Bennion's All-Time Favorite Movies, Part 2: The First 25
If you haven't already, read Part 1 of this three-part entry. And now without further delay, here are my personal faves:
- Star Wars (1977)
This one is a no-brainer if you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all. I am, of course, talking about the original, unaltered, non-Special-Edition, pre-Episode-anything, Han-shoots-first theatrical version that we all fell in love with back in the days of polyester. Seeing Star Wars in a grand old movie palace was my first memorable cinema experience, and seeing it today reminds me of what it was like to be a wide-eyed seven-year-old taking his first step into a larger world.
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Although the original Star Wars is the sentimental favorite (largely for being the first one), Empire is actually the better film, a deeper, richer expression of the setting and situations established in the first film. I love Hoth, I love Cloud City, I love the Han Solo-Princess Leia seduction scene, and I still get chills at the moment of Vader's Big Revelation.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Next to Star Wars, Raiders was perhaps the defining movie of my childhood. The first film in the Indiana Jones trilogy (don't even talk to me about a possible Indy IV!) is a fast-moving, not-entirely-brainless thrill-ride. Like you didn't already know that. Best of all, Indy showed us how a guy could be smart and tough at the same time, a great comfort to bookish kids like me who already knew where they fell in the social pecking order by the time they were ten.
- Casablanca (1943)
In many ways, the greatest film ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system. Beautiful to look at, filled with smart, tight dialogue and iconic characters, and boasting an amazing behind-the-scenes story (they were literally making it up as they went along), this movie remains fresh today because it's just so damn cool. I even thought it was cool before it became cool to think this film was cool...
- Superman: The Movie (1978)
I've written before about this one, about how I loved it, grew bored with it, and rediscovered it. It's the template for all superhero "origin story" movies and the standard to which they're all held. Christopher Reeve, Glenn Ford, and Marlon Brando are all perfectly cast. Less impressive is the totally abrasive Margot Kidder as Lois Lane -- I never will understand how she ever landed a career in Hollywood -- but Reeve is so damned convincing with his performance that I nevertheless cry everytime I watch Lois die. A very emotional film for me, now even moreso because the real-life story of what happened to Chris.
- Alien (1979)
My uncle Brooke wanted to take me to this classic science fiction-horror mash-up when it first came out, but my mother refused because she thought I was too young. She was right, of course -- if I'd seen this flick at the age of nine I think I'd still be in therapy -- but Brooke was also right when he told her that I'd love the movie when I finally saw it. I did, and I still do. One of the most realistic and frightening monsters ever put on film, largely because Ridley Scott was smart enough to suggest more of it than he ever showed. Just brilliant.
- Hopscotch (1980)
Perhaps the most obscure title on my list, a great entry in the "little guy gets back at the bureaucratic bozos" genre. Walter Matthau plays a CIA agent who gets turned out to pasture by his small-minded new boss, so Matthau decides to get even by writing his memoirs (in which he reveals all the boss' dirty laundry, naturally) and mailing them to every major government on earth. The title comes from the game he plays with his former employers as he moves from location to location, always one step ahead of the CIA agents he mentored and who are now tasked with capturing him. A wonderful, light-hearted film with strong romantic and comedic angles; it's too bad more folks haven't seen this one.
- The War Of The Worlds (1953)
Forget Tom Cruise, the old version of H.G. Wells' alien-invasion story that I saw on TV as a kid is the best one. The special effects still hold up reasonably well, even after 50-some-odd years, and the plot remains brisk, tense, and moving. I've probably seen this a dozen or more times, and I still mist up when noble Uncle Matthew walks calmly into the jaws of death, holding his Bible and softly reciting scripture, and the sound effect for the Martian heat-rays will probably still be giving me the willies when I'm an old man.
- The Thin Man (1934)
There are few on-screen couples with as much chemistry as William Powell and Myrna Loy, who played the boozing, fast-talking married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles in six Thin Man movies during the '30s and '40s. The murder mysteries in these movies are practically irrelevant, as the real fun comes from watching the two of them spar. I enjoy all the Thin Man films, but the first one -- directly based on a short novel by Dashiell Hammett -- is the best one, a true delight.
- Escape From New York (1981)
This is a type of movie they don't make anymore, and I sorely miss them: an unpretentious, low-budget sci-fi action flick that takes a ridiculous idea -- the crime rate gets so high that Manhattan has to be walled off and turned into a prison -- and somehow makes it seem plausible. Films like this have no point to make and nothing to prove; they're simply there to entertain. For about ten years in the late '70s and early '80s, director John Carpenter seemed to crank out one of these films every other week, but Escape was the masterpiece, enlivened by a cast of veteran B-movie actors and anchored by Kurt Russell as the dangerously appealing mercenary/criminal Snake Plisskin. Saturday-afternoon viewing doesn't get any better...
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982)
Before my young life started to revolve around Star Wars, it turned on the axis of Star Trek. I was watching re-runs of the original series as far back as I can remember, and the news that Captain Kirk and company would make the leap to the big screen in 1979 set me all a-quiver with anticipation. Unfortunately, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a huge, plodding disappointment (it's since grown on me, but, man, back in the day, I was absolutely baffled by the way something so cool -- the original TV series -- could become something so dull). Luckily, it made enough money to justify a redemptive sequel. Like the best episodes of the TV series, Kahn combined terrific action, scenery-chewing performances, and serious themes about the human condition. And it took risks with the established Trek formula, something the studio bean-counters were unwilling to allow in subsequent entries in the film series.
