The way I see it, and I’ve got the conch, the best movies of the last 100 years were made by mavericks who busted rules to follow their obsessions. We’re talking about a century of cinema, but it’s still rock & roll to me. I had certain criteria: Each movie had to embody that rock spirit of artful defiance. Each director had to be limited to only one movie – otherwise you could just list the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford, Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese and end it. Anything dutiful I tossed. Don’t look for the biggest cash cow (Titanic), the winner of the most Oscars (Ben-Hur) or film-school staples like Battleship Potemkin. The 100 maverick movies on this list have one more thing in common: They’re alive.
1. The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990, Francis Ford Coppola): The flawed Part III barely slides in on goodwill. No matter. This is entertainment raised to the level of art: an offer you can’t refuse. Coppola gives us the Corleone clan of killers, and we identify. How does that happen? Alchemy, that’s how; magic you can’t explain except to say that Don Vito and his three sons are as familiar to us as our own family. We remember all the lines, profound (“I believe in America”) and silly (“Leave the gun, take the cannolis”). These films grow in stature with the years, their power to move us undimmed, their influence as up-to-date as The Sopranos. Marlon Brando’s don is an icon, but Al Pacino’s performance as his son Michael – taken in toto – is arguably the finest in cinema. Coppola had just turned thirty when he started work on the first chapter. Even later (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now), he never topped it. Nobody has.
2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock): The master of suspense felt secure enough – he was nearing sixty – to direct the mad, perverse tale of romantic obsession that had always obsessed him. James Stewart gives his riskiest performance as a detective in thrall to a dead woman, forcing Kim Novak to walk, talk, move and make love according to his definition of beauty and truth. Do you know a better definition of filmmaking?
3. The Searchers (1956, John Ford): Ford had been making westerns for almost four decades before he acknowledged the racism inherent in cowboys vs. Indians and directed his masterpiece. John Wayne found the role of his career as Ethan Edwards, an Indian hater torn apart by the thought that his kidnapped niece (Natalie Wood) has been raped by savages. He doesn’t know whether to rescue or kill her, a theme Martin Scorsese picked up later in Taxi Driver. Few film images are more haunting than that of Wayne standing alone in a doorway, cut off from his family by torments he can’t define.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick): It kills me to pick just one Kubrick – Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita and The Shining all exert a powerful hold – but it’s hard to resist this visionary epic about the dawn of man, the birth of technology and the death of language and imagination. On its initial release, 2001 hit home mostly with acid trippers (dig that time warp) and intellectuals (deconstruct that star child). These days Kubrick’s daring is justly celebrated as a landmark of cinematic ambition and reach.
5. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles): Pauline Kael claims that Welles’ debut film – the wonder boy was just twenty-five – is “more fun than any other great movie.” You can still sense Welles’ enthusiasm for film as “the biggest toy-train set any boy ever had.” The techniques he used to tell the story of a tycoon destroyed by ambition and childhood neglect revolutionized movies in ways that are still being felt. It is, however, wrongly assumed that Welles never lived up to his huge potential. I’ll stand by The Lady From Shanghai, Chimes at Midnight and especially Touch of Evil, in which he played – brilliantly – the fat, corrupt slob his detractors later accused him of becoming.
6. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese): The best director currently working in American movies hit a career peak by turning the life of boxer Jake La Motta into a poetic meditation on the nature of violence. Robert De Niro gives the performance of his life as the trim rebel and the flabby mess he became. Still, it’s the heightened urgency with which Scorsese prowls macho rituals, in and out of the boxing ring, that puts the Bull a hair ahead of such Scorsese classics as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas.
7. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski): Corruption and political coverups in 1930s Los Angeles are the hooks on which Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne hang this definitive allegory of the Watergate era. Who can forget the shock of Jack Nicholson, as detective Jake Gittes, when client Faye Dunaway confesses that her sister is her daughter by an incestuous father, played to the glorious hilt by John Huston. The last scene and the last line (“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”) give off an indelible chill.
8. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, this superb tale of how greed eats at the soul, casting heroic Humphrey Bogart as a murderous panhandler looking for gold in Mexico and Walter Huston, the director’s father, as a toothless prospector. The son directed his dad to a well-deserved Oscar.
9. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch): Talk about freaks. An innocent (Kyle MacLachlan) drops through the rabbit hole of Norman Rockwell America to find a chaos world ruled by Dennis Hopper’s violently mad hatter. The innocent also finds himself naked in the closet of a masochistic songbird (Isabella Rossellini). But that’s another story in Lynch’s perverse masterwork.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino): Not since Orson Welles had a writer-director taken more joy in reinventing film form. While getting career-best performances from John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman, Tarantino made good on the promise of his 1992 debut (Reservoir Dogs) and crafted one of the most innovative crime dramas ever.
11. King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack): The creation of the big ape is an emotional and special-effects marvel. Naked, alone in the big city, in heat for a troubled blonde and brought down by technology, Kong is the definitive wronged male of the cinema century.
12. The Manchurian Candidate (1962, John Frankenheimer): Much more than a paranoid thriller about brainwashing, it’s a sharp satire of political extremism, a workout for Frankenheimer’s kinetic gifts and a showcase for the best performances that Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and a devastating Angela Lansbury ever gave onscreen.
13. Fargo (1996, Joel Coen): Kidnap, murder, Minnesota, snow, strange accents and a pregnant police chief (Frances McDormand) figure in this black-comic gem from the Coen brothers, who wouldn’t know how to make a dull movie or an obvious move.
14. All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz): “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” says diva supreme Bette Davis in this immortal take on the freaks of the theater, including Anne Baxter as Davis’ cutthroat protégée, George Sanders as an acerbic critic and the young Marilyn Monroe as a budding talent who trained, claims the critic, “at the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts.”
15. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee): Lee writes, directs and stars as a delivery boy for a white-owned Brooklyn pizza joint; when he tosses a garbage can through the window to protest the murder of a brother, the screen explodes. This incendiary film – still Lee’s best – ended the Eighties on a high note of revolutionary film fervor.
16. The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton): A character in Do the Right Thing refers to the psychotic minister played by menacing Robert Mitchum. He’s a killer with the word HATE tattooed on one hand and the word LOVE on the other, and he’s about to take down some orphans unless Lillian Gish can stop him. Laughton’s first and only film as a director is a stunner, a flop at the time and now one for the ages.
17. Sherlock, Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton): The silent era’s most gifted clown – Chaplin lags behind – plays a projectionist who enters the action onscreen. Keaton’s comic take on illusion and reality is shot with a fluid brilliance that leaves imitations like Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo in the dust.
18. Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder): The sublime comedy of the sound era stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag, Marilyn Monroe as the jiggly object of their lust and Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment) finding humanity in the wicked laughter. The last line is “Nobody’s perfect.” Wrong, Wilder is.
19. Nashville (1975, Robert Altman): Altman uses a political rally held in the capital of country music to create an astonishingly complex mosaic of American life that grows more rewarding with each viewing. Along with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H and Short Cuts, it’s an Altman pinnacle.
20. The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming); It’s ironic that a kiddie favorite so effectively exposes the dark roots of fantasy (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). Still, it’s the young Judy Garland who takes us over the rainbow. What a kick to follow Oz by viewing the adult Judy, raw and riveting, on Pioneer’s collection of the TV shows she did for CBS between 1963 and 1964. It’s the DVD event of the year and proof that none of us is in Kansas anymore.
21. Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick): “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” says Burt Lancaster’s killer columnist to press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis is smarm incarnate) in this seductively poisonous view of New York after dark.
22. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam): The corporate culture of the future tries to crush the dreams of clerk Jonathan Pryce, giving the great Gilliam a chance to use his gifts for satire and production design to create a nightmare vision of dehumanization.
23. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel): Wonderfully subversive sci-fi and a barely veiled satire of the communist witch hunts run by Sen. Joe McCarthy, as small-towners find themselves duplicated by alien pods if they fall asleep.
24. Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick): Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play lovers on a killing spree in a debut film that marks the reclusive Malick as a poet of the cinema.
25. Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg); Venice, sex, horror and the death of feeling, masterfully explored by Roeg through the disintegrating marriage of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. The climactic image of the knife-wielding dwarf in a red raincoat possesses an enduring power to haunt.
(Just in case you’re thinking my personal tastes are getting too freaky, I pause here to cite mainstream hits that still have juice.)
26. Gone With the Wind (1939, produced by David O. Selznick – there were three directors, but Selznick bossed them all around)
27. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
28. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
29. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen)
30. On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
31. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
32. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)
33. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
34. The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
35. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner): OK, I’m guilty of heresy for not picking the first Star Wars, which George Lucas directed, but this sequel offers more fluid storytelling and is a much better film. (Now back to our regular programming.)
36. Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton): Johnny Depp plays the worst director of all time in Burton’s valentine to the joy of movies, even – and maybe especially – the bad ones.
37. Faces (1968, John Cassavetes): An agonizing study of infidelity from the father of American mavericks. To get at raw truths, Cassavetes encouraged actors to go for broke, often testing audience endurance. His work still shames studio formula pap.
38. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen): The Woodman’s piercingly funny and touching treatise on what makes opposites attract. Diane Keaton’s la-di-da Wasp princess – “You’re what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew,” she tells Allen on their first date – is a deft and dazzling comic creation.
39. Bonnie and Clyde (1967. Arthur Penn); Penn used bank robbers Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) to reflect the youth rebellion of the Sixties. The violence, especially the slow-mo climax, retains its power to floor you.
40. Straw Dogs (1971, Sam Peckinpah): “Bloody Sam,” they called him, and this brutal bash, in which Dustin Hoffman’s pacifist avenges what his wife claims was a gang rape, is the most potent in the Peckinpah canon – just ahead of The Wild Bunch.
41. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed): A gorgeously atmospheric thriller about the black market in postwar Vienna offers a never-better Orson Welles as cheeky villain Harry Lime. And, oh, that cuckoo clock.
42. All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula): In Pakula’s acutely observed film, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) blow the whistle on Nixon and Watergate in ways that still make you want to cheer.
43. Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale): Gods and monsters, Whale-style, as Boris Karloff’s creature finds a mate in Elsa Lanchester and the horror genre is transcended with fierce humor and humanity.
44. Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray): The film that made James Dean a legend, from an unfairly neglected director – check Ray’s In a Lonely Place for more proof.
45. Written on the Wind (1957, Douglas Sirk): An expressionist master turns a soap opera into a world of articulate shadows. For phallic symbolism, Dorothy Malone stroking a model of her tycoon daddy’s oil derrick is hard to top.
46. Swing Time (1936, George Stevens): The main attraction here is Fred Astaire, of whom a talent scout once infamously wrote: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Just watch Astaire in this gem as he refuses to dance with partner Ginger Rogers, until her beauty wears him down and they take off in an orgiastic swirl.
47. The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger): Two sublime visual stylists set their sights on ballet.
48. Network (1976, Sidney Lumet): This scalding satire of the media seems timelier than ever in the age of reality TV. Lumet draws a superb performance from Peter Finch as the prophet of the airwaves who tells viewers to get up, open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Consider it done.
49. Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges): Joel McCrea stands in for Sturges, a comedy director who longs to make a serious film and hits the road to experience real life – memorably funny and mournful.
50. The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols): “What now?” ask reunited lovers Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross in Nichols’ pungent satire of Sixties youth. You might ask the same of the next movie century.
(Here at midpoint, let’s pay tribute to the foreign-language films that opened up American cinema to new worlds.)
