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100 BEST FILMS

by Miles Mathis



This list was much easier to compile than the songs list. Honestly, it was difficult for me to get the list to 100. My first list only went to about 75, and I had to search to round out the list. I suppose this is because it is much more difficult to make a great movie than it is to make a great song. A popular song is under 3 minutes, normally, and you just need one good hook and a nice voice. Of course there is a lot of competition, since many people have nice voices and many can find a melody, but a good song isn't that rare. A great song, yes, but as I said, there are thousands of good songs. With films, though, we are in a different world. Films can fail for so many reasons, and they usually do. Like most contemporary people I am a real fan of cinema, but I am also very finicky. I am annoyed easily and impressed with difficulty. Actors and directors tend to annoy me by their very nature, so I do not suspend disbelief as quickly as most. In addition, I think we are in a peculiar place with film, historically: the medium was really in its infancy until a few decades ago, then after a short period of relative comfort we entered a stage of experimentation and novelty. Growth was very fast—I would say too fast—and we went straight from gothic to rococo, skipping a classical period almost entirely. The golden age, if we can call it that, lasted less than two decades, and by the 80's film was already becoming mannered and corrupt, self-referential and self-deconstructing. What it took painting and sculpture and poetry and literature five centuries to accomplish, film accomplished in about five decades. For this reason, I suspect film may enter a second round, and we may see a second golden age in the near future, once the phonies tire of novelty, misdirection, and CGI.

We can see this clearly with the Star Wars series. The first two Star Wars make my list, and this is because they were made in the late 70's, toward the end of a period I am calling the first golden age of cinema. This period started in the early 60's, when color was fully realized, when acting began to be more natural, and when all the lessons from decades of failures and partial successes had more or less been absorbed. By the end of this period, special effects had also been mastered: they were convincing without being intrusive. The Empire Strikes Back and Alien are both right on the cusp, being examples of effects just right but not too much. After that, it was always too much, and the effects began to outstrip the scripts and the dialog. The Return of the Jedi was already a lazy script with lazy acting, and it is because the director knew the effects were carrying the ball. By the time we reached The Phantom Menace, CGI had gotten into everybody's heads (George Lucas' first of all) and planted a vermin egg. Scripts, casting, acting, and directing all took a nosedive, and they are still diving. The LOTR trilogy, the Batman series, the Terminator series, the Spiderman series, the Ironman series, and all the rest are just a continuation and extension of George Lucas' bad re-prioritizing of cinema, and we are all slogging through this cultural nightmare, caused by a bad meal before bed. That meal is a meal of false technology. The Revenge of the Sith was the worst of the six installments, despite having the most advanced effects, and it is because the directors and producers and writers dropped the ball on everything but the effects. Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman are even worse actors than Ewan McGregor (if that is possible), and the rest of the film is forced to devolve to their level. Even Yoda has lost all his charm. By the time we reached The Phantom Menace, Yoda had gone from being a cute little Muppet with a sense of humor to a CGI asshole with scary eyes and a fake gravity. In that film, both Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson are directed to manufacture the appearance of wisdom by being sour, quarrelsome and insulting. Compare that to Alec Guinness' demeanor in Star Wars or Yoda's demeanor in Empire. When and why did Lucas decide that wisdom was humorless and self-aggrandizing? Did CGI literally suck all the humanity out of him, like mynox sucking on a power cable?

But enough of that. Beyond my aversion for CGI, this list is very different than most you have seen or will see. I give no credit for historical significance. This is a straight list of what I consider to be the best movies, and the old movies have to compete on equal footing with new movies. Another way to look at it is to judge from a great distance in time, as if you are looking back hundreds of years. From a distance, no one will care which director was first to use some trick, or which actor was famous at the time. Most film lists are made by critics, and critics want to prove how smart they are to you and to eachother. They would not think to leave off the required old movies, for this reason. I have quite a few old movies on my list, but it is because I really like them, not because they are famous with critics or intellectuals.

By the same token, I feel free to leave off newer movies that I don't really like, such as Pulp Fiction. I bury The Godfather down at #65 because the subject matter doesn't impress me as much as it does most people; the acting doesn't impress me either, apart from its use to the movie. If I am not impressed by the movie as a whole, I consider the acting to be in vain. For the same reason I left doctors' shows and lawyers' shows off my TV list (I cannot suspend disbelief far enough to believe that doctors or lawyers are fascinating people), I also leave mob movies off or well down my list. I don't find anything even potentially poignant, sexy, or thrilling about the mob. You might as well try to convince me that I can gain insights about life or be entertained by watching cockroaches suck on eachother's brains.

