A Theory of Everything… Cinematic (It’s a List)

The following list provides a personal ranking of all the great movies out there in the world, many which deal with ontological questions (i.e. what is being?), grouped using hypothetical thematic associations that might spark new ideas. The goal is to put “everything” in here: action, romance, musicals, the avante-garde, animation, documentaries, city symphonies, science fiction.

  1. The Tree of Life
    This is Terence Malick’s most refined version of what has become a career-long experiment in his own brand of cinema. Most of his work shares commonalities with the cinéma pur movement and with city symphonies, genres characterized by a concentration on environment, light, abstract composition, camera movement and soundtrack over characters, name-brand stars, and narrative. Malick’s vision includes everything, of course. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt speak lines of dialogue. But Malick takes a minimalist approach to capturing their characters, allowing a tragic event, the voiceover fragments of their thoughts, subtle delineations of time passing, and the audience’s intense participation through a kind of abstracted compassion, to suggest a story rather than declare it explicitly with exposition. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s perhaps only through a viewer’s personal reflection on the choices of edits, and the elided shots of unexplained visuals, that meaning forms. Characters stare off into space, presumably either haunted or comforted by their memories, and are perpetually hunted in Tarkovsky-like long takes by an always drifting camera. Various clues provided via those voiceovers lead us to wonder about a parent’s fears or grief, about a boy’s impressions of his parental role models, about the parents as representations of Grace and Nature, about the evolution of Earth and the Afterlife. The Tree of Life might conventionally be described as pretentious, but only to the same degree that poetry is pretentious, which is to say it is poetic, tonal, monumental, gorgeous, heartbreaking, and overwhelming. The lightest touch is taken to the history of the universe, filtered through a few years in the lives of a simple suburban Texan family. Somewhere in there a dinosaur chooses not to kill, and another admires a sunrise, and it means either nothing or everything to that family, depending on your point of view.
    More: Getting to The Root of the New Tree of Life, The Tree of Life: Let the Wind Speak, Traveling Across the Eons in The Tree of Life
    I like to compare the Mother’s possible thought process to this quote from Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady:

    Alfred P. Doolittle: What’s half a crown after all I’ve give her?
    Friend: When did you ever give her anything?
    Alfred P. Doolittle: Anything? I give her everything. I give her the greatest gift any human being can ever give to another. Life. I introduced her to this here planet, I did, with all its wonders and marvels. The sun that shines, the moon that glows. Hyde Park to walk through on a fine spring night. The whole ruddy city of London to roam around in, selling her blooming flowers. I give her all that. Then I disappears and leaves her on her own to enjoy it.

  2. Age of Innocence
    A masterly display of adaptation and collage. Wondrous, brutal exposition from Edith Wharton’s novel are carefully translated visually. The three leads (Pfeiffer, Ryder, Day-Lewis) employ subtle timing choices and interpretations of posture within the frame of Scorcese’s dynamic camera and exquisite compositions to recreate those otherwise missing layers of meaning. The moment you catch up to what a character might be thinking, you realize secondarily that they probably have two or more motivations driving them. Grace and desire brawl within a ring of invisible societal rules where financial ruin is ever on the periphery, a lurking ruthlessness is the most powerful weapon and the domination of souls is the ultimate trophy. Schoonmaker balances languor and momentum to such a degree that you might feel you’ve watched an epic chase or fight sequence instead of a love story. The influence of Visconti’s vibrant, if extremely melodramatic, Senso is everywhere, from the operatic impulses of the characters to the sweeping opera house environment, from the massive aristocratic homes to the camera’s attraction to the opulent furniture, glassware, and tapestries found inside, as well as to Alida Valli’s chromatic gowns, veils, scarves, and gloves, and even to the treatment of fonts in the title sequence. More: The Age of Innocence: Savage Civility, Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film, His Girl Friday: Thelma Schoonmaker Cuts Things Down to Size, Senso and Sensibility, Luchino Visconti: Count Zero
  3. The Horror: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Begone Dull Care, Powers of Ten
    Kubrick uses the greatest jump cut in cinema history and a wild episodic structure to sketch out the existential horrors of metamorphosis and scale.
  4. Unreliable: Rashômon, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  5. Planet Surfer: Cave of Forgotten DreamsEncounters at the End of the WorldFata Morgana, Lessons of Darkness, Grizzly Man
    Herzog fills the frames of his many documentaries with mischievous and murderous landscapes: the horizontal limbs and torsos of the Sahara Desert in Fata Morgana, the Hothian island of Antartica with its own nomad culture in Encounters at the End of the World, the hellish post-Gulf War Kuwait oil fields in Lessons of Darkness; but maintains his sense of fascination by taking the point of view of an alien, newly arrived on our planet, awed and perplexed by the details in the surroundings and humanoids he meets.
  6. Shakespearean: Ran, Throne of Blood
  7. Slinkily Disorientating: Persona, The Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive
    And maybe throw the messy noir Detour in with the lot. More: 33 Essential Neo-Noirs, From Jackie Brown to Gone Girl, Some Detours to Detour
  8. Life in Turmoil: Koyaanisqatsi, Solaris
    Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Reggio and Fricke’s Koyaanisqatsi are engineered to unnerve, to steer straight for all the troubling metaphysics that result when looking at human life. To freak you out intellectually.

