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

A Debt Repaid to an Extraordinary Man and Filmmaker: Kent Mackenzie’s “The Exiles”

I have a debt to repay.

In 1969, my senior year at South Hills High School in West Covina, California, I was introduced to a filmmaker named Kent Mackenzie. He was interviewing kids at my high school for a feature documentary about the struggles of being an adolescent. He asked me to be in it, but I was going off to college and couldn’t do it.

But Kent saw I was fascinated by film and he invited me to see his studio. If my memory serves me right, he worked out of Churchill Films in LA.  He  gave me the equivalent of a master class, and then showed me a film that he had made while a student at USC. It was called The Exiles. After that, he had me down a few more times and introduced me to the world of documentary film.  I have never made films, but I have lived and breathed and studied them for years.

It was one of the most unselfish things anyone has ever done for me. He shared his wisdom, but what remains unforgettable was his love for his craft. 

I never saw him again. Story over.

No, story not over. Not by a long shot.

Kent died, much too young, several years later.  But I was haunted by the film’s characters for years — poor American Indians living in the small Los Angeles enclave of Bunker Hill who had come from impoverished reservations in the late 1950s. These were people neither here nor there, people at the margins of a society that didn’t even want to know what to do with exiles.  And LA was a city happily ridding itself of any unsightly enclaves it could find.   Kent’s exiles would be gone in several years.  But not before he told their story.

The Exiles is a brilliant combination of spontaneous verité and staged scenes.  It is rendered in a black and white film that had more colors and hues and shadows than Technicolor. What I didn’t know then was that this guy who had been so warm and helpful was also a master cinematographer. And that he filmed it with a slew of other master cinematographers.

Almost 40 years passed.

And then, in 2003, Thom Andersen’s wonderful documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” was released. It included scenes from The Exiles.  Milestone Films, supported by producers Sherman Alexie and Charles Burnett (filmmaker of another quiet classic, Killer of Sheep), and in cooperation with USC’s film archivist Valarie Schwan, brought the film to preservationist Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The result was that the restored version of The Exiles was released over 10 years ago (2008) to worldwide acclaim. Milestone Films is itself a gift to the film community, and its founders Dennis Doros and Amy Heller were also responsible for the release of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. (Definitely check out their catalogue.)

The critical reaction was immediate:

The restoration and long-delayed commercial release of ‘THE EXILES,’ a 1961 film about a largely forgotten corner of that deceptively bright city, is nothing less than a welcome act of defiant remembrance… A beautifully photographed slice of down-and-almost-out life, a near-heavenly vision of a near-hell that Mr. Mackenzie situated at the juncture of nonfiction and fiction. He tapped into the despair of this obscured world while also making room for the poetry and derelict beauty of its dilapidated buildings, neon signs, peeling walls and downcast faces.”


“‘THE EXILES’ surely deserves a place in the history of American independents alongside  John Cassavettes’  ‘Shadows,’  but its cautious depiction of a situation rarely reported even today gives it a permanence that has held up over the decades.”


In later years, film and literature would be packed with the themes of exile, of immigration, of emigration, of being lost in someone else’s world. But this was a time in Southern Calfornia when none of that messiness would be allowed to get in the way of a “Leave It To Beaver” and “Wonder Years” world. How could it when we were so busy tearing down the Chicano neighborhood of Chavez Ravine to build a baseball stadium?  

When suburbia was still ringed by shanty towns housing poor immigrant farm workers.  When the only ethnic celebrated in textbooks was Fr. Junipero Serra, whose claim to fame was the Calfornia missions, the conversion of thousands of Native Americans, and the introduction of disease and repressive policies responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of American Indians.

Out of sight, out of mind. The Southern California of Art Linkletter’s House Party couldn’t have cared less.

But now we can see the world Kent saw when others wouldn’t.

I hope you do.