Top 10 Engaging Movies of All-Time

This isn’t as cut and dry as my previous list, The Top 10 Comedies of All-Time, but it makes sense, if you bear with me. The idea behind this list is that certain movies grab you, right from the start, and don’t let go until the end. When I’m in a movie like this, I’ve often had the realization that I’ve been completely lost in the movie for an hour. Afterwards, I feel like I’ve woken up from a dream of sorts.

Another signal that a movie belongs in this category is when it lingers in my mind long after I’ve seen it; I want to discuss it with my friends and wife, or it keeps me up while I’m trying to sleep.

These movies aren’t always my favorites; in fact, some of them I’m not sure I even like that much. The thing that they all have in common is their ability to spark an emotional response of some sort in me. The emotion isn’t always consistent. That is to say, they’re not all sad movies or something. But they all change my mood in some way when I see them.

10 – Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky

I had a really tough time deciding which Darren Aronofsky film I’d pick for this list. All of his movies, from Pi to The Wrestler and everyone in-between, are engrossing. But none of them made me ponder their meaning and importance more than Black Swan. Frankly, I don’t think I even like it. But I can’t stop thinking about it. Natalie Portman is incredible, and Aronofsky’s tone is so confrontational that I felt like I could never really settle in. I couldn’t wait for the movie to end, just so the tension would be relieved, and poor Natalie could be put out of her misery.

9 – Lost in Translation

Director: Sofia Coppola

Bill Murray has mastered the art of the mopey, regretful, ironically funny older gentleman. Nowhere is it on better display than here. Sure, he was great in Rushmore and The Life Aquatic (which I’ll get to down the list), but this is his crowning melancholy moment. Sofia Coppola and Murray were born to work together, between her “mood as plot” directing style and his latter-day tendency to choose these kinds of roles. I realize that the above sentences don’t sound like a glowing review, but I don’t mean them negatively. I think that Coppola largely succeeds with her films because of her commitment to her subtle aesthetic. Even Somewhere, which was by no means a great movie, skated by on its style.

But here, in this movie, Coppola combines her ever-present theme of personal drift with an intriguing idea: that two people could find each other without knowing they were looking. The blossoming friendship between Murray and Scarlett Johanssen’s characters felt organic and compellling, and the kiss they shared at the end seem like exactly enough. They met, they connected, they parted, and it meant something to them.

8 – Boys Don’t Cry

Director: Kimberly Peirce

I have seen Boys Don’t Cry twice, which is exactly one time more than I should have seen it. This is one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen, on par with American History X. It’s bizarre, with this movie, because I knew going into it exactly how it would end. Most of us did, as it was based on a notorious true story. Yet, as the movie went along, a sense of dread and “what is going to happen” built up, thanks to great storytelling. It’s like a balloon slowly inflating. You know it’s going to pop at some point, but you don’t know when, and the tension is unbearable.

7 – Quiz Show

Director: Robert Redford

This movie does what Boys Don’t Cry did, but in a more sympathetic way. Robert Redford does a masterful job in Quiz Show of bringing us three compelling characters destined to collide at the end of the movie. Charles Van Doren did a really shady thing, and is by no means an admirable person, but as portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, he’s way more sympathetic than he has any right to be. You can kind of see why: he’s living in the shadow of his father and needs validation as his own man. It’s a credit to Fiennes and Redford that you don’t necessarily want this to end badly for Van Doren, even though you know it must.

The other two characters I mentioned are Dick Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow) and Herbert Stempel (played by John Turturro), who for their faults, were still likeable in their own way. Well, maybe not Stempel, but you understood why he was so angry. It’s tough to watch almost at the end, when the three men collide at the Congressional hearing. You don’t really want anyone to lose, even though everyone kind of does.

6 – The Life Aquatic

Director: Wes Anderson

Yeah, I know, I’m a sucker for Wes Anderson. Sue me.

This was, I believe, his first movie without Owen Wilson as a co-writer, and the loss of his comic voice was notable. Although I still think this movie is quite funny in parts, Anderson’s diminished desire to make us laugh allows him to explore his characters’ existential dilemmas in a more meaningful way than in his previous films.

When -spoiler alert (I felt like I had to put that in for your film nerd types) – Ned dies near the end, Anderson has earned our sorrow. The development of both Ned and Steve as complex people who need each other to fill a void feels real; you can feel the moment Steve deflates and accepts Ned as his son, not just in name, but as a part of him. Likewise, Ned’s eagerness to have a real father, even a terrible one like Steve, feels real. Owen Wilson’s performance in this movie alone makes me hopeful he’ll find his way out of the comedy gutter he’s in and attempt something more meaningful again.

