My 100 Favorite Films: 1975-Present
Part Two of A Fresh Look at My Favorite Films
Welcome to part two of my updated 100 favorite films list. I do not have much of an intro for you, but, if you missed part one for whatever reason, you can find the 1930s to 1975 right here.
Shall we get started with more films?
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
There is not much more to be said about any Monty Python vehicle, especially Holy Grail, but I will just echo most sentiments that this film is among the funniest and most quotable of their exploits. It did take two viewings, however. Watching this a first I was lost on the humor the film conveys, but the silliness absolutely grew as it became more re-watchable. The skits and randomness of England’s most famous comedy troupe blends to perfection in this re-telling of the King Arthur legend. My favorite comedic moment?
Perhaps the best use of color ever? The film pops and the soundtrack by Goblin will leave you with a chill down your spine. I checked this out after hearing director John Carpenter rave about it in an interview about great horror films. Violent, mysterious and gory, Suspiria is pretty much everything one would want in a horror film. Luckily, I also had a chance to see the film in a theater with a horror-loving crowd. It was an amazing viewing experience. (Shout-out Salem, Massachusetts!).
A Special Day (1977)
I have mentioned I enjoy films that allow actors to chew it up and, you know, act. A Special Day is another great example of two great actors absolutely delivering tour-de-force performances. Set on the Adolf Hitler visits Benito Mussolini in Italy, the film follows two people — Antonietta and Gabriele — as they stay behind at an apartment complex during the dictators’ public ceremony. Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni play the two who stay behind, unraveling conversations about gender roles and the treatment of homosexuals under the rule of fascism. The two are jaw-dropping tremendous. Quiet, yet strong, we see the wear-and-tear living in fascist Italy has done to each — but also the importance of having an ally. The two grow an “inner resistance” to fascism, due to their conversations and better understanding of one another. A Special Day is a special film showcasing the good we can be when we empathize and try to understand one another in this world.
Before even watching, Halloween was iconic in our household. My mom, a big fan of the holiday, went to see this as a teenager in theater. Thinking it was a film about the holiday, she was surprised — and horrified— that Halloween was a bona fide horror film. Plus, she had to babysit that night. Hearing that story as kid, I jumped at the chance to watch this for the first time.
Halloween is easily my favorite horror film. Its craft, because the film was made so cheaply, is unique with films today. The technique is slow and deliberate; its story simple an effective. Directed by John Carpenter and starring a young Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween is the perfect, moody fall film. Carpenter relied highly on the game between light and shadow over gore. He played that game masterfully. Playing with our senses, the tension builds with just the right camera shot and some music. Technically under the slasher genre, the film does not follow the beats of one. It is a slow burn, setting itself up for a perfect third act.
Also, the theme is as iconic as film scoring gets.
In the most obnoxious way possible: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
The battle for musical superiority in Vienna is on display in Amadeus, and the winner has one of the most obnoxious laughs you will hear. Amadeus tells the story (the film is more myth than historic fact) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the “rivalry” between him and Antonio Salieri. Amadeus is an epic, a beautiful, engaging epic. The film is full of the sounds of Mozart’s compositions, as well as performances that bring to life the world he lived in. Tom Hulce (Amadeus) and F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) are the two stars that absolutely bring to life these historical giants of music history.
For me, the music reigns supreme. It engrosses you and equals the epic proportions of the film. The music, in this case, is just as much the star of the film as the characters. To think music written in the 1700’s would be used to anchor a film made in the 1980’s shows how much of a genius these composers were.
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Shout-out to all teachers! Thanks to my mom, a teacher, I watched this per her recommendation. After seeing this for the first time, I understood why she would show the film to her classes. I wonder if she still does. Starring Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Philips, Rosanna DeSoto and Andy Garcia, Stand and Deliver follows a class in East Los Angeles transform from a group of delinquents to passing the AP Calculus exam. The story is based on a true story of the life of teacher Jaime Escalante (portrayed by James Olmos).
The film is a feel good story that many films have followed since. What makes Stand and Deliver special is Olmos’ performance and the performances of the students. Each are memorable and honest. On top of the great performances, there is a rooting interest with the students. They do not feel like names or paper-thin characters; these students burst with the pains and gains of being a high school student.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Pedro Almodóvar’s break-out film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is stylish, colorful and insanely fun. The humor and absurdity is on full display, anchored by performances from Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Julieta Serrano and María Barranco. Almodóvar’s tale of a woman going through personal hardships is the right amount of emotional and crazy. Mix in his uniquely surreal vision for everything and anything colorful with a smart sense of pop culture, Breakdown was such a mind-blowing experience watching for the first time. The blending of cultures comes easy with Almodóvar and shows that the world — especially in 1988 — just grows closer in each passing year.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Tons of people point to Robin Williams’ dramatic performance in Good Will Hunting as the cream of the crop of Williams’ dramatic acting. (He did win the Oscar). But, for me, Dead Poets Society is king. The film has what every teenager craves: students sticking it to authority. Dead Poets Society is beautiful, and tragic, coming of age story, where the beauty of literature, romance and everything in-between is taught by an incoming teacher played by Robin Williams. The class goes against the grain of what the school deems appropriate, and the students form a secret club to pursue their creative endeavors.
