#26. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The perfect detective story, from the era before it was a TV staple, filled with character as much as intrigue, and all led by Humphrey Bogart, the man who wasn’t supposed to be a movie star, and so became an icon instead. Incredibly, there are two previous film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s book, and neither one comes close to the magic that seems inherent to this one. This is a clear counterargument to all those people who decry remakes these days.
#27. The da Vinci Code (2006)
Lots of people read Dan Brown’s book, and so it became natural to make a movie out of a book that was basically inspired by Indiana Jones, who in term was a homage to old movies. Anyway, lots of people then decided the movie was a joke, but the real joke is that Brown’s story is perfectly captured on film, led by Ron Howard (inspired I suspect by his success with A Beautiful Mind) and Tom Hanks, bringing some of his severe authority from Road to Perdition to a little more focus. Ian McKellen provides all the needed material to convey the theories behind the plot, that confirm rather than betray religious belief. Maybe it’s just Hanks, now able to portray maturity in a time when he’s best known as a toy cowboy, who makes it work so well, but I can’t help but think of The da Vinci Code as a touchstone of modern culture, with all the complexities so many people are constantly talking about, but are so busy ignoring while pursuing their agendas. It’s funny, because all the people with agendas in this film are the villains.
#28. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The first Star Wars released, technically, in my lifetime, endlessly praised as the rare worthwhile sequel, spends most of its time undoing everything its predecessor accomplished, and because of that, gets all the credit for expanding the saga, when really, all it does is affirm that George Lucas had a good idea from the start. What you really get is the feeling that Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen got off light. Leia leads a glorious rebellion…from one calamity to another. Han’s big reward for being a good guy is being used as bait and then turned over to bounty hunters. Luke’s Jedi training becomes even less pleasant. And then Darth Vader utters one of the immortal phrases in cinema history. One giant ball of unpleasant complication…
#29. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Described by most accounts as the guy’s version of a chick flick, this lovely little ditty was adapted from a Stephen King novella, and humanizes a bunch of convicts, revolving around an innocent man who flies the cuckoo’s nest, but not before lots of things go wrong. But the film’s true legacy is probably Morgan Freeman’s career, which exploded into the popular consciousness thanks to his indelible narration. He’s never looked back since.
#30. The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Another movie quickly dismissed in its original release, a trigger-happy nod to when westerns actually mattered, I prefer to think of it as an actor’s paradise. You even get Gary Sinese! Sharon Stone technically stars, but you’ve also got Gene Hackman sharing every inch of the screen, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe stealing it every other frame. Seriously, without this film, I don’t think I’d care half as much about either one. Oh, who am I kidding? But this still serves as my introduction to both titans, so that’s be enough right there, to keep this one in memory, but as a distillation of every western that Hollywood has ever made, it hardly gets better than this.
#31. Hancock (2008)
During a decade when superheroes exploded into an entire genre, it was only a matter of time before someone finally figured out how to do a movie with completely original material, and make it at least as good as the rest of the movies surrounding it. Except this one is generally better, and it’s not just because of Will Smith, but how cleverly Charlize Theron inserts herself, building a complicated relationship that breathlessly crescendos, revealing a scope few films, superhero or otherwise, approach.
#32. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
With great success comes the harshest critics, and Star Wars was certainly no exception. The backlash started with Return of the Jedi, but didn’t really set in until the prequels almost two decades later, and it’s a tremendous pity, too, since George Lucas didn’t really start to embrace his story until The Phantom Menace, and hit his stride until Revenge of the Sith, when the full impact of Anakin Skywalker’s descent could be fully felt. Ian MacDiarmid, who appeared to be a distant second to Ian McKellen, just as the new Star Wars trilogy limped a distant second to the flashy Lord of the Rings films by most estimates, is the center of this blossoming, revealing a distinct and full portrait of the true evil that was always waiting in the shadows behind the myth of Darth Vader. All the criticisms about Natalie Portman and Haden Christenson fall away, too. This is a story about contrasts. I argue that it’s time to give Lucas credit where it’s due, and admit that he may have known what he was doing after all. What this final entry in the complete saga really amounts to is epic drama.
#33. Mission: Impossible (1996)
I don’t mean to suggest, with the exclusions of the two films that follow this one from the list of 500 movies comprising this ranking, that this is the only Tom Cruise version of this franchise worth watching, only to acknowledge the shock of adrenaline and intrigue represented in the first entry is a tough act to follow. I mean to compare this film to The Maltese Falcon, is all. It’s time film lore reflects this kind of thinking.
#34. Red Cliff (2008/2009)
I’m a sucker for action, when it’s done right, and this film is a smorgasbord of action, as well as high drama, from one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, John Woo, who for a few years tried to make a regular presence in Hollywood (and is even responsible for the second Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible, which is imprinted with all his usual signatures). This is a war movie without inhibition, and also missing many of the gimmicks usually necessary to justify such an undertaking for wide audiences. Two versions exist; I suggest the complete cut.
#35. Thirteen Days (2000)
I consider this the unacknowledged coda to JFK, a film that follows the Kennedy administration in all its brilliant execution, tracing the Cuban Missile Crisis as if it were Shakespearean, guided by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp.
#36. Seven Pounds (2008)
What amounted to a milestone year for Will Smith concluded with this overlooked gem, which expertly culminated on all the films he’d been doing during the decade and concluding on a martyr’s note, a solitary and self-sacrificing individual who becomes the quintessential good Samaritan without weighing the movie down with saccharin or false emotions. Rosario Dawson provides a reliable supporting presence. Why isn’t she a bigger movie star?
