This list is in no particular order and as always, watch movies based on mood.
Once Upon a Time in America
Before Paramount hired Francis Ford Coppola to adapt and direct The Godfather, the project was offered to Sergio Leone. He turned the studio down because he already knew how he wanted to tell the story of organized crime in America, and it wasn’t The Godfather. Once Upon a Time in America is a tragic look at a group of friends who grow up in an immigrant community in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, around the turn of the century. It follows this group through adulthood, a journey that sees them build a criminal empire that continues to shape America today. Are they sociopaths or are they entrepreneurs embracing the American dream? The same can be asked about the CEO of any Fortune 500 corporation. This movie is a beautiful epic that wouldn’t be made in 2018 because instead of releasing an almost 4-hour movie, a 10-episode miniseries would be produced, expanding storylines that don’t need expanding and diluting the core messaging of the movie. There’s something about a movie that encapsulates a story and delivers a very specific, singular feeling and this was one of the last great epics.
There are people who hate high school and want to smash a fist through a wall every time a 15-year-old voices their opinion on how to fix the world’s problems. The characters played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater hate it too and in the darkest of comedies decide to do something about it. This movie is fun and twisted and points out what we’re all too afraid to admit to these days, that teenagers are just children with better vocabulary. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, it just means they are incredibly annoying. Enjoy as the top-tier clique in the school, the Heathers, are brought down a notch and realize that maybe someone being a bit of a douche isn’t enough to warrant a death sentence.
In the 1970’s a documentary team set out to capture the events leading up to the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. The result is a hilarious look at men who pick things up and put them down, and take it way too seriously. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno make for the perfect duo as their contrasting personalities create a good vs. evil dynamic. Almost like a western you find yourself rooting for one to succeed and the other to be toppled from his throne. The movie made stars out of them both and brought bodybuilding into the mainstream. It’s a documentary that looks at a subculture, a bubble where everyone inside thinks what they’re doing is normal. To the rest of us who can’t relate to this “normal” it’s an entertaining experience that showcases how dedicated some people are to seemingly unimportant activities. That’s not to say we don’t all have our own “weightlifting” that we obsess over, but that shouldn’t stop us from watching, and laughing, at this movie.
What could easily have turned out as a pretentious, self-aggrandizing look into the world of a millennial is actually a charming movie about someone who’s just trying to figure it out. What makes Frances Ha work is that Frances actually tries to figure it out. She doesn’t fight adulthood, just doesn’t totally understand how to get there while understanding that she’s well on her way no matter what. During the movie she learns how to earn a living, how to make decisions, how to survive and ultimately live independently of others. Frances is someone you root for because she puts in the effort. It’s a great movie and captures the scary feeling of not being a child anymore, a feeling that we actually carry with us deep into adulthood, without succumbing to that fear.
The African Queen
The African Queen is a fun adventure movie that follows an odd couple as they traverse a river in Africa on a small steamboat. Humphrey Bogart plays a heavy drinker who delivers packages along the river while Katharine Hepburn plays a Methodist missionary. As World War I heats up, the two find themselves trapped on the boat as they try to avoid German soldiers and their gunfire. It has action, it has romance, it has laughs, and all in beautiful Technicolor. The African Queens is an example of great storytelling and great characters. A movie like this isn’t meant to surprise you at every turn, it’s meant to entertain and to charm you and it accomplishes that goal very well.
The sci-fi genre is difficult because we can only predict so much of what the world of tomorrow will look like. Her succeeds because it doesn’t try to over do it and spends as much time thinking about where humans will be emotionally as it does the technology we inspire. Joaquin Phoenix plays a recently divorced, middle-aged man who purchases the latest model smartphone featuring an artificially intelligent operating system. This movie is so brilliant that it’s scary because it shows us how technology is already filling the voids we’ve become too complacent to fill ourselves through action. Her flows easily from scene to scene, a natural progression that we believe because we understand the characters and their needs. It’s a beautiful movie that’s as sad as it is happy.
Sometimes we want to kick back and take a look at the truly ugly side of life. Why? It’s because we know it’s there. We don’t think about it because thinking about it won’t change it, erase it from existence. But we always know it’s there. Seven is the excuse to take a look at it because for all the happiness in the world, for the overwhelming success humanity has had, underneath there always lies a cancer waiting to sprout its head. Follow two detectives as they hunt after a serial killer through a rainy, dirty and broken-down world. The people who occupy this world are the same people we pass on the street, shop with at the grocery store, and sit next to all day at work. While you go home, crack open a beer and watch the ballgame, think about what they’re doing. This movie will show you.
Out of Sight
Out of Sight is a fun movie that flies by so fast you’ll want to watch it again just to keep the energy going. Watch as George Clooney plays the charming criminal with a heart of gold and operates in a world of criminals that aren’t nearly as sharp as he is. There’s a heist, there’s a collection of characters, and none of it is ever boring. Steven Soderberg knows how to tell a story and a lot of the style present in Out of Sight later finds itself in the Oceans 11 series. While Oceans 11 feels like a Hollywood interpretation of a heist story, Out of Sight comes off as much more street-level and that’s part of why it works so well.
Touch of Evil
Orson Welles tells the story of a criminal investigation surrounding a car bomb that goes off on the US-Mexico border. There’s a lot of shady characters in a shady town and they’re all interesting because they’re all so different from each other. They all have histories, bits and pieces that when put together make them the losers that they are now. Welles understood that cinema was a visual medium and tells this story in a way that looks like no other movie you’ve ever seen.
The Thin Blue Line
This might be one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It was so good, in fact, that it inspired just as many narrative productions as it did other documentaries. The Thin Blue Line follows the investigation following a homicide in Texas, Autumn of 1976. Ultimately the wrong person was convicted of the crime and the local police department played their part in that conviction. The documentary exposes just as much corruption as it does incompetence in the police department carrying out the investigation. Stylistically, the movie changed how documentaries are made. Incidents are recreated dramatically to show is visually the incident being discussed by all those involved. We see the homicide from different perspectives, from different testimony. It really makes you think; how well do we see the world around us? This technique is recreated in almost every procedural show, but never with the same sense of importance as in The Thin Blue Line. This documentary set a wrongly convicted man free and taught us that humans do things that, well, sometimes just don’t make any sense.