Covid-19 makes us do strange things – baking bread, canning fruit, assembling scrapbooks, sewing masks, drinking more alcohol than ever imagined, and watching a ton of content. We’re also making lists. At least I am. And since classic film lovers are always asked, what films should I watch — I’ve assembled a list.
A daunting task to be sure, but I’m trying to pace myself. Instead of just listing a clump of movies, I’m only picking one film a year. So ultimately, after 50 days, you’ll have 50 films that (I think at least) are worth your time. I’ll also list some runners-up, usually because there’s just as good an argument to make for the runners-up as my final pick.
This seems a lot easier than it is. I’ve basically set myself up for failure, since this is a “Sophie’s Choice” kind of dilemma. There are years that have many great films, and picking just one gives short shrift to some extremely worthy contestants. And who the hell am I to determine what makes one film better than the other? I’m no AFI, or Sight & Sound. I’m not even a Leonard Maltin. I’m just a guy who likes films. Sometimes my reasoning is half-baked. Or “completely baked” as Benjamin Braddock would say.
But the reasoning is mine, and completely fallible. I therefore request you weigh in and tell me why I’m wrong. Or right. Tell me your pick instead.
I won’t be giving synopses or real reviews, just random thoughts and quote writers much better than I to support why I think a film is important to me. Or special.
I’ll also add links so you can find these films and see for yourself if they’re worthy of inclusion on your own list.
At any rate – here you go – randomly: one film a day, one year a day. Let’s see how this goes.
1952: Ikiru (Runners-Up: Singin’ in the Rain, The Narrow Margin, Bend of the River)
Ikiru is one of those “later in life” decisions. For years, Singin’ in the Rain would be the hands down winner for me. But opinions are fluid, and maybe in a couple more years I’ll even swing back to one of my favorite noirs The Narrow Margin. But for a subtle, quiet meditation on the desperation and fear of death that an older, ignored and forgotten man suffers over, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru can’t be beat.
As Scott McGee writes for TCM.com, “Sometimes I think of my death,” Akira Kurosawa once wrote: “I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.” Considered to be one of his best films, not to mention one of the greatest of world cinema, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) is an extremely moving and deeply affecting account of one ordinary man’s struggle to find meaning in his existence during the waning days of his own death from terminal cancer. Coined from the Japanese word, meaning “to live”, Ikiru is a masterful study of what one man’s life means to those around him and to the rest of the world. While Citizen Kane (1941) asked the question of how can a man’s life be summed up, Kurosawa asks how can meaning be derived from a man’s life.”
For the lead, Kurosawa went to the reliable character actor Takashi Shimura, who had yet to grace the screen in Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai, but had brought poignancy and gravitas to the director’s Rashomon, Stray Dog, and The Idiot and is still recognizable today for even non-film lovers as the scientist in Godzilla.
Diagnosed with stomach cancer, Shimura’s Watanabe knows he has very little time left, and spends the first half of the film bemoaning his 30 years as a city bureaucrat, believing he has made no difference. After attempting to “have a good time,” he realizes the only way he can make his mark is to throw himself into his work and actually have impact on the citizens who suffer from the bureaucratic paper pushing he is guilty of.
Ikiru may not be for everybody, but for those it resonates with, they will never forget it.
You can stream Ikiru here.
1972: The Godfather (Runners-Up: Sounder, Deliverance)
How could it be anything else? I would have my Film Lover’s Card revoked were it not. ‘Nuff said.
You can stream The Godfather. here.
1990: After Dark, My Sweet (Runners-Up: Goodfellas, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Joe vs. The Volcano, Tremors)
This is one of all my time favorite movies, and the best adaptation of my favorite author, Jim Thompson. A neo-noir that’s all about the little things, the film features Jason “Shoulda been an Oscar Contender” Patric as a mentally unstable ex-boxer who falls in with the wrong crowd , and in love with Rachel Ward. The thrill of the story and performance is Patric’s character knows he is doomed from the very start, but just can’t help jumping down that hole. Blistering.
Director James Foley also helmed the 1986 neo-noir At Close Range, also an under appreciated bit of Southern Gothic, as well as 1992’s Glengarry Glenn Ross, and in my opinion, has never received his due.
I’m also a sucker for pulp writer Jim Thompson, whose books have served as source material for such films (good and bad) as The Getaway, The Grifters, and The Killer Inside Me.
Of actor Jason Patric, Peter Travers in Rolling Stone rhapsodized, “Patric is sensational as Collie; the pretty-boy actor, best remembered as the teenager pursued by vampires in The Lost Boys, is unrecognizable behind Collie’s coarse stubble, slack jaw and haunted stare. Patric occupies a complex character with mesmerizing conviction. Like Thompson’s prose, his performance is both repellent and fascinating.”
Nearly every reviewer who liked the film was enamored (and rightly so) with Patric’s unbelievably believable broken protagonist. And director Foley knew how to showcase his performance without becoming gratuitous. But Sheila Benson found other elements to applaud in her Los Angeles Times review. “Virtually every production element is exactly right: Maurice Jarre’s score is sensibly understated; David Brisbin’s production design for Fay’s house and that wretched date palm orchard is enough to explain her ongoing depression and the lights and shadows of Mark Plummer’s camera work are eloquent.”
Joe Brown in The Washington Post, appreciated all of it. “As Fay, Rachel Ward’s a picture of sulky, wasted elegance, all sharp angles and erratic, inscrutable moods. Bruce Dern offers a happily unhinged performance as the unctuously agreeable and patently untrustworthy Uncle Bud.”
And Roger Ebert eulogized, “After Dark, My Sweet is the movie that eluded audiences; it grossed less than $3 million, has been almost forgotten, and remains one of the purest and most uncompromising of modern films noir. It captures above all the lonely, exhausted lives of its characters.”
You can stream After Dark, My Sweet here.
1976: Marathon Man (Runner-Up: The Outlaw Josey Wales)
William Goldman’s book and screenplay took disparate issues like McCarthyism, the Holocaust and government conspiracy and wove them together in a seamless, top-notch thriller. The film made the question “Is it safe?” the most terrifying a person could ask. That and ever going again to the dentist.
