I have a thing for lists. It’s my firm belief that everyone does, which is why they are such popular entertainment blog topics. I’m not exactly venturing into bandwagon territory here, since I have found that a great many lists of the so-called “best movies of all time” are pretty much the same. Citizen Kane is always high on the list, though I found it snoozeworthy (I guess it didn’t help that I already knew that Rosebud was a sled), along with The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, It’s a Wonderful Life, and ET: The Extraterrestrial. I’m not disputing the greatness of these pictures, but you’ve probably seen them many times already. I know I have, and while these cinematic touchstones are definitely important culturally, their praises have been sung enough. My list is a bit different. You may not have even heard of some of these films, while some of them are so familiar that you may not realize that you’ve never actually watched them. This isn’t just a list of my favorite movies; I left off a good many of those because everyone has already seen them. For instance, there are no John Hughes movies on the list, though I count myself among the late director’s biggest fans. Steven Spielberg is also unrepresented here. I’ve tried to steer clear of modern-day blockbusters altogether, though some of my choices were big hits in their respective eras. Anyway, enough about my criteria. I’ll just admit that the list is fairly arbitrary and leave it at that. Without further ado, and in no particular order, I proudly present my picks for movies everyone should see at some point in life.
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
I’ve detailed my admiration for Scarlett O’Hara in another post, and this may seem to be one of the more obvious choices on my list, but I have found that while most people are familiar with the film and the character, not so many have actually watched the movie. For one thing, clocking in at around four hours, it is a serious undertaking to view in a single sitting. However, it’s worth it. Scarlett isn’t an icon for no reason, and her machinations are endless fun to watch; even when you know she’s seriously screwing herself and even when she is at her most detestable, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is nonetheless thoroughly human and believable, and you still want her to succeed. I would be remiss not to mention Walter Plunkett’s extraordinary costumes, which have become as symbolic of the film as Scarlett and Rhett themselves, and are on their own an excellent reason to watch. Never before or since has costuming been so integral to a film, and whether she’s decked out for a barbecue or in down-and-dirty Yankee-shooting mode, Scarlett is wearing the right threads (in most cases, yards and yards of them) for the job.
THE LAST UNICORN (1982)
This often-overlooked little gem of a movie hews faithful to the Peter S. Beagle novel of the same title, and with good reason: Mr. Beagle adapted the screenplay himself. The animation is nothing short of gorgeous, both in character and background. Coming out at a time when Disney was at its nadir creatively and other studios were trying to fill the void in the animated-feature market, which seemed all but dead, the film was not initially a box-office success, but became beloved by many later through home video and cable tv runs. Still, chances are, you haven’t seen it, and you should. There is a surprising array of celebrity voice talent on display (Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, and Alan Arkin all have major roles, not to mention Christopher Lee’s bone-chilling turn as the villain), and the animation was produced by a Japanese studio which was the forerunner of later powerhouse Studio Ghibli. The melancholic soundtrack, provided by Jimmy Webb and folk-rockers America, is also superb.
SPIRITED AWAY (2001)
Speaking of Ghibli, this film is their masterpiece. While the studio and director Hayao Miyazaki have an impressive body of work, ranging from the charming (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service) to the deeply serious (Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Mononoke), Spirited Away is a triumph on so many levels that it’s difficult to place even one of the studio’s other works on its pedestal. On the surface a modern fairy tale about a discontented little girl pulled into servitude in a dimension of spirits and monsters, the story is in actuality a multilayered allegory on the discovery of self and strength and the lengths we will go to for the ones we love. The animation is unlike anything I have seen in Western film, incorporating stunning artwork with a sense of movement and space and beautiful color, and its unrushed pace gives it a serenity often lacking in animated features on this side of the Pacific. Just over two hours long, the movie feels shorter, but encompasses so much territory in its running time that it truly feels as if the viewer has lived through little Chihiro’s journey alongside her and experienced her emotions and reactions just as she does– no mean feat for a cartoon.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
In a complete about-face from the sweep and tone of my previous choices, Lebowski is a smaller (and arguably stranger) tale, one that must be seen to be explained, but here goes. Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), universally known as “The Dude”, is a simple kind of guy who enjoys White Russians and bowling with his colorful cast of buddies. When he gets mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski and some thugs pee on his beloved rug, which really tied the room together, he only wants retribution and a new rug, but instead gets drawn into a complicated kidnapping plot involving severed toes, nihilists and some eye-popping dream sequences. Though the Coen brothers’ Fargo got all the Oscar love, this movie is probably their most beloved– it’s hard not to love The Dude and his crew: angry, gun-toting Walter (John Goodman) and hapless, doomed Donny (Steve Buscemi), who gets the most uproariously unfortunate memorial in film history. The movie is fun, smart, relentlessly profane, and just about pitch-perfect, but for some reason is still viewed as a cult film.
BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)
This movie changed the way movies are made. Unabashedly violent, it ushered in a new era of gritty realism in film, even as it became a pop-culture milestone in its own right. Even though the viewer ostensibly knows beforehand that things don’t end well for this pair, the brutal ending never fails to shock, especially as there is no denouement afterwards– just a fade to black, ceasing to exist as abruptly as its titular couple. But the ride to that foregone ending is a wild one, replete with gore, frustrated passion, lots of gunplay and a surprising amount of humor, underscored by a Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass soundtrack that punctuates the film’s plot with a decided exclamation point. Faye Dunaway is incandescent as Bonnie in spite of her anachronistic hairstyle, which looks more contemporary to the time the movie was made than the era in which it is set; here she conveys a real sense of her character’s inner workings to the audience as clearly with an expression as with words. Warren Beatty is both understated and charming as Clyde, who tempts the bored Bonnie to a life of crime with promises of a more exciting existence, and don’t miss Gene Wilder’s film debut as one of their luckier victims. Sadly, this movie tends to be overlooked as the classic it is today– and it still deserves a watch.
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)
In 1964, the world was gripped by Beatlemania, and this film was shot quickly to capitalize on that fact, but it’s a finely crafted piece of work all the same, functioning as a sort of slice-of-life comedy about the planet’s favorite band playing themselves and as a collection of proto-music-videos. There’s not much of a plot– it’s about the band’s trip to London for a television appearance while keeping Paul’s trouble-making grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) in check– but this movie doesn’t need one, focusing instead on the personalities of its subjects and the effects of sudden fame. The camera work is masterful, and the songs, of course, speak for themselves. Yellow Submarine might be better known, and Help! might have had more of a storyline, but this movie is the one that presents the lads in the truest light– before the fishbowl of celebrity had taken its toll, and before their odd romance with the world that adored them had gone sour. It reflects both the innocence of the time, and the joy that can be had through the medium of music.
BIG FISH (2003)
This spot on the list was a tossup between what I consider the finest works of two very gifted filmmakers, the other being Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but I went with this underrated Tim Burton treasure because it’s a far less universally recognized work than PF, and also because I just relate so strongly to this movie on a personal level– my own father, and his fun stories along with him, had passed away the year before it debuted, and its tale of a son (Billy Crudup) coming to terms with the truth of his dying father’s improbable past hit me hard. It’s also gorgeous. Burton in bright mode has no rival for cinematic beauty (his darker oeuvre, such as Sleepy Hollow or Batman, is also a visual delight but in my opinion less strikingly so), and his stars– Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney as the younger and present-day versions of terminally ill Ed Bloom, and Alison Lohman/Jessica Lange as his wife Sandra– appear to glow. Danny DeVito, Helena Bonham Carter and Steve Buscemi (again!) are all on hand, and the emotional ending left me both sobbing wildly and giggling uncontrollably– the only movie I have seen that ever had that peculiar effect on me.
You know about this movie, but you’ve probably never taken the time to watch it. Like GWTW, it is a relic of a bygone era: so steeped into the cultural consciousness that you already think you know the story. In fact, you don’t. What leads up to the fateful scene on the macadam is both politically and romantically complex, and those who have seen the film and think it should have ended differently weren’t paying attention. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa is glorious, and Humphrey Bogart as Rick portrays a tortured yet noble guy whose actions could scarcely be comprehended in this self-absorbed day and age. Plus, he’s drop-dead gorgeous here. If you’ve seen it already, watch it again, and if you haven’t gotten around to it yet, do.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
Monty Python isn’t for everyone. Their particular brand of humor can be seen as too silly, too obvious, too obscure– too a lot of things. But for those who “get it”, this is one of their best vehicles– the story of King Arthur as told, perhaps, by Mr. Gumby. The first film by the Pythons not delivered in sketch format, it is still episodic in nature, a series of scenes (the Knights who Say Ni, the Black Knight, Tim the Enchanter, the killer rabbit and so on) which come together into a cohesive and hilarious whole. Graham Chapman plays Arthur as the befuddled straight man wandering through a ludicrously out-of-kilter countryside in search of the Holy Grail, surrounded by his faithful knights, Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), Sir Bedivere (Terry Jones), and their loyal manservant Patsy (Terry Gilliam). Each troupe member also plays several memorable supporting roles, and if you’re looking to get into Python, this (or the stage musical based upon it, Spamalot) is probably your best place to start.
TWICE UPON A TIME (1983)
You’ll have a tough time finding this one. This George Lucas-produced feature pioneered the use of cut-out animation of the type employed in “South Park”, but it’s largely unknown due to the fact that it only enjoyed an extremely limited theatrical release, and has existed in a legal limbo for many years due to creative differences between director John Korty and writer Bill Couterie. For those lucky enough to have caught it on cable in the early 80’s, it’s a cult classic; for those not so fortunate, it’s a complete question mark. However, take my word that it’s worth seeking out. By turns sweet and outlandishly funny, it is a font of great quotable lines (I still say “Welcome to the Garbagerie” when bringing people into my house) and boasts a cast of characters led by Ralph the All-Purpose Animal (a shape-shifting creature voiced by Lorenzo Music of “Garfield” fame) and including “aspiring actress” Flora Fauna, “perspiring superhero” Rod Rescueman, a wisecracking fairy godmother, and a villain who pulls double duty as comic relief in the form of one Synonomess Botch, whose plot to turn the world’s dreams into nightmares must be foiled by regaining control of the Cosmic Clock. The opening song by Bruce Hornsby is also 80’s-awesome.
There will probably be more lists like this, because there is undoubtedly something I forgot. I probably shouldn’t have limited myself to ten. Anyway, you should see all of these, and as always, feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.