Top five movies

Like any self-respecting nerd, I have a compulsive need to organize the things I like into lists. To kickstart what I hope to be a long series of Top Whatever lists, here are my top five movies as they stand today.

Note: The number five was chosen because this is actually a very hard list to make. To include every movie I consider a “favorite” would require at least 50. If I allowed myself the luxury of ten, I would be introducing certain films that, if included, would compel me to recognize several others. By limiting myself to five, I’m ensuring that the films on this list are the absolute most important to my life.

5) Ghostbusters (1984)

This is one of the first movies I can remember loving. It came out the year after I was born, so you could say it’s been a part of my life since the very beginning. Like many from my generation, 90% of the humor was completely over my head, watching it as a child, but it didn’t matter. There was enough pure, distilled entertainment on screen to transcend my feeble mind.

In a way, it’s the opposite end of a Pixar movie – a movie intended for adults that appeals equally to kids. Going back and watching it as an adult is a treat – it’s like being able to see it for the first time again. As a child, lines like this had no meaning:

Ray: “You know it occurred to me we really haven’t had a successful test of this equipment.”

Egon: “I blame myself.”

Peter: “Me too.”

As an adult – priceless.

Ghostbusters was of course followed with a sequel five years later – a sequel that many (Bill Murray included) consider to be disappointing. I don’t agree. It may not have the classic status of the original by virtue of being a sequel, but I don’t think it deserves to be derided. Even today I find it on equal ground with the original in terms of humor, action and pure entertainment value. Rumors of an impending third movie have been whipped into a flurry in the past few years, and every time a new one comes out people tend to consider it as truth. “Judd Apatow is producing”, “the original Ghostbusters will only have cameos”, “Bill Murray is going to play a ghost”, and so forth. Regardless, as much as Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis want to get it made, I hope it never does. No recent entry in a long-dormant, classic franchise has been worthwhile, for many reasons. Leave well enough alone.

4) Lord of the Rings (trilogy, 2001 – 2003)

OK, so this is a bit of a cheat. I’m getting three movies for the cost of one. But I’m allowing it because the source material is so closely connected, and considered one complete work. Also, because it’s my God damn blog.

This is one of those films (or series of films) that doesn’t really have any deep personal meaning for me. I’m including it because of sheer quality alone. I had no familiarity with any of the stories (The Hobbit included) going into Fellowship of the Ring on the night I saw it in the theater, but I felt as though I was watching something with a rich and complex history (which I was), that still felt deeply nostalgic. It was something I had never seen before. As I walked out, I wanted to set my watch for one year from that day.

If I had to choose a favorite of the bunch, it would have to be the first, partly for the reasons mentioned above. The opening scenes in the Shire so perfectly nail the quaint, almost utopian peace described in the book, you instantly want to live there. In fact, I wanted to live in the Shire so badly I felt deeply disappointed that it was a fictional place. From there, the film takes on so many different tones and cadences, and all feel totally genuine.

Although the first film is my favorite, there can’t be said to be a weak link in the entire set. Few people will say that the Two Towers is their favorite, but I believe that’s a limitation imposed by being a middle chapter, and nothing more. The fact is, the Lord of the Rings trilogy has no significant weaknesses, anywhere. The writing, the casting, the special effects, the music, and action…. all perfectly realized. No other series in film history, I think, can claim to not have a black sheep or an obvious weakness. Indiana Jones had its Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Matrix had both its sequels, Star Wars had Episodes 1 and 2 (woof), etc. Let’s hope The Hobbit keeps the streak alive.

Side note: I may be reading far too deeply into this, but I’ve always thought that the choice of colors of the three films’ packaging on DVD perfectly represented the respective tones of the three films. Fellowship’s green packaging represented the peace and innocence of the Shire, where the story begins. Two Towers’ brownish red evokes the dark, dreary uncertainty of the second act, summed up in the Helm’s Deep battle. And Return of the King’s blue calls to mind the focus on royalty and the promise of the future. /end ultra-nerdy tangent

3) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Here is a film that feels like it was made and marketed directly to me. With the fairly off-center humor, original concept, and neuron-frying structure, I was on board with this film from the first trailer.

