I love lists. I also realize that, when it comes to ranking films, lists can be somewhat silly. I mean, how can you rank a comedy as compared to a heavy drama? But hey, I can't help that my brain works this way. I actually keep a running list on my phone of my 100 favorite films, and the list is constantly changing. I decided that, rather than keep it to myself, I should share it with you. So, over the last few weeks, I've been posting my 100 favorite films of all time. This is the final grouping of 25 on the list! Keep in mind a few things: 1) these are my personal favorites, so I'm not saying these are the 100 objectively best films ever made and 2) I am not giving a blanket recommendation for every film on this list. You should certainly keep in mind age and content maturity when viewing some of these films (for more info on that, check out this post). Also, this series will only focus on feature films, so you won't see any documentaries. Finally, for any films that I have previously reviewed, there will be a button below each title for you to click through to the original review. My plan is to post this series every year to see how my rankings have changed. But enough intro, let's get to the list! It's the moment you've all been waiting for - the Top 25...
25. 12 Angry Men - Sidney Lumet (1957) From the release date and the title of the film, you may jump to the conclusion that it wouldn't play so well in today's culture. You would be completely wrong. Sidney Lumet is one of my favorite directors, because each of his films seem to have this timeless quality. Their prescience is incredible. Here, we see many of the same cultural debates that continue to rage today played out in this stuffy deliberation room. The performances are searing, particularly by Henry Fonda (Juror #8) and Lee J. Cobb (Juror #3). This is the best courtroom drama ever made, because it gets us to consider the very nature of justice. Can we really ever have a "jury of our peers"? Is anyone capable of pushing aside biases? Lumet underscores these themes with a unique mastery of filmmaking technique. At the beginning of the film, the camera is above the characters when we think we have them all sized up. Then, it gradually takes a lower perspective as we begin to level with them. Finally, the camera takes a perspective that is slightly beneath the characters as their viewpoints loom ever larger over the storyline. Lumet's use of varying lenses and camera movements is what keeps this story visually interesting despite the fact that - besides the first and last scene - it only ever takes place in one small, stuffy room.
24: The Shawshank Redemption
24. The Shawshank Redemption - Frank Darabont (1994) This film has become a modern classic, and for good reason. Let’s start with the writing from Frank Darabont by way of Stephen King. The story is adapted from a novella by King, and Darabont does a fine job of adapting the material. These characters are some of the most memorable in recent movie history - from main characters Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) to smaller characters like Brooks (James Whitmore). Then, you also have to talk about the cinematography by Roger Deakins. This film has two shots in particular that are some of the most famous in movie history. There’s the shot that is featured in the header image above, and there’s the shot of the warden (Bob Gunton) finding Andy’s secret behind the poster. This is one of those films that, when you see it pop up on TV, it’s impossible to change the channel.
23. Doubt - John Patrick Shanley (2008) Want to see one of the best acting ensembles ever assembled? This film has incredibly-acted scene after incredibly-acted scene. That’s what happens when you put Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis in the same movie. The scenes between Streep and Seymour Hoffman are particularly intense. That stems from the storyline - the principal of a Catholic school (Streep) suspects a priest (Seymour Hoffman) of having improper relations with a student. But nothing is ever confirmed, and so the film moves forward with the cloud of its title constantly hanging over the characters. As good as the scenes with Streep and Seymour Hoffman are, the scene where Streep confronts Viola Davis’ character is one of the best-acted scenes I’ve ever watched.
22. Spotlight - Tom McCarthy (2015) This film would make for a fantastic double billing with Doubt. For one, they deal with similar subject matter - this film focuses on the Boston Globe investigative journalist team that unearthed a massive scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But this film shows the other side of pushing through doubt to find the truth. This film also has an incredible ensemble cast, with Mark Ruffalo turning in a career performance as journalist Mike Rezendes. Despite its difficult subject matter, I find this film incredibly rewatchable. That is a testament to the script by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, who is one of my favorite writers thanks to his work here and on The West Wing. The film is so taut, moving along at a pace that you might not associate with a movie that focuses so much on stuffy newspaper offices and even spreadsheets. The writers won Best Original Screenplay at that year’s Oscars, and I think it was well-deserved. In fact, I think this is one of the greatest screenplays of all time.
