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A top twenty favorite films list

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An emotional scene from 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'
20th Century Fox

Do you have a need to explore below the surface, dig deeper, and find out what emotional conflicts are lurking below the surface and driving their actions? What motivates them? What drives their passions and fuels their angst?Ask them for a list of their favorite movies.

You can tell an awful lot about a person by taking a close look at their favorite films.

There are some very distinct common themes and obsessions at work here on this list.
Perhaps in the near future I will do an in depth essay blog analyzing this further.
In the mean time, this reviewer's top twenty favorite films.

1) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle and characters created by Paul Dehn

I’ll tell you how much this film affected me. I insist on having a Hall of Fame like waiting period of at least five years before a movie can even be eligible for consideration to be on this list.

Well, that rule was waived for the first time ever for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes".

Not since "A.I Artificial Intelligence" in 2001 have I thought this much about a film after seeing it. Caesar is an unforgettable character and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is not just a well crafted, expertly paced, exciting blockbuster. It is full of iconic moments including an emotional finale that will be etched into cinematic history.

At its heart Rise is a coming age of story that resonates with deep emotion. It is a film about family, home, tragedy, separation, finding one's place in the world, and so much more.

2) Videodrome (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by David Cronenberg

Describing "Videodrome" to the uninitiated is difficult, because in some ways this is a difficult film. Or as the lead character Max Renn played by James Woods says at one point, “I am having trouble finding my way around.”

A screenwriting logline might read:
A contemporary erotic science fiction film noir about a right wing conspiracy using video signals from S and M underground broadcasts...

Okay maybe this is not the kind of film that can be accurately captured in a logline or marketing catch phrase.

But I do know of a few phrases that can help give a few hints as to what it is; strange, erotic, hallucinatory, prophetic, hypnotic, and just plain wicked, subversive and insanely brilliant.

3) Falling Down (1993)

Directed by Joel Schumacher
Screenplay by Ebbe Roe Smith

If ever there was a relevant time to rediscover a film, the time is now, and the film is 1993’s "Falling Down". An insightful masterwork of well executed, stirring set pieces tied together by a haunting (and underrated) performance by Michael Douglas as Bill Foster, "Falling Down" is a film that provokes strong polarizing reactions.

Like several of the main characters on this top ten list, Bill “D-Fens” Foster just wants to find a way to go back “home” and recapture a past that no longer exists.

4) JFK (1991)

Directed by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar
Based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marris

The conspiracy, the history, the spooky men in the shadows—"JFK" is the best X-file ever made.

One of two Oliver Stone movies on my list, it is the last great film Stone made before he seemingly lost all story telling sensibilities.

"JFK" is the most fascinating real life inspired film ever made.

This movie is also an example on how to brilliantly use cinematography, different film stock and formats, and editing techniques to enhance the storytelling and atmosphere—as opposed to the frenzied over directed mess most films are today.

5) Empire of the Sun (1987)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Tom Stoppard
Based on the book by J.G. Ballard

One of two films from 1987 on my list and one of several about family, tragedy, separation, and the journey of a character struggling to find their way home.

I remember seeing "Empire of the Sun" at a 10PM showing on the Friday night it opened. I literally staggered from the theater breathless from the haunting dreamlike imagery and the soul stirring score by John Williams.

I much prefer this criminally underrated masterpiece to Spielberg’s other much lauded WWII films he won Oscars for.

6) Planet of the Apes (1968)

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle

The original "Planet of the Apes" struck a chord with audiences of 1968 in much the same way Rise is connecting to moviegoers in 2011. Both films have strong performances, innovative special effects, exciting set pieces, and terrific musical scores.

But what sets both Rise and the 1968 original apart from other well crafted genre fair is the way both films have created memorable characters and a rich thematic subtext on the issues of the day. Rise is about family, healthcare, aging, animal welfare and the environment. In 1968 Apes took on civil unrest, racism, war, and nuclear armageddon, but like Rise, never at the expense of story, character, and pacing.

