This third entry of The Ultimate Film List continues the unveiling process, after the origins of the list were introduced, and the first stage of the top films were given. This Second Stage of the List features films listed on eight or nine different lists of the “Best Films” ever made.
As a preliminary matter, I’d like to address my terrible memory. Well, to be fair, it’s not that terrible, it’s just limited. If I’m going to remember every single line from The Princess Bride, as well as every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I can’t also store detailed plots and impressions from the thousands of films I’ve watched.
As a result, there are some films that I recollect watching, but I remember few specifics. Using FlickChart, a movie ranking website, has helped immensely in keeping track of the films that I’ve seen. If I can’t quite remember which versions of A Star is Born that I’ve seen, because frankly they all seem to blend together, FlickChart reminds me. I’d strongly encourage everyone to sign up and start ranking and logging films you’ve seen, and add the new ones after you watch them, while your memory is still fresh.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled list of films:
The Divine Nines
Entirely comprised of American films, these fantastic films are still worthy and should be watched by all. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, are timeless classics beloved by millions.
All The President’s Men (1976)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden
Great depiction of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they uncover the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s fall. Sadly, if something like this happened today, no one would blink an eye. [Editor’s note: If? IF?!?!]
Directed by: Bob Fosse
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey
Great musical about a nightclub singer in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party. Liza is phenomenal, of course, but my favorite part of the film is Joel Grey: he steals every scene he’s in.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore
Often cited as the greatest film of all time, Welles’ masterpiece is also a masterwork at throwing shade. Based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, the story on screen is probably as interesting as the story about the making of the film, and the fallout because of it.
The French Connection (1971)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey
Remember when I mentioned that some movies just get erased from my brain? All I can remember about this film (which is all it ever gets referenced for anyway) is the car chase. NYC cops work to stop a shipment of drugs that has, you guessed it, a French connection.
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr
Intertwined story of soldiers, wives, and locals on Hawaii in the days before Pearl Harbor. The beach love scene is iconic, if not totally absurd. I mean come on, all the sand getting everywhere, and the water washing up over them and in their faces?
The Graduate (1967)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross
Hoffman’s character, Ben Braddock, is a rather insufferable college graduate, but the music is fantastic and timeless, and there’s no resisting Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Directed by: George Cukor
Starring: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
This is one of my all time favorite movies. A screwball comedy about two reporters who sneak into a society wedding by means of the bride’s ex-husband, this film is utter perfection. Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, playing drunk and then hungover, is how I like to think I act under the influence. Her gradual realization that human frailty is beautiful and not worth her scorn is masterful.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin
Is there a recent movie that will haunt you for your entire life like Psycho? I still remember being about six and my father trying to force me to watch it even though it was too scary. After crying non-stop for about ten minutes, he finally let me leave the room. Yes, he was a prick. When I finally watched it many years later, it still scared the shit out of me and I still keep a close ear out when taking showers.
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon
Two musicians in 1920’s Chicago dress up like women to hide from mobsters in an all-girl band on its way to Florida. Marilyn is quintessential Marilyn here as ukulele player Sugar Kane, who is tired of getting the fuzzy end of the lollypop. Charming and hilarious, it has probably one of the greatest film endings of all time.
Star Wars (1977)
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
So before they renamed it, gave it a number and made a whole mess of sequels, there was this first film. Of all the films on this list, and the Stage 1 list, my guess is this is the one most people have seen. It’s easy to forget (especially if you’re me, and you don’t care for it much) that it was actually nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, among many other nominations, a feat rarely achieved for a science fiction film. I guess it helps to rip off Akira Kurosawa’s far superior Hidden Fortress.
[Editor’s note: C. E. wants me to put a note here, since Star Wars is always either #1, #2 or #3 on my all-time list. Throughout the school year between fall 1977 and spring 1978, I watched a bootleg VHS tape of Star Wars at a friend’s house every day after class. I don’t remember his name anymore, and I don’t remember how he got a copy of Star Wars on VHS when most people hadn’t even heard of VHS, let alone had one, but we watched that tape at least 200 times in those nine months.
I FREAKING LOVE Star Wars.
But I still think she makes some valid points. It’s a fairly silly movie. I know that. I don’t care. The dialogue is, at times, hilariously awful. I know that. I don’t care. Carrie Fisher’s vacillating British/American accent can be distracting. I know that. I don’t care.
And if you grew up only knowing the unnecessary “Special” Editions, you have every right to not consider Star Wars amongst the greatest films ever made. Hopefully, now that Disney is buying Fox, and is getting the remaining rights to the Universe they didn’t already own, they will restore the movie back to its original 1977 theatrical release state, and the film can reclaim its much-deserved glory.]
