Maybe there's no such thing as a perfect movie. It's usually enough of a miracle that a movie gets made. But every once in a while, a movie manages to tell a great story without a brush stroke noticeably out of place. Here are 10 nearly perfect movies, and what they teach us about storytelling.
One constraint for this list is that I wanted to include movies that I'd seen recently enough that I could actually write about them. I also didn't want it to be the same list as our other "best" lists that we've done in the past. Scroll down for a list of candidates that we also considered including.
1) Robot And Frank
An ex-burglar suffers from dementia, so his concerned kids bring him a robot caretaker... and he winds up convincing the robot to get into some trouble. A lot of this movie's effectiveness comes from Frank Langella's sarcastic, sly performance, and from the beautiful visuals of nature with a shiny white robot in it. But this film also shows how to do a "character study" without ever becoming heavy-handed: The relationship between Langella's Frank and Susan Sarandon's Jennifer appears to be one thing, but when we find out late in the film that it's something very different, it changes our understanding of Frank's character completely. This movie does "twists" entirely in the service of the main character. Finally, Robot and Frank remains powerfully committed to its theme of memory and selfhood, and how technology interacts with them, finding new ways to investigate that theme instead of just restating it.
No, not the remake with Brendan Fraser. The 1967 original, with comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Cook plays the Devil, who offers the suicidal short order cook George Moon (Moore) seven wishes in return for his soul. Not surprisingly, the wishes all go wrong, but a lot of the focus is on the Devil sharing his view of the cosmos and why he got tired of dancing around worshipping God for all eternity. Cook and Moore's comic timing is impeccable, if slow by 21st century standards, and the film is a masterclass in the use of irony. George Moon's wishes are all about chasing happiness but also gratifying his ego, and the ironic twists that subvert them gently reveal the flaws in George's character and just why he can't be happy. Plus this film opens up the relationship between George and Lucifer, until you finally feel sympathy for the Devil.
We recently quoted director Rian Johnson and a bunch of others talking about why Brazil is such a fantastic movie. But in addition to the incredible visuals and incredibly bitter, weird humor, Brazil is a masterpiece of grotesque worldbuilding, in which the dystopian city, under attack by terrorists and under the thumb of a weird bureaucracy, feels like a real place for all its insane weirdness. We feel for Sam Lowry's plight even more because of all the strange touches that anchor this dystopian world in reality. And the other thing that Brazil pulls off is that it blends fantasy with a fantastical reality and keeps the two distinct — Sam's dream sequences and hallucinations are recognizable as unreal, even in the context of the surreal world he lives in. This is a great lesson for storytellers — if you can make a bizarre world feel like a living, breathing place, then you can layer another world of even stranger fantasy on top of that.
We tend to remember this film as just all-out chaos with the ghosts and the traps and the gatekeeper and so on and so forth. But the great thing about Ghostbusters is how grounded in reality a lot of it is, and how much it's shot in a realistic style, with natural lighting and cinematography from Laszlo Kovacs, who worked on Easy Rider. (There's a great in-depth look at every aspect of Ghostbusters here, in a site fittingly called Overthinking Ghostbusters.) A huge part of why Ghostbusters is able to pull off its unique horror-comedy spin, and why its story of underdogs who go into business capturing spectres works so well, is because it keeps one foot relentlessly in the real world. Also, like a lot of great 80s movies, Ghostbusters takes the time to introduce its characters and their plight before throwing them into the deep end.
5) Iron Man
We've praised this movie before as a cyborg narrative about a man who gets a miniature reactor implanted in his chest to save him from a potentially heart-stopping injury. But I don't think we've talked about how tight this film is — despite being largely improv, this movie builds its story piece by piece, without any wasted pieces. Tony Stark's progression from weapons-selling jerk to penitent badass is great, and the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and costars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges keeps the movie anchored in character. Scenes where Bridges brings over some pizzas or Downey Jr. and Paltrow squabble feel natural and help to sell the idea that these people have longstanding relationships that are shifting. The final confrontation between Iron Man and Ironmonger may not be as over-the-top as other action movie climaxes, but it does bring all of the movie's themes and character development to a perfect conclusion.
