My 10 Favorite films of All Time (2022)

| June 14, 2022

The very idea of a 10 best list is basically a snake eating its own tail.  You’re a critic offering a critical view of your favorite films at the risk of being criticized.  There is no possibility to ever offer up a list that could make everybody happy, so the value of such an exercise is to compare notes and the task for the author is to keep it personal.  Film is personal.  We all see different things.  No one ever really sees the same movie.  That’s what keeps things interesting.  At best, these things open discussion, debate, analysis and food-for-thought.

That said, I would reiterate that this list is deeply personal.  Like “Sight and Sound” I return to it every so often.  Unlike “Sight and Sound,” I don’t do it on a regular basis.  I return to this list based on age, experience, time and the shifting focus of the world around me – in other words, when the time is right for a revisit.  How I saw things back in 2015 are not necessarily how I see things now in 2022.  I’m past 50 now, and since last visiting this list, I have grown a bit and I see the world a little differently.

The criteria, for me, comes in two forms.  First is to choose films that altered my world or cultural perception and, second to those films that altered my perception of what film could be.  Second, I selected films to which I wouldn’t change one single thing.  These films, for me, come as close to perfection as a film can get, not just in what they present on screen but to what they gave to me at the moment that I first saw them.  They are as powerful to me then as they are to me now.

Given that, here we go . . .

1. The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s masterpiece is, like me, now a half a century old and its hermetically-sealed world of mobster values feels even more disturbingly inviting.  We are invited into a private world of skewed morals in which mob families – the five New York mob families – position themselves and their power structure like countries.  They have their own laws, their own code of ethics, their own means of justice and occasionally they go to war with one another, “It helps to thin out the bad blood.”  Within this world, the only true sin is disloyalty and as the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death.”

We aren’t supposed to like these people but Coppola’s vision is so culturally personal, so intimate, so detailed that we value them as people.  The Godfather himself is an admirable figure whose position of power is dictated by logic and not by the gun (his only burst of anger is a moment when his godson lets emotion get the better of him).  He’s such a towering figure of authority and wisdom that when the old lion dies, we feel that the fate of the family will never be the same.

Like a great, sad Shakespearian drama, The Godfather is also about royal succession in a world largely dictated by blood and honor, and how the youngest son Michael is pulled by destiny into the world that his father never wanted for him.  The film is high art but also hugely entertaining, like cozying up with a great classic book.  It’s my favorite film.

2. Fantasia (1940)

A brilliant work of art made during a brief moment when Walt Disney’s vision for the feature-length animated form was that of an explorer mapping new territory, before his cold-water realization that overriding budgets, global calamities, and public taste would ultimately decide the kind of films that he was capable of making.

Fantasia ranks high on my list because it is a challenge to what a film can be.  Stripping away all sense of narrative, Walt Disney wanted the film to be a sensory experience, the equivalent of spending an evening at the symphony.  It was to be the kind of movie that didn’t just happen in front of you; it was to be an experience that got inside of you.  If we are attending the symphony, we are anchored by the limits of stage production.  On film we can leave the space of the theater and float into streams of consciousness, so Walt wanted our eyes and our ears to be filled with the magic of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shubert, Muggsorgsky and Beethoven while our eyes were treated to a grand sensory experience.  The result was a challenge to those whose concept of a feature film is stuck in the three-act structure with characters who say things and go places and do things.  Fantasia is largely absent of this.  Some of the segments contain characters, others vague characters and at least one segment contains no characters at all.

This isn’t Snow White; this isn’t Pinocchio.  It doesn’t begin with characters and then run them through a plot.  It was a new experience and the opening images are reminders of the kinds of images we might see in a museum only they are moving to music; they are a merger of two great art forms of animation and music.  Then, as the movie goes along Walt settles us in with the more familiar images, with fairies and leaves and shimmering spider webs, the natural world mixed with fantasy characters, fairies spreading fairy dust that falls like gentle rain.

I’ll be the first to admit, this project is made with a little vanity.  How can anyone really put cartoon images to Bach and Tchaikovsky?

