"You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes."
"Show me the money."
"What business is it of yours where I'm from, friendo?”
"It is the dismal tide. It is not the one thing."
"Don't ever argue with the Big Dog, because the Big Dog is always right."
"Aw, man. I shot Marvin in the face."
"You had me at hello."
"Are you not entertained?"
"I'm gonna get medieval on your ass."
Like every other American obsessed with pop culture, I love these kinds of rankings. Unlike every other American obsessed with pop culture, I probably take these rankings much too seriously because I am passionate about films. I try to go to the movies as a normal person enjoying the theatre experience. I end up thinking I’m Siskel and Ebert giving movies stars or taking them away for this nuance or that wrinkle.
I have maintained this top list of movies for about two decades now, and it is very competitive and tough for new films to break into it. I do give new films a fair trial to enter the lauded pantheon of my top movies. Usually however, they fall to the wayside farther down rankings. (The last movie to really break into the top list after much deliberation made it all the way to the number one spot, so that’s encouraging for new films.)
For example, I would be inclined to add last year’s epic, bone-chilling film The Revenant to this list, but it has to stand the test of time. Moreover, it would have to knock off the other greats here from their respective perches. I really try to avoid the instant reaction of giving the hot new movie the top spot. This is a long process of analyzing characters, cinematography, musical score, drama, and other factors I think I’m qualified to address. I am an educator after all, so I’d like to think I’m good at crafting rubrics.
I know no one likes reading the introductions to these lists, so without further ado, here they are in descending order. Have fun! - Len Lawson
I’m a sucker for Shakespeare, so this film has all the feels of a Shakespearean tragedy: the setting of Rome, the monarchy, suspense, death, high drama. Maximus Decimus Meridius is the quintessential Shakespearean lead character. He totally puts me in mind of Hamlet or Macbeth. Maximus is the general of the emperor’s army and likely heir to the throne because the emperor Marcus Aurelius believes Maximus is more fit to assume the throne than the emperor’s own son Commodus, a sniveling, weaselly, spoiled brat who consequently kills his father the emperor to quicken his pace to the throne. Maximus is not having it, so he goes AWOL only to find that Commodus has destroyed his home and his family. Maximus is then sold into slavery and forced to compete in the gladiator games in Rome where he again meets up with now Emperor Commodus whose reign is not well-received by the Roman senate nor by his sister Lucilla thriving for her own survival in her evil brother’s kingdom.
Russell Crowe is an endearing Spanish slave who as a former general can rally any Roman to his cause. His famous line Are you not entertained?? has become a rallying cry in sports, especially in MMA and professional wrestling. The drama sets up classic coliseum battles and dangerous alliances. I would love to teach this as a play to college students!
#5 The Matrix Trilogy
I’m pulling a notorious rankings move and including three movies in one spot because it is my list and because one Matrix movie teases the pallet for much more. This movie changed cinematography forever. How many films can you name where a martial arts maneuver or dance move is named for the title? The first film appeared at the turn of the century when the world was still in fear of Y2K (ask your parents). The themes of the film made us think that the actual matrix was a reality and not fantasy. The trilogy has that groundbreaking feel not only on film but on pop culture like the insurgence of the Star Wars films. Personally, as a person of faith, I can make so many spiritual connections to the Matrix films that it blows the mind. The plot is a bit complex for a summary, but once the end of the first film hits you, you’re taken to another place beyond movies. Furthermore by the last film, you are left with more questions than answers, and the answers won’t come unless you watch the movie again and again. The layers are endless. To quote my own poetry, “your mind capsizes.” I would watch any movie if you promised me it would have that kind of lasting effect on me.
#4 Pulp Fiction
This will forever be Quentin Tarantino’s best work. If you put two gangsters, their mob boss, his wife, and a boxer in a blender, then Pulp Fiction (by definition of this term shown at the beginning of the movie) is what you get. For extra fun, Tarantino jumbles the three acts of the movie out of order, so the heart of the film is not even the storyline. The core of the film is the characters themselves. This cast is awesome: Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. After you watch the movie, you want these characters to be in your life for better or worse forever, and you definitely never want Samuel L. Jackson to leave the screen. His dialogue alone has become pop culture gospel. For example, Do you read the Bible, Ringo?...Say what again! I dare you! and before you leave this earth, you better remember Ezekiel 25:17.
This movie is too real for average people like us to watch. You get windows into parts of life you should know nothing about, which is why it keeps us coming back to it.
#3 Jerry McGuire
A successful sports agent as he says “eats frozen pizza and grows a conscience” one night and basically destroys his career, leaving him with one scrappy, bottom-feeding NFL player. The two develop a dubious friendship outside of their business relationship that changes both their lives for respective purposes.
I am not a real Tom Cruise fan, but I liked him in this movie only because he was stripped of his usual cocky, arrogant Color of Money, Cocktail, Top Gun persona and put into an actual domestic role. It is fun to watch that persona be stripped away scene by scene in character, no less. His awkwardness is endearing when the character Jerry Maguire is out of his element.
Each character has his or her own memorable quotes here. Several breakout stars are in this film: Renee Zellweger as Dorothy Boyd, the frumpy, girl-next-door, widowed mother looking for love (You had me at hello); Jonathan Lipnicki as her cute son Ray (Did you know bees as dogs can smell fear?); and of course Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the embattled football star Rod Tidwell with the classic line Show me the money! It is cool to see Regina King and him as husband and wife both after being in Boyz n the Hood and other unheralded black films.
