ESSENTIAL VIEWING
Why these movies matter

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Hitchcock, always the consummate showman, insisted that theater-goers not be allowed in once the film had started. While there is a certain narrative motivation behind the move, the main reason is inevitably tied to the nature of the film itself. Psycho is a sensational film in the literal sense, viscerally powerful and visually shocking. The film surprises at every turn, and is masterfully framed. Definitely one to see before you read too much about it. -- Ed Owens

Serious critics dismissed the film as trash. It's turned out be one of the most influential movies ever made. By taking that step into the "forbidden," Hitchcock opened the gates for explorers of humanity's darker side, which has of course been exploited by people without Hitchcock's brilliance. He also took horror out of the old monster movie and put it right next door, in your neighborhood.
-- Chris Dashiell

The Wizard of Oz
(Victor Fleming, 1939)

No matter how many times you see it on TV (or even with "Dark Side of the Moon" playing), no matter how much you may read about it, no matter how familiar it becomes, it just NEVER loses one drop of its magic. The best film of the 30s and the grandest moment of the immortal Judy G.
-- Nathaniel Rogers

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975)

The coconuts, "Pink! I meant blue!" "Silly, English, ka-nig-its!" - Monty Python's skewering of the Arthurian legend is shockingly, ceaslessly funny, wry, dry, smart and everything else you want a classic comedy to be.
-- Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

An anti-war film of a very different sort, Apocalypse Now was for me, on first viewing and on last, as much about the essence of horror as about the horrors of Vietnam. And more about Vietnam than war in general. Nonethess, it melds the three together: Vietnam is war exemplified - confusion, surrealism in the midst of the inescapably real, and horror beyond words. Beginning with the end as visual foreground, musical background and symbolic overview, hellfire falls from above and the audience knows that everything is immediately and brilliantly set upside down. It is an almost rambling film of the most incisive precisions -: the sound of a helicopter blade fades into an overhead fan, the silence of the river is broken by shrieks of attack, bullet sprays from above are conducted on the downbeat of the valkyrie's musical ride. Coppola called it operatic, but it is painterly as well. Light and dark, colorful and muted, indelible images of lushness and despair, insanity and calm, a thrill and a thud. It is all the more breathtaking for the things the critics criticized, the change in tone at the core of hell, the center of the earth, Conrad's revivified Heart of Darkness. Whether by design or by accident, the shadowy Kurtz is a perfect literal and symbolic translation of Conrad's own. The psychological journey of a man, the psychoses of war, and the psychotrauma of a nation are weaved together, and Coppola's grandiosity becomes a cinematic version of le mot juste. It was a film I waited for, anticipated all the way back when. And yet it did not disappoint. Has never disappointed. After scores of viewings, it energizes me still.
-- Shari L. Rosenblum

All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

More nasty one-liners than you can shake a stick at - up to and including the famous Marilyn Monroe line "Why do they all look like unhappy rabbits?" And of course there's Bette Davis' infamous "Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy night." Here is a film that goes right to the top and spills shamelessly over it. Davis is at the peak of her form, and Anne Baxter is perfect as the starry-eyed Eve who claws her way up to be the most powerful actress in Hollywood. But my favorite character is that of the critic played by George Sanders who clearly sees through the masks the women wear. This is a film made in a time where it was clear that women were the stars - it brazenly showcases the dames - the good, the bad and the ugly.
-- Sasha Stone

Beauty and the Beast
(Jean Cocteau, 1946)

I fell in love with this film the moment I first saw it. I grew up reading Grimm's Fairy Tales, and they weren't cute, they were fascinating and dark and spooky, and that's why I liked them. Cocteau managed to translate that strange feeling of magic and dread onto the screen. For an hour and half watching this film, anything is possible. Josette Day is the cleverest Beauty you could imagine - and underneath all that Beast makeup, Jean Marais turned in his greatest performance. (Supposedly when Garbo saw the film, she said at the end when the Beast turns into a man - "Oh, give me back my Beast!") I also love the way the candles and utensils and other fixtures in the Beast's castle have faces that turn and look at you. This is a truly poetic film that enchants both children and adults.
-- Chris Dashiell

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

Fight Club is that rarest of films, one which is both exhilirating and thought-provoking. From the opening credits, Fincher spares no expense, technically speaking, thrusting you headlong into a world that is frighteningly strange, hauntingly familiar, and, ultimately, surprisingly funny, both visceral thrill ride and clever satire. Nothing is sacred, as Fight Club savagely rips through everything from consumer culture to self-help groups - even cinema itself - asking questions for which there are, the film concedes, no easy answers. -- Ed Owens