Beyond that, I think this list is heavily influenced by an artist's eye, and I have made no effort to apologize for it or tone it down. I judge by the only criteria I can judge by: my own. I admit this gives the list a peculiar look, at first glance. It doesn't read like a committee list or a critic list, but it also doesn't read like a man's list or a woman's list. It doesn't have nearly enough action flicks to be mistaken for a GQ list, or enough romances to be mistaken for an Oprah list. The heavy population of period pieces at the beginning would lead some to question my testosterone levels, but then they will remind themselves that I am a realist artist (an odd beast in today's menagerie), and it will all begin to make sense again.

As you see, Woody Allen dominates the list, appearing five times, including number 1. I have little doubt that Woody will be seen as the greatest screenwriter and director of our time, and that this will become clearer as the years pass. He is battling two things right now that will not last: 1) His age. It is hard to watch people get old, especially on screen. 2) His scandalous remarriage. Future decades and centuries will not care nearly as much as we do what he did in bed. Once he is as dead as Bogart and Orson Welles and the rest, the critics can start judging his movies on an even footing with Citizen Kane and Casablanca and so on. He will do just fine.

Merchant/Ivory will also do just fine, since they have created some of the greatest masterpieces of the last half-century. I give them four places on my list, including three in the top 20. If they hadn't become enamored of Nick Nolte in the mid-90's, they might have done even better.

Roman Polanski also takes four places on my list, with the highest going to The Pianist. I purposely put The Pianist above Schindler's List, since it better avoids propaganda and sensationalism. And I put it above Chinatown because it is a more important film. Polanski's only problem in getting more people to agree with me on both these points is timing. If he had come out with The Pianist ten or twenty years earlier, people would have judged Schindler's List by it, instead of the reverse. As it is, they have judged The Pianist against the reputation of Schindler's List, instead of against the film itself. And as with Woody Allen, everything Polanski has done has been tainted by his own personal story.

Although I include Scorcese on my list for Taxi Driver, I consider Polanski to be a much better director. Compare their period pieces, for a start. The Age of Innocence is flat and boring compared to Tess or Oliver Twist or MacBeth. Scorcese is the only director who has managed to get a bad performance out of Daniel Day Lewis, not once, but twice. Gangs of New York is one of the worst movies ever made, and Scorcese pushes Day Lewis too far in trying to save it. And poor DiCaprio. Next to Daniel Day Lewis, he looks like Kevin Costner trying to out-act Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood. A complete disaster, in other words. Polanski is better at modern movies, too. Chinatown is much superior to Goodfellas or Cape Fear or Raging Bull. DeNiro saves Scorcese's ass over and over, and without him the flaws of these films would be much more obvious. The same can be said of Taxi Driver, which, without DeNiro, would never work. Yes, Nicholson is great in Chinatown, but he doesn't need to act over the top of plot holes like DeNiro does. Who but DeNiro could make a hero out of Travis Bickle?

Stanley Kubrick makes the list three times, with Barry Lyndon ranking the highest. Although he was a great director, I consider him to be generally overrated. Eyes Wide Shut was a disaster, and Lolita, although interesting, was also a failure. If anyone, Kubrick should have had the guts to follow Nabokov and cast a girl as Lo, instead of a woman. Once you refuse to cast a young teen as Lo, you have destroyed the entire plot and all the commentary, and you might as well make a different movie. Which is basically what he did. Kubrick's long suit was not humor, either, and Dr. Strangelove is not nearly as funny as most people seem to think it is. Peter Sellers could make a funeral funny, and he often has to do that for Kubrick. Even in Barry Lyndon, Kubrick made mistakes that were nearly fatal. Ryan O'Neal is way out of his depth, and only Kubrick's direction saves him from ruining the whole thing (mostly). Yes, Polanski made a very similar casting mistake with Kinski in Tess, but Kinski's looks were more astonishing than O'Neal's. O'Neal was handsome, but Kinski was awe-inspiring. It requires awe to cause an audience to overlook accent problems like those two both had. Kinski's eyes could hypnotize you (making you believe that a girl from Evershot could have a German accent), but O'Neal could not do the same.

Some will say, "If this is supposed to be an artist's list, why isn't Tarkovsky or someone like that at the top? How can Caddyshack rank above Andrei Rublev?" While that is a good question, I have an answer. This list isn't just for cinematography or artistic composition. If it were, then yes, Tarkovsky would be hogging all the top spots. The only other films that compete with Andrei Rublev in that regard are other Tarkovsky films, like Nostalghia, for instance. No one came close to Tarkovsky in the art film category, not even Kubrick. Barry Lyndon would have to move way up my list, but it still wouldn't compete with Tarkovsky. Polanski's Tess would move up, but the same applies. That said, Tarkovsky was weak on story, to say the least. His stories were created mostly to give him a way to tie all his shots together. Tarkovsky was not so much telling a story as creating a mood. Sometimes that is exactly what I want from a film, but most times I prefer a story. Good storytelling is not easy, and the other writers and directors deserve credit for story even though they usually can't compose scenes like Tarkovsky. It would be great to see a director that could do both, but so far that hasn't happened. Kubrick made some effort to do it with Barry Lyndon, and Merchant/Ivory tried as well, both with a large degree of success. But nothing on the level of Tarkovsky, as I think most will admit.

Despite my love for serious cinema, my list is not one-dimensional. It is well-seasoned with comedies, science fiction, and animation. You will not see many lists where Caddyshack breaks the top 50, or where Lady and the Tramp makes the top 80. For that matter, who else who has been called a snob would dare to put Pollyanna above The Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia? As I said, this is my list, and I boldly defend such eccentricity. I would rather watch Pollyanna a tenth time than either of those masterpieces, and that fact is a large part of what this list is about.

I decided to include miniseries and made-for-TV movies along with the rest. Some might say that miniseries have an unfair advantage, but if that were true most lists would be heavy with them. They are said by some to have an unfair advantage because they have more time to work with. That argument fails because more time just gives the director and actors more chances to fail. In fact, most miniseries do fail on that score, and it is not only because they normally must make do with lesser actors and directors. The two miniseries that made my list come in very high, but they are also very rare. Both are not only one level above most miniseries, they are two or three levels above them. They have managed to do what Merchant/Ivory have done, on a much larger scale. For that reason they are due all praise they have received, and are due the ranking I give them here.

1. Hannah and her Sisters
2. Room with a View
3. Heaven can Wait (1978)
4. Sense and Sensibility
5. Pride and Prejudice (BBC 1995)
6. Casablanca
7. Sophie's Choice
8. Howard's End
9. Little Big Man
10. The Grapes of Wrath
11. The 400 Blows
12. Wives and Daughters (BBC 1999)
13. Breaking Away
14. Pollyanna
15. Fly Away Home
16. A Feast of July
17. Manhattan
18. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
19. Othello (1995)
20. The Empire Strikes Back
21. Crimes and Misdemeanors
22. Alien
23. Tess (1980)
24. The Bicycle Thief
25. Barry Lyndon
26. The Seven Samurai
27. Ethan Frome
28. Tous les Matins du Monde
29. I, Claudius
30. Cross of Iron
31. Raise the Red Lantern
32. Star Wars
33. Splendor in the Grass
34. Annie Hall
35. Lawrence of Arabia
36. The Remains of the Day
37. The Mission
38. Andrei Rublev
39. The Sound of Music
40. Blade Runner
41. Leon
42. Taxi Driver
43. Anne of the Thousand Days
44. Diner
45. The Graduate
46. Groundhog Day
47. Jaws
48. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
49. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
50. Caddyshack
51. Something about Mary
52. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
53. Planet of the Apes (1967)
54. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
55. Rear Window
56. Ghostbusters
57. Watership Down
58. Brazil
59. Bridge on the River Kwai
60. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
61. The Pianist
62. The Crucible
63. The Exorcist
64. Ben Hur
65. The Godfather
66. 2001 A Space Odyssey
67. Midnight Cowboy
68. Amadeus
69. Play it Again, Sam
70. The Piano
71. Gandhi
72. Halloween
73. A Clockwork Orange
74. 12 Angry Men
75. Lady and the Tramp
76. The Seventh Seal
77. Gone with the Wind
78. Snow White (1937)
79. Deconstructing Harry
80. The Mayor of Casterbridge
81. Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
82. Adaptation
83. Aliens
84. It's a Wonderful Life
85. The Wizard of Oz
86. The Black Stallion
87. Life of Brian
88. Lilith
89. Psycho
90. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
91. Poltergeist
92. Death in Venice
93. Big
94. The Shawshank Redemption
95. Little Women (1994)
96. Grease
97. Schindler's List
98. Washington Square
99. American Graffiti
100. The Outsiders


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