There are great movies, and then there are really great movies - movies that have influenced generations of filmmakers and moved audiences to laughter, tears or screams. These movies can be so powerful that they make people think twice about taking a shower or going into the water. But where do you find these films? You could scour the Internet or visit film libraries. Or simply read this article.
Third in a series by critic Bob Tremblay offering tips for improving your cultural literacy.
There are great movies, and then there are really great movies - movies that have influenced generations of filmmakers and moved audiences to laughter, tears or screams. These movies can be so powerful that they make people think twice about taking a shower or going into the water. And they all feature the prerequisites for greatness: a talented director, editor, screenwriter and cast. Some receive an added bonus from talented cinematographers and composers. And don't forget the grips and the gaffers.
But where do you find these films? You could scour the Internet or visit film libraries. Or simply read this article. The following list of 50 must-own films have been selected based on the following criteria: they're exceptional, they're influential and they're timeless, or they're all three. They may not be blockbusters, they may not be Oscar winners. They may not even be movies I particularly like, but still must begrudgingly recognize their impact.
Note that I only have so many inches of copy to devote to this topic. It clearly would be easier to list 100 films. As a result, some great movies will not make this list. They may be your favorite movie. You may get outraged. Drop me an email if you are.
The films are listed by decade, and to be even-handed about the selection process, nearly each decade will be represented by five films, and nearly every major genre will be represented at least once. So, are we ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille?
Here's Part 1. Part 2, covering the 1960s-2000s, runs next week.
"BIRTH OF A NATION'' (1915) - D.W. Griffith's epic silent film chronicling two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction gets the "landmark'' label for taking movies out of the Stone Age and into modern times with its dramatic and technical achievements. That said, its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and blacks as subhuman has rightfully earned it indignation over the years. The film will amaze and offend all at once. The cast includes Lillian Gish.
"BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN'' (1925) - Yet another landmark silent film, this one from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, depicts the mutiny aboard the Potemkin, and you don't need a degree in Soviet history to recognize it as a propaganda. But what propaganda it is! In addition to serving as a primer on montage editing, it contains one of the most powerful and famous scenes in film history - the Odessa Steps massacre. Director Brian DePalma pays it homage in "The Untouchables.''
"THE GENERAL'' (1927) - Buster Keaton starred in and co-directed this silent film comedy classic. Based on a true story, Keaton plays a Southern train engineer who goes to extraordinary lengths to try to get his train back after its stolen by Union spies during the Civil War. The title refers to the train. The humor comes from Keaton's against-all-odds determination to retrieve the train while displaying superhuman sangfroid. He wasn't called the Great Stone Face for nothing. The film also contains some seriously dangerous stunt scenes, and Keaton performed all his own stunts.
"SAFETY LAST!'' (1923) - You know that iconic photo of a man holding on to the hands of a clock while dangling precariously from a building 12 stories high? That comes from this silent film gem starring Harold Lloyd. The movie follows the exploits a country boy, played by Lloyd, seeking success in the big city. One plan to make money involves climbing up the face of a building. His plan runs into a few hitches. While Lloyd performed many of his stunts, did he do this one, putting his life on the line? Don't forget - there was no modern special effects back then. Well, see the film and judge for yourself.
"THE GOLD RUSH'' (1925) - Any discussion of geniuses of the silent film era must include, arguably, the greatest of them all, Charlie Chaplin. This movie features his most famous character, The Little Tramp, finding love and a whole lot of trouble during a search for gold in the Yukon. The film contains many of the comic scenes Chaplin is famous for, including his dining on a shoe. Note that nearly every Chaplin fan has his or her favorite Chaplin film. Most pick "Modern Times'' from 1936. I prefer "City Lights'' from 1931.
"NOSFERATU'' (1922) - Moviegoers accustomed to Count Dracula looking suave and sophisticated might be taken aback when they see Max Schreck as the famous vampire. Called Count Orlok here because the film is an unauthorized telling of Bram Stoker's tale, Schreck makes the starting lineup of cinema's All-Ugly Team. More importantly, he's his own freak show. Directed by German expressionistic master F.W. Murnau, this silent film haunts, more than it scares.
"THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA'' (1925) - Before there was the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and numerous talkie remakes, there was this silent film melodrama starring the aptly nicknamed ``The Man of a Thousand Faces'' - Lon Chaney, and this was one of his more gruesome faces. Makeup aficionados worship at his altar. Note that ``The Wolf Man'' from 1941 doesn't star Chaney but his son, Lon Chaney Jr. Like father, like son.
