We now continue our breakdown of the Top 100 Greatest Films of All Time! Last week, we looked at #90-81, which consisted predominantly of films from the late 60s and early 70s that dealt with the era’s nihilistic fury, as well as the power of Dame Julie Andrews, who appeared twice. This week, the majority of films come from an odd period in cinematic history: the nineties, a time when Hollywood felt comfortable enough to lean back on its laurels, remembering the past fondly while critiquing the society around them. There’s also a few films that were twenty years ahead of their time, providing subtle commentary that their world just wasn’t ready for. You can find this and more in the magical list below.
80. The Ten Commandments (1956)
The Ten Commandments is a film that, on first viewing, may not feel like it deserves to be here. It’s incredibly campy, a bit on the nose, and why is Edward G. Robinson playing a slave in ancient Egypt with a strong New York accent? Yes, these are all critiques that I not only understand, but also have made while watching the film, mainly because it’s great fun. And yet, this is still one of the greatest accomplishments in cinematic history, both as a use of old and new storytelling. You see, to understand the writing and acting of this film, you have to understand director Cecil B. DeMille, the James Cameron of his time. DeMille was a technical wunderkind, transitioning nearly seamlessly from the days of silent films into the days of the “talkies.” He knew how to command a screen, and he knew how to work special effects, pretty much creating them in the 1920s on his Biblical epics. During the twenties, Biblical epics were big, and not only because the country was far more religious at the time (indeed, thanks to Great War nihilism, it is a bit debatable that the 20s were a more religious time than the 50s or the present). You see, the Biblical stories that were turned into films had mass appeal-they were famous enough that they could draw an audience, they promised massive special effects in the huge warring tribes, mammoth setpieces, and promise of the recreation of miracles, and they often had stories that inspired people, especially hope and freedom. All of these reasons inspired DeMille to make an interesting adaptation in 1923, which features Moses receiving the titular tablets before jumping to the modern day to remind people to live by them. It made a decent amount of money, and received ok reviews, but people were fairly disappointed (especially critics) that DeMille didn’t focus on that incredibly strong first third with Moses). So, in 1956, at the height of the civil rights movement, and the epitome of special effects (for their time), DeMille decided to revisit his magnum opus, with an important twist. Instead of focusing on the eponymous Commandments, he would tell the story of Moses in its entirety-a story of slaves using their faith and a powerful leader to rise up and escape their captors to embrace the promise of freedom. Not only that, but he would embrace his stylistic days of old-the actors would incorporate pantomimic gestures into their roles, and the dialogue would sound ancient and wooden, as if it were the text in a silent film. And if the gestures would be big, then everything else would be bigger. The sets would be massive, the costumes lavish, and the effects remarkable. I mean, this is a movie that features the parting of an entire ocean, the massive halls of ancient temples, and the raising of the obelisks and pyramids of Egypt. Not only that, it would actually be filmed in Egypt (incidentally, the Egyptian president was such a fan of DeMille’s that he let them record in his country for free). And yet, while it’s easy to focus on the effects and the like, at its heart, it is a story of one man’s fight to finally bring freedom to his people-a message still being ignored, to an extent, by audiences in 1956. And sure, would it have been nice to have an African-American or two playing any of the roles, especially the Ethiopians? Of course. However, for its time, it is vital we remember it for the accomplishment and the message that it provided. And as an interesting historical side note, due to a lack of history on Moses in the Bible (it sort of skips from the basket to his adult life), DeMille drew on other sources to fill in the blanks. His main source of historical background? The Qu’ran.
It’s hard to call any of this acting “good” in the traditional sense-it seems a bit over the top and wooden considering the performances of its time. However, there is still some lyrical poetry to be found in the delivery, and since the script is intentionally un-showy, it creates much stronger physical performances. Charlton Heston may be much more eloquent than the Biblical Moses (who had a lisp and couldn’t speak), and that’s because of his deep, hypnotic voice, but man, the way he commands the screen as the bearded prophet is just a wonder to behold. It’s a shame that he gets all the glory, because it is a widely known fact to anyone studying this film that Yul Brynner gives the far-superior performance. Adding to the tension and psychological turmoil of the film, Brynner plays Moses’ jealous foster cousin Rameses, who was raised alongside Moses, and creating a Cain and Abel-esque conflict that makes the conflict personal. Brynner gives Rameses an understandable jealousy and cunning, primping and preening around the set like he owns it, and it makes sense he became a huge movie star that year, after three great breakout performances. However, if there’s anyone people talk about after watching the film, it’s the scenery-devouring Anne Baxter, who goes big every time she’s onscreen. She is making very clear choices in her performance as the wicked Nefretiri, and while it borders on camp the entire time(you could make a drinking game out of every time she says “Moses”), she certainly is memorable, and hearkens back to the acting of the 1920s. Other great performances include Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi, Yvonne De Carlo as Moses’ wife Sephora, John Carradine as Moses’ brother Aaron, Vincent Price as the campy Baka, Judith Anderson in the pivotal role of Memnet, and Debra Paget as the lovable Lilia. Hell, even Edward G. Robinson’s performance is great when you understand the context. Yes, Robinson should not have played the traitorous and corrupt Dathan. He plays it like a New York gangster and it is incredibly cheesy. However, Dathan is a man that sold out his religion, friends, and own personal beliefs, just to save his own neck. In 1956, Robinson was left between a rock and a hard place-he’d named names before the HUAC Congress, but still found himself blacklisted. Shunned by his friends and unable to be cast because he was a liberal, DeMille broke the blacklist years before people like Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick. And Robinson was allowed to create a mea culpa of sorts, playing the sort of rat that his friends considered him to be. It’s a role layered with subtext and symbolic gestures, and for that reason, I respect it despite its flaws. The Ten Commandments is a staple for a reason. It’s a story that everyone knows, it can easily be shown every year for Passover/Easter. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the seventh highest grossing film in history. And technically speaking, we wouldn’t have any effects-driven films if DeMille hadn’t changed the game with his still-stunning Parting of the Red Sea (it’s been 60 years and I still don’t entirely understand how they did it). This is a film that has and will stand the test of time, and because of its themes and effects, it really should.
79. Fargo (1996)
Fargo is the most American movie that’s ever existed. Every frame of it just screams Red, White, and Blue (or at least mostly red and white). Americans love things that are “true stories,” despite being somewhat (or mostly) fictionalized? Tell the audiences it’s a true story. They like sudden bursts of violence? Give them sudden, almost funny, bursts of violence. They invented the film noir genre? Make it a straight up, on-the-nose film noir. And once you’ve taken care of all that, set it in the most American location possible, the Midwest, and center the action, characters, and comedy around their personalities and accents. It may sound like I’m being somewhat glib with this movie, but I assure you I have the utmost love for Ethan and Joel Coen’s magnum opus. It is a smart, breezy film that is as complicated as it is simple; for every turn of the plot, every twist on a predictable tale, and every moment of pure creation is juxtaposed with a simple truth of life. The heroes are goodhearted, the villains are evil, the scummy are scummy-things are as black and white as the Minnesota nights and Minnesota snow. And the fact that everyone is so good at heart and so open about things (their description of the sinister out-of-towners is simply, “He was real funny lookin’”) makes the acts of violence seem so much viler in nature (for this reason, you remember the film as a lot more violent than it actually is). However, at the end of the day, this is a film that uses its mystery and uses its comedy to comment on everyday life. This is a film about two marriages, the relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law, and the inability to communicate with your coworker-you know, American past-times. It just so happens that it is exploring these themes through kidnapping, murder, and crime-solving.
The dialogue of this film is pure poetry, delivered in a spot-on Minnesota dialect (truthfully, though, I’ve met someone from Fargo, North Dakota, and the answer is no, they do not sound anything like that) by a phenomenal cast. Harve Presnell is arguably the most Minnesota of the lot, playing father-in-law Wade Gustafson in a very traditionalist manner. He’s the big gruff father-in-law who doesn’t trust his son-in-law and refuses to follow orders for any reason. Much more memorable are the three criminals. I hesitate to use this word to describe William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundergaard, but as the entire idiotic scheme is his, I am left with no other choice. Macy is the perfect actor to bring Lundergaard to life. He has a quiet Midwestern feel to him that just feels so natural, and has a general air of a cuckold that makes Jerry feel like the ultimate buffoon. You never loathe him like you do the villains, and you never pity him you do the victims. You just view him for what he is: an idiot unworthy of your time. Meanwhile, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare serve as the perfect odd couple of villains. Buscemi plays Carl Showalter as that foul-mouthed moron in your office who won’t shut up, to great effect. His motor-mouthed Carl gets most of the memorable lines, and when onscreen, has to do the bulk of the planning, as the only one of the three with any semblance of brains. The brawn is left to Stormare, who looms over the screen like the Lenny to Buscemi’s George. However, don’t let his quiet dumbness (a sequence where he watches soap operas next to his murder victim is an example of this film’s comedy) fool you-he is an actual threat. Just ask the three people he shoots and one he axes. And I haven’t even gotten to our hero yet. You betcha, how can you talk about Fargo without addressing Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson? A fabulous detective, a badass heroine, and still eight months pregnant during the events, Gunderson is a hero to remember. She’s always three steps ahead of the villains, willing to help out anyone in need, and just genuinely a good person. Her response when her coworker makes a key error in a murder investigation? “I’m not sure I agree 100% with your police work there, Lou.” She’s such a delight. Plus, there’s the fact that this character (a man in literally every other film noir in existence) is a woman, and this makes her relationship with hubby John Carroll Lynch so wonderful. Their relationship forces the entire notion of police films to be flipped on its head. Because instead of the man waking up early and going off to solve the crime while the woman stays home to cook, the gender roles are completely reversed. And while it’s small and subtle, it makes all the difference. And what’s more, they are a sweet, loving, good old-fashioned couple who have nothing but kindness for each other and the world around them. They are the real American Dream. Fargo is a film that’s dark, funny, bizarre, and whole-heartedly original. In short, it’s America. You betcha.
78. Titanic (1997)
Is Titanic the greatest cinematic accomplishment of the past twenty years? I think the argument can be made. I’m not necessarily referring to accomplishment in acting, or writing, or anything. It’s just that it’s so much of everything. You can say a lot about James Cameron as a director, and even more about him as a writer, but the one thing you cannot say is that he doesn’t know exactly what the people want. Titanic is everything we’ve ever loved about the movies, all wrapped up in a neat little package. It’s the romance of Capra with the scope of Ford, the epicness of DeMille with the wonder of Spielberg. It’s the kind of epic that audiences were nostalgic for delivered with the romance they wanted, all while using the themes that they so desperately needed. You see, it’s no good to just make a big film about a disaster-that’s just a form of porn, just scratching our itch for things going boom. A good director could make a film where you care about everyone who will die, but a smart director will cheat. Cameron doesn’t just show us a bunch of people dying without making us care; he uses his two protagonists to introduce us to the people who will die, building up their sympathies so they aren’t just the famous Stalin statistic. Would we feel as bad about Captain Smith dying if we hadn’t been introduced to him as a character? Would we be as furious at Ismay if he hadn’t been greedy in his quest for fame, power, and money? I’d wager no, and that’s what makes Cameron’s deliberate storytelling techniques so interesting. However, he’s also smart enough to know “doomed romance” on its own is just a cliché. That’s why he can add layer upon layer of thematic importance to their story. The Titanic is already the most famous tale of class struggle-gone-awry in history, so exploring the wealth gap is already on the table (and allows us to enjoy a delicious villain in Cal Hockley), and creates something of a Romeo and Juliet-style relationship for audiences to enjoy (why should love ever be simple?). However, there’s also the joy of gender politics. Watching Rose escape the shackles of her male-dominated world and find herself as a powerful, liberated woman is one of the most exciting arcs in modern cinema. The photograph montage at the end of the film tells a story, as do the 100-year old Rose’s eyes, and we get a sense of exactly how much Rose becomes empowered over the course of the three and a half hours, as she discovers her physical and mental strength, as well as her own sexuality (I personally find it brilliant that the sexiest scene in the movie is the one where there is no sex, while the sex scene itself is left to the imagination. It allows Rose to be more in control of her own body, even when it comes to the audience). While the script has its clunky moments, it is still an incredibly strong story, and regardless, that’s not what you’re there to see.
