Hello, my name is Max Castleman, and I love film.
I have since I can remember. At first, movies were nothing more to me than an enjoyable way to pass the time, watching Balto run the Iditarod, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles take on Shredder or a bunch of little kids fight the forces of evil alongside Hulk Hogan for reasons I cannot recall in the oft neglected cinematic gem Three Ninjas High Noon at Mega Mountain. As a young child I had quite peculiar tastes. My favorite Home Alone film was the third, which I now realize was a fairly odd choice. My favorite Aladdin film was also the third, a straight to video film called Aladdin and the Forty Thieves, which I watched with almost freakish regularity, only giving the original film a single cursory viewing. I went to see The Scorpion King in theaters of my own volition (shamefully dragging my mother along) and watched the Street Fighter movie at least once or twice a month, but on the other hand, I would just as often force my dad to watch films like John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, films which I had no business liking at such a young age, again and again to my great enjoyment. Clearly I was a little weird, and miraculously I’ve only gotten worse in that regard.
A few years later I watched Fargo on VHS, and it was during my initial viewing of that magnificent film that I first felt a drive to participate in the art form myself, to not just watch and appreciate movies but to make them as well. At the time, inspired by the way Roger Deakins shot North Dakota’s majestically vacant snow-ravaged vistas, I wanted to be a cinematographer, but after taking a few cursory steps in that direction I abandoned that career plan as too technical and mathematical. Instead I would write, direct and act, hoard all the emotional elements for myself and leave the technical stuff to those with better heads for it. Since then, I’ve worked to realize that dream, practicing my writing and acting often to become the most expressive artist I possibly can. Though I have vast limitations I do feel I’m slowly improving, and in the end that’s really what it’s all about.
A huge part of this learning process, perhaps the most important part, is watching and analyzing the work of others, and ever since I decided I wanted to do this for a living I have been doing so diligently. With thousands of films checked off my list and thousands more remaining I’ve learned a lot about film but I still have a profound amount of education left to go, more than a lifetime can realistically contain. That being said, based on what I have had the opportunity to experience by this point, and with the caveat that this list could easily change tomorrow, I present my top ten favorite films. While slots 10 through 6 shift around a lot, basically week to week, my top five have stayed consistent for a few years. Regardless, take this list as nothing more than it is: a snapshot of my current feelings and opinions. I also know that it’s WAY too long. That being said….
#10 The Insider
You’re not going to see a lot of “realism” on this list. I generally go for work which is a bit more personal and a bit less familiar, less obsessed with conforming to the confines of the real world than to the dimensions of a filmmaker’s imagination. That being said, sometimes real life can be just as stunning as any fiction. Films like All the President’s Men and Quiz Show and evenShattered Glass are able to transcend their origins and become something just as fascinating as a great fictional story because they are etched with so much artistry and skill. Though films likeCity of God and W. are based in truth, movies like Quiz Show are much straighter and more direct in their approach, but because of the talent behind the camera they never feel stale or derivative in the least. In the end, my favorite “realistic” film would have to be The Insider. Sure, it has the occasional bold artistic flourish but for the most part it’s a remarkable story told in a simple and direct way, and it is absolutely captivating. The acting by old pros Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino is fantastic, and in my mind Russell Crowe has simply never been better. The dialogue is sharp, the cinematography is beautiful, the editing is engaging, the music is… I’m running out of positive adjectives, so I’ll just say this: see it. It’s more than worth your time.
#9 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
When I was younger I had no patience for slower films. I could watch them, sure, and even enjoy them, but I’d always need a distraction, a computer to type on or a Game Boy Advance to play on to get me through the less engaging bits. Now that’s all changed. I can and often do appreciate a film which takes its time, particularly if it has something important to say, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford certainly does. It’s not a perfect film by any means. Honestly I find the first twenty minutes a little shaky and feel that the film really only comes alive during and after the stunning train robbery sequence. That being said, from that point on it is absolutely remarkable, and it just keeps getting better. It’s a staggeringly beautiful film, and the longer you watch it the more powerful it grows, until it culminates in one of the most breathtaking and heartbreaking final sequences I have ever seen. If you don’t like this one at first give it time. It’s a grower.
There isn’t a lot of great noir these days. In fact, there’s virtually none, which is a bit of a bummer as it is, and long has been, my favorite film genre. That makes Brick, Rian Johnson’s first feature, all the more remarkable. At once a loving parody of noir and a fantastic example of the genre at its best, Brick is funny and dramatically effective in equal measure. The script is wonderful and the actors, though obviously lacking in experience, do a wonderful job for the most part. Sure, elements of it are a bit amateurish at times, but that actually adds to its homemade charm. Like other great first films like Primer, Slacker and Pi it’s exciting in its imperfection. It makes the dreams of people like me seem more possible. Yes, you can get together with a few of your friends and make something truly special on very little money. If you really want to achieve that, and you’re willing to put in the time, effort and creative energy, you can. There’s no better evidence of that than Brick.
#7 The Big Lebowski
Without the Coen Brothers I’m not sure I’d even want to make movies. Their work in the 90s, and to a lesser extent the 80s and early 2000s, had a truly profound impact on me. Though it might be a bit melodramatic to say this, I have no doubt that their films changed me forever in a truly radical way. You’ll find three of them in my top ten. The first is The Big Lebowski. It’s a film that I simply never tire of. I’m sure if I were so inclined I could watch it every week and enjoy it every time. In terms of sheer quotability (a word I just invented which you can feel free to use) its script is second only to Casablanca. Of course, even truly great dialogue can’t succeed in a vacuum, so it’s a good thing that this ensemble pulls of every line perfectly. There’s not a weak link among them. Perfection is a myth, but The Big Lebowski comes dangerously close to it, and it does so without pretension or self-seriousness. It’s perhaps the most casual, unassuming masterpiece that I’ve ever come across.
I spoke a bit about Fargo earlier in this piece, so you already know how hugely important it is to me. It may not be my favorite Coen Brothers film but it’s almost certainly their best. Every element is beautifully executed, from Carter Burwell’s haunting score to Roger Deakins’ aforementioned gorgeous cinematography. The ensemble cast is just incredible, particularly William H. Macy as a desperate used car salesman and Frances McDormand as the woman tasked with catching him. Just as fascinating as the main plot are some of the more tangential threads the Coens include, including an almost disturbing scene where McDormand’s character, Margie, meets up with an old friend from high school who has maintained a crush on her for years. It’s a brutally violent film, as sad as it is funny, and no words will really do it justice. It represents a peak few filmmakers ever reach.
#5 Wayne's World
I never get sick of Wayne’s World. Just thinking about it makes me feel happy. The script is hilarious from beginning to end, and the performers chosen to deliver those great lines are, for the most part, ideal. Best of all is Dana Carvey as Garth, a truly strange character who tempers his awkwardness and social anxiety with and odd mix of cynicism, childlike wonder and a bit of psychosis (best evidenced in two of my favorite scenes in the film, one where he stabs a self-constructed “donut man” to death while he pleads for his life and one where he attempts to construct a robotic hand which he will presumably use to strangle Rob Lowe’s Benjamin). This is a film that never fails to make me laugh. Watching it makes my mood instantly improve. While Wayne’s World is on all is right with the world. Plus, Wayne’s World 2 is a surprisingly strong sequel. You really can’t go wrong adding Chris Walken to the mix.
#4. The Long Goodbye
Robert Altman is a truly remarkable filmmaker. Even when he fails he never makes a film which is anything less than fascinating. Though he directed a number of films I love (The Player, Short Cuts, McCabe and Mrs. Miller…) my favorite is The Long Goodbye. There are a number of reasons for that, mainly the amiable performance of Elliott Gould (punctuated by his oft-repeated catchphrase “That’s alright with me”) as Raymond Chandler’s classic noir protagonist Philip Marlowe and the wonderful script by Leigh Brackett, the co-writer of The Big Sleep (which also featured Marlowe, as played by Humphrey Bogart) and The Empire Strikes Back. But there are so many more reasons I keep coming back to this one. I love the way the song’s theme, composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, shows up throughout the film in so many different guises, making an appearance as grocery story muzak, as a tune played by a mariachi band and even as a song playing on Marlowe’s radio as he drives to his next destination. I love Sterling Hayden’s legitimately drunken turn as a blustering, Hemingway-esque writer. I love the fact that Altman had the gall or the insanity to cast Mark Rydell, the director of schmaltzy drivel like On Golden Pond and For the Boys, as a fearsome mob boss, and I love the fact that Rydell actually pulled it off. I love the absolutely bizarre, out-of-nowhere ending. There isn’t much I don’t love about The Long Goodbye, and that’s why it’s here. In updating Marlowe’s world from the 50s to the 70s but not updating Marlowe in the least, not until the film’s final moments anyway, Altman and Brackett’s film is not only a brilliant portrait of a man lost in a time he does not understand but also everything a good adaptation should be: creative, in that they made more than enough changes to put their own indelible stamp on Chandler’s story, and respectful, in that they stayed true to the heart of his world and his character. This film helped me define my own artistic ambitions in a major way, and I frequently return to it for both guidance and entertainment.