According to Jay S. Steinberg writing for TCM.COM, “
“Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman), is a driven Columbia grad student whose every waking moment seems spent finding some way to exorcise the demons of his past…His existence is irrevocably changed when he’s visited by his older brother Doc (Roy Scheider) who is a U.S. intelligence agent, and …go-between for the fugitive Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), who mortally stabs him. Doc staggers back to Babe’s apartment and dies in his arms.
This, unfortunately, only serves to lead Szell’s thugs to Babe, who kidnap him and take him to an abandoned warehouse. In the film’s chilling signature sequence, Szell subjects the immobilized Babe to his particular gift for torture–dental surgery with ancient tools and no anesthetic–with the intent of extracting information that the terrorized student does not possess.
Much has been made of the on-set tensions between the two primary players…Approach to craftwork became a battlefront of sorts for the classically-trained Olivier and the Method actor Hoffman. After Hoffman announced that he had been awake for two straight days to get into the part, Olivier’s response was “My dear boy…Why don’t you try acting?”
While Marathon Man opened to strong reviews and brisk receipts, it was by and large ignored by the Academy at Oscar® time, with only a Supporting Actor Nomination for Olivier’s remarkable effort. “
The 1970s were filled with incredible, conspiracy-riddled, nail biting political thrillers (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Conversation) and Marathon Man is easily one of the stand-outs. Roger Ebert put it best. “…As well-crafted escapist entertainment, as a diabolical thriller, the movie works with relentless skill.”
You can stream Marathon Man here.
1951: Ace in the Hole (Runner up: Strangers on a Train, A Place in the Sun)
1951, a pivotal year in the early 50s, when filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of the motion picture code, and challenging the studio system which was beginning to weaken. Just a year after his dark comedy Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder went one step further making, in my opinion, his darkest, and best noir. Let’s call it “desert noir.”
Kirk Douglas, coming off Academy award winning work as the “stop at nothing” boxer in The Champion, and the “driven at all costs” trumpet player in Young Man with a Horn, relished playing antiheroes that were really, lets face it, “talented scum.” Kicked off a New York paper for drinking on the job (and probably other unscrupulous behaviors), reporter Chuck Tatum (Douglas) lands in New Mexico where he bullies his way onto the local daily rag. A year later and the boredom has set in. He wants the next “big story, ” but is instead sent to cover a rattlesnake hunt. He stumbles upon a Native American cliff dwelling off the beaten path, deep inside a cave where a local shopowner is trapped in a rock slide. Taking advantage of the situation, Douglas’ Tatum slows the rescue down to a crawl, just so he can have an exclusive on the story and drag it out, using his unique position to get back on the New York paper.
Wilder was a mischievous filmmaker with a penchant for pushing buttons. While Sunset Blvd was a big success, he did not endear himself to the Hollywood elite for exposing their seamy underbellies. Now he was taking aim at middle America’s thirst for salacious stories. The picture was the first flop of his career. And it’s one of my top ten films of all time.
The critics were not amused. After calling it a badly written combination of “unjelled satire” and “half-baked melodrama,” the New Yorker reviewer added that Tatum was “the most preposterous version of a reporter I’ve ever seen.” The influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther respected the picture as a whole, but claimed that the “responsible elements” at any real newspaper would stop a louse like Tatum in his tracks. Such huffy comments show that Wilder definitely touched a nerve.
Not only was Wilder picking the scab of a sensitive spot for journalists, he was illustrating his amazing prescience. Today, what Tatum’s reporter did would be commonplace and less shocking – we know not to trust the corroded edges of the media, as well as their ability to get in bed with the politicians (which Tatum does.)
The film did so badly at the box office, the studio pulled it and re-released it as The Big Carnival, thinking that the original title was too nebulous. It made no difference.
If you’ve not seen Wilder at his darkest – stream Ace in the Hole here.
1969: Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (Runner-Up: Z)
Without a doubt the best buddy film of all time is Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. You can hate westerns and still love this film. Some folks prefer Paul Newman & Robert Redford’s second pairing, the much more tightly honed plot of 1973’s The Sting. I love them both – but since we’re talking 1969; make it Butch and Sundance.
First off, the combined star power of Redford and Newman, sharing the screen, is absolutely overpowering. Their kinetic energy is undeniable. Yes, you could watch them read a shopping list. But it’s the script that blends so seamlessly with their winning personalities – shocking when you take into account the two actors had never worked together before, with a project not written for them. And this script was the very first original written by soon-to-be legend William Goldman (Marathon Man, The Princess Bride). His previous scripts had been adaptations, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid is one of those perfect examples of pure Hollywood magic.
While the film is now considered a classic, it was not beloved by the critics at the time. Pauline Kael, of course, eviscerated it. The few critics whose reviews still hold up are the ones who generally accepted that the movie was meant to be a crowd-pleaser and an all around good time.
Bernard Drew, in his 1969 review for the Gannett News could see the writing on the wall. “So genial is Newman as the not-too-bright and eternal boy, Butch, and so brilliant, is Redford, as the enigmatic Sundance who lives in a dark and secret world of his own, that you love them, laugh with them, suffer with them and die with them, blissfully unaware that they were, after all. a pair of villains who put the finishing touch to the 19th century. “
Set in the turn of the 20th Century, it’s about men who resist the changing times. The bicycle and the automobile are the mechanized harbingers of things to come. The western outlaw is soon to be wiped out completely. When Butch and his Hole-in-the-wall Gang rob the Union Pacific railroad both coming and going, a wealthy banker whose funds are the focus of their pillage makes it his personal mission to chase them down and kill them. And for half the film, we watch just that as the two men do everything to evade capture, from jumping off a cliff to try and convince a friendly lawman to enlist them in the army. His message to them becomes their epitaph: “Your times is over, and you’re gonna die bloody and all you can do is choose where. “
James Kendrick from QNetwork picked up on this statement of changing times in his review. “Like many films in the late ’60s and early ’70s (especially anything made by Robert Altman), it can be read on multiple levels, both conservative and subversive, and sustain those readings. While some see the film as an enjoyably humorous popcorn flick, it is also a window into the time and place in which it was made. It is a Western by convention, but there is much more to it.”
