10 Best Films of All Time: Sam Sewell-Peterson

5. Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca Review

The near-perfect screenplay and casting and classically handsome shooting style helps secure Casablanca’s place as one of the very best films made during WWII and the entirety of Hollywood’s Golden Age. For whatever reason, Michael Curtiz is often not held in such high regard as his contemporaries John Huston and Howard Hawks, but he made as many great movies and was just as versatile.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart at his most charming), the cynical American expatriate owner of a seedy club in Casablanca, reconnects with old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman, mesmerising) and reluctantly helps a political fugitive to escape Morocco under the control of fascist Vichy France.

There are precious few films out there where you wouldn’t change a single frame lest it ruin the magic, but Casablanca is one of those where the balance of tone and message is always on a knife’s edge. It’s got heart, tension and drama in spades, but it’s also really funny thanks to Rick’s wry delivery and especially his clashes with corrupt collaborator Prefect Louis Renault (Claude Rains). 

A lot of the more recognisable stylistic flourishes came out of budgetary necessity – the fog on the airstrip makes it seem much larger and more populated for instance – but they end up massively working in the film’s favour, making it seem epic enough to match the film’s emotional content. The script from Julius and Philip Epstein was also constantly in flux and being revised which makes it a minor miracle that everything seems so well thought-out and intentional in the final film. 

One of the greatest romance films of all time is based on a love story that doesn’t work out. It’s the inherent tragedy, the thought of what might have been, that gives the film its power in addition to its palpable air of rebellion and call to stand fast against fascism in a war still raging, so beautifully expressed in a rousing and timely rendition of “La Marseillaise”.

4. Jaws (1975)

Steven Spielberg helped to invent the blockbuster with this summer thriller but, despite all the excitement on offer here, what really makes Jaws an undisputed classic is its characters and the time we are given to know them and their relationship to each other in the most trying of circumstances. 

As popular New England vacation destination Amity Island is rocked by a series of vicious shark attacks, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and grizzled fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw), team up to find and destroy the maneater.

Spielberg brought sheer magic to the big screen in films like Jurassic Park, but Jaws is the perfect lesson in pacing and a tight script structure that pays dividends when characters we really care about go through nightmarish trials. 

The film’s journey from page to screen was far from smooth, but occasionally things going wrong (animosity among the cast, the mechanical shark not working), and these things ended up making Jaws even better; nothing was wasted, everything left in the film was essential. 

The film has a lot to answer for in terms of how it demonised sharks in the eyes of the public, but Spielberg and original novel author Peter Benchley have made great efforts to rectify that since. More often than not it’s the unseen threat paired with John Williams’ simple, sinister score breaking through the silence that provides most of the terror, though Spielberg happily provides a couple of particularly memorable jump scares for good measure.

Recommended for you: 10 Best Shark Movies

3. Vagabond (1985)

I love slow mood pieces where not a lot happens and Vagabond is one of the best examples from one of the most important women filmmakers of all time.

Agnes Varda crafted a fictional story that was so grounded and unadorned it verges on reality, incorporating documentary conventions to bolster its naturalism and making the trials of its drifter protagonist Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), whose ultimate fate we are made aware of from the start, all the more hard-hitting.

Few other filmmakers seem as fascinated with and empathetic towards ordinary people and their lives as Varda. She made more documentaries where she travelled France and just talked to people than anything else in her filmography, and even with an actor in the lead nothing in this feels artificial. The real villagers living in the locations from the film receive credit and thanks upfront.

Mona is a fascinating, enigmatic collage of a character, not always the most likeable or receptive to anyone genuinely offering to help improve her lot in life, but resorting to increasingly desperate means to survive in steadily more hostile winter weather.

This is lots of smaller stories, little moments of everyday life, people being kind, cruel and apathetic, linked together by chance encounters and the bare minimum stylistic interference from Varda. A few more exciting things happen, but usually on the periphery of the story and never at the expense of sad, reflective stillness.

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