#51. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
It seems weird, at first crack, to have a list that includes both The da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ, because at first blush, one represents anti-faith, and the other extreme faith. I don’t believe either film needs to be viewed in the context of faith at all (although with both it certainly helps), and in fact, they have a lot in common, movies that rely on a particularly modern perspective to get their messages across to wide audiences in the particular ways they choose to tell them. The da Vince Code was a thriller that happened to feature elements of a particular religion rather heavily. Passion of the Christ is a historical drama that happens to be known for two things: extreme drama and extreme knowledge of its particular perspective. Anyone who doesn’t know the biblical story of Jesus isn’t really going to get the same thing from it as someone who does. That’s also beside the point. Mel Gibson crafts a film that’s every bit the artistic achievement of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I would argue infinitely more focused (for any number of reasons, but more importantly, a more complete experience), fully immersing itself in the particular reality of its subject matter. There are no real star turns (the closest being the actor who portrays Pontius Pilate), and that isn’t really the point anyway. This is a singular accomplishment, a prolonged moment interspersed with some real humanity and, if you will, fantastic elements. Still, it’s necessarily not easy to watch, which limits its appeal one way or another. Great films are repeat as well as lasting images in your memory. This is that kind of experience, but in its own way, which makes it hard to rank completely, even in a completely faith-objective way. I’m not a horror fan, who revels in gore, just as I’m not a religious fanatic, who’ll accept anything that’s “meant” for me. Still, this one vexes most critics because it seems to blend both audiences. What it actually is, in the end, is great moviemaking.
#52. Man on the Moon (1999)
Jim Carrey, after films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and The Truman Show, had already made me a lifelong fan, but this is probably the movie that sealed the commitment permanently, building a new mystique around his portrayal of a comedian who was everything he pretends to be, a completely conjured personality, immersed in a world of his own making and getting the bigger laugh in his own mind because of it. No, Carrey is not Andy Kaufman. He’s far more in on the joke than that.
#53. Blues Brothers (1980)
When most people think about musicals, the images that come to mind come from conventional examples, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Mamma Mia, that sort of movie. My favorite kind has the song come about as a direct extension, a representation of the character, and that’s never more apparent than Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi’s madcap quest for redemption, which backfires so spectacularly it actually succeeds. Songs in musicals shouldn’t sound like gimmicks, and nothing here sounds anything like that. Plus the rest of the movie still works, because hardly anyone is trying to have anything but a good time. Y’know, without showing it too much.
#54. Instinct (1999)
At one point a member of the top ten club, this has been a private little favorite of mine since I first saw it at a college screening, featuring Anthony Hopkins fully unleashing the potential of his Hannibal Lector persona, a man so completely detached from humanity he seems anything but. This time, however, the character is completely humanized, frighteningly identifiable, as Cuba Gooding, Jr. discovers, in a role he was born to play (much like his character in Jerry Maguire; the dude’s seriously underrated, and now has no career thanks to it). It’s the central message, about the illusion of control, that continues to be relevant, particularly in recession times. Who still believes they have all the power in their own lives when their financial situations are cast into constant peril? It’s better articulated in this film.
#55. Pulp Fiction (1994)
There’s a lot going on in this acclaimed Quentin Tarantino drama, which following a number of loosely related episodes, highlighted by John Travolta working with Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, in the role that basically made his career. One of the reasons I still find myself working on my appreciation of it is because I know there’s a lot more to it, including Bruce Willis, but only a few moments stick with me, mostly the really famous ones. But those, for now, are plenty. And I’ll keep revisiting Pulp Fiction, to absorb the rest of it.
#56. Attack of the Clones (2002)
The most purely adventurous Star Wars film also has a lot of emotion packed into it, as Anakin Skywalker struggles to avoid his destiny, even as forces conspire around him. George Lucas also unfolds this one a lot more deliberately than any other entry, with a far more conventional plot (basically a whodunit) than usual. Natalie Portman has her best showing of the prequel films, allowed to be a lot more ethereal and alluring, freed from mechanical needs of the plot that constrain her elsewhere. Jango Fett also leaves a lasting impression, a true space cowboy, who would have been home in a Man With No Name shootout.