7) Wall Street (1987)

Directed by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser

I was a stockbroker for fourteen plus years and was literally studying for my Series 7 exam in December 1987 when I first saw this mythic film at a run down General Cinema in Plantation, Florida. It became a bible to young stockbrokers who were “poor, smart and hungry” desperately trying “stake their claim” in the Reaganomics world of the 1980's.

The money culture, the classic dialogue, the clothes, the slang, the attitudes, the cinematography, the rise, the fall, and most of all—Gekko. "Now if you do good sport, you get perks. Lots and lots of perks."

One of three Michael Douglas films in my top ten.
His body of work from 1987 to 1993 is simply mind blowing.

8) The Bear (1989)

Directed by Jean-Jaques Annaud
Screenplay by Gerard Bach
Based on the novel by James Oliver Curwood

I usually try to avoid animal movies at all costs because quite frankly they just make me sad. And the animals are rarely treated with respect not only as creatures, but as characters.

There are some upsetting parts in this movie to be sure, but they are not forced or contrived. The storytelling is completely honest about things that could and often do happen to bears in the wild when they are just being bears. They are treated with respect as wild animals, and as truly memorable characters we become emotionally involved with.

An almost totally silent movie, "The Bear" tops "Born Free" as the best movie about animals ever made. It is simply a beautiful film.

9) A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Steven Spielberg
Screen Story by Ian Watson and Stanley Kubrick
Based on the short story by Brian Aldiss

This is a dark, complex, sentimental, and haunting film that polarized critics and turned off audiences who were expecting a feel good film in the spirit of "ET".

This movie actually does have a lot more in common with "ET" and "Close Encounters" than one might think. But this time the questions posed are not always answered. And the emotional payoff is far more complex.

The film is a technical marvel on every level.

The hyper-real stylish cinematography of Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski manages to convey the look of both a Kubrick and a Spielberg film at the same time. The mix of cold Kubrickian existential bleakness and the warm Spielberg spirituality of his trademark "god light" is what makes "A.I." such an utterly fascinating experience.

Maestro John William's emotional score infuses the movie with deep sense of sadness as the main character searches for a lost childhood he can never have.

10) Basic Instinct (1992)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Joe Eszterhas

I love John Dahl’s film noir trilogy ("Kill Me Again", "Red Rock Wes", "The Last Seduction"), but "Basic Instinct" with its "Vertigo" inspired San Francisco locations is my favorite neo-noir.

Michael Douglas is at the peak of his leading man, bad boy, troubled anti-hero form. Sharon Stone is in the prime of her alluring femme fatale sexual charisma. Director Paul Verhoeven, writer Joe Eszterhas, cinematographer Jan DeBont, composer Jerry Goldsmith–every one involved is at the peak of their creative powers in this provocative neo-Hitchcock classic. The most daring (and best) mainstream commercial erotic film ever made.

One of two San Francisco based films on my list (along with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes").

11) E. T. The extraterrestrial (1982)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Mathison

While the critical reputation of the original “Star Wars” (1977) has soared over the past few decades along with its ever growing multi-generational fan base, Steven Spielberg’s arguably best film has been largely forgotten and today is dismissed as just another children’s film from the 80s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You had be around and of a certain age to understand the tremendous impact this film had on people the first time they saw it in a crowded theater. Spielberg was at the absolute peak of supernatural storytelling skills as he took his thematic material from “Close Encounters”, and with the aid of Melissa Mathison’s superb screenplay, crafted it into a personal story of childhood loneliness, friendship, and love.

Everything in this film—the foggy suburban backyards, the mystical forest, the frightening “men with keys”, the honest performances, and John Williams operatic score—works in this unforgettable work of art. “E.T.” is the friend we all wished we had at one time in our lives—someone who always “will be right here” at our darkest hour of of need.

12) Exotica (1995)

Directed by Atom Egoyan
Written by Atom Egoyan

Mia Kirshner first came to the attention of movie fans at the age of 19 with her luminous and haunting performance in Atom Egoyan’s mesmerizing film about tragedy and healing, “Exotica” (1994). Mia plays the role of an exotic dancer named Christina who shares a special connection to a grieving man with a tragic past played by Bruce Greenwood in a superb, beautifully understated performance.

