“These are some of the films that helped shape my love of the movies and I hope you will find something here that does the same for you.” This page is a work in progress… check back for more reviews.
Rather than just list a dull old top 100, we have divided ours into eleven groups of ten, each based on a theme, plus a mysterious 111th, so if you are looking for something to watch, there is something here for every mood.
You can jump straight to the top ten for each theme via the links above, or see the entire 111 list below.
If Brendan could just choose one category to take with him to the proverbial desert island, this would be it. Whether the escape is from just such a desert island, as in Castaway, or from a prison or PoW camp, something about the dynamic of an individual or group planning and executing an escape against impossible odds, always makes for a great movie – or a great book, like his best-seller Under the Wire, now part of our film slate.
1. The Great Escape
“In the three years, seven months and two weeks that I’ve been in the bag, that’s the most extraordinary stuff I’ve ever tasted.”
Like the real-life WWII break-out from Stalag Luft III it chronicles, the movie is quite simply one of the greatest ensemble projects ever. While the film is universally known for Steve McQueen’s motorbike attempted getaway, the complex world of prion camp stooges, ferrets, scroungers and forgers is what brings the movie to life. It is full of unlikely heroes, forced by events to step up and risk all to defy the Nazis.
“You said you’d be right back.”
Any actor’s dream must be to be on camera for virtually every minute of screentime, sharing the limelight for most of the second act with only a volleyball called Wilson. But Tom Hanks uses every second of screen time well to pull off a magnificent performance of a time-obsessed and self absorbed manager who survives a plane crash to find himself as a modern day Robinson Crusoe. His habit of talking to himself and Wilson gives the audience a way in to his thought process, but as a screenplay its greatest strength is that it relies on what he does much more than what he says. The crash scene is one of the most graphic and visceral ever filmed – not reccommended as In-flight entertainment, but a wonderful, memorable film for all other occasions.
3. Cool Hand Luke
“The first thing you’ve got to do is get your mind right.”
Paul Newman’s superb performance as a returned war veteran who does battle with every form of authority, but lands himself on a Geogia chain gang. His journey from outsider to reluctant hero to the other cons is one of cinema’s greatest emotional journeys to a poignant conclusion. As the warden says “what we have here is a failure to communicate”.
“Hey you bastards, I’m still here!”
A harrowing account of life in the Penal colony of French Guyana – both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman give astounding performances, one as an alleged murderer, the other as a master forger. Sometimes tough to watch, always impossible not to watch. A master class in building tension and ever increasing obstacles while never losing sight of the dogged umanity that makes the story timeless. The relationship between Hoffman and Newman is remarkably nuanced, going from a mercenary self preservation to brotherhood and beyond.
5. Shawshank Redemption
“I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.”
One of the most loved films of all time, largely because ot the terrible believabilty of life in Shawshank for an innocent man, contrasted with the patience, humour and humanity of the lead character, played with an understated brilliance by Tim Robbins, playing opposite Morgan Freeman, whose rich tones give the voice-over credibility. Look out for a wonderful supporting role by character actor James Whitmore as an institutionalised con, floundering in the outside world. If our definition of a “Proper Picture” was listed in a dictionary, it would say “See Shawshank”.
“I am Jaguar Paw. This is my forest. And I am not afraid.”
Our very own Ned Dowd was a producer and production manager on this magnificent epic. Sent in the jungles of central America just before the arrival of the Conquistadors, an innocent tribe of hunter gatherers are destroyed by a barbaric Aztec-type civilisation with the survivors brought to a grand but decaying city as sacrifices to the gods. While profoundly gory in parts, the film’s great strength is in its exploration of a civilisation decaying from within and how one person makes a stand in order to save his wife, his child and himself.
7. Army of Shadows
“This time he did not run.”
Armee des Ombres is remarkable not for its pyrotechnics, but for its unswerving reality. Both the writer and the director Jean Pierre Melville were veterans of the the French Resistance and their story is one of nerve-wracking tension and the ability to hold out against torture and bullying. It shows that the difference between bravery and cowardice, between callousness and pragmatism. Even though Melville loved mixing European art style with Hollywood storytelling skills, this is far from modern studio fare, with its roots in tough, tough reality.
