My 12 Favorite Films, and Where to Stream Them (Part 1 of 2)
Revisiting my personal cinematic canon for 2020, and for shut-in season
The other day, my mom asked me if I would do a “Top 10 Things to Stream During the Shut-In” kind of list, to which I initially groaned. It’s a list seemingly everybody with any sort of online presence has been doing in recent weeks, and I frankly find it kind of a weird exercise. With the internet at one’s disposal, it’s not like one’s set of options is limited. If you know which streaming services to use, if you’re willing to pay a few bucks here and there for rentals and purchases, and especially if you’re willing to cast aside the shackles of capitalism and pirate some obscurities, you’ve got a very large swath of the history of moving images at your fingertips. And that, to me, seems like way too big and unwieldy a ‘category’ to cut down for the purposes of a Top 10 list.
But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that this perfectly describes any kind of personal all-time ranking: To survey the whole of film history and pick which films most represent you as a viewer. And maybe now, as we’re all cloistered in our homes with an unusual amount of time on our hands, is indeed the perfect time to make such a list.
So instead of making what is specifically a Coronavirus shut-in viewing list, I thought I’d polish off something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and update my Top 10 Films of All Time list – and tell you where to stream and access all of them from the safety of your (hopefully virus-free) home! The first time I did this list was in 2012, for the publication of my 2013 book Fade to Lack; the next was in 2017, for Episode 200 of The Weekly Stuff Podcast. I completely changed the 10 films between those two lists, and I like the 2017 version a lot better because of it. After all, in between the two, I earned two degrees in Film Studies and was on my way to going after a third. I’d learned, and changed, a lot.
It’s been almost three years since then, and I’m happy to say I’ve kept evolving and discovering. There have been a few adjustments to that list I’ve been really itching to make, and I was also excited to play around a bit with the format. I’ve expanded the list to 12 films from 10 this time, because when I attempted to whittle it down, I found myself with an utterly grueling, unbreakable 4-way tie for the last 2 spots. 12, after all, is just as arbitrary a number as 10 to limit things to, and if the purpose of this ranking is to set out a personal canon that says something about my cinematic values and taste, this feels like the most honest collection of films to accomplish the task. I have also decided not to rank these films by preference; the purpose of this list is the overall canon it lays out, not a hierarchy between which films matter most to me. They all do, and in different ways.
So without further ado, here are my 12 Favorite Films of All Time, along with some thoughts on why each is here and some pointers on where you may find these fine films if you’d like to get to know me a little better, through the films that mean the most to me (hint: you’ll probably want a Criterion Channel subscription).
The Apu Trilogy
(India, 1955, 1956, 1959; Dir. Satyajit Ray)
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955)
Aparajito (The Unvanquished,1956)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)
Why is it on the list? Because Boyhood is stupid and Satyajit Ray did it infinitely better than Richard Linklater with many fewer resources 60 years earlier.
Okay, that’s a flippant answer, but bear with me: When Boyhood, Linklater’s 12-year-long experiment into filming the same actors/characters over time as they aged, came out in 2014, the amount of praise for it was insufferable, not only because there’s not a lot of substance there beyond the experimental gimmick, but because even if there was, Linklater was hardly the first to do something like this. There’s the entire history of television, for one, but there’s also this enduring three-part masterwork of independent Indian cinema by the great Satyajit Ray, which chronicles the life of a boy named Apu from his time as a child in a remote rural village to an adult with a son of his own in Calcutta. Ray doesn’t do the gimmick of filming the same boy over a number of years – Apu is recast in each film, culminating in Ray stalwart Soumitra Chatterjee giving a stunning performance in the third feature – but instead builds his films upon beautifully observed character work, deeply empathetic storytelling, and a poetic visual lyricism reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu and the Italian Neorealists, but with a painter’s eye that was all Ray’s own (his sketches and storyboards for the first film, Pather Panchali, are available as a standalone book, and are some of the most visually stirring documents in film history).
Dropping the Boyhood comparison, I like to describe The Apu Trilogy as a coming-of-age Job story, about a boy growing into a man and learning what it means to be human by losing everything along the way. These are not joyous films, but they are deeply, profoundly human ones, bursting with wells of detail and empathy that will guide any viewer towards a fuller understanding not only of another culture, but of their own hearts and minds. They are three of the greatest films ever made, must-sees for all lovers of film the world over, and after the historic restoration they received from The Criterion Collection a few years back, they are more accessible than ever before.
Availability: All three films are currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Each is also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu.
(United States, 1931; Dir. Charles Chaplin)
Why is it on the list? Because of that beautiful, perfect, captivating, utterly transcendent ending, culminating in one of the single most enduring, immortal images in the history of film (seen above).
