Joel Poehlmann’s Top Ten Movies of All Time

listThe internet is awash with lists, many of them headlined with useless hyperbole in their titles, as if the cover of a Cosmopolitan magazine discovered a way to go Agent Smith and started infecting the web with an endless supply of sentient copies.

Top 10 Secrets Women Wish Men KnewNumber 4 Will Blow Your Mind! (I’ll decide what blows my mind, thank you very much), 5 Things Only 90’s Kids Will Remember (as if anyone born prior to 1990 suddenly lost the ability to form memories), 12 Times James Franco Was Totally The Cutest Thing Ever (because this is what happens when you let a 19-year-old who took a journalism class once in summer school write for an internet publication). Log onto any popular website or social media page and you’ll invariably find a link to an article like this.

So what’s my solution? To make a list of my own, of course, but this isn’t going to have any pandering or useless rhetoric in the title. We’re keeping it simple. And as you may have surmised from the get-go, this is a definitive list of my top 10 ten movies of all time. There has been considerable time and effort spent into ranking all of these entries, so this isn’t a careless endeavor; it’s serious business! Now, it’s important to note, this is a list of movies that changed me. My perception and appreciation of film as a medium deepened after I saw these movies and they are ranked both on how much I enjoy them and how they’ve influenced me. These movies defined my passion and love for the art of storytelling. They shaped my creative drive and interests that lead me to pursue (arguably foolishly) a career in film. We can save the arguments for what films belong in the universal lexicon for another time. This is my list.

This is a topic that’s been on my mind for some time. It’s a fun party or first date conversation. Too often, you’ll ask someone to list their top movies and they’ll start rambling or tell you they can’t decide. Well I’m not going to be indecisive, so we’re going to settle it right now. Let’s start from 10 and work our way down.

10) The Matrix
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In 1999, the entire world was anticipating a huge summer blockbuster, a movie that was going to be the sci-fi hit of the year. It was going to change everything. It was a big freaking deal. That movie was supposed to be Star Wars Episode I, and what an utter disappointment that turned out to be (check out my previous entry for my thoughts on the subject). The sci-fi hit that changed everything was a curiously marketed movie that told you nothing. We had no idea what it was or what it would become. It was the Matrix, and hot damn, it was incredible. I walked out of the theater thinking I could fly. I was mesmerized by the kung fu fight choreography and slow motion gun shootouts. Not knowing anything about the movie except the buzz that it was amazingly good, I went into it with zero expectations. As the movie progressed, I got more and more excited, because it was everything I wanted in an action movie. I was so inspired by the fight scenes that I began training in kung fu and now, after years of training, I’ve earned my black belt. This movie drove me to seek out a martial art that has enriched my life. It’s also one of the best shot, high concept movies ever made. This isn’t hyperbole, this is fact. Ignore the sequels that could never live up to the original even if they were good. This movie, on its own, was a game changer and studios have been copying its style ever since.

9) Casino Royale
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This is a fairly recent film, but one that was very influential for me. This was the hardest entry on the list, specifically because of the other movies it beat out. I’ve always loved the character of James Bond. The idea of a rugged spy who travels the world doing what’s necessary for queen and country has always had a romantic allure. Martin Cambell shoots the action with a perfect frame, which is important. Action can easily fall into the pratfall of quick cuts and shaky cam, but with the right director, you can have amazing camera work that not only follows the action, but enhances it. Casino Royale took all of these elements and added something that Bond was always lacking, but I never realized it: vulnerability. Bond is a superhero, sure, but in Royale, he can be hurt. He opens up emotionally for what could possibly be the first time in his life, and he’s betrayed. He’s beaten and tested the entire film. It grounds the character in a way that had never been done and gives it a gritty, realistic quality that elevated it to another level. The locales in this movie were one of the standouts, certain shots made me exclaim “where is that?”, and led me to seek out the locations and travel internationally for the first time. This movie gave me a desire to travel the world, taught me great style tips (I base all of my suits off of Bond’s wardrobe), and is a perfect example of how to reboot a franchise that’s fallen victim to predictability and cartoonish excessiveness. When a movie is both enjoyable and has an effect on what you do in life, it’s something special.

