10) Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Sidney Lumet)
I'll say it here: If you can make the audience feel a connection with the people they were always taught to avoid, you'll win every time. Based on a true story, this entertaining tale of a Manhattan bank robbery gone way wrong features a pitch-perfect performance from a young Al Pacino, as a guy who needs the money for.... let's just say, an unusual reason. Has a lot to say about fame through infamy; was ahead of its time in that department. Pretty much demolishes every hostage movie I've seen since, especially John Q, which plagiarized DDA's plot development, nearly line for line.
9) The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990, Francis Ford Coppola)
Okay, I'm cheating technically, but since a version of this movie exists where all three films are edited together, that's the film I'm talking about. But seriously, where do I start? Such a powerful, beautiful, chilling tale. At the center, a close-knit Italian family, and a baby boy, Michael, who made the choice many of us would've made if we saw our family crumbling all around us. And how he paid ever so dearly for that choice. The cast? It's like the Dream Team: Brando, Pacino, DeNiro, Caan, Duvall, Keaton, Cazale. Top-notch cinematography, writing, costumes, everything. Absolutely blows me away every time I see it.
8) Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Out of boredom, I did a lot of strange things during my senior year of film school. How strange was that year? Heading off to the local artsy-fartsy theater to see a film about the rise and fall of the '70s porn industry wouldn't even be considered one of the strange things. This movie mesmerizes. PTA came off like a rock star in his first big-budget feature. Part Scorsese, part Altman, with an engaging plot and performances that made you feel the pain of these delusional, troubled, beautiful people.
It is a morality tale, but only through letting the characters endure the natural, truthful progression of their hedonistic lifestyle. This was the film that taught us that Marky Mark could act, that Julianne Moore was the truth, and that Heather Graham, was, well, you know....
7) Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock very nearly ended up with three films on this list, and even now, it's difficult to discern which one I love the most. Vertigo has one of Hitchcock's most twisted, surprising storylines, fine performances by a tortured Jimmy Stewart and the never-lovelier Kim Novak. It also has one of the illest, creepiest dream sequences in any movie ever. Made during an admirably purple patch in Hitchcock's illustrious career (I'll put his run from 1954's Rear Window to 1963's The Birds against any other director's so-called hot streak any day.), this is the movie that always pops into my head first when asked to give evidence of Hitch's genius and darkness.
6) Malcolm X (1992, Spike Lee)
I was a 15-year-old black kid at a predominantly white private school at the time of its release; this film couldn't have meant more to me (then or now) if I'd made it myself. Still Spike Lee's crowning achievement, still Denzel Washington's greatest role, still the film that makes me most want to punch whoever was in charge of Oscar nominations that year in the stomach. Like GoodFellas, clearly the culmination of everything the director and star had learned and aspired to by that point. A staggering, brilliantly assembled chronicle of one man's rise through racism to prison to black militance to betrayal to martyrdom. Regardless of how you think you feel about Spike or Brother Malcolm, this film's power is undeniable.
Your challenge: Find a better use of music in any scene in any film than Sam Cooke's "A Change Gonna Come" right before Malcolm is assassinated. You can't. Seriously, if you do, I'll give you ten dollars.
If there was ever a movie that made me want to be (or think I could be) a filmmaker, this was it.
5) Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
And so began my obsession with the original boy wonder. Even now, on the umpteenth view, this film fills me with a curious mixture of awe and jealousy. The backstory is just too good: 25-year-old theater/radio wunderkind comes to Hollywood and is given complete freedom to make whatever film he wants. He co-writes a thinly-veiled indictment of controversial newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, stars in and directs it, and watches the film go on to eclipse everything that he (or any other director) would create to this very day.
So much has been written about this film, but I'd like to talk briefly about Gregg Toland's cinematography and Welles's performance as Charles Foster Kane. Toland pioneered the "deep focus" style of cinematography, in which objects in the background are just as clear as objects in the foreground. It is an indispensable characteristic of this film. And as for Welles, dude ages from frat boy to dentures with such little effort that it's easy to take his performance for granted. The risks that they took visually (Toland's unstoppable talent + Welles' theater background), thematically (Hearst himself offered the studio money to burn the film's negative), and logistically (they didn't have a Gone With the Wind budget, but you wouldn't know) are so inspiring, they're downright sickening.
4) Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson)
The film that cemented Jack Nicholson as a star, and still among the finest accomplishments of his career. This moody character study is about Robert Dupea, a hotheaded hick who returns to his repressed, estranged family to visit his dying father. And it made a bigger impact on my screenwriting than any film I've seen to date. It is an American film with European tendencies, the kind I've been trying to write ever since. My first script, Too Marvelous for Words, is similar aesthetically, and also has a main character who goes out of his way to deny his upbringing as a gifted young concert pianist. A truthful exploration of why we make the choices we make in life.
3) Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger)
Again: Sympathy for the freaks. Jon Voight's naive prostitute and Dustin Hoffman's scummy hustler aren't supposed to become confidants, let alone warm their way into our hardened hearts. A trippy, counterculture essay on big city mirages -- not to mention the only X-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture (later re-rated to R) -- this film gets more powerful with age. The ending, while inevitable, is devastating.
