Perhaps it’s a testament to my love of cinema that it’s taken me over 2 weeks to complete this top 100 list, or perhaps I feel I can’t be a true cineaste without one, or maybe even it’s something to do with the upcoming Sight & Sound top 10 poll. It’s probably all of these things, and in making this list I wanted to create something that could be returned to. At 17 years old, I wanted to make some sort of catalogue of films – they may not be the best I’ve seen, and some of them I’ve only seen once, but every single one has made me laugh or cry or both or moved me in some way that great cinema can, and in the end this was the criteria I prioritised. Other criteria included just one film per director, which is not to say that Rear Window could just as easily be Vertigo, or The Shining replace 2001. This also means that some directors that have created many masterpieces are perhaps underrepresented, but ultimately I had to choose my favourite from their work. It felt worth restricting myself in order to better represent my taste in film, however I have highlighted my favourite directors in bold. Plus, who wants to read a list with 20 Hitchcocks and 20 Woody Allen movies?
Hopefully, I plan to come back to this list regularly every 2 years. This is not a be-ale to end all (sorry) list by any means. There is still so much to see, so many filmmakers to discover, so many eras unknown to me and so many great films yet to come. If cinema was an iceberg, then I’ve only caught a glimpse of the tip on the horizon. Hence this is really meant as some sort of personal film canon, one that may tell you more about me than I could. It’s also meant as a discussion point (as all good lists should be), feel free to leave a comment if you wish to inquire about any films I have or haven’t included and why or indeed if you wish to borrow any. Also, I’d love for anybody to post their own top 10 and maybe I could make another page especially for you guys. I’ve included a little bit of (spoiler free) reasoning as to why the top 10 are my favourites with the other 90 being listed in alphabetical order, as well as links to clips and songs referenced (basically 50-100 words of gush).
The list itself was actually rather revealing, in retrospect. Just 1 film is directed by a woman, with all but two of the top 10 featuring a male main character(s). Genres, too, are mostly ignored on this list – a lack of musicals, comedies, horrors and others are not a sign of my disrespect for these genres, simply that there’s not enough room for everything (and most of these genres could substantiate a list of their own) and as someone interested in the ethereal nature of genre, it’s perhaps only natural that those least definable should make up the majority of this list. Africa and Asia, the two largest continents on Earth (fuck off Antarctica), are largely excluded with the majority of films being US or English language productions. Add to this that the good majority of these films I watched outside of the cinema, and you have a fairly flawed list. Who’s to say Lawrence of Arabia wouldn’t make my top 10 had I seen it the way it was intended?
Finally, in Paul Schrader’s ‘Film Canon’, he suggested that there is one film that, without which, the entire list would be deficient. For me, that film is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
TL;DR – It’s subjective, it’s for fun.
Anyway, without further digression, here is a list of my 100 favourite films.
1. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
A no holds barred dive straight into the mind of Terry Gilliam, there are too many reasons to list here why Brazil is currently my favourite film. Lest to say the delight of its absurdity is unrivalled by any other film I’ve seen and that Gilliam manages to weave in an engaging narrative with OTT, but fascinating, characters is nothing less than a sign of his immense creativity as a filmmaker. It’s a rare film that manages to bring together elements from the fantasy, comedy, romance, action, thriller, cop drama, musical and film noir genres, but who other than Terry Gilliam (with the assistance of Tom Stoppard) could pull all this together in one story? More than this, Brazil’s structural trickery and just plain silly happenstances means it never ceases to be entertaining in the purest sense. Sublime performances from Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm, De Niro and Michael Palin propel us through Brazil’s authoritarian fantasy (although maybe not so much a fantasy, as Gilliam said he wanted ‘to sue George Bush for making an unauthorised remake of my film.’) Michael Kamen’s exotic score has lasted the years and is constantly used in trailers and commercials, but from the opening beat I can’t help but immediately return, I will, to old Brazil.
