When someone asks you what your favourite films are, often the mind can go entirely blank. Having been asked this question more times than I can remember, I know that feeling all too well. However, a shortlist has been gestating in my head for a while now and today I reveal it for public scrutiny and (likely) ridicule.
In order for a film to be considered for this list, I must have watched it at least three times. There are hundreds of movies out there that I have thoroughly enjoyed the first time round, but never returned to for a second look. It is my strong belief that to be considered a favourite, multiple viewings are an absolute necessity. If you still show apparent enthusiasm for a film after finishing it for the third or fourth time, you know it must be doing something exceptionally well.
10. Juno (2007)
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Diablo Cody
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman
While it may seem anomalous on a list almost entirely comprised of genre fare, this charming coming-of-age story is more than deserving of its inclusion here. Diablo Cody’s script has divided some critics, but my firm view is that it’s a work of genius. While it couldn’t be described as a realistic depiction of a typical teenager, it has a razor sharp wit running through it and tackles a difficult subject matter with true sensitivity.
That’s to say nothing of the truly stellar character work. Ellen Page is phenomenal in the title role, running the gamut of complex emotions that result from a teen pregnancy. Meanwhile, almost every supporting cast member is provided at least one moment to shine. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are particularly deserving of praise, playing up to their typecast identities in service to a subversive final act that provides an emotional gut punch.
Jason Reitman’s direction is delightful, gifting the film with a quirky look and feel that lends itself perfectly to Cody’s script. Of course, the soundtrack also plays a role in establishing this identity, including a roster of many indie favourites including Kimya Dawson, Cat Power, and The Velvet Underground. It went platinum in the United States for good reason.
Juno is a gem the likes of which we haven’t seen since, opting for a powerful character-driven story over heavy-handed sociopolitical commentary.
9. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Director: Luc Besson
Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen
Admittedly, the manner in which this film was so quickly dismissed by moviegoers may well be one reason why I defend it so virulently. However, the point still stands that Luc Besson’s expensive passion project is brimming with creativity from start to finish, even if the execution isn’t flawless in every sense.
That Valerian didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination for its visuals is a genuine travesty. The CGI in this film is absolutely astonishing throughout, breathing life into beautiful intergalactic environments and an array of outlandish alien species. Without a doubt, the most impressive showcase is one particular setpiece which follows Valerian on a breakneck tour through Alpha, the so-called city of a thousand planets.
Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are deficient in romantic chemistry, but there’s a real charm to their unorthodox pairing that stays strong throughout. Rihanna’s performance is about as good as you might reasonably expect, but her utterly bizarre dance number is justification enough for her presence in the film.
Granted, Valerian has flaws. However, the palpable enthusiasm from its visionary director makes it easy to see past them. Although financial success alluded it, Besson can rest easy knowing that this adaptation of his childhood favourite characters is both faithful and tremendous fun.
8. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox
Wes Craven’s reputation as horror royalty is no accident. Building a career on the likes of The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the director employed his arsenal of genre expertise for this clever deconstruction of the typical slasher movie. Scream walks the difficult tightrope separating horror and comedy, offering some classic moments to both genres in the same two-hour stretch.
When talking about this movie, it’s impossible not to mention that incredible opening sting. The ruthless terrorizing of an innocent suburban girl never fails to shock and disturb, with Drew Barrymore giving a heartbreaking performance in the ill-fated role. Of course, this is really Neve Campbell’s film and Scream transformed her into a movie star overnight for good reason.
Sidney Prescott is right up there with the greatest horror heroes of all time, thanks in large part to Campbell’s endearing no-nonsense persona. The supporting cast is equally strong, with David Arquette and Courteney Cox providing an adorable romantic subplot, while Matthew Lillard and Skeet Ulrich excel in their decidedly more unnerving roles.
Finally, credit must be given to unsung hero Kevin Williamson. While his film career continually lost momentum until crashing onto network television, it shouldn’t be understated just how smart this script is. The affection he has for the slasher genre is plainly evident throughout, as he toys with tropes and conventions to create a story with some genuine surprises, all the while never losing sight of his core cast of characters.
