By John H. Foote
The trouble with a ten greatest films list is I cannot merely do ten, can anybody? My colleague and friend Craig suggested I was cheating a bit, he’s right, (laughing) but I also don’t care! My list might not have been the same a year ago, it will not be the same in a year, it is just how it goes and to understand how I came to the final ten, you must see the many runners up.
Time is a films’ greatest enemy, it chips away at was once powerful, it causes what was once great to deflate, to become ordinary. Society changes and with it only everything within that society, thus what was once relevant becomes irrelevant. For myself the greatest films are those which transcend time, those as perfect today as they were the first day it was released. Time has not blemished or damaged them. In some cases, films grow in stature, are re-discovered by future generations and celebrated as the masterpiece it has always been.
For years the thinking has been that Citizen Kane (1941) was the greatest film ever made and while I maintain it was the most ground-breaking and innovative, it was surpassed a long time ago by greater works. The American Film Institute consistently names its number one, which I have always disputed. There is much to admire in the film, Welles accomplished wonders, but time has eroded its greatness.
So, indulge me…here we go.
And yes, one director lands three films in the top five.
Runners up…The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-02-03), On the Waterfront (1954), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Unforgiven (1992), Raging Bull (1980), Tootsie (1982), Network (1976), Pulp Fiction (1994), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), City Lights (1931), Jaws (1975), Reds (1981), Manhattan (1979), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Taxi Diver (1976), Sideways (2004), The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Forrest Gump (1994), The Passion Of the Christ (2004), Citizen Kane (1941), Ben Hur (1959), Up! (2009), Blow Out (1981), Annie Hall (1977), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), Terms of Endearment (1983), Amadeus (1984), American Graffiti (1973), Chinatown (1974), Hair (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), LA Confidential (1997), Fight Club (1999), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Social Network (2010), True Grit (2010), Lincoln (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2013).
- There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson directed and adapted this searing tale of greed and a man’s hatred of his fellow man, to the extent it corrupts and ruins his soul. Daniel Day-Lewis, using, brilliantly the voice of Director John Huston, as Daniel Plainview, a self-described oil man, explores what it is to have no soul. He claims his business is a family one, using his adopted son to hide behind his true nature. He is in fact a cunning, greedy, wealth obsessed man without a shred of goodness in him, morally corrupt, devoid of conscience. Day-Lewis stalks the film like a sleek panther, a predator looking for his next target. Paul Dano is equally great as that target; a false prophet Plainview despises. The cinematography is stunning, the score perfect, the direction and acting sublime. As good as a film can be.
- E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg creates dreams onscreen, and this is his finest film before 1993, the greatest of his early works. It can never be forgotten that this entire film is built around a special effect, in the days before cgi, and the performance of a ten-year-old boy. The leading man is the creation of a team of effects artists, and the fact their character brought millions to tears is a testament to their genius. A gentle alien botanist is accidentally left behind by his crew, and found by Elliott, a boy struggling with the divorce of his parents. He takes the creature in and we watch, transfixed as a bond deeper than love is forged. Henry Thomas is a wonder as the boy, that goodbye scene will gut you, and Spielberg’s’ work as a director is magnificent. That score, those effects, the cinematography…stunning. A breathtaking, emotionally soaring work…the reason movies were made.
- The Searchers (1956)
It is not until we are partway through this western we understand why Ethan (John Wayne) is searching for his niece, kidnapped by natives after they slaughter her parents and siblings. Ethan has no intention of bringing the child home, he plans to kill her for now being one of the tribe who took her. The quest takes seven years and through that time we see the hate, rage and cruel manner of Ethan, the greatest performance of Wayne’s career. Finally face to face with the adult Debbie, he lifts her high above his head as he did when she was a child, then sweeps her into his arms, whispering tenderly, “Let’s go home Debbie.” The last thing Ethan expected to find was his humanity, yet it was there all along. John Ford, John Wayne, Monument Valley…Magic. Watch how Director Ford handles the passing of the years, with a letter reading, the seasons, and difficult trips home. Simplistic genius. The greatest western ever made.
