My 100 Favorite Films…Probably

On December 1, 2022, Sight and Sound Magazine released the results of its decennial Greatest Films of All Time Critics’ Poll (“SS Poll”). The key result is that Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles dethroned Vertigo as the “greatest film of all time.”[1] Vertigo had itself dethroned Citizen Kane 10 years earlier. I have never seen Jeanne Dielman; in fact, I have seen only five of the top 10 films (and only Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Mulholland Drive more than once). Overall, I have seen 34 of the Sight and Sound Critics’ Top 100 films – and exactly half of those multiple times.

Which is…fine. My status as a cinephile remains amateur at best, with a heavy focus on classic and modern crime films – especially film noir and the Fox Charlie Chan films of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Nonetheless, I watched a handful of YouTube videos about the new SS Poll results, which were a critical mixed bag. The YouTube algorithm then decided I wanted to watch videos in which YouTubers list their 50 or 100 favorite films. For once, the algorithm was correct, as I enjoy these videos.

I enjoy them, and I call BS on them.

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OK, “call BS” is a bit strong.

It is more that I detected certain cognitive biases in the compiling of these lists, mostly social desirability bias and a variation of recency bias. The former can be seen in the way list-makers stuck to a few dozen films least likely to bring out the film trolls and most likely to get the approval of a film studies professor; someday I will rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey to understand why cinephiles revere it. The latter, meanwhile, can be seen in a heavy preponderance of films from the last two or three decades – especially the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films (one top 100 list included all eight films). YouTubers tend to be younger than 30, so they likely know these films far better than those released in the decades before 1990. They also want to establish and maintain their “street cred” with YouTube viewers, which their choices accomplish

More to the point, though, the lists lacked individuality. Rather than rank the films they genuinely love, regardless of quality or stature, it is as though they drew from a truncated list of relatively recent films the cinephile within them thinks they are supposed to love. Not to pick on Stanley Kubrick, but does the person that declared A Clockwork Orange their favorite film truly queue that up on her/his HD big screen television set to watch to relax after a long day?

Maybe…if the criteria for selecting and ordering “favorite” films is not “what films bring me the most pleasure” but instead is “what films have I seen and liked that check all the cinephilic boxes.” To be fair, it is quite likely someone deeply immersed in the intricacies of filmmaking will find it difficult to enjoy a “guilty pleasure” movie.

I have no such qualms, as you will soon learn.

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In June 2021, I published the first in a series (three, as of March 2022) of essays I expect to culminate with a list of my favorite musical tracks,[2] albums, artists and genres; I will finish the series just as soon as I am satisfied with these lists. Such lists are not intrinsically interesting (except to me). I simply want to demonstrate how difficult – “unmeasurable” – such things are, even for someone with decades of data analytic and measurement experience. Even with both hundreds of mixes spanning four decades and years of iTunes play counts, there are always tracks whose “score” are too high or too low, no matter how much I tweak the algorithm. Subjective experiences that evolve over time are extremely difficult to quantify, though that has never stopped me from trying. The process of thinking through how to quantify the unmeasurable, even if one never finds the algorithmic Holy Grail, is itself a useful exercise in critical thinking.

Thus, decided to apply these methods – crude as they are – to films. It helped that I already had compiled a list of movies I have seen multiple times – 711 and counting – in an Excel workbook. Just as inclusion on a mix was my starting point for how much I like a track, taking the time to watch a film a second time (at least) is my starting point for how much I like a film. While a track only takes a few minutes – and not even full attention – to enjoy, watching a film requires a much longer time commitment with full attention; the median run time for my 711 films is one hour and 41 minutes. Time is precious.

Unfortunately, whereas I already had “hard data” (e.g., mix appearances, iTune plays) when I first began to rank my favorite music in 1991, the only data I have for films is a rough ordering in my mind, a small library of DVDs and videocassettes, a desire to avoid cognitive biases and a fallible memory.