If you have never seen it, put down what you’re doing and watch immediately. If you have, you know what I’m talking about and can happily move on.
You can stream Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid here.
1957: Throne of Blood (Runner Up: A Face in the Crowd)
Hey, who am I to argue with T.S. Eliot? His favorite film was Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood – and it’s my favorite from 1957. Kurosawa owned almost every decade he made films, but there’s no arguing the 1950s were ALL him. His rendering of “MacBeth,” which turned ‘that Scottish play’ into a delicious visual exploration of Japanese feudalism is an unparalleled adaptation of the Bard’s work. Not only that, but Kurosawa, always a creator of strong female characters, made “Lady MacBeth” or “Asaji,” into a scene stealer, above and beyond whatever Shakespeare envisioned.
And it’s hard to steal scenes from Kurosawa’s greatest collaborator, that one-of-a-kind leading man Toshiro Mifune. The mysticism, the action, the battles; it’s all legendary. But nothing can prepare you for Mifune’s death, where he is actually pelted with hundreds of real arrows. You have to see it to believe it.
As Gavin Blair in The Hollywood Reporter noted, “The volley of arrows that rain down on the samurai included real shafts shot by expert archers. Mifune’s frantic arm waves at the arrows stuck in the wood around him also signaled to the archers which way he would move next: a safety measure concocted to reduce the probability of him being skewered for real.”
Derek Malcolm in The Guardian believed, “Throne Of Blood defeats categorisation. It remains a landmark of visual strength, permeated by a particularly Japanese sensibility, and is possibly the finest Shakespearean adaptation ever committed to the screen”
You can stream Throne of Blood here.
1986: Down by Law (Runners Up: Blue Velvet, The Three Amigos, At Close Range)
People remember Jim Jarmusch’s breakout film Stranger than Paradise that studied the moments between the moments , but for me his follow-up about three escaped convicts navigating Louisiana swamps and each other perfected the experiments he had been concocting until now.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times found something spiritual about watching Down by Law: “The act of watching… may even be therapeutic: it cleans the mind of all the detritus acquired while responding in the preconditioned ways demanded by most other films. Down by Law is an upper, though you probably won’t realize this at first.”
Scott Tobias in The AV Club rhapsodized, “Down By Law can be described as many things–a minimalist fairytale, a modern twist on ’30s prison dramas, an existential comedy–but it’s memorable first and foremost as a richly textured look at old New Orleans and the enchanted bayou surrounding it. With music and songs by stars John Lurie and Tom Waits, and stark black-and-white photography by the great Robby Müller (Paris, Texas), the film breaks off from the tourists on Bourbon Street and finds inspiration in the city’s decaying underbelly–”a sad and beautiful world,” as Waits neatly poeticizes it.”
And Nate Hill from Podcasting Them Softly described Jarmusch’s characters best, “It can be disarming to spend time with such distinct people in film, but when you stop to realize just how weird everyone around you in real life is vs. what is common for movie scripts, it feels geniune. This one is lived in, authentic and funny in that intangible way where you can’t even say why it’s so hilarious.”
You can stream Down By Law here.
1999: The Iron Giant (Runner-Up: Forces of Nature)
Not since the Golden Age of Disney has an animated feature captured the imagination, the heart and the spirit of a simpler time and delivered it so magnificently. Before he delivered the best superhero movie ever (The Incredibles) or helmed one of the biggest live action franchises in history (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) director Brad Bird made the perfect family film. If you cried during Dumbo or when Bambi lost his mother, this beautifully animated modern classic will have you weeping like a baby. Promise.
Kenneth Turan in the LA Times believed it to be a, “Straight arrow and subversive, made with simplicity as well as sophistication, The Iron Giant remembers the wonder of being a child and understands how to convey that in a media-savvy age.”
Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle stated; “Beatniks, monster movies, and Mad magazine all pop up in The Iron Giant, but it’s the film’s genuine, warm heart that sees it through to its breathtaking stand-up-and-cheer finale. …And if its top-notch story weren’t enough, The Iron Giant also boasts some spectacular animation, a combination of classic two-dimensional processes and CGI for the giant himself that’s outright spellbinding… The Iron Giant is clearly the single best, the single coolest (to borrow from Harry Knowles) animated film in a great while. It’s like a box of Cracker Jacks with 100 prizes and one peanut.”
You can stream The Iron Giant here.
1965: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Runner-Up: The Sons of Katie Elder, Red Beard)
Its pure audacity, shameless sexual entendres and elevation of the exploitation film to art makes this a timeless classic. Writer/Director Russ Meyer may have pushed the envelope much further down the line, but for pure punk irreverence, give me these thrill kill mamas!
And how can you argue with John Waters who claimed Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was “…”beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.”?
Roger Ebert, upon a later re-examination found “Faster Pussycat,” a post-feminist rebellion against the male patriarch. “Take away all the jokes, the elaborate camera angles, the violence, the action and the sex, and what remains is the quintessential Russ Meyer image: a towering woman … who dominates all the men around her, demands sexual satisfaction and casts off men in the same way that, in mainstream sexual fantasies, men cast aside women.”
The defunct Village Voice’s B. Ruby Rich believed viewing “Faster Pussycat” now as female fantasy, its images of “empowerment” fascinating to her. Meyer, from the beginning of his career and almost without exception, has filmed only situations in which women wreak their will upon men.
You can stream Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! here.
1989: Do the Right Thing (Runner-Up: Blind Fury)
1989 was the first year when all top ten box office hits made over $100 Million dollars, as well as the year that put the Sundance Film Fest and Independent, Low Budget films into mass circulation. 1989 brought us Heathers, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Christmas Vacation, Uncle Buck, and sex, lies and videotape. But none of these are my favorite film of the year, OR my runner-up. That dubious honor goes to Do the Right Thing, and a low-budget actioner with Rutger Hauer as a blind samurai. The Spike Lee film may not be his best, but it definitely galvanized theatre goers and forced audiences of all cultures to confront personal politics, prejudices, and beliefs.