2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
One of the most recent films on the whole list, Andrew Dominik’s 2007 masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James is an ambitious and astonishing piece of cinema. Here Dominik manages to expertly pull together Roger Deakin’s sumptuous cinematography, a haunting, but beautiful soundtrack by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, and two actors at the top of their game (Brad Pitt & Casey Affleck), in bringing his excellent screenplay to fruition. The 1 hour 20 minutes of deleted scenes at the insistence of the studio may be one of modern cinema’s greatest losses, but what is left is a film equally fascinated by the infamous bandit Jesse James as it is his greatest fan, the childish and hopelessly prospective Robert Ford. Dominik inflates the film with beautiful timelapses, intrinsically developed characters and impeccable editing. Overlooked because of its box office failure, it is nonetheless a personal, ambitious vision at the apex of a brilliant decade for cinema.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Kubrick’s groundbreaking sci-fi movie isn’t for everyone with its glacial pace and ambiguous narrative, but I can’t recall a single watch of 2001 that hasn’t left me breathless. With Greg Trumbull’s spectacularly cynical vision of the space stations of the future (angular, grey, indistinctive) and Kubrick’s unusual choice of soundtrack (at first, a romantic Viennese Waltz, followed by this heart wrenching piece) they work together to make something majestic. Yet this isn’t all. In either an incredibly brave or stupid move (depending on your reaction), at one point the film seems to teleport out of anything remotely recognisable, transcending imagery and meaning until it becomes one mind numbing drug trip. 2001 may be a literary adaptation, but there is nothing that isn’t cinematic about this film.
4. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Having to choose just one Hitchcock was a challenging task alone, but having narrowed it down to his finest I had to go with my gut favourite. By the time Hitch made Rear Window, his grasp on the thriller genre was so tight he could create an agonizingly suspenseful film shot only from a small apartment and starring a man in a wheelchair. Perhaps the brilliant twist in Hitchcock’s film is that in watching a film about a man peeping on his neighbours through a wide window, it’s really not too far off a cinema audience watching people they don’t know on a wide screen, with our frustration at being unable to reach into the frame and our eagerness to watch more equalled every step of the way by Jimmy Stewart. The finale of the film is arguably one of the best executed pay offs in cinema, making the taut build up seeming nothing more than foreplay in the hands of a master director’s manipulation.
5. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson was only 29 when he made Magnolia, but never before has a filmmaker amassed such an impressive profile in as short a time since perhaps Orson Welles or Gene Kelly. Out of all his works (Punch Drunk Love is one of my most watched films), it is Magnolia that seems to come together as his greatest and most fully realised works (although, watching the special features reveals Anderson had even more up his sleeve that didn’t make it into the cut). In its 3 hours, Magnolia crash zooms in on the lives of the residents of Santa Monica. Starting with 3 unconnected coincidences and ending with a bold finale, Anderson throws so much to keep our attention in between: from the public humiliation of a boy genius, to pausing the story completely so the cast can sing along to a downbeat Aimee Mann song. With all its visual boldness and Anderson’s meticulous approach, Magnolia’s trump card is its superb ensemble performances. Some called it a bloated affair of vanity, attacking its lengthy running time and Anderson’s audaciousness, but you can’t help come out of watching Magnolia without feeling something, which, perhaps, is one of the principle goals of all great art.
6. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)
In considering the 100 films that have affected me the most, I must surely include the one that has made me laugh more than any other. Whilst other comedies seemed to have faded over time, Shaun is the one that I can return to again and again and, rest assured, find the same things hilarious and find other moments I overlooked. But more than his great use of music, his encyclopaedic embrace of pop culture and his knack for tonal shifts, director Edgar Wright brings something so quintessentially British to Shaun. He looks up to Tarantino, Raimi and De Palma, but Wright’s films are so much more rooted in their Britishness, in the recurring Cornetto or in the cliché pub or ‘GET FUCKED, FOUR EYES’. Britain doesn’t exactly have the most bursting film industry (cheers Cam), but Wright’s motivation to make Shaun didn’t come from box office or awards, but rather from playing Resident Evil all night and going to pick up the newspaper and wondering ‘What if there was a zombie apocalypse in an English suburb?’. There’s something quite humbling about Shaun of the Dead that, more than its comedy, makes it an inspiring watch for any aspiring British filmmaker.
7. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
Reservoir Dogs may not be Tarantino’s most fully realised work, but it is by far and away the one film of his I simply had to include in the top 10. I suppose more than anything, Tarantino’s work has acted as a sort of gateway for me to discover the numerous talents he imitates (for example the worlds of Scorsese, De Palma and Hawks all reveal themselves in Dogs). But with the advantage of knowing these influences, subsequent watches of Reservoir Dogs have proven even more enjoyable as Tarantino’s snappy dialogue is far too quick and witty to all be appreciated on just one watch, and I need not mention the unusual soundtrack choices and immersive non linear rhythm of the film, courtesy of the late Sally Menke. It was the first film that really made me think about what a ‘director’ does, and that led me to thinking that that’s what I wanted to do to, and for this I owe it to QT to include it in my top 10.
8. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
Having to choose between Sergio Leone’s exceptional catalogue of cinematic masterworks was difficult, but Once Upon A Time In The West must surely be the director’s finest epic. Of course Leone had a little help from Ennio Morricone who produced one of my favourite scores, and was ahead of his time in embracing electric guitars and hard rock as a legitimate source for film scoring. Maybe its Morricone’s score (which Leone blasted out on set, the first to do so) or maybe its Tonino Delli Colli’s breathtaking widescreen cinematography, or the wise cracking bandits written by Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, but Leone combines these elements to make something of almost mythic proportions. The word ‘epic’ doesn’t quite do it justice, every camera pan seems more majestic, every close up more dramatic, every death a martyrdom; Once Upon A Time In The West is unashamedly audacious, and maybe that’s what I love so much about it.
9. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
One of the oldest films on the list, it’d be a mistake to think that in 1927 F.W. Murnau couldn’t create a film more complex and subtle as the sum total of Hollywood’s creative output in recent years. Murnau despised inter-titles because he was a visual filmmaker, and in Sunrise he uses every tool at his disposal to enhance the dark story of a man who tries to kill his wife for a life in the city. Craning tracking shots, multi-layered montages and, at the heart, a love story – Sunrise may sound like a typical Hollywood movie, but it is oh so much more than that. Even today, Murnau’s ‘unchained camera’ impresses as it weaves in and around the extravagant set design, but it is the understated performances of the film’s two leads that transforms Sunrise from just technically dazzling to an emotionally engaging masterpiece.
10. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1998)
Lars von Trier hates praise. In his office is an awards cabinet he calls ‘The Wall of Shame’. He probably hated, too, the awards he got for Breaking the Waves, but regardless he has coaxed perhaps the most convincing and extraordinary female performance of this entire list from Emily Watson. He is perhaps cinema’s greatest punk filmmaker, one who decided to destroy the very language of cinema in order to reach some sort of honest truth. But Von Trier is actually a great manipulator, even at points adding in the sound of a film camera so as to disrupt an emotional scene, and recording the video edit back to 35mm film (this makes it far more grainy and ugly than the original footage was). It’s sort of beautiful, in its own way, with its naive main character remaining hopelessly hopeful throughout, and with Von Trier’s incredibly down to earth documentary aesthetic and unusual editing style, cutting to the emotion of the scene and not traditional rhythms. In effect, this film along with Von Trier’s other work and ideology really changed the way that I saw cinema. Removing all the fakeness and the showiness of film language is, in fact, a language in itself, but what a language.
Airplane! (Jerry Zucker, 1980)
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
All The Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2002)
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980)
Blow Out (Brian DePalma, 1981)
Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (Michael Haneke, 2000)
The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terrence Davies, 1988)
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi, 1987)
Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996)
The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)
Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)
The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924)
Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
Hard Boiled (John Woo, 1992)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
The Jerk (Carl Reiner, 1979)
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983)
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1941)
The Only Son (Yasujirô Ozu, 1936)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011)
Local Hero (Bill Forsythe, 1983)
The Matrix (Larry & Andy Wachowski, 1999)
Memories of Murder (Joon-ho Bong, 2003)
The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975)
Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2000)
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1995)
Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)
Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1958)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)
Pierrot le Fou (Jean Luc Godard, 1965)
A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987)
Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1997)
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton, 1924)
Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2011)
Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004)
This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Wall.E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Way Out West (James W. Horne, 1937)
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)