Louise and Ian contemplate things in Arrival

“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”

Science fiction is a genre that makes us think by asking questions about our advancement as a species. Some sci-fi movies eschew emotion to focus on the thoughts and ethics of their subject matter, like Ex Machina. Others dive head-first into emotion, making that the focus rather than the ideas, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Very few films do a good job of stimulating both the intellect and the emotions of the viewers; Arrival is a smart film that does exactly that. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario) and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, this film shows us a first contact between humans and aliens who have chosen to land here. This isn’t an action film—it’s a much more cerebral and thought-provoking experience, although it’s not hard to follow or boring. In fact, it’s rare that a film that makes you think like this is made for mainstream audiences, let alone made so well, earning it a spot on this list.

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Ex Machina

Ava investigates one of her alternate faces in Ex Machina

“Do you have someone who switches you off if you don’t perform as you should? … Then why should I?”

If you mixed together Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein with the 1982 film Blade Runner, you might get something kind of like Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland (his first effort as a director, writer of 28 Days Later and Annihilation) and starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, this philosophical film is one of the best I’ve seen on artificial intelligence. In true sci-fi fashion, this film is not content to simply explain what AI is—it also asks what it means. But it’s also not content to be a boring discussion of ethics. This is a thriller just as much as it is a philosophical film, and I found it gripping.

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The Usual Suspects

Five criminals in a police lineup in The Usual Suspects

“After that, my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.”

A good mystery will leave the viewer clues throughout that point the ultimate revelation, and The Usual Suspects does exactly that. Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) and starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, and Chazz Palminteri, this is an extremely intricate film that rewards multiple viewings and in-depth analysis. Some have criticized it as gimmicky, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The performances are excellent, the details that hint at the ending are subtle but very intentional, and the script is brilliant. This is an independent film, and that’s a great thing—Hollywood studios would have dumbed this down to make it much more obvious for average viewers. I’m glad they didn’t—as it is, this film is a masterpiece.

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“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

When Paramount agreed to let Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest, Vertigo) make Psycho, they were sure it would be a flop—so much so that Hitchcock actually negotiated 60% of the profits rather than a flat rate. I had never seen the movie before last night, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure how good it would be. Well, Hitchcock proved Paramount and my doubts wrong—this is a masterpiece. Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles, this is as clever as it is classic, and, while it may be a bit tame by today’s standards, the suspense holds up very well. I’m not usually a big fan of horror movies, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It’s endured as one of the best horror films of all time, and that position is well-earned.

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“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s not often that you come across a movie with a brilliant and absolutely flawless script. The Godfather and Casablanca fall into this category, and I had heard a lot about them growing up. But I had never even heard of Chinatown until I started putting my list together. Directed by Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, this is a film noir/mystery with a modern bite, and the script is absolutely amazing. In fact, most screenwriting classes and workshops will at least reference Chinatown. The mystery is great and keeps you guessing, and in true film noir fashion, it can get pretty dark. But this is a brilliant and entertaining movie that should be watched by any film fan.

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Rear Window

Rear Window

“That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

It’s no secret that movie-watchers love to watch people commit crimes. Crime drama is a huge sub-genre, and even films that don’t revolve around crime frequently use it to push the plot forward. There’s a bit of a voyeur in each of us that perks up when we see a crime on film, and it usually makes for a pretty entrancing story. Rear Window, directed by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, North by Northwest) and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, is a meta, almost self-aware reference to this tendency in us: it shows a man watching someone commit what he presumes is a crime. It’s a great classic suspense film with a unique gimmick: the movie takes place almost entirely in one apartment. Whether you appreciate the gimmick or not, this is a clever and entertaining suspense movie that holds up well today.

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Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz

“Let’s just say that we won’t be short of Chunky Monkey for the next month!”

We’ve had cop movies, and we’ve had funny cop movies, but I can’t think of another quirky British parody of a cop movie, let alone one that’s so hilarious as this one. Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is at once familiar territory, parodying famous cop movies, and also delightfully different, set in a small British town in the country. The combination makes for one of the best parodies I’ve ever seen, and it’s a very good comedy in its own right as well. The Wright-Pegg team matured a lot since Shaun of the Dead, and the brilliance and execution of this movie mark a point when both truly hit their stride.

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North by Northwest

North by Northwest

“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.”

If you’re looking for the best classic-era action film, this is it. North by Northwest, directed by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo) and starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, may not be Hitchcock’s most thought-provoking film, but it’s certainly among his most entertaining. The action and suspense are top-notch—definitely not overdone like action movies today. Cary Grant delivers his trademark vintage-cool charm, and the script is full of iconic lines that make modern action flicks look painfully uncultured. This movie holds up very well today, even in the modern landscape of slow-motion quick-cut action sequences, and is universally loved by viewers—it’s one of the few movies to achieve a 100% rating on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.

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“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”

It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.

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Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express

“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light. But when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”

A good mystery is not obvious, but neither is it impenetrable: it will give you all of the pieces of the puzzle in a jumbled mess, and then one of the characters will put them together. Most mystery movies fail on some level—they are either too obvious or, to get around this, will withhold key pieces of information until the end. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a true mystery, and it’s a good one. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast, this is a movie that won’t necessarily thrill you, but it will delight you as the pieces come together and the complex picture is revealed.

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