30 years is a long time, and that’s how long I’ve been around. In that time I’ve seen a whole lot of movies from countless filmmakers in every genre, 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, you can check them out here, to just 30 – although I may have cheated with an entry or two – I tried to rank them. Eventually, I just settled on ranking the top five, the ones 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 (very rarely) update this list when and 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.
The tale of John McClane’s battle against the terrorists at the Nakatomi Plaza is widely considered to be a benchmark action flick, and you won’t hear anything different from me. Bruce Willis skyrocketed to action icon status with his portrayal of the wisecracking, adaptable McClane as he went through the ringer to rescue his wife and her coworkers, just barely making it through several of the best 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.
It’s also an awesome Christmas movie, I don’t care what anyone else says.
District 9 is a stellar example of science fiction that put both its director and star, Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley respectively, firmly on my radar. D9 uses the talented actor who fits the lead role perfectly, solid world-building and extremely unnerving, grotesque body horror to tell a tragic, violent story and point out real issues that plagued, and still plague our world today. They said “three years” in 2009, so where the Hell is my sequel?!
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is a master work of science fiction. The trio of Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac have the combined acting talent of an entire ensemble, the visual effects used to create the the robotic Ava are astonishing, and the writing, also Garland’s, is impeccable. It’s also worth noting that Ex Machina will probably grow even more impressive and unsettling as our technology becomes more sophisticated.
Grave of the Fireflies
Don’t let the fact that it’s animated fool you, 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 completely sucks you in, getting you completely invested in the siblings’ journey, and praying that they can endure the harrowing hardships thrust upon them long enough to find any semblance of a normal life. 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 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, genuine, compelling narrative with it. Elevating it even further is one of the best voice acting ensembles of all time, and that magic 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, but it became even more impressive with rewatches. It’s one of the most heartfelt, funny, emotional, and beautiful films I have ever seen. It hilariously explores 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 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. The also tell an engrossing revenge story that’s filled to the brim with homages to westerns, grind-house 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 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.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Fury Road is essentially a two and a half hour chase sequence full of breathtaking practical effects, and is easily the best movie in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max franchise. In addition to the non-stop action, the vast majority of which is completely INSANE, Fury Road pairs Max, played by the exceptionally talented Tom Hardy, with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who is arguably the lead character and also one of the most badass action heroines to grace our screens in decades. I don’t care if it’s a sequel or a Furiosa spin-off, I just need more of this craziness, and I need it soon.
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.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World blends the aesthetics of comics and retro video games with the unmistakable, stylish 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 so far ahead of its time. Aside from one other movie, nothing else matches the feel of a living comic book like Scott Pilgrim. The characters, camera work, and effects all gel perfectly with the offbeat humor, oddball world, and amazing soundtrack, resulting in something that’s 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 darkness or tension. You can see the stress and disgust oh so slowly eating away at Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s detective duo as they search for an elusive, twisted killer whose spine-chilling methods of punishment sit right at the limits of human cruelty. And that finale? Dayum!
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 finest work, and it hasn’t aged a day. This is the film that opened my eyes to the world of Japanese animation, and one of the reasons I curse the ever-growing trend of CG animation that’s overtaking 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 scared to be in my own house like this home invasion flick, and I will continue to champion it until it’s widely regarded as the horror 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 turns 37 in two days after all, but they’re still as effective and terrifying as the best digital magic of today’s films. 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 cinema.
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, the 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 credit sequence in the history of film.
Until a couple of years ago, Watchmen was my favorite superhero movie of all time. The Zack Snyder adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel is astoundingly faithful to the source material, only making a few tweaks – one of which I think is an improvement – and does an unbelievable job at bringing the comic’s gritty world and damaged “heroes” to life. The cast is damn-near perfect as well, and it 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 see bits of Watchmen in them. If HBO’s upcoming Watchmen series is half as good as this, it’ll be a success in my book.
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, 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), and 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 somehow makes his earlier two look weak by comparison. This black dramedy fluctuates between uproariously funny, genuinely touching, and heartbreakingly bleak without ever missing a single beat. It genuinely 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.