Dead Poets Society features incredible uplifting moments, none better than the end, but its climax that leaves the heart broken. The film captures the pressures and enjoyments of being a teenager. It is a film I saw at the right age, where the meaning hit home.
Carpe diem, my friends.
In Glory, one of the war’s greatest and saddest stories is re-told with awesome power. The story of the 54th Massachusetts (a Union army infantry regiment) is as powerful as history gets. The regiment was the first all black regiment in the United States; its most celebrated service came in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner.
In the film, which stars Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, the horrific history of the United States during the 1800’s is re-told unapologetic-ally. Despite this ugliness, the film does a incredibly job in sharing this story and bringing it to audiences — ugliness and all. The performances are legendary (Denzel wins an Oscar) but the story is such an incredible piece of history. We often hope for film to bring history to life, and Glory represents a success in doing so. Plus, we get a stirring musical moment of solidarity.
Europa Europa (1990)
Agnieszka Holland’s choice of incorporating black comedy in a film about the Holocaust is bold and pays off tremendously. This is not a funny film, per se, but the moments of levity in Europa Europa gives the viewer a chance to recognize how absurd and evil the Nazis were. Following the story of Perel (played by Marco Hofschneider), we follow him surviving by any means necessary during World War II. Holland gives the viewer multiple perspectives — the Jewish, the Polish, the Soviets, the Germans — while remaining firm on the belief that the was equally absurd as it was tragic.
Chicagoan bias here, Candyman rules and is among the best Chicago films to date. (I even enjoyed the Nia DaCosta sequel!). Directed by Bernard Rose and based on a Clive Barker story, the film follows the state of urban legends and racial divisions in a 1990s Chicago. Candyman is creepy and offers more than gore — though there is plenty of that. The film has an obvious message of bringing the conversations of race in the United States to the forefront of the societal conversation. Before you get hot-and-bothered about politics clouding your thoughts about a film, the politics are discussed in a smart and interesting way. By using folklore as the kindling to this fire, there is a common ground between backgrounds and a connection can be established.
Oh, and “It Was Always You, Helen” is among the best of film scoring.
Of Mice and Men (1992)
The 1992 version of Of Mice and Men is not as iconic as some of the previously mentioned films, but the book is one of my favorites. Directed and starring Gary Sinise and written by Horton Foote (the man behind the screenplay of To Kill A Mockingbird), the film is based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.
The two main characters — Lennie and George — are brilliantly preformed by Gary Sinise (George) and John Malkovich (Lennie). Of Mice and Men is one of Sinise’s version is incredibly close to how I envisioned the story sounding and feeling. My deeper thoughts about the film are here.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Michael Mann’s best work (take that Heat!) is one of the best North American stories. This adaption of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel, The Last of the Mohicans is a beautiful, epic tale that represents everything great and horrific about the American experiment. The film stars Daniel Day-Lewis (already off to a great start), Madeline Stowe and Wes Studi. The film blends cultures together that tell a foundational story of the United States. Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) is a white man raised by the Mohican tribe; the film interestingly comments on racial identity in colonial North America.
Beyond the politics of its message, The Last of the Mohicans is a beautiful film. Shot in the Blue Ridge Mountains (the film takes place in upstate New York), the wilderness is every bit a character in this adventure tale — especially the end. I contest there is no better sequence in film than the climax of this film. Utterly silent, despite the gorgeous tune called “The Gael” being played, the scene is heartbreaking, courageous and breathtaking.
For those interested, I have gone deeper on Mohicans.
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
From the mind of Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Three Colors trilogy contain three films loosely based on the ideals of the French flag: liberty, equality and fraternity. Blue, the first of the trilogy, is my favorite.
With the idea of liberty surrounding the film, Blue tells the tale of a woman (Juliette Binoche) dealing with immense heartbreak: her family is killed in an auto accident. Free from her family bonds, she looks to isolate herself from humanity — achieving the “liberty” theme associated with the film. The story is brutal, yet provoking. Binoche is tremendous as a person yearning for a personal freedom of guilt and sadness. Kieslowski direction is fantastic, using the color blue as painful reminders of crash and her family. The film’s score is among film’s best — its haunting melody will ring inside the head for weeks and months to come.
I went deeper on the trilogy and why I think of it as one of the best trilogies around.
Schindler’s List (1993)
My favorite of the cannon that comes from Steven Spielberg, I wrote about why Schlinder’s List is much more than another World War II film.
Tom Hanks owned the 1990s; his run of films during the decade is among the best we have ever seen in acting history. One of his best is Philadelphia, where he plays a man fired for contracting AIDS. The film is noted for bringing homosexuality — and the horrors that is homophobia — to a mainstream audience. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the cast includes Hanks, Denzel Washington and Antonio Banderas.
