I turned 25 in 2018, so I am compiling lists of my 25 favorite films, books, and albums, and writing paragraphs of appreciation of 250 words or less for all 75 of them. Each paragraph is accompanied by a quotation from the work that somehow encapsulates or suggests its significance to me. For each list of 25, I have narrowed down my list of choices using five criteria:
The work had a significant formative influence and/or has a deep personal resonance.
The work has has lasting relevance and even grows richer in value over time—that is, I have not “outgrown” it.
I must have first seen, read, or listened to the work at least one year before my 25th birthday that is, by my 24th birthday), to better guarantee that the work has had a considerable impact on my life and has demonstrated staying power.
I would recommend the work to others as essential viewing, reading, or listening because of its exceptional quality. I believe the work has merit regardless of my own experiences with it. It is not (I hope) a work with major flaws that I am excusing out of sentimentality or nostalgia.
Of course, I must have enough to say about the work that I can write a 250-word paragraph about it.
A few other specifications: In each list, I limited myself to a maximum of two works per director, author, or artist/band. In the books and albums lists I allow for ties between two works that are either complementary or comparative in significance. In the films and books lists, I count some series as one work.
In each entry, I will seek to explain why the work matters to me and try to impress on readers some of the reasons why they should watch, read, or listen to the work as well.
The 25-for-25, Part I of III: Films
Amazing Grace (2006) — Directed by Michael Apted
“Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord, or change the world?”
William Wilberforce is one of the most exemplary Christian public figures who ever lived. He has deeply influenced my thinking and, I hope, my living. But this is a tribute to the film about the man, not the man himself, though naturally much of my love for the film springs from my love for the man. Nevertheless, this severely underrated film is praiseworthy in itself. Some might argue that, aesthetically and structurally, it is too similar to numerous other period films or biopics. But if it’s conventional, it sure sets a high bar for conventionality. Steven Knight’s script crackles with moral conviction, compelling characters, and brilliant, witty dialogue. The formidable cast includes memorable supporting work from Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, and Albert Finney (playing John Newton, another towering figure in English church history). Romola Garai shines as Wilberforce’s wife, and a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch almost steals the show as Wilberforce’s enigmatic, morally ambivalent best friend. It’s unfortunate that Ioan Gruffud is predominantly known as “the stretchy guy in those awful Fantastic Four movies,” but he truly is excellent as Wilberforce. A few of my other favorite films include (mostly critical) portrayals of Christians, but I can’t think of any other film with such a winsome vision for Christian presence in the world. Its treatment of Christian calling, vocation, and the in-not-of-the-world paradox is perceptive and profound. Both the film, and the man who inspired it, challenge me not to waste my life.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) — Directed by Frank Capra
“Now, I don't know how I can explain this to you. But, it's not only against the law, it’s wrong! It's not a nice thing to do. . . . This is developing into a very bad habit!”
The more you watch a film and think about it, and the more you mature and change, the less likely your regard for it will be static. Sometimes, your appreciation for a film will grow when it reveals something new on your umpteenth viewing. At other times, you will romanticize your memories of a film, setting yourself up for disappointment. And still other times a film might prove its worth simply by the fact that you can’t make up your mind about it. Arsenic and Old Lace, for me, is one of those films. I first saw it in early elementary. I laughed at the funny parts and was terrified by perhaps my first “jump scare.” I would continue to laugh hysterically at the antics of Mortimer Brewster and his insane family for years, and at some point declared it my favorite film. But lately I don’t find myself laughing at it so much as being unsettled by it. What is difficult to reconcile about Arsenic is its jarring and chaotic mixture of silly slapstick, dark comedy, and old-school horror tropes, all in the service of a story that is actually very disturbing. I’d suggest that, above all, it is a satirical and prescient indictment of modern morality, hypocrisy, and extreme empathy—something I don’t think Capra and Co. intended, but which does make it harder to enjoy the film as mere entertainment. It might not be my favorite film anymore, but its lasting impression on me is undeniable.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) — Directed by Ron Howard
“Like a diet of the mind, I just choose not to indulge certain appetites, like my appetite for patterns. Perhaps my appetite to imagine and to dream.”
