There are so many movies and so much time now to watch them. My Top 40 is skewed toward films released in my lifetime though I have included several others. To be among my favorites, my rule of thumb is: If I see them on my cable stations or steaming services, I just have to watch them. So here are my favorites in no particular order although the first 10 are pretty much my Top 10.
12 Angry Men – Originally a tele-play in the early days of TV, 12 Angry Men writer Reginald Rose and director Sidney Lumet created the greatest courtroom drama of all time. Released in 1957, it was nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Picture. An all-star cast led by Henry Fonda, this story about discrimination takes place exclusively in the jury room. Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley Sr., Martin Balsam, Edward Binns, and E.G. Marshall are among the other jurors in Lumet’s feature debut.
The Sting – The Best Picture of 1974 and winner of 7 Oscars (nominated for 3 others), this period piece about grifters, con men, horse racing, and poker stars Robert Redford, Paul Newman and a score by Marvin Hamlisch. Ultimately, it’s not just the gangster “mark” who gets “stung.”
Casablanca – Maybe the most celebrated film of all time, this wartime drama is the most quoted movie of all time. Humphrey Bogart runs the most popular “gin joint” in Morocco. He is apolitical but that doesn’t mean he likes the Nazis. His world changes when his old love shows up with her activist husband. Does Rick help them? Does he get the girl back? Does he conspire with Louis, the local police chief? In the end, “… this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
La La Land – Whether you hate musicals or not, La La Land broke the mold and yet rocketed us back in time with an incredible score, likeable actors, a love story for the ages, and the best single-shot opening in movie history. Among its many Oscars, the film won Best Director for Damien Chazelle, Best Actress for Emma Stone, Best Score and Song for Jason Hurwitz, and more. It’s my favorite movie of this century. It should have won Best Picture but lost to Moonlight.
Fail Safe – Director Sidney Lumet re-teamed with Henry Fonda to present this riveting cold war tale about an American bomber that gets the signal to nuke Moscow. Released in 1964 at the height of the Cold War, Fail Safe was not a commercial success because the parody, Dr. Strangelove, was released about the same time. People flocked to see Peter Sellers’ over-the-top performance and Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb rather than a serious, black-and-white cautionary tale about nuclear confrontation.
Tootsie – A tour-de-force for Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie is one of the funniest films ever. Sydney Pollack directed and co-starred in this story of a difficult actor who lands a part in a soap opera playing the female administrator of a hospital. The cross-dressing Hoffman creates a memorable character while simultaneously striking a blow for feminism in Hollywood 35 years before #MeToo. Add Jessica Lange, Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman and Charles Durning, and you have an endearing film with a message.
The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola’s epic about a MAFIA family focuses on aging patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his sons, and his closest advisors. Based on Mario Puzo’s book, the cast includes Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, John Cazale, and many more. It’s the definitive mob films with plenty of violence and a dead horse. A deserved Best Picture.
The Godfather II – The only sequel to win Best Picture, Godfather II is perhaps better than the original. Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor as he joins the staff as the young Vito Corleone in flashbacks. Al Pacino didn’t win Best Actor as Michael Corleone, who becomes the new family patriarch, turning from insecure youngest sibling to ruthless MAFIA don.
The Verdict – My third Sidney Lumet film in my top ten, The Verdict is another courtroom drama about a down-on-his-luck ambulance chasing lawyer (Paul Newman) who inherits a case he can’t win against two distinguished doctors and a Catholic hospital in Boston. With a script by David Mamet and co-starring James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, and Jack Warden (who was also in Lumet’s 12 Angry Men), this is a character study of an alcoholic lawyer struggling with his conscience.
The Longest Day – One of the first films on wide screen, The Longest Day (1962) was one of the longest films of its time and the definitive movie about D-Day. Almost every star of the day, from John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton to Red Buttons and Sean Connery play in this ensemble that runs up to and through June 6, 1944, from both the Allied and Nazi sides.
