My Favorite Movies of All Time, circa age 30 – #50-41

50. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011, USA)

I don’t think it is the biggest gap between me aligning with a movie’s theses and my acute reaction having those messages hit me square in the chest, but it is maybe the film that got those messages embedded deep in me. Seriously, Malick’s cinema is a very persuasive sort assuming you can sink yourself into the impressionable associative sweep of it all and the large-scale grandiosity of this 30+-year-long project is of the sort of ambition – visually and intellectually – that I find myself unable to do anything but surrender to.

49. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966, Italy/Algeria)

I could certainly joke about the personal stake this movie has for me and claim that I should surrender my Algerian citizenship if I ever make a favorite movies list without this entry. But really it should be sufficient enough to point out no movie before or since has best wielded the heavy impact and presence of its images with the docufiction style, not even the OTHER famous international political thriller shot in Algeria, Z. And that unescapable carriage with which Pontecorvo and his crew re-create the brutal reality of the Algerian Revolution underlines the movie’s core attitude about how ugly and messy and all-around unpleasant but nevertheless necessary revolutionary violence is as a desperate means to establish a nation’s autonomy.

48. Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962, France/Italy)

Varda’s late resurgence in film circles as a beloved grandma of cinema is great, but I hope it doesn’t make us lose sight of how she was responsible for some of the greatest masterpieces of the French New Wave. Given this movie ended up high on last year’s Sight and Sound list, I don’t think that’s a real risk. And I’m thankful for that: Varda’s second feature here proves to be no less experimental than her contemporaries, even while dealing with such a sober central matter as the psychology of a young woman who thinks her life may be at a terminal risk. With real-time storytelling to map out that headspace and a mindful usage of both visual and audial loops (credit to Michel Legrand for being game on the latter), Cléo from 5 to 7 turns out to be generous enough to demolish any notions of French New Wave as chilly and intellectual and imply the sort of storyteller Varda would develop further into.

47. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954, USA)

As unconventional as Westerns get, which is a nicer way of saying this shit is so fucking weird. But it is weird with a direct sensibility: dominated by the duel masculine and feminine will of Joan Crawford’s protagonist, Ray and Harry Stradling Sr. consistently find profound ways to define her visually against the brutal southwest environment and those are alone worthy of masterpiece claim. But then there’s the deft way Ray navigates Crawford’s Vienna through a variety of genre tones with the assistance of a tremendously recognizable supporting cast, the most energetically charged of whom being Mercedes McCambridge’s sexually psychotic antagonist. So it’s also as watchable as Westerns get, especially as an entry I’d dare to recommend to the poor souls who dislike the genre.

46. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz & William Keighley, 1938, USA)

A more typical example of the heights of Technicolor cinema, but you can see precisely why it’s the most go-to example that isn’t The Wizard of Oz. The greens have never been more green, the browns a nice combative rusticity against it, the purples so overwhelming and florid. And it’s all surrounding the charisma of Errol Flynn as both confident embodiment of heroic braggadocio and physical feats, imbuing so much swagger into the quintessential rebel.

45. The General (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, 1926, USA)

It’s not often I find myself wanting to figure the best marriage between spectacle and storytelling, but it is quite possible Bruckman and Keaton found it in their action masterpiece. Full of the sort of daring stuntwork around an ongoing train chase that would make Jackie Chan or Tom Cruise bow their heads and declare themselves unworthy, The General remains the high watermark for the deranged ability of a showman to risk life and limb just to get the audience thrilled and amused and all the emotions in between.

44. Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)

I’ve been an atheist for a long time now, but some of y’all already know I come from an Islamic upbringing. I didn’t see Winter Light until later in my life and it comes from Bergman’s Lutheran background, but somehow it felt like looking at a mirror of my past and the moment I recognized I didn’t believe in God: both the personal liberation and the fear of what such conviction would do to those I felt I needed to protect. It really shook me to my core to look back on that. Fortunately my personal connection to the material doesn’t overwrite my recognition that this is the most impactful usage of Bergman’s characteristic close-ups, giving lead to an excellent leading cast to embody the apotheosis of Bergman’s career-long search of God’s presence and slowly segue itself with those shot scales and performances to dealing with the emotions and uncertainties of humans in the world just like me.

