Here’s a strange thing.
As usual I was debating movies with a friend a couple of weeks ago and was asked for my top ten list of films. Nothing odd there - we film geeks are often arguing films back and forth endlessly, it comes to us as naturally and reflexively as breathing, but I don’t think I’ve actually been asked to compile my top ten favourites before - and it’s such a basic, ground level question, all things considered.
What’s even stranger is that I was without too much thought, to compile the list. I’ve considered a list many times but always ultimately dismissed the notion because ten is such a relatively small number with little leeway, and some favourites and deserving classics just have to be dropped. So - I kept it simple.
These films I’ve chosen aren’t on the list for any reason other than I like them. They all mean something to me. I haven’t used some film snob pseudo intellectual reasoning other that they mean something to me personally. They’re not the ten greatest movies ever made, here because of their contribution to the art of cinema.. They’re not the ten most esoteric movies you’re never likely to have seen outside of an art house. In fact - what this is, is my personal top 10 personal enduring classics that, if you watch them, you’ll understand me a whole lot better. Surprisingly to some, they’re not ALL horror or sci-fi. These are films from across the board that I turn to and rewatch for no other reason than they exist and they’re as comfortable and well worn as a favourite pair of jeans - and to me - are great.
If you’d like to know more about them or make the purchase (which’ll result in a kickback of money from Amazon to keep this site running) I’ve provided links. Needless to say - all of these are recommended.
They’re in no particular order, other than the number one which I’ve saved for last.
10) Halloween (1978)
Much as I liked Rob Zombie’s remake, or reimagining, or retelling, or reboot, or reinvention - nobody, not even the mighty Zombie, could surpass the sheer awesomeness of John Carpenter’s classic original. If I’m ever asked (and I do get asked) what’s my favourite horror film of all time - the answer is this one. Halloween. Head, shoulders and butcher knife above the rest.
I had been a horror film fan since before my teens, and I’d caught up with the Universal classics from the thirties and forties on late night TV showings. Hammer back then was pretty hardcore, and I’d seen most of their output. Proper horror, to me, was the Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Cushing, Lee and Price classics. I hadn’t seen a lot of the later movies that were released (this was pre home video) - but I caught a showing of Halloween one February night on TV in 1981. It must’ve been the first time it was shown. I recognised the title from a back issue of Starburst (funny how things go around in life) and associated it with a photo I’d seen in the magazine of a dead girl on a bed with a tombstone leaning on the headboard.
Several things struck a chord with me as I saw it that first time. The music. Surely the best nerve tingling horror movie music ever composed. The way the film is set in ordinary suburbia with a killer on the loose, seemingly killing at random. This was horror that could happen on your street. No Transylvanian castles, mad scientists, monsters, mutations or superstition. Just a guy in a William Shatner mask and a boiler suit with a large knife and a bad intention. Yet despite this - the film is gore-free. This film isn’t a bloodbath.
From the subjective slaughter of a young girl being murdered from the point of view of the killer to the revelatory opening shocker the murderer being a young child, the film never lets up. It’s a film that needs to be rewatched to catch, for example how many times Myers is watching somebody through a window in the background of a shot, but you don’t know he’s there until he moves. Or how casually he strolls after a fleeing, screaming Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) because he knows he’s going to get her - and that confidence is perhaps the most chilling element of all. The notion that your death is inevitable in the eyes of the person pursuing you.
The ending caught me completely off guard that first time and if you haven’t seen it .....
He’s shot, falls off the veranda and he’s gone? I was expecting to see his corpse there on the lawn, but he’s gone and he could be anywhere. This was the first time I’d seen an ending like that, because when I was watching the Universal and hammer movies - the audience saw the demise of evil in the final reel and left the movie happy. The Frankenstein monster would be destroyed, Dracula would be staked, a well aimed silver bullet would solve the problem of the Wolfman - but John Carpenter wouldn’t give us that zone of comfort. Michael Myers was still stalking his victims and with Dr Loomis’s bullets in him, was probably more pissed than ever.
