My Ten Favorite Films: A Revised List

Every time I talk about top 10 lists,  I always start with the  disclaimer that I know  how pointless they are.

And then I ask myself:  OK, if they are  so pointless, why do I have so much fun reading them and doing  them and sharing them?

No good answer, In fact, making lists is far from the only pointless thing I do.

Today, I am adding some new films and slightly changing the order.   It is not a 10 best list.  It is a list of my ten favorites. A  list of 10 best films  would be beyond nervy given how many films have a legitimate claim to inclusion.

But it seems perfectly fair to make a list of ten favorites since they are, in fact,  only my favorites.

My favorites have stayed the same for over a year.  But for the last few months I have been mulling over “No Country for Old Men”  and “The Lives of Others.” (Now I can really hear you saying: This guy need a life! Who has time to mull anything over?)

Seriously, I want to make some changes to my list.  But according to ground rules that some friends of mine and I set up many years ago in a UCLA dorm room, I have to remove one film for each one I add.  I posted my last 10 favorite about a year ago. Here is my new one along with a list of contenders.

Comments welcome. Lists welcome. Ridicule welcome.

My Ten Favorite Films as of November 15, 2009

1. Dekalog

2. Godfather 1/Godfather 2

3.  Salesman

4. The Lives of Others

5. Amarcord

6.  Goodfellas

7  No Country for Old Men

8  Fargo

9. Rear Window

10 Night and Fog


Other Contenders (not in order)

Midnight Cowboy

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Au Revoir les Enfants

Shop on Main Street  (1965)

It’s a Wonderful Life

Jeux interdits

Come and See


Atlantic City

Three Kings

Das Boot

The General

Paris, Texas


Invaders from Mars

Strangers on a Train

The Graduate

The French Connection

Double Indemnity

Les Enfants du Paradis

Les Diaboliques


Le Salaire de la peur

Sunset Boulevard

The Exiles

The Last Laugh

Hotel Terminus


The Third Man


The Marriage of Maria Braun

Chris Cooper. Narrator? Yup, And a Great One Too!


My default position on narration in documentary film is almost always negative, especially when it is used as an amateurish substitute for skilled cinematic storytelling. But I don’t have a hard and fast rule, and sometimes a few strategically placed, eloquent words fit seamlessly into a narrative. For the most part, though, I am a fan of wordless ”narration” that tells a story with meticulous and rhythmic editing.

Of course, all bets are off in first-person documentaries. When these films are done well, (far too seldom) the narration is precisely the point. I think of the films of Alan Berliner, Doug Blank,  Ross McElwee, and Elizabeth Barret.

In  Elizabeth Barret’s Stranger with a Camera,  narration rises to the level of sublimely beautiful poetry.  Barret — one of my favorite filmmakers — uses her own voice and creates a truly haunting meditation on life, loss, memory, and the ethics of the visual image.  I confess that I deeply admired her film for almost two years before I noticed that much of the narration had been written by Fenton Johnson, an accomplished  Kentucky novelist.   I hope you can see this great film and hear Elizabeth speaking Johnson’s remarkable prose and what I am sure were many of her own words.

Tonight I had a surprise. I was watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice of the narrator, but it was so understated and mournful that I knew I was not listening to your average voiceover artist.  It was almost a new genre,  something you might call historical oral theatre.

Then I realized that it was Chris Cooper, one of the finest actors working today. You may have seen him in Adaptation or Capote. Like any brilliant actor, he knows instinctively that less is almost always more.  But please listen to his narration if you have a chance. This was stunningly beautiful work and  showed how a great actor like Chris Cooper can turn  prose into poetry.

Finally, if you want to hear another remarkable example of the use of a narrative voice in film,  listen to Tommy Lee Jones speaking Cormac McCarthy’s poetic prose in Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men.”

The list of Chris Cooper’s accomplishments, already long and packed with one masterful performance after another, has to include this little recognized use of his voice.  Check out Barak Goodman’s  The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Ah, The Joy of Being Terrified by Two Great Actors: Gene Jones and Javier Bardem


A Brilliant Performance

Gene Jones: A Brilliant Performance

Early in the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem — playing a sadistic killer — faces down a meek, old gas station owner, played brilliantly by Gene Jones.

The result?

One of the best written, acted, and directed scenes of relentless menace that I have ever seen.

Two men in an old gas station.

See this piece in the LA Times about the actor Gene Jones, who in several minutes delivers a brilliant, electrifying performance.