The internet loves lists, saying things are the best thing ever or the worst thing that exists. Hyperbole for the sake of comedy and all that. I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for some time– A thing like this sort of lays out biases and what people look for in their entertainment and why they like certain things over other things. For me it’s not as simple, I think. Ranking things subjectively, sure, but actual favorites? Well, my Spotify “Starred” playlist has over 1000 songs on it, so it’s never been particularly easy. I have standard answers to many things, of course. “Empire Strikes Back”, “Harry Potter”, “Teen Titans”, etc. but I’ve never been one for real favorites.
Which is part of the reason I’m organizing this list the way that I am. See, the title is a bit of a lie, because I’m not including many of my favored films on this list. That is, I’m not including any franchise films. Not Star Wars, not Harry Potter, not LOTR, not any of them. Nor am I including any Disney or PIXAR films, though I do absolutely love many of them. I want to talk about movies that I love that aren’t the one’s I would immediately answer with. They’re not un-famous, many are quite recognizable in fact.
But they’re all fantastic.
11. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008)
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is a period screwball comedy that does. Not. Stop. This film is a high paced engine that just keeps going. Except… Well, that might be how it’s portrayed and talked about, but there are several moments where it does allow itself to have some weight. It’s set in the late 30’s in London on the eve of WWII, and that is constantly on your mind through the movie. Miss Pettigrew has no money and spends the movie trying and failing to get something to eat. The two leads stop in front of a window display featuring gas masks. In one scene, an air raid siren goes off. I find that my favorite comedies are ones that have a more serious grounding, where there’s something at stake, or something that matters. Hell, I prefer movies where there’s something at stake and things matter. Maybe that’s just why I don’t like as many comedies.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day can be found on Netflix Instant Streaming, and for rent on Amazon Video.
10. Hero (2002)
I haven’t had much experience with the Wuxia genre, so take what I say here with that in mind. Hero is a Chinese film about a nameless man who seems to have assassinated the three most dangerous threats to the soon-to-be Emperor Qin Shi Huang, a historical figure that unified China after one of its many warring periods. It is told in a series of stories, some told by Qin, some by the nameless warrior, and all of them absolutely gorgeous. It is loosely based of of some real attempts to assassinate King Qin before he became emperor. One of the more notable things about this film is its use of color for the story segments. Not just the fact that each story segment has their own color palette based on who’s telling the story, but the vibrancy and brightness of the colors. You can in fact make a very serious movie without the screen looking like a washed out photograph from 100 years ago.
Hero can be found on Netflix Instant Streaming, and for rent on Amazon Video.
9. Galaxy Quest (1999)
If you love Star Trek and you have not seen this movie, go watch it right now. If you have never heard of Star Trek… well, you can still watch the movie and get some enjoyment out of it, but watching Star Trek certainly helps. Described by George Takei as “A chillingly realistic documentary”, Galaxy Quest is the unofficial 14th film of Star Trek and generally ranks pretty high in terms of Star Trek films. But it is technically not a Star Trek film, so it qualifies for this list. Because I say so. But as the Internet says: “Intelligence is knowing that Galaxy Quest is not a Star Trek movie. Wisdom is knowing Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie.” Or, seventh best, at least.
Galaxy Quest is available as a DVD on Netflix and for rent on Amazon Video.
8. Coraline (2009)
Coraline is based off of a story by Neil Gaiman, directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach), and produced by the fabulous team at Laika. Stop-motion animation is a relatively niche market. Not in terms of popularity or diversity of genre, but in how few films are made using the technique. Sure, you have your bigger names, like Laika and Aardman Animation, and sure, you have your auteurs like Jiří Trnka, but nowadays it’s rarely used. Part of this is the rise of CGI– stop-motion was used as a special effect in a lot of pre-Star Wars films and even some post-Star Wars films to great effect. Whole movies made of stop-motion were less common, but still existed. Hell, the first animated film (I won’t say “full length”, because it’s only 65 minutes) was a German production called The Adventures of Prince Achmed that manipulated puppet silhouettes frame by frame to produce a fluid animation effect. Coraline itself is a wonderful spin on an Alice in Wonderland-type story, which is just fun enough to be a great adventure for the kids while also scaring the crap out of anyone over the age of 15 or so.
Coraline can be found on Netflix Instant Streaming, and for rent on Amazon Video.
