A Dozen Perfect Films


How would you define a perfect film? I would argue there’s something worth remembering about every film if you focus on its parts. When I size up a film, I concentrate on thirteen aspects. Some films have several qualifiers; however, it is rare that a film consists of the following thirteen factors:

1. The line.  Here’s Looking at You Kid. 

2. The scene.  Ada gets her finger chopped off in The Piano. 

3. A smart script.  Dogma

4. A satisfying ending.  Papillon

5. The character transcends the actor.  Lincoln

6. Sound effects affect or the score inspires.  The Birds.  The Magnificent Seven

7. The production design/setting transports.  Lord of the Rings.  Out of Africa

8. The cinematography is innovative or artistic.  Inception.  Citizen Kane

9. Costumes are exquisite or perfectly show the culture.  The Aviator

10. Suspension of disbelief. I am “in” the movie.  The Science of the Lambs

11. The climax is clearly evident and startling.  Psycho

12. The ensemble cast around the major character is a blended microcosm. The Deer Hunter

13. The opening and ending shot. The Searchers

There are many good films to choose from, but are they perfect?  In no particular order, here are my dozen: 


Apocalypse Now, “The horror, the horror.” 


Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s performance was supreme. 


Dances with Wolves, the flip from soldier to warrior. 2099_tn

Alicia: There’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.


On the Waterfront, Father Barry’s homily as he rises up out of the ship. 


Survival story bar none. The sound of the water becomes an adversary. Who can forget the dueling banjos? 


Cold Mountain, a great example of an ensemble cast. 


Elizabeth, a perfect period film with breathtaking costumes. 


The Matrix is still a fun mind-bender. 


Impressive set design and Brad Pitt’s best performance. 


Joel Gray. Liza Minnelli. Great opening and closing sequence.  


My favorite Film Noir. 

Is your definition of perfection different from mine? Maybe you would have added editing? If scores aren’t important to you, your list will be quite different. Also, Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a perfect film even though they aren’t wearing costumes, their animated scales and skin are exquisite.

107 thoughts on “A Dozen Perfect Films

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          1. That there is nothing you can improve upon no matter how many times you see it. I love The Iron Giant but it’s not perfect. But it connects me with tone and theme so it will always be up there. Same with Field of Dreams.


          2. I will never look for the flaws in that film. It is just so moving. I wish it wasn’t referred to as a guy film by people. It’s for anyone who let their dreams pass them by and anyone who struggled with their dad.


  1. Some excellent choices, with “Dances with Wolves’ a particular favourite of mine. I haven’t thought about the question for too long but I’ve always liked “The Bride of Frankenstein”.Darling Daughter favours “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Gone with the Wind”. She also picked out, as an art film, ‘Faust’ by F.W.Murnau


    1. Hello John, darling daughter has exceptional taste picking ‘Faust’. I have to watch it again. It’s been ages. Yes, the score, two-socks, the costumes in ‘Dances with Wolves’ (the wedding)is wonderful. I thought Mary McDonnell was outstanding as Stands With a Fist.


  2. I have never thought about the requirements for a perfect film in the way that you list them. You have a few of my favourites in there though Cindy. ‘Cabaret’, ‘Cold Mountain’, and perhaps one of the best historical dramas ever made, ‘Elizabeth.’ (Shame about the sequel.)

    I rank films by personal criteria. Can I remember them? Do I remember them even when I might not want to? Can I recall scenes at will? Have I gasped at a line in the script, because it was so good? And set-pieces, memorable set pieces and imagery.
    The speech made by Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK.
    The speech made by Nick Nolte’s character in ‘The Thin Blue Line.’
    The swirling French cavalry attacking British squares in ‘Waterloo.’
    And I could go on. All night.

    Best wishes, Pete.


    1. 🙂 Thanks, Pete, for your contribution. I agree, I agree. Certain scenes, certain lines, an intelligent script, the natural beauty and man made beauty. I’m glad we share a love for Cabaret. I saw that a few weeks back and couldn’t believe how fresh and timeless it is, still. What performances.


