I was going to figure out my top 10, but I find my favorites are just too tightly grouped together to exclude some of these; so it's a top 20 instead. I've tried to put them in order to finish with my favorite, but really they could go in almost any order. Let's just say these are my favorites:
20. The Big Lebowski (1998)
One of many films to display the brilliance of the Coen Brothers. A vision so wacky and off-beat, but so stylistically coherent. And a cracking good story.
19. To Catch a Thief (1954)
One of the world's most glamorous and alluring settings, acted by some of Hollywood's most legendary stars, all guided by one of cinema's very greatest directors; it's impossible not to get sucked into this movie. One of history's great screen kisses, as well.
18. To Have and Have Not (1944)
Another great collaboration, this time between real-life couple Bogie & Bacall (the sparks between them are palpable), the great director Howard Hawks, and based on material from Hemingway--in a treatment by William Faulkner. The best of Hollywood of this era.
17. The English Patient (1996)
An improbable movie from a brilliant but (I would have thought) very un-cinematic book, Michael Ondaatje's novel of the same name gets a nearly-direct, and surprisingly effective, translation to the screen by director and screenwriter Anthony Minghella. An engrossing mixture of upheaval on an individual human scale set against the backdrop of huge, historic events. And absolutely magnetic to look at. The leads are fantastic, and Gabriel Yared's score is note-perfect.
16. The Sting (1973)
Academy Award winner for Best Picture, this picture brings two of Hollywood's great leading men--Robert Redford and Paul Newman--together with director George Roy Hill for a second time, after their 1969 turn with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This film captures the fabulous period of the '30s, a period of cross-country trains and zoot suits and jazz, and uses it as the backdrop for a complicated story where a lovable band of criminals elude the cops to take down a bigger criminal. Great Scott Joplin-derived soundtrack from Marvin Hamlisch. Redford and Newman are fantastic.
15. L. A. Confidential (1997)
Another great movie from a great novel, this time by neo-noir writer James Ellroy. Directed by Curtis Hanson, the film has an all-star cast, some of whom were brought to light with this film: Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito. Another magnetic capturing of period, the story is set in early '50s Los Angeles, and follows a group of cops (of varying degrees of corruption) through the perilous underworld of drugs and vice. Every single performance is a stand-out, and Jeff Goldsmith's soundtrack nudges the homer out of the park altogether.
14. Day of the Jackal (1973)
Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's book of the same name tells of a fictional plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle in 1963. Set mostly in Paris, but also filmed on location in other parts of Europe, it still retains a breezy, chic feel. In an unusual tack for the period--and since--it's told in a documentary style, with relatively unknown actors and minimal soundtrack. We watch one man's careful preparations to commit a monstrous crime, as the desperate police are very nearly powerless to stop him; it makes for one of the most gripping cat-and-mouse stories in cinema history.
13. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Based on very effective source material from the novelist Thomas Harris, director Jonathan Demme gives us another pairing of legend, Jodie Foster as the young FBI trainee Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as the psychiatrist and convicted murderer Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. Like Darth Vader, Lecter is one of the screen's most compelling bad guys, and the movie is smart and unflinching. It swept the Oscars in '91, taking best picture, director, screenplay, actress and actor (even more amazing given the spooky genre of the story), and it still looks quite fresh nearly 20 years on.
12. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
One of the films that cemented Humphrey Bogart's reputation as THE leading man of Hollywood. And yet another film based on a great book, this time by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett's hard boiled detective Sam Spade is embroiled with a group of miscreants hopping the globe in search of an ancient bird statuette of incalculable value, the whole business given a fabulous noir treatment by director John Huston. Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr.: each one plays an unforgettable role in a jigsaw puzzle of a story.
11. No Country For Old Men (2008)
The Coen Brothers bring their signature treatment to a pretty heavy story by Cormac McCarthy, showing there are few sandboxes where they ought not play. Another brilliant cast of well-knowns and hardly-knowns, each letter-perfect for their part. Though not quite Hannibal Lecter, Javier Bardem gives us another great cinema villain. A compelling story told in unforgettable fashion.
10. Double Indemnity (1944)
This is one of the seminal film noirs, by director Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. A shocking story for its time, it tells of adulterous lovers who conspire to kill the woman's husband for an insurance payoff. The two leads are brilliantly cast against type, and the whole business wrapped up in a delicious noir soup. Period be damned, it's movie-making at its finest.
