I love movies, though these days I rarely seem to have the time to go to the theatre. Here are my personal favorites. Some are cinematic masterpieces, some…aren’t. But I love each one, because they make me think, or laugh, or count my blessings, or discomfit me upon each viewing. Which movies do you love?
12. Waking the Dead (2000)
Waking the Dead is one of those rare instances in which the film is superior to the book. Based on Scott Spencer’s novel, the film chronicles the stormy relationship between Fielding Pierce and Sarah Williams (played by Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly). He is a rising political star; she is an idealistic social justice crusader. She dies (no spoiler; it happens at the very beginning), and the movie begs questions about the lingering effects upon us of those we love. Fielding is haunted by Sarah’s memory (and maybe by more than that), as he struggles to be a better man while navigating the hardscrabble life of Chicago politics.
11. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
What makes a person great? What grants meaning? What imputes value? There is no better measure for these things than the impact one has on the lives of those around him. George Bailey is given the gift of seeing what Bedford Falls would have been like had he not been born, and the story is told as only Frank Capra can. Plus, even seventy years removed, Donna Reed is stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful.
10. The Others (2001)
This is one of the spookiest movies you’ll ever see. Set on a fog shrouded Channel island, a mother and her two children are unnerved by slamming doors, voices, and apparitions. Nicole Kidman is perfectly cast, right down to her alabaster skin. Theologically, the film begs the question, “Is anyone forgotten?”
9. The Breakfast Club (1985)
As a child of the 80’s, I had to include a John Hughes film on my list of favorites, and this is his best, in my opinion. Virtually no one likes himself or herself in high school, and in that stage of life we all secretly yearn for a place in where we can let our guard down and be real people to one another. (“Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns!”)
8. Three Amigos (1986)
Of all of Chevy Chase’s, Steve Martin’s, and Martin’s Short’s ridiculous 80’s movies, this John Landis classic is my favorite. To this day, I can recite lines of dialogue to some of my junior high school-era friends, and they can reply without missing a beat. Dusty Roads, Lucky Day, and Ned Nederlander save a Mexican village from the marauding El Guapo, who is infamous (IN-famous; it means “more than famous”). They use a plethora of strategies. Along the way, they try tequila, which is like beer.
7. The Godfather (1972); The Godfather, Part II (1974); The Godfather, Part III (1990)
There’s no better film than The Godfather, and Parts II and III (yes, Part III too) are nearly as good. Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy chronicling Michael Corleone’s road from idealistic war hero, to ruthless Mafia don, to old man seeking redemption, is a masterpiece of storytelling. I’ve seen the movies a dozen times, and I still get emotional when Sonny is gunned down, when Michael confronts Fredo in Havana, and when Mary Corleone (admittedly, horribly cast with Sophia Coppola) is killed.
6. Big Fish (2003)
I often use Big Fish as a teaching tool, a window into the myriad ways truth can run far deeper—and is not entirely dependent upon—facts. The film is also a story about fathers and sons, and about the virtue of granting oneself permission to know someone again for the first time.
5. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977); The Empire Strikes Back (1980); The Return of the Jedi (1983)
My inclusion of these films on my list of favorites is as much about the holistic experience of my childhood as the movies themselves. I saw Star Wars in the theatre when I was five years old; I saw Empire Strikes Back at the Cinema 150 in Little Rock (a proto-IMAX experience); and I saw Return of the Jedi on opening day at the Malco in Jonesboro, Arkansas. My brother, Robert, and I had every Kenner action figure and play set. We added to them with cardboard constructions of our own. For years, EVERYTHING was about Star Wars. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
4. True Grit (2010)
I recognize that to some people it is blasphemy to prefer the remake to the John Wayne original, but the Coen Brothers’ 2010 True Grit is a masterpiece. The story of the pursuit of vengeance—and the pitfalls of that pursuit, even when vengeance is entirely righteous—is expertly told and filmed. The dialogue is true to the language of Charles Portis’ novel, and it is different enough from the cadences of our everyday speech that it keeps the viewer’s attention. Though many folks prefer The Dude, I believe Rooster Cogburn is the role Jeff Bridges was born to play.
3. A Christmas Story (1983)
Along with my #1 film, A Christmas Story is a movie that I watch every year. We’ve all known a Scott Farkus in our lives, and who hasn’t been triple-dog-dared to put his tongue on a frozen flagpole? I taught my sixteen year old son how to change a flat tire a few weeks ago, and I channeled Ralphie’s dad about the importance of protecting the lug nuts. (“Fuuuuuuuudge!”)
2. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Watching Blazing Saddles in 2016 is an exercise in uncomfortable, side-splitting laughter. With ruthless satirical humor, Mel Brooks exposes the absurdity of American racism. I don’t think Brooks could make this film today (just as I don’t believe Norman Lear could make All In The Family). Our collective ability to grasp such satire has given way to a less nuanced outrage at anything that discomfits us. Rest in peace, Waco Kid.
1. The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)
Bart Freundlich’s debut film (and the one on which he met his life partner Julianne Moore) is my favorite movie by a fair margin. I watch it every year in the week prior to Thanksgiving, since it chronicles a dysfunctional family who have come together for the Thanksgiving holiday. It debuted at Sundance in 1997, and its cast consists of actors who were then on the cusp of becoming A-list (in addition to already-veterans Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner). The film is all about the high cost of reconciliation and the desire to substitute it with a thin veneer of agreeability. (Tip: After seeing the movie, don’t go to Barnes and Noble and ask for a copy of Scream of the Rabbits. It doesn’t exist.)