#37. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Audiences really hated when they were told all the mind-blowing action and philosophy they enjoyed in The Matrix wasn’t throwaway after all, and so its immediate sequel provoked an inevitable backlash. Filled with more panache and bigger ideas, The Matrix Reloaded all but is the introduction to a new religion.
#38. Return of the Jedi (1983)
When you spend years of your life rewatching the same films, and with the support of a whole family, you really start to absorb the experience. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to understand the disappointment that greeted this conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy, because for me, it was just another thrilling addition to a favorite saga. This is the first time all the characters deliberately walk into adventure, and each sequence strolls along, nothing left for the story but a few clarifications and a final redemption. Luke, who isn’t really a Jedi but more like a survivor, is a ridiculously confident lead character this time, which may be the novelty that makes it all work. He’s all but become the new Ben Kenobi.
#39. Awakenings (1990)
Maybe this explains my reaction to Robert De Niro’s career, because this is my first and still most intimate experience with his acting, pretty much the complete opposite of what everyone else seems to think about. I haven’t been disappointed with some of his later films, like the critics who still idealize him based on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’s also Robin Williams, playing what is probably considered his stereotypical “serious role,” but again, I don’t view Williams like most people seem to, and so this movie is what it is to me, a compelling slice of human drama, with no easy conclusions, just real emotions.
#40. High Noon (1952)
I figure Gary Cooper was born to this role, the lone hero, another perfect representation of the western archetype, with a lot of terrific music to give him company. This is the kind of iconic filmmaking that simply does not age.
#41. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
As far as dramatic statements go, this is about as dramatic a statement as the original cast of Star Trek could ever hope to make, with a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score driving events along, and a lot of troubled characters wondering what the heck the reason for all of it is, which is basically how audiences have been approaching it since its release. As to how it compares to other films, probably except for Star Trek (2009), this one’s the easiest to think of as a separate phenomenon from the rest of the franchise, and to consider for its own worth. I haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I figure if you respect that film, you should at least consider this one.
#42. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
A cultural landmark, the only real contribution anyone in the modern era has been able to make about Christmas, and hardly any of it has anything to do with the holiday, instead focusing on a desperate Jimmy Stewart as he struggles to find some meaning in his life. Silly boy, it was in all the lives you touched! And that, folks, is the true meaning of Christmas.
#43. Superman II (1978)
I’ve always liked this one (and with all the references to “Kneel before Zod!,” you can guess others have too), but I grew to appreciate it more after seeing Richard Donner’s complete vision in 2006. Compromised as it was by the need to rely on some rehearsal footage that clearly doesn’t match the rest of the material, it still reveals a more expansive and compelling version, one that more closely matches the spirit of its predecessor, and surpasses it. Any film where Marlon Brando can be reasonably inserted, that can’t possibly hurt, at least in my opinion.
#44. Casablanca (1942)
A movie whose existence still seems improbable to this day (there’s an anecdote included in some bonus material from the VHS special edition I probably display in my home that suggests simply by changing the names in the script, it would still be rejected by basic inclination by studios), a nuanced look at war, which just happens to be a bundle of iconic scenes, all anchored by Bogey.
#45. Star Trek Nemesis (2002)
Yes, another Star Trek, and based on the method by which this ranking was compiled, it’s not as suspicious as it seems. Any subjective list (and let’s face it, they all are) should feel free to feel a little indulgent. Star Trek films just happen to fit the criteria I value. In this one, Tom Hardy is subjected to endless scorn, based on the fact that it’s easy to overlook him in his breakthrough role, even though he’s completely awesome, and a perfect foil for Patrick Stewart, who if it weren’t for Star Trek would have been greeted with the same kind of welcome, if he were merely the guest actor in one of these films. Irony is great.
#46. Blade Runner (1982)
For the longest time, this was one of those cult experiences that did its best to elude me, but eventually, I grew to embrace it as the evocative experience that it is, the search for the worth and meaning of human life, led by Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott.
#47. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
I’ve been struggling with Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy for a decade, and I’m still not sure I’ve managed to reconcile all the popular and critical acclaim with my own experiences, which have always taken on a more combative relationship to the material. What’s not in question is the artistic achievement, which begins with the superb casting that drives the first installment to fantastic heights, led by Ian McKellen and Sean Bean, who either by permanent death or altered circumstances aren’t around to lift subsequent entries. The same can be said of Ian Holm. Also features the best of Howard Shore’s scores.
#48. Che (2008)
I waited what seemed to be an eternity to see this collaboration of Benecio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh on the life of the most famous revolutionary of the past century, whose legacy still basically amounts to a famous image and the unfortunate reign of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Hopefully this film, and its startling and incredibly focused drama, might begin to reverse that.
#49. Superman (1978)
The superhero origin story before it was popular, Richard Donner spends as much time with the Man of Steel matching wits with Lex Luthor as to how he ended up in Metropolis, making this movie as much as Kal-El/Clark Kent as Superman. Marlon Brando lends his incredible charisma in support of the project.
#50. The Stunt Man (1980)
One has the sense, after watching this movie, that Richard Rush was destined to become one of the great filmmakers. Whatever happened to his career makes for a fantastic enigma, just like this movie, with Peter O’Toole leading the way.