For this site’s inaugural feature, I’ve decided to compile a list of my favorite films. I suppose every cinephile has their own personal canon of sorts, and while most settle on that magic number of list-making one hundred, I hoped to limit that number to highlight the very special films included. Thus, I’ve settled on seventy-five (to be more accurate, seventy-seven as I am counting a certain trilogy as one entry for the purposes of this list). And, though I found it fairly easy to round up a solid twenty as the best of the best, I couldn’t bring myself to rank the entire seventy-five. Tastes come and go, but I am convinced that each of these will always hold a special place in my heart as films that moved me, shaped my perception of cinematic art, and have had a lasting impact.
At first, I tried to limit most directors to one film. But, as I began compiling favorites, I found that like other art forms, I am most attracted to works by the same artists. As you will see, directors Abbas Kiarostami and Terrence Malick have the most films here with six and five, respectively. Though they are two extremely different artists, in their own way both tell stories and craft cinema that celebrates the art of living. Aside from those two titans of cinema, I also included more than one film from my other beloved and revered filmmakers Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, Yasujiro Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Eric Rohmer, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Wong Kar-wai. And, though Martin Scorsese doesn’t fall into that category, he has two films to his credit because I simply couldn’t decide between his twin masterpieces.
You might also notice that there are a disproportionate number of titles from the 1990s onward. The reason is twofold, but both relate to my age and the era in which my cinephilia began. For one, the sheer number of films I’ve seen from the last two and a half decades grossly exceeds those from earlier in the twentieth century. As a lover of film, I’m actively working on rectifying that. But, secondly, I believe now perhaps more than ever, it’s an exciting time to be a cinephile. Sure, Hollywood blockbusters explode across screens every week, seemingly getting less intelligent by the year, but with increased channels of distribution thanks to digital streaming and advances in technology worldwide, international cinema is more readily available than ever. And, artists from previously unrecognized pockets of world cinema are getting due recognition on the festival circuit as new voices rise to the challenge of creating meaningful art. Perhaps the two most encouraging notions reflecting this trend are the growth of cinemas from lesser-developed countries and the rise of women behind the camera. I do hope that my list – though certainly from no politically correct contrivance – reflects both these major changes in cinema. Film as an art form is alive and well, and these seventy-five works provide undeniable proof.
(Side Note: As any good cinephile, I have a list a mile long with films I’d like to see, so here are a few of my most egregious blindspots, filmmakers whose works I haven’t gotten around to exploring: Chantal Akerman, Howard Hawkes, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Manoel de Oliveira, Max Ophüls, Béla Tarr, and Tsai Ming-liang to name a few.)
So, without further ado, my favorite films of all time…
8 1/2 (Dir. Federico Fellini, Italy, 1963)
Federico Fellini’s plunge into all-out surrealism for his self-proclaimed eighth and a half feature follows Guido Anselmi – a director and alter ego for Fellini himself – as he ruminates on the demands placed upon him as a filmmaker, his love of women, and memories from the past. 8 ½ is often amusing in its characterizations and bizarre scenarios and also a feat of supreme filmmaking talent in its technical achievements. Brilliantly told out of sequence with daydreams, memories, and non-linear thoughts spliced into its narrative, 8 ½ is both daringly unique and startlingly personal for one of cinema’s greatest auteurs.
Annie Hall (Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1977)
One could easily make a case for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as the greatest romantic comedy of all time. Certainly it’s one of the funniest in the oft-explored genre, and it’s perhaps the most unique in its non-linear structure and avoidance of rom-com clichés. Allen’s Alvy Singer tells us at the film’s beginning that things don’t work out for the unlikely pair, but their story captivates nonetheless. In the end, we learn Annie Hall is more a cheerleader for all relationships, not just the ones that succeed. After all, most of us really do need the eggs.
Apocalypse Now (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, United States, 1979)
More than any of the other plethora of films centered on the Vietnam War before or since, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now captures the horror and complete insanity of that conflict with ferocious aplomb. Notoriously, the film nearly cost Coppola his career with the sheer number of personal and professional setbacks, but the finished product is one of beautiful and haunting cinema, one that creeps under the skin, and one that leaves its audience in awe of its stunning imagery.
