30 years is a pretty long time. In that time I’ve seen a ton of movies from a huge number of filmmakers, genres, and decided that today, on my birthday, I’d share my favorites with you, dear reader. After narrowing down the very few films I’ve given five stars on Letterboxd to just 30 (roughly) I tried to rank them. Eventually, I just settled on ranking the top five, the ones at the very the end of this list, and presenting the others in alphabetical order. Without further ado, here are the 30-ish best motion pictures that I think sit above all the rest.
Note: I will update this list when or if my top 30 ever changes.
James Cameron’s Aliens is a fairly big departure from Ridley Scott’s original, going from pure horror to more of a sci-fi action with horror elements. Luckily the change panned out, and the sequel is even better. It still manages to create similar feelings of fear and unease, but also expands upon the universe we saw in Alien. The cast is bigger too, including the unforgettable space marines played by Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, and Carrie Henn’s lovable Newt. Finally, there’s Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, one of the best movie heroines of all time. She’s not a trained soldier, but a survivor and protector who can kick ass when needed, and when she goes full momma bear in the last quarter of Aliens we get some of the most intense action ever filmed.
Superhero movies are my second favorite kind of film, and Avengers: Endgame is the greatest of them all. The finale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity Saga is an emotional roller coaster with larger than life battles, heartbreaking losses, cheer-inducing pay-offs, and bittersweet farewells for some of the continuity’s most beloved characters. A large portion of the people at the opening night viewing I went to, including myself, spent a huge chunk of Endgame’s three hour runtime either cheering, laughing, or crying, and I couldn’t ask for anything more from the MCU than what it delivered here.
The Big Lebowski
I’ve watched The Big Lebowski in its entirety more than almost any other comedy, and it gets weirder, funnier, and better each time. The outlandish characters like John Goodman’s volatile Walter or John Turturro’s totally bizarre Jesus, hilarious and endlessly quotable dialogue – I can’t count the number of times I’ve said “Yeah, well, that’s like, your opinion, man” in my life – and strange world somehow all end up generating the perfect blend of odd and endearing. It definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly mine.
Casino Royale (2006)
007 is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time, and his 2006 reboot is the finest film in the long-running series, mostly because of Daniel Craig, the best Bond yet. He might not be quite as suave as the previous versions (still classy as Hell though), but the more raw, badass reimagining is just what the character, and his audience, needed. Equally great are Mads Mikkelsen as the second coolest Bond villain so far, and Eva Green’s scene-stealing Vesper Lynd, the best Bond girl by a country mile. Add in some of the greatest fights and twists that the franchise has ever produced, along with the most memorable credits sequence of all the 007 films, and you’ve got the slickest action espionage thriller out there.
Die Hard is widely considered one of the best films in all of action cinema – or one of any genre – and I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. Bruce Willis skyrocketed to action icon status overnight with his portrayal of the wisecracking John McClane, an unorthodox action hero who goes through all kinds of danger to rescue his wife and her coworkers, just barely making it through several of the greatest action sequences ever put to film. And that’s before he even encounters Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, one of the most memorable movie villains of all time. Few movies have a hero or villain as incredible as McClane or Gruber, let alone one of each.
Also, it’s an awesome Christmas movie, I don’t care what anyone else says.
Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful, human, and emotionally devastating films ever made. The movie follows a young brother and sister struggling to survive in Kobe, Japan near the end of the second World War, and is full of soul-crushing, despair-inducing moments. It’s an incredibly poignant tale about the horrors of war that instantly sucks you in, getting you completely invested in the siblings’ journey. You wholeheartedly celebrate any semblance of a normal, peaceful life they find, and the moments of pain and sadness hit like nothing else I’ve seen. The only negative thing I can say about it is that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to handle a second viewing.
I’ve seen Independence Day upwards of thirty times by now, and that’s a conservative estimate. It’s just so damn entertaining! Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien invasion flick combines sci-fi action with elements normally found in disaster movies, features special effects that still hold up well to this day, and has a charming cast with off-the-charts chemistry. Will Smith, Bill Pullman, and the living legend/meme that is Jeff Goldblum lead the rest of the ensemble in a genuinely rousing, funny, and occasionally tear-jerking blockbuster that is among the best I’ve seen, and will probably will see.
I really struggled with my emotions as a kid, probably a little more than the average child, and that’s a big part of why I think this film about personified feelings is an absolute marvel. It manages to put a face (well, faces) on something as confusing and intangible as inner conflict in a much more meaningful way than the silly devil and angel on someone’s shoulders, and weaves an original, genuinely compelling narrative with it. Elevating it even further is one of the best voice acting ensembles of all time, and that magic, unmistakable, Pixar touch.
Jaws has been scaring people away from open bodies of water for almost forty-five years, and it’s still the definitive shark movie despite Hollywood producing a plethora of other films featuring finned fiends. Steven Spielberg’s direction, the brilliant cast, phenomenal practical effects and John Williams’ legendary score make it easy to see why Jaws became the first summer blockbuster and changed the way movies are made and released forever.
Side note: I still get a little uneasy at times If I can’t see the bottom of wherever I’m swimming…
I loved Jojo Rabbit the first time I saw it, and it has become even more impressive with rewatches. It’s one of the most heartfelt, funny, emotional, and beautiful films I have ever seen. It hilariously demonstrates the pointlessness of hatred, but also gives us more than a few moments that show the horrors and pain it can and has created in reality. Maintaining that balance of humor and humanity for a whole movie could only be achieved by a director of high caliber, but Taika Waititi makes it look easy by steering his incredibly talented cast to exactly where they should be, and portraying an imaginary Adolf Hitler – a character that could’ve easily killed the entire movie with just a single misstep – at the same time.
Kill Bill (both volumes)
In my opinion, this duo of ultra violent, ultra badass action flicks from Quentin Tarantino are his absolute best. The Kill Bills blend Tarantino’s unique direction and style with so many other things I love that wouldn’t mix well without the right talent both behind the camera and in front of it. They tell an engrossing revenge story that’s filled to the brim with homages to westerns, grindhouse pictures, martial arts flicks, anime, and are full of wild, colorful characters, most of whom are trying to kill Uma Thurman’s dangerously determined bride (one of the most badass characters in all of cinema) that you can root for almost every step of the way.
Léon: The Professional
Luc Besson’s crime drama, Léon: The Professional focuses on one of the most unique relationships in cinematic history, and it has some serious emotional oomph due to the acting prowess of its leading pair. Jean Reno and a 12-year old Natalie Portman deliver the best performances of their careers so far (sorry, Black Swan), building a rapport with the audience and each other during the movie’s calmer moments, and giving the explosive finale real stakes. Gary Oldman is also fantastic as the villain, a corrupt cop who serves as a perfect foil for the main duo. Maybe he should be the bad guy in every Besson movie?
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X were integral to the creation of the superhero film craze, so it’s quite fitting that their last film in the X-Men universe helped raise the bar for the genre one last time. While it certainly has the bombastic action sequences you’d expect from the series, Logan is more contemplative and character-focused than most films of its ilk, and a poignant final chapter for two of the most well-cast comic book characters ever. I pity whoever Disney and Marvel decide to cast as Logan and Xavier in the MCU.
Check out my full review of Logan Noir, a black and white version of Logan here.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The quality and prestige of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy is something all other fantasy novels have aspired to achieve since, and Peter Jackson’s adaptation of it set a similar, nigh-unreachable bar for films in the same genre. Even if they aren’t your personal favorite fantasy films, you can’t deny that Jackson was more than successful in bringing the beloved story of the fellowship and the One Ring to the big screen in all of its astonishing glory.
The Nice Guys
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are the funniest buddy-comedy duo I’ve ever seen, no question. Their on-screen chemistry, coupled with the pitch perfect writing of Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, ensures that The Nice Guys is an absolute riot each time I rewatch it, as I’ve seen it five times in the past three years and it’s lost nothing. It’s a hysterical comedy, an intriguing murder mystery, and a crazy action flick all rolled into one phenomenal package.
The Raid is a blood-pumping, hard-hitting, occasionally wince-inducing, top-tier action flick. Every single fight is an absolute knockout, and the level of tension the film builds to in between them is absurdly high. The movie does only what it needs to in order to get you invested in its protagonist, his fellow officers, and then throws them into a metaphorical meat grinder where virtually everyone in their immediate surroundings wants them dead. This gnarly, grueling fight for survival is nothing short of astounding, and shouldn’t be missed by any action junkies.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World meshes the aesthetics of comics and retro video games with the signature-style direction and humor of Edgar Wright, one of my favorite filmmakers. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a grand slam for its intended audience, and was vastly ahead of its time. Aside from one other movie, nothing else matches the feel of a living comic book like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The characters, camera work, and effects all gel perfectly with the offbeat humor, oddball world, and amazing soundtrack, resulting in something that’s so, so much more than the sum of its parts.
David Fincher’s Se7en is the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen in its entirety, stopping itself just before it becomes too unsettling to handle while never easing up on the overpowering darkness or tension. Talking us through it all are Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, who are unfathomably great as two detectives with extremely different styles and temperaments. They have very little in common, but are equally determined to catch their man, a twisted killer whose spine-chilling and… inventive methods of punishment sit right at the limits of human cruelty. Seriously, some of it has been seared into my brain forever.
Oh, and that finale? Dayum!
A Silent Voice
There are a handful of films that I’d recommend to people who don’t believe that anime can match the same heights as live-action films. For sci-fi fans, I’d go with Ghost in the Shell or Akira. For those who want a little whimsy, I’d suggest Spirited Away (more on that right below). For a coming of age story, it’s a A Silent Voice. It explores bullying, self-loathing, making amends, second chances, and in ways that are sometimes astonishingly beautiful, sometimes uncomfortably ugly, but always deeply sincere. Every time I watch A Silent Voice, it stays in my mind for weeks afterwards. The story, characters, and animation are all equally detailed, colorful, and impactful. It’s a stunning film, and one I cannot recommend enough.
Spirited Away is the best of the esteemed Studio Ghibli’s productions that I’ve seen, and in my opinion, one of greatest animated films ever made. The love and dedication to the craft of telling a great story through animation is present in practically every gorgeous frame of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy masterwork, and it hasn’t aged a day since I first saw it. This is the film that really opened my eyes to the phenomenal medium of Japanese animation, and one of the reasons I curse the ever-growing trend of CG animation that’s beginning to overtake hand-drawn work.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars will always hold a special place in the hearts of many, and I probably don’t need to tell you the odds of a new entry ever surpassing The Empire Strikes Back (although Rogue One comes closer to matching it than I thought possible). The battle of Hoth is still one of the best action scenes in the series, fan favorite characters like Yoda, Boba Fett, and Lando Calrissian debuted in it, and Darth Vader went from being just a good or great villain to one of the most iconic in fiction with only four little words. As papa Skywalker once said: “Impressive. Most impressive.”
The Strangers is probably the most underrated film on this list, and the scariest. Seriously, this is the only movie that instills so much genuine dread and anxiety in me that I struggle to go to sleep after seeing it, even on rewatches. No other film has made me feel so uneasy in my own freaking house like this home invasion flick, and I will continue to champion this hidden horror gem until it’s widely regarded as the masterpiece that it is.
Check out our Strangers double feature podcast episode here.
The Thing (1982)
The Thing is an enduring horror classic that stands among the best ever made. The practical effects have certainly aged a bit, the movie is nearly forty years old after all, but they’re still as effective and terrifying as anything that the best digital magic of today’s films can offer. Additionally, the story and titular extraterrestrial entity, one that can take the form and memories of anyone or anything it absorbs, allow for some of the most unnerving, paranoia-inducing moments in cinematic history.
Tropic Thunder is comedic gold from start to finish, and leaves me with my sides aching from laughter every time I go back to it. The amount of talent involved with it is downright staggering, and it shows in the final product. With its brilliant celebrity satire, surprisingly stellar action, hysterical dialogue that’s perfectly delivered, and the outstanding performances from the ensemble cast, Tropic Thunder brilliantly succeeds in practically everything it attempts to do.
And it has the greatest ending credit sequence in the history of film.
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel is astoundingly faithful to the source material, something that many thought was unadaptable. By only making a the slightest tweaks, Snyder was able to truly bring the comic’s gritty world and damaged “heroes” to life. It also doesn’t hurt that the cast is top tier as well. In fact, Watchmen introduced me to some of my favorite actors like Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and the unfathomably underrated Jackie Earle Haley. I think part of why I’ve been more forgiving of Snyder’s more recent superhero flicks, most of which received criticism for being too dark, is because I can always see bits of Watchmen in them.
You can listen to our Watchmen episode of Middle of the Row: The Podcast here.
And now, the top five:
Number 5: Jurassic Park
The first movie I saw in theaters was the Spielberg adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, and it served as the foundation for my lifelong love of film (and dinosaurs!). As a kid I was awestruck by the groundbreaking visual effects that were used to bring the park’s inhabitants to life – which still hold up fairly well today – and I grew to appreciate it even further as I got older and understood the more complex ideas, themes, and overall filmmaking behind it. What I initially loved as just a movie with dinosaurs eventually became one of my favorite works of science fiction.
Number 4: The Witch
The Strangers may be the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen, but The Witch is the best, something I only recently realized after watching them again back-to-back. It’s not as consistently frightening, but it set the new standard that I judge all slow burn horrors by. It isn’t outright scary until its final act, but it never lets you relax either. Instead of scaring you, The Witch keeps you uncomfortable at all times, creating an unsettling atmosphere through its cinematography, dialogue, and incredible cast, all used to full effect in order to completely unnerve you. It keeps you squirming in your seat until the finale, which releases all the built up tension and delivers an unbelievably terrifying, haunting conclusion that I can almost guarantee you won’t see coming.
Number 3: Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the biggest action stars in the history of cinema, if not the biggest. He’s headlined dozens of blockbusters since the early 80’s, but none of his other movies come close to matching James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the greatest movie sequel of all time. There are just so many things to love about it. The gunfights and chases are jaw-dropping, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is an absolute badass, and Robert Patrick is truly creepy as the more advanced, seemingly invincible, liquid metal T-1000, which used special effects that were mind-blowing at the time. Lastly, the decision to change the Governator’s T-800 from pursuer to protector was a stroke of genius, as it allowed the cyborg to build a believable bond with Edward Furlong’s John Connor that’s strong enough to make me… Get dust in my eyes every time I watch it.
Number 2: Gladiator
Gladiator is a nearly unrivaled masterpiece. Director Ridley Scott is at peak form here, as he gets the absolute best out of everyone in this action-packed, soul-stirring swords and sandals epic. David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson’s writing is incredible, and helped create a handful of my favorite scenes in any film. The score from Hans Zimmer, Lisa Gerrard, and Klaus Badelt perfectly suits each and every moment in the film, be it a chaotic battle or calm, yet harrowing dialogue. Leading the all-around amazing cast are Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, who deliver a pair of powerhouse performances and give us one of cinema’s greatest heroes and villains respectively. Gladiator gets my undivided attention each and every time I go back to it, completely enveloping me in the story. It gets me totally invested in the harrowing journey of Maximus Decimus Meridius again and again, and leaves me emotionally drained even after dozens of rewatches.
Number 1: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I had already thought of Martin McDonagh as one of the best writers and directors out there after seeing In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, but his third feature-length film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes his earlier two almost look weak by comparison. This black dramedy fluctuates between uproariously funny, genuinely touching, and heartbreakingly bleak without ever missing a single beat. It truly moves me every time I watch it. Frances McDormand delivers an unbelievably poignant performance as a grieving mother, with all of her (mostly) righteous anger and anguish resting just beneath the surface, Woody Harrelson gives the chief of police a balanced mix of stress and charm, and you could put a picture of Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon in a dictionary next to the word “layered.” That trio of talent alone would earn Three Billboards a spot here, but the rest of the cast is exceptional as well, making the most out of McDonagh’s astonishing, immaculate script. To me, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t just an amazing motion picture, it’s the best one ever made. The pinnacle of the cinematic arts.
You can read my full review of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri here.