All-Time Top 25
(theatrical viewing only)
The Great Dictator (1940)
The single scene with Chaplin as Hitler playing with a balloon decorated as the Earth makes this one an all-time classic. The barbershop-chair contest between Hitler and Mussolini puts the movie over the top.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles is a master of light, shadow, and perspective. That this movie was a critical and box-office failure tells me that moviegoers and critics didn't know everything back then, either. From beginning to end, each frame of film means something.
Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
Stunning desert scenery. I've only seen this movie once (and that was back in 1989), but I remember liking everything about this movie.
Star Wars (1977)
Unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Of course, I was only 12 during its initial theatrical run, so the timing couldn't have been better. The script was a little on the simple side (looking back as I've gotten older) and I remember being bored enough by the first scenes on Tatooine that I got up to use the restroom even though I didn't really have to go that badly. This movie also makes the list because it's the subject of the only video-arcade game I'm any good at and how much fun I've had over the years waiting in line and watching the sequels (except Episode I -- that was crap).
Seven space miners vs. one alien. They never had a chance. This movie had corporate fraud long before anyone got taken by Enron. The 1986 sequel was more intense, but this one had a lot more character development. I cared about what happened to all of the miners -- except Ian Holm's character. One sign you're watching a classic; I saw this movie at the Cinerama up here in 1986 as part of a midnight-to-morning movie marathon and it was the first of four films. Right as the "dinner scene" was starting, I could hear hundreds of people (behind me while I was sitting in the second row) squirming in their seats. You know what's coming, you don't like what's going to happen, and you still can't keep your eyes off the screen.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
26 years later, it's still my favorite of the five Star Wars movies. I had more fun watching Jedi and it had a happier ending than this one, but Empire set the tone for all of the other movies. I remember thinking the early battle with the snow walkers was one of the coolest I'd ever seen. The Millennium Falcon never seemed to work right until the end. The dynamic between Luke and Darth gets complicated near the end and that classic line of Vader's stunned everyone. And we were all just as disbelieving as Luke.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
A long time ago, a friend of mine told me about a filmmaking term known as the "ten-minute hook". If a movie could hold you in the first ten minutes, it could hold you for the rest. This movie has the best first ten minutes. A rollercoaster ride from start to finish and one of the best final scenes (warehouse), as well. It's not every movie in which the good guys win while they're tied up with their eyes closed.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Saw this movie opening day with several other Spielberg fans. Carlo Rambaldi's creature effects are still amazing to see. Kids vs. adults in suits. A somewhat cheesy ride across the city in front of the moon. The scene where Elliott says goodbye to E.T. and walks away (and doesn't notice the orange light from inside E.T.'s container right away) still gets me. I swear I heard an audible gasp from several people in the audience when that light came back on.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
I missed Star Trek: The Motion Picture during its first run in 1979, but I was there opening day for its sequel on May 4, 1982. Ricardo Montalban chewing up every scene. The cat-and-mouse game with Kirk throughout the entire movie. Merritt Butrick (as Kirk's son, David) showing that snotty preppies still exist in the 23rd century. Spock sacrificing himself for the "needs of the many". This one had it all. Too bad the next good one was four movies and nine years away.
Blade Runner (director's cut) (1982)
I saw the original theatrical version on opening day at the Cinerama, May 25th, 1982, but I didn't get a chance to see the director's cut until 1990. Much better all around. The only things different about the director's cut were 1) no voiceover by Harrison Ford 2) no happy ending and 3) a dream sequence belonging to Harrison's character involving a unicorn running through a forest in slow motion. I have no idea why the dream sequence wasn't included in the original version. Not only does it not take away anything from the original release, it sets up a completely different possibility for everything in the movie. It's much more interesting with that one little scene in it.
I wasn't much into classical music when I saw this movie and I was skeptical that the guy I remembered from Animal House would be able to play a decent Mozart. Tom Hulce was fantastic and the word is that he can no longer do those maniacal laughs that gave us so much insight into the character. F. Murray Abraham was incredible. Even Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller's Day Off , Howard The Duck) seemed comfortable playing an emperor. Also, I think I only saw this movie because it was up for so many Academy Awards. It probably deserved all of them.
Back To The Future (1985)
Movies don't get more "80s" than this one unless they're directed by John Hughes. I'm a huge fan of time-travel stories and this trilogy showed very well the good and bad things that can happen when you make changes in someone's past, present, and future. Production designer Lawrence G. Paull also worked on another movie from this list -- Blade Runner. Seeing all three movies together on the opening day of the third one was incredible. Movie studios should do that for every trilogy-ending movie. Of course, if George Lucas did that for the three most recent Star Wars movies, that means I'd have to sit through Episode I again.
The Color Purple (1985)
21 years later, this is still my all-time favorite movie. Every frame of this film looked like a painting. Who knew Oprah Winfrey could act like that? The scene where her character is seeing her family again for the first time in over a decade (and then the entire group turns to watch Oprah's guardian struggle with the basics of car driving) remains one of the most emotionally frustrating situations I've ever watched on screen. Whoopi Goldberg and Akosua Busia were virtual acting unknowns at that time and both were absolutely incredible. The fact that this picture didn't win any of the 11 Oscars for which it was nominated is one of the highest crimes in film-award history.
Empire Of The Sun (1987)
I've watched this movie several times and the next-to-last scene with the main characters and his parents still gets to me. This movie is based on a J.G. Ballard autobiography, but there are so many elements in this film that are uniquely Spielberg. The World War II era and its fighter planes are also featured in his movies 1941, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saving Private Ryan. Steven almost seems envious of the life Ballard lived. Empire was Christian Bale's first movie and he's played several other good roles since. The initial bombing of Hong Kong by the Japanese shook the theatre. It's a good thing I wasn't holding any popcorn at the time.
