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?!?!]
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: Cassy 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 little movie. I know that. The dialogue is pretty bad. Carrie Fisher’s vacillating British/American accent can be distracting. 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, Disney and Fox can work out some deal to 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.
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.
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. Silent films, British films, science fiction, and independent cinema are all represented here. They’re still all in English, but there’s some welcome diversity starting to sneak into the Ultimate Film List.
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.]
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.
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: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, 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?
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.
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.
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.]
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.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton
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.
So, readers, tell me: how many of these films have you seen? What did you think of them?