Everybody at some point creates a top ten list displaying the people, art, and so on that they favor and prize above all else, be it a list of favorite movies, restaurants, sports teams, musicians, athletes, and endless other options. Hell, some people make a living off of their top ten lists. The Top Ten is an art form unto itself, a carefully crafted collection of things long-reflected upon by the creator to ensure the highest level of veracity and openness, a painstakingly crafted piece of literature made to signify one’s tastes and preferences in their chosen hobby or passion.
Everyone has a top ten in them somewhere. I am no different. What can I say? I’m just a movie buff like every other movie buff.
10: Leon– Commonly known to many as The Professional, Luc Besson’s hitman film in its uncut form expands on the innocent puppy love Natalie Portman’s Matilda feels for Jean Reno’s superhuman killing machine Leon, and turns that into something much more serious, and subsequently much more uncomfortable. It isn’t an easy movie to watch, especially coming from the cut to the uncut version (which was trimmed down in order to be more acceptable to American audiences who would not abide by the Lolita angle); a scene that takes place just before the film’s violent shoot-out ending gets extremely close for comfort, and it is a wonder that both Reno and Portman are able to make the moment feel natural and alive without ever letting it cross boundaries. Following the tale of a young girl who is taken in by a neighboring hitman in the wake of her family’s mass murder at the hands of corrupt DEA officers, Leon is the story of Matilda’s sexual awakening and Leon’s coming of age, all wrapped up with the stylistic touches Besson is known for and paired with impressively filmed and choreographed shoot-outs. (With a delightfully manic Gary Oldman on top.)
9: The Big Lebowski– A movie that’s about nothing. The thing is, it’s hardly about nothing, but at the end of the film, as our hero, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) idly sits in the same bowling alley he’s been rolling in for the whole film, you get the feeling that nothing that has transpired in his life according to the events of the film actually has made an impact on him. The Dude does not learn. The Dude does not change. (Though if he has done both, then he makes a successful attempt at hiding that fact.) Simply put, The Dude abides. The Big Lebowski is a whodunit comedy, almost a neo-noir with laughter, detailing the life and times of The Dude as he strives (sort of) to get his rug replaced after it is soiled by thugs in a case of mistaken identity. And as much as a mystery is solved, and wronged are righted (and more wrongs are committed), there is an undeniable feeling that what is happening almost doesn’t matter to The Dude, who just wants to live his life of bowling and drinking White Russians; the endless parade of double-crossing, twisting and intersecting plots, severed appendages, nihilists, porn producers, pompous wealthy elite, and sex-crazed trophy wives appears to be no more than a mild nuisance, an inconvenience standing in the way of his vices. This perhaps is the ultimate humor of the movie: At the end of a truly remarkable and bizarre turn of events, all The Dude and his friend Walter (John Goodman at his absolute best) can do is go back to their bowling alley. And in a way, perhaps that makes the film slightly nihilistic itself.
8: Ratatouille– My favorite Pixar film, and my favorite film about the art of cooking– edging out Tampopo– but also primarily a great movie about our inner drive to create. Remy, a mere sewer rat (but a pretty adorable one who sounds like Patton Oswalt), can’t really explain why, but all he’s ever wanted to do is be a chef and break free from his rat pack. (No pun intended.) That Ratatouille may present the most sumptuous depictions of the cooking process and of food in general– and also the best representations of the experiences we enjoy when we eat, shown in how characters see colors when they consume combinations of food– seems to be minor in comparison to its celebration of the inexplicable but utterly essential human (and, in the end, animal) need to imagine and to make. As an eater of food and a lover of art, this speaks to me, but where Ratatouille really hits my noodle is in its examination of the value of a creation, however roughshod, versus the value of the critics who deign themselves fit to deconstruct it. As one who writes criticism for fun, this makes the film an absolutely necessary work to mull over and watch and watch again, for ultimately it is just as important to understand why we create as why we critique.
