A little over a year ago, in an effort to get people on Facebook to talk about something positive rather than simply despising each other as loudly as possible, I asked the following question: “What are some movies (sequels notwithstanding) that are virtually flawless in all respects, that there is no way you can imagine them possibly being improved upon, and that any discussion of remaking them would be the purest hubris?”
The goal behind this was simply to get some good-natured conversation going for a change, to get people talking about “perfect” movies that they love, but I was quickly amazed by the variety of answers I started to receive. It was also telling to me how widely spread the responses were. Plenty of classic movies got mentioned, as well as a lot of modern popular hits, but then there were the obscure movies like the Japanese drama An Autumn Afternoon or the pre-blockbuster Eddie Murphy action movie 48 Hrs. Now when I say a “perfect” movie, to me that means that there is no legitimate criticism or room for improvement, that everything about the movie is as good as it could possibly have been in the time and place in which it was made. This is, of course, inherently subjective, but that’s the point. I can give the definition to anyone, but it’s seeing what movies they think qualify that really became intriguing to me.
So I wound up doing what I usually do when I’m talking about movies and I get caught up in it: I went to Letterboxd and made a list. (Side note: I love Letterboxd. It’s one of my favorite places on the internet. It’s a social media platform where movie lovers can write reviews, share lists, and talk about movies. It’s a wonderful place for movie fans. It’s what Goodreads should be for books, if Goodreads wasn’t owned by Amazon now and every other click on the site didn’t attempt to divert you to spend money.) I listed every movie that someone suggested as being “perfect,” according to their own criteria, and I ranked them based on how many people suggested each one. I thought today it would be fun to walk through the list of suggestions I’ve collected since last year, talk about them a little, and then throw open the door for more. This list is a never-ending work in progress, so I’m always happy to hear what you think deserves a place here.
So far, 339 separate movies have been suggested by at least one person. Of those, I’ve seen 237 of them, and although I definitely don’t agree with all of them, that’s okay. The point is to see what SOMEbody thinks is perfect, not EVERYbody. The top choices, however, are pretty tough to argue with. The #1 choice, “nominated” by 12 separate people (myself included) is Back to the Future. The last time I mentioned Marty McFly and the Doc in this column, it was when I talked about Pop Culture Comfort Food – the whole trilogy is something I can throw on to make myself feel better on a bad day, but there’s something about that first movie that’s practically sorcery. Writer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis found a way to weave together sci-fi time travel gobbledygook with a story that’s funny and uplifting, with a musical score by Alan Silvestri that I’d put among the top five of all time. I don’t want to get too deep into what makes this movie perfect because, let’s be honest here, you probably already know. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who doesn’t love the original Back to the Future, and if I did, I don’t think I could trust them.
The second movie on my ranked list is also one of my comfort films (although when I wrote about it before I was talking more about the book than the film): Rob Reiner’s adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Eleven people suggested this one – a romantic comedy that’s full of classic quotes and unforgettable characters. It’s a fairy tale that makes everyone believe in love without making it seem like something that can only exist in fairy tales. It’s the reason people who aren’t wrestling fans know who Andre the Giant was. And sure, there are some bits about it that crack a little under scrutiny: in the fight between Westley and Inigo, for example, it’s horribly obvious when Cary Elwes is replaced by a stunt double to do flips on a bar, and the edges of the hidden mat are clearly visible when he lands a few seconds later. But I wouldn’t change those if I could – even those things are part of the film’s charm. Even the things that aren’t perfect IN The Princess Bride are perfect FOR The Princess Bride. It’s pretty telling that among the very few things that people on the internet can agree about is that NOBODY wants to see a remake of this movie.
Moving down the list from this point, a modern psychologist or anthropologist could really start to paint a portrait of the kind of people I associate with on social media, because The Shawshank Redemption and The Big Lebowski got seven votes each. These are two films that are enormously popular among people my age, movies that came out during those high school and college years in which many of us formally adopt the pop culture influences that become permanent parts of our identities. Shawshank is one of my personal favorite films, a film that takes the setting of a brutal New England prison and weaves a story about undying hope that is, in its own way, as inspiring as The Princess Bride itself. It’s a little hobby of mine to tell people who don’t already know that it’s based on a book by Stephen King, especially if they don’t like horror and they think that’s all he can write.
The Big Lebowski was my generation’s Rebel Without a Cause, a movie that was elevated to a lofty position based on the Rule of Cool. People saw in Jeff Bridges’s character a sort of carefree slacker god. “The Dude” became a role model, and while the lifestyle he enjoys in the film isn’t really something that works in the real world, that doesn’t particularly matter when it comes to making us fall in love with a movie, does it?
The Iron Giant got six mentions, and if there’s any movie that deserves more it’s this one. The story, about an alien robot who falls to Earth and learns what it means to be human, resonated with me instantly. It’s the best Superman movie without Superman in it that you’ve ever seen, and it’s easily the most animated performance Vin Diesel has ever given.
Next up, we get clumps of movies with the same number of votes. Five people each voted for Alien (the original), Clue, The Godfather, and Groundhog’s Day, and I would not argue with any of them. Four votes each go to Casablanca, Heathers, Labyrinth, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and my wife Erin’s favorite movie, Jaws. Again, there’s nothing here that I would really disagree with, except to say that I think some of those deserve a higher rating (which you, dear reader, are invited to provide if you’re so inclined).
I do want to point out here that The Godfather and Jaws both occupy places on a very small but important list: movies that are better than the book they’re based on. The standard argument is that the book is better, and I agree that it’s usually true, but these two pretty darn perfect movies both got that way by jettisoning parts of the respective books that would have hurt the films. In the case of The Godfather, a long and rather uncomfortable subplot about Johnny Fontaine and his sexual conquests is reduced to little more than a cameo for the character in the film. The subplot is unpleasant to read and really has nothing to do with the story of the Corleone family, which is what the story is really about. In the case of Jaws, there’s a subplot about Ellen Brody having an affair with Matt Hooper, which is obviously the sort of shenanigans that the wife of the police chief worried about a killer shark and the marine biologist who has been called in to help capture said shark are going to get down to in between measuring the bite radius on the remains of the victims. I don’t know, maybe it had something to do with the 70s, the idea of throwing in unnecessary storylines about people gettin’ down, but thank goodness the filmmakers had the good sense to leave those parts out of the respective films. Had they gone in intact, I don’t know that I could support either of those movies being on this list.
I’m not going to go through the entire list here – there are still over 300 movies that I haven’t mentioned yet. But I invite you to read the list yourself and let me know if you agree or disagree. The list is a work in progress. I’ve added several movies myself since I first drafted it (Everything Everywhere All at Once being the most recent film that I’ve seen to make the cut) and I’ve periodically asked for more suggestions. Now I’m asking you. Are you irritated that your favorite movie didn’t get mentioned? Hey, mention it yourself! You think a movie that’s down at position #187 deserves to be higher? Give it a nomination and it’ll move up. You’re angry because you don’t think #163 deserves to be on the list at all? Well, sorry to say it, but that’s not going to change. Even if you don’t like it – even if I don’t like it – somebody called it perfect, and that’s all it takes to get on the list.
You can make suggestions here on the blog, on the Letterboxd list itself, or on whatever social media platform you used to follow the link. And remember the ground rules: first, no “joke” suggestions. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate that well on the internet, and if I think you’re suggesting something ironically, I’m just going to throw it out. Second, no BULK suggestions. Don’t just say, for instance, “all the James Bond” movies, because there are 26 of them and if you say “all of them” I’m going to question your critical thinking skills. And finally, be specific. Some stories have been told more than once, some titles have been used multiple times. Don’t just say Hamlet, tell me WHICH Hamlet – preferably the year of release, but at least tell me who the actors are so I know which version you’re voting for.
If nothing else, it’s a chance to see what movies people love, what movies matter to people, and to make your voice heard at least a little. And for the chance to talk about what people enjoy, I think that’s worth the few moments of thought.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. TV shows don’t count for this experiment, unfortunately, or else his son would no doubt have forced a thousand episodes of Paw Patrol onto the list.