"Exotica" was a big hit during the 1994 festival circuit and was nominated for a Palme d’or at The Cannes Film Festival. Roger Ebert even included the movie in his “Great Movies” essay. “Exotica” truly is an artistic triumph on every level, but what makes it all come together is the presence of Mia Kirshner. Her ethereal performance, beguiling beauty, and radiating sexual charisma must be seen to be believed.

13) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron and William Wisher Jr.

James Cameron is a genius. I do not use that word lightly because it gets thrown around way too much, especially in the areas of sports and entertainment. When it comes to film there are two people who have earned that label—Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron.

What is unique about James Cameron is that with every film he will show something you have never seen before. He will give you an experience you have never had before. He will find a way to bring his imagination on to the screen even if he has to invent the technology to do it.

“T2” is a landmark film on so many levels. It is the first full scale use of CGI visual effects and it perfected the morphing effect Cameron pioneered in “The Abyss” (1988). “T2” still has the best action sequences of all time—action you can actually follow in stark contrast to the shaky cam over-edited noise that passes for action in most films today.

But above all, “T2” is just a great story about a makeshift nuclear family on the run trying to save humanity from itself.

14) Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)

Directed by Luciano Ercoli
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi

I have a voracious appetite for the Eurotrash films late 60s and early 70s in general, especially the Italian Giallos. The Giallos were highly sexualized thrillers featuring a mysterious black-gloved killer and complex, intricately choreographed murder sequences set to super cool, kitschy music—often by Ennio Morricone, the composer “Forbidden Photos”.

These films are bursting often visual delights, starring beautiful European women and brooding, handsome Italian men. Think of Hitchcock and De Palma but with even more style, outrageous violence, and over the top sex.

Although any newbie to this genre would be advised to start with the two masters who bookend the Giallo era—Mario Bava and Dario Argento—“Forbidden Photos” boast some formidable credentials of its own. Luciano Ercoli is a confident director who know how to deliver this material. Workhorse Ernesto Gastaldi is a terrific writer who has authored dozens of classic both in and outside of the genre.

But the key to this film—and what makes any Giallo or erotic thriller work—is the female lead. The German actress Dagmar Lassander is an absolute marvel. She commands our attention in every scene and carries this film—very much in the mold of a Hitchcock-ian female lead. She is also the star of another retro classic that barely missed making this list, “Femina Ridens” (1969).

15) Avatar (2009)

Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron

Besides being a visionary and the greatest action director of all time, James Cameron is knows how to write great romance and at its core “Avatar” is a love story.

There are a lot of reasons that “Avatar” become the event film of the decade and broke box office records. It has action, romance, and invented a new way of seeing and experiencing movies. But what makes “Avatar” a classic worthy of this list is its heart. “Avatar” is a film with a philosophy.

Cameron was told early on by studio executives to change his approach and lose the magic of mother earth subtext. But if ever there was a man who lived by the credo of the John Locke/Smoke Monster character of Lost, "Don't tell me what I can't do", it is James Cameron.

The philosophical subtext of Avatar interconnects beautifully with the corporate weasels of the "company" in “Aliens” (1986), and the apocalyptic inevitability of “The Terminator films”. It has been a running thematic thread in all of James Cameron's work, as omnipresent as the strong female characters, the mushy romance, and the adrenaline fueled pounding kick ass action sequences.

16) Robocop (1987)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner

Paul Verhoeven was a Dutch auteur who came to America and re-invigorated genre cinema, unleashing a smash-mouth style of film-making that woke up stupefied movie-going drones with fierce cocktail of adrenaline, action, sexuality, and overt political and social commentary.

The great Verhoeven trilogy (“Robocop”, “Total Recall”, “Basic Instinct”) could never be made by a major studio today. Sure there was the 2012 “Total Recall” remake. It was beautiful but bland. And do not believe the hype about the “Robocop” remake. It too will lack the balls—and the heart—of this 1987 science fiction masterpiece.

The frightening part is just how prophetic the dystopian world of “Robocop” has turned out to be. Not only has the world of O.C.P where everything is privatized under evil, corrupt, greedy corporations come true—in the post Citizens United Koch brother’s controlled Tea Party world of 2013—the rapid right wing surge of America has far surpassed the dark dystopia created by screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner.