7: THX-1138– George Lucas’ first film, a dystopian vision of the future in which human feeling (including our sexual desire) is suppressed by government-regulated use of emotion controlling drugs, and the populace is policed by faceless cyborgs. This is a cold world devoid of joy or passion, one where humans truly exist as gears in the machine, grinding industry forward for the purpose of keeping that machine going. Things change when the titular character (Robert Duvall) has his prescriptions inactivated by his female roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), when she becomes disillusioned and ceases her own medication; this of course attracts the attention of the world’s police force, and when the two become separated, THX begins a quest to free himself and escape his captors and the world he inhabits. THX-1138 is almost an oddity in Lucas’ oeuvre; it is a bleak vision of a world where thought and emotion are utterly excised in favor of an emphasis on productivity, a stark contrast to the world full of hope and potential that he showed us in Star Wars. In light of this, it is not surprising that it is so often forgotten in discussions of Lucas’ contributions to cinema; traces of the man we would come to know through his epic, space-faring saga six years later show in the film’s climactic chase sequence. To some, this may be a minor film in a grand body of work, but it heavily informs that work, and stands on its own as a chilling and precise example of speculative science fiction.
6: Army of Darkness– Hail to the king, baby. For my money, the best of the Evil Dead franchise though maybe only because it is the most iconic of the group. This is the movie that added “boomstick” and phrases like “gimme some sugar, baby” to the movie geek lexicon and made everyone who wasn’t previously paying attention realize just what a mensch Bruce Campbell really is. And on top of that it’s maybe one of the best party movies I’ve ever added to my collection, the kind of film that even people who aren’t hardcore into the group movie watching concept or the genre concept can easily rally around and enjoy. Most of all, this is for me where Raimi really struck the perfect balance of humor count and fear factor, presenting some truly creepy moments and disturbing, unsettling beats while also finding enough room for time-swapped hero Ash to lecture on the finer points of shotgun construction to a medieval township. Just a perfect movie that never fails to delight every single time.
5: Pan’s Labyrinth– The picture that introduced the universally lovable and undeniably visionary Guillermo del Toro to the mainstream, and maybe his best film to date, Pan’s Labyrinth celebrates fantasy storytelling from within by being a refined, visually poetic, and utterly magical piece of modern-day fantasy itself. Del Toro’s picture is absolutely gorgeous, even in its ugliest moments (of which there are many), aided by an exultation of practical effects over overtly computer-generated imagery; as the film glides along, all of the strange creatures our heroine Ophelia encounters feel completely organic (even those few that were conceived within the hard drive of a computer). But perhaps the film’s greatest success lies in how perfectly it maintains the balance between the dazzling beauty of its fantasy and the harsh, grim darkness of its reality. Ophelia finds herself on an Easter Egg hunt of sorts for the eponymous Satyr amidst the turmoil of moving to a war-torn Spanish mountainside with her mother to live with her brutal and cruel new stepfather Captain Vidal. If the world he envisions– which he is slowly bringing to life– is tinged with despair, Ophelia’s ability to find joy and wonder in her surroundings stands out as a soaring message of hope.
4: F For Fake– Orson Welles’ film about the often-overlooked and extremely important art and skill of editing. F For Fake is an hour and twenty minute magic trick, even when Orson promises he is telling the truth. Even the film’s opening, the infamous girl watching sequence where the beautiful Oja Kodar walks down a crowded street as a hidden camera immortalizes the cat-calling and staring that follows in her wake is a fake; “Oja” is actually Oja’s sister in several shots. Welles weaves a narrative about two fakers, Clifford Irving (who perpetrated a hoax about interviewing Howard Hughes) and Elmyr de Hory (a gifted forger of great works of art), and while we are focused on their own fakery, Welles takes the opportunity to indulge in some of his own. Notably, a sequence that moves back and forth between Irving and Elmyr suggests the two are having a debate on whether or not Elmyr ever signed his forgeries– but the shots of Elmyr were shot at a totally different time than the shots of Irving. As the accepted story goes, cinematographer Francois Reichenbach originally shot the film as a documentary about de Hory and Irving, and the discovery of Irving’s own hoax prompted Orson to shoot more footage with Reichenbach as his cinematographer. And even this may not be the truth. F For Fake is a movie surrounded by a near-impenetrable shield of lies and deceptions, which only serve to drive home the film’s primary assertion that no one can be trusted, most of all the people who claim authority without supporting their assertions with proof. A dense and dizzying movie, and a testament to Orson’s mastery as a filmmaker and his position as a true charlatan.
