ESSENTIAL VIEWING
Why these movies matter

The Godfather
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and
The Godfather, Part II
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

It is that which isn't said, but rather suggested, that makes The Godfather films so magnificent. Of course we remember the famous line by Don Corleone that he'll "make him an offer he can't refuse." But later, when Michael Corleone takes over - it is just a look, and the look says everything. When Michael gives the final nod to end his own brother's life - it is just a look, one look and poor Fredo is history. It is what we know is coming that is so powerful, so frightening. These are two films about the evolution of the mob. They are also about, basically, the sins of the father being visited on the son. Al Pacino is so great in both films - the slow burn in his eyes as he is about to change - he was the son that would have been a war hero and gone off to college and led a "normal" life. But in the end, he is the one to be feared. That Coppola would end The Godfather, Part II with Michael sitting on a bench totally alone - well, folks, that is as good as it gets.
-- Sasha Stone


The Godfather, Part II
: that rare feat - a sequel that is better than the original.
-- Rolando Recometa

The first film shows the inexorable descent into evil of a man who is more powerfully tied to his family than he knows. The second film has a different purpose: the interwoven time structure revealing a hidden pathos - the noble aim of the past becoming the brutal burden of the future.
-- Chris Dashiell

Casablanca
(Michael Curtiz, 1942)

The director, a workhorse for Warner Brothers, churned out two other films the same year. The writers kept changing the script as they went along, not even sure how the film would end until the last minute. The male star, Humphrey Bogart, had spent most of his career in gangster roles, and hadn't really played a romantic lead before. But somehow it all came together in a film that epitomizes Hollywood mystique. The story of the café owner (Bogart) in the Vichy-occupied city of the title, whose love for an old flame (Ingrid Bergman) forces him to regain his ideals, Casablanca has romance, adventure, marvelous wit, a great cast (Claude Rains almost steals the picture) and the unforgettable song "As Time Goes By." Time has gone by, but this movie still rules.
-- Chris Dashiell


Star Wars
(George Lucas, 1977)

This is the movie that made it known to one and all that if you try, you can do anything in a movie. Blasting special effects into the new millenium 23 years in advance, George Lucas took our breath away and introduced us to the blockbuster that made all other blockbusters pale in comparison. This is one cult movie where I'm not even slightly ashamed to be a loyal follower.
-- Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

The movie that changed the way movies are made, watched, and marketed.
-- Ryan Abshear

The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1925)

I'll leave the historic and technical platitudes to others and chalk this one up to pure, personal impact. From the sailors huddling up underneath the tarp awaiting execution and subsequent revolution aboard the ship, to the final, magnificent sequence on the Odessa Steps, the images burned themselves into my brain in a way no other film has. -- Moné Peterson

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

This film about the life of T.E. Lawrence is sprawling, majestic, and gorgeous. O'Toole is absolutely perfect in the title role, balancing his heroism with his uncertainty, his strength with his doubt, ultimately making Lawrence seem less of a character and more of a person. The supporting cast, including a long list of fabulous actors (Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, José Ferrer, and Claude Rains, just to name a few), live and breathe onscreen, giving us people for whom we genuinely care over the course of the film. All of this takes place in some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful locations ever captured on film. While it obviously works better on the big screen, Lawrence of Arabia is tight enough to work even on the small one (widescreen format, of course!). For me, this is as close as movies get to magic. -- Ed Owens

Seven Samurai
(Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Like an athlete who gets into a "zone" where he can do no wrong, Kurosawa just keeps hitting the mark in this superbly constructed epic about a handful of unemployed warriors hired to protect a rural village from a fierce army of bandits. With the majestic Takashi Shimura as the noble samurai leader, and Toshiro Mifune almost leaping off the screen in his tragicomic turn as a great pretender - Seven Samurai explores the deepest regions of love and hate, anger and mourning, the gulf between classes and the passing of old ways. To top it off, it features a spectacular final battle which is still unparalleled in its vigorous mastery of film technique.
-- Chris Dashiell


Perhaps the greatest and saddest adventure movie of all time.
-- Jim Beaver

The Shawshank Redemption
(Frank Darabont, 1994)

The film is consistent on multiple levels: prison drama, tale of friendship, heroic journey, social commentary, religious parable. The friendship between the two inmates - Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) comforts because it finds commonality in the difference - the only guilty man in prison with the only innocent one, old and young, black and white - and posits strength in the commonality. Andy is fortified by Red's experience, as are we; and Red and we are freed by Andy's faith. All of it leads to the parable, the redemption, in a single and perfectly maintained narrative thread of rebirth. Spiritual growth is then a voyage of commitment and hope, but redemption is not complete until the two forces reunite, the savior and the saved. Each man takes on a little of both as the ocean and its vast freedoms beckon and lay open before them.
-- Shari L. Rosenblum

The metaphor of birds in a cage is the thread that runs through Shawshank. It's a story about freedom, about how we create prisons for ourselves in our minds. Freedom, as it turns out, is a state of mind.
-- Sasha Stone

King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).

