments of Peter Jackson’s landmark adaptation of Tolkien’s classic over this one, but Fellowship is my favourite simply because of the sheer excitement I had on seeing it for the first time. Despite the deluge of rave reviews, I was sceptical that any director could do justice to my all time favourite novel onscreen. Then for three deliriously happy hours, I was proved spectacularly wrong. Every single aspect of the filmmaking is brilliant – from Fran Walsh and Pippa Boyens’ screenplay (a textbook example of how to adapt a book for the screen – show don’t tell!), to Jackson’s innovative direction, the staggeringly beautiful landscapes (New Zealand doubling for Middle Earth) and the absolutely perfect casting. Watching this film felt like meeting old friends, and every actor involved – Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, John Rhys-Davis, Ian Holm and even Orlando Bloom – simply are the characters they are portraying. Add to that the phenomenal visual effects, costume design, set design, art direction, sound effects, editing, and Howard Shore’s brilliant music (the best score of its kind this side of Star Wars), and you have what is quite possibly the greatest film of the last ten years. Classic scenes from the book are vividly brought to life – the birthday party at Bag End, the coming of the Ringwraiths, Rivendell, and above all the thrilling and terrifying journey beneath the mountains. The film has real emotional heft too, especially when two well-loved characters meet their deaths (well, technically it’s only death in one case but lets not split hairs). Favourite Line: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Arnor. The dark fire shall not avail you, flame of Udun! Go back to the shadow. You shall not pass!”
7. Back to the Future (1985) – “A teenage boy goes back in time and his Mum falls in love with him.” As movie pitches go, it’s brilliant. Robert Zemeckis’s greatest film remains one the closest things to a perfect movie. I saw it twice on original release, countless times since, and despite knowing the script backwards, it remains a hugely satisfying watch every time. The characters are wonderful (spot on casting and great performances), the special effects support rather than dominate the story, and the overall effect is exciting, funny and touching. Michael J Fox was born to play Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd remains my all-time-favourite mad scientist. But for me the heart of the story has always been the plight of George McFly (played by the excellent and largely unsung Crispin Glover), who learns to stand up to the bullies and thus break the curse that has plagued his family for generations. George McFly is a character close to my heart for a number of reasons, not just because of his love for science fiction, but because of his ambition to be a writer. The bit when he punches Biff remains a cheer-out-loud highlight, and the literally cliffhanging climax is as thunderously exciting as ever. Without a doubt, the best time travel film of all time, and an absolute classic. If you don’t like this film, then quite honestly there is something wrong with you. Favourite Line: “Are you telling me that my Mum has the hots for me?!”
6. Witness (1985) – As far as I’m concerned, Peter Weir is the most underrated director in the world today. His early films – Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli – remain Australian classics, but with Witness he made his first major Hollywood studio film. There are strong arguments that other films he made subsequently (such as The Truman Show) are superior, but this remains my personal favourite. In form it’s a highly unusual thriller. An Amish boy witnesses a murder in a Philadelphia train station, and the policeman investigating the case is then forced to hide undercover in the Amish community with him and his mother when it becomes clear the perpetrators are his corrupt superiors. At this point, the film becomes more a love story and a documentary-type drama about the Amish. There are hugely memorable moments – such as the iconic barn-raising scene and the bit where the mother and the policeman dance to a song on the car radio (which positively sizzles with romantic chemistry). Weir’s direction is simply brilliant, and Harrison Ford gives a career-best performance (come to think of it, Weir always seems to coax career-best performances from his leads – Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Jeff Bridges in Fearless, Russell Crowe in Master and Commander). But the real reason Witness means as much to me as it does is because as a child it taught me valuable lessons about the destructive nature of violence. Since it had a 15 certificate I was too young to see it in the cinema, but I saw it on video a year or two later and it had a tremendous impact on me. Up until that point, my experience of screen violence was largely the consequence-free James Bond variety, but Witness forced me to confront the ripple effect a single act of violence has – whether it’s the gruesome murder at the start, or the scene later in the film when Ford confronts some tourists who are picking on the Amish for their pacifist stance. On my initial viewing, I was inwardly cheering Ford on when he beat up the tourists, but of course this act leads to him being discovered. Shortly afterwards, during the tense, western-style conclusion, there is a brilliant moment where Ford is yelling at the villain (who has the mother hostage) and the villain is yelling back. Their dialogue is completely incomprehensible as a result, which is perfect, because the scene is shown from the point of view of the terrified mother. As an Amish woman who has turned her back on violence, such actions are incomprehensible. It is very telling that in the end it is not violence but the Amish community itself that causes the villain to surrender, because at this point there are simply too many witnesses. One is forced to consider that perhaps the Amish have a point with their pacifism. Favourite Line: “You be careful out among the English.”