51. M (1931, Fritz Lang)
52. Zero for Conduct (1933, Jean Vigo)
53. Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
54. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carné)
55. The Bicycle Thief (1947, Vittorio De Sica)
56. The Earrings of Madame De . . . (1953, Max Ophuls)
57. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu)
58. The Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
59. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
60. Breathless (1959, Jean-Luc Godard)
61. The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut)
62. La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
63. Viridiana (1961, Luis Buñuel)
64. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
65. The Conformist (1971, Bernardo Bertolucci)
66. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
67. Seven Beauties (1976, Lina Wertmüller)
68. Wings of Desire (1988, Wim Wenders)
69. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, Pedro Almodóvar)
70. The Killer (1989, John Woo)
71. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin): Back to America, with Chaplin’s little tramp memorably in love with a blind flower girl.
72. Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse): The last great musical of the century, by a dancing man who knew the world’s wicked ways.
73. Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford): A 1950s TV scandal sparks Redford’s anger about the slow death of American values.
74. A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood): No director could ever exert control over the durable comic anarchy of the Marx Brothers.
75. The Producers (1967, Mel Brooks): “Springtime for Hitler” and comic gold.
76. Lost in America (1985, Albert Brooks): Another Brooks in a pitch-perfect comedy.
77. The Terminator (1984, James Cameron): Cameron and a robot Ah-nuld set a new standard for sci-fi. T2 is bigger, but TI rules.
78. White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh): A James Cagney peak – top of the world, ma!
79. His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks): Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trade barbs in Hawks’ spray of machine-gun laughs.
80. Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur): Is there a more perfect example of film noir?
81. The Piano (1993, Jane Campion): Passion, madness and mutilation from the fearless director of Sweetie and Holy Smoke.
82. Blowup (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni): The dark side of swinging London.
83. Blow Out (1981, Brian De Palma): The dark side of political conspiracy.
84. The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor): The rich enjoying their bizarre privileges, with a sublime Katharine Hepburn.
85. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges): Spencer Tracy uncovers a town’s hidden past in a thriller that truly thrills.
86. Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch): Garbo does Paris as a Russian agent. Be there.
87. Diner (1982, Barry Levinson): Baltimore friends in need and in conflict – beautifully done and still Levinson’s best film.
88. To Sleep With Anger (1990, Charles Burnett): A black family divided by a trickster, demonically played by Danny Glover. Burnett remains a criminally neglected talent.
89. Unforgiven (1992, Clint Eastwood): The revisionist western that Eastwood took a career to make was well worth the wait.
90. Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger): Jon Voight’s hustler and Dustin Hoffman’s seedy bum strike up a bizarre bond and a beautiful friendship.
91. Lone Star (1996, John Sayles): A Texas border town provides a broad canvas for Sayles’ study of racism and community.
92. The Naked Kiss (1964, Samuel Fuller): A bald hooker, played by Constance Towers, brings out the nifty, nutso best in Fuller.
93. The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan): Sexual and political role-playing dished out with a shocker twist from Jaye Davidson.
94. Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks): Brooks’ light touch doesn’t dull his edge.
95. Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg): Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists in a gut wrencher that’s pure Cronenberg.
96. My Little Chickadee (1940, Edward Cline): W.C. Fields and Mae West in their unholy, one and only comic union. ‘Nuf said.
97. The Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero): This low-budget, rogue model for terror is the stuff of bad dreams.
98. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Jones): Inspired lunacy about silly knights from the peerless Python troupe.
99. Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith): You can still feel Griffith’s pioneer excitement about the medium in this silent epic. You can also feel his own intolerance about sound: “We do not want now and we shall never want the human voice with our films.” That’s pretty harsh. But considering the dialogue in Titanic and the cutesy chattering in Pokémon, maybe old D.W. had a point.
100. Freaks (1932, Tod Browning): “One of us! One of us!” That’s what the circus-sideshow freaks in Browning’s sly fable shout when they spot a kindred spirit among normal folks, whoever they are. Here’s to those kindred spirits who make Movies and to those who watch them. One of us, indeed.