The Sound of Music – While musicals have always been a movie staple, The Sound of Music tops them all. Everyone knows the story of the restless novice who becomes the nanny for the kids of an Austrian officer and aristocrat during the run-up to World War II. Julie Andrews followed up her Mary Poppins nanny with this singing nun nanny. With a Rodgers and Hammerstein score, The Sound of Music won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, and gave us a handful of songs we are still singing 55 years later.
Close Encounters of the First Kind – Special effects have always been part of the movies but, by the 1970s, the technology had come far enough to move them front and center. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the two most innovative directors of this age. Close Encounters tells the story of the first visit by aliens to Earth as envisioned by Spielberg. A fly-by by an alien ship imprints a vision of a mountain in Wyoming in several people, including Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon). They become obsessed with the image and go to extraordinary measures to follow the signs to the alien landing site.
Star Wars – George Lucas’ first film in a franchise that endures today, Star Wars takes place entirely in space. Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, and Princess Leia created a trillion-dollar industry that has lasted through nine expansive films and countless spin-offs. The original, Episode IV – A New Hope, introduces these characters as they battle the Galactic Empire as an insurgent force. It brings together a would-be pilot-warrior, a cocky mercenary, and a saucy princess to restore freedom and defeat their common enemy. It’s a future day cowboys and Indians with the forces of good battling the Empire and its sinister Darth Vader.
Crimson Tide – When two stars square off on the screen, it can create movie magic. Most often, this is known as “chemistry.” In Crimson Tide, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off from the moment of their first meeting in Captain Ramsey’s (Hackman) office. This is one of the best in the genre of submarine movies. The two officers have nothing in common and neither is willing to relent, even if Washington plays the subordinate officer. When Hackman decides to launch the nuclear missiles, Washington’s Commander Hunter says “Hell no you won’t.” The rest is movie magic.
Airport – A nominee for Best Picture, Airport was the original disaster movie. Based on an epic Arthur Hailey novel, it serves up Burt Lancaster as the airport manager, Dean Martin as the cocky pilot, Iowa’s Jean Seberg as the airline’s customer service rep, George Kennedy as Patroni, Jacqueline Bisset as the pregnant flight attendant and, above all, Helen Hayes as the stowaway Ada Quonsett. Terror at 30,000 feet with Van Heflin as the desperate explosives expert who is intent on blowing up the plane to get his wife (Maureen Stapleton) the insurance money. I can hear the theme song as I write this.
Schindler’s List – Guaranteed to make you mad and make you cry, Schindler’s List is Spielberg’s most personal movie and a tribute to the Holocaust. It is absolutely brilliant. Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes star in this story of a man who saved hundreds of Jews from the death camps. Can you just see the scene with the little girl in the red coat? I can.
Ordinary People – Robert Redford’s directorial debut,Ordinary People won four Oscars — for Best Picture, Redford, Timothy Hutton, and Screenplay (Alvin Sargent). It tells the story of a family on the brink. The cast makes the movie: Donald Sutherland as the supportive husband/father with a heart; Mary Tyler Moore as the repressed mother whose own heart is deeply broken; Hutton as the son who survived a boating accident while his big brother drowned; and Judd Hirsch as the therapist trying to draw out the troubled son. These are far from ordinary people but the lesson is that this can happen to anyone.
Sleepless in Seattle – The movie that almost defined the term “chick flick,” it teams Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the second … and best … of three movies they did together. Hanks plays Sam Baldwin, a young widower who moves with his son to Seattle to start his life over again. She plays Annie, a newspaper reporter in Baltimore who hears how lonely Sam is and falls in love before she even meets him. While I hate the “merry mix-ups” that keep them apart, the last scene on the observation deck at the Empire State Building reveals an affair to remember.