  3. Wow, this is a very cool post. It is so interesting to me how movies can have one effect on one person and a different effect on another. There are a few on your list that are like that for me namely Apocalypse Now, Black Swan, and 12 Monkeys. But then I see something like Dances with Wolves or Notorious. Man I love movies! 🙂


    1. I know, I know! It’s all subjective and how it adheres to your mind and heart is relative. That’s why I like qualifiers. Truth be told, Schindler’s List is a perfect film. But how many times can one watch it? The Godfather is adored by everyone, yet, I confess, it doesn’t do anything for me. I think Casablanca is a perfect film, too. I never thought to include foreign films. Another person’s list would have several, no doubt.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And all of that is what is so great. I truly love reading other people expressing passions about certain films. I tend to examine my reactions next to their thoughts. So much fun.

        Great mention of Schindler’s List. You are so right. How often can you watch the movie. It doesn’t tarnish its greatness but it does make you look at it slightly different.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Wow that’s a tough question. I’m not sure I have a precise measuring stick. Craft definitely comes into play both from the filmmakers and the actors. I also try and measure how the film has stuck with me over the years. What type of impact and impression has it left on me? Kind of like you were saying – what are those memorable lines and unforgettable scenes? Some movies that come to mind:

            No Country for Old Men
            The Third Man
            The 400 Blows
            Night of the Living Dead
            The Empire Strikes Back
            The Last of the Mohicans
            La Dolce Vita
            Rear Window
            Once Upon a Time in the West
            There Will Be Blood

            Good grief I have to stop!!! 🙂


  4. I can always rely on your blog for wonderfully thought-provoking posts Cindy. This is a great one. Perfection is, as a lot of people say, a subjective status. I’ve come across some friends who don’t think much of The Godfather, who think Gone with the Wind is overrated, who think The Matrix isn’t that good. It’s strange. But to each their own, of course.

    I would define perfection as, and this sounds a little silly coming from me as I don’t know the first thing about the process of making a movie, but when something happens in a film — be it a simple scene or the overarching story — that you hoped would happen and it does, and it happens even better than you imagined it. Like, you’ve got this idea in your head of where the director or the cast or the sets and timelines are taking you and you have this hope that the movie will do that and it does. But then it goes far and above that. Surprising and reinventing. I’d say that’s why I think Nolan’s middle film in the Dark Knight trilogy is perfection. It constantly hits that dark tone I have always imagined a “real world” Batman to be drowned in and it sinks into that. Then Ledger shows up and takes it even further. Just an incredible movie. An easy choice, perhaps, but one of my all-time favorite pictures


    1. Tom, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your sincere comment. I am a Nolan fan and I agree wholeheartedly that the middle film (The Joker transcended the actor here! ) is a perfectly Gothic film and completely entertaining. Many people criticize Nolan but I think he’s a gifted visionary.


  5. Perfection, a concept that demands careful consideration and impossible to define criteria. I frequently revert to a somewhat subjective standard myself: Is there any element of the film I would change? The temptation to believe something could be improved would disqualify a film from my list of perfect films. Music,lighting, pace are all weak spots in films. If there is not a weakness in one of those locations, then you can turn to casting and performance. Interestingly, I don’t consider a weakness in special effects to be a disqualifier, if everything else works, it would take a disaster to make a film fail at that level. A unfocused process shot in a classic film is not going to hurt my appreciation of the film. Chinatown and Notorious qualify for perfection, some of the other choices are a little wobbly, but still great, just not perfect.


    1. Hi Richard, wobbly, huh? 🙂 I’m glad you approve of Notorious and Chinatown. I LOVE your idea of “Is there any element of the film I would change?” It’s easy to pick at a film and find flaws. If you look hard enough, you will most likely find something. I like to consider what others find “perfection”. I’ll stick with my choices. I went through my list of 13 and they all have ’em. 😉 Other than Chinatown and Notorious, what is your perfect film, Richard?


      1. No disrespect was intended to the other films on your list, except that “I” see things that bug me. Brando in Waterfront is perfect, but Karl Malden is a little too Spencer Tracy tough instead of New York tough. Brando shows up in Apocalypse and starts spouting nonsense in the dark, after the set up, the payoff is weak. The world loves Natalie Portman, too often I think she has limited expressiveness in her face, and Black Swan felt like it would have been better as a pulpy Twilight Zone episode. The Matrix is great action and mind blowing effects, and then Neo and Morpheus talk and ruin it. Again, all subjective stuff.

        Perfection for me,( no change could improve it standard)

        The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
        The Court Jester
        The Thing (1982)
        That Thing You Do
        The Quick and the Dead (Yes, a Sharon Stone Western)
        Singin in the Rain
        The Man Who Would be King
        Galaxy Quest
        Cool Hand Luke
        Once Upon a Time in the West

        Others may see flaws, but when i watch these movies, I never feel that there is a false note, a performance I would change, or that a scene is missing that i need. What do you think of my list?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Richard. I’m not offended at all. I appreciate your comments. We shall have to agree to disagree–especially Portman and Waterfront and Apocolypse. However, I love your list with regard to Cool Hand Luke. I almost put that in there and did not because there’s not a score worth remembering and that’s the only reason. Otherwise, it is perfect. I enjoyed The Quick and the Dead, but gosh, I would have included Rio Bravo long before that one. Galaxy Quest? Happy you mentioned Robin Hood. That’s perfect.


    1. Hi Rick, I’m glad you agree with me. It has all my 13 qualifiers. That quirky theme. That scene where Bruce is in the car and listening to music and euphoric over the air. Everyone’s performances but especially Brad Pitt who left himself at the door and Jeffrey emerged. I love that it has a lot of dark humor that works for me as well as thrilling aspects like the future’s underground world with the faces in the television box and humans are caged animals. I love how the opening and ending scene wrap up the story as a whole. Terry Gilliam is brilliant, here.


  6. Great list Cindy! There’s some classics here. Chinatown was one of my favourite movies of all time and I actually learned to how to write a screenplay based off the Chinatown screenplay. Awesome post

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A great list. One element that’s always been important to me in a film is the weather. I couldn’t stand “7”. Not for any other reason than it was raining all the time. I like all the Coen Brothers’ films, but “Blood Simple” with its sweaty Texan weather wins hands down over “Fargo” and its icy Minnesota weather. Anyone else have similar cinemaclimatic demands?


    1. I agree, one thing that differentiates Body Heat and makes it really stands out, is the great use of the weather. Heat plays a huge role throughout the film, in fact outside of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing I can’t remember the last time I saw a film where heat & humidity played such a major role.


      1. You are so right, Paul. Another film I remember where the heat was a tangible factor was ‘A Time to Kill’ with Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. The tension by the plot was intensified by the weather.


    2. Rob, thank you for contributing to the discussion! Wow. Weather. I know it’s important — rain ,fog = disillusionment and ambiguity or the dunking,emerging from it is baptismal, so I think your insight is interesting. Just as I get depressed if I don’t see the sun, the absence of it in a film is a downer, isn’t it? I thought of the Swedish television series starring Kenneth Branagh –he was a depressed detective. I loved the show but had to stop because I was always down after watching it. The setting had everything to do with it. I think you are on to something.


      1. Funny you should mention the Kenneth Branagh “Wallander” series. I live in the south of Sweden where the series was filmed. I played a small role in one episode of the new series “The Troubled Man”, which should be released, rather appropriately, this winter.
        Even though I enjoy watching these bleak Swedish crime stories, I much prefer the “Inspector Montalbano” series, set in Sicily.
        Matthew McConaughey seems to be in his element when the setting is sweaty and tense. “True Detective” for example?


        1. 🙂 Fabulous, Rob. Instead of bundling up in earth tone scarves, I bet the Sicilian series is bold and colorful. It sounds like a fun experience–did you enjoy playing a small role? I would like to watch it!