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson
Subsequent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had grander scope and larger casts, but in my eyes The Winter Soldier remains the best installment in the franchise. Viewed in context, the film came at a time when the MCU was on wobbly ground, at least creatively. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World had both been greeted with a lukewarm response, while the (very) modest success of the first Captain America movie wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for this sequel.
Few could have expected just how drastically the Russo brothers would turn things around. The Winter Soldier not only began a gripping character arc that will soon culminate in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, but also transformed Steve Rogers into genuine Marvel royalty.
From the very first action sequence, the process of shedding his formerly goofy public image is set into motion. The brutal choreography on display as Cap and Black Widow tear through a ship hijacked by pirates is akin to a PG version of The Raid, but the thrills don’t stop there. From the now-iconic Nick Fury car chase to the chaotic and fast-paced highway battle, this film is brimming with memorable setpieces.
Of course, action isn’t all it has to offer. Inspired by the political thrillers of the eighties, The Winter Soldier tells a gripping story of espionage and betrayal that provides genuine surprises in spite of its position in the Disney machine. After two serviceable appearances (and one enjoyable cameo), Chris Evans gives his first truly exceptional turn as Captain America in this feature, surrounded by a dreamy supporting cast that includes Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and the impeccable Robert Redford.
Also, that cameo from national treasure Jenny Agutter never gets old.
6. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Director: Drew Goddard
Writers: Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz
The Cabin in the Woods is a smart and witty homage to horror’s most iconic creations, while also being a riotously entertaining addition to the genre in its own right. The basic premise of five teenagers alone in the woods deliberately evokes the likes of Evil Dead and Friday the 13th, only to flip viewer expectations on their head in the most spectacular way.
Scripted by the masterful pairing of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, it should be no surprise that The Cabin in the Woods is jam-packed full of hilarious quips and quotable lines. However, while the comedy provides a welcome break from the tension, it doesn’t stop this film from being a genuinely scary experience. As the group begins being picked off one-by-one in grim fashion, there’s a mounting sense of desperation that is truly harrowing.
The film assembles a fantastic ensemble led by Kristen Connolly and supported by Chris Hemsworth, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams and Anna Hutchison. Every character feels grounded and real in spite of the archetypes they deliberately play into, which serves to make the inevitable suffering all the more upsetting. Of course, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins are just as strong, delighting as the closest this film comes to main antagonists.
The Cabin in the Woods may well be the apotheosis of modern teen horror.
5. Kick-Ass (2010)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace-Moretz, Nicolas Cage
While it may seem like a quaint memory in today’s saturated market of comic book movies, one shouldn’t underestimate exactly what Matthew Vaughn accomplished with Kick-Ass. This is an adaptation that actually improves on the source material by tidying up the plotting and placing emphasis on its remarkable cast. Without them this movie would be nowhere near as good, something that the sequel sadly lost sight of.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson takes the lead role of Dave Lizewski, a student with aspirations of heroism and enough guts to actually give it a try. What’s so great about this character is that he doesn’t feel like a generic Hollywood archetype. As he says himself at the beginning of the film, rather than being the cartoonish jock or nerd of his high school, like most kids he “just existed”.
Juxtaposed against this exceptionally ordinary teen is the incredible dynamic of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, played by Chloe Grace-Moretz and Nicolas Cage respectively. For the former, this remains a career-defining role and for good reason. At the age of only twelve, Grace-Moretz delivered a performance that hits hard both literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, Cage channels the unhinged lunatic that only he can play, but prevents his character from becoming a joke by shifting gears for one particularly heartbreaking scene.
Vaughn and Goldman balance their script expertly, crafting a story that feels like a perfect hybrid of unflinching grit and comic book surrealism. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the playful tone that exists throughout leaves you more than willing to go along for the ride.
4. The Shape of Water (2018)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Writers: Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones
The Shape of Water is quite possibly Guillermo Del Toro’s best film to date, which is no small statement given the fantastic body of work he’s responsible for. While it’s easy to mock the high-concept premise of a woman falling in love with an amphibious creature, those who go in with an open mind will find a beautiful story that questions what it really means to be human.
Sally Hawkins gives a charming performance in the lead role, displaying a heart-wrenching range of emotions without a single line of dialogue (except for that one fantasy sequence which makes me all weepy). Alongside Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, she forms a powerhouse trio of protagonists, each struggling with their own distinct form of heartache.