If you’re seeing Titanic, you are there to see the effects. And man, does Cameron provide some incredible effects. The sweeping shots from the camera to the CGI that still looks real today (at least on a big screen) to the lavish costumes, Cameron poured his heart and soul into making this film an epic for the ages. Each frame is rich, awe-inspiring, and gorgeous, and you find yourself asking, time and time again, “How the hell did they do that?” And, being frank, any film that does that is not only worthy of consideration for being one of the best of all-time, but is one of the few films to understand why movies are made to begin with. And I don’t want to leave out the technical craft, from editing to cinematography to score (good god, how have I not talked about James Horner’s score or Celine Díon’s haunting “My Heart Will Go On?”), for the incredible “Band Plays On” sequence, which is one of the greatest in all of film history. But effects alone are not enough to make a movie stand out. There are lots of films with great effects that aren’t memorable in the long run. You need great actors playing great characters to make a film stand out, and luckily this film has them in abundance. When it comes to the fictional characters, you have cheesy comedy from likable actors like Bill Paxton and Lewis Abernathy, the two leaders of the 1996 expedition to find the Heart of the Ocean (Again, how have I not talked about the Heart of the Ocean yet?); you have likable third-class passengers like Danny Nucci and Jason Barry, who perfectly contrast the snooty rich like Frances Fisher, each performance more charming than the last. And then of course there’s Billy Zane, who has so much fun playing the hateable Cal that you kind of love him, as he hearkens back to the classical villains of the 40s and 50s. Historically speaking, everyone either looks the part or acts the part, to wondrous effect. For example, Bernard Hill and Jonathan Hyde don’t necessarily stand out as the Captain and the owner Ismay, they both look the part, and it adds to the scenery of the film (and Hill’s scene on the bridge is a stand-out). Meanwhile, actors like Victor Garber, Ioan Gruffudd, and especially Kathy Bates don’t necessarily look like their respective historical figures, but man, do they know how to sell their scenes brilliantly, especially Garber and Bates. However, there’s really only three people who matter when it comes to performances in this movie, and they are Gloria Stuart, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet. Stuart brings an Old Hollywood sense of royalty to her performance, haunting you with her eyes as she remembers the most important period of her life, in all of its glory and all of its horror. She’s a spectacle to watch, even in her 80s. Meanwhile, DiCaprio may seem like he’s only a heartthrob in the film, there to be pretty and to inspire the young Rose, but he’s so much more. There’s a wildness and a fire in his heart that make him so lovable, and really allow for us to feel for the relationship. He may be the second-fiddle, character wise, but he’s the one that helps us believe the relationship. However, this film belongs to the young Ms. Winslet, through and through. Each movement, each look, and each time she’s framed by the camera, you are enamored with Rose Dewitt Bukater, falling in love with her and cheering for her quest for emancipation. When she’s imperiled, you feel imperiled; when she’s excited, you’re excited; and when she’s truly free, approaching her true love on the staircase or “flying” on the edge of the ship, by God, you feel free as well. It’s a performance of the ages, and this film doesn’t work without her. Look, there are a lot of people who want to hate this movie, and that’s understandable, because it’s such a big target. However, if you give me a stunning historical epic with a classical Hollywood romance, perfectly shot and edited and scored to perfection, then you have a film that is worthy of being the highest grossing of all time (well, until Avatar), unmitigated pop culture appeal, and the declaration that it is one of the greatest films of all time. Oh, and if you’re wondering, while there may have been enough room on that door, it wasn’t strong enough to support both their weight. So no, there couldn’t have been a happy ending.
77. The Jungle Book (1967)
I know what you’re thinking. This is not one of the animated films you expected to make this list. Hell, even in its own time The Jungle Book was never appreciated the way it should have been. It’s mainly remembered as the film Old Man Disney passed away on, and was sort of forgotten to the years because of it. However, if there’s any Disney movie that should never be forgotten, it’s this one. This is arguably the greatest artistic achievement in Disney’s entire repertoire, both from an animation standpoint and from a storytelling standpoint, something truly appreciated by a select group of fans. Hell, Gregory Peck quit his position as the President of the Academy because they didn’t nominate it for Best Picture. And really, I don’t blame him. This is the one of the best films to define the 60s, in all their glory. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Wait, what? The movie with the dancing monkeys and the kid in the woods and the tiger is about the 60s?” And yeah, I know I sound insane. But hear me out. Look at the film metaphorically. A kid has to leave the comfort of his home to find his place in the world. He meets all sorts of groups and cultures, ranging from a warless-but-ready army, a beatnik, and a group of mop-headed musical Brits, all while trying to avoid a force out to get him out of a hatred of his “kind.” That’s pretty much a little of everything that happened in the 60s, and making The Jungle Book one of the most brilliant satires in history. Disney and Co. improved Rudyard Kipling’s original Imperialist propaganda to find a much more inherent truth. Mowgli’s trek to return to the “Man-Village” represents the art of growing up, and each Gulliver-esque side mission is just a journey we, as people, take to get there. Kids coming of age in the 60s were faced with the oncoming threat of war, represented by the well-meaning (hey, it’s pretty obvious how Walt felt on politics) but still inept (even he understood reality) group of soldier-elephants preparing for an as-of-yet undeclared war. He meets the Beat Generation, who have the best outlook on life but still serve as a distraction from the main purpose. This is represented in Baloo the bear, a creature who gets by on the fruits of the land and never bothers with anything serious. He arrives in a seedy underground with great music, represented in the monkeys of King Louie who just want respect (much has been read into over what these monkeys represent, and it doesn’t look great that the original casting of Louie was Louis Armstrong. However, I’ve always interpreted them more as Sinatra-esque gangsters, made more prevalent by the casting of Louis Prima. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than the meaning of the other). And finally, he meets The Beatles. All the while he’s pursued by a creepy snake (whose meaning I think is all too eerily clear to want to dissect in this article) and a creature that hates him for being different than the other animals, the closest the film comes to touching on the Civil Rights movement. However, despite all of these side adventures and journeys, it is the call of a beautiful girl that inspires him to join adulthood and claim his place as a man. It’s the perfect metaphor for the 60s from the eyes of the child-like Walt, and even if it is a little naïve and simplistic, the scope of the project is wide, and when it needs them, it has an incredibly sharp pair of teeth. I’m amazed this level of depth came from the 60s, I’m even more amazed it came from a children’s film, and I’m beyond amazed that that film was from Disney.