  8. Excellent post. There are so many things that go into making a perfect film…and even if you think one achieves perfection, someone else can find a flaw. I love that about art in general, movies in particular. You named some great ones here. The ones I personally would agree are perfect are Apocalypse Now, Black Swan, The Matrix, 12 Monkeys, and Chinatown.


      1. Of course there are!

        Do the Right Thing
        The Godfather Part II
        Once Upon a Time in America
        The Empire Strikes Back
        Citizen Kane
        Black Dynamite
        Boyz N the Hood

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think it’s interesting bloggers over time have said they liked The Empire Strikes Back more than #4. I always just think of 4. But I think you all are right that Empire is a better story. Thanks!


  9. I liked this one a lot. Although it was a different style, I also liked the “Postman Comes Twice.” My favorite Jack Nicholson film is, “As good As It Gets.” He shows change, evolving into a caring step-dad to a sickly and falling In love with Helen Hunt. He also “breaks” his own rules and becomes friends with a gay mam in the movie.


    1. Welcome Robin. Jack Nicholson has had success in most all genres, hasn’t he? Who’d of thought he would shine in romantic comedies? I like As Good As It Gets, too. I love that line, “You make me want to be a better man.” I also liked him with Diane Keaton in ‘Something’s Gotta Give’. He plays anti-social, curmudgeon well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Cindy for reminding me of h I s role in, “Something’s Gotta Give.” Although, if I had been Diane Keaton, I may have chosen Keanu Reeves. He was not rude nor arrogant so I was puzzled why they did not make him have a flaw. Usually, rom-com’s show a reason (other than age difference) for choice made by a main character. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. WOW, this is an awesome post!! LOVE your thirteen factors of what make up a perfect film. We’ll have a different list as I haven’t seen some of these. But YAY on Elizabeth… all hail Queen Blanchett 😉 And The Matrix is indeed a fun mind-bender. I’m with Keith that I think Casablanca is a perfect film. I still need to see Notorious though.


  11. Hi Cindy. A fine list of favorites and a good set of criteria. As you mentioned in the string of comments, perfection is subjective and each of us define it differently. For me, it is about how the film transports me, which will, admittedly, vary depending on a lot of factors, including my mood. Something strikes me or so profoundly moves me, it stays with me long after. Sometimes it could be a single scene that does that, and shifts the entire film into perfection like the moment in Lost in Translation when the two lie in bed and he touches her foot. That sealed it for me. Or in Big Night in the end when no one speaks as one character cooks a frittata. Or All the Real Girls when Paul collapses and punches the ground. There are dozens more. I have always been drawn to the emotional impact of a film, a scene or moment that transcends expectation. The Whipping in Glory, Von Sydow’s summation in Snow Falling on Cedars, the Steamroller moment in Austin Powers. These are moments that have come to represent perfection in film for me. My all time favorite film is Blade Runner and for me is the definition of perfect and so I stacked it up against your list, which it checks off completely. My list yesterday for best films is not my list right now and probably won’t be for tomorrow, but here’s mine:

    Blade Runner
    The Kid
    House of Flying Dragons
    The Bounty (1984)
    Crimes and Misdemeanors
    The Lives of others
    Henry V (1989)
    North by Northwest
    Young Frankenstein
    The Name of the Rose
    Snow Falling on Cedars
    Punch-Drunk Love

    Great post!


    1. Hi David, glad you found me. Love your list. Snow Falling on Cedars is a great first novel — have you read it? It’s imagery is spot on for the region. Magical Realism embracing the folklore of Asian culture is perfect in House of Flying Dragons. It’s such a beautiful film. The Bounty! Oh, Mel, with those great blue eyes. Yes, the story is great, too. I’m glad you mentioned Henry V. I have a lot of respect for K.Branagh even if he gets a little too frenetic when filming. Blade Runner is your best of the best–you’ve mentioned it before. I agree with you. Thanks for your comments!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I got you page to load finally! That was odd. Something on my end probably. This was a fun post to talk about. I did read Snow Falling on Cedars after watching the movie. Both are lovely and I think the cinematography in the film does a great job of capturing the feel of the book.


