6. Taxi Driver
Director: Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was a very important and influential movie in my development as a cinephile. I first watched it when I was about 16, I think, and I thought it was okay. I liked it, but definitely didn't love it and wondered why it could possibly have the all-time great reputation that it had. Over the years, Travis Bickle's lonely descent into violent madness has haunted me and begged for re-watch after re-watch. Robert De Niro gives one of his many extraordinary performances, and working with Scorsese for the second of eight times the pair give us one of the great character portraits ever committed to celluloid. It's the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely insomniac Vietnam vet who drives around NYC when he can't sleep until he figures he might as well get paid for it by being a cabbie. Seeing the grimy, drug riddled, dangerous streets of pre-Guiliani NYC, Travis calls himself "God's lonely man" who thinks thoughts like "some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets."
We follow Travis on his journey to becoming that rain to wash scum off the streets, but before we get there he meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old prostitute. He eventually takes it upon himself to be the savior of these two women, the fact that neither seems to want saving being irrelevant to Travis. The most disturbing thing about the finale of Taxi Driver is that after Travis kills a bunch of low life creeps, he's hailed in the media as a hero trying to clean up the city, while we who've been with him know that he was simply a ticking time bomb who went off, it just happened to be directed at these people (don't buy from anyone that everything after the shootout is a dream, that's bullshit). Travis saves his news clippings, and a letter from Iris's parents, but the final scene plays a strange noise as Travis looks in his rearview mirror at Betsy. To me this has always been the sound of the time bomb starting to tick down again.
It's a hauntingly lonely and disturbing movie that I can't shake for days each time I watch it, in the best possible way, and in a way that few movie have ever affected me.
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Director: Steven Spielberg
The concept of "first contact" (the first interactions between mankind and an alien race) has long been one of the most fascinating to me. Many movies and books have revolved around the topic, in an infinite number of ways, and my favorite movie dealing with it is Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like he often does, Spielberg picked just the right leading man for the job here, as Richard Dreyfuss is not exactly your regular everyman. He gives off that quality, but has a sarcastic intelligence, and sometimes anger, that makes him feel even more relateable. As he says at one point in the movie, he didn't ask for "this" to happen to him (to have contact with aliens). He's not even really sure what happened, or why, or what it means, or where he goes from here. He loses everything in his life to find the answer to those questions.
I loved the movie when seeing it as a kid, but watching as an adult, I wonder why. It's actually not a very fast paced movie, with much of the time being spent watching Dreyfuss think and try to figure out what he's going to do, or with French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (legendary director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter (Bob Balaban) as they go on a similar chase for knowing the unknown. But I bet the seeds for my fascination in first contact were sown when I saw the powerful final section of this movie, where the Mothership shows up and we finally make our contact. It's a transcendent piece of filmmaking, awe inspiring and impressive on both a technical and storytelling level, the special effects are so prominent but always serve to better the story. I also love that we see the aliens, but they never speak nor directly communicate, and watching the original theatrical cut, we don't see inside their ships nor do we ever understand what they want. There's something I always liked about that.
A side note that I enjoy: what communication we do get from the aliens is done through music, and eventually through computers playing musical sequences in a repeated pattern. When on the show Inside the Actors Studio, it was pointed out to Spielberg that the aliens communicate through computers and music, while Spielberg's mother was a music teacher and his father a computer scientist. He was happily appreciative of that being pointed out to him, as it was coincidence and had never occurred to him until then.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Director: Stanley Kubrick
I am not generally a fan of Stanley Kubrick's. He has a cold directorial approach (with the great Paths of Glory being the exception that proves the rule) that just turns me off as a viewer. On occasion an approach like that works, such as when it lends an undercurrent of dread to The Shining, since we seem to be emotionally detached from the poor, doomed family and are helpless to do anything but watch the tragedy unfold. Other times it doesn't, like when we get nothing out of the oil painting-like compositions that make up Barry Lyndon, just an emotionless beauty. One of the other times that Kubrick's approach works is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where being kept at a distance makes us care more about some of the doomed characters, because we can feel that they're in some sort of danger and they can't, while also allowing us the intellectual stimulation of the grand story that Kubrick is telling us.