When Harry Met Sally – Almost everyone’s favorite “chick’s movie” (a line from Sleepless in Seattle) is When Harry Met Sally. Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal barely endure each other on their shared car trip from college in Chicago to New York. By the time they meet again on a plane, they are older but no wiser. Then, they meet a fateful third time and become friends. By the end, they have to decide just what they are. With great dialogue from Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally tells the age-old story of boy meets girl, boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy loves girl.
Taps – Talk about foundational films, Taps introduced Tom Cruise and Sean Penn to the world. Paired with Timothy Hutton, who won an Academy Award the previous year for Ordinary People, they formed a perfect ensemble in the story of an uprising by the young cadets at a military academy. These three future superstars carry the entire story, whose ending is both frightening if somewhat predictable.
American Graffiti – Four years before George Lucas brought the world Star Wars, he wrote and directed (for the first time) American Graffiti, the ultimate coming-of-age film. Set in the early ’60s, it featured the movie debut of consequence for Richard Dreyfuss as the nerdy high school student who chases the blonde in the T-bird (Suzanne Somers) and ends up with a night to remember with a gang (led by Bo Hopkins) and a visit to Wolfman Jack. Ronny Howard plays Steve, Cindy Williams (pre-Laverneand Shirley) plays Laurie, Candy Clark is Debbie, and an unknown Harrison Ford plays Bob Falfa. It’s all very memorable and even sensational.
The Goodbye Girl – Neil Simon, the prolific writer of Broadway plays and numerous films, wrote The Goodbye Girl, a breezy film about a temperamental and enigmatic actor seeking fame and fortune in New York. When he shows up at his friend’s apartment to live, he finds a chorus line dancer and her daughter. If this sounds like a set-up for a chick-flick, it is. But this one is special. Richard Dreyfuss won the Oscar for Best Actor at age 30 for his role as Elliot Garfield. Simon’s then-wife Marsha Mason plays Paula McFadden, whose salty tone and classic one-liners are only rivaled by her daughter’s, played by Quinn Cummings. Both were nominated for Academy Awards. Yes it’s a love story but it’s a really good one.
The Departed – When this film won Best Picture in 2007, a lot of people were surprised. Not me. Martin Scorsese has always been known for his mob movies and this is no exception. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, and Martin Sheen, The Departed can best be described as absurd. Leo plays an undercover detective with a questionable past. Damon plays a conniving suck-up who was corrupted as a kid. Nicholson plays the most despicable, connected, over-the-top gangster ever. Martin Sheen plays the police commissioner whose fall from grace is literal. Fantastic.
Jackie Brown – Quentin Tarantino is legendary and notorious. Most of his movies are too graphic for most viewers. But Jackie Brown is wickedly good. The lead characters are stars of a different age: Pam Grier, known mostly for the black exploitation movies of the ’70s, and Robert Forster, largely a ’70s-80s TV actor. Add Samuel L. Jackson as the baddest ass in town; Bridget Fonda as the slutty girlfriend of Jackson’s; Robert De Niro as a dimwitted ex-con; and Michael Keaton as a DEA agent and you have the ingredients for a classic bait-and-switch film. Yes, it has some blood, as all Tarantino movies do, but this is all about plot and a killer soundtrack featuring the smooth Delfonics.
Oceans 11 – No, not the George Clooney/Brad Pitt/Matt Damon one. We’re talking about the 1960 original Rat Pack film starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and more. You know the story: a bunch of ex-Army buddies decide to rob a bunch of casinos in Las Vegas. It is all played for fun — a heist story with a twist of an ending. The story of shooting this film is almost as good as the movie. Sinatra and the boys shot the film by day, performed by night, and drank until dawn. Watch for the billboard of the Sands at the end of the film.
Gandhi – Tootsie lost Best Picture toGandhi, the beautifully filmed biopic about Mahatma Gandhi, the pacifist leader who became president of India. Ben Kingsley won one of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. His performance is so perfect that most people, when they think of Gandhi, picture Kingsley.The Wizard of Oz – Who doesn’t love this classic? It is the film that introduced color into mainstream films. Perhaps the most popular film in history, The Wizard of Oz created a whole new standard for breath of film. Plus, underneath it all, it tells a fantasy story with startling human implications – inner confidence, individualism, and equality. But mostly, it made Judy Garland a star, took us down the yellow brick road, let us meet a couple of memorable witches, and took us over the rainbow.
