Top Ten: Movie Titles


If a picture’s worth a thousand words, twenty-four pictures a second for two hours should be worth a hell of a lot more, but filmmakers (and sometimes publicists) have to distill the essence of their works into a suitably digestible phrase of no more than a few. A perfect title sums things up without being too reductive, is memorable enough to be recalled instantly, and ideally should be able to stand apart on its own. In other words on that last point, greatness in content may or may not go hand-in-hand with greatness in title. For my own list, I tried to limit myself to untranslated English titles (not to complicate matters with foreign translation issues, so sorry The 400 Blows) and to avoid titles that originate from other media. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday explores the Top Ten Movie Titles.

10. Bigger Than Life (1956)
Loosely based on a New Yorker article with the more prosaic title “Ten Feet Tall,” the name of Nicholas Ray’s intense drama befits its lead character’s increasing addiction and egotism, his struggle under the influence of cortisone to refashion himself and his family according to an outsized version of middle-class, suburban ’50s values. Several of Ray’s other films have dark, insinuating, semi-poetic titles that would fit snugly onto my list: They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Rebel without a Cause.

9. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Would more “mads” have proven too redundant in the face of such an absurd title? The usually preachy and staid Stanley Kramer endeavored to make the ultimate comedy, bloated with all-stars and a mock epic scale to woo moviegoers from television. I and most people today doubt he succeeded, but the title reigns as one of my favorites for its hilariously repetitive simplicity.

8. History is Made at Night (1937)
I called this film one of my favorite romances and reiterated Andrew Sarris calling it “the most romantic title” of all time, so I couldn’t refuse it a place on this list. Its intimation of erotic, nocturnal ambiance prepares the viewer well for Frank Borzage’s melodrama, even as the film also boasts of comedy, suspense, and a spectacular, doom-laden conclusion.

7. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Legends abound as to where this title really came from; the most enduring is probably that writer/director Quentin Tarantino couldn’t pronounce the title of Louis Malle’s Au revoir, les enfants, instead referring to it as “that reservoir film,” mixed with Sam Peckinpah’s violent Straw Dogs. Another story is simply that he noticed a pack of dogs hanging around a reservoir near where he lived and likened its demeanor to that of his boastful, all-male ensemble. Either way, it’s punchy and memorable.

6. Videodrome (1983)
Sounding like a coliseum where the video signal battles for supremacy over reality, the title of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome encapsulates its visceral themes so succinctly that alternate titles Network of Blood and Zonekiller now seem beyond wrong. Futuristic and vaguely threatening, it puts into a single word the atmosphere of tension and death that hangs over the film’s literalized media battleground.

5. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles’s blaxploitation precursor Sweet Sweetback stuck it to the Man in every respect, from its jagged, flashy editing to its lack of decorum in narrative and choice of name. Its unique and flashy title embodies the mythic sexual prowess of the main character, while his entire flight from the clutches of the corrupt law becomes his own stylish song of freedom.

4. Eraserhead (1977)
Many of David Lynch’s titles are simple and direct while opening up a torrent of associative possibilities: think Blue Velvet, The Straight Story, Inland Empire. His debut feature Eraserhead has a title that makes literal sense once you watch the film but is still metaphorically beyond easy comprehension or elucidation, befitting the anxious, nightmarish imagery of the film itself.

3. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
This quasi-feminist road-movie exploitation classic by Russ Meyer has everything a great title should have: speed, sexual innuendo, violence, repetition, and exclamation points. ‘Nuff said.

2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
A glaring exception to my introduction’s dictum that short and sweet titles with no more than a few words are best, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, etc. introduces the kooky, menacing title character and cheekily winks at the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Brightly embracing the inevitability of apocalypse is the tenor of its ending, one of my favorites of all time, and this semi-nihilistic cheerfulness permeates both the title and its mock-erotic title sequence of refueling/copulating planes

1. Safety Last! (1923)
My favorite title in movie history is merely two words and a punctuation mark, but it so perfectly represents not only the modus operandi of star Harold Lloyd’s seemingly death-defying acts in the film, but much of the purposeful danger and thrilling suspense inherent in the spectacle of cinema. We love movies in part because we recognize that safety takes a back seat to drama, and Safety Last! stands for that idea just as Lloyd dangling from a clock face can stand for the whole of physical comedy.

Adam Kuntavanish

Top Ten Guru, Host of Top Ten Tuesdays. Cinema transcends boundaries of time and space and thought and emotion; at its best it communicates the experience of being truly alive. I've been transfixed by the material ghosts of the movies since an early age, and I can't seem to shake them. Since reading and writing and talking about films are the next best things to watching them, criticism became a natural fit. Whether new or old, foreign or domestic, mainstream or cult, all movies are grist for my mill. Be forewarned, I'm an inveterate list-maker, so look out for rankings, topics, and opinions of all kinds. The AFI's got nothing on me.
  • Maureen Antolovich

    This one is hard!

    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    Rebel Without a Cause
    Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
    Heaven Can Wait
    I Was a Male War Bride
    Angels With Dirty Faces
    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
    Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    Peggy Sue Got Married
    Being John Malkovich

  • NerdCore

    Top ten movie titles? I’m going to disregard the other media rule… just because.

    Clockwork Orange
    Amazing Grace
    American History X
    Training Day
    The Silence of the Lambs
    Kill Bill
    Pitch Black (I know I know…. still a cool title)
    V for Vendetta

    How’s that?

  • Jack644

    i prefer both of these lists to the articles one