#3 Pickup on South Street
I often find myself loving what some might refer to as “b-movies”, not just because they’re often incredibly entertaining but because they’re frequently more creative and alive than most “a-movies” (which I don’t think is really a term, though it should be), but only if they’re made by legitimately intelligent people who genuinely care about their craft or they involve Arnold Schwarzenegger. I love the films of Alex Cox, most notably Walker and Repo Man (which, for the last time, is a VERY different movie than Repo MEN), John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and They Live, Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum… the list goes on. But my favorite b-film of all time is Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. Fuller had a long and varied career, encapsulating war films like The Big Red One, westerns like I Shot Jesse James, thrillers like Shock Corridor and message films like White Dog. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more diverse filmography than his. As for Pickup on South Street, it’s a noir, essential a piece about communist paranoia, but one full of odd and wonderful touches. Richard Widmark and Jean Peters are utterly fantastic in their roles, but best of all is Thelma Ritter, who received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her work as a tragic tie-selling snitch. It’s hard to describe why I love this film so much. The performances are great and the script is witty but, more than anything else, what separates Pickup on South Street from the pack for me can’t be defined in such basic terms. It has a truly unique feel to it, a certain X factor which Fuller was somehow able to imbue into this film right down to its marrow. There isn’t a single frame I don’t thoroughly enjoy.
#2 Miller’s Crossing
It makes sense that I’d love this one so much: my favorite filmmakers, the Coen Brothers (right at the onset of their 90s prime), working in my favorite genre, film noir. It’d be hard to go wrong with that hand, and fortunately Miller’s Crossing is just as great as it sounds. I love every scene in this film. There’s not a dull moment. The acting is impeccable. Albert Finney’s grandiose energy couples beautifully with Gabriel Byrne’s stoic toxicity, making every scene between them a hugely enjoyable experience. Barry Levinson’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s haunting music make a similarly successful pairing. In the end, this film isn’t just an artistic triumph, though it certainly is that. It’s fun from beginning to end. It’s full of memorable characters and powerful scenes. It works brilliantly as a comedy, but it rings true dramatically and, most importantly, emotionally as well. Like Fargo, Miller’s Crossingpushes the blackness of its black comedy to an extreme, and whether you laugh or turn away you will be affected by the time the story comes to a close. In the end, I love Miller’s Crossing, and the Coen Brothers’ 90s work in general because it is so singular and unique. There’s no one else out there who can do what they do, and there almost certainly never will be. Of course, some imitators have sprung up (the most artistically successful of these being Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!”) but none have managed to rise to their level. That’s because the Coen Brothers weren’t imitating anyone. Sure, they owed a sizable debt to Preston Sturges (one they drew attention to themselves by naming their O Brother, Where Art Thou? after the unseen film Joel McCrea’s character was planning to make in Sturges’ great masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels), but his films served them simply as an inspiration. To this day their voice is still wholly their own, and that’s all too rare these days.
#1 Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter isn’t perfect. The middle does drag a bit and the acting by the children who star in the film isn’t impeccable, though it is generally quite good. Regardless of those minor quibbles, the very first time I watched Night of the Hunter I realized that I’d found a new favorite film, and subsequent viewings have only confirmed the validity of that first impression. In fact, I’m so awed by this film that the thought of stripping my thoughts about it down to a single paragraph is quite stressful. Any discussion of Night of the Hunter has to begin with Robert Mitchum’s performance, my single favorite piece of acting ever captured on film. Throughout his characterization of murderous “preacher” Henry Powell, Mitchum stumbles between the poles of realism and surrealism, and the film follows suit. Though the more realistic moments of small town minutiae are well done, the surreal bits are my favorites: Mitchum stumbling after the children like Frankenstein, a car lying picturesquely at the bottom of a river and the occasional set which looks like it was ripped straight out of a horror film, creepy lighting included. The most famous scene (borrowed by Spike Lee for his generally stellar Do the Right Thing) is Powell’s depiction of the struggle between “love” and “hate,” but my favorite is an unforgettable sequence where the children attempt to escape from Powell (who is after money their recently deceased father hid somewhere in their home) by drifting down a dreamlike river. It’s a shame that Charles Laughton, primarily known as a fairly mediocre actor, never directed another film, because if he’d continued this way I feel he could have soon become a legitimate rival to Hitchcock. I love this film not just because it’s odd but because it’s odd in such a fascinating way. There’s never been another movie like it. Every time I sit down to watch it I walk away feeling amazed. It is, without a doubt, my favorite film of all time.
A Few Runners Up, In No Particular Order: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood”, Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” and “Walker”, Jim Jarmusch’s “Down by Law” and “Dead Man”, Federico Fellini’s “8½”, Adam McKay’s “Anchorman,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”, John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show”, Fabian Bielinsky’s “Nine Queens”, Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” and “Sunshine”, Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca”, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men”, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges”, Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday”, Mike Judge’s “Office Space”, Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential,” Ridley’s Scott’s “Blade Runner” (The Director’s Cut), Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In”, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”, Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, John Sayles’ “Lone Star”, Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige”.