The proposition of choosing my favorite movies of all time is a bit like the seminal scene from Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever where Batman is forced to decide between saving Robin or Nicole Kidman. Of course, Batman ends up saving both, so if you catch where I’m going with this you’ll know I’m going to be putting not just Batman Forever on this list, but Batman & Robin as well, because why choose between two examples of greatness?
Alas, if only things were that easy.
I am a fickle viewer, and my favorites are always subject to change, so this was no easy task. My tastes in movies were kickstarted as a kid thanks to the dual education I received from my parents and my friends. While my parents were showing me All Quiet on the Western Front and Vertigo, my friends were showing me Dawn of the Dead and The Terminator. Suffice to say, high art and genre thrills are like chocolate and peanut butter to me: two great tastes that taste great together.
My desert island movie is likely the worst possible movie to watch in such a scenario, but I can’t resist its perfection. Sometimes your first time really is your best, and Jaws to me represents the crowning achievement of the Hollywood blockbuster, never bettered to this day. Sure, it provides the requisite thrills (although in this case more tipped toward Hitchcockian suspense than effects-driven spectacle), but its buoyed by a real sense of pathos, perfect sense of place, and the syntax of its filmic structure is such that your adrenaline is pitched at just the right moment. Nowhere is this more apparent than the nighttime scene aboard Quint’s boat as the triptych’s perfect bonding moments lead to solemn monologuing and back again before being interrupted by the shark at the most inopportune moment. That scene is just a microcosm of Jaws as the most perfect entertainment vessel, as naturally evolved to thrill as the shark is to kill.
2. In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-wai’s period piece romance is a world away from the schmaltz, melodrama, or even drama really, of what one might expect from a romance film. It’s defined not by what it expresses but what it doesn’t express, as the restraint and repression of its electric duo of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are reflected through the gorgeously spare cinematography of Christopher Doyle, Mark Lee Ping Bin, and Kwan Pun Leung, which captures the essence of their imprisoned feelings. In the Mood for Love plays everything small, but by the time the credits roll I always have a pit in my stomach the size of a crater. This film marks a special place in my own experience with the medium, as it was the first screening of my first film class and it marked a transformation in how I saw the possibilities of film that lay beyond their ability just to thrill and entertain.
3. High and Low
How do you pick a favorite film from a dude who has a career of almost nothing but masterpieces? Seven Samurai was a childhood favorite of mine, but High and Low is the one that garners the most mental real estate from me, from its intriguing structural bifurcation (much like Jaws, in that sense) to perhaps the most haunting ending ever committed to film. One of Kurosawa’s greatest gifts is his ability to tread between crowd-pleasing genre exercises and more nuanced explorations of character and theme, and High and Low may just be the pinnacle of those abilities. It exists both as an enduring template for crime procedurals and a powerful social critique about the dangers of economic disparities.
4. Blow Out
I will be the first to declare John Carpenter, king of the B-movie, as part of the pantheon of great directors (I could have just as easily thrown The Thing on this list, but Jaws edged it out for me in the space they both occupy for me in that genre niche). But I have to give props to Brian De Palma as well, who may not receive quite as much acclaim (or at least is the source of more derision). He’s the true heir to Hitchcock in my eyes (perhaps topping the maestro in the realm of the pure grandiosity of his suspense setpieces), although his works retain their own identity thanks to his unique brand of dark humor, self-aware sleaze, and playful metatextuality. De Palma is never better than in Blow Out either, with its movie sound man caught up in a thriller conspiracy that would make Antonioni and Coppola proud, wrapped up in some really fun and playful explorations of De Palma’s legacy with B horror movies. The way this movie opens and closes blew my mind the first time I watched it and never ceases to impress; De Palma delights in yanking the rug out from under his audience, and I’m there for it every time.
5. Apocalypse Now
The road movie to end all road movies (or river movies I guess would be more apt in this case). What more tantalizing a destination could there be than the pit of man’s own essence, driven to the extreme of his primordial origins? I love the way the film dissolves —often literally, given the prevalence of the technique—as Willard progresses toward his inexorable fate. Order, morality, and sanity are all slowly expunged as the color-tinted madness of Kurtz’s, and the jungle’s, domain swallows up the passengers. In addition to the potent and frenzied narrative as only the excesses of the final death knell of New Hollywood could deliver, Walter Murch’s editing and sound mixing remain my go-to examples for each craft. This is a good film to revisit throughout your life because due to its unabashed interiority and passivity, whoever you are in that moment in time will allow you to take something new away from the film. If most film is a mirror held up to the world, Apocalypse Now is a mirror for yourself, and sometimes that can be a very valuable thing.