29. A Christmas Story (1983)
Just the perfect Christmas movie, with the exactly, precisely perfect blend of sentiment and cynicism. The contrast of the treacly, knowing voiceover with the deadpan realism of the way the kid and his family are portrayed really lifts the film to heights it otherwise wouldn't approach. And it gets so many things just completely right. Every time I see it I am stunned by the real, complex emotions it nails--for example, in the bog fight scene, when the set-upon Ralphie just loses it and attacks the older bully, breaking down in tears when he is pulled off by his mother and he realizes what he's done. Just great.
Favorite moment: Just described it.
28. The Fisher King (1991)
I haven't seen this movie in far too long. Probably Robin Williams' best role, as a mentally unbalanced homeless man who falls in love with a mousy clerk, with a great quixotic story line about the Williams character's belief that he is a knight of old. Heartbreaking, funny, and superbly acted. Jeff Bridges is sublime as the faded disc jockey who begrudgingly takes the Williams character as his project.
Favorite moment: The heartbreaking scene right after the date, when the Williams character is filled with joy over his lovely date with his beloved, only to be reminded of how his wife was killed by a gunman, which lets the madness take over and drive the happiness away again.
The late, lamented Michael Jeter puts in a tragicomic turn here in a small part as a cross-dressing homeless friend of Williams characters. Here, he sets up Williams character's beloved for a date, showing off remarkable vocal chops in the process.
27. The Godfather Part II (1974)
I prefer the first for two reasons. The intertwining of Don Corleone's origin story and Michael's story always feels a little forced. Secondly, I find the Cuba material a little needlessly complex; I tend to lose the thread of the plot in that middle section. That said, the fall to corruption of what was once a decent man has maybe never been told better.
Favorite moment. "It should have been you Fredo."
26. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The great superhero movie, with a fine turn by Alfred Molina. I love how intelligently they took from the comics - in retrospect it seems obvious that the big story for a second Spider-Man film would be the classic "Peter quits" story, but they could have gone any number of lesser ways.
Favorite moment: That killer train fight.
25. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
A great buddy film anchored in a completely believable, fleshed out world of monsters. Visually an astonishing achievement, the film really hits so hard because of the emotions it elicits.
Favorite moment. The end, when Sully is reunited with the little girl he had come to love and had thought was lost to him forever completely destroys me every time.
24. The Princess Bride (1987)
What the hell happened to Rob Reiner? This, Misery, Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, The American President - and noting since? That said, this may well be his best, a movie that succeeds purely on the basis of how precisely they get the tone right. It's also perhaps the most quotable film of my generation. If you have the DVD, do watch the present-day interviews--Robin Wright tells a beautiful story about how Andre the Giant would hold his monstrous hand over her head, draping it completely, to keep her warm in the chilly outdoors of England.
Favorite moment. When the kid's grandfather asks if he wants him to stop reading. In that little moment so much is said about the way life is not like stories, and how bad stuff happens.
23. Forrest Gump (1994)
The backlash against this film honestly puzzles me. The charges that it's some kind of conservative fantasy just confuse me, and the charges that it's too pat and easy, or that it's too fanciful seem to miss the way the film is structured as a fable. I think it's also far too easy to forget how easily this could have bombed, and how risky and strange it was at first. Hanks performance is likely undervalued today, as if all he is doing is a funny voice. Hardly. Watch the special features on the DVD for a look at his screen test to see "just a funny voice." He made that character real, and yet not real, in a way that few could.
Favorite moment. Forrest meets his son. Hanks won his Oscar in this scene.
22. Cast Away (2000)
Such a pure and simple movie. Man is stranded on island. And yet after God-knows-how-many iterations, Zemeckis gives us a beautiful, poetic version anchored by what may be Hanks best performance. The skill on display here is staggering - listen to the way Hanks calls out for his lost volleyball Wilson out on the water. If he's too histrionic we don't buy it, but if he's not emotionally involved enough we don't care. He nails the balance perfectly. And he did it in the studio, in post-production - not out there on the raft. Genius.
Favorite moment. When Hanks leaves the island and we hear music for the first time in 45 minutes or so. Catches my breath, every time.
21. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Just a magical, beautiful, inspiring film, with what's got to be the best film-original song stack ever.
Favorite moment. Garland sings "Over the Rainbow."
20. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
As the middle film, it lacks the closure the third offers, as well as the introductory pleasures offered by the first, but it more than holds its own, telling its epic story in a grand and never hurried way.
Favorite moment. Gandalf returns to save the day. Old-fashioned thrills, done right.