6) Being John Malkovich
There are a ton of Charlie Kaufman films that could have gone on this list, including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. And yes, the oft-overlooked Synecdoche New York. The master of meta, reality-breaking stories is also a great storyteller, with a great focus on people whose egos and identities are warped by the magical-realist elements in the story. And Being John Malkovich sticks in your mind not just because of the weird notion of a door into a famous actor's head that lets you observe and maybe control him — but also, because of the intensely personal story it tells about Craig (John Cusack) and his temptation to use Malkovich for his own ends. The ending is a gutpunch, but also feels like the perfect culmination of all Craig's mistakes, which in turn are grounded in character.
7) The Terminator
We were talking about this film last night at the io9 meetup, and the ways that it uses the conventions of the slasher movie, the noir thriller and the techno-thriller to tell its own, weirdly unique story. And it's a romance! There's so much greatness in The Terminator, from the killer robot's comic timing to the beautiful camera work in the action scenes. But part of what makes this movie so perfect, and such a great object lesson for storytellers, is the way it uses genre as a toolkit, with which to build Sarah Connor's character arc. The low-budget simplicity of The Terminator works in its favor as a story of survival, but so does the clever way it uses your genre expectations to set up the reveal of the metal skeleton from the future.
8) Upstream Color
As much as I love Primer, I think Shane Carruth's follow-up movie has stuck with me a lot more — and like some of the other movies on this list, an obvious strength of Upstream Color is the way it combines a thorny relationship story with a bizarre science-fictional narrative. But that's not my main takeaway from Upstream Color — rather, it's the fact that this movie explains almost nothing, and yet the story is completely clear. If you let go of the expectation that a movie is going to unspool its secrets via exposition, this film tells you everything you need to know about what's going on. Carruth explains his entire plot through imagery and juxtapositions, and it's the ultimate example of showing instead of telling. What's incredible is the amount of clarity Carruth achieves without a single scene of somebody explaining something. And then the movie pulls off an ending that's ambiguous in the right way, not because you don't know what just happened, but because you're left imagining what could happen next.
9) Princess Mononoke
Like some of the other filmmakers on this list, Hayao Miyazaki has a unique gift for storytelling and a lot of his films could have been on here — but Princess Mononoke is really something special. This film is incredibly beautiful and moving, and features a protagonist that we sympathize with from the moment he accidentally kills a boar god-turned-demon and is cursed. But the greatest lesson from Princess Mononoke has to do with exploring topical themes in a way that engages the emotions and includes complexity, rather than mindless simplicity. This film is a parable about heedless industrialism and development and the destruction of nature, but Miyazaki takes great care to show how Lady Eboshi's development is admirable in a lot of ways, and how both Eboshi and Mononoke exist in self-contained worlds that need to understand each other or face mutual destruction. Most of all, Princess Mononoke is a film of mind-blowing power, that will make you cry even as it also makes you think.
10) 28 Days Later
And finally, the movie that started the "fast zombies" craze (I know they're not really zombies) is also a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic storytelling. Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland build a sense of paranoia and desolation from the movie's beginning, where monkeys infected with the rage virus are released and immediately start unraveling the world. The use of quiet and empty spaces adds to the feeling of menace and awfulness — but it's Christopher Eccleston's turn as a military officer who's willing to use rape as a tactic of preserving order that unveils the true horror at the heart of this plague apocalypse. A lot of post-apocalyptic films play with the idea that people are monsters, but this one makes it totally visceral.
Our candidates for this list included Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1970s), The Lost Boys, Rosemary's Baby, Little Shop of Horrors, American Werewolf in London, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, The Thing and Return of the Living Dead. Thanks to Cheryl, Ever, Jason, Annalee and everybody else who helped with this!
Note: If you're looking for a straight-up list of the most essential science fiction movies, that's here. Or here's a list of the greatest movies of the 2000s. See also this and this.