Beyond the beauty found in the story, the team also found beauty inside the animation. Due to the expensive nature of the wide, colorful panoramics of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Disney started working in a grittier, more realistic medium. The lines become sharper, the landscapes grimier, and the drawings overall possessing a more naturalistic sheen. They first tried this technique on One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which served as an admirable first attempt. Their second effort was the much better Sword in the Stone, where the animators started to find themselves. However, nothing could match The Jungle Book, with its gorgeous jungle locales and gritty urban-esque settings, including a destroyed temple and a village. And that’s not to mention the animals, each given a unique and huggable design. Each animal also is given a distinct voice, and in my honest opinion, this may be the greatest vocal cast Disney ever assembled. Young Bruce Reitherman gives Mowgli the proper naiveté he needs to make the boy believable. Disney go-to Sterling Holloway uses his distinct voice to make Kaa sound similar to his Winnie the Pooh, giving him a comedic edge but driving home the seductive nature of his sheer evil. The actual Beatles turned down the film due to John’s hatred of animation, but Chad Stuart, Tim Hudson, Digby Wolfe, and J. Pat O’Malley give excellent performances as knockoffs. Louie Prima may only sing as the infamous King Louie, but my God does he knock that song out of the park. Obviously most fans show up for Phil Harris as Baloo, and rightfully so-his beatnik portrayal is one of the ten best in all of Disney’s movies. However, if I had to pick a favorite performance in the film, it would be either Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera or George Sanders as Shere Khan. Cabot has a right proper authority in his voice that makes Bagheera a trustworthy, if uptight figure of parental authority. Meanwhile, Sanders has one of the most delightfully distinct voices in all of movie history (it’s tied with Benedict Cumberbatch and Alan Rickman as my absolute favorite), and listening to him chew through every line of sinister dialogue and provide snarl after snarl is an absolute joy to witness. Honestly, I could only watch the villain scenes in this movie, as long as it means I get to hear Sanders be sarcastic. And then there’s the songs, which are an absolute dream, and arguably make up one of Disney’s finest soundtracks. The Sherman Brothers put together a wonderfully memorable soundtrack, from “Trust In Me” to “My Own Home.” Surprisingly, they didn’t write the most famous tune, “The Bare Necessities,” but that doesn’t diminish the song’s fun-loving message, the closest that Disney ever came to embracing the “hippies.” And I don’t know if there’s a better Disney sequence, from music to animation, than the showstopper that is “I Wan’na Be Like You.” I can never get enough of that wonderful sequence. Look, The Jungle Book is not one of the obvious animated films to put on this list. Hell, much of my defense of its ranking come from a deep sociological interpretation that people don’t expect from Disney. However, that impact cannot be ignored, the animation must not be overlooked, and the storytelling shall not be denied. This is Walt Disney’s second greatest achievement (we’ll be getting to his greatest shortly), and I see no reason to deny it a spot as the 77th greatest movie of all time.
76. Funny Games (1997)
Films reflect the times they are released in. They’re supposed to reflect what the society holds near and dear to their hearts, and allow them to see exactly what they want to see. Normally, this is a good thing, showing the love of, say, the nineties, or even a neutral thing, like the nihilistic release of the 70s. However, sometimes, it’s designed to serve as the wake-up call society needs, showing them their worst impulses and what they needed to do to become better people. And in that sense, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is as much a wake-up call as a kick in the balls. This is a film that intentionally breaks all the rules, ignoring common sense in movie making in order to blatantly tell the audiences that the violence they’d embraced in the media was destroying their souls. I mean, it jars you from its very first moments, smash cutting from a happy family listening to classical music to blood-red writing for the title and the sudden use of hardcore-grindcore heavy-metal. After putting you off so brutally, the film furthers its downward descent into hell and horror, turning into a home-invasion slasher film. Now, as odd as it sounds, there’s nothing wrong with an auteur making a cheap slasher movie. I mean, John Carpenter cut his teeth on Halloween and The Thing, and at the height of his career, Ingmar Bergman made The Virgin Spring, the film that inspired Wes Craven. However, I’m not sure any of these hold a candle to Haneke’s sharp, intelligent film, mainly because his film is about something deep in our human nature, as well as a technical chef-d’oeuvre. You see, Haneke doesn’t just make a film that’s self-aware, like Scream. He takes a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. He introduces a series of Chekov’s guns just to discard them (the camera lingers on a knife to be the protagonist’s savior, only for it to be thrown overboard). He takes the general “rules” of a horror film (children are safe and one hero survives) and throws them out the window. But he doesn’t stop there. Villains Peter and Paul are aware they are in a movie. They wink at the audience. They ask the audience to bet and vote on the outcome, inviting them into the violence that they secretly desire, and, in a shocking moment, rewind the action to avoid losing. Each decision the film makes forces the audience to side with the villains, forcing them to be culpable in the violence that they crave and they, as a society, have brought upon themselves. It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking and a stunning social critique of what the 1990s deemed normal.
