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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 4, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Uncle Orson's Perfect Movie List

I've been writing this column in the Rhino Times since January of 2002, and I haven't missed a week. In that time I've reviewed a lot of movies, old and new. But it came to me a few months ago that I wanted to compile a list of best or favorite movies, so that I'm on record concerning all the important movies in my life.

This is nearly impossible to do, just from my own memory, because I keep forgetting movies that I like better than many that come more easily to mind. It's too easy for such a list to be skewed toward very recent films.

So I went to Ranker.com, a site where the Ranker Community upvotes or downvotes entries on all kinds of lists. The one I needed was "The Best Movies of All Time." But if you go there and compare their list with mine, you'll find that I have not included most of their entries.

Instead, I used their list as a reminder of movies I might have overlooked. I looked at the first 1200 entries -- and was surprised at how far down the list were some of the movies that I think of as among the finest ever made. And, naturally, I'm used to finding movies that I despise listed very high on other people's lists.

I made several decisions about my own list. First, these aren't my "favorite movies" because who cares whether a particular film is a favorite of mine? That would be as inane as listing my favorite color, favorite number, and favorite Jolly Rancher flavor. So what?

By the way, I have no favorite color, number, or Jolly Rancher flavor. I don't know how anybody else can possibly form an emotionally meaningful attachment to any such thing.

Instead, I created a list of movies that I think of as perfect. By "perfect," I mean that they are complete and don't have anything in them that annoys me or disappoints me. That means that the Lord of the Rings movies aren't on there, even though they were beautifully filmed and, mostly, acted, because I really hate the scripts that Peter Jackson used.

Nor is The Sound of Music on my list, because some of the songs are offensively silly and much of the acting is appallingly bad.

Yeah, I know, a lot of people love that movie. But it isn't going on my list of 120 or so perfect films.

If you compare my list to the Ranker.com list, you can be sure that I noticed all of the first 1200 titles, and any that aren't on my list were omitted by my deliberate choice.

That's right, Schindler's List and Goodfellas didn't make the cut. Nor did Saving Private Ryan or The Matrix or Back to the Future. Casablanca and Apocalypse Now and Citizen Kane aren't on my list, either, though I've seen them and I know they're much admired. Just not so much by me. Not perfect.

I thought of breaking my list into categories, like romantic comedy, action, thriller, drama, comedy, sci-fi, etc. But too many movies cross boundaries, and too many boundaries are impossible to define in the first place.

Nor did I want to spend six days flipping the order of preference. Which one is my favorite today? Instead, I'm simply listing them in alphabetical order. That will allow you to quickly find any movie you're curious about and see whether I included it.

If I didn't, so what? You liked it better than me, and didn't mind the thing I thought was a fatal flaw. There's no point in arguing with me about it -- just make your own list! For all I know, the Ranker.com list will make you much happier than mine.

And for all I know, I've completely overlooked some truly wonderful movies because they weren't in Ranker.com's top 1200 movies and I couldn't pull them out of my memory.

So here they are, in alphabetical order: Movies that I believe to be perfect, even though I know that some people really hate at least some of the movies I love and admire so much. De gustibus non disputandum est.

Uncle Orson's List of Perfect Movies

About Time (2013)

The time travel stuff is the engine driving this story -- but it's a love story, and not just between the endearing Domhnall Gleeson and the luminous Rachel McAdams as Tim and Mary. When Tim learns he has inherited his father's (Bill Nighy's) secret ability to travel in time and "fix" things, he struggles to use his gift to make things better for everybody -- including himself. It takes a lot of tries, but he finally is able to get married to Mary. But what he can't do is prevent death from striking in his family. This joyful, sad, sweet, painful, glorious celebration of love and life is writer/director Richard Curtis at his best. The movie is occasionally stolen by Tom Hollander as a mad playwright, Joshua McGuire as well-meaning friend Rory, Lydia Wilson as troubled sister Kit Kat, and Richard Cordery as the slightly daft uncle Desmond. Basically, Richard Curtis knows how to create comedy in the midst of intensely real performances, and that requires brilliant casting. You will love everyone in this movie -- even the little lost boy.

The Accountant (2016)

Ben Affleck is movingly good in this performance as a freelance accountant who also happens to be an extraordinarily effective hit man. He only loved a few people in his life, and all but one of them are dead when the movie opens. I was expecting a hit-man movie (like The Hitman's Bodyguard), but instead what we're given is a beautiful story of an autistic child who is taught by his military father to take care of himself -- ruthlessly, when need be. But when he meets Anna Kendrick as a corporate accountant who honestly reported a discrepancy in her company's books, he likes her; and when he learns that she is going to be murdered, he takes matters into his own hands. This platonic love story is layered deeply, and at the end we realize that a thriller plot has been rewoven as a beautiful tragedy.

Adam's Rib (1949)

If you ever wonder why Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn became a legendary screen duo, don't watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which is an awful, on-the-nose, preachy, dated movie. Instead, Adam's Rib is just as much about changing attitudes toward people of different sorts -- but it manages to give equal points to both sides of the war between the sexes. It's also very, very funny.

The African Queen (1951)

Released the year I was born, this pairing of Humphrey Bogart (romantically linked to Lauren Bacall) and Katharine Hepburn (linked to Spencer Tracy) was still a match made in Hollywood heaven. In a story based on a work by C.S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower), Hepburn, as the spinster sister of a missionary, is stranded in Africa just when the Germans are trying to push out into British-held colonies as part of the action in the Great War. Bogart is a crusty old riverboat pilot who undertakes her rescue, and they fall in love in a heartbreakingly sweet love story. As far as I'm concerned, Casablanca is cold grits compared to this beautiful movie.

All of Me (1984)

Arguably, this is Steve Martin's best acting performance, as he plays a man whose body is half-inhabited by a dead rich woman (Lily Tomlin) who is trying to transfer her soul into a new body so she can live on past death. It's easy to forget that most of Lily Tomlin's performance consists of Steve Martin acting as if Lily Tomlin were controlling half his body. It's a hilarious comedy and a moving coming-of-age story, and Carl Reiner does a brilliant job of directing. And don't overlook Richard Libertini as the magical Prahka Lasa, whose powers get the whole plotline rolling.

American Graffiti (1973)

It's easy to forget that American Graffiti might look like a period piece today, but when George Lucas co-write and directed it, it was set only ten years or so in the past. Years of moronic Star Wars prequels have taught us to regard Lucas as a director with a knack for getting the worst performances ever out of his actors, but in American Graffiti he introduced a whole slew of wonderful actors who did great work for him in this warm and funny high school comedy years before John Hughes took over the genre. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, Kathleen Quinlan, and even Suzanne Somers show up in this fairly balanced ensemble cast.

