NOTE: parts of this article were cribbed from a similar piece I ran six years ago, plus one or two others that featured films discussed after that post. I had intended to do an all-new one but I remembered the old version, looked at it, and realized several of the films listed there still made the list, so I re-used the pre-existing entries with a little minor tweaking here and there. The rest, including a few new photos, is fresh.
As fellow movie goons, you know a person's favorite films change as they go through life and sometimes films that one once loved immensely are relegated to the status of fondly-recalled footnotes in your moviegoing life. Such films for me include JAWS, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and of course STAR WARS, all good films but at the time they each filled a certain need that I had before I discovered other things (translation: girls). I still enjoy them and may tune in when they turn up on the TV (which JAWS seems to do every other weekend; I'm not exaggerating. Channel 55 out of Long Island once had it on its syndicated schedule three times in one month alone!), but they just don't have the same resonance that they once held during my formative years.
Now, as a jaded 45-year-old movie addict, there are a handful of films that have stood the test of time and that I will watch from start to finish no matter what hour of the day or night they may be airing. What follows are, (in almost no particular order) my top 25 all-time favorite movies, and I realize that by divulging this information I will probably lose your respect, but, what the hey? A man's gotta stand up for what he loves, be it a beat-up car, a woman he knows is bad for him (but he just can't help himself), or a dumbass film that anyone in their right mind would have burned years ago. Enjoy, and feel free to send back your own list of what rocks your cinematic world.
KING KONG (1933)
This is the film that I can state is without a doubt my favorite movie. Let's face it, it has everything! A violent giant monster (in fact a whole island swarming with dangerous beasties of every description), a bunch of arrogant assholes who think nothing of the possible repercussions of removing said monster from its home, a hot heroine who spends much of the film in her torn undies, a fun story that's straight out of a boy's adventure pulp, Kong on the loose in Manhattan (which wouldn't cause much of a stir nowadays), the battle with planes atop the Empire State building and those poignant final lines. Sheer movie magic. In fact, I got to see the restored print (most of the violence put back in after almost 40 years of re-edits for re-releases) on the big screen when I was eight-years-old and I've been a fan ever since. My mother insisted I see it and I bless her ever day for that bit of parental wisdom. And I'll always know how old she is since KONG was released during the year of her birth.
MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
Sure LIFE OF BRIAN is a much better film, but this movie just kills me for the sheer lunacy of it. The jokes are all over the place and don't make sense much of the time, but who cares? If you laugh, it has succeeded, and this film may be the one that I have voluntarily sat through more than any other. Not much else to say on this one really, since nearly every person on the planet has seen it at least once. I still love my mother's reaction the first time that she saw it: "What the hell is this? Are the knights supposed to be retarded or something?"
PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
Easily the most tasteless and offensive comedy ever made, this film had a major impact on my sense of humor when I first saw it back in 1982. If you haven't seen it, it's probably the most low-budget, technically inept and poorly acted film you'll ever witness, but it is absolutely fucking hilarious. The "plot" centers around a war to claim the title of "Filthiest People Alive" as waged by the heroic (?) family of Divine (the late 300-pound transvestite, Glenn Milstead) against the evil Connie and Raymond Marble. Divine and family are indeed pretty filthy — what with engaging in cannibalism to rid themselves of obnoxious police officers, a son who forces his date to fuck him while he thrusts two live chickens between their furiously rutting bodies (much to her chagrin), shoplifting raw meat in their crotches, throwing the sleaziest birthday party ever committed to celluloid (witness the singing asshole to truly understand horror), and many other offenses — but the Marbles believe themselves to be worse (they are merely dope dealers, pornographers, and kidnappers who impregnate young girls and sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples. Fucking poseurs!) and will stop at nothing to prove it. Needless to say, they don't stand a chance. Definitely not for all tastes, this movie makes me smile at the mere thought of it, although I could have done without the infamous final sequence in which Divine actually eats a freshly-laid dog turd on camera. But then again, I've since seen "German" porn, so the dog turd wouldn't begin to register these days... Anyway, hooray for John Waters!!!
Starring absolutely no one that anyone's ever heard of and made for a budget of about $500, this is a strong contender for the dubious title of "stupidest barbarian flick ever made." Directed by Jack Hill, the mad genius behind the equally unbelievable SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975), SORCERESS tells the story of two nubile twin sisters (who believe that they are boys) who seek to kill their evil sorcerer father with the aid of three ludicrous sidekicks (obligatory barbarian hunk, bikerish Hagar the Horrible lookalike, and a bargain basement goat-man). Loaded with nudity, ridiculous fights and some of the worst special effects ever created, this couldn't possibly be funnier if it were intended to be, and if I had to get rid of every movie in my collection except for three, SORCERESS would make the cut. Oh, and this is sadly not available on DVD, so look for it on cable or on the now-gathering-moss shelves of your local VHS rental store (if one somehow still exists in your town).
