I had a hard time compiling this list. I had to ask myself what it was about a movie that made it a favorite for me. In the end, I made my choices based on one overriding criterion, how many times I had watched each movie. My logic was that if I were willing to watch a movie over and over and still enjoy it, it must be a great one to stand the test of time and repeated viewings. I’m sure there are some movies I’ve forgotten to include, especially in the honorable mention category. I’m sure my list will be different than yours, but I’d love to know what’s on your list if you care to share it.
1. Forrest Gump (1994)
This is not a bold choice. It’s one of the most popular movies of all time, I’m pretty sure. I’ve watched it countless times, and I could sit down and watch it right now and still tingle in some parts of it. Partly, it’s because of my personal circumstances. In the summer of 1994, we were getting ready to move from Kansas to Arizona because of my work situation. My wife Ann, my son Patrick and I decided to take one last farewell tour of our beloved Ozarks. I can’t even remember what town we stayed in the night we went to the theater and saw Forrest Gump. We didn’t know what was playing. We were just on vacation and in a festive mood, willing to watch whatever they were screening. We knew nothing about the movie and I thought the title, when I first saw it, was kind of dumb. The movie had started before we got in and sat down. By the time it was over, I was convinced it was a great movie. There was one point in the movie that blew me away. Forrest has come home to Greenbow, Alabama after a tumultuous life, and it looks like the film is winding down and about to come to a natural conclusion I couldn’t see where it could go from there. Then Forest goes for a run, and keeps going, and criss-crosses the continent several times and gains a cult following. Just brilliant storytelling and the visuals, OMG, they’ll make you want to go out and see America for yourself. In later viewings, after we’d moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, I realized that Forest ran right through downtown Flagstaff, passing right in front of a bar where I sometimes drank beer. Another personal connection. I also loved the way the movie worked in historical events and figures into the plotline. And Tom Hanks has to be congratulated for creating one of the most iconic characters in the history of American cinema.
2. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Of all of Tennessee Williams’ plays which made their way to the silver screen, this one is just the best. Though it was written decades ago, it holds up today, losing nothing though a lot of time has passed. Richard Burton gives the performance of his career as a flawed, deeply troubled, aging, conflicted misfit. Ava Gardner is pitch perfectly cast as a strong but wavering wench. Sue Lyon is temptation personified. Deborah Kerr is a sympathetic white goddess in need of rescue from a tight spot. They all come together at a hilltop villa on the Mexican coast and the survival of each and every character is fraught with doubt. Of course, the writing is transcendent, poetic really. Filmed in black and white, but it doesn’t matter, the human dynamics are powerful enough to make you realize you are experiencing a rare event, souls bared right in front of you.
3. Sling Blade (1996)
I must admit to some personal bias here. Not only do I live in the South, I live in Arkansas, where the movie is set and where Billy Bob Thornton also grew up. But I think this movie would be in my top ten anyway, no matter where I lived. Rarely can anyone pull off the trifecta of writing, directing and starring in a movie of this magnitude. I’ve never seen a film that provides a more unflinching portrait of rural southern life. It has darkness, redemption, humor, good old boys, bad old boys, hicks, unspeakable acts, innocence, all thrown together and viewed through the eyes of one of the most memorable characters ever portrayed. The South may be a lost cause in the view of many outsiders, but this movie is a classic.
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Ken Kesey’s novel and the movie made from it are about equal in power and scope. The best films seem to be able to present both the absurdity of life and its tragic nature in the same story, and so it is here. Jack Nicholson is at his charismatic best. Nicholson embodies a loveable, if imperfect, scamp of a character, so full of life it seems depraved to snuff out his spirit. Setting the movie in a nuthouse opened the story to including a quirky bunch of minor characters, and also allowed both great tension and comic relief. One of the few movies where a woman gets to be a truly evil villain. An unforgettable movie experience.
5. Tom Jones (1963)
When I was in high school, a bunch of us rode a bus to a service club convention in Houston. We arrived in the morning and found out we couldn’t check into our hotel until noon, so we killed the time by going to a movie. Yes, movies were run in the morning back then. That movie was Tom Jones, based on the Henry Fielding novel. It’s one of the best period movies ever made. Albert Finney captures the roguish quality of the main character while making him a likable underdog. Tom Jones is a bastard, literally, but he’ll win your heart as well as the heart of the ladies in the movie. There is one scene which has become a classic, when Tom and a lady are eating together and evincing another kind of appetite altogether. Still a great irreverent tale almost fifty years after it came out.
6. Sideways (2004)
Buddy movies are a film staple, but not buddy movies like this. While this film is about friendship, it’s also about the frustration of not getting what you want out of life, moving sideways instead of upward. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church seem like unlikely friends. Giamatti plays a divorced schoolteacher who aspires unsuccessfully to be a novelist. Church is an aging, philandering former soap star who is about to marry into money. The movie takes place during a bachelor fling trip to wine country. The screenwriter cleverly uses reversal to keep the watcher shifting his opinion as the movie progresses. At first Giamatti seems somewhat like a loser, lies to his friend, steals money from his mother, and creates embarrassing scenes. Church seems like the successful cool actor with the golden tongue. But as you get into the movie, the masks come off. Church is revealed as vapid and indulgent, Giamatti as deep and thoughtful. Virginia Madsen gives a great performance as a love interest.
7. Bad Santa (2003)
I can’t imagine going through the Christmas season without watching this movie. It’s best if you see the original laced with profanity, instead of the sanitized one presented on cable channels. If there is a movie that captures the real spirit of Christmas, the commercial spirit, this is it. In many ways it is the antithesis of A Wonderful Life, but in the end, amazingly, the two movies do align. Billy Bob Thornton’s Santa is a corrupt, lazy, and mean drunk, and those are his good points. But his wretchedness meets its match in the form of a fat, sweet, abandoned child. Sounds sappy. It’s anything but.
8. The Big Lebowski (1998)
It’s already a cult classic so my endorsement may be preaching to the choir. The funny thing is, the first time I saw it, I wasn’t impressed. I had trouble following the plot. Maybe I was tired or out of sorts. The second time I saw it I liked it better. About the third time, I started thinking, this is really good. Every time I watched it, it kept getting better. In his long film career, Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude, may be the one he will be most remembered for. John Goodman is inspired as an outrageous Vietnam vet. Steve Buscemi is just right as their beaten-down friend. And John Turturro is a standout in a small role. One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. I still laugh hard even now when I watch it knowing exactly what’s coming.
9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Many people love this movie. I can tell because not a week goes by that some channel isn’t re-running it. I’m not a Stephen King fan, but I have to give him credit for writing a story that tugs at your heart and makes you long for an injustice to be righted. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman create a chemistry that will convince you that friendship can survive almost anything. Beautifully plotted and paced, it will take you into the bowels of the beast before it turns you loose.
10. Little Big Man (1970)
Dustin Hoffman seems like a questionable choice to headline a western. But this movie is more than a western. It’s an arc-of-a-life story following its main character thorough several episodic incarnations, as a boy captured by the Cheyenne, as a snake oil salesman, a gunfighter, a scout for General Custer. Entertaining, funny, whimsical, and a raucous trip through the old west.
Honorable Mention – In Alphabetical Order
A Thousand Clowns (1965)
Big Fish (2003)
Box of Moonlight (1996)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Clay Pigeons (1998)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Easy Rider (1969)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
North Dallas Forty (1979)
The Beach (2000)
The Big Chill (1983)
The Hustler (1961)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The Verdict (1982)
Two For the Road (1967)
Winter’s Bone (2010)