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.
We're almost halfway through the countdown, so keep coming back to see the rest, especially the highly anticipated Top Ten. Please make comments on the countdown and the films in it if you feel so inclined.
Back to the Future (1985) Robert Zemeckis. The 1950s never seemed more cool as when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox in his first big film role) time-travelled back to them in a souped up DeLorean. Obeying the time-travelling rule of not screwing up anything in the past that will affect the present, Marty has to make sure his parents meet in high school so that he will later exist. The deft interplay of anacrhonism, comparative culture, and solid performances (including Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover as Marty's parents) makes for clever and comical situations.
Days of Heaven (1978) Terrence Malick. Few films contain images as beautiful as those in Days of Heaven. Shot mainly during the "golden hour," the brief period of time just prior to dusk when a golden glow suffuses the sky and land, Malick used this look to create a lyrical film of exquisite pictures of trains puffing away and wheat fields in various states of harvest. Richard Gere plays a fugitive who with his lover and another young girl go on the lam and join a threshing crew in early-1900s Texas. The rich farmer asks the lover to marry him, and knowing that he is terminally ill, she accepts, expecting him to die and leave her an inheritance. When the farmer stubbornly does not die, jealousy and impatience erupt into violence.
Grand Canyon (1991) Lawrence Kasdan. I saw this movie when I had just started to become interested in film in more than a casual way. Although I started out as a journalism major in college, by the fall of my sophomore year I was leaning towards film and made the plunge in that new major over the winter. I saw this film in mid-dive, and it made an impression on me, even if it may not be the greatest movie. Now, how about some comments on the actual film!: a great ensemble cast including Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Mary McDonnell, Danny Glover, Alfre Woodard, and Mary-Louise Parker, populates the Los Angeles setting and story that attempts to capture the early-1990s zeitgeist. Glover plays a hard-working black tow truck driver, Kline a hard-working white lawyer, and while the two would never normally cross each other's paths in '90s L.A., they end up doing so here to interesting effect. McDonnell is Kline's wife, Martin is his movie-producer best friend, Parker is the co-worker who falls in love with him, and Woodard the co-worker that he tries to set Glover up with.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) Charles Chaplin. A lesser-known Chaplin film, Verdoux is one of his later stories, a black comedy about a man (the title Monsieur) who marries rich widows only to kill them off and pocket their fortunes, but doing so to provide for his sick wife. Martha Raye co-stars as one of the widows, who turns out to be more difficult to exterminate than most of his victims.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Milos Forman. One of the better filmic adaptations of novels, Cuckoo's Nest--based on the Ken Kesey book--is the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, in maybe the best performance of his career). Perennial jailbird McMurphy finds himself jailed again on a statutory rape charge, only he plays cuckoo so that he gets transferred to what he thinks will be the much more cushy psych ward. Despite the grief he gets from tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), Randle helps many of his fellow patients (including Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in early roles) make therapeutic breakthroughs, although his own fate is not so positive. The film was the first in over forty years (since Capra's It Happened One Night in 1934) to win the "big five" Academy Awards: best picture, best director for Forman, best actor for Nicholson, best actress for Fletcher, and best screenplay.
Rashomon (1950-Japanese) Akira Kurosawa. This is a pioneering entry in the category of fractured narrative that I have been talking about in the countdown regarding several 1990s films. A woman is raped and her husband murdered in the countryside of 12th century Japan; the viewer does not see the act, but rather is presented four different enactments of it, as seen through the interpretations of the wife and three other witnesses. Questions of interpretation and truth are at the center of the film that first brought the great Kurosawa (as well as Japanese cinema in general) international recognition.
Rocky IV (1985) Sylvester Stallone. Here is another film that falls into the "guilty pleasure" category for me. The Christmas season when it came out (I was in 8th grade) I got as gifts the soundtrack audio cassette, the novelization, the poster book, and probably one or two other things I am forgetting. I still enjoy the soundtrack, filled with songs from '80s stalwarts like Survivor and Kenny Loggins, as well as "Living in America" by James Brown. This is a classic late-Cold War tale (like Red Dawn from the previous year, in the 80s in the Movies 100), pitting the most famous fictional boxer, Rocky Balboa, against Ivan Drago, a Soviet fighting machine. Characterizing the film is the montage sequence showing Drago training while hooked up to high-tech machines and electrodes, attended to by a cadre of doctors and scientists, while Rocky trains in the snow, chopping wood, pulling a cart like a horse, and doing pull-ups on the barn rafters, attended to only by his goofy brother-in-law Pauly.
Safety Last (1923) Harold Lloyd. This is perhaps Lloyd's best and best-known silent comedy feature. He plays a simple country boy who moves to the city and works as a department store clerk. The manager offers $1,000 to any employee who can come up with a surefire way to attract more customers; Harold offers his friend, the "Human Fly," who climbs tall buildings like said insect. Problem is, the Fly is unable to do his thing, and so Harold goes out to climb the building himself. The result is the perfect example of what has been called Lloyd's brand of "thrill comedy," as he (naturally) encounters obstacles and near-falls during his ascent. Lloyd was famous for doing all his own stunts, and although he wasn't really as high as he is made to look, he was nonetheless in real danger as he climbed the walls for the film. This sequence is the source of one of the most widely known images from all of cinema--even for people who have never heard of Harold Lloyd: him dangling over the street from the hand of an oversize clock that is mounted near the top of the skyscraper.
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) Buster Keaton. With this film, this tier of the MediaLog Movies 100 contains a film from each of the triumvirate of great silent film comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. This was the last film Buster made independently before going briefly to the MGM studio to make his last silent feature, The Cameraman (in the 80s in the Movies 100). It's the story of the title character (played by Keaton), an effete city slicker who meets his long lost father (Steamboat Bill, Sr.) for the first time in his small-town home. A riverboat captain, Sr. tries to train Jr. in the ways of the steamboat, but Jr. is more interested in courting the daughter of Sr.'s riverboat rival. When Jr. saves them all from a hurricane, everyone lives happily ever after. Like Lloyd, Buster did almost all of his own stunts, and one of his most famous appears in this film: during the hurricane, the front of a building falls clean off and lands in the street, with a window opening perfectly placed so that it falls over the oblivious Buster, who avoids being crushed by the facade.
The Unknown (1927) Tod Browning. In this incredible silent film, Lon Chaney (the "Man of a Thousand Faces") portrays an armless circus performer who throws knives with his feet--except for he really does have arms, he's just pretending not to so that fellow circus performer Estrellita, who has a horrible phobia for men's arms, will love him. When she does fall in love with him, he has his arms (secretly) amputated for real, only to have another man cure her of her phobia, leaving Alonzo (Chaney) with no arms and no lover.