#1. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman
The moment of truth – my all-time favorite movie is one that I’ve seen dozens of times and a film I think back to almost every single day. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love is the most beautiful, unique, and challenging experience I’ve ever had with a movie. It explores themes of love, loneliness and isolation, and insecurity in a relatable and stylish way that resonates in ways that no other movie could ever accomplish. Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of toilet plunger distributor Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) as he struggles with his lonely, trapped, and insecure existence. He is alienated by his seven domineering sisters, and constantly made to reevaluate himself and his identity as a man. After an attempted extortion scheme from a phone sex operator, Barry meets a woman named Lena (Emily Watson) who is strangely attracted to him. On a whim, the neurotic and compulsive Barry surprises Lena in Hawaii, where the two hit it off and begin a romantic relationship. Unfortunately for the new couple, the phone sex operator’s extortion scheme leads to the couple being harassed, forcing Barry to fight for the woman he loves. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson brilliantly creates a palpable feeling of isolation and loneliness throughout Punch-Drunk Love, giving viewers a look inside the mind of Barry Egan. Barry is my all-time favorite movie character for a variety of reasons – his overly anxious, awkward, and nervous personality is something I’ve always been able to relate to, but also because it’s just plain funny to see his interactions with the world around him. He struggles to stay cool in social situations, and frequently has surprising and violent outbursts when he is left alone. Anderson’s writing of Barry Egan feels deeply personal and committed – he isn’t making fun of the awkward and lonely Barry, he’s empathizing with him and using the character to portray themes that are not often tackled in movies. Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction throughout Punch-Drunk Love is incredibly frantic and constantly on the move, but always feels small and relatively isolated which helps further the themes of entrapment. Anderson would win a well-deserved Best Director prize at the 2002 Cannes film festival for his work on Punch-Drunk Love. On top of incredible writing and directing from one of the world’s great contemporary filmmakers, the film features a truly terrific score from composer Jon Brion. Brion’s score is experimental and erratic, providing the perfect underlay for Barry’s many moments of nervousness, high anxiety, and misdirected anger. The use of the harmonium throughout is inspired and adds an extra layer of uniqueness to the score – the instrument is even reflected in the film’s plot. The film’s sound mixing plays a large part in the first half of Punch-Drunk Love, featuring constantly ringing phones, warehouse noises, and beautiful tone of the harmonium. Adam Sandler delivers a career-best performance as Barry Egan, being believably unpredictable and awkward at all times, but also surprisingly romantic and brave in his shining moments. Anderson’s brilliance as a director is reflected in Adam Sandler’s performance, as it’s clear that the actor was extra inspired in the performance. Emily Watson’s performance as Lena is equally as weird and compelling, even though she doesn’t have nearly as much screentime as Sandler. The two have more than enough chemistry to make the film’s central love story believable and adorable, and their interactions are some of the best moments in the film. I can’t possible state how big of an impact Punch-Drunk Love has had on my adult life – it provided me with a relatable, humorous, and beautiful story to escape in during some of my worst years. It’s a wonderful film that I can come back to again and again and still feel as moved as I was the first time – an unsung masterpiece whose brilliance can’t be understated. I’m proud to call Punch-Drunk Love my all-time favorite film, even if it’s a bond only I can understand – it’s a beautiful, incredibly well-crafted movie with themes that truly resonate with me.
