In the hundred or so years (give or take) that movies have existed, there have been literally millions of them made. And of those millions of movies, probably about a third of them are at least watchable. And out of that third, there are literally bound to be thousands of movies that are genuinely quite decent. And then out of those thousands, there will still be hundreds that are great. So, determining the 10 that are the absolute best of all time, on the whole, by and large, all things considered, is no easy feat. But hey, we gave it a try!
10. North by Northwest
No list of the greatest movies ever made will be complete without at least one Alfred Hitchcock film. His smart, funny, fast paced, exciting take on the spy genre is arguably his finest work. Psycho is obviously a frightful, brilliantly made, beautiful early horror film and Vertigo has been analyzed to death by every film student who ever walked the Earth, but North by Northwest takes the gold for its deft blending of genres. It’s an action movie and it’s a thriller and it has elements of espionage and paranoia, but it is also a love story and it also has elements of comedy. Who says you can’t have breathtaking action sequences and funny sight gags and also have what is ultimately considered to be a classy piece of cinema? Hitchcock certainly doesn’t, as he gave us a movie with a chase across the top of Mount Rushmore and the visual gag of a train going through a tunnel to suggest a sex scene and still have it be described as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” That iconic scene where Cary Grant narrowly avoids death by crop-dusting place is the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s career. It is a timeless work of cinema and can still be enjoyed today, as it laid down the foundations for the modern day action thriller, but it is also a film of its time, capturing the paranoia of the Cold War in which it was produced perfectly.
This movie began as a job that a young Steven Spielberg had been hired to do based on a TV movie he had directed with more or less the same premise (just replace ‘shark’ with ‘truck’). It wasn’t a passion project or anything. A lesser director (i.e. Michael Bay) would’ve just phoned it in and collected the paycheck. But not Spielberg. He was a true visionary, even back then. He took the story of a small beach town being terrorized by a huge great white shark over the summer weeks and turned it into a cinematic masterpiece. By drawing on influences like Alfred Hitchcock, he turned what could’ve been a schlocky B horror movie into a master class in creating tension and suspense on film. Spielberg understood that what you don’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see (it happens to be a lot cheaper to shoot, too). The same basic principle applies to Robert Shaw’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis. His captivating acting paints a more vivid and terrifying picture of that event with just a couple of minutes and the power of words than that whole Nicolas Cage movie did with more than two hours and $40 million’s worth of special effects. Spielberg’s true debut was such a fantastic piece of cinema that it birthed the summer blockbuster.
8. Annie Hall
Whatever your personal views might be about Woody Allen, it’s impossible to deny that this is an incredible work of cinema. The way that lighting and editing and camera angles are used to convey the plot are far more considered than your average romantic comedy. As a love story, it’s not your typical Hollywood romcom fare. In fact, it’s the total opposite. It begins with Alvy Singer telling the audience directly that he and Annie aren’t going to end up together at the end of the movie. The relationships in the movie feel so authentic and real, because Allen’s script (which he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman) is so raw and personal and intimate. All the meta moments, like Alvy frequently talking to the camera or the iconic subtitled scene or bringing in Marshall McLuhan to discredit the guy in the movie theater line (“Boy, if life were only like this!”), are so inventive and fresh and funny. But that’s just bonus. That’s not what the movie is about. The movie at its core is a frank study of relationships and how it’s almost impossible to make love work, and yet we keep trying, because we “need the eggs,” so to speak.
7. Star Wars
Nothing compares to the sense of wonder felt by literally everyone – men, women, boys, girls, all four quadrants – back in 1977 when they sat down in their local theater to watch the first ever Star Wars movie unfold before their eyes on the silver screen. Fox initially had no faith in George Lucas’ weird little space movie, but he quickly showed them wrong when it went on to become the highest grossing movie of all time. The movie has such a unique design. There had never been anything like it, and aside from its own sequels and prequels, there hasn’t been anything like it since. Lucas’ world building is incredible. He didn’t give us a pristine, chrome, futuristic landscape. He created a rustic, lived in aesthetic. Okay, dialogue isn’t his strong suit, but he did give us this entire fictional universe with minimal use of exposition and made shots like a moisture farmer watching two suns set feel identifiable and honest. It just goes to show the power of simple storytelling. Lucas drew on the earliest literary influences in constructing his story: fairy tales. He was also influenced by Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology and Japanese cinema and the space fantasy serials that he used to watch on TV as a child. The result was an instant classic that resonated with audiences around the globe. George Lucas gave us a fantasy film that it was actually cool to like.
6. Toy Story
Everything about this movie is absolutely perfect. You couldn’t make it any better! The casting is perfect, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen matched brilliantly and hilariously and greats like Don Rickles and Wallace Shawn stealing scenes in supporting roles. The writing is phenomenal, with every joke serving to develop the characters and every scene serving to advance the story. Very few movies have that kind of sharp focus in their writing. Thematically, the dynamic of the reliable old toy being threatened by the arrival of a cool new toy, and those two toys butting heads and eventually learning to work with each other and get along, is very relatable and applicable to a lot of situations. It’s interesting symbolism, because you can see your own problems there and reckon with them. It’s a fantastic movie. Also, on a more technical note, the film was a revolutionary and groundbreaking work of cinema in that it was the first ever feature length film made entirely with computer animation. And the movie is very deftly directed and angled and edited, considering it was the first ever in its medium. Bravo, Pixar! They’ve made a ton of similarly amazing movies since their debut, but none have been quite as pitch perfect.
