In my previous introduction to the Ultimate Film List, I explained at length the story behind the list, how it was created, and how the films listed were chosen. To sum it up, I created the Ultimate Film List as a list of “best of” film lists, to discover the world’s best films. In this first stage of films from the list, I give you the best of the best: films that everyone should see, if only to have a good baseline for what a good film actually is.
The films that follow were included on more than ten of the “Best of” lists I cited in my previous article, and span the years from 1927 until 1993. Many won Best Picture from the Academy Awards and most are American productions. Some are films that can be watched over and over again (Casablanca and It Happened One Night) while others are a one and done deal (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Best Years of Our Lives). Without further ado:
The Top Movies of the Ultimate Film List
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed by: David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
A perfect example of an epic film: epic cast, epic story, epic cinematography, epic settings, epic story. Story of British officer T.E. Lawrence (O’Toole) during World War I and how he unified and led Arab tribes against the Turks. If you can watch this on the big screen, do it. If you can see it playing in 70mm, which it often does, that would be the best choice.
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
The influence of this film over the years is unquantifiable, and it all happened by happenstance. This was never intended to be a great, meaningful film: Curtiz was mostly known as the guy who got films done quickly and on time. But the combination of an incredibly timely story about European refugees fleeing the Nazi invasion, the incredible cast, and the extremely capable crew led to this being more than just another film filling Warner Brothers’ release schedule.
Directed by: Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman
A man in trouble with the law (Nicholson) pleads insanity to escape prison time. Then he gets stuck in an abusive ward for the mentally ill. Echoes of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher) are present in almost any subsequent story in a hospital, mental hospital, or infirmary.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Directed by: David Lean
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
Another epic, this one taking place during World War II with prisoners of war in a Japanese camp forced to construct a bridge to aid their enemy, at the same time the Allies plot to destroy it. The whistling is iconic and Alec Guinness will break your heart.
[Editor note: If you can also see this in 70mm, do yourself a favor and do it!]
On the Waterfront (1954)
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
The story is at the same time era-specific (corruption in a dockworkers union) and also universal (being haunted by your unrealized potential). What really makes the film worthy though are the performance of the leading actors, especially Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy. Malloy could have been a contender, as a prize fighter, but found himself tangled up in more unsavory business. Those pigeons!
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine
To catch a serial killer, a young FBI agent (Foster) seeks the help from another imprisoned killer (Hopkins). It’s scary. It’s disturbing. You’ll get all those lotion jokes and being stuck down in a well after it. But don’t watch this with someone who thinks it’s hilarious to imitate voices, because then you’ll have to punch them.
[Editor’s note: She’s talking about me here. I do a very good impersonation of Hopkins as Lector. Freaks other people the hell out. She’ll disagree with that statement.]
Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts
Alvy Singer, a neurotic comedian (Allen) falls in love and has a tumultuous relationship with a flighty singer (Keaton). His imagined confrontation of a pretentious dick in line with him outside at the theater is probably one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema. The entire film is just hilarious, lovely, moving, tragic, and the most ultimate truth.
The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall
These films are often cited as the best films ever made, and even more often cited by people (at least the ones that I’ve met) as their favorite films as well.
No. Sorry, but no.
I’ve tried several times to watch them, but each time I’m left with an annoyance at the misogyny (don’t try to excuse it by attributing it to the time and setting) and dick waving. It’s really just not that interesting to me, but I can see how it can be exciting and fun for people (read: boys) to imagine themselves part of such a simple, macho culture that glorifies crime and uses family as an excuse for atrocities. For a modern version of just this same type of testosterone fueled mediocrity, see Gladiator. Watch them at least once, and then watch other, better films, for there certainly are hundreds and hundreds of better films out there.
