Every movie buff appreciates a cinematic list. The arrival of vast information on a subject we love so dearly will always be welcomed with open arms. And what better than the esteemed list of all-time greatest films? Whether it’s a monumental effort like Empire’s The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, or the country-specific AFI list of 100 Greatest American Films, there’s no denying the lasting appeal and insight a list can offer to reminiscence about old favourites and to put us on our way for new discoveries. After all, they’re usually spot on, having polled critics, filmmakers, and a devoted public who know exactly what makes a motion picture entertaining, important and timeless.
The problem is, of course, that after so many years, we’re used to reading the same old lists over and over again – how many times have we been told that The Godfather or Citizen Kane are the greatest movies of all time? That Star Wars is a fantasy classic and Pulp Fiction a triumph in dialogue and narrative technique? By now, we’re well aware of the influence that Psycho has had on those films that came after it, and that Blade Runner blended science-fiction and noir into an undeniable classic.
So here’s a list with a difference. 50 great films that come highly recommended that you wouldn’t catch dead on a prestigious or populist film list. Great films to bump shoulders with the big boys. Films that you probably have missed. That you still haven’t got around to watching. That deserve a little more recognition. That you don’t hear much about these days. That need to be seen again to be appreciated. That will bring you joy and sadness. That will make you think. Leave you in wonder. Scare the heck out of you. It’s not a list of the best films ever made nor a list of the underrated and ignored – just great films that don’t always get a chance to shine.
It goes without saying, but you won’t find the likes of Casablanca, Raging Bull, Chinatown, The Seventh Seal, Tokyo Story or Apocalypse Now here. In fact, not a single film listed below appears on Empire’s The 500 Greatest Films of All Time. It’s time to point the spotlight elsewhere.
50. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) (Dir. Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s extensive and intimidating filmography has allowed many of his lesser-known films to fall into obscurity, but the famous neurotic made one of his most charming movies in 1984 with The Purple Rose of Cairo. Essentially, it’s an ode to the relationship between film and film-goer, in a film disguised as a love story.
The casting is inspired, with Allen regular Mia Farrow falling for on-screen explorer Jeff Daniels, who steps out of the titular picture to woo her. It’s short and sweet, but beneath the surface Allen asks some pretty serious questions about what it means to be an audience and how it merges with real life. Watching without regard for the underlying commentary doesn’t make it any less of a true cinematic gem.
49. Duck, You Sucker! (1971) (Dir. Sergio Leone)
In the years between reputable classics Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America, spaghetti western pioneer Sergio Leone helmed Duck, You Sucker!, a story of revolution set in Mexico in the early 20th century, starring Rod Steiger and James Coburn.
All the trademark Leone touches are here – the extreme close-ups, the kinetic camera style, the Morricone soundtrack – but the film failed to gather positive momentum upon release. Several sequences are astounding, including a truly explosive shoot-out in a valley between the rebels and the government. Politics aside, the film is also a somber, touching piece, emphasised by the at odds relationship between Steiger and Coburn.
Simply put, it is one of Leone’s great achievements, often the forgotten gem of his short filmography.
48. The Rescuers Down Under (1990) (Dir. Hendel Butoy/Mike Gabriel)
Some Disney aficionados might be shocked to learn that this sequel is considered to be part of the Walt Disney Animated Classic canon, made at the height of America’s brief fascination with everything Australian. Picking up many years after the original The Rescuers, heroic mice Bernard and Bianca travel down under to save a young boy, Cody, from the clutches of an evil poacher.
The plot dwindles somewhat, but this is a real triumph in animation – the flying sequences, especially, which see Cody atop a giant golden eagle, might never have been bettered, and Bruce Broughton’s soaring soundtrack is a highlight. The Lion King it’s not, but The Rescuers Down Under more than deserves it’s place in that now infamous era of Disney renaissance.
47. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) (Dir. Roman Polanski)
It’s strange to recall that Roman Polanski was once married to the beautiful Sharon Tate. Though they mutually agreed a dislike for one another upon their initial meeting, their relationship developed over the course of The Fearless Vampire Killers. A surreal blend of horror and farce, this telling of the Dracula story benefits from its quirky set pieces and wonderful scenic moments.
