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.
The past is never truly past in the world of director Michael Haneke, nor is there any such thing as a fully wholesome, stable family unit. And if one pretends to be, Haneke tears it apart with a measured subtlety and astonishing precision. This chilling examination of repressed memory and societal guilt deconstructs pretenses of undeserved peace, and is the most effective of the filmmaker’s intensely studied morality plays.
A triumph of perfect casting and a deft balance between war-time world weariness and good-ole-fashioned American schmaltz. Not quite as immortally great as its reputation has become, but it’s a terrific film that serves as a crown jewel for Hollywood’s Golden Age. Plus it has more famous quotes than Bogie could shake a cigar at.
One the earliest great psychological horror films, trading in the standard monster antics fashionable at the time for the unnerving anxieties and fears lurking in its characters’ psyches. Superstition, legend, paranoia, and repressed sexuality combine to create a bizarre and utterly compelling piece of classic horror filmmaking.
One would be unwise to peg this as just another juvenile Kevin Smith crude-fest. While the quick wit and eloquent vulgarity is all there, this is one of the most observant and poignant explorations of misguided modern romance you’ll ever find. It’s also one that refuses to end on a happy note, giving the viewer some hope while keeping its focus firmly on the consequences of Gen-X narcissism.
Children of Men
Eschewing more bombastic cinematic apocalypses, it depicts a stark world dying with a whimper instead of a bang. This is Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece and an enduring portrait of how much more powerful the anxieties within us are than those outside of us while giving us the shred of hope we need to keep on. It also features some of the greatest action set-pieces of the last decade.
Though it takes place in the 1940s, Roman Polanski’s brilliant noir is a pure product of Vietnam-era, post-Watergate national malaise and mistrust. There’s a dark secret in every nook and cranny of this quietly menacing Los Angeles, and Jack Nicholson’s performance reminds us that cynicism will not save us from the darkness underneath the veneer.
Though striking for its use of almost every cinematic technique in the book, and quite a few more on top of that, it’s more resonant for its look at what’s inside of us, the shadows of the past that drive us down the roads we take. Greatest Movie Ever? Probably not, but it’s an eternal classic born of an enigmatic mind that wasn’t given enough space to create later on.
Charlie Chaplin had a hand in every aspect of its creation, and the result is not only the diminutive auteur’s finest effort but perhaps the greatest pure cinematic expression of the Silent Movie Era (four years after the introduction of sound). It takes aim at a broad spectrum of society’s ills while never forgetting to leave open its wonderful heart.
City of God
More searing and uncompromising than anything you’ll find in a Hollywood film, Brazil’s masterful export makes American gangster films like The Godfather and Goodfellas feel almost pastoral. The streets of Rio run red with the blood of lost youth, and the hyperkinetic realism is offset by a crushing air of Shakespearean tragedy.
A Clockwork Orange
Perhaps cinema’s most cutting and uncomfortably funny science fiction satire, Kubrick’s peek at technologically enforced conformity grows more prescient and disturbing with each passing year. Populated by insistent bores and ridiculous drones, we find ourselves latching onto this future’s only truly human character, a theatrical sociopath whose choices, while often horrifying, are always and completely his own. He seems like the freest man left in the world.
Come and See
By my estimation the greatest war movie ever made, with a horrifying power that often seems born of another world. It depicts the Nazi invasion of Belarus in the truest way such ruthless “total war” can be depicted; a waking nightmare into which all notions of heroism and innocence and humanity become lost, sucked down into the abyss. Not easy to watch, but guaranteed to leave a mark.
We march ahead with the Populist Art House Top 150 Films of All Time, this time with the letter B.
With one of the greatest director debuts ever, Terrence Malick began his illustrious if not prolific career with this quietly disturbing study of the banality of evil. Based on the Charles Starkweather killings of the 1950s, it’s the sense of detachment and emptiness, both in the characters and in the beautifully stark landscape in which they commit their crimes, that is most unsettling.
A singular aesthetic triumph by any standard, Stanley Kubrick’s period drama may turn some off with its extremely measured pacing. But the film is a treasure trove of historical drama and period detail, squeezing the best from its actors and never straying into predictability. The visual splendor of Kubrick’s 18th century world is enough by itself to land the film on this list.
The Battle of Algiers
As provocative today as it was 40 years ago (perhaps more so in some circles), this searing reportage of Algeria’s battle for independence is a brilliant exercise in blunt-force realism. Drenched in a revolutionary mentality that makes America’s 60s furor seem almost quaint, the film is also memorable for its grey-shaded presentation of terrorism, which sparks heated debate to this day.
The Battleship Potemkin
Packed with more first-wave cinema theory than any dozen offerings from its contemporaries, Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein used advanced editing techniques and shot composition to hit the gas and never let up, shaking the senses of audiences as hadn’t been done before. The Odessa Steps sequence has been mimicked so many times that it’s hard not to view the original as a parody of itself.
Beauty and the Beast
Perhaps the most skillfully constructed drama in Disney’s entire oeuvre, and without a doubt the best in terms of its musical components. The songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are not wonderfully enjoyable pieces, they also advance the story in ways that illustrate the greatness musicals are capable of. Gorgeous animation and a uniquely strong-willed Disney heroine don’t hurt, either.
We make special connections in life, if we’re lucky, but time has a way of carrying them away through the years, leaving us reaching for the ghosts that haunt our memory. Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his beautifully sincere Before Sunrise somehow manages to bolster dreams of love while also lamenting the forces of circumstance, maturation, and missed opportunity than can let it slip away. It’d be mislabeling to call it the greatest romance film ever made, but it might be the greatest film about romance.
The Bicycle Thief
The calling card for Italian neo-realism, Vittorio DeSica’s masterpiece deftly delivers grand tragedy as he paints an almost optimistic picture of the warmth of strength of family bonds amid the inherent cosmic cruelty of everyday life. European post-war culture has never been captured more effectively, and DeSica inspired many filmmakers around the world to explore cinematic alternatives to typical Hollywood grandeur.
Novelist Philip K. Dick sadly didn’t live to see his literary masterpiece realized as a cinematic one. Ridley Scott hasn’t made anything as good since, and his measured pace and unerring focus bring the story’s intimidating science fiction themes to rain-drenched life. The line between humanity and artificiality certainly is a distressing line to tread, and here it is soaked in a palpable melancholy rarely achieved in science fiction.
How do you tackle weighty issues like racism and religion? Make fun of everything you possibly can, as fast as you can, and Mel Brooks does just that in this brazen and hilarious effort that still defines the genre of modern parody. It’s been over three decades since it was released, but the one-liners and vignettes still stand against anything current comedies try to offer.
No one can find the common ground between fantasy and nightmare quite like David Lynch. The myth of American pastiche is lifted up to reveal all the ugliness crawling beneath the surface, and Lynch uses a deceptively tight and methodical approach to illustrate the despair that follows when the American Dream evades us. Chilling and enthralling, with a legendarily creepy performance from Dennis Hopper.
Bride of Frankenstein
In the age of endless Saw films, it’s easy to forget that horror sequels are capable of real wit and heart. Characterized more by sharp dialogue and appealing characters than traditional frights, this is the most ambitious of John Whale’s run of horror films in the 1930s, showcasing both a criticism of and a respect for the conventions that made the decade’s horror so enduring.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Alec Guinness gives one of the most complex and enigmatic performances in the history of war movies, and David Lean’s lush cinematography serves to accentuate and not hide the dark heart of this scathing treatise on the absurdity of war. The film ends, appropriately, with no easy answers, offering only a simple yet astute observation. “Madness…madness.”
Unfortunately known to many as “that gay cowboy movie,” this film is so much more. Just as concerned with the dangers of emotional insulation as the sexual orientation of his characters, Ang Lee has never used his meditative style to better effect. The Dark Knight would make Heath Ledger a legend, but it was here that we first saw the depths that his talent was capable of.
Lat year I got a ways into my Top 150 Movies of All Time…and then my hard drive crashed and I lost the list. So I had to remake it, which of course led to a rethinking of some choices and some alterations, but now I’m ready to give it another go. So starting from scratch, here’s the Populist Art House Top 150!
Note: This is a list of the best films that I have seen, in alphabetical order. I’ve seen every film on this list, but there are certainly many great film’s that I haven’t come across yet, and many more than are worth reconsidering. I chose to do 150 instead of 100 because I felt that allowed me to present a more panoramic picture of how I view cinema as a whole, and make room for some great films that might have been squeezed out on a shorter list, yet which I believe deserve recognition. These are all great films to me, but if you see any glaring omissions or want to debate some inclusions, feel free!
The 400 Blows
Francois Truffant took the cinema knowledge he’d honed through criticism and applied it to this striking journey through the wilderness of youth. Truffant went on to an illustrious career (Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim), and his New Wave techniques would influence a generation of filmmakers, but he would never surpass the artistic heights he reached here.
2001: A Space Odyssey
At once impenetrably complex and disarmingly simplistic, Stanley Kubric’s 2001 explored how humanity deals with its technological leaps forward. As it turns out, we don’t deal with them very well. Stunning visual effects and an unnerving since of isolation appealed to audiences even if they were lost by the narrative, but this is one of science fiction’s most profound meditations of the march of our species through time.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God
An insane rush of a film as only the director/actor combo of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski could create, this journey of a glory-hungry conquistador threw convention to the wind and ended up as something oddly moving. The volatile real-life friendship between the two men gives their film the feel of two competing bits of genius finding mad harmony together, monkeys and all.
A. I.: Artificial Intelligence
Perhaps Spielberg’s most profound achievement, this science fiction fable is also his most misunderstood and under appreciated. Stylistically and thematically, it’s much less about Spielberg wrestling Stanley Kubrick (the originator of the project before his death) than Spielberg wrestling with himself, trying to find a place for his trademark optimism and childlike wonder in his changing vision of humanity, a vision with some heavy anxieties about who we are, and where we are going.
By transporting gothic horror to the depths of space, Ridley Scott solved the question plaguing most haunted house stories: why don’t they just leave the house? Here there is nowhere to go, and with the help of stunning art design by H. R. Geiger, this space vessel becomes a floating tomb where our worst fears of bodily invasion are brought to terrifying life.
All Quiet on the Western Front
All these years later, it’s still one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made, painting a brutal landscape of blood and mud and death that drains war of its heroic trappings and leaves it a disgusting waste of bright young souls. That final scene, with Lew Ayers’ hand reaching out for a nearby butterfly, has lost none of its devastating power.
The conventions of the modern Hollywood comedy were barely in place when Woody Allen ripped them all to shreds. In following the process of two intelligent people trying to come to grips with the unintelligent faculties of love, we are left as puzzled as the characters by the warring factions of logic and passion, and somehow made more optimistic by the journey.
The rare example of a film trying so damn hard to be great and actually succeeding, it survives its own bloated sense of self-importance by reveling in the madness of both the process used to create it and the conflict it portrays. Plagued by all manner of calamity as he directed the film, Francis Ford Coppola defied the gods and gave us a surreal nightmare of war that can be applied to most any instance of man’s great folly.
The Apu Trilogy
One of the most lyrical musings on the human condition ever committed to film, this trio of films from Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray prizes relevant imagery above words, from the interminable flow of a river to the silent communication between two young lovers. In doing so it creates a portrait of maturation and love capable of affecting anyone in the world, in any era. A masterpiece of restraint and grace.