I’ve divided these into pairs that I feel go together for thematic reasons, or because of a shared genre, style, actor, country of origin, ect. They’re in no order – it’s hard enough to make a list of films I love, much less decide which ones I love more! Here are the first 10.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
I’ve always found this film strangely romantic with its soft, rosy lighting; snow-dusted landscapes; and its offbeat, tender characterizations. Julie Christie and Warren Beatty have an understated chemistry that is perfectly suited to the music of Leonard Cohen. The final shootout rivals some of the best traditional Westerns, but the film’s humor and openness about sexuality and pleasure fully set it apart from the genre. It gently subverts all expectations with a focus on the quiet beauty found within the hard life of miners and prostitutes, its tragic ending, and the strength of the female voice in a genre which long excluded them.
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
A hypnotic and violent spiritual journey towards death, with moments of overwhelming beauty, and very dark humor along the way. An eccentric and extensive cast is anchored by Johnny Depp, iconic in appearance and subdued in manner, as William Blake, a possible reincarnation of the poet. The film is dense and layered, at times psychedelic and twisted, but immediately accessible and engaging due to fine performances and stunning black and white photography. It too spins all genre tropes on their heads, from its accurate and complex portrayal of Native American characters, to the fusion of elements as diverse as Romantic poetry and rock and roll music into the bleak, bloody landscape of the Old West.
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
As Cabiria, Giuletta Masina gives an unforgettable performance that ranks among cinema’s most haunting and sympathetic. The clownish prostitute suffers humiliation and heartbreak in her quest for love, yet retains her strength and positivity. Although her appearance is striking and odd, and her journey through the underbelly of Rome bizarre at times, her loneliness is palpable, truly relatable. The character lingers on long after the end of the film in the heart of the viewer, like a beloved friend.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
Filmed mostly in closeups of Renee Falconetti’s tearful and rapturous face, perhaps no other film has achieved such intimacy with a character purely through image. Her performance is so powerful that at times it becomes extremely difficult to watch the trials she suffers for her faith. But it is that faith which keeps her strong in the face of death, making this deeply affecting cinema even for hardened religious cynics. A starkly beautiful film that turns a historical tragedy into a searingly personal experience.
Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
This nightmarish exploration of identity, desire, and addiction is staggering simply on the merit of Jeremy Irons’ dual performance as twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly. He embodies each of their distinct characteristics perfectly, so that it becomes simple to tell them apart at a mere glance, despite the similiarity of their appearances – and the fact that they share a job, an apartment, and women. Genevieve Bujold as the disturbed actress who upsets their dynamic is also incredible in what could be a throwaway role, as the film shifts to the disconnect in the twins’ harmony after one of them experiences love. Cronenberg tones down his usual gore and horror here, allowing the film’s performances and themes to unsettle on their own, although good luck getting that one scene out of your head.
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Almost nauseating in its intensity at times, Aronofsky’s portrait of four drug addicts is also remarkable for the sympathy it creates for its broken characters. The rapid editing and camera tricks can be overwhelming, but they place us firmly in the perspective of people whose lives are spiralling out of their control. Unable to find peace within themselves, they destroy their relationships, bodies, and souls, yet the film never condemns them. The performances are so skilled and insightful that their pain jumps off the screen. The overall effect is extremely harrowing, a symphony of shattered dreams that builds to an unbearably tragic climax accompanied by Clint Mansell’s incredible score.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
I really wish I had seen this for the first time as a child. The colors, the excitement, the charmingly dated effects – they inspired as sense of awe in me that I can only imagine would have been greatly amplified 15 years ago. The pace and mystery are maintained throughout all the intersecting storylines, culminating in the joyful finale. It’s refreshing to see a science fiction film that is propelled by wonder and curiosity, not fear and danger. The final product may be slight, but it’s an expertly crafted ride and a great testament to movies as pure entertainment.
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Without any real narrative, the images and sounds in this film project its themes and ideas clear as day. The juxtaposition of the natural world and the constructions of human society is always around us, but Reggio’s lens amplifies the imbalance and the danger of ignorance. People sleepwalk down city streets, never connecting with the earth that provides for them, that is ancient and mighty and alone. It’s not preachy, but powerful, because of Philip Glass’ amazing score that soars with the camera and chants in a primordial tongue a warning for a world that is falling apart.
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
One of Pixar’s finest efforts – a bright, colorful adventure full of hilarious and endearing characters. The “rescue mission” narrative is given new life when set in the gorgeous reefs off the coast of Australia (and in a dentist’s fish tank). There is plenty of great and unexpected voicework to be found here, but Ellen Degeneres as Dory, a fish with no short-term memory, is probably the funniest character in an animated film, ever. Beyond the humor, the film has real pathos in the touching father-son relationship between Marlin and Nemo, and the friendships formed during their adventures as they struggle to reunite.
A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)
A zany, madcap comedy with a ridiculously plot and even more ridiculousluy hilarious performances. It’s not concerned with much other than getting laughs, but it succeeds wonderfully in that regard. Kevin Kline won an Oscar for his work here, but Michael Palin and John Cleese are just as funny. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a scene that made me snort harder than Cleese dancing around naked and speaking Russian. Dammit, comedies are hard to write about.