The Universal Notebook: The 10 best films of all time

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Seeing Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” a few weeks ago reminded me what I like so much about Woody Allen. He’s an existentialist. His imagination and humor are rooted in reality.

I’ve never cared at all for sci-fi, fantasy or horror in books or movies, but Allen’s shifting of time, sending contemporary characters back to 1920s Paris, works because, other than the willing suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any motion picture, it’s realistic.

Everyday reality, as opposed to the fantastic or the dramatic, permeates my favorite movies, as does a focus on iconoclasts, anti-heroes, nonconformists and outsiders – people at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy. I suppose my Top 10 list argues a fundamental shallowness on my part when it comes to cinema, but, hey, when I go to the movies I just want to be entertained and amused. These movies amuse me no matter how many times I watch them.

“Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) is Woody Allen’s best movie as far as I’m concerned. The dysfunctional family dynamics set against the background of New York City and existential dread at holiday time are priceless and, ultimately, comforting.

“As Good As It Gets” (1997) is my favorite Jack Nicholson movie, the story of an obsessive-compulsive misanthrope forced to become “a better man” to win the love of a good woman who teaches him a lesson in compassion. Cranky old conservatives seem to identify with Nicholson’s manic Melvin Udall, perhaps not realizing Udall is a very sick man and Nicholson himself is a liberal.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) is a wonderfully slapstick screw-the-system comedy. If you can’t identify with Ferris and his anti-authoritarian determination to enjoy his own life, you’re probably an ISTJ (introversion, sensing, thinking, judgment) on the Myers-Briggs charts.

“Empire Records” (1995) features two of my favorite actresses, Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger, in a comedy about an independent record store’s fight for survival. Empire Records gave the world the concept of “Rex Manning Day,” meaning the best day ever. In our family, for example, the day the annual bonus is announced is referred to as Rex Manning Day.

“Rancho Deluxe” (1975) is an anti-western about a couple of loser cattle rustlers in modern-day Montana. Based on a novel by Thomas McGuane, who also gave us “92 in the Shade” and “The Missouri Breaks.” Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston are superb.

“Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985) is the only thing Madonna has ever done that I liked, but it’s enough. The revenge-of-the-bored-suburban-housewife movie of all times.

“Good Will Hunting” (1997) is Matt Damon and Ben Affleck at their best in an offbeat town-gown story that is perfect for Boston: MIT janitor solves math problems the profs can’t.

“War of the Buttons” (1994) is one I bet you haven’t seen. Rival gangs of Irish kids fight a parochial little war, the leaders of the two gangs discovering they have more in common than not. From a French novel, but it works well in the Irish countryside.

“The Graduate” (1967) came out the year I graduated from high school. It is the great nonconformist movie of my youth, giving voice and vent to the sense of disillusionment and alienation that swept across my generation in the 1960s. Whatever happened to Dustin Hoffman? He hasn’t been in anything good since “Tootsie” (1982). I just want to say one thing to you, Dustin: “Kung Fu Panda.”

And finally, “A Christmas Story” (1983), very possibly the pitch-perfect American movie. Jean Shepherd’s story lovingly sends up every consumer Christmas convention there is in this affectionate yet irreverent tale of a 9-year-old boy’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. Let’s face it, we’re all Ralphie Parkers.

And there you have it. All this time you probably thought I was an angry old man. Now you know I’m just an old softie addicted to chick flicks and romantic comedies.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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