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Completely ignore the Warren Beatty/Annette Bening remake Love Affair (1994), because nothing they could do would give those actors the charisma and chemistry of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in this iconic love story. This is the movie that was being referenced in Sleepless in Seattle, because it's the quintessential meet-at-the-top-of-the-Empire-State-Building story. But it's not just the movie-star power of the leads that makes this story work: It's the presence of Cathleen Nesbitt as Grandmother Janou that humanizes Cary Grant and gives a real grounding to the love of these famous-for-being-famous characters.

The Apartment (1960)

In case you're ever wondering why Shirley MacLaine was such a beloved actress for so many years, this is the movie where it all started for her. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a put-upon schmuck who lets higher-ups in his company use his apartment for trysts with their mistresses, while he walks the streets to pass the hours until he can get back in. But when the young woman he has a crush on is jilted in Baxter's apartment by a heartless Fred MacMurray, she tries to kill herself -- and while Baxter tries to save her, his neighbors are sure he is the playboy who has broken her heart. It's funny and heartbreaking and we fall in love with Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, right along with C.C. Baxter.

Arrival (2016)

This is the best science fiction movie ever made. Aliens visit Earth, and Amy Adams plays the linguist who is drafted to try to understand their inscrutable "speech." With Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker along for the ride, we are shown the most brilliantly invented alien species in the history of print and screen sci-fi. But what we are not prepared for, at least not at first, is how deeply personal this movie is, and we can be shattered by the realization that just because you love someone doesn't mean you can't lose them; and, more importantly, just because you know you're going to lose them doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't throw your whole self into loving them. Arrival is smart and it will break your heart.

Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)

This spooky love story about a modern witch who falls in love with a mortal man may have been the inspiration for the TV series Bewitched, but it is much more serious (though it still has plenty of funny moments). With James Stewart as the baffled mortal and Kim Novak as the witch Gillian, we are taken, with Stewart, into the world of modern witches living under the radar in New York City. Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs are funny -- and menacing -- while Hermione Gingold and Elsa Lanchester feel they have a right to intervene in Gillian's life.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

This isn't just Eddie Murphy's star turn as a Detroit cop who gets involved in trying to solve a murder in Beverly Hills -- it's also a great vehicle for Judge Reinhold and John Ashton as the hapless policemen assigned to keep tabs on him. Still funny after all these years -- and the "Axel F" theme is still one of the best movie themes ever composed. This is where we first saw Bronson Pinchot as Serge, the funny foreign guy. He later parlayed his success here into the TV series Perfect Strangers (1986-1993).

Big (1988)

Penny Marshall directed this amazingly good story of a prepubescent boy who wishes to be big -- grownup enough that he can do what he wants. But when his wish is granted, and he grows up as a full-sized human who needs to shave, he is terrified -- completely unprepared to cope with the adult world. David Moscow played Young Josh and, as he did in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks was able to create an adult-sized version of the character created by an excellent child actor. Elizabeth Perkins as the woman trying to understand this naive and lovely man, and Jared Rushton as the only person who knows the truth about him, make this a wonderful ensemble movie that transcends its gimmick. My favorite quote: "What's fun about that?"

The Breakfast Club (1985)

John Hughes took a quintet of kids stuck in Saturday detention and turned their stories into a social manifesto. When it ends with Simple Minds singing "Don't You Forget About Me," it makes you want to be kind to everybody forever.

Broadcast News (1987)

Holly Hunter is at her most delightful playing a neurotic TV news producer who has an obsessive need to control everything. William Hurt plays the not-too-bright newsman who finds her baffling but attractive, and even though she knows that Albert Brooks (as Aaron Altman) is exactly the kind of intellectual heavyweight that she should fall in love with, she ends up drawn to the overly handsome, vain studmuffin. Albert Brooks's flop-sweat scene is one of the funniest things ever filmed, and if writer/director James L. Brooks thinks of this as his masterpiece, I'm not going to argue with him.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

A timeless western about two real-life bank- and train-robbers whose careers ran headlong into the 20th century, which pretty much ruined everything. Funny and moving, with a script by William Goldman and music by Burt Bacharach, everything about this movie is wonderful -- including the main cast of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross.

The Canterville Ghost (1944)

World War II was still very much in progress when this movie, based on a story by Oscar Wilde, placed Robert Young as an American soldier quartered with his men in a haunted English castle. It turns out that he is descended from the family of the ghost (Charles Laughton), and only he has the power to end the curse by proving himself to be the first courageous offspring of a family of notorious cowards. Margaret O'Brien is on hand to show you what a great child actor looks like.

Captain Blood (1935)

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland lead the cast of the original pirate movie. Based on the excellent novel by Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood is the story of a physician enslaved as punishment for having given medical treatment to a rebel in Ireland. With a military past, he has the skills in combat and languages to hold his own with pirates, but his real challenge is to win the heart of the daughter of the tyrant who first owned him on the Caribbean island of Barbados.

Cast Away (2000)

There are other actors in this movie, most notably Helen Hunt at the beginning and end, but most of the movie consists of Tom Hanks and a rather taciturn volleyball named Wilson. Tom Hanks is one of the rare actors who is up to such a challenge, and I love this movie for its evocation of the power of hope to overcome loneliness.

Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman earned the Best Actor Oscar for his brilliant depiction of Winston Churchill, but writer Anthony McCarten should also have won for his true-to-character adaptation of real historical events into a largely trustworthy movie. He was able to make English politics reasonably intelligible to an American audience, which is an achievement indeed. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman is joined in brilliance by such actors as Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, and above all Lily James as the typist Elizabeth Layton, through whose eyes we see many of the events of the movie.

Deep Impact (1998)

In the year of two comet-hitting-Earth movies, Armageddon won the box-office, but Deep Impact was, by an infinite margin, not only the better movie, but also a perfect one. Mimi Leder directed a powerful script by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, in which the astronauts sent to blow up the comet win our hearts in their tragic-sacrifice portion of the movie, while Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Maximilian Schell, and Leelee Sobieski give us a full range of how Earthbound folks bear the certainty of the end of the world. Téa Leoni has a career full of wonderful work, but this may be her best performance; and Elijah Wood's performance is far better -- and better guided -- than was his work in Lord of the Rings.

Deliverance (1972)

John Boorman has directed some movies that I love, even though they're very imperfect; Deliverance, with a script by James Dickey, adapting his own novel, is in my opinion Boorman's most perfect film. It's also a film in which Burt Reynolds was finally able to share the screen with serious actors like Jon Voight and Ned Beatty, and show us that he really could act. This backwoods horror story has a great score, including "Dueling Banjos," but the heart of the movie is facing death in a hostile wilderness.

Die Hard (1988)

Despite the decorations, this is not a Christmas movie. This lone-cop-in-a-captured-building thriller set the bar for its many imitators, and yet it remains the best of the genre it created. It's also one of Bruce Willis's finest moments -- and the film that first brought Alan Rickman to a wide audience.

