This is my list of the top ten movies that I think are excellent at this moment in time. I fully expect you to disagree with my list, to hurl abuse at me for not including x,y or z. Good. This is in no way going to represent the movies that I think are the best ever. I may not even give satisfactory reasons for my choices. I am going entirely on instinct and allowing that to guide me. I’ll probably look at this list tomorrow and ask myself what I was drinking.
That is the beauty of movies. One day, a film will be everything you need to see, to hear, to experience. The next day it might seem to be a total piece of crap. Ever seen a film in the cinema and thought it was great, then got it on DVD and realised that it was actually a bag of arse? I certainly have.
So, in no particular order, let’s get started.
Number 1: Fight Club dir. David Fincher (1999)
What can be said about this gem? The Chuck Palahniuk novel was masterfully adapted into this violent, funny and intelligent actioner, with star turns from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (among others). Its simplifying of male relationships and masculine aggression is satisfying without dumbing down, and the ‘twist’ (such as it is) is handled well. The film explores consumer culture without being preachy, using the source material excellently. It is dark and stylish, cool without trying too hard, touching without being saccharine.
If you haven’t seen this film, where have you been for the last thirteen years? If you doubt Brad Pitt’s acting ability, you need to see this film. If you’ve ever shopped at IKEA, you need to watch this film. If you’ve ever wanted to destroy something beautiful…well, you get the picture.
Number 2: High Fidelity dir. Stephen Frears (2000)
A lesser known John Cusack vehicle, with supporting roles and cameos from Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Iben Hjejle, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert and Bruce Springsteen. Quite a cast, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they are all excellent choices for the roles they have been given. The movie is adapted from a novel by Brit author Nick Hornby, and the story is transplanted from London to Chicago, but the director and cast handle it really well. The novel focuses on the whirlwind of emotions stirred up when Rob (John Cusack) is dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). This prompts a bout of navel-gazing and soul-searching as Rob seeks out his Top Five, All Time, Most Memorable Break-Ups in order to discover why he keeps getting dumped.
Most of the story revolves around Rob’s record store and his love (or obsession) with pop music. Everything is described in terms of the emotions in music; the soundtrack supports this with tunes from Dylan, Elton John, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Al Green and a marvellous version of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On performed by Jack Black.
If you like music and feel that it has had a profound effect on you, or if you’ve ever been dumped, or in love, watch this film. It’s one of the few films that actually brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.
Number 3: The Shawshank Redemption dir. Frank Darabont (1994)
So the third film in my list is another adaptation, this time from Stephen King. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank, where he suffers the usual prison unpleasantness, but he befriends the prison ‘fixer’, Red Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Dufresne uses his skills in accountancy to get on the good side of the guards, led by the sadistic Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), and eventually helps Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) to embezzle funds from an inmate labour scheme.
Despite everything that happens to Dufresne, he never gives up hope, and that is the message of this movie: they cannot take your hope if you don’t let them. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautifully uplifting movie, helped by remarkable performances, stunning direction and excellently crafted story. The film is narrated by Freeman, with his instantly recognisable inflections, and spans several decades, showing the institutionalisation of the characters as they spend the best years of their lives behind the walls of Shawshank.
This is a wonderful film and deserves a place in every film fan’s collection.
Number 4: Raiders of the Lost Ark dir. Stephen Spielberg (1981)
I was born in 1975, so I was probably 8 years old when I saw this film. I challenge any 8 year-old boy to watch Indiana Jones buckle his swash across the Egyptian landscape without immediately wanting a brown leather jacket, dusty fedora and bullwhip. Jones (Harrison Ford in one of his finest roles) is the ultimate action hero: he is as flawed as he is brilliant.
The plot is a glorious blend of pulp action, Nazi bad guys, biblical occultism and rocky romance. It even has a monkey. What more could you ask for? The cat-and-mouse game of chase with the Nazi antagonists is genuinely fun, high praise indeed. Klaus Kinski famously turned down the part of Major Toht, calling the script “moronically shitty”, but the $384 million box office would suggest that the audiences disagreed.