21: The Fugitive
21. The Fugitive - Andrew Davis (1993) Talk about endlessly rewatchable. This film - adapted from the famous TV show - is one that I watched over and over growing up. And it holds up to every repeat viewing. Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones are unforgettable in the lead roles, and the direction by Andrew Davis makes this a modern classic. The film may be most famous for its jumping-off-the-dam set piece, but every scene brings suspense and intrigue. As a kid, I remember being fascinated by Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) and his resourcefulness as he runs from the law in an attempt to find the man who really murdered his wife. Though Ford turns in what just might be the best performance of his career, once Samuel Gerard (Jones) arrives, he dominates the film. I’ll always love this movie.
20. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back - Irvin Kershner (1980) One of the greatest sequels ever made. One of the greatest plot twists of all time. One of the most famous movie lines ever, though it often gets misquoted. This film is classic in every sense of the word. On my most recent rewatch, I appreciated the inner turmoil of our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) even more. For the film’s cliffhanger of an ending to work, we must believe that there is a chance, however small, that Luke might be seduced by the dark side. Hamill handles this well, and it sets up one of the great movie endings. What is great about this film is that it sets up the final installment of the trilogy without falling prey to what I’ll call the “Infinity War” syndrome. This film works as its own movie, something I don’t think the latest Marvel film quite achieves. Setting up future films is fine, but you have to do it in a way that allows this film to be its own entity. The Empire Strikes Back does that better than any second film in a trilogy ever has.
19: Taxi Driver
19. Taxi Driver - Martin Scorsese (1976) First, let’s start with the fact that director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader and lead actor Robert De Niro create one of the most famous movie characters of all time in Travis Bickle. Why is this character so important? He seems like the very last character we should find interesting. We shouldn’t be able to relate with someone this violent and set off from society. And yet, the genius of Schrader’s screenplay is that we all resonate with the loneliness that Travis Bickle feels. He feels like an outcast - something Scorsese masterfully supports visually from the film’s opening scene. And then there’s the music. The legendary Bernard Herrmann created this film’s score not long before his death. It is one of the great movie scores ever made. It too underscores the loneliness that Travis feels with that mournful saxophone. Scorsese creates some legendary visuals - from the fizzing drink standing in for Bickle’s bubbling rage to the famous hallway shot when the camera can’t even watch Bickle’s rejection. If you want to learn about great filmmaking, this is a fantastic place to start.
18: The Fellowship of the Ring
18. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Peter Jackson (2001) I have a deep love for this trilogy, having read the books as a kid. But I also love this trilogy for the care that was taken in its production. These films will always stand as an encouragement to me to go the extra mile. Think of all the miniatures that were created to ground the visual effects in reality. Peter Jackson and crew didn’t take the easy way out. They took the time to do it right, and the result is one of the great cinematic achievements. This film sets up its characters and places beautifully, and it also knows what to leave out from the book’s voluminous story (though I do love Tom Bombadil, that section wouldn’t have worked in the film). This certainly has to be one of the greatest adaptations ever. This is a beautiful movie, and one that I will forever love.
17. Do the Right Thing - Spike Lee (1989) One of the greatest Oscar missteps - possibly the greatest - was the handling of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It was nominated for two Oscars (Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor) but it won neither. That it missed Best Picture and Best Director nominations is an absolute travesty. Maybe that had to do with the horrible and erroneous ideas that were spread upon its release that the film itself would spawn riots. When I watch this film, I find it to be incredibly even-handed. Every character gets an opportunity to share their point of view. Then we are left to consider who, if anyone, actually does the “right thing.” The entire film is moving, but two scenes in particular always shake me. There is the scene where various characters shout racial epithets at the camera. For one, it shows the anger within each of the characters, but it also should bring about empathy with us as the audience. For those of us who have never had such names shouted at us, it makes us consider the experience of those who have. And then there is the scene where Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) talks about love and hate. It’s a beautifully-written scene, one whose resonance only grows after the film’s fiery ending. This is a hard film in many ways, but I think it’s a powerful one. Spike Lee is a genius, and he’s at the top of his game here.
16. Drive - Nicholas Winding Refn (2011) Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive - known only as The Driver - has to be one of the great movie characters. For so much of the film, he just simmers. We know there’s something inside him (even lyrics in a song from the film’s soundtrack tell us this), we just don’t know what. And then the film cranks everything up in its final third. Tonal differences like this are hard to achieve within the same film, but it works here. This film is all about considering human nature and whether or not it can be changed. That theme is even supported by the costume design with The Driver’s famous scorpion jacket. I enjoy when films don’t give us all the pieces to the puzzle, and though the frog and the scorpion story is never actually told in the film, we understand its meaning within the themes. The Driver doesn’t think he can change, and just wants to make sure that the right people get stung.