"METROPOLIS'' (1927) - Name a sci-fi or fantasy film and it likely owes a debt of gratitude to this German silent film classic by Austrian-born director Fritz Lang. In a futuristic society rife with class struggle, the son of a powerful industrialist abandons his privileged lifestyle for the love of a working-class woman. Dad is not amused. The sets alone will astound.
"GREED'' (1924) - Based on Frank Norris' novel "McTeague,'' this film directed by Erich von Stroheim tells the far-from-jolly tale of a dentist who falls in love with an avaricious woman and pays the price. The real tragedy, however, took place off-screen where von Stroheim's roughly nine-hour film, packed with on-location scenes, was whittled down to 2.5 hours by the studio. Erich was not amused. Two hours have since been restored, yet even in its abridged form, the film provides a vivid example of grim realism at a time when most movies were shot on a set and put on a happy face. Gibson Gowland and ZaSu Pitts star.
"THE JAZZ SINGER'' (1927) - Not the greatest of movies but it did usher in the talkie era, even though much of this film is still silent, with, of course, the exception of the songs, including the memorable "My Mammy'' sung by its star Al Jolson. The 1953 remake starring Danny Thomas is better than the 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond, but that's like saying you'd rather dine on cyanide than arsenic.
"ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT'' (1930) - Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, this anti-war film justly won the Oscar for best picture as it follows a German soldier on the path of youthful idealism at the outbreak of World War I to painful disillusionment after its conclusion. Lew Ayres stars. You may remember him better as Dr. Kildare.
"GONE WITH THE WIND'' (1939) - Its portrayal of blacks may not win this film any NAACP awards, but as an example of storytelling on a grand scale "GWTW'' has few equals. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell, the film is basically a soap opera set against the backdrop of the Civil War with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler at the center of attention. Directed by Victor Fleming and produced by David O. Selznick, the film contains more startling visuals, unforgettable lines and superb performances than epithets hurled at Sherman by Southerners. Its Oscars include best film, best actress, best director and best supporting actress for Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black thespian to win an Oscar.
"THE WIZARD OF OZ'' (1939) - You can't throw enough superlatives at this film, which just happens to be this scribe's personal favorite. A musical fantasy without equal, it stars the incomparable Judy Garland as Dorothy and features a brilliant supporting cast including Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton and Billie Burke. The Oscar-winning "Somewhere Over the Rainbow'' is arguably the most memorable film song ever composed. Only "As Time Goes By'' comes close. Victor Fleming directed this one, too. Not a bad double play for Vic. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.
"SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS'' (1937) - Walt Disney would make better films than "Snow White,'' but this one started the crystal ball rolling as the first animated feature film. It also contains such wonderful songs as "Whistle While You Work'' and "Some Day My Prince Will Come.'' Adriana Caselotti provides the voice of Snow White. For trivia nuts, she also supplies the voice of Juliet during the Tin Man's song, "If I Only Had a Heart'' in "The Wizard of Oz.''
"IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT'' (1934) - The first film to record the Oscar grand slam - best picture, best director (Frank Capra), best actor (Clark Gable) and best actress (Claudette Colbert) - rates as one of the finest romantic comedies in the biz. Gable, as a reporter looking for a scoop, and Colbert, an heiress looking for an escape, can't tolerate each other at first yet as their adventure turns more madcap at every turn, they ... well, let's just say decades of romcoms will follow their lead. The hitchhiking scene is priceless.
"CASABLANCA'' (1942) - Here's looking at one of the greatest romantic tales ever put on film, kid. Based on the play, "Everybody Comes to Rick's,'' the movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as lovers whose relationship in Paris gets waylaid by World War II. Bogart's Rick ends up a bar owner in Morocco where he dispenses 100-proof cynicism. "I stick my neck out for nobody,'' he says. Then Bergman's Ilsa shows up at the bar - with her husband! Ouch, that's a complication. Will Rick sabotage the marriage for his own happiness or sacrifice love for the greater good? See the movie and find out. The picture-perfect supporting cast includes Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet and Dooley Wilson. Anyone who doesn't like this film should be rounded up with the usual suspects and shot. Woody Allen pays tribute to the movie in "Play it Again, Sam'' - a line never spoken in "Casablanca.''
"CITIZEN KANE'' (1941) - Typically placed on the short list of the greatest movies ever made, this film tells the story of the rise and rise of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, excuse me, Charles Foster Kane. Director, co-writer and star Orson Welles, making a rather auspicious film debut at the ripe old age of 25, incorporates all kinds of cinematographic and narrative innovation. Heck, Welles starts the film with Kane's death. Genius pours from every frame of this film.
"THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES'' (1946) - World War II ends and three servicemen - played by Frederic March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell - return home to the Midwest to discover that picking up the pieces of their lives is as easy as picking up slabs of concrete with tweezers. Masterful in every way, hugely popular and a multiple Oscar winner, including best picture, best actor (March), best supporting actor (Russell) and best director (William Wyler).
"BICYCLE THIEVES'' (1948, aka "The Bicycle Thief'') - One of the cornerstones of neorealism, this Italian film was shot on location in Rome with a non-professional cast. Proving there's quality in simplicity, the movie focuses on a working class man and his young son as they look for the man's stolen bicycle. The man needs the bicycle for work so he can support his family. The antithesis to all things Hollywood - no stars, no sex, no violence, no special effects - it's just a story well told by director Vittorio De Sica. Those who want to call the film a Marxist fable are free to do so.
"DOUBLE INDEMNITY'' (1944) - Those who only know Fred MacMurray as the kindhearted patriarch on the TV show ``My Three Sons'' and Barbara Stanwyck as the no-nonsense matriarch on the TV show ``The Big Valley'' might be surprised to find out that they played two morally-challenged people in this classic example of film noir where morality often ends up with a black eye. In the movie, based on James M. Cain's novella and directed by Billy Wilder, MacMurray plays an insurance salesman who gets lured into a murder plot by Stanwyck's sultry housewife. You know a movie is messing with the cinematic cosmos when Edward G. Robinson, one of silver screen's great bad guys, plays the ``good guy'' here.
"ON THE WATERFRONT'' (1954) - While Marlon Brando was smoking hot in ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' he's positively volcanic as Terry Malloy in this take-no-prisoners tale of unions and corruption. To say that Brando was influential as an actor is like saying Katrina was damaging as a hurricane. The taxi cab scene where Malloy empties his heart out to his brother Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, contains one of the most famous monologues in film history. The movie was directed by Elia Kazan after he agreed to name names during the communist witch hunt. In the film, Malloy testifies against his union. See any parallels? The movie won multiple Oscars.
"SEVEN SAMURAI'' (1954) - Ever see ``The Magnificent Seven''? Ever see any movie where a team is assembled to do battle? Well, here's the original. Directed by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, the film takes place in a 16th-century village where farmers have hired seven warriors to protect them from bandits who intend to steal their crops. Western filmmakers have made a killing, so to speak, by remaking Kurosawa's films, everything from spaghetti westerns to sci-fi flicks. He's a tad influential.
"THE SEVENTH SEAL'' (1957) - On the subject of influential directors, this film helped launch the career of Sweden's Ingmar Bergman. Having issues with God? Then this is the movie for you. Max von Sydow plays a disillusioned knight who returns to Sweden after fighting in the Crusades and finds his country ravaged by a plague. He soon squares off with Death in a game of chess, placing his soul on the line. Hilarity ensues. OK, maybe not.
"REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE'' (1955) - One of the first films to deal with alienation among middle-class ``youts'' with James Dean doing the rebelling and Nicholas Ray doing the directing. Today's audiences might find Dean's performance a bit mannered but back in the conformity-conscious 1950s he was cool, daddy. And then he died. Not cool. You may recognize some of the film's supporting cast: Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus and Dennis Hooper. The latter would later co-star and direct a little film about alienation in the 1960s called ``Easy Rider.''
"THE SEARCHERS'' - (1956) John Wayne - the name has become synonymous with "hero'' for generations of moviegoers, yet this is one of the few films where Wayne is not particularly heroic. In fact, he's rather detestable - and he's really good at it. He plays Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier returning from the Civil War with a few chips on his broad shoulders. For starters, he's a virulent racist who detests Indians. When his niece is kidnapped by Comanches, he goes looking for her, not to rescue her but kill her because of her ``association'' with the tribe. One of the greatest and most influential westerns ever made, the film gave Wayne an opportunity to prove he wasn't a one-trick pony and director John Ford an opportunity to use Monument Valley as a supporting actor. The cinematography here will amaze.
Bob Tremblay can be reached at 508-626-4409 or email@example.com.
Movie mea culpas
Did you hate my must-own film omissions? So did I. Here are some of the apologies:
1910-20s: From the 1910s, apologies to ``Intolerance'' and all the excellent foreign films from the 1910s such as ``The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari'' and `J'Accuse.'' From the 1920s, apologies to ``Nanook of the North,'' ``Way Down East,'' ``The Sheik'' and all the Oscar nominees, including ``Wings,'' the first best picture Oscar winner, and ``Broadway Melody,'' the first musical to win the best picture Oscar.
1930s: Let's start with every film nominated for an Oscar in 1939 and move on to ``Bringing up Baby,'' ``Grand Illusion,'' ``The Lady Vanishes,'' ``39 Steps,'' ``Frankenstein,'' ``The Bride of Frankenstein,'' ``Dracula,'' ``King Kong,'' ``Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,'' ``Mutiny on the Bounty,'' ``Scarface,'' ``M,'' ``I'm No Angel,'' ``Freaks,'' ``The Thin Man,'' ``42nd Street,'' ``Top Hat,'' ``The Adventures of Robin Hood'' ``L'Age d'Or,'' ``Public Enemy,'' ``Little Caesar,'' ``Boudu Saved from Drowning'' and the Marx Brothers' triple crown of ``Night at the Opera,'' ``Duck Soup'' and ``Horse Feathers.'' ``Cimarron'' is notable as the first Western to win the best picture Oscar.
1940s: Apologies to ``The Maltese Falcon,'' ``Open City,'' ``Children of Paradise,'' ``The Third Man,'' ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' ``The Bank Dick,'' ``His Girl Friday,'' ``The Philadelphia Story,'' ``Rebecca,'' ``Gaslight,'' ``Notorious,'' ``Spellbound,'' ``Rope,'' ``Adams's Rib,'' ``How Green Way My Valley,'' ``It's a Wonderful Life,'' ``They Were Expendable,'' ``Sergeant York,'' ``The Pride of the Yankees,'' ``The Big Sleep,'' ``To Have and Have Not,'' ``To Be Or Not To Be,'' ``Arsenic and Old Lace,'' ``The Treasure of Sierra Madre,'' The Magnificent Ambersons,'' ``All the King's Men,'' ``The Ox-Bow Incident,'' ``The Lost Weekend,'' ``The Red Shoes,'' ``The Devil and Daniel Webster,'' ``Yankee Doodle Dancy,'' ``The Killers,'' ``Meet Me in St. Louis,'' ``The Great Dictator,'' ``Sullivan's Travels,'' ``The Lady Eve'' and ``Fantasia,'' ``Laura,'' ``Gentleman's Agreement'' and ``Hamlet.''
1950s: Apologies to ``Vertigo,'' ``The Bridge on the River Kwai,'' ``Sunset Boulevard,'' ``Rear Window,'' ``Rashomon,'' ``All About Eve,'' ``Singin' in the Rain,'' ``Some Like It Hot,'' ``North by Northwest,'' ``Touch of Evil,'' ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' ``The African Queen,'' ``12 Angry Men,'' ``La Strada,'' ``Ben-Hur,'' ``Wild Strawberries,'' ``High Noon,'' ``Shane,'' ``The 400 Blows,'' ``The Ten Commandments,'' ``Strangers on a Train,'' ``From Here to Eternity,'' ``The Day the Earth Stood Still,'' ``Roman Holiday,'' ``Old Yeller,'' ``The King and I,'' ``An American in Paris,'' ``Invasion of the Body Snatchers,'' ``East of Eden,'' ``Mon Oncle,'' ``The Band Wagon,'' ``Giant,'' ``Marty,'' ``Harvey,'' ``A Star is Born,'' ``Lady and the Tramp,'' ``Nights of Cabiria, ``A Night to Remember,'' ``Born Yesterday,'' ``Show Boat,'' ``The Seven Year Itch,'' ``Stalag 17,'' ``Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,'' ``Gigi,'' ``A Place in the Sun'' and ``Anatomy of a Murder.''
Official List of Best Movies
``BIRTH OF A NATION''
``THE GOLD RUSH''
``THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA''
``THE JAZZ SINGER''
``ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT''
``GONE WITH THE WIND''
``THE WIZARD OF OZ''
``SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS''
``IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT''
``THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES''
``ON THE WATERFRONT''
``THE SEVENTH SEAL''
``REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE''