Everybody has a list of favorites, and everybody thinks their opinion matters. And, every now and then, I am one of these people. Who am I? Well…uh…just look at the “about me” blurb that can be found on this site. If you have any questions, make up the answers (but make them good, it will improve my list in your mind).
This is not an attempt to flout my own tastes, nor is it an attempt to recommend films (ignore the title in favor of my cheekiness). It’s an attempt to add another innocuous list to the never ending litany of Internet opinion and chronic list-making that nobody agrees with and everybody argues about. I’m very excited to throw my hat in this ring.
In all seriousness, this top four took me many months of figuring out, and I have a lot to say about them and, frankly, wanted to share my thoughts. Nobody asked me to do this, and I’m answering a question in my own mind, so color me self-indulgent.
Anyway, here are the four movies that I’ve painstakingly concluded to be my very favorites, and you can do with them what you will (as you will anyway). Compare them to yours, correct my choices, argue with me, agree with me…read, judge, and assume away!
4. Funny People (2009) Written & Directed by Judd Apatow
Likely to be the most questionable choice on this list, but I couldn’t be more persuaded by my love of this film and stand by its considerably high ranking. Apatow made a movie only he could make, and a movie I had longed to see for years before he made it. A tapestry of Apatow’s life—the stand-up world, the movie world, the television world, starring his old roommate, and even his wife and kids—all things he’s familiar with. It’s a consummate example of “writing what you know”, and the filmmaking tendencies are both classic and fresh at the same time—being very much of its time, but longing to belong to a lineage of a specific type of great cinema (of which I think it succeeds admirably). It owes a great debt to the films of Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Bob Fosse, John Cassavetes, James L. Brooks, and Hal Ashby, but it is undeniably the work of a director with his own distinct voice. Everything about the movie is highly underrated to me—most of all the two lead performances by Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, not to mention the stellar supporting cast, which showcases dozens of unique and memorable personalities and talents. It has a terrific sense of naturalism to the acting, the narrative structure is entirely its own, it’s packed with great lines (of dialogue and of thinking), and it is, without a doubt, one of the most successful balancing acts of humor and pathos to ever hit the screen. I like it more every time I watch it, and I was already floored by it when I first saw it five years ago.
3. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Written & Directed by Woody Allen
In a nearly fifty film career, this is still far and away my pick for Allen’s masterpiece. I’ve often described it as “interested in everything that I am”, so, inevitably, it was my number one for a period of time. It has probably my favorite selection of music of any film (beautiful jazz and classical music—and one punk song), and one of the truly great screenplays ever written. So full of ideas—ideas that are perpetually useful in this life as I see it—with a preoccupation with the bigger questions of mortality, loyalty, fidelity, morality, and all manner of existential inquiry, and even the value of cinema and laughter as examples of the finer things in life. Every character is fully realized, given many great scenes and moments, superbly cast, and of considerable depth worthy of literature. Only one other film of Allen’s (Manhattan) rivals the purity of expressing his complicated “romantic cynic”, neurotic, literate perspective: one that is as full of philosophical thought as it is self-analysis, and always at the mercy of the sentimental allure of an ideal world that may only exist in one’s own mind.
2. All That Jazz (1979) Directed by Bob Fosse / Written by Bob Fosse & Robert Alan Arthur
Chronically watchable, inventively staged, deeply personal, and darkly funny. Bob Fosse’s more-than-semi-autobiographical film is, among many things, a masterpiece of blocking, narrative fluidity, and tonal consistency (if that doesn’t send you racing to Netflix to pick this up, I don’t know what will!). Part musical, part satire, part ode to Fellini, part ode to Fosse’s own life, All That Jazz is an insanely ambitious self-study that brings cinema and theater together in unified harmony. There’s an uncommon balance of introversion and extroversion that swings back and forth in a very expressive way, and, as a result, evokes the feelings of viewing the world through Fosse’s eyes, from the inside out. Cinema has rarely seen a more full-bodied character study, and Roy Scheider’s magnum opus of a performance as the habitually self-destructive Joe Gideon (aka Bob Fosse) is as convincing and compelling a mirror image as Fosse could have found. There’s a fusion between material and performance that has a lightning-in-a-bottle quality to it—so perfectly understood and expressed by all involved, no matter how lofty, hyper-real, or challenging the content gets. It’s a swirling amalgamation of images, dance numbers, vaudeville, and performance art that’s bizarrely funny, surreal, and somehow manages to be both calculated and spontaneous at the same time—in short, it’s an experience of a film that is always a two-step, pirouette, and a half measure ahead of the audience, and never fails to entertain, razzle dazzle, or provoke thought.
1. The Master (2012) Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
How much more could I possibly say about this film? I’ve already deafened my entire circle of friends with the sheer volume of my endless gushing over this, but I will attempt another go round (since it was my decision to write this editorial in the first place). The Master is intuitive filmmaking at its finest, one of those movies that, at least in my experience, makes most other films suddenly seem lesser by comparison. After (at least) a dozen viewings in a year and a half, it’s become my gold standard for filmmaking. Every single aspect of the film is as good as anything I’ve ever seen—better even. I would put this up against any other film in any field: acting, writing, directing, photography, music, editing, etc. Though it’s a period piece, this film will stand the test of time simply because it’s so expertly crafted—in both technique and subject matter—that it seems incapable of aging. There’s a meditative nature to the film that, if the viewer allows themselves to succumb to it, reaches a serenity akin to cinematic nirvana. It’s hypnotic, completely original, full of surprises, and made by someone who seems intent on being the best filmmaker of all-time, and won’t rest until he’s at least in the discussion. It’s a transcendent viewing experience that may prove to only come around once in a lifetime—it felt, for me, like falling in love with the right person.
What are these movies about? Who cares! To borrow an old adage from Roger Ebert: it’s not what they’re about, but how they’re about it. Okay, I’ll bite: they’re mainly about love, death, alienation, show business, existentialism, regret, self-reflection, second chances, and whatever else the viewer brings to extract from the viewing. What do all these films have in common? To borrow a response Quentin Tarantino gave to that very question in regards to his favorite films: a major director’s vision. Some have overlapping themes, they all have a humanistic touch to both the humorous and dramatic elements—they’re all funny and dramatic, featuring great music and acting, and all very personal. They all deal primarily with confronting mortality and the impending loss of time, and so they’re all therapeutic. As a result, you will find meltdowns, desperation, discomfort, inappropriate behavior, blow-ups, passive aggression, misunderstandings, psychology, philosophy, hilarity and uncertainty.
These are the four films that best represent me, my tastes, and my perspective. If there’s one thing to glean from reading this, it’s a better understanding of me (someone most of you will never meet). If that’s irrelevant to you, as I’m sure it is for most, just think of the type of person this list paints in your head, and presume, to the best of your abilities, that this person is somebody you now understand a little better. And if reading my thoughts doesn’t encourage that thought, watching these four films will surely help. At the very least, you’ll become familiar with a selection of movies that mean a lot to somebody, and I don’t know a better reason to consider a recommendation—especially since it’s the only reason to actually go through with the recommendation in the first place: because it meant a lot to somebody. And these films mean a lot to me, so take that for what it’s worth: a lot to me, and maybe a lot to you too—you won’t know until you try. And if you have tried and don’t agree, you won’t know until you’ve tried from my perspective—which, I hope, after reading this piece, you’ve been adequately supplied with at least a small sample of what that is. I could obviously go on and on about each one of these, but I’ll let them at least speak for themselves a little bit.