Pandora's Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929)

Yes, this is powerful German expressionism masterfully directed with great visual economy by Pabst. But damn, does anybody hold a candle to Louise Brooks? With her jet-black flapper cut and soulful, mischievous eyes, she looks totally modern, even in 1929. Will anyone say that about Jennifer Love Hewitt in seventy years?
-- Pat Padua

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

This is the quintessential nature-gone-awry film that other attempts aspire to. But all the Anacondas, Lake Placids and Deep Blue Seas just can't measure up to Speilberg's nail-biting thriller. The pacing of the film is the key, with just enough pause between action scenes to get us to let down our guard before we're jumping at the next surprise. Excellent writing, and great performances by Robert Shaw, Roy Schieder and Richard Dreyfuss create action and suspense that few other films have matched. -- Melissa B. Cummings

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)

A beloved book made carefully, thoughtfully and beautifully into a beloved film. One gets the sense that if Harper Lee could have magically given life to her characters, Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford would have appeared. The film is just as much a heartwrenching, slice of Americana as the book. And I still want to marry a man just like Atticus Finch.
-- Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

I find this one almost unbearable, in the way one finds the deepest love almost unbearable. Maybe it's because my father is Atticus Finch. Maybe it's because the movie really captures what a certain kind of childhood feels like. And what it feels like when it's over.
-- Jim Beaver

8 ˝ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

The opening sequence of 8 ˝ - a man (Marcello Mastroianni) leaving his gridlocked car and floating over the sea of traffic below, quickly establishes the tone of Fellini's most personal film. Fresh off La Dolce Vita, he was faced with trying to decide what to do next. He confronted his problem the only way he knew how, by making a movie about it. The film follows a director as he struggles to follow up his last big hit, retreating into his own memories and fantasies to escape the pressure. Fellini fully embraced the style and flair he had been building towards over his career, resulting in some truly beautiful sequences that reveal the magic potential inherent in cinema. Intensely personal, 8 1/2 affords us a rich view into the mind of one of the world's foremost filmmakers.
-- Ed Owens

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

There is a whole class dedicated to this screenplay at NYU. It was the collaboration between Polanski and writer Robert Towne that gave birth to one of the best films ever made. Roman Polanski doesn't believe, nor should he, that things work out happily in the end, so he made Robert Towne alter the ending - and in so doing he elevated what would have been a good thriller into a grand tragedy. Of course Noah Cross would gun down all that is beautiful in the world, of course it would be the antihero who does exactly what he promised he would never do - endanger the life of the woman he loves. And if you don't want to buy into the mythic part of the film - you can always watch it for the hilarious Polanski cameo where he slits Nicholson's nose. Nicholson must wear a bandage throughout the film (another thing they all had to fight to keep in). Sometimes, it is the films that are the most difficult to get made that end up being among the best ever made.
-- Sasha Stone

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Sunset Boulevard turns into something of a tragedy towards the end, and so I think it's easy to forget how damn funny the first hour or so really is. Wilder and Brackett have a grand time making fun of Hollywood conventions through the mouthpiece of William Holden's Joe Gillis. Prime examples: Gillis explaining how his last script was about Okies in the dust bowl, but you wouldn't know it because when it got to the screen it took place on a torpedo boat. Or even better, the scene where Norma is describing Salome looking upon the severed head of John the Baptist, and Gillis says, "It'll play great in Pomona." Wilder and Brackett had always displayed a mordant wit, but this movie had to be the high point in that regard. As a directorial feat, it's clearly Billy Wilder's one bona fide masterpiece. The beginning, which starts at the end, is so chilling it hurts. Wilder's sense of timing, the tension, the sense of cynicism and disgust, is balanced beautifully with a longing for a more innocent past. Holden, who is required to hold everything together, excels here. And although it has become customary to acknowledge that Gloria Swanson is great in this film, there is danger of losing sight of exactly why and how she's great. Her melodramatic posturing is not just a dead-on portrait of the character's psychosis, it's also a sort of distilled essence of everything that was exaggerated and wrong about a lot of silent film acting. Swanson could have been more naturalistic in the role, but without a trace of vanity she skewers the excess and falsity of Norma's self-presentation.

