My Top 15 Movies Of All Time

[2022 Ed. Note — Oh my, how this list has changed in the last decade-and-a-half…Consider this an historical artifact.]

Here, in no particular order, is a list of films I either really enjoyed or had a profound impact on me as a film-goer, but didn’t quite make my Top 15 list:

Ghostbusters, Glengarry Glen Ross, Alien, Remains Of The Day, The Wild Bunch, Nixon, The Departed, Unforgiven, The Shining, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Big Lebowski, The Good The Bad & The Ugly, Grosse Point Blank, Reservoir Dogs, The Godfather Part 2, Full Metal Jacket, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Bridge On The River Kwai, Brazil, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Casablanca, Gangs of New York, When Harry Met Sally, Mary Poppins, Amadeus, Back To The Future, Star Wars Trilogy (Original), The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hunt For Red October, Jackie Brown, Boogie Nights, Batman Begins, Ronin, Swingers, Wag The Dog, Traffic, Paths Of Glory, Schindler’s List, Braveheart, The Searchers, Copland, Fargo, A Fish Called Wanda, Richard III, Raging Bull, Chinatown, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Apollo 13, Clerks, The Lion In Winter, Planes Trains & Automobiles, Midnight Run, Dazed & Confused

Here is a quick rundown of my #6-15:

Speaks for itself
Modern cinematic comedy begins here. None of the gloopy sentimentality of Chaplin, or the mechanical blankness of Keaton. The Marx Brothers were anarchic, surreal, and superhuman. This flick has bonus dose of anti-war satire (most pointedly in the gala musical number “All God’s Chillun Got Guns.”)
Anyone who’s ever had their lives enriched by a headlong, reckless plunge into loving music at an early age will recognize themselves in this movie.
12. HEAT
Cops and crooks are equally unhappy with the lives they’ve carved out for themselves. Obsession is unhealthy, folks, no matter what side of the law you’re on. This also boasts one of the best shoot-outs captured on film
A reminder that you should always be able to rely on the redemptive power of friendship
In looking over the Coen Brothers filmography, this is the best of a damn good bunch
A beautiful black-and-white valentine to everyone who has more enthusiasm than talent
A white-hot jolt of sheer joy and energy. Director Richard Lester invents the jittery visual vocabulary of the music video, and the Beatles are the fuckin’ Beatles.
Anyone who’s ever been stuck in a crummy place where you can’t really leave, and the people in charge can’t really get rid of you, has tendency to act out in inappropriate ways. Robert Altman’s signature style (episodic plot, overlapping semi-improvised dialogue) has lost some of its uniqueness, but none of it’s anti-authority bite. And on a personal note, the 4077th bears a few superficial similarities to the school I work at. (The leadership style of our principal owes more to Col. Henry Blake than Ed Rooney.) By the way, I’ve always hated the TV show. Hawkeye is Donald Goddam Sutherland, not that smirking bitch Alan Alda.
6. THE GODFATHER Sooo close to the #5 spot, but without it’s tragic, inevitable denouement in Part 2, the story feels unfinished.

And now, the TOP 5:

Filmed by Stanley Kubrick in a straight-faced gritty documentary style, this classic dark comedy tackles the darkest subject of all: global nuclear annihilation. Rogue Air Force General Jack D. Ripper, driven insane by sexual impotence, orders his B-52s to drop their nukes on the Soviets, which would trigger the Soviet’s top-secret “Doomsday Device,” with worldwide destruction to follow. Tone and character are everything in this movie. Lines like “He’ll see everything! He’ll see the big board!” read like nothing on paper, but become perfect comic gems when spouted in context by the likes of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott.

Peter Sellers is nearly forgotten these days, and those who do remember him remember him mainly for the endless series of Pink Panther sequels made by Blake Edwards in the 1970s. Sellers was depressed and frail, dying slowly from heart disease, when he was put through his Inspector Clouseau paces by the overrated hack Edwards in an increasingly desperate series of slapstick-y schtick. The first two Clouseau movies, made a decade earlier, were a delight…which leads me to the Sellers of the swinging 60’s. A comic whirlwind, tossing off surreal radio shows, comedy albums chock full of characters and accents, and his specialty — playing multiple roles in a single film.

