I’ve been nettled by a question for over ten years now. It started when a friend emailed me after seeing a movie that I had raved about. The friend said that she didn’t like the film and wondered if, as a consequence, I’d lose respect for her as a film goer. My answer was: of course not. But I began to think about the notion of there being such a film, one that I would expect any self respecting cinephile to like. I finally came to a conclusion on this topic: no such film exists. But I still wanted some sort of litmus test. Lo these many years later I’ve come up with is the idea of selecting 20 films and from this creating a “test”: can a person find five — a mere 20% — that she or he likes. If not I doubt that such an individual and I have very much in common, at least as it relates to cinema. Of course the more of these films an individual likes, the more likely we are to get along. Now you could have a circumstance in which a person likes only three of these films but has only seen ten of them. In that case I'd say said that person needs to up their game. There's nothing obscure here and all are available on DVD and probably all can be streamed. These films represent different genres and different eras and are from as early as 1927 and as recently as 2013. I’ve mixed in silents, black and whites and foreign films, a veritable potpourri of cinema. All are movies I hold dear though they do not represent my 20 favorite movies of all time. Most are among my top 100. I’ve taken into account the fact that some people don’t like silent films or foreign films or films with a lot of violence. I knew a cinephile who only watched movies with a strong female character and I knew of a person who wouldn’t watch anything made before 1970 (I know, crazy). But there’s plenty here for all tastes (although I didn’t include any documentaries or animation) with a variety of directors and stars too. Finding five you like shouldn't be a problem and just think, we'll be pals ever after.
City Lights (1931) Charlie Chaplin has been universally loved for over 100 years. Even people who otherwise eschew silent films or anything made before Star Wars enjoy the Little Tramp character. I could have picked any Chaplin film but went with City Lights because it’s my favorite of his. Modern Times and The Great Dictator are equally esteemed but both include political themes while City Lights has a more social appeal. As to other Chaplin films, well there are two versions of Gold Rush (the original far superior) which may confuse people. The Circus has arguably the funniest 20 minutes or so of any Chaplin film but it begins to fade after that. Chaplin’s other silents are too short to be considered for this exercise. City Lights is, to me, that one movie that epitomizes the Little Tramp. It has a huge heart and it is hilarious.
Duck Soup (1933) I have a had life long love for the Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho (born Julius Henry Marx). This is by far the funniest of their films and includes a not too subtle anti-war message. There are none of the maudlin songs that deadened some of their later films. Instead there are more great one liners and sight gags than in any film ever made. Some people may prefer A Night at the Opera or even another Marx Brothers film, but I’ve never known a fellow Marxist (of the Groucho sort) who didn’t like this one.
His Girl Friday (1940) I don’t know if its the best pure screwball comedy but it's surely one of the best films of any kind ever made. It has all the elements of the great screwball comedy greatly aided by masterful performances by co-stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It’s fast-paced, it’s funny and it also has something to say. In fact a lot. Notably about journalists, governments and the death penalty. You can ignore the messages and just enjoy the rapid fire dialogue and zany one liners and antics. In any case it's irresistible.
The Big Sleep (1944) It’s Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, for chrissakes, what’s not to like? This is the best of their films together and it is classic detective story, albeit an endlessly confusing one. The story has twists and turns aplenty, witty patter, beautiful dames and that Bogie-Bacall magic. The dialogue, the directing, the gorgeous black and white cinematography are all perfect. Unless you really have a bias against “older” films The Big Sleep is something you should like. Or love.
Some Like it Hot (1959) Marilyn Monroe’s best picture. Need I say more? How about the writing and directing of Billy Wilder who at the time was still in top form? You’ve also got Tony Curtis and one of the world’s greatest actor, Jack Lemmon. The story is funny as hell, sexy as hell and like I said, it has Marilyn Monroe. Some don't consider it Wilder's best (I prefer Sunset Blvd.) but it is surely his most popular. It is one of the older black and white films that people who don't like older black and white films watch.
