Films are listed in alphabetical order, with the year of release, country of origin (if not American), and director listed after the title. A brief annotation on the film follows.
These are not my favorite movies (necessarily) or what I think are the "greatest" movies of all time. They are movies that made an impact on me and my cinematic sensibilities, tempered by considerations of the traditional film "canon" and the conventional wisdom regarding what are the all-time "best" movies.
The upper half of the countdown is still to come. America waits with eager anticipation for the remaining five tiers. Make a comment if you wish on the countdown or any of the films therein. You know you want to.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) John Hughes. We should all every once in a while have a day off like Ferris had, if only to keep us on our toes. Matthew Broderick, in a career-making role, plays Ferris, a lovable yet impish high schooler who just doesn't feel like going to school one day. After wheedling his best friend (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend (Mia Sara) into joining him, he skips school to gallivant around his hometown of Chicago, taking in a Cubs game and the Art Institute, and performing "Twist and Shout" and "Danke Schoen" in a parade (not a good way to avoid detection for truancy). The day off is not without hazard, though, as the school principal (Jeffrey Jones) is on the hunt for habitual school-skipper Ferris, Ferris' sister (Jennifer Grey) is on to his scheme, and he makes it back to his supposed sickbed just in time for Mom and Dad to find him right where they left him that morning. Along the way the teen trio learns lessons of assertiveness and the value of taking it easy in this wholly enjoyable teen flick.
Laura (1944) Otto Preminger. Perhaps my favorite film noir, Laura is the story of two men (Dana Andrews & Clifton Webb) who each have an obsession with the title character (played by Gene Tierney). At the beginning of the film, though, Laura is presumed dead, only to show up mid-film to the great surprise of the detective Andrews, who is investigating her death and falls in love with her--or rather her image in a painted portrait that features prominently. Webb is a newspaper columnist-cum-radio commentator who maintains a platonic relationship with her while harboring romantic feelings of his own.
Metropolis (1927-German) Fritz Lang. This great silent science fiction film is a story of the class struggle, set in a futuristic society where the ruling class (the "head") subjugates, and as a result doesn't understand, the working class (the "hands"). One young man of the ruling class, the son of a factory magnate, decides to find out how the working class lives and infiltrates the workers in his father's factory. He falls in love with Maria, the leader of the workers, only to have his father replace her with a robot. A lot of mechanistic imagery of factory machinery and ranks of workers, all very futurist and modernist in nature, helps to make this pioneering sci-fi film a visual delight.
Modern Times (1936) Charles Chaplin. I did not plan it this way, but Chaplin's satire of mechanization is a great companion piece to Metropolis. The same kind of mechnistic imagery found in the former film is used by Chaplin here in a comical fashion, as The Tramp (in the iconic character's last film) runs afoul of assembly lines and gear shafts, while courting the gamin played by Paulette Goddard (one of Chaplin's real-life wives). I've always thought that it is apt that in the forlorn Tramp's last film, rather than walking alone into the distance in the middle of a film-ending iris-out, as he does in most of his other films, he walks out the same way, only accompanied by Goddard's character, as if to signify that as The Tramp disappears into the sunset for the last time he does so having finally found love.
The Navigator (1924) Buster Keaton. Another of Keaton's great silent comedy features, The Navigator has Buster at sea. He plays a rich socialite whose beloved rejects his marriage proposal. They both end up accidentally on board her father's ship, "The Navigator," not knowing that her father has been captured by spies who cut the boat loose. Hilarity ensues as Buster creates comedy out of a variety of maritime contraptions and situations, and romance results as he manages to convince his damsel of his true love. As an undergraduate film student, I took a class exclusively on Buster Keaton's films and was able to see all of his great works and develop a love for this unique filmmaker. This interest was stoked in graduate school when I was able to attend several of the annual Buster Keaton Festivals in Iola, Kansas, near his rural Kansas birthplace. Keaton's stoneface comic persona (in which he reacts to all variety of circumstances, comic and action-oriented alike, with a stoic, nonsmiling facial expression) is one of the icons of cinema.