He plays three characters in Dr. Strangelove: a very proper British RAF officer, the exasperated President of the United States (based on 50’s politician Adlai Stevenson), and the titular Doctor, an ex-Nazi scientist employed by the U.S. government (but unable to control his prosthetic arm, which continues to throw up the Nazi salute.) The President’s one-sided phone conversation with the Soviet premier is a scene for the ages: “Dimitri, one of our base commanders went a little funny in the head…and went and did a silly thing…”

In any other movie, this tour de force performance would be the highlight (I guarantee you, people unfamiliar with Sellers will not be able to tell it’s him in the different roles), but it must take second place to George C. Scott as Air Force General Buck Turgidson. A perfect portrait of the ultra right-wing military fanatic, Scott’s Turgidson is an eye-rolling, gum-chomping force of nature. He cheerfully believes the U.S. will come out on top in any nuclear exchange: “Now, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.”

Sellers, Scott, and veteran western actor Slim Pickens as B-52 pilot Maj. “King” Kong (who takes the famous hat-waving ride on the descending nuclear bomb) play caricatures, yes, but just realistic enough to remind you that sometimes the people in charge, in real life, are complete idiots.

Ah, 1994. A hell of a year. I was 19, occupying a two-bedroom apartment with 4 other junior college students, with a shock of dark hair falling across my forehead like an anime character, and weighing 130 pounds soaking wet. I hung around coffee shops, took creative writing classes. Demon alcohol had not yet passed my lips. It was also the year my eyes were fully opened to the possibilities of cinema.

Despite what a lot of people think, Pulp Fiction did not arrive like a bolt from the blue. I saw Reservoir Dogs on video that spring, and became an instant Tarantino fan. I soon began hearing rumblings on E! reports from Cannes about the new Tarantino film taking the festival by storm. An issue of Entertainment Weekly that summer featured the four principal cast members in costume (but Sam Jackson, strangely, without his jheri-curl wig). Something was brewing, and I wanted in on it. Fevered to the frothing point, I bought my ticket for the 10:15 show on opening night. October 5, 1994. I still have the ticket. It was playing in one of the smaller auditoriums in the cineplex. It was half-full. Six people walked out before it was over. I was blown away. Walking weak-kneed from the theater at one in the morning, I wanted to to do it all over again. I corralled one of my roommates to see it the next night. We left feeling so…fucking…cool. We bought a pack of cigarettes afterwards, and drove around town with the windows down, smoking and being cool.

I had considered myself an avid movie-goer prior to this, but really, to me, movies were divided into two basic categories: Summer Blockbusters (Batman, T2), and Middlebrow Oscar Bait (Rain Man, Dances With Wolves). I enjoyed both equally, but Pulp Fiction showed me there could be more. Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeve (to a fault, sometimes), so following his trail of breadcrumbs sent me down the road to French New Wave, Kurosawa, spaghetti westerns, and indies, indies, indies. If it had the Miramax logo on it, I rented it. Which, a few years later, led to the sad discovery that indie movies could be just as inane and pointless as the mainstream fare they were meant to be “better” than (as anyone who has sat through Basquiat and Search And Destroy can attest.)

Anyway, by Christmas our apartment soon sported a huge Pulp Fiction poster in the dining area, my roommates and I swapped P.F. dialogue, and…P.F.’s true lasting legacy to me…I began watching more and more varied movies, began to truly understand the vocabulary of film, and began to be a critical viewer.

Martin Scorsese is my all-time favorite director. An unoriginal choice, but true. (If you want originality in choices of favorite movie directors, buy me a drink and ask me about Walter Hill.) Scorsese always manages to keep the audience slightly off-kilter, his eye always prowling, without the amped-up hyperness of those who try to imitate his style. The stories he chooses to film are perpetual motion machines, feeding their own flames, inhabited by unpredictable and obsessive characters. I have never looked at my watch during a Scorsese film, which is the highest praise I can give a director. (All right, I sneaked a few peeks during Kundun.)