Donnie Darko (2001)

This strange movie ends up with a deeply satisfying if tragic ending, as Jake Gyllenhaal plays a kid who is troubled by terrible dreams -- or are they? -- of a freak accident that puts an airplane engine right on his bed. Writer/director Richard Kelly managed to be strange without being incoherent, but perhaps his ambition was to rid himself of conspiracy, because this is the only movie he's made that I wanted to see. None of that matters -- this story is as full of eccentrics as, say, Napoleon Dynamite, and yet we are carried farther into some pretty dark and scary places.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Morgan Freeman, before he began playing presidents and God, made us understand the patience of pre-Civil Rights American blacks who had to maintain complete subservience to the whites who controlled their world. Despite endless insults, he bears all, and even learns compassion for his arrogant but frightened employer, played with fire and fragility by Jessica Tandy.

The Elephant Man (1980)

We never see John Hurt's face, because the Elephant Man makeup covers all, but this is one of the finest performances in the history of film. It doesn't hurt that he has Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, and Wendy Hiller in the cast, as David Lynch intrudes (harmlessly) with extraneous images of thundering, trumpeting elephants and other extraneous matters. The tragic story gets told with compassion and depth, despite Lynch's efforts to upstage his actors, so at the end we look at John Merrick's hideously deformed face and find beauty and majesty there.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

I believe that even if Jaws remains Steven Spielberg's most perfect movie, Empire of the Sun is his most honest film. Perhaps that's because it is based on J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical account of his time as a child in a Japanese internment camp in China; perhaps it's because the screenplay was written by one of the best playwrights of our time, Tom Stoppard. In any event, this film has successfully resisted Spielberg's tendency to cheapen his movies with false moves. It remains real and scary, with monsters we know existed; and yet Christian Bale, as the stranded young boy, manages to remain a child even on the borders of hell.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

This powerful sci-fi story of memory manipulation, written by Charlie Kaufman, is a beautiful movie that some people really, really hate. And those people are not wrong -- this can be confusing and not many of the characters are likeable. But it's Jim Carrey's best performance, and Kate Winslet and Elijah Wood are wonderful in it. Just remember that even though someone caused you pain it's not good to wipe them out of your memory. Because they might not stay gone.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

I don't like people who don't think the rules apply to them, so if I had ever known someone like Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) in high school, we would not have been friends. But in the midst of this fantasy of adolescent freedom and power, we get the moving story of Ferris's uptight sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), and his anxiety-ridden friend Cameron (Alan Ruck). Add in Jeffrey Jones as vice-principal Ed Rooney, and you have a recipe for a genuinely funny movie with some good emotional payoff. This is John Hughes's masterpiece.

First Blood (1982)

This movie marked the first appearance of the character John Rambo in film, and it moved Sylvester Stallone from Rocky to a genuine multi-franchise movie star. But most of us first saw it on television, and then became so obsessed with this story and this character -- a vagrant Vietnam vet who is mistreated by law enforcement as he's passing through a small town, provoking him to seek vengeance as he protects his freedom -- that they were able to create a few sequels that made a lot of money. But this is the real Rambo movie, and it's hard to see how it could be improved upon.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Jason Segel wrote it, and so in playing the leading role, he has no one to blame but himself for the misery his character lives in. He used to seem to be the luckiest guy in the world, because he was living with his girlfriend, the amazingly famous and beloved TV star Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). But she falls for rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a sleazy but not completely arrogant fellow who finds Segel ridiculous but also sympathetic. When Segel and Sarah Marshall end up at the same Hawaiian resort -- and Segel is there without a reservation and without money -- Mila Kunis plays the hotel clerk who has mercy and finds a room where he can stay for free, as long as he doesn't expect maid service. What makes the movie bizarre is that Segel's character is devoted to creating the story of Dracula as a puppet musical. And before the end of the movie, we get to see much of it in performance.

Forrest Gump (1994)

The Winston Groom novel is kind of bad, but screenwriter Eric Roth turned it into a story with a real heart that retains the jocular spirit of the book as well. Robert Zemeckis directed Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Robin Wright, and Gary Sinise in some of the best performances of their lives, but the whole movie is anchored on the performance of Michael Conner Humphreys as the child Forrest Gump, who falls in love with Jenny, the love of his life, and breaks free of his leg braces in order to become a runner. While Forrest himself never notices how brilliantly successful he becomes, because he's kind of slow-witted, we get a tour of the 1960s and, more importantly, a sojourn in the land of hopeless love. There are two moments in Forrest Gump that raise it to perfection, in my mind: When Forrest first meets his son, and later, when he bids goodbye to him at the school bus. If you've seen it, you remember; if you haven't, then correct that situation, please.

Gandhi (1982)

It's devilishly hard to create a biographical movie about a figure who is a national icon in two great nations, South Africa and India. But director Richard Attenborough was blessed with a strong, clear script by John Briley, and the brilliant actor Ben Kingsley in the title role. Many other actors round out the superb cast, but it is Kingsley himself who makes us remember moments such as, "I know a way out of hell." Just hearing that line brings back the whole scene to me, and reminds me why, after Winston Churchill, Gandhi is the historical figure I admire most.

The Godfather (1972)

The reason we care about Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is that he's the son of the Godfather (Marlon Brando) who is not involved with the family's crime business. But as the movie goes on, Michael eventually comes to be the head of the family, while still trying to hold on to some aspects of the life he had back before he had killed anybody. Talia Shire, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and John Cazale all give brilliant performances, and The Godfather keeps getting quoted in other movies as if it were the source of all wisdom. Maybe it is.

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

The original The Godfather came out while I was living in Brazil, so what I read in Time magazine was an account of audiences in America leaping to their feet and cheering when a cascade of assassinations takes place at the end of the movie. The Godfather: Part II is like the antidote, in a way. Two parallel stories are told. First, Robert De Niro plays Brando's character Vito Corleone as a young man, coming to America and then rising to the top of the local criminal ruling class. Second, we see how Michael Corleone does business, protecting himself from congressional investigation and rivals and enemies, relentlessly pursuing vengeance and shutting out the people whom he once relied on to keep him human. Vengeance was popular in the first movie; in this one it's toxic. Both movies deserved, and got, the Best Picture Oscar.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Margaret Mitchell's book was read by pretty much every literate human, and then they made it into a movie. Screenwriter Sidney Howard did a superb job of cutting out a lot of extraneous, time-consuming matter -- including Scarlett O'Hara's first two children -- in order to fit the sprawling story into a mere four hours of film. Casting Clark Gable as Rhett Butler was a no-brainer, but the Brit Vivien Leigh was not on anybody's short list for Scarlett O'Hara; and many people still think casting Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes was a mistake (but they're wrong). The master strokes in casting, however, were Hattie McDaniel as Mammy and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie.

