The Dark Knight
Any remaining notions that comic-based films were incapable of being legitimate art were swept away with this superbly staged noir of the Caped Crusader. The impeccable direction and overriding sense of dread build the package, but the greatness lies in the towering performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, one of cinema’s most disturbing and captivating villains.
Most war films present the horrors of the panoramic battlefield, but this assured thriller made battle feel punishingly claustrophobic. Even though it presented of glimpse of World War II through the German point of view, you can’t help but be moved by the struggles and fears of the submarine’s beleaguered crew. Still Wolfgang Peterson’s finest work.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Before it became the genre of space battles and giant explosions (not that those aren’t cool), science fiction was the genre of giant insects and killer blobs. But in between those eras, it was occasionally the Genre of Ideas, in the tradition of its more thoughtful literary brethren. This expertly written classic gave us aliens less concerned with invasion and more concerned with saving us from ourselves, whether or not we actually deserve to be saved.
Dog Day Afternoon
It features arguably the best performance of Al Pacino’s illustrious career, and the film itself is a slow-burning study of alienation and lost souls that doesn’t pass judgment on its bank-robber protagonists, nor does it cast them as any sort of heroes despite the crowd-rousing cries of “Attica!” The brutal ending would be a foregone conclusion even if this weren’t based on a true story, but it still manages to break your heart.
Don’t Look Now
A psychological horror film that merciless plays on the viewer’s nerves and expectations, Nicholas Roeg’s best film is visually precise yet enigmatic exploration of the supernatural. Perception is constantly muddying reality in the film’s labyrinthine Venice setting, and the death of a child lingers with an emotionally beleaguered couple no matter what steps they take to move past it. A spooky and mostly non-violent presentation of terror and grief.
Do The Right Thing
Too often cited as an inflammatory “black vs. white” soapbox, Spike Lee’s dizzying film is much more complex than that. Featuring a stunning array of characters and expert use of “hot and cold” toned cinematography, it comes at racism from a variety of angles and never pretends to offer easy answers. Lee established himself as a new kind of auteur, and to this day no one has taken his torch with such skill and barely contained rage.
The first masterpiece of what would be a string of them in the incredible career of director Billy Wilder, this 40s noir is perfectly structured and impeccably acted. Based on the chilling James M. Cain novel, it’s a bundle of darkly wrapped cynicism as only Wilder could deliver. Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale is among the greatest female villains in cinema history.
The greatest and most iconic satire ever produced, Kubrick’s hilarious and quietly disturbing sendoff to the lunacy of the Cold War still maintains much of its bite. Replete with great lines and engagingly off-the-wall characters, it’s brought together by the stunning three-role performance of Peter Sellers, whose unique brand of insane comedy fits the material perfectly.
The Empire Strikes Back
Adding a darker tone and some strong philosophical musings to the best adventure series in the history of movies, the first sequel to Star Wars is the finest film of the entire run. George Lucas’ decision to step away from the director’s chair is noticeable in the performances, which seem much more relaxed and naturalistic. The convergence of plotlines in the majestic Cloud City provides an unmatched rush of science fiction excitement, not to mention the greatest twist ever seen on the big screen.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
An internationally successful vanguard for New German Cinema, Werner Herzog’s breakthrough film dramatizes the legend of Kaspar Hauser, a young man who shows up in a 19th century German town with no past, no identity, and no voice. Casting a former mental patient as the affectless yet strangely endearing lead, Herzog depicts the ravages that civilization can wreak on unspoiled human innocence.
Still one of the most unnerving nightmares you’ll ever see visualized, David Lynch’s surreal mood piece is the ultimate expression of paternal fear and anxiety. Lynch manages to make the most mundane objects and events, like a radiator or a family dinner, into symbols and spectacles of the macabre, and it’s still hard to imagine anything more disturbing than the incessant cries of that monstrous little bundle of joy.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Who would’ve thought the most pure and affecting romance of the new millennium would could from the twisted mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Director Michel Gondry handles the visual demands of this race against memory loss with grace, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet form an unlikely yet endearing couple and deliver some of the best work of their careers.
E.T. – The Extraterrestrial
It might come as a surprise that one of the most moving meditations on the wonders of childhood and the pitfalls of American parenthood would come via the story of a stranded little alien, but Steven Spielberg couldn’t have picked a better angle of approach. Instead of the paranoid dread of alien invasion, we get an affecting story of a boy and his best friend, affirming our wonder at the stars as a place of possibility, beauty, and redemption.
The tales of viewers fainting and vomiting and leaving the theater upon its release are legendary, and what’s behind all that hoopla is still one of the most genuinely frightening cinematic experiences ever created. The creepy atmospherics and the overwhelming air of malevolence make it an enduring horror artwork, and it’s hard to ever get the downstairs crab walk in the extended edition out of your head.
I’m sticking by my prediction that Marvel’s upcoming Captain America film will suck as much as its uninspired trailer suggests it will, but I will admit to being very wrong in my preconceptions about Thor, a brash and loud and utterly entertaining addition to Marvel’s superhero filmography. What it lacks in nuance and subtlety, director Kenneth Brannagh’s film makes up for in charisma, polish, and the kind of brute sincerity one finds in these Hollywood summer megaflicks when they’re done right.
Thor isn’t the best known hero is Marvel’s oeuvre (I came in with almost no prior knowledge of the storyline), and the film is wise in assuming so. The script introduces the audience to the outlandish backdrop of Norse gods and alien planets and interstellar conflict with a surprisingly assured hand, and by the half-hour mark the expansive worlds and galaxy-sized scenario feel well-defined, a necessity in order for any grand fantasy story to take shape. And it certainly helps that its a very engaging scenario, rooted in age-old but effective warrior tales and palace soap operas but given a unique visual style and an honest presentation. Such an array of settings and stagings and color pallettes could have easily overwhelmed a less seasoned filmmaker, and though the esteemed Shakespearian Kenneth Brannagh has never before handled something of this scope, he knows how to handle story elements and how to frame a shot, fundamental skills that other tent-pole helmers like Brett Ratner and Michael Bay handle with considerably less pinache.
And being an actor himself, Brannagh clearly knows that the success of a film relies on the characters, and his film is best served by the performances of a diverse and talented cast dedicated to the material, fantastical and broad as it can sometimes be. Of course no one is playing for Oscars, but no one seems as though they’re phoning it in either, and quality supporting work is turned by Natalie Portman (juggling intellectual earnestness and school-girl giggliness like no one else can), Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins.
But the experienced cast and mammoth storyline are never too much for newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who plays the title role with charisma and muscular braggodocio the likes of which we haven’t seen much of since the 1980s. Huge biceps, a six-pack, and long flowing locks were surely high on the casting criteria, but Hemsworth can hold a screen. The film’s best humor derives from his character’s rather immediate acceptance of his new surroundings. He’s exiled from his kingdom, abandoned on Earth, but as soon as he wakes he pretty much goes about his heroic business, only occasionally stopping to consider the differences between this place and his own. In that sense, it’s a simple-minded but refreshing take on what heroes are supposed to do, at least in the movies. Learn compassion and gain wisdom, sure, but also crack your knuckles and get down to the task at hand. It’s a fitting thematic centerpiece for the film as a whole, which presents its world with confidence and gets to the heroics as swiftly and efficiently as possible.