More of the Best Movies We Have Ever Seen

Forrest Hartman and Tara Taghizadeh


I was raised in a family of filmgoers. Most of my parents’ dates during their courtship included a visit to the cinema, and this love of films was also ingrained in me at an early age.

But how do you go about choosing the best 12 movies you have ever seen? This is a tough call, and most Highbrow Magazine film critics have hailed this as an impossible task – considering the thousands of movies we have all seen.

So many of my other favorites should have also been included here: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Diner, The Natural, Night on Earth, Limelight, The Goodbye Girl, Short Cuts, and so on.

But duty calls, and following on the heels of our millennial and Gen-Z critics, Highbrow Magazine Chief Film Critic Forrest Hartman and I now take turns waxing poetic about our own 12 favorites.

Whether they have made you laugh, cry, think, or instilled love or anger within you, movies are capable of provoking a wide range of our rawest emotions – probably more than any other medium.

And this list is dedicated to the movies that have stayed with us and bore themselves into our brains and hearts – and the definitive “must-sees” for all avid film fans.


--From Tara Taghizadeh, Founding Editor and Publisher:


1. The Graduate

If you have never seen The Graduate, you can’t really call yourself a film buff. This astounding 1967 movie, directed by the late, great Mike Nichols, co-written by Buck Henry, and starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, took the world by storm when it was first released. 

The bizarre love triangle – boy has affair with married woman, then falls in love with her daughter – is riveting, and under Nichols’s direction, the blend of comedy and drama are interwoven perfectly. This is as great as a film can get.



2. The Lives of Others

A brilliant script and even better direction by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and remarkable acting turns by all the cast are the reasons why this German film, The Lives of Others, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007. A cat-and-mouse tale set in Communist East Berlin, the film revolves around a playwright who is placed under surveillance by the Stasi (secret police) and how one compassionate Stasi officer changes his fate.

Having lived in West Berlin – when the city was still divided between East and West – this film is dear to my heart. But it’s truly one of the best suspense movies – and best ending of any movie -- I have ever seen.


3. Children of Heaven

It’s confusing to me why Jafar Panahi is revered as the best Iranian filmmaker, when – in my humble opinion – there are others whose works are far superior. One such filmmaker is Majid Majidi, whose quiet, beautiful, and simple films will astound you. Children of Heaven was nominated for an Oscar in 1998, and should have won for Best Foreign Film.

This is the story of an impoverished Iranian family whose son and daughter must share a pair of shoes because they cannot afford a new pair. Yes, the storyline is simple, but watch this film and see how the characters blossom and how poignant, touching, and unforgettable their story is.



4. The 400 Blows

Of course, Francois Truffaut will make an appearance on many a Best Movies lists, and mine is no different. The 400 Blows put Truffaut on the map, and is regarded by critics as one of the definitive films of the New Wave.

Revolving around a story of misspent youth and its unfortunate consequences, there are star turns by the young Jean-Pierre Leaud who delivers a touching turn as the misunderstood youth Antoine – in addition to other superb cast members who have made this film one of the best in French cinema.


5. The Godfather

All right, so I know most film critics prefer The Godfather Part II, but for me, it’s the original that is the best. So, what can I really add here? Everyone under the sun has watched The Godfather and knows the plot, and the reasons are clear: superb acting by Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and the supporting cast; a great script based on the brilliant book by Mario Puzo; and stunning cinematography by Gordon Willis – all under the genius direction of Francis Ford Coppola. It’s a masterpiece. Enough said.



6. Cinema Paradiso

Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore’s sweeping film from 1988 about a mischievous, intelligent boy who strikes up a friendship with the grumpy but bighearted town film projectionist – who works at the only movie theatre in town -- is a superb blend of drama and comedy. Set in Sicily, Tornatore captures the essence of the many quirky small-town locals, and shows us the touching – and often humorous – relationship between the young budding filmmaker and his mentor.

