Books and movies are transporting—they allow us to watch like a fly on the wall as both mundane and exceptional events unfold before us. They are entertaining and illuminating, and their impact on modern society cannot be overstated. For all of America's military might, its ideological influence and cultural clout are the true locus of its strength. So, what are some of the best movies ever made? Below we focus on feature-length films and pay special attention to critical and commercial successes. Some may pooh-pooh the Oscars, but they remain a valuable benchmark and record of progress in cinema. We'll look at what the Roger Eberts and Manohla Dargises have geeked over, touch on Rotten Tomatoes, and munch on some homemade popcorn. Let's hit play, shall we?
Perfect movies always have great writing, even when there's minimal dialogue involved. Screenplays are the bones of a film, and good directors know how to flesh the concept out. The best screenplays know how to pace a story to build tension and weave a narrative with universal themes that audiences care about and can follow. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is an excellent example of brilliant writing and direction. Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction (1994) are known for their dialogue. And 2010's The Social Network gave us the iconic lines: "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars."
Whether we're looking at otherworldly visuals or the achingly realistic, excellent cinematography can propel a movie into classic territory. Consider how Peter Pau elevated the martial arts period film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) with cinematically beautiful sequences. Or how Pan's Labyrinth (2006) juxtaposes realities with the clever use of color and deft camera work.
There are so many nuanced performances by skilled actors it's challenging to rank them, but a few have contributed to equally wondrous movies. Think Jack Nicholson's improvised line "Heeeere's Johnny!" in The Shining (1980), Natalie Portman's transformation in Black Swan (2010), or the highly-decorated method acting of Daniel Day-Lewis in films like There Will Be Blood (2007).
Ask the average moviegoer to name the best film composers; the first name they'll say is Hans Zimmer. Zimmer's success in crafting scores and making original music for movies is evident in the sheer number of genre-spanning classics he's given sonic shape to, from Disney's The Lion King (1994) to Gladiator (2000) and Interstellar (2014) to name a few. He's been in good company with the likes of John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, ET), Alexandre Desplat, Ennio Morricone, Dario Marianelli, and others at the top of their game who bring inimitable aural magic to the cinema.
According to the Film Magazine, Sight and Sound, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) is the best film of all time, but have you ever heard of it? Loads of the top films on critics' rankings are unwatched or entirely unheard of by the masses. Indie and arthouse masterpieces that are beloved by film connoisseurs but draw a blank with most people include Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939), Federico Fellini's 8+1⁄2(1963), Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), and the pearls in Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman's filmographies.
The epic historical romance Gone With the Wind (1939) was the highest-earning film for 25 years after its release. These days, the highest-grossing films, so-called blockbusters, draw crowds to movie theatres with promises of buttery popcorn and easily digestible, escapist, and computer-generated content. The sci-fi and fantasy genres have dominated at the box office in recent years, and franchises are popular too. Superhero movies, space operas like Avatar, stunt-heavy action flicks like Furious:7, the magic, and mystery of the Harry Potter world, and computer-animated musicals like Frozen are favored above all else. These profitable films combine art and technology to stunning effect and enter everyday conversation, which is a pretty powerful place to be.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes lets you see the contrast between what critics and audiences think about a particular movie. You know you're in for a significant treat when there's alignment between the two camps. The comedy musical Singin' in the Rain (1952), for example, has a rare 100% critics score and a similarly high audience score, as does the 2008 documentary Man on Wire and the Pixar animation Toy Story (1995).
There are movies that break social taboos, and then there are films that push the boundaries of what cinema can accomplish. Here are just a few examples of each. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), Dead Poets' Society (1989), and Brokeback Mountain (2005) interrogated social conventions and changed what could be depicted in mainstream cinema. With regards to technique and tech advancements, these elements stand out for their time: the color in The Wizard of Oz (1939), the CGI in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), the Wachowskis' bullet time VFX in The Matrix (1999), computer-controlled motion capture in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), and the non-linear narrative in Memento (2000).
Every movie has its naysayers. Sometimes, there's just no consensus, and movie watchers agree to disagree on whether a film was a flop or a cult classic. Darren Aronofsky's allegorical film Mother! (2017) has been a part of this discussion since it came out, and the Best Picture Oscar winner Crash (2004) divided critics too. A film like The Birth of a Nation (1915) is at once racist propaganda and a technical achievement.
It's always fascinating to watch a thoroughly successful movie only to find there was chaos behind the scenes. Take, for example, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The post-apocalyptic movie won numerous accolades, but its two stars, Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, had serious bad blood between them during production thanks to the latter's tardiness on set.
Now that we've covered the basics, we can look at nine movies that have thrilled critics and movie watchers alike. These films have occupied spots on various lists of the greatest movies of all time because they combine many of the core building blocks discussed above. Conceptual synergy is evident, and audiences watch the credits having been moved irrevocably. The forthcoming descriptions are spoiler-free.
Charlie Chaplin's star power and creativity is unparalleled. The man was a force of nature responsible for multiple crucial elements of his movies, including writing, producing, scoring, editing, and, of course, acting. There were questions about the movie's commercial potential because it was a silent film during an era when sound was becoming more common. But it did fabulously well. City Lights is widely recognized as one of the best American movies ever made.
Casablanca blended comedy, romance, and intrigue, and its renown has only grown with the years. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1943 during the Golden Age of Hollywood—Michael Curtiz won Best Director, and the writers were honored for their adapted screenplay. Casablanca was one of the first films chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Psycho is an Alfred Hitchcock classic, and the one most people know because it's probably the first slasher film ever to be made. The Oscar-nominated movie pulls the rug out from under the audience's feet very early on and explores mental illness in a haunting fashion. It'll give you the creeps and leave you thinking about Anthony Perkins's performance for days. The shower scene and score are legendary too.
The Godfather is the father of the mobster genre—this OG mafia movie took the careers of Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Marlon Brando to new levels. The film won multiple categories at the 45th Academy Awards and marked the beginning of a successful gangster trilogy. It's certainly a GOAT contender and makes you an offer you can't refuse.
If we had to choose one movie to show alien invaders, it'd probably be this epic romance and disaster film. James Cameron's modern classic is one of the most commercially successful movies ever made, and it skyrocketed Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet to A-List status. Lines of dialogue like the one where Rose compares herself to an enslaved person haven't aged well, but the movie's grand ambition and scale remain as impressive as ever, and its emotional palette covers every human feeling. Titanic received the most Oscar nominations ever. P.S. the stirring James Horner score lives rent-free in many millennial minds.
The third Lord of the Rings installment is tied with Titanic, and Ben Hur (1959) for the most Oscar wins ever—11, to be exact. This fantasy epic is arguably one of the most rewatched movies in the world. Fans of Tolkien's trilogy were generally pleased with Peter Jackson's LotR adaptations, which is a win in itself, as book lovers are notoriously hard to please. The Hobbit trilogy was less well-received, although viewers still felt like they were in Middle earth. The motion capture tech that transformed Andy Serkis into Gollum was a big talking point in the early 2000s.
When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on the 2022 Oscars stage, viewers zeroed in on the celebrities' reactions in the crowd. It had only been five years since the last gossip-worthy reaction shots emerged from the ceremony. In 2017, the audience was scandalized when it was announced that Damien Chazelle's La La Land had not won Best Picture after being declared the winner. Cue the Ryan Gosling giggle. The award of the night was meant for Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, a delicate depiction of masculinity and homosexuality with an all-black cast and a young black director at the helm.
Yes, The Dark Knight is a superhero movie. But it's also a Christopher Nolan film, which means it's as cerebral as they come. Heath Ledger's portrayal of the most well-known comic book villain, the Joker, won him a posthumous Academy Award.
Richard Linklater's vision comes to life in this exceptional movie, filmed over 12 years. With stellar performances from industry veterans Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, remarkable realism, and a protagonist who grows up before your eyes, you won't soon forget Boyhood.
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