Hannah Shaw-Williams' Favorite Movies Of All Time

Hello /Film readers! I'm Hannah Shaw-Williams, and I recently joined the site's editorial staff as the guardian of the weekend shifts. 

A prerequisite for the job was liking movies, and as a keen cinephile I've personally watched over a dozen films in my lifetime. Yes, you should be impressed. This deep wealth of knowledge means that when I was called upon to list my 15 favorite movies as a way of introducing myself to readers, I was ready for the challenge.

People often ask me what kind of films I like. Usually I have no idea how to answer that, but thanks to this list I now know that I like films about ghosts, witches, vampires, and men with emotional problems. 

15. Horns

It's a strange kind of blessing when a movie you love gets panned by critics, bombs at the box office, and disappears into obscurity. While it's easy to lament a film not getting the appreciation it deserves, the film is also spared the grim fate of being over-hyped, dissected by discourse, backlashed, parodied, and referenced in pop culture until it's more a collection of memes than a movie. Much as you might still love it, the shine has worn off. 

The shine never had a chance to wear off "Horns." Directed by Alexandre Aja and based on the book of the same name by Joe Hill, "Horns" miraculously succeeds in nailing the novel's balance of bitterness and sweetness. It's the story of Ig Perrish, a young man left devastated by the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin, a year previously. On the anniversary of her death, Ig wakes up to find that he has growing horns out of his head and become a corrupting influence almost everywhere he goes, influencing people to give in to their darkest and most selfish impulses. It sounds like the premise for something edgy and grimdark, but instead "Horns" is a strangely lovely film about finding that one oasis of happiness in an ugly world.

14. Whiplash

"Whiplash" is the nasty cousin of all those movies where an inspirational teacher coaches an underdog student to achieve their full potential through compassion, patience, and possibly rapping. Damien Chazelle's blistering, brutal, exhilarating music drama dispels with the notion that greatness is achieved through love and encouragement, and instead explores the uncomfortable idea that the path to greatness requires enduring extreme emotional abuse, shutting out anyone in your life who isn't helping you towards your goal, and sacrificing blood (literally), sweat, tears, and anything else that's asked of you. The result is a film that's exciting and uplifting on a surface level, but deliciously disturbing just below that surface.

13. Spirited Away

World-building isn't an easy thing to do well, and a lot of fantasy films relegate their world-building to boring strings of exposition or an introductory text scroll. "Spirited Away" is set in a world where everyone is overworked and no one has time to stop and explain things to a bratty human girl, and so there are no PowerPoint presentations for poor young Chihiro when she and her parents accidentally stumble into a magical world full of spirits. Instead, "Spirited Away" gradually sketches in the details of its world as Chihiro explores it — from deadly wooden steps to lavish forbidden chambers. It's a world that I'm glad to get lost in over and over again.

12. Suspiria

Dario Argento's "Suspiria" is a poetic, hypnotic film that proved just how sinister Technicolor can be. Arguably just as much a visual album as it is a movie, the visuals are married with music from the Italian band Goblin, filled with eerily soothing chanting, gibbering howls, and hisses of "witch!" that don't exactly leave any mystery about what's going on at the elite ballet school where American student Suzy Bannion goes to study. 

"Suspiria" has been on my list of top movies for a long time, but since I hadn't seen it in a while I decided to rewatch it to remind myself of why. Within the first five seconds of the opening titles and that mesmerizing theme, I remembered exactly why I fell in love with it. But I still watched the rest of the movie, because you should never turn down an opportunity to watch "Suspiria."

11. Pet Sematary (1989)

Being a massive fan of the book does not always set you up to be a massive fan of the movie adaptation. You despair over the scenes that were left out, you bristle at any changes to the plot, and you lament what the movie could have been in the right hands. Fortunately, "Pet Sematary" is a near-perfect adaptation of my favorite Stephen King book, that truly understands the horror at the heart of it. It's not the zombie cat or zombie toddler rising from the old Micmac burial ground; they're a symptom of the horror, not the thing itself. "Pet Sematary" was a book inspired by King's own nightmare: when his son, Owen, had a near miss with a truck on a dangerous highway. 

"Pet Sematary" has so much packed into it, and so much of it is unspoken. Fundamentally it's a movie about the terrifying flipside of having people in your life that you love — the realization that they can be taken away from you by chance or misfortune at any moment, and there's nothing you can do about it. As a protagonist, Dr. Louis Creed is not only expected to save lives as a doctor, but is also expected to protect his family as a husband and father. When he fails on both counts, it's the horror of that truth that pushes him to try and cheat death. And that's why Mary Lambert's "Pet Sematary" (far more so than the 2019 remake) lingers with you long after the credits roll.