I should first acknowledge that, yes, the real John Nash is far more complicated and problematic than Russell Crowe’s portrayal would suggest. I’m also aware that Nash’s marriage to Alicia (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly) is likewise misrepresented. Somewhere during translation from reality to biography to biopic, the truth was distorted, and the filmmakers are to some degree complicit. So, even as I write this appreciation, I wrestle with the ramifications of approving a film that purports to be truthful but, at best, is only half true. But I will say this much in the film’s defense, if we take it at face value. Crowe and Connelly are excellent, as is the rest of the cast. Akiva Goldman’s script is quite good, James Horner’s score is haunting, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is (of course) gorgeous, and say what you will about Howard’s directing abilities, but I’ll call this “Opie’s Opus.” But what strikes me most about this film is that it’s about a man’s struggle to endure affliction—by seeking a stabilizing reality outside himself—and his wife’s equally compelling struggle to endure alongside him. Admittedly, John and Alicia’s relationship begins with lust, not love. However, the film shows they will need much more than eros to keep their vows. They are going to need agape: covenant love. And though the concluding speech about “the mysterious equations of love” is schmaltzy, at least it suggests the existence of something that transcends “game theory,” the materialistic, utilitarian account of human behavior Nash popularized.
Cast Away (2000) — Directed by Robert Zemeckis
“You said you'd be right back.”
I first saw Cast Away in a small theater in Western Hungary, probably when I was seven years old, and I’ve been a fan ever since. That’s unusual, because its mature themes (isolation, loss, attempted suicide) and disturbing images (a harrowing plane crash, a decomposing corpse, Tom Hanks bleeding a lot) are a bit much for a seven-year-old, and also because it is long, slow, and (usually) very quiet. Growing up, I liked my films zippy, talky, and action-heavy, and usually couldn’t sit still for the “slow cinema” I would later appreciate. Cast Away seems to be the exception. My interest in the film revived in college when I studied its sound design for an assignment—fun fact: an airplane engine revving up becomes an aural metaphor for the severing of Chuck and Kelly’s relationship—but not until I watched it recently did it really click for me. In particular, I was impressed by how Christian the film is. I once read a critic claim it is staunchly atheistic and anthropocentric, and I can understand that interpretation given how much Chuck Noland depends on ingenuity to survive. However, Chuck’s prideful presumption of control over time and the elements is exposed and repudiated, and while God is never invoked, the angel wings and the eucatastrophe of the “sail” are telling. The film does not surrender to nihilism, or embrace a self-contradicting gospel of self-made salvation, but suggests—however vaguely—the divine intervention of grace.
Citizen Kane (1941) — Directed by Orson Welles
“A toast, Jedediah: to love on my own terms.”
Citizen Kane is a strong candidate for Greatest Film of All Time. Aesthetically and technically, it towers above most other films, and it is certainly the most astounding and accomplished directorial debut ever made. What other first-timer beside Orson Welles ever demonstrated such a mastery of the art form from the very beginning, and what’s more, set a high bar that most other directors spend years just trying to approximate? Of course, Welles had a lot of help from cinematographer Gregg Toland, with whom he shares a title card in the credits, suggesting Kane belongs as much to Toland as to Welles. Most directors place the camera relative to where the actors, props, and sets already are, but Toland and Welles’ collaborative genius is in doing the opposite, using the camera lens like a painter would a canvas, not like a birdwatcher would binoculars. The results are incredible. But it’s not just the artistic excellence of Kane that earned it a spot on this list. I also include Kane because of, frankly, how much it unsettles me on a very personal level. Watching Kane is actually a dispiriting experience, because it reminds me that the same restless evil that lurks in Charles Foster Kane’s heart, poisoning everything he does, resides in my own. Christians call it “the fear of man,” and I can’t think of a more terrifying cautionary tale against the fear of man than Citizen Kane.
A Civil Action (1998) — Directed by Steven Zaillian
“Where did it all go? . . . The money, the property, the personal belongings, the things one acquires in one's life, Mr. Schlichtmann. The things by which one measures one's life. What happened?”