Cinema Paradiso is a salute to the art of cinema and love stories of various forms: from familial love, to romantic love, to the love and respect of an influential mentor. Actors Philippe Noiret and the young Salvatore Cascio carry the film, and are the main reason to watch this remarkable Oscar-winning Italian gem.


7. Hannah and Her Sisters

Woody Allen was once considered one of the most influential and important American filmmakers, and Hannah and Her Sisters from 1986 is his finest. There is something unique about Allen’s films – a certain zing about the script, direction, and acting that have made numerous of his films masterpieces.

The film is about the trials and tribulations of a well-off New York City family – and in typical Allen fashion, the characters are standouts: from the harebrained sister Holly, deftly portrayed by Dianne Wiest (who won an Oscar for the role); to the reliable, kindhearted Hannah (played by Allen’s former longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow -- in happier times); to the emotionally conflicted Michael Caine, who plays Hannah’s philandering husband, and who also landed an Oscar.

This is Woody Allen at his best – the Woody Allen of yesteryear, who would deliver hit movie after hit movie. Allen also won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters. See this film.



8. Wings of Desire

Another riveting and truly astonishing film set in Berlin – before the fall of the Wall. 1987’s Wings of Desire is German director Wim Wenders’ love letter to the human race. A tale of life and mortality and the quest for love, it's shot in black-and-white for the most part, and shows us the existence of guardian angels who watch over us.

The German language has a reputation for being harsh, but here, its sheer poetry and beauty shine through. Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, and Peter Falk deliver star turns.

I have never seen any film quite like Wings of Desire – it’s a film that has affected me deeply.


9. Gone With the Wind

1939 was a banner year for Hollywood, and Gone With the Wind was its jewel. A remarkable film – based on the equally remarkable book by Margaret Mitchell, shows an anti-heroine (Scarlett O’Hara) as the heroine who saves the day. There are many stories about all the troubles the movie faced before its completion, but the end result is one of the best American films ever made.

With Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Haviland, and Hattie McDaniel – the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy – the cast – particularly Gable and Leigh – is superb. The former glory days of the South and the Civil War come to life under Victor Fleming’s fine direction.



10. Kramer vs. Kramer

This is Dustin Hoffman’s tour-de-force performance as a recently separated father who must learn how to look after his son – the astonishingly talented Justin Henry -- when his wife suddenly leaves him. Hoffman is one of my all-time favorite actors, and he shows impressive range in his work. Hoffman and Meryl Streep (as the vanishing wife and mother) won Oscars for their roles – and Henry, who was also nominated, deserved to win. This is a gripping family drama – replete with a tense courthouse scene – that deftly shows the plague of divorce that overwhelms our society. The film won the Best Film Oscar in 1980, and rightly so.


11. The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson is the Tom Waits of the film world: He is a genius who is light-years ahead of everyone else – and as result, he is largely misunderstood and underappreciated. But my Best Movies list would not be complete without mentioning this American treasure. The Royal Tenenbaums from 2001 is Anderson’s best film: the script sings; the characters are quirky and dynamic; and the plot is superb. With an all-star cast – from the great Gene Hackman as the head of the family, to Anjelica Huston as his ex-wife who is now betrothed to Danny Glover; to great turns by brothers Luke and Owen Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, and Bill Murray, this movie is as sumptuous and engrossing as discovering a great book that you must finish reading in one sitting.


12. The Wife

How many times has Glenn Close been nominated for an Oscar – and never won? It’s a crime that she didn’t win for her role in 2017’s The Wife. Also starring Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, and Christian Slater, the story slowly unfolds as we learn that the great author Joe Castleman (played with great aplomb by Pryce), who has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, isn’t really all he’s cracked up to be. He and his wife (in what should have been an Oscar-winning role for Close) have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. This is a brilliant dramatic film, with great performances from all the cast.



Bonus Pick: The Ladykillers (1955)

Do not watch the 2004 Coen brothers’ remake of this film – which is an unfortunate disservice to the its great comedic legacy. Instead, find the 1955 original directed by Alexander Mackendrick and produced by the famous Ealing Studios – starring some of Britain’s most notable talents: Alec Guinness, the young Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, and Katie Johnson as the immortal Mrs. Wilberforce – better known as “Mrs. Lopsided.”

Guinness is the brains behind a gang of criminals – masquerading as musicians – who are plotting a robbery while renting rooms from Mrs. Lopsided. Their dreams of wealth quickly fall to pieces as the incorrigible Mrs. Lopsided catches on to their scheme and demands they return the money.

This is one of the most hilarious comedies I have ever seen: the cast, especially Guinness and Johnson are superb; the plot is fascinating; and the Oscar-nominated script, written by the immensely talented William Rose who would later win an Oscar for writing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – another all-time favorite film – is brilliant. If you want to spend an evening just laughing aloud, watch The Ladykillers.



From Forrest Hartman – Chief Film Critic:


When Highbrow Magazine founding editor and publisher Tara Taghizadeh asked each of her publication’s film critics to name the 12 best movies we have seen, I think we took a collective gulp. How can someone who loves cinema possibly narrow the field to a dozen? How about 100 … or 500 … or maybe 1,000? But numbers like those would require a book, not an article, so we dug in.


Here, I submit my picks for the 12 best movies that cinema has to offer. Note that I would probably change this list next year, perhaps even next month, depending on my mood. Note also that my list contains not only movies I love but movies that, for the most part, changed the cinema that came after. The films I selected are not only great, I believe they have been influential. Drum roll please …


1. Casablanca

There are many ways to deconstruct a movie, but I typically start with storytelling. With few exceptions, a narrative film is doomed unless it begins with an excellent script, and Casablanca combines a great dramatic arc with memorable dialogue. In fact, a number of lines have become cliché because they’ve been repeated so frequently over the decades. “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and “Play it, Sam” (often misquoted) are all from the film.

Much credit goes to writers Philip Epstein, Julius Epstein, and Howard Koch. With Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains leading the cast and director Michael Curtiz at the helm, it’s no wonder Casablanca is still a treat 80 years after the initial release. 



2.  Star Wars

With more than 100 years of film to draw from, narrowing the field to a dozen is hard work, so I picked movies that have been both personally meaningful and impactful to cinema. There is a strong argument that The Empire Strikes Back is actually the best-made movie in the Star Wars franchise, but we wouldn’t have had Empire if writer-director George Lucas hadn’t set the world on fire in 1977. When Star Wars hit theaters, there was nothing like it. Lucas took the camp and melodrama of an action-based cowboy film and injected it with groundbreaking special effects, creating a fanciful galaxy of memorable characters that are entertaining people to this day.


3. Pulp Fiction

In 1994, Pulp Fiction’s nonlinear storytelling, gritty plotting, and cutting dialogue was a breath of fresh air. That’s less true now, but only because countless filmmakers have embraced and copied what can only be called the Quentin Tarantino style. Tarantino continues to make relevant, must-see movies (cue 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), but in the ‘90s, he was an upstart who dazzled film lovers with his rapid rise from video-store clerk to industry power-player, and no film demonstrates why he grabbed our attention better than Pulp Fiction.


4. Sunset Boulevard

For those of us who love movies, it’s hard to beat a picture about the pictures, and the grandaddy of the genre is Sunset Boulevard. This 1950 noir tells the story of a handsome, young screenwriter (William Holden) being “kept” by an aging movie actress (Gloria Swanson) who failed to make the transition from silents to talkies. Director Billy Wilder spun his magic, making the film deliciously tragic, as every good noir should be. 



5. Citizen Kane

As a writer and journalism professor, I couldn’t deliver this list without including a film about media. Honestly, Spotlight – about Boston Globe reporters investigating the Catholic Church abuse scandal – is my favorite journalism picture, but it wasn’t nearly as influential as Citizen Kane. With Kane, then-wunderkind Orson Welles made a movie that was such a successful takedown of mogul William Randolph Hearst that many film lovers probably picture protagonist/antagonist Charles Foster Kane whenever Hearst’s name is uttered. That’s not entirely fair, but Citizen Kane is great nonetheless. The script is wonderful, the production value is incredible for the era, and Welles has been widely praised for ushering in groundbreaking cinematic techniques with the film.  