9) True Grit (1969)
I love westerns. Let’s just get that out there. In fact, here’s a bit of personal trivia - Bo, our border collie was actually named after John Wayne’s horse in True Grit.
One of my fondest memories of childhood was being allowed to stay up late whenever there was John Wayne film playing on TV. I also remember my father taking me to see El Dorado at the (now sadly gone) Palladium cinema in town when I was about eight. I remember a trip to a cinema in Liverpool with my older sister, I must’ve been around 12 to see Wayne’s then latest The Cowboys and being stunned that Wayne’s character was killed about two thirds of the way in the movie. I remember being saddened seeing The Shootist where Wayne plays an ageing gunfighter, dying of cancer who wants to go the way he lived - in a hail of bullets at a final gunfight. In fact, I watched The Shootist again just the other night, and choosing between it and true grit is kind of a tough call, but ultimately, True Grit is Wayne’s enduring legacy and in my opinion, the finest western either he, or anybody else ever made.
His playing of the irascible, unscrupulous, shoot first, ask questions later, heavy drinking lawman Rooster J. Cogburn earned him a well deserved Oscar, and the part suited his larger than life screen persona like a glove. On the trail of a band of outlaws, he finds himself allied with young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) and an idealistic, swaggering Texas Ranger, LaBeuf (Glen Campbell).
I was reading the memoirs of Wayne’s widow and she told the story of the movie’s action high point, the scene in the clearing where an outnumbered Cogburn charges at the outlaw gang picking the bad guys off with his pistol in one hand, his rifle in the other, horse’s reins in his teeth. Despite having lost a lung to cancer a few years earlier and being in discomfort from the high altitude of the location, finding it hard to breathe - Wayne wouldn’t have a stuntman do the scene for him. He did that entire sequence himself, and it was done in one take.
I saw the remake by the Coen Brothers last summer and I have no need to see that movie again. It didn’t really add anything to the story. Jeff Bridges is a fine actor, loved him in Tron, The Great Lebowski, Starman and Iron Man, but all the film did was redo what Wayne had delivered with director Henry Hathaway 43 years earlier - without CGI rattlesnakes and animatronic horses.
8) Free Enterprise (1998)
Here’s one you may not have heard of. One of my favourite TV programmes is The Big Bang Theory. Hey, I can relate - okay? But before there was Big Bang, or Fanboys, there was this. The original comedic geek saga
It’s an independent movie, kind of semi autobiographical in nature about two friends who are geeks. Both are idealists. One is a film editor whose life is an unending treadmill of debt and power cuts because he’d rather buy action figures and laser discs (this was just on the cusp of the DVD era) than pay the rent or his utilities bills, while the other writes for a geek magazine and lives in fear of turning thirty. Both treat Star Trek as a kind of near religion. They bump into and ultimately befriend their idol, William Shatner who has a notion that he wants to do a one man musical rap version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (part of which he performs in the film) Love him or hate him, I’ve always had respect for Shatner’s ability to poke fun at himself which he does here.
The dialogue is riddled with references to Star Wars, Star Trek, sci-fi, comics, cartoons - all the culturally best things in life, as are the closing credits.
It’s a film that I tend to watch a couple of times a year - and it never fails to make me smile or raise my spirits. It’s not quite as laugh out loud as the Big Bang Theory, but there’s something about it that assures its place on this list. If nothing else, it showed me that there were other people out there somewhere who had the same cultural imprinting and aspirations as me and that’s always reassuring.
7) Frankenstein (1931)
Growing up, I was lucky. Through sheer chance, I was able to see the classics in some kind of chronological order. I saw the original Frankenstein before I saw Hammer’s way more lurid - and in colour - Curse of Frankenstein. (Not that that colour would’ve been a factor back then - we had a black and white TV). Those creaky old classics, full of melodrama and pathos, churned out by Universal Studios between 1930 and 1945 are simply the best. And the best of the best was James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) but it all started four years earlier with Frankenstein.
