August 16, 2011

From zero to 60 ... Teresa's top films

by Teresa Peneguy Paprock

"Every single art form is involved in film, in a way." - Sydney Pollack
When our son, Christo, was filling out his college application, he needed to explain why he chose his field of study: film. “My parents are obsessed with films,” he wrote. “I have had to watch one almost every single day!”

Actually, that’s pretty accurate. Given that John-Brian and I are film buffs (and given that we don’t have cable and our TV reception sucks), we’ve found that we can depend on our local library system to round up just about any film we can ask for. Over the years we’ve watched favorites, old and new; the AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time, Academy Award winners, the Arts & Faith Top 100.

I like to point out that early-on, Christo learned the difference between a movie (example: “Hangover II”) and a film (example: “The Maltese Falcon”). Occasionally we spend our time (or money) on movies. But usually, we see films. And we take our films seriously, discussing them, debating them and dissecting them.

I can’t speak for John-Brian, but for me, films have taken on a kind of persona in my life. Films have flung me into all kinds of emotions; they’ve confused and astounded me; they’ve taught me to feel empathy for people I might detest in real life; they’ve transported my mind and heart to places and times far away. Occasionally, a film will stand me up – and I’ll want my $8 or two hours of life back! But for the most part, I’m glad that I’ve seen every film I’ve seen.

Tonight I happened to notice the Flixter app on Facebook. (Apparently, I started using it a couple of years ago and then forgot about it.) I have no desire to harass my Facebook friends by asking them to “rate our movie compatibility,” and I don’t want to get messages about every new release that comes out. But it gave me an easy way to list my Very Favorite Movies. And when I was done, I found out that I had sixty.


So much for ever being able to write a detailed review on every one! But I’m going to provide my list below – first my “Top Ten,” with a brief note about each, and then the remaining 50 in alphabetical order. And over the next few months I’ll review particular films (or genres) when the time is right. So grab some popcorn and a Coke, and enjoy!

TERESA'S TOP TEN FLICKS 1. Citizen Kane – I mean, duh.

2. The Decalogue – Actually a collection of 10 one-hour television films, this 1989 Polish masterpiece explores each of the Ten Commandments (without ever overtly mentioning God or religion), with all their ambiguity and paradox. For mature audiences.

3. The Corporation – This 2003 documentary tripped my trigger. I waked into the theater largely ignorant of corporate control of society; I walked out wanting to rip all the labels out of my clothes. Required viewing.

4. Crash – This stunning bit of cinema dares the viewer to ask himself questions about race – whatever race the viewer is, and however “tolerant” he imagines himself to be.

5. The Prestige – “Are you watching closely?” Two rival magicians become obsessed with out-doing each other in Victorian England. You don’t have to be a magic buff to wind up on the edge of your seat until the (literally) shattering ending. David Bowie makes a cameo as Nikola Tesla.

6. Donnie Darko (Director’s Cut) – Time travel is one thing, a plot that is a Mobius strip is another. Jake Gyllenhaal (pre-Brokeback) is perfect as the psychotic (?) teenager who must prevent the end of the world. Writer/director Richard Kelly denies the Christian symbolism, but there’s a lot of it.

7. Boogie Nights – This is not a porn movie, it’s a movie about porn – specifically, about the soul-crushing dehumanization of those in the “adult film” industry (during the comparatively innocent pre-AIDS era). Almost a Biblical parable, the film introduces Mark Wahlberg and celebrates Burt Reynolds.

8. There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson (who wrote and directed Boogie Nights above) does it again, this time with the Turn-of-the-Century oil rush. The lies and corruption started early. Daniel Day Lewis evolves from greedy businessman to evil incarnate. “I drink your milkshake” takes on an all new meaning.

9. The Sweet Hereafter – Armenian director Atom Egoyan (Ararat) had parents who literally named their son after the atom bomb, and Egoyan applies this energy to one of the most exquisitely deep and painful films I’ve ever seen. On the outside, it’s about a small Canadian community torn asunder by a horrible traffic accident; on the inside it’s about something else.

10. The Departed – Don’t blink – you’ll miss something in Martin Scorsese’s tale of double-, triple- and quadruple-crossing by Irish gangs in Boston. And how can you go wrong with Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg?

12 Angry Men (1957) – Ever wonder what goes on when the jury can’t agree?

12 Monkeys – Even though Cole (Bruce Willis) meets himself as a child (impossible in time travel!) I will always adore this film for its juxtaposition of science and theology.

A Beautiful Mind – The true (but liberally adapted) story of mathematician John Nash’s battle with schizophrenia.

A Serious Man – Oy, vei. The Coen Brothers (Fargo) bring us poor schmuck Larry Gopnik; as he goes from rabbi to rabbi in search of the meaning of life, we just might discover it with him.

American Beauty – A friend called this “The most perfect movie ever made.” One man’s midlife crisis and forbidden lust becomes a story of redemption.

Big – Tom Hanks truly turned into a little boy for this movie about an adolescent who accidentally wishes himself into a grown-up.

Capitalism: A Love Story – Thank you, Michael Moore – as if we weren’t disillusioned enough.

Cidade de Deus (City of God) – Breathtaking cinematography and breathtaking violence mingle in this story of a young man from the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

Cinema Paradiso – A little boy and an elderly movie projectionist form a permanent bond in Fascist Italy. Even if you don’t cry in movies, you will in this one.

Doctor Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb – “Gentlemen, you can’t fight here! This is the war room.”

Encounter Point – In this documentary, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in conflict join forces to end the bloodshed.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room – Confused about what happened at Enron? This documentary will paint you a picture.

Fahrenheit 9-11 – My husband knows me well enough that instead of buying me flowers for our anniversary one year, he got this DVD for me instead.