Raiders… is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but wears its enthusiasm proudly on its sleeve. It is a true romp, with actors that really seem to be enjoying themselves. The villains are stereotypical; sneering, perverse Nazi torturers, brilliant and amoral French archeologists. The heroes are equally stereotypical; Jones switches between bookish nerd and stubbly action man with aplomb.
As a film, it is simple and wonderful. I could watch this every day for the rest of my life and I probably would never get bored. It deserves a place in every film fan’s DVD collection and is the only film on this list that I will allow no disagreement. If you don’t like Raiders… you don’t like films. Simple.
Number 5: Blade Runner dir. Ridley Scott (1982)
The first science fiction film on the list and the second Harrison Ford vehicle, Blade Runner tells the story of Rick Deckard, hired to chase down and ‘retire’ four androids (known as replicants) who have returned to Earth to try to extend their short lives. The film has had several incarnations, culminating in the Final Cut in 2007. This version was the only one that Ridley Scott had full creative control over, removing the noir style voice-over, altering the unicorn dream and many other little tweaks.
Personally, I quite liked the voice-over, despite the fact that it was mainly used to highlight the important plot points for the hard of thinking. I felt that it gave the film an old-school noir feeling, reminiscent of the detective films of the 40s.
The changes made to the film go some way towards answering the question of Deckard’s existence: Is he a replicant himself? Scott has made his opinion clear, but ultimately it is down to the individual viewer to decide on their own.
The film is based, albeit loosely, on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but is far more coherent. Dick was a renowned drug user and his novels often reflect that aspect of his life, questioning ideas of humanity, paranoia, authority and so on. The film entertains some of these notions, but does so in a far more controlled way, showing Deckard as a man haunted by his own life, emotionally involved in the fate of those he is tasked with ‘retiring’.
The most outstanding feature of the film is the look of it. From the smoky, dimly lit interiors to the stark silhouettes of the cityscape, the film looks futuristic, even thirty years after its release. The lack of CGI lends a gritty realism to the world, making it far more believable than modern attempts at the genre.
Overall, Blade Runner is a wonderful film, fantastically acted, brilliantly scripted, beautifully shot.
Number 6: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope dir. George Lucas (1977)
Originally released as plain old Star Wars, this is the one that started it all. Spawning two sequels, three prequels, two spin-off movies, Tv series, video games a-plenty and more merchandise than it is possible to recount, Star Wars genuinely changed the world of film forever. The cast were mostly unknowns, with the exceptions of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and the story fantastic. Harrison Ford again features, this time as the smuggler Han Solo, with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The film also features arguably the most iconic movie villain ever, in the six-foot six form of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and Emperor Palpatine’s right hand man.
I will accept that A New Hope is not the best of the films, but it is the one that came first, and it introduced me to an astounding universe of adventure, laser swords, bizarre creatures, beautiful princesses, charming rogues, spaceships, other worlds, epic battles and robots. I will never forget the way I felt as I watched the film for the first time, aged four. It began a lifelong love affair with science fiction (and was ultimately responsible for my feelings of betrayal when Phantom Menace was released), and will always hold a special place in my heart. It is by far the most innocent of the six movies, and although the storylines are not completely worked out (Luke kissing his sister ‘for luck’ is possibly one of the more creepy moments when viewed in retrospect) it is still a wonderful experience to watch.
Number 7: The Big Lebowski dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (1998)
The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, AKA The Dude, LA’s finest stoner and bowler. The plot centres around a case of mistaken identity and kidnapping, as Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the wife of disabled millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddlestone), disappears. Dumb hijinks ensue, but really the plot of the film is not important, despite the many twists and turns that the Coens shoehorn into the two-hour runtime. The real joy of this movie is the way in which the Dude drifts from one disaster to the next, ably assisted by his best friends, the Viet Nam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the put-upon Donny (Steve Buscemi).
The dialogue and character portrayals are excellent, with some scene stealing turns from Lebowski’s aide Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and the Stranger (Sam Elliott), and really the dialogue is the main reason to watch the film. Bridges and Co. really create the sense of reality despite the bizarre situations, and it is hard to watch without laughing out loud as long as you don’t get caught up trying to follow the plot. It is a film in which very little of importance happens, much like the Dude’s life, which centres around bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flashback. Walter’s ‘Nam inspired rants and inability to accept defeat are endearing rather than annoying, and Donny, despite rarely being noticed by the other characters, is genuinely sympathetic.
I have perhaps been a little harsh on the plot. It isn’t that the plot isn’t important, more that it is merely a vehicle for moving the main characters around and allowing them space to indulge in conversation. This is a truly character driven movie and would be just as enjoyable if the main characters weren’t seeking compensation for the Dude’s soiled rug, or chasing the missing $1 million around LA. One of the Coen brothers best films.
Number 8: Watchmen dir. Zack Snyder (2009)
I know that this is going to annoy fanboys across the internet, but I don’t care. I liked this movie. I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel, and I was really quite worried when I heard that it was being adapted for the big screen, especially when I heard it was being directed by Zack ‘300‘ Snyder. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is different to the graphic novel; of course it is. Alan Moore’s comic is unfilmable. The version that finally made it to the cinemas is a good attempt, and works very well as a stand-alone story.
The plot follows the investigation into the murder of retired hero, The Comedian (played with eerie menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The investigation is led by sociopathic vigilante, Rorschach (a wonderfully unhinged Jackie Earle Haley), complete with voice-over extracts of his stream-of-consciousness journal.
The action is heavily stylised, as one would expect, which fits the tone of the film well, and the lighting, set design and soundtrack all add up to a stunning spectacle. The denouement is well handled, with genuine pathos, unusual for a superhero film. There are some drawbacks, of course, but these are minor compared to the positives. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) looks far too much like a caricature, rather than the actual ex-president, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) spends a disturbing amount of time being all blue and naked, but other than that the whole film is a satisfying watch and a very good example of the superhero genre.
Number 9: X-Men dir. Bryan Singer (2000)
The one that arguably started the craze for comic book adaptions, X-Men stars Hugh Jackman as fanboy favourite Wolverine, as he is inducted into Charles Xavier’s team of superheroes, the X-Men. The humans are discovering that mutants walk among them, capable of incredible feats, and they are rightly scared. Xavier believes that humans and mutant can live together in harmony, but his old friend Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he knows what the dark side of human nature can lead to. Therefore, the film has three distinct groups, none of whom are typical bad guys. The humans are largely unrepresented in the film, except by the bigoted Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who changes his tune of hate and begs forgiveness from equally bigoted Storm (Halle Berry).
The story is solid, supported by talented actors and assured special effects. The influence on the genre is unarguable too, with this film spawning two sequels, one prequel and a spin-off (so-far), as well as triggering a surge in comic book movies, from Iron Man, Spider Man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, John Constantine, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim and on and on and on. This popularity shows little sign of slowing down, with big budget movies for The Avengers, Spider Man, Judge Dredd, Batman and Superman all due for release in the next few years. Good news for geeks!
Number 10: The Usual Suspects dir. Bryan Singer (1995)
So, for the last film on my list, I have gone for another Bryan Singer helmed project. The Usual Suspects is a cleverly constructed whodunnit, told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in the office of Sgt Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) of the NYPD. Kint was arrested after a boat was destroyed in San Pedro but has FBI protection. Kujan is desperate to get to the truth as he is obsessed with finding and arresting Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).
The film is genuinely incredible, with strong performances from the ensemble cast, and an engrossing, well told story. The shadowy antagonist is alluded to throughout, and served as one of the advertising tricks for the film: ‘Who is Keyser Soze?’ – a question I won’t answer here, on the off-chance that you have not seen it!
The Usual Suspects was not a huge commercial success on its release, but its relatively low budget of $6 million did mean that it began to make its money back reasonably quickly. Since then it has gone on to become a massive cult success and gained a strong mainstream following as well.
This film demands a second viewing, if only to see all the clues that you missed first time round, and the denouement of this film is second to none.
Right, that’s this list of random films completed, and I’m already thinking of films I should have included. So here is a quick list of the top ten films that didn’t make it:
2) It’s a Wonderful Life
3) Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
5) Mad Max
6) Reservoir Dogs
7) The Dark Knight
8) Ocean’s Eleven