[Editor’s note: I love the first two Godfather movies myself. We own the Coppola Restoration Blu-Ray. I watch G1 and G2 once every year or two, often in one sitting. I would love to see a 4k Blu-Ray of the seven hour Godfather Epic, or the Godfather Saga, or The Complete Novel for Television, or whatever the hell they’re calling it this decade. I disagree that I might like it because I want to imagine themselves part of such a simple, macho culture that glorifies crime and uses family as an excuse for atrocities. I don’t. I admire how Coppola was able to weave this amazing tapestry of a story onscreen, letting so many moments just linger about, letting them breathe like a fine Coppola Cab to become expressive. Like the opening wedding scene in G1. Don Vito hears requests as part of his role as the Godfather. There’s lots of dancing, lots of singing. We are introduced to Michael and Kay, Fredo and Sonny and Connie, and to Tom Hagen and a number of secondary characters. It’s a great scene, and it goes on for damn near half an hour! How many directors, then or now, had or have the balls to let their story stay in one singular location for thirty minutes? How many studio heads today would allow that to happen? It was audacious then, it’s revelatory now. And yet, I can also agree that there are better movies out there. Maybe not hundreds. It’s been a while since I ranked movies at Flickchart, but as of March 2017, they sit at 56 and 37 respectively on my list. Because Seven Samurai (#30) is better than either film. Because I apparently have not ranked any of the Mad Max movies. But I can see her point of view about the misogyny and dick waving too. She’s not wrong.]
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Directed by: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
I watched this after reading the book first when I was still a teenager. The first time I was obsessed with comparing how it differed from the book, and how incredible the sets and costumes were. The next time, I was mesmerized by the performances, not only of the leads (Gable and Leigh) who were of course amazing, but those of the supporting cast of women: Hattie McDaniel, who stole every scene she was in and was the audience’s surrogate, funneling our grief and joys; Olivia de Havilland as Mellie, bravely carrying on in the face of her way of life being extinguished; and Butterfly McQueen, as a woefully stereotyped flakey former slave, who nevertheless shines through with what little she is given. Every subsequent viewing revealed further treasures, and I hope they never end. Theaters often show Gone with the Wind, and have recently screened new, updated prints of the film on prominent anniversaries.
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
A neo noir, set in Los Angeles, Chinatown is about a twisted set of people. But it’s about so much more. Set up as a simple detective story, Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, is hired by a wife to investigate her husband’s affair. It involves so much more, including an infamous real life water scandal. After watching this film, when you hear “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” you’ll know what they mean.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
Another unlikely juggernaut: neither lead actor wanted to do this movie at all, and Claudette Colbert hated making the movie so much, and didn’t think she would win the Academy Award she was nominated for that she didn’t bother to attend the ceremony. Both actors won, along with Capra for director, Robert Riskin for the screenplay, and Best Picture. The film is considered the first screwball comedy, my all time favorite film genre. An heiress (Colbert) takes to the road to escape her controlling father, and an undercover reporter (Gable) tags along for the story.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
I’ve never been the biggest fan of this movie, and it took many years until I could articulate a reason why. It was Oscar-bait, through and through, engineered to be important and to win awards, and that just makes it feel false, and overdone. Films like this, which show the small unknown heroes of World War II also seem to do a disservice: while they tell the mostly true stories of people who did in fact stand against the Nazis, with the proliferation of these types of films (see The Zookeeper’s Wife, coming to theaters soon) they make it seem like everyone was fighting the Nazis and helping the persecuted during the war. This is just not true. Most people were just terrible, either fully supporting the horrific extermination of human beings, or turning a blind eye to it. But with so many stories and films about the (very) few exceptions, it diminishes how awful people actually acted, makes us feel good about ourselves, and reassures that this could never happen again with so many heroes ready to stand up. This is my long, tortured way of saying I’m torn about this film, and you should see it and decide for yourself, while keeping in mind that it is not representative of how people acted during World War II.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Directed by: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
If you’ve never seen Gene Kelly dance, you’re in for a treat. This film is a musical, but using existing songs to tell a new story, and not your typical adapted-from-Broadway-musical film. Taking place in early Hollywood, as studios and stars transitioned from silent films to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain is a charming love letter to Hollywood, to dreams, to film, to dance, and well, to love. When we lost Debbie Reynolds last year, my heart broke. I know she did many other wonderful films in her long career, but for me, she will always be this bright-eyed ingenue who stood up to the boys and gave them a run for their money.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Arguably (although not by me) the most visually iconic and influential science fiction film of all time. This is another one of those films that, if you have the chance, is best seen on a big screen. When I first watched it, many years ago, I was not that impressed. Most of Kubrick’s films did not go over well when I was younger. But as I’ve expanded my horizons and watched more films, I’ve grown very fond of many of them, especially 2001. Almost every sci-fi film, as well as the “machines are out to get us” theme from sci fi and horror films, owes its origin to 2001.
