PW's Film Critics List Their Top 50 Films

By Sean Burns and Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Nov. 22, 2011

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While “Best of” lists can be useful, fun keepsakes, “Best of Film” lists are usually boring and repetitive. There are hundreds of places where you can read about the brilliance of Citizen Kane. And while we agree that the movie is indeed brilliant and one of cinema’s finest, we won’t be regurgitating the same ol’ list of critics’ picks here. Compiled below is a highly subjective list of films that we, the film critics at PW, feel are best. These films are personal favorites that we think are important, great motion pictures.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog’s first collaboration with legendary madman Klaus Kinski follows foolhardy conquistadors on a doomed quest for El Dorado. The jungle swallows them up alive, while the director’s stunning location work kickstarts a career primarily devoted to the maddening, deadly indifference of Mother Nature. (S.B.)

Airplane! (1980) The ZAZ (David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams) team’s inaugural effort is so ingrained in the cultural psyche it’s difficult to admire what an amazing feat it is. Such herculean displays of technique and tone must have been exhausting: None of the filmmakers have made anything watchable since The Naked Gun . (M.P.)

 

All That Jazz (1979) Bob Fosse filmed his demise several years before he got around to dying. This nakedly confessional, breathtakingly edited Broadway riff on Fellini’s stars Roy Scheider as the pill-popping, hard-driving choreographer. Approached at the opening by Jessica Lange’s Angel of Death, he naturally spends the rest of the movie hitting on her. (S.B.)

American Graffiti (1973) The first film of a career George Lucas never had, this very funny and deeply humane nostalgia trip follows a handful of hot-rodding teens on one long last night before adulthood. The template for a thousand coming-of-age stories since, it’s all cool cars, vintage rock ’n’ roll and the blonde who got away. (S.B.)

Annie Hall (1977) The pivot point between Woody Allen’s loosey-goosey slapstick period and more serious later efforts, Annie Hall is a heartbroken cartoon of blackout comedic sketches with a weirdly formidable cumulative impact. Alvy and Annie were never meant to stay together, and all good things must come to an end. But we keep going, because we need the eggs. (S.B.)

Barry Lyndon (1975) Stanley Kubrick’s finest three hours calmly observe the rise and fall of a lout (Ryan O’Neal, well-used), whose comeuppance arrives only after he’s gained some character. A uniquely calibrated period piece that simulates a leisurely stroll through a fine museum, and more. (M.P.)

Blue Velvet (1986) Jeffrey Beaumont found a severed ear while walking through a field, and so begins David Lynch’s searingly personal, phantasmagoric glimpse at the seamy underside of this American life. Tethered to classical structures the filmmaker later disavowed, it’s his most potent distillation of a sunny worldview infested with psychosexual rot. (S.B.)

Breakaway (1966) The experimental shorts of Bruce Conner—some of them proto-music videos—are as pioneering as they are fun. Cosmic Ray is concentrated happiness; this is even better. Here, the frügging and stripping of future “Mickey” singer Toni Basil is diced into near-dust. It’s human movement as assault on the senses. (M.P.)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) High camp or deep feeling? Why not both? James Whale’s tricky sequel veers from the silly (Dr. Pretorius and his jars of miniature royalty) to the existential, with Boris Karloff’s Monster now smart enough to wonder why he need exist at all. (M.P.)

Bringing Up Baby (1938) More chaotic than the Marx Brothers, Howard Hawks’ exercise in subtly controlled insanity spirals from one inspired absurdity to the next. The funniest film ever also features the greatest screen duo ever: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, with glasses. (M.P.)

Casablanca (1942) As my old Shakespeare professor once said about Hamlet : “This is nothing but one famous line after another.” In this apex of Old Hollywood studio filmmaking, what’s not to love? Bogie as a brokenhearted idealist? The rogues’ gallery of great character actors showing up for single scenes? Pure joy. (S.B.)

Cold Water (1994) The unfocused anger of teenage years is perfectly bottled up in the breakthrough of handheld master Olivier Assayas (late of Carlos ). It also boasts cinema’s greatest party: A half-hour mash of wanton destruction, hashish-smoking and ’70s rock. (M.P.)

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Otto Preminger studied to be a lawyer, a fact never more apparent than in this soberly observed love triangle. Torn between cad Dana Andrews and wholesome Henry Fonda, Joan Crawford treats romance like a lawyer would a murder trial, revealing a messiness most films leave tidy . (M.P.)

Dirty Harry (1971) “Dirty Harry and the homicidal maniac,” read the original poster. “Harry’s the one with the badge.” Unlike the increasingly comedic sequels, Don Siegel’s rough, lean 1971 original oozes ambivalence regarding its vigilante hero. Repurposing the Zodiac case into a (sorta?) happy ending, this is one seriously unsettling cop picture. (S.B.)

Do The Right Thing (1989) Spike Lee’s twisted, angry-as-hell take on Our Town exploded into movie theaters with its striking use of blinding colors, broad theatricality and long stretches of endlessly quotable social commentary disguised as comedy. Watching it today still blows my mind. (S.B.)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Maybe the greatest New York movie ever made, Sidney Lumet’s sweaty hostage drama eerily predicts the tabloid future, as a never-better Al Pacino flounders around as an incompetent would-be bank robber with sordid secrets. Few films have captured a time and a place with such tactile, you-are-there grit. (S.B.)

Down By Law (1986) A jailbreak picture in which you never even see the jailbreak, Jim Jarmusch’s enchanting fairy tale pits Tom Waits against John Lurie in a battle of hipster gravel-voicing. Then Roberto Begnini arrives (before he was annoying), effusively bringing out the best in these very unpleasant men on a journey of full dead space contrasted with startling beauty. (S.B.)

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1. Todd Kimmell said... on Nov 23, 2011 at 09:51AM

“The fun of running The Lawn Chair Drive-In since the late 80s isn't just seeing great films full screen... it's hearing and feeling the laughs and the gasps and the groans and the cheers of an audience all around you as we all share that collective experience of being spellbound in darkness.

Some films, like WITHNAIL AND I and ALL THAT JAZZ are worthless on television. They just don't make any sense... yet they come alive on the big screen.

Thanks for the list. While I consider myself a 'film guy' of sorts, there are more than a few here I haven't seen, and will seek out, and maybe show next summer!”

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2. Todd Kimmell said... on Nov 23, 2011 at 09:52AM

“The fun of running The Lawn Chair Drive-In since the late 80s isn't just seeing great films full screen... it's hearing and feeling the laughs and the gasps and the groans and the cheers of an audience all around you as we all share that collective experience of being spellbound in darkness.

Some films, like WITHNAIL AND I and ALL THAT JAZZ are worthless on television. They just don't make any sense... yet they come alive on the big screen.

Thanks for the list. While I consider myself a 'film guy' of sorts, there are more than a few here I haven't seen, and will seek out, and maybe show next summer!”

Report Violation

3. Casper the Friendly critic, here said... on Nov 23, 2011 at 03:55PM

“You Lost me in the D's, although I did have protests along the way starting with, er, "A"

Dr. Stangelove is timeless, brilliant satire, relevant and human.”

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4. Scott said... on Nov 24, 2011 at 08:05AM

“I don't mean to sound like a jerk, but Matt's selections were way more interesting.”

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