As visitors to this site may know, my friend James and I have a ritual of exchanging ‘Top 20’ lists of our favourite albums at the end of each year. (All of those can be found here.) Since this year marks the twentieth anniversary of that tradition, we decided to branch out a little and add in some additional mid-year lists. So here’s the first of two, listing my favourite 20 films.
This is the result of a lot of brainstorming, shortlisting, and hand-wringing. This list is firmly timestamped 20 June 2020; positions are mutable, and there are 100 movies tied for the number 21 spot, any one of which could sneak on here on the right day.
20. The Neon Demon (2016) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
I approached this as a fan of Drive (2011) and someone who pulled a confused face through most of Only God Forgives (2013). Happily The Neon Demon took me on a ride that I won’t soon forget. Alongside one other (in some respects curiously similar) film, this is the closest I get to horror on this list, but I have a hard time thinking of it that way.
19. Whiplash (2014) dir. Damien Chazelle
This is a perfect example of a small, personal movie that transcends niche subject matter to feel universal. (See also Rocky). I could watch this 100 times just for JK Simmons’s performance – one of the most compelling characters of modern cinema.
18. The Fountain (2006) dir. Darren Aronofsky
Famously this was a higher budget project with (even) more high profile stars attached, and then it fell apart. I cannot for the life of me imagine a version of this movie without these central performances, or the settings exactly as they are.
This isn’t Aronofsky’s only appearance on this list, and with the notable exception of Noah (2014) he’s possibly the director I feel most in tune with.
17. Rocky (1976) dir. John G. Avildsen
There’s not much left to be said about Rocky. Even today it feels like lightning in a bottle.
16. Drive (2011) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
The peaks of cinematic style over the last 30 years feature Pulp Fiction (1994), The Matrix (1999), and this film. Pitch perfect soundtrack, understated performances, beautiful camerawork, one of the best opening sequences ever. Re-watch it, I virtually guarantee it’s even better than you remember.
15. There Will Be Blood (2007) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Maybe, just maybe, the best central performance of my lifetime, and that’s just one component of a masterful film. I find a new shot to marvel at on each re-watch, and Jonny Greenwood’s score is jaw dropping all by itself.
14. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) dir. Robert Zemeckis
Flash back to 8 year old Adam for whom his stuffed Roger Rabbit and the cardboard Benny the Cab in which it arrived were prized possessions. This is a magical movie entirely in love with movie magic at every level, and it remains an absolute pleasure.
13. Black Swan (2010) dir. Darren Aronofsky
I saw this on my 30th birthday at Curzon Soho and it absolutely stunned me. I was already an avowed Aronofsky fan by that point, but this film – which I read as an urgent female revision of Fight Club (1999) – locked him in as the most vital of working directors. (I wrote a review here.)
12. Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope (1977) dir. George Lucas
As with many people, one of the most formative films of my youth. I just about wore out the taped-from-TV copy that had an almost permanent home in our top-loading Betamax. Eventually this would lead me to Spielberg, then Coppola, then everything else!
11. Pulp Fiction (1994) dir. Quentin Tarantino
By the time I saw this I knew Reservoir Dogs inside out and back to front, and I was still blown away by the music of Tarantino’s script. It’s hard to overstate the film’s cultural impact, since it’s now woven into the fabric of much that followed. For me too it remains a touchstone film that also happens to be a darn good time.
10. Birdman (2014) dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
An audacious masterpiece featuring a career best performance from Keaton, surrounded by other brilliant performances by Norton, Stone et al. It’s smart, dark, funny, and the score is a part of the picture in a way I don’t think I’ve felt before. You could entirely lose the ‘no cuts’ device and still have a wonderful film. As it stands it’s also a profound piece of art about authenticity and performance.
9. Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (2011) dir. Quentin Tarantino
We can argue about whether it’s one film or two, but Tarantino’s on my side so I’ll win. This is the best picture by one of the most vital, inventive directors in cinema history. That it comes in the form of a funny, beautifully shot, blood-soaked martial arts epic is just a bonus to my way of thinking. No one has made a movie like this since; my fingers ache from having been crossed for so long at the prospect of the long-rumoured third instalment.
