With the bravado that only a national cinema organisation of great standing can muster, the British Film Institute has decreed which films are the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time. It’s a poll weighted heavily to academics and critics – and, as a result, is rather pseudish, brimming with films that the reviewers’ would like people to know that they’ve seen and appreciated. It’s a selection of highbrow films, lest those who make a living from the movies be associated with something as lowbrow as “fun”.
Not that there aren’t fun films in the list or good films in the list. Of course there are. But it’s not an accessible list; not a list overwhelmed with movies that people who aren’t critics might have seen. I’m sure I’d enjoy many of the films on the list – although of the seven I have seen, there are a couple I’d happily not sit through again.
There are plenty of good quality films I would include in a more objective list but of which I’m not a particular fan – The Godfather being a prime example. As with the BFI’s, I’ve written a little bit about the entries in the top part of the list.
I reserve the right to change my mind about all of these tomorrow.
- Back to the Future
If you excuse the somewhat dubious application of time travel theory (why would certain body parts disappear first when history is changed?), this is pretty much a flawless film. Fox and Lloyd are excellent, the script is brimming with laughs, the direction is spot on and the theme song is a karaoke classic. Five Deloreans out of five.
Adapted by Anthony Shaffer from his own stage play, this is wonderful. Pompous author Laurence Olivier and upstart hairdresser Michael Caine bound around a big country house attempting to outwit each other. There are twists, turns, a line of dialogue pilfered by The Smiths and a magnificently hammy performance from Olivier.
This one was never going to get anywhere near the BFI’s list but it’s an absolute joy. Thoroughly silly and unashamedly lacking in any deep meaning, this farce’s three different endings make it particularly good value for money – as it should be with Yes, Minister‘s Jonathan Lynn behind it. The cast are great – it’s Christopher Lloyd’s second film in the top three – but the stand-out performance is Madeline Kahn’s, whose Mrs White is unforgettably weird.
Marion Crane comes from Phoenix and eats like a bird. There may be a theme there, although it’s somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the film, as Norman Bates’s naughty mother starts killing visitors left, right and- Well, there are only the two murders. The shower scene is probably the most famous cinematic murder in history, but if anything (and perhaps because of that) the second is the greater shock.
- 12 Angry Men
I saw 12 Angry Men for the first time a couple of months ago as part of my attempt to watch all of the films in the IMDB’s Top 250 (I’m up to 108, although it varies because the list changes over time). I was blown away by how good it is – especially since the fame of the film means I had a pretty good idea how it was going to go. The only shame is that, by its nature, there are no women in it at all.
- In Bruges
The most recent film in my list, coming from 2008. I should hate it. The posters had actually put me off. A gangster film with Colin Farrell? No thanks. But it’s terrific – and not really a gangster film at all. It’s about the relationship between two Irish criminals, delivered through strong performances and a brilliant, theatrical script that begs to be performed. One of my favourite scenes (in any film) involves Brendan Gleeson on the phone, the only character on screen for several minutes, completely captivating as he trades bon mots with an unseen Ralph Fiennes.
- The Wicker Man
Virginal policeman Edward Woodward visits a creepy Scottish island, with less than hilarious consequences. Weird, suspenseful and with a glorious finale, there is the added bonus of Christopher Lee luxuriating in the role of Lord Summerisle. Spoilers: there’s a wicker man in it.
- The Princess Bride
A film I’ve perhaps slightly grown out as I’ve become more cynical but this was wonderful when I was younger. A lovely, funny fairy tale, full of memorable scenes (who can’t quote “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”?), and all told to Fred Savage off of The Wonder Years (now 36!) by loveable grandfather Peter Falk.
- The Usual Suspects
Not a film I thought I’d enjoy; I was pleased to be proved wrong. It’s good all the way through but earns its high placing thanks to one of the best endings of any film ever.
- Kind Hearts and Coronets
Alec Guinness playing every member of an extended family, men and women alike, while Dennis Price tries to bump them off? Sounds off but the result is one of the delightfully fine British films ever made. (Yes, a third black and white film in the my top ten. That must make me all arty and cool.)
With its iconic Saul Bass title sequence and much-copied pull back and zoom effect (as notably used in Jaws), Vertigo follows clean cut Jimmy Stewart as he gets increasingly obsessed about a woman he saw fall to her death. That’s not going to end well.
- The Thomas Crown Affair
Before you nod approvingly at my choice of a sixties classic, hold your horses – because this is the 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. More quickly paced, sexy and fun, this is far more enjoyable than the original. Clever, stylish, and another film with a terrific climax.
- The Lives of Others
Yes, BFI, I can do foreign language films too. This German movie from 2006 is set in 80s East Berlin and examines the results of state surveillance through the ears of a Stasi agent who becomes obsessed with the subjects of his surveillance.
Hitchcock’s penultimate film and one of his less well known, this marks a return to London, featuring a bustling Covent Garden in its dying days as a fruit market. The neck tie murderer (that’s his method, not his victim) is on the loose. While laid-back policeman Alec McCowen attempts to solve the crime (and to avoid his wife’s culinary experimentations), Jon Finch tries to prove his innocence and Barry Foster off of Van der Valk swans about looking suave. A strong, seedy thriller.
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
A rolling boulder, a magical Ark of the Covenant, Denholm Elliott, a stonking John Williams theme tune, Steven Spielberg behind the camera and Harrison Ford creating a new sardonic action hero. Oh, and that bit where he shoots the guy with the whip. What’s not to love?
- The Sixth Sense
I don’t care if you worked out the twist. I didn’t and went “Ooh” in the cinema.
- The Sting
Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer tinkles away, welcoming us to the 1930s Illinois and the 1970s film version of Hustle. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Newman and Redford – reunite to play an experienced con man and the slightly wet protegé who brings him out of retirement to take down gangster Robert Shaw. It won seven Oscars, but more importantly it’s good, twisty fun.
Forever destined to be associated with the phrase “What’s in the box?”, this is a second 1995 Kevin Spacey film to grace by list – and he’s suitably creepy in this one. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman’s police officers – the latter soon to retire, in classic form – are on the hunt for a killer whose methods of murder relate to the Seven Deadly Sins. You’ve got to have a hobby, I suppose.
Although the third bond film, Goldfinger is the most iconic, featuring golden Shirley Eaton, the laser interrogation, Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus, Fort Knox, Oddjob’s hat and that theme tune.
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I was introduced to this a few year’s ago on the outdoor screen at Somerset House. Fittingly, while we were waiting for the film to start, Dr David Owen appeared from the Admiralty and walked through the crowd. Well I thought it was fitting. A very odd Kubrick film with some brilliant moments and one of the best lines in film: “You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
This one’s in foreign too. I is cultured.
- Fight Club
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- Shaun of the Dead
Yes, you heard me.
- Evil Under the Sun
Another Shaffer script and a load of camp old fun.
A noir thriller set in a school.
- A Fish Called Wanda
- From Russia with Love
- Twelve Monkeys
- Back to the Future Part II
- The Fifth Element
Underrated science fiction with Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman. And, I’ve just remembered, Gore Vidal.
- Murder on the Orient Express
It doesn’t matter if you know whodunnit.
- Being John Malkovich
- A Clockwork Orange
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Empire Strikes Back
Marginally better than the first one.
More Robert Redford. Has Superman’s dad from Lois & Clark in too. And Danny from The West Wing.
- Star Wars
- All About Eve
- Les Diaboliques
Clouzot, you know.
- The Man Who Knew too Much
Hitchcock’s colour remake of his own black and white film.
- The Dark Knight
- The Game
Michael Douglas has quite a night out.
- North by Northwest
I picked the wrong day to give up making lists.
- The Truman Show
- The Lord of the Rings
Yes, the whole thing.
- Galaxy Quest
And why not?