7. The Third Man (1950)
This is the oldest film on this list and it showcases a talent that I find to be underrated. That being Orson Welles. I kid, I kid. If anyone in the history of film is over-hyped and put on too high of a pedestal, it’s Orson Welles, and he’d be the first to tell you. But he is excellent in this film. His Harry Lime is charismatic and witty, but also chilling and ruthless. He’s everything Disney wanted Prince Hans to be. The one problem that I do have with this film is its iconic soundtrack, written and performed by Anton Karas on the zither, a Germanic harp that sounds like something one would play with video of a monkey dancing in a cute hat. It does grow on you, but it leads to an incredible amount of soundtrack dissonance and kills tension in several scenes. That being said, the Ferris wheel scene is one of the most incredible things put to film.
The Third Man can be found on Netflix Instant Streaming, and for rent on Amazon Video.
6. A League of Their Own (1992)
It’s no mean feat, turning one of the most likable men in Hollywood into a complete jerk. This is my favorite sports film, hands down, if only because they haven’t yet made a film based on Mamie “Peanut” Johnson. This is based on her contemporaries, the All-American Girls League, that was formed during WWII due to all of the ball players going off to the war and the people left wanting to watch professional sports. The main character is not Tom Hanks, but the team’s catcher Dottie and her sister Kit. They move from Oregon and their job at a dairy farm to join the AAGL, which is fictionalized a bit and dramatized. The specific people did not exist, but the League did, and some of the higher-ups were real. The writing is solid and the characters feel real, and that’s what makes a good story.
A League of Their Own is available as a DVD on Netflix and for rent on Amazon Video.
5. The Princess Bride (1987)
Yes, I used the Honest Trailer for this, because I’m not sure I know anyone who hasn’t seen this. Not that everyone’s seen it, but it’s a staple of childhood films. I’m not even sure what to say, it’s just a perfect movie. If you haven’t seen it, go, watch it now. Seriously.
The Princess Bride is available as a DVD on Netflix and for rent on Amazon Video.
4. Spirited Away (2002)
A critical darling, expertly dubbed, and beautifully animated– that could be applied to so many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, but none more than Spirited Away. Another Alice-type tale like Coraline, this one is steeped in traditional Japanese legend and folklore, but not to the alienation of other audiences. The film can be watched dubbed or subbed, and nothing is lost in either version. (Can you imagine what would have happened if Miyazaki films were dubbed by 4Kids? Dan Greens all the way down…) This movie is absolutely amazing, and you should watch it.
Spirited Away is available as a DVD on Netflix.
3. Labyrinth (1986)
I’ve talked about the soundtrack for this movie before, but the whole is just as good as the sum of its parts. Jennifer Connelly is the perfect whiny teen to get sent on an adventure, David Bowie is mysterious and threatening and seductive in ways that only he can be, and Jim Henson outdoes himself with the settings and the citizens of the titular labyrinth. Because of his involvement, most of the effect still hold up even almost 40 years later (sorry, Jim, but the blue screen Muppets were never gonna work…) This is the kind of story where even if you haven’t seen the movie, you almost half remember the story from your childhood, like a faint whisper. It uses fairy tale tropes that are as old as Grimm, with a soundtrack that’s as timeless as it is of its time, and a cast that hits every beat.
Labyrinth is available as a DVD on Netflix and for rent on Amazon Video.
2. The Fifth Element (1997)
I think that the most impressive part of this scene is that the opera singer that played the Diva sang every one of those notes, and the only editing they had to do was pasting the individual notes together to make some of the more treacherous leaps (though it is possible to sing! Never tell a soprano what she can’t do.) This film is fantastic, a great piece of science fiction/adventure that is the perfect amount of crazy right from the start. Aliens, the Government, and an unrecognizable Gary Oldman are all after four stones that represent the four classical elements. Together with Leeloo, a girl that represents the titular fifth element, these stones will save the Earth from an impending doom that no other force can destroy. Also Ruby Rhod is Chris Tucker at his most Chris Tucker.
The Fifth Element is available as a DVD on Netflix and for rent on Amazon Video.
1. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China is amazing. Like I said in my last post, I never criticize movies faster than I can see. Besides that it’s all in the reflexes. For me, this movie is like coming home and immediately putting on pajamas, or having soup and grilled cheese on a rainy day. I know every beat, almost every line, it’s very familiar. It’s easy to watch too, great comedy, great action, great visuals– it’s just great. I know that they’re thinking about a remake with the Rock as Jack Burton, but you know it’s gonna be filled with CGI and even if they keep all the original dialogue it’s not going to sound the same said by someone other than Kurt Russell. But it’s not that big of a deal– Big Trouble in Little China is in the heart. Where I go, it’s with me. Mostly because of a Netflix subscription.
Big Trouble in Little China can be found on Netflix Instant Streaming, and for rent on Amazon Video.