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Taking a look back: My top 20 favorite films of all time

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Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 10:00 pm

I have to sit down each Sunday evening to draft a headline for the weekly box office news report, and I am becoming increasingly disheartened by the words I have to write.

Movies like "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "High School Musical 3" are leading the charts, and this embarrassing spectacle is made even more unbearable by the fact that there are few (if any) worthy movies to serve as acceptable counter-programming - you know, for those of us who aren't 5-year-old boys or 10-year-old girls.

So, instead of cheapening us all with a critique of "High School Musical 3" (and instead of settling for the latest dime-a-dozen Colin Farrell cop drama), I thought it might be more interesting if, after nearly nine years of writing this column, I finally took a shot at drafting a list of my favorite movies. Not only will this exercise satisfy my borderline-fetishistic penchant for list-making (and serve as a go-to list for co-workers who have been bugging me for Netflix recommendations); it will also hopefully give you, as a reader, some more tangible insight into my general tastes, and perhaps a better idea of what, exactly, I look for in a movie. In carefully considered order:

1. "Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974)

2. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

3. "Glengarry Glen Ross" (James Foley, 1992)

4. "Sleuth" (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1972)

5. "Pulp Fiction" (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

6. "The Godfather" (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

7. "Jaws" (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

8. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (Milos Forman, 1975)

9. "Dead-Alive" [a.k.a. "Braindead"] (Peter Jackson, 1992)

10. "Die Hard" (John McTiernan, 1988)

11. "The Killer" (John Woo, 1989)

12. "Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

13. "The Usual Suspects" (Bryan Singer, 1995)

14. "The Departed" (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

15. "Reservoir Dogs" (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)

16. "A Fish Called Wanda" (Charles Crichton, 1988)

17. "Drunken Master II" (Liu Chia-Liang, 1994)

18. "The Big Lebowski" (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998)

19. "The Long Good Friday" (John Mackenzie, 1980)

20. "Kill Bill" (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-04)


Harrison Ford stars in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Wallis' second favorite film.

First, the elephant in the room: Yes, I am a product of my time (and specialized tastes, too, as six of my top 10 and a whopping 14 of my top 20 could be considered crime films). Several strong pre-'60s contenders had to be cut (both "Casablanca" and "Seven Samurai" would be in my top 25), but I must acknowledge and deal with the fact that 1964's "Dr. Strangelove" is the earliest film on my list. Half of my top 10 were made during the incredible period from 1972-1975, but the rest of the 20 were released within the last three decades. What can I say? It seems that contemporary filmmaking styles hold more allure for me than "classical" sensibilities do. 'Tis no crime.

Several years ago, I published a list of my top 10 "best" films to coincide with Sight and Sound's occasional critical poll, but I have since seen the folly of attempting such a feat without a more complete understanding of film history - after all, I'm not an academic. Although we may not all be educated enough to roll out a "legitimate" list of the best films from the past 100 or so years, we are all capable, as movie-goers, of sharing our personal favorites.

To me, "favorites" have to stand the test of time and repeat viewings. These are the movies that you throw into the DVD player when you're feeling bored or "down" or just want to watch a flick for whatever reason. These are the movies that you instinctively reach for, and have seen a minimum of five times. (From my list, "Chinatown," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Pulp Fiction," "Jaws," "Die Hard" and "The Usual Suspects" are the ones I've seen closer to a dozen times each.) Of course, such lists are necessarily subject to change, but only to a degree. I want to shake my head whenever somebody tells me that their current favorite movie is some random "cool flick" that they saw last weekend. This is serious business. Really.

All these films were first seen by me more than 12 years ago (except for "The Big Lebowski," both volumes of "Kill Bill" and "The Departed," which were all first seen during their initial theatrical runs), so this is not a list that is taken lightly. Three ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws" and "Die Hard") were first seen between the ages of five and seven, and 14 were seen between the highly impressionable ages of 10-13.

Looking at the list laid out, it's interesting to recall the role that some of these films had on the progression of my cinematic awakening. I was always a movie buff, but I think my passion for the medium can be traced back when my grandmother gave me a VHS copy of "The Godfather" as a Christmas gift when I was 10 years old. My instant love for the film spurred my dad to recommend "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," another best picture Oscar winner from the same era.

By the age of 11, I was looking into "older" movies on my own, starting with "Chinatown," which led me to a whole other universe of filmmaking populated by such indispensable treasures as "Sleuth" and "Midnight Cowboy" and "Apocalypse Now" and countless other films from the '60s and '70s that I still hold dear. By 12, I was devouring any "reputable" movie I could get my hands on, and the world of foreign filmmaking soon opened up to me.

Since then, I have tried to continue this growth, and my driving goal as a movie-goer is to see a movie that will replace one of the movies on this list. Sometimes, that faint hope is what it takes to keep you trudging through the dreck. So this week, instead of spending $10 on whatever nonsense happens to be showing at the multiplex, take a bit to look at your own list. I find that doing so periodically can be therapeutic, and help you better understand your own mindset as a movie-goer.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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