10. Spring Breakers

I'm going to be honest here: I have no idea why I love "Spring Breakers" so much. I could point to particular scenes — like James Franco serenading his newly-acquired girl gang with a rendition of Britney Spears' "Everytime," or the Chicken Shack robbery that's shown in its entirety from outside the diner through the window of the car cruising around it, or the weirdly hilarious "Look at all my s***!" monologue. But ultimately, Harmony Korine's anarchic crime party of a film is just a true pleasure to watch. Like a lot of movies on this list, it has an awesome soundtrack that keeps the scenes flowing from one to the next until suddenly the movie's over and it feels like no time has passed at all.

As great as Franco is in "Spring Breakers," it wouldn't work without the dynamic of its four girls: Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). Underneath all the partying and the drugs and the guns is a surprisingly sincere story about the kind of close friendship bonds that become harder and harder to find as you grow older.

9. Bronson

To understand how Tom Hardy got to the point where he was spontaneously jumping into lobster tanks and creating iconic scenes on the fly as the double act of Eddie Brock and Venom, it helps to go back in time a decade to Nicolas Winding Refn's biopic "Bronson." And I'm not just talking about the scene in which Hardy deftly switches characters between that of the movie's subject — Charles Bronson, aka "Britain's most violent prisoner" — and a smug female administrator portrayed by Hardy wearing cabaret makeup on the other half of his face, though that's definitely part of it. "Bronson" was an early signal to Hollywood that when Tom Hardy commits to a role, he commits.

"Bronson" is almost entirely The Tom Hardy Show, and that's fine; Refn struck gold with this casting, and he did the best thing possible by simply putting the spotlight on Hardy (literally, in some scenes) and letting him do his thing. But every other bit of casting is equally on point — Matt King as Bronson's laconically camp manager, Juliet Oldfield as a casual heartbreaker, Jonny Phillips as an unflappable prison governor — which means that "Bronson" offers the rare and beautiful phenomenon of every single line in the script being delivered perfectly. The film also exists at an intersection of British humor (dry) and Scandinavian humor (even drier, and darker) that's funny on a tectonic level. Oh, and the soundtrack is killer too.

8. Crimson Peak

I'm convinced that "Crimson Peak" was created in a lab and carefully crafted to target all of my weaknesses. It has ghosts, it has a big old house falling into ruin, it has mystery, it has big puffy dresses, it has Tom Hiddleston making ardent love confessions with heavy eye contact, it has a little fluffy dog. It's just a big, rich, indulgent Gothic romance (with ghosts in it). Watching Jessica Chastain girlboss, gaslight, and gatekeep her way through "Crimson Peak" as messed-up mean girl Lucille Sharpe is a joy every time. And the sets! The creaking interiors of Allerdale Hall, the snow outside that turns footsteps red because of the clay leaking through it, the basement room with its grim vats of blood-like liquid clay. Guillermo del Toro did not hold back at all when making this one, and while it may have bombed at the box office in 2015, "Crimson Peak" has since firmly found its people.

7. Dear White People

Going straight to college from school is a weird experience. Suddenly you, a person who was legally a child just a few months ago, are expected to be a fully-formed adult with a fully-formed identity and fully-formed opinions. Some teens embrace this as an opportunity to reinvent themselves far away from where their parents might bring out embarrassing baby photos. Others find themselves lost and feeling left behind as it seems like everyone around them has figured out exactly who they are. And this situation becomes even more challenging once you start to mix in politics of race, gender, and sexuality — which just so happened to be considered earmarks of identity.

In "Dear White People," Justin Simien deftly explores this early-life identity crisis through the lenses of different characters: Lionel, a gay, Black writer who doesn't fit in with the gay students, the Black students, or even the other writers; Coco (Teyonah Parris in a scene-stealing performance), who purposefully erased all traces of her South Side, Chicago background but finds there's no "market" for her clean-cut, upper-class persona; and Troy, whose identity has already been decided for him years ago by his father, but is starting to weigh heavily on his shoulders. 

But it's the central story of Sam White that hits the hardest, as her path to leadership of the Black Students Union and host of campus radio show "Dear White People" involves downplaying her mixed-race heritage — which means treating her father (who is white, and in hospital with a serious illness) like he's something to be ashamed of. And it's not as if Sam's activism and her passion for it is fake; as the enthusiastic attendance of a wildly racist on-campus party in the third act shows, she has plenty to be angry about. It's her struggle to compartmentalize these parts of her identity that feel in conflict with each other that makes "Dear White People" a perfect post-coming-of-age movie.

6. Humpday

Even if "Humpday" wasn't one of my favorite films of all time (which it is), I would still put it on this list because it's criminally underseen. Directed by Lynn Shelton (who sadly passed away in May 2020), the premise of the film is two old friends reuniting after a long time and deciding they're going to make a porn film together. There are a few problems with this plan, starting with the fact that they're both straight men, and one of them is married. Another problem is that they made the plan when they were absolutely wasted. In the cold light of day, however, the "make a gay porno together" plan somehow becomes the ultimate macho-guy challenge that neither of them will back down from. It's "Gay Chicken: The Movie."