The film’s tightly casted to keep the emotions strong between the five main characters. Susanne Lothar acts properly terrified as the film’s lead Anna, while Ulrich Mühe leads the family with dignity as George. Meanwhile, Stefan Clapczynski is properly cute as son Georgie, which is important to gain the audience’s sympathies-and horror. However, this film belongs to Peter and Paul, and that’s it. Frank Giering and especially Arno Frisch are absolutely remarkable as the two sociopaths that lead the film, creating two of the greatest villains the screen has ever known. They are frightening in the fact they know everything, yet want nothing. They are in control of this movie, beckoning us along like some sort of demonic Mr. Rogers to join them in their merry holocaust, never losing their sickening grins. All the while, you feel and understand that they are doing this just because they enjoy it-no motive, no agenda, nothing. They’re doing it just because they want to. Arno Frisch in particular gets a sickening amount of pleasure out of the performance. This film doesn’t work without their performances, and luckily they give two of the best in history. I may have a love/hate relationship with Michael Haneke, the master of the austere, but I know one thing with absolute certainty: Funny Games is one of the greatest films of all time.
75. All the President’s Men (1976)
All The President’s Men is a demonstration of seamless storytelling. Alan J. Pakula’s demonstration of subtlety takes on the most famous story of the 70s in a decidedly unflashy fashion. I don’t even want to use the word “naturalistic,” because even that sounds more extravagent than the film actually is. In fact, if there weren’t stars in it, you’d probably assume it was a documentary. However, that’s exactly what makes the film such a smash. By toning everything down to just look at the facts of the story, and let reality run its course, Pakula’s film created a lasting legacy as the epitome of men doing what’s right solely because it is right. It’s a film where the only thing that matters are the words and the facts-everything else is circumstantial. And yet, while everything else takes the backseat in this remarkable-and depressing-true story, that is in no way an indication of the film’s talent. It is one of the most impeccably directed, edited, and shot movies of all time. Each image of the newsroom feels fresh and alive, electric without feeling fake or exaggerated. Each line written by William Goldman, furthers the mystery, always complicating things right before laying out the case, explaining exactly how the Nixon administration was lying to the United States citizens. Each shadow gives the edge of a noir thriller, even if it’s just a story of two shmucks writing a newspaper article. The tension is real, and the stakes are real, because what’s at risk is the soul of our nation. Even though you know how everything turns out-the case is solved, the story is written, and no one was killed, or even in threat of danger (at least knowingly)-you still feel antsy, wondering how it all comes together. It’s a remarkable trick of direction and writing, and the abilities don’t stop there. As depressing as the whole thing feels (our government is corrupt and there’s little we can do about it), and as low as the final scene feels, Pakula never leaves the audience without a sense of hope in the dark times: there are good men doing great things to defend the essence of truth to its very core.
And what great actors there are playing these great men. I like to call the acting in films like this “non-performances.” This is because the actors scale back their flashier sensibilities into nonexistence, in order to prevent overshadowing the story. It’s a different kind of acting than most people are used to, but man, when it’s done right, it’s some of the best in existence. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are understated and awe-inspiring as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They are the embodiment of good, investigating because it is right, despite threats to their own well-being. Meanwhile, Jason Robards shows why he’s the king of character tics, getting under the skin of the idiosyncratic editor Ben Bradlee, coining famous phrases like “non-denial denial” and swearing up a storm as he forces his reporters to get all their ducks in a row so the story is airtight. As the only major woman in the cast, Jane Alexander plays someone controlled by the system. She makes herself as small as possible, and always in the corner of the frame, as if she’s cornered by the men who seek power at all costs. It is a very physical performance, but a brilliant one at that. And of course, there’s Hal Holbrook as the infamous “Deep Throat.” It’s really a testament to Holbrook’s performance that he’s the most memorable character, considering he’s only in the film for a few minutes, and always in the shadows, preventing you from seeing his face. And yet, he’s the one you always remember, what with “follow the money” and his quest to make the truth known at all costs. All The President’s Men is a film about the importance of truth, what it takes to learn it, and what its consequences are. It’s a great mystery, awesome detectives’ film, and perhaps the greatest true story ever put on film.
74. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Very few films have the size, scope, and substance of Paul Thomas Anderson. He really went all out with There Will Be Blood, his great epic of the American Dream, and painted his portrayal across a canvas normally reserved for Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Anderson has such a masterful control over the story, it really is awe-inspiring to see it all come together. Anderson’s script is a great tapestry of America, exploring its two most ingrained beliefs: greed and religion, and pits them against each other in a masterful ballet of Americana. Daniel Plainview represents the capitalistic greed that built this country. He starts out as an inspirational figure, starting from scratch, becoming a self-made man, and seemingly becoming a great father figure to an adopted son. However, there’s something sinister lurking below his surface, slowly gnawing its way out, and made incredibly clear by Anderson’s sharp direction. He heightens this personification at every turn by framing Plainview from pathetic angles, and often alone against a vast backdrop (Robert Elswit’s cinematography is arguably some of the best in history). He is a man alone in the world, lost in the fires of hell because of his corruption. However, Plainview is not alone in this moral degradation. He is joined by a man of the cloth, Eli Sunday. Eli represents the human nature of religion-while the faith is important to Paul Sunday (Eli’s twin brother), as well as the good-hearted people of the town, Eli has corrupted it. He may seem like a kindly preacher, but his true nature is revealed when he stoops to revenge, begins a radio program to preach “proper morals” to the world, and then willingly declares God a lie in order to turn a quick buck. He has more in common with Reverend Harry Powell than he does Father O’Malley. However, in the quest for power, Anderson has demonstrated the corrupting nature of money on man’s good intentions, and in America’s own capitalistic and faith-based society. Both capitalism and innovation are excellent tools, and helped build this country, while faith is a helpful tool for coping with the world around you. However, when money comes along, and greed corrupts the men at the heart of both hands of American society, then you have no choice but to watch your country fall apart. That’s what Anderson paints so vividly. From the stunning silent opening of a man almost killing himself to make a profit to the middle scenes of a loving father cradling his injured son to the final scene of a depressed, lonely man slumped on the floor holding a bowling pin, we watch American society at its core crumble away from a decent human being to a morally bankrupt and truly sobering state. And the fact that he managed to create this epic at the age of 36 is astonishing.
