17. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a criminal faking mental illness to avoid prison and instead wind up in a mental institution, where he creates havoc upon seeing how the authoritarian head nurse is running things. Based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” may be the most irreverent jab at society’s attempt to destroy individuality.
Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben’s script is one that is teeming with symbolism. McMurphy isn’t merely a troublemaker; he’s an anarchist. Nurse Ratched isn’t merely a head nurse; she’s “the man.”
The mental institute isn’t merely a shelter for the mentally unstable; it’s a prison in which everyone is subdued into becoming what those around them deem is “normal.” Each layer presented in the plot allows the film’s setting to feel like a trap from which one must do anything to break free. And the result is some of the most poetic storytelling in film history.
16. A Place in the Sun
Based on Theodore Dreiser’s acclaimed novel “An American Tragedy,” George Stevens’ adaptation came up with a title that nonetheless evokes the tragically sympathetic nature of the story. “A Place in the Sun” traces the life of an ambitious young man as he falls in love for a woman above his class, only to be tied down by another woman whom he’s impregnated.
The script does a remarkable job of placing our protagonist in a lowly life hampered by even lowlier responsibilities. George Eastman’s need for something bigger and better is immediately apparent, as the job and the woman he acquires early on in the film feels like nothing more than somebody else’s sloppy seconds. It’s a life in which George must constantly and frustratingly settle for less, so much so that what he ends up doing to reach his ultimate goal of love and success feels frighteningly sensible.
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” was one of Humphrey Bogart’s classic collaborations with John Huston, and the only one to get the latter the Academy Award for both writing and directing. The film follows three men in Mexico as they hunt the titular treasure, with the largest obstacle on their journey being the lack of faith each one has in the other.
The men initially agree to be amicable about their venture, but Huston’s script carefully implants one moment after another in which our doubts and suspicions are raised right alongside those of his three characters.
The build-up is appropriately slow throughout the film, becoming tense enough to lead Dobbs to develop the paranoia and greed that suddenly feels like the only realistic solution to his situation. The lesson may be one the viewer would expect, but the self-destruction and degradation presented in the story teaches it in a genuinely harrowing way.
14. Midnight Cowboy
Famously known as the only X-rated film to win Best Picture, “Midnight Cowboy” may seem somewhat tame nowadays in regard to its sexual content. But that doesn’t make the impact of its story about a cowboy working the mean streets of New York City as a gigolo with the help of a homeless cripple any less powerful than it was upon its initial release more than four decades ago.
The character of Joe Buck is a stand-out character on his own. Personifying the naïveté that is often associated with the country, Joe navigates his way through a city that would inevitably eat him alive. But it’s his collaboration with Ratso Rizzo that really makes his endeavor so incredibly shattering. It’s a journey towards the American dream that is worthy of a John Steinbeck novel, as two deprived men take the only path – one that is degrading, daunting, disturbing and dirty – that they know how to.
13. The Social Network
The screenplay for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” has Aaron Sorkin written all over it. That is perhaps why this biographical account of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook and the multi-million-dollar lawsuits that soon followed turns what could have potentially been a mundane, silly story about spoiled, rich brats fighting over a website into a thrilling war film that places its soldiers in a courtroom with vicious lawyers as their weapons.
Sorkin is known for his fast-paced dialogue, but never is it more effective here, as each line and each retort demonstrates the speed at which these characters operate. And yet Sorkin never loses us, not when everything uttered in the film is so eloquent and sharp. Nor does he falter with the script’s complex structure, placing each flash-forward of the lawsuits to fall perfectly in line with the main plot every step of the way.
1980s American cinema was arguably quite lacking in masterpieces, but few would argue that Milos Forman’s Mozart biopic wasn’t among the few exceptions. The film chronicles Mozart’s rivalry with the much more hard-working, yet much less talented Antonio Salieri, as the latter begins to plot Mozart’s downfall to claim the title of the best composer of all.
The reason this prestige picture differs from others of its kind is that the story is brilliantly told from Salieri’s perspective. Salieri is the protagonist, but he is the protagonist of someone else’s story – an embarrassing fact that feels oddly appropriate for a self-proclaimed “patron saint of mediocrity.” Everything he does, he does because of Mozart.
In “Amadeus,” Mozart is a magnificent composer, but he is also everything Salieri simultaneously loves and loathes: a man not worthy of his own talent. With that, Salieri’s dilemma becomes a fascinatingly complex one in which his insecurities propel him to destroy the very same thing he can barely live without.
11. The Silence of the Lambs
Another one of the rare horror films to strike gold at the Academy Awards, “The Silence of the Lambs” went so far as to earn the Best Picture prize. It’s not so surprising considering it brilliant premise in which an FBI trainee attempts to track down a psychopathic serial killer with the help of an even more psychopathic serial killer who is now incarcerated.
The chemistry between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter is one for the ages. The relationship they quickly develop is beyond difficult to define, which is exactly what makes it so thrillingly captivating and endlessly watchable.
As Lecter drills into Clarice’s troubled past, the story presents the two as necessary accomplices and one another’s perfect foils – Clarice, the tormented heroin; Lecter, the tormenting villain. The audience is never quite certain what to make of this relationship, instead forced to accept the unsettling fact that they likely never will be.
10. The Philadelphia Story
While most love stories involve two or three people, George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story” boldly presents a love story involving four. As self-important socialite Tracy Samantha Lord prepares for her marriage to a stuffy businessman, her ex-husband arrives just before the wedding with an embittered reporter in tow to cover the wedding.
What makes this terrific romantic comedy work so well is how exceptionally each character plays off the others. That Tracy is burdened with three potential suitors at once doesn’t just provide the plot with hilarious misunderstandings; it enables our protagonist to understand more about herself with every encounter she has with each of them.
It is through these unexpectedly insightful interactions, both comedic and poignant, that Tracy manages to evolve, which makes her final choice a satisfying and convincing happy ending.
9. The Lion in Winter
The term Shakespearean gets thrown around too often these days, but if there’s one film on this list that deserves such a title it’s Anthony Harvey’s historical drama “The Lion in Winter.” The story chronicles the life of King Henry II and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine as they duke it out to determine which of their sons takes the king’s reign.
So rare is it that the words unleashed by a group of characters amount to nothing less than lethal weapons. James Goldman writes a script in which the king and queen spar verbally rather than physically, foregoing brute force to obtain what they want and instead relying on their sharp minds and even sharper tongues. “The Lion in Winter” is a political thriller in the guise of a family drama, but no one in this powerful clan dares to hide the venom that runs through their veins.