My Top 20 Favorite Movies

20 May

I love making lists. I love it so much that I even have a collection of lists of my favorite films of a certain year. (I would post those on this blog if there weren’t many other good films to see, and thus add to the list.) And I’ve been asked more than a few times what my favorite movies are. Really thinking about it, it should be relatively easy. “Favorite” movies, after all, aren’t exactly what you would call the “best movies of all time.” They’re more on a personal level of movie-watching. What movies do I love to watch in sickness and in health? What movies do I just love?

So, I compiled a list of my Top 20 Favorite Movies. And to get the record straight, this is not my list of the Top 20 Best Movies of All Time—these are just my personal favorites. So with that said, let’s start with #20…

20. Runaway Train (1985)


This is one of those movies that just gets better and better every time I watch it. It stars Jon Voight as a lifer in a maximum-security Alaska prison who enlists the assistance of a younger prisoner, played by Eric Roberts, to escape. Roberts tags along, and the two men make it to a railroad yard where they hop aboard a train. But unbeknownst to them, the engineer has died of a heart attack and the train is now a runaway. They find the only other person on the train—a woman named Sara, played by Rebecca de Mornay—and attempt to stop the train.

What’s odd and quite fascinating to me about “Runaway Train” is that it starts out as a standard prison picture and then works its way into an action picture. But this is more about characterization than it is about action, though there are some pretty damn good stunts in this movie. Particularly, the Voight character is older and more insightful in life than the younger, more naïve Roberts character, and so he’s able to teach him the “youngster” a thing or two. But due to a sick mind and serving a long prison sentence, he himself walks that fine line between “human” and “animal.” Voight is just excellent here, delivering a performance that is practically Brando-like.

The ending of this movie is just great. Without giving it away, it involves Voight ultimately making a choice between life and death. I always get a little tense and even teary-eyed when I watch it. I just love it.

Now, this is a movie I originally gave three-and-a-half stars to when I first watched it and reviewed it just a couple years ago. I think what kept it from a four-star rating was feeling that while the stuff with the two main characters and their adventure on the titular “runaway train” was thrilling and unforgettable, the scenes set elsewhere kind of slowed it down (so to speak). But since then, I found myself watching it quite a lot. And I still watch it very often. Every time I do, I’m amazed by it. So much so that I have no resentment in naming it one of my favorite movies.

19. The Princess Bride


Do I even have to talk about why I love this movie? It’s enjoyable, it’s funny, it’s a clever satire on sword-and-sorcery tales while ironically becoming an iconic one itself. It’s one of my favorite comedies. It’s one of those movies I love to quote often to other fans of the movie. (I mean, come on—when have you not once said Inigo Montoya’s infamous repeated line of dialogue?) Everyone remembers many memorable lines from this movie and smile when they recall some of the action-adventure scenes, such as Inigo’s duel with the Dread Pirate Roberts and Westley and Buttercup’s trek through the Fire Swamp, and laugh at many other scenes, including a “battle of wits” between Dread Pirate Roberts and the ruthless, intelligent Vizzini and of course, the assistance of Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal in an excellent cameo appearance. I’m not even sure how to describe this movie’s impact (which is probably why I haven’t written a full review for it yet). I just love this movie—I think it’s brilliant, enjoyable, and entertaining.

18. Tex


This is a film that hardly anyone I know has even heard of, but it truly is a gem. “Tex” was based on a novel by S.E. Hinton and it starred Matt Dillon as a fifteen-year-old Oklahoma kid named Tex McCormick, who lives with his older brother Mason, played by Jim Metzler. Their mother is dead, their father is usually away on business for months, and so Mason sort of acts as a surrogate father to Tex. And…that’s pretty much it. “Tex” is more about focusing on the lives of these two brothers as they live with one another, and how Tex comes of age and realizes how much Mason is putting on the line for him. Mason even had to sell Tex’s beloved horse to put food on the table, and while it takes Tex a long while to get over it, he does and comes to understand why.

It’s amazing how insightful and how true to life this film seems to be. This was released in the early 1980s, when movies that focused on teenagers were all about teenage sex (and it was released the same year as the infamous “Porky’s”). “Tex” is such an effective portrait of troubled teenagers, and it gets pretty much everything right—the conversations between Tex and Mason (such as a brief talk about sex); the relationship between Tex and his potential girlfriend; and even the secret talks Mason has about his buddy’s girlfriend’s pregnancy (he sees it as an inconvenience while Tex is happy for them). Everything seems genuine and very real.

And I might as well say it—it still shocks me that “Tex” was distributed by Disney. I just can’t help but wonder how they thought this would suitable for their audiences, given the racy themes of teenage pregnancy, the concept of teenage sex, abandonment, and even drug-dealing. But then again, this was at a time when Disney pushed itself with dark horror films as well (like “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” released one year after this one).

But oh well. “Tex” is such a great movie, and I hope more people will come across it and give it a watch.


17. Shotgun Stories


Before award-winning critical faves such as 2011’s “Take Shelter” and this year’s “Mud,” writer-director Jeff Nichols debuted into feature-filmmaking with “Shotgun Stories.” Given a limited theatrical release in 2008, this shocked independent-film audiences in just how unusual and unique it was. And I don’t blame them one bit. It’s not only unconventional; it’s unpretentious. It’s not trying to show off a certain art to a huge extent; it’s just telling a story the way Nichols sees it, and he has a very specific vision that comes off as effectively insightful.

“Shotgun Stories” is about a continuing feud between two sets of half-brothers in a small Arkansas town. The less-fortunate older set (played by Michael Shannon as Son, Douglas Ligon as Boy, and Barlow Jacobs as Kid—yes, those are their names) have gone through tough times growing up, while their birth father had left them and their mother to start a new family. When they hear the news of their father’s death, Son arrives at the funeral with hateful words. This starts a new cause for the feud to get even worse, as the other set seek revenge. Things only get worse and worse…

This film is just “perfect” in my eyes. I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. The acting is perfect. The directing is perfect. The atmosphere is perfect. The script is perfect. Even the music fits the tone of the entire film so that it too fits into the “perfect” element. I love this film so much that I almost hate it. The subtleties of both the developments and the performances really make this film. And it brings about the question of whether or not violence is the only way to fix true conflict. The result is unforgettable.

16. Who Framed Roger Rabbit


What can I say about this enjoyably imaginative, creative film that literally no one else has? Shortest reasoning for why this is one of my favorite movies—It’s clever, imaginative, has brilliant usage of cartoon characters, is visually interesting, and I immensely enjoy watching it every time. Let’s move on…


15. Ed Wood


This is probably one of the best films about filmmaking, if not THE best. It tells the tale of schlock filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. who made some of the worst, most laughably bad pictures of all time, such as “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” And it’s also about doing what he loves doing, and how he won’t let the critics or pessimists bring him down. Great performance from Johnny Depp as an unabashed optimist—it is impossible not to like Ed Wood in this. He’s excitable, cheerful, and never lets anyone talk him out of continuing to do what he genuinely loves doing.

14. Monty Python and the Holy Grail


Put a gun to my head, ask me what my favorite comedy is, and I’ll respond without hesitation, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Now I’ll admit, I’ve never seen the “Monty Python” TV series—my only familiarity with “Monty Python” comedy was this movie and “Life of Brian.” But you don’t have to be familiar with Python-esque humor in order to laugh at the absurdity of the production and the brilliant comic writing. For me, there was hardly a moment in the film when I was cracking up. I’m even cracking up just thinking of certain scenes from the movie, such as the Black Knight battle, the witch-talk, the attack of a cartoon-animated monster, and so on. There are literally so many memorably funny moments that it’s hard to think of one that made me laugh the most. Every time I watch this movie, I laugh and laugh and laugh.