The story is as simple as they come: Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowan) and his assistant, Alfred, played by Polanski himself, arrive in Central Europe on the trail of vampires. The innkeeper’s daughter (Tate) is plucked away and they go off to rescue her. What could have been a huge creative misfire turns out to be a massively entertaining romp with a sinister bite.
46. Heaven’s Gate (1980) (Dir. Michael Cimino)
That Heaven’s Gate is often regarded as the worst movie ever made is surely a misdemeanour. The film that Michael Cimino chose as his follow-up to The Deer Hunter is notorious for the director’s own relentless indulgence, its colossal budget ($44 million), and for the cold reception it garnered from critics and the public alike. But if there was ever a film that deserved a second viewing, it’s this somber tale of how the west was sold. For all its indulgence, every cent is right up there on the screen: the costumes, the sets, the moody landscapes, the battles. If the narrative suffers through the excessive push on authenticity, it only adds to the film’s lasting appeal as an eccentric mess with a twinkle in its eye.
45. The Mission (1986) (Dir. Roland Jofé)
Despite the fact that it was nominated for six Oscars, received the Palme d’Or in 1986 and stars Robert De Niro, The Mission has remained relatively silent over the years. It’s a shame, as it’s a complex and haunting story told with real visual power.
Set in the 18th century, De Niro is a mercenary who kills his brother in a duel and travels with a missionary (played wonderfully by Jeremy Irons) to the jungles of South America to seek penance. His journey from vagabond to jesuit makes for wrenching viewing, especially as colonialists draw close and threaten his new way of life with violent means. Most will remember the film for its astounding Ennio Morricone musical score, which, to date, is one of the bestselling soundtracks of all-time.
44. War of the Worlds (2005) (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg does what he does best in his own version of the H.G. Wells classic: puts a family in an extraordinary situation, plunges them into darkness, and nudges them back towards the light. With a modern spin on the Victorian-era novel, Tom Cruise must lead his family to safety when aliens buried beneath the earth’s crust emerge to reign destruction on mankind.
If Spielberg does nothing to shift perceptions of his directorial habits by the end of the movie, the film’s first half is a master’s lesson in creating tension. Follow that with one of the best visual armageddons ever put to the screen, and you have a contemporary sci-fi classic that crafts believable characters and manages sequences of genuine horror.
43. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
With a title like a tongue twister and a running time nothing short of gargantuan, it’s no surprise that this documentary hasn’t attracted much attention outside of film circles. For near four hours, Martin Scorsese guides us through the history of cinema and introduces the films that have inspired him. It’s his sheer enthusiasm that makes this such great viewing – he lives and breathes cinema, and invites anybody who wants to listen along for the ride. As he talks to the camera without an ounce of pretension, it’s impossible not to savour every word.
Essential for those who want to know why certain films were popular and why, and what moved Hollywood to create key genres. The honour is to learn it all from the mouth of a master like Scorsese.
42. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) (Dir. Ronald Neame/Irwin Allen)
“Hell, Upside Down!” went the tagline for this topsy turvy thriller about a cruise liner that flip turns and leaves its occupants on a desperate mission to return to the surface. A big hitter when first released (it was the highest grossing film of 1972), The Poseidon Adventure saw Gene Hackman as leader of a small group of surviving eccentrics.
The characters might be bordering the stereotypical, but the set pieces are brilliantly realised, and the film lends itself to the notion that anyone’s expendable, a nice departure from cinema convention. It was remade in 2006 to terrible ends, its formula followed in 1974 by the better know The Towering Inferno. In terms of good old-fashioned entertainment with a kick, The Poseidon Adventure comes out on top.
41. Falling Down (1993) (Dir. Joel Schumacher)
If you thought you were having a bad day, it’s probably nothing compared to the one Michael Douglas is having in Falling Down. When a seemingly minor event triggers years of pent-up aggressive, Douglas abandons his car in traffic and takes to the streets so he can reach his daughter in time for her birthday. Familiar territory, but Schumacher uses Douglas’ rampage through endless urban decay as a way to explore all kinds of social avenues, whilst Robert Duvall, an about-to-retire cop, tries to track him down.