Critics and historians have had a difficult time trying to be analytical about some of the images.  It is a little like analyzing a ballet.  You can only report back on how it made you feel.  Accompanied by the music Disney seems to be borrowing images (in some cases stereotypes) of Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern influence.  Yet, what are we to make of it?  You can only report how you felt and when you watched the images, you feel the same as you do when you hear the music by itself.  It is exhilarating for some and frustrating for others.  Fantasia has no story framework and to an audience that demands a three-act structure, this can be a little frustrating.  For me, it’s a work of art.

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

Orson Welles’ masterwork is so ubiquitous within the realm of movie fans that it is hard now to offer an angle that hasn’t already been presented.  You ask: what is this film?  What is it about?  The simple answer came from Roger Ebert: it is about the deep question of human identity.  How well can you really know another person?  Does the single clue left at the end answer the questions or does it only offer more frustrating questions?

Placed within the lifespan of one Charles Foster Kane, a man who became one of the wealthiest and most famous men in America during the early decades of the 20th century, the film is structured around a series of interviews by the people who knew him, old colleges and friends who watched his meteoric rise to power from humble beginnings to become a lionized media press lord to a frustrated old man living in a vast castle down in Florida with no friends left to talk to.  The interviews give us different views of the man but the succeeding interviews give us a deeper and more intimate picture.  We know who Kane was, but what did we really know about him?

For that matter, how can we know anyone?  Citizen Kane presents one of the great mysteries of life – that one can spend his whole life on the world stage without ever really being seen at all.  This is a film so full, so brimming with questions that it demands to be seen again and again and the treat is a new discovery, a new angle.  And Orson Welles was such a brilliant storyteller that he keeps the answers always just a little out of reach.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)

From Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Thomas Keneally is an emotional experience like no other; like watching a train wreck – you cannot bear to watch yet you cannot turn away.  Shot in beautiful black and white it has a kind of documentary quality, peering with unblinking eyes into one of the most horrific events in modern human history – how the Nazis could take lives without rhyme or reason and then how they were robbed of a small number of their victims through one man’s kindness.

We meet that man Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) an alcoholic, a womanizer who joined the Nazi party because it was an easy way to fund his businesses through money given to him by throwing parties for high officials. He’s a not a great businessman but he is a great wheeler dealer, a man who knows how to grease palms and smooth talk his way in or out of anything.

Many said that Schindler’s List wasn’t like anything else Spielberg had ever made. That’s true in weight of the subject matter, but thematically it’s is exactly the same as his other works. Schindler’s struggle to save the Jews were really no different than the men battling the shark in Jaws, Indiana Jones tackling the Nazi’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Elliot trying to save E.T. from the government officials, the scientists battling the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, all of these had external struggles against titanic forces but nothing ever came as close to the bone. He used his skill for stories about struggles in fantasy films and put it to use with one of the darkest chapters of human history. He always said that he waited until he grew up as a person and as a filmmaker before he was ready to make the film.

The ending is one of the most emotional that I have ever seen. After the liberation the surviving Jews walk into the horizon and we wonder where they might be headed, what hope do they now have? Then we see the actors over the horizon and the film turns to color and we note that they are not actors anymore but the real Schindler’s Jews. We realize that they are there with their children and grandchildren born from Schindler’s single act of goodness. We realize that if one act of hatred can kill millions, a single act of kindness can save them and can create generations.

5. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese’s enormously controversial drama may be the most personal film on this entire list.  He takes an approach to Jesus that few other filmmakers have dared: to examine the most famous, and yet oddly illusive, person in all of human history, a man that we have been taught from childhood was both God and man; and with that Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader examine how Jesus must have felt about his mission, his destiny and his doubts about what God is asking him to do.

Based on the equally controversial (and practically unreadable) 1953 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the story deals with Jesus duality by focusing first on his humanity.  Played in a brilliant performance by Willem DeFoe, Jesus is seen as a man with very human flaws, a man who is caught up in a hornet’s nest of  emotional turmoil over the enormity of God’s calling and the mission for the human race that is placed before him.