Doug Jones deserves more credit as the mysterious creature, building on his existing reputation as an impeccable performer, having previously working with Del Toro on Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. His physicality combines with the beautiful visual effects to create a living being that feels unquestionably real and sentient, which is a crucial element to the film’s overall triumph.
The Shape of Water makes me cry every time I watch it. Everything from the set design, to the soundtrack, to the performances and writing is simply beautiful.
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is Edgar Wright at his energetic best, overflowing with creative direction from the seamless scene transitions to the wacky action sequences. The finished product is a joyous amalgamation of cinema, comic books and videogames, blending the most iconic elements of the three to superb effect.
Wright assembles a fantastic cast for this film, led by Michael Cera in the title role. His performance as the gormless Scott Pilgrim is an instant classic, striking a chord with any clueless twenty-something who has been similarly unlucky in love. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an effective foil as Ramona Flowers, although she is somewhat overshadowed by a killer supporting cast that includes Anna Kendrick, Ellen Wong and Kieran Culkin.
Culkin is given a number of hilarious lines, delivering them with comic timing which rivals that of Cera. Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall are credited with this screenplay, although it should be noted that many of the film’s best lines are taken straight out of the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who also deserves a mention here.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is pure unadulterated fun from start to finish.
2. The Truman Show (1998)
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich
In the twenty years that have passed since The Truman Show was released, it’s frankly astounding how the film has only grown in relevance. In today’s ego-driven society of reality television and invasive social media use, Andrew Niccol’s script about a man whose life is unknowingly broadcast around the world seems incredibly prophetic.
Jim Carrey gives an Oscar-worthy performance in this film, making his 1999 snub all the more painful. His portrayal of Truman Burbank is genuinely tragic; a man who has been deprived the basic right of a normal human life and who feels a profound but unspecified emptiness as a result. His evolution over the course of this film is thrilling to watch, incorporating Carrey’s natural comic ability but also allowing him to excel in more dramatic scenes.
Laura Linney is also outstanding in this film, delivering a performance as hilarious as it is loathsome. Her completely unsubtle product endorsements and apparent disdain for her husband is executed superbly well. Meanwhile, Noah Emmerich portrays a more subdued variation on this deceptive theme, if anything appearing even more malicious through his attempts at gaining Truman’s unquestioning trust.
Peter Weir helms this production and steers it to safety. With an eccentric like Carrey on the cast list, reports suggest this wasn’t the easiest filming experience. However, not only does he succeed in getting only the very best performances out of his actors, he also shoots the fictional town of Seahaven in such a way that emphasises its uncanny sensibilities. Throughout, he maintains an atmosphere that tows the line between absurd and eerie, a vital element in making this dystopian premise so effective.
1. Aliens (1986)
Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen
Aliens is the best action film ever made. I needn’t say more, but I will.
James Cameron’s epic sequel meaningfully builds on the ideas presented in Ridley Scott’s shocking first outing, taking this franchise to heights it has never again been able to reach. Far from being a brainless romp, Cameron’s script goes a full hour before indulging in its first action sequence, taking the time to introduce a fascinating cast of characters led by Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley.
Weaver received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in this film, a feat which is almost unheard of in the action genre, but the reason is quite clear. Her nuanced portrayal of a cunning, quick-witted and autonomous woman came at a time when such roles were few and far between. Ripley is a character with moving emotional depth, from the caring maternal instinct she displays after discovering Newt, to the post-traumatic stress she suffers with and ultimately overcomes in this film’s final act.
As previously mentioned, every member of the main cast enjoys similarly finessed development. Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton impress with their wildly different takes on the space marine persona, while Lance Henriksen gives a stellar performance as Bishop. It’s difficult to talk about Aliens without mentioning Paul Reiser as Carter Burke, a slimy representative of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation who is arguably more vile than any of the film’s monstrous creatures.
But of course, this is an action movie and the sequences here deliver in spades. Cameron uses mostly practical effects with expert efficiency, resulting in thrilling setpieces that have hardly aged a day since they first landed on screens. Each sequence is distinct from the last and every single one plays an integral role in moving the plot forward.
Aliens is an astonishing achievement in blockbuster filmmaking.