Fargo – It all comes down to the woodchipper.

Gangs of New York – Martin Scorsese brings the infamous Five Points area of 1860s Manhattan to life in this graphic but spellbinding tale of immigrant-on-immigrant violence. Anyone who believes that gangs are a new phenomenon needs to watch the film.

Good Night, and Good Luck. – Wisconsin’s own Sen. Joseph McCarthy is brought down by journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Inception – A dream within a dream within a dream. You might want to take notes.

Inside Job – The roots of The Great Recession can be traced back for years, but the giant crash of the financial industry in the fall of 2008 is explained here as easy as A-B-C. You might want to take a Xanax first.

JFK – Oliver Stone’s epic about the “investigation” into John F. Kennedy’s assassination has been duly ridiculed, but that doesn’t make his film any less compelling, nor does it answer many of the questions raised here.

Kill Bill 1, Kill Bill 2 – Quentin Tarantino originally wanted to release these as a single flick. They combine to tell one story, but where the first is fast-paced and hysterically funny, the second is more thoughtful and (could I say it?) sensitive. The violence is, frankly, so over-the-top as to be cartoonish, but if the sight of blood bothers you, stay away.

La Promesse – Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne bring us this powerful tale of a young hoodlum forced, by circumstance, to do the right thing.

Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) (1943) – How is this simple story of a man and his son searching for a stolen bicycle so riveting? I don’t know; it just is.

L'Enfant – Another masterpiece by the Belgian Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne brothers, this film is hard to watch but ultimately rewarding as it asks the question, who is a mother?

Lord of War – Who else but Nicholas Cage could play an international arms dealer and make you feel sympathy for him?

Magnolia – Three hours long, Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic about the effects of child abuse and the daily lives of a circle of people in Los Angeles will either mesmerize you or put you to sleep. People either give this film four stars or none – nothing in between.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) – “I’m Walking Here!” The first (and only) ‘X’-rated film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Vogt are amazing in this still-shocking tale of male prostitution. (PS. It’s rated ‘R’ now.)

Minority Report – What if they could arrest people BEFORE they commit a crime? Don’t worry if you don’t like Tom Cruise; the story can take it.

Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light) (1963) Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed this incredibly powerful little film about a Swedish pastor who questions his faith.

Pi – Kabbalah on steroids, way before Madonna.

Promises – This documentary follows two groups of children, one Palestinian and one Israeli, as they learn about each other and grow to love and respect one another.

Pulp Fiction – Is a foot massage the same as sex? And what is a Quarter Pounder called in France? Even after all these years, Quentin Tarantino’s best film (IMHO) is not for the squeamish – but it’s got the best dialogue written for any film, ever. Hands down.

Requiem for a Dream - Darren Aronofsky was the guy who brought you Pi. Now he brings you drugs, drugs, drugs – of all kinds: uppers and downers, legal and prescription. The single most terrifying (and yet realistic) portrayal of addiction I’ve ever seen in cinema. You won’t want to even pop an aspirin afterward.

Schindler's List – Seinfeld jokes aside, this film about the Holocaust – and how one man risked everything to let a number of Jews to survive – should be seen by everyone on the planet.

Screamers – The Armenian rock band System of a Down sounds pretty damned angry. When you watch their documentary about the Armenian Genocide (1915), you’ll be pretty damned angry too. Graphic.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) – She’s ready for her close-up now. This film about Hollywood’s dark underbelly scandalized many, and it’s creepy in a really good sort of way.

Talk to Me – Why did this movie receive NO Oscar nominations? Don Cheadle portrays Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, a radio personality who spoke for the African-Americans during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

The Best Days of Our Lives (1946) – After serving their country in WWII, several vets return to the States to face an all-new set of trials.

The Big Lebowski – The Dude abides.

The Fog of War – Still think that war can solve problems? If anyone would know, it would be Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense. And shortly before his death, he answered that question in this riveting documentary.

The Third Man (1949) – Orson Welles was supposedly a pain in the patootey during the filming of this film noir, but who cares? It’s Orson Welles.

Thirteen Days – Do you really want to know how close we came to nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Three Kings – This is not your father’s war movie. As the first Gulf War is ending, a group of soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze) set out to do some stealin’ – and wind up with more than they bargained for.

To End All Wars – The true story of a group of Allied POWs who are tortured by the Japanese during World War II. Graphic, but worth watching for a very surprise ending.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Absolutely the best book-to-film adaptation ever. Ever, ever, ever.

Traffic – Those who but clothes at Wal-Mart might be disturbed by a documentary about the sweatshops the clothes came from. Those who buy illegal recreational drugs might be interested in this drama about where cocaine and heroin come from.

Why We Fight – War is messy, ugly and expensive. So why do we do it? This documentary examines the United States’ war machine’s hold on our foreign policy and our daily lives. With Gore Vidal.

Winter’s Bone
– Filmed in the isolated, rural poverty of the Ozarks, this film follows its young heroine as she searches for her meth-cooking father in an attempt to save her family’s home. A devastating look at the illegal drug trade and the plight of many poor Americans.

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward – What is capitalism? What is its logical end? Would it ever be possible to have a society without money? Somewhat long, sometimes bizarre, Moving Forward manages to ask (and answer) these tantalizing questions. (
The film is available to view here - at no charge, of course!)

Zodiac – If the Zodiac killer is still alive, I wonder what he thinks of this movie about him? I thought it was excellent – especially since it’s very suspenseful even though you already know that the killer has never been found.


  1. What do I think? I think you've made some fine choices here, as well as some odd ones I would probably argue against. Perhaps reading your blog will cast new light on films I've already seen. Except for the Bergman, which I passionately loathe.

  2. What? No Marx Brothers???