I’ve seen dozens of films about the life of Jesus and what sets this one apart is the manner in which is considers this person of Jesus not a religious postcard, but as a human being that we ourselves can relate to.  Is it blasphemous?  Technically, yes.  But in finding a humanity within Jesus we are asked to consider the idea – the idea – that perhaps he was just as susceptible to doubt and fear as we are.  In the end, on the cross, he is offered the chance to save his own neck and if we are to consider him on human terms we might consider that this may have been on his mind all along.

6. The Original Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)

Okay, yeah.  So, I’m cheating.  I set out to hammer together my 10 favorite films of all time and here I’ve used one slot for a trilogy, thereby making it a top 13.  There is no science to this.  But, work with me here, how could I have selected just one film out of this trilogy since they are so intrinsically linked?  After nearly 40 years, how can we stand back and view any of these films without considering the entire picture.

Plus, it may be the most personal of all.  The original Star Wars trilogy was my grand introduction to film.  The first movie came out when I was six years old and it has taken up space in my imagination ever since.  And now that Star Wars has become an industrial complex thanks to its acquisition by Disney, looking back at the purity of this series as it stands by itself is more important than ever.

George Lucas created, for my generation, a modern mythology.  He was a man with a grand vision to take all of the battered and cliched films of his youth – the western, the science fiction quickie, the Arthurian-style fantasies and place them in a context in which they were taken seriously.  He created an entire universe populated with fantasy characters that seemed real (notice how everybody in the first film works for a living) and authored the “used future,” a notion of creating futuristic spaceships that somehow seem to have been cobbled together from bolts and screws and spare parts.

The effect of Star Wars has been hotly debated.  Yes, it helped to end the auteur era of the early 70s and ushered in the dominating era of big-budget special effects pictures, but what is left is something special that will be treasured for generations to come, and certainly for the rest of my life.

7. Being There (1979)

Again, here is a movie that is just as unreachable as Citizen Kane, yet in that incomplete narrative we are offered the opportunity to insert our own meaning.  Being There is oddly spare on the details, a sort of swiss cheese approach to storytelling in which important facts are left out, and in that we are given the opportunity to insert our own interpretation.

Peter Sellers gives his single greatest performances (and sadly one of his last) as Chance, a gardener who has lived all his life within the confines of a townhouse in Washington D.C.  We learn next to nothing about his past other than the fact that he has lived his entire life inside the place being raised by an old man whose connection with him is never explained.  Like Forrest Gump, he lives within a very confined mental space.  Truthfully, even more confined than Forrest, his mind is occupied only with the things that he needs to get through his day. He only knows where he goes to sleep, where he goes to the bathroom and the fundamentals of his garden. He also has a near-obsession with television which he constantly imitates. Television has become his addiction and his window to the outside world, yet he has no sense of anything real.

When the old man dies, Chance is cast out into the world for the very first time armed with nothing that will protect him.  And yet, people are always misinterpreting him.  When he speaks about his television or his garden, they assume that he is espousing wisdom and truth about the state of the world.  When asked by a reporter whether he prefers coverage of television or newspapers, he simply responds “I like to watch TV” and they assume that he has answered the question.  Soon he is meeting with important world leaders who like his fresh approach to the global situation and assume that when to talks about the roots of his garden, he’s talking about the roots of democracy.

The greatness of Sellers performance is that he never allows Chance to grow. Except for his circumstances, he remains more or less the same person at the end of the film that was when we first met him. His body remains erect, his speech pattern very pleasant and dull. His clothing, which we later learn dates back the 20s, is perfectly neat. The presence of Chance suggests a person who is more than he really is. Everyone in the film makes assumptions about him based on what he says, how he looks and what he does. It is a brilliant balancing act of misdirection and misunderstanding. He is a blank slate and everyone projects what they want upon him. The movie has a theme on how we perceive things, how we paint symbolism onto things that sometimes don’t merit them.  Who is this simple little man and what on Earth could the ending scene possibly mean?  I’ll let you decide for yourself.