In Goodfellas, Scorsese strips away the romantic sheen that Coppola’s Godfather films layered over the Mafia lifestyle. The wiseguys in Scorsese’s world drove Cadillacs and wore flashy suits, but had to hustle non-stop to keep up appearances. In one of the character’s own words, they were “blue-collar guys” who could not enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of their labor because they were always looking over their shoulder, worrying about “rats,” or looking ahead to the next score. The violence in Goodfellas was not “movie violence.” It looks like it hurts. When Henry Hill pistol-whips his girlfriend’s neighbor, every bone-shattering blow is punctuated with a sickly “thuck” sound, and the brutal stomping of Billy Batts dispels forever the idea of “honor” among thieves. These are ugly people…and the audience is complicit in their ugliness. Scorsese’s characters are more often than not weighed down with guilt complexes, but there is no guilt among the wiseguys in Goodfellas. The guilty ones are the viewers for being so willingly drawn into the web Scorsese spins. Even the most sympathetic character, Karen Hill, shamefully admits to being “turned on” by Henry’s violent proclivities. She speaks for all of us, whether we admit it or not.

The story ends in a haze of cocaine and paranoia, with the solo Mick Jagger song “Memo From Turner” blaring on the soundtrack. (No one can pick musical cues better than Scorsese, except, maybe…Tarantino.) Scorsese and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker build this sequence up to a crescendo, squeezing every last morsel of tension out a man at his wit’s end and coming apart at the seams. As progressive as the filmmaking techniques are, Scorsese is forever looking backwards in terms of storytelling. The day-to-day life of a hoodlum is chronicled with all the matter-of-factness of a black & white TV crime drama of the early 1960s, and Ray Liotta’s rat-a-tat voiceover owes a lot to the 30s-40s pulp tradition of Dashiell Hammett and the film noir he inspired.

#2. JAWS
Steven Spielberg’s film takes storytelling down to it’s most primal core: man vs. wild. These are the stories spun by Cro Magnons around the campfire. Jaws touches the fear that lives at our deepest core, lurking in our psyches since we lay in our bassinets: getting devoured alive by a hulking beast. To add to that fear, it happens in an element where we humans are most out of our element. To quote my friend Erik Hanson, “The ocean is as much the bad guy [as the shark].” Too true. Our bodies were not meant for water. On the few occasions when I have swum out past my depth in a body of natural water, the merest brush of seaweed on my foot causes me to yip like a scalded Chihuahua and splash comically toward the shore.

So here we have the story of water-hating, boat-hating uptight Martin Brody (Roy Schieder), who happens to be the police chief of an island community that exists on the bounty the beaches provide (i.e., tourism.) When a killer shark shatters the idyll by attacking swimmers, Brody must face his fears and do something about it.

Often derided by cinephiles for kicking the door open for the “summer blockbuster”-type movie, Jaws never sacrifices story for spectacle, or loses sight of the human element. Time is spent observing Brody’s relationship with his wife and sons, giving the hard life-or-death choices he makes at the end of the film an extra, chilling perspective. Even the human characters we are anxious to boo and hiss, like the “greedy” mayor who wants to keep the beaches open, can reveal themselves as real people and engage our sympathies. In his final scene with Brody, the mayor chokes back tears and whispers “My kids were on that beach, too.” He had miscalculated the scope of the problem, and genuinely wanted what was best for his town. The villain stereotype falls away, and we are left once again with the film’s real enemy: The sea, and the sea’s frightening superiority over each and every one of us.