13. Pulp Fiction


Whenever I think of great screenwriting, this is one of the movies that instantly come to mind. It doesn’t go for just the necessary lines of dialogue; it makes it somewhat relatable by adding more to it, like the moments in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talk about a French McDonald’s restaurant or even foot massages. And the storytelling (in the way it uses parallels) makes it all the more fascinating. Memorable moments all around, much like writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s best work. “Pulp Fiction” is an unforgettable film that may be weird and talkative, but it definitely has a soul.


12. The Goonies


Now remember, this is a list of my personal favorites. I love this movie. I love love love love this movie. Love it. I loved it when I was a kid. I love it as an adult. I can’t watch it on DVD anymore without watching all the bonus features as well, that’s how much I love it. This appointed “Indiana-Jones-for-kids” is just a ton of fun, and I can’t see myself disliking it anytime soon.


11. The Haunting


Surprisingly, I find that this 1963 Robert Wise production is constantly overlooked by a lot of people, and yet the 1999 loose remake of the same name (starring Liam Neesen and Catherine Zeta-Jones) seems familiar. I have my issues with the remake, but I truly love the original. I see it as a terrific ghost story and an excellent psychological thriller with good scares and unique character developments that are not only scary, but effectively insightful. The atmosphere is great, as you get a sense that you’re there in a haunted house with these characters who are there to see if it really is haunted. And the characterization of the main protagonist, a woman named Eleanor (played wonderfully by Julie Harris), who is insecure and emotionally unstable to the point where you’re unsure how much of this ghost story is real and how much is inside her mind. It’s all the more intriguing and chilling in that sense. I love this movie and I hope that other people check it out if they’ve already been subject to, and I’ll just say it, the horrible remake.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird


By any standards, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is an astounding film. Whether it’s seen as a courtroom drama, a coming-of-age tale, or a prejudice story, you can’t deny the true power of the film’s structure. Probably the best move to make this story was to tell it from the point-of-view from the two young protagonists, Scout and Jem, who are typical children, as they observe how the world works in strange and sometimes ineffective ways. The film also has the advantage of having one of the best characters ever created—Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck), Scout and Jem’s father who is a lawyer defending a black man in a case that is overseen by an all-white jury in a racially-tense Southern small town. Atticus is going out of his way to see justice prevail, despite what people think of him. He stands up for what he believes and has a strong confidence that he will succeed, which makes his question, near the end, of the system in this small town all the more insightful.

Great acting, excellent storytelling, a faithful adaptation of the terrific novel. I was practically raised by this movie by my parents (who named my younger sister Scout, if you can believe it); I’m glad they did because this always gets me every time I watch it.

9. Stand by Me


Another movie I was practically raised by. At least, “Stand by Me” was the first R-rated movie I ever watched, anyway. My dad really wanted me to watch it at the early age of nine, because he knew I would thank him someday. I still watch it every now and then, the reason being very simple—I love every minute of it.

When I was a kid, I just saw it as a fun movie about four twelve-year-old boys trekking along railroad tracks to find the body of a dead kid, as they encounter obstacles including a junkyard dog, swamp leeches, and, my favorite, a desperate chase off a railroad bridge. As I got older and continued to watch it more and more, I did notice there was more that director Rob Reiner, and original author Stephen King, had in mind for it. There was actual character development among the boys, and all of them were portrayed in very convincing ways—one’s struggling to deal with lack of acceptance from his family because of the tragic death of the older, more beloved sibling. That’s both sad and complex.

I like that “Stand by Me” uses an adventure for these boys to come of age, and that it takes place in just a couple days. It wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining and effective without this trek for these kids to embark on and learn life lessons along the way. By the end of this story, maybe half of them haven’t learned much, while the other half know where they stand in the future and feel there’s a possibility that things will turn out better.

“Stand by Me”—one of my favorite movies. Thank you, Dad.


