1. The Dark Knight
The greatest superhero movie of all time. This should've won Best Picture at the Oscars. What other superhero film can you actually say that about? What Christopher Nolan did with Batman and The Joker is simply the stuff of legend. You can't just look at it as a comic book movie, you can't just look at it as an action flick, you can't just look at it as a crime drama... it's a mindblowing masterpiece of cinema. Nolan took a franchise that had become known for "Chill out, bird boy!" and somehow managed to craft a dark epic that would become the second highest grossing film of all time. To make that sort of herculean effort with minimal CGI in today's environment... the man is simply a visionary genius.
And Heath Ledger... what is there left to say about Heath Ledger? He didn't win the Oscar because he died. It wasn't a sympathy vote. He deserved it, by portraying The Joker in a way wholly unlike anything we'd ever seen before. Fuck Cesar Romero, fuck Jack Nicholson, and fuck Mark Hamill. Ledger will always be The Joker now. So many quotable lines, and even a second villain that felt natural and meshed with the plot. Who could forget that brilliant hospital scene with our first glimpse at Two Face? The way Nolan teased at it, turning his head away at just the right moment to heighten the suspense. And then the actual reveal, and hearing the gasps in the audience. Just great iconic moments.
Another iconic scene: the interrogation room. What a wonderful way to subvert the traditional interrogation. Start it in darkness, but then shift into bright light, contrasting the white room with the blackness of Batman. Also reflecting the two warring sides of Two Faces. The Batman pummels the Joker, yet somehow still ends up being helpless while the Joker is holding all the cards. This isn't the sort of stuff you expect from a superhero action film. That's why it's so wonderful. Just as the Joker turned Gotham upside down, this film has completely turned its genre upside down. My favorite scene is the ending monologue from Commissioner Gordon: "Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector... a Dark Knight." BAM. The title card finally comes onscreen. If that didn't affect you in some manner after witnessing the last 2 and a half hours, you're just not human.
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
You have to know, Star Trek 2 was one of the first films I remember watching as a young lad. Back in the good ol days, channel 44, which would later go on to become UPN and then the CW, would rerun old movies all the time, and one of those would be Star Trek 2. This was my very first Star Trek film, and left an absolutely indelible impression on me. This film was what made me a Trekkie. It was pretty cool too, cause this was right around the time that TNG was starting up and I was able to watch that great show as it originally ran.
Then my family bought a VCR player and I recorded Star Trek 2. And rewatched it and rewatched it and rewatched it. Fuck all other films, I couldn't get sick of viewing this somewhat poor quality recording. It got to the point where I could pretty much recite the dialogue line for line as they said it onscreen. Ya know how it is, being a young kid and going all crazy trying to ape Ricardo Montalban with fun lines like "To the last... I will grapple with thee. From Hell's heart... I stab at thee! For HATE's SAKE... I spit... my last breath... at thee!" Just wonderful emotional lines that you could really rasp out. Of course, some of the dialogue made absolutely no sense back then. It took me years to figure out exactly what "Sauce for the goose" meant, for example. Still, great childhood memories.
So, that's just a bit of context to let you know how much I cherish this film. The best Star Trek film ever, and my favorite film until The Dark Knight last summer. What Nicholas Meyer pulled off was nothing short of a miracle, when you look back and see that it was following up on Star Trek The Motionless Picture. Who could have had the imagination, and force of persuasion to alter basically the entire Star Trek universe like that? Suddenly... awful pajama uniforms gave way to awesomely elegant red jacket uniforms. With that iconic clasp over the right shoulder? That feature's been copied for fucking decades now, in all kinds of scifi movies and video games. You've gotta give props, that was an amazing costume change. And the single best starship battle, STILL. You can show me all sorts of ship battles from DS9 or Nemesis, but I still hold that Mutara Nebula battle as the greatest ship to ship battle in Trek history. You cannot top that film finale. Which is strange, because it's two Federation starships battling one another.
Then you realize that's what made it great. What was great was how they made it two Federation starships fighting each other. It seems like that would be a weird dynamic, but they make it work. The Reliant is from Starfleet, but it looks totally different from the Enterprise. And I'm not just talking about the red lighting they used, which was blatant as all hell. It's got two low nacelles right under it, far apart, so it kinda looks like a mean pitbull. A pitbull in somewhat of a lean, crouched down. Small, but packing a punch. While the Enterprise is longer and much more graceful with two nacelle struts in a V, like an eagle. This really hits home when the Enterprise is cruising towards the Mutara Nebula with the Reliant hot on its heels.
The final battle is tense, just like the u-boat films which Nicholas Meyer referenced on his commentary of the DVD. But what's so important is how slow the ships move. This is what is great about Trek, they are these giant ships and they act like it. When the Reliant comes charging out of the static towards the Enterprise, we can see Kirk pivoting his chair, while ordering "Evasive starboard!" Yet the ship herself turns much more slowly then his chair pivot. We feel the engines straining for such a maneuver. Is it realistic? Oh hell no, of course not. Ships are weightless in space, yada yada yada. But it doesn't matter, because Trek ships need that sense of size and weight. After all, this is space... they have nothing but the Enterprise and an occasional alien planet. This ship is the workplace, and home, and overall landscape for 500 people. She's as much a character as any of the main characters. So to maintain the heft and importance, it is crucial that the ship not be pulling off all sorts of crazy loop-de-loops or whatnot.
