A lot of “top quote” lists are out there. Not every quote is good for the same reasons and you often need a bit of context to see why the quote works, but some just make you go hmmm. Here’s my top 10.
No. 10. “One is too many, 100 isn’t enough” from The Lost Weekend (1945).
This is an overlooked film that won Best Picture in 1945. It’s about an alcoholic struggling with his addiction, but it could be about any addiction. The line is spoken by his bartender when he asks for “just one.”
The quote’s meaning is fairly obvious, but it’s profound because it’s so short. The simplicity of the main character’s problem is its tragedy. The quote highlights how easy it is to fall into a dangerous addiction, but is also offset by the relatively quick and easy decision he makes at the end of the film to make his life about something more.
No. 9. “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business” from The Godfather (1972).
This über famous line from one of the most well-known Best Picture winners of all time (I promise these quotes won’t all be Oscar-related) is great because it’s a lie. It’s delivered with perfection by Al Pacino (Scarface, Scent of a Woman) as he takes one of his major steps toward becoming the Don.
In the book he says “this isn’t business, it’s personal!” But that’s too on-the-nose and doesn’t work as well. Because it IS personal but if he says that then he’ll look weak, or look like a kid out to avenge his daddy instead of a cold businessman.
When Michael Corleone uses the word “business” it also brings to mind the “family business.” Up until this point in the film, he wanted his own life. But this particular quote marks the moment where he’s saying that he’s no longer just connected to the family as a brother, but as a part of their operation as well.
No. 8. “James T. Kirk was a great man, but that was another life” from Star Trek (2009).
Nothing like jumping from a mainstream arthouse film to a summer sci-fi blockbuster. This line actually doesn’t appear in the film in quite this way, only in the trailer. But I like this version better.
I’ll spare you the jargon, but this film is about an alternate universe Kirk. One where his father died the day he was born. The quote raises the question: can he be the man he was meant to be without the same set of life circumstances? It’s the bad guy Nero, played by Eric Bana (Hulk, Troy), trying to get under his skin but he also has a point.
It’s an interesting thing to ponder. The debate will always rage between whether we’re slaves to nature or nurture. I’d say both. But as the Joker once articulated, all it takes is one bad day to change the course of your life. We’ll have to wait for Star Trek 2 to see if this Kirk will be the hero he was meant to be or if the past he wasn’t meant to have will prove too much for him.
No. 7. “Play it again, Sam” from Casablanca (1943).
Speaking of quotes that don’t quite exist … this one doesn’t exist at all. They say things like it in the movie but never these exact words. It’s on my list not because of its inherent effect as a quote (it’s OK but not great) but because of the cultural phenomenon it represents.
Our expectations of films and our knowledge of how others see it are both huge factors in our viewing experience. Goodfellas is a great movie but when you watch it, there is that sense of “I need to like this because everyone says it’s good and if I don’t like it then my taste must be bad.” It sounds goofy but it’s true.
Lines like “play it again, Sam” can disappoint you by not being present. It’s also representative of films that are more of a cultural force than an actual movie. The reputation is more important than what the actors, writers, and director put together. What does the “quote” refer to? I don’t want to spoil your perceptions by saying.
No. 6. “He used to be a big shot” from The Roaring Twenties (1939).
Jonathan Swift once said, “I apologize for the length of this letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” I love that. And I believe the Bard himself said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”
Quotes like the one above work so well because they say a lot in one short line. The line comes at the end of the film when the main character Jimmy Bartlett, played by Jimmy Cagney (The Public Enemy, White Heat), is quite literally dying in a ditch. He’s been gunned down by the cops and his former girlfriend is lamenting who he once was.
For the majority of the film, he’s a king to the common people. Prohibition is in effect and he supplies the people with what they need. But when alcohol is legal again, there’s no place for a WWI veteran who became a powerful criminal. A better-known line that articulates the same thought comes from Patton (1970): “all glory is fleeting.”
No. 5. “You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?” from Pulp Fiction (1994).
The actual quote I’d like to list would be this entire scene. Or the whole movie. For those who haven’t watched it, this is from a scene where two hitmen talk about nonsense. It’s literally just John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) and Samuel L. Jackson (Unbreakable, every other movie) talking about drivel.