5. Great Expectations (1946) – One of the greatest films ever made, and without question the best adaptation of a Dickens novel (actually, for me it’s the best adaptation of any book ever). David Lean directs with incredible flair, and the cast – which includes John Mills, Alec Guinness, Jean Simmons and Francis L Sullivan (playing my favourite character Jaggers) – are all brilliant, with the notable exception of Valerie Hobson. Whilst being perfectly good as the adult Estella, Hobson was apparently cast as a result of nepotism (she was the producer’s niece) and I think by comparison someone like Vivien Leigh could have been electrifying. That trick missed, everything else is nothing less than astonishing; from the terrifying opening in the graveyard (one the most influential single scenes in cinema history), to the vivid, cathartic finale as Pip confronts the demons of his past. For me, several scenes carry a powerful emotional charge, but none as much as the moment when Joseph Gargery (the brilliant and alas largely forgotten Bernard Miles) welcomes Pip home after he awakens from his coma, despite how appallingly Pip treated him in his misguided quest to be a gentleman. Some criticise the unambiguously happy ending, but I think it’s perfect. It underscores what is for me (in addition to the obvious points about class, Victorian hypocrisy etc) the entire point of the story – the chilling power of bitterness and our ability to overcome it if we choose. There are two new versions on the horizon – another BBC version this Christmas, and a film next year. I can tell you now that whatever their relative merits end up being neither will come close the Lean version. And no future version ever will. Favourite Line: “What larks!”
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – As far as I’m concerned, the single greatest pure adventure film in cinema history, and the best of the Indiana Jones films. There are many reasons for this, not just the brilliant direction of Steven Spielberg and terrific performances by Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman and others, but also Lawrence Kasdan’s excellent screenplay (from George Lucas’s original story). The opening sequence alone is staggering as the character of Indy is superbly established, not so much as an archaeologist, but a grave robber who trusts the wrong people. This thrilling escalation of creepy crawlies, booby traps, hidden treasure, betrayal and escapades is merely a prelude for what follows. In aping (and vastly surpassing) the cliffhanger serials of their youth, Spielberg and Lucas find, in the Ark of the Covenant, the ultimate “MacGuffin”. The many action sequences that follow – including the snake infested Well of Souls and that truck chase – are nothing less than stunning. There is a great sense of humour throughout – where else will you see a monkey giving a Hitler salute? Yet it is the darker side of Indy’s character that makes him so memorable here. In the sequels he is a straightforward hero but in this he is just as obsessed as the villain with finding the Ark – something that twice causes him to abandon Marion. John Williams contributes yet another of his fantastic scores, and the CGI free stunt work and special effects are phenomenal. If anything, this film looks better today than it did thirty years ago. As for the finale, as Spielberg said, nothing is scarier than the Old Testament God. As the Nazi’s are struck down, melted and exploded by the wrath of the Almighty, one is reminded of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indy and Marion wisely opt to keep their eyes shut, whilst the villains are turned into the proverbial pillars of salt. Absolutely fantastic stuff. Favourite Line: “I’m making this up as I go.”
3. Star Wars (1977) – Of all the films on this list, I have watched George Lucas’s fantasy classic (yes fantasy, not science fiction as many mistakenly claim) more than any. I could probably recite not just the dialogue, but the sound effects and music cues as well! Yet still, I would happily watch the film again…and again…and again. Star Wars isn’t just a film anymore. It’s a rite of passage for children and a poignant reminder for adults of their heroic childhood dreams. Of course, these days one has to differentiate it from the inferior prequel trilogy, which is rather irritating. But the characters of this film – Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, C3P0, R2D2 et al – are arguably more iconic than any in cinema history. The strange thing is that the bad acting/dialogue moments and other goofs just make the film even better. “I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” has to be one of the most ridiculous lines, and the bit when the Stormtrooper bangs his head is priceless (it got a round of applause at the cinema screening I attended during the 1997 reissue, since it was attended by people who knew the film backwards). Yet in spite of this, the visual and sound effects remain astonishing. From that stunning opening shot to the edge-of-the-seat Death Star battle, the story is every bit as riveting as it was in 1977. It has thrills, spills, laughs and just enough gravitas to give it a serious edge when necessary. After all, this is classic David and Goliath stuff, and the epic finale – where the mystical Force trumps reliance on technology – speaks volumes to a cynical audience who deep down really want to believe that good will triumph over evil. John Williams’ thundering, magnificent music score is merely the icing on the cake. There is a good argument to be made that even if you hate it, Star Wars is actually the most influential and important film in cinema history, dividing it into two epochs in a kind of BC/AD way. It summarised much of cinema to that point – 1930s Flash Gordon serials, The Wizard of Oz, westerns, Japanese Samurai movies, etc – as well as literary influences like The Lord of the Rings and the Arthur legends, repackaged them in a radical, groundbreaking way that turned it into something unique, and the result became so influential that the industry was transformed (for better and worse). But for me, the most important thing is the simple, exhilarating thrill I feel whenever those magical lines appear on the screen: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… Favourite Line: “No reward is worth this!”
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Generally regarded as the best Star Wars film, and I agree. It has the best direction, this time from Irvin Kershner (George Lucas takes a story and executive producer credit). It has the best screenplay, from Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Said screenplay features the best romantic moments and the influence of Big Sleep scribe Brackett is particularly felt in Han and Leia’s screwball comedy style banter (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”). The film also features the best of John Williams’ landmark Star Wars scores. Here Williams introduces the iconic Imperial March which brilliantly demonstrates his genius in the way he takes a single theme and crafts endless, ingenious variations of it. Away from the music, Empire also features the best monsters (the Hoth Wampa is a personal favourite of mine), the best new characters (Yoda, Lando Calrissian), the best locations (Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City), the best acting (even Mark Hamill is good), the best lightsabre fight (Luke and Vader’s climactic face-off), and arguably the best action set-pieces (the barnstorming AT-AT attack and the thrilling asteroid chase). Empire set a template for these kinds of sequels – ie make it darker, more complex, but don’t forget to leaven the darkness with a good sense of humour. Yet Empire is braver. Empire dares to pull the rug from under its young audience with the greatest plot twist of all time, leaving many narrative threads (such as the fate of Han Solo) dangling as the end credits roll. Someone once described Star Wars as the equivalent of an excellent though naïve childhood, and The Empire Strikes Back as that difficult painful time when after leaving home you realise life can be tough, complicated and messy. In terms of how each film feels, it’s a fairly good summary. Favourite Line: “I am your father.”
And my number one film…. (drum roll):
1. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, the tale of a little lost alien, remains the defining cinematic moment in my life. I vividly recall seeing it aged 7, during its original release, and it had an incalculable impact on me. Even without the personal baggage this film has for me, it is an undisputed classic of cinema. Leaving aside how iconic, influential and successful it was, the craftsmanship involved remains nothing less than outstanding on every artistic level almost thirty years on. There are many personal reasons why this is my number one choice. Here are just ten (spoiler warning in case there are any poor unfortunates who have not seen this film):
When I first saw this, I remember thinking how impressive it was that the opening featured no dialogue at all. It is a wordless, visual, visceral experience designed to make the audience feel the terror and helplessness of the little alien as it is pursued by loud humans with glaring torches and jangling keys. I was desperate for the alien to reach the spacecraft in time, but then of course there would have been no story. Spielberg’s direction is nothing less than superb, and part of his genius here (and throughout the film) is framing his shots at a child’s eye level (akin to cartoons such as Tom and Jerry).
“Dad would believe me.”
As someone who happily has never experienced a broken home, this was the film that introduced me to the fact that not all children are similarly blessed. I kept wondering where Elliot’s father was, until the dinner scene early in the film where it is revealed that he has left with another woman. The scene is brilliantly scripted by Melissa Mathison (who incidentally also wrote the hugely underrated children’s film The Black Stallion – well worth checking out), but it is immediately clear that this is about the divorce of Spielberg’s parents; something he seems to have been trying to get over throughout his entire career. Another brilliant thing about this scene – as Elliot tries to convince his family that there really was an alien in their backyard – is it shows children using anatomical insults they are too young to understand (to highly comical effect), before the conversation turns on the heartbreaking line of dialogue above: “Dad would believe me.”
“How do you explain school to higher intelligence?”