8) Lawrence of Arabia

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In the summer of 1998, my parents took me to a screening at the AFI Film Festival. Lawrence of Arabia was showing at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. I’d seen parts of Lawrence on tv at home when my Dad watched it on a widescreen VHS tape. This was one of the first movies I’d seen in letterbox format and it immediately gave the movie a sophisticated look. The wide angle frame made it an event, something to really pay attention to, opposed to something that was on television that you could interrupt or switch back and forth between. I wasn’t prepared to see Lawrence in full 70mm on a panoramic screen with surround sound. The movie captivated me. The score, the images, the acting, the editing; it was iconic. This was a film, not a movie, and one that I appreciated even more knowing that there was no computer technology to assist with the massive shots they accomplished. Some shots were so grandiose that I actually gasped, which is the first time I remember doing that in a theater in appreciation of the beauty of it. It’s a testament to a classic style of filmmaking that I’ve always tried to incorporate into my projects. It’s also arguably the most dynamic screen debut of an actor ever. Peter O’ Toole is magnetic in every scene and I was engrossed by his performance.

7) Singing in the Rain

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This is the best musical I’ve ever seen. It’s got great music, incredible dance sequences and choreography, it’s a love letter to Hollywood, and a great comedy. This movie does everything. Gene Kelly was an idol of mine as a kid and I wanted to dance like he did. There was never a negative connotation associated with dance for me, that it was less masculine, because watching Gene do it, it was athletic and exciting. It was something I wanted to do. It was my love of this movie that prompted my mother to put me in a rhythm tap class when I was 11 and I ended up studying dance for 18 years. Dance is one of my biggest passions and I owe it all to this movie. This movie also embodies the romanticism of movie making. Being on a studio lot and walking on a sound stage feel like coming home to me and Singing in the Rain captures this sensation perfectly. Movies are special, they’re an amazing medium of storytelling, and this musical celebrates that.

6) What’s Up Doc?

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Hands down, beat for beat, the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. You can cite tons of other comedies and I’ll still think this movie is funnier. It’s so witty, fun, and silly. It has hilarious performances (including a fantastic ensemble of character actors from the 70’s), terrific pacing, and will keep you laughing throughout. To this day I can quote a single line from a variety of scenes from this movie and crack up my family. That’s the mark of a great comedy. I get that humor can be subjective, but this movie has so much going for it. The dialogue is fantastic, the car chase that ends the second act is one of the funniest things filmed on camera, and there’s a genuine heart to the story. I know raunchy comedies are the rage right now, and that’s fine, but I think this type of comedy is much more difficult to write and pull off. This is the movie that I aspire to when I’m trying to write funny material. They set bar so high. Just writing about it now is making me smile. It’s a movie I want to share with anyone I meet who hasn’t seen it, and no matter how many times I watch it, I still laugh.

5) Alien

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This movie is dripping with atmosphere. It’s the perfect example of the slow burn. Alien is so intense, the first time I saw it, it was on broadcast television, it had commercials, and it was during the day, and I was still scared. I was curled up on my couch, waiting to see how it played out, mesmerized. This is how you do horror. What I love about this movie is it takes 45 minutes for anything to really get going. Up until then, it’s all character development and world building. It’s very much like a novel, setting up the key pieces, and then boom, the action starts and it’s one thing after another. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is wonderfully minimalist and creepy. I got the opportunity to see this in the theater when it was re-released for the director’s cut, but this is one of the few films where I prefer the theatrical cut. Either way, it’s scary as hell, plus it has one of the best movie tag lines ever written: In space no one can hear you scream.

4) Die Hard

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What’s interesting is my first introduction to the series was the 3rd movie, Die Hard With A Vengeance. Bruce Willis’ performance as John McClane is what sold me. He’s not a super cop. He’s just a guy, down on his luck, blue collar, not in the best shape, but when push comes to shove, he figures things out and gets the job done. It’s easy to root for someone like that. I’m also a lover of the action genre and Die Hard mixes gritty realism with elements of the fantastic that make it fun and exciting. I wanted to see the other movies and that’s when I saw the first one. I bought a special widescreen boxed set on VHS and watched it alone. Now, I was 16 at the time, and late to the party. My parents were really strict when I was younger about what I was allowed to watch, but in a way, I’m glad I discovered this movie when I was a teenager. The action in Die Hard is sophisticated. Everything comes as a result of something that happened earlier. It’s organic. Top that off with great performances and a sharp script with one liners that are legitimately funny and not cliche and you’ve got something special. This was a break out movie for Bruce Willis, and he deserves it, playing one of the coolest, wisecracking heroes that was a welcome break from the super buff, he-men action stars that dominated the 80’s. Alan Rickman, as the villain Hans Grueber, owns the screen in his amazing film debut. He’s got an elegance and sense of humor that is deceptively engaging, and yet, he’s a selfish killer. It’s thoroughly entertaining. Die Hard is known for being so good that it started it’s own genre: Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a plane (Air Force One), etc., and that’s a testament of how well structured the writing is. This is what an action movie should be.

3) The Empire Strikes Back

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It’s been said that Empire isn’t just one of the best sequels ever made, it’s one of the best movies period, and that couldn’t be more true. This movie is a master class in character development, managing branching story lines, and building to a climax. All of it works brilliantly. The original Star Wars trilogy are more than movies; they’re a universe that envelopes you, and Empire is the stand out. John Williams composes his best work of the series with new and memorable themes as well as scoring the action sequences with a rousing and adventurous flair. It’s a movie that furthered the evolution of visual effects, as ILM pushed the boundary far beyond anything they’d done in Star Wars. Frank Oz’s performance as Yoda is incredible, but it’s Mark Hamill’s acting that made it all real. Luke grows so much in this movie and his interaction with Yoda is a turning point for his character. If Luke doesn’t seem like he believes that Yoda is real, the audience won’t either. It’s such a difficult task as a performer, playing real emotions against a puppet, and it’s a credit to the artistry of everyone involved that it’s so effective. Vader is an imposing threat, and it’s so much more menacing when you don’t know his back story and you only have bits and pieces of information about who he is and why he’s so evil. This is the biggest fault of the prequels, taking one of the most iconic villains of all time and ruining the mystique behind him. Another thing that Empire does so well is that it takes the coolest character of the series, Han Solo, and puts him front and center. Empire is just as much Han’s movie as it is Luke’s, and the roguish scoundrel (“Who’s scruffy looking?”) is one of Harrison Ford’s best performances. This is how you advance a story.

2) Vertigo

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In 1996, Vertigo was restored and released theatrically. My Dad took me to see it at a single screen theater in Westwood. I’d never seen Vertigo, but was a huge fan of Hitchcock’s films. I knew nothing about the movie. In fact, I was expecting something along the lines of North by Northwest. The movie sure started out that way, with a gunfight chase across a rooftop in San Francisco, but oh man, I was not prepared for what followed: a haunting, gorgeous noir about love and obsession. The music is beautifully sinister and the opening title sequence puts you on edge. This is Jimmy Stewart’s best performance and it’s a shame that the movie wasn’t well received when it was initially released, because it’s the last time he worked with Hitchcock. Vertigo was famously a flop when it came out, but often times we don’t appreciate incredible works of art until much later. This movie was truly ahead of its time. It’s Hitchcock’s best work as the elegance and truly dark aspects of the movie set it apart. When it ended and the Paramount logo came up on the screen, I was crying. I wasn’t sad; I was overwhelmed. Movies didn’t end like that, especially in the late 50’s. The artistry on display and how it came together showed me the true difference between a movie and a film. I’d just seen something incredible and I left the theater a different person than when I had entered it.

1) Raiders of the Lost Ark

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I first saw this movie at home when I was 12. Movie nights were a regular occurrence in our house and I remember how excited my Dad was because he’d bought a new copy of Raiders and was anxious to share it with me. No other movie has had such a significant impact on my life. Watching Raiders was a defining moment. Up until that point, I enjoyed performing and watching movies, but there was no structure to it. It was just something I did, like playing video games, or running track. Indiana Jones changed all of that. I knew right then what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make movies. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to create something that would have a profound impact on someone else, the way that Raiders had on me. Everything clicked. There is no weak link in this movie. It’s a rousing adventure. Harrison Ford establishes himself as a rugged and charming action hero, and this movie understandably elevated him to true movie star status. It’s my favorite Spielberg movie, a movie he’d been working toward, as there’s a kinetic pulse to the filmmaking that drives the action. I’ve seen it so many times, I’ve lost count. I probably have the whole thing memorized, and yet, every time I watch it, I’m that 12 year old boy again, staring wide eyed at the screen, falling in love, knowing that there’s nothing else that I want to do. This movie is the reason I love action and genre films. This movie is the reason I appreciate great editing and sound design (the shootout in the bar in Nepal is a perfect example of both); it laid the groundwork for my future and set me down a path that I’m still traveling today. It’s an extraordinary piece of cinema.