My Nine Favorite Films

Strangers on a Train

I cannot believe that I have been writing these Lists of 9 for almost fifteen years now - fifteen years! - and yet I have never written the simplest and most obvious list that a filmmaker could write. So I'm writing it now. My nine favorite feature films, more or less in order. (Which is to say, the order is firm at the beginning, then gets jumbled as the list goes on. After all, how can one seriously declare, "this here is my seventh favorite film"?)

  1. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951). I can commit to this one as my top choice for all time. Hitchcock's my favorite director because I find his creativity and humor endlessly rewarding. And the darker details of his life only enrich his best work. But whereas Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, et al get their due from cinephiles, Strangers on a Train is highly underrated. I think it's the director's funniest, most suspenseful, and perhaps most subversive work. As with the other entries on this list, I can watch it again and again, at any time.
  2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). The divisive Blue Velvet might be a controversial choice for my #2 spot, but I think it's brilliant. The mood, the colors, the music, the raw impact it has on a viewer's emotions and comfort level - it all works for me.
  3. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949). There are perfect movies that you like, and imperfect movies that you love. The movies you love all have that extra bit of personality - or eccentricity, if you will. The Third Man, for me, is a perfect movie that also has that eccentricity. An expertly crafted story by Graham Greene enacted by a cast tailor-made for their roles. Plus the rich details of postwar Vienna, Reed's wild camera angles, dry humor, and a score that consists entirely of Anton Karas and his zither!
  4. Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). It's hard for me to make a convincing argument for Blow-Up to today's moviegoers. You might very well find it nothing more than a curio, a dated depiction of Swinging London. (It's got mimes in it, for crying out loud.) But Antonioni's visual style is masterful, and the story's much-copied premise (about a photographer who accidentally shoots a murder) quietly gripping. There's a lot of layers here, and plenty of sexy '60s British girls to boot.
  5. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). Vertigo is such an unusual film. Yes, it can be slow. Yes, there are story points that don't quite work. But Bernard Herrmann's music! Jimmy Stewart's performance! The way Hitchcock and DP Robert Burks capture 1950s San Francisco! Mesmerizing. And who can deny the fascinating way in which the story inadvertently lays Hitchcock's own obsessions and desires out on the table? Not Sight & Sound, whose poll of critics recently named it the greatest film of all time, finally knocking Citizen Kane out of the top spot. Not that this matters to me, but there you go.
  6. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). You can have your Godfather, your Godfather II, even your Apocalypse Now. In my book, Coppola's true masterpiece is this low-key thriller, which also features Gene Hackman's best performance. (I'm not a big fan of Hackman, but he is terrific here.) More wonderful San Francisco moodiness - the city makes such a great setting for a movie, doesn't it? - and Coppola's original story is a perfect cohesion of plot, character, and theme. (I adore David Shire's bittersweet piano score, too.) Its examination of privacy and paranoia couldn't have been more timely: the film was released during the Watergate scandal.
  7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977). Now we're getting into murky territory, in that at least ten titles could easily vie for this list's final three slots. But Close Encounters scores extra points for nostalgia: watching it takes me right back to my childhood. Most folks prefer Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I believe this film reveals Spielberg (who also wrote the screenplay) at the height of his creative powers, before he became too overtly manipulative. And the pre-digital special effects are unsurpassed.
  8. Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957.) As suggested above, this time last year - or next year - I might have named an entirely different film for #8. But right now I find myself especially fond of this emotional rollercoaster about a lonely prostitute and the ridiculous people in her life, especially as Fellini's wry worldview was not yet infiltrated by his cinematic excesses. Nights of Cabiria is infinitely better than the dorky American musical it inspired, Sweet Charity.
  9. The Personals (Chen Kuo Fo, 1998 - released in the US in 2001). Definitely a film that moves in and out of my top nine, not because of how I feel about it, but because of how I feel about other contenders. (The short list includes The Innocents, Badlands, In the Mood for Love, Fargo, After Life, High and Low, and The Elephant Man.) Perhaps I want to include The Personals now because this Taiwanese drama, about the various dates a young woman meets through a personal ad, is quite obscure, and almost no one I know has even heard of it. But don't miss it. What seems at first an awkward romantic comedy eventually reveals its true nature. The results are devastating.