Largely unappreciated in its day, this goofy little experiment in computer animation and unorthodox filmmaking has always been a favorite of mine, largely because it was so unique. Nothing before or since has ever looked like this film.
- American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas' first hit film is probably his best one, a warm and nostalgic assemblage of coming-of-age vignettes, vintage cars, and terrific music. This is one of the few movies I can share with my father, who lived a lot of what Lucas depicts.
- The Terminator (1984)
Two uninspired sequels, a host of imitators, and rampant overuse of the "I'll be back" catchphrase have drained much of the impact from Ah-nald's big break-out film, but this low-budget sleeper hit remains one of the best, most influential, and ultimately most humanistic science-fiction films of the last 30 years. It also captures much of the mid-80s nuclear-terror zeitgeist that I remember feeling through middle school and high school, that sense that, as Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor, "all of this... everything... [could just be] gone. Just gone."
- The Road Warrior (1982)
A sort of companion piece to The Terminator, another vision of how the world ends that is probably more plausible now, in this time of declining oil supplies, than it was 24 years ago. Again, the film's impact has been watered down by imitators, but I still like the sheer, visceral thrill-factor of the driving sequences.
- Footloose (1984)
A fun little film about youthful rebellion that was shot here in Utah, just south of my home town. I always liked this one anyhow, but these days it's a precious reminder of The Way Things Used to Be and Are No Longer.
- Highlander (1984)
Difficult to explain this one to the uninitiated; you either get this non-linear tale of immortal warriors battling for supremacy or you don't. Personally, I love the thundering soundtrack music by Queen; the flashback sequences in the sweeping landscapes of Scotland; the filthy, grimy, we-shot-this-through-a-dirty-sock look of the modern-day scenes; the melancholy romanticism; and the dark humor. And, of course, it's got Sean Connery. Anything with Connery is worth at least a glance...
- Back to the Future (1985)
Who doesn't love this nifty little film that combines comedy, time-travel, coming-of-age, likable characters (even Biff, in his own crappy way!), a positive message, and a really catchy theme song by Huey Lewis and the News? This film never seems to date for me, probably in part because it's so specific about its temporal setting that you don't expect it not to look like an '80s flick.
- Thelma and Louise (1991)
I never bought into all the overwrought controversy over how this film was a man-hating, radical feminist screed. I saw it as a beautifully filmed buddy movie overlaid with serious themes and a curious ending that was simultaneously tragic and transcendent. It didn't hurt that much of the scenery was familiar Utah terrain, which is always fun to see on screen, or that I really, really loved the convertible T-Bird the ladies were driving.
- Die Hard (1988)
One of the best action movies ever made, in large part because Bruce Willis' John McLean is a human superhero who bleeds, worries about his wife, and frequently displays genuine fear. Too bad DH2 turned him into a cartoon.
- The Sting (1973)
I love heist pictures, those movies where a team of suave criminals comes together to pull off The Big Job that will set them up with a fortune. The Sting is about a con rather than a robbery, but I believe the principal still applies. Robert Redford and Paul Newman are a joy to watch as they set up and then take down the bastard who killed their mutual friend. There are few movies that generate such a sense of satisfaction at the end.
- The Hunt for Red October (1990)
It's about submarines, it ran at the multiplex where I used to work, I took my mom to see it one rainy afternoon, and it stars Sean Connery. Is it any surprise I have a deep fondness for this effective thriller, which is, in my opinion, the best of the Jack Ryan movies? (Yes, I prefer Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford in this role, and Ben Affleck doesn't even appear on my radar.)
- The Time Machine (1960)
As with The War of the Worlds, the older film version of this venerable story is the best one, with its charmingly primitive special effects and a convincing performance from Rod Taylor as a man who is at first awestruck and then horrified to behold what becomes of the human race in the far distant future. I especially like a minor subplot in this version that didn't make it into the recent remake, in which the Time Traveler's neighbor keeps watch over the TT's abandoned house for decades, waiting for his vanished friend to return. I'm a sucker for that kind of sentimentality...
- Ocean's 11 (2001)
Another heist picture, and one that has a lot in common with The Sting: a lighter-than-air tone, great chemistry between two appealing male leads, catchy music, and a warm 'n' fuzzy feeling when the job is successful. Endlessly fun.
- Blade Runner (1982)
And finally, rounding out the Top 25, a film that has acquired respect with age that it was denied when it was new. Once reviled, it's now seen as one of the classics of the genre. I didn't know what to make of the storyline when I first saw this sci-fi noir as a boy, but I was fascinated by the production design, which is, in my opinion, still the most convincing future world ever shown on the big screen. As I've grown older, however, I've discovered more and more layers of meaning within the murky plot. Harrison Ford delivers one of the most underrated, misunderstood performances of his career, and Rutger Hauer is tragically poetic as the synthetic man who only wants to live a normal lifespan. And no, I don't believe Deckard is a replicant, no matter what Ridley Scott says. How could the director miss the point of his own damn film? Sheesh...
I'll be back later with the rest of my list...