[Editor’s note: If you’ve never had the chance to see 2001 in 70mm, that’s one of the things every film lover needs to put on their Bucket List.]
All About Eve (1950)
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders
Hollywood often portrayed the New York stage in films, going back time and time again over the years for new material, but no other film comes close to All About Eve. An aging stage star (Davis) is targeted by a young ingenue (Baxter) who connives her way into the star’s life in order to take her place. The dialogue is razor sharp, the portrayals eviscerating and insightful, and the performances are masterful. Anything with Bette Davis is worth watching, even some of the lesser schmaltzy pieces she did over the years, and after you watch this you’ll see why.
The Apartment (1960)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
The plot and concept of this movie are just plain bizarre. A guy lets executives at his office use his apartment for their affairs, and ends up falling in love with the elevator operator who tries to kill herself. Only in a Billy Wilder film could this be as funny, charming, heartbreaking, and as lovely as The Apartment is.
Directed by: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
This is one of those grand spectacle epics that must be watched, at least once. It’s a remake of the earlier 1925 version, and was remade in 2016. There’s a big chariot race that is always a big deal. And that’s all the nice things I can say about this one.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by: William Wyler
Starring: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy
A rather touching story of three World War II veterans from different backgrounds who return home and have trouble adjusting to their new/old lives. Harold Russell, a real veteran who lost both hands in the war, is especially moving and powerful as a young serviceman who is unsure if his fiancee still loves him.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Directed by: Arthur Penn
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard
2017 is the 50th Anniversary of this fantastic movie, based on real life crime spree partners Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Before they screwed up the Best Picture at the Academy Awards this week, Beatty and Dunaway were on fire in this film as a key part of our pop culture lore here in America. The violence of the ending, at the time scandalous and graphic, will seem tame and unremarkable to people watching it for the first time today.
City Lights (1931)
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee
The little tramp helps a blind flower girl, in this sweet love story. It’s hard to choose a favorite Charlie Chaplin film, and honestly this wouldn’t have been the one I chose on my own (it’d be either Modern Times or The Great Dictator), but it’s a lovely film.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore
A despairing man (Stewart), feeling like his life has been a waste, is visited by his guardian angel and shown what life in his town would be like if he had never been born. Spoiler alert: it’s much worse. While at times it can feel a little melodramatic, Stewart and the rest of the cast are just so genuine that the film is rescued from itself. A Christmas favorite, and one that still makes me cry like a baby every time at the end.
Raging Bull (1980)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
This is another one of those films that men seem to love, with dubious and problematic portrayals of misogyny, hyper masculinity, and statutory rape. The true story of a boxer who pursues a child, treats her like shit, but battles his inner demons in a black and white Scorsese film, so we’re supposed to treat it like cinematic art.
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
An allegorical silent film about a man tempted by a city woman to murder his wife, who changes his mind and tries to earn her forgiveness. The performances, especially of Janet Gaynor, who won Best Actress at the first Academy Awards ceremony, are strong and moving. Unlike other silent films that relied heavily on title cards and dialogue, Murnau let the actors and the scenes tell the story, with little dialogue.
[Editor’s note: The film was also the recipient of the first (and only) Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production, alongside Wings, which won for Best Production. Sometimes, and I emphasize I have felt this way long before “Envelopegate,” I wish the Academy still had separate Best Picture Awards for Production and for Unique and Artistic Production. I believe how film fans discussed and revered the Oscars over the past 88 years would have been significantly more interesting had the Academy recognized those films that were truly in a class by themselves. No more bemoaning how Citizen Kane was passed over for How Green Was My Valley, for one example. One truly was a Unique and Artistic Production for its time, changing how films were made for the better. But that’s another article for another time.]
West Side Story (1961)
Directed by: Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise
Starring: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer
I love musicals. Like really, really love musicals. The icky Hollywood casting aside (Natalie Wood as a young Puerto Rican girl?!), this updated version of Romeo and Juliet, set on the streets of the Upper West Side in Manhattan as a feud between two rival street gangs of different races is phenomenal. The supporting cast, including Rita Moreno and George Chakiris (who both won supporting Academy Awards) is fantastic, and the songs, dancing and sets are magical.
In the next installment of the Ultimate Film List, the second stage of films has been revealed.
Chime in down below and tell me which of these elite films you’ve seen!
Updated January 18, 2018 with new top films