5 – Saving Private Ryan

Director: Steven Speilberg

Saving Private Ryan was a revelation to me for two reasons. First, as most people realized, it was an incredible movie, and its famous opening fight sequence was a heart-stopper. Secondly, it made me realize that war films could have real value, if they made the soldiers real people instead of one-dimensional plot elements. This movie illustrated to me that the soldiers who served in WWII were not always old men, but were once young people who had a lot in common with me. I am writing this from my own experience, not as an objective statement, and when this movie came out, I had yet to see an emotionally engaging war movie. I know that there are exceptions from before this movie, but I had not seen them. So it was genuinely surprising and emotionally engaging for me to see these characters as real people and not archetypical “brave” soldiers. They were brave, certainly, but that wasn’t their only characteristic.

This movie spawned the Band of Brother miniseries, which, to me, is even better. However, since this is a movie list, Saving Private Ryan gets the nod.

4 – The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan

We saw The Dark Knight in the theater, along with another couple, Tyson and Corinne. After sitting in a completely silent, enraptured movie theater (and how often does that happen? No idiots on cell phones? No crying babies?), we retreated to Stanford’s for late-night happy hour and a chance to talk. Instead of catching up on our lives and other boring stuff, we annoyed the living crap out of our server by discussing every moment of the film in great detail.

Obviously, Heath Ledger is the star, and captures every eye when he’s onscreen, but it’s fantastic for so many other reasons. I’ve been a huge Nolan fan since Memento, and nowhere is he in greater control of mood and pace than here. I have often railed against Meet the Parents as a shrill, one-note comedy, one that makes the viewer tense without ever releasing the tension. If it were funny, it might have done that, but it wasn’t. What I’m getting at here is that The Dark Knight does the exact thing. However, instead of waiting for a punchline that never comes, I draw further and further into the movie until the end, only then exhaling and trying to piece together what I have just seen.

3 – City of God

Director: Fernando Meirelles

Partially due to its all-unknown cast, but mostly because of incredible filmmaking, this movie made me forget, almost instantly, that it was in fact a work of fiction; I had to remind myself at the end of the film that these crazy Brazilian kids were actors. The film was shot in a shaky, documentary-style fashion, necessitated I’m sure by budgetary concerns, but also a desire by director Fernando Meirelles to make as gritty a film as possible. We would see a similar, gripping cinematic flair in Meirelles’s next film, The Constant Gardener, which almost made me cry, and almost made this list.

2 – V for Vendetta

Director: The Wachowski Brothers

Is this a perfect movie? No. Does it completely envelope you? Yes. For me anyway.

The first time I watched this movie was at my friend Stanley’s house, on DVD, a long time ago. He was my only friend at the time with a bigscreen HDTV (ah, the olden days…) and surround sound. As I often do when watching a movie, I was drinking a beer. At some point, I had drank all the beer, and was physically unable to get up and get another. If that’s not powerful anecdotal evidence, I don’t know what is.

As for the movie itself, it hits all the right notes. It’s dark and intense, mysterious and suspenseful. The sequence where Natalie Portman’s character is imprisoned is just wrenching, and beautifully done. The cinematography is just gorgeous, and it nicely grounds the fantastic elements of the story with (relatively) realistic moments and sets.

I think anyone can relate to the theme of governmental control and fear of fascism, and I think it plays it just right. Obviously, there are a lot of parallels between this movie and our current Patriot Act era, but I’ll leave that to you to discuss among yourselves. I find it amazing that the filmmakers force us in the end to root for a man who in any, ANY, circumstance would rightly be considered a terrorist. A quick aside – the people who wrote the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot realize that Mel’s character was not, in fact, a patriot, right? I mean, he’s leading a rebellion, and the U.S. hadn’t even formed yet. To whom exactly is he patriotic? I mean, really, he’s a lawbreaker and terrorist against the government. Sure, he ended up on the right side, but still.

1 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director: Michel Gondry

I think that anyone who has had their heart broken can relate to this movie, as I did. Sure, it was a long time ago, since Marisa and I have been together for a long time, but I still remember what it feels like. I think it’s amazing that while the movie centers around this crazy technology that lets people into your head, the movie is still just about how these characters feel about one another.

I also like the idea of memory as partial, or incomplete. We remember the most important parts of our lives, and the details wash away. Christopher Nolan got at this idea in Inception. He was talking about dreams, and how our minds forgive the nonsensical or unrealistic elements of our dreams and accept them as reality. I think we do the same with memories. We forgive and forget the parts that we don’t like to create an ideal moment that we can reflect on lovingly later on.

I think that Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman also do a good job at showing the small cracks that break up couples. I’d say most failed relationships stem from a series of small slights, not a momentous betrayal, like a cheating spouse. When you’ve broken up with someone, it’s often tough to point to one moment as THE moment it happened; rather, the breakup started a long time ago when the couple started taking each other for granted, as Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet do in Eternal Sushine of the Spotless Mind.

Honorable Mention

The Constant Gardener
Requiem For a Dream
Fight Club
Sin City
Being John Malkovich
American History X
Rosemary’s Baby