Brody reluctantly takes to the high seas, aided by shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and ichthyologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) for the final third of the film, and we see how isolated they are. Nothing but sea and sky, and their ramshackle little fishing vessel that begins falling apart, bit by bit…Spielberg wisely chose to shoot these sequences on the real ocean, rather than the studio tanks that were in common usage back then. No doubt it added to the budget, and the cast and crew’s discomfort, but the visceral reality of the sea chase scenes make it worth it. Quint’s monologue (written specially for the film by John Milius, and expanded on by actor/playwright Shaw before cameras rolled) about the fate of the USS Indianapolis illustrates the battle they are fighting is only the latest installment in an age-old conflict.

John Williams’s creepy score has become synonymous with being stalked by unknown horror, and this movie made the career of relative unknown Steven Spielberg. It’s numerous inferior sequels and the “blockbuster” mentality it inspired in studios should not be blamed on this amazing, edge-of-your seat adventure film, that still packs a few jolts for those who haven’t seen it (yes, they exist.)

This movie has it all: great action, memorable (and highly quotable) dialogue, philosophical undertones, and it’s an epic mind-fuck to boot.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s dense, difficult novel Heart Of Darkness (with 1960s Vietnam replacing turn-of-the-century Africa), it’s the fundamentally simple story of a military intelligence operative (Capt. Willard) sent on a covert mission with a small boat crew up the Nung River through Vietnam and into off-limits Cambodia to “terminate” the command of a rogue officer (Col. Kurtz) who has set himself up as a god among the primitive Degar tribe.

The plot merely serves as a sturdy clothesline for director Francis Ford Coppola’s series of increasingly surreal and disturbing set-pieces that pop off like a string of firecrackers in the viewer’s mind every ten minutes or so. Willard’s pre-mission drunken, sobbing breakdown in his hotel room…the air cavalry attack on the Viet Cong village set to the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries”…the mango hunt in the hazy jungle (photographed in cool, blue light) that results in a face-to-face encounter with a ferocious beast…the USO show where sex-starved soldiers rush the stage to get at a trio of unfortunate Playboy bunnies…the LSD-addled rendezvous with other isolated U.S. personnel at Do Long bridge. “Who’s in charge here, soldier?” asks Willard of one of the bridge’s weary defenders. “Ain’t you?” comes the befuddled reply. The film’s implication is that any attempt to control or corral killing and brutality when it is manifest on such an enormous scale is ultimately laughable. No one is really in charge when insanity reaches this level.

Willard (played by Martin Sheen with characteristic intensity) finally reaches the Colonel’s compound hidden deep in the jungle. He encounters a long-missing photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who is clearly bugshit crazy, acting as a sort of jabbering spokesman for the as-yet-unseen Kurtz. When Kurtz (Marlon Brando) finally deigns to appear, you never quite see all of him at once. He is clearly an immense mountain of a human being, but he lurks in the shadows, sweating, wheezing, philosophizing. He may be just as crazy as the photojournalist, but when he speaks, he makes a lot more sense.

KURTZ: Are you an assassin?
WILLARD: I’m a soldier.
KURTZ: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocers to collect a bill.

Kurtz is no more of a monster than anyone in position of great authority. He just happened to have the opportunity and knowledge to harness his darker impulses so effectively that other people “in charge” (see above) see their pettiness and ineptitude thrown into stark relief by Kurtz’s sheer power of will. And it terrifies them. And in the end, they send Willard to sacrifice Kurtz in order to atone for the sins of everyone who ever stepped on innocents during the course of an ideological crusade, everyone who believes the end always justifies the means. Balance is restored. The horror…the horror.

I feel like I have gone on quite a bit, and yet barely scratched the surface. The performances, the music, the ideas are all top-hole, especially the mind-blowing visuals, done full-scale and for real, which makes today’s CGI-fests look like an ADD kid’s paint-by-numbers set.

CHECK IT OUT: Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – recently out on DVD, this documentary shows that the process to create this film was just as insane and exhausting as the film itself.
AVOID IT: Apocalypse Now Redux – The extended “director’s cut” edition of the film. Every added scene detracts mightily from the impact of the original. The Coppola that made these choices is the Coppola that made Jack, not the Coppola that made The Godfather or the original Apocalypse.

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