The tradition of a crazy scientist, the essential lab scene during a storm, the trappings of a cool monster movie in the classic sense, it all started here (There was an earlier version in 1910 by Thomas Edison’s film company - but the monster portrayed by Charles Ogle was the creation of sorcery more than anything else from the accounts I’ve read.).
Think of it - it was 1931, when the previous year the horror film that stirred the nation was Dracula - a sometimes plodding and uneven film based on the stage play. Twelve months later, the relatively genteel Dracula gave way to a film that featured grave robbing, vivisection, body snatching and blasphemy. (Though this latter was cut from the original release, when Henry Frankenstein claims he knows how it feels to be God. Restored now though.)
Then, there was Boris Karloff - a B movie player who shot to fame with his portrayal of a mute, misshapen creature reaching out for the sunlight. You ask a person, any person, any age, to draw the Frankenstein monster and I’ll bet pounds against pennies that the result will have a square head and bolts through his neck. Not a bad cultural imprint for a film made 81 years ago, and testament to the make up genius of Jack Pierce. And yes - I confirm when I was a kid, I did indeed check to see if we were related. It would’ve been beyond awesome to have someone that cool in the family. Sadly, it was not to be. In its time, the look of the monster was a closely kept secret, and was considered so alarming that Karloff was led to and from the set with a towel over his head in case one of the production assistants who was pregnant at the time saw him and miscarried. True story!
From my viewing of this in my pre-teens, I was introduced to actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and the really fantastic likes of Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback, the Invisible Man and a whole host of others.
There are bloodier versions, there are certainly versions which stay closer to the morality fable of the original story by Mary Shelley - but there are none as memorable or as influential as the one made in 1931.
6) Jaws - (1975)
Sometimes, someone will ask me who my favourite director is, and since the seventies - the top name on the list hasn’t changed, and I doubt it ever will. Please step forward Steven Spielberg. (Really, who else could it have been?) Spielberg at his best does what he does better than anybody else in the business, and he’s been doing this since he brought Peter Benchley’s pot-boiler of a small tourist town terrorised by a shark to the screen.
I’m not saying that Jaws is Spielberg’s best - Close Encounters is the best UFO encounter movie you’ll ever see and was released 32 years ago. Indiana Jones movies are untouchable as far as timeless action and adventure goes. I never understood why E.T was snubbed at the Oscars, in fact - the only time Spielberg stubbed his creative toe, in my opinion, was when he had the perfect foolproof project of remaking Peter Pan. I still shudder at Hook. That was just ugly.
But Jaws was something new, fresh and exciting. I guess it was the first summer blockbuster in the sense that we know them today. We all know the story, but is there anybody out there who doesn’t STILL jump when the head suddenly comes into view under the boat?
Even the alternating use of a small person in a scaled down shark cage with a real shark attacking it and a full sized animatronic shark on an underwater rail works well - I was lucky enough to see that original animatronic shark on display on a visit to Universal Studios several years ago. That thing was BIG. (And I don’t mean the one on recently retired Jaws ride - which, incidentally I also, unsuprisingly loved)
There are sequels, sure, and there are other shark movies, both fantasy based like Deep Blue Sea and more reality inclined like Adrift and The Reef - but nothing comes close to the raw power of the original, which pitted ordinary everyday people against a true killing machine in its own element. "We’re gonna need a bigger boat". Indeed.
5) Rear Window (1954)
So, if Spielberg is my top director. Who’s at number 2? Well, a close second is the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock, like Spielberg, had the ability to place ordinary people in extraordinary situations. He also had a gift for trying out unusual and innovative techniques to bring the stories to life - in Rope for example, the entire film is composed only five takes, and is all filmed on the one set - with a cityscape backdrop that gradually gets darker as evening sets in. The result is that the edits are so cleverly placed, the film is one smooth motion with no cuts.
