Many film aficionados tend to look at the task of ranking films to be similar to that of pulling teeth: a torturous and painful procedure that goes against their every instinct. I find ranking and sorting films to be a delightful process. It allows for a lot of introspection; I ponder what films really resonate with me, and I consider how my tastes describe me as a person. It also makes me consider what makes a movie great, as I compare cinematic giants like Citizen Kane (1941) to low-budget, indie films like Swingers (1996). Both resonate strongly with me, but in different ways. Still, I am able to judge each film on their own merits and value them equally despite their monumental difference in stature. Does that mean Swingers is as important or grand a film as Citizen Kane? No, but that’s not what a list of favorites is for. Citizen Kane and other films revered as the “greatest of all time” deserve their place in the echelon of cinematic legends, but not all of them spoke to me the way in which these five did.
5. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Some people are dismissive of the western genre. They view it as archaic and boring, only suitable for their grandparents who grew up idolizing John Wayne and Gary Cooper. There is something absolutely unique about the genre though, as it is a wholly American creation. Films about the Western frontier are the true American mythology, as filmmakers romanticized the foundation of the country and attempted to capture the American spirit. Ironically, it was not an American, but an Italian filmmaker who most perfectly realized this idea, as Sergio Leone provided the ultimate rendition of the west in this masterpiece. I watched this film before even knowing the name John Ford, but when I saw this film I said: “this is everything I ever thought a western should be.” It is an epic of unparalleled proportions, with a tense revenge story at its center and the ticking clock of the approaching railroad signaling the impending death of the classic western hero. Once Upon a Time in the West is the final word on the genre, as no other western could hope to live up to its reputation. Charles Bronson and Claudia Cardinale shine at the forefront, and a chillingly subversive role for Henry Fonda make this film memorable. All would be lost though, without the majestic score from Ennio Morricone, as its unparalleled brilliance solidify the film as legendary.
4. Jaws (1975)
Manipulating an audience on an emotional level is a primary function of art. Which films resonate with us is largely dependent on our previous life experiences, as they will determine how we empathize and connect with characters and events. I grew up in a small Navy town on an island — not unlike Amity — in northwest Washington. My father, an ardent and passionate seaman, would often take us out into the Puget Sound to drop crab pots or go halibut fishing. I loved being out on the water: the fresh air, the beautiful ocean, and sharing in my dad’s passion made for some of my favorite childhood memories. Jaws takes me back to those moments. I’d say the biggest reason why has to be Spielberg’s choice to film the latter half of the film out on the actual ocean, as opposed to a studio tank, which was the regular practice. The reality of the waves rocking the boat, and the endless wake left behind them, remind me of sitting next to my dad as we traveled from buoy to buoy, pulling up pots and fishing the crabs out of the traps. Jaws is, of course, an amazing movie in its own right. Spielberg was at his best when combining action, terror, adventure, and suspense in this game-changing film, but the strength of his characters are what makes it such a beloved classic. The performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw are the cornerstone of the film, as their interactions make for the iconic moments that have endured through today.
3. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
This feels like an obvious choice for anyone who is passionate about film. The definitive Hollywood story is enchanting and mesmerizing while still managing to be a biting critique of the system and of celebrity in general. Sunset Boulevard flaunts director Billy Wilder’s signature cynicism in this tragic story of the desperate and forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond. Told through the perspective of the disillusioned hack-screenwriter, Joe Gillis, Wilder turns a critical eye on the world that takes them for granted. “Audiences don’t know someone sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along,” says Gillis. The script is one of Wilder’s sharpest, as the snappy noir dialogue transcends his previous masterpiece, Double Indemnity (1944). Once again, the characters are the centerpiece of the film as the relationship between Joe and Norma fluctuates between a mutually beneficial partnership and an emotionally unstable affair. It’s an absolute delight to see film legends Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille in their short appearances in the film, as their presence adds a sense of reality to the story that accentuates its core themes. The film manages a mysterious and unnerving tone throughout, mostly due to Holden’s brilliant voiceover as he navigates us through this eccentric world. The film endures as one of the greatest of the classic era, and no matter how big pictures have become since then, Sunset Boulevard still makes the rest look small.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
No other type of war film grabs my attention more than ones about Vietnam. The blurred lines of right and wrong are much more interesting than the clear morality of World War II. I love Saving Private Ryan (1998) as much as the next person, but the sheer inhumanity on display in films like Platoon (1986) or Casualties of War (1989) haunt and terrify me on levels that even the harsh reality of Spielberg’s war films can’t achieve. My worldview borders on the cynical more often than I would like, and it’s because of the cruel potential of human action that is exemplified in these wars. With Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola reveals the process of how people are trained to dehumanize others to better conquer them. The ominous trip up the Nung River builds with each stop as we see Lt. Col. Kilgore expunging a Vietnamese village solely for recreational activities, men degrade women at the USO show, and soldiers like Roach at Do-Long bridge, who no longer know how to do anything but kill. During the trip, we learn in snippets of documents and recordings how Willard’s assassination target, the much revered Col. Walter E. Kurtz, spiraled into madness, losing his humanity as the war went on, and we watch Willard sliding down the same slope as well. Despite the disastrous and maddening 16-month production that nearly drove Coppola to suicide, he crafted the ultimate epic war film, which undoubtedly leaves the viewer shocked and horrified at the atrocities man is capable of when we discard basic human empathy in the name of senseless violence.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
The snob in me wishes I could pick any of the other four films to take this place on the list. There isn’t a single brave choice here, but at least all the others have been more artistically recognized. I don’t think anyone would say Back to the Future isn’t a great film, but I don’t often enough see people recognize the things that make it so good. I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t give it the top spot though, because I think it is perfect in every way. For one thing, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ script is flawless. There’s so much thought put into every detail, all set up to pay off later, many of which are built into the characters themselves. Marty’s skateboarding and guitar playing skills aren’t just character traits; they’re pivotal pieces of the puzzle embedded into the plot. Even the annoying lady who’s trying to “save the clock tower” is crucial, as without her flyer there would be no indicator of the lightning storm Doc and Marty need for the third act, which has to be the most genius ticking clock in all of cinema. That entire finale has me on the edge of my seat no matter how many times I watch the film. Time travel has never been better utilized; Gale and Zemeckis use the 50’s setting to address the oddities of their current 80’s culture and recognize how much has changed in such a short span of time. The interplay between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are the secret to the film’s success, as anyone who has seen the Eric Stoltz footage can attest to. Fox and Lloyd make you believe an organic relationship exists between this eccentric doctor and a high school kid, and that they have this unbreakable bond. The film is funny, tense, action-packed, emotional, and just about everything else a movie can be. It’s not the pinnacle of American cinema, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s the ultimate accessible film, something anybody and everybody can love, a film I treasure deeply, and undeniably my favorite film of all time.