This is what made it so groundbreaking. It quite possibly changed film dialogue forever. Up until this point, mobsters talked about mobster-y stuff and that was about it. This scene humanized its “villains” by making them fun, likeable, and very real.
We do see both of these characters be nonchalant about killing people, which is terrifying and horrific. But they’re not evil, they’re just doing the job that they somehow found themselves stuck with. Seeing villains as human can be unnerving but it’s important to remember that they’re people too.
No. 4. “The job’s done, the bitch is dead” from Casino Royale (2006).
Going once again with the “less is more” philosophy of dialogue, this is outstanding. This articulates more about what happens in Bond’s psyche than anything else in the film. For background: Bond fell in love, found out the girl he loves was a double agent who helped him out at the last second and then died, and now he’s giving his boss the debrief.
As much as I love Connery and Brosnan (Connery especially), neither of them could’ve delivered this line as well as Daniel Craig (Layer Cake, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). After falling in love to the point of being willing to leave his spy days behind him, referring to his lady so harshly and coldly is pretty shocking. And he needs to hear it that way more than anyone else. Because he needs to be cold to survive.
This line is Bond denying that there was anything real between them. She wasn’t his love, she was part of the job. She wasn’t a conflicted person who ended up helping him out, she was just a traitorous bitch. He doesn’t believe either of those things, but he wants to so he can move on.
No. 3. “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his secret” from The Prestige (2006).
This is another excellent overlooked film. It’s the Chris Nolan film that came between two Batman movies, and much like the other film with that distinction (Inception) it gives you a lot to ponder with a crazy story that also has compelling characters.
The movie is about rival magicians, but first it’s about revenge. Hugh Jackman’s (X-Men, The Fountain) wife died in an accident during a magic trick, and he blames Christian Bale (Batman Begins, American Psycho). So he begins a mission of revenge that involves learning how he achieves his seemingly impossible trick and destroying his reputation.
Nolan sometimes puts lines in his movies that mark a main turning point for a character. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne initially wanted to avenge his parents, but just became obsessed with being Batman. This becomes apparent when he says “I don’t care about my father’s name.” It’s the same case in this film, Hugh’s character might have been initially interested in avenging the death of his beloved wife but after a while all he cares about is showing up his rival.
No. 2. “Medals” from A Month in the Country (1987).
No, it’s not a typo. That’s the whole quote. I’ve talked a lot about how shorter quotes can be more powerful and this was the quote that brought me to that realization. I saw it in a class in college and my professor focused on this scene specifically to illustrate the concept of “less is more” for dialogue.
The scene is between two British war veterans who share an odd friendship during a time when one of them is working on restoring an old church. The men are played by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, A Single Man) and Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Henry V) so the acting is top notch. You don’t need too many words when the acting is right.
The scene in question involves one man lamenting what he’d lived through and done during the Great War. The other man reminds him of his medals and that he’d done a lot of good. He scoffs and says, “medals.” As my professor pointed out, “crap screenwriters would’ve written a 2 minute speech about medals and the meaninglessness of war. That would’ve been fine, but this is better.”
No. 1. “To them you’re just a freak. Like me” from The Dark Knight (2008).
As a huge Batman fan, this comes from one of my favorite scenes in anything ever. But much like everyone (aside from the Academy) knows, it’s a legitimate movie in its own right. The interrogation scene was always my favorite and I was delighted to find it was director Chris Nolan’s (Memento, Inception) too.
For those unaware, this comes from a scene where Batman is interrogating the Joker. They are mortal enemies and opposites in basically every way. Except one: they’re both only allowed to exist and be accepted when their own societies accept them. Whether criminals or cops, as the Joker says next “they need you right now but when they don’t they’ll cast you out, like a leper.”
This quote encompasses two of my favorite things in movies: villains saying things that are painfully true, and a character’s motives and traits being so blatantly outlined in one sentence. The Joker gets under his skin in this scene because Batman realizes that as vastly different as the two of them are, they’re also the only two of their kind.
Well those are 10 of my favorite quotes, from all sorts of different time periods and genres.
Got a better one? Let’s hear it.
We dare you to find a television show or movie that Domenic has not seen and most of them he owns. For this reason he has become a walking encyclopedia of anything you would want to know on the topics of TV and movies. When he’s not watching flicks, he’s writing screenplays. Stay tuned for those.