Rear Window is broadly similar in many ways - James Stewart plays a housebound character, a news photographer who is in a wheelchair following an accident. Bored, he looks out of his apartment window and starts watching his neighbours. Not the healthiest of pursuits - but then he becomes convinced that the guy living directly opposite has murdered his wife. Obviously nobody will believe him, so he has to prove his case, while being in the vulnerable position of being virtually immobile.
Cleverly, the camera never once moves out of the apartment, even when Stewart’s girlfriend (Grace Kelly) goes to the apartment to investigate, we see her plight and the tension mounts because were still with Stewart in his apartment, looking though binoculars and feeling as helpless as he is. I’ve always liked James Stewart as an actor, his earnest demeanour was well used in films like Harvey, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but I don’t really think that his talent or screen persona was ever better used than by Hitchcock is Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and most importantly Rear Window.
There are scarier Hitchcock movies - Psycho being the prime example - but if you really want to see the master of suspense at the top of his game - seek out Rear Window and I guarantee you’re in for a treat.
4) Clerks (1994)
I went through a phase of enjoying movies about slackers, and had caught up with Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Pretty much like Free Enterprise, I saw a geek movie written by a geek for geeks, and thus was my introduction to Kevin Smith the writer/director and the guy who plays Silent Bob. Kevin Smith has, to my mind, the perfect lifestyle. He writes and directs movies, starring his friends in a kind of stock company, he has written, among others, acclaimed story arcs for DC and Marvel comics - no stranger to Batman or Daredevil. He is responsible for a range of best selling books, he owns his own comic book stores, does regular podcasts, has released several comedic "An Evening With Kevin Smith" DVDs - the list is ongoing. Basically, Smith is one of us done good.
Clerks was his first foray into film making in his native New Jersey, and is kind of semi autobiographical, set in a convenience store run by Dante (Brian O’Halloran). His buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson) mismanages the video store next door. The film is a day in their lives as they abuse, offend and annoy customers, exchange fast moving dialogue with some comical insights on movies they barely tolerate a couple of drug dealing slackers who insist on hanging out side the shop (Jay - Jason Mewes and Silent Bob - Kevin Smith) and still have time to play a game of hockey on the roof of the building while dealing with girlfriend issues and a corpse in the men’s room.
The film plays like one of those fly on the wall so-called reality shows, and is shot in black and white - which gives it more of a documentary feel. It’s one of those comedy films that’s funny because it’s true - we’ve all met people like these - and even the people they routinely insult and belittle are taken from reality. We’ve all seen them. The crazy woman who takes ALL the milk cartons out of the chilled cabinet looking for the best before by date being a prime example.
Dante and Randal would, in time progress to a sequel - in which they work at a fast food joint and are just as irreverent to the customers there as they are here, but if you want to see early Kevin Smith making his mark on the world of cinema with an indie movie that was made for not much more than small change - look no further.
3) War of the Worlds - 1953
This came as a surprise. I was about ten years old and this came on TV on a Sunday night. I seem to recall thinking it was a war movie, as in WW2. I had no idea that it was in actual fact a science fiction movie about invading Martians. I remember seeing the opening montage as we were taken on a whistle stop tour of the solar system as Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s sombre tones explained why the Earth was the planet of choice for the Martians to invade. Then the meteorite landing outside a small American town, the three men being obliterated to dust with the fearsome heat ray - the manta ray war craft of the Martians relentlessly destroying all in their path - until the germs got them. It made a huge impression, especially the sight of some of the world’s best known sights like the Taj Mahal with its roof caved in.
What was even better was that I found out soon afterward (remember, I was only ten) that the film was actually based on an acknowledged classic of English literature. Living in a house where science fiction was deemed trashy, this was a weapon I could use to justify my growing obsession - especially when the book was serialised in an abridged form in an educational magazine I was told to read to try and wean me off those God awful comic books.