Apur Sansar (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1959)
Satyajit Ray’s final chapter in the story of Apu is one of devastating tragedy as its central character enters adulthood with only the memories of his family members who passed away too soon. And yet, his greatest loss is still ahead of him. Ray completes this story of Bengali poverty and one man’s determination to overcome it that began with Pather Panchali and continued with Aparajito, but it is Apur Sansar that is ultimately the trilogy’s most hopeful installment. For in the end, though Apu endures seemingly endless hardship, his story is ultimately one of hope and redemption.
Read the full evaluation here.
An Autumn Afternoon (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1962)
Treading familiar territory, Ozu’s final film is also fittingly one his finest in a long career of masterpieces. An Autumn Afternoon is a reworking of his earlier Late Spring, but this time around the story’s voice has shifted to that of the father losing his daughter to marriage. A few welcome subplots involving the patriarch’s other children fill out this narrative and result in one of Ozu’s finest portraits of then modern-day Tokyo life – a city grappling with major change while its inhabitants navigate the waters of tradition giving way to modernity.
Badlands (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1973)
One of film’s greatest masters began his career by answering the call to a new American cinema by building on the style of his contemporaries to achieve deeper philosophical meaning. His debut Badlands bears the hallmarks of the supposed American New Wave, but it exists decidedly apart. It is far more concerned with humankind’s place in the greater world – captured beautifully in Malick’s pupating eventual career-defining visual aesthetic – than the tragedy of troubled individuals. It is a picture of innocence lost, but it also documents the consequences of this on the world entire.
Read the full evaluation here.
The Battle of Algiers (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1966)
You’d be forgiven if you thought you were watching a documentary while viewing Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Channeling a rather gripping verisimilitude using mostly non-actors, Pontecorvo chronicles the fight for Algerian independence from France with an intensity that makes for a surprisingly nail-biting experience. Pontecorvo wisely dispenses with preaching and reveals that both sides were equally capable of acts of brutality. The director allows us very little time to care for its many characters, but the strength of their cause is enough to have us all rooting for freedom by film’s end.
Beau travail (Dir. Claire Denis, France, 1999)
The appeal of Claire Denis’ Beau travail is in its mystery. Sparse dialogue and a careful pacing tell this story of jealousy, lust, and abandonment set against the backdrop of post-colonial eastern Africa. Sgt. Galoup holds nothing but contempt for the new recruit named Sentain – a younger, more popular, more handsome man than Galoup could ever hope to be. When this destructive jealousy drives him to the edge, he commits a terrible act that has irreversible consequences. Denis’ film is a meditation on many themes, but its visual narrative is one to be deeply admired.
Before trilogy (Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 1995, 2004, 2013)
There might be no better exploration of time in cinema than Linklater’s Before trilogy. What began as a generation-defining story of love and youth with Before Sunrise became a poignant and effective three-part masterpiece when the director and his pair of stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy agreed to continue the story of Jesse and Celine nine years later with Before Sunset and then another nine years later with Before Midnight. Together, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy chart the real-life changes of people as they grow from idealistic youth into jaded middle-agers. But, there’s a glimmer of hope in the final moments of Midnight too, suggesting that the power of love isn’t so far-fetched after all.
Casablanca (Dir. Michael Curtiz, United States, 1942)
Easily the most quotable film on this list, Casablanca still charms and amuses over seventy years later. Michael Curtiz’s film is an exquisite blend of a sharp-witted screenplay and a cast of tremendous actors. Bogart and Bergman give the most iconic performances, but it’s Claude Rains and a band of perfect supporting roles that steal the show. Similarly, Rick and Ilsa’s love story gets the most attention, but Casablanca also plays as a comedy of the waiting game that was WWII. Curtiz definitely takes a side, but Casablanca is not mere dated propaganda; its appeal is utterly timeless.
Certified Copy (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/Italy, 2010)
Leaving his native Iran for the first time, Certified Copy finds cinematic master Abbas Kiarostami in northern Italy working with a world-renowned actress in another exploration of the overlapping of fiction and reality. This time, Kiarostami doesn’t appear onscreen, but when two strangers are mistaken for a married couple, they quickly begin to play the part complete with a full history of memories and years-old conflicts. Have these two loquacious thinkers met before? Are they more than mere acquaintances? Are they long-time lovers? And most importantly, does Kiarostami ever want us to find out? I think not. And, herein lies the endless intrigue.
Charulata (Dir. Satyajit Ray, India, 1964)
With Charulata, master Satyajit Ray paints a portrait of a lonely housewife who falls for her inattentive husband’s cousin against the backdrop of colonial India. Ray’s film is progressively sympathetic to young Charu’s position, depicting her as both an individual deserving of love and a strong woman with an important voice. And, though the story belongs primarily to Charu (played magnificently by Madhabi Mukherjee), Ray wisely never demonizes the men in her life. All three major characters stand to learn something valuable about themselves and shifting gender roles.
Chungking Express (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994)
Forget Pulp Fiction, Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is the definition of ‘90s cool. Stylish, colorful, and kinetic, Express manages to be many things all at once: a portrait of modern life in Hong Kong, an impressive feat of dazzling cinematography, and a two-sided tale of love and loss in the big city. The story of a cop faced with the expiry of a relationship who falls for a mysterious woman in a blond wig entertains us through the first half, but the film’s second half steals the show as Faye Wong’s annoyingly charming snack bar attendant jams to “California Dreamin’” and breaks into Tony Leung’s apartment.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Dir. Steven Spielberg, United States, 1977)
Close Encounters represents my nostalgic entry for this list. As an aspiring filmmaker in my youth, Spielberg was the most significant figure in spurring me on to that goal. My tastes have changed over the years, and his importance has waned some, but he’s always been there and always will be. Close Encounters finds him at his best – capturing wonder and invoking a tremendous sense of awe at the power of cinematic spectacle.
Days of Being Wild (Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1990)
Wong Kar-wai’s obsession with urban isolation and subsequent emotional longing began with his early masterpiece Days of Being Wild. The melancholy youngsters at the center of Wong’s film are lost in the sprawl of Hong Kong in the 1960s as they pine for missed opportunities and eras past. Appropriately, then, Wong’s film itself in its mid-century setting is perhaps its filmmaker’s own yearning for the mythologized days of his parents. Wong would go on to revisit the themes he began exploring here – especially in its supposed trilogy completed by In the Mood for Love and 2046 – but he never bested himself in portraying what it looks like to be young and lost.
Read the full evaluation here.
Days of Heaven (Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 1978)
Days of Heaven was the beginning and (temporary) end of Terrence Malick’s fantastic, decades-spanning career as one of cinema’s finest visual contemplatives. Yes, Badlands showed signs of things to come, but it was this tale of love and deception set against the turn-of-the-century American southwest that solidified the director’s signatures: voiceover narration, wandering paper-thin narratives, and thoroughly exquisite and breathtaking imagery. People may not have been ready for Malick’s brand of filmmaking, which pushed him into twenty years of solitude, but in retrospect, Days of Heaven remains one of his best.
Read the full evaluation here.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry, United States, 2004)
Perhaps unintentionally, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind became a generation-defining film, one that has aged remarkably well while its “quirky” anti-rom-com contemporaries have since withered away. Eternal Sunshine’s success is due in equal parts to director Gondry’s fresh visual aesthetic and writer Charlie Kaufman’s brilliantly inventive screenplay – not to mention two impeccable performances by leads Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Channeling Woody Allen’s sentiments on relationships à la Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine seeks to prove we still need love even when it’s messy.
Read the full evaluation here.