This is the first and only movie to make me cry. I watched it in the theatre when it first debuted, but one day as a teenager sitting at home watching the scene where Jerry and Dorothy are having issues before Rod’s big game made me tear up. She says, I have this great guy who loves my kid, and he sure does like me a lot. And I can’t live like that. It’s not how I’m built. Wow! She had me at hello!
An extra good scene is where Rod and Jerry are fed up with each other after hanging on by a thread in their respective roles during the football season. Each tries to counsel the other in the areas they are lacking in their lives. I always laugh when Jerry tells Rod, Just shut up! Play the game! Play it from your heart, and I will show you the Quan. And that’s the truth, man. That’s the truth. Can you handle it?? (an obvious allusion to Cruise’s movie A Few Good Men).
Well, I laugh and cry, but the movie has sports, comedy, drama, suspense, and black characters not as stereotypes. Therefore, I’m in for the long haul. Show me the replay! I’ll watch every time.
#2 The Fugitive
My favorite actor is Tommy Lee Jones. He can make any movie great by being the same character in each one! He is always the take-charge, semi-surly, no-nonsense leader who lives by the moral compass of a Batman character. I was first introduced to him in The Fugitive.
The first time I saw the movie was when my high school played it in every classroom throughout the day on the last day of school (gotta love those '90s education standards). I couldn’t wait to get to my next class when the bell rang to see what would happen to this doctor who was convicted of murder for the death of his wife, claiming a one-armed man was the killer. Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble is the anti-O.J. Simpson in this movie.
You are hooked in this movie after the epic train scene which was a huge deal in the '90s. After Kimble escapes the wreckage from the convict transport train crashing, the chase is on for Jones as U.S. Marshall Deputy Samuel Gerard goes on the hunt for Kimble. As a fugitive from the law, Kimble even has the audacity to look for the man who killed his wife and solve the mystery of why. You root for both Gerard and Kimble throughout the movie.
This might be the best cat-and-mouse chase movie ever if it weren’t for my number one. The way Jones as Gerard leads his band of deputies is endearing so much that, again, you want the characters to be with you always. This is also why I love the sequel film U.S. Marshals just as much if not more. I would love to see Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones do a sequel where they just share a beer and remember the old days of chasing down killers and dodging bullets in Chicago. Hopefully, both will make it to this meeting; they’re both getting up in age.
#1 No Country for Old Men
Again I say, I love Tommy Lee Jones, but in this movie, he is older, slower, and even wiser and cagier than his character U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive. In this film, he is not the slick, dominant leader. He is the wily veteran Sheriff Ed Tom Bell trying to keep up with the drug trade and violence in his Texas county. He is also trying to keep up with two younger, swifter, more brazen characters: Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who finds a briefcase with $2 million in a drug deal-gone-bad and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, a ruthless sociopath hired to retrieve the briefcase.
There are so many layers to the film. Chigurh (pronounced like sugar, stress on the second syllable) has his own code of ethics and kills on his terms. He is a character for the ages in film on the same level with The Joker but colder, not as maniacal. He even allows his victims to call it on a coin toss to reveal their fates. His air pump is a unique weapon used originally to kill cattle before the slaughter. His shotgun with the silencer on the end shatters victims’ bodies without prejudice. This man should not be roaming free on the streets anywhere. He always taunts his victims with probing questions, yet he never sees reality by their terms, only his. He is sick, but he is brilliant at his skillset, a chilling prophet spreading his gospel of right and wrong in blood. He confronts one of his victims in the film with this epic question: If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?
Llewelyn tries to keep out of Chigurh’s reach throughout the movie with his own military veteran skillset. Each tries to outwit the other with Sheriff Bell always one step behind. The most amazing part of the film is that none of these three main characters EVER come face to face with the other. Brilliant! It is a thriller without much dialogue. The pictures tell the story with genius.
Although it is a masterful film based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy with the title taken from a William Butler Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium,"* the scene where Sheriff Bell almost catches up to Chigurh in an El Paso hotel always irks me. If Chigurh can escape Bell, then why doesn’t he kill Bell like the rest of his victims? The sheriff coming back for Chigurh would certainly upset Chigurh’s “code." The sheriff would be very vulnerable returning to the hotel. There are many theories to this scene. This is just another layer to the classic.
The lifestyle of violence portrayed in the film catches up to all three main characters, but each responds to it in different ways. It either consumes them, overcomes them, or surrenders them. The great line by Sherriff Bell and the El Paso sheriff toward the end speaks to the warning of the title: It is the dismal tide. It is not the one thing.
What have we learned from this list? They all have arguably white male-dominated main characters. All but one has gun violence and horrific death scenes. Obviously, I like suspense, thriller, and drama films. I like my movies well-rounded with a little bit of each genre, but these three keep me interested. As a writer and poet, I am always considering elements of fiction in films. I usually can predict a film’s outcome before the halfway point which is no fun for anyone I watch with, but I usually keep these things to myself. I try to lose the critical eye in movies, but that wouldn’t make me an artist, would it?
Len Lawson is the author of the upcoming chapbook Before the Night Wakes You (Finishing Line Press) and co-editor of the upcoming Poets Respond to Race anthology (Muddy Ford Press). He has been accepted to the Ph.D. in English Literature and Criticism program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Len is a 2015 Pushcart Prize & Best of the Net nominee and a 2016 Callaloo Fellow. His poetry has been featured in Fall Lines, Jasper Magazine, Charleston Currents, and Poems on The Comet. He teaches writing at Central Carolina Technical College, and his website is www.lenlawson.co.
*Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
That is no country for old men. The young In one another's arms, birds in the trees – Those dying generations – at their song, The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress, Nor is there singing school but studying Monuments of its own magnificence; And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing‐masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.