The Graduate – Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. The score by Simon and Garfunkel was written specifically for this movie about a recent college graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) who moves home, gets advice from his parents’ rich friends, has an affair with a married woman (Anne Bancroft), and falls in love with his paramour’s engaged daughter (played by Katherine Ross). Brilliant director Mike Nichols won the Oscar while the actors were all nominated as was the writing crew, which included Buck Henry. The movie is capped off by the final scene on the bus, a long take where our characters suddenly realize they have no idea what comes next.
Rain Man – Dustin Hoffman may be all you need to know to realize that Rain Man is special. He plays an autistic, institutionalized man who is kidnapped by his long-lost brother, Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise). Quickly, the movie turns into a buddy film as the duo travels by car form Cincinnati to Los Angeles with a memorable stop in Las Vegas. Charlie, a conniving con man, gets to know the brother he never knew he had and becomes redeemed. Both actors are pitch perfect. Barry Levinson won an Oscar for Best Director and also appears as a psychiatrist. The movie won Best Picture; Hoffman won Best Actor; and the screenplay won, too. How could we forget: “Ah oh. 5 minutes to Wapner.”
The Natural – Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) would have been the best there ever was. But alas, his baseball career was cut short by a suicidal vixen (Barbara Hershey). Sixteen years after his mishap, he shows up in the dugout of the New York Knights, vying for a spot on this failing baseball team. When he finally convinces his doubting coach, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), to play, he proves himself a phenom. As if touched by God, he hits prodigious home runs and the team starts to win. But like the biblical Samson, he has a weakness for attractive women — the girl on the train and Pop’s niece, Memo (Kim Basinger). Then, his old high school girlfriend, Iris (Glenn Close), shows up and the old Roy Hobbs returns. And I promise, sparks fly.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman – Meryl Streep is the greatest actress ever. No doubt. Of all of her roles, the French Lieutenant’s Woman is my favorite. In the first film I remember with parallel story lines, she plays an actress (Anna) playing a scorned Victorian woman (Sarah) who has a short, intense love affair with Charles (Jeremy Irons), an engaged biologist. Irons plays Anna’s co-star, and the two begin an intense love affair, too. Do the stories end the same way or differently? Don’t be confused; this is no chick-flick. It’s two actors at the top of their games. Nominated for five Oscars. Speaking of …
Sliding Doors – A tale of two parallel stories, both in current day. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Helen, a British PR executive who gets fired on this fateful day. In the first story, she decides to go home to her live-in boyfriend. She finds him in bed with another woman. In the second story, she just misses the train. By the time she gets home, everything seems quite normal. Each story continues on a natural course, coming together near the end as the stories intersect. It is really quite clever and entertaining. As a viewer, you have to pay close attention to ensure that you are following the right story, aided as you are by Helen’s different hairstyles. While the stories diverge, will the endings diverge, too, or come together? A great film you haven’t seen.
Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock directed some great films. Psycho is the most iconic Hitchcock film. What a guilty pleasure with no redeeming characters. Janet Leigh stars as Marion Crane but she hardly survives the first reel. She steals cash from her company rather than depositing the money and heads off through a rainy night to places unknown. Sleeping in her car, she is awakened by a suspicious police officer, who follows her into town, where she trades her car as he looks on. As she heads out again she eventually finds her way to the Bates Motel where she meets Norman Bates. He is strangely reserved and a little weird but she engages him anyway. Next thing we know, she is stabbed to death in the shower in the best murder scene in the history of film. Janet Leigh never showered again. Marion’s paramour, Sam (John Gavin) and her sister, Lila (Vera Miles), go looking for her and meet Norman. The rest of the movie is the search for the killer and the great reveal. Suspense at its best. Speaking of Hitchcock …
The Man Who Knew Too Much – This is my favorite Hitchcock film. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day play a doctor, Ben McKenna, and his wife, a famous singer, named Jo. Traveling through Morocco with their son, Hank, they witness a murder. The dying man, Louis Bernard, whispers a name to Ben: Ambrose Chapel. The rest of the movie includes the kidnapping of Hank, a trip back to London, a visit to Ambrose Chapel, a concert attended by a visiting dignitary, an assassination attempt, and Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera,” not necessarily in that order. This is a taut, suspenseful thriller as only Hitchcock can make them.