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter
Not my favorite Tennessee Williams adaptation (that would be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) but a very strong second. Leigh is mesmerizing as the delicate and flawed Blanche, and Brando is a force of nature as the brutish Stanley. No surprise there are brilliantly nuanced and flawed characters (it is Williams, after all) and an amazing cast to bring them to life. Not an easy film to watch, but definitely a powerful one.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel
This is one of those very well-regarded films that I just could never like. A depressed young veteran takes a job as a cab driver in New York, and kills a bunch of assholes who were pimping out a child. DeNiro and Foster give great performances, but watching it once was more than enough.
The Third Man (1949)
Directed by: Carol Reed
Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli
For many years now, The Third Man has been my favorite movie of all time. Every single thing about this film touches me in a different way. The unique zither score, by Anton Karas. The brilliant screenplay by Graham Greene. The performances. The setting in post-war Vienna, destroyed and occupied and divided, but still beautiful and unbroken. The cinematography and off-kilter camera angles. Oh, and Orson Welles as Harry Lime. Has there ever been a more perfect casting, or a more perfect entrance? I have yet to find one. It thrills me every time, and I think I have seen this movie at least twenty times. The ferris wheel scene is what most people know it for, and of course it is iconic and humorous and terrifying all at the same time. I also love it for the remarkable supporting cast, with a big shout out to Trevor Howard, the police officer investigating Lime, who looks like the spitting image of my husband’s grandfather here. They recently restored the film in a 4K print, and it was stunning. See it on the big screen and thank me later.
Directed by: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt
This is probably the greatest illustration of “be careful what you wish for” and “power corrupts” ever made. Three men, down on their luck, search for gold in the mountains in Mexico, thinking it will solve all of their problems. A masterful tale, with powerful performances, the perfect filming location, and a timeless message about the inherent terribleness of mankind.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart and Kim Novak
A twisted thriller and mystery about obsession, love, fear, and San Francisco. A detective is hired to follow a man’s wife, only to find himself deeply entangled in an insidious plot. The obsession over, and transformation of, Novak’s character is disturbingly close to Hitchcock’s own obsession with creating his own perfect blonde in movie after movie.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, King Vidor
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger
This film scared me out of my mind as a child. Whenever the Wicked Witch of the West appeared, I had to hide under the table in terror. When I was older, I felt kinship with Dorothy and her friends because they were misfits and weirdos, just like me. Now I watch it and appreciate the sheer will and hard work that went into making this studio film, which by rare chance ended up becoming something transcendent and universal. It makes me cry, in happiness and gratitude to all those involved in making this film that has grown up with me, my entire life.
The Great Eights
This batch of films starts to more widely encompass all of cinema. Foreign films, thrillers, westerns, and independent cinema are all represented here.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola
A heartbreaking film set in post-war Rome, about a poor man trying to provide for his family. He gets a job offer, which requires him to have a bicycle, which gets stolen from him on the job. Probably the best example of Italian neorealism, it doesn’t flinch when presenting this story of family and hardship in the aftermath of World War II. Watch it and join me in shunning and mocking people who still use the incorrect former translated title The Bicycle Thief.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Directed by: Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
This is another post-Vietnam War flick that is mostly forgettable. It may have been a groundbreaking and fresh story at the time, and may be the first exposure I can recall to Russian roulette, but it has not held up. Great cast, but this is a one and done film for sure. Kind of like Cimino.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
There’s nothing Billy Wilder couldn’t do, and in this classic film noir, he creates a dark and twisted tale about a sap of an insurance investigator, who falls for the wrong dame. Before law school, it was hard to imagine people being dumb and/or greedy enough to try scheme to murder someone for an insurance payout, but now this seems like a documentary. People really are this bad, and no one does bad like Barbara Stanwyck.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
What is my favorite part of Dr. Strangelove? Peter Sellers’ amazing performances as multiple characters in this surrealistic depiction of impending nuclear annihilation? George C. Scott, who is a force of nature in everything, and is suitably animated here? The insane (or is it?) underlying conspiracy theory about a Russian plot to poison our precious bodily fluids with fluoridation? Honestly, I’m a bit terrified to watch this now, because it will seem less absurdist farce and more probable future outcome given the current occupants of the White House. See it and decide for yourself.
Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi
The first Coen Brothers film on the Ultimate Film List, and it’s one of the weirdly amazing ones (not to be confused with the weirdly dumb ones, like Hail, Caesar! or Burn After Reading). The Coens elicit brilliant performances from the entire cast, in no small part due to the clever, charming, and “Minnesota nice” screenplay. The entire film I was worried about Frances McDormand, the pregnant police detective investigating a string of violent murders connected with a car dealer’s plot to ransom his own wife to her father in rural Minnesota. The woodchipper scene will haunt your dreams. Watch it and find out how who goes in it.
