Updated: Sep 17, 2018
Anyone who knows me even a little knows that I am a film geek. If I like a movie, I talk about it, I recommend it, force it upon anyone who would care to listen, until they are sick of my company. I love movies of all genres: action/adventure, biopics, comedy, crime, drama, fantasy, foreign, historical, horror/giallo, melodramas, musicals, mystery, noir, pre-code, romance, silent, trash, westerns. Except most rom-coms.
I’m definitely not in the position to say that the following are the ten greatest films of all time; they are simply ten films that I adore, and that repeat viewings haven’t faded my enthusiasm. You can click on the titles or names for links to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) or the Criterion Collection.
1. Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis, 1945, France, dir. Marcel Carné)
Theatre and real life commingle in this story of ill-fated love between Baptiste, a theatre mime, and Garance, an actress, who is pursued by three other men. This movie, filmed during the Nazi occupation of Paris, is one of the glories in the history of filmmaking. I still remember the exhilaration I felt on my first viewing; and by golly, I feel it again and again every time I watch it.
2. The Deer Hunter (1968, U.S.A., dir. Michael Cimino)
Who does NOT get choked up when one hears the guitar strains of John Williams’s Cavatina (listen here) from this film? The slow pace of the opening third is just the calm before the storm that prepares us for the violent tragedy of the remaining two-thirds. The Russian roulette scene in the concentration camp in Vietnam is still painful to watch. De Niro gives a simultaneously subdued and powerful performance as Mike (watch the trailer). John Woo’s incredible Bullet in the Head (1990) plays an obvious homage to this very great film (watch trailer here).
3. 8 ½ (1963, Italy, dir. Federico Fellini) This was my introduction to the world of Fellini—perhaps not the most typical, but I still remember my first experience being suddenly thrown into this colorful, surreal, charming, carnavalesque world (watch the fabulous opening!). Marcello Mastroianni plays Fellini’s alter ego as a womanizer with director’s block. Though in black and white, it seems to burst with color. Strange, but whenever I play the “Préambule” from Schumann’s Carnaval, I imagine the final scene from this film.
4. The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espiritu de la colemna, 1973, Spain, dir. Victor Erice)
Víctor Erice’s 1973 film, Espíritu de la colmena (“Spirit of the Beehive”) is one of the most magically haunting Spanish films I’ve ever watched. It is the sort of film that emphasizes that this medium is not mere storytelling: it is a form that is completely unique in itself. It is a film that crawls into your system and remains for many days, perhaps longer, even before you understand why. Ana Torrent as Ana must be one of the most amazing examples of child acting in film. (watch the Spanish trailer)
5. Late Spring (Banshun, 1949, Japan, dir. Ozu Yasujiro)
I think that Kurosawa is basically a Western (plot/character/moral-driven) director. Ozu, in comparison, has more Eastern aesthetics. My usual reaction after having watched an Ozu film is: (sigh) “Life….” What can we do? There is no good or bad; life just is. Nevertheless, with his slow pace, long shots, low camera angle (akin to watching Noh theatre, made explicit in this scene), I believe that the serene beauty of Ozu’s works have the power to make someone into a more sensitive, thoughtful, and essentially, better person. Hara Setsuko is one of my idols (along with Catherine Deneuve and Greta Garbo.) See her at her luminous best here. Hara plays the twenty-seven year old daughter of Chishyu Ryu (who seems to never age, as he has played old men since his forties). She prefers living with and taking care of her father, but those around her urge to get married. Reveals the beautiful, though complex, relationship between daughter and father. Near the end of the film, Hara, radiant in her bridal kimono, lifts up her face to smile to her father—it is the saddest, most beautiful face. As I tried hard to bravely hold back my tears in the theatre, an elderly man sitting next to me bawled like a child. How can an apple peel be so sad?
6. The Godfather I and II (1972, U.S.A., dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Each character is so well developed that everything seems to proceed with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. What an opening. Part I focuses on the transfer of power from Vito Corleone, an aging leader of an organized crime dynasty, to Michael Corleone, the youngest (and least expected) son of Vito (watch the trailer). Part II reveals the beginning of the dynasty, tracing the early life of Vito in Sicily and 1920’s New York, as it concurrently follows the expansion of the family business run by Michael, and his spiritual downfall. Decades after its release, I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy Part III, and agree that it was an apt closing act to this tragic drama.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, U.K./U.S.A., dir. Stanley Kubrick)
I watched this for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, on a field trip with my Film Studies class at the Juilliard School. I’ll never forget the experience of that first black hole “trip.” At the time, I didn’t understand what the ending meant, then realized that probably no one is really supposed to. I went on to watch other Kubrick films (for many years, I believed that A Clockwork Orange was a movie that never should have been made, but later realized that the awful truths contained within it really do exist in today’s society), but none of them haunted me as profoundly as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
8. City Lights (1931, U.S.A., dir. Charles Chaplin)
The Tramp falls in love with a wretched, blind flower girl and pretending to be a wealthy man, tries to acquire money for her eye operation. I would include this film on the list if only for the final, justly famous close-up of the Tramp’s shy, embarrassed, fearful, expectant face as the hitherto blind girl sees him as he truly is for the first time (watch it here--don’t cry).
9. Top Hat (1935, U.S.A., dir. Mark Sandrich)
Watching Fred Astaire never fails to exhilarate me, to fill me with wonder and joy. This man truly seems to defy gravity. Every performing artist has much to learn from his professionalism and earnest hard work. Who cares about the plotline (or Ginger). We’re really here to watch Fred dance on air (watch the Top Hat number). This amazing performance of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” would not exist without the Top Hat number (watch it here). I mean, look at the shooting section in the former!
10. Ikiru (1952, Japan, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Story of a government clerk who finds out that he has terminal cancer (my optimistic nature shines forth again). The movie, and his life (the title means “To Live”), begins as he searches for a meaning to his life. Makes me cry just remembering him sing: “Inochi mijikashi, koi seyo otome….” (Life is brief, fall in love, young maidens) on the swings (watch the trailer).