That makes "Humpday" sound like a broad comedy, when actually it's hardcore mumblecore with largely improvised dialogue. This works as well it as it does because of the two actors at the center of it: Mumblecore King Mark Duplass, and incredibly talented improvisational actor Joshua Leonard (whom you probably know from "The Blair Witch Project," where he played Josh, of "Josh? Jooooosh!!" fame). Through their weird, passive-aggressive contest to see who will back down first, "Humpday" gradually draws these two guys to a place that's arguably even more scary than having sex with your best friend on-camera: talking about your genuine feelings with them off-camera.

5. Call Me By Your Name

There's nothing quite like writing for an internet audience 40 hours a week to make you hardened and cynical. To paraphrase an episode of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," the internet talks like Chandler Bing: full of sarcasm, bitterness, and infinite layers of irony forming a protective layer against anything real. Coming from that kind of status quo, "Call Me By Your Name" was a shock to the system: a movie about falling in love for the first time, and all of the joy and pain that goes along with it. I loved it, saw it in cinemas seven times, and went on a trip to Italy that was inspired by it. Needless to say, the internet got its revenge a few years later by revealing that one of the stars of "Call Me By Your Name" may or may not be a cannibal. You win, internet. 

4. Billy Elliot

With British film funding in decline, movies like "Billy Elliot" are becoming more and more of a rarity — which only makes them all the more precious. Set during the U.K. miners' strike of the 1980s, "Billy Elliot" is about the frustration of railing against a powerful, merciless force that's seemingly impossible to overcome. And I'm not just talking about Margaret Thatcher. 

Billy is frustrated with his family, where an intersection of masculinity and Britishness makes it impossible to talk about anything real, and so the death of his mother has become an untouchable subject. Instead, his father (a masterful, simmering performance by Gary Lewis) will only argue with him about boxing gloves, and his brother's idea of affection is to insult him and slap him round the head. In this setting, dancing becomes an act of both freedom and defiance: ignoring society's exhausting list of unspoken rules, and allowing Billy to express himself in ways that boys are told not to. Also, and this is a bit of a theme with this list, the soundtrack is absolutely killer: The Clash, The Jam, and oodles of T. Rex. Every time I rewatch "Billy Elliot" I'm doomed to replays of "Cosmic Dancer," and that's just fine.

3. Minority Report

Everyone has "their" Steven Spielberg movie; for some it's "Jaws," for some it's "Jurassic Park," for some it's "Hook" (that's a close runner-up for me). But "Minority Report" landed at just the right time to get young Hannah completely hooked. I've seen this movie approximately 5,000 times, on account of it being one of the films we had on VHS when I was growing up. It has Tom Cruise at his most wild-eyed best as the detective who finds himself targeted by the system he helped build. Its world-building of a near-future is both fascinating and (two decades later) weirdly accurately in places, like the cameras that scan people's faces in order to create targeted advertising for them (hello Face ID, hello cookies). But as much as I love the journey, with its glorious one-scene appearances by Lois Smith and Peter Stormare, it's all about the destination with this one: that third act, when the mystery finally unfolds with a hollow truth, when John Anderton finally confronts his "victim," Leo Crow, and when Samantha Morton delivers her monologue about the unlived life of John's son. 

2. What We Do In The Shadows

What I like most about "What We Do In The Shadows" is that it's a horror-comedy that goes all-in on both genres. This being a comedy, it could have easily gotten away with having dodgy special effects or cheap costumes and completely phoned in the supernatural side of things. But the extra work put into making it feel like the documentary crew really are following around a group of vampires actually makes the comedy hit even harder. 

There's a reason one of the most-giffed scenes from this movie is Jemaine Clement's face weirdly stuck onto a cat's body; the special effects look good, not just by the standards of a low-budget New Zealand comedy, but to the point where they actually blend in more naturally than a lot of the CGI in nine-figure budget Hollywood blockbusters. That total commitment makes the world of "What We Do In The Shadows" feel so real, with its weird little Wellington community of monsters of legend ("we're werewolves, not swearwolves") and its surprisingly heartwarming friendship between the vampire flatmates and their human friend, Stu. I love them all and I think their fashion choices are very trendy, actually.

1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is, for me, the ultimate comfort movie. The warm tones of the color grading, the Southern accents, the glorious soundtrack — everything about this film feels like a slow breath of relief. The quiet moment in which the three outlaws sit round a fire, each talking about what they'll do with their share of the "trey-shure" once they get it, serenaded by Tommy Johnson's devil-gifted music skills, might be my favorite scene ever put to film. I really got into "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" at around the same time I was reading "The Odyssey" (the epic Greek poem upon which it's based), and I was fascinated by the idea that you could take a story written thousands of years ago, transplant it into Mississippi during the Great Depression, and still keep the heart of it intact. 

Also, I like the bit where they thought he was a toad.