Perhaps one of the hardest questions to be asked as a movie buff is “What are your favorite movies?” There are so many great movies out there that I admire and adore, and would re-watch in a heartbeat. However, it is always hard to boil down the ones that speak to me most personally. The movies that strike a chord may even change over time depending on the stage of life one is at. However, as I said in my introduction, if movies are where we can test our own emotions, values, and virtues, it is useful to actually keep a record of the ones that tested me the most. So here is a list of my 10 favorite movies in alphabetical order:
12 Angry Men (1957) – dir. Sidney Lumet
This movie directed by Sidney Lumet is a paragon among cinematic adaptations of theatrical plays, closing in on its characters to enhance the chamber drama. Its story of 12 jurors who, in one small room, debate on whether to sentence a young criminal to death has timeless lessons on the legal concept of reasonable doubt and always being on guard against the fallacies of logic including extreme emotion and prejudice. The lessons are enhanced by the cinematography that is a textbook example of how to employ high and low camera angles and capture when we tower over the characters and when the characters tower over us.
Alien (1979) – dir. Ridley Scott
I will always remember when I watched this horror movie as a teenager in a library viewing room by myself with headphones on. The way I watched this intense, claustrophobic movie directed by Ridley Scott certainly left with me the most visceral impact but this is not the only reason I admire it so much. At the film’s core is a story about how humans encounter an alien that turns procreation into agonizing death and destruction. This brings about a subtle commentary against misogyny by tapping into the male fear of pregnancy. The portrayal may not be pleasant, but its symbolic theme makes me appreciate women who go through the arduous experience to bring about life. It is unsurprising that this movie headlined a female hero, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). It would never have worked with a male one.
Aliens (1986) – dir. James Cameron
I tried to see if I could include the first Alien movie without the second and I cannot. If Alien introduced its concept in a horrific, visceral way, James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens confidently expanded its story. Not only did it present a whole race of terrifying aliens, it fully developed its hero, Ripley to represent the human species to go up against them. The near dialogue-free action climax where Ripley goes back into the aliens’ lair to rescue her surrogate daughter, Newt (Carrie Henn) is not only exciting every time I see it, but is also a powerful illustration of a woman taking on the qualities often associated with masculinity (heavy military weaponry) for feminine, maternal reasons. I enjoy many 80s and 90s action movies with Schwarzenegger, Chow Yun-Fat, and the like, but no other movie that I can think of portrays a more potent reason to cheer on the action hero who embodies the strengths of both genders.
Army of Shadows (1969) – dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
There are many movies that try to evoke a psychological state of mind and the most potent evocation was the pure sense of fatalism that this movie portrays. Telling a story of underground resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, the movie is as hushed and introspective as the characters must be to to fulfill their missions. Most of the resistance fighters are determined in their missions but the primary state the movie conjures is the sense of oppressive determinism in wartime. If movies are about showing, not telling, showing interior emotions is perhaps one of the hardest things to do on screen. The director, Jean-Pierre Melville was a master of such moody introspection from movies like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai and, among his movies that I have seen, this movie stirred in me the most.
A Brighter Summer Day (1991) – dir. Edward Yang
Edward Yang’s sprawling 4-hour film, based on the first real-life juvenile murder case in Taiwan, is the best crime film that I have ever seen. There are many other great crime films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, or City of God but none of them match the devastating effect of this one that combines such a rich and complex rumination of political and cultural confusion with familial strife, adolescent romance, and a coming-of-age story. The movie is set in Taiwan in the late 1950s to early 1960s, just over a decade after the Chinese Nationalists escaped to the island, and it carefully examines how the lack of a firm identity indirectly breeds gangland strife and crime among aimless teenagers. The film’s storytelling is subdued and restrained (with no musical score and only diegetic music) and settles you into a feeling of reading a great novel until its bleak impact hits you like a ton of bricks. Most American audiences know Edward Yang for another terrific and more optimistic film, Yi Yi from 2000 but this film is widely regarded as his masterpiece and would be a great discovery for anyone who appreciates fine storytelling.
City Lights (1931) – dir. Charlie Chaplin
If someone asks me about a comedy that can leave you in tears in both laughter and emotions, I would point to this movie by Charlie Chaplin. The fact that this is all done in silent form makes the laughs and the tears universal. Its story about the lonely Tramp (Chaplin) who romances a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) is the kind that the cynics inside us would scoff but the brilliant slapstick comedy gets past whatever defenses we may have up. The genius of this movie is that all the slapstick comedy is setup for one of the most moving endings ever put on film. There may be other silent comedies from Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or even Chaplin that gave me a few bigger laughs, but this one encapsulates all of what silent comedy is really about, with the funny jokes aligned to bring the strongest sense of pathos.
A Man for All Seasons (1966) – dir. Fred Zinnemann
One of the strongest depictions of faith, identity, and tenacity ever put on screen, this movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann and adapted by Robert Bolt from his famous play, is another brilliant achievement of theatrical to cinematic adaptation. If 12 Angry Men closed in to perfect the chamber drama, this movie opens up color and vistas to recreate 16th Century England. At the center is Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, who maintained silence to adhere to his beliefs (against the creation of a new religion to allow the King’s divorce) while remaining loyal to King Henry VIII. His silence is so unbending that his opponents have to scheme to find fault in him and the movie distills the essence of More who knew exactly who he was.
Schindler’s List (1993) – dir. Steven Spielberg
There was a point in my movie watching when I realized that what moves me most is not necessarily tragedy or sadness, but a triumph of goodness over adversity. Steven Spielberg’s film is one of the best portraits of this in how one man found a way to snatch 1,100 lives out of the maws of the Holocaust. In some respect, I understand that many would not consider this the most honest depiction of the tragedy of the Holocaust (that title would probably go to Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah, which is a 9 ½ hour documentary of interviews with past Holocaust survivors). However, in its devotion of filmmaking artistry from the haunting score to the cinematography and parallel editing, it is the most ambitious dramatization of the Holocaust put on film. That it finds a small sense of goodness does not undermine the tragedy but reminds us that it can exist in spite of it.
Shadowlands (1993) – dir. Richard Attenborough
The number of movies that I have actually cried watching are so few that I can only count them in one hand. But this movie directed by Richard Attenborough is the one that leaves me in tears every time I see it. It is the story of C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), who finds love in his 60s with Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), and it is about the awakening of his soul in realizing the concept of love that he has only mused about in books and scholarly teachings. The love comes with suffering when he finds that she has a terminal illness. I cannot think of another movie that better embraces how true love and suffering are inseparable and cannot exist without the other in this world. I may enjoy some movies that portray the sunny side of love but this is the movie that I will see to be reminded of its true meaning.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – dir. Frank Darabont
This movie may seem like an obvious choice (it is #1 on the IMDb top 250 films list). However, this movie made in the classical tradition of fine craftsmanship simply tells one of the best stories ever put on film. It is about finding hope when you least expect to find it and purpose when there seems to be no direction. As a churchgoer, this movie also gave me the strongest and most well-rounded symbolism of Christian salvation I have ever seen in a mainstream film. I know that the writer/director Frank Darabont did not intend to make a Christian-themed film, though the spiritual themes are not entirely surprising considering the original source author is horror writer, Stephen King. The movie, however, has a strong moral and spiritual compass from the development of the friendship in prison between the Christ-symbolic Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) to the strong critique of Christian hypocrisy in the warden, Norton (Bob Gunton). That it provides this kind of hope in a harsh and grounded environment is probably why people keep coming back to this.
Please feel free to share in the comments what your favorite movies are.