15: Jurassic Park
15. Jurassic Park - Steven Spielberg (1993) This is my favorite Spielberg film. It’s incredible to think that he made this at the same time as Schindler’s List. While Spielberg’s famous sentimentality may detract from some of his other films, it’s measured here. At the same time, his flair for visuals is on full display. How classic is the shot of the glass of water before the T-Rex scene? It’s an incredible way to visually build tension. And I must mention the score by John Williams. He has made some of the most famous movie themes ever, but this one is my favorite. When the music swells as we see the dinosaurs for the first time, I am always moved. That scene is one of the great examples of pure awe in a movie, for me. This is just a bona fide great film, and it showcases a great director at the height of his powers.
14. Persona - Ingmar Bergman (1966) Here is where you begin to truly find out why I list Ingmar Bergman as my favorite director. I will always remember the first time I watched Persona. I was having what you might call a crisis of identity. It was just one of those nights where you doubt yourself and wonder about what you’re supposed to be doing. I was struggling with my writing ambition and I was even wondering about my personality. Am I an introvert or an extrovert? It was an odd night. Into that malaise came this Bergman classic, and it seemed as if it was meant to be that I discovered it on this of all nights. This is a film about identity and how we can often feel like we have multiple personas. At the same time, this is a film about film itself - how movies are one step removed from reality. Bergman masterfully underscores this at multple points in the film by having the physical film break apart in the middle of a scene. He’s calling attention to the fact that what we are seeing on screen is not “real” but rather a creation from his own mind. This is a powerful film, and one that showcases absolute mastery of filmmaking technique.
13. The Silence of the Lambs - Jonathan Demme (1991) In my opinion, no film has a greater one-two acting punch than Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in this classic. They both won Oscars for their iconic performances as Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, respectively. Their interplay dominates the film, even though it only takes up a fraction of the screen time. Demme was a masterful director. Here he utilizes close-ups in a way that was so unique, it has since become known as the “Demme Close-Up”. Demme sets up the subject in the center of the frame, and he has them look directly into the camera. This is intimate, but in way that is unnerving. He utilizes this tactic throughout The Silence of the Lambs, and it underscores the film’s dark themes. At the same time, it allows us to resonate with these characters despite the darkness of the themes. Hopkins won his Oscar despite only being in the film for about 15 minutes, but that is how memorable the performance was. In fact, this film became only the third film to win the “Big Five” Oscar categories - Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. What’s interesting is that - as good as Hopkins is as Dr. Lecter - the film is really about Starling. Foster gives another great performance in her legendary career in one of the great female protagonist roles ever committed to screen.
12. Contact - Robert Zemeckis (1997) Speaking of Jodie Foster, this is my personal favorite of her roles. This is also my favorite science fiction film of all time. Why? Well, first of all, it’s simply a great film. As you might surmise from the title, it deals with human attempts to make contact with extraterrestrial beings. At the center of the story is Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster). The film also showcases Matthew McConaughey in a supporting role in which he gives one of his best performances. But the reason I love this film so much is for a scene near the end that takes place in a courtroom. It is one of my favorite scenes of all time. To me, it’s one of the best cinematic examples of what it means to have faith. Arroway is trying to tell the court about this great experience that she had, but she has no scientific proof. As a scientist, this is difficult to rationalize for her. Yet she cannot deny her experience despite what anyone else might say. To have this scene take place in a courtroom is powerful, because of the need to present findings “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is exactly what the film God’s Not Dead 2 got wrong about faith. That film mainly takes place in a courtroom, too. However, there, we’re led to believe that there is incontrovertible proof for faith. To me, that diminishes faith if we can place it within our human box of jurisprudence. Contact gets it right that faith cannot be explained in a courtroom, which is actually a good thing. That sets it apart. We are certain of our experiences and of what we believe, but that can’t be proven to others. That a film can handle such material so well is impressive, indeed.
11. City Lights - Charlie Chaplin (1931) This is my favorite silent film, and though it may be an obvious pick there’s certainly a reason for its near universal acclaim. Charlie Chaplin was a master of comedy, and I defy you to name me a more purely comedic scene than the opening scene of this film. I was laughing so hard the first time I watched it. It’s simply funny. Then, when you learn the backstory behind this film, it becomes even funnier. By this time, “talkies” were the popular film medium. Many famous directors were moving away from silent pictures, but that is where Chaplin had risen to fame. He loved silent pictures and he felt they still had a place in the cinematic landscape. And so, he made this film as a silent picture. Even so, in the opening scene, there is an orator whose speech comes to us in the form of odd sounds and mumblings. It was Chaplin’s way of satirizing the new wave of movies. The rest of the film showcases how he had mastered the technique. The film is famous for its closing scene, and rightly so. It is incredibly moving. If you’ve never watched a Chaplin film, I highly encourage you to give this one a try.