This is quite possibly the most obscure choice on my list. That’s unfortunate, but it also gives me the exciting opportunity to introduce you to the greatest film you’ve never heard of. Zaillian writes a screenplay filled with humanity, righteous anger, and a lot to think about. The film explores themes including truth and justice, pride and privilege, self-sacrifice and selfishness, personal and communal responsibility, and corporate greed and environmental stewardship. Zaillian also directs a fantastic cast that includes Robert Duvall and James Gandolfini, among others. But the standout is John Travolta, delivering one of the best lead performances I’ve ever seen as Jan Schlichtman, a cynical and risk-averse lawyer who is moved by the grief and powerlessness of a small town where children have died from drinking tainted water. Many Christian filmmakers, and films about Christians, have tried to visualize conversion, often with awkward and problematic results. A Civil Action is neither made by Christians or about Christians, but I can’t think of another film that dramatizes personal transformation so powerfully or with such profound biblical parallels. Jan becomes like the man in the parable who joyfully sold all he had to gain the treasure hidden in the field. Jan loses his reputation, his wealth, and his firm for the clients he has come to love. And just as a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies before it can bear fruit, Jan must . . . well, you should find out for yourself.
The Dark Knight (2008) — Directed by Christopher Nolan
“You thought we could be decent men, in an indecent time!”
A few disclaimers: #1. The Dark Knight is not the greatest superhero film ever made. At least one other film on my list is more deserving of that distinction, and The Dark Knight feels only remotely related to its comic book origins. #2. Neither is this the best Batman film ever made—that is, I don’t think it delivers the character’s most definitive cinematic interpretation. Batman Begins, or even The Lego Batman Movie, do better on that front. #3. The Dark Knight is also not an outstanding action film, impressive vehicular stunts and practical effects aside. What the film really is is an intense thriller, a morality play, and the finest 21st-century example of that rare kind of film: the intellectual blockbuster, being both thoroughly entertaining and very challenging. It is so rare to find a film with such fully-realized aspirations and such a distinctive sense of identity and purpose. The film was a revelation in 2008, and when I saw a 10th-anniversary IMAX screening this year, I was stunned by just how vibrant, masterful, and imposing it remains today. Of course, the film will always be primarily associated with Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, but it would not have been as successful without Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s layered screenplay and a formidable ensemble, especially the contributions of Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart. The film is really about the trio of Wayne, Gordon, and Dent, not the Joker, and that final scene between the three is a doozy.
[Read my conversation with Timothy Lawrence about Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy here.]
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) — Directed by Mark Dindal
“I was the world's nicest guy and they ruined my life for no reason. Oh, is that hard to believe? Look, I'll tell you what. You go back a ways, you know, before I was a llama, and this will all make sense.”
Finally, a film on this list that is here almost solely because it is fun. The Emperor’s New Groove is a riot, an infinitely quotable, laugh-a-minute adventure that is more Looney Tunes than Disney. The art design is unique, the character animation is fantastic, and the voice cast of David Spade as Kuzco, John Goodman as Pacha, Eartha Kitt as Yzma, and Patrick Warburton as Kronk might be one of the best ever assembled. The film’s greatest strength is that it is character-driven. It hardly matters that the story is conventional and underwritten. To have the characters run amok and play off each other is enough. Admittedly, if you look closely you can see how the humor, narration, and meta-textuality were probably tacked on to distract from the lack of a compelling story and disguise Dindal’s desperate attempt to save the film from disaster—a gamble that somehow paid off. And I do wish the film had done a little more to make Kuzco’s heart change more believable. 17 years later, another wacky, fourth-wall-breaking animated film about a self-absorbed young rich man would tackle largely the same themes, but with more focus and payoff. (Yep, this is the second entry in a row wherein I’ve beat the drum for The Lego Batman Movie, and it’s not even on my list of favorite films . . . yet.) Nevertheless, there are few films as infectiously energetic or as purely entertaining as The Emperor’s New Groove.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — Directed by Irvin Kershner
“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!”