Still, I was able to formulate seven loose hypotheses from these “data”:

  1. The more times I have watched a film, the more I like it.
    1. I like films I choose to watch more than films I do not choose to watch.
  2. I like films I own more than films I do not own.
  3. The longer it has been since I rewatched a film, the less I like it.
  4. I like films I have shared with other people more than films I have not shared.
  5. I like films for which I seek more information more than films for which I do not seek more information.
  6. The more recently I watched a film for the first time, the more likely I am to “burn out” on it in the future.
  7. The more I want to rewatch a film in the future, the more I like it.

This was the easy part.

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The hard part – the part that never truly ends – is converting each hypothesis into “points” which can then be combined into a “score” using different “weights;” the higher the score, the more I like a film. After more than a year of trial and error, I arrived at a score ranging from -50 to 100, though I could easily convert it into a 0-100 scale. In fact, I only formulated the fifth and sixth hypothesis over the few weeks.

Here is how I converted each hypothesis into assigned points.

Times watched. This one is the most obvious: we only take the time to rewatch a film multiple times if we genuinely love it. One is that I have watched two sets of films more times than I can remember (at least 10), because they are audiovisual comfort food for me. The first set consists of the 22 Charlie Chan films released by what soon became 20th Century Fox between 1935 and 1943, which I first began to watch when they were aired on Philadelphia’s Channel 48 every Saturday night at 11:30 in the late 1970s. The second consists of three Marx Brothers films: Animal Crackers, Monkey Business and A Night at the Opera. Soon after I moved to the Boston suburb of Somerville in September 1989 to start a doctoral program, I began to rent a VideoCassettePlayer every Thursday night from a nearby Blockbuster Video store; given my class schedule, Thursday night was my Friday night. I usually also rented one or more of the Marx Brothers films, even though I had essentially memorized them; as with the Charlie Chan films, their familiarity helped me to unwind. But, despite my watching these films more often than any other (possibly excepting What’s Up, Doc?), these are not my 25 favorite films – though they are certainly among my few hundred or favorites (with the exception of the execrable Charlie Chan in Honolulu).

The second caveat is my inability to recall precisely how many times I have seen some films, especially those I have seen more than four or five times – or whether I have even seen it twice or not (n=12[3]). Plus, I have rewatched some films not by choice, but because they were screened at a film festival (both of my Riffifi viewings), it was family movie night (e.g., Frozen, The Lorax), and so on. And then there is the first watch upon acquiring the film in some way; I watched that film at that time not solely because I was excited to see it, but because I now had a copy of it. To me, this is analogous to recording a track onto a mix from vinyl or cassette then re-recording on a later mix after I acquired it on CD or iTunes. It is kind of a desire-to-experience gray area.

Given these factors, below is how I assign points to “times watched.” In many cases, especially over 3.0, the assigned value is more placeholder than precise number.

7.0 = More than five times (n=30)

5.0 = Five times (n=16)

4.5 = Four or five times (n=14)

4.0 = Four times (n=35)

3.5 = Three or four times (n=25)

3.0 = Three times (n=99)

2.5 = Two or three times (n=32)

2.0 = Two times (n=244)

1.5 = Maybe two times OR Once plus more than half of a second time (n=16)

From each value I subtract 2.0 points – the minimum required for consideration. I also subtracted:

2.0 for Charlie Chan films (n=21)

1.5 for films I acquired AND rewatched at NOIR CITY (n=10)

1.0 for films I acquired OR watched at someone else’s suggestion with no enthusiasm

     (n=66)

0.5 for films I rewatched at NOIR CITY OR watched at someone else’s suggestion with

      less enthusiasm (n=26)

Ownership. Until recently, acquiring a copy of a film on videocassette, DVD or BlueRay – either legally or through pirating – was the only way to be able to watch that film whenever one wanted. I thus recorded 20 or so Charlie Chan films onto videocassettes during cable television marathons in the late 1990s, only to have them replaced with high-quality box sets given to me as gifts by my wife Nell around 2010. When I bought my first DVD player in 2003, the first film I bought was The Maltese Falcon. Since then, I have acquired a few dozen film noir, neo-noir (e.g., L.A. Confidential) and mystery titles through purchases, gifts and DVD pirating, some I had never before seen.

Now, of course, most of these films can be downloaded almost instantly for a nominal one-time or regular fee from various streaming services. But not every film is available this way, which is why I bought copies of films like The Cotton Club, Hammett, The Public Eye, The Shadow and Times Square. I bought a copy of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for our daughters to watch when they were older. I wanted to watch the opening montage and final scenes of Murder on the Orient Express any time I chose, so I bought it on DVD – then followed up with an Agatha Christie box set which includes Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. I purchased DVD copies of Choose Me, Fast Times at Ridgemont High – in my opinion, the greatest high school film ever made – and Rebecca for a variety of reasons. I may yet buy a DVD copy of another difficult-to-find film, FM. Finally, the only way I could watch a copy of The Enforcer (aka Murder Inc.) was to buy it on Amazon’s streaming service; it was worth it.

Given these factors, this is how I assign points to “ownership.” For the record, I am ALWAYS excited to receive films as gifts, but some titles/sets inspire more excitement than others.

5.0 = The Maltese Falcon(n=1)

4.0 = Bought on DVD, excluding The Maltese Falcon, plus The Enforcer (n=25)

3.0 = Recorded onto DVD (n=5) or VHS (21 Charlie Chan films also on DVD)

2.5 = On DVD compilations I bought, not seen previously (n=3);

         On multiple DVD compilations I bought (n=3);

         Charlie Chan on Broadway (not broadcast on late-90s marathons);

         Mulholland Drive (only recorded ~2/3 of it)

2.0 = Exciting gift (n=27);

         The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (gift for Nell)

  1. = Less exciting gift (n=10);

         Best in Show, Blues Brothers (came with DVD player)

0.0 = Do not own (n=611)

Last rewatch. Here is where the fallibility of memory comes into play – I cannot remember with precision the last time I rewatched many of these films. To keep things simple, then, I decided to create a broad, four-value scale:

0 = Last watched within last 10 years (n=338)

-10 = Last watched more than 10, but less than 20 years ago (n=244)

-20 = Last watched more than 20, but less than 30 years ago (n=73)

-30 = Last watched more than 30 years ago (n=56)

Shared with others. There are many reasons why I might get somebody to watch a film I love with me. For nearly a decade, Nell and I invited friends to watch a film noir (excepting the year we watched Frozen…again) on my birthday. COVID-19 put that tradition on hold, for now. I carefully chose which films to screen those nights. Nell, our daughters and I rotated through choices for Saturday family film night for about two years, though the tradition also got put on hold last summer. While we home-schooled our daughters in the spring of 2020, I rewatched Border Incident and Phantom Lady with them. In March 2003, a very close friend was curious about “Carnival,” the opera Oscar Levant composed  for Charlie Chan at the Opera. And so forth.

Again, to keep things simple, I created a four-point scale:

3.0 = Shared within last two years (n=28)

2.0 = Shared between two and 10 years ago (n=59)

1.0 = Shared more than 10 years ago

         Shared between two and 10 years ago as special case (Dark Passage)

         Shared part of (n=39)

0.0 = Never shared (n=585)

Sought information. Sometime in the last 5-10 years, we acquired a big screen HD television set that connected to the Internet – or, at least, to YouTube. This was how I got into the habit of watching videos as one way to relax before getting into bed. I was especially drawn to videos about specific films I liked (or, at least, had seen), particularly those requiring some degree of explanation to understand (more) fully. Four films directed by David Lynch fall into this category (Inland Empire, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me),[4]as do five films directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Memento, The Prestige, Tenet). Incidentally, having finally watched Dunkirk a few weeks ago, Nolan joins Lynch as the only directors by whom I have seen every film s/he helmed (minimum 10).

This also applies to a variety of relatively recent “mind-bending” films like Coherence, Donnie Darko, Looper, Predestination, Primer, Shutter Island, Source Code and The Usual Suspects.[5] Curiosity about videos dissecting Watchmen led me to watch the film for the first time about seven years ago. Videos about Back to the Future and each film in the Sam-Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy are always fun to watch. Within the last two years, I decided to watch the underrated Streets of Fire again – which is how I discovered Morgan Richter’s brilliant YouTube channel When GenX Ruled the Multiplex. I similarly found Channel Awesome’s Nostalgia Critic videos through their hilarious video about The Spirit.[6] And so forth.