Seeing it again recently, I was struck by how the 1930s style acting and early-30s "sound-staginess" of the picture doesn't hurt it at all. Nor do the stop motion special effects, even in an age of hyper-realistic CGI. King Kong is the perfect cinematic equivalent of the best and most epic Brothers Grimm fairy tale - it just hits me somewhere deep in the psyche, where a huge tribal gate like the one on Kong's uncharted island opens onto a world of primeval terror and unspoken love, where our mortal striving for greatness leads to irredeemable injustice. Some moviegoers ran out of theaters in hysterics when it first opened, and while it is unlikely to elicit quite that reaction today, its black-and-white-and-gray toned atmosphere of the fantastic is still unshakeable. Kong is the very thing man hopes to capture to prove our greatness, yet by succeeding we so upset the natural order that death and destruction must follow, both ours and Kong's. In the end, it is what we have done to Kong that hurts the most.
-- Mark Netter

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Someone once said that, "God is in the details," and nowhere is that more in evidence than in Scott's third feature film. His dystopian vision of a future Los Angeles has aged little since its initial release over twenty years ago, and, in many ways, continues to set the standard for today's filmmakers. Deckard's (Harrison Ford) journey, and his encounter with the renegade "replicants," is still moving and effective on many levels - an unflinching (and often tragic) exploration of just what it means to be human. -- Ed Owens

Everything A.I. wishes it was, and then some. The film from which all modern sci-fi springs.
-- Nathaniel Rogers

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Perfection is a hard thing for anyone to achieve. It can be described as reaching the point where nothing more can be added and nothing more taken away. Just as we can appreciate the genius of Albert Einstein, so we fans of the film bow our heads in appreciation of Orson Welles for having had the the clarity of vision (and the nerve) to pull off this brilliant, innovative film. The film's stellar reputation has, ironically, caused it to be disegarded in recent years, as if its status as a classic means that it is somehow dismissable. Well, I have news for you. One viewing of the film simply doesn't do - it must be watched, dissected, turned inside out, and only then is it apparent that it hits a ten on every level: acting, writing, directing, cinematography, subject matter. And to that I add my favorite exchange from the film (among many): "You always used money to ..." "...buy things."
-- Sasha Stone

2001: A Space Odyssey
(Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Technically, it redefined "state of the art" for special effects. Culturally, it created iconic reference points ("Thus Spake Zarathustra," the Monolith, HAL, the Star Child). Narratively, it took risks that hardly any other mainstream director has ever done - no dialogue for the first half hour? Dialogue filled with clichés for the second? An ending that refuses to explain itself? Its much-derided pace is symphonic. Visually, it is all about disorientation and the relativity of our seemingly stable spatial universe.
-- Don Larsson

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Early in the film, after James Stewart fishes Kim Novak out of San Francisco Bay, we see her as she wakes up in his bed and finds her clothes hung up around the room to dry. They exchange a meaningful look: he has seen her unclothed, while she was unconscious and defenseless. Later, he transforms her in stages back into the image of his lost beloved, and finally she is stripped of her true self and transmogrified into the object of Stewart's obsession. I marvel at the content Hitchcock was able to smuggle into Vertigo. You've got murder, insanity and sexual obsession. And not least, we have Hitchcock marching Stewart, American cinema's great Everyman, into some remarkably dark places. The murkily lit corridors in the hotel where he discovers Novak near the end of the film are an outward expression of the dark pathways of Stewart's mind. These two characters whom fate has entwined are both figuratively and literally pushed over the edge by apparitions of the past and ghosts of the present. And, yes....the fear of heights.
-- Devin Rambo
The Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

This is perhaps the least known great movie of all time. Made at the end of the silent era, it represents in a way the climax of a movement, a jewel from a time of great excitement about the possibilities of film - the bursting forth and flowering of Soviet cinema. The premise is simple enough - a cameramen travels through Moscow filming the people's activity in one day, from dawn to dusk. But the style is so radical that it's startling. Vertov used the occasion to demonstrate every resource at the director's command - the picture becomes not only a record of a day in the life of a city, but an essay on the art of filmmaking itself. Vertov was in love with the moving camera. Here the camera is placed in the streetcars and autos - the picture has a constant feeling of rushing forward that is exhilirating. And every trick in the book gets pulled out - split-screen, multiple superimposition, different camera speeds, dissolves, stop-action, animation, and more - as if the technique of film in the silent era was exploding in one final show of fireworks, a culmination of all that had been achieved before. The amazing thing is that it's all so entertaining. There isn't a moment in which the eye is not captivated by the pleasure of movement, the virtuosity of the image's manipulation. Most modern films can't even hold a candle to it.
-- Chris Dashiell

Gone With the Wind
(Victor Fleming, 1939)

