Talking about movies has been one of the few constants in my life - as most people who have ever shared a beer with me will probably already know. After all, what's not to love? Great movies force us to walk a million miles in someone's else shoes without ever even leaving our seats. They ask for our absolute trust and undivided attention. They are more then entertainment products - they are byte-sized dreams, brought into life by thousands of people working together in an industry that's essentially superfluous and yet so important for our modern world.
Without further ado, here's the first ten out of the best 25 movies I've stumbled upon in my 25 years of watching, in no particular order.
The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix's universe revolves around an incredibly simple premise: that the world we live in is just a computer simulation run by sentient machines. This single idea, as it turns out, was able to sustain a brilliant opening movie, followed by two sequels, a ground-breaking video game, a series of amazing animated shorts and countless other products over more than a decade; showing once again that it's the execution - not the idea - that matters.
And what an execution. The Matrix begins in media res with one of the best opening titles ever, setting the scene for a 150-minutes roller-coaster of incredible performances propped up by an endless array of visual effects that still hold up today, Don Davis' brilliant atonal soundtrack, and an impressive world-building that spans far beyond the border of this masterpiece. Almost 20 years from its original release date, The Matrix's sheer brilliance hasn't dimmed a bit.
Known Faces: Carrie-Anne Moss (Chocolat, Memento), Keanu Reeves (John Wick, A Scanner Darkly), Laurence Fishburne (Apocalypse Now, Mystic River)
After this watch: The Animatrix, Ghost in the Shell
Surf’s Up (2007)
Another animated gem, Surf's Up was Sony Picture Imageworks' final masterpiece before turning into a sequel factory, and boy - it is a perfect farewell and a brilliant movie to boot.
Despite featuring only digitally animated characters, Surf's Up is structured as a mockumentary chronicling the antics of Cody Maverick and his friends Lani, Chicken Joe and Geek as they take part in the yearly Big Z Memorial surfing contest.
Surf's Up was clearly a labour of love for everyone involved - and it shows. All the jokes are on point, the art direction is absolutely brilliant, and the ocean really comes alive in both wide and close-up shots. It's a movie with a big heart, that too often gets relegated to the 'this-ain't-Disney' bargain bin of animated movies, where it absolutely does not belong. At just 85 minutes of runtime, it's light and perfect both to watch with your family or with friends before heading out. So good!
Movies this movie is not: Happy Feet
Memento was Chris Nolan's first "studio" film before going on to direct Inception, The Dark Knight and Interstellar just to name a few. With such a director at its helm, this is most definitely one of the most stylish movies in this list - but it's the story that really carries it to its incredible heights.
Memento follows Leonard, a man who's lost everything he loves and is now looking for revenge - a task which is complicated by the fact he suffers from crippling bouts of amnesia. So both Leonard and the viewer have to piece together what actually happens during the film from a very strong array of amazing storytelling techniques, including the Polaroids shown above.
To say anything more about the story would risk spoiling one of the many twist and turns; and indeed, Memento is a movie that is very easily spoiled. Do not Wikipedia or IMDB it: just go in blind, and strap in: it's going to be a wild ride
Known Faces: Carrie-Anne Moss (again!), Guy Pearce (The Count of Monte Cristo, Breathe In), and written by Jonathan Nolan (WESTWORLD!)
After this watch: The Prestige, Inception
Mr. Nobody (2009)
Mr. Nobody is a 35 million euro epic that flopped at the box office and received, at best, lukewarm reviews. And rightly so, for this is a too-clever-by-half movie, featuring overwrought performances from both Jared Leto and Diane Kruger and an ending that is both ridiculous and deeply unsatisfying. The first time I saw Mr. Nobody, I hated it.
But this movie grows on you. The script is actually pretty good, and on a second viewing all the possible paths and ideas presented really start coming to life. It is basically a movie about choices - small choices that change one's life forever, and big choices that shape the future of everyone around us.
And the way these choices are presented is why Mr. Nobody deserves a place in this list. As the director's camera pans back and forth, following the life, present, past and future adventures of Leto's Nemo Nobody, you really start to wonder about your own choices, and how your life might have changed had you taken a different turn. Horatio once said: "if you change the names, this story is about you". And this is, in a nutshell, what makes Mr. Nobody so great.
Watch this: with beer, with weed, with nobody else, with a notebook to keep track of all possible futures, with aspirins for your head
Do not watch this: if you hate smarty-pants movies, if you hate cringe-worthy dialogue, if you hate Jared Leto
After this play: Bioshock Infinite (also about choices, and the perfect companion to Mr. Nobody. And with a much better script to boot.)
Golden Door — Nuovomondo (2006)
Nuovomondo (New World), chronicles the journey of a group of ragtag migrants from Southern Italy to the United States in the early 20th century, and their tribulations once they get there. A fun road trip movie this is not; but it's not a straight drama either: rather, this is a brilliant visual experience with a slew of emotional moments that deliver some surprisingly actual and sharp social commentary.
The cast, made up mostly by unknown and first-time actors, is spot on and absolutely believable. Charlotte Gainsbourg delivers one of the best performances of her career as Lucy, a single Irish woman trying to get to the US as well. But it's the dialogue - delivered mainly in Sicilian dialect - that is the real star here, carrying the movie well above its peers as one of the best 'migration' movies ever made.
