Some movies are simply perfect, flaws and all. That sounds like a contradiction, but the reality is that in art sometimes it’s the small errors and shortcomings that make something truly exquisite, and cinema is no different.
It’s important to realize that just because a movie is perfect doesn’t mean it’s great, and just because a movie is great doesn’t mean it’s perfect. A perfect movie can be perfectly terrible, in fact. It just has to be done absolutely right so that you wouldn’t want to change a thing.
These are five movies, in no order, with no ranking, that are simply perfect.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
In a better world we’d all look at Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers and say it’s too obviously perfect for inclusion on a list like this, like putting Citizen Kane on a list of the best movies ever. This would be a no duh film.
But we don’t live in a better world, and too many people miss the fact that Starship Troopers is, in fact, utterly perfect. From the banality of the leads (Denise Richards can’t even run convincingly) to the just-this-side-of-heavy-handed political satire to the copious and delightful amounts of gore, Starship Troopers just gets everything right.
And watching the film now it’s more perfect than ever. Every single planet the humans visit looks like Afghanistan. The attack on Buenos Aires is 9/11. And the idiotic jingoism and violence is the entire Bush Administration, with better special effects. What’s really great is that while the film opens the idea that we were asking for it in the first place, it makes the bad guy bugs gross and dangerous and ruthless. It’s the perfect analogy for the War on Terror, released years before the War on Terror began.
And it’s absolutely fucking hysterical.
‘It’s an ugly planet! A bug planet!’
The assault on Klendathu really sums this movie up. From the TV guy getting destroyed (his cameraman lingers on the gore!) to the fresh-faced, ill-prepared kids getting slaughtered to the moronic bravado (‘I’m from Buenos Aires and I say we kill ‘em all!’) to the massive destruction of the huge starships to the gushing gore and guts, Big K is the film’s perfection personified.
Directed by Merian C Cooper
The original King Kong is so perfect that it’s baffling that it’s been remade twice now, and neither remake has come even close to capturing what makes the movie work so damn well. Kong is weird love story and boy’s adventure tale. It’s the final gasp of colonialism and the dawning of the modern media age all at the same time. It’s the first great special effects movie and it’s one of the few to get special effects right, in that it makes the effects bring a character to life, not just a creature.
What’s also amazing about the original Kong (especially compared to the Peter Jackson remake) is the efficiency on display. No character or story point is underserved, but the film hums along at a remarkable pace. It’s impossible to be bored with this film. Also perfect: the tone, which morphs as the movie goes along, finally ending up as a tragedy, something audiences of the time simply couldn’t have seen coming.
Every moment of this movie is perfect, but coming at it as a boy who grew up watching the film, the most perfect moment is Kong versus the T-Rex. Everything is here: the wonderful effects (which are hokey compared to today’s but still work marvelously), the evolving connection between beauty and the beast, awesome action and the way that the scene builds on character. Yeah, it’s cool when Kong plays with the dead T-Rex’s jaw, but it’s also a great ‘humanizing’ moment for the big ape. We’ve seen him be angry, horny and protective. Here he’s inquisitive and curious about the world around him. He’s not just a big, dumb brute.
Directed by Harold Ramis
This is probably the quintessential underrated movie. Everybody loves it. It’s flawless. And yet it never seems to make it onto those ‘Best Movie Ever’ lists. Why not? Groundhog Day hits us on every level: it’s hilarious, it’s got a sweet love story, it’s got a nifty philosophical conceit at the center that leaves us a lot to chew on, it’s a redemptive tale that earns the redemption and it’s a Bill Murray movie.
What really sets Groundhog Day apart from other films is its sheer rewatchability. There’s an irony inherent in that, but this story about a guy reliving the same day again and again is a film you can watch again and again. I think it’s because Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin never allow the film to get saccharine. Hollywood loves these sorts of magic stories that are really variations on A Christmas Carol (magical intervention convinces grumpy/asshole/workaholic guy to have more love in his life), but very few of them get the hard edge that Dickens brought to his original work. Groundhog Day gets that, and it also is smart enough to not overplay that. The film is great because it really examines the idea of what would it be like to live the same day over and over and over again, and it examines it without flinching or sugar coating it.
Nobody but Bill Murray could pull this off. He’s sleazy but lovable at the exact same time, and this sequence nicely illustrates the movie’s willingness to avoid sickly sweet. You know you would use being stuck on the same day to your creepy advantage eventually.