To be clear, I am only considering videos about one and only one film; CineFix lists, while excellent, do not apply here. Nor do videos about a specific director that discuss multiple films.

Meanwhile, around 2010, I happened upon – and purchased – a used copy of a book about the making of Cradle Will Rock, including the complete script. Stuffed inside were newspaper clippings. Shortly after that, I purchased and read Eddie Mullers’ terrific book about Gun Crazy. I found a similar book about The Maltese Falcon about two years ago. A few months ago, after watching the film adaptation twice, I bought the original graphic novel of Watchmen…just as in the late 1970s, I bought, read and reread a copy of the novelization of High Anxiety after watching the film at least once.

Finally, there are the 10 films for which I bought the soundtrack – add one point to the scoring below for each of them;[7] the assignation of points is a bit…loose…given the fallibility of memory.

5.0 = Have repeatedly watched multiple videos about film (n=9)

4.0 = Watched multiple videos about film, some more than once (n=8)

3.0 = Watched videos about film, none more than once (n=8)

2.0 = Watched one video multiple times, or two videos once (n=18)

         Bought book about (n=4)

1.0 = Watched one video once (n=16)

0.0 = No videos watched, no books purchased (n=648)

Recency bias. In the summer of 1996, just before I started my first professional data analysis job, I considered writing a book based on an Alternative 500. I had just listened to that year’s countdown by Boston modern rock station WFNX and the idea of collecting and combining multiple versions of the list into a single master list intrigued me; I revisited this idea 18 years later, when I began to construct my film noir database. What struck me at the time, however, was how many fairly recent tracks made the WFNX list; I do not know how they compiled it, but precautions need to be taken against new-ish tracks receiving the most recent airplay. I had a similar reaction to the YouTube favorite movie rankings which helped to inspire this essay.

Simply put, there are films (or pieces of music or books) which one encounters, enjoys a great deal for short period of time, then decide are not as exciting as originally thought. Whether you call it “novelty wearing off” or “burnout,” it is kind of a mirror image of recency bias. When ranking my favorite tracks, I am very careful to adjust for the most recent appearances on mixes, or appearances on multiple mixes in a short period of time.

I chose to do the same thing with my film rankings, so I noted which films on my list of 711 I first saw within the last five years – and, of those, which I first saw within the last two years. There are three films in the latter category I have already watched three times (Coherence, Dazed and Confused, Predestination) and one I have already watched four times (Tenet); I may well rewatch all four in the next year or two. I clearly adore these films NOW, but will they maintain my esteem over the next decade or more, the way films I first watched in the 1970s or 1980s have.

The assignation of points here is simple, even if – again – I do not precisely recall when I first watched some of these films (I may yet assign “-2.5” to films on the five-to-six-year line):

0 = First watched more than five years ago (n=679)

-10 = First watched more than two, but less than five years ago (n=15)

-15 = First watched within last two years (n=17)

Desire to rewatch. The first six hypotheses reflect objective reality – they are quantifiable, given a perfect memory. I watched a film some number of times, first on one day and most recently on another day. I own a film in some way, or I do not. I have shared a film with others, or I have not. I have sought out more information about a film, or I have not.

However, how much I desire to watch a film again is purely subjective. Over the course of months, I have changed these values numerous times to reflect my ever-changing mood. I used to have a similar value for tracks: how much I wanted to put it on a future mix; I have not yet decided whether I will use a statistical value (e.g., standard deviation) to adjust final scores in my latest favorite track algorithm.

