Have you ever rented a “classic” film only to be disappointed? Some of the milestones in film history haven’t aged well. Still others are difficult to appreciate without a professor or a textbook to help you understand the context and the references.
But some of the classics really are as good as they say, and the passing years do nothing to diminish their power. Whether they contain great stories, amazing performances, or wonderful special effects, these movies deserve to be seen, and not just in a film-school “ought to” sort of way, but because they still can entertain and move audiences to this day.
We’d love to hear your own take on what belongs on this list (comment on this story with the link at the bottom). Meantime, here’s my list, along with a pool of titles I considered.
Sherlock, Jr., 1924, Buster Keaton. Over the course of three or four amazing set pieces, Keaton records his superhuman feats on film, without the help of editing or computer-generated effects. The secret of the last stunt in the film, in which Keaton dives through the suitcase and stomach of a street vendor, is still a tantalizing mystery.
King Kong, 1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack. Another special effects extravaganza, King Kong is not only great looking “for its day,” it’s great looking, period. From the hand-crafted stop-motion animation of Willis O’Brien, to the multiple-layered optical effects in Kong’s cave, the fantastical made real showed just how magical the medium of cinema could be.
How Green Was My Valley, 1941, John Ford. The key word in the title is “was.” This tale of a coal-mining town in the throes of change illustrates the cinema’s power to evoke strong emotions. Not sappy enough to earn the moniker “tearjerker,” How Green Was My Valley is nevertheless a moving and sincere tribute to a lost time and place.
Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944, Vincente Minelli. Gone with the Wind is probably a better-known Technicolor epic, but it has a lot of ugliness, especially to the modern eye. In contrast, Meet Me in St. Louis’ gorgeous Technicolor eye candy is enhanced with the sweetness and light of the rest of the film. Judy Garland was at the peak of her career, and Margaret O’Brien is adorable. The excitement at the Smith house over the coming of the World’s Fair is so palpable you can’t help but get caught up in it. If you’ve never seen it, you may be surprised at how many songs that you know came from this film.
Double Indemnity, 1944, Billy Wilder. While half of America’s psyche was devoted to sweetness and light in 1944, the other half was devoted to bitterness and shadow. One of the best films noirs ever, Double Indemnity has all the tropes: pulp-inspired dialogue, moody high-contrast lighting, double crosses, and one unforgettable femme fatale.
The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946, William Wyler. It is 1946. World War II is over and the world is going to change. A lot of innocence has been lost, but a new era of prosperity is on the horizon. Nobody knows what will happen; it’s a period of change, and change is hard, especially for soldiers returning to civilization. The opening scene, of soldiers flying back to the States, is allowed to run for 20 full minutes, building the tension and fear these men feel. What they’ve had to face as soldiers was easy compared to the “normal” lives they face now. Cussing, drinking, smoking, and fighting to survive will have to give way to manners, quiet evenings, and the boredom of hard-won security. The transition will prove to be difficult, if not impossible. Harold Russell, a soldier who had never acted before and who lost both hands in the war, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Red River, 1948, Howard Hawks. One can trace the evolution of the American Western by plotting the films of John Wayne on a graph. Starting with the almost-naïve Stagecoach (1939) the Western matured after World War II, and turned bitter and hostile by The Searchers (1956). Red River marks the high tide line. Westerns were popular enough to command wonderful cinematography and music. And although men were still men, their stories were complex enough to allow subtexts and gray areas to sneak in. Or if you prefer your movies straight, watch Red River as a pure cowboy adventure; it works at that level too.
Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, Stanley Donen. This is another film that can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a fun MGM musical from an era that produced many a fun musical. But this one also looks at the strengths and weaknesses of film itself, telling the story of the medium’s growing pains from when it added sound to the mix. It revives many of the good old songs from bygone musicals, and puts them in a new, self-conscious world. (Plus, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor bust some amazing dance moves.)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964, Stanley Kubrick. With the threat of nuclear annihilation scaring the Bejeezus out of Americans (and the rest of the world, too), Stanley Kubrick reacted by making a topical thriller into a comedy. Note, however, that nobody tells a joke in Dr. Strangelove, nor does anyone play their role with a wink, a nod, or a smile. Instead, the comedy is all in the absurdity of the situation (and in the names of the characters: Merkin Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper). Name another comedy as funny as this one that uses the same approach to humor. I can’t think of one.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, Steven Spielberg. Finally, we come to a film I saw in the theater when it first came out. Completely over the top and yet somehow believable, Raiders doesn’t poke fun at matinee serials so much as pay homage to them. Raiders is perfectly balanced and completely sincere in its tribute to the ideals of film as escapism and adventure. Sequels and copycats have failed to get the right mix, usually skimping on the genuine respect for the movies they are copying.
As with any list, this one is arbitrary and subjective. You’ll notice, for example, that they are all American. Another list, just as good, could have different specific entries. Some of the other films I considered are (in no particular order): Top Hat (or other Astaire/Rogers), Duck Soup (or other Marx Brothers), Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Star Wars, 2001, Night of the Living Dead, the Fanny trilogy, Intolerance, 42nd Street, Rashomon, Sunrise, His Girl Friday, Night of the Hunter, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Escape, 8 1/2, the Qatsi trilogy, The Sound of Music, Ninotchka, All that Heaven Allows, Children of Paradise, Goodfellas, O Lucky Man, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, The Godfather, and Umberto D.
Writing this list, I had to stop several times to regain my composure. I almost can’t believe how lucky I am to have experienced these great movies. Home video makes them absurdly easy to watch, to the point that we take them for granted and fail to recognize their genius. What a miracle it is that, a century after its creation on a highly combustible strip of plastic, we can still see the moving picture of an artist, an actor, an entertainer, or a craftsman.
These movies (and many others I didn’t mention) are not just entertainment, but a living piece of cultural history, an exclamation of the human condition, and proof positive of the power of film.