14. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
While it’s true that a lot of films with an expansive cast of big name stars is often little more than a gimmick, sometimes that gimmick can work to dazzling effect, as is the case with Sidney Lumet’s inspired adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “Murder on the Orient Express.”
While not the only adaptation of this beloved whodunnit classic, it is most assuredly the definitive one (with apologies to Kenneth Branagh, who’s 2017 reboot has the razzle but not the dazzle) as adored fictional detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) must deduce the murderer aboard the Orient Express in this “locked door” mystery where there are oh so many suspects.
The jaw-dropping cast includes a cross-section of international talent that includes Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York.
Watching Poirot put all the clues together is grand entertainment, and the pulse-pounding finish cinches the film as a memorable work of mystery. Don’t miss it.
13. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
This artful ensemble heist picture from Steven Soderbergh is all kinds of fun as he riffs on the 1960 Rat Pack film, Ocean’s Eleven––hey, I’d take George Clooney over Frank Sinatra in the acting department any day of the week, fight me.
The dashing Danny Ocean (Clooney) is a likeable crook and a dapper man of action, who, barely into his parole from the pen eager to roll into his next scheme, an elaborate casino heist. Following his three rule credo (“Don’t hurt anybody, don’t steal from anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and play the game like you’ve got nothing to lose”), Danny puts together an ace team (played by such big league Hollywood superstars as sleazy Casey Affleck,
Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Andy García, Elliott Gould, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner, and Julia Roberts) to take out three Vegas casinos for one huge honkin’ payday. And guess what? The results are a ring-a-ding-ding!
12. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Perhaps best known as the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning, Boston-centered crime opus from 2006, The Departed, this Hong Kong crime thriller from duo directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak is a complex caper that garnered critical acclaim, a mammoth international box office, and a star-studded dream cast (Kelly Chen, Sammi Cheng, Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Eric Tsang, and Anthony Wong).
Tony Leung is Chan Wing-Yan, an idealistic and fresh-faced police cadet who is recruited by no nonsense Superintendent Wong (Wong) to infiltrate the dangerous criminal Triad society by becoming a deep cover agent. Simultaneously, Triad crime boss Hon Sam (Tsang) has planted Lau Kin Ming (Lau), who will be a long-time mole, he will fully embrace the police force, and grow to become an invaluable asset for the Triad society.
Infernal Affairs leaps a decade ahead and finds Chan and Lau each enmeshed into their aliases, but both become vulnerable of having their respective covers blown unless drastic and deadly measures are taken.
While it’s a sad fact that most Western audiences would rather watch the English-language Scorsese version, which is a high quality reworking, with A-list Hollywood stars, it’s the Lau and Mak original that started it all. Infernal Affairs offers up intelligence, excitement, chills, and shocking surprises.
11. How the West Was Won (1962)
How the West Was Won is a horse opera epic made by three notable big name genre directors (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall), with at least two big gimmicks going for it beyond that; it was filmed in a curved-screen three-projector Cinerama process, and it had a huge cast of the biggest names in Tinsel Town.
The Prescott family (Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Debbie Reynolds) head out west in the 1830s and soon befriend a fella named Linus Rawlings (James Stewart). After a standoff with some no good thieves brings Linus and the Prescott’s closer together he soon weds Eve Prescott (Baker). Jumping ahead 30 years (this is the sort of epic that occupies many, many years, spanning from 1839 to 1890 with a short epilogue set in the early 1960s) we find Linus entering the Civil War with his and Eve’s son, Zeb (George Peppard), where tragedy awaits.
Other unfolding melodrama involves Eve’s sister, Lily (Reynolds), who goes further west, where she meets Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), a professional gambler. Another segment of the film revolves around the construction of the Pony Express, and another still follows surly outlaws in San Francisco. These interlocking tales are held together by Spencer Tracy’s narration and other VIPs in the legendary cast are Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Harry Morgan, Robert Preston, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach, and a cowpoke name of John Wayne.
10. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
This shattering adaptation of the David Mamet play is David Foley’s foul-mouthed masterpiece. Laced with profanity — hearing Jack Lemmon spit out expletives like “cock-sucker” and “motherfucker” with such bravado is somewhat of a sensation, admittedly — and misplaced testosterone, Glengarry Glen Ross is about a group of desperate, competitive real-estate salesmen, fighting for their jobs after a frightening announcement at work, courtesy of Alec Baldwin’s demonic motivator Blake (“What’s my name? FUCK YOU, that’s my name,” he howls at them). Other notables in the cast include Alan Arkin, Al Pacino, Jonathan Pryce, and creepy real-life sexual predator Kevin Spacey, who at least here gets something of a comeuppance.
Not without sympathetic characters, such as Lemon’s Shelley “the Machine” Levene (truly a modern icon to loserdom), Foley presents a ruthless treatise on capitalist values, capturing the way men relate, bond, intimidate, compete, and tear each other down.
9. Boogie Nights (1997)
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson had made a few waves with his 1996 debut, the crime drama Hard Eight, but it was his multi-protagonist picaresque tale of the Californian pornography industry spanning the late 1970s and early 1980s that truly announced this American auteur’s arrival on cinema’s world stage.
This ambitious, audacious, druggy, and technically daring tour de force unspools in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley circa 1977 as we get acquainted with teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), soon to be transformed into adult-film superstar Dirk Diggler. His rise to prominence, fall to obscurity, and fight back up to even ground is enlivened by a first-rate stunning cast that includes star turns from Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzmán, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, Nicole Parker, John C. Reilly, and a career comeback from Burt Reynolds as porno patriarch Jack Horner.
While Anderson would go on to make some stronger dramatic films in the decades ahead (2007’s There Will Be Blood, and 2012’s The Master are no doubt his legacy films), and would make other multi-protagonist films with incredible casts (both 1999’s Magnolia and 2014’s Inherent Vice have hefty star-studded lineups, too), Boogie Nights is the one that established him as not just a savvy storyteller, but as a smart writer and a formallist with both vision and craft. A hallmark of 1990s cinema.
8. The Thin Red Line (1998)
After a shocking 20 year absence from cinema, American movie maverick Terrence Malick made his return with the meditative arthouse war picture The Thin Red Line in 1998. Loosely based on the 1962 James Jones novel of the same name, the film poetically recounts a fictionalized version of the events of the Battle of Mount Austen, part of the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific during World War II.
Featuring a remarkable cast that includes Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta, amongst others, this gorgeously photographed epic (it was lensed by brilliant DP John Toll) is an unforgettable anti-war epic.
“[The Thin Red Line] is a war movie about creation growing out of destruction,” wrote the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan, adding: “it’s about love where you’d least expect to find it and about angels––especially the fallen kind––who just happen to be men.”