Though this fits into the basic thriller genre well enough, Douglas’ astounding performance assures it sticks with you. Falling Down is a dark, sad story told in a contemporary L.A. made to feel like a terrifying dystopia. Joel Schumacher never did better.
40. The Mosquito Coast (1986) (Dir. Peter Weir)
Some movies evoke the feeling of a strange dream. The kind in which you awake in confusion, attempting to make sense of what you’ve just experienced. The Mosquito Coast, directed by Peter Weir, seems to exist in a place like that. Based on Paul Theroux’s (and it’s to be said, better) novel, it stars Harrison Ford as an inventor who takes his family (River Phoenix, Helen Mirren) to Honduras to start society anew.
Reviews were luke-warm upon release, though it requires multiple viewings before it can sink in. Cold and distant and beautiful all at once, Harrison Ford admitted its place as personal favourite of all the films he’s worked on. Like Allie Fox, the character he plays, The Mosquito Coast is flawed, but yearns to be loved and understood.
39. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) (Dir. Richard Donner)
It’s easy to write off a sequel when it doesn’t quite match the brilliance of the original. The Lethal Weapon series was criticised for its gradual emphasis on more comedy and less drama, but Lethal Weapon 2 is as worthy a sequel as you might encounter in Hollywood. The real treat here lies with just how dark the story verges, with buddy cops Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtaugh (Danny Glover) taking on ruthless South African diplomats (joined this time by Joe Pesci).
The action sequences more than match the original’s (the trailer shoot-out, especially, is excellent), and for all its comedic vice, the tension is maintained through some truly horrifying moments and one stomach-crunching revelation from the past.
38. Big Trouble In Little China (1986) (Dir. John Carpenter)
The trick is not to forget how self-aware John Carpenter really is. Though at first it might appear a bizarre effort to create some kind of martial arts meets fantasy flick, Big Trouble In Little China is better realised as a homage to old-fashioned B-movies. Once you’ve spotted that, it’s impossible not to enjoy (and savour) every moment.
Who better to star than Carpenter-regular and cult hero Kurt Russell? As useless, egotistical truck driver Jack Burton, armed with an endless supply of corny one-liners (“…if we’re not back by dawn, call the President”), he bumbles through the film’s endless array of set pieces, while sidekick Dennis Yung does all the work. Assuring a unique spirit of adventure, this is one of cinema’s best send-ups of everything grindhouse.
37. The Iron Giant (1999) (Dir. Brad Bird)
Half a decade before phenomenal (and arguably greatest Pixar outing) The Incredibles, Brad Bird helmed his first feature over at Warner Bros.: an animation adaptation of Ted Hughes’ novel The Iron Giant. Why Pixar eventually went on to hire him is made apparent within the first 10 minutes. The story takes place at the height of the Cold War, when nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes finds himself entangled with a gigantic robot from outer space.
Politics aside, what appears to be a generic boy meets alien story is actually a cocktail of genuine emotion, important discussion, and beautifully constructed sequences that merge effortlessly with sheer entertainment. As the dust settles, The Iron Giant might well be the most accomplished animated film ever made.
36. Rescue Dawn (2006) (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Diehard Werner Herzog fans might cringe at the idea of his assimilation into Hollywood, but followers of the Bavarian director shouldn’t dismiss this Vietnam war story as standard fare. For Rescue Dawn, commercial as it might appear, is entirely Herzog in its premise and execution.
Based on the true story of pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), who crashed during the war, it recounts his time as a P.O.W. and subsequent escape into the harsh Cambodian jungle surrounding the camp. Strange in that unexplainable Herzog way, he successfully injects humour into the situation, as Dieter rallies fellow prisoners into escape movie mode. Herzog shoots the jungle with the paranoid tension he took for Fitzcarraldo and Agiurre: The Wrath of God. It is utterly compelling in every sense.