8. The Pianist
“I was cold.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Polanski’s wonderful movie is that it flies in the face of one of the most universal truths of film-making: that the protagonist or hero must drive the action forward by his own actions and decisions. Instead, a Jewish concert pianist is saved from the Nazis at every turn by the bravery of those around him while he is battered around like a cork in a storm – a delicate flower in an ice age. It is a film of incredible humanity in which death and salvation come from the most unexpected directions. A truly great work.
9. The Killing Fields
“Nothing to forgive, Sydney”
Roland Joffe’s great direction of Bruce Robinson’s magnificent screenplay allows Sam Waterston and Haing Ngor to give the performances of a lifetime, one as an ambitious but ultimately guilt ridden western journalist and the other as his Cambodian fixer who is left behind as the Kmer Rouge sweep to power and create the Killing Fields in their chilling Year Zero. Despite the horrors, the story is actually one of humanity and forgiveness.
10. Catch Me If You Can
You’re gonna have to catch me first!
A film that showed just how much Leo DiCaprio had matured as an actor. Based on the true story of one of America’s most successful and creative forgers, chased around the planet by the equally determined law man played by Tom Hanks. Spielberg’s film was both a commercial and critical success. It is a great example of screenwriting and film making that understands the power of plumbing the highs and lows of a character’s journey, from King of the World to bottom of the heap and back.
OF LOVE AND LOSS
Great movies are often about fascinating characters faced with tough choices. Love and loss are two parts of life experienced by almost every human and reflected in many great movies. That’s why the films on this particular list are ones that people return to again and again. The love can be love of partner, friend or family, and the loss may be through distance or death, but nothing evokes emotion like a great movie of love and loss.
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Casablanca is like an elegantly tailored jacket. People are so busy enjoying looking at it that only those who really stop to read the screenplay can see that the ‘stitching’ is incredibly clever. What started as just another of fifty movies per studio per year cranked out as wartime potboilers, turned out to be something that has outlived all of its creators. Luckily for us, the decision to go with Humphry Bogart rather than Ronnie Regan proved wise. Even though it is a melodrama, the script crackles with wit and one liners.
2. Straight Story
“The worst part of being old is rememberin’ when you was young.”
The unlikely combo of director David Lynch and Disney give this wonderful little film a dreamlike quality on top of a realistic story of family feuds and forgiveness that never plunges into sentimentality. An old geezer sets out on a journey across the US midwest to set things right with his dying estranged brother. But his dodgy eyesight means that the only vehicle he can drive is an old lawnmower. A road trip at 5 mph, which slows us down to show us what we miss at the gallop.
3. 84 Charing Cross Rd
“I can never get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.”
A love affair between two people who never actually meet, brought to life through their spoken letters and immaculate performances by Ann Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. The film gives a great glimpse at the differences between austere, polite post-war London and brash, vibrant New York City in the same era, with the lead characters and cities both reflecting the same contrast.
4. Remains of the Day
“Do you know what I am doing, Miss Kenton? I am placing my mind elsewhere while you chatter away.”
A brilliantly observed account of what happens when a stiff upper lip turns into rigor mortis. Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins at the absolute top of their game as a cautious housekeeper and ultra-reserved butler in a 1930s stately home, too afraid to reach out for each other and trying to make amends in later life. One of the greatest ever evocations of inter-war class-ridden Britain, lost opportunities and second chances.
5. Midnight Cowboy
“I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!”
A poignant and unlikely relationship between a street hustler and a gigolo in 1960s New York City. Artfully directed by John Schlesinger, the movie follows the mentorship of a guileless good looking cowboy in the city by an old hand of street life and the subsequent reversal of roles as both seek to escape the city. Dustin Hoffman and John Voigt are great together. The film was the deserving winner of three Academy Awards.
“Is that our ship comin’ in, Da?”
