My Top Films of All Time

Top Ten Films

My top films of all time (in no particular order):

Kirk Douglas Woody Strode Spartacus
Kirk Douglas about to fight Woody Strode in "Spartacus"

1.  Spartacus (1960)
After some problems between the first director and star Kirk Douglas during the first couple of weeks of filming, Stanley Kubrick came in and polished off this gem in one of the best relief jobs in film history (Victor Fleming taking over for George Cukor in "Gone With The Wind" probably gets that nod). Kirk Douglas was never better, and Jean Simmons and Laurence Olivier were simply brilliant. "Spartacus" is epic saga that deserves to be seen on a big screen.  There are no "perfect films," and there are a host of complaints about this one about accents, acting. action and so forth.  But this film is epic in every sense of the word. Everybody remembers "I am Spartacus" and perhaps the battle scenes, but the essence of "Spartacus" is the extremely proper romance between Spartacus and Varinia, played by Simmons. How Simmons could hit the ball out of the park not just in "Spartacus" but also in "Elmer Gantry," both released in the same year, and not get the Oscar for Best Actress for either is one of the enduring mysteries of Hollywood. Incidentally, "Elmer Gantry" easily could fit onto this list as well, let's call it No. 11 of my Top Ten.

North by Northwest
Carey Grant under pressure in "North By Northwest"

2.  North By Northwest (1959)
"North by Northwest" is the absolute peak of perfection by Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant, with amazing supporting performances by Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau.  Several classic backdrops, including Grand Central Station, the UN, and Mount Rushmore, give the actors enough scenery to chew on for the entire film.  Set the stage for numerous rip-offs and the entire James Bond franchise that quickly followed.  Quite possibly the single most influential (and under-rated) film in history.

Peter O'Toole Lawrence of Arabia
Peter O'Toole as "Lawrence of Arabia"

3.  Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Peter O'Toole is simply stunning, and there are equally good performances from Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and several others.  The stunning desert scenery enhances a classic tale with unexpected twists and turns, and it is good history as well.  Peter O'Toole came up with the famous knife scene, above, all on his own, on the spot.  Oh, and I don't know why everyone calls him "Oh-rence," either!

Orson Welles The Third Man
Orson Welles flashes his winning smile in "The Third Man"

4.  The Third Man (1950)
Orson Welles manages to dominate this film even though he is only in it for a few scenes.  His introduction, though, is without question the best in film history, and his other scenes aren't much below that.  Joseph Cotten carries the rest of the film, and the zither music alone is reason enough to catch this at every opportunity.  The final scene is one that is immortal in cinematic history and can never be topped.  This one turned into a regular cottage industry in the 1950s, with a TV series, radio series, and the like.  The famous zither music by Anton Karas, a WWII Vet discovered in a wine bar, forms the most unique and intoxicating soundtrack in film history.

Orson Welles Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, a broken man, in "Citizen Kane"

5.  Citizen Kane (1941)
It is fashionable to look down a bit on this film, at least relative to its reputation in the past.  One gets the feeling that it has remained atop all those lists for all those years through sheer inertia.  "What is the correct answer on the test for best film of all time?  Oh, right, "Citizen Kane."  However, the tragic tale of a poor boy's rise and fall, corrupted by the world around him until ultimately redeemed only in his last breath, is the backdrop for Orson Welles' display of ultimate mastery as a director and actor.

Clark Gable Vivien Leigh Gone With The Wind
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in "Gone With The Wind"

6.  Gone with the Wind (1939)
For some reason, "Gone with the Wind" almost never shows up on "Best" list, perhaps because, at heart, it is considered a "woman's" film, or perhaps because some of the racial relationships portrayed are considered a bit dicey today (though I don't think Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel had too many complaints about that, and Martin Luther King, Jr. went to see the premiere in Atlanta with his dad).  Or perhaps it is a regional thing, with Northern moviegoers just not as enthusiastic about a film that essentially glorifies the South (though not the Confederacy per se).  Or, maybe it's just too damn old a film, though that doesn't hurt Citizen Kane in most lists).  Regardless, there are several reasons why it should be respected and honored, even putting aside the fact that it is "damn" entertaining.  This is one of the earliest technicolor films, and it has been viewed by more people than any other film in history.  It features beautiful performances by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh that display the downfall of the South in a way that never has been topped.  There is room on a Top Ten list for a sentimental film, and this is the one.

Darth Vader Princess Leia Star Wars
Darth Vader in a defining moment of "Star Wars"

7.  Star Wars (1977)
To those of us old enough to remember this film's release, there is no "New Hope" nonsense.  This film changed cinematic history, turning science fiction into something exciting and fresh with the addition of fantasy.  Harrison Ford is perfect as the swashbuckling renegade who manages to save the universe in his spare time, while Carrie Fisher is iconic as the damsel in distress that he rescues from the evil clutches of Darth Vader.  This film changed Hollywood in any number of ways, not least the value placed on merchandizing, so a generation of toy makers has a lot for which to thank George Lucas.

Lee Marvin The Dirty Dozen
Lee Marvin wielding a weapon in "The Dirty Dozen"

8.  The Dirty Dozen (1968)
This is another one you won't see on any other "Best" list, but I like it, so here it is.  If you want a man's film, with humor and insight into the human condition thrown in as well, look no further.  Career performances from Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas and John Cassavetes lead us through a wartime expedition that is exciting until the final scene.  No contrived happy endings here, to survive a war, you have to go through hell - and even then, you sometimes don't make it.  The scene at the end where the bunkers underneath the French chateau were blown up was horrifying in its implication, and nobody comes out of this unscathed, just like in real life.  Lee Marvin thought this film was a big joke, but he was entitled, having helped invade several islands.  It may be over the top in places, but that's what Hollywood does best.

Marlon Brando The Godfather
Kissing the Godfather's ring in "The Godfather"

9.  The Godfather (1972)
Marlon Brando carries this film, but everyone else around (James Caan, Robert Deniro) him is perfect as well. This tale of mobsters on the make led to the slew of mob films that followed, and was equaled only by its own sequel. As usual, the great films also have a great soundtrack, and this is one of the best. "The Godfather" is chock full of classic quotes that entered the lexicon, such as, "I'm gonna make him an offer he won't refuse." I would include "The Godfather II" if you want to watch this, but you can safely skip "The Godfather III."

Shuttle space station 2001 A Space Odyssey 1968
The shuttle approaching the half-completed space station in "2001: A Space Odyssey"

10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
"2001: A Space Odyssey" is more a tale of philosophy and introspection than it is one of science fiction. The science, though, was astounding for the time and still dazzles. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this film is how closely it predicted certain real events, such as the space station and shuttle, and the uncanny way it made outer space seem like just an extension of mother earth (which was precisely the intent of using top classical music associated with the earthly realm, such as Strauss' "The Beautiful Blue Danube"). Some day, the world will catch up to Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's vision, but it hasn't yet. This influenced and advanced so many films (e.g., "Star Wars" and "WALL-E") and careers (e.g., Douglas Trumbull and Ed Bishop) that it can't be ignored.

I could talk about these films all day.  The list is a bit biased, I admit - several war films, two science fiction, two Orson Welles picks - but it is what it is. Each film means something special and personal to me, for different reasons. Nothing too controversial, and I could certainly substitute in a few films here and there. If you are looking for the best of American cinema, though, you won't go wrong with any of these.


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