  9. Feudalism 101: Seven Samurai, Princess Mononoke
  10. Bicycle Thieves, Man with a Movie Camera
  11. A Noir Codex: Citizen Kane, The Third Man
  12. Vertigo (1958), Don’t Look Now (1973)
  13. For Want of a Nail: Do the Right Thing (1989), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Three Colors: Blue (1993)
  14. M (1931), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
  15. Visualizing Compassion: La Strada (1954), Wings of Desire (1987)
  16. Liberties Taken: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  17. Superorganism: The New World (2005), Walkabout (1971), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), 20Hz (2011)
  18. Only Connect: In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, A Room With a View
    The intimate non-affairs of Wong Kar Wei’s two great films, shot in a uniquely futuristic palette of colors, trace the playful, exceedingly charming but tragically brief connections that two people can have. Their power is in the extended disconnections between the two people we want to see get together.
  19. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi
  20. Rear WindowNo Country for Old Men
  21. Who Am I?: I Am Cuba, Ghost in the Shell (1995)
  22. Artists in Crisis: Singin’ in the Rain, (1963), Irma Vep, Day for Night
  23. Godless: Andrei Rublev, Amadeus, Duck Amuck
  24. Adventurous Narratives: Annie Hall, Pulp Fiction, Being John Malkovich
  25. Listen Closely: Whispers of the Heart (1995), Topsy-Turvy (1999)
  26. “They Need to be Dee-stroyed”: Cabaret, The Sound of Music, Inglourious Basterds
  27. ChinatownOn the Waterfront
  28. AlienAliens, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
  29. Family Damage: Tokyo Story (1953), Rachel Getting Married (2008), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Roma (2018), Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971)
  30. Save Those Who Weep: Blade Runner, Alphaville
    In Alphaville, Godard’s low budget, absurdist take on the science fiction genre, the traditional film noir private eye, a cynical and violent Lemmy Caution, inhabits an alternative universe of swimming pool executioners, lexicon erasures, and voice box AIs, yes, but also a Blade Runner-esque collection of barcoded seductresses, robotic enforcers, and an almost complete breakdown of fundamental moral codes. Regardless, Blade Runner is not a remake.
  31. On Endurance: The Martian, Doctor Zhivago

  32. Primitive Wonder Home Movies: For All Mankind (1989), Window Water Baby Moving (1959)
  33. Epic Spaghetti: Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  34. The Godfather, Miller’s Crossing, Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars
  35. Cuban Links: The Godfather Part 2Memories of UnderdevelopmentBuena Vista Social Club
  36. Diabolus ex Machina: Pather PanchaliAparajito, Apur Sansar i.e. The Apu Trilogy
  37. Lord of the Flies: Akira (1988), Moonlight (2016)
  38. Conspiracy Nuts: Naked (1993), The Matrix
  39. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, North by Northwest, The Day the Earth Stood Still
  40. Inequality Breeds Corruption: Goodfellas, Jules and Jim, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  41. The Big Heat, The Maltese Falcon
  42. Jaws, Psycho, The Birds
  43. You Is a Marvel: My Fair Lady, Paris is Burning
    Doolittle’s story arc, propelled along by clever, incredibly memorable songs, represents a bootstrap fantasy, but only an achievable fantasy for a select few with her specific characteristics.
  44. Clocks and Mirrors: Cléo from 5 to 7, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
  45. La Dolce Vita, The Conformist
  46. Rituals in Transfigured Time: Daughters of the Dust, Meshes of the Afternoon, In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001)

  47. Dream Logic: Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Un Chien Andalou (1929)
    Sometimes you just want to watch something surreal that makes no clear narrative sense. More: Film Comment: Post Tenebras Lux, “Post Tenebras Lux”: A perverse, dreamlike masterpiece
  48. Saints & Sinners: Nights of Cabiria (1957)
  49. Pan’s Labyrinth, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Fall (2006), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
  50. Marketa Lazarová (1967), Excalibur
    With reference to the wildly uneven modern equivalents The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003, 9.5 hours) and, perhaps, Game of Thrones (2011-2019, ~70 hours), depending on how it turns out. More: Cinema of the Wolf: The Mystery of Marketa Lazarová, Wonders in the Dark:Marketa Lazarová (1967), Taste of Cinema: The 20 Best Movies about the Middle Ages, Screenrant: 15 Great Movies Every Game of Thrones Fan Should Watch, Film Inquiry: 8 Dark Fantasy Movies To Fuel Your Game of Thrones Addiction, Plastic Fantastic: J. Hoberman on The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien vs Technology: J. Hoberman on The Hobbit

    Although lacking the visionary chutzpah and demented social energy that characterized the great pulp fantasies orchestrated by Fritz Lang in the 1920s, Jackson’s Ring trilogy was the greatest feat of pop movie magic between Titanic and Avatar. ~ J. Hoberman

  51. The Seventh Seal, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  52. Raising Arizona
  53. Singular Obsession: Unforgiven, The Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver

    I want to thank Stanley Kubrick for the war room in “Dr. Strangelove,” Billy Wilder for C. C. Baxter in “The Apartment,” Kurosawa for the death of the king at the end of “Throne of Blood,” Martin Scorsese for panning a camera down an empty corridor in “Taxi Driver,” Joel and Ethan Coen for the last scene between Marge and Norm in bed at the end of “Fargo,” Paul Thomas Anderson for the deafening of H. W. Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Bergman for the visit of Bibi Andersson to Liv Ullmann in the dead of night in “Persona,” Francis Coppola for the killing of Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather II,” David Fincher for the first scene in “The Social Network,” Bob Fosse for the audition sequence at the beginning of “All That Jazz,” Quentin Tarantino for Christopher Walken’s speech about the watch in “Pulp Fiction,” Woody Allen for the fireworks over “Manhattan,” Clint Eastwood for making it rain at the end of “Unforgiven,” Michael Powell for the moment Moira Shearer steps into the ballet of “The Red Shoes,” David Lynch for the car journey with Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet,” Mike Nichols for Benjamin in the swimming pool in “The Graduate,” François Truffaut for the moment the boy looks into the lens at the end of “400 Blows,” and Wim Wenders for the moment Harry Dean Stanton sees Nastassja Kinski after all those years at the end of “Paris, Texas.” ~ Sam Mendes, quoted in Sam Mendes’s Directorial Discoveries

  54. The Way of the Samurai: Harakiri, The Hidden Fortress, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight
  55. Zen Assassin: Le Samouraï, Murder by Contract, Blast of Silence, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
  56. God Guise: Fitzcarraldo, Devi (1960), Burden of Dreams
  57. Bewitchery: Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo
  58. All About My MotherAll About Eve
  59. Collapse: Weekend (1967), Mad Max: Fury Road, Sorcerer
  60. Colonial Rot: Apocalypse Now, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), A Passage to India
  61. Hedonistic: Valmont, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  62. Hero Deconstruction: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Wages of Fear
  63. Tintin-like: The Lady Vanishes (1938), Ninotchka (1939), Porco Rosso (1992), Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

