Everyone has their favorite movies, and I'm no different. The picks below may or may not be classified as the "greatest" films of all time, but they are films I enjoy returning to again and again. I believe that the best movies are the ones we never tire of, but learn from and enjoy over and over.
This list is by no means complete, and I may change it from time to time. It is always a challenge to work within confining parameters, but these confines force creativity and thought. So here they are presented in no particular order:
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
One of several Spielberg masterpieces that could be listed here, Saving Private Ryan is an outstanding technical acheivement, and gut-wrenching visceral experience. The devastation of war has never been more graphic or touching. Tom Hanks leads a team into occupied France to retrieve the last brother of four left alive after D-day. Fine performances match the intensity of the visuals, leading up to a great ending so understated in comparison to all the violence that preceeded it, yet no less powerful.
A fascinating excursion into the damaged mind of its protagonist (a guy with no short-term memory searching for his late wife's killer), Memento is best known for its unconventional non-linear structure. One timeline moves forward, then skips back to the scene before it, while the other is a fragmented flashback. It's a credit to writer/director Christopher Nolan that he makes all of this pretty easy to grasp, while intriguing and surprising along the way. Awesome and disturbing.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The best of all the Star Wars films, Empire maintains and deepens the tone set by the original. A fantastic script develops all the relationships (and has a lot of fun with the Han/Leia sexual tension), culminating with one of the most unexpected turns in cinema history. The effects still hold up well, and one of the aliens who was actually a puppet, became one of the most identifiable characters ever on screen. A cliffhanger ending had audiences waiting three years for the next installment.
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
A strange, understated and vague noir, The Spanish Prisoner is only identifiable as a David Mamet film by his usual quirky, poetic (yet PG rated!) dialogue. Campbell Scott plays the creator of "the process" (which is never revealed) who is duped by a group of con men led by Steve Martin (!). Rebecca Pidgeon plays the femme fatale role (check out the super-subtle seduction scene) in a very unusual, laid back sort of way. Watch this and decide for yourself--is this the real world or a parallel universe?
Run Lola Run/Lola Rennt (1998)
My favorite foreign film, Run Lola Run is a fun, energetic trip into the results of different choices. If you could change a critical decision in your day, how would it affect the outcome? Lola (Franke Potente) gets this chance when her knuckleheaded boyfriend loses a shipment of diamonds and is marked for death. Set to a great techno score, Run Lola Run uses every cinematic gimmick available to create a compelling, dizzying storyline. Make sure you watch it in the original German with subtitles!
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
One of the greatest adventures ever, this movie introduced us to Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and his swashbuckling exploits. Inspired by 1940's cliffhanging movie serials, Raiders follows archeologist Indy all over the world in search of the Lost Ark of the Covenant. With old flame Karen Allen in tow, he will battle hordes of natives, evil Nazis, an ancient snake pit and a giant rolling boulder. With one great action sequence after another, this could very well be the ultimate popcorn movie.
James Cameron used to specialize in intelligent sci-fi actioners, and this film could be his best. Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ripley, who returns to planet LV-426 when earth loses contact with the colonists there. Accompanied by Colonial Marines and state-of-the-art weaponry, all hell breaks loose and Ripley joins the fun. Intense and thrilling with a great supporting cast (who could forget Bill Paxton's manic Hudson?), this movie spawned countless imitations. Let's rock!
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
John Frankenheimer's classic revolves around a Korean war hero returning home to much fanfare. His wicked mother (Angela Lansbury playing the devil incarnate) and her senator husband await to exploit him. Giving anything away would be a crime, but this is a tragic, satiric, mesmerizing tale of brainwashing, assassination and political intrigue that is decades ahead of its time. Watch for the famous scene when Frank Sinatra's nightmares of captivity unravel into a tea party from hell--it's an editing masterwork.
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
I had to throw a comedy in here, and few movies make me laugh as much as the first Naked Gun. Leslie Neilsen plays the wonderfully named Frank Drebbin, a blundering composite of all TV show cops from the past (co-star George Kennedy solidifies the connection). The Zucker-Abrams-Zucker (Airplane!) team sends up everything from cheesy voiceovers to shootouts to music video montages. Their targets are everybody and everything, and they hit with regularity.
Rear Window (1954)
What can I say, it's Hitchcock! The Master of Suspense creates one of his best--a story about a guy (Jimmy Stewart) confined to a wheelchair while he recovers from a broken leg. There is nothing to do but gawk at his neighbors through his large picture window in the back of his apartment. The luminous Grace Kelly co-stars as Jimmy's girl who has to practically beg him to marry her (yeah right!). A great suspense tale, but an even better comment on relationships, told with all of Hitch's trademarks.