8. Beauty and the Beast


I was mostly raised by Disney, whether it be movies, TV shows, or even those silly “Sing-Along-Songs” tapes/discs that never made me forget the songs from the latest Disney animated films. That would be the best way to describe Disney—getting you while you’re young so you’ll never forget them as you grow older. Disney essentially developed our personalities in childhood, and we would always watch them because they always had ways to entertain us.

I still enjoy the Disney films I grew up watching, such as “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and others, but if I had to pick my absolute favorite, it would have to be “Beauty and the Beast.” Even as an adult, it never ceases to amaze me. The animation, the art design, the songs, the characters—everything about this movie is memorable and appealing. The “beauty,” Belle, is the best Disney heroine, in my opinion. She’s beautiful, kind, pleasant, and best of all, three-dimensional—she can be kind and polite sometimes while angry and demanding other times, with good reason. The Beast is an incredible design but also a three-dimensional character. He can be beastly sometimes, sympathetic other times. The romance between Belle and the Beast is played perfectly, allowing time to develop as the movie continues. We like them and root for them to stay together. That’s an important key to any romance.

And of course, the animation is beautiful (particularly the dance sequence in the giant ballroom, with a crane shot while Belle and the Beast are dancing—fabulous scene) and the songs are good and memorable (especially the title song and “Be Our Guest”). “Beauty and the Beast” is a treasure of a movie—a Disney animated feature that appeals to both children and adults.


7. A Simple Plan


Director Sam Raimi presents “A Simple Plan” almost like a mystical Coen Brothers movie (which makes sense, since Raimi and the Coens are good friends). It takes place in a snowy, mid-American small town where three working-class men (played by Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Brent Briscoe) stumble across a crashed airplane in the middle of some nearby woods. Inside, they discover a duffel bag full of money and decide to keep it. Paxton, being the reasonable one, decides to hide it and agrees to wait a while before they split the loot. But as he brings his wife, played by Bridget Fonda, in on the supposed “simple plan,” she brings up an important detail they overlooked. As he and Thornton go to take care of it, a confused misunderstanding results in the murder of a local in the process. Once they cover that up, they find that this is only the beginning of a dark series of loose ends and more danger. As the body count rises and Paxton and Thornton starts to feel more evil each day, the question of how far they’ll go for their greed hangs in the balance.

This is a thriller that always has me tense from beginning to end. This is a fascinating, intriguing, unbelievably effective, unnerving portrait of good people doing evil things when faced with greed. How far will working-class folks go to protect the secret of millions of dollars of which they gain possession? There’s betrayal, jealousy, even murder! At what point do you draw the line? Add that to great acting (especially from Billy Bob Thornton as Paxton’s mentally-unstable brother who feels the most guilt), and this is one hell of a film!


6. A tie between Before Sunrise and Before Sunset


Do you know what happens in “Before Sunrise?” A man and woman meet and talk. That’s it. The whole movie just shows them spending one night together talking about what they think is important, and they enjoy each other’s company. And there’s no bull. No clichés. None of those standard romance elements. It just begins as they meet and ends as they separate. A film like this would be extremely hard to make, but director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy completely made me care about this romance. What’s so special about “Before Sunrise” is that it seems completely natural—there’s never a moment that seems forced or contrived. Sure, some of the dialogue isn’t very important, but I give Linklater credit for not resisting the urge to give what we expect from a romantic film. The result is a very fresh, appealing romance that is great to listen to and all-around sweet to endure.

Surprisingly, I think I like “Before Sunset” even better, because taking place nine years later, it catches up with those same two characters and shows how much they’ve grown as people since that first night together. They continue to talk, they still have feelings for each other, and they wonder as much as we do if this is a second chance. This makes it more insightful in what future they may have together.

I truly love these movies; I look forward to seeing the third film, “Before Midnight,” which is set to release this summer (nine years since “Before Sunset”)!


5. It’s a Wonderful Life


Traditionally, I don’t watch this movie until around Christmastime, but whenever I do, it always gets me. I love the narrative storytelling, and how it sets up everything you don’t think will be important until much later on when you realize you’re glad you paid attention. The whole movie has a magical feel to it, saddled with a heartfelt performance from James Stewart, an intelligently-written screenplay, and a good touching resolution at the end. It’s one of those movies just makes you feel good about yourself, even when things seem very depressing.