With a film that tackles issues such as AIDS, the context of its release is important. The early 1990’s still was a hostile world toward homosexuals and AIDS. Having a major Hollywood film — with the biggest stars — introduced/normalized/sympathized the disease to audiences. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote “it may help broaden understanding of the disease”. What I believe the vital lesson is from Philadelphia is the harm societal prejudice does for undermined communities. Society pushes away toward a group of people or an idea they do not understand — instead of learning more and engaging with different viewpoints and ideologies.
Tombstone is not the greatest western, but it is my most re-watched western. The story of the Earp gang coupled with some outstanding and memorable performances propel the film into the top 20, for me. In terms of the Old West, there is no place more iconic than Tombstone, Arizona. The recklessness, yet entertaining stories to come from such a place make it a perfect spot for a film. When focused in on the Earp gang, and the filmmakers (I add the plural because of juicy behind scenes drama of who really directed this film) can bring actual history the film, the story becomes a fun blend of myth and history.
Tombstone features one of the most iconic performances of the last 30 years: Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. Kilmer is slick, sly and dangerously witty. He is the heartbeat of the film, lighting up the scene whenever he takes center stage. Memorable characters can have a lasting impact on a film’s legacy; Kilmer in Tombstone is the prime example. His iconic line, “I’m your huckleberry”, is one of film’s best and easily makes Tombstone one of my favorite films.
Through the Olive Trees (1994)
No one has captured the wide breadth of what filmmaking means that Abbas Kiarostami. From the experimental, avant-garde to deeply personal narrative film, with each new venture Kiarostami smashes the conventions of how we understand and watch film. Through the Olive Trees is the last of his “Koker trilogy”, and follows a film crew making a film — that features characters and plot points from the two previous films of the trilogy: Where Is the Friend’s Home? and And Life Goes On…. It is this third film that ties everything together in a naturalistic and meaningful way. Because of the complexities of the story and filmmaking techniques, it really is hard to describe the sensation of piecing together the messages Kiarostami delivers. Lessons on love, life and the incredible work goes behind creating art to portray such messages is all on display. Kiarostami’s humanistic approach to filmmaking blends what is real and what is fake, leaving the viewer agape to the story that unfolds.
Also, filmed and taken place in Iran, I was floored with the beauty of the country.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
I am really not breaking any new ground here including The Shawshank Redemption in this list. But, I am not here to be creative or cute; these are my hundred favorite films. I take this seriously. The Shawshank Redemption is my favorite film ever made. The film, based on a Stephen King novella, has a beautiful arching story, where the character’s actions and words have satisfying or heartbreaking consequences. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman have tremendous chemistry together and give the performances of a lifetime — especially Freeman who narrates the story. Director Frank Darabont captures the tone of each passing era with skill and creates absolutely iconic moments: the roof-top scene, Robbins’ escape, the opera scene.
Like all of my favorites on this list, The Shawshank Redemption is utterly re-watchable. No matter which scene you may jump into to, the urge to finish the film exists. The film has one iconic character after another: Andy, Red, the warden, Hadley, Heywood, Brooks. They all feel like real friends and having these characters audiences can truly invest in elevates the film to another great level.
Of course, one of the lasting quotes to come from the film is: “Hope is a dangerous thing”. It can be, for sure. But I will always remember Andy’s response: “Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
I heard recently (I have forgotten where!) that Clerks invented podcasting, which is the best way to describe Kevin Smith’s film. It is about friendships, working and shooting-the-shit with said friends and co-workers. What works about Clerks is the humor is funny and relatable. Tons of people can relate to high school or college jobs where it felt more like hanging out then actual work. The job may have been demeaning to your skillset, but the friends at work made the day go by quicker and with more enjoyment. Smith also captures how this generation thought and talked: pop-culture references galore peppered in with curse words.
In a scene where the characters take a break from work to play hockey, I absolutely howl with laughter at the line, “Oh look at you, you can’t even pass! How about covering the point!? Man, you suck!”
Clerks is a remarkably fresh take on the “buddy film”, and the perfect film that gives a viewer today insight to life in the 90's.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Sometimes when we watch movies, our minds drift and we find ourselves dreaming. Usually this happens when the movie is boring, but it is best when we find ourselves dreaming of being in the movie itself. When I watched Before Sunrise for the first time, this is exactly what happened: I wanted to be in this movie.
From the mind of Richard Linklater (who directed and co-wrote this with Kim Krizan), the film stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the ultimate romantic story. Two strangers meet on a train, talk, walk an old European town, talk some more and end up falling in love. Did I mention they talk? This movie is one big conversation, but the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy is illuminating and sensual. They really seem to be falling in love. That romantic dream is lived through Before Sunrise to perfection.
Apollo 13 (1995)
For awhile, Apollo 13 was my clear number one. The film was a childhood favorite, as space was a huge interest of mine. I remember watching and playing along — manning a make-believe shuttle just as Tom Hanks and his crew were manning one in the film. When Apollo 13 was over, I read about the actual missions — as well other NASA missions. It captured my imagination.
