I have been obsessed with films for as long as I could remember. I would spend entire weekends holed up in my room, watching all of the films I could get my hands on. When I got into college, I was able to study all sorts of films, and I gained a newfound appreciation for the medium -- and those who take part in it.
For the moment, these are my favorite films of all time.
12. Once Upon a Time In the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
Sergio Leone's Westerns were works of art -- gorgeous framed, beautifully paced, and wonderfully scored. While The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is perhaps his most well known film, his directing work on A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in America, and Once Upon a Time In the West cannot be understated.
Once Upon a Time In the West is an exquisite experience. In the opening scene we see three grizzled gunslingers gather at a train station, and we hear a few sounds -- water dripping, a weather vane creaking in the wind, flies buzzing. Utilizing the power of editing, and some simple sound design (and some gorgeous cinematography), Leone creates a powerful layer of suspense. When the person they are waiting for finally does arrive, the scene explodes into a chaotic explosion of gunfire and death, leaving one lone man standing.
It's scenes like this that set apart Leone and every other Western filmmaker out there; it's scenes like this why so many directors are indebted to his style, and his films.
Once Upon a Time In the West is a three-hour epic, complete with satisfying narrative arcs, a chilling performance from Henra Fonda, some gorgeous cinematography, and typically incredible music by Ennio Morricone. All of these elements earn this film a spot on my list.
11. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
The Seventh Seal is one of Bergman's best film -- a philosophically engaging, beautifully shot, and tautly directed exploration of life, death, and religion.
From a narrative perspective, this film is iconic. It is Bergman at his most probing. He asks age-old questions with brusque ease, and he explores perplexing existentialist questions with a surprising amount of depth, and emotional sensitivity.
On a technical level, this film is breathtaking. Bergman uses lighting to his advantage here, shrouding Death in shadows, while also contrasting this darkness with momentary patches of light. It's an interesting visual aesthetic to employ, though certainly appropriate given the subject material.
The Seventh Seal is one of Bergman's finest films, and one of his most interesting on a philosophical level. I highly recommend you check it out.
10. Oldboy (Chan-Wook Park, 2003)
Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy is an incredibly violent, demented, disturbing film. At its heart it is a revenge narrative -- and an incredible one at that -- and yet, it is a film that becomes more interested in the nature of revenge rather than the actual act of revenge. Why are our characters driven by a ruthless bloodthirst, and are their actions morally sound? Do the ends justify the means?
There is also a fair amount of mystery in the narrative, beginning with our main character -- Oh Dae-su -- being kidnapped while in a drunken stupor, imprisoned for 15 years, and then released without warning after 15 years. The climax of this film has one of the best, and most depraved, twists I have ever seen.
Oldboy also stands out as an incredible display of cinematography and action choreography. The famous hallway scene, which I provided a link to above, is a perfect example of the kind of visual aesthetic, and gritty realism, you can expect from this film.
9. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
I will always have a special place in my heart for German expressionism. The visuals in the films that made up this film movement are unlike anything I have seen since, and every single entry was wholly unique in every respect of the term.
In all honesty, this is the most difficult choice I had to make for this list. I could just have easily chosen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or Metropolis, or M, or Vampyr. Pretty much every single film that falls underneath the umbrella of German expressionism is worth the watch.
Nosferatu is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula. Certain aspects of the story were changed so that producer Albin Grau could duck copyright laws (like the name of the vampire being changed to Count Orlok). However, this remains the definitive adaptation of the novel for many, myself included.
It's genuinely terrifying, both because of the gorgeous usage of lighting, and because of Max Schrek's chilling performance.
Nosferatu may not be the most well-known film from the German expressionist era, or the most critically adored, but it is one of the most memorable, and terrifying, and that is why it is on this list.
8. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)
Originally titled Jagten (which is Danish for "hunt") this drama starring Mads Mikkelsen is one of the most sobering, disturbing, and depressing films I have seen in a very long time. The story revolves around Lucas, a teacher, who watches his entire life fall apart after a child lies about a very serious subject.
Mads Mikkelsen is an incredible actor (everyone who has seen his US work knows this, especially those who have seen the film Casino Royale, or the NBC show, Hannibal), but this is the film that really made me understand why he is one of the greatest actors alive. His performance is very subtle; his eyes often say more than his mouth. However, his work here is nothing short of brilliant, and devastating.
The narrative of the film is very straightforward. However, it does have a very important conversation at its core. Furthermore, its narrative is told with so many different layers of emotional complexity, that its final shot will resonate with you to a surprising degree.
The Hunt is one of the newer films on this list, but it is certainly deserving of its place.
7. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
Harper Lee's novel is one of my favorites, and for many reasons. It has a very interesting, and important, story at its core, and it is told in such a compelling way that it's easy to understand why it is a staple of American literature.
