1991’s psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs makes our list at #74.
The movie follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who is sent in ostensively to try to get a former psychiatrist and convicted cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) but really, unbeknownst to her, to get information from him on a serial killer that the FBI is currently hunting who is nicknamed Buffalo Bill.
Lecter picks apart Starling’s life from information as simple as the shoes that she is wearing and her accent and is initially very unhelpful but when another prisoner, Miggs, commits a lewd act, Lecter gives her a clue to tracking down Buffalo Bill – a name that leads her to a storage locker with one of Bill’s first victims who was also a patient of Lecter’s before his imprisonment.
Meanwhile Buffalo Bill abducts a Senator’s daughter in Tennessee and imprisons her in a makeshift well in his basement.
Starling goes to the scene in West Virginia where a body of one of Bill’s victims is found and discovers a moth cocoon shoved down her throat and patches of skin cut off her back.
Starling is sent in with a fake offer for Lecter to try to get more information but the psychiatrist at the prison, upset that he is being excluded from the process, tells Lecter that the offer is fake and that he has a real offer. Lecter insists on going to Memphis to tell the Senator the name of Buffalo Bill himself, but when he gets there gives a fake name that is an anagram for fool’s gold. Lecter stages a daring escape, killing guards and an ambulance crew to make it out of his makeshift prison in Memphis.
Clarice slowly figures out Buffalo Bill’s plan with Lecter’s help – the moth represents transformation – Bill is a man who thinks he is a transexual but has been rejected for treatment and is kidnapping heavy women to starve them and then cut and sew their skin to make a woman suit for himself. She figures out that his first victim was someone he knew and goes to her hometown. While there, she unknowingly discovers his house while trying to interview another woman. As she is talking to him, she sees a moth and realizes it is Buffalo Bill. A tense chase in the dark ensues that ends with Starling shooting Buffalo Bill when she hears him cock a gun in the dark.
The movie ends with Starling getting a call from Lecter saying that he will not come after her and that he is “having an old friend for dinner”.
This movie contains two of the finest acting performances in the history of the big screen. Anthony Hopkins as Lecter is a deep and complex psychopath – cunning, human, multi-dimensional and terrifying. Jodie Foster is a relatable and noble, but flawed character – through her conversations with Lecter we learn about her parents dying and her attempting to save a lamb from slaughter at her step-Uncle’s farm. We also see up close how she deals with frequent sexism and sexual advances while trying to carry out her work. The chemistry between Foster and Hopkins on screen in the atypical interactions created by the setting of the movie is magical.
The mystery itself is extremely well laid out and compelling. The scenes with Buffalo Bill (played brilliantly by Ted Levine) vividly display a tortured man who simultaneously tries to dehumanize his victims while somehow believe that he is doing something noble.
The production quality is first rate and the interspersed scenes of FBI training along with the visit to examine the victim give a very raw and real feel to crime work – you can almost smell the stink coming off the body and feel the adrenaline of recruits training.
The pacing of the movie is excellent – there is never a dull or boring moment.
In short, this is the most complete movie that I have ever seen and there is not a lot to criticize. Contemporary criticisms of the film fall short for me – that it is too dark (who is to say that movies can’t be dark?), too gruesome (I didn’t find it that way at all – it had a very real feel to it not a blood and guts feel) or that Anthony Hopkins overacts the part of Lecter (I strongly disagree – I thought he painted the character perfectly). I don’t really have anything that I would change or improve on this film, except for possibly that the friendship between Starling and fellow trainee Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons) is underutilized in the film – they only get a couple of scenes together but their interactions show a whole different side of Starling’s personality.
In short, this is the best movie that I have seen on the list so far and deserves a spot in the conversation for the best movie ever made. If you have not seen it before, it will blow you away some 29 years later. And if you have seen it before, it is an extremely compelling rewatch. This is simply cinema at its finest.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 10/10
Total Score: 39/40