- Goodfellas (1990)
Martin Scorsese directed this violent, rollercoaster of a ride through twenty-five years in the life of a gangster. Based on the book and memories of Henry Hill, the film is a rollicking, often jaunty, sometimes very funny, but very real, very black study of life inside the mob. Hill (Ray Liotta) is half Italian, half Irish so he can never be a full member, but he is in the inner circles of power, he befriends those in power and those friendships shape his life. Robert De Niro is quietly frightening as Jimmy the Gent, a thief and cold-blooded killer, Joe Pesci, explosively terrifying as Tommy, and Paul Sorvino, watchful, slow moving because he can be, runs it all as Paulie. Lorraine Braco is sensational as Liotta’s wife, complicit in it all, because she knows and understands all her husband does. Moving fast, his camera taking us into the underworld, Scorsese confidently creates one of the great mob films. Be warned, the violence is shocking and real, but the truth.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
We have all been Dorothy. For me it was Easter Sunday, 2001. I had been in the hospital three months after a near fatal car accident left me broken and bed ridden. My wife and girls came down in the morning and stayed till one, a wonderful morning with an Easter egg hunt in my room. When they left, this film came on and I watched it. At some point the longing to go home, to hug my girls, inhale their scent, feel their skin and see those smiling faces overwhelmed me and I began to cry. My nurse came in and sat down, holding my hand. “I’m Dorothy” I blubbered, feeling every bit the idiot. The trip to Oz, over the rainbow is among the most extraordinary films ever made. The performances of Judy Garland, Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Lion) and especially the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) are astonishing, pure perfection. Brilliantly directed by Victor Fleming, the film is a dreamscape come to life. And at some point in our life we will long for home, because deep down, we are all Dorothy.
- Apocalypse Now (1979)
The impossibly green, lush jungle sways gently back and forth, the waves of heat clear to us. On the soundtrack, Jim Morrison begins to mournfully croon The End as the jungle bursts into flames as helicopters fly by. Thus begins Francis Ford Coppola’s dark and forever haunting Apocalypse Now (1979). Basing his story loosely on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) an army assassin is ordered to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) a one-time military superstar, who has gone renegade in the jungle, waging his own war. As Willard travels on the river, closer to Kurtz into Cambdia, he learns much about the man he has been sent to kill, and in the process discovers who he is. They encounter madness on the river, Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a napalm loving madman who bombs entire villages so he can surf, a playmate bunny show that goes awry, a tiger in the wild, and natives firing arrows and spears. Brando is haunted and haunting, Duvall simply electrifying and Sheen brilliant. Coppola creates a surrealistic nightmare about Viet Nam that is about all war. An astounding experience. The horror indeed.
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean directed this masterful biography of T. E. Lawrence, a military genius of the First World War, who was more or less banished to Arabia because he confused the military. In the vast desert of Arabia, he found his true calling. Lawrence was an enigma, a genius of war, worshiped as a near God by the tribes in the desert who chose to follow him, a sadomasochist who loved to kill, fearless, and a homosexual at a time when it was unacceptable to be one. Gifted pure white robes, Arabian garb, he wore it everywhere defying British military law. Lean cast unknown actor Peter O’Toole after Albert Finley and Marlon Brando dropped out, and one cannot imagine anyone else in the role…O’Toole IS Lawrence. From the moment he rides the camel into the inferno of the desert he is at one with the land. He convinces the warring tribes of Arabia to unite with him, crossing the uncrossable desert to attack Aquaba from behind, its guns point to the sea. Nothing he does fails, though he loses men along the way, the cost of his ego and the cost of war. A single image from the film, for me, defines Lawrence. After the train attack, he sits along, his white robes now crimson and dripping with blood, the sound of his voice screaming “No prisoners” ringing in our ears. From desert vistas, through the supporting performances of Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness, to that magnificent score and the great O’Toole the film is a soaring work of genius.
- Schindler’s List (1993)
To make this film, Steven Spielberg threw away all his signature directorial tricks, everything that made him Spielberg. No soaring John Williams score, no night time shooting stars, no sentiment, no close ups on faces filled with wonder, no major movie star leading the way. This was a film about death, about survival, about finding ones’ humanity where none existed. The true story of Nazi Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) a war profiteer, who would during WWII protect and eventually save more then eleven hundred Jews. No one ever knew why, no one could guess, but Schindler went to great lengths, put himself in grave peril, went broke protecting this group of people from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Shot hand held in black and white, two sequences and an epilogue are in colour, Spielberg does everything right, beyond right, to perfection. Neeson is mysterious as Schindler, a decent man doing what he believes to be the right thing. Ralph Fiennes is terrifying as Goethe, drunk with power, thinking himself a young God holding the power of life and death though in fact he was a mad man, and Ben Kingsley is the conscience of the film, quietly superb as Stern. The violence is sudden and swift, real, ultra real, and Schindler’s breakdown heartbreaking. The epilogue drew criticism from some narrow-minded critics who saw it as Spielberg trying to bring a happy ending to a Holocaust film. Really? Can there ever truly be a happy ending to such an event? A masterpiece, the greatest work of his career. Interesting sidebar, Warren Beatty read for Schindler at an early table read, as did Robert Duvall.