The point is, as accurate in my feelings as I attempt to be, this value is kind of like a knob I can turn left or right to bring scores closer in line with my a priori favorite film ranking. To avoid “abusing” this knob, though, I deliberately limited the number of options to seven, keeping it a very blunt instrument:

20 = Let us watch it right now! (n=14)

10 = I want to watch it again, but not right now. (n=53)

5 = I want to watch it again, but not any time soon. (n=114)

0 = Genuinely uncertain (n=132)

-5 = I have no desire to watch it right now. (n=129)

-10 = I have no desire to watch it again any time soon. (n=164)

-20 = I REALLY have no desire to watch it again, but never say never. (n=96)

-30 = I regret watching it once, let alone twice. (n=9)

To be as objective about my subjectivity as possible, I just sorted the 711 films by alphabetical order and hid the final score column. I then went through each film and wrote my gut reaction – not allowing time to overthink. As you see above, this resulted in something akin to a normal distribution, centered around a median value of -5, which is encouraging; more than three-fourths of films (77%) fall between 5 and -10.

Since writing the above paragraph, of course, I have changed some “desire to rewatch” values. So much for forced objectivity.

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Having assigned point values to each hypothesis, the next step was to combine them into a single score. After many false starts, I settled upon a point-weighting system which yields a score ranging between -50 and 100; adding 51 to each score and multiplying by 2/3 yields a score ranging between 0 and 100.[8] Do not take these scores too literally: imagine a +/-7.5 – the effect of a 10-point change in “rewatch” points – around each one.

AdjustedTimesWatched*9 + Own*5 + LastSeen + Shared*(10/3) + OtherInfo + 1stSeen5Years + Rewatch*(3/4)

Deriving the equation, three sets of films concerned me. First, of course, were the Charlie Chan films which I expected to dominate the top 100. And, in fact, this equation yields 21 Charlie Chan films in my top 100, even after assigning many of them “rewatch” scores of -10 or -20. Clearly, I needed to adjust this equation to lower these films’ scores. Second, were the three Marx Brothers films listed above plus A Day at the Races, which I have also numerous times. However, the initial scores for these films were reasonable, alleviating my concern. Finally, there are the 24 films directed by Woody Allen I have watched multiple times. Having raised questions about his character in the context of separating art from artist – questions I am rethinking – I did not want those films to dominate the upper reaches of my rankings either. Once again, though, the initial scores allayed my fears: only three films (Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan) made my top 250 by this score – and only Manhattan is in my top 100. It was not very long ago that I considered Manhattan one of my 10 favorite films.

Thus, I only needed to adjust the Charlie Chan film scores. Not surprisingly, I experimented with many adjustment algorithms before settling upon:

(SQRT((x-InitialScore)/100)+0.1)*InitialScore, where x increases from 55 to 100 as initial score decreases

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So, you ask, what are Matt Berger’s 100 favorite films?

Well, I answer, they are quite probably these, most likely in this order – but this could change at any moment. I leave out the scores because they convey little information.

#100. The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, 1998)

#99. The Street With No Name (William Keighley, 1948)

#98. Blues in the Night (Anatole Litvak, 1941)

#97. FM (John A. Alonzo, 1978)

#96. The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973)

#95. Charlie Chan at the Opera (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1937)

#94. City in Darkness (Herbert I. Leeds, 1939)

#93. Murder Over New York (Harry Lachman, 1940)

#92. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

#91. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

#90. Fletch (Michael Ritchie, 1985)

#89. Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

#88. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

#87. The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

#86. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

#85. Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980)

#84. The Secret of My Success (Herbert Ross, 1987)

#83. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

#82. Predestination (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2014)

#81. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990)

#80. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946)

#79. Black Widow (Nunnally Johnson, 1954)

#78. Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

#77. Who’s Minding the Store? (Frank Tashlin, 1963)

#76. After the Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1936)

#75. Deathtrap (Sidney Lumet, 1982)

#74. The Seven-Percent-Solution (Herbert Ross, 1976)

#73. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

#72. Mystery Men (Kinka Usher, 1999)

#71. House of Games (David Mamet, 1987)

#70. Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944)

#69. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

#68. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)

#67. The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979)

#66. The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968)

#65. The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)

#64. His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, Richard Fleischer, 1951)

#63. Escape To Witch Mountain (John Hough, 1975)

#62. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

#61. I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941)

#60. All Through the Night (Vincent Sherman, 1942)

#59. Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945)

#58. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

#57. The Big Clock (John Farrow, 1948)

#56. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

#55. Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984)

#54. Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950)

#53. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)

#52. Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)