However, that story wasn't readily apparent on first viewing. In fact, I couldn't even finish the movie on first or second viewing. I struggled through the detachment while watching the "Dawn of Man" opening sequence. On third viewing, as I'd really prepared myself for something much slower than I was used to at the time, I found myself contemplating the simple yet ambitious story (the evolution of technology, how we use it, how it affects us in our own evolution) while letting the images wash over me. I was less concerned about waiting for something to happen, and allowed my mind to work on the ideas slowly being revealed to me. I could continue talking about this movie for hours and hours and hours (and wrote a paper on it in college), but I'll conclude this little mini-overview of my thoughts by saying that awe is a feeling I rarely have while watching a movie. Only two movies really come to mind that fill me with awe (the other one, of course, you just read about above), but the final section of this movie (after the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence, which is useful to show us traveling to another dimension and seeing things we've never thought about seeing in our own world, but goes on long after the point has been made) gives me goose bumps every time I watch it. It's the only movie on my list that I didn't take to immediately, but 2001 is most certainly one of the best movies ever made.
Director: Michael Curtiz
A movie it took me a while to come around to, I only watched Casablanca for the first time maybe 10 years after I'd become a movie buff. And I don't think I can find a flaw in the world's most famous B-movie. Not intended as one of the big studio productions, Casablanca simply came together in the happiest of accidents and became one of the most beloved movies ever made. It took me a long time to see it, but as soon as it was over I wasn't asking myself what the big deal was, I was kicking myself for waiting so damn long to see one of the greatest movies ever made and the best movie of the 1940's.
I have to detail my personal favorite scene in the movie and the reason why Humphrey Bogart was one of our greatest stars. After seeing Ilsa again, and hearing "As Time Goes By" for the first time in years, Rick sits drinking alone after closing the bar. Sam comes in and starts playing piano, Rick gives his "of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine" speech, but then asks Sam what he's playing. Sam says it's something of his own, and Rick lashes out at him to "stop it! You know what I wanna hear. If she can stand to hear it, I can!" and the look of complete devastation on Bogie's face should've won him an Oscar.
10. Our Hospitality
Language: silent, with English title cards
Director: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
My favorite movie from my favorite comedic mind, I loved Our Hospitality before I even saw it, just based on the premise. City slicker Willie McKay (Keaton), on his way to take over his family's Southern mansion, befriends pretty Virginia Canfield (Natalie Talmadge, Keaton's real-life wife at the time), who invites him to dinner at her family home. Upon meeting Canfield's father and brothers, Keaton learns that he is the last surviving member of a family with whom the Canfield kin have been feuding so long nobody remembers why it started. The brothers are all for killing Keaton on the spot, but dad Canfield (Joe Roberts) insists that the rules of Southern hospitality be observed: so long as Keaton is a guest in the house, he will not be harmed. Overhearing this conversation, Keaton decides to just not leave, and spends a good section of the movie figuring out ways to stay in their home.
This would be a terrific movie to show people who wouldn't normally go the movie nerd route of watching silent movies. It was funny in 1923, and it's funny now. Keaton's unbelievable stunt work is a marvel to behold. Sometimes you're so thrilled by Keaton's stunts you don't actually realize how hilarious he is. He's so deadpan that he never brings the attention to being funny, so I occasionally get caught up in the breathtaking work he does without comedy. After all, this was long before the days of CGI. That really is Keaton, really dangling from a rope, really nearly drowning under a waterfall. The stunt nearly drowned Keaton when he tried filming at a real waterfall (he made a prop waterfall instead to finish the scene). It's amazing from a technical perspective, if you're into that kinda thing (which, of course, I am), but if you just want to look at the surface and spend 75 minutes laughing your ass off, it's good for that too. Both are reasons why it's one of my top movies of all time.