I discovered my interest in film at the start of college. As an arts reviewer for The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper, I had the luxury of attending advance press screenings of big-name films like Suicide Squad and the final Hobbit film. But more importantly, my reviews cultivated an appreciation for the medium and an insatiable desire to experience all it had to offer. Since then, I’ve devoured films of all genres and eras, directors and actors, cinematographers and writers.
With several years of movie-going and analysis under my belt, I decided it was time to compile a running list of my favorite films of all time. Some of them top all critics’ lists of greats, others are cult classics. I’ll explain what I find so good about each one and why they have endless replay value for me.
I’ll categorize these films pretty arbitrarily — by genre, director, or other similarities. In addition, I won’t try to compare them across categories — that’s not very meaningful, and just trust me that they’re all equally as good and worth watching.
This might be my favorite category. Dramas rest on the quality of their dialogue, narrative, cinematography, and characterization — no special effects or action sequences to bolster them. As such, they’re some of the most pure examples of the art of filmmaking.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
It’s not hard to tell that this film is adapted from a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play. It’s got the best dialogue of any film I’ve ever seen, and takes place mostly in a single set across a single 12-hour timespan. With an all-star cast including Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, and Alec Baldwin, this seemingly mundane office drama about competing real estate salesmen hits hard out of nowhere.
American Beauty (1999)
I can’t explain why I like this film so much. Perhaps it’s the film’s transcendentalist ambitions, or the theme of achieving personal freedom, that’s so striking and resonant. The evolution of each member of a suburban family, particularly protagonist patriarch Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), as they each rediscover themselves, is oddly fixating — like a coming-of-age for adults. To me, it’s hauntingly beautiful and nuanced, and it only grows in my estimation the more I rewatch it.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
This prison drama regularly tops ‘greatest films of all time’ lists. It tells the incredible story of a gentle but inscrutable banker, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), wrongfully imprisoned for life at Shawshank penitentiary for his wife’s murder, as he tries to find meaning and beauty in a place devoid of it. Narrated through the lens of Red (Morgan Freeman), his best friend in prison, the story is as moving and heart-wrenching as an exquisite caged bird — never meant to be locked up, but a reminder of hope in dark places.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Another undisputed all-time great, Good Will Hunting is about a 20-year-old South Boston kid, gifted with hidden genius but marred by a troubled childhood, who is taken under the wing of an MIT math professor and a therapist. Robin Williams, alongside a young Matt Damon, lends genuine feeling to this brilliant exploration of a singularly remarkable and fragile character.
I watched each of these three films, among the best I’ve ever seen, before discovering the connection between them: they were all written or directed by Taylor Sheridan, who’s only gotten into writing/directing the past several years. These films reveal that we’re witnessing a special talent emerge — all three are master classes in stomach-turning suspense, compelling characterization, and uncompromising realities. They resonate with me like no other set of films does.
An FBI agent, Kate Macer, is enlisted by a government task force that is hell-bent on taking down a Mexican drug boss. Of the elements that make this film a must-see, action is not the most important. It’s about the combination of the suspense, the cinematography, and the score, that immerse you in the harsh realities of the drug war. This film is also one of many reasons why Emily Blunt is the most badass actress doin’ it out there.
Wind River (2017)
Speaking of harsh realities, a neo-Western murder mystery on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Against the bleak, frigid backdrop of winter in Wyoming, a US Fish and Wildlife hunter (Jeremy Renner) and an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) investigate the rape and death of a reservation girl. It highlights the inescapable, crushing existence of reservation life and the perils facing Native Americans, especially women. The magnificent writing behind the characters drives this film — because “out here, you survive or you surrender. That’s determined by your strength. Your spirit.” And Sheridan shows us he and his characters have both.
Hell or High Water (2016)
“Sure seems foolish … The days of robbing banks and living to spend the money’s long gone, ain’t they? … Long gone for sure…”
Two Texan brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) begin a well-planned bank-robbing scheme to prevent their late mother’s ranch from being foreclosed, as a pair of Texas rangers close in on them. As with the other Sheridan films, it’s not about the action. It’s about how you can capture so much of the human condition in two characters and how bold storytelling can create an irresistible film-watching experience — one that audiences should love all the more because it’s so rare.
