Since everyone seemed to enjoy my top ten silent films list, I decided to bite the bullet and list off my ten favorite films with synchronized score and dialogue. It’s only fair to sort them separately from the silents as I keep harping on the fact that silent films and sound films are completely separate beasts.
I should issue one warning before I go further: I am a hopeless philistine. I joke about it but I really am. Self-consciously arty films have my eyes rolling to the ceiling while fun-loving kitsch hits me in the happy spot.
As stated in the silent movie list, I am not saying these are the best movies of all time, they are movies that I love warts and all. This list isn’t supposed to impress anyone. It just includes the talkies that I would take with me to a desert island. It’s weird because I’m weird. You should have figured that out by now.
Another thing to remember is that this list would be different if I had written it last week. It would be different if I were to write it next week. My favorites are always shifting. In fact, it changed several times as I was writing it. Since there are a few thousand or so more sound films than silents available for convenient home viewing, this is inevitable. Be patient.
Also, you may notice that I love 60s movies. Those 30s, 40s, 50s people were such squares. Not cool like the 20s kids. (Sticks out tongue) The 80s stuff is more understandable as that was when I was itsy-bitsy.
I will just skim over the films I have covered in detail already and only go in-depth with movies that have not been reviewed on the site yet.
10. Mystery Men (1999)
I went to see this in the theater with my brothers. Not counting us, there were four other people in attendance. Two left halfway through. My brothers and I were the only ones laughing. My opinion? This movie was a bit ahead of its time. It was spoofing the superhero genre before X-Men and Spiderman properly revived it.
The concept revolves around a group of also-rans with dubious superpowers who form a team to save the world. How dubious? Well, just to name a few, the Blue Rajah throws forks and spoons, Mr. Furious gets very angry and Invisible Boy turns invisible but only if no one is watching.
Intensely quotable, this movie a surefire pick-me-up. It doesn’t have a ton of fans but those of us in the club are quite passionate. (In case you haven’t noticed already, my sense of humor tends to be on the obscure side. My favorite jokes are only funny to me and a few others, it seems.)
9. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
“There’s a body in the window seat!”
This is one of the very first movies I ever saw in my life. My parents are opposed to TV on the notion that it rots the brain. We didn’t have one until I was five or six. I didn’t see a movie in the theater until I was eight. (It was Star Trek V, in case you were wondering.)
Arsenic and Old Lace was one of the films my parents bought along with the VCR. And you wonder why my sense of humor is a bit off? This film explains it. It’s all about two sweet old Brooklyn ladies who poison men and bury them in the cellar. Cary Grant is the horrified nephew who discovers their secret. Meanwhile, his brother (an accomplished serial killer) returns home and becomes extremely jealous that his aunts have a higher body count. He just needs one more…
8. The Princess Bride (1987)
I’ll wager this one is on a lot of people’s favorites list and with good reason. This charming fantasy is packed with quotes that have made their way into our national vocabulary. Everyone knows what Inigo Montoya means to say to the man who killed his father. Everyone knows Vizzini’s favorite word when things go wrong. Everyone knows that there is another classic blunder after “never start a land war in Asia.”
I also adore the original novel by William Goldman. For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure of reading it, the concept is that Goldman’s father read him the story when he was a child. When he went back to it as an adult, Goldman found that his father skipped all the boring parts of exposition and history and had gone straight to the good stuff. (Which is, let’s face it, the way a lot of us read old books.) And so Goldman set out to make his own good parts version.
It’s all made up, of course, but any bookstore veteran can tell you that people are always asking about the unabridged version. There are some unintentionally hilarious reviews complaining about Goldman’s “butchery” of a classic. (Some are being sarcastic but there are a few genuinely peeved people out there. I know. I am a bookstore veteran. I have looked them in the eye. Their panties are well and truly bunched.)
7. The Forty-First (1956)
I reviewed this film along with the 1927 silent original so I won’t go into too much detail. This is a fairy tale romance with a poison sting on the tail. Set during the Bolshevik revolution, it’s the love story of a Red sniper and a czarist officer. The whole thing is gorgeous to look at and somewhat revolutionary in its sympathetic portrayal of a member of the aristocracy.
6. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)
I’ve already reviewed this film so I’ll be brief. This movie has me in stitches every time I watch it. It’s packed with quotable quotes (this is a very important thing to me, in case you haven’t noticed) and the concept is genius. It’s about a submarine full of Russians that runs aground in New England.
The Russians and the Americans are terrified of one another and the whole film is a comedy of errors as both groups try not to start World War Three. The film is equally affectionate toward Russians and Americans and it also makes equal jokes at the expense of both cultures. The entire cast is great but Alan Arkin steals the show as the leader of the Russians who head ashore to try to secure a boat.
5. Zulu (1964)
I’ll let you in on yet another secret: when I get sick, I get bored and so I will watch anything. Anything. I will watch infomercials, talk shows, car races… Stuff I would never, ever watch when I am in my right mind. My family still jokes when I confess to seeing something tacky. “Oh, was that a sick movie?” Obviously, streaming is a boon as I can actually select good stuff to watch instead of relying on the TV stations. (I have never had cable and I never will.)
It doesn’t always work. During one bout, I watched the entire first season of 24. Blech! (I hate American television. Golden age, schmolden age. You may keep it.) However, in this particular case I was browsing while ill and spotted a looooong movie to watch called Zulu. I mainly picked it because of its length and because I like Michael Caine.
For those of you who have never seen it, it’s about a tiny British outpost in Africa that manages to hold off thousands of Zulu warriors. This may sound rather imperialistic but the film shows a great deal of respect for the Zulu, especially considering the year and the racist restrictions placed on the crew by the South African government.
