Virtually everybody who lives in modern civilization watches movies. Whether it’s a movie a week or a movie a year, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find someone you know who has never seen one. But for maybe every 100o casual filmgoer with lower standards and/or expectations, there might be one genuine film-lover. What makes a true film-lover? Primarily two qualities: open-mindedness and a willingness to spend time watching them. If you’ve ever said, “I don’t watch cartoons,” or, “I refuse to see anything that stars Tom Cruise,” then you are no true film lover. Maybe certain genres or stars might not usually be your cup of tea, but if someone truly loves film, they will remain open-minded to any film, given reason to be. Here is an alphabetical list of ten films that anyone serious about movies should either have seen already or should see, soon.
This is Stanley Kubrick’s true masterpiece. In this 1968 exploration of the origins, the history, and the potential of human life, Kubrick takes the viewer on an epic adventure that spans millennia and beyond, all while demanding the audience’s attention and insight. It takes almost 30 minutes for a single word to be spoken but during that time, the film never devolves into anything less than captivating and thought-provoking. And, in what I have always been assumed to be an effort to mimic the very realism of the human lifespan that Kubrick studies, here, important questions are raised and never answered. At least not explicitly and not by Kubrick. That’s up to you, making the viewer a participant in the film, itself. On top of all of this, despite being nearly 50 years old, 2001 is as beautiful as (or more beautiful than) most films of today with a potent vibrancy injected into every single frame, eventually building to a climax that overwhelms both the senses and the mind, driving home the point that life can never be fully comprehended but its potential is up to each of us to discover and to savor.
2. Citizen Kane
This is the one that everyone hears about but a relative few have actually seen. And so many who have seen it say, “It’s so boring!” What a shame. There are no visual effects. No car chases. No nude scenes. This is a mystery that is seen from the press’s point of view and told entirely through dialogue. Lots and lots of dialogue. So, why is it so highly regarded? Why is it held so high above other dialogue-driven films from throughout cinematic history? Partly because of the story and its unique approach of attempting to humanize someone who seems entirely inhuman; a renowned publishing tycoon (is anybody described as a “tycoon” anymore?) who is resented and hated due to the moves he made to attain his status. It’s a common societal tendency to think of the rich and famous as less than we are in an effort to make us feel better about ourselves. Kane approaches this idea delicately and memorably. And it’s also Orson Welles’s performance that garners rave reviews, to this day. But maybe even more than that, it was his directing and his use of revolutionary camera work that sets it apart. Watching it now, an uninformed viewer wouldn’t even notice, because they were so inventive and applicable that they’re still used today. For brevity’s sake, I’ll move on, but Citizen Kane is a film-lover’s film.
Hating on the popular thing is what all the kewl kidz do. (Contrarianism: It’s All the Rage!) But sometimes the popular thing is popular for a very simple reason: it’s that damned good. And Frozen is that damned good. On every level. The story lulls unsuspecting audiences into thinking they already know what’s going to happen before turning the conventional fairy tale tropes on their heads and delivering a genuinely poignant tale that tugs at heart strings and reminds the viewer of the truly important things in life. The humor delivers (Olaf is great, but Anna is hilarious to me). The animation is flawless, bringing any one of their computer-generated characters to life with more realism and believable performance ability than the entire cast of “Fuller House”. And the music. The music strikes a chord with people of all ages and origins and has had toes tapping for over to years now. It’s trendy to complain about “Let It Go” due to nothing except its popularity (true quality doesn’t diminish with repetition) but as I heard that song for the first time as I watched Frozen, I thought to myself that it would win Best Original Song at the Oscars and I was right. In my mind, it’s the best original song in film history and is unlikely to be challenged, anytime soon. And Frozen is a masterpiece, as a whole – the total package where everything goes perfectly. Filmmaking at its finest.
This list wouldn’t be complete without Jurassic Park. Not if I’m writing it. This is the movie that made me love movies. This is the film where I came to understand that, in the movies, truly anything is possible. Steven Spielberg is a true auteur, molding each of his films into his own personal creation. Here, he crafts a breathtaking cautionary tale that is a recipe of equal parts thought-provoking poignancy and mind-blowing thrills. Stan Winston cemented himself as a genius, here (if he hadn’t already, by that time), and is just as responsible for the legacy that this film carved for itself. It’s not perfect (there are continuity and production errors) but it doesn’t even matter. Jurassic Park changed cinema forever and it did it with a combination of style and substance.
5. King Kong (1933)
While many films owe much to Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park owes all to the original King Kong. Kong was the first true special effects event film – the first must-see escapist movie whose primary was simply to entertain. Now, that’s almost all most moviegoers look for in a movie. But at the time, the technology didn’t really exist to make that sort of film happen often. Other than comedies, you were pretty much stuck with headsy thrillers or dramas that barely allowed one to forget their own issues and just get away from it all. So, this was a gutsy, frightening experiment that was as risky as they come – both financially and creatively. And JP isn’t the only film that owes its existence to Kong. So does Citizen Kane. Kong saved RKO Pictures from going under and showed the entire industry what is no common knowledge – the money is in the magic.