Vincent Canby, writing from that year’s Sundance Film Festival for The New York Times felt that Spike Lee “reveals himself to be an increasingly self-assured film maker without compromising his position as an aggressively outspoken advocate of black rights.”
Further, he felt Do The Right Thing “…has the vivid look of a Bed-Stuy wall painting. It’s acted with enormous elan by Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson and, in particular, by Mr. Lee himself. Though small and skinny, Mr. Lee has a screen presence that is successively funny, laid-back and steely. He plays a neighborhood ne’er-do-well, a fast-talking if reluctant delivery man of Sal’s famous pizzas, who becomes radicalized in the course of a day.”
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian writing just last year has an extremely relevant perspective. “The implied happy ending of the Obama era has been unceremoniously amputated and we are back with the moods of anger and uncertainty that drove the film in the first place. When careworn pizzeria proprietor Sal says he is thinking of quitting and turning his place into a condominium called Trump’s Pizza or Trump’s Plaza, the dialogue lands with a slap.”
You can stream Do the Right Thing here.
1994: Exotica (Runner-Up: Bullets Over Broadway)
The ads and trailers falsely promoted Atom Egoyan’s nonlinear character study centering around a Toronto strip club as a lurid, soft porn tale, yet it’s anything but. It takes patience, but the rewards this story yields will stay with you for years.
Caryn James in The New York Times noticed that “Early in Atom Egoyan’s brazen Exotica, the director deftly drops in the ideas that come to haunt the film: eroticism, secrecy and the skewed way we look at things. Nothing is what it seems, least of all the film we’re watching. Despite its lurid-sounding subject, Exotica turns out to be less erotic than eerie. It raises moral questions of guilt and responsibility, plays with post-modern ideas about perception and, by the end, even involves blackmail and murder.”
“Don’t confuse Exotica with the flashy lap-dancing epic Showgirls,” Peter Travets in Rolling Stone mused. “Flashy is not in the film vocabulary of Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan, whose five previous films (Next of Kin, Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster and Calendar) also speak to a dislocation in contemporary life that supersedes the erotic. Egoyan is an acquired taste, but once in, you’re hooked. Exotica is Egoyan’s most accomplished and seductive film to date — even tackling acute psychic distress, Egoyan’s deadpan comic eye never flinches.”
I’m a sucker for any film that nobly dangles the promise that “Nothing is as it seems,” and Exotica delivers on that dare unlike any other. I remember on my first viewing getting pulled in deeper and deeper. And the end was a gut punch that literally had me sobbing. I never saw it coming.
You can stream Exotica here.
(The below isn’t really a trailer but a 1:30 sec tease. The trailer is so off the mark it sullies the nature of the film.)
1970: The Twelve Chairs (Runner-Up: M*A*S*H)
Only Mel Brooks’ second film, and his only fully realized study of humanity, obsession and love.
The Twelve Chairs is probably also the least seen of all his films, and that’s a crime. I first saw it in 1970 as a child and I haven’t stopped laughing since. Based on a Russian story, The Twelve Chairs has a simple premise. In Stalinist Russia, a fallen aristocrat (an unbelievably hysterical Ron Moody) hears the confessional from his mother on her deathbed that the family jewels have been hidden in one of her 12 dining room chairs. However, at this confessional is the Orthodox Priest who tears off his clergy frock to reveal he is Dom Deluise and from there the two become mortal enemies in a cross country (seriously ALL over Russia) chase to find the chairs. In jumps Frank Langella as the shrewd yet unscrupulous con man and you have (for my money) the funniest Brooks film after Young Frankenstein.
Roger Ebert, in his initial 1970 review noticed this was more than just a bed for jokes – Brooks shows real pathos. He wrote, “The Producers was one of the funniest films ever made, and it will be studied for its art long after Anne of the Thousand Days has been cut up to make ukulele picks. But The Twelve Chairs is more than merely funny. It brings to a full flowering the Brooks attitude…It has something to say about honor among thieves, and by the end of the film we can sense a bond between the two main characters that is even, amazingly, human.”
Dom Deluise, here though, is a revelation. His funniest moments throughout his career have only been hinted at. But if you loved his cameo as the gay director in Blazing Saddles, then his fortune hunter priest in Twelve Chairs will have you laughing non-stop.
You stream The Twelve Chairs here.
1979: Alien (Runner Up: The Black Stallion)
Can I throw out 1978 and get two 1979’s please? As much of a wasteland the previous year was, 1979 offered an embarrassment of riches. From The China Syndrome and Apocalypse Now to Manhattan and …And Justice for All, everyone was on their game. But the winner for me is this rule breaking sci-fi/horror hybrid, that took normal people interacting as if involved in an everyday situation; catapulted them into space; and threw in a creature from the darkest regions of our nightmares.
In a 2019 re-examination, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote, “After 40 years, this sci-fi horror masterpiece still feels lethally contemporary. With screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Ridley Scott created an essay on the hell of other people, the vulnerability of our bodies, and the idea of space as a limitless new extension of human paranoia. Alien also functions as a nightmare parody of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which had happened just 10 years previously, and the biological weapons industry.”
Stephen Cole in The Globe & Mail mused, “Seen again a quarter-century later, we marvel at how the filmmaker generates so much tension and sweat with a bare minimum of moving parts. Alien is as simple as “Ten Little Indians” in space, where, as the film’s ad campaign suggested, “no one can hear you scream.”
Reflecting on the undeniable “feminist angle” that many critics took note of, Tom Seymour in Vice notes, “The Alien franchise is renowned in feminist film circles as the first blockbuster series of the era to deal with gender and sexual politics. Ellen Ripley, as performed by Sigourney Weaver, was the first iconic female action hero. This wasn’t the clichéd horror portrayal of girls served up as screaming, helpless victims. Ripley was, as Laura Mulvey termed it, the first “final girl”—a woman still capable of possessing everything we associate with femininity (think of the maternal way she holds her cat in her arms during Alien‘s finale) while outsmarting a creature that had efficiently worked through every male member of the Nostromo crew.”
And Roger Ebert noted, late in life that, “the original still vibrates with a dark and frightening intensity.”
You can stream Alien here.
1953: Stalag 17 (Runner Up: The Wages of Fear)
Going through my list, I’m discovering things about myself. One, I never adhere to self-imposed deadlines. Two, I think my favorite decade(s) for film have evolved to be the 1950s and 1970s. Mainly because every year has so many great choices – these are the two decades that are the hardest for me to make my decisions. Foreign-language films (for me) were at their peak in the 50s; fantastic offerings from Italy, Japan and France. And here in the States, filmmakers were challenging the studio system and production code so you have incredible artistic pushback. I could easily make the 1950s about just two directors: Billy Wilder and Akira Kurosawa. Just alternate each year, 1950- Kurosawa, 51 – Wilder, 52 – Kurosawa, etc.
1953 was just such a difficult decision, but for me the best film is Wilder’s Stalag 17. (But 10 minutes ago I was building just a strong a case for Clouzot’s Wages of Fear.)
Both are about desperate men pushed to extraordinary lengths to save themselves – although Wages has a far more depressing and cynical outcome and a message that concludes “life is futile; death the only guarantee.” And both are results of man’s bitterness following World War II.
Stalag 17 though has that winning Wilder touch; the gallows’ humor and begrudging denouement that some people are downright good – you may just have to beat it out of them.
Set in a POW camp in Germany during the war, albeit focused on an officer’s barracks (yes – they separate privates from officers), Stalag 17 was indeed the inspiration for the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, as the Allied officers use their expertise and unique situation to become a sort of “underground railroad” helping sneak VIPs out of the camp and to freedom, all at their own peril.
Much like Wilder did with Sunset Blvd 3 years earlier, when he chose a famous director, Erich von Stroheim to play Norma Desmond’s personal valet, he again cast a director, Otto Preminger, the legendary and controversial filmmaker to play the German Commandant. And like Sunset Blvd, he cast William Holden as a scoundrel and possible traitor to the Americans.
It’s rife with drama, unexpected comedy, and the ennui that sets in with prison life. Philip French in The Guardian astutely surmised, “There are also reflections of the war then raging in Korea, and the shadow of McCarthyism hanging over Hollywood. But one of the major links to the future is the presence of Holden in the second of his four collaborations with Wilder … He found something // behind the handsome, debonair, conformist Holden, an isolated figure both eager to please and suspicious of making close human contact… A wry, self-seeking realist, he was a black marketeer with a chip on his shoulder about class and privilege that was probably enlarged by the Depression and the war. Holden was just right for the role and had that touch of buried probity waiting to be aroused.”
Based on a successful Broadway play, Wilder transformed it into a funnier, gutsier, more dramatic story perfect for the screen. And as always, his script took as many potshots at the Nazi regime as possible.
You can stream Stalag 17 here.
1958: Touch of Evil (Runners-Up: Vertigo, Elevator to the Gallows, The Hidden Fortress)
Orson Welles was going through one of his many fallow periods when he couldn’t get arrested. The man who changed cinema just 17 years earlier was always at odds with studios, producers and even his best friends. On the other end of the spectrum was Charlton Heston who was red hot, and offered every project under the sun. He strangely chose a B-picture noir, and wanted to play the lead; a Mexican lawman. (Warning: Culturally insensitive makeup ahead! ) Heston came aboard after an impressive list of actors were added to the roster; Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Orson Welles as a corrupt border town police captain. Heston was eager to work with Welles, and in fact, forced Universal’s hand to hire Welles as the director as well as actor. Known for abandoning projects halfway through and causing overages, the studio was not keen on having Welles helm the film, but Welles was so eager, he forfeited his directing fee. The result was one of the last great film noirs.
Telling the tale of corruption and racism on both sides of the US-Mexican border, Heston’s character must dig through the slog of set-ups, payoffs and frame-ups to find the true maker of a bomb that killed several border patrol officers. Welles, always happy to hide his performances under thick makeup and wardrobe became the disgusting, overweight, shambling “pile of garbage” that is Captain Quinlan. The direction is over-the-top, the performances; melodramatic, the music perfect sleazy c-grade rock and roll. In all, a brilliant, mesmerizing watch.
The tale of the making and post production process of Tough of Evil is as famous as the film itself. The studio was not happy and ordered extensive reshoots which Welles, as per usual, was not willing to do. So another director was brought in, where scenes were overhauled, removed and new material added. Welles viewed the work print and created a 58 page set of notes where he attempted to salvage what the studio had wrought. They ignored him, released the film with little fanfare, and it disappeared.
Except in Europe, where filmmakers and critics alike (such as Francois Truffaut) recognized the work for what it was; pure art. In 1995, restorationists used Welles notes to re-imagine the film the way the director had envisioned it. Notably, the opening long take that follows a ticking bomb that makes its way into a car’s trunk and across the border until it explodes was presented as a single shot, rather than a bed for the credits as the studio had it altered. At that point (’95) it was considered the greatest long tracking shot in history. (Of course, since then filmmakers have bested it, most notably Russian Arc and 1917)
In 1998, Roger Ebert wrote, “The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils.” And it was those loops that Universal removed in its initial release.
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian wrote, “Welles gave one of his most Shakespearean performances as the ageing, corrupt police chief Captain Quinlan in a small US town right on the Mexico border. …To associate with Quinlan is to be touched, smeared, molested by pure evil. But poor Quinlan long ago resigned himself to his own petty corruption.”
You can stream Touch of Evil here.
Check out the amazing opening shot (and see if you recognize L.A’s Venice Beach subbing in for the fictitious border town)
1984: The Natural (Runner-Up: Starman)
The Natural is the greatest film about baseball. There, I said it. You can have your Field of Dreams and your Pride of the Yankees, give me this nostalgic drenched, Randy Newman scored mythic tale of the great American pastime and the belief in Frank Capra-esque redemption.
Taking great liberties from the same named novel by Bernard Malamud which undoes the American myth at the climax, Barry Levinson’s version follows the Depression-era crowd pleasing to its logical conclusion.
Robert Redford plays a corn-fed Nebraska boy who is destined for perfection in the great American pastime when an evil woman waylays him in a scandal-laden escapade that means he must return to the game late in life; proving to a bottom dwelling major league team he still has the talent of ten Babe Ruths in his swing and his homemade bat.
The black-and-white, predictable plot will put some off. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, was not a fan. “The baseball sequences are beautifully staged – up to a point: the movie always tells us when Roy and his homemade bat, Wonderboy, are going to hit a homer because that homer ball always comes at him in slow motion. Caleb Deschanel’s glowy, idyllic camera work also overstates moods to such an extent that it seems to be an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. In much the same way, Randy Newman’s sound track score at times seems to be telling the story two bars ahead of the action on the screen.”
James Berardinelli in Reelviews, demurs. “Sometimes, pure technical accuracy isn’t enough. Sometimes, artistry has to be taken into account. One such case in point is Barry Levinson’s The Natural, arguably the best baseball movie ever made. The film works not because it is flawless in its depiction of what transpires on the diamond… but because it captures the spirit of the game at a time when baseball truly was the National Pastime. Watching The Natural, it’s possible to see all that is great about baseball – the chess match between managers, the poetry of a ball in flight, the exhilaration of a comeback. By immersing itself in baseball lore and mythology, The Natural becomes a celebration of a game that has since turned into a playground of cynicism and money-grubbing. It’s very possible not to appreciate a baseball game; the same cannot be said about this production.”
The Natural is one of those classics that has improved with age, and is somewhat critic-proof. Audiences love it, critics not so much. You can find it on almost any weekend, filled with commercial breaks, sprinkled liberally across basic cable, but if you want it pristine and commercial-free, stream it here and here.
1967: The Graduate (Too Many Runners Up to Mention)
1967 was probably the greatest film year of the 60s, arguably on par with the Hollywood Golden Year of 1939. Mike Nicholls masterful direction, Buck Henry’s searing satirical and hilarious script, the Simon & Garfunkel score and Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s spot on performances make this the one to beat. But in the year that also brought Bonnie & Clyde, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Point Blank, In Cold Blood, In the Heat of the Night and You Only Live Twice; an argument could be made for them all.
I will admit to seeing this movie easily a dozen times. Being a kid growing up in the 70s & 80s San Fernando Valley, I can attest to meeting people (and their children) like the Robinsons. And I had a friend who was a dead ringer (personality-wise) for Benjamin Braddock. Privileged, bored, and with disposable income, these relics of the Greatest Generation and early Boomers were happy to “swing,” live to extravagance and solve their problems with money.
But taking a step back, this story of a frustrated and bored college graduate who has an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, then falls in love with her daughter, is everything there is to love and hate about the 60s. Mike Nicholls, making his sophomore film, hit the pitch perfect note with a shrewd script, time capsule score and dynamic direction.
As A.D. Murphy in Variety noted at the time, “Had the story been told in terms of straight drama, it would have been one of those boring modern mellers — the hippie equivalent of a woman’s pic — in which vacant stares are supposed to convey emotion and plot action, and jazzed up cinematics become obvious and pretentious. To be sure, Nichols, in his second feature film, has laid on, with a trowel, most of the current gimmicks, but, thanks to a strong script, they are not noticeable for most of the film.”
Thirty years after its release, Roger Ebert revised his initial 1967 review, sheepishly admitting at the time he found Braddock to be an inspirational “rebel.” In Mike D’Angelo’s reinvestigation in AV Club, he noted that The Graduate, “isn’t an inspirational tale of young people overthrowing their parents’ materialistic, conformist attitudes in favor of freedom and true love—but then, it never was. The film’s magnificent cringe comedy derives from Benjamin’s utter cluelessness, which he never overcomes, even when he belatedly takes decisive action. Ebert’s description in his 1997 review is entirely accurate—his mistake was believing that his original, “Go Ben go!” reaction was what director Mike Nichols…had intended, and that his more cynical response three decades later works against the movie’s grain. The Graduate has always been distinctly acid-tinged. That’s its particular and enduring genius.”
Also revising his review in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf wrote, “Today, I’m closer in age to Mrs. Robinson than to Ben. And I’d be revising my opinion of the movie, too, had I thought, on original viewing, that Ben struck a righteous blow on behalf of the younger generation. (Or, if I’d imagined, as the New Republic’s bygone critic did, that “what is truly daring, and therefore refreshing, is the film’s moral stance. Its acceptance of the fact that a young man might have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter—a situation not exactly unheard of in America although not previously seen in American films—is part of the film’s fundamental insistence: that life, today, in our world, is not worth living unless one can prove it day-by-day, by values that ring true day-by-day.”)”
Adrienne Lafrance, in the same Atlantic article, responded, ” I love The Graduate. It is, to me, a perfect film. No shot is wasted. Every moment is deliberate. The “Sound of Silence/April Come She Will” montage still amazes me—not just the clever cinematography, but also because of how it condenses all of the film’s tension into four Oedipal minutes, all without dialogue.”
1991: Defending Your Life (Runners-Up: Raise the Red Lantern, Terminator 2, Silence of the Lambs)
Ten years earlier, Albert Brooks made one of the most scathing, anti-romantic comedies about a neurotic who destroys everything he loves (Modern Romance). Flash forward to 1991, and the same, further-evolved auteur, makes his sweetest and most optimistic film about the transcendent power of love. It didn’t’ hurt that his costar was Meryl Streep in one of her warmest roles. Hidden beneath Brooks’ hilarious depiction of the “after-life” was one of the truest theses on man’s fear of death, and more importantly, fear of fear itself.