It’s not just because of that, of course, but in splitting the tie between all of Chaplin’s other masterworks, that’s probably the deciding factor for me. City Lights was all the first Chaplin feature I watched (after being exposed to a few of his shorts in classes), and it just bowled me over. Like all of his films, City Lights is alive with masterful physical comedy and wells of warm humanity, strung together with a poetic playfulness that keeps Chaplin’s work alive nearly a century later. But while I love all his silent features, from The Kid (1921) to The Gold Rush (1925) to Modern Times (1936), and some of his later sound films like The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) are incredible as well, none of them have the ending of City Lights, where Chaplin leverages that iconic visage of the Tramp into this beautiful little parable about being seen, and about where identity and human value reside. It is one of the great movie endings – credit, too, to Virginia Cherrill for her side of the scene, and her remarkable performance throughout the film – and only elevates the already masterful 90 minutes preceding it. City Lights is as timeless as films get.
Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu.
(Japan, 1949; Dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
Why is it on the list? Because Yasujiro Ozu is the greatest director who ever walked this earth, and Late Spring is his greatest film. The story of a daughter (the great Setsuko Hara, in her defining role) who does not want to get married and leave the side of her widower father (Ozu’s stalwart leading man, Chishu Ryu, in his most affecting work), Late Spring is, like all of Ozu’s films, a work of rich cultural specificity and boundless human universality. It is the film that taught me to love Ozu, after I initially bounced off of Tokyo Story; in the summer of 2012, I did not want to go back to college, and leave my ailing father’s side in his final months. He insisted I must go on with my life. After his death, I saw Late Spring, and though I am not Japanese, am not a woman, have never been pressured into an arranged marriage, Ozu’s penetrating observations on the human condition left me feeling so profoundly seen. I love every inch of Ozu’s vast, rich filmography, but it’s the miles comprising Late Spring – from that rapturous country bike ride to that haunting, endless Noh performance – that I love the most.
Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes and Amazon.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
(New Zealand, United States, 2001 – 2003; Dir. Peter Jackson)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Why is it on the list? Because I would be lying to myself, and to you, if these films were not here. For a very long time, after all, I called The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as a collective entity, my favorite movie of all time, including on the 2012 version of this list. In some ways, they still are. Their place in my life was muddled over the past decade, as there was a period, following the death of my father, when I had difficulty revisiting them. He was the one who introduced me to Tolkien, and who took me to see each film in theaters, and who bought me the DVDs when they came out – twice, theatrical and extended – and my perception of the films was and is too wrapped up with memories of him to fully disentangle. The release of the atrocious Hobbit films, from 2012 to 2014, did not help matters.
And thus I left The Lord of the Rings off this list when I recompiled it in 2017, a choice borne less out of apathy to the films, which I still loved, than a pain I felt in going to back to them, a wound I was not yet ready to reopen. But last year, my friend Sean Chapman and I revisited each film for The Weekly Stuff Podcast. Those episodes – #277 for Fellowship,#290 for The Two Towers, and #296 for Return of the King– are three of my favorites from the life of our show. In revisiting the films, re-reading the original Tolkien novel (including, for the first time for me, every last word of the Appendices), and talking through all of it with Sean, I fell in love with The Lord of the Rings all over again. I fell in love with their scope, their imagination, their heart, their mastery of cinematic storytelling and deftness of adaptation, their boundless visual ingenuity, their deep well of all-time great performances and character creations, and their timeless, transcendent musical scores by Howard Shore, which remain the gold standard of American movie music not composed by John Williams. These three films are, simply put, some of the grandest and most accomplished visions ever committed to film, and nothing approaching their ambition has been attempted in Hollywood since. There may well never be anything like them again, so beautifully do they straddle the line between old-school physical epics and modern CGI wonderment. These films are majestic, larger than life. They hold an outsized position in my own heart, and whether or not they are still my ‘favorite’ film – a question I do not, in truth, know the answer to – it would be dishonest to give them anything other than a place of honor here.
Availability: The theatrical cuts of all three films are currently streaming on Netflix. The theatrical or extended cuts of each film are available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu, separately or in bundles. I personally prefer the Extended Editions, but either is recommended and if you have never seen the films or read the books, the shorter theatrical cuts might be the ideal place to start.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
(France, 1928; Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer)
Why is it on the list? Because if you put a gun to my head and forced me to say what I think is the single greatest film ever made – the kind of question that stereotypically elicits answers of Citizen Kane or Vertigo – I would blurt out The Passion of Joan of Arc, and feel pretty good about the answer I gave to save my life. That’s a preposterous and unanswerable question, of course, because ‘best’ is so inherently subjective and no scholar, let alone me, truly has the depth or breadth of knowledge to make such a bold proclamation. Still, if I were forced to give such an answer, this silent-era dramatization of the trial of Joan of Arc would be it. Never has history felt more vividly, powerfully alive on celluloid, and rarely has film itself been put to more emotionally confrontational use.
It has been said that the close-up is the soul of cinema, the ultimate mark of what distinguished film from prior dramatic forms like theater; if so, then Dreyer’s Joan is cinema’s soul come to life, a film constructed upon stark, penetrating close-ups, often from striking and unusual angles, that make the extremity of Joan’s anguish – and the depth of her spiritual belief – feel unrelentingly palpable to the viewer. This would not be possible, of course, without the legendary work of Renée Falconetti in the title role, given what might well be the best dramatic performance in the history of the cinematic medium. Falconetti’s work feels less like acting and more like spiritual possession, and every unique and innovative stylistic choice Dreyer makes feels like it stems outward from her revelatory effort at the film’s center. And as one of the undisputed pinnacles of cinema’s pre-sound days, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a beautiful example of why the great silent films weren’t great in spite of their absence of synchronized sound, but becauseof it; an account of Joan’s martyrdom this emotionally and spiritually rich could not be produced with dialogue or sound effects fighting for supremacy over the visual element (many attempts have, of course, been made). There are some films on this list I will freely admit are more esoteric or in need of certain cultural or historical context for the average viewer to enjoy; but I would recommend The Passion of Joan of Arc to anyone. You may not come away agreeing with my answer to that impossible question – what is the best film of all time? – but you will, I think, fully understand why I’d be prepared to stake my life on it.
Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes and Amazon. On the Criterion Channel (as on the Blu-ray and DVD editions released by Criterion), there are two versions available: An 81-minute version running at 24 frames-per-second, and a 97-minute version running at 20 frames per second. Frame rates during the silent period were variable and not wholly standardized as they are now. There are continuing debates over which presentation best reflects Dreyer’s intentions, but I personally prefer the longer 20 frames-per-second version, which I am convinced best conveys the film’s cinematography, performances, and pacing (the piano score by Mie Yanashita that accompanies this version is also my favorite accompaniment for the film, though the Voices of Light oratorio by Richard Einhorn which sometimes accompanies the 24fps version is quite rapturous in its own right, and absolutely worth experiencing). The Criterion Channel also has a very good featurette comparing and contrasting the two versions and explaining the debate between them, which is worth watching to help inform your viewing experience.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(United States, 1980; Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Why is it on the list? Because I think I have seen Raiders in theaters more times than any other movie, despite it coming out 12 years before I was born. Raiders has been a big part of the retrospective circuit from when I was a kid all the way up to today, and I made a point of seeing it every time any theater in Denver got a print as part of their rotation. I have seen the movie on 35mm so many times that, when the Blu-ray came out, or when I saw it projected digitally in a theater for the first time, it just felt wrong to me. There’s something about a beat-up old film print – not just the dirt and scratches, but also that slight wobble, the cigarette burns on reel changes, the way natural light in the sky blows out over time – that I love in general, but which suits the serial throwback magic of Raiders particularly well. A crystal-clear, perfectly cleaned-up digital image just feels wrong to me on this one.
There aren’t a lot of movies I have attachments to that run so deep, and when I do – like with the aforementioned Lord of the Rings – it’s often because of an additional emotional component that blends with my love of the film itself. Not so with Raiders – beyond seeing it a crazy number of times in theaters, there’s no big personal story with this one. I just think it’s flat-out one of the best-made films of all time, from anywhere in the world, a ridiculously skillful miracle of pop filmmaking with a voracious hunger by all involved, rife with brilliant character creations, expertly economic and propulsive plotting, and the most inspired, virtuoso directing of Steven Spielberg’s incredible career. I could teach an entire Intro to Film Studies class on nothing but Raiders of the Lost Ark, because every topic we go through there – Narrative, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Genre, Mise-en-scene, Auteur Theory, etc. – is emblematized in the excellence of Raiders. And it might be one of the only films genuinely fun and rewatchable enough to sustain such an exercise.
Availability: Currently streaming on Netflix. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. In all cases it is now available under the title “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is a small but noteworthy revisionist travesty, both because it sounds terrible as a title, and because it makes no sense: Indiana Jones is one of the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and that’s a key theme of the movie!
So it turns out there are length limits on these posts, and I can’t fit the entire piece into one email! Make sure you also look to Part 2, which is going out around the same time, to get the other 6 films on the list!