6. King Kong (2005)
You might think this is cheating or unnecessary. Or even blasphemy! You’re wrong on all three accounts. This film is often given a bad rap with the same lazy, regurgitated line: “It was too long!” Snore. But for true film lovers, not a problem! Because this one has everything in the world to love. The first half is an excellent, character-building dramedy and the second half could still stand on its own as one of the greatest action films of all time. But, more importantly, with this film, Peter Jackson shows just exactly how to properly do a remake. The same lazy armchair critics referred to earlier also like to whine about how “Hollywood is out of ideas” and “lacks creativity” simply because of the number of sequels and remakes that have recently hit theaters. It seems to me that those critics are describing themselves as a true film geek can understand the difficulty in telling a story with previously established characters or retelling an old classic. Peter Jackson nails it by staying true to the original’s themes and story but correcting its flaws and filling it out to form a more complete story. Some of the original’s flaws were budget- and technology-related, at no fault of its own. But others were due to the fact that it was product of its own time and nearly as misogynistic as Donald Trump. Jackson modernized it while respecting it and Naomi Watts, coupled with WETA, supplied King Kong with an abundance of heart. There is no lack of originality, creativity, or innovation in this remake that took a brilliant concept and perfected it.
7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
As we all progress through high school, we’re required to read certain books as part of our English/Literature courses. I’ve always liked to read, but I never cared for being told what to read. But I’m so thankful to my twelfth-grade AP English teacher for making me read Ken Kesey’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. I had to read it over the summer that preceded my senior year of high school (along with LORD OF THE FLIES, which I also liked, but not as much) and I absolutely loved it. Had it not been for that, I may not have watched this film adaptation (“Adaptation”? Hollywood was SO out of ideas in 1975!) and what a shame that would have been. Jack Nicholson and director Milos Forman get most of the credit for this one (and they deserve every single tribute that comes their way) but this classic was a true group effort in which every single contributor – both in front of and behind the camera – left their mark forever. It does everything a great film should do and does so effortlessly.
As all of my friends’ (and students’) resident film geek, I’m often asked what my favorite movie is. I always respond with a clarifying question: “Based on personal preferences or pure quality?” If they want my answer based on pure quality, my answer is always Memento. Despite many people’s best efforts to prove otherwise, this may be the only film which I truly believe to be perfect. I saw this in the theater in 2001 based solely on the positive reviews and my mind was absolutely blown. From the moment the final credits rolled on that day, fifteen years ago, Christopher Nolan has been my favorite director. The attention to detail, intricate plotting and directing, delicate structuring, and mammoth confidence required to even come close to getting a film like Memento right is hard to conceive. But this wasn’t “close”. It was flawless. The concept, itself, is genius. The execution is magnificent. And the fact that it holds up even when viewing all of the scenes in chronological order is even more impressive. Showing the end of the story at the beginning of the film is gutsy and it takes a master of the craft to then continue to push forward with a captivating story (and an equally-captivating protagonist inhabited by Guy Pearce) that still manages to shock, enthrall, and impact audiences as they continue to discover this genuine work of art to this day.
9. Mulholland Dr.
The year 2001 was my personal 1939 for film. 1939 saw The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and others hit the big screen. 2001 saw Memento as well as David Lynch’s greatest film achievement, Mulholland Dr.. When I tell people that Memento is my favorite film of all time based on quality, I follow that up by saying that this one isn’t far behind. Most people turn to Blue Velvet for classic Lynch but I far prefer Mulholland Dr. for its mystery, its fluidity, its versatility, and its outright refusal to restrain itself and fit a preconceived mold of what a film is supposed to be. Naomi Watts defies all expectations and was outright robbed of and Oscar nomination and win. Meanwhile, Lynch dares you to follow his bouncing ball and delivers a film that is akin to trying assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without having the box to give you the picture. And it’s gorgeous. It’s gorgeous in terms of its cinematography, yes, without question. I recently re-watched it after its LOOOOOOOOOONG-overdue blu-ray release and every frame was a feast for my eyes (all four of them). But Mulholland‘s beauty also lies in its brutal honesty. It tricks the viewer into believing they are watching one film and then pulls the rug out and drags them over hot coals, broken glass, razor blades, and the Human Centipede before finally dumping them back into reality and telling them to love it. And love it, I do.
I’m not sure that most people realize that none of the music in Singin’ in the Rain is original to the movie, itself. Did you know that? These songs were chosen and a story was written around them. Man! I guess Hollywood was all out of ideas in 1952, too! Regardless, they managed to crank out an all-time classic musical that has stood the test of time to the point that kids who have never seen this movie – maybe don’t even know that there is such a movie – know the title song. This film took previously existing work and it elevated it all into the permanent public zeitgeist. And it did it by having fun. No edginess. No cursing. No sex. Just classic, over-the-top characters trying to entertain you. And Gene Kelly owning the screen, just as he’ll own you.