#51. After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

#50. Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (Lynn Shores, 1940)

#49. The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934)

#48. Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948)

#47. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982)

#46. Thank God, It’s Friday (Robert Klane, 1978)

#45. 99 River Street (Phil Karlson, 1953)

#44. He Walked By Night (Alfred Werker, Anthony Mann, 1948)

#43. Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman, 1930)

#42. Monkey Business (Norman Z. McLeod, 1931)

#41. Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)

#40. Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020)

#39. Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1983)

#38. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

#37. Cry of the City (Robert Siodmak, 1948)

#37. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

#36. Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998)

#35. Deadline at Dawn (Harold Cluman, William Cameron Menzies, 1946)

#33. Fame (Alan Parker, 1980)

#32. One Crazy Summer (Savage Steve Holland, 1986)

#31. Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

#30. Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

#29. Impact (Arthur Lubin, 1949)

#28. The Sure Thing (Rob Reiner, 1985)

#27. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

#26. Charlie Chan on Broadway (Eugene Forde, 1937)

#25. Death on the Nile (John Guillermin, 1978)

#24. Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

#23. Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948)

#22. Murder by Death (Robert Moore, 1976)

#21. The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney, Ernst Laemmle, 1925)

#20. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

#19. Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

#18. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, Edmund Goulding, 1935)

#17. Cradle Will Rock (Tim Robbins, 1999)

#16. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

#15. Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982)

#14. The Public Eye (Howard Franklin, 1992)

#13. The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984)

#12. The Shadow (Russell Mulcahy, 1994)

#11. Charlie Chan in Reno (Norman Foster, 1939)

#10. Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (Norman Foster, 1939)

#9. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

#8. Times Square (Allen Moyle, 1980)

#7. Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

#6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)

#5. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)

#4. What’s Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)

#3. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

#2. Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974)

#1. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

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One thing immediately stands out from this list – I have my own strong cinematic bias: vintage crime.

Start with the seven Charlie Chan films (including City in Darkness and Murder Over New York). Add the four films directed by Alfred Hitchcock,[9] the 22 classic-era films noir plus the noir-adjacent All Through the Night, Ball of Fire, Black Widow and Blues in the Night, and stir in both Thin Man films, and we are already at 39 crime films released no later than 1954. 12 Angry Men (1957) revolves around a murder trial, while His Girl Friday (1941) centers on an accused murderer. Eleven other titles – The Cotton Club, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Death on the Nile, Hammett, Kind Hearts and Coronets, L.A. Confidential, Murder by Death, The Public Eye, Murder on the Orient Express, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The Shadow and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – are crime or crime-adjacent films released between 1974 and 1997, but set between 1895 and 1955. Throw in the murderous Phantom of the Opera, and that means just over half (53%) of my 100 favorite films could be called vintage crime films.

More recently, we have protagonist murderers in two Lynch films – Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – along with the similarly-recent crimes of Dark City, The Dark Knight and The Usual Suspects. Going back to the 1980s, Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch brilliantly blend murder mystery and comedy. Two films directed by David Mamet – House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner – are crime-adjacent (and harken back to the con artistry of The Sting), while the third Lumet-directed film in my top 100, Deathtrap, is about writing murder mystery playwrights who are themselves murderers. This brings the total number of crime-oriented films in my top 100 to 64.

But wait, there is also the Fizzle Bomber of Predestination, the crime fighting “superheroes” of Mystery Men, Paul Hackett’s dark night of the soul in After Hours and the murderous Alex Sator in Tenet. Thus, somewhere between 64 and 68 of my 100 favorite films revolve around crime, be they traditional whodunits, noir treachery, modern-day period pieces or contemporary mayhem.

Thankfully, there is a healthy serving of comic films (beyond the 23 crime films with comic elements) to cleanse the palette. Setting aside the three Marx Brothers films, there are 11 at least somewhat comedic films centered around teens – including the pre-teens of Moonrise Kingdom and the recent college graduates of The Secret of My Success. Also in my top 100 are other great American comedies of the 20th century: The Apartment, The General,[10] Ghostbusters, The In-Laws, Manhattan, The Odd Couple and What’s Up, Doc?. I have a soft spot for late 1950s/early 1960s Jerry Lewis films, especially my childhood favorite, Who’s Minding the Store?.[11] Two other childhood favorites – Escape to Witch Mountain and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – also make the top 100.