The Pawnbroker (1965) Sidney Lumet. One of the most haunting films ever, this is the story of a concentration camp survivor who, twenty years later, is a simple pawnbroker who tries to keep to himself and resents anyone who intrudes on his attempts at seclusion. The one thing that he cannot prevent from intruding is his memories, which flare up throughout the film in nearly subliminial flashbacks, such as when he (through a turn of events) ends up in a room with a topless woman and can only think about the naked female prisoners being led to their death. The pawnbroker's surroundings in a mid-1960s ghetto neighborhood are thus juxtaposed with the circumstances of Nazi death camps in one of the films that prefigured the films of the late-1960s "New Hollywood."
Raging Bull (1980) Martin Scorsese. Widely considered to be the best film of the 1980s, this is also one of Scorsese's best. Robert De Niro portrays boxer Jake LaMotta, whose story is told in flashback from the perspective of his later, desperate career telling old stories in nightclubs to make a buck. De Niro (winner of a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts in the film) famously put on extra weight to play the latter-day LaMotta, and Cathy Moriarty plays his shrewish wife. Raging Bull is one of the great recent black and white films, as Scorsese modelled its look (especially in the boxing scenes) after the contemporary black and white tabloid photography of the 1950s. Perennial De Niro sidekick Joe Pesci co-stars as LaMotta's brother.
Se7en (1995) David Fincher. Fincher was one of the great new filmmakers of the 1990s, with films such as this one, Fight Club (in the 70s in the Movies 100), and The Game. This is probably his best thus far, and it's a horrifying story the name of which refers to the Seven Deadly Sins. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman star as the archetypical brand new detective partnered with the grizzled veteran on the verge of retirement, only the cliché is overlaid with a strikingly original tale of twisted depravity set in an unnamed city of unsurpassed dreariness. Kevin Spacey is the righteous psychopath who commits a series of slayings the victims and methods for which match each of the deadly sins. He manages to finish the seven killings through a double murder with a stupefying and shocking twist.
Some Like It Hot (1959) Billy Wilder. This Wilder film stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as jazz musicians on the lam from the mob, and Marilyn Monroe (in her best role) as the singer of the girl band they join under assumed female identities--and in drag--in an attempt to keep a low profile. Much of the film consists of the train ride to the band's gig in Florida, with a variety of comic situations stemming from the two male stars in female garb. Once in Florida, another large segment of the film deals with Curtis' second assumed identity as a millionaire playboy that tries to seduce Monroe's character, Sugar Kane. The film ends with what is perhaps one of the greatest closing lines in film history: when the rich codger (Joe E. Brown) that has been pursuing Lemmon in his female guise finds out that he is really a man as they speed out to sea in a speed boat, Brown's reply is, "Oh, well, nobody's perfect."
Tin Men (1987) Barry Levinson. This is a lesser-known Levinson film, one of his "Baltimore trilogy" that also includes Diner and Avalon (and, made after the label was affixed, Liberty Heights). Danny De Vito and Richard Dreyfuss star as "tin men," or aluminum siding salesmen in early-1960s Baltimore. Barbara Hershey is De Vito's wife, and John Mahoney, Bruno Kirby, Michael Tucker, J.T. Walsh, and Seymour Cassel are fellow tin men. The tin men engage is questionable sales tactics, cutthroat competition with one another, and dubious ethics in a field that was still new and ungoverned at the beginning of the 1960s; the nominal plot of the film involves a government investigation into the practices of the aluminum siding industry that threatens to end the unique subculture of the tin men. The film bristles with the same kind of snappy dialogue and eclectic and eccentric characters as Levinson's breakthrough film Diner, and in the end is almost as good. Coming out in the late-1980s, Tin Men was one of the first movies my family had on videotape after getting our first VCR, so I learned it almost by heart before I ever started to study film in a serious way.