Anyone who has seen Defending Your Life remembers all those hilarious set pieces: the Past Lives Pavilion where Brooks discovers in his past life he was “lunch,” while in Judgment City you can eat anything you want and never get fat, and Brooks and Streep visiting the nether world stand-up club, where the comic asks audience members, “How did you die?” And Brooks shouts out, “Like you – on stage!”
But it’s the heart that’s beneath the jokes, the belief that true love wins out, and anyone can move onto the next level if they conquer their fears that really resonates for viewers. So many of Brooks’ films, while always hilarious, reveal a bitter center Defending Your Life eschews that cynicism, all for the better.
Brooks was interviewed recently and commented, “All of my movies had to go through the normal testing processes, and I never got E.T.-type test scores. From Real Life to Modern Romance, some of the cards were like, “What’s wrong with this person?” So it was funny because this movie got like a B+ overall, but it got an A+ from young people. Literally, from 18 to 25, the cards were off the charts. I was all excited, and the studio basically said to me, “Well, we’re not going to market an Albert Brooks movie to that group anyway. So it’s nice, and you should feel good about it, but it doesn’t matter. We’re not going to release it to that group. That’s a big, expensive group.” And that’s where the fear aspect comes in, because people at that age don’t know what the hell’s going on, and the movie resonated with them. It was not about life or death or Earth; I think it was about trying not to be afraid.”
1950: Sunset Blvd. (Runner Up: All ABout Eve)
A down and out screenwriter, on the run from repossessors, has his car break down on Sunset Blvd right outside the gates of a decomposing old mansion. He hides his car in the dilapidated garage and thereby loses himself inside the abode and the clutches of faded silent film star Norma Desmond. This satirical tale of Hollywood is so many things; film noir, horror show, comedy, skewering critique of the studio system, and above all, an American classic. Fitting that my earliest entry is the year that so many things began to change in Hollywood; the film code was deteriorating, as was the power of the studios, and the sharper voices who were part of that system, notably Billy Wilder, were rising above the din to make their stories seen and heard loud and clear.
Colin Kennedy from Empire wrote, “Measured against any reasonable index, the 1950s were Billy Wilder’s miracle decade. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all is that after Sunset Boulevard had gnawed the hand that feeds it down to a bloody stump, it is a wonder Hollywood ever let Wilder work again.”
Wilder had helped create the archetypal film noir with Double Indemnity, and here he turns the mechanics of that genre on its head by having the protagonist, dead from the first scene, tell the story in flashback with the same “grit-and-spit” style voiceover as the best of them. An ingenious convention, it still threw some early viewers. The New York Times initially complained. “Sunset Boulevard” is a great motion picture, marred only slightly by the fact that the authors permit Joe Gillis to take us into the story of his life after his bullet-ridden body is lifted out of Norma Desmond’s swimming pool. That is a device completely unworthy of (writers) Brackett and Wilder, but happily it does not interfere with the success of “Sunset Boulevard.”
Today, it is seen in the rear view mirror as one of the most perfect pictures ever released by Hollywood. If some critics complained (which they did) that Wilder’s view was too bleak and dark, wait until they got a load of his follow-up – my favorite film from 1951.
You can stream Sunset Blvd here.
1966: The Battle of Algiers (Runner-Up Closely Watched Trains)
This documentary style depiction of Algierian persecution by the French, and the oppressed use of guerilla-style methods to further their cause for liberation, remains as vital today as it was 54 years ago. One of the most important films you’ll ever see – even the Pentagon made it required viewing in 2003 to help further the discussion of the challenges faced in Iraq.
As Michael Atkinson on TCM.COM writes, it’s “…the first film to be seen internationally that portrayed North Africans as people and not just scenery…The Battle of Algiers makes shrewd use of handheld sloppiness, misjudged focus, overexposure and you-are-there camera upset; the payoff is the scent of authentic panic. We follow both sides of the combat – the uprising Casbah natives and the merciless if disconcerted French army – from 1954’s initiation of the rebellion to the official French victory, in 1957, over the National Liberation Front.”
And as Roger Ebert wrote, “The Battle of Algiers, a great film by the young Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, exists at this level of bitter reality. It may be a deeper film experience than many audiences can withstand: too cynical, too true, too cruel and too heartbreaking. It is about the Algerian war, but those not interested in Algeria may substitute another war; “The Battle of Algiers” has a universal frame of reference.”
You have never seen a non-documentary film like this, and may never again. Powerful. Personal. Heartbreaking. And essential viewing.
You can stream The Battle of Algiers free here.
1971: The Beguiled (Runner Up: The French Connection)
Don Siegel’s dark, creepy, funny and frightening southern-gothic tale of a wounded Union Soldier during the Civil War, taken in by an all girl’s school in the South, and the seduction, strategy and bedroom games played by Clint Eastwood is a shot across the bow for women’s self-sacrifice and empowerment. Hell hath no fury…
According to Richard Brody in The New Yorker, “Teacher and students alike pant after the strong but soft-spoken enemy, and their jealousy and pride lead to horrific spasms of violence that Siegel plays for shock value. His direction tends toward the expressionistic; distorted views, subjective angles, and echoing voice-overs seek to burrow deep into the characters’ lust-crazed psyches. The story may sometimes come off as a ribald soldiers’ tale that Siegel, born in 1912, had been awaiting a sexual revolution to tell; still, his intense, intelligent breakdown of the film’s wild outbursts reveals subtleties of love, despair, and shame beneath the schematic luridness.”
Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly wrote, “The Beguiled deals with its gothic Ambrose Bierce Americana in a decidedly Gallic way…Because of the choice of subject matter, tone, approach, and especially Bruce Surtees’ cinematography, it’s the most like a later day Eastwood-directed picture.”
Definitely not for everyone, but there’s a strange yet satisfying closure to this cautionary tale as Eastwood’s hubris results in him getting exactly what he deserves.
Erin Free from FilmInk believed that “Collectively known for their muscular cinematic output (Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry) , The Beguiled was an uncharacteristically quiet and low key work for Eastwood and (Director Don) Siegel, and boasted a sensibility that could not unfairly be described as distinctly European.”
