Picture it, if you can, the black and bold plastic rim of a 1990s television set. The type with the big “On” button that you’d have to push in, with the static charge that can make your hair stand on end. The kind of TV that is as deep as it is wide. It sits pride of place in the corner of a small living room, no larger than 12 feet by 12 feet. The kind of lived-in living room that has slouched cushions on worn away sofas, a sensible carpet covered in toys. The freshly established blackness of the rounded screen reveals to the room the reflection of a doe-eyed young boy sitting crossed legged just feet away, his hair as white as his thoughts are pure. He sports a Macaulay Culkin bowl cut and Tigger PJs, and his jaw is agape. He looks like his imagination has taken him to another universe, but for the first time in his life he is entirely present. A VHS of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) has just finished, and as a result of contemplating how everything in the film was made, designed, and organised, he is now conscious for the first time.
The year is 1995, and the child is me.
I can never verify how much of the above tale happened, or which parts of it I have embellished over the years, but the story is true. I specifically remember being told that the flower Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka drinks from and then takes a bite out of wasn’t real food, and I consequently went through the thought process of wondering what else in the film wasn’t real and who made all of those things. I can’t remember if prior to that moment I thought everything in films was a historical document of a true story, or whether I had any thoughts about them at all, but I know that watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was my light-bulb moment, my transition from being a baby into being a child, my moment of consciousness.
The wonderment I found that day has been one of the most lasting and rewarding aspects of my three-plus decades on this planet. Each time I feel like my flame for cinema has been extinguished (by life, by society, by corporatisation, by existential threats to the theatrical experience, by politics), it has been sparked back into life by miraculous feat of cinematic artistry after miraculous feat of cinematic artistry. As I’ve grown and learned and progressed, I have been inspired, have been nurtured, and have been guided by film.
With so many life-shaping, existential experiences to recall, and so many lessons learned and viewpoints shaped by this wondrous moving picture art form, I find myself in the same place I began: wide-eyed and cross-legged, jaw agape, entirely present.
In this moment of absolute consciousness, the following ten films are what I have long deliberated to be the best of all time. These films are form-shaping, movement-defining, genre-topping pieces, each from remarkable filmmakers who were able to capture lightning in a bottle by making something greatly artistic and intellectually rewarding, something emotionally and contextually resonant. These films challenged convention, rewrote popular thought, established rules and in most cases broke them, and together they are the thousands of films I have experienced, the entire historical context of the industry I have studied in great depth, the more-than a quarter of a century of consciousness I have dedicated to the form. These are the 10 Best Films of All Time by me, Joseph Wade.
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10. Casablanca (1942)
The modern Hollywood blockbuster is a monumental part of the cinema experience, and one of the reasons you’re reading this article and I’m writing it. Some of the classics that have lit up the big screen and revolutionised the form are Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and The Dark Knight. While Buster Keaton’s timeless action-comedy The General (1926) has had perhaps the most direct influence of any film in history regarding contemporary studio filmmaking – many of its scenes still borrowed from and replicated to this day, its train scene being paid homage to in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One in 2023 – it is Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca that can be found most prominently across many modern thrillers, actioners, and superhero movies.
Curtiz’s romantic drama is perhaps the most overlooked film of all time regarding the size of its influence on modern filmmaking. There are sequences, set in the markets of Casablanca, that are almost directly copied in Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, and the film’s themes of good, evil, and the people in between being forced to choose a side, is a foundational aspect of every successful modern studio blockbuster. While the romantic themes of Casablanca may be lost in most mainstream tentpole releases in the 2020s – a sorry loss that we should fight to get back – the foundational parts of its script, and particularly the way it is presented, shot, and constructed in the edit, are ultra modern and ever-present in our current day cinema. You can watch Casablanca more than eighty years after its release and experience the same pacing as modern success stories like Top Gun: Maverick, which given the releases of the time and the size of the equipment used to film and edit them, is a remarkable achievement.
Beyond the technical achievements and revolutionary ideas that caused its influence to be so long lasting, Casablanca is a powerful and emotive film. Humphrey Bogart soars to new career heights as a romantic leading man, Rick Blaine, the owner of Rick’s, a jazz bar in the titular Moroccan city of Casablanca. To think that he wasn’t thought charismatic enough to be a romantic lead during this era is remarkable in retrospect, but this performance is one that corrected that mistake and laid the foundations for one of the great romantic careers in Hollywood history. His character is reunited with an old flame, Ilsa Lund (played with all the natural fierceness that Ingrid Bergman imprinted onto every single one of her characters – she is arguably an even more powerful screen presence than Bogart), and the pair accidentally set light to old feelings. As it’s World War II, the Nazi forces of North Africa are an ever present threat to the two leads and their romance as well as the way of life of the entire cast of supporting characters. The USA was just entering the 2nd World War during the events of Casablanca, and the nation is romantically presented as a distant beacon of hope in the film; the promise land that the Statue of Liberty so gloriously signified to the millions of refugees and immigrants that made their way to the shores of New York and beyond at that time.
This film features a lot of what we’ve all grown to love about the golden era of Hollywood, and even the biggest movies of today, but it is unique for the very reasons that it remains memorable and iconic so many decades later. It is tragic with a small glimmer of hope, Hays Code era romantic but not asinine, and features two of the most legendary screen actors of all time in all of their transatlantic accented best. No matter what you’ve heard of Bogart and Bergman, they’re all that and then some. Better still, they’re presented in that sumptuous black and white of the era, through risk-taking and modern cinematographic techniques, through the astonishingly detailed set design that you can’t help but to marvel at, and scored to perfection in a composition by Max Steiner that could very well be included on a very short list of movie scores to have helped build the foundations of Warner Bros.
Casablanca is the archetypal Hollywood movie, the very best of a list of classics that includes Gone with the Wind and It’s a Wonderful Life. It is everything that the myth of Hollywood represents, a pristine example of cinema that captured the anxieties and the hope of its time like few other films managed to do, and told it in such a universally appreciated way that we can still feel forced to the edge of our seats and moved to tears in an entirely new century. Even with our modern understanding of the United States having been shifted to better understand non-white perspectives of its past, as well as the global perspectives of its present, Casablanca’s romanticised outlook on its nation, war, hope, and love, ensure it remains a culturally significant and artistically monumental Hollywood movie release, a shining light of the cinematic form.
9. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain is the epitome of Golden Era Hollywood: vast soundstages dressed beautifully by experts in the field, lit with all the glow of the sun; once in a lifetime performers offering timeless qualities that you just don’t see anymore; a self-reflective narrative that pokes fun at the studio system; a happy time at the movies that keeps the conflict manageable and the highs universal, so even the little ones can enjoy themselves. This is Hollywood cinema; romance, music, colour and beauty, projected for all to see.
The film stars Gene Kelly in the midst of his decade of superstardom. He’s a unique talent – a ballet dancer with movie star good looks, the kind of smile that could steal a nation of hearts – and the only person who could take a combination of songs discarded from other productions and make it into something irreplaceable within the annals of cinema history. He is the anchor around which everything floats, the fulcrum of the entire movie, the superstar upon whose back this entire era seemed to rest. Watching the Gene Kelly of the 1940s or 50s in the 2020s will have the same effect it did seventy years prior: the magic will simply pour out of the screen, drowning the noise of your every day and lighting up your endorphins time and time again.
In Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly plays a silent era film star whose career is about to meet an unfortunate end due to the advent of sound. He meets Debbie Reynolds’ party performer with a voice of gold in a chance meeting and the two court for the duration of the film’s runtime, her rise to relative superstardom coming as fast as Kelly’s relative fall from it. It’s all singing and dancing and pursuing the one thing you’ve been told you’re good at just because you believe it might one day work out for you; a Hollywood story about Hollywood that inspired youngest-ever Best Director Oscar winner Damien Chazelle on La La Land and Babylon; a type of self-aware American Dream narrative that doesn’t yet seem poisoned by the lost wars, anxieties and terror of the decades to come.
Perhaps best of all, it is so fist-clenchingly uplifting. You truly feel the ecstasy of each career-orientated achievement just as the characters do. The music is, of course, vital to achieving this, and so far as original soundtracks go there are few (if any) better. From “Good Morning” to the titular track “Singin’ in the Rain”, this film is as loaded with classic songs as the best films of the era, as any era that followed, an often imitated but never duplicated success story.
As an adult, there are few viewing experiences that can show you something new, or fresh, or better than before, but witnessing Gene Kelly at the height of his powers is one of those experiences. His presence in Singin’ in the Rain is the realisation of all he brought to cinema in the ultra modern On the Town (1949) and the classic stage ballet on film, An American in Paris (1951). He isn’t the only glowing aspect of this cinematic marvel, but he is breathtaking, astounding, simply incomparable. Unmissable.
Singin’ in the Rain was made in-part in tribute to the classics of the early Hollywood musicals, such as those by Fred Astaire (Top Hat, Swing Time), and continues to serve as inspiration for a wide variety of films to this day, from the entire plot being the basis of Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) to the “I’m Just Ken” musical segment from Barbie (2023). But, as an artefact of Hollywood at its most sumptuous, timeless and expansive, it is perhaps even more special; arguably the greatest Hollywood studio movie of all time.
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