9. Star Wars IV--A New Hope (1977)
No, George Lucas cannot write dialog for shit. And he seems to have serious limitations as a director. But here's a movie which inalterably changed the course of movie-making and deflected the whole of human civilization despite those limitations. As Joseph Campbell's best student, Lucas hit all the right points in his space parable to satisfy our hunger for hero tales--here's the ultimate bedtime story for your kids. Plus, Lucas revolutionized special effects, and gave us a vision of a future which few had fleshed out, a future world where the stuff we haven't even invented yet is now junky and malfunctioning, where space ships are dirty and cobbled together. The performances are better than Lucas's script deserves, and the music is stand-alone brilliant.
8. The Incredibles (2004)
The homest of home runs from Pixar Animation Studios, here's proof that computers can be used for really engaging storytelling, and that animation is far from dead. Brad Bird has made the perfect movie of its kind: perfectly-paced, -voiced, -cast and visually stunning. It's fun and gripping, everything that movies promised us from the first--and your kids will love it at least as much as you do. After Chinatown, I've watched this movie more in the last few years than any other--and I never tire of it.
7. Road to Perdition (2002)
Sam Mendes's prohibition-era gangster pic is another rare convergence. The source material, by Max Allan Collins, is a graphic novel--an adult comic book--which makes for a virtual storyboard for the movie. The plot involves a life-and-death story of a mob enforcer and his son trying to survive and right some wrongs after things (as they are wont to do in gangland) take a turn for the worse. It's a double chase that deliciously captures a 1931 pre-war America, and another landmark role for Tom Hanks, who plays a devoted family man who just happens to hold a treacherous day job. I can't take my eyes of the screen with this one, and Thomas Newman gives a memorable score.
6. Casablanca (1942)
This movie is on everybody's best-of lists, so sue me for lacking originality. But it's just too cool a film to leave alone. Hollywood was pumping out lots of these exotic adventure stories in the '40s with their contract players, and this one just managed to hit all the marks. It has it all: international intrigue, clandestine maneuvers, ominous Nazi blow-hards, a signature song, nationalistic fervor. Another star turn for Bogie, and another fabulous cast: Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henried, directed by Michael Curtiz
5. Barton Fink (1991)
Another feather for the Coens' cap, this one could only have come from them. You're kept guessing the whole time about what it all means, but it's stunning to look at and utterly engaging. Such an odd, individual vision, yet told with such confidence. Great performances from the Coens' usual stable of actors: John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, plus Michael Lerner and Judy Davis. The film took the Palm d'Or at Cannes, plus awards for Best Picture and Best Actor. A film-lover's film.
4. The Godfather (1972)
It's unusual that so celebrated a film as this one would go on to have an equally-celebrated sequel, but both this and Godfather II (1974) took Best Picture Oscars for their years. And again we find a great book at the heart of a great movie, this time by author Mario Puzo. It tells so compelling a story, and gives such an unsettling look at the inside of illegitimate power, that it's like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: the Deadly Version. Every actor kicks ass here: Brando, Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, and a host of others. It's great enough to transcend genre; it's simply exhaustingly brilliant, period.
3. Gosford Park (2002)
Robert Altman does his thing: put cameras on a roomful of great actors, give them basic direction and some freedom to find their way, and let them do their thing. And from the chaos emerges a beautiful, layered story which needs rapt attention and several viewings to get it all. A classic "whodunit" murder mystery with so much more, there are simply too many great moments and scenes and performances to single them out. It's a rare and thrilling treat which only Altman could give us, and one of my most favorite.
2. Chinatown (1974)
The oddity here is that so great a movie has emerged from a story where it's nigh-unto impossible to figure out what the hell is going on. A neo-noir from director Roman Polanski, Chinatown didn't necessarily look on paper as though it would amount to so much, yet it's another of Hollywood's rare convergences. From a screenplay written by Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson stars as J. J. "Jake" Gittes, a Los Angeles private investigator who is pulled into a swirling morass of shadowy situations and inscrutable, powerful characters who are trying to get away with murder (among other things). It doesn't help that he falls in love with one of the characters. It's somehow terrifically satisfying in the end, and I've watched this movie more than any other in the last five years. It would get my top mark, except for...
1. Miller's Crossing (1990)
I don't pretend this is the greatest movie ever made (though it's a good one), and I don't even fully understand why it has such a hold on me. But it has since the beginning. Conflicted protagonists, snappy dialog, deep shadows, warring gangs, frictious love scenes, double-crosses; the film has everything. The writing is too, too good, and it's really beautiful to look at--the first film, I think, where I was aware of the composition of a shot. It's set in my favorite '30s period (with diners and streetcars), has a memorable cast of characters, and has one of those plots that you'll lose your way if you blink. And it's been in this position on my list for long enough to have put down some roots.
So what would your list look like? What would you remove from my list and why? What would you insert and why?