At my last job, we were shooting the
breeze one day, and a Chinese-born co-worker asked, "So what
are some good American movies?"
Alas, most of the recommendations from the rest of the
staff programmers depended on meretricious special effects
or barnyard humor.
So first I prepared this annotated list of my favorites
for my co-worker Ru Zhongwei. As I looked it over, I
realized that it revealed something about my tastes,
predilections, and viewing habits. (By a rough estimate, I figure that
I've probably seen 3500 movies in the past 30 years.) There are somewhat less
than 100 entries here; the dingbats mark my indispensable
sixteen. I did a recent check at Netflix, and all were available on DVD in the U.S.,
except where noted below.
And, yes, I prepared this list before the American Film
Institute got the same
But what would be more interesting, I realized, is a list
of bad movies that I once thought were
great. That list is at the bottom of the page.
- The African Queen (1951): There's a lot of Bogart on this list. DVD not available.
- Annie Hall: It's like seeing Hamlet: it's just full of all the good quotes.
Awfully Big Adventure (1995): And a plot twist at the end to
break your heart.
- Beetlejuice: Probably Tim
& Ted's Bogus Journey: You have to love a movie that,
in a spoof of The Seventh
Seal, challenges Death to a game of Twister.
Big Sleep (1946) The 1945 cut that was running recently is an eye-opener.
Runner (1982) I am so happy that we can now
view this movie without the dumbing-down
Simple: It often happens that an
artist's best work is his first work. As much as I
love the Coen brothers' later work, this one is
still the superlative.
- Blue Velvet: I once had a director tell me that my character should have a little
Frank Booth in him. But I hadn't seen the movie yet, so I didn't understand. Ultimately, I think I disappointed my director.
- Brazil (1985) Welcome to Terry
Up Baby The absolute best of the
1930's-era screwball comedies.
Durham: Maybe the only good movie about
baseball ever to be made. Certainly the last time
Costner didn't take
himself too seriously.
Fear (1991): Another remake that I liked
better than the original.
- Casablanca (1942)
Patterson and I disagree
strongly about this flick. I think it's charming
and paced just right.
- Chinatown (1974)
Jonathan Benair writes: "Los Angeles... is the city of eternal sunshine where prayers
are answered, but it is also the dead end of the continent," and he compares this film to They Shoot Horses, Don't
They? and The Day of the Locust, in which L.A. is the place people come to die.
Rudolph's musings on
romance and identity. Who wouldn't fall in love
Kane Props to Gregg
Clockwork Orange: I haven't seen this one in a
long time. I wonder how it holds up.
- Cocoon: I'll tell you a story about this
Ford as a baddie! Every
time I see this on Encore as I'm surfing by, I have
to stop and watch at least 10 minutes.
Day of the Jackal (1973)
Day of the Locust: One of the few films of a book
to get it exactly right.
Day the Earth Stood Still
Indemnity (1944): Edward
G. Robinson on the right
side of the law. Fred
MacMurray as the patsy,
long before he was TV's Steve Douglas. And the
- Fantasia: My world is a Disney-free Zone,
but I do make exceptions.
Planet: I saw this again recently on
video, and it doesn't wear all that well. I guess
it's here to remind me of midnight movies at the
Victory Theatre in Dayton.
Fish Called Wanda
Planet: 1950's Eastmancolor space opera
with a plot transparently taken from Shakespeare's
Tempest. Hacks borrow;
the great writers steal.
Weddings and a Funeral: Not even Rowan Atkinson could
mess this up.
French Connection: Cat and mouse on the Grand
- Galaxy Quest: A perfect comic role for Alan Rickman.
with the Wind: I saw the new, clean print that
was released recently, and it won me over.
and Her Sisters: Still reminds me of
Noon: This film opened my eyes to what
Cooper could do.
Hours (2002): David
Hare's screenplay is
masterful, giving shape to what would otherwise be
an unfilmable book.
Happened One Night (1934): Forget the derivative
Nature; this is the real
Las Vegas: It's funny how alphabetical
lists make for happy juxtapositions.
- Lost in Translation: A very delicate touch, like cherry blossoms.
(1931): In the early morning of the
talkies era, Fritz Lang used Adolf
Jansen's sound in this
picture so effectively—it's astonishing.
Maltese Falcon (1941) It's hard to believe that this
version was the remake.
Cowboy: One of the first pictures for me
that was ambiguous, about complicated
relationships. The first hint that the glamour of
New York wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
(2000): I had something really clever to
say about this movie, but I've forgotten what it
- Nashville (1975) Maybe the only movie that my
mother and I agree about.