Indeed, amongst all the laughter and brilliant moments, the beautiful visual inventions and masterful performances, Nuovomondo was and still remains a movie with a deep message. What this message exactly means will depend on your personal and political sensibilities. But whatever your affiliations are, do prepare a bucket to catch your tears during the ending sequence. An absolute masterpiece, and a definite must watch.
Bonus: where does the title come from?
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Can there be a 'best movies' list without Robin Williams? Obviously not. But What Dreams May Come is usually not the to-go choice: it is, after all, one of the lesser known movies in Williams' career.
And yet, it's great. Robin Williams plays Chris Nielsen, a successful pediatrician with a loving wife and two beautiful children. But in the opening minutes of the movie, destiny delivers a double blow to the Nielsen family, and Chris finds himself in a very unexpected place.
To say more would be spoiling a movie that has a surprising amount of plot twists, some great character development, and is held together by some of the best art direction and visual effects ever. What Dreams May Come is a bittersweet movie - a modern version of the Divine Comedy with plenty of heart and an incredible amount of feel-good and emotional sequences that will leave you both laughing and crying at the same time. An absolute triumph, an ode to love, life and, interestingly, death. Strongly recommended!
Watch this: with your girlfriend, your family, your dog. Hug them afterwards.
Do not watch this: if you're a cold, emotionless robot
In 1944, a team of disillusioned veterans from inside Nazi Germany devised a plan to kill Hitler. Called Operation Valkyrie, it would have stopped the war a year early and definitely changed the face of Europe as we know it. Featuring Tom Cruise as Claus Von Stauffenberg, and a star-studded cast as his co-conspirators, Valkyrie is the movie chronicling their plan and its ultimate demise.
Indeed, this is an historical movie, meaning the ending has already been written, and it's not a happy one: but despite this structural spoiler, Valkyrie manages to be an amazingly suspenseful thriller with some incredibly tense sequences, a few outstanding performances (notably by Kenneth Branagh and Carice Van Houten), and noteworthy editing, photography and sound design.
More than an action thriller, Valkyrie is a psychological study on normal men and women who decide to stand up to power. And to this regard, it is a resounding success: that's why, even knowing exactly how the story ends, we just can't stop watching. Just don't go in looking for an happy ending - for history rarely ends with an 'happily ever after'.
If you wanted an happier ending watch: Inglorious Basterds
If you wanted an even bleaker ending watch: The Man In The High Castle
Her is a movie that looks cringe-worthy on paper, and yet manages to completely defy expectations as one of the most memorable films of the last decade. Most of the credit for this can easily be ascribed to Joaquin Phoenix, who delivers an amazing performance as Theodor Twombly - an introverted, lonely writer going through a difficult divorce. To cope with this difficult circumstances, Theodor buys a talking Operative System, a personal assistant not unlike today's Siri or Alexa, which he names Samantha.
Throughout the course of the movie Theodore and Samantha end up falling in love with each other. Their relationship is unlike anything else the viewer can experience today - after all, Phoenix's character is a person, whereas Samantha, masterfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is nothing more than a computer.
And yet, Her is one of the best love stories ever written, period. Despite treading on very thin ice, director Spike Jonze manages to create some of the deepest movie characters ever, and ultimately succeeds in delivering an incredibly human story in the age of computers. Relationships in Her are as beautiful and messy as they come, and the end will leave you crying and smiling at the same time. There are few movies that capture love as it really is. Her is one of those.
Known Faces: Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, Walk The Line), Amy Adams (Arrival, Nocturnal Animals), Chris Pratt (Guardians Of The Galaxy), Olivia Wilde (Life Itself, Meadowland), Rooney Mara (Carol, Side Effects, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), Scarlett Johansson (Lost In Translation, Don Jon, The Other Boleyn Girl, Match Point)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination basically ends with the title - as James is, indeed, assassinated by the Coward Robert Ford. What really makes this a magnificent western, an amazing character study and a slow-burning thriller all at the same time, then, is the journey up to this point. Brad Pitt's performance as brooding outlaw Jesse James is absolutely stunning, and Casey Affleck's troubled characterization of the Coward Robert Ford is enough to carry the movie throughout its epic 160 minutes runtime.
The greatest part of The Assassination, however, is Nick Cave's soundtrack. An absolute stunner, which blends in perfectly with the amazing photography and art direction. If you're not up for 2 hours and a half of slow-burning western pleasure, at least do give the soundtrack a listen. Just like the movie, it's absolutely worth your time.
Force Majeure (2014)
In Force Majeure, family father and busy executive Tomas goes on a relaxing holiday with his wife Ebba and children Vera and Harry. As they are sitting on a terrace overlooking the beautiful snow-capped mountains of the Jura, however, a controlled avalanche hits the hotel's deck. In the ensuing chaos, Ebba stays with the kids, whereas Tomas panics and runs away, leaving his family behind. The avalanche turns out to be harmless; Tomas' actions, instead, less so.
Force Majeure is a tragicomic movie that treads on very fine ice with its premise. It explores gender roles and traditional family roles, but also guilt, expectations and the way we feel society looks at and perceives us. And it manages to do so with unexpected brilliance and having lots of fun along the way.
But most of all, Force Majeure's characters succeed in emphatically asking the viewer: "what would you do in my shoes?". Unlike many similar pieces, then, Force Majeure allows the viewer to really feel the weight of his or her choices, instead of simply judging the characters as an external observer. After all, there's a little bit of Tomas in all of us.
After this watch: The Square, Carnage
Did you enjoy this article? read also the second part in the series, as well as the conclusion to help plan your next movie night!