10. The Seventh Seal - Ingmar Bergman (1957) This is probably Bergman’s most famous film. The idea of playing chess with death has been parodied many times, but it started here. This film wrestles with large themes like faith, doubt and death, but it never feels arduous. There is a great story here about a knight returning from the Crusades that keeps the film’s narrative moving along. At the same time, the visuals are incredible. Here, Bergman worked with Gunnar Fischer - one of the two cinematographers with whom he most-famously collaborated. The scenes with Death (played by Bengt Ekerot) are fantastic, but my personal favorites are the scenes with the jester, Jof (Nils Poppe). It is his character who sees the spiritual happenings around him. Despite the darkness of the some of the film’s themes, I find great comfort in Jof’s character. The spiritual realm is there for us to see, if we will only look.
9. 12 Years a Slave - Steve McQueen (2013) I remember watching this in the theater and leaving feeling that it was both one of the best films I’d ever seen and simultaneously a film that I may never be able to bring myself to watch again. A few years later, I did watch it again. My feeling was confirmed - it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It is also incredibly painful, especially on that first watch. With repeated viewings, you know the horrors that are coming and you can mentally prepare for them. But that first watch is absolutely gut-wrenching. There were multiple scenes where I remember looking down out of shame. Shame that humans can do such things to one another. The difficulty of what we see on screen is softened at times, however, when the film’s cinematography by Sean Bobbitt allows us to breathe. This is done through shots of the beautiful southern landscapes. At the same time, this causes us to consider how a world so beautiful can be tarnished by such hate. The acting performances are fantastic, particularly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. I acknowledge that this is a hard film to watch, but I think every American should watch it at some point in their lives.
8. The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola (1972) Why is this so often considered one of the best films ever made? There are many reasons of course, but I think most people would initially point to the acting performances. They are surely legendary - particularly Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). But I would point first to Coppola’s writing, by way of adapting the novel by Mario Puzo. Think about the first scene, which is tasked with introducing us, not only to the characters, but also to the idea of the “family”. This incredible scene does so with great ease, and we are automatically sucked in. Having it take place at a wedding is also genius, because we overlook the seedy dealings in the back room thanks to the joyous occasion. And that is the power of this film - it gets us to resonate with these characters until we realize who they are and what they’re doing. By that time, it’s too late. We are Kay (Diane Keaton) in the final scene - standing outside the room with a growing sense of horror as the door is shut to us. I must also mention the baptism scene. It is universally praised, but that is because it is deserving. The writing here is so poignant. It is one of the great movie scenes, in one of the all-time great movies.
7. Network - Sidney Lumet (1976) No movie is as prophetic as this one. In my estimation, Paddy Chayefsky wrote the greatest screenplay of all time when he wrote this film. It perfectly predicts the sensationalism of our modern media landscape. At the time of its release, it was considered a farce. Now? It feels more like a drama. The acting performances are incredible across the board. Peter Finch won Best Actor, Faye Dunaway won Best Actress and Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress despite the fact that she is only in the film in one scene. The scene depicted in the header image above is most famous, but my favorite scene comes when Howard Beale (Finch) is confronted by Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) in the board room with those eerie green lights. I think Beatty should have won an Oscar for his performance, and I think the film should have won Best Picture that year despite how loaded the field was (Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Rocky were also nominated with Rocky eventually winning). I will never get over how accurately this film foresaw the encroachment of ratings and entertainment into the business of news media. It is absolutely chilling.
6. Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola (1979) Legendary scene after legendary scene. What else can you say? This film is perfect. From one of the best opening scenes ever, to the incredible helicopter sequence to the darkness of its ending, this film has a single-minded focus on unveiling the horrors of war. What must the human soul do to itself to kill others? I’ve never been in combat, and I don’t pretend to know what that is like. I also do not want to come across as faulting our service men and women. They are some of the bravest souls on the planet, and I will be forever grateful for their service. At the same time, the fact remains that war itself is horrific. There’s no way around that. Apocalypse Now showcases that will some of the most striking visuals ever put on screen. That is thanks to the work of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. This is also my favorite acting performance from the great Martin Sheen. He is incredible here. And then there’s the legendary performance from Brando. If there’s any film that embodies the phrase “larger than life” it’s this one.