8. Amarcord (1973)

Largely considered to have been Federico Fellini’s last great film, Amarcord – for me – is the only film that he ever made that struck a cord in my heart.  I’ve never been especially passionate about his work, much of it remains somewhat aloof and illusive and maybe it comes from the fact that this film is so lush and so rich and so filled with the hills and valleys of memory and nostalgia.  Perhaps I’m looking for such intimacy in the rest of his work.  Maybe its me.

Amarcord always strikes me as a movable scrapbook of memories, of people, of events and of things either hardly-remembered, half-remembered or overly-remembered.  And, typical of Fellini, all is created with the boldest colors, the boldest design, the boldest exaggeration.  We see through the eyes of a young adolescent who is traversing the confusing labyrinth of puberty, viewing his small Italian community with all of it’s colorful inhabitants.  It begins in his own home where he is part of a loud family that can’t get through a meal that doesn’t turn into a avalanche of drama.  Outside are his life’s occupations: the turning of the seasons, the annual festivals, the mystery of the female anatomy, the shenanigans that he perpetrations with his schoolmates, the observation of sin and vice that are perpetrated by nearly every adult.  Into this maelstrom come some moments of glory and wonder, like a peacock spreading its feathers in the middle of a snowfall and a passenger ship headed for its destination.  And, of course, the goose-stepping nonsense of Mussolini and his fascist thugs whose blowhard tyranny eventually lands at his front door.

And yet, as bold and garish as the population of this film might be, Fellini never fails to find some measure of affection for them.  Yes, they’re overbearing. but we sense a real humanity that exists in the heart of each one.  And this is the only Fellini work in which I have felt this.  He is a director who, for me, is often so illusive but this work of memory is rich and very moving.

9. Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

One of the most wonderful and joyous musical comedies that I have ever seen was also one of the biggest coups by any film artist in history.  Writer-director Nina Paley spent four years making Sita Sings the Blues on her own computer, and used the film as a weapon in a personal battle against the nation’s contradictory copyright laws.  Using previously released music, she displayed the film for free on her website  at a low resolution and was released on the website as a free download in March 2009 at all resolutions which allowed the film to generate a growing following (which was also helped by praise from Roger Ebert). All of this was in service of displaying a film that is, for me, pure magic. Paley created a glorious animated fantasy that is part love story, part musical, part Bollywood tribute, part comedy, part melodrama and all parts unapologetic fun.

 The result of her labor is a strange, confounding, colorful, daffy and sometimes hilarious imagining of the legendary Indian folk tale of “The Ramayana.” In it, Ramayana (referred in this film simply as “Rama”) is a blue-skinned Indian prince who dumps his wife when he suspects that she committed adultery while she was in the clutches of the ten-headed creature who kidnapped her. The story is narrated by three wisecracking shadow puppets who discuss the story in an effort to orient themselves – and us – on the progress of a story that is probably far more complicated than it needs to be.

Meanwhile, in another parallel story, Paley tells her own autobiographical journey of how her husband dumped her and left her with a broken heart that ultimately resulted in her creating Sita Sings the Blues.

The main story, though, involves Rama being forced into exile by his father, at the request of his wicked stepmother who wastes no tears on her blue-skinned stepson. She tells him – with an Indian accent – “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.” Rama is married to the beautiful Sita, and asks her not to join him in his exile, but Sita is determined that a woman’s place is next to her husband.  She sings the rapturous joy of being with Rama through Hanshaw’s evocative jazzy tune “Here We Are” as the two lovers spent time playing hide and seek.  Her joy isn’t even deterred when Rama kills a group of blue demons who come out of the woods to do harm to the couple.

It is the songs that evoke the most magical moments of Sita Sings the Blues.  Sita (pronounced “See-tah”), who looks like a Middle Eastern version of Betty Boop, sings Hanshaw’s songs with a sexy, laid-back style and always punctuates the numbers with a happy “That’s all” (which was Hanshaw’s trademark).  All of the songs speak to the situation at hand, and every time Sita opens her mouth to sing, it brings a smile to our faces. Even when she’s sad, the film’s visuals still evoke a jolly tone. Paley allows the film’s visual palette to compliment what is happening to Sita during these musical interludes: When she sings “Am I Blue?” she literally turns blue. When she sings “Lover Come Back to Me”, it is accompanied by repeated scenes of her lover dropping her.  When Sita is broken-hearted, she sings of her sadness with the melancholy tune “Mean to Me”.

The rest I must leave for you to discover, suffice to say that what passes for a happy ending will depend on how badly you really want Rama and Sita to be together again. This is a film that asks questions about what a woman is willing to settle for from her man. Sita’s story is the story of a woman treated cruelly by her man when jealousy overtakes him and the price she is willing to pay for his mistrust.

Much more I cannot say without spoiling the experienceSita Sings the Blues represents all the reasons that I love the movies. It is lively and fun, it tells a great story that is equal parts comedy, drama, romance, heartbreak, adventure, comeuppance, revenge, all mixed into a musical that is bouncy and fun. It tells a story that is universal in a way that we’ve never seen before, using various techniques and camera tricks to tickle us and treat us and allow us regard it with wonder.

10. Wandafuru Raifu a.k.a. After Life (1998)

After Life (1998) | MUBI
Hirokazu Koreeda’s beautifully understated masterpiece is the kind of film that doesn’t overwhelm with broad details, but overwhelms in concept.  It’s a fantastical meditation on who we are as human beings, and the value of memory on the person that we become.

It begins when several recently departed souls arrive at a waystation between life and their eternal reward.  There they will stay for a few days where they are tasks with looking at hundreds of video tapes, each containing one memory from their lives.  At the end of their stay, they must pick one memory to take with them to the great beyond – the rest will be erased.

What a daunting task!  What a nearly-impossible idea.  What single memory encapsulates an entire life?  One guest says that she can’t pick just one, another says that she has none.  But we are asked to contemplate our own individuality.  In the end, we meditate on the value of human memory, the idea that human identity is built on memories.  At the end of life, memory is all we have.  What are we when memories fade away?

Just off the top

So, things have moved around since I made this list in 2015, some films have moved up and some have dropped down, and since I can’t bottle my 10 best list into a deca of films without some measure of honorable mention, here are a handful of films that are just off the bottom of the list; and are listed alphabetically:

• 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
After 50 years, Stanley Kubrick’s bizarre science fiction wutzit still packs a punch, still hasn’t been replicated and still remains one of the most positive reflections on the evolution of mankind that has ever been put on the screen.  He takes us from the evolution of man as a mindless ape to the bland and boring homo-erectus that needs machines to fly and finally into a spiritual being that looks back down at it’s own cradle.  It’s brilliant.

• Ace in the Hole (1951)
The greatness of Billy Wilder’s acidic masterpiece is that it is more relevant today than it was 70 years ago.  Here is a film about a journalist (Kirk Douglas), a man rotten to the core who takes the opportunity to turn human suffering into the story that will make him famous.  Barely employed but hugely ambitious Douglas’s Charles Tatum turns the rescue of a man trapped in a cave into a media circus that, when the going gets rough, cannot undo the damage that he has done.  This is Wilder’s coldest film and Douglas’ finest performance.

• Annie Hall (1977)
Maybe, possibly my favorite comedy.  Woody Allen turned from a director of daffy but slight pictures to a serious filmmaker with this wonderfully intelligent and idiosyncratic masterpiece about the anatomy of a relationship between a neurotic gag writer (Allen) and a small town girl (Diane Keaton) from it’s awkward first steps to its bitter end, when the title paramour has had enough.  Beautifully told in flashback we get a portrait of two people who love each other but whose relationship comes apart under this constant need to find loopholes in perfection.  Loaded with intelligent dialogue, wit, romance and lot of genuine belly laughs, this is a movie that I treasure.

• Beauty and the Beast (1991)
In the overall tapestry of this list, I was surprised how little I credited Walt Disney because I love his work so much.  And yet, I find that the two films that I included (see also Fantasia above) are of the best work that his studio ever produced.  After his death in 1966, the studio fumbled to reinvent itself and finally it did with this beautifully made love story that is a splendid example of state-of-the-art animation and a romance that we can believe.  Belle and The Beast represent the struggle of all lovers to find a common ground when entering a relationship.  It’s real.  It feels real.  It’s more real than most live action romances that I’ve seen.

• Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Once again, Woody Allen, and I have acknowledged two of his best films knowing full-well the stain that his personal life has put on any conversation regarding his work.  But, I have been so influenced by his writing that it would be impossible not to include it.  That’s especially the case with this dual morality tale, a comedy and a drama, which come to a cosmic joke that I found to be a masterstroke.  The drama involves the dilemma of a wealthy, well-respected ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) whose marriage and reputation are at risk when his long-time girlfriend (Angelica Huston) threatens to rat on him if he doesn’t leave his wife.  The comedy has Allen as a documentary filmmaker whose marriage is on life-support, so he begins a reckless pursuit of his producer (Mia Farrow) that comes to a cross-section between himself and the ophthalmologist who are at opposite sides of the cosmic reward. 

• Nothing But a Man (1964)
Michael Roemer’s beautifully-made pioneering drama about a black couple struggling to build a life together was too far ahead of it’s time.  Released the same year that Lyndon Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the film chronicles the uphill struggle of a self-respecting black man (Ivan Dixon) from Alabama who suffers the slings and arrows of racism and ignorance but refuses to give up his dignity just to eek out a living.  At a time when Hollywood ran scared from positive portraits of African-Americans, Roemer (who was a German Jew during Hitler’s reign) made the film, and released it to wide critical acclaimed but then saw it all but disappear because he couldn’t find a distributor.  The film disappeared for 30 years only to be revived in 1993.  It’s subject matter was not something that mass audiences were not ready to hear and it remains elusive even today.

• Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Absolutely my favorite Hollywood musical and probably the most pure fun of any movie that I can name.  It is also a critique on the pomposity of Hollywood’s early years and the clumsy efforts the big movie studios to transition from silent movies to sound.  But apart from that, the movie is high-energy with musical numbers that are less dancing and more full-bore acrobatics.  The movie is light and happy and joyful and colorful.

• Vertigo (1958)
Strange for a movie this dark to land under Singin’ in the Rain, but we’re working alphabetically here.  I would say that it is my favorite Hitchcock film, but the status of ‘favorite’ rotates between this and Rear Window and North by Northwest and Notorious and so many others.  But I don’t think that Hitchcock ever made a movie with a story this intricately (or psychologically) deep, the story of a detective (Jimmy Stewart, of course) hired to shadow a friend’s possibly suicidal wife (Kim Novak) whom he falls in love with.  But when it turns out to be an elaborate con game, a very strange and very poignant love affair emerges that has so much to say about marriage, about relationships, about the union between men and women.  The movie is almost Freudian its subject matter and oddly tricky from a director who knew how to manipulate our expectations.

And the rest . . . . 

When I started this list, I knew it would be a blood-letting but I had no real idea exactly how much.  What I have provided above are 18 films that I consider nearly perfect and arranging them into a ranking service is probably the most frivolous exercise that I have committed to in quite a while.  But just to round things out, here are 32 more (bolstering this list up to 50 films) that I might have considered for my list and might rank higher when I consider again in a few years.  Again, they are listed alphabetically: All About Eve (1950), Casablanca (1943), City Lights (1931), The Color Purple (1985), The Conversation (1974), Do the Right Thing (1989), Duck Soup (1933), Fargo (1996), The General (1927), GoodFellas (1990), Hoop Dreams (1994), La Grande Illusion (1938), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Metropolis (1926), Mon Oncle (1958), Notorious (1946), Nashville (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Safety Last (1921)

The previous lists . . .

1. The Godfather
2. Fantasia
3. The Star Wars Trilogy
4. Schindler’s List
5. Vertigo
6. The Last Temptation of Christ
7. Annie Hall
8. Sita Sings the Blues
9. After Life
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey

1. Fantasia (1940)
2. The Godfather (1972)
3. Star Wars (1977)
4. Vertigo
5. Schindler’s List
6. Annie Hall
7. Metropolis (1926)
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
9. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
10. After Life

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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