Amarcord (1973) One of Fellini’s many masterpieces and the one that has the broadest appeal. It’s so rich with characters and vignettes that its hard not to like. The film centers around a small coastal city in those dark days when Mussolini ruled Italy. While Fascism features so too does romance, families, celebrations and the vagaries of having a relative in the nut house. Although it would never be billed as such, I consider Amarcord to be a “feel good” movie because it is in essence a celebration of life and all its mad riches. It makes a body feel good.
The Seventh Seal (1957) My favorite director is Ingmar Bergman and like a lot of Bergman fans this is my favorite of his films. Many of the great Swede's films are too dark and somber for main stream tastes but The Seventh Seal is hardly a downer despite it dealing so heavily in the subject of death. It has all of the classic elements of the Bergman’s oeuvre such as symbolism, religion, mortality and philandering. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist is as much a star of the film as Max von Sydow. It's thoughtful and beautiful without ever being overbearing.
Annie Hall (1977) Woody Allen’s name has been dragged through the mud recently as old previously-refuted charges of molestation have been dredged up. (Mr. Allen was accused of sexually abusing his daughter, Dylan. Separate investigations not only found no evidence with which to charge Mr. Allen, but suggested the strong possibility that Dylan's mother — Mia Farrow — coached Dylan. It is therefore likely that the real abuser is Ms. Farrow.) It has also been said that Allen’s current wife (with whom he’s enjoyed a long and happy marriage) was his daughter or his adopted daughter or that they lived together when she was a child. None of this true nor is the particularly scurrilous charge that he “groomed” her as a youth. In any event the great director has been unfairly treated by people with an aversion to full stories. His films — so many of them and so many greats — live on. Annie Hall is not my favorite (it’s second for me to Manhattan) but it’s probably still his most popular over 40 years since it won the Best Picture Oscar. It was ground breaking at the time and it is still funny, touching and chock full of memorable dialogue.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) The Coen Brothers are among the grand masters of cinema and are notable for the variety of types of films they make. This is my favorite of their work. Unlike some of their films there is virtually no violence and no broad comedic touches. It is subtle, witty and deals with the universal topic of someone who is not quite good enough to realize his dream. The title character is a struggling folk singer who is good in a world where great is required. He is dead panned, world weary, at times irascible and rude but easy to root for as life continues to deal him dirty blows. Oscar Isaac in the lead is wonderful and the supporting cast led by Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver and Justin Timberlake is as good. The movie also beautifully captures early 1960’s America, particularly New York.
The Godfather (1972) It’s a perfect movie in every respect. From set design to the performances to the memorable lines. It is part of American culture. Everyone should at least see it and after having done so I can’t imagine not loving or at the very least admiring it. There may be a tad too much violence for the squeamish but other than that I have trouble imaging a film fan not enjoying this masterpiece. On the surface it is a gangster film but there is so much more to it. It's as much about family as anything else and it is also a look at how a man changes as a consequence of circumstances over which he has no control. The Godfather is never grim, never cynical and always a revelation.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) Many people are turned off today by a lot of older Westerns because of their depictions of Native Americans. Fair point. But Liberty Valance has no stereotypical Injun characters or indeed any at all. It does have John Wayne who is also a turn off to a lot of people but perhaps that can be over looked given how damn good the movie is with another in a long line of stellar performances by one Jimmy Stewart. It also features Lee Marvin as one of the nastiest, meanest, cussedest villains you ever did see. Liberty Valance is a classic Western that tells many truths about the USA, notably the business about printing legends rather than truths.
Cabaret (1972) I’m not a fan of musicals but of course Cabaret is different in that the many songs are part and parcel to the story and do not interrupt it, after all, much of the film takes place in a Cabaret. Liza Minelli and Joel Grey in Oscar winning performances are transcendent and Michael York is no slouch either. Cabaret has a little bit of everything: music, sex, Nazis, romance, humor, pathos and history. Loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs of his time in Berlin between the World Wars, Cabaret is a rollicking lot of fun -- but then again there are Nazis and not like in the cartoons. Wonderful on so many levels and it hasn't aged a day since its initial release.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) A modern film in its sensibilities featuring boffo performances from a great cast led by Jennifer Lawrence (who richly deserved the Oscar she won). There are elements of the typical hokey rom com in this film that has mass appeal but its also effecting for its honest look at mental illness as it effects the two main characters played by Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. It also subtly reveals how the seemingly “normal” have afflictions of their own (see sports fans). Silver Linings goes into dark places without itself ever being dark. It’s not the type of movie I generally like but I love it. Maybe in part because of a scene in which the two main characters are recounting the various meds they’ve taken and their effects; I feel like I’m in the conversation because I’ve taken most of them myself.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) A great French film from Louis Malle. It is in a sense another World War II in that its set in occupied French but it is not an easy film to pigeon hole. It is about preadolescents and teens and their normal struggles growing up and how this is complicated when one of them is a Jew being hidden from the Nazis. It is a beautiful film that I have trouble writing about because I love it so much and its so powerful. While the notion of Nazis and the Holocaust is central to the film, it never feels to heavy. Based on Malle's own experiences.