The film re-tells the tragic (which turns out uplifting) story of the Apollo 13 space mission that features powerhouse performances from Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan. Expertly directed by Ron Howard — easily his best film — Apollo 13 is full with tension. I have seen this film over 45 times, and each time is just as tense as the last. More specifically, every time I get to the re-entry sequence, I question if Hanks and crew will survive.
Apollo 13 is aided by the fact story is true. If you can, listening to the audio-commentary with Jim Lovell (the pilot who Tom Hanks plays) helps deepen the understanding of the Apollo 13 mission. Despite never reaching the moon, the Apollo 13 mission is uplifting. The film shows the best of mankind: working together for the common good of others. Stories like that make a damn good film and Apollo 13 is among the best.
My favorite author of all time is Ray Bradbury and, when I first saw Gattaca, I instantly fell in love: this is Ray Bradbury come to life. Taking place in the “not so distant future”, Gattaca is about a man who dreams of flying in space — but can not because of genetics. In this world, your death age, sickness and any other genetic information is revealed at birth. Eugenics are everything. As much as the film is about the science, Gattaca is also about beating the system and not lying low when one dreams of achieving their goals.
At the center of this story lies Jude Law and Ethan Hawke, both incredible. Uma Thurman provides the story with its heart, and the film has solid supporting roles from Gore Vidal (the writer!!) and Ernest Borgnine. Gattaca is a smart science-fiction film that feels as if this could actually happen, which I enjoyed. The film is grounded in realism, but leaves enough to let the mind wander.
Smoke Signals (1998)
During my undergrad college experience, I took a course on the history of the American West. It was in that class in which I was introduced to Smoke Signals, which made the class worth taking. There should be more films like Smoke Signals. At its core, the film represents everything important about the medium: focusing and sharing different point of views and cultures. Smoke Signals is a product of an all-Native American production. Written by Sherman Alexie (based off his short story) and directed by Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals is a look inside the Native American experience as it exists in contemporary life (well, the late 90s) and how its existed throughout history.
Starring Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard and Tantoo Cardinal, Smoke Signals shares the journey of Victor (Beach) and Thomas (Adams), as they travel the American West to locate Victor’s father. Throughout the film, we witness what reservation life is like and how it effects different people from an array of Native American tribes. The film is eye-opening and refreshingly honest about Native American life.
Eyre and Alexie do not hold anything back with their direction and writing; however, through the film’s honesty, the script allows humor to relax and entertain beside tough situations. My favorite example is the bus scene, where, after encountering prejudice, the two friends enjoy a song — at John Wayne’s expense. The acting is warm and perfect for the tone of this incredible film.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Memorable cinematic moments pave the way for creating a classic film, and Steven Spielberg’s films usually have those iconic moments. Saving Private Ryan is no exception. The team of Spielberg and Hanks is a tandem not to be messed with, coupled with the fact this is a World War II film that was released at the height of “World War II nostalgia” — the late 1990's.
Saving Private Ryan is full of patriotism (not a bad thing) for those who fought during World War II, but also some harsh truths of war. The opening scene is famous for how brutal and in-your-face the action is during the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day. Spielberg does not shy away from the grotesque side of war, even though this film has a touch of the “romantic” side. Wade’s death, Reiben’s outburst and the final battle are all cinematic moments done to perfection — moments that will live inside my head for years to come. Adding to this fantastic film experience is a wonderful score by John Williams. Whenever a film comes out, with Tom Hanks somehow involved, never bet against the film. Saving Private Ryan is apex Hanks. His monologue about why to continue on with the war is masterful acting.
October Sky (1999)
My memory of first seeing October Sky is a memorable one. I went on a school field trip. Despite how lackluster that field trip sounds, and knowing absolutely nothing about the film, October Sky was worth it. The film is Homer Hickam’s story and how he, friends and an entire community rally together and persevere through the Cold War. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Owen, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper (in my favorite performance of his).
October Sky is rife with Americana and that 1950s good-feeling vibe. Absolutely a story through a very specific lens, October Sky, however, champions a story of believing in the good in people. It is a coming-of-age story filled with turns and twists, yet has an aura of comfort surrounding its characters and location. As a teen who often defied the norm, Hickam’s battle with his father — a battle of aspirations — often mirrored feelings of my own (though with peers, not my parents). Watching October Sky helped me understand that what I want to do in life is for me to decide and no one else.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream captures what it would be like to have a drug addiction. More often than not, the experience is a lonely, paranoid existence. A loaded cast — Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans— gives director Darren Aronofsky masterful performances. This is an unlikable world, but a powerful viewing experience. Films offer a chance for the viewer to enter worlds, and Requiem is engaging and powerful. The film exists as a surreal vision, asking the viewer to question reality vs fiction.