The Empire Strikes Back is such a wonderful, near-perfect movie—as a Star Wars film, as a blockbuster sequel, and as a film, period—and Star Wars is so personal to me, it would be easy to just write a bunch of breathless superlatives here. It’s daunting to try and write something short and original that would somehow capture how I feel about this film. But maybe my appreciation could be conveyed with an anecdotal example. I was already watching the Star Wars trilogy on VHS in preschool, and my parents tell me there was one scene in particular that arrested my attention: the part where Han realizes he has flown the Millennium Falcon into the belly of a giant space worm. (“This is no cave.”) Apparently I had my parents rewind and replay that scene again and again, and the images of the Falcon barely slipping through the teeth of the monster became forever stamped onto my memory. Why that one iconic moment, of all the iconic moments in the film? I really couldn’t say, in the same way I’d be hard pressed to articulate my reasons for loving the entire film. I could point to the film’s many merits, but I can’t think of any higher praise than to say that this is the one movie I most closely associate with the genesis of my love for film, and the one movie I still love just as much—if not more—now as I did then.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) — Directed by Wes Anderson
“I think I have this thing where I need everybody to think I’m the greatest, the quote-unquote ‘fantastic’ Mr. Fox, and if they aren’t completely knocked out and dazzled and kind of intimidated by me then I don’t feel good about myself.”
Stop-motion animation has a special place in my heart. My first determined and elaborate forays into filmmaking as a pre-teen involved a Kodak digital camera and whatever toys I had—mostly Legos—that could be used as characters and props and backdrops. Lightyears more sophisticated than the rudimentary and choppy animations I created growing up, Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the finest examples of the art form’s vast potential. Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic style, with its hallmarks of bright colors, painterly framing, limited camera movement, obsessively detailed production design, and understated acting, is perfect for stop-motion—indeed, I think it works better in stop-motion than in live-action, because here it doesn’t feel as stagey or self-aware. The script Anderson co-wrote with Noah Baumbach is filled with quirky characters and quotable catchphrases, but more than that, contains challenging insights about human nature. I’ve already written at length about the film on this score elsewhere, so I will just wrap this up by noting that the cast is great (I particularly like that the underrated Michael Gambon gets to play a villain here), the music (a mix of nostalgic tunes and Alexandre Desplat’s twangy score) is wonderful, and the whole thing is all-around delightful and, well, fantastic—although, again, there is a darker side to the film to be found by those who are willing to consider it.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) — Directed by George Clooney
“He was one of those civilized individuals who did not insist upon agreement with his political principals as a precondition for conversation or friendship.”
What if I told you that George Clooney—yes, that George Clooney—directed and cowrote a film that was not only nominated for a handful of Oscars (you could chalk that up to his insider status), but far from being the vanity project you might expect, is also the very epitome of modest and restrained filmmaking—being only 90 minutes long, rated PG, shot in black-and-white, with superstar Clooney in a secondary role? Would the existence of such a film surprise you? It certainly surprised me when I first saw it in high school, and still does. I was working for my school’s newspaper, and it was the paper’s advisor, one of my English teachers, who introduced me to the movie. So Good Night, and Good Luck. has a nostalgic value for me, as a reminder of my own brief stint as a journalist. But it has taken on greater significance as I consider the fragmented and faction-riddled nature of the public sphere in the United States today. The film is an urgent testament to how we have gained—and can still gain—from journalism done responsibly and with conviction for the common good. This makes the film’s relative obscurity all the more unfortunate. What if I told you that Clooney directed one of the very few films that could justifiably be made required viewing for every American? A bold claim, I know, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt you to test that claim for yourself.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) — Directed by David Yates
“Years ago I knew a boy who made all the wrong choices.”