A tiny gem of a movie starring Martin Sheen as a writer returning from New York to Ireland to bury his father. Along the way the darkly funny script delivers many surprises as he is haunted by the ghosts of his past, and the memories of his loving, infuriating parents. At no stage does it lapse into Oirish sentimentality or cliche, managing to make viewers laugh and cry from start to finish. Based on a very successful stage play by Hugh Leonard, with supporting roles from William Hickey and Barnard Hughes.
7. The Dead
“One by one, we’re all becoming shades.”
A brilliantly observed last film from one of our most loved directors, John Huston. Based on a short story from James Joyce Dubliners. A Dublin dinner party around 1900 attracts a constellation of fascinating characters – saints and sinners, drunkards and blowhards celebrate Christmas while memories of old loves stir in the shadows. Most of the action takes place in one room, but it is so well portrayed and filmed that it also feels like a film rather than a stage play on film. A particularly strong performance by Huston’s daughter Angelica, as a wife haunted by a long lost love from her youth.
8. All That Jazz
“It’s showtime, folks!”
One of the strangest and most powerful films ever on the reality of staging a show. Loosely based on the turbulent domestic and professional life of the great choreographer and director Bob Fosse, as told by himself. The star, played by a brilliantly manic Roy Scheider, is driven by a high octane cocktail of ambition, lust and a pharmacy worth of assorted drugs to achieve perfection in his shows. He drives himself and his dancers to the limit, while driving those he loves crazy. The opening audition dance scene, where hapless wannabes give it their all is funny, poignant and original all at the same time – much like Fosse’s dance work.
9. Ordinary People
“Feelings are scary. And sometimes they’re painful. And if you can’t feel pain, you won’t feel anything”.
This is the first movie I can remember seeing in a movie theatre that made me think – wow, someone wrote that, someone else filmed it and here it is. I wonder if I could do that some day? Alvin Sargent’s elegant screenplay, directed by Robert Redford, won four Oscars. It stars Donald Sutherland as an emotionally inarticulate father trying to hold his family together after the death of his eldest son in an accident. His younger boy Timothy Hutton plays a brittle survivor of a suicide attempt, while mother Mary Tyler Moore plays one of the coldest and most fascinating women on film since Nurse Ratchet. Despite the subject matter the movie manages to be warm, human and full of hope without ever flinching from the realities of life and death for ‘ordinary people’.
10.Truly Madly Deeply
“I can’t believe I have a bunch of dead people watching videos in my living room.”
Anthony Minghella’s little movie, made for TV, has one of the most perfect first acts of all time for anyone interested in exploring the themes of love and loss. In my opinion it blows the larger and more commercially successful Ghost. The first act is a tour de force performance by Juliet Stevenson as the recently widowed partner of a fellow musician played in excellent arch style by Alan Rickman. Stevenson’s longing and cello playing briefly brings Rickman back from the dead. Unfortunately he brings with him several other spirits whose idea of fun is watching old movies while being undead couch potatoes. Only when Stevenson is ready to say goodbye to her one true love, can she rid her ramshackle house of its extra inhabitants.
The heyday of the great epic war movie was certainly the late 1960s and early 1970s, but as the list below attests, every now and again a big, beautiful movie still comes along to prove that story and action can still live side by side in the same film and that it’s not all about exploding helicopters.
1. Cross of Iron
“I’ll show you where the iron crosses grow”
Peckinpah’s magnificent, trippy war-opera about the Eastern Front. Written by Julius Epstein who also penned Casablanca. James Coburn, in one of his greatest performances, plays a jaded German veteran who despises all officers and fights only for his own men. He faces an ambitious and very nasty Prussian officer, out to make a name for himself regardless of the cost in lives. Wonderful supporting performances in this platoon-level look at a war already lost.
2. The Wild Bunch
“If they move, kill ’em.”
Pekinpah’s celebrated story of violent men with a code of honor who have outlived their time and head south of the border in the early years of the 20th Century. While it was famous at the time for its ultra-violent starting and ending scenes, with the passage of time it has become a classic meditation on loyalty and integrity in a messy, violent world. The relationship between gang leader William Holden and his wingman Ernest Borgnine is particularly powerful: “Get up you lazy bastard!”
