To a true movie fan, answering the question “What is your favorite movie” can feel like a Herculean feat. Responding to a single question may not be as tough a situation as vanquishing the Hydra, but I have always found myself stymied in the face of it. So, in an effort to finally come up with a list, I took a few hours – it really did take two hours – and came up with a list of what (currently) are my Top 25 Favorite Movies.
Those 25 films are listed below accompanied by a brief overview of my thoughts. I should acknowledge now that this list is destined to be very fluid and, chances are, this list will be different this time next year. Or perhaps next month. Maybe even tomorrow. In addition, I have chosen to organize this list in chronological order based on each film’s date-of-release.
Before plunging into the list proper, I have decided to include five Honorable Mentions: films which just missed the cut. These films include: Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Batman (1989), Cape Fear (1991), The King’s Speech (2010), and The Hateful Eight (2015). Each are brilliant films which I love. So, without further ado, let’s jump right in…
1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – The Golden Age of Hollywood produced many epics, but none have the same sense of fun and adventure that this, the definitive version of the Robin Hood myth, has. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone lead a stellar cast in this Technicolor spectacle which boasts the finest sword fight ever put to film.
2. 12 Angry Men (1957) – Another bona fide classic which truly needs no introduction, 12 Angry Men is truly the greatest character study ever put to film. Henry Fonda is enthralling as the forgiving juror, but Lee J. Cobb steals the show. This one is considered one of the finest court room dramas for a reason.
3. Witness for the Prosecution (1958) – Billy Wilder’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic courtroom whodunit stage-play is an exciting and engaging watch. Few things are as they seem in this masterfully-acted thriller starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester at her comedic best.
4. North by Northwest (1959) – Hitchcock’s epic cross-country adventure is a darkly comedic thriller featuring many edge-of-your-seat set-pieces. Cary Grant evades the police by train, runs for his life from a deadly crop duster, and scales the faces of Mount Rushmore with Eva Marie Saint at his side. James Mason and Martin Landau are at their creepy best as the sophisticated villains.
5. Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock’s follow-up to North by Northwest couldn’t be more different than predecessor, emerging as a dark, unnerving horror film. The infamous shower scene has, of course, become a cultural icon on its own, but the entire film is steeped in atmosphere, generated in no small part by Bernard Hermann’s haunting string score.
6. The Birds (1963) – The closest thing that the Master of Suspense made to a monster movie, The Birds subverts its genre conventions in favor of Hitchcock’s signature suspense. The scene set at the playground is truly one of the greatest set-pieces in Hitchcock’s filmography.
7. Wait Until Dark (1967) – Audrey Hepburn isn’t associated with thrillers, but the star has rarely been better on screen than here, playing a blind woman terrorized by a gang of ruthless criminals. The entirety of Wait Until Dark is a brilliant exercise in suspense, but it’s the film’s finale – more-or-less creating the jump scare – which brings the whole film to a horrifying fever pitch and leaves me – and audiences everywhere – no longer on the edge of their seats, but on the floor.
8. What’s Up Doc (1972) – This, an open love letter by Peter Bogdanovich to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. From its delightful farce in Act One, to comedic car chase in Act Two, the Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal-starring comedy still feels as fresh and as fun as it did when it first premiered.
9. The Sting (1973) – The heist movie has become an institution in film today and, though The Sting does not purport to be the first heist film, few movies which share its genre can say that they told their story as charmingly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford simply scintillate as the wizened con and his protégé, and Robert Shaw is incredibly watchable (as always) as the gangster who their out to con. There are too many great moments to outline, but I have always found the poker game on the train to be a particular delight.
10. The Exorcist (1973) – Hands down one the scariest films ever made, William Friedkin’s no-holds-barred exercise in making audiences scream is, at times, liable to make your skin crawl. Its horrific set pieces have gone down in cinema history, but the film’s foreboding atmosphere is simply palpable. Once seen, The Exorcist is not easily forgotten.
11. Young Frankenstein (1974) – Like What’s Up Doc, Mel Brooks’ send-up of classic horror has aged well. Perhaps, even better. I defy anyone to think of a comedy which is more quotable than this one. One need only look to the classic exchange regarding “Abby someone…Abby normal” to prove my point. Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Peter Boyle (to name a few) effortlessly provide laugh after laugh after laugh…
12. Jaws (1975) – Steven Spielberg’s movie about a shark is so much more than a foreboding dorsal fin. It’s the story of an unlikely partnership formed by Roy Scheider’s police chief, Robert Shaw’s grizzled fisherman, and Richard Dreyfuss’ shark expert. It’s yet another brilliant example of suspenseful filmmaking, and character-driven storytelling. The famous U.S.S. Indianapolis speech is a chilling highlight. Launching the summer blockbuster, even after so many years, Jaws still makes us afraid to go in the water.
13. Halloween (1978) – I have already written at length about the merits of John Carpenter’s genre-defining slasher, so I will be brief in an effort not to repeat myself too much. Halloween still has the ability to scare: Michael Myers having, rightfully, become one of the most spine-chilling figures of horror cinema. Donald Pleasence as the determined doctor and Jamie Lee Curtis as the equally determined babysitter lead the cast in this cheaply-made but profoundly effective thriller.
14. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) – It’s become a tradition to watch this movie every Thanksgiving, and John Hughes’ comedy warrants its revisiting. Steve Martin and John Candy have impeccable on-screen chemistry and line-after-line and scene-after-scene is memorable and quotable. Even after all these years, Martin’s tirade at the car rental agency can make me laugh until I cry.
15. Die Hard (1988) – It’s easy to call Die Hard the greatest action film ever made, but why? Perhaps it’s the incredible tension generated by having one man take on a group of terrorists in one building. Perhaps, it’s those terrorists: a group of villains led by Alan Rickman’s perversely likable Hans Gruber. For my money, though, it’s Bruce Willis’ John McClane: a hardened NYPD officer who finds himself in over his head very quickly. Willis’ McClane is such an identifiable hero, constantly wisecracking, and fun to watch, that we cannot help but cheer him on from the very start.
16. GoodFellas (1990) – As you begin to watch Martin Scorsese’s hands-down masterpiece, you can understand why you might want always want to be a gangster. GoodFellas is engaging on both a storytelling and technical level: its long-take through the Copacabana is rightfully lauded, as are the performances by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and, of course, Joe Pesci. But, as GoodFellas progresses, you become witness to a fascinating fall-from-grace all accompanied by what has to be the finest soundtrack ever assembled for one film. Honestly, I can take or leave The Godfather, but GoodFellas will capture my attention each and every time.
17. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Based on the Thomas Harris thriller, Silence of the Lambs was not the first film to feature Dr. Hannibal Lector, but it is certainly the most famous. Despite having only about 16 minutes of screen-time, Anthony Hopkins is simply mesmerizing. Jodi Foster also positively shines as the heroic Clarice Starling and her story of rising to prominence in a male-dominated industry is a poignant one to be found amidst the horror and thrills, but adds weight to the pulpy storyline. Lector’s escape is also one of the best scenes of suspense ever filmed.
18. JFK (1991) – As I have written elsewhere, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller ceases to be a movie at one point and becomes an experience. The film is so well acted, and edited that the combination of news footage, recreation, and original material can become dizzying. Running more than three hours, JFK can feel daunting, but it is just as epic. The scene between Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland’s unnamed informant is one of the most riveting pieces of film I have ever watched.
19. A Few Good Men (1992) – Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama features his usual hallmarks of wise-cracking characters and incredibly memorable dialogue. Elevated by performances from Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and, of course, Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men manages to pose fascinating questions as well. When it’s all said and done, one has to wonder if you can handle the truth.
20. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece is an engaging, quirky, and off-kilter crime thriller. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman shine as they deliver Tarantino’s brilliant dialogue. Pulp Fiction is such a unique and one-of-a-kind film that even Tarantino’s other films cannot compare to it.
21. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Based on the short story by Stephen King, this behind-bars character study is the highest-rated film on IMDb and boasts critical praise on all fronts, so there is little new that I think I can add aside from saying that I too – like so many others – am always moved with each new viewing. And, it’s twist-ending of sorts, is truly brilliant. How it wasn’t spoiled for me, I’ll never know.
22. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Speaking of twist endings…I don’t want to say too much other than this one floored me too. The Usual Suspects is surely one of the most original crime thrillers ever put to film and its central performances are hard to match. The verbal game of cat-and-mouse between Kevin Spacey and Chazz Palminteri, which makes up the heart of the film, is truly an exhilarating watch.
23. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – In Steven Spielberg’s hands, this stranger-than-fiction but real-life account starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks warrants revisiting again and again. Spielberg manages to balance the frivolity of the story with its darker undertones, and the performances from the leads – including Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and Amy Adams – make their characters feel real and engaging. Catch Me If You Can is one of those movies which has the honor of being worthy of a re-watch almost as soon as it’s over.
24. Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Tarantino’s epic World War II film is just as much a movie about movies as it is about war. Despite its bleak subject matter – and grisly violence – Inglorious Basterds remains a fun, likable film. Christoph Waltz is the obvious highlight, but Brad Pitt’s ludicrous Nazi hunter is a comic highlight, and Mélanie Laurent’s vengeful cinema-owner is a fascinating study in obsession.
25. The Social Network (2010) – A brilliant collaboration between director David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, the story of the creation of Facebook is both a treat for the eyes and the ears. Sorkin’s dialogue and Fincher’s aesthetic complement each other beautifully, and Jesse Eisenburg delivers a powerhouse performance as the cold Zuckerberg. It’s a film worthy of being called a modern classic.
That is that, then. Generating a list of even 25 was not easy at all. I couldn’t imagine trying to cherry-pick these, narrowing the list down to 10…or heaven forbid, five…or one! I have included a few statistics which I found of interest below.
Including Honorable Mentions:
1 film prior to 1950, 4 films from the ‘50s, 3 films from the ‘60s, 6 films from the ‘70s, 3 films from the ‘80s, 8 films from the ‘90s, 5 films post 2000
3 films by Alfred Hitchcock, 3 films by Quentin Tarantino, 2 films by Steven Spielberg, and 2 films by Martin Scorsese
4 court-room dramas, 6 horror films, 4 comedies, 5 movies based on real-life events
Average run-time: 2 hours 6 minutes