The film adaptation is just as powerful. Thanks to its pitch-perfect casting, its excellent cinematography, and its faithful script, this film is the quintessential example of how to do an adaptation correctly.
Gregory Peck is the one who really pushes this film into the stratosphere, though. His monologue at the end of the film is one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.
Everything about To Kill a Mockingbird works, and therefore it deserves its spot here.
6. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
You knew this would appear somewhere on this list. The Godfather has topped so many "Top 10" lists, it's hard to keep track at this point. The praise is not misplaced -- Coppola's film is one of the finest cinematic accomplishments ever achieved. It is, in every way, a unique, breathtaking experience, and I implore everyone to see it at least once.
While it doesn't top my list, there is a ton I love about The Godfather. Its usage of lighting could be its own blog post, as could Gordon Willis's cinematography. The film is perfectly cast, beautifully paced, and wonderfully scored. The writing manages to be both faithful to its source material, and simultaneously explore the material in new, and exciting ways.
Coppola, and his team's, accomplishments cannot be understated. The Godfather redefined the crime genre, set a new standard for dramatic filmmaking, and inspired generations of filmmakers. It is still heavily studied, and intensively analyzed. Even better, it still holds up today -- 45 years later.
5. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most important filmmakers in cinematic history, and -- sadly -- his films are often forgotten, or not incorporated, in film classes. Tarkovsky was one of the most intelligent, and profound, filmmakers ever to live, and every single one of his films are intense philosophical discussions that are photographed beautifully, and are stunningly meditative.
Stalker is perhaps his most well known film, besides perhaps Solaris, and it is also one of his most intruiging. The story revolves around a Stalker -- a guide -- who leads two men into the Zone so they can find a room that grants wishes.
It is as odd as it sounds, and yet it is also beautiful, engaging, and philosophically profound. Every frame is a painting; every monologue is a treatise. No one made films quite like Tarkovsky, and no one else every will.
I also recommend you check out some speeches Tarkovsky gave on film. He was an incredibly intelligent man with a unique perspective on film, and its capabilities.
4. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2002)
Oh, Lynch. You never look at film the same way once you have seen anything by David Lynch. Much like Tarkovsky, there is no director out there like him. His films do not conform to stereotypical narrative tropes, structures, or expectations. Furthermore, every film Lynch does is a different incarnation -- a different beast if you like. Eraserhead is nothing like Dune; Dune is nothing like Blue Velvet; Blue Velvet is nothing like Mulholland Dr.
Mulholland Dr. is one of Lynch's best films. With an incredible cast, a surprisingly powerful narrative at its core, and Lynch's usual mastery of film language, and his ability to subvert expectations (especially in one particular scene, which I wrote a length about in a previous blog post), Mulholland Dr. sets itself apart both from other films that came out at the same time, and from Lynch's own canon.
However, like with much of Lynch's work, it must be seen to be understood. Therefore, I implore you to go see it when you can.
3. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1960)
We're in the top three! And leading us off is one of the best short films ever made. Chris Marker's mind-bending science-fiction tale of World War III, the end of the world, time travel, and romance is told strictly through still photographs and voiceover. It is an ethereal experience, a powerful deconstruction of film as a medium, and a story that will stick with you long after the film ends.
I love this film because it was the first film to show me that narrative storytelling does not have to be so rigid in terms of its structure. It's an impressive, and eye-opening experience, and I recommend everyone, but particularly aspiring filmmakers, to watch it.
Additionally, if you are interested, I also recommend you check out 12 Monkeys, which is Terry Gilliam's remake of this classic piece of cinema, starring Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe, and Bruce Willis.
2. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
The final half-hour of this film never fails to take my breath away. Martin Scorsese's remake of the film Infernal Affairs is an impressive display of taut writing, expert direction, pitch-perfect casting, and tense storytelling. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that The Departed far exceeds Infernal Affairs in terms of quality.
For a long time The Departed was my favorite film of all time. It has everything, as was mentioned before, and is consistently entertaining throughout. You will never be bored, which is impressive for a two-and-a-half hour film.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career (yes, including everything he's done thus far) in this film, and the supporting cast is perfect in every way. I can't sing high enough praises for this film -- you must see it.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
I cannot express how much this film changed my life, my perspective on film, my own visual aesthetic as a filmmaker, and my approach to narrative storytelling. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most important films every to be released. It is ambitious; it is provocative; it is powerful; it is philosophically profound; it is everything you would every want out of a film, and much more.
While Kubrick had many masterpieces throughout his career, 2001 stands out as his most ambitious, and most visually expressive film. The final twenty minutes are breathtaking, confusing, and masterfully constructed. The opening of the film, as we see apes gain the ability to use tools, is both simple, and impressively profound.
Kubrick is my favorite filmmaker for a number of reasons, but 2001 was the first film that pushes the envelope in literally every way; 2001 is not a film -- it is an ethereal experience, and one you will never forget.