It’s my birthday, and so I’m going to let myself do something I rarely do: I’m going to make a purely self-interested post. I don’t typically, in fact the “Distracted” series has waned a bit because I often second-guess myself as to whether or not a post is too self-indulgent, but today on August 19th I’ll let it go. I’m not discussing books or comics or anything close to my medium that could be considered remotely relevant to my position here at Engen Books: these are my top 10 favorite movies of all time. 🙂
I love film. If I could have done it DIY like I did with writing novels, I would have pursued it. I love every part of film, and I feel like I spend a great deal of my time unconsciously trying to turn novels into film, from a writing standpoint.
Bare in mind, “Favorite” does not mean that I objectively think these are the best films of all time: much smarter and more studious people can debate that. These are my favorite, which I judge based on a simple metric: movies I feel the need to rewatch over and over again, typically at least once a year.
10. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: A bit of a cheat, three movies, but I could never decide between them (that’s a lie: Fellowship) and, when I watch them, I tend to watch them all back to back. On the rare times I get catastrophically ill, these movies are usually my comfort viewing: I’ll put the extended editions on back to back and just lay in bed and escape into Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s world until I feel better. These are perfect films, in my opinion, are this is one of the few entries on this list I’d make a case yes, deserve to be in the ranks of the greatest films of all time (again, Fellowship, everyone loves Return for reasons that allude me).
However: The less said about the Hobbit trilogy, the better.
9. Spotlight: Probably the most recent entry on my list, this 2015 journalism procedural drama is based on the real-life reporting that exposed the sex scandal at the heart of the Catholic Church. It takes place during 2001 and doesn’t seek to over-dramatize the events: there’s very little character arc to each person, as this is just a snapshot of their lives while they work this story, but it’s a glimpse into the weight and power behind investigative journalism. It also gives me “gooseflesh” every time I watch it at the end, when it lists all the cities where scandals have since been uncovered, and it takes 8 full screens of text. Every time I get chills.
8. Fight Club: A movie with a twist needs to be perfect in order to reach legendary status: it has to be so good that, even if you know the twist, you still enjoy it. I knew the twist going into Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel, and the film is so expertly crafted that I found myself second-guessing myself: maybe the twist was a marketing fake-out? maybe my friends had been pulling one over on me? The perfect cap to Gen X counter-culture, this is a movie that could have only happened when it happened, and it’s perfect.
7. Groundhog Day: This movie is perfection. It’s premise is so simple — and yet complex and never explained — and it delivers it perfectly. I had a screenwriting instructor once tell me you couldn’t just drop something otherworldly into a movie and expect people to buy it, to which I responded Groundhog Day, and the point was given. Structurally, this film is a gem. It’s prof that with good structure — setups, reminders, payoffs, you can get the audience on board with anything. It also happens to be one of the funniest and most heartfelt movies of all time.
6. Zodiac: This movie scares the ever-living everything out of me, and it does so without ever reducing itself to a jump-scare, loud noise, or jump-from-behind the camera moment. It doesn’t even stay far from the reality on which it is based, instead forming a narrative around cartoonist Robert Graysmith’s theory as to who the Zodiac killer is… and just like with Spotlight, there’s a moment at the end what Gratsmith looks at Mark Ruffolo’s character and shows the distance between the suspect and the first victim’s door and says “I’ve walked it,” and it gives me chills every time. I’ve watched it no less than ten times, and it still does it. The line delivery is perfect. It’s also a perfect film for talking about film structure, with an inciting incident that is perfectly capped. Every potential writer should study this film.
5. The Shawshank Redemption: Frequently competing for the top spot of the greatest movies of all time with The Godfather (a movie I despise — I don’t understand the appeal at all), this story of hope and redemption in a hopeless place is told through two unlikely friends: the only guilty man in Shawshank, and the only innocent one. It’s a straight drama with perfect delivery, framing, everything. This movie is absolutely flawless.
4. The Green Mile: Isn’t it weird that, from a while, the only movies Frank Darabont made were prison movies adapted from works by Stephen King? I mean… that’s a narrow niche. This movie is one of those “so perfectly in tune with me I wish I wrote it.” I wish this was Engen Universe canon. It is a lovely movie that is a twist on King, in which the scifi element that gets dropped in isn’t dropped in for scares, but to provide hope. King elevates himself above the B-movie fare we love him for to a very personal and memorable story, the end of which never fails to reduce me to tears.
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I really could have just made a top ten list about David Fincher movies. There’s something about his style as a filmmaker that just speaks to me, I think. This movie is the perfect murder-mystery thriller. I’m honestly not sure why anyone rights in the genre anymore, myself included (other than I love the genre). Nothing will ever reach this level in this era, I firmly believe. It has characters we love and feel for, a tense situation, a villainous family of nazi’s from a corner of the world where that’s not as out-of-place as it will seem to Western audiences, and plots within plots that will keep viewers invested even after repeat viewings.
2. The Prestige: A film about a rivalry between two magicians — Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman — that’s also, secretly, a mystery. This is a storytelling masterclass, with the narrative taking place within “nested flashbacks” due to the characters reading each other’s journals, absolutely unreliable narrators, and a third-act twist which brings the up-till-then grounded film into a whole new venue that I still can’t believe they pulled off to this day. Everything about this works, and you can even pretend it’s Batman v. Wolverine for some added viewing pleasure. 🙂
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Movie: This movie makes no sense in the context of all the others, I know, but it has been my favorite since I was 6 years old and remains such. It, and its sequels, are the only movies from this area that i enjoyed as a child and that none of the shine have gone off of. Can I defend this movie like the others on this list? No. Is it a perfect and technical masterpiece and filmmaking? No. But what it is is enjoyable and watchable, to the point that I think I’ve seen it 100 times over the last 27 years.
That’s my list! Feel free to comment and share your own favorite movies, or even read into how these movies affected me as a writer in ways I may not even be aware of. 🙂 Who knows, maybe this will end up being work-related yet! Until next time: Never Look Back!