Grand Canyon (1991)

This movie is, in a way, a duplicate of LA Story -- with Steve Martin in both casts! But Lawrence Kasdan's take on Los Angeles culture, especially the racial divides, makes this movie stand apart. Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Mary McDonnell, Mary-Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, and Jeremy Sisto give memorable performances in iconic roles.

Groundhog Day (1993)

Somehow Harold Ramis's brilliant script and direction made me love a movie starring two of the most unwatchable actors ever to cast a shadow upon a screen: Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. When you add Chris Elliott, it's hard to believe that this may be the most re-watched movie in America. But I love it.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were superb -- and so was everyone else -- in this story of an athlete who was taken out of his body prematurely by an inexperienced angel of death (Buck Henry). While the bureaucracy of heaven (that's right, heaven, not hell) works at setting things right, Warren Beatty tries to make the best of the temporary body they put him into. The plot is so extravagant it still amazes me how much I like the movie, and the people.

He's Just Not That Into You (2009)

Based on a nonfiction book, this movie does an amazing job of focusing on a few relationships and showing how they do and don't work. Bradley Cooper is powerful as the lying husband, while Justin Long is luminous as the advice-giving bartender who falls in love with someone he absolutely knows he should not. Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson, and Drew Barrymore are delightful, but my favorite character is Ben Affleck, who has long rejected the idea of marriage and yet proves himself to be the best husband in the movie. I love this film and watch it through to the end whenever I stumble upon it.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Back before bad screenwriting classes persuaded everybody in Hollywood that dialogue was evil, there used to be movies full of rapidfire dialogue that was so funny or moving (or both) that you didn't need a lot of visual busy-ness in order to make the movie entertaining. In those days, actors had to be able to talk -- crisply and cleanly, so that audiences could understand everything that was said, the first time around. That was a skill that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell both had, and as a result, this adaptation of the play The Front Page sizzles with energy and sexual tension from beginning to end.

Howards End (1992)

Back in the days of the Merchant Ivory films, we came to expect moving period dramas from director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. Based on an E.M. Forster novel, Howards End follows the story of socially active upperclass women of small means, who befriend an older woman who shocks them by leaving them a property they could not have hoped for. With Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helena Bonham Carter joined by Anthony Hopkins and Samuel West, the stellar cast weaves its way through a tale of stolen inheritance, illegitimate pregnancies, and other soap opera staples from the turn of the century. It's all so well written and acted that we can pretend it's much more lofty than it really is -- it's the soap opera we really care about.

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

This adaptation of the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones novel wasn't even supposed to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but when he was called out of retirement to write and direct it, he came to think of it as his best film. He certainly made it his own -- it feels way more Japanese than English. But visually and orally, this is an unforgettable, beautiful work of art.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

"You know, for kids." That's what Tim Robbins says each time his character's identical sketches turn into the hula hoop or the frisbee or the pogo stick. The Coen brothers may have wanted this to be a screwball comedy, but it turned into a Coen brothers comedy, which is all to the better.

Immortal Beloved (1994)

Even if Gary Oldman had never played Winston Churchill, I would have loved him for this powerful portrayal of Ludwig Van Beethoven. The glory of this film is the score, because unlike most famous artists, Beethoven really was as good as his reputation suggests. The story is heartbreaking and plausible, giving the whole cast many opportunities to use their acting chops. But the movie belongs to Oldman, and he puts it to good use.

Inception (2010)

Yes, I crossed out this movie, because up until the missing last second of the film, it was perfect. A convoluted surrealistic sci-fi caper movie. But because the last second, in which we do not see the coin topple, does not appear in the film, Inception is not just imperfect, it is a crime against the audience. So many things can turn upon a single coin.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were among the actors who inherited Hollywood stardom when the talkies wiped out so many former stars. Only a few years into the talking-picture era, Frank Capra's story of a hungry reporter's stalking of a bratty heiress who has run away from home takes place in a single 24-hour period, with great scenes on buses, in motels, and hitchhiking, during a time when all these things were still new. Do they fall in love? Hello, welcome to Earth. It's how they fall in love, yet remain uncertain of the other's feelings, that gives us the comedy and the very happy ending.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

This wasn't a hit when it first came out, because audiences are often unprepared for the fact that the great Christmas movies are usually built on a tragic foundation. James Stewart and Donna Reed play their most iconic roles in this story of a man blessed by an angel to understand the value of his life just at the moment when he was about to end it. This is the ultimate Christmas movie -- because it is about redemption and the gift of love.

Jaws (1975)

This is Steven Spielberg's finest film, even though he didn't have the spunk to let Richard Dreyfuss's character be dead at the end. Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw are amazing as Dreyfuss's companions in the ultimate shark hunt, and after all the horrible problems in making the shark puppet believable, the film is completely convincing to a layperson like me. Still, the most powerful, memorable scene in the film doesn't have a shark or even the ocean in it: It consists of the three of them in the galley of the boat, as Robert Shaw tells them the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis in World War II. The monologue was conceived by uncredited writer Howard Sackler and then expanded greatly -- to ten pages! -- by John Milius. Then Robert Shaw (himself a noted playwright) cut it down to the version we see in the movie. If you want to read every word of it, go here: https://neilchughes.com/2013/03/10/the-indianapolis-speech-by-robert-shaw-in-jaws-1975/

L.A. Story (1991)

Steve Martin plays a weatherman in Los Angeles, a city where the weather never changes; but his life blows hot and cold, with divine messages in the form of changing highway signs. Steve Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker bring very different kinds of humor and pain to their memorable roles in this love song to the city where Hollywood has its lair.

A Lion in Winter (1968)

Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn are brilliant in James Goldman's script about an imaginary Christmas court in Chinon for King Richard II of England and his wife (and prisoner), Eleanor of Aquitaine. The cast is amazing -- Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow -- because Henry and Eleanor are joined by their sons (including two future kings) and the young King Philip of France. The script sizzles as James Goldman (William Goldman's brother) tries for the kind of sharp, acid dialogue that made Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? such a masterpiece. (Too bad the movie of that play was so awful.) (I wanted to sit through the movie twice when I first saw it, but the girl I was with was not as enthusiastic about it as I was. And since I didn't have a driver's license, we had to stick to our original plan.) It was this movie that made Peter O'Toole my favorite actor, and nothing I saw later made me change my mind. This is the performance where Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar -- tied with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

Love Actually (2003)

This is my favorite Christmas movie -- and through this movie, joined with About Time, writer/director Richard Curtis got a lock on the title of "greatest creator of movie love stories ever." A series of interlocking stories take us from #10 Downing Street to a children's school Christmas pageant, and from an adulterous husband to a sister whose love life is blocked by the dependency of her schizophrenic brother. Every time this movie breaks my heart, it also heals it, as many kinds of love -- romantic, married, filial, unrequited, and friendship, deep and shallow -- are explored. The whole cast is amazing; I won't list them because that would take longer than the movie, I fear. Keep in mind that there's a bit of nudity and some fairly crude comments here and there, so don't invite the little grandkids over for a Christmas movie and show this. But for grownups, this is the story of life.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

This is the movie in which the Mad Max franchise came of age. Mel Gibson was wonderful in the early films, but Tom Hardy nails the character, and Charlize Theron is unforgettable. Amazing Road-Warrior action goes along with a story both tragic and hopeful.