#2. City Lights (1931)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers
The films of Charlie Chaplin have always had a profound emotional effect on me – they’re truly funny, often innovative, and always full of heart. His 1931 film City Lights is without a doubt one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences in movie history. The romantic comedy has been praised as being one of the greatest movies of all-time, and features one of the most iconic romantic moments ever in its final shot. City Lights sees The Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) meeting and quickly falling in love with the blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherill). That same night, the Tramp thwarts the drunken suicide attempt of an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), and the two return to the Millionaire’s mansion and form something of a unique bond. The next day, the Tramp borrows money from the Millionaire to buy all the flowers from the Flower Girl. After learning that the Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) will be evicted from their home because they cannot afford to pay rent, the Tramp takes it upon himself to earn money for the pair. He takes a job as a street sweeper, takes part in a fixed boxing match, and once again becomes involved with the Millionaire. City Lights is as romantic a film as has ever been made – featuring Chaplin’s Tramp performing the most selfless actions imaginable for people who don’t even know of his existence. It’s a deeply moving story, and Chaplin uses the Tramp’s selfless nature as a launching point for some truly hilarious slapstick gags, including the aforementioned boxing match – which goes horribly wrong – and the scene where he saves the life of the Millionaire. Chaplin takes full advantage of the silent film medium, even though most of the world had since moved on to talking pictures – the silent film was Chaplin’s wheelhouse and he makes it seems as relevant as ever. Chaplin’s performance as the Tramp is as always intensely physical and goofy, with the character never seeming to be able to get ahead – he is constantly the butt of the joke, despite being the pinnacle of all that is good. Not only is City Lights still incredibly funny after all these years, but it’s also deeply moving and sad in many moments. The situation that the blind Flower Girl and her Grandmother find themselves in often seems hopeless. Even when the Tramp is making headway in making money for the two, they have no idea of his actions – it isn’t until the very end of City Lights that the two parties make formal contact. Chaplin’s film is as always humanitarian and full of themes of romance, justice, and happiness – nobody had heart quite like Charlie Chaplin. The fact that City Lights makes me weep like a baby in its closing moments is testament to how much power the film holds – the entire journey feels so worth it in the end. Only a master like Chaplin could have you crying tears of laughter one moment, and tears of sadness the next. City Lights is another example on my list of a perfect romantic comedy – it might even be the ultimate date movie. If City Lights doesn’t make you feel something deep down inside, then I’m not totally convinced you’re human at all.
#3. Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane
Woody Allen is a writer-director who I’ve always revered – his incredibly amount of output and passion for the arts is a great source of inspiration for me as a writer and film enthusiast. Even when his films are bad or mediocre, there’s passion and heart to them. His 1977 film Annie Hall is arguably the greatest film he’s ever made, featuring a great love story, hilarious Woody Allen dialogue, and terrific performances. Annie Hall stars Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, a neurotic comedian reflecting on his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), which we find out has ended a year ago. Alvy chronicles his childhood in New York, where he obsessed over the meaning of his existence, and was punished for his early sexual curiosity. Through a series of flashbacks, Alvy and Annie meet after a doubles tennis game with friends, and the two awkwardly hit it off. Things progress wonderfully until Annie moves in with Alvy, which creates tension in the relationship. The two eventually break up, date other people, and reconcile shortly after when Annie needs Alvy’s help with killing a spider in the middle of the night. Soon after their reconciliation, the relationship once again falls apart, this time permanently – both characters are glad to have loved one another, even if it wasn’t always filled with good times. Annie Hall is one of the most beloved romantic comedies in Hollywood history – it even beat Star Wars for Best Picture at the 1978 Academy Awards. The screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman is highly intelligent and often morbidly hilarious, playing on Woody Allen’s fascinations with death, existence, and the creative process. Even through the script’s intellectual and neurotic nature, Allen and Brickman manage to create one of the most genuine and heartfelt romantic stories ever told on film – one that doesn’t just focus on the best moments in a relationship. The use of flashbacks and non-linear storytelling allows for Allen and Brickman to explore the past of Alvy Singer, including the failed marriages and relationships that have shaped his views on romance. Both Woody Allen and Diane Keaton shine throughout Annie Hall, carrying dramatic and comedic weight like no other on-screen pairing could. Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is his usual highly neurotic and obsessive, but still confident and arrogant, self, while Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is adorably goofy, strong-willed, and highly intelligent. The two had such obvious on-screen chemistry in their many collaborations, undoubtedly aided by their brief real life romantic relationship. Annie Hall is Woody Allen at his absolute funniest as a writer and a performer, somehow managing to make both Ingmar Bergman and holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity humorous. The writing and storytelling feels personal and genuine, and the film’s ending feels groundbreaking for the time – not giving the audience the “fairy tale”-esque ending they might be asking for. Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s greatest achievement as a writer and director, and may even be the film where he finally found his voice. It’s hilarious, romantic, heartbreaking, genuine, and smart – everything a Woody Allen movie should be.