Even the villains in “Robocop” would fail to pass today’s conservative litmus test.

17) Enchanted (2007)

Directed by Kevin Lima
Written by Bill Kelly

Sometimes a movie comes together where everything works with such effortless precision that the final film surpasses even the highest expectations of the creators. This is rare occurrence happens maybe once every decade or two. “E.T.” (1982) was such a movie. So was “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). So is “Enchanted”. It is movie magic.

Having a storyline where animated characters cross over in the real world is a high risk payoff. Often it is disastrous (“Cool World” (1992)). But when it works (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)) the upside is tremendous. And in “Enchanted” the transitions between worlds are so seamless and so sincere, the movie stands as the both the ultimate homage to every animated Disney classic ever made, and a modern masterpiece in its own right.

The beguiling Amy Adams is simple magical. She really is an animated character come to life. And the music—the score might just be Alan Menkin’s best yet. “So Close” is my favorite movie song of all time and the ball room sequence where it is performed is a scene as unforgettable as the one in “Beauty and the Beast”.

18) To Live and Die in LA (1985)

Directed William Friedkin
Screenplay by William Friedkin and Gerald Petievich
Based on the novel by Gerald Petievich

This underrated 1985 William Friedkin directed action film noir features the best action sequence of all time not directed by James Cameron. It is a car chase, and I mean it is a CAR CHASE! Friedkin and company set out to top the director’s famous car chase in “The French Connection” and boy, did they ever!

“To Live and Die in LA” features a pre-“CSI” William Peterson. He is the perfect hard-boiled leading man—handsome, tough as nails, cynical, highly sexual, and a reckless adrenaline junkie. His nemesis, a counterfeiter who leads a double life as a famous LA painter, is played with retrained perfection by the great William Dafoe.

The propulsive electronic pop soundtrack is by Wang Chung.

19) Jackie Brown (1997)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
Based on the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard

Quentin Tarantino’s least popular film (okay second least popular behind the glorious “Death Proof”) is my favorite among the king of cool’s colorful filmography.

“Jackie Brown” may not have the over the top violence and outrageous attitude of other Tarantino films, but it is a tremendously entertaining film, meticulously crafted in every aspect. There is something about the combination of Tarantino’s savvy directorial style and Elmore Leonard’s hard-boiled writings and characters that make for a synergistic marriage made in pop culture heaven.

The original Blaxploitation superstar, the statuesque Pam Grier is captivating in a complex performance as she takes us into the hidden and intricate world of bond bailsmen, ex-cons, gun runners and federal agents. The chemistry between her and the late, great Steve Forster is simmering even when not a word is being spoken. Samuel L. Jackson gives yet another wickedly cool performance and the beach house scene with him, Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda is vintage Tarantino.

Of course, the soundtrack is fantastic. Or as Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell Robbie said, “Do you like The Delfonics?”

20) Flatliners (1990)

Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Peter Falardi

This one of the scripts I studied when writing screenplays. It has a tight, magnificent, classic structure where every scene moves the story forward. It also has one of the best loglines in movie history that goes something like this:

A group of brilliant, adventurous medical students attempt to explore the mysteries of the afterlife by experimenting on each other inducing death and resuscitation and bring back something sinister from beyond.

Walk into a studio executives office in the mid to late 80’s with that pitch followed by the words “brat pack” and you would have got yourself a deal.

But this is not “St. Elmo’s Fire” or “The Breakfast Club”. It is not a brat pack movie at all. The critics at the time who dismissed this movie as a vapid exercise in style really missed the call on this one.

“Flatliners” is a spooky, serious science fiction thriller—tightly wound, suspenseful, and loaded with knockout performances. All five of the film’s stars are tremendous, but it is Kevin Bacon who really shines here. The dialogue is outstanding—witty, realistic, funny—containing a pitch perfect flow and rhythm. Joel Shumacher may not be one of the greatest directors of all time, but he did direct two of the greatest films on my all-time list—“Falling Down” and “Flatliners”.

James Newton Howard's haunting musical score is still unavailable in a commercial release as of this writing.