6. Titanic

 Writer-director James Cameron’s historical romance, set aboard the doomed ocean liner Titanic, broke box-office records upon its release. It also made the already famous Cameron the king of the motion-picture world for a time. Titanic is more than your average love story. It stars the always incredible Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and it might just bring a tear (or several) to your eyes.

Sure, there’s been some blowback over the years, and critics are correct that there was no need for Cameron to create additional action sequences to make the story of a sinking ocean liner more exciting. Despite the excess, DiCaprio and Winslet form an emotional connection with audiences. The movie hit hard when I first watched it, and it’s difficult not to get sucked in if you happen across it while flipping through TV channels.


7. Toy Story

 Is this really the best Pixar film? That’s a bit like asking if chocolate cake is the best dessert. The animation studio has cranked out one classic after another for decades. I chose this sweet tale of toys that spring to life when their human owners aren’t watching because its release redefined animated cinema. Writer-director John Lasseter and co-writers Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter not only made a movie that has spawned multiple sequels and stood the test of time, they forced other animation studios to up their games.



8. The Birds

Director Alfred Hitchcock could easily be represented more than once on a list like this. Why have I chosen The Birds? Maybe it’s because the movie was largely filmed in Bodega Bay, which isn’t all that far from my Northern California home. Or maybe it’s because it took a true master of suspense to make a creature typically regarded as harmless seem like an existential threat. Hitchcock, with adept help from stars Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedron, achieves this feat with seeming ease. This is horror at its best.


9. This is Spinal Tap

When Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer set out to make a mockumentary about the fictional rock band Spinal Tap, I doubt they knew they’d end up with one of the most memorable music pictures in cinema history. It’s difficult, after all, to assess one’s own work during the moment of creation. But Spinal Tap is a classic. The film boasts a wonderfully oddball assortment of characters, original music (and performances) that are laugh-out-loud funny and a healthy helping of insider jokes that will ring painfully true to anyone who has played in a band. For people who love music and love movies, it’s hard to think of a more perfect picture.


10. Brazil

Director Terry Gilliam’s dark comedy about a dystopian future plagued by bureaucracy and government ineptitude is as biting and meaningful today as ever. Jonathan Pryce is outstanding as Sam Lowry, a government employee who gets swept up in unexpected intrigue, and supporting players include Robert DeNiro, Kim Greist, and Ian Holm.



11. Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam War saga is known as much for production-related drama as the end product, but that doesn’t diminish its artistic importance. Coppola somehow succeeded in depicting the horrors of 20th-century warfare while taking viewers on a surreal journey loosely based on Joseph Contrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. Simply put, this is a stunning war movie.


12. Batman Begins

Superhero films are so commonplace now that the genre has become tired, but that wasn’t the case when director Christopher Nolan decided to reinvent Batman in 2005. Nolan’s cinematic take on the Caped Crusader is easily the best, as he makes him simultaneously heroic, menacing, and surprisingly believable. Nolan’s sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are equally impressive, but this is the film that built the foundation.



Bonus Pick: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

I couldn’t bring myself to pick any one of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies as a best of all time. Despite the exceedingly long runs of each entry, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King aren’t really meant as standalones, but when viewed collectively, they are the greatest cinematic achievement of the early 2000s.

Jackson assembled a top-notch cast filled with surprisingly bold choices, and he demonstrated the ability to deliver both intimate dramatic moments and breathtaking action … all while working with state-of-the art special effects. Arguably, Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary works set the stage for blockbuster, multipart stories like the one Marvel delivered with its Avengers saga, and he did it while somehow keeping both average moviegoers and Tolkien purists satisfied.


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