A little more sobering are the teen dramas Fame and Times Square, even if the latter is one of two films in my Top 100 (along with the charming and underrated Thank God, It’s Friday, my guiltiest pleasure) to receive a “BOMB” rating from film critic Leonard Maltin. Rounding out the top 100, finally, are the southern California dramedy FM, the brain-bending Coherence, the only Steven Spielberg film in my top 100 (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the 1930s dramedy Cradle Will Rock.

Crime overload aside, this is an eclectic and interesting group of films. The average IMDb rating is a solid 7.4, higher than the 7.1 for all 711 films. The critical and audience averages on Rotten Tomatoes are 83.2 and 78.2, respectively, which are also higher. Maltin gives these films 3.0 stars, on average, with 14 films awarded the 4-star maximum. That said, the correlation between my score and the critical film score I developed is only 0.17 across all 711 films – and only 0.07 for my top 100. Clearly, I am not drawing from a master list of cinephilic favorites.

The median release year of 1969.5 for my 100 favorite films is misleading, as the distribution is more bimodal. Fully 37% were released between 1939 and 1954, another 23% were released between 1976 and 1985, with another 8% released between 1997 and 2001. Going by decade, we find two silent films from the 1920s, followed by the 1930s (10), 1940s (27), 1950s (8), 1960s (3), 1970s (12), 1980s (20), 1990s (12) and six released after 2000 with the most recent being Tenet (2020).

However, what these films possess in generic and temporal diversity, they admittedly and unfortunately lack in other forms of diversity. Only two women directed these 100 films: Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling; Hitchcock, Lumet, Otto Preminger (3) and Robert Siodmak (3) directed 13 films between them. Set aside the diversity of The Cotton Club, Fame, and Thank God, It’s Friday and excellent supporting performances by Asian-American actors Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung in six of the Charlie Chan films,[12] and the only true non-white stars are Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop and John David Washington in Tenet. On the other hand, we have cultural appropriation from persons of color in Blues in the Night, The Cotton Club (with its overt racism, which it shares with L.A. Confidential) and, most infamously, the rewriting of rock-and-roll history in Back to the Future. Setting aside the lesbian romances in Manhattan and Mulholland Drive (and those implied in Rebecca and Times Square) and the gay lovers in Deathtrap,[13] this is an overwhelmingly white heterosexual group of films, nearly all made in the United States, and mostly centered around crime, comedy and kids.

How much of this is personal taste and how much is the history of Hollywood, I will let you decide for yourself.

Until next time….and if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[1] Rather than link to every film I discuss in this essay, here is the IMDb home page.

[2] “Songs” is too limiting.

[3] I included two films among my 711 – AutoFocus and The Man Who Knew Too Little – I have seen once in their entirety, and more than half of on another occasion.

[4] I have yet to rewatch Eraserhead (or, for that matter, The Shining, Silence of the Lambs and Taxi Driver), but I have watched videos about it as well.

[5] This also includes Triangle, which I watched and enjoyed for the first time in December 2022. At some point soon, I will rewatch it.

[6] I only include these videos, because the other 100+ views were as much (or more) about the videographer as about the film itself.

[7] I include Purple Rain and Streets of Fire despite buying the soundtrack long before I watched the film.

[8] Technically, the lowest value is 0.67.

[9] Just missing the top 100 are The 39 Steps (#104), Spellbound (#109), Rope (#110), Strangers on a Train (#117) and Psycho (#119).

[10] Just missing the top 100 is Sherlock, Jr. (#106).

[11] The Nutty Professor bubbles under at #124.

[12] Harold Huber – who also appeared in The Thin Man – essentially plays that role in City in Darkness. I note with sadness that the Chinese-American Chan has yet to be played by a Chinese-American actor.

[13] At the risk of spoilers, I credit Sarah Snook’s brilliant performance in Predestination as well.

2 thoughts on “My 100 Favorite Films…Probably

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