The film is much more than a story about drugs; Aronofsky sees the story as an internal one about any kind of addictions: TV, food or something else. On face value, Requiem is one type of film (a story about heroin addiction), but it begins to unfold into something completely deeper.
Plus, the film showcases one of the best film scores ever.
The Station Agent (2003)
A film about friendship and romance in a small American town — that is my kind of story! The film tells the story of Finbar (Peter Dinklage) as he seeks seclusion and inner peace at an abandoned train station in New Jersey. However, he soon befriends Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) and sees the importance of having people to care about.
The ebb and flow of friendship is a rough ride. It is an even rougher ride when you want to be closed off from others. Dinklage shines in his performance as someone looking for happiness in his life. Stubborn and cold, Joe and and Olivia offer the perfect warmth and positive nature Fin needs in his life. Another character driven film, The Station Agent is as strong as its performances — which is very strong — and writing.
Cold Mountain (2003)
A story and soundtrack that means a ton to me, Cold Mountain is an instant favorite of mine the moment the credits rolled at the end. The film checks off a lot of things that I consider for a film to be a classic: a great story and location, a great soundtrack (due in part because of the inclusion of Jack White, my favorite musician), the setting is during The Civil War (a favorite time period of mine to read about) and performances that stick with me.
There is a lot going on with Cold Mountain — a romance, a fish out of water situation, a war, a journey back home. The film tends to feel long, but the world is expertly built. Each character is unique, and the world feels lived in. I love the fact Cold Mountain takes its time getting where it needs to go, because the characters and situations are alive with emotion. Nothing comes close to this soundtrack. As a folk nerd, the Americana soundtrack is as good as music gets in film.
Walk the Line (2005)
Of the last 20 years, Walk the Line is seemingly the go-to biopic for many. Who could blame the people that say so? The story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash comes vividly to life behind the master work of James Mangold and company. Being a huge fan of Johnny Cash helps, but Walk the Line is an amazing achievement in recent film-making.
The film is all about its performances — Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon (Oscar winner!) as June Carter Cash. The story hits the beats a usual biopic hits, but its the performances that stand out. Phoenix and Witherspoon are nothing short of sensational. Both sing and preform, adding to the realism of the performances. Beyond the music, the chemistry of the two leads is electric, and the trials and tribulations of loving someone is on full display. Scenes in which June helps Johnny get clean, literally having her family fight off dealers, shows the deep love June has for Johnny.
But, ultimately, the music is so important in a film like this. Walk the Line delivers the goods; the music is the heart and soul of the film.
The New World (2005)
The poetic films of Terrence Malick reaches a high point, in my opinion, with The New World. Chronicling the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent, the film depicts the lives of people many are familiar with: Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe. The film features the best of Malick’s trademark touches: letter reading, incredibly visuals and beautiful, emotional performances. Malick, who also wrote the film, is interested in the question of what is “the new world”? For the arriving Europeans, the livelihoods of the native tribes is new — as is the land. For the native population, the customs and language (and ultimately land when Pocahontas is brought to England) is equally as new. Watching these two cultures clash in a thoughtful manner brings a human perspective to a historic moment often relegated to the history books.
The Assassination of Jesse James… (2007)
Perhaps the greatest western to come out in the last 20 years is Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James (or you might know it from its full title: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The film explores the life of famed outlaw Jesse James, while also including the story of the man who ended his life: Bob Ford. The film explores the American West and how its mythology is created and spreads.
The film is rich with colorful characters, but Brad Pitt’s Jesse James and Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford are two iconic performances. The film’s star, however, is cinematographer Roger Deakins, who creates images that feel straight from the late 1800s. There is a richness to the lightning and a depth-ness that is gorgeous to watch. Not only does it look the part, but the soundtrack that accompanies the film (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) transports the viewer to a wild world.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight was the first theater experience where I felt the “magic of the movies”. I went to the midnight showing on opening night, knowing nothing of the series or Batman. My friend simply invited me. Within the next 2.5 hours, I was transfixed with what I saw on-screen. Incredibly performances, stunning film-making and a stunning score.
First, the performances. When my mom, who has absolutely no interest in seeing a superhero movie, goes and sees the film based on the word of mouth surrounding Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker — that is powerful. The Dark Knight brought film-goers from every walks of life into the seats of one man: Heath Ledger. His performance is among the greatest ever, no doubt of this generation. Ledger’s Joker is pure evil, yet wickedly entertaining. Every scene where the Joker is on screen, everyone — in the theater and in the scene — has their attention on Ledger. It is beyond words.
Though a little long on the run time, Nolan’s direction is in-your-face. Yet, exhales at the right moments. The Dark Knight has so much going on, its re-watchable factor is through the roof. On top of the direction, Hans Zimmer’s score perfectly couple the dramatic tension showcased by the film-making. Oh yeah, The Dark Knight is the best comic book film ever made — but that is not really much of a hot take.