One of the old Hollywood types who truly understood the film, in his own way, was MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. The story is that he confronted Wilder after the premiere of Sunset Boulevard, shaking with rage, and told him that he was a disgrace to the industry and should be horsewhipped. I would like to imagine that Wilder knew then that, regardless of how the film did at the box office, it had succeeded in making its point. -- Chris Dashiell


Rule breaking in the best way. Wickedly smart, and such a good, strange, dark feel throughout.
-- Lovell Mahan Moutaw

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel is one of those perfect kernel illustrations of the cinematic translation of literary mood. Kubrick allows Burgess's futuristic alienation and linguistic significations to resonate on the screen, enhancing them with a lurid palette, delicious musical ironies and fiberglass modernities. Disturbingly misogynistic and irredeemably pathological, the screenplay captures the spirit of its protagonist in a shameless ménage a trois of sex, violence, and audience fascination, and confuses us in our impulse to identify with the hero on the screen. And so today, as when it first appeared, A Clockwork Orange remains among the most frightening morality plays of cinematic history - all the more terrifying in that the not quite naturalness of sound and color stop being disconcerting, just as satiric sharpness makes the ultra-violent cruelties inflicted by Alex and his droogs stand alongside the unspeakable horror of dehumanization, loss of soul, theft of free will, and deprivation of joy in music. As Alex says, the colors of the real world only become real when you see them in a film. A Clockwork Orange is hard to watch, but even harder to let go of once you have. The point is sharp, and not to be missed. Quoth the Minister near film's end, "Observe all."
-- Shari L. Rosenblum

Schindler's List
(Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Spielberg works here on an epic scale, but it is in many ways his most personal film. This is the only film he has made where he's tapped his Jewish heritage as a source of inspiration. This is the film where Spielberg grows up. Choosing to work in the muted palette of black and white, he is unsparing in his depiction of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. And although he occasionally pours on some unnecessary pathos, for the most part he is restrained. We are left with a sense of hope that there were still selfless acts of courage by a few brave souls during one of the most unfathomable events of inhumanity in history.
-- Devin Rambo

The Night of the Hunter
(Charles Laughton, 1955)

Robert Mitchum's performance as Reverend Harry Powell, a violent, greedy criminal masquerading as a fervent Christian, is electrifying. Laughton's only credited excursion as director is a visual masterpiece, with some of the best examples of the use of shadow and light in the history of cinema. The film is amazing in its ability to be both strikingly beautiful and lyrically haunting - sometimes even in a single image - and the performances are strong all the way around.
- - Ed Owens

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)

Oh, it's only just the funniest and most inventive movie ever made. Chock full of astounding stunts and gags, and the first film in which someone jumps into another film. This is the Keaton movie that I show to people who want to know what all the fuss is about.
-- Jim Beaver

Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

"I recall every fall, every hook, every jab...they say my life wasn't drab. But give me a stage, where this bull here can rage..." Martin Scorsese, like all brilliant filmmakers, puts everything he has into a film - this one almost killed him. The combination of Paul Schrader (who adapted the book), Robert De Niro and Marty is unmatched in American filmmaking. Each of them brings something to the table that the project would have suffered without. De Niro wants everything to be right, authentic. Schrader is dark, bizarre and has no problem sinking down into the depths of humanity - and Scorsese has the energy, the ambition, the drive to put it all together. He is also as much a presence in his films as the actors. You always feel you are looking through his eyes because he films with such a distinct style. For Raging Bull he wanted us to see the world through La Motta's eyes, which is to say, through a rather warped perspective, so he played around with speed - when the pathologically jealous Jake sees his wife kiss another man, it's in slo-mo. The film is also memorable for De Niro's physical transformation from lean, mean fighting machine to paunchy has-been. Raging Bull is in the tradition of great fight movies, like Body and Soul, and obviously done in black and white for that reason. The talky scenes between Joe Pesci and De Niro, especially when it comes to women, are absolutely hysterical. Who can forget Pesci's infamous line: "Your mother sucks big fuckin' elephant fuckin' dicks."
-- Sasha Stone

It's Scorsese's most complex film, both in its technique and its psychology. And for that reason, it's not his most popular film. But in terms of pushing the limits of the art, in the level of craft and also the level of understanding just how difficult and multi-sided people really are, it's his best film, and in fact no other American film in the last twenty years can touch it.
- Chris Dashiell

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)

One of the very few films that plunges you into a world of characters with the same feeling of richness that you experience from a 19th century novel. The beautiful courtesan Garance (Arletty) is loved by the mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the brilliant actor Frederic (Pierre Brasseur), but she finds herself compromised by her association with the nihilistic criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), and giving herself to a wealthy nobleman whom she doesn't love is the only way out of her predicament. That's just the outline of the plot! The film is in two parts with an intermission; it beautifully evokes the bright world of Paris in the last century, and the acting is superb and touching and funny. But most of all, Children of Paradise is about the theater, those who act in it and write for it, and especially those who go to it, but can only afford to sit in the cheap seats, way up in the balcony. No other film has quite this feeling of love for the theater, with all the underlying themes of masks and performance and the need for the audience to love you. And even though the picture is over three hours long, every time I watch it, I just don't want it to end.
-- Chris Dashiell

