One of the most difficult things to pull off in film and television is successful narration. Sometimes it can just get in the way of the plot; instead of letting the story tell itself visually (the whole point of motion pictures), we get told what is happening instead. Other times, it can enhance the story or give character info that would ordinarily have been non-verbal or not obvious. This is the case in the 2010 crime masterpiece Animal Kingdom, in which protagonist Jay subtly gives details about his family through quick voiceovers. Another approach is shown in 2006’s Little Children, where we are faced with an omnipresent 3rd person narration that may seem out of place in a melodrama, but once it catches on, the film adopts the feel of visual poetry.
For this list, I decided to exclude documentaries since narration is the backbone of most docs. I’m also excluding film noir since narration is a staple of those films, so films like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and even Inherent Vice could easily flood the list for the exact same reasons. So, inspired by the brilliant narration of the current hit Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, here is my countdown of the best uses of narration I have ever seen…
Others receiving votes: Boiler Room (Giovanni Ribisi; Seth Davis), Heathers (Winona Ryder; Veronica), Oldboy (Min-sik Choi; Dae-su Oh)
10. The Shawshank Redemption (Morgan Freeman; Red)
Maybe the narration of Shawshank only works as well as it does because of the soothing voice of Morgan Freeman, but it really becomes essential to the film. Through veteran prisoner Red’s eyes, we see the story of wrongfully-convicted murderer Andy Dufresne arriving at one of the toughest prisons in the country. Red gives a unique perspective on each character and the environment, basically acting as a stand-in audience member. None of the prisoners have a solid idea of what Andy is truly up to, but if anyone is going to know anything, it is Red, his only friend in the penitentiary. Even as events begin to unfold for Andy (whose presence is always very mysterious), Red is there to explain what it was like for the people around him. It is a beautifully used narration in a pitch perfect screenplay.
"We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy: he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer."
9. The Informant! (Matt Damon; Mark Whitacre)
While the movie was only a modest hit back in 2009, Steven Soderbergh’s dark comedy The Informant! had one of the most memorable narrations of the last decade. The film is about Mark Whitacre, a dim-witted yet high-ranking executive who gets caught up in a web of deceit, price-fixing, and an FBI investigation. He is the classic example of an unreliable narrator. He is a complete nutcase. The narration is his inner dialogue, so when a typical person would start daydreaming, we get a voiceover of some random thought that comes into his head. It is hilarious and really gives the film a unique and dry sense of humor. Mark is also a compulsive liar, so anything we hear we have to take with a grain of salt. The movie is unbelievably entertaining with this format, getting a glimpse inside the head of someone who is either a complete idiot or a complete genius…or both?
"When polar bears hunt, they crouch down by a hole in the ice and wait for a seal to pop up. They keep one paw over their nose so that they blend in, because they've got those black noses. They'd blend in perfectly if not for the nose. To the question is: how do they know their noses are black? From looking at other polar bears? Do they see their reflections in the water and think, "I'd be invisible if not for that?" That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear."
8. The Usual Suspects (Kevin Spacey; Verbal Kint)
This one might be cheating a bit since Verbal Kint is a character in the present day telling a story in flashback, but it still qualifies. Verbal is a crippled criminal who is relaying the story of his experiences with four other career cons who got recruited by the mythical druglord Keyser Soze to pull off a huge dope heist. What makes Verbal’s narration so interesting is that it is his recollection, which may obviously be tainted out of self-preservation. Verbal leads us (and Agent Kujan, to whom the story is being told) down a perfectly detailed path, throwing in tropes and stories about the legend of Soze throughout. Verbal plays it completely innocent and vulnerable the entire time, guiding us to potentially the greatest ending of any movie in the last 25 years. If not for Spacey’s brilliantly realized narrative, it would not have been nearly as authentic or believable.
"It didn't make sense that I'd be there. I mean, these guys were hardcore hijackers, but there I was. At that point I wasn't scared. I knew I hadn't done anything they could do me for. Besides, it was fun. I got to make like I was notorious."
7. Adaptation (Nicolas Cage; Charlie Kaufman)
The greatness of the narration in Adaptation cannot be overstated. It makes the movie what it is. Charlie Kaufman wrote himself into his own movie, and Adaptation is about his inner struggle going through the chaotic process of writing this movie while he writes himself into the movie within the movie...yeah… Cage’s narration is tremendous, giving the movie its own distinctive feel. You get inside the head of one of the most interesting screenwriters in the industry, and while some inner rants may seem extreme, it is difficult to not feel some form of realism. He is clearly crazy and schizophrenic (he even makes up a brother, credits him with co-writing this Oscar-nominated screenplay), but maybe we all are crazy since we can relate. There is even a brilliant scene when Kaufman goes to a seminar about the writing process in which the class is vehemently discouraged from ever using voiceover in a script, which is what Kaufman was also doing at that exact moment. The movie is a mind trip, but it is brilliant and just offbeat enough to give it modern classic status.
"I need to fall in love. I need to have a girlfriend. I need to read more, improve myself. What if I learned Russian or something? Or took up an instrument? I could speak Chinese. I'd be the screenwriter who speaks Chinese and plays the oboe. That would be cool. I should get my hair cut short. Stop trying to fool myself and everyone else into thinking I have a full head of hair."
6. Taxi Driver (Robert De Niro; Travis Bickle)
This is one of the more obvious choices on the list. De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a fascinating character. He is a war veteran who gets a job as a taxi driver. We get narration throughout the movie chronicling his every thought, which gives an upfront view into the mind of someone who is slowly descending into insanity. Whether it is Travis describing his new workout routine or how protective he feels over a woman he has never actually met, the audience is spellbound by the invasive and tragic scope inside the head of one of cinema’s all time greatest characters.
"All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take 'em to Harlem, I don't care. Don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me."
5. Arrested Development (Ron Howard; 3rd Person, Himself)
Ron Howard’s constant voiceover in Arrested Development is as good as comedic narration can get. It is through his sarcastic and direct descriptions of what is going on that gives the show its incredible wacky humor. So many of the laughs in the show are from communication breakdowns, and that is only highlighted by Howard’s take. For example, there are several scenes where he describes what is going to be said by one of the Bluths, and then that is overlapped with it actually being said almost in unison, but not quite. That would be too obvious. Howard is also a character in the movie playing himself, which only adds to the awkward and absolutely irreplaceable narration in the show.
"GOB was intrigued. He also suspected he couldn't return a completely frozen dove to a pet store and get the full refund he felt he was entitled to."
4. Fight Club (Edward Norton; The Narrator)
David Fincher’s masterpiece Fight Club is more reliant on its narrator than most any movie or show. The main character doesn’t even have a name credited to him. Edward Norton is simply credited as “The Narrator”, and he walks us through the wild antics of this cult classic by telling us everything that is going through his head. He is not necessarily a dishonest narrator, since we are faced with the same bewilderment and manic anxiety that he is faced with. If not for this format, the movie would never have been able to pay off its groundbreaking twists as effectively. Making this even more of an indispensible form of narration, the megahit TV series Mr. Robot shamelessly adopted the exact same narration technique, to which it was showered with rave reviews and a Golden Globe win for Best Drama Series. Fight Club changed the game for narrators in movies, and it has seldom been surpassed since.
"Tyler sold his soap to the department stores at $20 a bar. Lord knows what they charged. It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them."
3. American Psycho (Christian Bale; Patrick Bateman)
The use of narration in American Psycho is about as vital to any movie’s effectiveness as I can think of. Without the view inside Wall Street yuppie/serial killer Patrick Bateman’s warped mind, we might not ever care about what we are watching. No one in the movie is all that likable on the surface, but the superficial description of every single thing and person that Bateman comes across is fascinating. Having read the book, it is clear why this character had to be written this way. The book is loaded with paragraphs upon paragraphs critiquing art and the fashion sense of everyone that Bateman encounters. The movie has a little less of that, but it does a commendable job recreating that sense of what it was to be like in New York in the late ‘80s and how you develop a desire to destroy everything that irritates you in life.
"There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable...I simply am not there."
2. Dexter (Michael C. Hall; Dexter Morgan)
Another serial killer? I couldn’t resist. Dexter is first person narration at its most intoxicating. The show follows Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter analyst working for Miami Metro Homicide, but he is also a vigilante serial killer. We get a voiceover from the emotionally absent Dexter in basically every scene, describing his desire to please his “Dark Passenger” or letting us know exactly how uncomfortable he feels around the people in this world. Since Dexter is so detached from human connection, we get a glimpse into the awkward situations and conversations that a one might face on a daily basis with that type of personality. Without the view into the actual motives and thoughts of Dexter, then the show would be way too much of a surface genre exploration. Instead, we get a somewhat humane, thought-provoking, and addicting television series.
“I love Halloween. The one time of year when everyone wears a mask…not just me. People think it's fun to pretend you're a monster. Me, I spend my life pretending I'm not. Brother, friend, boyfriend - All part of my costume collection. Some people might call me a fraud. Let's see if it will fit. I prefer to think of myself as a master of disguise.”
1. Goodfellas (Ray Liotta; Henry Hill)
“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster…” What else could possibly have been #1? Martin Scorsese’s masterwork mob movie is the perfect use of narration. With Ray Liotta’s flawless New York accent that is music to listen to on a voiceover, we get the full scope of Henry Hill’s career in organized crime, taking numerous direct quotes from the actual Hill in his biography, which only makes the feel of the film and the setting that much more authentic and convincing. Whenever there is a voiceover in the film, whether it is hearing what Hill is really thinking or introducing us to his associates in a long tracking shot, our ears are open while trying to take in every bit of the atmosphere that is provided to us. There really is no other option for #1 in my eyes. Ray Liotta could narrate absolutely anything and it would be wildly entertaining.
"For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychekcs and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls, If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again."
That’s my list! What would make your list? How I Met Your Mother? Stand by Me? The Wolf of Wall Street? Let me know in the comments!