About Elly (2009)
Asghar Farhadi makes incredible films. Case in point: About Elly. When a fellow classmate and friend goes missing in the Caspian Sea, a tale unravels that shines a light on the relationships this group have fostered over the years. More importantly, Farhadi comments on gender roles and humanity — especially in as it pertains to Iranian culture. Knowing too much might ruin the experience, so I am keeping this deliberately short, but About Elly is well worth your time. This film introduced me to Golshifteh Farahani, our point-of-view character, and her performance in About Elly is exceptional.
Sin Nombre (2009)
The first feature film of one of my favorite working directors is a contemporary masterpiece. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre was watched on a whim, maybe on Netflix or another streaming service. The film gripped me from shot one. Sin Nombre features the incredible story of a young woman immigrating from Honduras to the United States. Along the way, she meets challenges: gangs, distance and love. Sin Nombre is a unique take on the coming-of-age story, a story I am always interested in seeing. The performances Fukunaga gets from this unknown cast is eye-opening; the story of coming to the United States is dealt with incredible realism. There is no romanticized tale; the harsh truths of coming to the United States (the film is from 2009 and may be already dated with today’s politics) is ever clear.
A beautifully shot and painfully true film, about a point of view hardly found in main-stream film culture, is why Sin Nombre is among my favorites.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
My first Quentin Tarantino film on the big screen, Inglorious Basterds is about as fun as watching a film gets. Tarantino’s look into World War II is funny and brutally violent; the cast is tremendous; the writing is among the best I have watched; the moments are legendary. My view on Tarantino is hot and cold (Basterds and The Hateful Eight are successes while Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained were passes for me). Being my first Tarantino experience, this was my introduction into the crazy world of a Tarantino film. I loved all the musical irony, the historic dialogue and the memorable characters.
The takeaway is the performances from Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent. All are wonderful, and with the help from the writing, deliver masterful performances for the ages. The beginning scene is as tense as any opening to a film. (I enjoy the call backs to this scene, where Landa asks for a glass of milk in this scene and orders milk later on when with Shosanna). The cellar scene — the “German 3” — is among one of the most fun scenes I can remember watching in theaters.
And then, there is the ending — featuring one of the best cut to credits in film.
A comedy that really should not be funny, 50/50 is a treat. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, the film chronicles a man’s downward spiral and understanding when he receives a cancer diagnosis. Through the help of his friend, strangers and therapist, the story balances positive beats with the dark world of an awful disease.
The script is funny (Rogen’s best role to date) and is filled with great supporting performances: Bryce Dallas Howard is perfect as the girlfriend struggling to cope with the diagnosis; Anjelica Huston is amazing as the over-bearing mother; Anna Kendrick is sensational as a rookie therapist who befriends Gordon-Levitt and, ultimately, dates him. (Sure, the romance aspect is a little yeesh, but the characters are too likable to not root for them.) Brilliantly balancing the harsh truths with a lightness, 50/50 is a feel-good film about cancer .
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
I hated this book. Recommended to me in high school, I read it and came away bored. When the film was released, I made sure to it avoid at all costs. But, curiosity got the best of me. Thank the film gods for intervening. The coming-of-age story is done to near perfection, as it follows the lives of high school misfits coming together and learning about the importance of romance and friendship
Watching the film now, it exists of a reminder of how and why high school was a great time of my life. Going to school with over 4,000 students, friends could be found — no matter who you were or what you enjoyed. Perks conjures fond memories of high school that mirror the characters in the film. The performances are outstanding, especially Ezra Miller’s. The film is a must watch just to see his performance.
Don’t read the book; watch the movie. How often is that said?
A film about my favorite historical figure starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg — sign me the fuck up. The screenplay by Tony Kushner brilliantly zeroes in on Abraham Lincoln during the last days of his presidency, as he fights to pass the 13th Amendment. Day-Lewis is perfection as Lincoln and brings the 16th President to life unlike anytime before: reserved, humorous and thoughtful. Equally as great is Tommy Lee Jones as Senator Thaddeus Stevens, who gives the viewer a more brash version of the president. This film is also filled with incredible “OMG is that ____!?” moments, which makes for a fun viewing experience.
The film also gives a quote my friend and I do share quite a bit. When the vote for 13th Amendment is underway in the House of Representatives, Congressman George Yeaman stands up after softly voting: “I said aye, Mr. McPherson, AYE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Short Term 12 (2013)
Films about relationships — whether romantic, friendly or with the people we encounter at work — can be incredibly interesting. These are feelings experienced by everyone and can connect easy with audiences. Short Term 12 tells the story of counselors and their relationship with the trouble teens they look over. But, it is also about a romantic relationship between Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr., the two leads in the film.
Like films previously mentioned, the realism in this film is why the film connects with me. I feel as if I know these characters and get to spend moments with them that only “true” friends would know. Short Term 12 gives us intimate portraits of characters from all walks of life and does so in a brutally honest but compelling way. The acting is powerful; the writing is strong. A great film produces memorable moments, where the line between film and reality is blurred. Short Term 12 contains several of those moments.
I also wrote more in-depth about Short Term 12 and Brie Larson’s masterful performance here.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
A scene that will stay with me forever is a moment of the film when those enslaved stand around a make-shift cemetery and sing the spiritual Roll, Jordan, Roll. The scene is five shots and the bulk of the scene is centered around Chiwetel Ejiofor contemplating his enslavement, his family, life and death — one can not know for sure. But, the look of his face is of sorrow and pain. As those around him sing, Ejiofor looks as if he is fighting signing, as if doing so means giving up and accepting he is a slave (and not a captured free man that he knows he is). Halfway through, he accepts life in that moment and sings.
The most powerful scene of an immensely powerful story, expertly directed by Steve McQueen, is well deserving of the Best Picture win the film had at the Academy Awards.
I am team Boyhood. Written and directed by Richard Linklater, the film is famous for being filmed during an 11 year span: from 2002 to 2013. It follows the lives of a family, centering around a boy and his experiences growing up. Boyhood stars Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke.
For me, this is the ultimate coming-of-age story because you literally follow this boy coming-of-age exploits. The film details family dynamics that hit close to my own personal experiences. Nearly 3 hours, when I first saw Boyhood, I did not want the film to end. I felt the film flew by. Each scene and point in time was another part of the onion peeling away. The characters were rich and complex; the story never forcing its characters into certain “plot” points. Everything — from the writing to the acting — felt natural. By the end of the film, I felt I knew this family as well as any of my closest friends.
It Follows (2014)
David Robert Mitchell brought retro vibes back to a more main-stream horror film. Channeling the likes of John Carpenter, It Follows prides itself on not giving the viewer a whole lot of information, which makes the film a whole lot creepier. Set in suburbia, the film follows teens who a “followed” by an invisible entity, with no shyness of killing.
The film is enjoyable on multiple levels: its teen actors do a fabulous job instilling fear and tension into every scene, the score equals the best horror scores and the movie rarely gives an answer. For some, the can be frustrating. For me, I love the mystery — the conversation after the film is over is just as fun as the viewing experience. It Follows wonderfully sends a jolt into the horror world of its time. The film, while being abstractly relatable, is absolutely bat-shit crazy.
And, like most great horror, the soundtrack is an all-timer.
Mistress America (2015)
There is a 25 minute window in Mistress America were I laughed, cringed and was completely engrossed with what was happening on-screen. It is perhaps one of my favorite 25 minutes in any film. From the minds of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, also starring Lola Kirke, I can only refer to my long-form review of it: Mistress America is near perfect and incredibly entertaining.
Me and Early and the Dying Girl (2015)
With lists as big as 100, themes start to form. If one would pool themes together with my film choices, one of the obvious ones would be coming-of-age films. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is one of the best coming-of-age stories I have seen. Based on a book (which is not very good), the film is an ode to film as much as it is a story about friends developing bonds.
Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler create a bond that is creative and feels as if they are friends from high school. There is no glossy-Hollywood cover; they walk, talk and act like actual young adults. When one of the characters is dying of cancer, their emotions toward the situation are heartfelt and relate-able. I enjoyed the quirks, but also the powerful conversations between the three friends. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who includes tidbits from film classics, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a tremendous look at the teenage life as well as film itself.
An effectively told coming-of-age story about a young women emigrating from Ireland to the United States in the 1950s. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn highlights the immigrant experience that often is told — white European — but peels away to an emotional level that often gets overlooked. Ronan’s character Éilis Lacey yearns for a life away from her home in Ireland, yet, once in the United States, is homesick and alone. Her emotions are quiet and reserved and the film explores her experiences in the United States with a similar reservation. The loneliness of the immigrant experience is on full display, a powerful perspective we today take for granted. Beautiful moments like when Éilis hears an Irish song is a brief moment when those homesick emotions are let out.
The best Boston film, maybe, ever. That is certainly worth a conversation. I love Spotlight. The story of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team as they uncover the truth behind the Catholic Church’s horrendous sexual abuse scandal. Directed by Tom McCarthy, featuring out-of-this-world performances by Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and John Slattery, Spotlight depicts the grueling job journalists have in uncovering, researching and writing a story — especially a story that will change the world they understand.
Spotlight could have easily been about the scandal itself, but the focus is on the journalists and their jobs. Reporting a story like this takes years to get right and the film dramatically gives a view into that world.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
After seeing a late night showing in theaters, I sat in my car in an empty, dark parking lot and could not believed what I had just watched. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the film stars Casey Affleck (Oscar winner for this role), Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler. The films follows Lee (Affleck) after his brother’s (Chandler) death, who leaves behind a son (Hedges).
Manchester is a deep film, tackling emotionally devastating themes such as loss, grief, depression and loneliness. The genius of the script, direction and acting is the handling of these personal situations with an honesty rarely shown on film. It truly felt as if I was watching real life happen before my eyes. On top of honestly dealing with harsh themes, Manchester has its comedic moments that act as a stress reliever — challenging the viewer to laugh during depressing situations.
