Assuming that arbitrary lists of movies could ever be interesting, my list of 10 favorites certainly wouldn’t qualify. I’m not a connoisseur of obscure art-house movies, and if there is any new insight to be found in The Empire Strikes Back in 2021, I’m probably not the one to do it.
But what about the rest of the movies that are in my equally arbitrary Top 20 list? Is it interesting to explain why they didn’t make the cut? Let’s find out.
For most of my adult life, this has been what I called my favorite movie ever. I can still vividly remember watching it in the Tate Center at UGA, and the moment that brilliant opening monologue about ethics hard-cut to the image of a hat blowing away in the wind, I thought, “This is my new favorite movie ever.” I love that they just made up gangster slang for this movie that was convincing enough to trick people into thinking it was real. I love that they made a whole different classic movie about how hard it was to make this one, and how much they’d crawled up their own asses. I love that it’s got some of the cleverest dialogue of any movie and one of the best action sequences (the attack on Leo’s house, obviously) and moments of great suspense and one of the most horrifying scenes with the “always put one in the brain!” moment. It’s one of the best movies ever made, but the truth is that I just don’t like watching it anymore. For a while, I told myself that it was because I didn’t want to interfere with my perfect memory of it, but I think it’s more that it’s an impossibly beautiful and clever work of art that just doesn’t resonate with me or connect with me anymore.
Easily my favorite Akira Kurosawa movie, and Toshiro Mifune at his most bad-ass. I don’t feel that compelled to rewatch it, though. Getting the criterion edition of it and its sequel Sanjuro were like retiring them in the rafters of my collection, guaranteeing I’d never watch them again. Hearing it described as a samurai movie inspired by westerns that went on to inspire other western remakes makes me think it might be a good double feature.
It makes me cry like no other movie — not just the opening, but the gut-punch of Dug’s “I was hiding under the porch because you are my master and I love you” when you’re not expecting it. It’s also the funniest of Pixar’s movies (Toy Story 2 is a close second) and it had me crying laughing with all of the dog voices, and just its overall charming weirdness. But I’ve never liked the villain, and the last act is the weakest because they tried to focus on action instead of the amazing characterization the rest of the movie had mastered.
I love the movie, I love the book. Obviously the imagery is iconic, but I think the most brilliant thing about the movie is how much of it simply doesn’t make sense. It’s kind of a shame that so much of it has been parodied at this point, with shots casually shared online (I’m definitely guilty of it!) because there’s such a sense of transgression during the sequence where Wendy’s freaking out and trying to escape the hotel. It felt like the film crossed a line, inserting a shot that seemed innocuous (compared to, say, torrents of blood coming out of an elevator) and confusing in the middle of a climactic suspense movie sequence. “Was that real? Where did that come from? Wait, were they doing what I think they were doing? Are you even allowed to show that in a movie?” I still say The Exorcist is the most horrifying movie I’ve ever seen — that I can still watch, at least; I’ll never watch Audition again — but The Shining is still the best-made horror movie. The only reason I wouldn’t name it one of my 10 favorites is because it’s not fun to watch.
A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven
My favorite Powell & Pressburger movie, a fantastic wartime romance about a doomed pilot returned to Earth by accident. We were shown this in a film class, and I’d never seen anything like it — so many moments of magical weirdness, including the strangely fascinating character of a motorcycle-riding doctor played by Roger Livesey. I feel like it’s spiritually similar to Wings of Desire, and they’d make an interesting double feature.
One of the best comedies ever made, with astounding performances from just about everybody involved. And, like Seaman accused me of that one time, I would constantly quote lines from it and laugh and laugh. The only two reasons it’s not in my Top 10: first, it kind of runs out of steam in the last 20 minutes, before HI’s vision of his and Ed’s future redeems the movie. Second, I’ve just seen it too many times now. There was a period in the late 80s and early 90s when I could quote the opening 15 or so minutes of this film in its entirety. “Well. Sometimes I get the menstrual cramps real hard.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Same thing I said about Raising Arizona, although the movie you obsessively quote as a teenager hits different than the movie you obsessively quote in your 20s. Sometimes I feel like I watched this movie with the same level of misguided passion as the people in Room 237 watched The Shining. I even started to get the Clockwork Orange effect, where I’d watched it so much that it started to get repulsive. But I set it aside for a couple of decades, so I got better. I feel fine, I think I’m going for a walk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Still just an astonishingly well-made movie, with some of the most fantastic moments of spectacle that made me want to go into animation. Plus what might be my favorite line of dialogue in cinema history. (“I would’ve been here right after you called, but I had to shake the weasels.”) I think what keeps me from loving this movie more is something that would be absolute sacrilege to anybody who ever aspired to be an animator: I’m not crazy about Richard Williams’s style. He did so much to elevate the art form, but I just feel like a lot of it lacks personality that resonates with me. The Roger Rabbit shorts are meticulously animated, with his fixation on checkered floors and 24 fps, but there’s just too much going on that none of it connects. The end result is that Roger Rabbit feels like a one-off: the animated characters work brilliantly with the live actors, to a degree that they’re not even pulling off in current movies, but I’m not interested in seeing any of them on their own.
His Girl Friday
Just an hour and a half of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell being their most charismatic, with some of the best dialogue and so much of it! When I first saw it, I was amazed that a movie made in 1940 could feel so contemporary. I bet it still would today, if you could get past some of the most dated elements, like those two-piece phones, or the entire concept of a print newspaper, or journalists with an actual obligation to journalism.
I still say it’s too bad they never continued Ripley’s story after this one, because its ending feels so perfect and so earned that it implies a fascinating continuation along with Hicks and Newt. The last act of Aliens is so brilliant at layering complication on top of complication, with multiple simultaneous timers going on, that it would’ve been an astounding suspense thriller even if it didn’t also have its themes of femininity and motherhood. The reason this one isn’t in my Top 10 is because I forgot about it. It should probably swap places with The Cabin in the Woods.