It's easy to be subjective. Quick, name your five favorite movies. Or simply five films that you really quite enjoy. Now, try and be objective. Name what you think are the five best movies that have ever been made. It's never been an easy task for me, hence why, despite a fondness for list-making, I've never attempted to create a list of what I objectively consider to be the best films of all-time. But now, after nearly a week of great movies at the Roger Ebert Film Festival, plus a bit of perusing the Sight & Sound once-per-decade greatest films poll, I'm ready to sit down and do the list.
Here, then, are what I consider to be the Top Ten Best Movies Ever Made.
- Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman) -- True, this also happens to be my favorite film of all-time, but how can it not be on the list of best films ever made? You have an epic, perfect blend of classical music, acting, direction, setting, triumph and tragedy. This sumptuous piece about the life and death of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a symphony in its own right, and reminds us why movies are made.
- Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen) -- If you're able to look upon Annie Hall in a vacuum, as a singular movie made by Allen when he was entering what was arguably the zenith of his career, before he began to do far too many variations on a theme, then you'll be able to truly appreciate the comical genius of this movie. The neurotic quest of a man trying to figure what went wrong in his relationship, with the use of flashbacks, split-screeens, breaking of the fourth wall, politically incorrect humor, and the ability to read and hear people's thoughts, provides fodder for one of the most sublime cinema comedies ever made.
- The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder) -- One could arguably slot another Wilder film onto such a list and no one would blink an eye. I chose The Apartment because it is a near-flawlessly crafted movie, was fairly brutal for American cinema at the time, and features stellar performances by Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray. The brutality of which I refer to is of course the rather cruel twists of fate that befall the main characters. Much of it is deserved, but that doesn't stop us from empathizing with them. We are at once enamored with the Lemmon and MacLaine characters, and are also shaking our heads at the pitiable existence that they (partly) choose to live in. And Wilder was always good at getting MacMurray to play the heel. The Apartment has held up well, as fresh today as it was fifty years ago, and for some very unfortunate societal reasons. The more things change....
- Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) -- Though it has always left me cold, it's still impossible to ignore the greatness of this film, and the shadow it casts to this day across the cinema landscape. A young Orson Welles managed to craft a stylish piece about a man's scarred psyche, the emotional tumult bubbling away under the surface. And the description of 'stylish' is not to be overlooked. Welles utilized some awesome techniques with this film, not to be forgotten. The story of Charles Foster Kane is a fascinating and gripping one.
- The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford) -- Steinbeck's novel is adapted beautifully here, even if the subject matter is depressive and wistful. The story of the Joad family moving from the Oklahoma dustbowl to the promise of California during the Great Depression is one of sadness, anger, love and quiet longing - longing for a better life that always appears just over the horizon, but never within reach. Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine are mesmerizing in this classic by John Ford. I think that the best movies can tug deep at our emotions, and emotional is a word that doesn't even begin to cover this American cinema classic.
- The Heiress (1949, William Wyler) -- I'll admit, it took awhile for this film to grow on me. But now, I recognize it as a miniature masterpiece. One of the reasons I needed to warm to it is because of the multiple-layered script and performances. There is so much going on, often times just beneath the surface, that it may take multiple viewings to catch it all. Olivia de Havilland (rightfully) won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance here, as a plain and lovesick high society heiress in the late 1800s. She is being courted by the handsome Montgomery Clift, much to the chagrin of her aloof father, deftly portrayed by Ralph Richardson. All of the characters in The Heiress are flawed, yet relatable, and even though there is a lot that is plainly spoken, much is left unsaid. This ambiguity makes for an even greater experience when viewing the film, as we ponder the truth that lies within the character's hearts.
- Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang) -- Slip into the world of Lang's visionary silent film, and you might be mistaken for enjoying a modern day science fiction CGI blockbuster. Besides featuring a tight, engrossing storyline (in the cut version, not the full-length one that suffers from bloat), we are treated to a world of the future, created some 85 years ago that still rivals today's special effects. When we watch Metropolis, we witness the birth of the science-fiction epic, and can see how it has influenced filmmaking to this day.
- El Norte (1983, Gregory Nava) -- One of the many wondrous works of art introduced to me at Eberfest, this film about a Central American brother and sister who escape violence and bloodshed for the hope of a better life in the United States should be required viewing for anyone who doesn't have a heart about illegal immigration. It was a life-changing experience for me, and that is no doubt due in part to the exceptional direction and script by Nava and Anna Thomas.
- Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) -- More than any other of his works, Vertigo is quintessential Hitchcock. From the mystery/thriller element, to the obsessiveness of Stewart's character, to the music of Bernard Herrmann and the cinematography of Robert Burks, the film is a sweeping romance in only the obsessive, splintered way that Hitchcock could make. Vertigo manages to walk a fine line, at times lulling us into a calm, almost serene state of mind, and then at times making us feel awkward and uncomfortable, as if we're intruding upon the private tension between two fragile people (which, of course, we are). The Lady Vanishes may be my favorite Hitchcock, but Vertigo is the better made film.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming) -- What list of top ten films would be complete without this gem (actually, a lot of them are, surprisingly)? This list has been comprised of movies that are not only good, but also, I think, important. Wizard of Oz fits this bill nicely. We have one of the first (and best) uses of rich, vibrant color in the cinema, and it plays a crucial role in the telling of the story. We have wonderful songs and music, great acting, a hammy villainess, and an all-time classic tale that has entertained the young and the old for generations.
There you have it. What became obvious to me as this list was crafted is just how incapable such a list is of fully capturing the essence of great cinema. Think of it more as a snapshot. I could easily have gone on from here. And, who knows, perhaps I will at some point? At any rate, if any of these films are unknown to you, I hope you acquaint yourselves with them at some point. They may not all be my personal favorites, but they do represent what I consider to be some of the best movie-making of all-time.