So yea, Wrath of Khan still holds up. That's why it's a classic. I will always have a big goofy grin on my face while watching this film. Just can't help it. And yes, occasionally reciting a line like "Sauce for the goose, Mr. Saavik. The odds will be even."
3. The Rock
Here's a shocker... it's a fucking Michael Bay movie! But ya know what, that doesn't matter, because Michael Bay managed to actually combine his great action sensibilities with superb storytelling. Everything here is outrageous and explosiony and exciting, but without going so far over the top that it becomes incredibly retarded and irritating, e.g. Armageddon, Bad Boys 2. This is, in my opinion, the perfect modern day action flick. Navy Seals, U.S. Marines, jet fighters, a deadly nerve toxin, Sean Connery being a bad ass, Nicholas Cage being crazy fucking Nicholas Cage and allowing us to laugh at him... it has it all. It's sad that all of Bay's films after this have failed to live up to the promise that The Rock showed us. Perhaps he was just more hungry and determined back then, who knows. But even if Transformers 2 and 3 turn out to be turds on the order of the Star Wars prequels, I'll still remember him as the director of this great action flick.
So many franchises we have today owe their success to Aliens. The Zerg from Starcraft? Aliens. The Tyranids from Warhammer 40k? Aliens. The bugs from Starship Troopers the film (not the book)? Aliens. The Brood from X-Men? Aliens. The Flood from Halo? Aliens. Probably a few others I've missed? Aliens. James Cameron took Ridley Scott's spookhouse in space and completely changed gears to deliver the ultimate scifi war film. Do smartguns on steadycam mounts make a ton of logical sense? Maybe not, but they looked damn cool. So much of what James Cameron designed was incredibly cool and has influenced pop culture. The Pelicans from Halo? Just copies of the Dropship from Aliens. The dropship pilot telling us we're in the pipe five by five? A direct line from Aliens. Angry black sargeant? That's just Apone. Shotgun being good in Doom? Probably Hick's, for close encounters.
The greatness of Aliens, apart from its many cool little tidbits, is the pacing. It's relentless. You're on this sorta roller coaster ride, but it's not quite fun. It's tense, scary, completely draining. And when you think you've managed to escape the worst of it... the Queen pops out of the rear landing gear and you're right back in the thick of it, witnessing an epic fight with a goddamn power loader. This film is great because it dialed absolutely everything up to 11. Looking back, it's easy to see that Alien 3 would've been somewhat of a disappointment no matter what they chose to do. Aliens said pretty much everything that needed to be said about humans in space battling xenomorphs. Game over man, game over.
Yes, another superhero film. This one also has a special place in my heart. Christopher Reeve set the mold for all other actors portraying superheroes. And nobody since has managed to break it. To me, Reeve *is* the Man of Steel. I don't care if the special effects are dated these days. This film's greatness transcends that. After all, Superman Returns had state of the art special effects and yet was a complete failure of a film. Christopher Reeve was able to make me believe a man could fly.
Also, Superman is one of those magical movies that really lodged itself in my mind because it's one of those films that, because of its length, I could never actually finish watching as a kid. Ya know, it's one of those films that you'll catch on tv, or see at a day care center somewhere in Reno, and yet something will always come up which prevents you from getting the ending. Either you'll just fall asleep, or you'll get picked up from the daycare center... just events unfold which prevent a full viewing. For me, it was this film and Back to the Future 2 that always seemed to last forever and I'd never finish till the end. That gave them a sort of mystique in my childhood.
Now, there is one weakness of Superman, and that's the ending. Superman turns the world backwards in time to save Lois and stop California from falling into the ocean. Yes, it's not great... it doesn't really make any sense. But it's one small blemish on an otherwise grand superhero origin story. And honestly, how could you resist the very end when Christopher Reeve flies over the earth at the onset of a new dawn, looks up at us, and smiles in the way that Superman would smile? It's just movie magic, folks.
What makes Superman work is Richard Donner's verisimilitude, especially during the Krypton and Smallville scenes. This movie was the first to tell the superhero origin story, and is still the best one, in my opinion. The shots of the crystalline Kryptonian landscape are awe inspiring. You really believe this is an alien world with an alien people. Smallville looked like the town that Norman Rockwell grew up in. Sure, it doesn't actually exist in real life, but it looks like how we would all want a small American town to look. Who wouldn't want to grow up in a pastural idyllic setting like that? Who could possibly doubt that America's greatest hero would emerge from such a place? When the camera raised and zoomed ahead of Clark and Martha Kent, embracing in a rich field of golden wheat, it was the film was letting us know we had just witnessed the birth of a modern American myth.
And of course, the soundtrack. Who the hell doesn't know the Superman soundtrack? I haven't talked about the soundtrack of any other film on this list, and it's for good reason. None of them matter compared to John Williams' work here. Truly a masterpiece of scoring, and probably his greatest work to date. The notes simply cry out "Superman" even though there aren't any lyrics. Just as Aliens worked to pummel you with dread and suspense, the Superman music worked to uplift the spirit and allow the audience to soar like the Man of Steel himself.