The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

My Top Ten Films of All Time

In honor of the one year anniversary of launching this website, I thought I would take a break from the onslaught of holiday movie reviews (not for too long, of course) and take a look at what currently constitutes my ten favorite films of all time. This list has changed quite a bit in the past two years or so since I’ve started to fill in some egregious blanks in my classic cinema watchlist, and I certainly have many, many more to go before I could ever be pleased with myself, but either way, I am happy with the list as it is right now.

Without further ado, let’s get started. Keep in mind that these films are presented in chronological order by release date and not by personal preference.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, Directed by F.W. Murnau)

I first came across Sunrise in college while taking a Weimar Republic-era German silent film class (that’ll factor in again later). We did not watch it as part of the class, but I sought it out on the side after falling in love with two of his earlier films, Nosferatu and Der Letzte Mann. Sunrise was Murnau’s first film after emigrating from Germany to the United States, and tells the story of a farmer (simply, Man, as played by George O’Brien), who cheats on his wife (Janet Gaynor) with a woman from the hedonistic city close by (Margaret Livingston), who attempts to convince him to end his marriage on violent terms. Sunrise is Murnau at his best, a mix of his wild German expressionist days (the depiction of the city in a montage sequence is incredible for its time) with more conventional storytelling to spin a tale of love and betrayal for the ages. Murnau was always at the cutting edge of the art form until his untimely and all too early death at the age of 42, and Sunrise is his very best.

M (1931, Directed by Fritz Lang)

Murnau’s contemporary in German expressionism (his grand opus Metropolis was released the same year as Sunrise), Fritz Lang did not leave Germany until the 1930’s. M was his first sound film, and established Lang as perhaps the director who made the transition from silents to sound with the greatest ease. M is a paranoid crime thriller, launching the career of Peter Lorre by casting him as Hans Beckert, a child-murderer whose crimes are so dastardly that the local criminal underworld joins the manhunt to bring him to justice. Lang takes to sound so comfortably that it’s impossible to believe this is his first feature utilizing it. The establishing of a whistled version of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as an auditory cue that Beckert is on the prowl is ingenious, as is the climactic kangaroo court scene, the first real indication that Lorre is the actor that he would become. It takes quite the impressive piece of cinema to outshine Lang’s expressionist magnum opus Metropolis, but that is exactly what he managed to do with M.

Citizen Kane (1941, Directed by Orson Welles)

It is tough to watch Citizen Kane in modern times. Anyone who knows even the least bit about cinematic history likely would have had the concept that it is THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER drilled into his or her head long before getting the chance to see it (it is, of course, the reason it’s sought out in the first place), and its age might make one balk at the possibility of it living up to the loftiest of expectations. I saw Kane for the first time in my mid-twenties, and what shocked me the most was how easy it was to digest. I didn’t have to struggle to follow the story, and Welles’ filmmaking was aggressively modern regardless of its time. The fictional account of a newspaper tycoon who bore striking resemblance to magnate William Randolph Hearst absolutely and effortlessly lives up to its reputation, no matter the fact that everyone knows the twist at the end. It really is just that good. And it is completely astounding how young Orson Welles was when he made this.

Notorious (1946, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Notorious is not likely to be the first, or even the fifth film people think about when they think about the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but this Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman vehicle is the distillation of what made him one of the world’s greatest directors. Set in South America following World War II, the film is an excellently crafted classic spy thriller, following Bergman and Grant as they spy on a group of her friends who turn out to be Nazis who escaped Europe after the Reich fell. Many point to the Hitchcock/Stewart pairing as the director’s greatest collaboration, but I’ve always been more partial to his work with Grant. Notorious features what could be Hitchcock’s best single shot, an intricate, perfectly realized zoom that moves from a wide shot to an impossibly tight close-up of a key clutched in Bergman’s hand. Tension and suspense at its finest mixed with two flawless leads allows Notorious to eek out the spot above his more famous films.

Rashomon (1950, Directed by Akira Kurosawa)

The greatest ever example of unreliable narrators in film, Rashomon’s conceit is so wonderfully simple and perfectly executed that its quality appears effortless. Three men, huddling for shelter from the rain at Rashomon city gate relaying different versions of a crime involving a brigand, a samurai, the samurai’s wife, rape and murder. Cinema had never seen a story like this, to the point that the conceit is now colloquially known as “The Rashomon Effect.” This is both Kurosawa and his favorite actor Toshiro Mifune at the peak of their games, weaving devious little tale of self-interest and its effects on memory and personal responsibility.