- The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola saw something no one else did when he read The Godfather. On the surface it was an epic crime novel about a father and his sons, but Coppola dug deeper. What he saw was a story about the perverse side of the American Dream. An immigrant comes to America, and through crime builds a massive empire bringing him great wealth, power, influence. His job is crime, he has committed murder, now he orders death and other men around him carry out those orders. For his film he fought, hard, for Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, the Godfather, the mafia chieftain, the Don. Relative unknowns James Caan, John Canaletto and Al Pacino would portray his sons, Robert Duvall his adopted son, and a host of great character actors made up the rest of the cast. Making the film, Coppola expected to be fired, but Brando, displaying loyalty, made it clear he would walk off the film if Coppola was let go. When the film opened the raves were immediate and glowing, critics hailing the film as the greatest American film ever made. Brando revived his career which was all but dead with a compelling performance as the seventy plus Don; the actor was in his mid-forties when took the role. The story of the film was Pacino as Michael, who moves from being an idealistic war hero to a cold, cunning mafia chieftain, a performance of quiet authority and remarkable power. The entire cast was flawless, and the director created so many iconic scenes. The opening, the wedding, the horse head sequence, Michael gunning down enemies in a restaurant, the massacre of Sonny, the scenes in Sicily and Vegas, the death of the Don and Michael ascending the office of power as Don Corleone. In every way a masterwork of cinema.
- The Godfather Part II (1974)
if the first film explored the dark side of the American Dream, this second brilliantly explores that absolute power corrupts with absolution, and that though murder and betrayal are common place, organized crime is, after all, a business. “Mike, we’re bigger than US Steel,” Hyman Roth tells Michael in Cuba. Though the first film did not cry out for a sequel, there was more than enough in the book, and in American history to create one. Coppola agreed with one condition, that he have absolute control of the film, from casting through final cut. He did not want producer Robert Evans taking credit for his work, as had happened on the first film. Brando was approached for a small scene and initially agreed, only to back out at the last minute. Coppola shot the scene without him, so great was the memory of his performance, that even the suggestion of him being unseen on screen was something exceptional. The film is a massive work, telling two stories in broken narrative, yet each story is told in a driving forward manner. Coppola tells two stories, that of Vito, The Godfather of the previous film, rising to power after arriving in New York having to flee Sicily, and he continues the story of Michael, now located in Las Vegas, an all-powerful crime Lord. The film brilliantly juxtaposes Vito’s meteoric rise with Michael’s moral collapse, the corruption of his very soul. Yes, Michael is all powerful, but at a terrible cost not even his father could have seen coming.
Al Pacino was never better in his career than he is here as Michael. Intense, like a coiled serpent, you can feel the rage building in him until the moment he snaps, unable to hold it together any longer. Is there a greater moment in film history than Michael violently kissing his brother Fredo on the mouth and whispering with hurt and regret, “I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart.” If there is I have not seen it. Pacino is surrounded by great actors who shine throughout, the brightest being John Cazale as doomed Fredo, Robert Duvall as loyal Tom, Diane Keaton as his long questioning wife Kay, Lee Strasberg as Jewish mobster Hyman Roth, Michael V. Gazpacho as family friend Frankie Pentangeli and Talia Shire as Connie, Michael’s sister.
De Niro as Vito, the younger version of the man Brando made iconic is a revelation, extraordinary and uncanny. The moment he had the part he hopped on a plane for Sicily, armed with tapes of the film, to study Brando and immerse himself in the language. He won the Academy Award for supporting actor for his work. There is an epic sweep to the film, something deeply moving about the immigrants, their eyes filled with awe and wonder as their ship passes Lady Liberty on their way to embark on Ellis Island. Buoyed by a stirring score by Carmine Coppola, father of Francis, he found the right score for each moment.
Magnificent on every level, the second film is darker, deeper, more complex and more humane than the first. It is, to me, the greatest film ever made, an extraordinary accomplishment for Coppola, and the true end of the Corleone saga.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.