1. Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope (1977)
No surprise here, had to go with probably the most popular movie of all time at number 1. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I understand and agree with critiques of its shortcomings, namely that it is basically just one long chase scene and there is little to no character development. In terms of narrative, Episode 5 and even Episode 6 are more complex and interesting, but there is just something original about Episode 4 and the way it is so confident in its fictional world that it doesn’t even feel the need to explain it (necessary for a good sci-fi film), that just grabs and engrosses you from beginning to end. Plus, the feeling I get when I hear this just trumps everything
2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
I’ve had the opposite experience with the Lord of the Rings trilogy than I’ve had with Star Wars in that the more I consider it the more it grows on me. I loved Tolkien’s books, and was apprehensive about it being distorted in its adaptation into a film, but man did Peter Jackson do it right. LOTR is epic filmmaking at its best; the settings and scenery are perfect, as are the eye-popping battle scenes. I chose The Two Towers specifically because The Battle of Helm’s Deep is quite possibly the most captivating half hour of cinema I have experienced, and is easily the best battle scene put to film. If I’m being honest, this is probably a better film than my number 1, but I just can’t bring myself to demote Star Wars.
3. Borat (2006)
Simply the funniest film I’ve ever seen, and with apologies to Superbad, Zoolander, Hamlet 2 and Anchorman among others, it’s not even that close. The experience of sneaking in to the theatre to see it, having to sit on the ground because it was packed, and then spending the next two hours literally “rofling,” was one of the most memorable film experiences of my life. It’s so consistently, preposterously, uproariously hilarious it’s almost too much to handle in one sitting. I left the theatre with teary eyes and a sore stomach, which is the highest praise I can give to a comedy.
4. The Sandlot (1993)
The Sandlot authentically captures life from a kid’s perspective better than any other film I’ve seen. The boundless joy and unlimited possibility of summer vacation permeate every scene and every interaction. Things as adults that seem trivial, scrapping change together to buy a baseball, beating the rival gang of neighborhood kids, are of paramount importance to the characters of the film; but unlike most “kids” movies, The Sandlot doesn’t keep an ironic distance from their desires and motivations. It takes them seriously, and at face value, without trying to make a larger moral or ethical point in the end. It just oozes nostalgia, and reminds me of all that is good and fun about being a kid, plus it’s an educational documentary about proper smore production techniques.
5. Kick Ass (2010)
I am really, really, not a fan of the superhero genre. I find the narratives incredibly predictable, the characters completely flat, and even the action sequences boring and manufactured. So to say Kick Ass is by far my favorite superhero movie is not saying all that much, but it is, and more than that it’s one of my favorite films of all time. It spends much of the first hour completely subverting the common tropes of superhero films, and in doing so was surprising, funny, and ultimately engrossing. It achieves something all other superhero films have failed at; it made me believe in and care about the characters. It devolves into the familiar motions of the genre at the end, but even then maintains its own distinct style. It’s part Tarantino, part 300, part The Sandlot, and it all blends together perfectly. The incredibly graphic and gratuitous violence of the scene where we are introduced to Hit Girl, her killing an entire room of grown men as a 11 year old girl (it’s okay they’re Bad Guys), was one of the most shocking (in an enjoyable way) ones I’ve experienced watching a film.
6. Children of Men (2006)
One of the most wildly underrated films of the past decade. I’m a big fan of dystopian worlds, and the one of Children of Men is the most stark, believable, and original I’ve yet seen. The premise, that women have stopped being able to have children, provides all sorts of interesting scenarios for director Alfonso Cuaron to explore, which he does deftly. The cinematography of the film is breathtaking, some of the action sequences are shot in a way that is almost completely unique, and the relentlessly bleak landscapes are mesmerizing. If you haven’t seen it (which most people haven’t) do yourself a favor and rent it, or more realistically just find it online and watch it for free.
7. Argo (2012)
A thrill ride from the opening shot to the closing credits, it’s never less than exciting and frequently rises to levels above that. As a history nerd, I generally appreciate period films if for nothing else than a history lesson, but Argo tells an undeniably tense and emotional story, and tells it well. You get a real feel for the danger that permeates every moment of these characters lives and how it effects them. The one subpar performance among the cast is by director Ben Affleck, who is kind of flat and monotone (I have a conspiracy theory that he purposefully did this to draw attention to his directing, which he deservedly won an Oscar for, but I digress). I realize that it is not completely historically accurate, but that is irrelevant to its entertainment value as a film, which is exceptionally high.
8. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
It’s on Netflix Instant, so there’s really no excuse for not having seen this. Just an incredibly warm and enjoyable indie-comedy. It centers around the theme of regret, and how someone can be so nostalgic for a past moment that they literally want to travel back in time, “it’s not just about a girl, it’s about a time and a place.” The characters are so fun, and so compelling, that in a narrative about a man trying to build a time machine, you completely forget about the time machine. By the end of the film, it’s irrelevant whether it works or not, which is a testament to how completely engrossed in the characters and their relationships you become.
9. Swingers (1996)
Another film on Netflix Instant that you should watch at your next possible free moment (it’s worth it just to see a young Vince Vaughn). Swingers is simultaneously hilarious and emotionally affecting, not an easy task to pull off (the same could be said about Safety Not Guaranteed). It has a real sense of the helplessness and desperation of heartbreak, and the dialogue between the characters feels genuine, like these guys are actually friends hanging out and a camera just happens to be there. It is very much a “Guy” film, in that many guys will recognize the scenarios being depicted, which is part of where its hilarity comes from (think Superbad), but I also think it transcends gender lines and has universal appeal just because it so sincerely deals with human emotion.
10. Finding Nemo (2005?)
The final spot on this prestigious list was between Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and in the end I had to go with the one I named my dog after. It feels weird to say that the setting is gorgeous and the underwater landscapes are beautiful, because the film is completely animated, but they are. It’s a kid’s movie, but not really, because it says as much to parents about the danger of over-protecting your child as it does to kids about pulling away from their parents. A completely enjoyable cinematic experience all the way through, I’ve yet to meet someone who can honestly say, “ya, I didn’t really like Finding Nemo.”