Directed by: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Candice Bergen
Interesting depiction of Gandhi, and Ben Kingsley plays him well, but ultimately this film is a one and done kind of flick.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Directed by: John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine
Great adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, about dust bowl farmers from Oklahoma who migrate to California for work, and find that people are basically terrible. Sadly, we have not evolved and become more compassionate and understanding to people desperately poor and just trying to survive.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Directed by: Norman Jewison
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates
Another film that shows how little has changed since it was made. A black man is arrested and charged with a murder down South while waiting for his train back home. When the police discover he is a top homicide detective, they begrudgingly ask for his help in solving the crime. Sidney Poitier, as always, is a masterwork in class, and man, how grateful am I to be alive at the same time as him?
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
The blockbuster that broke the film industry. There’s a shark. It kills people. Y’all know Jaws. I don’t like swimming in open water because of Jaws. We have Shark Week because of Jaws. People in movies think they’re clever comparing scars because of Jaws. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” because of Jaws.
King Kong (1933)
Directed by: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
The original film about a film crew looking for an exotic island to shoot their film, and end up capturing a giant gorilla, and enslaving him for show business, is still the best. It operates on many levels, and you can watch it as a harrowing monster flick, or dive deeper and grapple with the racist overtones and other problematic themes.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury
A group of soldiers from the Korean War arrive home and start having nightmares, connected with their capture by enemy soldiers. There is a sinister Communist conspiracy beneath it all, with many interested parties and wide-reaching consequences for the country. An excellent political thriller: a genre that sadly doesn’t really get made anymore.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Directed by: John Schlesinger
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
A naive Texas hustler moves to the big city to make his fortune, but ends up befriending a savvy urban outcast instead. Mostly forgettable.
My Fair Lady (1964)
Directed by: George Cukor
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway
The classic Pygmalion story, adapted from the stage musical in grand fashion. Audrey Hepburn is a poor common flower girl who is transformed into a proper English lady by way of language lessons. Rex Harrison browbeats manners and civilization into her, in a ragingly condescending and clinical manner, in order to win a bet. While I love musicals (like, a lot), many leave me conflicted in the way they treat women. My Fair Lady is the perfect example of this conflict.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish.
This is one of those films that seems to inspire everyone. And what’s not to love? Robert Mitchum is fantastic as a serial killer posing as a preacher, marrying the widow of a former cellmate in order to discover the hiding place of the dead man’s stolen money. In his way are the widow’s two kids, and a bad ass old neighbor lady played by Lillian Gish, one of the greatest silent film stars and a personal favorite. That thing where psychos tattoo “love” and “hate” or some other stupid shit onto their knuckles? They got it from The Night of the Hunter. Watch it right away if you haven’t already. You can thank me later.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Tarantino’s second major feature made him a major player in Hollywood. It’s interesting, and was novel in its time, but does not really hold up with time, similar to sex, lies and videotape. Watch it for a glimpse into what was new and exciting in the 1990s, and what spawned a multitude of lesser imitators.
The Searchers (1956)
Directed by: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, and Jeffrey Hunter
This mostly just made me uncomfortable. After the Civil War, two men search for their niece who was abducted by Native Americans. They search and search. When they find her and she’s become part of the tribe, and they’d rather see her dead than living with Native Americans.
Yeah, I couldn’t really get past that either.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Brock Peters
This brilliant adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel not only does her work justice, but gave us one of our greatest heroes in Atticus Finch, a small town attorney trying to do the right thing. The child actors playing Scout, Jem and Dill are fantastic, and the film perfectly captures Lee’s small southern town of Maycomb and the racial tension smothering everyone except the still oblivious children. Every single time I watch it, though, I cry at the same part at the end. I dare you to keep a dry eye when Scout looks across the room and says “Hey, Boo.” I’m tearing up just remembering it.
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
A retired gunslinger in the old west decides to take that one last job, for justice, to right wrongs, and, of course, money. This is one of those films to see once and then will promptly vanish from memory because it’s ultimately unremarkable, but apparently widely regarded as a good film.
[Editor’s Note: I’m with her on this one. Wasn’t one of Eastwood’s best when it was released, and hasn’t held up very well in the intervening quarter-century.
And if there is anything that pisses me off about movies more than the ones that start late in the story and then jump back to the start and play catch-up for the next hour, it’s movies where the lead protagonists just have to take that one last fucking job. I want to find the person who first came up with this cinematic trope and discover when they first thought of it, so I can travel back in time to that specific moment and punch them in the thorax. And then figure out the next time they thought of it, travel to that moment and punch them in the thorax again. And then do it again and again until they realize that every time they think of it, some big guy is going to punch them in the thorax, and then they’ll never commit it to paper.]
So, readers, tell me: how many of these films have you seen? What did you think of them?
Updated 1/18/18 with new films.