Field Of Dreams (1989)
This film has it all: baseball, Iowa, James Earl Jones, and comedy. The field still exists today and someday, I'll get to Dyersville, Iowa, and hopefully knock one into the cornfield so that Shoeless Joe knows I stopped by to say hi. The three scenes that still give me chills are 1) when the Fenway Park scoreboard changed and only Kinsella (Costner) and Mann (Jones) could see it, 2) when Archie Graham (Burt Lancaster) stepped across the field's threshold and changed from baseball player to old country doctor, and 3) when Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) told Ray Kinsella that someone else was there to see him.
Miracle Mile (1989)
I heard a theory several years ago about the main character in this movie; that he was a "man out of time". It might explain his influence over the events that unfold in this film. Otherwise, it's hard to believe that a lit cigarette in bird's nest could start World War III. The cigarette burns the nest (and the power lines on which the nest was perched), knocks out the power in Harry Washello's (Anthony Edwards) apartment building. His alarm clock doesn't work, so he misses his date and answers a call on a pay phone from a scared young man in a North Dakota missile silo. Everything else happens from there. This depressing movie was so unusual that it almost seemed like a foreign film.
This might be the best movie I've ever seen for free. I knew Denzel Washington would be good, but I had no idea at the time that Matthew Broderick could pull off such a serious role. This film tells the story of the 54th Massachusettes Infantry, one of the first black regiments to fight in the War Against the States. Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Cary Elwes were also fantastic. It's depressing to think that 80 years after this movie took place, blacks and whites were still segregated within the U.S. military and American society.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Saw this movie three times in the theatre and jumped every time when the raptor jumped at the teenage girl hanging from the ceiling. The special effects were, of course, incredible. There were several breathtaking visual moments: 1) Ellie and Dr. Grant first see one of the dinosaurs 2) The T-Rex turns one of the vehicles into a T-top 3) The lawyer is "discovered" by the T-Rex in the men's room 4) The two kids and Dr. Grant are trying to escape a falling car while still in a tree and 5) Several raptors have the gang cornered in the lobby of the Welcome Center. I read somewhere that one filmgoer commented on the effects by saying, "You didn't know where the real dinosaurs ended and the animatronic ones began." Yeah, something like that.
Schindler's List (1993)
Another Spielberg movie that takes place during World War II, but this one works, too, and it finally gets Steven two long-overdue Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. This film tells the "softened-up-for-Hollywood" story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman who hires Jews to keep them out of Nazi concentration camps. Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley turn in stunning performances. The scene near the end where Schindler's Jews fade into all of the present-day descendants still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
Toy Story (1995)
Pixar's first feature-length movie is a masterpiece. I've been a big fan of their work since Luxo Jr., Red's Dream, Tin Toy, and Knick Knack were first shown. The voice casting was brilliant. The work involved in making something like this is mind-boggling. Anyone that has ever had a favorite toy should enjoy this movie.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Five years after Schindler's List, Spielberg returns once again to World War II to tell the true story of the search for a soldier whose two brothers have just been killed. This film is another tremendous effort by Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Matt Damon. In all of my history classes way back when, I had no idea that the Allied forces took so long to cover so little territory after the initial landing at Normandy on D-Day (June 6th, 1944). Guess we only get the highlights in school these days. This movie brought out a lot of strong feelings from other moviegoers, as well. During the final battle, one guy in the audience called a young soldier (who couldn't climb the stairs to help his friends) a name I couldn't repeat here unless I asked first for age verification. That kind of audience reaction (like the guy on the screen is going to hear the guy in the audience) is a good sign you're watching a very good movie.
The Matrix (1999)
I remember when the trailer for this movie was first shown and all those people in the theatre that laughed when Keanu Reeves said "Whoa". Well, I know a lot of people that had the same reaction after they saw the movie. This film combined kung fu, virtual reality, religion, philosophy, and Alice In Wonderland -- and why didn't I think of it first? Hopefully, Laurence Fishburne will win an Oscar someday. Has Joe Pantoliano ever played a nice guy?
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
I read The Hobbit in grade school and saw the Rankin/Bass animated version way back when. I also paid to sit through the Ralph Bakshi Rings disaster some years later. This new Peter Jackson production was done the right way. The scenery is incredible (I have to get to New Zealand and climb those mountains). The action is intense. The casting is perfect. Once I read the trilogy, I wanted the whole first story in this movie, but that would turn this movie into something about six hours long. Hey, if it's this cast and this crew, I'd still sit through it.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Wow. An epic in every sense of the word. The legendary Tolkien trilogy ends with a battle at Minas Tirith and two hobbits climbing Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. Maybe I shouldn't count this one as separate from the other two because none of them really stand alone. The first one was a great beginning and this one was a great ending (though the story really only ended for the elves, wizards, Sauron, and Frodo). My favorite scenes included the ghost army summoned by Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) to help the forces of good, Pippin's song for Theoden while Faramir fights a hopeless battle, and Frodo's ship sailing into the Grey Havens. I read the book. I knew what was coming. It still got to me.
Unbelievable. It seems like every Pixar movie is better than the last one -- and I'm not just talking about the animation technology. This one might be their first topical feature (global warning and its after-effects are something almost everyone is talking about these days) and it's the first one to generate Best Picture Oscar buzz. Sure, it was a lot like E.T., but I identified with so many aspects of this movie (not knowing what and when to throw something out and spending a lot of time being socially awkward around anything remotely female). In this film, the robots are teaching the humans a lesson.
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