In what is probably the best chain letter ever, I have been nominated to list my Top 15 films ever. True to form, I have decided to elaborate on my choices with some self-indulgent reasoning. Please note, these aren’t The Best Fifteen Films Ever, so don’t expect all the usual suspects. Oh, and apart from film #1, none of these are in any real order of personal love.
1. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
Is it the greatest film ever made? Of course not. Nothing is. Yet Blade Runner is a remarkable experience. You can slate it for its uneven plot, its loose ends, its unsympathetic ‘hero’ or its vague ending. Yes, it has all of those things. And it has more. So, so much more. If people ask me what cinema is, what it is capable of, what it can deliver, I think of Blade Runner. I’ve watched it so many times and still be utterly mesmerised by it, and there are many reasons why – the future visuals and smoky, neon-tinged atmosphere, still breathtaking today. Vangelis’ astonishing electronic score – the very best of its kind. The script – a masterpiece of enigmatic mystery. Rutger Hauer’s beguiling, strange ‘villain’ and the range of great supporting characters. Then there’s the things I can’t pin down, the emotional kick it delivers, that strange blend of awe, beauty and sadness. It’s honestly one of the greatest achievements in cinema – my mind boggles as to how it was all done. I can simply lose myself in it for its two hours, I can sit back and admire its sheer scale, immensity, or I can just try and think about what it all means, man.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)
Okay, let’s broaden our minds – imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy was a single, regular film – a single, magnificent film. Then take the best bit – the middle stretch – and make that an entire movie on its own. Except that now it’s a whole film, you can expand what would have been an hour into twice that amount. You can stretch out (with your feelings if you prefer, but that’s not a priority) and explore the best worlds the series had to offer, like the huge snow planet of Hoth, the beautifully murky swamp of Dagobah or the beautiful aerial trap of Bespin. You don’t even have to waste time establishing plot or initial character because you already did that in the first film. Here you can go deeper, broader and oh yes, darker. You can do things you couldn’t have dreamed of in the first film- nightmarish dream sequences, a wickedly mean streak of humour and one major shocker of an ending. Oh yes, forget a big, big action sequence to wrap things up, for now you can have your big, big set-piece near the start of the film if you like, and what would have been your end-of-Act 2 cliffhanger can now be the ending. The ending!!! Oh yes, The Empire Strikes Back is so phenomenally excellent it leaves the first Star Wars whimpering hopelessly in its shadow – the script is funnier, the drama more emotional, the direction far more confident and sweeping (take note, George – you can write stories but you can’t direct them) – every move is so expertly played that it more or less represents the Star Wars universe at its apex.
PS: I must give an honourable mention to Return of the Jedi, for no third chapter has ever been given so much unfair criticism/begrudging love. It might be my 16th favourite film.
3. Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
To call it the best action film ever mate reduces the way that James Cameron’s finest hour skilfully blends a handful of genres: science-fiction, war movie, horror AND action. Oh, and it’s also the greatest sequel ever made. Sorry, Don Corleone. The original Alien is a 5-star, timeless, magnificent experience, but Aliens takes that film and enhances it to such a expansive degree that the mind truly boggles. Okay, we miss the artistry of Ridley Scott’s visuals, the elegance of Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the quiet, unnerving chill of those empty corridors, but here we get Sigourney Weaver given the role of a lifetime as Ripley is given extra dimensionality, guts and heart. We get Cameron at the height of his ability to engineer unbearable, claustrophobic, intense set-pieces. We get James Horner’s astonishingly exciting score, which rips off his own work for Star Trek among others and pumps it up to the max – ‘Futile Escape’ is probably the most heart-poundingly thrilling surge of action music I’ve ever heard in a film. We get a wonderfully colourful but believable and enduring range of supporting characters/victims. We even get a villain who isn’t just a stereotypical corporate slimeball, although at the very least, he is definitely that, and then some. We get a child-in-distress character who not once did I secretly want to get killed. We also get the absolute best ‘it’s not dead’ twist ending ever. Aliens is a total thrill-ride.
4. Withnail and I (1986, Bruce Robinson)
Probably the finest comedy ever, and it’s all down to character chemistry, peerless dialogue, perfect performances, emotional clout and classic set-pieces. That’s all, really. See, it’s just that easy! Seriously though – comedy is the most personal of all movie tastes, and there are many who won’t find Withnail and I funny. Like, where’s the jokes? Then there are those who will derive the most joyous pleasure from Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann’s never-better turns and how they respond to their domestic squalor, the unwelcome presence of characters who we probably wouldn’t want to know in real life but can’t get enough of here, the horrors of hangovers, the exhilaration of winding up stuffy cake shop owners, the threat of dead fish, the fear of The Fear….I mean, it doesn’t really have a plot, but that’s the point, I suppose. These guys are drifting, and it’s a ride that the two of them will probably laugh about eventually, although at the time it was terrible, and then all of a sudden it’s over. Grant’s Withnail recites his soliloquy in the rain outside the park at the end and the effect is genuinely quite heartbreaking. The script may be the finest ever.