- Network Paddy
Chayefsky knew how to
write a script, didn't he?
1/2 Weeks: What's this trashy thing doing
on this list? A candidate for the bad movies list
by Northwest A roller coaster of a movie.
at the top of his game.
- Open Hearts: Quite possibly the best of the Dogme 95 films.
President's Analyst: Before Microsoft, before IBM,
there was a truly frightening, homogenizing force.
It was TPC: The Phone Company.
(1960): Once again a remake (this one by Gus van Sant) largely
serves to burnish certain highlights of the
Red Shoes (1948): Why is it so difficult to make a
good dance movie? This is one of the very
- Repulsion: Beyond creepy.
III (1995): Resets Shakespeare to Britain
between the World Wars. Chilling.
(1976): Another one with sentimental
value: I saw this at a time when I still enjoyed
living in Philadelphia.
(1995): The first generally-available
film by Todd
Moore is brilliant in a
role that would crush the life out of a lesser
lies, and videotape: Where have you gone,
Silence of the Lambs: Beyond beyond creepy.
in the Rain Something Leta and I can watch together.
- Soapdish: Samantha told me about this
Like It Hot (1959)
(1994): Well, I had to include at least one
- Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (2003)
Wars: But no, I was not first in line
to see The Phantom
Sting (1973): There's a connection to Audrey
from Rockford, Illinois, who played all of the
Blvd.: Julie Kirgo writes: "The fusion of writer-director Billy Wilder's biting humor
and the classic elements of film noir make for a strange kind of comedy, as well as a strange kind of film noir.
There are no belly laughs here, but there are certainly strangled giggles...."
Sweet Hereafter: Atom
Tarantino's experiments with narrative structure,
and a gamut of human emotions. Gabrielle
Rose plays a perfect
- Sweet Smell of Success: Glossy work from James Wong Howe, but the sound editing is a little dodgy.
Driver (1976) Bernard Herrmann's last score.
& Louise: Silver and Ward write: "In the noir tradition, fugitives die because they must,
because fate, mischoice, or the burden of their crimes compels it. Occasionally there is a redemptive context to death;
in Thelma and Louise, there is a freeze frame emblematic of futility."
Shoot Horses, Don't They?: I'm also a sucker for casting
against type, and Gig
Young wins the lollipop
for this flick.
Third Man: Exquisite details: an accusing
tyke, a carnivorous cockatoo, a betraying calico
a new print.
- Three Colors:
Be or Not to Be (1942)
Have and Have Not: Has almost nothing to do with
the book it was based on, and yet it
(1982): You know, inventing Dorothy
Michaels just to get a job is exactly the sort of
thing that I can imagine the real Dustin
Hat: They say that Ginger Rogers was
the better dancer because she did everything that
Fred Astaire did, but going backwards and in heels.
Don't believe it: Fred was simply the best.
A Space Odyssey: R.I.P. Stanley
Umbrellas of Cherbourg: See this movie, and I guarantee
that its theme song will stick in your mind. And
that's probably a good thing.
Side Story: Makes me cry, what can I
Framed Roger Rabbit? Yet another top movie that is a
genre unto itself.
Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: It's also hard to film a stage
play: this one works. Stark and claustrophobic,
like the original. And it's a surprise to me how
Lehman's name pops
of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: My friend Tel points out that
not everything on this list is American, but I
never planned on listing just American
Wizard of Oz (1939)
I intentionally restricted the list to feature-length
movies, which unfortunately cuts out a lot of the best
animation. I also excluded silents. There should be
something from the Marx Brothers on the list, but I have to
confess that all of their movies run together in my mind. I
also fiddled the list so that most of my favorite actors are
represented, even if that means
Matthau checks in with Charade.
Quotes from Jonathan Benair and Julie Kirgo are from Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American
Style, Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds.
As promised, here are the movies that
I'm embarrassed to admit that I liked at one time.
Long Last Love: Cybill Shepherd and Burt
Reynolds sing Cole Porter. It could happen.
in the World: I think they're remaking this
movie as The
(1971): Adolescent lust in sunny France
and dire consequences. A drippy soundtrack by Elton
John, or did I say something redundant?
and Maude: Ruth Gordon in a December-May
romance with a kid who habitually commits suicide
to get attention. Sort of a Penn and Teller meet
(1975): I don't know why the sport never
caught on. And I don't know why anyone would want
to remake this movie.
- Zardoz: Not to be outdone by
Rollerball's pretentious Bach-driven soundtrack, this silly
futuristic meditation on the noble savage features
the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. But hey, Sean
Connery and Charlotte Rampling—why