Both in film and book form, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is among my favorite long-form stories and multi-chapter sagas. Regarding the films, most would say the third one, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, is the highpoint, and they are probably right. However, there is something about the sixth film, Yates’s Half-Blood Prince, that makes it my personal favorite, standing out just a little from the other installments (all of which are well-made even so). After establishing his approach to the franchise with the fifth film, and before tackling the monumental two-part finale (the first part, I should note, might be my second favorite in the series), it seems Yates concluded he could take some artistic risks, resulting in a film that is strikingly different from everything that came before. Namely, this is the Potter film that is the least tethered to the source material and the least preoccupied with plot, focused instead on exploring themes (particularly the relationships of mentors to their protégés) and on creating an atmosphere of increasing dread and darkness, peppered with occasional bursts of light, hope, even humor. Bruno Delbonnel’s watercolor visuals and Nicholas Hooper’s moody and medieval music combine to make this film a masterpiece of impressionistic filmmaking. And the cast, especially Michael Gambon and Jim Broadbent, is a testament to how much of the success of this franchise stems from the priority given to casting the best of the best and developing compelling characters.
High Noon (1952) — Directed by Fred Zinnemann
“I don't care who's right or who's wrong. There's got to be some better way for people to live.”
If it were possible for me to choose one current number-one favorite movie, High Noon would probably be it, if not the closest runner-up. This is not because I agree with everything in the film’s moral vision. The “better way” longed for in the line above, delivered by Grace Kelly’s Quaker character, never materializes, and the ending seems to preclude its possibility entirely. Nevertheless, I am profoundly thankful for the existence of this film, because few others have engaged my thinking so deeply or so consistently over a long period of time. The fact that last year I dedicated a few months and several pages to writing a lengthy appreciation and critique of the film (and even before that wrote about the film both in high school and in college), and that I would still be happy to watch it again anytime, even after giving it that exhaustive level of attention, is proof enough of my love for the film and a sign of how much it has shaped my development as a student of film. As a work of art, the film is a masterpiece thanks to Carl Foreman’s screenplay, Gary Cooper’s performance, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, Tex Ritter’s ballad, Floyd Crosby’s cinematography, Elmo William’s editing, and tying it all together, Fred Zinnemann’s expert and economical direction. As a statement, the film has its faults, but to its credit that means it has helped me learn to think, and think well.
[Read my article on High Noon here.]
Inception (2010) — Directed by Christopher Nolan
“Listen, there's something you should know about me—about inception. An idea is like a virus: resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”
After completing each installment of his Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan worked on another trilogy, a trilogy not connected by narrative but by themes. The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar each took a different classic genre and combined it with a high-concept premise to tell similar stories, each boiling down to the emotional core of the protagonist’s longing to return to his children after a long absence. As other analysts of Nolan’s films have noted, this may reflect a tension Nolan feels between filmmaking and family life, and this hypothesis is supported by how, in The Prestige and Inception at least, the protagonist’s profession is intentionally analogous to Nolan’s profession as a storyteller. Just as in the Batman trilogy, in this other trilogy it is the second film, Inception, that is the best, and one reason for this is because it expounds upon this tension most satisfyingly. Some find Nolan’s films too cerebral and dispassionate, but I think Inception is a very personal film, as it expresses why he tells stories, why he tells them the way he does, and also what he fears such a dedication to storytelling might cost. The film is personal for me as well. It was released while I was developing the film I made in late high school, so you could say Inception became a sort of field-guide for me, from its screenplay to Hans Zimmer’s career-best score. And today, Inception remains my favorite meta-film—that is, my favorite film about filmmaking.
The Incredibles (2004) — Directed by Brad Bird
“Of course I have a secret identity. I don't know a single superhero who doesn't. Who wants the pressure of being super all the time?”
I’m a big fan of superhero films and animated films—especially ones produced by Pixar or directed by Brad Bird—and this is one of the greatest films ever made in any of those categories. Superhero fatigue becomes more palpable every year, and Pixar’s decline in storytelling quality seems to be more hopelessly irreversible with each production. Sadly, both maladies were underscored by how this summer’s long-awaited Incredibles 2, while perfectly entertaining—and better than most recent superhero and Pixar releases—was only just fine narratively and ultimately rather unsatisfying. All that to say, the original Incredibles has aged very well when taken on its own, and it is still an undisputed champion when we consider its competition. I’m a little troubled by what Bird seems to communicate (intentionally or not) about excellence versus mediocrity, insofar as that might suggest dismissal of those who don’t have prodigious talents or resources. Are people only born “supers”, or can people pursue excellence without taking shortcuts like Syndrome? And are all “normal” people sellouts like the cog-in-the-machine middle-manager? If there’s one place this film falters, it is in sticking the landing of whatever thematic points it is trying to make. But everything else here works phenomenally: the characters and the voice cast, the plot, the score, the production design, the action sequences, the dialogue—such incredible dialogue—all combine to make this an almost impossibly perfect, maximally entertaining blockbuster.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — Directed by Frank Capra
“I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.”