The film itself a surprisingly intimate character study of the inexperienced lieutenants (Stanely Baker and Michael Caine), who have to think fast to save the outpost and the hospital that it contains. Relatively low budget by epic standards, the producers of Zulu spent most of the cash getting everyone to South Africa/Botswana. The investment paid off richly.
(The film has fallen into the public domain and can be seen on many websites but consider getting it on Blu-ray. So worth it.)
4. Yojimbo (1961)
I love this movie so much! And you know what? I saw it by mistake. Many years ago, I tossed a bunch of famous stuff on my Netflix queue and forgot about it, stacking odder fare on top of it. But then I kind of forgot to update my top films for a while and some stuff that I really wanted was Long Wait so when I opened the envelope, there was a Kurosawa movie staring back at me.
What the heck? I popped it into the player and the first full minute of the film was taken up by Toshiro Mifune’s shoulders. Not that I’m complaining.
Now I have a twisted sense of humor and so the gallows humor of Yojimbo is just the thing for me. It is, as Pauline Kael once described it, about a “bodyguard who kills the bodies he’s hired to guard.” And it’s funny as heck. Plus, you get to look for all the stuff George Lucas
stole borrowed for Star Wars.
This often gets dismissed as a lesser entry into Kurosawa’s filmography but I love the fact that he and Mifune were just having fun with their dark action comedy. Lighten up, people!
It also has a sequel, Sanjuro, (they are usually sold as a set) but the original is still the best. (There’s also a semi-sequel with Mifune reprising-ish his role opposite Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi but no one really counts that one. Nor should you.)
3. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
This was my second favorite movie when I was a wee tyke. My brothers’ favorite too, actually. In between DuckTales and Star Trek sessions, we would pop the tape into VCR (why yes, I was born in the 80s) and enjoy some swashbuckling goodness. Everything about this movie was perfect for us. The costumes? Breathtaking. The acting? Ideal. The casting? Perfect. The intro title card was a bit of an issue as my younger brother couldn’t read yet but my older brothers and I took turns reading it off to him. I think I still did it long after he started reading.
It’s funny but I can never get gushy about Errol Flynn (or Cary Grant, for that matter) in a star crush sort of way. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching his movies for so long (I think I was maybe six or seven when I first saw him) that I sort of consider him to be that zany, cool uncle.
Uncle or not, Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood and no gritty reboots or Michael Bolton songs can take that away from him. He had the dash, the athleticism and the pizazz required for the role and he looked great in the outfit. Accept no substitutes.
2. Ladyhawke (1985)
This film would have placed lower if I had made this list last week. I hadn’t seen it in years but when I grabbed the new, restored Blu-ray from Warner Archive (which is amazing and so worth it, by the way), it all came flooding back to me.
You see, this movie was a huge part of my adolescence. I first saw it when I was twelve. A relative put it on to shut the kids up (I was known to love all things medieval at the time). I fell head over heels in love.
This is a quirky, quirky movie. One of the oddest things to come out of modern Hollywood. It’s not for everyone but it was exactly what I wanted at the time. I don’t know if I am watching it through rose-colored nostalgia (I don’t think I am) but I know that the critics were not kind and most audiences aren’t either. The recipe:
- Film a medieval fantasy film in luscious Italian scenery and dress everyone in gorgeous costumes.
- The story: French knight meets French lady, knight loves lady, lady loves knight, corrupt bishop is jealous and puts a curse on them. The rules of the curse: knight is a wolf by night, lady is a hawk by day (get it?), always together, eternally apart. The knight plots to kill the bishop and grabs an escaped thief to help him.
- Cast the usually-villainous Rutger Hauer as the knightly hero, Michelle Pfeiffer as his lady and Matthew Broderick as the thief protagonist and audience surrogate who carries on a running conversation with God throughout the film. As one does. “Look at me, Lord, I was better off in the dungeons of Aquila. My cellmate was insane–and a murderer– but he respected me!”
- Sound good so far? Well, here’s a fly in the ointment for some viewers. You see, they chose a progressive rock soundtrack for a medieval film. An otherwise pretty darn historically accurate medieval film. Again, as one does.
- Action. Lots and lots of action. More action, I said! Suitably gritty and bloody swordfights. Because, you know, medieval French knights wielding two-handed swords did not usually know kung fu or sail around on wires. Realistic action? Heck yeah! It’s all about burly guys lugging around primitive weapons and attempting to inflict grievous bodily harm. It’s not pretty, nor should it be.
Yeah… Quirky. I warned you. If this sounds like your catnip, go for it. But I find my Ladyhawke conversion ratio to be about 15%. The other 85% just don’t get it. Mostly, the soundtrack turns some people off. Basically, if you’re already annoyed during the opening credits, you have no hope of enjoying the movie because it all sounds like that. (And I don’t want to play in the sandbox with you.)
Is the music ideal? Well, it certainly dates the film, there’s no denying that, but I can’t really dislike it. It’s all part of the crazy quilt that is Ladyhawke. (Anyway, my intense teenage JRPG addiction left me with an incredibly high tolerance for electronic music in any context.) In any case, I can’t very well yell about the not-so-special editions of Star Wars if I am also demanding a different score for this film, yes? Leave the sniveling to the IMDB message boards. They’re always happy to oblige.
The film did middling business in the U.S. but was a massive hit in Europe and an even bigger one on the nascent home video market. And it counted Joseph Mankiewicz among its fans. (His son, Tom, helped write the script.)
I should also note that Rutger Hauer’s brooding knight was the very first heroic movie psychopath I ever loved. He was the first in a long, long line of dangerous fellas who thrilled me. So take that as you will.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
I won’t go too deeply into this one as I just reviewed it but here are a few basics. I first saw this film in my high school years and I was entranced. I had never seen anything so big also be so deep. I was blown away. If you have put off watching this film, do give it a try. It’s just so good.