5. The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
Despite the presence of the director’s cut and another director’s cut, the theatrical version of The Wicker Man is pretty much perfect in dropping us head-first into a world of unparalleled paranoia, beguiling eroticism and twisted tradition. It’s probably the most gleefully chilling horror ever – it delivers its unwinding mystery with a devilish smirk before punching you in the gut for that ending, that astonishingly bleak ending that I always hope will end differently even though there’s no chance of it ever happening. The sense of atmosphere, that unnerving ‘stranger-in-a-strange land’ feeling, that May Day/carnival/cult mood that has you very much feeling utterly alone, pranked, suspicious, in danger and ultimately utterly clueless… it’s like a nightmare, with the ultimate nightmare ending. Except unlike in a dream, poor Edward Woodward never does wake up. And just how good is Woodward in this? He takes a stuffy, pious party pooper and makes him one of the most sympathetic protagonists in all of horror. Christopher Lee’s utterly charismatic Lord Summerisle makes for the perfect counterpoint. The delightful, creepy, seductive and unforgettable score/song selection is a vital element, Anthony Shaffer’s script is ingenious, and the whole thing amounts to just about the best British horror ever made.
6. The Lost Boys (1987, Joel Schumacher)
Not a great film, certainly not when compared to many others in this list, but The Lost Boys is the movie I’ve seen more than any other, ever, so it really deserves to be here. And there is an awful lot that is very, very special indeed about this most beloved of Eighties vampire horrors – for one thing, given that it’s an exploitation film, it has a heck of a classy crew – the art direction, photography and lighting are second to none, the cast are wonderful, the script delightfully engaging (if somewhat patchy plot-wise) and its first half in particular a breathlessly enjoyable depiction of temptation to the dark side. Joel Schumacher’s limitations as a director were never better utilised – the film looks and sounds great (cheesy in the absolute best sense), his handling of unforgettable set-pieces like the brilliant motorcycle chase/sunken cave ritual/train bridge dare sequence are classics. True, it does become a total (though admittedly very fun) mess of riotous action and special effects by the end, but this is the kind of slick, ghoulish B-movie fun that cult followings are made of. Oh, and Kiefer Sutherland’s teen vamp is 100% pure joy.
7. Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)
A classic example of what happens when a director is given full reign to make a blockbuster movie entirely on his own terms- Tim Burton may have made more personal films than this, but the thrill of the tension between big summer movie expectation and the unshackled perversity of what actually ended up on screen resulted in the man’s finest film. Just how this kinky, violent, melancholy, cracked, eccentric tale of troubled heroes and villains ever got a Happy Meal tie-in beggars belief. It’s probably the most lusciously sensual, wickedly funny, tragic and yet delightfully escapist, imaginative and sweepingly lush blockbuster of all time. Michael Keaton is still the best Batman, Michelle Pfieffer the most alluring Catwoman, Danny DeVito the most repulsive Penguin and Christopher Walken strangely enough the worst villain of the lot. The final subterranean confrontation has a twisted sadness and line-crossing tension that’s rarely been equalled.
8. Almost Famous (2000, Cameron Crowe)
It’s loosely based on fact, yet Cameron Crowe can’t help but glisten his memories with the kind of sun-kissed, heartbreaking, joyous nostalgia that makes it almost seem too good to be true. Even the painful moments are kind of beautiful in their own way. This really is exquisite, wonderful entertainment – Crowe simply wants to share his love of music and his love of being in love with music with everybody, as well sharing the pains of unrequited love, of not being in with the in-crowd and not being cool (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s telephone conversation with Patrick Fugit near the end of the film about this very subject is just perfect) and yet he even takes the time to make the potentially party-pooping worrier of the mother who stays at home whilst her son follows his dream a great character. It’s also bloody funny. The songs choices are amazing. And Kate Hudson arguably peaked right from the start of her career with her turn as Penny Lane – what a heartbreaker of a performance, absolutely lovely. Seek out the director’s cut – it’s more indulgent for sure, but that’s all part of the charm.
9. Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest)
This rivals Withnail for the sheer wealth of quotable dialogue, genuine warmth, killer set-pieces and brilliant supporting characters. On the surface it’s a simple road movie, but George Gallo’s script ensures that no one gets an easy ride, concocting hilarious dilemma after stressful dillemma to the point where it’s amazing none of the characters explode from sheer rage. Of course, this is a comedy, so the stress and rage is absolutely hilarious throughout – Robert de Niro gives a performance that’s (seriously) as vital as his ones for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the like – Jack Walsh is one of his finest characters. Charles Grodin can get away with all of those later Beethoven sequels, he well and truly earned a free pass thanks to his turn here – his and De Niro’s chemistry is the stuff of movie magic. And then there’s all those supporting characters like Eddie Moscone, Marvin Dorfler, Jimmy Serrano, Alonso Mosely… brilliantly drawn, all of them. Yet it also has a final act that’s genuinely gripping, and a final scene that’s really quite sweet. It is crowd-pleasing entertainment at its absolute best.
10. Near Dark (1987, Kathryn Bigelow)
I wasn’t sure about putting two vampire films on this list, but to ignore Near Dark and not The Lost Boys (and vice versa) is just downright dishonest of me. Probably the finest vampire film of the Eighties, a confident, totally assured masterpiece of lean, medium-budgeted ingenuity, crammed with poetic visuals, nocturnal atmosphere, choice dialogue, brutal violence and no-spare-fat writing. Features probably the best, spookiest screen kiss ever, definitely the greatest bar room massacre ever, the funniest vampire ever (stand up, Bill Paxton) and a very memorable score from those Eighties mainstays, Tangerine Dream. Kathryn Bigelow made bigger and more important films than Near Dark, but this will always be my favourite of hers.
11. The Company of Wolves (1984, Neil Jordan)
Sheer fairytale imagination and beauty abound in this remarkable adult take on, among other things, Little Red Riding Hood. Neil Jordan and Angela Carter weave a tale that delves into dreams inside dreams, conjuring images and atmospheres that deeply frightened this viewer many, many years ago. The subtexts are plentiful, but you can also simply enjoy it on a purely visceral level, thanks to the stunning sets and photography, gorgeous score and unforgettably creepy special effects. I’ve written about this film in slightly more detail here.
12. Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)
Aliens is the best action film ever, but it’s not the purest action film ever. That goes to Die Hard, which you can A) get all historical and academic about by going on and on about how influential it was and how today’s action films owe everything to it and yet don’t come close to it, and B) you can also simply get your rocks off to it every SINGLE time, because the fact is, Die Hard still kicks arse. Nothing comes close to its ruthless, precision-tooled expertise – the direction (well done, John McTiernan) is so unfussily magnificent that it takes a few viewings to realise just how well staged it is. Bruce Willis took the action hero role and redefined it, Alan Rickman more or less established the urbane Euro-villain (and no one’s beaten it), and the violence really, really feels like it hurts. You watch it and by the end you feel exhausted, but in a really, really good way. Not the Transformers way.
13. Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)
Well it’s definitely the best horror ever, that’s for sure. Dario Argento is a great director, but a frustrating one, as his handling of actors and plot over the years has shown. And yet Suspiria (and Deep Red) is where none of those things matter. The performances are actually good to be honest, especially Jessica Harper, who gets the little lamb amongst the wolves thing down just right. Plot? This film is not about plot. It’s not trying to be about plot. It’s basically only interested in just shaking you up. It only wants to scare you. In that respect, Suspiria is probably the purest horror ever made. It looks and sounds like a dream. A nightmare. Argento’s visual splendour is in full effect. The colours and the sets get you right in the eyes. The set-pieces are unforgettably full-on. The violence is still insanely imaginative. And the music? Bloody hell, mere words won’t do any of that justice. Time Out said in its original review that this film feels like what you imagined horror films were like before you were old enough to get to see them. That, my friends, is absolutely spot-on. I’ve written about Suspiria in more detail here.
14. An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)
No horror has ever been this funny. No comedy has ever been this scary. I mean, what the heck is An American Werewolf in London? It really shouldn’t work – it’s a total explosion of genres, tones and mood, and yet, and this is the magic of cinema, it works perfectly. Every moment feels right, even the seemingly wrong ones. It is bloody funny. It is very scary. And it is also incredibly sad. There have been fewer tonal jolts as effective as the use of soundtrack (‘Blue Moon’) to snap you out of such a downbeat ending. This film takes you for a ride, and it’s a thriller every time. PS: Best transformation scene ever – don’t let the revisionists fool you, the one in The Howling is not as good as this.
15. Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)
What, a third vampire film? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but once the ball’s rolling, I couldn’t leave Fright Night out. Not when it’s a film this delightful. I mean, this film is a pleasure to revisit every time. It makes me smile. It’s warm, funny, exciting, spectacular and a masterclass in scriptwriting – seriously. Chris Sarandon might just be the most delightfully smooth vampire ever. Evil Ed – love him or hate him, I suppose. I know where the hell I stand. The Lost Boys might be more imaginative and Near Dark a far more dramatic, beautiful film, but Fright Night sometimes feels like it’s an even better film than those two because it just feels like a best friend come to visit, every time.