Director Quentin Tarantino deserves a category all his own. In 20 years, he’s made only eight movies (Kill Bill counts as one). But, he’s said that he might only do two more and call it a career — and it’s a testament to his sensational filmmaking style that ten films would be enough to solidify an unforgettable oeuvre.
Much like the genre-benders category below, Tarantino’s films defy easy categorization. There’s always stylish, self-indulgently cheesy violence, black comedic elements, and engrossing dialogue that is at times menacing and satirical (and often both). A pastiche of Westerns, war films, and gangster flicks, Tarantino’s works are like an intravenous injection of pure extravagance. Here’s my top five, ranked:
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Some of my friends don’t understand this film at all. That disappoints me, since I consider it to be sublime, classic Tarantino whatever way you slice it. With several non-chronological, intertwined narratives, Pulp Fiction rests on its seat-gripping dialogue and storytelling.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
A WWII black comedy where a group of Jewish-American guerrillas called the Basterds wreak havoc behind German lines with panache and pleasure. Probably Tarantino’s most universally appealing film, so you have no excuse to not see it.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Tarantino’s first big film, Reservoir Dogs deceives you into thinking that it hews closely to a conventional crime film, but veers into something much more exciting — a gangster whodunit with a sensational ensemble cast. Replete with flashbacks and dramatic irony, this is what you discover when you crave more Tarantino.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
His most recent work, this post-Civil War Western mystery film could really be a play — it takes place almost entirely in a one-room Wyoming lodge during a snowstorm. A bounty hunter taking in his live quarry to hang. But are all the lodgers who they say they are?
Django Unchained (2012)
A freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), joins forces with a charismatic and blasé German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), becoming a hilarious and effective criminal-killing duo in this Western pastiche. It’s violent, explosive, relevant, and witty — what more could you ask for in a Tarantino?
The Martian (2015)
Ignore the scientific inaccuracies for a moment, and consider this film as a triumph of human ingenuity. When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is mistakenly left on Mars by his crew, with no communications to Earth, he has to survive in the harshest conditions known to man. Damon, playing the resourceful and witty botanist, anchors a tour de force that makes me proud of the (hypothesized) competence and ingenuity displayed by our space organizations.
Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
Not your father’s Star Trek! More action than intellect, this electrifying 2009 space adventure and its 2013 sequel feature a fresh ensemble cast of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, and others. Set in an alternate timeline from the earlier Star Trek franchise, this USS Enterprise reboot is energetic, forceful, and universally appealing, while maintaining many original story elements.
John Wick (2014)
Keanu Reeves has got to be one of the best, most hard-working action stars. In this film, which has gained an astonishing cult following, he plays a retired hitman of few words who seeks revenge after the theft of his car and murder of his dog, a gift from his late wife. There are two aspects that make this an all-time great action film: the world-building and the fight choreography. An entire underground assassin ecosystem is already established when the film starts — replete with parlance, strict codes of conduct, a ‘hotel for hitmen’, and its own currency. Every encounter with past friend or foe clue the audience that John Wick was once, and still is, revered and feared in the criminal underground. Reeves also trained extensively in an unconventional style of fighting called ‘gun-fu’, which combines martial arts with fast-paced, close-quarters gunplay. It’s a dizzying rate of clean kills, and combined with a fascinating and well-constructed universe, leaves the audience with a desire for more.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This is the only Mad Max film I’ve seen, but it deserves a place among the best action films of all time. In post-apocalyptic Australia, the protagonist, a survivor named Max Rockatansky, (Tom Hardy), is captured by a car-worshipping group called the War Boys. He’s then caught in the middle of an all-out, high-speed desert pursuit between their tyrannical leader, Immortan Joe, and his lieutenant, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).
The action and stunt sequences are beyond belief. Extravagant fight scenes takes place mostly on and around dozens of speeding vehicles, which are themselves frankensteined works of art. Every detail of this post-apocalyptic wasteland, including costume and set design, is visually sumptuous.
I’ve probably watched these animated films, most of them Pixar classics, dozens of times each. I’m sure they’re all so popular that they need no description, but I’ll try to briefly justify my ranking.
The Incredibles (2004)
The best superhero film ever. Makes Marvel look like a wannabe rich kid. I first saw this as a kid, and having rewatched it many times since, I’m amazed at the layers with which it appeals to a wide range of audiences.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
The treatment of the central theme of this film, believing in yourself, has surprising depth. I also love the humor and camaraderie of the voice cast, including Jack Black, Jackie Chan, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, and Seth Rogen. Of course, the animal animations of well-known Chinese kung fu styles (Mantis, Tiger, Monkey) are splendid.
“Anyone can cook!”
A rat becoming one the top chefs in Paris is such an absurd yet brilliant idea that I’m amazed Pixar was able to pull it off at all, much less to perfection. But it’s how this film weaves animal and human interactions that lends it warmth, realism, and sincerity.
Finding Nemo (2003)
When I imagine the splendor and vastness of the ocean, Finding Nemo is first in my thoughts. Thomas Newman’s score, emphasizing delicately plucked harp and strings, is truly the soundtrack of the deep blue.
Considered Pixar’s most middling franchise, Cars is underappreciated, in my opinion. I like the message of humility and friendship as the keys to success and happiness, and talking cars were animated in surprisingly creative ways.
Everyone knows director Christopher Nolan’s recent, high-profile, epic works (Interstellar, Inception). But his earlier thrillers are arguably better: they’re less bombastic, with all the psychological twists and turns that have made him so popular among audiences who liked to be challenged.
Try to keep up. This neo-noir film boasts a nonlinear storyline from the perspective of an unreliable narrator (Guy Pearce) with anterograde amnesia (inability to form new memories). He’s hunting for the “John G” who killed his wife and caused his brain injury. Along the way, your footing on the film slips every scene, constantly revising what you think you know, finally delivering an ending that will leave you catatonic in contemplation for at least a week afterwards.
The Prestige (2006)
Two rival stage magicians in 19th century London (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale), once friends but turned bitter enemies, each go to great lengths attempting to outdo the other. As you absorb this enthralling mystery-thriller of illusion and deception, be careful of the stage shifting beneath you — Nolan’s wildest twist catches some off guard, but also makes the film that much more staggering.
Anything that I couldn’t categorize neatly with other films, I put here. This collection of sometimes peculiar movies is among my favorites, and I consider myself a lucky and keen critic for having discovered and appreciated them all. One thing that unifies them (perhaps the only thing) is that they defy genre conventions, as you’ll see.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This might be called a sci-fi rom-com drama… but who knows. All that matters is that it’s a stellar performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, who play an estranged couple that have gotten their memories of each other removed by an eccentric New York firm, yet find themselves attracted to each other again. The treatment of sci-fi neuroscience and romantic redemption creates a heartfelt yet bizarre film-watching experience, and it’s achieved a strong cult following since its 2004 release.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
If you were to ask me what film involved the most technical challenges and jaw-dropping production quality, it wouldn’t be what you’d expect — I’d say the 1988 live-action/animated fantasy Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s set in a Hollywood where familiar cartoon characters are actually real entities that interact with humans and act in “live-action” cartoon films. With amazingly realistic interactions between dozens of drawn characters and real actors, this noir mystery is impressive even today. Note, it’s actually geared towards adults, with all the sexual and alcoholic trappings of stylish Hollywood crime drama.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Horror comedy has a well-deserved bad rap, but the one gem that is The Cabin in the Woods justifies the existence of an entire genre. I can’t spoil its insane twists, but trust me when I say that if you think you know this story, SORRY, YOU DON’T!! Watch this film and prepare to be blown away.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
From Edgar Wright, the virtuoso of visual comedy, this 2nd installment in the Cornetto trilogy is deliriously good. You might know Wright from Baby Driver, but this video essay explains why this director is even more renowned for his singular brand of humor and storytelling. Hot Fuzz has hints of action/adventure parody, mystery drama, and black comedy in a quiet British country town, all happening on the same Edgar Wright playground of a screen.
And that’s it for now! As I said, I’ll be adding more categories/films over time, so stay tuned!