Man of Steel (2013)

Pretend you don't know about the other Superman movies. This is the only one that's worth seeing, and Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are the real Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Before this movie, the TV series Smallville was the only good Superman storyline on the screen.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

I was 15 years old when this movie transported me outside myself and showed me what a real hero looked like: Thomas More, as portrayed by Robert Bolt's script and Paul Scofield's acting. Robert Shaw also appears, this time as Henry VIII, and Leo McKern is amazing as Thomas Cromwell. I've acted in various scenes from the play, and the script holds up brilliantly every time. I still think of this as one of the greatest movies ever made. Maybe the greatest. Some days I'm quite sure of that. But it's certainly one of the finest plays of the 20th century.

Midnight Run (1988)

Charles Grodin almost steals this caper movie out from under Robert De Niro, yet Grodin and De Niro make a delightful pair of understated comic actors. The idea is that Grodin, a bail-jumping mob accountant, has to be safely transported to where he is supposed to testify. De Niro, the bounty hunter who has him, has to keep him away from the FBI, other bounty hunters, and the mafia -- while Grodin is doing his best to escape from De Niro and everybody else. Hilarious and exciting, it's a timeless winner.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

This is the original "He's really Santa!" movie, with Maureen O'Hara as the executive at Macy's who has to find the right Santa for the parade -- and the store -- and Edmund Gwenn as the best screen Santa Claus ever. Natalie Wood plays Maureen O'Hara's daughter, whom she has taught not to believe in Santa Claus, while neighbor John Payne falls for Mom and becomes a friend and father figure to the daughter. Romantic, yes, but mostly about the magic and love of Christmas. (Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge, died in 1957, but he keeps getting credits in new movies because they use an old song, "The World Waiting for the Sunrise" [1919], in the score -- and Lockhart wrote the lyrics.)

Mr. Right (2015)

Sam Rockwell is Francis, a hit man who has repented of his life of murder; therefore, whenever anybody tries to hire him, he atones for past sins by killing his would-be employer -- usually wearing a clown nose. He happens to meet Martha McKay (Anna Kendrick) and they hit it off. The only drawback is that Martha gets sucked into his violent life ... and soon figures out that she actually likes it. Funny, weirdly romantic, morally appalling, and absolutely wonderful. Tim Roth is great as Rockwell's former boss when he worked for the government.

Mr. Roberts (1955)

Henry Fonda's best-loved role as the executive officer on a Navy cargo vessel during World War II. The story began as a novel, became a hit Broadway play, and was adapted as a film with great success. James Cagney played the tyrannical, half-insane captain, and Jack Lemmon had a scene-stealing role as Ensign Pulver. The war they're mostly fighting is against the captain, but Mr. Roberts's most urgent goal is to get reassigned to a combat vessel so he can be part of the war. It's a comedy with bite.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

No, not the new one, which has become a star vehicle for a vain actor who never understood Agatha Christie's original. The 1974 version, directed by Sidney Lumet, has Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, and an amazing cast that brings off their mix of upper and lower class characters with panache. If you've seen many movies, you already know every one of the actors except, possibly, Rachel Roberts as Hildegarde.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Because people are mean-spirited and stupid, there was a lot of nastiness about Marisa Tomei's Oscar -- people were "sure" that presenter Jack Palance must have read the wrong name. Well, the only thing wrong with Tomei's Oscar is that it was for supporting actress instead of simply Best Actress, because nobody gave a better performance that year than Marisa Tomei's perfect, believable, hilarious, deep performance as Joe Pesci's fiancee and muse. Everybody else is outstanding, but the movie belongs to the lady.

My Fair Lady (1964)

This Lerner and Loewe musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion had a monster run on Broadway, and with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the leads (and Marni Nixon singing Audrey Hepburn's songs), it's one of the best movie musicals ever made. The music is still excellent -- even without Rex Harrison singing more than two notes in a row -- and the performances luminous.

My Man Godfrey (1936 and 1957)

Made first in 1936 with William Powell and Carole Lombard, this film did not need a remake. In this story of an English butler in the home of a rich family who have lost track of their love for each other, its redemptive power still works. Yet when they made it again in 1957 with June Allyson and David Niven, it was every bit as wonderful. In 1936, its roots in the Great Depression lent it poignancy; but even in the boom years of the 1950s, it held on to its humor and its truth.

Nashville (1975)

This movie was the beginning of my love of Country music. Robert Altman famously made his actors compose their own country songs, and they took the responsibility seriously and brought it off with panache. Everybody's favorite song was Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy," but we loved everybody from Ned Beatty to Shelley Duvall. I listened to the album about fifty times in a row -- so long ago that it was on a turntable in my office. I've been listening to (and loving) Country ever since.

The Odd Couple (1968)

It's not just that Neil Simon never wrote anything funnier. It's that nobody ever wrote anything funnier. And with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the leading roles, it was and remains the perfect film comedy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson is wonderful as the rebel who finds himself an inmate in a mental hospital, with Satan -- er, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- at war with him. Scary and funny and finally heartbreaking, this is one of the greatest movies ever made.

One Magic Christmas (1985)

The great Christmas movies -- and there aren't many -- have tragedy and pain at their core. This story, in which Ginny Grainger (Mary Steenburgen) has lost hope and faith as she and her husband, Jack (Gary Basaraba), struggle with financial loss during economic hard times, takes us down some unbearable paths as an angel (Harry Dean Stanton) shows Ginny just how wonderful her life is, if she would only notice the love that surrounds her. After losing everything, Ginny is given the chance to go back and treat people differently, being glad for what she has and trusting in the future to improve their circumstances. It's also worth pointing out that Jan Rubes is my second favorite movie Santa Claus.

Ordinary People (1980)

Not only was this Robert Redford's directing debut, but also it was Mary Tyler Moore's debut as a serious dramatic actress. Its climactic scene was later weakly remade under the title Good Will Hunting, but it's here, with Judd Hirsch, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton that it has all its real power. Oh, and it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981, along with another for best screenplay for Alvin Sargent's adaptation of Judith Guest's novel, and acting nominations for Moore, Hutton, Hirsch, and director Redford. It won almost everything at the Golden Globes, and the Directors Guild gave Redford its outstanding directorial achievement award. How have you not seen this movie yet?

Parenthood (1989)

This movie absolutely is not a screwball Steve Martin comedy. Instead, it's a heartfelt, wise, and painful exploration of the anxieties and failures and agonies and triumphs of raising children, with Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen luminous as the central married couple, along with Dianne Wiest as a divorced single mom, Jason Robards as the patriarch of the clan, Tom Hulce as the utterly selfish black sheep who brings home his illegitimate son, Martha Plimpton as the rebellious -- and pregnant -- daughter of Wiest, and Keanu Reeves as Plimpton's drag-racer boyfriend who turns out to be a lot more promising as a father than anybody, including himself, could have guessed. Joaquin (Leaf) Phoenix shows up as Wiest's angry son. In my opinion, this is Ron Howard's best movie -- in a career of wonderful movies.

Patton (1970)

Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote the powerful script that turns General George S. Patton Jr. into a cultural icon. George C. Scott is brilliant in the title role, but it's Karl Malden as General Omar Bradley who provides the counterbalance -- a general who knows how to do all the jobs, including treating the men under him with decency and respect. This movie shows that brilliance in command doesn't always lead to long-term military success. And it does this while being marvelously entertaining every step of the way.

Peter Pan (2003)

After the travesty of Spielberg's Hook, P.J. Hogan's forthright retelling of the Peter Pan story came as a breath of fresh air. Jeremy Sumpter was the perfect Peter Pan, and Rachel Hurd-Wood was a fine Wendy. Casting Jason Isaacs as the children's father and as Captain Hook was perfectly in tune with the blend of reality and fantasy that made this movie such a timeless work of storytelling art.

The Player (1992)

Michael Tolkin's bitter-but-loving revenge against Hollywood is his version of What Makes Sammy Run. I think of it as Tim Robbins's best movie; it's also one of the most twisted crime stories ever filmed. It's a hoot to see Lyle Lovett do an excellent job as a police detective.

Poltergeist (1982)

The only horror movie I ever loved, this story of a family torn apart by the accident of having moved into a ghost-heavy house is timeless and devastating. Zelda Rubinstein as the exorcist steals the movie on first watching, but on later viewing it becomes clear that JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson are the heart of this family story.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Good as this movie is, the book -- by William Goldman, who also scripted the movie -- is still better. Sure, see the movie -- but if you get a chance to read the book first, do it. Then you'll know what really happens. Mandy Patinkin's best performance gives us the most-quoted line from the film: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

In this ultimate swashbuckling film, director Steven Spielberg and writer Lawrence Kasdan pile on peril after peril, triumph after triumph. Insanely courageous, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) could only exist in fiction -- and only Nazis are really evil enough to be his opponents.

Rebecca (1940)

I think this is Alfred Hitchcock's best film, based on Daphne Du Maurier's best novel. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine were never better than in this story that seems to verge on being a ghost story until it very much is not.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

A beautiful novel translated perfectly into an understated but deeply moving screen romance for Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It is also lovely to see Christopher Reeve, still walking and talented and young.

The Replacements (2000)

It's one of my wife's and my favorite sports movies. During a football players' strike, several teams continue the season by hiring scabs -- replacement players that are not union members. The gamble is that fans will still want to see a team with a famous name -- even if none of the players are the ones who were playing before the strike. Keanu Reeves is wonderful as a would-be quarterback who learns now to be a team leader and the kind of ambitious player who always wants the ball. Gene Hackman plays the coach and Brooke Langton is the cheerleader/bartender Keanu Reeves falls for. And the team of replacement players is a delightful ensemble of weirdos who still manage to play pretty good football now and then. Funny and sweet and exciting.

Riddick (2013)

This is Vin Diesel's third outing with the character of Riddick, but the first of the Riddick movies to make my list of perfect films. Crude and violent, I wouldn't recommend it to the sensitive and delicate viewer -- but we get to see Vin Diesel at maximum charisma, while working with a remarkable cast of actors -- and some really scary aliens.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

This trilogy really needs to be considered together. Any previous Planet of the Apes movies look childish by comparison, and since this trilogy is a reboot that makes no reference to any previous movies in the series, there's no reason to consider them. While many fine actors have taken part, the trilogy belongs to Andy Serkis as the sentient ape Caesar. He was equally brilliant as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and I look forward to the day when the CGI skin that he wears will be considered as costume and makeup, so that actors in full CGI garb can be nominated for well-earned awards. Andy Serkis should have won Best Actor Oscars several times over. And Bad Ape, Steve Zahn's character introduced in the third movie, is another unforgettable performance, as is Karin Konoval as Maurice the orangutan.

Rocky (1976)

Sylvester Stallone wrote the script, and the producers kept their commitment to keep him in the leading role. The result was that Stallone wrote and acted his way into a hugely famous film career, something that would never have happened without this role. The story of the failed boxer who is given one last shot at a title is moving and exciting -- even his training is inspirational. Don't let the big-budget sequels deceive you; this was an indy film and the producers took enormous risks. It was made on a budget of less than a million dollars -- and opened to $5 million on the first weekend and a worldwide gross of $225 million over the life of the film. Sometimes big gambles take off -- especially when film producers like Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler make smart moves to make sure the movie is good.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

This is the Michael Douglas movie that I like. Kathleen Turner was wonderful as Joan Wilder, a world-famous romance writer who finds herself caught up in a perilous adventure as she tries to rescue her kidnapped sister. With this story, being a little over the top wasn't a flaw -- it's just what writer Diane Thomas and director Robert Zemeckis called for.

Runaway Jury (2003)

John Cusack and Rachel Weisz have worked hard to get one of them on the jury of a lawsuit against a gun manufacturer. It's both scary and cool to see how they demonstrate their power over the other jurors as they try to get both sides to pay them to deliver the verdict they want. Gene Hackman plays the anything-to-win lawyer who is strategizing for the gunmakers, while Dustin Hoffman is the plaintiff's lawyer, eager to win but hoping to do it with his integrity in place. Based on one of John Grisham's best novels, this is a superb adaptation. I've watched it about a dozen times now, and I still enjoy every scene.

Sabrina (1995)

Yes, the black and white Sabrina directed by Billy Wilder and starring Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart back in 1954 was very good, but in my opinion, the 1995 remake with Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford was simply perfect. This story of a cold businessman who gets involved with the daughter of the family chauffeur only to keep her from getting her hooks into his overly-romantic younger brother (Greg Kinnear) gives us a complete understanding of why he falls in love himself, and changes the way he lives his life. "Paris is always a good idea."