It’s a Wonderful Life is most known for its central conceit of a man visiting an alternate reality wherein he doesn’t exist. But that development doesn’t occur until late in the film, and it’s actually a little overdone. Moreover, so much of the weight and catharsis of that segment is owing to—and never could work without—the patient exposition, character development, and place-making that precedes it, which is really where Capra, his cowriters, and his cast excel. There’s an astounding richness and fullness in the way It’s a Wonderful Life represents, well, life and its wonders, along with its ironies, tragedies, and disappointments. It shows how wonderful lives are dependent upon a web of other wonderful lives. The entire community of Bedford Falls is as much a character here as George Bailey. This emphasis on place and neighborliness runs counter to modern rootlessness and fragmentation. It even defies the boastful individualism of George Bailey at the beginning of his journey—a journey that is not, as he had hoped, across the world and to higher and higher echelons of fame, but homeward and toward humbler and humbler acts of service. I’m much like George Bailey, often needing reminders that, in my pursuit of a meaningful, un-wasted life, I forget that God only asks for—and I can find joy in—simple faithfulness, or what my pastor likes to call “ordinary, gritty godliness.” I would do well to visit Bedford Falls often—wouldn’t we all?
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001–2003) — Directed by Peter Jackson
“Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?”
In the words of Gimli the dwarf, when he witnessed Legolas the elf dispatch an olyphant and all the soldiers riding atop it, “That still only counts as one!” The three films have different tones and distinctive identities, but because they were produced at once and have the same creative team and vision (unlike the Star Wars trilogies, for example), and because they are almost uniformly the same in quality—ranking them is hard because I like each of them for different reasons—I prefer to count Jackson’s trilogy as one long film. And what a film it is! As much as I enjoy the Star Wars prequels and sequels, the Harry Potter films, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 21st-century Hollywood has yet to produce anything else this impressive in scope or in execution, especially when you consider the mind-boggling amount of plot points, characters, lore, and settings involved. The Hobbit prequel trilogy was a disaster, but let’s not forget that, two decades ago, Peter Jackson was a maestro. The scripts are a pale reflection of the world-building riches and thematic depth of Tolkien’s books, but it’s amazing how well they condensed the books into a narrative that is coherent on its own. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is always inventive and energetic, even during exposition-heavy dialogues. Howard Shore’s music is legendary, second only to John Williams’ corpus of Star Wars scores. And the cast—so many names I could mention here—makes everything feel real and personal.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) — Directed by John Sturges
“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there's nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage.”
In terms of sheer entertainment value, The Magnificent Seven is pretty hard to beat. But if you look closer you’ll find more than the typical Western genre tropes and thrills at play. Given how the film begins with a straightforward premise, Elmer Bernstein’s heroic score, and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and the other actors making the life of a gunslinger look “cool” (even somehow virtuous instead of morally compromised), you would think this is a problematically romanticized rehash of the myth of the Wild West. However, the film takes a surprising turn in the second half, quietly but profoundly deconstructing that myth. When the seven gunslingers realize the odds are against them and consider their regrets and mortality, the facade of their magnificence is stripped away. In the end, it is the farmers—by definition cultivators of life—that are praised as the truly heroic and virtuous ones. Although the gunslingers serve a necessary function of countering and restraining violence (one character describes them as a purifying wind), because they “deal in lead” they can never escape that violence themselves. The Magnificent Seven was released as the popularity of the classical Western was fading, and the next few decades would see the rise of spaghetti Westerns and other, darker reinterpretations of the genre. But The Magnificent Seven showed you could have your cake and eat it too, revealing the limits of the form while also having a lot of fun with it.