You can stream The Beguiled here.
Beware – the 1971 tone of this dated trailer is pretty offensive.
1975: Jaws (Runner Up: Three Days of the Condor)
At the time it was considered the ultimate horror show, but history has proven it to be two very different films. On the one hand, it’s about the ultimate fear, that which is not just beneath the surface, but also right before our eyes (note the memes that have popped up everywhere, comparing the coronavirus pandemic to the blindly political who only measure success by how much collateral damage the local economy can handle) and masculinity, heroism and that the true mark of an adventure is in the telling of the tale.
Scott G. Mignola in Empire wrote, “It was the complete nightmare that invented the “summer blockbuster”, launched (Spielberg) on a global scale and delivered an astonishingly effective thriller built on a very primal level: fear.”
Michael Sragow from The New Yorker believes Jaws is , “…an unassumingly great movie, overflowing with the pungent behavior of Americans in jeopardy and at play. “
Some of the visual effects may appear “creaky” by today’s CG standards, but that takes nothing away from the film’s power and muscle. On the other hand, the very fact that the actors are dealing with a 25 foot “real creation” gives the precedings heft and dimension.
It’s also mind-blowing that none of the actors; Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss or Robert Shaw were even nominated for an Oscar. Shaw’s monologue retelling his harrowing tale of surviving a massive shark attack after his ship, the U.S.S. Indianapolis, went down during WWII is a masterclass in acting.
1955: Diabolique (Runner Up: Bad Day at Black Rock)
The greatest Hitchcock film wasn’t made by Alfred Hitchcock, but French suspense director H.G. Clouzot. In a fertile 8 year period he made genre defining, critically acclaimed classics like The Wages of Fear, Les Espions, La Verite and, Diabolique, which, according to Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, delivers “..surprises that explode like shotgun blasts.”
A sadistic private school principal is especially cruel to his frail wife and his paramour, both teachers working and living under the same roof. It gets so bad the two women plot his murder. And then his body disappears. Supernatural or just naturally devious, the taut thriller keeps the viewer guessing all the way to the ambiguous ending.
Ignore the horrible 1996 remake and stick to this classic which even Hitchcock thought was profoundingly effective, its source material written by the same author of the the book based on Vertigo. Supposedly Hitchcock was so envious that he hadn’t gotten the rights to Diabolique first, he made Psycho’s shower scene in response to the former film’s horrifying bathtub murder.
In fact, Marjorie Baumgarten, writing in the Austin Chronicle notes, “Among other things, a frightening bathtub set-piece and the surprise ending will make you reconsider Hitchcock’s originality in 1959’s Psycho.”
You can stream Diabolique here.
1982: The Verdict (Runner Up: The Thing)
This is a year of guilty pleasures that I dare not speak of (Diner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Tootsie) but the winner for me is this David Mamet written, Sidney Lumet directed legal drama that allowed Paul Newman to come into his own as a serious older actor and delve deep into the dark, troubled characters that were his defining stock and trade.
Roger Ebert wrote, “Newman always has been an interesting actor, but sometimes his resiliency, his youthful vitality, have obscured his performances; he has a tendency to always look great, and that is not always what the role calls for. This time, he gives us old, bone-tired, hung-over, trembling (and heroic) Frank Galvin, and we buy it lock, stock and shot glass.”
It’s inarguably his best work, and while it has one of those perfect, audience-satisfying endings; the courtroom revelations are not as powerful as the very final moment when Newman sits in his ramshackle office, a character who wronged him trying to reach him on the telephone, and it rings incessantly to no answer. Ambiguous endings like this are far and few between now, but were once protein for the very best films.
You can stream The Verdict here.
1997: The Edge (Runner-Up: Gadjo Dilo)
There’s nothing like taking two men who, beneath the surface, mistrust one another, then drop them into the wild to survive. This may seem like a tried-and-true story about the student becoming the teacher, but under David Mamet’s assured script, Lee Tamahori’s rugged direction and Anthony Hopkins & Alec Baldwin’s chemistry, it sure plays like an original.
Roger Ebert claimed, “…Although Mamet, a poet of hard-boiled city streets, is not usually identified with outdoors action films, The Edge in some ways is typical of his work: It’s about con games and occult knowledge, double crosses and conversations at cross-purposes. Its key scenes involve two men stalking each other, and it adds to the irony that they are meanwhile being stalked by a bear. “
This is fun, escapist adventuring; with a nod to Jaws as well as Thoreau, and tied up in Mamet’s over-the-top machismo. Who of the 3 survivors will make it to the end? And what secrets do they hold tightly to? For that answer, just remember, never feel sorry for a man who owns a plane.
1964: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. (Runner-Up: A Shot in the Dark)
As Rob Nixon from TCM.Com writes: “That Dr. Strangelove manages to be frightening while also delivering one of the most savagely funny satires ever put on film is what makes this Cold War-era classic still so powerful and enjoyable today. ”
While the film is a tour de force for Peter Sellers who famously plays three roles, it’s George C. Scott who steals the film. As Roger Ebert noted, “His face here is so plastic and mobile it reminds you of Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey (in completely different kinds of movies). Yet you don’t consciously notice his expressions because Scott sells them with the energy and conviction of his performance. ”
James Powers in The Hollywood Reporter accurately stated that, “Kubrick also appreciates that a serious point may be far more devastatingly made with humor than earnestness. ” The same year as Dr. Strangelove, the doomsday thriller, Fail Safe, which offered a similar scenario – nuclear warheads mistakenly headed to Russia – opened with less fanfare and box office, taking the serious and terrorizing tone as befits the subject. It’s still a strong film, but it doesn’t stay with you like Strangelove.
Kubrick’s doomsday satire will always reign supreme as the ultimate anti-war film, but did you know about the pie fight at the end that Kubrick shot but ultimately, discarded? Kubrick felt it would cross the line between satire and farce if kept in; although rumor has it that a line: “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!” was considered insensitive by the studio after the recent Kennedy Assassination and without it, the scene lost its meaning.
But I could be wrong.