#100 Enter The Dragon (1973)
I don’t think it is possible to argue that Enter The Dragon is a perfect movie. It is filled with unnecessary “back story” vignettes, inexplicable plot points (why does the bad guy have cells full of homeless guys in his basement exactly?) and incomprehensible character motivations. Speaking of inexplicable, Enter the Dragon has perhaps the greatest “wait, why do all of these guys know Kung Fu?” moments ever when the aforementioned homeless guys are set free and immediately able to go toe to toe with the students of the elite martial arts academy run by the bad guy. So, yeah, you can pretty easily poke holes in Enter the Dragon, but here’s the thing, Enter the Dragon has Bruce Lee at the apex of his powers and it is THE martial arts movie that inspired every child of the 1970’s to love martial arts movies. In short, Enter the Dragon is cool. Other martial arts movie may flaunt greater technical expertise, more intricate fight choreography, better acting and the like, but none of them are as cool as Enter the Dragon. Cool goes a long way.
#99 Inglorious Basterds (2009)
There are a lot of things that make Tarrantino great. Before Inglorious Basterds many would have listed his modern sensibilities and his references to modern (or 70’s anyway) culture near the top. A WWII movie necessarily took the crutch of that away from him, but it allowed him to show off some of what truly makes him a great filmmaker, near the top of that list would be patience. What do I mean? I mean 19:28. That is how long the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is. If you are so inclined check it out, I will happily wait:
What happens in that scene? Two men talk, for the first 10 minutes mostly just small talk, then, around 15 minutes in, you realize that there is a family hiding underneath the floorboards, you watch for 4 more minute until the conversation ends, Hans Landa, the brilliant Christoph Waltz, has won, and the German soldiers come in and lay waste to the floor. The whole scene is a masterclass in the art of suspense built through patience. He does it again in the famous bar scene later in the movie (that was is over 14 minutes long). In movie terms, particularly now when plot pacing is so fast, over 30 minutes of total screen time spent on two conversations, well, you can’t imagine another filmmaker working today even being allowed to do that let alone have the skill and self confidence to pull it off perfectly.
#98 The Court Jester (1955)
“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true, right?”
“Right, but there’s been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace!”
This goes on, of course, with flagons with dragons and the pellet with the poison changing from chalices to vessels to flagons and back again. It is brilliant stuff, played brilliantly by Danny Kay, with verbal dexterity and cadence that is breathtaking to watch, but The Court Jester is more than just this famous scene. It is watching Danny Kay switch between self-confident master swordsman to inexperienced coward and back again in the same climactic battle. It is watching a true comedic master sing and dance and be cool and silly and dorky and then cool again without ever missing a beat (often literally as there is music involved).
#97 John Wick (2014)
You might feel tempted to argue that some recency bias is at play and maybe it is, but as I have conceded that biases necessarily play a part in making any “best” movie list why should I deny recency bias its turn. Besides I love this movie. I loved it so much that the moment I finished watching it for the first time I emailed my brother Chuck and told him he had to see it because I knew he’d get it (which he did). How many movies have done that to you? Made you immediately want to reach out to someone else and tell them “WATCH THIS MOVIE!” What I do is tell people about movies and I can still count the number of times a film has compelled me to immediately reach out could be counted on one hand. But that’s John Wick, it is so good, so simple and yet so surprising that you feel the need to share.
The other great thing about John Wick, it may be the best ever “one sentence pitch” movie of all time. Retired assassin’s wife dies from cancer, all he has left is his dog and his classic mustang, Russian gangsters, not knowing who he was, break into his house, steal his car and kill his dog, the assassin comes out of retirement and kills the entire Russian mob. Look, that description either hooks you or it doesn’t. You either get “steal my car, kill my dog, you all must die” or you don’t. No judgement either way, but I think you know what side I am on.
#96 Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
A martial arts/action/comedy/musical/fantasy film, I know, there are like 5 of those made every year, but this one is special. Stephen Chow, who wrote, star is and directed the film (as he did with Shaolin Soccer) makes it work in part because he can legitimately do all of that stuff. When he turns into Bruce Lee at the end of the movie he pulls off Bruce Lee, just as he does the low-life thief and con-man he plays before his transformation. This is actually a really rare thing. Can you see The Rock (and I love The Rock) really pulling off a down on his luck loser? How about Vin Diesel? And it isn’t just Chow that makes this movie sing, all of the supporting actors, from the chain-smoking landlady who is secretly a Kung Fu master or her drunk, philandering husband, who also turns out to be a Kung Fu master, to the gay tailor (yup, secret Kung Fu master), to the axe gang (the main bad guys) and their synchronized dance scenes, it all works and the movie ultimately has heart too. Yes, unless you speak Chinese you will have to read (and yes, I speak Chinese so maybe it is easier for me to like than people who don’t) but it is totally worth it.