The acting is the star of the film. Manchester by the Sea has two or three scenes that will burn in your mind, leaving an emotional memory that, hopefully, you will never forget. My heart breaks just thinking about them. All I have to say is: the street corner scene.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Hailee Steinfeld has had multiple career-defining roles. She was nominated for an Academy Award at age 14 for her role as Mattie Ross in the remake of True Grit; she has been featured in franchises such as Pitch Perfect and Transformers; she has starred and carried one of the best coming-of-age films in recent memory.
The Edge of Seventeen is raw, rich and real. The characters speak like actual humans (and not made-up characters) and situations happen as if it is your friend re-telling a story from their own personal experience. The Edge of Seventeen is heartbreaking, at times, yet is filled with moments of redemption and humor. Steinfeld is remarkable, giving her a character so much emotion and nuance. She is not all happy or all sad, but a wide range of emotions that she has to figure out as her perspective changes from teen to young adult.
I wrote more about The Edge of Seventeen here.
The Florida Project (2017)
Sean Baker beautifully blends professional actors (Willem Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones) with non-actors or first time actors (Brooklyn Prince and Bria Vinaite) to create a world that feels so lived-in. The story follows a mother (Vinaite) just trying to make ends meet as seen through the eyes of her daughter (Prince). Though perhaps unconventional in how this family lives, the duo immediately win you over. The performances, in the colorful Florida setting, are warm and personable (despite their language and appearance).
Dafoe, the manager of the hotel the mother and daughter live, is the perfect care-taker. A scene that remains with me is him confronting a pedophile, as he watches the kids of the hotel. The Florida Project is about survival that Baker elects to showcase that battle through a child’s eye. That choice, shown with care and skill, pays off.
Lady Bird (2017)
Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are perfection as a daughter and mother who do not agree on much. The struggle between Ronan wanting to be the individual and Metcalf over-protecting instincts sets up a family cold war that is far too relatable. The complexities of Lady Bird’s mother-daughter relationships are shown with brutal honesty. Writer-director Greta Gerwig excels at having constraint in her filmmaking style and letting her strength as a writer (and the strength of great performances) give the film its power.
The film is funny, emotional and completely real. The experiences in Lady Bird pull from tough, but loving, experiences teens and parents have together — fights about college, dating, school and their own relationship. In particular, the ending hit hard for me. Throughout the film, Lady is dying to move away from her. All her personal struggles stem through that one goal. When at the end she is able to finally leave home, she realizes how being alone does suck. As someone who has moved away from home, that theme and the way the film unravels that message continues to stay with me.
Skate Kitchen (2018)
Another great coming-of-age told through the lens of some incredibly badass women. My post about why I love this film.
The Hate U Give (2018)
The sentence I wrote chronicling my best of the decade still holds true: “The Hate U Give is 133 minutes long, and I cried for 120 of them. I am not joking”. The best performance of 2018, and among the best of the decade, belongs to Amandla Stenberg as Starr in The Hate U Give. After the murder of her friend at the hands of a police officer, Stenberg’s character experiences an emotional and physical awakening to the world around her. She starts seeing the people in her life differently. Her growth of the character is evident, but her poise to convey such deep, dark emotions — yet somehow never really lose all her positivity — is astonishing (in the best possible way) to watch. To watch how Starr reacts and feels after witnessing one of the most horrifying events anyone could go through is eye-opening.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
The best looking film of the 2010’s. Céline Sciamma directed and Claire Mathon photographed a breath-taking work of art. There was a video series called “Every Frame a Painting” highlighting film-making — and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a stunning example of that title.
The film is a powerful love-story set in 18th century France, with mesmerizing performances from Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant. As the story unfolds, a passionate affair is slowly burning between the two leads. Its a love story that calls upon literature and music to emphasize themes of love, beauty and sorrow. The film also made me think about our relation to art and culture. There is a scene where Merlant plays a song at the harpsichord for Haenel, who is unaware of the tune.
Years after the affair, Merlant spots Haenel at a concert where that song is played with a full orchestra. Haenel is visually emotional. Is she hearing the song again for the first time? Does she come often in hopes to hear this song performed? In the 1700s, one can not just play music at will. They have to seek it out. The film leaves you asking these questions, as you breathlessly watch. (For those wondering, the song is the presto from Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer” from The Four Seasons).
2019 — what a year.
My favorite performance of the 2010’s belongs to Florence Pugh in Midsommar. The on-screen grief and the pain of Pugh’s character Dani is apparent (and given the subtlest of touches), yet the slow transformation from her pain to acceptance is thrilling. And extremely heart-breaking. And shocking. Midsommar is the best kind of break-up movie.
The smile at the end? Not a day goes by where I do not think about that moment. I was elated in the theaters, and I still shout joy when re-watching.
Is that it? Was that 100? I could totally do 100 more! Well, until then, thank you for diving into the world of film with me. I hope some of our favorites crossed paths, but I also hope you found some new films to check out.