Rocky – Yo, Adrian! The film that came out of nowhere from a marginal actor with no writing credits and a speech impediment. Sylvester Stallone crafted the story of a no-name, no talent boxer from Philadelphia who gets a title shot. Based on a dream he had, Stallone managed to hit all the right notes about an underdog with no shot. A cast-off and enforcer, Rocky has a heart and a will to win. He courts the ugly duckling sister (Talia Shire’s Adrian) of his demeaning best friend, Paulie (Burt Young). He spars with Mickey (Burgess Meredith, the best known actor in the cast), the aging owner of the local gym. And he fights Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. This movie established an entire genre of films about the lovable underdog. And it spawned more than half dozen more Rocky movies. Anyone remember if he wins?
Three Days of the Condor – Based on the book Six Days of the Condor, this political thriller follow the exploits of a low-level CIA investigator who uncovers a rogue outfit in his own agency. After all of the members of his small, disguised unit are killed in a well-coordinated attack, Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) can’t trust anyone. He kidnaps an unwitting photographer (Faye Dunaway), who helps him uncover the plot and find the bad guys. With a great supporting cast, including Max von Sydow as an assassin, Cliff Robertson as the CIA station chief in New York, and John Houseman as the head of the CIA, Three Days is directed by Sydney Pollack with a haunting score by Dave Grusin.
The Pelican Brief – Following the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices, an investigative reporter (Denzel Washington) and an enterprising law school student (Julia Roberts) uncover the conspiracy. Using the legal brief she wrote that identified the possible mastermind, they dodge attempts to kill them both while they uncover the truth. It’s perhaps the best adaptation of the many John Grisham novels that were turned into films. Alan J. Pakula, who wrote Presumed Innocent and Sophie’s Choice, directed All the President’s Men, and produced To Kill A Mockingbird, adapted the screenplaywith Grisham.
The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy’s hugely popular novel was adapted to the big screen in one of the best submarine movies ever. Sean Connery plays the brilliant sub captain who decides to defect with Russia’s newest, ultra-quiet submarine. Alec Baldwin plays the first of many Jack Ryans, a CIA analyst who figures out the scheme. With a crucial plot twist, The Hunt for Red October is an almost perfect political thriller with brilliant performances by both lead actors and a supporting cast that includes James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Courtney B. Vance, James Gandolfini, Sam Neill, and a pre-Good Will Hunting Stellan Skarsgard.
War Games – For fun, two high school students (Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy) play what they think is a soon-to-be-released video game and inadvertently almost start a thermonuclear war. In a surprisingly tense race to stop the War Operations Plan Response (WOPR) computer from launching the missiles, the kids have to convince the brilliant computer scientist who wrote the program to go to NORAD and save the world.
The Karate Kid- If this feels like Rocky, that’s because both films are directed by John G. Avildsen and the plots are almost identical. Daniel (Ralph Macchio), a 17-year-old New Jersey kid, bullied by the karate students at his new high school in California, is taken under the wing of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) to compete in a tournament against the bad boys and to learn life lessons. The Miyagi character is one of the most beloved in cinema history, and it earned Morita an Academy Award nomination. A surprise mega-hit, The Karate Kid keeps you in suspense right to the end. Does the kid win or lose?