The Apartment (1960, Directed by Billy Wilder)

It is entirely possible that there is no movie I have seen in my recent history that brings me as much joy as The Apartment. Devious and biting in its condemnation of corporate culture and the suffocating patriarchy of the 1950’s, The Apartment is a film that feels pointedly ahead of its time, with all of its casual sex and adultery. Jack Lemmon plays the perfect everyman; he’s no saint, but his motivations are clear and understandable, as is his falling for the enchanting Shirley MacLaine. This is one of the sharpest scripts in Hollywood’s history, chock full of biting wordplay, deep cynicism and wonderful satire. This is the performance of Lemmon’s career (and MacLaine’s, and Fred MacMurray’s, for that matter), a story that doesn’t kowtow to genre expectations, more than comfortable to blaze its own trail. Wilder had such a varied career of cinematic gems that it’s difficult to pick just one for a list like this (Sunset Boulevard is standing outside in the cold, looking in forlornly), but I could watch The Apartment hundreds of times without getting tired of it, which gives it the nod in my book.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Directed by Stanley Kubrick)

No one has approached science fiction quite like Stanley Kubrick did. Taking a genre that had been dominated by B-movie kitsch and grounding it in hard science fundamentally changed the trajectory of what movies set in space could and should be. With a sprawling narrative that stretches from the dawn of man to the dawn of after man, Kubrick’s ambition is limitless in scope. Most famous for its middle section, with its HAL 9000 and it’s “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that” and its “Daisy Bell,” 2001 is so thoroughly groundbreaking that its shadow has loomed over every film set in space that has been released ever since. Of course, its last act is almost entirely incomprehensible, blasting the plot off into psychedelia, but Kubrick isn’t concerned with whether his audience can keep up with him. He has a story to tell (a pretty crazy one), and he tells it as well as anyone ever could.

Brazil (1985, Directed by Terry Gilliam)

Brazil is one of those movies that is almost as famous for the story surrounding its release as the film itself. The epic battle between Gilliam and Universal for final cut threatens to overshadow his aggressively cynical dystopian tale of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry, the lowly bureaucrat who just wants to keep his head down and go about his business only to fall in love with Kim Griest and bust out of his shell. This is the best script of Gilliam’s career (he got help from Charles McKeown and noted playwright Tom Stoppard), the best cast he’s ever had (including Robert De Niro and Ian Holm in supporting roles), and his most visually provocative tale, consistently injecting magical dream sequences that lovingly twist the dystopic vistas into fantastic visual feasts. Never before or since has Gilliam felt so at home on the screen; the mix of comedy and tragedy is effortless, and the biting satire has influenced a generation of directors (see Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and Richard Ayoade’s The Double for some recent examples)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Directed by Michel Gondry)

For some, such as me, this is among the greatest love stories ever told. The science fiction romance that follows Jim Carrey’s Joel as he undergoes a procedure to erase the memory of his former girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet, who had already undergone the surgery) only to change his mind halfway through and race through his own subconscious to keep her is the height of Charlie Kaufman’s writing prowess mixed with accomplished and magical visual acuity from director Michel Gondry. This is Carrey at the top of his powers: smart, self-deprecatingly funny and heartfelt, and he is more than matched by Winslet’s brash and impulsive firebrand. It is an incredibly romantic film, suspenseful and wondrous with deep and satisfying thematic resonance. It has a great supporting cast thanks to Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst and the wonderful Tom Wilkinson, and its finale is beautiful in its subtlety. This may not come to mind as one of the great cinematic romances of the time, but as the years pass, it certainly should be.

There Will Be Blood (2007, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

A film that mystified me when I saw it in the theaters, There Will Be Blood only really took its hold on me recently thanks to its addition to Netflix Instant Watch. It is a film that constantly keeps you on your toes, from its nearly twenty dialogue-less minutes that open the film to its mesmerizing, grating score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (his first score, in fact). At the center of it all is Daniel Day-Lewis, providing what should be remembered as the most forceful, violent and accomplished performances in many many years. He rages and thunders through his life, a dangerously convincing talker with a titanic temper, prone to alienate everyone around him until he dies alone in his massive mansion, having lived a life of extreme wealth. With gorgeous cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (who also shot the beautiful LA nights of this year’s Nightcrawler) and a sprawling, satisfying story, There Will Be Blood is a film that challenges audiences to find its wavelength and rewards them greatly when they do.


So there you have it. My personal list of the ten greatest films of all time. Though, of course, since I can’t help myself, I have to throw in two honorable mentions:

Mulholland Drive (2001, Directed by David Lynch)

This was bumped by There Will Be Blood (surely no insult), but is still there, lurking just beyond the top ten waiting to strike any time I revisit it. David Lynch’s paranoid, at times incomprehensible tale of a woman’s attempt to make it big in Hollywood made Naomi Watts a star in America and stands as perhaps the greatest single example of what David Lynch represents as a director. The fact that it was originally an abandoned and reconstituted television pilot may speak to its scattered plot lines, but this is not the sort of film that needs to make sense in order to be appreciated. Legendary for its “Silencio!” scene and memorable for so many other reasons, Mulholland Drive is, like 2001 and There Will Be Blood before it on my list, a rewarding challenge to conquer.

Close-Up (1990, Directed by Abbas Kiarostami)

A most bizarre and audacious experiment, Close-Up is a documentary/fiction hybrid, based on the true story of an Iranian man arrested for impersonating famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. What makes it so fascinating is Kiarostami’s decision to cast the actual people from the event and have them reenact their own actions, presenting them as document and cutting periodically to video from the actual, real life trial. In so doing, Close-Up brings wonderful questions about the nature and importance of art, personal identity and motivation to the fore. It is one of the most peculiar film projects I have seen, and also one of the most rewarding. This one is also a danger to muscle its way into the top ten.


So that’s that (for real this time). Who knows when I’ll revisit this list. There are so many more classics I have never seen, and so many more new experiences to come.