Ratatouille (2007) — Directed by Brad Bird
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Christian film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, in his book Through a Screen Darkly, uses Babette’s Feast to develop an elaborate comparison between the cooking and eating of meals and the making and watching of films. Studying Babette’s Feast was a formative lesson in Overstreet’s filmic education, and Ratatouille contains similar themes and was similarly influential in my own life. (I’m sure Overstreet would have mentioned Ratatouille in his book, if only it hadn’t been released the same year his book was published.) Ratatouille is as much about filmmaking and film criticism—or even art in general—as it is about food. Its director, Brad Bird, is an inspiringly exuberant filmmaker as much as Remy, his rodent protagonist, is an infectiously enthusiastic chef. It may be cliché and convenient to extend the metaphor further, but Bird and his team have served us a five-course feast: a clever screenplay, gorgeous visuals (this might still be the best-looking computer-animated film ever made), a remarkable cast (Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Ian Holm, Brad Garrett, Jeneane Garofalo, and the great Peter O’Toole, to name a few), Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score (perfect to play while cooking or hosting dinners!), and above all, a heartfelt tribute to the foods and films that delight and nourish us, and the people that lovingly crafted them as gifts to us. Just the surprising finale and Anton Ego’s monologue on criticism alone would make this a masterpiece—and that’s just a fraction of what’s presented here. Bon appétit, indeed.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) — Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
“The boss hands you the envelope. You wonder how much is in it, and you don't want to open it. As long as the envelope's closed, you're a millionaire.”
The Shop Around the Corner is a delight, a feel-good film in all the right ways. It so perfectly blends comedy, romance, and a surprising amount of drama to tell the story of a small department store and the intertwined stories of the ordinary, very relatable people who work there. The film is probably best known for the tempestuous relationship—and the many gasp-inducing, epic putdowns—of James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan’s lead characters, and the template that relationship provided for You’ve Got Mail over fifty years later. However, what I find equally compelling is the tragic yet transformative character arc of Mr. Matuschek, played soulfully by an excellent Frank Morgan (a.k.a. the Wizard of Oz). Ultimately, all the various story strands wrap around universal themes such as belonging and loneliness, and hopes frustrated and fulfilled. There is an emotional robustness to the film’s portrayal of the life and lives of the shop around the corner, and this is what brings me back again and again and makes my appreciation for the film only increase with age. The fact that the film is based on a Hungarian play and is set in Budapest—my favorite city in the world and my hometown, in spirit if not in reality—is just the cherry on top.
Sleeping Beauty (1959) — Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, and Eric Larson
“Arm thyself with this enchanted Shield of Virtue, and this mighty Sword of Truth, for these weapons of righteousness will triumph over evil.”
Of all the classic Disney animated films I grew up watching, Sleeping Beauty is the one that still sticks with me the most. (Bambi, The Jungle Book, and the original Winnie the Pooh short films deserve honorable mentions here.) If ever Walt Disney and his animators made an “art film” other than Fantasia, this would be it. From the gorgeously detailed, mediaeval art-inspired backdrops, to the use of Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable music, to the minimalist, heavily archetypal narrative, this is a film that feels timeless. Its appeal is found not just in its beauty and simplicity, but also in how it gestures toward something deeper, something beyond what is happening on the screen. My own interpretation of Sleeping Beauty is that it is a biblical allegory of creation, fall, redemption, and the old and new covenants. This is the most religious—or at least the most Christian—film the House of Mouse has ever made. (No wonder the 2014 film Maleficent reinterpreted the story so starkly.) But no matter how you interpret the film—and its fairy tale source material almost guarantees that interpretations will vary wildly—it would be hard to deny that the sheer craftsmanship on display here has few rivals.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) — Directed by Sam Raimi
“I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”
Has there ever been another superhero film more thoroughly entertaining, more emotionally satisfying, and more morally compelling? I’ve watched and enjoyed a lot of superhero films, but I don’t think any others have explored the concept of heroism—an idea that is so central to this genre, it is embedded in its very name—so deliberately and so thoughtfully. The first Spider-man film gave us the franchise- and genre-defining line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but it was the sequel that really brought that point home. Unlike in so many other films of its kind, heroism in Spider-man 2 is more than the ability to outlast, outsmart, or outpunch a villain. Here, true heroism involves costly sacrifices and risky truth-telling. The action scenes are incredible—that train sequence!—and the comic touches (everything from the opening pizza delivery to the scene-stealing supporting characters) are inspired, but it’s Peter Parker’s honest conversations with Aunt May and Dr. Octavius (and his failure to have a similar conversation with his best friend Harry) that really impress me. The truth hurts, but it also heals, and the pain it inflicts is so much more preferable than the pain of secrets and lies. For this reminder, and for so many other reasons, I heartily recommend this wonderful film.