I still remember walking out of the theater after seeing it, and feeling as though my brain was smoking. To this day, I still wish, appropriately enough, that I could erase my memory so that I could experience the first viewing of Eternal Sunshine again. There’s really nothing like it. For roughly the whole first act, total comprehension is just out of grasp. It gives you just enough to stay invested and then at some point, it all congeals. You understand what is happening and from that point on, you’re committed.

It helps that the central leads are so strong. Jim Carrey gives by far his best dramatic performance. It doesn’t have the one-foot-in-the-comedy-door feel of the Truman Show (nevertheless another good performance), the sappy melodrama of The Majestic, or the laughable noir brooding of The Number 23. He hits every note of that character perfectly. Kate Winslet is also spectacular, totally convincing as that type of girl not often portrayed in films, but very much real. The wishy-washy, slightly unstable girl perpetually in a transitional period with guarded insecurities. In other words – heartbreak soup. Her dead-on portrayal is key to making the story connect.

The most profound thing about this film is that it affects on a deeply personal and emotional level. It says things about the nature of relationships that ring so true, it’s a perfect counterpoint to the droves of romantic comedies that all say the same disingenuous things about love and coupling. The film asks the question, “would you give up valuable and precious experiences to save yourself the agony of what resulted from them?” In exploring this question, it reminds you that the worst experiences in your life are often the most valuable in the end. It also gives real hope to everyone who has ever had their heart broken – that learning that lesson will enable you to boldly venture into new relationships despite the knowledge that it could very well end in agony.

But what if it doesn’t?

2) Pulp Fiction

There really isn’t much to say about Pulp Fiction that hasn’t been said before. But I’m going to try.

If asked what it is specifically about this movie that I love so much, I’d have to say the density. It feels so much bigger than it is. It’s not chock full of special effects and dramatic musical cues. The most memorable scenes are predominantly dialogue. And yet, it feels like every inch of the screen is bursting with creativity.

Not that it isn’t a dramatic film. There’s drug abuse, murders, rape, religious epiphanies….. It’s also one of the funniest movies ever made, in my opinion. The dialogue is infinitely quotable, and the aforementioned rape somehow manages to be both gut-wrenching and hilarious. That’s what I call dark comedy.

With as much going on as there is in Pulp Fiction, it’s no surprise that it has high replay value. I know that I can put it on any time, any place, and be thoroughly entertained.

1) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Some day I’d like to run a social experiment. Monitor the channel surfing habits of a cross-section of Americans, and see how many are able to change the channel after landing on a showing of The Shawshank Redemption.

If Pulp Fiction is dense with creativity, Shawshank is dense with themes. Take your pick: guilt and innocence, moral corruption, the nature of freedom, redemption (naturally), the profound effect of music and education, vindication, hope, friendship, institutionalization…. and it goes on. Virtually the only thing it doesn’t touch on, refreshingly, is love (it’s been covered).

Every part of the emotional journey is effective. The funny parts are really funny, the sad parts are really sad, and the ending – well, “satisfying” doesn’t quite do it justice.

Besides what I’ve already talked about, the real reason this is number one on my list is because it’s the film that got me into good films. Seeing this as a teenager set my movie tastes on a direction that continues to this day – namely, to have taste. I may not be well-versed in the classics, and I know little to nothing of arthouse, avant garde, or foreign cinema, but I feel that I know what quality feels like. And I owe that to The Shawshank Redemption.


Horror films are a huge part of my personality today, particularly at this time of year, going into the Halloween season. I very much wanted to represent a horror film somewhere in my top five to reflect this, but truth be told, no horror film has affected me on a level that matches what became my top five. To me horror films are practically another medium, and they serve a single, distinct purpose. See for more information than you’d ever want on the subject.

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