Directed by Randal Kleiser
Grease isn’t flawless. Not by a mile. But every one of those flaws work together to create a movie that is so weirdly and utterly perfect that every single time I come across it I must watch it all the way through. On paper I should hate everything about this movie: a disco-era musical homage to the 50s starring John Travolta? But it’s just absolutely magical.
And it’s the kind of movie that could only be made at that moment in time. Watching Grease now you’ll be amazed at the smoking, drinking, swearing and sexing going on in a movie that was aimed at younger crowds. These Rydell High School kids were real bad seeds, and Grease would undoubtedly earn an R-rating today. But it’s that realistic badness that I think makes Grease really work: these kids are kind of rotten assholes, but identifiably so. And by the end you realize they aren’t that bad. Even Kenickie.
Then there’s the music. Look, I love musicals. And I know that Grease isn’t the greatest musical ever, but it’s filled with really strong songs and really strong performances. I miss this John Travolta. Although looking back at this movie I wonder how we ever even thought he was straight.
This is a tough one for me. There are so many perfect moments in Grease. How do you not love the scene where Danny shows up as a soc and Sandra Dee shows up as a greaser?
Beauty School Dropout is easily my favorite, because of the way it makes fun of and yet loves Frenchy, the way it works Frankie Avalon into the film and the weird religious vision aspect of it all.
Then there’s Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee, which I think really sums up the bitchiness and awfulness of these kids, and it does it in a funny way that works in a bunch of era references without feeling like a Shrek-ish name-drop-athon. Also, it has Stockard Channing, who I love and who is playing a high school student at age 35.
But wait! There’s also the weird Sha-Na-Na-ness of Greased Lightning (the whole weird Sha-Na-Na-ness is another thing I love about the movie. I can’t tell how ironically campy everything is supposed to be – probably very, I would guess – so I just take it all at awesome odd face value), which happens to also be a great song. Fuck it, I can’t pick one.
Directed by Billy Wilder
It’s possible that The Apartment is one of the most influential movies of the second half of the 20th century. More so than Jaws or Star Wars, even. Billy Wilder’s classic film set up the modern romantic comedy, and Jack Lemmon’s Buddy Baxter is one of the first (and still greatest) submissive schmoes in that genre. Wilder’s film is all about power dynamics, and the dynamic between Buddy and the strong on the outside Fran Kubelik is the blueprint for all post-macho romcoms to come.
But none ever did it as well. That’s because none had this perfect storm of talent. Billy Wilder may have been the greatest writer of English dialogue in Hollywood history and English wasn’t even his first language (it would be remiss of me to not mention also-foreign born IAL Diamond, Wilder’s writing partner). He was certainly one of the greatest directors of humans on screen; his films balance the sour and the sweet perfectly so that every happy moment is very hard-earned. Sappy is the last word that would be used to describe a Billy Wilder movie even when, like at the end of The Apartment, you might find yourself tearing up in sheer joy.
Then there are the leads. Jack Lemmon is unstoppable as Buddy, finding the perfect line between lonely shlub and lovable guy. And has anyone ever looked as luminous on screen as Shirley MacLaine does here? But more than beautiful she’s the original Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, as I guess we’ve come to calling her, but utterly real. MacLaine brings Fran’s bravado and fragility to perfect life.
And let’s not forget Fred MacMurray! He had played real roles for Wilder before (check out the also perfect Double Indemnity), but for a generation raised on My Three Sons it’s still wild to see Steve Douglas as an absolute scumbag. MacMurray’s glorious as the boss who borrows Buddy’s apartment so he can cheat on his wife with Fran, the girl Buddy loves.
What really makes The Apartment not just perfect but one of the greatest movies ever made is that it feels utterly relevant today. Wilder made a completely modern film way back in 1960, a film that even though it gets ripped off all the time feels utterly fresh and new every time you watch it.
What a tough choice. Is it the opening, with Buddy’s voice over and the vision of corporate hell that is still being used by filmmakers today? Is it the ‘All for one, one for all’ scene when Buddy gets his new office? Is it Buddy waiting outside the elevator bank to ask Fran out? All of them are perfect. But one scene is so perfect and wonderful that it stands out above the rest: Buddy making Fran a spaghetti dinner. Buddy talking about living like Robinson Crusoe is sweet and honest in an almost heartbreaking way.
Agree? Disagree? Have other films that you think should be in a future Five Perfect Movies? Log on to our message board and tell me about it.