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Peter Jackson (2003) Epic. Grand. Any word for impressive on a massively-large scale that you can think of. This is a wonder of filmmaking genius. Its set pieces - particularly the Battle of the Pelennor Fields - are incredible. Its tender moments are so moving. Yes, it is long, but the source material calls for that. My personal favorite scene is one where Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is telling Pippin (Billy Boyd) about the “far green country.” It is a beautiful scene, one that is made all the more moving by the accompanying score. I know I sometimes have a penchant for hyperbole, but this is surely my favorite film score of all time. It is so beautiful. I could listen to it for hours on end. Even if you’ve never read the books, I think you’ll find the film entertaining. That is a testament to the filmmaking, as are the record-tying 11 Oscars it won.
4. Silence - Martin Scorese (2016) This is my favorite Scorsese film, and that is saying a lot. It may not currently be held in such high esteem as his other classics, but I think that will change in time. His camera is more subdued here than in a film like, say, Goodfellas, but there are still some of the familiar Scorsesian flairs. What I really love is the film’s focus on faith. I’ve read the source novel by Shusaku Endo, and this is a masterful adaptation. The question at the heart of the story is really whether or not outward signs of faith supercede the inward belief. A Jesuit priest (played by Andrew Garfield) is tortured and asked to step on an image of Christ to renounce his faith. If he does not do so, others will be harmed. What would Christ ask believers to do in such a situation? How are we to interpret verses like Romans 9:3 (where Paul says he would rather be cursed for eternity if it meant his people could be saved) in light of this? It makes for an incredibly-moving film, and the visuals are profoundly-beautiful as well.
3. Through a Glass Darkly - Ingmar Bergman (1961) Here is my favorite film from my favorite director. It is a testament to the films above it that this only slots in at number 3. Here, Bergman is at the height of his powers as a filmmaker. He is famous for his willingness to let the camera focus on the human face. Bergman considered the face to be the greatest cinematic landscape. It’s a throwback to the days of silent cinema, and it makes sense when you think about how we interact with one another. So much of our communciation is non-verbal. Facial expressions are visual means of communicating, something that is perfect for the cinematic medium. This is done so well here through the collaboration of Bergman and legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Here, we also have what is - in my opinion - the greatest acting performance ever. It is Harriet Andersson’s performance in the lead role, and it is a powerhouse. I also love that there is a storyline involving writing, as well as a moving father/son narrative. The penultimate scene is dark, to the point where I wasn’t sure how I felt about the movie. Then comes the final scene, which ends on a note of redemption and light. It is beautiful.
2. The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick (2011) Speaking of beautiful films, this has to be the most beautiful film ever made. Much like with The Lord of the Rings films, I appreciate the care that went into the visual effects for this film, which the creative team made a point of grounding in reality. You may not believe it when you watch the film, but they actually shunned computer generated images as much as they could. Director Terrence Malick, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects consultant Douglas Trumbull used chemicals, paints and spin dishes to create the mesmerizing sequences showcasing the beginning of time. This film is vastly ambitious - attempting to showcase the entirety of existence from the beginning of galaxies and the vastness of space, down to the beauty of individual lives. This film is a spiritual experience, and Roger Ebert compared it to a prayer. I just purchased the new Criterion Collection print of this film and I watched it again. It reveals new beauty every time. Some have said it is too ponderous and even pretentious, but I couldn’t disagree more. It reaches the pinnacle of cinematic excellence through its incredible visuals and powerful themes.
Number 1. No Country for Old Men - Joel and Ethan Coen (2007) Here it is - my favorite movie of all time. If you’ve spent any amount of time with me over the last few years, this may not come as a surprise. I talk about this film all the time. It has captivated me like no other film. The distance between this and The Tree of Life is infinitesimal, but this Coen Brothers’ masterpiece wins out for the simple reason that I find it so rewatchable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this film in the last three years, but every time I feel like I could start it right back up and watch it again. It is a gripping story, thanks to a fantastic screenplay by the Coens, which is adapted from source material by my favorite author, Cormac McCarthy. It has the greatest villain performance ever from Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. The “Texaco scene” is my favorite scene in any movie. And its closing scene - though it has become controversial to some - is my favorite closing scene ever. It shows how, even in the midst of the incredible evil we see in the world, there is a Light that goes on ahead of us “out in all that dark and all that cold.” I love this film, and I think it is the greatest movie ever made.