8. The Matrix (1999) dir. The Wachowskis
I don’t think anyone was really ready for The Matrix, but I certainly wasn’t. When it came out I was preoccupied checking the (janky, infant) web for anything I could learn about The Phantom Menace. Later that year, in what felt like the space of a week, I’d have my mind blown by Fight Club, and my nerves shredded by The Blair Witch Project. But it’s The Matrix that changed everything. Its impact on wider culture is astounding, let alone what it did to action films, and it remains timelessly cool and perfectly structured to this day - honestly I don’t think a movie has been released since that balances style and substance this well.
7. Frances Ha (2012) dir. Noah Baumbach
One of the most transcendent cinema-going experiences of my life. An unalloyed joy from beginning to end, with one of the most charming central performances imaginable. It’s about growing up too slowly and falling behind and not fitting in and feeling completely adrift, and trying to make peace with it. Despite all the ways I’m different to Frances, I’ve rarely felt so seen in (or reassured by) a piece of art.
6. Jurassic Park (1993) dir. Steven Spielberg
I wasn’t born when Close Encounters… came out, and I was only an infant when ET was released. This was my Spielberg movie, and my first summer blockbuster. The first film for which I pored over every magazine article, collected stickers, bought the ‘making of’ and ‘art of’ books. It remains an example of perfectly crafted, immaculate cinema.
5. mother! (2017) dir. Darren Aronofsky
I enjoy a jump-scare-filled slasher movie as much as the next person, but nothing comes close to this for me in terms of inducing sheer dread. A masterpiece of mood setting and audience manipulation, with an unbelievable career-best central performance from Jennifer Lawrence. Aronofsky’s use of his set — the way the house changes throughout — is spellbinding, and his pacing is superb. And the sheer audacity to go as far as this film goes is stunning. The most potent metaphor for the creative process imaginable.
4. Groundhog Day (1993) dir. Harold Ramis
I re-watch this every 2 February as though it were a religious holiday. Tonally flawless, with a Bill Murray performance for the ages. It does a remarkable job of getting to the human centre of its high concept premise. Ironically it remains endlessly re-watchable.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998) dir. Joel Coen
The best comedy ever made. Flawless script, flawless performances, and a sense of the world that is entirely its own. There are weirder Coens' movies; there are probably more inventive Coens' movies, but this is the one they will almost certainly never top. If I could only take one movie to a desert island, this might be it.
2. Back to the Future (1985) dir. Robert Zemeckis
Take a sci-fi concept, sprinkle in Greek myth, add Huey Lewis and the News… you’re part way to making a flawless masterpiece of family cinema. Whether it’s Zemeckis & Bob Gale’s script; Fox, Lloyd, and Thompson’s performances; the soundtrack; the visual design, or (most likely) a combination of all those elements, the film is imbued with an undiminished warmth. (The recent ‘Reunited Apart’ episode with the cast and crew is the best thing to come out of COVID-19 lockdown.)
1. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back dir. Irvin Kershner
For me personally this is the most awe & wonder per foot of celluloid I’ve ever encountered. AT-ATs; Yoda; the cave; “I love you” / “I know”; the duel on Cloud City; “Luke, I am your father”…. Absolutely unbeatable.
It’s only right for me to point out that I’m aware this list is overwhelmingly populated by white men; in fact the Wachowskis & Alejandro González Iñárritu are the only people here that fall outside of that category. Heck, Iñárritu & Nicolas Winding Refn are the only directors from outside of the US!
If this were a longer list you would see names like Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Greta Gerwig, Olivier Assayas, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michel Gondry. The first Black person’s name would likely be John Singleton, Steve McQueen, or Spike Lee. But you’d also see a lot more white, American men. I hold my hand up: I can be faulted for having not watched widely enough. Additionally, there are certainly systemic forces at play in terms of the sheer number of films made by the one group, particularly during the period in which I was falling in love with cinema.