It is, without a doubt, the hardest bit of analysis a film critic must consider. Lists are always a little loopy, suffering from a lack of personal perspective and decidedly one sided context. As a result, trying to boil a life’s worth of fandom (or professionalism) into a single set of ten titles is next to impossible. You always forget something along the way, regret not having room for favorites you feel fall right outside the glorified Decalogue, and anger some overly aggressive aficionado who can’t believe you left off their obvious film/director/decade obsession. For those preparing to complain once the final tally is presented, simply remember this – all determinations are made by actual human beings. We may play know-it-alls for the sake of our writing, but we fall within the same categories of fun/fascination factors as anyone else.
So what does this Top Ten List of All Time represent for readers of Short Ends and Leader? Clearly, it’s the guiding dynamic of the blog’s editor and chief, a roadmap if you will to the films that made a significant impact either as entertainment, extravaganza, or both. Clearly certain calling card entries – The Godfather films, Casablanca, La Dolce Vita – are missing from the ultimate countdown, and with good reason. In the case of at least two of these movies, constant repetition within the digital cable era has diluted their dimensions, making them ‘feel’ smaller than they actually are. In addition, other offerings – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Evil Dead 2, Suspiria – didn’t quite make the grade either. It’s not because of their lack of inherent worth (all three are indeed amazing motion pictures). No, the problem is more personal, meaning that their recognized limited appeal prevents a kind of universal appraisal.
In the end then, how does one find their final ten? A lot of guess work, some faith, and a mind full of celluloid memories. Think of it this way - these symbolize SE&L’s desert island titles, the kind of classic films you can imagine watching over and over again without ever having to worry that they’ll grow dull or derivative. They would stand the test of time, and then please someone who happened upon them long after you were gone. You may not have to agree with all the choices, but you definitely have to respect them. Movies may be a personal preference, but certain examples of the medium mandate a consideration of abject timelessness. In our opinion, these sure do, beginning with:
10 - Fight Club (1999)
If ever a movie clearly defined its era, this David Fincher deconstruction of Chuck Palahnuik’s punch drunk novel sums up the ‘90s quite nicely, thank you. Through the dueling personalities of Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s rough trade icon Tyler Durden, the baffling and bifurcated state of men in America is brilliantly and unabashedly deciphered, resulting in the darkest of black comedies and the coolest of sociological dramatics. At the heart of this fascinating film remains a message about the corrosion of conformity and the instability of individuality. Together, they help define what’s very, very wrong, and very, very right, about the whole of humanity.
9 - GoodFellas (1990)
More energetic than Coppola’s monumental Godfather saga (and less overexposed) this remains Martin Scorsese’s definitive take on the mob myth. Set up like a symphony with different “acts” mandating varying directorial styles, each movement here is a masterpiece of crime as an elitist urban calling card – and a one way ticket to self-destruction. With amazing performances from a stellar cast, and a storyline soaked in the kind of racketeering Chianti we’ve come to expect from the genre, the results are electric, dynamic, and fabulously profane. While others will taut the original mafia movies as the place where bad guys became baroque, this is the truest example of its operatic powers.
8 - The Adventures of Baron Muchausen (1988)
When critics champion Terry Gilliam, they usually pick Brazil or 12 Monkey as his best effort. But if you’re looking for a movie manipulating each and every element of cinema into a pure flight of fancy, this amazing tall tale is your ticket to another wondrous world. Styled by the ex-pat Python as the final phase in his loosely formed “Ageism” trilogy (with Time Bandits and the aforementioned future shocker), this story of a fabled German liar and his exaggerated yarns of superhuman escapades uses every trick in the moviemaker’s handbook – and then Gilliam invents a few more, just to keep us interested. A truly timeless work of celluloid art.
7 - Mulholland Dr. (2001)
How David Lynch managed to salvage a failed television pilot and turn it into his ultimate night terror masterpiece remains a question for film scholars to decipher – especially in light of other startling accomplishments like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway. Yet by taking on the very entity – Hollywood – that’s refused to embrace him for all these years, and perverting the 42nd Street formula (small town gal makes good) into same sex surrealism with a sinister undercurrent, he fashioned his own demented Day of the Locusts. Even mainstream cynics who’ve dismissed the man as difficult and problematic embraced this fascinating parable.
6 - 3 Women (1977)
With its basis in a dream, and its lack of inherent interpretation, Robert Altman proves that storylines don’t need self-imposed arcs to have solid dramatic resonance. As much a feminist manifesto written in reverse as a calculatedly crazy character study, the amazing American maestro uses his title trio to manifest the seminal stages in a gal’s ungainly life. And when you consider that this is the same man who rocked the film world with his work in M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, to call this his best must mean its something very, very special. Indeed it is.
5 - The Rules of the Game (1939)
As important to the formation of true modern moviemaking as any other movie from its era, Jean Renoir’s tragicomedy of manners remains a stellar work of celluloid sumptuousness. Like Jules et Jim 23 years later, the son of famous painter Pierre Auguste used every possible trick in the reel to reel routine to realize his perceptibly allegorical denouncement of the French upper crust, who Renoir blamed for the onset of World War II. From its narrative complexity and optical richness, to the last act party which places everything – both spoken and unsaid – into perspective, this complete motion picture master really did determine the way post-silent cinema would work.
4 - Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino may today be the punchline to an Indie item’s fad gadget dismissal, but no one can deny the power of this near-perfect film. Like a shot of aesthetic adrenaline placed directly into the motion picture pleasure centers of your brain, the ex-video store clerk turned cultural lynchpin took your standard cops and robbers routine, subtracted the law, and let his amazing way with dialogue drown everything in couplets of quotable splendor. Sure, there’s a geek dweeb dimension to his homages, the kind of insular cleverness that always keeps the audience guessing, but the results are so resplendent we’re happy to wait until later to figure it all out.
3 - Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining Tinsel Town’s past for their perfectionist post-modern means. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods – they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their impeccable way with actors, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.
2 - Citizen Kane (1941)
Just try to ignore or marginalize this benchmark in Hollywood’s formative stage, an experimental epiphany that forged the standards for decades of craftsmen to come. Sure, it’s gimmicky and overloaded with stylistic stunts, but when dealing with a story this sensational, this grandiose in scope and speculation, the size is more than warranted. Wunderkind Orson Welles may have ended up a wine shilling joke, but his feature film debut remains a motion picture monument. If you really want to understand its impact on the artform, just ask yourself the following question – what would today’s cinema be like without his inventive, evocative ‘vanity project’? Case closed.
1 - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick was never afraid to use his films to speak to the big picture issues – and here, he addresses the most massive one of all: man’s place in the entire cosmic order. Originally planned as an attempt at “serious science fiction”, this collaboration with forward thinking author Arthur C. Clarke went through many significant stages, from pure thriller to unmanageable mindf*ck. With his meticulous post-production pliability, and a wealth of intriguing footage to work with, Kubrick confounded expectations and delivered the first interstellar treatise on humanity and its purpose in the universe. From evolution to extraterrestrials, he never deviated from his goal. The results continue to resonate among the stars.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.