4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


Again, what can I say about “E.T.” that others haven’t already? It’s magical, it’s greatly developed, it understands childhood, it’s a great fantasy, it has unique techniques in the direction (like keeping the adults, except the mom, obscure until much later on when they’re needed), it’s pure movie-magic, and just great Spielberg! And…yeah, I love this movie. Moving on!


3. Lucas


Man I love this movie. This movie got me through some tough times in high school. It knows what it’s like to be a teenage outcast and how to fall in love for the first time. And being a teen movie of the ’80s, it’s also one of those rarities that didn’t focus on sleaze and sex to get its audience. It’s just a touching, realistic portrait of a unique 14-year-old boy who falls in puppy love with a girl two years older. And then when he realizes he can’t have her, he tries everything to prove himself otherwise (including going out for the football team, despite his small size).

“Lucas” moves, it has amusing moments, it has convincing characters (including a jock character who isn’t like any you’ve seen in other such movies), and yes it has the slow-clap at the end. But you know what? It earned it! It also delivers greatly the message that things can work out, though in ways you never expected.


2. War Eagle, Arkansas

Luke Grimes and Dan McCabe in "War Eagle, Arkansas."

Doug “The Nostalgia Critic” Walker once talked about “Eyes Wide Shut,” claiming he could do a commentary on the whole film. That’s what I could do for this film, “War Eagle, Arkansas.” I must have seen this film at a special time (and I did, but that’s another story), because I genuinely love this film and it only gets better and better every time I watch it. This is one of those “perfect movies”–there’s not one thing I can find wrong with it. The directing is perfect, the acting is perfect, the writing is perfect…which really ticks me off at times when I remember that this is the same co-writer of “The Love Guru!” But I digress. It’s about a teenage boy named Enoch who has a stuttering problem, but a talent for baseball. He gets a shot at a scholarship for a university, but if he takes it, it means leaving behind his small hometown, as well as his best friend–the wheelchair bound “Wheels” who has an acid tongue. Enoch is stuck choosing between a new life and his old home. And truth be told, I related every bit with this kid Enoch. I grew up in a small town as well, and I didn’t feel as resentful towards it as others seemed to. That’s not to say there weren’t times when I felt like it was slowing me down from being a writer-filmmaker, but I got over it because when all was said and done, this was my home. And I’m so glad that special attention was given to this film to make seem as real and genuine as it is. This easily could have been a deplorable, generic, wholesome film. It’s not. It’s excellent.

And for the record, I suppose I should do a revision of my review someday, as I originally reviewed it when I first saw it. Seeing it numerous times, I can probably come up with a more insightful review. But for now, here’s the original review:

And my number-one favorite movie is…

1. Back to the Future


This movie rocked my world. I mean…wow. Every detail. Every setup. Every payoff. Every comedic time-travel element. Imaginative. Enjoyable. Creative. Fun. Funny. Entertaining. Inspiring, even!

OK, I’m sorry, but that’s really the impact this movie left on me, and still continues to leave on me every time I watch it. It’s a highly enjoyable, well-thought-out, fantastic movie that has probably one of the best screenplays ever executed to film. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, I can just watch this movie and imagine what it would have been like for these two to write this script. But what they delivered was a screenplay that, directed by Zemeckis, makes for a fun, entertaining, very well-written, even deep-at-some-points movie.

There is just so much to enjoy in “Back to the Future” that when it’s over, I feel joyful, energized, and glad to have watched it, every time. And that is why “Back to the Future” is my number-one personal-favorite movie.


One Response to “My Top 20 Favorite Movies”

  1. Mary Smith May 20, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    I love this list Tanner! All of your favorites aren’t mine, and all of mine aren’t on your list, but that’s part of what makes the movies great!

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