Star Wars (1977) — Directed by George Lucas
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
A 250-word commentary here is hardly necessary. This is one of the greatest films ever made. It is filmmaking at its purest and most elemental, and it is essential—I’d say mandatory—viewing. If you’ve never seen it before, you really should. And if you’ve watched some of the recent Star Wars films but still haven’t seen this, you really, really need to backtrack. You might find the first thirty minutes a little shaky, but just wait for Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford to show up and you’ll be in good hands. It’s light-speed ahead from there on out, and hopefully—if you haven’t grown too accustomed to bombastic CGI extravaganzas—it will evoke wonder, maybe even a little joy. The final battle sequence is exhilarating, concluding with one of my favorite cinematic eucatastrophes.
The Terminal (2004) — Directed by Steven Spielberg
“We all wait.”
You might be thinking, “Of all the classic Spielberg films you could’ve chosen to include on your list of favorite movies, why did you choose The Terminal instead?” While I have a deep respect for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a soft spot for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and it’s probable that Jaws could land on this list eventually, I’d still pick The Terminal over all of them, because it’s the Spielberg film that’s most personal to me. It’s appeal originally came from the inordinate amount of time I’d spent in airports. The film asked and creatively rendered what it would be like to live in these strange waiting-areas-turned-into-shopping-malls, alternate realities somehow divorced from the places surrounding them. But The Terminal resonates with me today because it is about waiting: how we wait, what we do while we wait, and how we respond when we do or don’t get what we waited for. (I love the powerful double meaning of the film’s tagline: “Life is waiting.” Life consists in waiting, and it’s waiting for you to make the most of it.) The film also fascinates me as a portrait of American culture. Consumerism, bureaucracy, immigration, demographic divides, the American Dream—all are represented in the microcosm of the airport. The perceptive screenplay is a forgotten gem, Stanley Tucci plays one of my favorite film antagonists, and Spielberg practically imitates Frank Capra with a blend of drama and comedy, sentiment and social commentary.
Treasure Planet (2002) — Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
“Doctor. To muse and blabber about a treasure map, in front of this particular crew, demonstrates a level of ineptitude that borders on the imbecilic. And I mean that in a very caring way.”
It is sad that major animation studios no longer produce traditional, hand-drawn features, and it is unfortunate that so few films have tried merging old and new forms of the craft, rather than jettisoning one for the other. Therefore, it is baffling to me that Treasure Planet, one of the last traditional animations Disney produced, and one which so imaginatively (and rather seamlessly) incorporated computer-generated images with a balance the directors called “the 70/30 rule”—that is, a film that could have charted an exciting alternative course for the animation industry—had such a tepid response upon its release. The film has since been forgotten—except, perhaps, by people like me who grew up loving the film and having their imaginations stirred by it, oblivious that at the same time grown-up critics were disregarding it as derivative and studio execs were dismissing it as a dead end. This is a small tragedy, not only because Treasure Planet is technically daring and artistically dazzling, but also because it is a thoroughly entertaining adventure film, with a great cast of characters, that packs a surprising emotional punch. Really, what’s not to love about a steampunk-inspired homage to Star Wars via Pirates of the Caribbean? Ron Clements and John Musker are animation legends for directing films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, but it’s so clear that this was their passion project, a labor of love exuding energy and joy.
A few runners-up, or films I predict could be on the 30-for-30 list in five years:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (2010) — Directed by David Yates
Jaws (1975) — Directed by Steven Spielberg
True Grit (2010) — Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen