When life doesn’t afford one the time to come up with original blog posts, what does one do? Why, steal the good ideas of others, of course. I’ve recently discovered a podcast called Filmspotting, and been enjoying their latest episodes on my commutes to and from work. A delightful mix of reviews, interviews, analysis, and silliness, my favorite feature is the weekly Top 5 List. As a fan of movies and Best Of Lists myself, I thought it would be fun to play along with the hosts in their futile attempt to constantly remember and rank their personal greats. Below are the lists pertaining to the episodes I’ve heard so far. From here on out, I hope to keep up with the podcast as much as possible, as well as add in a few older archived lists every so often.
Before we begin, a few ground rules and disclaimers:
1. This is my own personal list, and not meant to be in any way definitive. I am not arguing that these are objectively the best movies, or even the best in the respective category. Frankly, there are a ton of great movies that I have yet to see (as I’m sure will become apparent as soon as I start publishing these things) but I will not list any movies that I haven’t seen. If there’s one I’ve missed, please recommend in the comments! The great thing about lists like these is that they spark discussion and further watching.
2. Just to elaborate on the above, this is a favorites list. I very rarely like movies which I feel are low quality, so I can assure you that my lists will be made up of movies that I at least think are worth watching. However, this does not obligate me to include any movies considered to be in the canon. Case in point: I am aware that Citizen Kane was directed by its star. But you know what? If I don’t love it, it’s not making the cut. Sorry.
3. The podcast hosts have instituted pantheon and penalty box categories, in which movies that have been mentioned too many times are ineligible. I am not going to worry about this for the time being, seeing as this is a new exercise to me and I don’t want to limit my options too much. I’ll try to keep it varied.
4. As I said before, I want to keep this interactive! Leave your opinions in the comments below, and go check out Filmspotting for more!
5. Honorable mentions are movies I considered including but which missed the cut for one reason or another. If you want elaboration, just ask.
6. Though mostly about movies, in order to broaden the conversation a bit I’ll also include (where applicable) an honorable mention from tv or literature.
The directors must be a star, or at least have a strong supporting role, to qualify. No cameos allowed.
1. Annie Hall – Woody Allen
This, my favorite Woody Allen and one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, earns the number one spot for the perfection with which Woody Allen blends his sensibility, performance, and direction. This movie was written and made by him, about him, and for him, and yet I never feel as though it’s in any way inaccessible. When Alvy addresses his audience through the fourth wall, he is supremely confident that somehow his neurotic and self-absorbed rambling will make sense to us all, and he’s right.
2. Braveheart – Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart deserves its place for the energy which it must have took to make, if nothing else. This is an ambitious and extremely well-executed piece of work. Dodgy history though it may be, Gibson’s directorial stamp is all over the look, feel and mood of the film. It is one of those movies that I find moving and stirring no matter how many times I watch it. Though perhaps a little self-indulgent (and which of these actor/directors can’t be accused of that?) Gibson gave a great performance in a great movie. And I dare you to find a better score.
3. Waiting for Guffman – Christopher Guest
Of all the Christopher Guest masterpieces, Waiting for Guffman uses his acting skills to best effect. He leads the pack as Corky St. Claire, delivering a flawless performance, all the while directing a large ensemble of actors (not to mention a film crew) who have no written dialogue. For any who are new to the Guest movies, I highly recommend this hilarious and sweet movie.
4. Unforgiven – Clint Eastwood
After Clint Eastwood became an icon of the screen, but before his movies started politicizing and moralizing, he brought a great story to life in Unforgiven. This movie combined the best of Clint’s ability to play the brooding loner cowboy and his technical skills as a director to not only make a disturbing movie but also help bring about the revitalization of the movie Western. Though an homage to classic Westerns and in some ways affectionate towards them, Eastwood didn’t shy from depicting its dark and depraved depths, both in Gene Hackman in scary mode and in the “hero” himself. I have only seen Unforgiven once, but it left a clear and unshakable impression on me, and I think Eastwood has yet to beat it.
5. Garden State – Zach Braff
For a first time writer/director, and as an actor known mainly for tv, Garden State isn’t half bad. Actually, it’s pretty freaking great. The script is smart and funny, and Braff’s personal touches completely work with the time and place. When Sam recommends The Shins to Largeman, asserting that the song “New Slang” will change his life, I remember thinking in the movie theater, “No song can possibly live up to…oh wait, he found it. Well played, Mr. Braff.” This movie came out when I was in my senior year of high school, and it hit me in the perfect way at the perfect age, largely thanks to Zach Braff’s excellent acting and direction (not to mention writing).
Honorable Mentions: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones), The Life of Brian (Terry Jones), Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh), This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner), Blazing Saddles/Spaceballs/High Anxiety (Mel Brooks), Pulp Fiction/Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino), The Ides of March (George Clooney), Best in Show (Christopher Guest), Zoolander (Ben Stiller)
TV/Book Pick: Though not as applicable with tv, authors sometimes write themselves as characters in their own work, my favorite example being William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. In this story within a story, he casts himself as a novelist abridging his favorite childhood book in order to reclaim it for his un-literary son and a wider audience. His self-deprecating and quirky personality make him as memorable as any of the “fictional” characters.
1. Shadow, Chance and Sassy – Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey
I could seriously start bawling just watching this clip right now. Spoiler alert. God, I love that music.
2. Babe – Babe
Another one of my seminal childhood favorites, Babe is another plucky animal hero who goes to great lengths to prove his loyalty to his owner. The dance scene perfectly encapsulates how even the most reserved of us will go to ridiculous lengths for them in return.
3. Verdel – As Good As It Gets
The adorable puppy Verdel serves as the bridge between Jack Nicholson’s prickly Melvin and Greg Kinnear’s sensitive Simon. Though Melvin begins the movie by shoving Verdel down the garbage chute, the fact that Verdel ends up loving him anyway seems to serve as a cue to the audience to look past the hostile exterior and start loving him, too. Though Verdel isn’t a protagonist in the same way as Babe or Chance, his ability to accept Melvin gives him a certain agency in the movie, and he becomes more than just a cute pet but a character in the story.
4. Toto – The Wizard of Oz
Toto is far less of a developed character than Babe, or even Verdel, but gets brownie points for being one of the most iconic and recognizable pets in movie (or storytelling) history. When we find ourselves out of our depth, it is his name we invoke.
5. Wanda – A Fish Called Wanda
Wanda the Fish has neither character nor agency, but she does claim the titular role and has the honor to have been swallowed whole by Kevin Kline in one of the funniest movies ever made. And Michael Palin’s character Ken sure did love her, which must count for something.
Honorable Mention: Hedwig (The Harry Potter films)
TV/Book Pick: The scene of Walt telling his lab Vincent to “go back” in the Lost episode “Exodus” is one of the best gut-wrenching “saying goodbye to your pet” scenes that I’ve ever seen. Honorable mention also goes to the Stark children’s awesome direwolves in A Song of Ice and Fire/HBO’s Game of Thrones.
This category is a little hard to define, but it seems to be predicated on the idea of different representations of the same character, preferably played by a different actor: i.e. not twins, older and younger versions, etc.
It seems to me that the idea of the doppleganger has never been done as cleverly, artistically, and with such complexity and creativity as writer/director Todd Haynes in I’m Not There. Was that enough adjectives for you? This movie is an impressionistic rather than a literal biography of the great Bob Dylan, with six different actors portraying six different aspects and phases of Dylan’s life, persona and career. For all its highfalutin conceptualism, this movie is remarkably coherent and watchable, and Haynes uses all the actors and story lines to good effect in exploring Dylan’s work.
2. Fight Club
For anyone who’s seen it, this one’s obvious. For everyone else, suffice it to say that Brad Pitt and Ed Norton play polar opposites who become united and discover that they have more than a little in common. This is one of the greats, and a lot of the credit goes to Pitt and Norton and their ability to play off and around each other.
Though a departure from form in that Gwyneth Paltrow plays both halves of the whole, I think Sliding Doors deserves a spot for the way in which it explores the possibility that we are all our own dopplegangers, haunted by the versions of ourselves that we could have been. How’s that for a philosophical meta-comment? Here’s the real noodle-cooker that the movie presents: Which version is the truer or the better?
4. The Prestige
I wouldn’t have considered Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige a doppleganger movie if not for one of the hosts of Filmspotting choosing it for his top 5, but now I can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier. The movie is obsessed with twins, doubles, split personalities and personas. As with some of my other picks, Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman don’t play the same character in a literal sense but are certainly driven by the same obsessive and dangerous goals. Not only do we have the split between the main characters, but those who have seen the film know that each of the main character has at least one other doppleganger of his own as well, complicating the story infinitely. This is a dark, creepy, and wonderful gothic film, and gives me the goosebumps that good dopplegangers should.
5. The Departed
Like The Prestige, the Departed is more figurative than literal, but has the same connection between two similar men on opposing sides. What gives this story that extra special twist is that each character is on the wrong side of the fence: Charming rat Matt Damon is working his way up the State Police hierarchy, while honest yet uncouth Leo DiCaprio sweats it out among the Irish mob. The dynamic between the two sides is riveting, and the more the lines are blurred the more interesting Scorsese’s movie becomes. The tension when they finally speak over the phone is fantastic.
Honorary Mention: Black Swan, Moon
TV/Book Picks: Where to begin with this one? Almost every monster/hero combination in literature: Frankenstein/Creature, Jekyll/Hyde, etc. There are literal dopplegangers in Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. In tv-land, Lost’s Jack and Locke are obviously two halves of the whole, but are also echoed by Jacob and the Man in Black. Just compare this scene from season 1 with this from the closer of season 5.
This category requires the character to display both charisma and leadership qualities. Good leaders lacking in personality do not qualify, nor do merely charming people. I found that many of my picks and mentions have quite questionable goals, but manage, through force of personality, to convince a large group of people to go along with their hare-brained schemes.
1. Ed Wood – Ed Wood
Edward D. Wood, Jr. must have been one of the most charismatic oddballs in history. This guy wrote, directed, and starred in tons of awful movies, and is now largely considered the worst director to ever practice the medium. Whatever his legacy, there is no getting around the fact that he convinced people with money to support him, and actors and film crews to work with him. Johnny Depp mixes his own charm plus (by his own admission) the added enthusiasm of Casey Kasem, the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, and the gentle sing-songy sweetness of the Tin Man to create the powerhouse that is Ed Wood. The scene chronicling the filming of Glen or Glenda in which Eddie shirks doing a second take due to the perfection of his work, then flees the nearby cops, perfectly showcases the crazy things this guy convinced others to do. Ed Wood may not have had good ideas, but he had the conviction of them.
2. Tyler Durden – Fight Club
Like Ed Wood, Tyler Durden does not inspire his followers to admirable acts, but there is no denying his charisma. Caught up in the moment by his overwhelming personality, Tyler’s speeches on the depravity and emptiness of being a gen-X’er in the shallow and commercially driven mid-90’s make a horrible sort of sense. It is only after Project Mayhem has spun entirely out of control that it occurs to the Narrator (and probably to the audience) that Tyler may not in fact be the best role model. This movie features Brad Pitt at the height of his power, and remains one of his most likable and compelling performances.
3. Queen Elizabeth I – Elizabeth
Though there are fewer leadership roles in Hollywood for women than for men, when I think of charismatic actresses who can also convey strength my mind immediately goes to Cate Blanchett. Though a reluctant leader shoved into the most powerful seat in the world, Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth I of England learns her job on the fly through her intellect, resourcefulness, and strong personality. She proves herself capable not only of keeping her crown and her head, but of earning the respect of her court and subjects.
4. Bart – Blazing Saddles
If ever there was an unlikely hero, it’s Bart: The newly appointed sheriff of an old-timey western town who just happens to be black. In Mel Brooks’ hilarious and daring western spoof, Cleavon Little needs every ounce of charm he possesses to win the respect of his townsfolk. These folks (or, as Gene Wilder calls them, morons) certainly don’t give Bart an inch, and its by his own efforts that he earns their trust and saves the day from the baddies.
5. Andy – The Shawshank Redemption
Another classic character who starts from the bottom of the barrel and works his way up is Andy Dufresne in the magnificent adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Shawshank Redemption. Tim Robbins plays Andy with such quietness, decency and dignity that he stands in stark contrast to everything and everyone around him, prison inmates and guards alike. Led by his best pal Red, we gradually see every character come to respect Andy. While this causes reverence in his fellow prisoners and it leads to fear in the corrupt Warden, no character remains unmoved and unimpressed by Andy. For good or ill, Andy is a force to be reckoned, belied by his mild-mannered demeanor. His long-suffering nature and the concern he shows for his friends make Andy one of the most beloved of screen heroes: I can think of few characters who more deserve a happy ending.
Honorable Mentions: Ed Bloom (Big Fish), Corky St. Claire (Waiting for Guffman), Morpheus (The Matrix), Gandalf (Lord of the Rings), Cpt. Mal (Serenity), Olive (Little Miss Sunshine), Westley (The Princess Bride)
TV/Book Picks: Though not a long-lost king like Aragorn or a man’s man like his brother Boromir, The Lord of the Rings‘ Faramir earns his leadership cred through charisma alone. Heck, when he first shows up in Gondor even Pippin declares himself ready to follow him into battle. Though Captain Malcolm Reynods didn’t quite make the cut in the movies, luckily he also qualifies in tv. Firefly’s Mal is the very definition of the words charisma and leadership.
I hope that these lists provoke some thought and discussion. If you enjoyed it, leave some recommendations in the comments below, compile your own lists, and definitely check out the Filmspotting podcast for more.