    Innocents in the center of sweeping adventures. Films in the spirit of Herge’s comic strip. More: Hergé: Observations on Film Art

    Hergé was a big fan of the movies, and made no secret of his admiration for burlesque humanism, particularly the type of comedy, free from maliciousness, and with the narrative rhythm created by Charlie Chaplin in his films. ~ About The Thomsons

  64. Raise the Red Lantern, Thelma & Louise
  65. Au revoir mon amour: Breathless, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluis de Cherbourg) (1964), Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
  66. Is This Love?: Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, Before Midnight
  67. American Goofballs: M*A*S*H, The Right Stuff
    In every scene we find men as children playing at adulthood. The playgrounds forge alliances, and through teamwork we transcend stupidity and actual great things happen.
  68. A Slice of Chicago: Some Like It Hot, The Untouchables, Eight Men Out
  69. A Place in the Sun, Giant
  70. Manifest Destiny: Gangs of New York, West Side Story
    “Once an immigrant, always an immigrant” says Anita in West Side Story, to introduce one of film history’s most entertaining and poignant musical numbers, but the concept is not true if you take the long view, or the Native American would be running the world.
  71. Perpetually Haunted by Death: There Will Be Blood, The Shining, Decasia
  72. The Minors: Bull Durham, Sugar, Ballplayer: Pelotero
  73. Frantic: Requiem for a Dream, Amélie, Masculin féminin, Boogie-Doodle
  74. The 400 Blows, Au Revoir les Enfants, American Graffiti
  75. Sex, Lies and Videotape, She’s Gotta Have It
  76. Loop Trap: Russian Doll (2019), Run Lola Run (1998), Westworld (Season 1) (2016)
  77. Roaring: The Cotton Club, Once Upon a Time in America, Manhatta (1921)
  78. Essential Jarmusch: Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train
  79. Cause and Effect: Back to the Future, The Way Things Go, La Jetée, Canon (1964), Scavengers (2016)
    Stories concerning cause and effect, mechanism and art, improbability and precision. More: Scavengers
  80. I Was Born, But…, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Stallion
  81. Messianic: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Superman (1978), Ben-Hur, Spartacus
    And The Dark Knight, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Wonder Woman (2017).
  82. Heists are Fun: Riffifi, Bob le Flambeur, Mission Impossible, Ocean’s Eleven, Reservoir Dogs
  83. Raising Hell: Bonnie and Clyde, The Harder They Come, Heat, The Battle of Algiers, City of God
  84. The Camps: The Bridge on the River Kwai, La Grande Illusion, Schindler’s List
  85. The Emerald Forest, Deliverance
  86. Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange
  87. Thrilling Detective: BlackKKlansman, Mindhunter (2017, Season 1), Serial (Podcast, 2016, Season 1)
  88. Old White Guys: Up, Wild Strawberries, Lost in Translation, Manhattan
    Old white guys reconnect with the world through energetic youth.
  89. Opposition to Conflict: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Kiki’s Delivery Service, A Christmas Story, A Little Princess (1995)
    Great films for 13 year olds that use a narrative device called Kishōtenketsu.
  90. Traumatize the Kids: Mary Poppins, Bambi, The Witches (1990)
  91. Missed Him by This Much: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
  92. Playtime, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
  93. The Great Chases: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Italian Job, Bullitt, The Last of the Mohicans, The French Connection, The Road Warrior, Project A, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, To Live and Die in L.A., Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Ronin, The Fast and the Furious, The Bourne Identity, The Matrix Reloaded, Casino Royale, The Dark Knight. More :Ranked: The 28 Best Car Chases in Movie History
  94. Loaded with Gags: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“Biggus Dickus”), Modern Times, The Philadelphia Story, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, It Happened One Night, Roxanne, The Jerk, L.A. Story, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Producers, The Gods Must Be Crazy
  95. Best Fights: Gravity (Bullock fights Zero G), Iron Monkey, House of Flying Daggers, every Marvel movie since Iron Man