Pulp Fiction (1994) I know of people who hate Pulp Fiction but a helluva lot more who — like me — love it. Although I think director Quentin Tarantino outdid this with the brilliant Inglorious Basterds, Pulp Fiction remains his most enduring film and has been accumulating new fans consistently throughout the 24 years since its release. Like many of the films on this list it has seeped into our culture and its characters and dialogue haven’t aged a bit. There is violence but its pretty tame compared to a lot of what one sees today. The more I watch it the more I appreciate Samuel L. Jackson’s masterful performance as Jules, he is one of the best of Tarantino’s many memorable creations.
The Man Without a Past (2002) I here include a film by my fellow countryman the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki and I’ve selected perhaps his most accessible work. As in most of his films we have a main character who is done a dirty deed put perseveres getting by with a little help from new found friends. Everyone is dead pan, no one is glamorous or beautiful. There is subtle humor there is sadness, pathos but it is far from a tragedy. A man comes to the big city and is badly beaten and in the process loses his memory. He's taken in by poor but honest folks and through a Salvation Army sister finds solace and love. And that is just the beginning.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) The last great silent film. Anyone who doesn’t like silent movies (shame on you) should at least try this one from the great German director FW Murnau. My god it’s a beautiful film. A young couple living happily in the country is threatened by a vixen from the big city who tries to lure away the husband, and convince him to drown his wife. I’ll not give away the ending but will add there are a series of scenes in which the married couple go into the city and have a grand time. These scenes are master classes in film making. Certainly any true cinephile will appreciate them and the film as a whole. For that matter so too should the more casual film goer.
Little Big Man (1970) Here’s a film of the Old West in which the Indians are heroes and the white men — for the most part — vicious scoundrels. Dustin Hoffman stars. As the movie opens he is a centenarian recounting his adventures from boyhood through adulthood and what adventures they are. As a boy his wagon train is attacked by hostile natives and he is taken to live with the Cheyenne. He grows up as an Indian but this is just one of many twists and turns his life takes in an epic story. Later he lives with a preacher and his seductive wife (Faye Dunaway) hooks up with snake oil salesman (Martin Balsam) at various times rejoins the tribe, rides along with George Armstrong Custer (he survives the Battle of Little Big Horn), he becomes a gunfighter, a drunk a married man, a vagabond. Man it's a fun movie and it’s hard to imagine anyone being offended by it and not loving it.
Stalker (1979) I had to include a film by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and to me this is his finest work. This will not appeal to those low brows who do not like foreign films or intellectual mysteries or especially when the twain meet. It is a deliciously ambiguous film that is utterly captivating to some people such as yours truly and requires repeat viewings. The film depicts an expedition led by a man known as the "Stalker" to take his two clients to a mysterious restricted site known simply as the "Zone," where there is a room which supposedly has the ability to fulfill a person's innermost desires. It has too many themes to recount here but suffice to say that the viewer will get out of the experience what she or he brings to watching and thinking about it.
Mean Girls (2004) This is a film with a surprisingly broad appeal Anyone who has ever attended an American high school should appreciate it. It has captured the American zeitgeist of Generation Y but is relatable to us baby boomers and other generations as well. It is damn funny, has memorable characters and speaks to certain truths about high school, social groups and growing up. It is still very much in our culture as evidenced by the musical of the same name that recently opened on Broadway. I show it to my students (people from all over the world) and they love it. You'd have to be an awful stick in the mud not to.