Netflix ratings are personal. They serve the sole purpose of feeding the algorithm that tailors home page suggestions. So this is not to say these are all "perfect" films (some are), or that this is an exhaustive list of "Top" films, it's just a handy crib sheet for your next night in. I hope you find something new that you love!
  1. Barton Fink
    1991, Coen brothers. A tragically under-watched Coen bros joint. John Turturro and John Goodman are geniuses in this, and the set design plays a featured role. It's about a serious NYC playwright (Turturro) who reluctantly stoops to writing for Hollywood studios. He holes up at the shabby Hotel Earle to write, but is uninspired. He is often distracted by his loquacious, aw-shucks neighbor (Goodman) whom he comes to view as a buddy and source of inspiration...briefly, before things get weird.
  2. Metropolitan
    1990, Whit Stillman. This movie is so fun. It follows a group of young, upper-crust Manhattanites (the "urban haute bourgeoisie" lol) on their first winter back home after starting college. It's like eaves-dropping on the pretentious banter of a bunch of kids so insufferable they're charming.
  3. Duck Soup
    1933 Marx Bros classic! and the last to feature all 4 bros. Groucho becomes the president of a bankrupt country. Hijinks ensue.
  4. Nightcrawler
    2014, Dan Gilroy. We've all seen this, right? Jake Gyllenhaal plays a petty thief who realizes there's money to be made in misery and becomes a late night broadcast news stringer in pursuit of grisly scoops--at any cost. Ooo. Stylistically and philosophically dark, but not without some well-placed levity.
  5. Persona
    1966, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman is inarguably one of cinema's greatest treasures and this was one of his best, along with The Seventh Seal. A minimalist psychodrama that explores identity and the limits of human sanity. Basically it's two women in a seaside cottage: one an actress suddenly struck mute for no apparent physical reason, and the nurse who is supposed to care for her but ends up losing it when she's faced with her own mental isolation.
  6. La Jetée
    1962, Chris Marker. This short film is very dear to me personally as it inspired my BFA thesis. A groundbreaking work shot almost entirely in stills except for one short sequence, the plot involves a man being used as a subject in a post-apocalyptic time-travel experiment. (It's the film '12 Monkeys' was inspired by.) The themes here are heavy, but the film leaves plenty of room for interpretation. If you don't speak French, get the English voiceover because there's no dialogue to dub anyway.
  7. Repulsion
    1965, Roman Polanski. This movie rules so hard. A psychological thriller starring our gal Catherine Deneuve as a broken woman repulsed by human sexuality and morbidly distrusting of men. The film unfolds almost entirely inside the apartment she shares with her sister while her sister is away on vacation with her married boyfriend, which adds to the tension.
  8. True Grit
    2010, Coen brothers. The Coen brothers could direct traffic and I would watch it. This movie is an adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis and follows a 14-year-old girl on a journey through the outlaw West to avenge her father's murder with the help of a hired gun played by Jeff Bridges.
  9. Au revoir les enfants
    Louis Malle, 1987. Probably a personal Top 5. The story (written by Malle) is autobiographical and takes place in 1943 in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France, where a young Jewish boy is hiding, unbeknownst to his classmates. He befriends another boy who learns his secret but keeps it. When the Gestapo raid the school...Let's just say it's a beautiful & heartbreaking testament to both the bonds of friendship and the collateral injustices of the holocaust. I cry every time I watch.
  10. A Serious Man
    2009, Coen bros...again! A suburban, midwest Jew has a crisis of faith when his life falls apart in a darkly comic way. Handled with true Coen brother's deftness and very well-styled. It's been a while since I've seen this one so I'm probably due for a rewatch, lucky for you, as this description is concise.
  11. Encounters at the End of the World
    2007, Werner Herzog. Our man travels to Antarctica to film the oddball scientists and support staff that live at one of the most remote research facilities in the world, in one of the most extreme environments on earth. His deadpan voiceover commentary is hilarious at times, at others it conveys all the wonder and awe commanded by the landscape. Features a gorgeous sequence shot by sea divers under the ice shelf, soundtracked by a cappella Bulgarian folk song "Planino, Stara Planino." +penguins!
  12. Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater (Stand-Up Special)
    This is the only one of his specials that doesn't really have a letmotif, and it works well because it ends up being less cynical and more driven by lighter-hearted observations than, say, the idea that we're all terrible people.
  13. Bill Cunningham New York
    2010 documentary by Richard Press that acquaints the world with the NYTimes' beloved and celebrated (but humble and attention-averse) street photographer, trend-spotter, and de facto anthropologist. Bill Cunningham is a throwback: an endlessly charming gentleman who eschews fame and fortune in favor of simply doing what he loves. "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do! That's the key to the whole thing!" is my favorite quote in the film. Can he be my grandfather?
  14. Man with the Movie Camera
    Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent experimental documentary chronicles urban Soviet life, but is as much about filmmaking itself as about the subject matter, if not more so. Famous for its sheer ingenuity in avant-garde technique, this one is for true film buffs, but fun for anyone else who is just very high. Fun note: The Cinematic Orchestra released a soundtrack to the film in 2003 that you can sync to the remastered version.
  15. Sleeper
    1973, Woody Allen. This movie stands out from his others because of its science fiction theme, but it has all the familiar goofball vibes. Allen plays a health-food store owner in 1973 who is cryogenically frozen against his will and accidentally thawed 200 years later and has to hide out disguised as a robot butler--lol, lol. Then there's some brainwashing, a romantic subplot, and a punchline ending. My favorite is the party scene with "the orb."
  16. Metropolis
    1927, Fritz Lang. Don't not watch this because it's old, because it is epic. A story about class divides set in the future of 2026, this powerful German expressionist film contrasts decadent imagery of industrialist leaders in their art deco towers of power with the gritty darkness of an underground world where energy for their machines is generated by the working man at great cost to him. Sadly, fascinatingly, still relevant.
  17. The 400 Blows
    1959, François Truffaut. Another personal fave from the early French New Wave, but also widely considered one of filmmaking's highest achievements. It is a semi-autobiographical portrait of young loner Antoine Doinel, who finds himself always in trouble, despite not really being a bad kid. It's the first in a series of films to feature that character, so it more introduces him than wraps anything up, but is self-contained nonetheless. Pretty much the OG teen angst film.
  18. Collapse
    2009 documentary by Chris Smith. Essentially a monologue culled from a 14-hour interview with investigative journalist and author Michael Ruppert, interspersed with illustrative footage and detailing why he believes modern civilization is headed inexorably toward total industrial collapse from "peak oil" and other human-led economic forces. His view of the future is dim, but the facts and figures presented are fascinating, if alarming, and the film is extremely well-edited with great pacing.
  19. Solaris (1972)
    This is Tarkovsky's version of the 1961 novel by Stanisław Lam (not the one with George Clooney) and one of my top 10 favorite films. It's technically science fiction, but Tarkovsky was more interested in the human psyche than ETs so his version merely uses the remote space station setting as a petri dish for the cultivation of human suffering. It's slow and meditative but full of tension, beautifully shot, with a perfectly restrained, minimal electronic score.
  20. 8 1/2
    Federico Fellini, 1963. Arguably one of the greatest films of all time. Fellini put a lot of himself into his films, and this one deals directly with the struggles of a famous film director (Marcello Mastroianni, swoon) to deliver his next masterpiece despite being completely uninspired and beat down by personal strife. But it's about bigger ideas of finding happiness and joy in life--very Italian. Lots of flashbacks and dream sequences confuse reality with fantasy; has a great sense of humor.
  21. La Vie en rose
    2007 Édith Piaf biopic directed by Olivier Dahan and starring Marion Cotillard in what is TRULY (promise) a brilliant performance as the talented but batshit loose cannon Piaf. Her life story was absolutely worth making a movie about, and this thing is a joy to watch--which is saying something with its 2 1/2 hour running time. The early- to mid-century Paris set decoration and costume design alone make it worth a watch, but Cotillard's portrayal is the coup de maître.
  22. Stand By Me
    Rob Reiner, 1986. This may be one of those films you had to grow up with to fully regard as part of the canon of classic coming-of-age tales. At the very least, it should be celebrated as one of only two successful adaptations of Stephen King stories--the other being Kubrick's The Shining. I adore the jocular banter between the four young male characters, especially in relation to the personal darkness each of them carries inside himself, and in contrast to the perceived idyll of 50's Americana.
  23. The Seventh Seal
    1957, Ingmar Bergman. Even if you haven't seen this film, you have surely seen its references, homages, is the quintessential film dealing with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life and faith in God. The basic plot (if you've been living under a rock) is that a knight returns from the Crusades to find Sweden in the grip of the plague and, in a crisis of faith, plays a game of chess with the personification of death. But there's a lot more than that...just watch it.
  24. War Photographer
    2001, Christian Frei. An engrossing documentary that follows and interviews renowned conflict photographer (and one of my personal heroes) James Nachtwey. The films deals with issues of ethics in photojournalism, particularly how involved a photographer should get in the action. Nachtwey feels his duty as a human is above his duty as a reporter, and maintains a remarkable sensitivity to the people whose suffering he is sent to capture for the world, in the service of bettering it. Must see.
  25. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
    2007, Sidney Lumet. I can't really even begin to explain the complex, non-linear plot of this film in under 500 characters. Let's say it's a fantastic movie that involves Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers in way over their heads with a crime they didn't fully intend on committing. Marisa Tomei plays Hoffman's wife (and Hawke's lover!). It jumps around temporally and between character perspectives, but never becomes confusing or overwrought. Well-written and well-played.
  26. Man On Wire
    A 2008 doc by James Marsh that reconstructs the events surrounding French tightrope walker Philippe Petit's famous 1974 stunt, during which he walked a smuggled high-wire between the two nearly-finished towers of the World Trade Center. Created from interviews with Petit and the friends that helped plan and execute the monumental caper, it uses archival footage, photographs, and reenactments to tell a story that is better than fiction. Prepare for some sweaty palms.
  27. Fargo
    1996, Coen brothers. The plot of Fargo bears a similar dramatic conceit to Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, but with more black comedy thrown in for relief. William H. Macy plays a square midwesterner who concocts an overly-elaborate plan to swindle money from his father-in-law in order to cover for some light embezzling he engaged in as a car salesman at the lot his father-in-law owns. Everything goes wrong. Cast features Francis McDormand, Steve Buscemi, and an unforgettable Peter Stormare.
  28. The Birdcage
    1996, Mike Nichols. This is one of those boisterous 90's comedies in the vein of A Fish Called Wanda. It's a remake of the French-Italian comedy La Cage aux Folles, and stars Nathan Lane as flamboyant Miami Beach drag star "Starina"/Albert who is in a committed relationship with (formerly-married-to-a-woman) partner Armand, played by Robin Williams. Hijinks abound when they try to play it straight for the sake of Armand's son's relationship with his fiancée, whose parents are ultra-conservative.
  29. Steel Magnolias
    1989, Herbert Ross. Steel Magnolias is as funny as it is sad, and sometimes both at the same time. At the break of one of the most dramatic scenes, Dolly Parton's character muses, "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." I totally agree. This is the chick-flick par excellence, and perfectly captures what it means to share bonds among women. The title is a reference to the strength of the fairer sex, and I appreciate the honest complexity portrayed in their relationships. Cast is A++
  30. Glengarry Glen Ross
    1992, James Foley directing David Mamet's adaptation of his own 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. This movie features some deep acting by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, and Al Pacino. It FEELS like a play, with long takes, dramatic inflection, and minimal production. It's totally laden with profanity and reeks of masculinity--or the attempt to regain it in the face of failure.
  31. Punch-Drunk Love
    2002, Paul Thomas Anderson. At least once in his life Adam Sandler got to make a movie that wasn't moronic. He plays Barry Egan, a meek and lonely business-owner tormented by seven snarky and emotionally abusive older sisters. When he finally meets a girl and has a fair shot at emerging from his isolation, some previous misguided attempts to do so return to haunt him and threaten to ruin everything. It's a surprisingly tender and funny movie about facing your demons and standing up for yourself.
  32. Young Frankenstein
    1974, Mel Brooks. Brooks co-wrote this with Gene Wilder (who also stars as the title character) and it's pretty much a perfect comedy. It's a parody of the classic Frankenstein story, so I don't need to tell you the basic plot. It's full of Brooks' trademark wordplay, and pokes good fun at the dramatic conventions of 30's cinema. Peter Boyle is a perfect monster, Madeline Kahn is hilarious as Dr. Frankenstein's high-maintenance gf, and Gene Hackman plays a blind hermit in one of my fave scenes.
  33. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
    1983, Terry Jones. Despite being made after Holy Grail and Life of Brian, this is the one I always first recommend to people who, UNBELIEVABLY, have never seen any Monty Python. Unlike their other films, this is in the sketch comedy format of their early work, rather than having a single plot. If you haven't seen this one: it's fantastic, and takes aim at a number of the more common absurdities of modern life, such as health care, education, war, and religion.
  34. The Bicycle Thief
    1948, Vittorio De Sica. I used to say unequivocally that this was my Favorite Movie. That's a tough call, but certainly it has a top spot. The plot is simple: a poor man has his bike stolen, without which he can't perform his job, and spends all day frantically trying to find it with the help of his young son, Bruno, to no avail. While its action is dispiriting, this uncomplicated portrait of the complicated cycle of poverty is no less affecting today than it was then. Plus, Bruno is a charmer.
  35. The Pianist
    2002, Roman Polanski. This movie makes me glad Polanski isn't rotting in prison as a sex offender, that's how good it is. Based on the WWII memoir of pianist Władysław Szpillman (played by Adrien Brody), it chronicles how he survived hiding in Warsaw after the German invasion. Brody does a fantastic job holding the many scenes in which he is alone and there is no dialogue, and you can feel Polanski's personal connection to the material in every aspect of the film. I've seen it six times.
  36. Short Cuts
    1993, Robert Altman. This epic (3 hrs) movie is a deft reworking of a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. I've read those stories, and I can tell you that the way Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt mash up the 10 unrelated narratives into one movie with 11 intersecting plotlines featuring 22 (!!) principal characters (all 90's A-Listers) is astounding. It's also a great portrait of LA in the throes of the ghetto bird era. Cast is among the finest dramatic ensembles I've ever seen.
  37. Berberian Sound Studio
    2012, Peter Strickland. I was fortunate enough to catch this one at the theater, but it's streaming and worth the re-watch. A meditative and surrealist psycho-thriller, the plot itself is hard to pin down. Essentially, a doleful British sound engineer is summoned to work on an Italian documentary, but soon realizes it's actually a slasher film, and it's getting to him. The film's stroke of genius is in revealing the production conventions of the horror genre to create a meta-suspense film.