This brilliantly perceptive line summarises my own feelings both then and now about the insanity of school culture. The scenes that follow are absolutely hilarious. ET gets drunk, and because of the telepathic bond between ET and Elliot, Elliot is similarly intoxicated. This leads the fantastic moment where Elliot decides to free all the frogs that are about to be dissected in his biology lesson, whilst at the same time plucking up the courage to kiss the prettiest girl in his class. Oh, and this also leads to another brilliant comedy moment – one that speaks volumes about the childlike perspective vs the adult perspective; when Elliot’s mum is so wrapped up in grown-up busyness that she is literally unable to see a drunken alien staggering around her kitchen. On a spiritual level it’s also a bit of a Mary/Martha moment, since Gertie is trying to introduce her Mum to ET.
“ET phone home.”
In the end, it’s the simplicity of just wanting to go home that tugs on the heartstrings throughout the story. That universal human need is something everyone can relate to, and perhaps accounts for the film’s phenomenal success. Yet it’s also a film about prejudice. ET is not immediately attractive or cute, but he is, as Spielberg puts it “a creature only a mother could love”. Although the message is understated, there is definitely something inherent in the material about not judging by appearance. Certainly when he first appeared onscreen, I initially found ET quite frightening, but then as the relationship develops between him and Elliot, that all changed.
There has been a great deal made of the Christ allegories within the story, and that spiritual factor is certainly something that has drawn me to the film time and time again. ET is a being from another world that heals, both physically and emotionally. The scene where Elliot cuts his finger and ET heals him with a fingertip epitomises this brilliantly. Later of course, ET experiences his own death and resurrection.
“We’re sick…I think we’re dying…”
The moment the NASA scientists finally track down ET is one of the most traumatic things I have ever seen on film. To have the safe, familiar atmosphere of one’s home violated and transformed into a nightmarish antiseptic world of hazmat outfits, plastic sheets and invasive scientific equipment is truly terrifying, and this aspect of the screenplay was nothing less than genius. The first time I saw the film it was in fact so traumatic that I actually blacked that part of the film out of my memory. I can vividly recall everything that came before and afterwards, but that bit is missing. It was only years later – when I saw the film on VHS – that I was able to rediscover those truly horrifying moments.
“He came to me too.”
There is a moment late in the film where we finally discover the scientist who wears the jangling keys (who is literally called “Keys” in the credits). Although depicted as an authoritarian menace up to this point, Keys is ultimately a kind, good man who has been wishing for an extra-terrestrial visit all his life. There is something about his character that as an adult I find adds nuance to the story. He is there for those in the audience who long for the lost innocence of childhood and who weary of a seemingly cynical, uncaring world. He is there for those who ask the question: Is this all that there is? Is there nothing more?
“Would you like the flower?”
After the death of ET – a sequence that brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it – there is a brilliant moment where after saying a heartfelt farewell, Elliot notices the plant pot flower coming back to life. Suspecting ET is alive again, he discovers this is true then amid his euphoria has to hide the fact from the scientists by pretending to cry. Thinking Elliot is beside himself with grief, Keys says to Elliot “Would you like the flower?” The entire sequence is exhibit A in Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to manipulate an audience by having them cry one minute and laugh the next. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that the performances of the children – not just Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore but also the often overlooked Robert McNaughton – are the best child performances I have ever seen in a film.
“Can’t he just beam up?”
The final chase with the bikes, as ET and the children rush to the rendezvous with the spaceship, isn’t merely a thrilling climax. It culminates in what is, as far as I’m concerned, the single most exhilarating moment in cinema history: the bikes escaping pursuit by flying off into the sunset. Adjectives like magnificent and soaring fall pathetically short of describing the emotions experienced. They also fall pathetically short of describing the utter, utter brilliance of John Williams’ Oscar winning music score, which also happens to be my favourite film score of all time.
“I’ll be right here.”
It’s mostly because of the final scene that ET is frequently cited as the most tear-jerking film of all time, but it’s certainly an “up-cry”. Even though ET has to say goodbye to the children and go home, this is emotionally satisfying and, above all, right. What’s more the appearance of a rainbow as the spaceship flies off is a beautiful and appropriately hopeful image indicating that Elliot’s experience has changed him for the better. As for me, I was scarred for life, but I actually believe it is good and healthy to at least once in childhood see a film that has that effect. ET definitely did it for me.
And my favourite line? I think I’ll have to go with: “How do you explain school to higher intelligence?”
Simon Dillon, December 2011.