5. Pulp Fiction
We got a sense of the idiosyncratic style that would make Quentin Tarantino the most beloved director in Hollywood in his indie debut Reservoir Dogs, but it wasn’t until his sophomore effort Pulp Fiction that we saw him really let loose with it. It’s the quintessential film of the ‘90s postmodernist movement. The nonlinear storytelling that brings characters in and out of each other’s narratives was innovative at the time and has yet to be matched by one of the many copycats that has followed. No filmmaker before Tarantino had made a film with such vision and such balls – it’s all in the little meta moments like the soundtrack changing halfway through the opening titles like a radio station changing. It’s a fiercely intelligent movie that doesn’t underestimate its audience. The actors are all perfectly cast in their roles, from John Travolta to Uma Thurman, and especially Samuel L. Jackson who earned himself an Oscar nomination with the performance that would go on to define his career. The movie is a long haul at two and a half hours, but that time just flies by with cool music, snappy dialogue, gorgeous camera angles, breezy pacing, and engaging storytelling. This is moviemaking at its most awesome and electrifying.
4. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There’s a longstanding tradition in Hollywood that the third movies in trilogies are always the worst one and end up disappointing fans. But The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly isn’t a Hollywood film. It’s an Italian spaghetti western, and it’s by far the greatest film in its trilogy. Clint Eastwood had played the Man with No Name in two movies prior to this one, but it was here that he really nailed down the ice cool demeanor and shaky moral compass of the character that would go on to inspired Boba Fett. Cinematic techniques that seem simple now – like having the shots get closer and closer to the characters’ faces as the climactic Mexican standoff takes place – were pioneered by director Sergio Leone in this movie. Certain shooting styles and editing tricks were revolutionized or invented or reinvented by this movie. At three hours long, sitting down to watch it is quite a commitment, but Leone keeps it fresh and exciting from start to finish. The sweeping musical score by Ennio Morricone may be the greatest original soundtrack of any film ever made. Also, this movie gets bonus points for being considered by Quentin Tarantino to be his favorite of all time.
3. The Searchers
There were a lot of great western movies that came from the longstanding collaboration of director John Ford and star John Wayne. Wayne would soak up the scenery as the heroic leading man and Ford would shoot the most beautiful Old West vistas that you could possibly imagine. Together, they gave us all the tropes and motifs and iconography of the western genre. Out of all the great movies they gave us, this is arguably the best of the bunch. For starters, it’s darker than the rest. It kicks off with the death of pretty much an entire family – the ones who aren’t killed are kidnapped by Comanche warriors. You actually question the morals of the lead character, Ethan Edwards. He’s shown to be pretty cold blooded in his pursuit of his missing niece, and when he finally finds her, the plot devolves into a grisly, bloody revenge piece. This movie has inspired every great filmmaker from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg to David Lean. It’s just the quintessential western – hell, it’s the quintessential American movie, period. This is the history, attitudes, hopes, dreams, ugly side, beautiful side, and conflicts of the United States all summed up in just under two hours.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
It could be argued that Stanley Kubrick is the greatest movie director of all time. His attention to detail and demands for perfection led to the creation of many cinematic masterpieces. The pinnacle of the Kubrick filmography is easily this science fiction epic that tackles all the big questions. Not only is this movie beautifully shot and a powerful piece of storytelling, but it is also a visual philosophy guide. The first segment of the movie, “The Dawn of Man,” suggests that apes evolve into man when they discovered violence, which is a very powerful and thought provoking idea. And then there’s that shot where the bone turns into the space station and Kubrick covers more than a million years of human development in one single shot. What other director can you say has done anything like that? The influence that this movie has had on science fiction as a whole (whether it’s movies or television or novels or whatever it is) really knows no bounds. This one came long before George Lucas came along with his own space movie. That one might’ve been a funner time at the movies, but it’s set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Kubrick’s magnum opus is about the human race and where we’re headed and our place in the universe. It’s astounding.
There’s a school of thought that The Godfather is the best mafia movie ever made. It does have some beautiful shots, and thematically, it’s very strong. But no mafia movie compares to Goodfellas – hell, no movie ever made compares to Goodfellas. This was the movie that defined Martin Scorsese’s career. In a way, it defined cinema. The kinetic editing style and the fast cuts and the nonlinear storytelling, all blended together with Ray Liotta’s captivating voiceover narration and the unparalleled soundtrack (seriously – Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, all played over scenes that they couldn’t suit more perfectly). Some movies are just made to be watched, but special movies can actually be felt – this is a prime example of a movie that you can feel. It’s also a prime example of a movie that is equal to the sum of its parts. It’s all well and good to have a bunch of scenes and quotes and characters that stand out as iconic and memorable on their own, but it’s all useless if they don’t all tie together and flow. Here, Scorsese loops his thread around the life of Henry Hill – all the most important moments, decisions, and relationships – and then yanks down to pull them all together in a neat, taut, beautiful movie. Goodfellas is filmmaking at its very finest – entertaining, poignant, shocking, powerful, funny, exciting, and a treat to the senses.