Say Anything ... (1989)

This Cameron Crowe written-and-directed movie looks at first like a teen comedy, but it's so much more. With John Cusack and Ione Skye as the young lovers, and John Mahoney as her father, who strongly disapproves of the boy, this story of loyalty and commitment reaches its strongest point when Lloyd Dobler (Cusack) stands outside her house and plays, on a boom box, "In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel. How many movies since then have quoted that moment? If you don't have this movie in your memory, you've been deprived.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Kate Winslet's best role, in my opinion, and Emma Thompson was perfect both as screenwriter and leading actress. Alan Rickman gives a great good-guy performance -- no Snape here -- and Hugh Grant has never been more lovable. If I had favorites, this would be one of my five favorite movies of all time. On some days, it would be number one.

Serenity (2005)

Joss Whedon's big-screen adaptation of his truncated TV series Firefly, this is Nathan Fillion's defining role -- as part of a brilliant and beloved cast. The movie isn't just a rehash of the series -- it covers all the same ground and then shows us what science fiction is supposed to be. It felt like a comedy on the small screen; it became an epic at the movies. This was the first time many of us saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in a dominant and dangerous villain role.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

This is, in my opinion, the best original movie musical ever. Yes, even better than Singin' in the Rain. With Howard Keel as the backwoodsman who comes to town to find a wife, and Jane Powell as the idealistic young woman who falls in love with him only to discover that he really brought her home to be the cook and maid for him and his six uncouth brothers, this story is full of memorable songs and wonderful dancing -- much of it by Russ Tamblyn, the youngest brother, Gideon. The barn-raising scene and the wood-chopping scene where the men sing "Lonesome Polecat" are especially memorable, as is the kidnapping of town girls, in imitation of the Romans' taking of the Sabine women, to be wives for the six younger brothers. They pass through a snowy canyon and then let the girls scream and bring down an avalanche that seals them away from town till spring. That's what comes of reading ancient writings.

Shane (1953)

This movie touches all the Western cliches without ever losing its simple honesty. Alan Ladd plays the titular drifter who works for room and board on the farm where husband Van Heflin and wife Jean Arthur are raising their son, the brilliant child actor Brandon De Wilde. When some bad guys threaten the family's safety, Shane goes into town to take care of the problem; meanwhile, though, it is hard for him and Jean Arthur not to fall in love. When Shane leaves town, Brandon De Wilde calls after him, which is why people who love this movie quote his call, "Shane! Shane! Come back, Shane!"

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Morgan Freeman and James Whitmore are wonderful in this movie, as the two inmates who befriend Tim Robbins after he is wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife; but the movie belongs to Robbins. The story of how this white-collar accountant manages to survive in prison is satisfying; the story of how he's able to set things to rights is downright thrilling.

Silverado (1985)

This is a combination of every element that made Westerns a beloved part of American culture for decades -- but instead of being a parody, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan makes everything feel deep and real. The cast is amazing, with Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Linda Hunt, Rosanna Arquette, and Danny Glover on the good-guy team, and Brian Dennehy heading up the bad guys. But the favorite is Kevin Costner as the exuberant, risk-loving younger brother of Scott Glenn. This movie is the big-budget, full-color version of Shane -- all the Westerns rolled into one, with a lot of fun and a lot of danger along the way.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

This is Gene Kelly's best movie -- yes, even better than An American in Paris -- and he's teamed with Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds as the comic trio who try to pull a good talkie out of a failed silent movie script during the transition to sound movies in the early 1930s. Jean Hagen steals the show as the silent-film star whose low-class accent is doomed to fail once the audience hears her talk. "Then all our hard work won't be in vain for nothin'!" The dancing is great -- with Cyd Charisse pulled in for the big dream dance sequence, though Debbie Reynolds is a superb dancer for the lighter numbers. This is the perfect meta film musical -- a musical about making a movie musical. And Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" is one of the best dance numbers ever filmed.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, this movie promoted Haley Joel Osment from Forrest Gump Junior to Cole Sear,the boy who sees dead people. Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and Olivia Williams are wonderful as the adults who are trying to cope with all this ghost business, and as the horror scenes make way to clarifying scenes of healing and hope, we feel the sense of triumph that Bruce Willis's and Haley Joel Osment's characters feel.

The Social Network (2010)

Aaron Sorkin's script for this movie is as dialogue-driven as a screwball comedy -- and Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, along with his main friend and antagonist, played by Andrew Garfield, is definitely up to the job. The astonishing thing about this movie is that it dared to name names. And somehow, even after betrayals and general jerkhood, we end up liking and admiring Mark Zuckerberg -- even as we're rooting for Andrew Garfield (as Eduardo Saverin) to beat him in court.

Spanglish (2004)

Written and directed by James Brooks, this is easily Adam Sandler's best movie -- and I like Sandler and a lot of his films. A Spanish-speaking woman and her daughter come to work for John and Deborah Clasky. John Clasky (Sandler) is a well-known restaurateur, and Téa Leoni is a nightmare of a self-obsessed woman who blames her mother -- Cloris Leachman in one of her best roles ever -- for everything that's wrong in her life. When John learns that Deborah has slept with another man, he walks out -- and takes housekeeper Flor (Paz Vega) with him. Every moment of this movie is carefully earned, and while the focus is on the adults and who does or doesn't sleep with whom, the heart of the movie is the relationship between Flor and her daughter, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), whom Flor is trying to raise decently while giving her every opportunity. So it's several interlocking love stories. The most glorious moment is when Cloris Leachman tells her daughter exactly what to say, and not a word more -- and Téa Leoni's character actually does it.

Starman (1984)

Jeff Bridges took on the extremely difficult job of creating a character who looks human but is alien, as he gradually learns how to adapt to human culture and, eventually, to love a human woman (Karen Allen, in a part infinitely more demanding and interesting than her part in Raiders of the Lost Ark). The fact that Bridges wasn't even nominated for the Best Actor Oscar he should have won says much about Hollywood's ignorance of and disrespect for science fiction as a genre.

Star Wars (1977)

All those later titles with their phony episode numbers mean nothing to me. This was the original Star Wars and it remains the real one, the one that can stand alone.

The Sting (1973)

Sure, this was a cynical effort to bring Paul Newman and Robert Redford back together to make box office gold again (after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), but David S. Ward gave it a brilliant, gripping script that made it a thriller without ever losing the comedy. The ragtime score, mostly by the legendary Scott Joplin, is as wonderful as the movie.

Table 19 (2017)

This Anna Kendrick film is, for me, a perfect comedy. Stuck at a table of least-favored wedding guests, Kendrick plays the former Maid of Honor, now demoted because her boyfriend, the bride's brother, jilted her by text message a few days before. The other people at the table give us a wonderful mix of sadness with a hope of redemption, and Kendrick herself has a story worthy of the best romantic comedies.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese hadn't yet decided that his directing would be the star of all his films, so Robert De Niro, as taxi driver Travis Bickle, was able to beguile us and appall us, as a man desperately searching for some kind of importance in his life. Jodie Foster blew onto the screen like a hurricane as the young prostitute Bickle is determined to save, and this remains Scorsese's most straightforward, watchable movie.

Temple Grandin (2010)

Yes, it originated as a TV movie, but this is one of the best movies ever made about a real person. Claire Danes is perfect in the role of an autistic woman who brings her unique understanding of animals into the practices of slaughterhouses, making them more humane -- and more profitable.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

This movie doesn't get much love from critics, but I don't understand why. It isn't as jokey or as scary as the James Cameron Terminator movies, because it has way more story to tell -- but I think it carries that burden well, and Nick Stahl and Claire Danes did an outstanding job of making us care about their mission to prevent global catastrophe. Because the later stories exist, we know that they will fail -- but the story turns their failure into the hope of eventual triumph. I have watched it again and again, enjoying it more each time.

That Thing You Do! (1996)

This movie exists because writer/director Tom Hanks willed it into existence. But its story of the creation and dissolution of a band with one big monster hit is still a delight every time I watch it. Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Steve Zahn, and Tom Hanks are still amazing in their roles -- and the biggest triumph of the movie is that their one hit, "That Thing You Do!" is performed over and over again -- and it always sounds like a hit, and we don't get tired of it. But my favorite performance is that of Johnathon Schaech as the founder of the band, whose every artistic instinct is bogus and wrong -- and yet who has the ambition to become the one big success in the group.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

They make schoolchildren read it when they're way too young to understand the main thrust of this story, which is only tangentially about race in America, because its real meaning is the helplessness of parents to protect their children. Gregory Peck's pontificating style works perfectly for Atticus Finch, and as child actors, Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem were amazing. But at the very end, it's Robert Duvall as Boo Radley who wins our hearts; it is his image that always comes to my mind when I think of this film, and it is Boo Radley whom I always see, no matter what part this brilliant American actor might be playing in dozens of movies since then.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

My father served in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II, and Pearl Harbor was the defining event of a generation. But we saw this movie together, when I was 19, and he loved it as much as I did, precisely because it shows, fairly and accurately, the Japanese as well as American side of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This is, in my opinion, the best war movie ever made. There are many fine actors, but the star of this movie is history itself.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

The first two Toy Story movies were great fun, but this third installment surpassed them all. The story goes deep into the meaning of childhood and how it comes to an end. Instead of being a movie about talking ambulatory toys, it's a movie about children from the toys' viewpoint. And anyone who can watch this with a dry eye must have had a dreadful childhood indeed.

The Tree of Life (2011)

If you are a normal person, you will hate almost every minute of this movie. But it is perfectly what it sets out to be, and if you can slow down your metabolism enough to watch it slowly and deeply, it will reveal its power to you.

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

It's hard to hold your own in a movie with Clint Eastwood, but Amy Adams does it very well, as she plays the daughter of an aging baseball scout who knows and loves the game as part of her yearning for the love of her father. I've never cared about baseball, even though my childhood was filled with chatter about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris; but as Eastwood teaches Adams how to hear how a pitch went by the sound it makes in the catcher's mitt, I began to think I actually knew something about baseball. Justin Timberlake is also quite acceptable as Adams's love interest.

Twister (1996)

For a dozen years, in every Hollywood story and pitch meeting I went to, somebody mentioned Twister as the epitome of the hackwork movie, and in a sense that's true. Some executive decided to do a tornado movie, so they got Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin to write a script. But something weird happens when you hire terrific writers to create a made-to-order script: They're likely to give you something way better than you expected. That's what happened here, in one of the best ensemble movies ever made. Led by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton, with Cary Elwes and Jami Gertz in outsider roles, the film revolves around a team of stormchasers, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alan Ruck. This is a movie so good that you can listen to it and love it just as much -- unlike the huge hit from the next year, Titanic, where it's best to watch it by muting the sound and viewing the amazing visuals.

Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood bought this script and held onto it until he was old enough to play the lead. This move -- with the cooperation of writer David Webb Peoples -- gave us one of the best, and most tragic, Westerns ever made. Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman as reformed outlaws looking for one last score, with Gene Hackman as the sadistic sheriff who opposes them and Jaimz Woolvett as the half-blind kid who hopes to become a gunslinger, combine to make this an unforgettable movie.

The Uninvited (1944)

Ray Milland carries a stellar cast through my second favorite ghost story, in which we learn -- eventually -- that the living people who are trying to figure out the reason for the haunting started from such false premises that they are almost too late when things finally become dangerously clear.

Up (2009)

The first ten minutes of Up tell the life story of a young couple who marry and grow old together in the same house. The rest of the movie is an extravagant adventure story, in which the old man has an earnest child as his sidekick. What keeps bringing me back, though, is that life-story-in-ten-minutes work of genius at the beginning. And, of course, the image of a house being elevated by a thousand helium balloons.

The Usual Suspects (1995)

A crime thriller in which a group of ne'er-do-wells wins our hearts -- and then gets savagely betrayed. Kevin Spacey's and Gabriel Byrne's best movie.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Perhaps Charles Laughton's most powerful performance, along with Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, in this wheels-within-wheels courtroom drama directed by the great Billy Wilder.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

This can be viewed as a pure wartime propaganda film, for this musical biopic of the great vaudeville and Broadway performer, George M. Cohan, centers on his patriotic songs that once were known by every living American: "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Yankee Doodle Boy," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and the wartime anthem from World War I, revived for the second go-round: "Over There." What makes the movie so great is the ardent performance of James Cagney, who was able to make Cohan's strutting "dance" style work for an audience used to much better choreography. This musical stirred American hearts during the scariest time of World War II -- but it's still an exuberant masterpiece even now.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

"Stay close to the candles; the stairway can be treacherous"; "Walk this way"; "You haven't even touched your food"; "What knockers!"; "Would you like to have a roll in the hay?" Mel Brooks has had a career based on memorable gags in his movies, but nowhere did he do a better job of creating quotable lines than in Young Frankenstein, which turns the old horror story into a raucous musical in which the monster sings and dances to "Puttin' on the Ritz" while Madeline Kahn, in her most memorable role, rhapsodically sings "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." This is Gene Wilder's most triumphant role -- even better than his brilliant turn as Willy Wonka.

You've Got Mail (1998)

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are at their best in this updated remake of The Shop Around the Corner. If Nora Ephron had written and directed nothing else, this movie would secure her place in Hollywood history. We also have memorable performances by Jean Stapleton, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Dabney Coleman, Dave Chappelle, Heather Burns, and John Randolph. Even though its action is spread across a whole year, this is more of a Christmas movie than Die Hard, which takes place entirely on Christmas Eve.

A Town Divided by Christmas
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