However, while Anderson is truly the auteur behind the scenes creating a masterful portrait, he gets nowhere without a series of performances that truly change the game. The largest roles outside the two leads belong to Kevin J. O’Connor and Dillon Freasier, and both actors do a great job of trying to humanize Plainview. O’Conner is smug but likable as the only friend and family Plainview knows, and he plays the part competently. Meanwhile, Freasier is one of the greatest child actors in the history of film, delivering few lines as the eventually-mute son of a businessman, but he plays the part perfectly, loving his father while rarely understanding him, and he allows the lead to play off him perfectly, raising the question of whether he loves the boy or if he sees him as a tool to wealth and power. However, the two that go hand in hand are Paul Dano and Daniel Day-Lewis. Dano is oft-ignored in appraisals of this movie, and that is a travesty. Dano portrays both Paul and Eli Sunday in starkly different lights, giving each unique traits that manage to set the movie in motion. Paul is a smarter part played well, but my God if Eli isn’t the movie’s secret weapon. Eli is the perfect fire and brimstone preacher, outwardly charismatic and faith-driven, and yet subtly, but clearly lying through his teeth. It’s a clever, shrewd performance, and one of the best in recent years. I suppose the reason it is so often overlooked is because he is often onscreen with Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview. It is here that Day-Lewis made his case as the greatest living actor, and one of the all-time greats. His Plainview is a cunning, lying, sleazy, manipulative, charismatic, clever, sociopathic, frightening, and all-around pathetic creation. Each scene with Plainview onscreen is consistently changing the game, with tics, traits, and more for the audience to feast on in their quest to understand the protagonist. I’m not sure if they could ever fully succeed, but it’s an absolute joy to try. There are often claims that classic cinema is dead, and we will never see a film like those attempted by Welles, Kubrick, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and more. I’m not sure I totally disagree with that claim, but I will say this: this film is evidence that as long as Paul Thomas Anderson is alive, at least someone this century will be trying.
73. Unforgiven (1992)
The Western has always been a romanticized genre. From its earliest days to the heyday of John Wayne, Westerns were simple generalizations about good and evil, men in white hats vs. men in black (or Indians, but we’ll get to that in a later article), and everything was simple. The good guy would easily outshoot and kill the bad guy, kiss the girl, and ride off into the sunset. That’s all well and good, but it’s not quite accurate. Not historically, and not morally. That’s why, in the 1960s, the Revisionist Western was born. These Westerns were a lot darker than their predecessors-the murders (because that’s what they are) are bloodier, the heroes are greyer, and the actions have consequences. These were the days where John Wayne rode off into his own sunset while the brooding, flawed Clint Eastwood stepped into the cowboy boots. But even in the early Revisionist Westerns, Clint was never truly an antihero. At worst, he was chaotic good, doing things of his own whim while still coming out on the right side of morality. It was better, and great, but it still didn’t quite capture the truth of the Wild West, a time where morality was shot, and assh*les with weapons terrorized every man, woman, and child across ten states in order to conquer other assh*les with weapons. So when Eastwood came into his own as a director, and he came across the script for Unforgiven, he made a decision to return to the genre where he made his name one last time, to tell the story right. And it may arguably be his best performance ever. Unforgiven is a film about what it means to be a bad man, through and through, no matter how badly you want to be good. It’s the literal personification of True Detective’s Rustin Cohle’s philosophy: “The world needs bad men.” Everything about this film is darker than that which came before it. The cinematography and art direction is a muted grey as opposed to the bright scenery of John Ford or Sergio Leone. The screenplay is driven more by vice and nihilism than any Western to come before. And above all, the characters are the worst of the worst that any Western has offered, with even the most likable heroes acting the part of the despicable scoundrel. William Munny is a bad man, thought cured of drink and gunslinging by the only person he could ever love, Claudia, long since dead. He’s forced to return to the life out of a need to support his family, as well as to avenge a wronged prostitute, whose face was slit open by a misogynistic john. This sets him at war with an entire town and government, which allows for a wholly critical stance on society then and now. Sheriff Little Bill Daggett is the perfect embodiment of dictatorship, as his philosophical leanings can be criticized by anyone. He’s a money-driven misogynist that could align with the worst of the conservative ideology, while he simultaneously enforces order through the banning and confiscating all of the town’s guns, the greatest fear of the liberal establishment. Munny is a man who doesn’t belive in anything, really. He just knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and has come to dole out the punishments as they are needed, as long as the film’s dark, sobering philosophy. Two of his lines drive to the heart of Eastwood’s message, each sadder than the last. The first comes before he executes a man in cold blood, solely because he got in his way. “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” he growls, as the man begs for his life. The other, more metaphysical line is spoken to a young brat who idolized the killers-until he realized what it means to actually take a life, even if the man in question deserved it. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” This is a far different message than Gary Cooper or The Duke standing tall and shooting scoundrels with little to now thought of the consequences. This is a film that understands what it means to be the “hero” of this genre, and it doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.