        1. That’s David. I don’t remember her name, but the Asian female actress (young and old) were beautiful. I thought there was a lot of beauty. Both Hawke and Max von Sydow were quite good. Robert Richardson was nominated for Best Cinematography and rightly so!

          Liked by 1 person

  12. What a complete and perfect list, Cindy. I think there was only one I’ve not seen, which always makes me really happy, as your suggestions nearly always reflect my tastes and often surprise me by offering up something I didn’t think I would enjoy.
    Out of Africa – I cannot find a more perfect film for myself. It fulfills every need and wish I have for the film industry’s aim for success.


  13. Your list was grest, as i may have said but just wished to continue conversation. I saw some comments and agree with “Name Of The Rose,””The Godfather,” and “Out of Africa.” All are engrossing and detailed books which had great character development. Christian Slater and Sean Connery in first are great, while young and inspiring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are awesome in their roles. I like Umberto Eco’s Rose book, the way the crime is also included with religion. There is a stairway film scene reminiscent of the artist who made steps that seemed to go to infinity, done by Escher.
    I admire Isak Dinesen eho wrote from her Scandavian backgtound about Africa. She was like Harper Lee who took a man’s name as her ‘nom de plume,’ due to stereotypes in the 1920’s. The Godfather has so many different characters but my favorite role is Marlon Brando’s. All kinds of great actors and actresses in this movie. 🙂


    1. Hi Robin, I’m happy you are having a lazy Sunday! The Name of the Rose. Debut first novels that strike it big always makes me envious and I’m inspired, too. (Alex Garland’s Snow Falling on Cedar or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain come to mind). I would like to read Umberto Eco’s debut and then watch The Name of the Rose. The Name of the Rose from 1986 starring Connery and Slater is another film I need to re-watch.
      Isn’t Isak Dinesen awesome? I loved her account–the film is one of the rare ones that matches, if not succeeds, in surpassing the novel.
      This reminds me of the book ‘Queen of the Desert’. Did you like it? Can’t wait to see how the movie pans out starring Nicole Kidman! Now, though, Ridley Scott isn’t directing. It’s Werner Herzog.


      Liked by 1 person

  14. great choices Cindy, although our lists would be quite different. I tend to think of a perfect movie as one that sucks me into the world presented and where I don’t wanna leave even after the movie ends.

    Some of my favorites are:

    Shawshank Redemption
    Grand Canyon
    The Rookie
    Star Wars
    Fellowship of the Ring
    Back to the Future
    The Bridge on the River Kwai
    The Best Years of Our Lives
    It’s A Wonderful Life
    12 Angry Men
    Stand By Me
    Die Hard

    Obviously each is perfect in its own right and because of its unique perspective based on its genre, theme and message it would be so hhard to have to compare them.

    My list could go on so much longer, but I’ll keep it at 12 for your benefit 🙂

    Thanks for opening up such a great conversation (as u always manage to do) 🙂


    1. Hi Rob! This was a popular topic–I’m happy people felt like sharing. Yes, perfect is subjective. You have some great ones on your list. Most “lists” have Shawshenk Redemption right up there with The Godfather. I’m glad to see Stand By Me on your list. I think it’s the perfect coming-of-age story, that’s for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I forgot to mention my own list of perfect films. I’ll settle for four right now –
    Apocalypse Now
    Blade Runner
    Withnail and I

    I’ll be writing about “Withnail and I” on my blog in a couple of weeks. 🙂


  16. Fantastic list!! There are so on there that I haven’t heard of, but if they meet the criteria you listed, then I probably should check them out. Some interesting thoughts at the start of the post too… I agree with you for the most part


      1. 2001 is a perfect film to me, though my absolute favourite movie ever is on your list: 12 Monkeys 😀 I must have watched that one at least 60 times. I’ll never get sick of it, I love Gilliam