3. Memphis Belle
“Sir, if they found out they’d put my hot dog in a bun and chow down.”
Shot by my good friend the late David Watkin, this is another story of the bonds within a small unit, in this case the crew of a WWII bomber in Europe who are living on borrowed time. Much of the movie is shot within the confines of the bomber, giving a pressure-cooker quality to the relationships of the very different characters thrown together by the war.
4. Man Who Would be King
“Now, the problem is, how to divide five Afghans from three mules and have two Englishmen left over.”
John Huston’s magnificent wide-screen movie manages to be cinematic, operatic, dramatic and funny, often all at the same time. More than 20 years in development, Huston finally got lucky with Connery and Caine, but at the top of their game as two ex soldier reprobates in Kipling’s India, determined to carve out their own empire in the unexplored Himalayas. Visually gorgeous with an impossibly clever screenplay by Huston and Gladys Hill from Kipling’s story. Also a wonderful star turn by Saeed Jaffrey as Ghurka rifleman Billy Fish.
5. Lord of War
“The first and most important rule of gun-running is, never get shot with your own merchandise”
This terribly under-rated movie was let down in my opinion by a marketing campaign that tried to paint it as an action movie in line with its name. It certainly has its fair share of action, but it is above all a meditation on how someone can lose everything they love by going after what they think they want. Nicolas Cage is wonderful as a self made monster of an arms dealer and Jared Leto plays his fragile junkie brother very well. The African scenes in particular capture the crazy reality of the proliferation of small wars there in the 1980s where the only winners were despots and arms dealers.
“A prayer’s as good as a bayonet on a day like this.”
Yet another “proper picture”. Everything about this film is epic, from the sweeping African scenery to the shots of vast swarms of Zulu warriors bearing down on the beleaguered handful of soldiers trapped in Rourke’s Drift. Yet the movie never wallows in jingoism. The bravery of the Zulu’s armed largely with spears facing modern rifles is also recognized. As they retreat and one character exclaimed “It’s a miracle!” another points out “If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer-Henry point-four-five caliber miracle.” Just a wonderful movie – exciting, moving and visually magnificent.
7. Last of the Mohicans
“No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you.”
Daniel Day Lewis tour de force performance is at the heart of this movie. He plays a half-white half indian trapper who falls in love with and saves the daughter of a British general. From its operatic battle scenes to its tense fights, often literally on cliff edges it has all the great elements of an action-romance. My friend Ned Dowd was Production Manager on this and deserves a medal for some of the epic scenes such as the indian ambush of a retreating British column in a clearing in the woods – a masterclass in location, cinematography, action directing and stunts.
8. Little Big Man
“That was the end of my religion period. I ain’t sung a hymn in a 104 years.”
Sometimes big original ideas make big original movies. Dustin Hoffman stars in this wonderful tall tale of a movie about a wild west character being interviewed at the age of 116 in an old folk’s home. But the plot is just a flimsy excuse for a great, epic western, from the earliest days of the frontier to the Battle of Little Bighorn, lampooning every Wild West cliche along the way from gunslingers to fallen women and from mad generals to mule skinners. As well as being very funny it manages to land some serious blows on the way the Native Americans were treated. Occasionally bits of the 1960s seem to leak in to the Wild West, but over all it is a remarkable and ever-entertaining piece of cinema.
9. The Good the Bad and the Ugly
“In this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”
As a kid, I fell in love with the widescreen operatic quality of what became known as Spaghetti Westerns, even though many were filmed in Spain. The contrasts between super wide vistas and huge face close-ups of odd looking characters made these movies unmissable. Great stories filled with almost cartoon violence and wit at every turn. Great actors like Clint and Lee Van Cleef. Even today, If I want a good dose of escapism and pure cinematic joy, I will reach for this movie. Both the score and the sound effects add greatly to the overall experience.
“The horror… the horror…”
I sat stunned (or was it stoned) in a dark Belfast cinema the day this movie first came out. It is a masterpiece of of a country, a personal and a mind gradually fragmenting under the pressure of an insane war. Based on Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, it tells the tale of Martin Sheen’s special forces soldier given a mission to ‘terminate’ a brilliant officer (Marlon Brando) who has gone mad in the jungle. But the real story takes place in the heads of the the protagonists and the audience, played out against a visual intensity rarely equalled. Quite simply one of the best movies ever made.
Call it magic realism, or a mix of gritty reality and the fantastical, but every few years there is a wonderful movie that blurs the edges between the everyday and the magical. Ever since Toto departed Kansas, the compelling stories that rely on an understanding of real characters facing hardship as well as something fantastical and beyond normality has fascinated modern audiences.
1. O Brother Where Art Thou
“I don’t want Fop, goddamit. I’m a Dapper Dan man!”
A great Coen Brothers concoction of smart comedy and tall tale, with a nod to their hero Preston Sturges. Three cons escape a Deep South Depression-era chain gang to chase a treasure in a valley about to be flooded. Their half-assed oddyssy brings them up against some wonderful characters, including John Goodman as a one-eyed itinerant bible salesman. George Clooney is superb as the verbose self-appointed leader of the escapees.
2. Billy Liar
“It was a big day for us, we had won the war in Ambrosia. Democracy was back once more.”
A funny, crazy 1960s miracle of a movie. Tom Courtney plays a compulsive liar who escapes his dreary home life and even drearier work life as a clerk at an undertakers by living in a make believe world in his head as the hero of an imaginary country called Ambrosia. His real love life is complicated and his layers of porkies eventually catch up with him, though it looks like he may escape after all thanks to his aspirations as a joke writer and his love of free spirit Julie Christie, at her loveliest. Directed by John Schlesinger from Keith Waterhouse’s excellent script.
3. Green Mile
“We each owe a death – there are no exceptions – but sometimes the Green Mile seems so long.”
4. Big Fish
“I’m trying to make a metaphor here.”
5. Pan’s Labyrinth
“He would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning.”
6. Time Bandits
“I should do something very extrovert and vengeful to you. Honestly, I’m too tired. So, I think I’ll transfer you to the undergrowth department, brackens, shrubs, that sort of thing… with a 19% cut in salary, backdated to the beginning of time.”
7. Planet of the Apes
“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
8. Red Violin
“What do you do when the thing you most wanted, so perfect, just comes?”
9. It’s a Wonderful Life
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
10.Company of Wolves
“Never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.”
Gangster movies are much more than a genre. They give the movie-goer a chance to see life on the edge without ending up behind bars. Characters who are at the same time charismatic and reprehensible, dangerous yet compelling, tend to make for memorable movies, and very often there is a violin case, a mob or a heist not far away.
1. Road to Perdition
“There are only murderers in this room! Michael, open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
2. Sexy Beast
“No. No no no no no no no no no! No! No no no no no no no no no no no no no! No!”
3. Long Good Friday
“You don’t crucify people! Not on Good Friday!”
4. The Godfather
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”
“I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven.”
6. A Bronx Tale
“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
“Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.”
“Who? Who? What are you? A fucking owl?
9. Godfather II
“I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen”
10. Usual Suspects
“I’m telling you this guy is protected from up on high by the Prince of Darkness”.
Our comedy tastes could not be described as mainstream. Maybe Carol Burnett’s observation that “comedy is tragedy plus time” has something to do with it. Or perhaps it is just that the more off the wall a comedy is, the more true to life it seems, and the more we laugh.
1. Life of Brian
“What Jesus blatantly fails to appreciate is that it’s the meek who are the problem.”
2. The Front
“Fellas, I don’t recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kinda questions. And furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.”
3. Big Lebowski
“Look, let me explain something to you. I’m not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude.”
4. Bad Santa
“I said, “Next,” goddamn it! This is not the DMV!”
5. Waiting for Guffman
“People say, You must have been the class clown. And I say, No, I wasn’t. But I sat next to the class clown, and I studied him.”
6. Radio Days
“Boy, that was fast! Probably helped I had the hiccups.”