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
The best Tarzan movie ever made. I've written on this one before at length, so for the purposes of this post let it suffice to say that never before or since has a film so chock-a-block with sex and violence been so wholesome.
ALAKAZAM THE GREAT! (1960)
Legendary Japanese Manga god Osamu Tezuka (ASTRO BOY, KIMBA THE WHITE LION, PHOENIX 2772, DORORO and about a thousand other nuggets of excellence) tackles Wu Cheng-En's sixteenth century literary masterpiece JOURNEY TO THE WEST in this lively animated musical. It follows the adventures of the legendary monkey king and his companions, and has an almost hallucinatory feel to it. As usual, Tezuka wears his Disney influence on his sleeve, but once you learn to ignore the saccharine songs (not an easy feat), you'll be drawn in by the incredible visuals and endless fights against monsters, magicians and gods. You also get to see the hero go from being a total asshole to being a great king, and the sweet love story between him and a cute girl monkey named Dee Dee is actually quite touching (although she does allow herself to be somewhat of a doormat).
ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
My favorite horror movie. One of the most faithful adaptations of a novel ever made, this is the movie that I feel best captures the flavor of Manhattan's Upper West Side. An utterly believable tale of supernatural and nuptial violation of the worst kind, this is one slow-burning, paranoia-inducing mammajamma. There are those who prefer THE EXORCIST, but this is a thousand times more subtle and you aren't really sure whether Rosemary is insane or not until it's too late.
Clearly influenced by the basic plot of KING KONG, MOTHRA is the finest of the many Toho studios monster/fantasy epics. When an unscrupulous businessman kidnaps two foot-tall native women from a previously-unexplored island in the Pacific and presses them into a life of exhibition as freaks, he doesn't reckon with the fact that they're actually magical priestesses of the goddess Mothra — and the goddess does not take kindly to those who would harm her priestesses. An orgy of Tohoscope destruction ensues as the military is thwarted at every turn (even atomic cannons are useless), and they slowly come to realize that they really are dealing with a pissed-off deity who defies the laws of man's science. Avoiding the usual pitfalls of this genre, MOTHRA has a tight script, characters you care about, and a villain who is an utter piece of human trash (and obviously meant to be an American, although they don't come straight out and state it). And who can forget the song that the twin fairies sing constantly? Onlookers think it's just some wistful island melody, but don't realize it's the song that gives Mothra an unerring bead on their exact location, the beauty of which is that the girls are encouraged to sing, thereby ensuring the doom of untold thousands. A fucking masterpiece and the Mothra characters have not been used as well since, with the exception of 1964's GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, which some hail as the best of Toho's classic-era giant monster cycle.
SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980)
It's rare when a distributor can edit together highlights from two films and create a movie that endures in the hearts of martial arts fans and gore addicts for nearly thirty years. Of course it doesn't hurt when the two films in question are the first installments in the classic six-film series based on the LONE WOLF & CUB samurai comics. This film is a visual feast with cinematography and colors that will make you drool, to say nothing of an interesting plot which is chock full of wall-to-wall slaughter and dismemberment! I first saw this one in 1985 and was totally blown away. I'm very hard on the quality of the fight scenes in martial arts films — especially the swordsmanship — and the fights here are among the finest I've ever had the joy to witness. Tomisaburo Wakayama stars as Lone Wolf, a man of impeccable honor and skill who is framed for treason against the shogun. Taking his infant son along with him "down the road of vengeance," Lone Wolf proceeds to kick so much ass that it's impossible to keep a body count. And if you like bloodshed, the red paint flies quite generously, even hitting the camera on occasion (seriously!). But the real star here is the skill of Wakayama; his utter mastery of the katana is evident in every frame of the film. Trust me on this one and keep in mind that there are maybe ten minutes in the entire running time where there's no fighting!
SEVEN SAMURAI (1952)
Not just Kurosawa's masterpiece, but also the quintessential samurai film and one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
THE STREET FIGHTER (1974)
This is the martial arts film that earned the whole genre its largely undeserved rep for outrageous gore and violence. THE STREET FIGHTER follows the adventures of Terry Tsurugi, one of the hardest dudes in screen history, as he takes on seemingly impossible assignments of a questionable nature for whomever will pay his price. This guy is one ultra-nasty customer who will tear off any part of you that gets close enough (the fate of a would-be rapist is a highlight), and he won't hesitate to do whatever it takes to get paid. When a brother and sister who hired Tsurugi to rescue their brother from his appointment on death row reveal that they don't have the rest of the money they owe him, Tsurugi immediately announces that he'll put the sister out on the streets as a whore until he gets his cash. This leads to the brother's accidental fall to his death from Tsurugi's penthouse window. The sister ends up as a heroin-addicted prostitute in Hong Kong (after suffering a horrible — but thankfully off-camera — gang rape) and just happens to run into her escapee brother, who of course vows to kill Tsurugi for his younger brother's death and his sister's current shameful status. Next, our "hero" refuses a Yakuza kidnapping assignment because it would bring him into conflict with the one man that he respects: his father's old karate training buddy, Masaoka (a tiny, fat badass). This puts him on the Yakuza's shitlist as well. The rest of the movie details Terry's constant — and brutal — encounters with the two pissed off parties and ends in a blood-soaked hand-to-hand battle that finds the vengeful brother minus his larynx (he turns up in the sequel with bionic vocal chords). Not for the squeamish, scenes of this turned up in the Tarantino-scripted TRUE ROMANCE. Fuck ENTER THE DRAGON, this is the real deal. Yes, your Bunche actually said "Fuck ENTER THE DRAGON." If you know me at all, you know I don't say that lightly.
FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)
Definitely not for all tastes, this is a positively lysergic live action cartoon that's not for the kiddies. Featuring Herve Villechaize as King Fausto of the 6th Dimension, more impressively bizarre characters than any one movie has the right to include, and the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (that's band frontman Danny Elfman as Satan in the photo), FORBIDDEN ZONE brings to mind what would have happened if Max Fleischer made a cartoon short while out of his mind on some seriously good peyote. Funny as hell and unfortunately still rather obscure, I strongly urge you to seek this one out. (NOTE: this is available in its original black & white and in a colorized version. Stick to the original.)
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)
The best mythology movie ever made and the best of many classics from Ray Harryhausen (in my opinion anyway; there are those who make a valid case for THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, but I go with this one for its slightly more "adult" approach). Motherfuck CGI, this is how special effects are supposed to look! Too many great scenes to recount, but I will say that the theme tune, with the pounding rowing rhythm, makes most of John Williams' tiresome Wagner knockoffs look like the derivative crap that they are.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
A compelling story, interesting characters, a no-win scenario and boatloads of gore all add up to make the best zombie ever made, or that will ever be made, for that matter. This warped a lot of young minds back in '78, boy... And the cool black guy lives at the end! (Perhaps as a nod to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's unforgettable downer of a conclusion.)
THE HUMAN TORNADO (1976)
Simply put, the funniest black exploitation film ever made. This is the sequel to the nearly unwatchable DOLEMITE (1975) and out-does its predecessor valiantly. For those not in the know: Dolemite is a character whose exploits have been passed on through folk tales and rhymes in American black culture since at least the early 1900's. He's basically Super-Nigger, since he's the greatest badass/ pimp/comedian/lover/fancy dresser ever to walk the Earth! Sample line from the epic poem about him:
Dolemite went to New York City,
Kickin'ass 'til his boots were shitty.
Anyway, this installment sees our hero (played by the hideously middle-aged and out of shape Rudy Ray Moore) evading a Southern sheriff after said sheriff finds out that his wife has been paying Dolemite to fuck her (her line to our hero while in post-coital bliss: "Dolemite, you're worth every cent I pay you!"). Dolemite and his friends (including a young Ernie GHOSTBUSTERS Hudson) flee to California after carjacking the most outrageous homosexual character in celluloid history (he's glad to be hijacked since he always wanted to go to California anyway, and he gets along just fine with his abductors), and find out that the local mafia are moving in on Dolemite's nightclub. Well, Dolemite ain't havin' dat! Much lunacy, bad '70's outfits and terrible martial arts ensue, and just wait until you see the musical numbers! My only warning is that you skip the standup comedy scene just after the insane credits sequence; it really sucks, and seems like it's setting the viewer up for a repeat of the original DOLEMITE's anti-charms.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
Superior to DR. NO (1962) in virtually every way, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE was one of the two films that really established the template from which the James Bond films would define themselves (the other being GOLDFINGER). The international scope is increased, the violence is nastier, the sexual content is extremely tawdry for its day (007 and Tatiana unwittingly starring in a porn reel being perhaps the most obvious example), the bad guys are perfect Cold War antagonists (Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb being an especially creepy standout) and the series' signature gadgets make their first (and relatively realistic) appearance in the form of Bond's well-equipped briefcase. Connery's cooler than the Abominable Snowman's dick and his fight with Robert Shaw as SPECTRE psycho Red Grant is one of the most realistic on record, so if your taste in 007 runs more to the non-over-the-top flavor, you cannot go wrong with this, the best of the James Bond series.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Often compared with THE GODFATHER PART II as being one of the minute number of sequels that surpass the original, this second STAR WARS film remains the strongest of the bunch thanks to it taking the time to flesh out its characters a bit (well, as much as you can in a space opera anyway) and dazzle the eye with sequence after sequence of briskly-paced latter day Saturday afternoon serial thrills. We get the budding romance between Han Solo and the Princess, Luke's early Jedi training under Yoda (back when the tiny Jedi master was still awe-inspiring and full of genuine wonder), the battle on Hoth, the Millennium Falcon hauling ass all over half the galaxy and getting into a number of memorable scrapes (chief among which is undoubtedly the asteroid field chase)...the list just goes on and on. But the real genius of the film lays in the decision to make it Darth Vader's movie and give the bad guy a showcase worthy of his towering evil. Killing off failed subordinates at a rate that's almost comical and being simply amazing as the most pimped-out villain in the history of deep-space nefariousness, Vader rocks this one like a motherfucker, capping it off with his now-immortal revelation to Luke Skywalker near the picture's end. Some make the point that STAR WARS was a perfect stand-alone film and that both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) can't necessarily be enjoyed as a satisfying whole without seeing the original, but in the case of EMPIRE I could not disagree more, and nearly thirty years after the fact it remains my hands-down favorite of the entire STAR WARS series and is the only one I will ever sit through again and again.
It took me a long time to finally come to grips with it, but considering how fascinated I am by its source novel and the big-screen translation thereof, I finally reject my guilt over the subject and admit that this world-class offender is a flat-out favorite. If you were horrified by the more vile truths about some of our fair nation's history that were made plain in ROOTS, don't ever watch this slavery-era soap opera. I find it to be an apocalyptic moment in the annals of bad taste cinema and as such I find its acting and plantation soap opera histrionics so over-the-top that it's frequently hilarious — the performances by Susan George and James Mason are simply impossible to keep a straight face through — but its frank depictions of the worst realities of slavery is no laughing matter and is indeed horrifying to witness. I don't think mainstream Hollywood has produced a major motion picture as vicious or offensive before or since, and if this were released today there would be full-on race riots in the streets. Click here to read an earlier, more in-depth Vault post about this one.
THE COURT JESTER (1956)
I always loved Danny Kaye's live-action cartoon appeal, and nowhere is it seen in fuller flower than in this musical sendup of colorful swashbuckler movies. Kaye stars as Hawkins, the musically talented entertainer among a cadre of forest-based outlaws led by a masked Robin Hood type called The Black Fox, and all Hawkins wants to do is fight alongside the hero in his war against King Roderick, usurper to the English throne. That chance comes when Hawkins is assigned to escort the infant actual heir to the throne to safety, lest the babe fall into the hands of the bad guys, and he's accompanied by the Fox's lieutenant/daughter, Jean (Glynis Johns, better known as Mrs. Banks in MARY POPPINS, who was absolutely gorgeous in her youth), with whom he is in love and the feeling is mutual, but romance must wait in the face of patriotism. From there grows a tangled comedic web, rich with laugh-out-loud gags, ridiculous situations, anachronistically clever dialogue — the legendary "vessel with the pestle/flagon with the dragon" bit in particular — and even one of the most spectacular (and funny) swordfights you will ever see. Even if you hate musicals, you owe it to yourself to see this one.
INFRA MAN (1975)
Though not adapted from any pre-existing comics source, this film gets my vote as the second-best superhero film ever made (narrowly missing the #1 position thanks to the existence of THE INCREDIBLES). An out-of-its-mind fusion of Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks, Toho rubber-suit monster movies, and a liberal dose of Ultraman, INFRA MAN is one of that rare number of films that looks and feels exactly like what one would think a little boy's idea of the perfect movie might be. It's colorful, features almost non-stop action and mayhem, displays virtually zero logic or attention to reality, and the icing on the cake is some of the worst/best dubbing in the history of films imported from Asia, but the film will always have a very special place in my heart thanks to its villain, the one and only Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu, seen above). She's tits-out evil, positively loves being tits-out evil, and has nothing on her mind other than the complete and utter destruction of all humankind, but first she and her ragtag legion of bargain basement monsters must eliminate mega-badassed and utterly invincible bionic superhero Infra Man. (Yeah, good luck with that.) I was fortunate enough to see INFRA MAN in the theater during its 1976 U.S. release and I have been a hardcore fan ever since (so is Roger Ebert, believe it or not). It's available on DVD in a gorgeous uncut widescreen transfer that gives the viewer the option of watching it withy the ludicrous dubbing, and while I'm usually a "subs over dubs" guy, this is one of the rare exceptions to that rule and I cannot recommend the dubbed soundtrack enough. My full-length love letter to this completely bonkers film can be read here.
WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY-THE UNBEARBLY LONG, SELF-INDULGENT DIRECTOR'S CUT (2007)
I was not a fan of the theatrical version of this film, but the waaaay longer director's cut available on DVD is a totally different animal. A knowing sendup of just about every rags-to-riches music industry biopic (using the Johnny Cash biopic WALK THE LINE as its launching point), WALK HARD is a tour de force of played-straight hilarity chronicling the career of country legend Dewey Cox, who crosses over from C&W into rock 'n' roll and beyond, and the results are simply hilarious. The long version fully fleshes-out the characters and narrative, allowing star John C. Reilly to really show us what he's made of as an actor, and plays like an American music epic on nitrous oxide, so by all means check it out and be ready to laugh your ass off.
ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)
I wrote a whole piece on this classic a while back, but let it suffice to say that it's the perfect expression of the interconnected joys of rock 'n' roll and teenage rebellion.
THE WOLF MAN (1941)
Werewolf stories are my favorite in the horror genre, and much of what we now accept as the template for tragic lycanthropy tales comes from this cinematic Rosetta Stone. One of the crown jewels of the Universal horror cycle of the 1930's/1940's, THE WOLF MAN is packed to the rafters with fog-laden black & white atmosphere, ominous gypsies, and that unique flavor of Universal horror, but what sets it apart from its brethren is Lon Chaney Jr.'s indelible performance as the utterly doomed Larry Talbot. The character would return in several sequels alongside the Frankenstein monster and Dracula, but his subsequent appearances bear none of the heartbreaking tragedy found here.
SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975)
Another classic from Jack Hill, the mad genius behind SORCERESS, this one's kinda like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE starring a bunch of '70's-era gang chicks straight out of an ABC Afterschool Special and with a script like something written during a three-day tequila and uncut cocaine bender. Taking place in a world so far removed from any recognizable reality that it may as well be set on the planet Qxzzblnzrg, the film follows the adventures of the Dagger Debs, a high school girl gang auxilary to the waaaay overage Silver Daggers, and what happens when their power structure is upset by the arrival of new girl/badass in town Maggie (Joanne Nail). Maggie catches the eye of the Silver Daggers' leader, Dominic (Asher Brauner), which does not sit well with Lace, the head of the Dagger Debs (Robbie Lee, whose performance redefines the concept of "chewing the scenery"), and from there things veer straight into "I cannot fucking believe I'm seeing this" territory. A delirious mash-up of 1950's J.D. movie tropes, REEFER MADNESS-level inaccuracy regarding what it depicts, and shameless exploitation, this is the kind of film that they just don't make anymore and thank the gods that it's preserved on DVD.
GET CRAZY (1983)
From the same people who made ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, this is more or less the same kind of movie — a live-action rock 'n' roll cartoon —, only geared for a majorly-stoned R-rated audience. The plot is pointless to recount since there pretty much isn't one, but what passes for such springs from the backstage preparations for the New Year's Eve 1983 celebration at the fictional Saturn Theater live music venue (based on the real-life Filmore West) and the insane assortment of stars who converge on the place when its beloved owner is believed to be on his death bed. It's a head-on collision of blues, glam, punk, hippy-dippy junk and just about everything else under the sun in a cornucopia of gags that come flying so fast that you'll need a batting helmet. Featuring Daniel Stern, Ed Begley Jr., Malcom McDowell (hilarious as David Bowie/Mick Jagger fusion Reggie Wanker), Lou Reed (as the reclusive and Dylanesque Auden), and a plethora of lunatic character actors, this overflowing craziness is further gilded with several fun musical performances, several of which are crazy takes on "Hoochie Coochie Man" (most notably the version performed by Lee Ving of the legendary L.A. punk band Fear). In short, GET CRAZY is a perfect party flick and a true crowd-pleaser. Why the hell this film isn't on DVD is totally beyond me (although it most likely has to do with the music rights), so the only way to see this now is via a rare airing on cable or on an old VHS tape.