What is a Perfect Movie?
A perfect movie — in the technical sense — probably doesn’t exist, but a perfect movie — in a subjective, creative and artistic sense — exists everywhere, constantly discussed over coffee on first dates, over beers while shooting pool and on personal blogs. To that end, this article isn’t meant to convince you of anything. If you agree with my choices, awesome. If you don’t, that’s awesome, too. In either case, I’d love to have your comments. In the end, perfect movies are those rare gems that don’t leave you wanting.
Without further ado and in no particular order:
1. Miller’s Crossing
- Year: 1990
- Directed by: Joel Coen
- Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Albert Finney, John Polito
- Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), is the Right Hand Man to Irish mob boss, Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), that can’t make the right decisions because of a girl named Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). This leads to an all out war with rival Italian crime boss, Johnny Caspar (John Polito). When Tom’s affair with Verna is discovered, he’s forced to walk the razor’s edge between both factions and somehow make everything square, without getting his head blown off.
From the very beginning, with John Polito’s excellently written and flawlessly delivered monologue, you can tell you’re in for something special. The entire film really hearkens back to an older style of filmmaking where all of the lines are hyper-realistic and none of the actors do anything more than they have to. Ocean’s 11 captured the same kind of feel, in the dialog anyway. As a nice touch, however, the Coen Brothers threw in a few ironic vignettes to keep the film from getting too stiff, like when Tom bests Goliath, but gets trounced by David or when a prominent character is able to beat the odds against several armed hitmen. The most delicious part of the film is probably the dialog. It’s snappy. It’s stylish. And it’s smart. I don’t know if the Coen Brothers made up the slang for the film, but it definitely adds a nice texture. In the end, everything comes together in classic Hollywood fashion, but without making you feel like the characters haven’t experienced something. This is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film.
2. Shakespeare in Love
- Year: 1998
- Directed by: John Madden
- Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench
- Written by: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard
William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has writer’s block and he’s behind on his new play: Romeo & Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. This is no good for his patron Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) who needs a new play in order to pay off his loan from Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson). Shakespeare finally finds his inspiration when he meets the love of his life, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and uses his everyday experiences to write the famous tragedy Romeo & Juliet.
First and foremost, this is some of the most clever writing in any film ever. Not only are Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard able to work in iconic lines like “A plague on both their houses!” in practical ways, but they were also able to sneak in playful jabs at the entertainment industry as a whole. This is most evident during the first day of rehearsal where we’re treated to the varying degrees of ego, starting with the writer, then moving to the producer and finally ending with the A-list actor. Moreover, the film does a wonderful job of transporting you back to Shakespeare’s time with an authentic set and very committed extras. It’s also a nice touch that many of the characters were real people, like the kid John Webster, obsessed with violence who in real life would go on to write some of the more violent plays of his time. Or so I’ve read. Lastly, no other film I’ve seen has captured the feeling of being on stage as well as Shakespeare in Love. Every time I watch the POV shot of Wabash stepping out to begin the play I get just a little bit of stage fright.
- Year: 2002
- Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
- Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
- Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Faithless Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lives with his two children and his younger brother (Joaquin Phoenix). His wife was killed in a car accident and the remaining members all seem to have harmless, but very specific oddities or disabilities about them. Graham also owns a farm with fields that are being graffitied with crop circles. At first, he thinks it’s a prank, but with more and more crops being affected around the world, it becomes undeniably apparent that extra terrestrials are visiting the planet.
Yeah, that’s probably not the best plot summary, but it’s hard to talk about a Shyamalan film without giving too much away. Also, I realize that I’ll lose all of my credibility with many of you for picking a Shyamalan film, but I’ll just have to get by somehow. Here’s the thing: Shyamalan’s movies have ultimately always been about families surviving some kind of crisis. Even the ill-conceived Lady in the Water had this to some degree during the “healing” scene. The “family” element is when Shyamalan is at his best and in Signs, this takes up nearly 100% of the film. Heck, even Shyamalan holds his own as an actor here, without overdoing it. As a final stroke of brilliance, the film even allows the viewer to appreciate the story with a non-religious explanation, if they so desire.
4. Jerry MaGuire
- Year: 1996
- Directed by: Cameron Crowe
- Starring: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renée Zellweger, Regina King
- Written by: Cameron Crowe
Being a sports agent apparently makes you callous. At least that’s the way Jerry MaGuire (Tom Cruise) is at the start of the movie by the same name. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of voicing his dissent against the soulless machine that is his company and gets himself fired. On his way out, he takes with him secretary Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger). Luckily for Jerry, he’s able to hang on to one client: the outspoken, but well-performing Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) for whom Jerry struggles to land a decent contract. Along the way, he finds love and friendship in unassuming places.
This falls in the romantic comedy genre, right? I hope so, because if it does, this is how you do the genre justice! Not only is it romantic — who can forget the “You had me at hello” scene? — but it’s straight up and down like six o’clock hilarious! Granted, you won’t be laughing throughout the film, but that’s because there’s a wonderful story being told here through lovable characters, which is really what elevates the film into perfection. More importantly, Tom Cruise’s performance here really is awesome and gives him a chance to show his acting chops with some vulnerability. Package it together with Cameron Crowe’s poignant directing style and you have a heavily nuanced film that easily watchable over and over again.
- Year: 1942
- Directed by: Michael Curtiz
- Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Claude Rains
- Written by: Murray Burnett, Joan Alison, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
I’m going to dispense with the summary and just jump into why it’s perfect: the supporting cast. Most of them only have a handful of scenes and even less lines, but they really make the most of them, inserting subtle gestures and winks to really flesh their characters out. Couple that with one of the best anti-heroes of all time and you’ve got a winning combination. I also have to spare a few words for Bogey’s performance. I felt he captured the inner conflict perfectly when he first sees Ilsa at the club and then later when she returns and he’s drunk. That half-smile he does always gets me every time.
6. Shaun of the Dead
- Year: 2004
- Directed by: Edgar Wright
- Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran
- Written by: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
“6? You said Top 5! You can’t do 6!” Well, I’m breaking the rules, so deal with it. Who knew that zombie horror, comedy and light romance would make such a great bundle? Shaun (Simon Pegg) is man-child whose life isn’t going anywhere. He lives with his even more infantile flatmate Ed (Nick Frost) and they seem content to while away the hours drinking and playing video games. When a zombie epidemic breaks out Shaun finds his drive and snaps into action to save his mother, his girlfriend and her flatmates by taking them all to the Winchester pub.
Zombies are probably the most prevalent monster type in horror films because of how easy they are to do. Throw on some red makeup for blood and whatever color you want for rotting skin. Mix in some moaning. Voila! Zombie. However, you’d be surprised at how often zombies are done poorly. Sometimes directors will get fancy with the zombies and have them run or talk or use martial arts. Not so here. In this film, the zombie’s one power is put to good use: sheer numbers. On the other side, the comedy is here in spades if you can appreciate dry humor. Lastly, the writing and direction are very clever, using repetition and irony to great effect as well as using ambient sounds to heighten the tension rather than use music.
I’m probably leaving off a bunch of excellent movies that I’ve seen and would consider perfect, like Die Hard, Aliens and more. Oh well. I’ll save them for the next list.
Awesome flick. Great cast. Horrible accents.
This one is up there with Once Upon a Time in the West, but the long take in the saloon when Doc Holliday collapses keeps it from being perfect. Virgil has a little trouble drawing his gun and it’s apparent that Ike has to wait a moment to be struck in the head.