Allen Stewart is the webmaster and statistical analyst at the Phi-Phenomenon, which analyzes greatest film lists to identify different tastes in films and produce a master list of the 2,500+ best films of all time. Stewart's analyses have shown that he has an idiosyncratic taste in film.
The "Established Classics" list is what I call a "Highbrow" list at the Phi-Phenomenon. Like most highbrow lists, it omits many films that are too new to be established classics. After starting in several different directions when making this list, I decided to focus on relatively recent films that I would like to see established when they are of age. I still could not resist including a few older films, mostly films that I call "Mainstream" or "Popular" and somewhat avoided highbrow films that I like but were somehow omitted from the established classics list such as Diabolique (1955). The list below started in rough order of preference, but I moved some titles around to group similar films together.
- Princess Mononoke (1997) .. Miyazaki Hayao
- Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) .. Miyazaki Hayao
- Nausicaä - Of the Valley of the Wind (1984) .. Miyazaki Hayao
- Spirited Away (2001) .. Miyazaki Hayao
- My Neighbour Totoro (1988) .. Miyazaki Hayao
I consider Hayao Miyazaki to be one of the greatest directors active today, so I happily set aside five slots for his films. It is unfortunate that so many people in the United States simply dismiss animation as being just for children and overlook his work.
- Field of Dreams (1989) .. Phil Alden Robinson
- Bull Durham (1988) .. Ron Shelton
Kevin Costner may have a limited range as an actor, but he can be fantastic in the right film. Clearly baseball films fall in that category.
- Gentleman's Agreement (1947) .. Elia Kazan
I have seen this film on so many lists of overrated films that I consider it actually to be underrated. It may be a bit too strident in its anti-prejudice theme for some people. However, it works as a testament on how anti-Semitism manifested itself in the United States in the late 1940s and in its statement that anti-Semitism (or any other prejudice) exists not due to a few prejudiced extremists but due to good people who do (or say) nothing in response to prejudice.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) .. Robert Wise
Perhaps the finest example of the use of science fiction to make a statement that one could not otherwise get away with saying in any other context.
- In the Name of the Father (1993) .. Jim Sheridan
I wonder how the response to the September 11 attacks might have changed if President Bush and other key officials had seen this film.
- Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) .. Woody Allen
- Broadway Danny Rose (1984) .. Woody Allen
- Sleeper (1973) .. Woody Allen
Woody Allen is another of my favorite filmmakers. Someone with a good head for trivia will see an homage to him elsewhere on this page. Hannah and Her Sisters is his best film not on the "established classics" list. Broadway Danny Rose contains what may be Allen's funniest scene of all time (the helium-influenced shootout). Sleeper is the best of his "earlier, funnier movies." I easily could have included The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig, but I wanted to leave room for other films.
- Memento (2000) .. Christopher Nolan
- Before the Rain (1994) .. Milcho Manchevski
On the surface, these are two films that use a non-linear format as a gimmick, but the format works in both situations. By telling the story backward, Memento helps the audience understand what the protagonist is experiencing and understand the theme of needing a purpose in life. By using a circular format, Before the Rain suggests that the past is doomed to repeat itself.
- Being John Malkovich (1999) .. Spike Jonze
- Synecdoche, New York (2008) .. Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman may be the most thought-provoking screenwriter active today. I can honestly say that I have never seen a film similar to either of these two.
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) .. Lewis Milestone
- Platoon (1986) .. Oliver Stone
It is supposedly very tough to make a truly anti-war film because films tend to make war look fun. These two anti-war films succeed as well as can be expected because they both avoid the big picture and instead focus on the difficulties of ordinary soldiers as they lose the idealism that caused them to enlist in the first place.
- Patton (1970) .. Franklin J. Schaffner
- Black Hawk Down (2001) .. Ridley Scott
For a bit of balance, I included two great pro-war films.
- Dead Man Walking (1995) .. Tim Robbins
I disagree with those who describe this film as a balanced examination of capital punishment. It is clearly against the death penalty, but open-minded people of any opinion will come away with something to think about.
- Lone Star (1996) .. John Sayles
- The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) .. John Sayles
Two of the best films from an overlooked filmmaker. Lone Star is my favorite intersecting storyline film, and The Secret of Roan Inish tells a wonderful story.
- Jean de Florette (1986) .. Claude Berri
I like the fact that this film dares us to root for two despicable characters.
- Good Will Hunting (1997) .. Gus Van Sant
A great screenplay and very good acting make this film great. I also like some of Van Sant's less mainstream work.
- Before Sunset (2004) .. Richard Linklater
- Before Sunrise (1995) .. Richard Linklater
I admit that I was not that optimistic about a sequel to Before Sunrise. I liked the ambiguity of the ending and did not believe that there was a need to give a definitive version of what happened afterward. However, I ended up liking Before Sunset more than Before Sunrise.
- The Green Ray (1986) .. Eric Rohmer
Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are my favorite Eric Rohmer films not written or directed by Eric Rohmer. This is my favorite Eric Rohmer film that he actually wrote and directed. This is one of the best realistic portrayals of extreme (but not exaggerated) neuroticism that I have seen as opposed to Woody Allen-style neuroticism for laughs (not to say that neuroticism for laughs cannot work well).
- Diva (1981) .. Jean-Jacques Beineix
- Nikita (1990) .. Luc Besson
Proof that Hollywood does not have a monopoly on great action thrillers.
- American History X (1998) .. Tony Kaye
It is scary to think about how accurate this film is in portraying a segment of society.
- Million Dollar Baby (2004) .. Clint Eastwood
Eastwood's greatest film, and not just because it angered Rush Limbaugh and the religious right in the United States.
- Kagemusha (1980) .. Kurosawa Akira
- Yojimbo (1961) .. Kurosawa Akira
- Sanjuro (1962) .. Kurosawa Akira
Akira Kurosawa is my all-time favorite filmmaker, and there would probably be four more of his films on this list if I could include his established classics. I also could have added I Live in Fear (a.k.a. Ikimono no kiroku) (1955) as well, but I wanted to leave an open slot for another film.
- Das Boot (1981) .. Wolfgang Petersen
I am ashamed to admit this, but I sometimes catch myself rooting for the characters despite the cause they were fighting for.
- Hamlet (1996) .. Kenneth Branagh
- Much Ado About Nothing (1993) .. Kenneth Branagh
Laurence Olivier may be a great actor, but I believe that Branagh is the better director, even/especially when it comes to William Shakespeare's plays.
- Richard III (1995) .. Richard Loncraine
However, Branagh is not the only person who can direct a great Shakespeare film.
- Dead Again (1991) .. Kenneth Branagh
Furthermore, Branagh can direct more than just Shakespeare.
- An Inconvenient Truth (2006) .. Davis Guggenheim
Arguably the most important film of the past decade. After all, it won a Nobel Peace Prize for Al Gore.
- The Kid Brother (1927) .. J.A. Howe & Ted Wilde
My favorite films by Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin are on the established classics list, but I can include my favorite Harold Lloyd film.
- Menace II Society (1993) .. The Hughes Brothers
The title of the film accurately describes the main character, yet we still cared about him.
- Dogma (1999) .. Kevin Smith
Smith called this a film about his deeply held Catholic faith with a lot of toilet humor. It is that, but it is also a very imaginative story.
- Bubba Ho-tep (2002) .. Don Coscarelli
An elderly Elvis Presley teams up with an elderly John F. Kennedy (after undergoing a change in skin pigmentation) to fight an Egyptian mummy. Who can resist?
- Sicko (2007) .. Michael Moore
- Bowling for Columbine (2002) .. Michael Moore
- Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) .. Michael Moore
I admit that my liking for these films is partly due to the fact that Michael Moore and I have similar (but definitely not identical) political views. However, beyond the politics, these are all well-made films. Sicko is probably the best of the three on an emotional level. There is a good reason why reviewers noted that people had to be dead/in a coma not to be moved by the film. Bowling for Columbine is the most intellectually stimulating of the three as it is the only one in which Moore admits that he does not have the answers. Fahrenheit 9/11 is the most important, in part for showing us exactly what Bush did after learning about the attacks.
- Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) .. Frank Capra
Bringing Up Baby is an established classic, so I have to include my second-favorite screwball comedy with Cary Grant.
- AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) .. Steven Spielberg
I would love to see what Stanley Kubrick would have done with this story, but I think that Spielberg did a good job with it.
- The Insider (1999) .. Michael Mann
Fantasy villains can be fun, but often a real villain, like the tobacco industry, can be more compelling.
- The Sixth Sense (1999) .. M. Night Shyamalan
Along with knowing what "Rosebud" meant before watching Citizen Kane for the first time, one of my greatest film-going regrets is that I was spoiled on the ending of The Sixth Sense before I first saw it. While watching the film, the final twist seemed obvious based on what I knew. After I got home, I went online and read reviews that were nearly unanimous in saying that the reviewer never saw the twist coming. This confirms that this was a great twist. Although Shyamalan has made some good films (and some not-so-good films) since this, The Sixth Sense is still his best film.
- Of Mice and Men (1939) .. Lewis Milestone
An often overlooked film based on a novella by one of my favorite authors. It helps that John Steinbeck usually avoids filling his stories with a lot of superfluous elements, leaving them at a good length to be adapted into a feature film.
- Run Lola Run (1998) .. Tom Tykwer
Ordinarily, I prefer straightforward substance over style. Sometimes, as with this film, style can win me over.
- High Fidelity (2000) .. Stephen Frears
- My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) .. Stephen Frears
- Dirty Pretty Things (2002) .. Stephen Frears
- The Snapper (1993) .. Stephen Frears
I generally do not think of Frears as one of my favorite directors the way I do with Kurosawa, Allen, Miyazaki, and Kubrick. However, I found four of Frears's films on my list. Furthermore, his made-for-television remake of Fail-Safe would have taken the original's place on this list if I did not exclude films shown only on television in the United States, and The Grifters barely missed making this list.
- Life is Beautiful (1997) .. Roberto Benigni
I understand that some people find this film to be overly sentimental, but, if you accept that it is fantasy (no concentration camp was as poorly run as the one in the film), Life Is Beautiful works. It is too bad that Benigni has not done anything to match this film since.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994) .. Frank Darabont
This film may not appear on many highbrow lists of the best films, but it deservingly appears on many popular and mainstream lists.
- Nixon (1995) .. Oliver Stone
Anthony Hopkins's performance was so good that it was not until well after seeing this film that I thought about how the person playing Richard Nixon also played a cannibalistic serial killer.
- The Remains of the Day (1993) .. James Ivory
I also did not think about how the person playing the butler in this film also played a cannibalistic serial killer. Hopkins may not have been as showy in this film as he was in The Silence of the Lambs, but I think that this was his best work because it was a very subtle performance
- Pleasantville (1998) .. Gary Ross
- The Truman Show (1998) .. Peter Weir
These two great media satires came out in the same year. Pleasantville skewered the notion, popular among conservatives in the United States, that the 1950s were some sort of utopia. In reality, it took a space alien just to say give peace a chance (c.f., The Day the Earth Stood Still above). The Truman Show foreshadowed the reality television explosion in the 2000s.
- Adam's Rib (1949) .. George Cukor
The best film featuring one of my favorite screen duos.
- Across the Universe (2007) .. Julie Taymor
I am generally not a fan of musicals, but I can make an exception for The Beatles. Good acting and great set pieces more than make up for the Hair meets Forrest Gump story.
- Ninotchka (1939) .. Ernst Lubitsch
A satire of the Soviet Union made well before the Red Scare hit its peak. As a result, it could be humorous rather than bombastic and preachy
- The Producers (1968) .. Mel Brooks
There was once a time when Mel Brooks did more than just dull genre parodies.
- Open Your Eyes (1997) .. Alejandro Amenábar
I enjoy the films in which ordinary people find out that they are living in a world very different from what they believed they were living in (e.g., The Matrix, Dark City). This is probably the best film in that genre.
- Ulee's Gold (1997) .. Victor Nunez
This film is on the list mostly for Peter Fonda's performance and for avoiding action/thriller chiches. However, I was also fascinated with the introduction to beekeeping that the film provided.
- The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) .. Daniel Vigne
A great psychological mystery.
- Gallipoli (1981) .. Peter Weir
Probably the best film in the "Australians angry about British treatment of Australian soldiers fighting British wars" genre, with Breaker Morant a close second.
- Shakespeare in Love (1998) .. John Madden
- Saving Private Ryan (1998) .. Steven Spielberg
A lot of people were upset when Shakespeare in Love won the Academy Award for Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. I did not mind as I am quite fond of both films. Shakespeare in Love may not have reached the heights that Saving Private Ryan did at the beginning and the end, but Shakespeare in Love never dragged as Saving Private Ryan did in the middle.
- Boys Don't Cry (1999) .. Kimberly Peirce
Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny gave two great acting performances. This more than makes up for the controversies over the accuracy of the film.
- Les Misérables (1995) .. Claude Lelouch
This is not a film version of the classic novel but a commentary on the novel's timelessness.
- Fail-Safe (1964) .. Sidney Lumet
I confess that I saw a made-for-television remake of this film before seeing the original, so I was already spoiled on the ending. However, I still have to admire the courage that it took to end the film the way that it did.
- Sling Blade (1996) .. Billy Bob Thornton
When I saw this film for the first time, I thought about how much I enjoyed spending time with such interesting characters.
- The Emperor and the Assassin (1998) .. Chen Kaige
Chen is no Akira Kurosawa, but he comes close with this film.
- 11'09''01 - September 11 (2002) .. various
Like all anthologies, there is a clunker or two in the mix. As a whole, however, this film does a great job at providing perspectives not seen in the United States.
- Requiem for a Dream (2000) .. Darren Aronofsky
A nice balance between style and substance.
- Atanarjuat - The Fast Runner (2001) .. Zacharias Kunuk
The ending may have been softened, but this in an interesting look at another culture's folklore.
- Planet of the Apes (1968) .. Franklin J. Schaffner
Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, this film also uses science-fiction to discuss issues that otherwise would not be discussed. Like with The Sixth Sense, I was also spoiled about the ending before seeing it for the first time, but that was less of a concern with this film.
- The Nasty Girl (1990) .. Michael Verhoeven
A fascinating examination of how one nation reacts to its recent sins.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) .. Peter Jackson
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) .. Peter Jackson
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) .. Peter Jackson
These films may be too popular for some people's tastes, but, collectively, they form one of the great film achievements of the last decade. Much of the credit goes to Jackson's courage to make the films his own rather than attempt too strong a fidelity to the original works.
- Faithless (2000) .. Liv Ullmann
I often do not care for romantic triangle films because I usually sympathize more with the boring cuckold rather than the exciting interloper that I am supposed to root for. This film does not try to tell that story. Instead, it is one of the most honest films about the pain that infidelity causes.
- No Man's Land (2001) .. Danis Tanovic
A great satire on the futility of war.
- El Norte (1983) .. Gregory Nava
The issue of illegal immigration is a very emotional issue in the United States. This film is a reminder of the real people behind the issue.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) .. Henry Selick
If there were not the perception that animation is just for kids, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia would not be the only animated films that appear again and again on highbrow best-film lists. This is a great story with great animation.
- City of God (2002) .. Fernando Meirelles
I do not know if life in Rio de Janeiro's slums is really like it was portrayed in City of God, but the film felt very convincing.
- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1991) .. Jon Avnet
A very enjoyable story even if the final twist was so obvious that I was surprised that it was considered a twist.
- Serenity (2005) .. Joss Whedon
I also maintain the Buffy Phenomenon and the Angel Phenomenon, so I have an appreciation of Whedon's work. This is the science-fiction film for those who consider acting, dialogue, and interesting characters to be more important than special effects.
- The Killing (1956) .. Stanley Kubrick
This might have been the first film to use parallel storytelling. Its greatness comes from making that method the obvious way to tell the story rather than simply a gimmick, unlike many modern versions. There would be three more Kubrick films on this list if they were not already on the Established Classics list.
- (500) Days of Summer (2009) .. Marc Webb
Included as the best 2009 film that I have seen so far.
- Aelita (1924) .. Yakov Protazanov
This films is overshadowed by other Soviet films of the era. It is an interesting science-fiction film from an era that depended more on costuming and art direction than on special effects to wow audiences. Like all Soviet films of the era, it is a propaganda film (the hammer and sickle plays a large symbolic role in the Martian revolution). However, it has another layer in which it portrays life after the Russian Revolution back on Earth in a less than flattering light.
- Thirteen Days (2000) .. Roger Donaldson
Even without historical knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fact that we were alive to see the film is a spoiler for how the film would end. I enjoy history and knew a lot more about the event. Still, I found this film to be suspenseful.
- King of the Hill (1993) .. Steven Soderbergh
An overlooked film containing some great acting by actors under eighteen years old.