Be ye warned:
the American Film Institute has just named its top 100 movies of all
time. And while the list is not all that bad, AFI’s top ten movies
present a problem.
movies—Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull,
Singing in the Rain, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia,
Schindler’s List, Vertigo and The Wizard of Oz—AFI’s top
ten list tends to read more like a politically correct movie guide.
that only one film in the top ten list was made after 1980, one
might understandably (and mistakenly) conclude that few great films
have been made in the last three decades. However, in evaluating
films, there should be more concentration on their artistic value
and influential nature.
rise to a level of art. And good art forces us to think about the
important questions of life. Great films are also entertaining. You
not only want to see them again and again, they require repeated
Based on these
criteria, among others, following is my list of the top ten films of
Kane (1941). Universally acknowledged as a turning point in film
history, Orson Welles’ masterpiece is the story of a complex genius
who is haunted by boredom and the inability to believe in
anything—later to be mirrored in Welles’ own life. This film raised
important questions about the nature of American politics and its
relationship to the crisis brewing in Europe with the rise of
Man (1949). Carol Reed’s classic film portrays the corruption of
the new man in the post-World War Two world of profiteers and greed.
Great direction, cinematography, screenplay and soundtrack. The film
endures because it addresses the same problem we face today—living
in a world that continues to dehumanize us, where it’s difficult to
tell the good guys from the bad ones.
Searchers (1956). This John Ford western tells the tragic story
of a man’s five-year search for his kidnapped niece. Visually
stunning against the backdrop of Monument Valley, Arizona, this
man’s relentless search later turns up in the form of Travis Bickle
in Taxi Driver and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, among
Seal (1956). Set in the Middle Ages when the plague is raging,
this superb film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman centers on a
knight engaged in a literal chess game with Death. Taking its title
from the Book of Revelation, the film grapples with fundamental
questions that have tortured thinkers for centuries. Highly
influential film on a generation of filmmakers. Subtitles, but that
won’t deter you.
(1958). This great Alfred Hitchcock film opens with a police
detective clinging to a collapsing gutter. He hangs on, but the
vertiginous vision of death that he faced irreparably alters his
perspective on life. Innovatively filmed with surrealistic sets,
Hitchcock fashioned a genuine tragedy with Vertigo but a
compassionate one as well, disclosed particularly in the very last
line: “God have mercy…”
Bunch (1969). This classic western raised an immediate fury with
audiences and critics alike. Some 90,000 rounds of ammo were
expended in the final showdown, where a gang of aging outlaws seeks
to rescue one of their comrades from a group of Mexican cutthroats.
This film brought violence to the level of art. But then again,
while Sam Peckinpah was making the film, the violence of Vietnam was
displayed on the nightly news and the film became a metaphor for
U.S. involvement in that war.
Orange (1971). This Stanley Kubrick masterpiece is set in the
future where chaos reigns, there are no rules and the state is run
by psychologists and thugs. The main character is a gang leader who
engages in “ultra-violence.” He is eventually caught by the police
and is forced to undergo psychological treatment to destroy his
destructive tendencies. This film examines humanity at its core. Can
we be good? Is there something so deep down in human nature that can
never be reversed? Violent and sexually explicit.
Runner (1982). Now a cult classic, this Ridley Scott film
portrays a grim, dark future where a policeman stalks replicants
(artificial humans) who are creating havoc. One cannot understand
this film without comprehending the deeply felt moral,
philosophical, ecological and sociological concerns that are
interwoven throughout the story. Three profound questions contribute
to the core of this film—Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean
to be human? Violent.
(1987). In this influential David Lynch movie, a college student
discovers a severed ear in an empty lot and is thrust into the dark
world of murder, depravity and sexual deviation. The film’s
sub-thesis is that there is a shadow world operating beneath or just
on the other side of the so-called normal world that we all take for
granted as “real” existence. Violent and sexually explicit.
Formality (1994). This film revolves around a French novelist
filled with anguish, torment and driven to drink who finds himself
accused of murder. Assuring his captive that being brought in for
questioning is “purely a formality,” a nameless investigator
politely interrogates the novelist, only to find that the legendary
author cannot consistently recall any of the previous day’s events.
Complex and engaging, we soon find out that there is a sub-reality
to the story and a destiny in which we all will soon be engaged.
Constitutional attorney and
author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford
Institute. He can be contacted at
Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at