La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)

The tale of a doomed society of the future, and one man's futile attempts to save it, told entirely in photographs, reflecting on the nature of moving pictures even as it mimics one (there is one actual film segment, but you'll have to watch closely to catch it). But if La Jetée was just an experimental film without an emotional center, it would only be a gimmick. Fortunately, the man at the center of the story is engaging, and the film's sense of impending tragedy is haunting and, ultimately, poignant. La Jetée is a powerful film - moving without moving- and a shining example of what can happen when someone decides to take a chance. -- Ed Owens

La Jetée is deeply troubling, filled with the sort of yearning that the most romantic tragedies struggle and fail to achieve, the tragedy of life's impermenance built into the very essence of this movie's form. Mainly a series of black and white still images with narration, it tells the story of a man sent back in time to try and save the ruined future. Haunted by a puzzling and violent image from his youth, by traveling back (to 1962, presumably) he finds both a love that could never exist in his own time, and a horrific solution to his own fragmented memory. The film, with it's neorealistic science fiction tone, speaks to our twin desires for love and closure, and the terrible cost of resolving the two.
-- Mark Netter

Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)

You're never sure when to burst out laughing or to be horrified. The Coens are masters at walking the line between the utterly comical and the utterly unbearable. For instance, when Steve Buscemi comes back to the safe house with half of his head torn off he says "you should see the other guy." This is a film all about juxtaposition. Marge (Frances McDormand) a pregnant cop puking from morning sickness while examining the dead bodies. Jerry (William H. Macy) talking in just-plain-folk Fargospeak discussing the kidnapping and murdering of his wife. And of course, the beauty Marge sees in the world pitted against the obvious ugliness she must confront. All of the performers hit the right notes, but the real star of the film is the impossibly white, bleak landscape in the dead of winter - endless flats of snow that again are the absolute opposite of the hot red blood that relentlessly splatters it.
-- Sasha Stone

A very dark comedy of errors that achieves a delicate balance between a sense of oppression and escape through laughter.
-- Mariana Cirne

The Women (George Cukor, 1939)

Great writing, almost timeless, and I love that there isn't a man in sight.
-- Lovell Mahan-Moutaw

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

If I were to do a "moments" list, the bodies discovered while the "Layla" coda plays would be near the top.
-- Greg Sorenson

The Bicycle Thief
(Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

The greatest masterpiece of the Italian "neorealist" movement that swept the world and changed the way people thought about movies, it is suffused with a leftist humanism dedicated to portraying the desperate working man's plight. What really grabs me are three shots - the warehouse full of mattresses at the beginning; the son eating mozzarella; and the final scene between father and son, when the boy realizes his father's flaws.
-- Don Larsson

Bringing Up Baby
(Howard Hawks, 1938)

Cary Grant was such a big star that people don't realize what a good actor he was. This picture is hilarious not so much because of how loony Katharine Hepburn and her family are, but because of Grant's reactions to them, desperately trying to escape or at least try to make sense of the whole thing, and never succeeding.
-- Chris Dashiell

Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927).

The film moves easily between the innocence of the country and the experience of the city, given each locale a distinct feel while presenting both as enchanting in their own way, with each setting being as much a character as the people that wander through them. In Sunrise, Murnau has captured one of the purest elements of cinema, telling his story almost entirely in images. It is a profoundly moving story of forgiveness that transfixed me the first time I saw it, and ever since then I have had a deep-rooted attachment to it.
-- Ed Owens

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

It wasn't until I saw City Lights at a Chaplin festival screening that I really "got" what film historians call "Chaplin's genius." Remarkably funny, heartbreakingly sad, beautifully shot (and beautifully sound designed by Chaplin), City Lights made the appeal of The Little Tramp clear to me the for the first time. Yet what makes this the best Chaplin film, in my opinion, is its wholeness as a work of art - a clear series of metaphors for our struggle against the vicissitudes of fortune, topped by perhaps the most perfect ending in the history of the movies. Chaplin reportedly spent over a year rewriting and reshooting various finales, but the one he settled on is a beaut, a clear and perfect moment, that sends the audience out on the tip of their toes. The emotional force of the entire picture comes down to the last few seconds, in one of the most poignant, iconographic, and rewarding close-ups in history.
-- Mark Netter

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CineScene, 2001