Freakish in retrospect how much a 30-year-old Voight looked like his daughter, Angelina.
2) Coming to America (1988, John Landis)
I have written about this movie here before.I will try not to repeat myself. It's still Eddie's masterpiece, absolutely the fullest realization of what he could do at the peak of his movie star powers. I have quoted lines from this movie at least once a week, every week since I was a junior in high school. I laugh at lines that weren't even intended to be funny, because they're funny to me now after seeing them almost 70 times. It has surpassed being a movie and has simply become a part of my life. And John Landis's '80s run was seriously underrated. I mean, dude directed the "Thriller" video, for goodness sake. Um, the original one.
1) GoodFellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
Not that Scorsese and Robert DeNiro hadn't made good films before this, but with GoodFellas, you really get the feeling that these guys knew exactly what they were doing. Mastered the craft, if you will. Several years before Tarantino ended Pulp Fiction with its own beginning, Scorsese ingeniously took a violent scene right out of the middle of the movie, plopped it at the beginning and extorted our undivided attention for the next 2 1/2 hours.
This film taught me a lot about how and when to use voice-overs and music in a film; how many ways each decade that a film visits can be represented through the language of cinema. Meanwhile, through the eyes of a wide-eyed, half-Irish opportunist, we co-pilot the exhilarating rise and catastrophic fall of the Mafia.
And can't wait to do it again and again.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.22.07 @ 10:10p
Some interesting choices. I honestly never got the Godfather thing. I just don't get into them. The only mafia film I enjoyed was Miller's Crossing.
For me I'd need The Big Chill, Return of the Seacaucus Seven, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Last Picture Show, Band of Angels, The Gumball Rally, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, There's No Business Like Show Business.
Now more important, if I'm on a desert island, where do I plug in my DVD player? Do I have a large screen T.V.? Is the popcorn fresh or microwaved?
8.22.07 @ 10:28p
I always have a difficult time answering the proverbial "desert island" question. (Heh, I loved the Godfather trilogy enough to even buy a trivia book about it).
In no particular order, I need: Return of the King (sorry Yoda), Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, Shag, Elizabeth, Dead Again, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl, About a Boy, Gladiator, All About My Mother, and Dogma.
Robert, since I wouldn't want to have to scratch sand off my rear end while watching these, I'm gonna have to buy one of the leftover Philippine islands in the South China sea. Hopefully, it'll only cost a quarter, especially since I'd just like to munch on mangoes instead of popcorn.
8.23.07 @ 9:02a
Jason, out of curiosity, what are the other Hitchcock films you almost included here? Would they be Rear Window and The Birds, or something else. I love Vertigo and Psycho and Rear Window and The Birds all, but I think my favorite is Notorious.
And I still think Do The Right Thing is Spike Lee's best.
8.23.07 @ 9:46a
Good solid list. Makes me want to rewatch Dog Day and Five Easy Pieces (and Chinatown too).
Citizen Kane didn't do anything for me. Maybe because I saw it after I'd seen so many films influenced by it. I knew all his cinematic tricks already.
When KR and I rented movies from Heads Together (it had once been a head shop) one of their staff got to know our taste pretty well and started recommending directors--not movies. So we saw, one after another, everything by John Sayles, Hal Hartley, Kurosowa, and so on. So my list would have some of their work on it too. And some Coen Brothers, of course.
8.23.07 @ 10:04a
I think it's tough to appreciate Citizen Kane because, as Ken said, it established so much of what we take for granted today.
I dunno if my list would change if I called it desert island flicks or not, but I'd include the following in any top 10 list of my own:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Taxi Driver, Rosemary's Baby, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and perhaps my favorite movie ever, The Manchurian Candidate. The original, thank you.
8.23.07 @ 10:37a
Dude! How can such a sweet man be so gangsta? :D
My general favorite desert movie list is basically what would entertain me the most: Big, Shawshank Redemption, Aliens, Amelie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Memento, Ocean's 11, Fargo, Steel Magnolias, and almost all the Pixar films.
8.23.07 @ 10:39a
It would've been Psycho and Rear Window. His body of work is so strong, it's amazing.
Do The Right Thing would've made my top 20, but because I was, like, 12, when it came out, I don't think it had the impact on me at the time that Malcolm had.
Malcolm was just such an epic film, I had just never seen a black film on that scale before. Still haven't, really. It was just a bigger deal to me.
8.23.07 @ 2:12p
Malcolm was a tremendous film, both is scope and approach.
8.23.07 @ 2:56p
Oh, and Jason, I forgot to mention this- Coming to America isn't on my desert island list, but I'm tickled to see it on yours because every single joke great joke about Queens is in this. I love this movie a little more since I live here, and sometimes when I'm in Jackson Heights, I just remember Eddie Murphy and LAUGH.
8.24.07 @ 3:22a
Nobody said Beetlejuice??? COME ON!!!
If I were stuck on a desert island, I would have to say: A Streetcar Named Desire, My cousin Vinny, Beetlejuice, Hitchcock's Marnie (I think I'm the only person on earth that actually likes that movie), The Piano, Ask the Dust, The Lion in Winter, Braveheart, Amadeus, and O Brother Where Art Thou?