  17. In my view, the very nature of movie-making belies the concept of perfection. At most, we get a perfect gesture, a perfect line of dialogue, a perfect piece of music, a perfect shot. maybe even a perfect scene or perfect ending. but a perfect movie? I have never seen one. On fact, I prefer the movies that don’t even aim for perfection, movies that are something of a mess that has exploded from the id. Movies like “The Birds.” Take the opening scene, it is written as a screwball comedy but Rod Taylor and ‘Tippi’ Hedren’ have little comedic skill and play the scene awkwardly, which sets the movie up almost perfectly. I think the best written and directed scene in all of sam peckinpah is the opening scene in the bar between “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” but for the movie to to be perfect, every scene would have had to sustain that perfection, and they dont, although several come close. “Children of Paradise” is as near to perfection as I have seen, but the first scene of the second half goes on too long, and by the time you have seen the film 30 times, you might just want to fast forward through some of it. And you dont do that to perfection. but here are some perfect moments: At the end of the opening scene of Once Upon a Tome in the West, the camera cranes above the stagecoach depot as Claudia Cardinale rides off to meet her destiny while Morricone’s music crescendos with the rising camera. Brando’s monologue to his dead wife in Last tango in Paris and his “The Horror” monologue in apocalypse Now. The slow build to the transcendant final close up of Charlie Chaplin in City Lights. And speaking of final shots, every final shot and.or scene in Antonioni’s films is perfection. Final lines” “I Steal” from I am a Fugitive from a chain Gang. “What did you expect from a whore?” in “An American Dream.” and the two punch knockout of peckinpah’s “Cross of iron, as the screaming and gunfire of Germany’s final defeat gives way first to laughter than to a series of atrocity photos underscored by a somber dirge, then pow!! the damning quotation from Brecht: Though the world stood up and defeated the bastard, dont rejoice in his defeat. the bitch that bore him is in heat again” I chke up just thinking of it and many was the time I fell to the floor crying in the movie theater in those moments. but the movie was far from perfect. A few that come close to perfection: Make Way for Tomorrow, It’s a Wonderful Life, Belle de Jour, Rio Bravo, Finally, if I had to define the perfect movie, it would be a movie in which every scene not only transfixes you, but keeps you anticipating the next scene ..and the next and the next…..like a series of impossible bulls-eyes that just keep amazing us,


    1. Bravo, Bill! I don’t know how respond but to say, thank you kindly, for your superior response. So at the end, you manage to distinguish several that rise to the surface, the Crème de la Crème — I certainly agree Its a Wonderful Life and Rio Bravo are perfect. I find your opinion that films shouldn’t aim for perfection. I don’t know what it’s like to be a film-maker, but if I were one, I’d try to be as “perfect” as possible. I reckon that’s naive. It’s too subjective. If every scene transfixes you, well, you must be doing something right! Thanks.


      1. a person who cares about the work will aim for perfection in every part, but the nature of film-making..from the number of people assisting in the making of the work, to the extreme length of the final product, makes it near impossible to make each frame shine without flaw. one may write a perfect poem or paint a perfect picture. it is even within one’s ability to write a perfect novel, although very few have succeeded…but what it comes down to is the reliance on others to maintain the highest standards one has set for oneself that makes perfect success unlikely for the film-maker, especially in the studio system where the director often has little control over the end product.


        1. I have often imagined what it would be like to be a director or producer. So many hands stirring the pot. I have read and heard about natural and man-made disasters on the set and it’s a wonder anything is good. Apocalypse Now comes to mind.


      2. oh another thing. i didnt mean that films shouldnt aim for perfection, but that i tend to prefer films that explode from the artist’s subconscious rather than those carefully constructed pieces without a trace of the madness that made The Birds so special.


        1. Ah, I see. That’s the same theory behind writing, too. Does the writing explode and takes on a voice of its own, or is the writing carefully outlined and constructed? Depends on the writer.


    1. Well thank you, Bill. I had thought of you when I made my list. I thought, “I bet Bill’s list would include excellent editing.” Or, perhaps, a film with poor editing would disqualify it from “perfection”. Too be honest, I know too little about editing to judge a film.


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