#57. Looking for Richard (1996)
The thing most critics don’t appreciate about Al Pacino is that he clearly relishes being an actor, being involved in the craft, and this is the project where he best is able to express his passion, channeling it through Shakespeare and one of his least appealing lead subjects. Lots of famous actors also appear, including, for me, most notably Kevin Spacey, perhaps the only other actor I can think of who shares a similar passion, and whose career has been comparatively stymied by critics.
#58. Raging Bull 1980)
The thing I take away from this one is the theatrics, perhaps the most Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro do in their careers, to portray the kind of man who becomes not just a living legend, but one in his own mind as well. I don’t for a moment believe either one of them is like that in real life, and that’s the real appeal for me. I think, however, that some critics might have started believing that about De Niro, and so he was never, in their minds, able to leave this role behind. It’s not a bad way to go out, but it’s also a terrible disservice to a remarkably talented actor.
#59. The Green Mile (1999)
Don’t play for emotions, and don’t go for evocative drama. That’s the lesson to take away from the general opinion of movies like this. Based on a Stephen King book, it follows a metaphorical prison story revolving around an innocent, unforgettable Michael Clarke Duncan and Tom Hanks, in one of his muted roles that plays against type, banking on his everyman status but also throwing in moral ambiguity. There’s a lot to love here, some timeless imagery, a series of moments that string one after the other, and a story that doesn’t play out predictably. Plus an all-around terrific cast.
#60. Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004)
A director with an unparalleled eye for underappreciated talent, Quentin Tarantino builds the conclusion of his revenge flick around David Carradine, with one of the great climaxes in film history (and basically the reverse of his later Inglourious Basterds), plus a lot of Uma Thurman struggling against the odds, including the all-important flashback to the day of the interrupted wedding. It’s because of work like this that an exceptional filmmaker can become a great one.
#61. Independence Day (1996)
Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Pullman lead the definitive defense against alien invasion in this endlessly rousing blockbuster, still the modern standard, and basically the foundation for the massive success of the Transformers flicks, with actual purpose and drive and heart behind it. Also a fantastic score to keep things rolling.
#62. Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles struggled a lot in his post-Citizen Kane days to retain his creative autonomy, basically laying the foundation of today’s thriving independent scene, but at great cost. Massive talent, huge ego, all of that is still waiting to be properly rediscovered, but a few well-known gems are visible today, including this one, co-starring Charlton Heston as a lawman in Mexico who gets swept up in a wave of corruption.
#63. Shutter Island (2010)
The first movie from this year to appear on the list is from Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in their fourth collaboration, based on the Dennis Lehane book, which it follows closely, just in case you were hoping one might make the other easier to explain. That’s the beauty of this psychological riddle. Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo lend ample support, though Leo’s character probably isn’t all that appreciative. Here’s also my big excuse to mention Inception, which will surely warrant top ten consideration in some later edition of this list. It’s a wonder that one star made both of these movies. Here’s betting he lost a lot more sleep than anyone in the audience.
#64. The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
It gets a little self-involved, especially in the death of Trinity, but what’s remarkable about this conclusion to the Matrix trilogy is that there are plenty of big questions left to explore as Neo heads to a climactic encounter with the machines he’s been fighting for three films now. Basically the thinking man’s Terminator franchise, eschewing traditional narratives for a straight chronicle with plenty of distractions built in, this is where you finally get the real conclusion, not the fuzzy-happy one from the first film, where it seems simple answers really are possible, but one that acknowledges that life is far more complicated than we sometimes like to believe, even when we do our best to simplify it.
#65. Men in Black (1997)
If Independence Day made Will Smith a viable film commodity, then this one made him a star, and the only person capable of keeping pace with him is Tommy Lee Jones, who represents a person who actively suppresses the same personality that explodes all over this movie. Somehow, even though I enjoy it too, the second film doesn’t make the list, so don’t assume otherwise when you don’t see it here later.
#66. The Mask (1994)
This one is so natural for me to love, I can sometimes forget how much I actually do. Besides Jim Carrey and a love letter to cartoons, there’s Cameron Diaz in her knockout debut, which she was clever enough to finally live down, and basically duplicate, with There’s Something About Mary.
#67. Troy (2004)
Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Peter O’Toole, I would say they dominate this interpretation of Homer’s Iliad, but I love basically everything about it, another massive underrated epic experience that was easy to take for granted at the time, simply because no one believed it was really possible to sustain the new era of historical dramas of this type.
#68. Groundhog Day (1993)
Chris Elliot and Andie MacDowell are just enough to compete with Bill Murray for attention in this clever comedy that keeps repeating the same day, in the hopes Murray will actually learn something. He does, but it’s the kind of experience that viewers will want to keep repeating themselves…
#69. Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks, of course, but also Gary Sinese, Sally Field, Robin Wright, Mykelti Williamson, and even Haley Joel Osment leave just as permanent mark as Forrest Gump himself. You can think of this as a giant gimmick, but it’s heartfelt and charming, and a nice primer on history for any student reluctant to crack open their books.
#70. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Used to be that I preferred the second one, but I began to figure, the first one does a heck of a job introducing the characters, who completely dominate the experience, and help make other films not only possible but darn near necessary, even though that probably wasn’t the original idea. Here is Johnny Depp’s true legacy on film, the creation of Jack Sparrow, and probably the challenge that eventually inspired Heath Ledger to conjure his Joker. This is an actor completely losing himself in a character, not just a performance, an image, or a conceit. This is Johnny having fun. Probably saved his career.
#71. The Wild One (1954)
Who to thank for that sort of behavior? Why, Marlon Brando! Here’s what James Dean was trying to do, by the way. And the foil as portrayed by Lee Marvin? Equally impeccable.
#72. Star Trek Generations (1994)
Some critics scoffed at this historic meeting of Captains Kirk and Picard as too derivative of movie serials in its structuring. It’s funny when they can say that as a bad thing, for something that only superficially resembles the remark, when they love it to see Indiana Jones doing the same thing far more blatantly. Ah, well, the fans weren’t that much happier to see Kirk die, regardless of the circumstances, but it’s an entirely appropriate end for the character, just as Patrick Stewart’s first real crack as a movie star really shines through, an emotionally-charged arc supporting a new vision for heroism. In many ways, more naturally transcendental in moments than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, especially as Picard first experiences the Nexus.
#73. American Gangster (2007)
Two acclaimed actors, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, spar in this new version of a Hollywood staple from Ridley Scott, but spend the majority of the movie pursuing separate story arcs. It’s only when they unexpectedly come together that critics become baffled and the movie reaches a whole new level. The more complex the better, folks.
#74. Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003)
The first act of Quentin Tarantino’s epic revenge flick is a series of vignettes so over the top, one of them is animated, but it’s all so thoroughly grounded by Uma Thurman, it works effortlessly. What’s more remarkable is that we care about the idea of revenge without really knowing, at least in this volume, what actually happened, and without even meeting Bill.
#75. Robin Hood (2010)
Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, the unofficial Gladiator reunion, as basically everyone dismissed this one. The story of the merry little benevolent terrorist has always fascinated me, and I’ve enjoyed one incarnation or another most of my life (there will be others on this list). This one’s so fresh, without being a deliberate or predictable Year One experience, as has become popular in Hollywood recently, so thoroughly invested in the themes the legend has always represented, it’s a little startling to see so many familiar elements played so differently. This isn’t King Arthur, doing much the same thing, but without the singular clarity, but rather a film with much the same effect as Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, making it less about Robin Hood and more about Scott continuing a line of thinking that has interested him for at least a decade now. This is a filmmaker approaching full maturity, and the best is apparently still yet to come.