43. Miller’s Crossing (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1990, USA)

A perfect clock of a gangster yarn, the sort of film where you can tell that the directors (no less my favorite directors to have worked in my time) have carefully thought out and planned every single shot and beat of a picture so that the drama is clicking as reliably as it should. And yet, it’s also much more human than it’s given credit for (hell, that’s the story of the Coens’ entire career), delivering a tragic understated character study about a man willing to break his bond to another man just to save that one’s life. That accomplishment is most impressive when attached to the most ambiguous and ambivalent character the Coens have ever crafted, as sharply unknowable as the Continental Op and as sadly pathetic as Phillip Marlowe.

42. Fantasia (Walt Disney & Ben Sharpsteen et. al, 1940, USA)

To this day, there’s no animated feature that feels as ambitious and bold. In its variety of visual representations to admittedly butchered versions of famous classical music compositions, the revolving door of Disney’s top-of-the-line animators went and exhausted every color of the wheel and then threw in a couple more out of thin air. Making “beautifully unreal color” something of an unexpected theme of this set of ten, I suppose. But then there’s also the masterful character animation – the real versatility of the animators’ playfulness leaking through – and the continued showing-off of the multiplane as its grand finale pans through. At a point in which the resources of the Walt Disney Animation Studios were greater than they ever would be, Disney and his collaborators saw to throw in everything and the kitchen sink in this.

41. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944, USA)

Look, I love the Music Box and I generally do enjoy the company of their audience but there has never been a more irritating divide between my sensibilities and theirs than a moment near the end of Double Indemnity where Barbara Stanwyck has Fred MacMurray at gunpoint and somehow breaks down and declares she loves him too much to kill and the entire theater groans and laughs goes “oh come on” in unison. I suppose they think that was an another act from a shrewd and sociopathic femme fatale, I think they were fucking idiots. It’s the killer instinct that’s an act from Stanwyck’s character in this film (who is otherwise still a sociopathic villain) and that’s the subtle layering of maybe my favorite film noir performance ever in a movie. Virtually every scene Stanwyck has either has a moment where she wears the mask or takes off the mask at the margins of the sequence and I don’t see that appreciated very much for some reason. But throwing that aside, film noir is a very time-and-place-specific set of aesthetics and themes that’s also my aesthetic in all of cinema so it bugs me that this is the only film noir on the list (neo-noirs don’t count) but I couldn’t let that one spot go to anything but the pinnacle usage of all that subgenre’s tools. The right amount of bitterness towards post-war Western life and the ease with which we could accommodate the grievous amoral calculus of a war’s shadow onto it.

My Favorite Movies of All Time, circa age 30 – #60-51

60. The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962, France/Italy/West Germany)

My favorite literary adaptation, based on its act of representing the ideas behind Kafka’s unfinished novella in such a dynamic and profoundly visual manner that the idea this was a story ever told on the printed page feels like it would have seem alien to me if I hadn’t read it first. Adopting the dramatic lines of Zagreb’s architecture and the expressionist art direction of Jean Mandaroux, Welles and cinematographer Edmond Richard invented an realistic landscape that nevertheless affects our mind so severely as to feel alien and drops poor old Anthony Perkins in his growing fatigue within the cage that is his life. There’s a contingent of Orson Welles’ audience (or at least Citizen Kane‘s audience) that seems to claim he lost his mojo once he was unceremoniously forced to work in Europe… those people should ostracized and mocked as some of Welles’ most dynamic and inspired work happened there. Behold one.

59. Joan of Arc (Georges Méliès, 1900, France)

A Trip to the Moon gets all the attention, surely, and I wonder how much of that is due to this being lost until 1982. But for my money, this is the more impressive work of Méliès screen magic. The artifice is no different from his usual whimsical fantasy but the context – portrayed in a tight and dramatic 11 minutes – now provides hefty cosmic grandiosity to the proceedings. Feels like a primitivist approach to what we consider today effects showcase cinema, but the core concentrated drama is of an ecstatic reverent subject. The end result feels like one of the highest religious experiences one can get from a movie, short or feature.

58. The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981, Italy)

I like my horror movies the way I like my bill: no cents. Italians are among the finest manufacturers of nonsensical nightmare logic in their horror movies and Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy remains what I consider the ne plus ultra in letting you slowly watch the illogic collapse from a tangible and real world. It’s also of course filled with his characteristic bloodletting (though not what I’d consider the quintessential Fulci gore film, that still goes to Zombi 2 in my eyes) and mixing that with the untethered soundscape taking advantage of Italian horror’s regular prog score inclinations and the industry’s overdubbing traps us into an ongoing cinematic apocalypse long before we reach the helpless downer finale.

57. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984, West Germany/France)

I am an American, but I am not from America. That’s a dichotomy I think informs my interest in stories about this country as presented by artists from abroad like my high school obsession with Preacher or the music of David Byrne. In films, probably my largest obsession is the works of Wim Wenders and particularly his cinematographer Robby Müller who capture the American landscape with a sense of loveliness and alienation all the same. In Sam Shepard’s screenplay about a broken identity piecing together both the dreams and sins of his past and Harry Dean Stanton’s embodiment of that journey, it gives a profound sensation of the Southwest as a place where one can lose himself before the slow walk back to familiar but unsteady metropolitan landscapes gives the illusion of finding oneself again. It’s only the final moments that truly depict both the repair of a few lives that euphoria is achieved to the sacrifice of a domestic fantasy.

56. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000, Hong Kong/France)

I could elaborate on the emotional profoundness of its “will they, won’t they” anti-romantic center, but the real appeal for me is simpler than that: we are watching gorgeous people sit in melancholy stillness with gorgeous designs and lighting around them. That’s certainly not nothing, as my number 1 in the 2010s – (Mandy) – will insist and even my upcoming number one of THIS list, it is the aesthetic sensations of the movie that should motivate the emotional states and THAT’s what speaks to me. Not talking about desire, but representing that desire in the empty air between, the shadows, the colors, and the music. But the fact that the movie is very easy on the eyes certainly makes it even more pleasurable of an experience, embodying that now evergreen Nicole Kidman line “somehow heartbreak feels good in a place like this”.

55. Tokyo Story (Ozu Yasujiro, 1953, Japan)

There really was a time where I saw my future in this movie: ignored distance between me and my parents (and even my siblings) simply because life and time stresses that gap and there’s nothing to say to fill the space in between. I still feel that’s constantly a threat, but I didn’t have that anxious recognition in my last viewing. Nevertheless, it feels like the strongest human drama I can think of in sound cinema while being completely unassuming in how it captures the complexity of the character’s non-conflict. It’s also arguably one of the underspoken masterpieces of film editing, flagrantly disregarding what we associate with shot-reverse shot film construction in Western film industries to only confront the viewer with the intense remoteness with which characters in the same room address each other and disregard that remoteness as something to be handled eventually.

54. The Cameraman’s Revenge (Władysław Starewicz, 1912, Russia)

The Beyond, in spite of its shots of quicklime melting flesh and tarantula’s tearing off meat from a living skull, is probably not the most grotesque movie on this post. That’d have to go to this morbid act by Starewicz of animating dead bugs into an otherwise recognizably human melodrama of betrayal and revenge in way only a cuckolded filmmaker could commit. Uncomfortable, funny, and genuinely unlike anything I’ve seen made in the 111 years since Starewicz’ fevered mind decided to perpetrate it on us.

53. My Neighbor Totoro (Miyazaki Hayao, 1988, Japan)

Look… I feel like of all the 101 entries on my list, this is the one that needs no justification. It’s simply the nicest, the nicest masterpiece I can ever imagine in its relaxed atmosphere, its delicate and detailed backgrounds, and its fluffy and warm creature designs. It’s so easily an inviting world that I’d love to live in, where so many worries that would be grave in reality (the idea that this is a conflict-free movie is not wrong but it’s oversimplifying a bit) are quick to resolve in the safety of the forest. A friend of mine asked me to get some movies for his kid and I didn’t even think twice of making it this one, that’s how deeply comforting it is.

52. Le Million (René Clair, 1931, France)

As filmmaking became more sophisticated and shot for realism through the sound era, Clair’s musical hits me as a masterpiece of maintaining arch theatricality in the sound era. There’s no doubt that its vision of Paris feels rooted in what the makers and audience could recognize walking down the street but just heightened enough to properly amplify the youthful fancy of its running comic and romantic energy. And then the action leads to that wonderfully idyllic moment of the briefly clashing couple slowly reigniting their amorous feelings for each other in the artificial and flat paradise against the bold emotions of the aria performed just behind the curtain and that sort of self-aware sincerity embeds itself deep in my heart as a thesis statement on how the right basic components of art can manipulate a pair of souls to their serenity. Beautiful stuff.

51. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978, West Germany)

My favorite sound work in a non-war film, albeit in a movie that’s a wartime and post-war melodrama. Those melodramatics were already so natural to Fassbinder’s storytelling sensibilities at the turn of the decade that it’s no surprise he can turn those tropes on their head. The purpose of that subversion for indicting the way that post-War Germany strangled any sentimentality from even the most optimistic personality and left only shrewd pragmatism for anyone who wanted to stay above water, using that aforementioned soundscape to surround Maria and threaten her from every direction with the ruinous reality that Europe was. Even in that tragic bitterness, Fassbinder’s dramaturgical hand crafts a drama as watchable as any other he’s made with a hell of a central performance to fix us on (big up Hanna Schygulla).

My Favorite Movies of All Time, circa age 30 – #70-61

70. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949, USA)

If there is one specific thing I personally gained on my John Ford masterpiece series back in early 2021, it was my sudden appreciation of John Wayne as actor. Not simply movie star mind you, of which it’s hard to deny his iconic stature, but his talents as an emotional figure on-screen. The Quiet Man was maybe the work that began cracking at that shell for me, but his 3 year earlier work She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is the crown jewel of his career as the centerpiece to Ford’s musing on what masculinity is as a concept and where it succeeds and fails, compared to The Searchers as a fully deserving excoriation of masculinity and the western adventure. “Never apologize it’s a sign of weakness” seems widely mistaken as the thesis to the film as opposed to what the movie is battling against with its tenderness, disappointment, and helplessness. Plus… it’s got some of my favorite Technicolor imagery. Hell, the movie has a color in its title.

69. Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924, USA)

I’ve mentioned this on my letterboxd XXX list and can’t think of a better way to put it: “I feel like I’ve lived most of my life similar to Buster Keaton’s character in Sherlock Jr., taking his cues from the movie he’s projecting, dreaming in the language of movies, and being confused when neither of those reference points are available to him.” It’s not simply the case that this is one of the high masterpieces of physicality captured on film, but that I relate to it as a representation of what makes movies give us the space to dream in heroics and romance. Transcends slapstick hilarity to be sharply modern and dramatically thrilling for its very short runtime, which makes that relatability both amiable but also a bit of a punchline for spending too much of my thoughts in cinema.

68. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964, France/West Germany)

No matter how many times I watch it, I’m blown away by how casually the movie lands its final punches over the time and space of a cut to black. For all the praise the movie gets as one of the great tragedies of emotional manipulation, I don’t see as much talk about the ugly truth that Demy transfers all of that pain to the viewer and spares it the characters whom we watch fall in love and then lose that love because the world is just too tough for that. But that’s getting ahead of myself and I hope I’ve been vague enough to preserve the movie’s power for the uninitiated. If not, there are other appeals: the lovely bold color suggesting fantasy in the realist textures around our characters and the non-stop opera-like delivery of my favorite music ever developed for a movie, courtesy of my favorite movie composer Michel Legrand.

67. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975, Belgium/France)

Now that this most quiet and challenging of art films has found its way to the tippity top of Sight & Sound’s latest Best Films of All Time poll, I expect a lot of people will have their first exposure to it be in their living rooms (and to be fair, that’s how I first watched it too more than a decade ago). I implore you all though: there is nothing like watching this in a dark theater trapped for the 3+ hours in the quotidian routine, observing every detail so that even the slightest shift will knock you right off your axis and you’re still unprepared for the unraveling left to come. A miracle of minimalism and quiet but angry feminist cinema.

66. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932, USA)

I am prudish enough to be a bit chilly towards explicit depictions of sex in cinema (not always or even frequently, but the exceptions always have to be extraordinary beyond “and here is some people fucking”) but not too prudish that the right sort of edgy innuendo in Pre-Code cinema won’t tickle my fancy. Lubitsch is the most reliable sort on that, a sort of moviedom’s Prince (as in the artist formerly living as) in how perfectly he mixes in the idea of the physical with the ravishing sensations of the intellectual in his dialogue and usage of suggestive imagery. For my money, Trouble in Paradise is the peak of that sophisticated and sexy Lubitsch touch. It makes me laugh as much as hard as any comedy, gets me as hot and bothered as much as any smut, and you couldn’t ask for better if you need to be in either mood.

65. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975, Italy)

Giallo is definitely not the first horror subgenre I fell in love with – that would go to that most child-friendly set of monster movies from the 1930s to the 1950s – but it is the movement that made me understand the artistic sophistication of horror as an experience. Deep Red remains after all these year’s a perfection of that sophistication: all the artistry of Italian art cinema, all the vulgarity of genre cinema, all the anxious tension of mystery storytelling, all the goofy buoyancy of a romantic comedy (Daria Nicolodi’s character remains one of my biggest screen crushes), in perfect synchronization for a dizzying journey as a fellow stranger like David Hemmings’ character wandering into a line of depraved murders and buried psychopathy simply because he couldn’t mind his own business (a la his other big Italian arthouse hit Blow-up). Neither can I really with how many times I’ve rewatched this just to chill out at night to Goblin’s awesome prog rock.

64. House (Obayashi Nobuhiko, 1977, Japan)

I’ve heard and said this a lot about Miami and I’m sure this is a frequency in other parts of the world as well: “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes”. House is that way for me in movie form: if you don’t like the movie, just wait a few minutes. Except I love every single movie that House‘s versatile revolving door of style is portraying for us, pulling from Obayashi Nobuhiko’s background as a commercial director to animate a fantastical ghost story his own adolescent daughter conceived of. Much too often I’ve witnessed audiences as the permission to approach this movie with detached irony, but I think House houses (pun intended) within itself a wounded and tragic post-war soul. If its non-stop concentration of energy keeps things pumping and heightened, it’s only so that the movie isn’t the slightest bit a downer that a widowed and girl-hungry witch could suggest.

63. The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, 2000, Canada)

I am frustrated that Tim Brayton (in his list of the best movies of the 2000s) already went with the cocaine overdose analogy because there is no better way to describe it: 100% raw uncut kino, as the kids say. Even as a work of commission, this is handily my favorite thing Maddin made to tribute only the art of cinema itself not only by mythologizing of its communicative potentials but by mythologizing the way it transforms itself into the action of the individual (which is relatively small-scale for a movie adopting homage to the collectivist propaganda of early Soviet montage cinema) and the heartbeat of society. A breathless miracle in the image of the flickering miracle it is born from.

62. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934, USA)

Not sure I’ll ever love a woman the way Josef von Sternberg loved Marlene Dietrich. Not a romantic love necessarily, just a pure ecstasy and lavish care for every feature of her distinct face and form. Shanghai Express, Morocco, and The Blue Angel appear to get most of the attention and praise (as they should) but this underappreciated gem is the one where I feel that adoration vibrate. The lavish and mad set designs and costume designs, driven more by indulgence in bold classicalism than any historic fidelity to Imperial Russia, are an extension of Dietrich’s force of personality here. The stage therefore is set to Dietrich’s development of Catherine the Great from a young naïve ingenue into a shrewd and calculating mastermind of sex appeal. “Take the money and run” studio pictures are among my most thrilling movie watches – why wouldn’t you want to see an artist exercise the full extent of their imagination with limitless resources – and von Sternberg is one of the greatest directors to take that indulgence at an era that I consider to be the Hollywood studio system’s peak.

61. Law of Desire (Pedro Almodóvar, 1987, Spain)

I feel like Almodóvar’s most recent sets of films have suggested more of an elder statesman storyteller than the once enfant terrible he was between the 1980s to the 2000s (hell, even his arguable biggest hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is kind of the least fucked up movie he made in the 1980s when he was really pushing as many provocateur buttons as he could). Law of Desire feels to me like the greatest balance he took in celebrating our flaws and social transgressions – in terms of Spanish Catholic moralism – and having an unexpectedly clear-eyed view about the costs and pains of freedom and passion in those transgressions. As a movie about a torn queer artist diving into conflict and drama even at the threat of his loved ones, it feels the most personal and autocritical of Almodóvar’s works. That doesn’t stop it from being no less fun and appealing: in the warm nuclear family chemistry between Eusebio Poncela, Carmen Maura, and Manuela Velasco, in the sharp coding of Almodóvar’s characteristic indulgence with color (probably the most intelligent and sharpest usage of red-blue for him outside of possibly Talk to Her), and in letting the bad news Antonio Banderas’ psychotic murderer brings genre and melodrama as a personification of the worst case scenario when you just give in to your unregulated desires. But what visual brilliance and profound emotion hits the screen when you do give in…