Flowers of Shanghai (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998)
Of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s mid-career experiments in form, Flowers of Shanghai is easily his most audacious and subsequently accomplished. Hou’s always-evolving aesthetic finds him still favoring the long take, but his commitment to a formalist style with hazy scene transitions supports his desire to intoxicate his audience in an opium-filled, lamp-glowing atmosphere that perfectly captures the setting and era of his narrative. More so than Hou’s earlier work, here he is more concerned with style than narrative, but Flowers of Shanghai still resonates.
Read the full evaluation here.
Goodfellas (Dir. Martin Scorsese, United States, 1990)
Dispensing with the romanticism of The Godfather films, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas casts the American mafia in an entirely new light. Gritty, ruthless, and frequently unexpected, Goodfellas chronicles several decades of life in organized crime, and proves to be a film that stands nearly as tall as those other two essential crime sagas. Scorsese’s sleek stylistic flourishes are on full display here making Goodfellas an experience hard to forget: the Copacabana shot, the aftermath of the bloodbath set to “Layla,” the late-film classic rock montage. Goodfellas solidified Scorsese’s unshakable reputation.
The Green Ray (Dir. Eric Rohmer, France, 1986)
Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is a wondrously subtle film of deep spirituality that beautifully chronicles the struggle of uncovering one’s identity and providing a welcome parable for finding yourself in the Christian faith. Delphine’s worry over where to spend her vacation may at first read like first world problems, but as the story unfolds it becomes more and more apparent that this central issue is merely a façade for an intense personal struggle waging war inside of her.
The Headless Woman (Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
Lucrecia Martel’s cinema is profoundly metaphorical. And, though she has staged societal critiques in her two films prior to The Headless Woman, neither is as challengingly oblique or visually arresting as her modern masterpiece. Here Martel cloaks her critique of bourgeois privilege in the story of one woman’s mental breakdown as she deals with the guilt of possibly having accidentally killed a young boy with her car. Requiring nearly as much viewer participation as a Kiarostami film, The Headless Woman rewards multiple viewings as it reveals layers upon layers of hidden depth.
Read the full evaluation here.
The House Is Black (Dir. Forough Farrokhzad, Iran, 1962)
She may have only made one film before her untimely death as a blossoming young artist, but Forough Farrokhzad’s powerful documentary-short The House Is Black about a leper colony on the outskirts of Tehran whose patients are typically ostracized from society is heart-wrenching stuff. Her wildly unique style influenced the greats Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi; thus as a fan of those two, I’ll too forever be indebted to this unforgettable little film. No film before or since has humanized a group of people just as deserving of love and respect as any other.
Killer of Sheep (Dir. Charles Burnett, United States, 1978)
More a series of simple vignettes than a plot-driven film, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is a wondrous collection of the everyday moments of life. Shot with an extremely low budget and mostly non-professional actors, the film is a champion of neorealism as it depicts the very real lives of African-Americans living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. The stories are moving, the cinematography is striking, the use of pop music is impeccable, and the understated performances are spot-on. It’s a quintessential American film.
Late Spring (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1949)
Launching his post-war career with Late Spring, Yasujiro Ozu establishes the style and themes that would go on to mark the remainder of his work with this heart-wrenching tale of a father and daughter relationship. The pair lives happily together, but societal pressure forces them to reconsider their positions – tradition tells them the father should remarry and the daughter should marry and start her own family. Ozu creates a beautiful character in Noriko, a kind-hearted woman seemingly not in control of her own life as her family plans her future for her, but an individual of such strong character that she chooses to please her family even if it costs her own happiness.
Lawrence of Arabia (Dir. David Lean, United Kingdom, 1962)
A megalomaniac to the core, T.E. Lawrence (brought to life by Peter O’Toole in one of the greatest filmic performances of all time) makes a near king of himself in a foreign land after mastering the Arabian deserts during WWI. To match Lawrence’s enormous ego, David Lean dedicates a film of sheer grandiosity (rivaled only by Seven Samurai as cinema’s grandest epic) with Lawrence of Arabia – a visually arresting film with spot-on performances and a towering score by Maurice Jarre to boot.
Continue to Part II