What makes a film great?
People have been trying to answer this question since cinema first appeared on the scene. Pun intended. When asked, “What are the greatest films of all time?” the list actually doesn’t vary that much.
Generally, you see these ten films, not necessarily in this exact order each time, but very little variation occurs.
2. Citizen Kane
3. The 7th Seal
4. 2001: A Space Odessy
5. The Passion of Joan of Arc
6. The Searchers
7. City Lights
8. The Godfather
9. Seven Samurai
10. 8 1/2
Or something to that affect. Feel free to include or substitute Casablanca, In the Mood for Love, The Mirror, Apocalypse Now, Raider of the Lost Arc, It happened One Night, Wild Strawberries, The Bicycle Thieves, Rashomon, The General, Battleship Potemkin, Raging Bull, and a few other as you please. Why these films? Primarily because they changed the established visual medium forever: the structure of story altered, editing shifted, music evolved, the camera moved differently, the acting raised the bar, etc. With these films, the cinematic landscape of movies advanced boldly to new levels. pushing the craft towards unexpected territory.
However, the greatest films of all time are not always a filmmakers favorite film. Greatest and favorite are not the same, and many directors and filmmakers got into the game by a film that wouldn’t be considered “One of the Greats.”
Here is a list of my 10 Favorite Films with a brief blurb about why each one is on the list:
- Hamlet (1996) – Directed by Kenneth Branagh:
This is the perfect film. It’s one of the few films that I have no complaint with. From the acting to the costuming, score to editing, cinematography to production design, this film uses the filmmaking process to every advantage. Not enough praise can be given to this adaptation of Shakespeare’s best work.
2. The Lord of the Ring (2001-2003) – Directed by Peter Jackson
Epic. The word has almost no value in our modern society. However, this trilogy has no other apt description. The two dominant aspects of these films that strand out to me is the management and handling of of some odd dozens of characters and yet we understand the motives and intent of every single one of them, and the imagery. Cinema has the daunting task of having to provide images that become engrained into the culture and seared into the minds of the audience.
3. Ikiru (1952) – Akira Kurosawa
This is the first Kurosawa film that left me unable to move after the final scene. How do you present the story of a man who knows he will die; how do you explore that theme and not leave the audience bored; how do you discover the humanity in a character who doesn’t care for humanity? There is no other film that best deciphers man’s mortality than Ikiru.
4. Le Samourai (1956) – Jean-Pierre Melvile
When I discovered the Criterion Collection, this was the first film I bought mainly because of the cover: the title and the coolest man I had ever seen looking to the right, anticipating an unseen obstacle and planning his next move. This is Jef, a French hitman, and this is the coolest film I have ever seen. From the jazz score to the cat and mouse detective game, this film makes such a complex arthouse film look easy and simple.
5. Stalker (1979) – Andrei Tarkovsky
The most frustratingly philosophical film I have ever experienced. This actually might be my favorite film – I haven’t seen it enough. Only three times. Yet every time, the primary aspect that stands out is the movement of the camera. This is the best shot film I have ever seen – the camera movements emphasize the themes and questions the film explores. And there are no easy answers. Perhaps the reason I find this film so fascinating is that I discover more and more with each repeat viewing and not only am I made a better filmmaker for it, but a better person as well.
6. Pride and Prejudice (2005) – Joe Wright
I merely saw this film at the right time in my life to realize that every aspect of filmmaking has to work together to tell the story or else the film doesn’t work. Everything within the established film world has to make sense and follow the “world rules” presented in the film. This was the first film I understood that with. This film, every part of it, makes sense.
7. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – Hayao Miyazaki
Miyazaki, possible the greatest animated film director of all time. He has not made a bad film. Not many in the industry can hold that torch. He produced classic after classic, but this one has always stuck with me. I think it’s because of the unexpected story and how its presented on screen. I remember finding myself (this still happens today) absorbed in the uniqueness of world, the quirkiness of the characters, the majesty of the art, and there’s a fire demon who likes bacon.
8. Heat (1995) – Michael Mann
The first time I saw this film was on VHS at Arlis Moon’s recording studio when I was in 8th grade while the band I was in (Too Few Forgotten) was recording our second EP. It was late and I was tired. But from the opening heist, I was hooked and awake. Not enough has been said about his film’s realistic portrayal of the honest criminal underworld and the corrupt police department. The coffee scene between Pacino and De Niro is the most intense conversation ever filmed – a perfect masterclass of the craft.
9. A Man for All Season (1966) – Fred Zinnemann
I hate “based on a true story” films. They bother me because film is essentially a lie – a fabrication. The actors are pretending, the script is ultimately the author’s interpretation of whatever they are writing about, editing doesn’t happen in real life. However, the story Sir Thomas Moore never succumbs to the inadequacy of the usual blandness and unnecessary exaggeration of these types of films. Still based on a true story, the grand story never feels forced or metallic; rather it is surprisingly warm and convicting, while being equally extravagant and intimate.
10. Sorcerer (1977) – William Friedkin
The sound. This film is the best example of how sound becomes its own character in the film world. Never has sound design and editing left me sweating – and the film is only PG! No music needed – no acting required – just the sounds of two truck’s being driven by four wicked men across roadless South America with unstable nitroglycerin in their trunks and every tire screech and twig snap and wind howl and wave splash and gun shot and labored breath to put us in their frame of frantic mind.
What about you? What are your favorite films and why? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading.