In compiling this list of 101 Favorite Films – and, yes, it’s 101, as there was one film I simply couldn’t justify removing from this list – it’s important to note the distinction between Great Films (or Essential Films) and Favorite Films. The Great Films are required viewing, master classes from master filmmakers. For example, among film critics and students of film, it’s of a general consensus that Citizen Kane is widely considered the best film ever made, and it’s well deserving of its status; it’s the kind of film every filmmaker should aspire to make. Yet I’m hard-pressed to find among film critics a handful who’ll call Citizen Kane their favorite film. I’m sure there are a few, but I haven’t seen any yet.
Favorite Films, on the other hand, should speak to the viewer on a much deeper, more personal level. To me, a favorite film is one that you never hesitate in viewing repeatedly, or it’s a film that brings back a memory, good or bad, that memory placing you in an exact moment in your past. A favorite film should be endlessly quotable. Ideally, a favorite film is own you own in your DVD or Blu-Ray library.
In no way should anyone misconstrue this list as being a Greatest Film Ever list. Far from it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s far easier to defend a favorite film that it would be to call it a great film. In this list, you’ll no doubt see some films listed that’ll make you question my sanity. Yes, Plan 9 From Outer Space makes my all-time favorite cut, and you’ll see why. No, The Bicycle Thief does not make my cut.
This was a list I narrowed down from a preliminary list of 216 films, not to mention the thousands of films I’ve seen as long as I’ve been a film viewer; among the films that missed the cut (but that shouldn’t mean they’re not favorites nonetheless) were Chinatown, Shaft, Spirit of the Beehive, Some Like it Hot, Night of the Hunter, Klute, Blowup, National Lampoon’s Animal House (sigh), Let the Right One In, The Hurt Locker, Audition, In the Mood for Love, and Almost Famous, just to name a few.
Okay, enough of my ramblings…so, without further ado…
101. Enter the Dragon (1973)
“A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”
There are far better martial arts films than Enter the Dragon – Come Drink with Me, Once Upon a Time in China (aka Won Fei Hung), A Touch of Zen, even The 36 Chambers of Shaolin are better chop-socky epics – but this film trumps them all because, after all, this is Bruce Lee we’re talking about here. Watching Enter the Dragon is like watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, or the first time you saw James Dean in Giant: you knew you were watching greatness unfolding before your eyes. What we get in watching Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon is that rare combination of charisma, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-me presence, and sheer ass-kicking talent, literally. That’s why chumps like Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme fail, overall, as martial arts action heroes (and where only Jet Li and, in some instances, Chuck Norris, before he became a tiresome Internet meme and a laughable conservative pundit, succeed only barely) is because they ain’t Bruce Lee. Sadly, Enter the Dragon was the last film Lee made (please don’t count that laughably awful Game of Death, cobbled together with footage Lee shot before his untimely death – although that fight scene with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is compelling in a weird fucking way), but, hot damn, Lee delivered the goods; watching Lee single-handedly take down an island-full of raging, half-witted goons, and then deliver the final smackdown on Master Han in that room full of mirrors, was like listening to Hendrix at Woodstock shred the shit out of the Star-Spangled Banner. Forget the story line, which is clearly cribbed from one too many James Bond films; Bruce Lee simply overpowers you, with his presence and his effortless ability to remain calm yet systematically rain carnage as fluidly and gracefully as possible. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him. Many have tried to walk in Bruce Lee’s footsteps, but there will only ever be one Bruce Lee
100. Used Cars (1980)
“Yessir, that’s New Deal Used Cars… Now wait just a Goddamn minute. What the hell is this? Is this a 1974 Mercedes 450SL for *twenty-four thousand dollars*? That’s too fucking high.”
There are films that aspire towards a serious, muted look at things, and there are films that aspire to just be plain dumb and funny. Used Cars is the latter. Let’s face facts: selling cars is a funny business, complete with larger-than-life personalities that want nothing more than to get you out of their car lot in the car (or lemon) of your dreams. Used Cars captures that notion perfectly. Basically, it’s a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story, with a fast-talking charmer named Roy Russo (Kurt Russell) pitted between a long-simmering feud between two car-selling brothers (both played by Jack Warden) whose used car dealerships exist across the street from each other. There’s nothing subtle about the way each car dealership make every attempt to lure customers, from an X-rated disco revue to an interruption of the President’s address – obviously, that feed goes hilariously awry, but business suddenly skyrockets. Used Cars is gloriously goofy, stupid without being insulting, and a bucketload of fun.
99. Videodrome (1983)
“Long live the flesh.”
David Cronenberg is my favorite freak-out director. His films always explore the depths of human madness, the levels to which human beings will plunge themselves towards base wants and desire. While his two most recent films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, serve as slight departures from this M.O., they’re still vintage Cronenberg. Videodrome remains my favorite Cronenberg film, a masterful psychological freak-out in which a TV producer named Max Renn (appropriately made to life by James Woods – I mean, who else could play Max Renn?) inadvertently discovers a mysterious feed called Videodrome, complete with sadomasochism and ritual murders; its’ Renn’s overnight obsession with Videodrome that wreaks havoc into his life, and suddenly the line between fantasy and reality becomes extremely blurred. Is Max imagining Videodrome, or is it all too real? No matter. Long live the flesh.
98. The Last Detail (1973)
“I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker! I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Give this man a beer.”
Two Navy Shore Patrol officers are assigned the task of transporting a ne’er do well recruit to the naval prison at Portsmouth, NH. The recruit’s crime: attempting to steal $40 from the CO’s wife’s charity box. The SPs realize they have a week to transport the recruit, so why not live it up? And they do so with aplomb, wit, a ton of booze and a shit-ton of “fuck you”s and “cocksuckers” and, one of the best lines in the film, “I am the motherfucking shore patrol, you redneck motherfucker!” In those few days before the half-wit recruit’s about to spend 5 years in the clink, they give the poor sap the time of his life, even though it’s a futile gesture. While not necessarily a great film, the combination of Jack Nicholson as a salty, chip-on-his-shoulder Navy Shore Patrol officer, Robert Towne’s sharp, profanity-filled script, and Hal Ashby’s assured direction makes The Last Detail a favorite film of mine.
97. Horror Express (1972)
“The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned, Alexander Saxton, is a true and faithful account of events that befell the Society’s expedition in Manchuria. As the leader of the expedition, I must accept responsibility for its ending in disaster, but I leave to the judgement of the honorable members of the Society the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies.”
Filmed entirely in Spain, how the producers and director managed to lure Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing AND Telly Savalas into this film, all the while staying under a budget of $350,000 says more about the triumph of imagination and necessity, and not so much about great filmmaking. Make no mistake, Horror Express is a cheesy horror flick – basically, Lee and Cushing are responsible for transporting what they believe to be the Missing Link on a train across Siberia, when the Missing Link suddenly goes on a murderous rampage – but it does provide genuine scares. Horror Express is, in some ways, an homage to the Hammer Studios films that Lee and Cushing helped make famous, and while Savalas as a Cossack (seriously!) is a bit hard to swallow – and somehow we’re supposed to believe that the Missing Link knows how to pick a lock? – it’s always entertaining, and the film always reminds me of Chiller Theater on WPIX Channel 11, every Saturday night; Horror Express was a frequent feature of Chiller Theater.
96. Alphaville (1965)
“Je voux aime.”
Seriously, this film is unbelievably weird. Esoteric, deliberately obscure and relentlessly vague… yet so incredibly cool. I mean, this is Jean-Luc Godard we’re talking here. He makes a sci-fi film that so brazenly feels unlike a sci-fi film, and a detective film that thumbs its nose at the notions of what makes a detective film, and…guess what, it works. What more can you expect? Godard loved taking chances and playing around with preconceived notions. Alphaville isn’t Godard’s best film, but it’s the one that’s stuck to me more than Breathless or Week-End.
95. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
“This never happened to the other fellow.”
Most known as George Lazenby’s only appearance as James Bond – he replaced the man that originated the role to fame, Sean Connery – film critic Leonard Maltin was correct in his assessment that had Connery stuck around and played 007 in this film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service could very well have been the best entry in the entire series. In my opinion, this is one of the 5 best entries in the series, one that eschews the gadgetry and improbable stuntwork in lieu of a tightly-paced, well-scripted action thriller that pits Bond against his arch-nemesis Blofeld in a plot to unleash a biochemical weapon, while Bond romances – and falls in love with – a suicidal contessa that proves to be just as much his match. It’s unfair to dismiss Lazenby as Bond; after all, he was plucked from obscurity to play 007, and imagine this: replacing Connery as Bond would have been akin to being the unfortunate sap to (hypothetically) replace Mick Jagger in the Stones. Still, Lazenby handles himself, physically, with the greatest of ease, and while his acting is at times a bit wooden, he handled that final scene delicately and believably. Unfortunately, Lazenby shot himself in the foot and fancied himself a serious actor, announcing, before filming was even completed, that he wouldn’t do another Bond film; OHMSS also tanked at the box office, which led the producers to beg Connery to return for one more film, the limp and insipid Diamonds are Forever, paving the way for a more cavalier Bond to be played by Roger Moore. One wonders where the series would have headed had Lazenby put more thought into his career and stayed on as James Bond.
94. MASH (1970)
“Now, fair’s fair Henry. If I nail Hotlips and hit Hawkeye can I go home too?”
Filmed under a shoe-string budget, with the California hills serving as a substitute for Korea, all while the film’s cast and crew were ready to revolt against director Robert Altman for what seemed to be a disastrous film, MASH instead turned into a scathing and often hilarious satire of war, with Korea serving as the subtext against the Vietnam War. One can view MASH and dismiss it as a series of vignettes where hip surgeons Trapper John McIntyre (Elliott Gould) and Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) bang a bunch of nurses, drink martinis from a homemade still, and generally flick a middle finger at Army brass, but underneath the hip bravado lays a moral outrage the two surgeons often display. They’re surgeons thrust into the field of battle, patching up and desperate to save the lives of soldiers caught in the machine of war, and their methods, though crude and often questionable, are their only mechanisms to cope through the banality and futility of war. MASH also exhibits many of Altman’s directorial tendencies – camera work that’s never intrusive, long shots, and a display of conversational method towards dialogue that became Altman’s trademark.
93. The Hospital (1971)
“The incompetence in this hospital is absolutely radiant… I mean, where do you train your nurses, Mrs. Christie, Dachau?”
It’s always good to revisit a film that seems just as relevant today as it did some 40 years before. The Hospital is a dark, no, truly dark comedy set in a teaching hospital in Manhattan where, if the gruesome incompetence of the staff doesn’t kill you, the bureaucratic red tape most certainly will. As the Chief of Medicine who oversees the operating staff, Dr. Herb Bock (a volcanic George C. Scott, red-hot off his portrayal of General George S. Patton in the biopic of the same name) is in the midst of a midlife crisis; his wife has left him, his children won’t speak to him, his teaching hospital is falling apart, and now he’s contemplating suicide. A series of deaths occur at the hospital that point to gross incompetence, but Dr. Bock, along with a patient’s daughter, Barbara Drummond (a somewhat miscast but always welcome Diana Rigg) suspect murder may be afoot. The Hospital features a script by Paddy Chayefsky, rife with satire and great monologues posing as rants – “We’ve established the most enormous medical entity ever conceived… and people are sicker than ever. We cure nothing! We heal nothing!” Chayefsky would later aim his poisonous pen at television with the brilliant script for Network. 40 years later, with health care reform on everyone’s mind and the utter pointlessness of bureaucracy in our hospitals, the dripping hostility and outright satire that is The Hospital is still relevant today, and still funny.
92. Team America: World Police (2004)
“We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes: assholes who just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate — and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves… because pussies are an inch and half away from ass holes. I don’t know much about this crazy, crazy world, but I do know that if you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we’re going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit!”
A crack, elite counter-terrorist squad? Check. Shit blowing up? Check. Kim Jong-il? Check? Bleeding-heart Hollywood A-listers taking one in the chin and elsewhere? Check. Sex, violence and mayhem. Check. All the characters portrayed by puppets? Uh..what? Really, this film shouldn’t work at all, but when you’ve got Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brilliant masterminds behind South Park aiming their brand of profane satire at hawkish neoconservatives, dovish ultra-liberals, North Korea’s paranoid dictator, Islamofascism, Michael Moore, Broadway shows, and America’s status as an international policeman make for a crass and relentless funny satire. And it’s made even funnier by the decision to use marionettes and build sets big enough for puppets; the crazy bet pays off in assloads of funny. But to speak of Team America: World Police is to speak of perhaps the greatest pro-America song ever written since that night Francis Scott Key penned the Star-Spangled Banner…go on, sing it with me…America! FUCK YEAH!!!
91. Run Lola Run (1998)
“Manni…you’re not dead yet.”
A story told in real-time (i.e., the events taking place as we speak) is a time-honored tradition in cinema; a film like Cleo From 5 to 7 pretty much perfected that concept. But a film like Run Lola Run takes that real-time plot device and tweaks it to pulse-pounding effect: Lola’s story, in which she has 20 minutes to save her boyfriend from an error (he’s lost thousands of dollars that belongs to a drug dealer, and he has but 20 minutes to recoup that money) that will lead to him being murdered, is told 3 different times, each time with a different perspective, option, and ending. Each story presents a different option, a divergent choice or path Lola must take to help her boyfriend recoup that money. Told in a breakneck, frenetic pace, mixing special effects and animation, Run Lola Run’s primary weapon is the performance of Franka Potente as Lola, with her shock of copper-red hair, tattoos and ankle-high combat boots, Potente wears Lola’s frantic desperation in every action, gesture or word she makes, and we’re compelled to take that ride with her, not knowing where or how it will all end. The beauty of Run Lola Run is that it’s compact and never predictable, with each story bringing a unique and exhilarating perspective on the real-time narrative; Run Lola Run is never boring, yet for all its’ MTV-style flash editing, its’ a film that’s exceptionally well-crafted, understanding that all the fancy camerawork and quick edits can’t compensate for a taut, riveting story and an overwhelming, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen performance from Franke Potente.