Epic, sweeping and unbelievably, shatteringly romantic. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable are the couple by which to compare all previous and future romances on screen. Their chemistry is palpable. The English actress Leigh was a very fortunate choice for Scarlett - she makes that spoiled and passionate character come alive. Clark Gable is clearly the most handsome, dynamic actor to ever be filmed. He's the epitmoe of beautiful, manly actors - there was never anyone like him before, and there will never be anyone like him since, and his Rhett Butler will always be nothing short of legendary.
-- Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

The Usual Suspects
(Bryan Singer, 1995)

The first time I saw this film I had to immediately rewind the tape and watch it all over again. A tale of a heist gone wrong, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing, it is one of the most original pieces of story-telling in recent years, with great performances to boot. I can watch it over and over again and always catch something new.
-- Melissa B. Cummings

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

"I think I could change myself to be you. I mean, inside me." Admiration and infatuation become contempt and bitterness through betrayal. The intense emotional interplay between Sister Alma and Elizabeth Vogler (Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann) is the study of an unintended struggle between souls. Through conversation and dreams, the identities of two women weave in and out of each other, leaving each far more affected than a simple nursing vacation in the country would have led them to believe. If that were all there was to this film, it would be great, but there's far more. Persona was the first "self-aware" film I ever saw; that is, a film that explicitly reminds the viewer he or she is watching a film. It isn't done in the hip, pretentious fashion of postmodern 90s films, though. Instead, the camera is an active participant. The opening non- narrative sequence of images seems to be a trip through Bergman's mind, until the camera stops to tell us the story of the two women. Mid-film, the film snaps and burns away, momentarily caught off-guard by the emotional load, then finds its way back through Bergman's imagination, and refocuses on the story again. Even as the narrative plays out, the haunting images come from the subconscious of a dreaming filmmaker.
-- Michael Buck

It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

It is a film any number of Americans learns by heart, both for its clichés and its ever fresh reaffirmations of the human spirit. With its awkward angel and anxious undercurrents, the film manages to be both spiritually Christian and refreshingly secular, reveling in the fundamental goodness the fundamentally good can bring out in all men and arguing for faith in the faith of mankind. George Bailey (James Stewart) is the everyman every man dreams of being - the guy whose sacrifices make the world a better place - the guy whose unspoken frustrations are appreciated and honored by everyone he touches and everyone they touch in ways beyond his knowing. Right triumphs over wrong, love over hate, kindness over wealth, and forgiveness comes without question. Corny perhaps, but even the cynical must concede the joyous jolt inside of them when that final bell jingles and they know that Clarence has gotten his well-earned wings. -- Shari L. Rosenblum

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

This comedy begins, oddly enough, with a mob massacre, witnessed by two down and out musicians in prohibition-era Chicago. While this certainly provides our heroes with the narrative motivation to flee, it also serves as an example of the film's edgier take on the screwball genre. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are spot on, both as the musicians and as the "girls" they become in order to escape the mob. Marilyn Monroe is perfectly cast as the inimitable Sugar, and Wilder directs it all with nary a single misstep. Delirious mayhem in its purest form.
-- Ed Owens

The Rules of the Game
(Jean Renoir, 1939)

The aristocrats in Renoir's greatest film conceal their infidelities behind a mask of civilized urbanity, while the servants enact in cruder, yet more honest form, the underlying hostility. The Rules of the Game is many things at once - a comedy of manners, a gentle lament for a culture soon to be shattered by war, and a penetrating satire of the human capacity to fool ourselves. Set during a house party in a country chateau, the many characters and subplots gradually dissolve into delicious anarchy. Formally the film was a huge step forward in cinematic technique - the director's brilliantly complex use of movement within the frame, the way the camera explores the scene like a character, the fluid, even mischievous editing rhythm, almost singlehandedly carried cinematic method out of the classic age and into the modern. I watch this film once a year just to remind myself that there is such a thing as genius.
-- Chris Dashiell

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

It's far too easy to take this magnificent film for granted. Later comedies used this film as a starting point to make into more easily digestible fare. But this is the film that all others aspire to. Without Diane Keaton's contribution, Annie Hall would be a mishmash of Woody Allen's neuroses - it was to be about a man who couldn't stand to be around people, but eventually it became clear to all involved what the movie was really about - a chance encounter with an insecure loony who blathered out "la de da" and regretted every stupid thing that came out of her mouth. Annie Hall is about the transformation of a woman - it is also about a man finally falling in love with the right girl. It is about how funny Woody Allen is, at a time in his career when the joke was still on him. It is about some of the funniest jokes in cinema: "Those who can't teach teach gym," or "You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew." Unlike most of Allen's movies, Annie Hall breaks your heart because the sentiment is on its sleeve, right out in the open - the lobster scene, the two of them walking on the sand at sunset, the first time they make love. We've all seen what can happen when we are outgrown by our lover. This is a film that never fades at its edges - it is as fresh today as it was when it won Best Picture in 1977. -- Sasha Stone

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