#4. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: William Peter Blatty (based on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb
The Exorcist has long been considered to be the scariest movie ever made, and for good reason. William Friedkin’s intelligent take on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name is one of the most successful horror films ever made, both on a critical and financial level. The Exorcist follows actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her young daughter Regan (Linda Blair) as they live their quiet, but busy, life together in Georgetown. After Regan plays with a ouija board and becomes acquainted with “Captain Howdy”, strange things begin to happen all around the MacNeil house. Soon, it is apparent that something is wrong with Regan – she is experiencing seizures, using obscene language, and displays abnormal levels of strength for a 12-year old girl. After countless rounds of medical testing, Chris is tired and desperate for answers – she contacts Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who reluctantly agrees to perform an exorcism on the young Regan. Karras along with the veteran Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) prepare for the long, exhausting, and dangerous exorcism on Regan MacNeil, who grows worse by the hour. The Exorcist is an incredible example of the power that pacing can have on a film – the mounting level of intensity and mystery builds to a boiling point in the movie’s final act, and what follows is one of the most memorable scenes in horror movie history. Director William Friedkin used manipulative hands-on techniques behind the camera to get reactions out of the cast, and it works to great effect in The Exorcist’s more horrific moments. Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair (with help from Mercedes McCambridge) deliver incredibly physical performances, with the two women hitting each other and interacting with various parts of the set. Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil tries to remain brave and fierce for her young daughter, but by the end is exhausted and at her wit’s end – the journey is an incredibly taxing one for Chris. Friedkin went as far as firing blanks on the set in order to get reactions out of Jason Miller and Max von Sydow during the film’s climactic exorcism scene, and clearly the obnoxious technique paid off. Both Miller and Sydow perform brilliantly as Fathers Karras and Merrin, with Sydow bringing a great deal of wisdom to the role. Miller’s Karras is a deeply conflicted and complex character, which is greatly appreciated for any supporting character. Aside from the terrific pacing and acting found in The Exorcist, the film’s special effects still hold up today. The transformation of Regan MacNeil from innocent 12-year-old girl to the horrifying being known as “Pazuzu” is incredibly effective and creepy, with uncredited actress Mercedes McCambridge lending the unique and horrific voice to the character. Other impressive practical effects include large household items violently sliding and flying across the screen seemingly on their own volition towards Ellen Burstyn’s character. The score performed by Mike Oldfield and Jack Nitzsche adds a great deal of mood to the film’s already thick atmosphere, most notably with the creepy “Tubular Bells” theme. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1974, include Best Picture, Best Director (Friedkin), Best Actress (Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Miller), and Best Supporting Actress (Blair) among others, bringing home only two for Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay (Blatty). The success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains unparalleled for a horror film, and the movie continues to age like a fine wine. It’s horrifying, thought-provoking, full of great performances, subtle writing, and rich with creepy atmosphere – it’s the greatest horror film ever made.
#5. Harold and Maude (1971)
Directed by: Hal Ashby
Written by: Colin Higgins
Starring: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon
Hal Ashby was one of the most unique voices of the New Hollywood era, and his film Harold and Maude may be the director at his very peak. Ashby’s film is chock full of pitch black comedy, themes of death, aging, and changing times, and features one of the very best on screen pairings in movie history. Harold and Maude sees Harold (Bud Cort), a young man obsessed with death and the morbid side of life in general. Harold stages fake suicides which push his mother to her breaking point, straining their already empty relationship. At the funeral of a complete stranger, Harold eventually meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a much older free-spirited and quirky woman whose carefree nature is a breath of fresh air to the young Harold. The two strike up a friendship that sees them make and listen to music, and generally wreak havoc around the city. Eventually the friendship turns into a romantic relationship, but is doomed to fail – on Maude’s 80th birthday, she plans to commit suicide. Harold and Maude is a movie with enormous heart and soul – it relies heavily on incredibly dark humor revolving around death and suicide, but don’t let these things distract you; the film is as romantic and hopeful as they come. The budding friendship between Harold and Maude is delightful in every way, the shenanigans they get involved in as a pair are hilarious and absurd, and the conversations between the two are compelling and poignant. Both characters are complete misfits in what seems to be a proper and upright society – they were seemingly made for each other. The subtleties in Colin Higgins’ script are incredible – Harold’s obsession with death opens the door for Maude to show him the great many joys of life, and Maude’s carefree and unstoppably optimistic attitude most likely stems from her time in a Nazi concentration camp (as evidenced by the tattoo on her arm). The chemistry between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon is tremendous, especially for a pair so mismatched in age and acting experience. Gordon’s Maude is very much atypical for somebody her age, and Cort’s Harold represents an entire lost generation of young people obsessed with their mortality. On top of the terrific characters and the actors that play them, Harold and Maude is entirely set to the music of Cat Stevens, where the artist premiered his iconic songs “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” and “Don’t Be Shy” among other. The soundtrack perfectly contrasts Harold’s morbid attitude and obsession with death, and more properly reflects Maude’s worldview. Hal Ashby’s film is eccentric and bizarre from the very start, making it something of an acquired taste for many viewers. If you can stomach its unique sensibilities, Harold and Maude features two of the most unique screen characters you’ll ever see, and a heck of a romance at its core. It’s an odd, dark, and hilarious fairy tale.
#6. Rocky (1976)
Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers
Everybody reading through this list knows the basic story of Rocky – the ultimate underdog gets a chance to fight one of the most accomplished boxers in the world and takes him to the limit after weeks of hard work and training. The formula used by writer and star Sylvester Stallone in Rocky is an age old one, and yet feels so fresh in the Best Picture winning drama. Rocky tells the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a hard working Italian-American boxer living in Philadelphia. Rocky is in love with a painfully shy and timid pet store clerk named Adrian (Talia Shire), whose brother Paulie (Burt Young) is Rocky’s best friend. After finding out that his opponent for the big Bicentennial fight is out with an injury, world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) handpicks “The Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa to be his opponent in five weeks. Rocky reluctantly accepts the fight, aided by Adrian, Paulie, and his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who pushes Rocky to the limit so that he might stand a chance against the much more experienced Creed. At this point in my life, I’ve seen Rocky dozens of times, and even after all these years, John G. Avildsen’s film makes me feel so energetic, inspired, and emotional. When the film’s iconic ending comes, I’m in tears no matter who I’m watching with – it’s just the kind of wholly satisfying endings you rarely gets in the movies. Rocky’s underdog story never feels cliche or false, but instead has the audience rooting for him the entire way, whether it’s wanting him to defeat Apollo Creed, or wanting to see Rocky finally win over Adrian. Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky Balboa is pitch perfect – the writer-star clearly knows his strengths as an actor, and plays them up. Stallone’s Rocky is kind-hearted and maybe not the sharpest tool in the shed, but his goofy charm wins over nearly everybody he encounters in his day to day life. Everybody in the film is seemingly a fan of Rocky’s – he’s just one of those inherently likable kind of guys. Talia Shire’s turn as the timid and quiet Adrian is wonderful as well, with the actress only coming out of her proverbial shell when she begins to see Rocky romantically – and even then, she constantly seems like a nervous wreck. Shire and Stallone have great chemistry together – their first dates together feel like genuine first dates, and most of their initial interactions are believably awkward. Supporting performances from both Burt Young as the angry and bitter Paulie, and Burgess Meredith’s grizzled veteran trainer Mickey are both incredible, and saw both actors nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The loud and rowdy pair of Paulie and Mickey serve as great contrasting figures to Rocky’s quiet, often stoic personality. On top of some terrific performances from the entire cast, Bill Conti’s uplifting score sets the tone for the inspirational and personal story to come. Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” and “Going the Distance” are two of the best movie compositions ever performed, and help give some dramatic weight to the film’s final act. When “Going the Distance” reaches its final moments and Adrian makes her way through the crowd to greet Rocky, you know you’ve just experienced something truly magical. Rocky is, in my opinion, one of the most satisfying movie going experiences you could ever possibly imagine – it has drama, humor, an amazing and relatable love story, a great score, incredible performances, and one of the most iconic underdogs in movie history. Rocky is a Hollywood masterpiece, and is the kind of movie that seems all too rare today.