All around, Eastwood has surrounded himself with absurd characters out of Western lore. Yes, Eastwood gives one of his best performances ever playing what is essentially the aged version of his famous Man With No Name after many years being worn down by the weight of his actions. But he’s only as good as his supporting cast. And this one includes Morgan Freeman. Freeman appears as Munny’s oldest friend who, despite his flaws, may be the most wholly decent character in the entire film, which you could use as a representation for what happens to good men in a horrible hellscape. Women are usually given the short shaft in the Western, and that’s still the case here, mostly playing prostitutes with hearts of gold who need help to curtail the sexist town that treats them like garbage. Frances Fisher is great as the tough Strawberry Alice while Anna Levine is the much sweeter Delilah. Richard Harris’ importance to the plot is debatable (I think he’s highly important as a critique for what American society does, as well as to demonstrate the Great Lie of the West), but he’s never not great, providing comedy and pathos to English Bob. Saul Rubinek’s author is a rather pathetic being who may not make sense on first viewing, but is particularly important when you realize that he is the audience surrogate, fantasizing about these idealized gunslingers that never existed, and creating an unhealthy myth that will leave lasting ramifications on generations to come. That is made abundantly clear in Jaimz Woolvett’s Schofield Kid, a wannabe sharpshooter raised on these glorified myths who gets ideas about how easy it is to kill. Woolvett lends an annoying innocence to the Kid, one that works in the context of the film. However, the film’s best performance comes from the legend himself, Gene Hackman. Hackman’s Little Bill is fascinating because he’s not wholeheartedly a villain, at least in the traditional sense. Hell, had the film been made twenty years earlier, the role could probably be played by John Wayne, with few changes to the plot to make him the hero. But Bill has a ferocity and a callousness that make him easy to root against. His humorous, yet horrific response to the assault of a prostitute is a blunt “She gonna die?” (The first true line of the movie, perfectly ushering you into this cold, unfeeling world) Bill is a man who thinks himself the hero, and that’s the best way to play a proper villain. Hackman gives a career best performance as a man who has allowed power to go to his head, and he provides a second side to the same coin for Eastwood’s Munny. Unforgiven is a unique Western in that it is laced with both regard and disdain for its own genre, and while it doesn’t quite unseat the films that came before it or the classics that defined it, it definitely makes you think about the unspoken ramifications the next time you watch them. And that is quite the accomplishment.
72. Boogie Nights (1997)
Hey, look, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson again! Yes, while There Will Be Blood is arguably the more thoughtful film reaching for something greater, I still make the case that Boogie Nights, when push comes to shove, is the film that seems more naturally funny, sinister, and, for lack of a better word, “great.” I know you’re probably having a hard time wrapping your mind around the idea of a movie about 1970s pornographic actors starring Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds being anything in the neighborhood of “great,” but it’s true. Boogie Nights is an exploration of the darker side of the 1970s and the lengths people went to in order to survive, and a testament to the art that got people through it. I’m not just referring the dirty movies-indeed, the terrible acting and silly plots are played for laughs, not for any artistic reason. I’m referring to the films that got people through the 70s (a topic that’s been a frequent theme of these essays)-the films of Scorsese and Coppola, of Ashby and Kubrick. Anderson studied these artists and offered this film as homage to their greatness, as well as the films that informed, entertained, and enraptured audiences during a dark time in our history. Clearly, Anderson’s biggest influence was Scorsese, an observation that can be seen throughout his filmmaking decisions. Scorsese cut his teeth making films about glamorous undergrounds that give way to seedy underworlds that try and test our characters. He introduced these worlds through glamorous tracking shots, and used music to allow serene calms that gave way to extreme violence that horrified characters and audiences alike. The influences of these trademarks can be seen throughout Boogie Nights, to no less thrilling results. Not unlike Goodfellas, we see our protagonists in a wonderful fantasy world that slowly gives ways to its sordid reality. We meet characters and situations through tracking shots, demonstrating the glamour of the lifestyle that seduces the characters, as well as providing the inner turmoil in key scenes for characters Scotty J and Little Bill. And the music plays as important a role here as it does in any Scorsese or Tarantino film, whether in the touching “God Only Knows,” the kitschy “Boogie Shoes,” the ironic “Brand New Key” and “You Sexy Thing,” or in the surprisingly tense and incredibly brilliant “Jessie’s Girl,” one of my favorite scenes in film history. However, Anderson has learned just as much from Altman as he has from Scorsese, demonstrating a deft knowledge of how to use a giant ensemble cast to get to the heart of human relationships while still making them unique, emotionally rich, and often very funny characters. From the outwardly tough, inwardly insecure Roller Girl to the realistically idiotic friendship of Dirk and Reed to the innocent love of Scotty J to the motherly instincts of Amber Waves, these are people who society has forgotten and cast out, each desperate for fame, love, and acceptance in a society that teases them with it, and inevitably find a family in their tightknit group of social pariahs. The film follows each of their intricately detailed stories with equal weight and deftness, allowing us to see the human beneath the sex object, and remind us that everyone, no matter their profession, beliefs, orientation, or personality, just wants to be accepted by others. Anderson studied these masters closely, combining their talents with his own to create an ode to the 70s, when things sucked and all we had were the movies.
As I mentioned with the Altman comparison, this is a film which could rest on its laurels simply based on the talent of this cast. The film’s central performance comes from Mark Wahlberg as the well-endowed innocent Dirk Diggler, and he has seldom been better. Dirk is naïve, funny, likable, and in way over his head. He’s the heir to a legacy put in place by predecessor Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, or continued by successors Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer in Magic Mike. However, I consider Wahlberg’s performance here to be the high watermark, and it may be the best of his varied career. His first real film after breaking out as a teenage rapper, Wahlberg manages to balance the film’s comedy and pathos with reckless abandon. He’s hilarious when he begins planning his musical debut, and still breaks our heart when he tries to comfort himself by looking into the mirror and repeating “I’m a star, I’m a star…” while holding his, erm, gift. It’s a strong central performance, but it’s the supporting roles that own this movie. Julianne Moore is a true star, anchoring the movie as the emotionally strong and nurturing Amber, a woman who wants to be a mother but society won’t let her. If Amber’s the mother, then Burt Reynolds is the father, trying to keep his family together as the “auteur” behind the scenes, moving along with a swagger that only Reynolds can provide. Other porn stars include breakout stars John C. Reilly and Don Cheadle as Dirk’s best friends, Reed and Buck, hilariously awkward and, in Buck’s case, wronged by society until he has few options left. Heather Graham is underrated in the film as the sweet Roller Girl, as she’s mostly to ogle and provide laughs, but she’s perhaps the most pure out of the lot, adding a depth to the family that no other character provides. Thomas Jane, Alfred Molina and Luis Guzmán provide comic relief as Todd, Rahad, and Maurice, while William H. Macy is truly heartbreaking as the cuckolded but well-meaning Little Bill. However, for my money, no character in the film is as wonderful as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s gay boom mic operator/fluffer Scotty. Scotty is a loser, hopelessly in love with the straight Dirk, and incapable of making a move. It’s a funny, unique twist on a clichéd character (the awkward guy who can’t properly talk to his crush), but rarely ever with the sense of pathos and heartbreak here, as seen in Hoffman’s famous “I’m a f*cking idiot” scene. It’s one of my favorite performances of all time, and only he could have pulled it off. Boogie Nights is funny, smart, dark, cynical, hopeful and more, all in one film. In fact, the only thing it isn’t is sexual, despite being about people who shag for a living. It’s instead a message to the outcasts of all generations, using the medium of film both literally and thematically as a tool to dig to truths about not only this niche world, but all of humankind in general.
71. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
There are few films as classically constructed and meticulously executed in recent years as the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally… Indeed, most people ranking the best films of all time not only skip this film, but the rom-com genre in general. I get it-I’ve seen the garbage that Katherine Heigl is responsible for. However, what people are forgetting how magical this genre can be. When the words and the characters come together with a certain chemistry that’s hard to fake, in order to get to the heart of the one thing every human being desperately craves: love. And in my opinion, few films have managed, not only in recent years but in any year, to capture the heart of that magical, irrational, hysterical sentiment we call amour the way Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron did with When Harry Met Sally… Perhaps the reason the film works so well is because it’s so real, and they know it. This isn’t a film with a quirky meet-cute and misunderstandings, this is a film where two polar opposites start out hating each other. Harry is a chauvinistic assh*le who thinks only of sex and barely understands women-or people in general. Meanwhile, Sally is a woman who knows what she wants, right when she wants it, but often with little regard for the people around her, and is quick to judge others (the film calls her “high maintenance, which has become something of a dirty word, because most people use it as such without remembering the nuance behind Sally as a character). Neither can really stand to be around the other (not unlike Gable and Colbert, Hanks and Ryan, Gosling and Stone, Sam and Diane…I could go on), and whenever they bump into each other over the course of the first ten years of the movie, they can’t wait to get away from the other…until they don’t. This is the part of a rom-com where normally, the two characters form a relationship. It would be easy to do, because both characters are newly single and bitter about the way they left their ex. That’s not what Reiner and Ephron want to do here. Instead, they become friends. Best friends, even. And that’s a beautiful thing. Because while any other movie would jump straight into a complicated emotion like love without thinking about what goes into it, Harry and Sally take their time to show us why these two deserve to be together. Harry’s the one who can make Sally do things outside her comfort zone without making her change who she is. Sally’s the only one that can teach Harry why he’s being a bitter jackass while simultaneously cheering him up from his depression. They’re forming a real relationship without being in a relationship. And that’s the type of thing real life is filled with. Furthermore, Reiner and Ephron fill the script with little moments that feel true to life. Scenes in a diner feel awkward, painful, funny…and real (Sure, “I’ll have what she’s having” is clearly not something that would be said in real life. But if you can form a joke this great, you should go for it anyway). The two discuss movies, music, games, and more the way real friends and couples do. And when our two protagonists finally do get together, it’s a scene that’s so earnestly honest and realistic that I myself have found myself very nearly acting it out. And I haven’t even gone into the film’s “act” breaks, which split up the action for scene changes by allowing real life elderly couples (or at least transcripts from real life elderly couples) to relay their stories to the audience, explaining how they met the person that they so desperately wanted to spend the next fifty-something years of their lives with. I guess as the song goes, “It Had To Be You.”
What Reiner and Ephron did writing and sculpting this realistic, heartwarming story is damn close to being a miracle, but if it just misses the classification, then the casting of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as Harry and Sally is worthy of beatification by the Pontiff himself. Crystal strikes the perfect balance as Harry, lonely, miserable, and chauvinistic, while simultaneously funny, caring, and big-hearted, even if he can’t admit it-or is too dumb to do so. He makes the irritating moments irritating, the goofy moments goofy, and still manages to nail the final monologue in the most romantic way possible. Meanwhile, Ryan is a firecracker. I don’t know any other way to put it. She’s an absolute knockout as Sally, playing her as funny, smart, talented, tough, and all-around lovable. When she takes an hour ordering lunch, you’re left wondering if you want to throw your arms up in annoyance or spend the rest of the day hanging out with her. At the very least, she knows how to handle Harry, putting him in his place when he says something stupid or irritating. The aforementioned “Diner Scene” is the perfect example of how to write great comedy, and Ryan performs like a champ (so to speak). I would make the argument she may be the greatest female lead (or any lead) in any rom-com, ever. I’d take her over Annie Hall, I’d take her over Belle, I’d take her over Vivian, and I’d take her over Princess Buttercup. She’s the epitome of the character, and it deserves praise Brando gets for what he did to mob movies or Julie Andrews did for musicals. The supporting cast is strong as well. Most rom-coms feature the sassy best friends who push the couples together, but When Harry Met Sally… is the first time they’ve ever felt real. Partly that’s because Ephron wrote real roles for them, with impact on the story and their own personal lives that exist when the protagonists aren’t around, and partly that’s because of the performances of Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby. As much as I love Kirby in his role, I really want to emphasize Fisher, who was still only known for Star Wars when she played Sally’s best friend with horrible taste in men. And yet, this is the role where she demonstrated just how much talent she actually had. She makes Marie funny, smart, witty, and likeable all at the same time. She’s the only one that can steal jokes from the film’s power couple, she actually is supportive of her best friend, and unlike other sassy best friends, she actually only has her own life and plotline. She can do it all, and I’d argue it’s one of the late Fisher’s best performances. Oh, and a special shout out to Estelle Reiner as Older Woman Customer, delivering arguably the greatest line in comedy history. This is a film you that makes you want to fall in love just as much as you fall in love with it. While nothing in it was technically new, it’s realistic portrayals, funny script, and honest look at love still set a high bar in the genre that is emulated today. It’s the perfect example of a film being entirely classical and entirely fresh at the same time, and I still marvel at how they managed to pull it off.
I hope you enjoyed round 3 of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. You can see the updated list right here, and you can find links to the previous articles and essays below. See you all next time!