I’m pretty sure that it was the first full blown alien invasion film I ever saw. It would not be the last, oh dear me no.
2) King Kong - 1933
Where on Earth do I start with this one?
This, literally was where it all started for me.
I was eight, I saw this, again on TV - and the impression it made is the reason you’re reading this website today. The second I saw this film, I had found my goal. My mission. Eight year old me knew that it was all make believe - but eight year old me wanted to know how the illusion of having a giant gorilla scale the Empire State Building was achieved. So, from that, I guess it was the first effects heavy movie I saw. From this, I started reading about effects at a time where there were very few books about the subject, and of course - no internet. This was 1968.
I began collecting magazines that had articles about all this stuff, and started to map out all the really cool stuff that was out there - and all of it led me to building my film collection, amassing memorabilia, establishing this website, reading (and eventually writing for) Starburst magazine. Essentially, if it wasn’t for the Eighth Wonder of the World - I wouldn’t be the me that I am today. I’d be somebody totally different.
And it’s not just me - there are a lot of industry people who saw Kong as an inspiration at an early age. Ray Harryhausen, Rob Zombie, Greg Nicotero, Rick Baker to name just a few.
It was the perfect film. It had everything, action, adventure, mystery, dinosaurs, heroism, jungles, monsters.
I saw Peter Jackson’s remake on the night of its opening - and though part of me was dreading seeing what they’d done to my beloved Kong - the result didn’t disappoint me, and I found I was perfectly happy with the remake. I discovered that liking the remake didn’t diminish my appreciation and fondness for the original. BUT if the remake rocks - the original rocks harder and it always will.
So - you’ve read this far, it’s time to unveil my favourite film of all time. Drum roll please - and you might as well slap the 20th Century Fox fanfare on there too.
1) Star Wars (1977)
Come on. Could it possibly have been anything else? It HAD to be Star Wars. No, NOT Episode IV A New Hope". STAR WARS. The movie I saw in January 1978. I don’t care how many sequels or prequels George Lucas makes. It doesn’t matter how many times George Lucas tinkers, adjusts or tweaks this movie - it will ALWAYS be called Star Wars to me. Do NOT even consider getting all assy and in my face and correcting me with the title, I will rip your larynx out and stomp it into a pulpy mess. Chances are I was watching this film before most of you were even sperm - and back then, kiddies - it was called Star Wars. Subsequent re-releases and the decision to go ahead with The Empire Strikes Back was basically when that title card just before the crawl was subtly altered.
So why is it here? It’s not the best of the franchise - that’s easily "Empire". But Star Wars is a classic. It was the right film at the right time. All of a sudden, the oddball stuff that was more or less exclusively my province became mainstream - and even cool.
It’s as derivative as hell and gloriously so, shamelessly ripping off the dogfights of war movies, the gunfights of westerns, the swordplay of samurai films and chucking them into space in an undetermined time. It may well have been a long, long time ago - but they’re still far advanced of us. It’s the hero’s quest, the little guy against the juggernaut machine of faceless oppression - and it’s a fast moving action adventure with the broadest appeal possible to the greatest age span imaginable.
You, like me were there, enthralled in ’78 (or ’77 for the American release) ? Chances are particularly high that you’re still a fan despite approaching middle age. Despite endless and needless cosmetic changes, (and no - Greedo never shot first, George - Han did. And another thing - shooting Greedo under the table didn’t make him look like a coward - it made him the coolest mo’fo in the galaxy) as I was saying, despite the idiotic and annoying egotistical changes Star Was has endured over the 35 years of its existence, it’s still sheer cinematic magic to generations of us who embraced the Force back then and still do today - without a Midichlorian in sight. (Really George - what the hell were you thinking?)
If you haven’t seen Star Wars, my question is simple. Why are you here?
Copyright © 2010 - 2012 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.