#95 Blazing Saddles (1974)
Did you know Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein in the same year? Want to know something even crazier, Coppola did The Godfather Part II and The Conversation in the same year (and that sentence works both ways in that Coppola released those two movies in the same year and it was the same year Brooks released his two masterpiece films). How good was 1974!?! Chinatown (spoiler alert, also on this list), Longest Yard (another future inductee onto this list), The Towering Inferno (okay, let’s not get crazy), Benji, Earthquake, Airport 1975 (we all appreciate the irony), The Great Gatsby, Murder on the Orient Express, Death Wish, Foxy Brown, The Man With The Golden Gun, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and, most impressively Zardoz and Herbie Rides Again (did I go too far). The point is, 1974 is on the short list of greatest years in movie history, no question, hands down, and do you know what the #1 movie was that year? Okay, sure, you’ve guessed it now because I have kind of telegraphed the answer but before this big paragraph would you have guessed Blazing Saddles? Want to know what else, Blazing Saddles kind of deserves it. From a pure entertainment point of view few things have ever been more fun than Blazing Saddles.
#94 The Searchers (1956)
Iconic. Iconic director (John Ford), iconic star (John Wayne), iconic cinematography (Winton C. Hoch), The Searchers is the iconography of the American west, both the good of it, the romance of it, and the ugliness of it too. The Searchers is as much a film about hate and racism and the scars of war as it is about watching John Wayne do John Wayne stuff. Don’t believe me, watch this scene and see the ugliness and hatred behind it. John Wayne isn’t a hero, not here.
#93 Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Special effect-centric movies, as a rule, don’t hold up. The cutting edge becomes outdated quickly in the world of visual arts and the advancements of CGI. We convince ourselves something looks “photo-realistic” only to look at the same thing 5 years later and think it looks like crap. The original Total Recall looked cool in 1990 and hokey by 1995, it is the nature of an ever improving technology. All of which makes T2 all the more impressive, because the liquid metal still looks really cool, now over 25 years later. And T2 isn’t just a special effect movie, it is a solid sci fi story touching on destiny and changing futures and pasts and everything else. Do I have problems with some of the time travel conundrums? Obviously (the Terminators/machines only exist because the first Terminator came back in time and died, which means the Machines gave birth to themselves, which doesn’t work. It would be like you going back in time to give birth to yourself), but T2 is really an action movie and as such it is pretty awesome.
#92 Miller’s Crossing (1990)
“All in all not a bad guy – if looks, brains and personality don’t count.”
“You better hope they don’t.”
Are the Coen Brothers ever better than when they take on a genre? They are just so good at hitting the genre beats while adding enough fresh (some call it quirky) angles and characters that the whole things feels completely new and revelatory. That may never be more true than with Miller’s Crossing and yet Miller’s Crossing in many ways holds the most closely to the genre out of any Coen Brothers movie (with the possible exception of Blood Simple, their first movie). Quirky is not the right word for the people who populate Miller’s Crossing, they are unique and therefore they are real. No one feels like they are playing to a stereotype, even when, on paper, the role feels like it fits into a stereotypical space.
#91 Witness (1985)
How good was Harrison Ford’s run from 1980 to 1985? Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, Temple of Doom and Witness. That wasn’t picking his best, that was the list of films he did. The only person who has sniffed a 5 year run like that is Tom Hanks from ’93-’98 (Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, That Thing You Do, Saving Private Ryan, You’ve Got Mail) and I think Ford’s is better, in no small part because of the two movies that weren’t parts of two of the biggest franchises of all time (we will get to Blade Runner later).
Witness is close to a perfect movie. It isn’t innovative, it doesn’t have a mind-blowing plot or any twists you can’t see coming, it doesn’t explore brave issues or expose particularly deep truths about humanity. All Witness is is the best version of the “cop and witness hide out off the grid because the cop doesn’t know who to trust in a crooked system” movie ever made.