3: Brazil– Terry Gilliam’s grim vision of a future dominated by bureaucracy, where dreams are not regulated and controlled but rather frowned upon and overpowered by the crushing advance of paperwork and upward mobility, verges on science fiction territory but ultimately end up in the realm of fantasy. Johnathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry daydreams scenarios where he is an archangel soaring above the world without a single care as he flies to meet his imaginary lover; his flights of fancy are inevitably interrupted by the bookish and boorish nature of his reality, and these sequences slowly turn into battles between his imagination and the machinations of the grotesque designs of the bureaucrats that rule the real world. This is a story about the conflict between a person’s dreams and the obstacles they must overcome to attain them; it is simultaneously a story about their defeat and ultimate destruction, as Terry Gilliam is a two-sides-to-every-coin kind of guy. The film’s bleak finale either ends on a note of hope or nihilism; the beauty of that distinction is that it is entirely up to the viewer to decide. If anything, here, imagination triumphs, as the world of Brazil is a brilliantly realized urban maze of bizarre genius, a concrete jungle defined by its seemingly unending circuits of air ducts populated by dueling plastic surgeons and renegade air conditioning repairmen who operate outside the law. Such things could only come from the mind of Gilliam, who is a testament to the positive power of human imagination, though he would likely point out that human imagination is also responsible for the bureaucracy and air ducts of his cinematic world, reminding us that the power of the human mind is a double-edged sword.
2: 8&1/2– One of the greatest movies ever made about the process of creating art, both the tangible requirements of making a movie and (more importantly) the emotional investment a director must make to bring their vision to fruition. It is about the struggles a filmmaker goes through in bringing something that is personal and profound to life. It is also possibly one of the most meta films ever created; Federico Fellini’s film (so called because he had six features under his belt, plus two short films and a film he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada) is auto-biographical, detailing his own experiences with director’s block as well as his memories of the women in his life. The incomparable Marcello Mastroianni plays beleaguered director Guido, and acts as Fellini’s mirror here (as in other Fellini pictures), and the lines of his reality is often blur as he reflects on his past and wrestles with the complications that arise as he attempts to create a large scale motion picture. It is a magnificently reflexive picture, one that interweaves reality with fantasy both in the plot and out; when does the film stop functioning as Fellini’s memoir and start existing as its own story? The question is difficult to answer, and that is part of the film’s charm.
1: Oldboy– My first viewing of Oldboy left me somewhat cold. My expectations were not met, as the high praise from Quentin Tarantino had planted in my mind a vision of this film as being somewhat in the vein of the director’s own macho, action-oriented tales of vengeance and violence. But instead of that blood-soaked cinematic cheeseburger, I was treated to something very different, much more focused on the delivery and progression of plot; something noir-ish, something that recalls the darkest aspects of Greek tragedy (nobody wins, and everybody is miserable). My expectations defeated, I considered the film a disappointment until I decided, upon reading praise-filled review after praise-filled review, that I should give it another chance– and from there I fell under its thrall. Park Chan-wook’s second entry in his vengeance trilogy is perhaps the most robust, making only a minor distinction between hero and villain, revenger and the revenged upon, as low-level businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) searches for the reason behind his unexplained and abrupt 15-year stint in a private prison, engineered by Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). The vengeance picture generally features well-defined lines between the victim and the victimizer, forever setting itself apart from its less morally ambiguous comrades-in-genre; with the hardboiled, detective story/noir narrative of the picture (combined with those elements of Oedipus and Elektra), and Park Chan-wook’s lush, rich, and gorgeous color palette, Oldboy becomes a wholly singular cinematic experience. Perhaps of this list it is not the “best” film, but without a doubt it is the film of my time that has impacted the way I think about the cinema the most.