Grand Illusion (1937 D: Jean Renoir, W: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak)
This is the one. A war movie that ignores the war, and concentrates on the men — yes, they’re all men — across nationalities. Even in wartime, class distinctions exist, and enmities are dismissed to share a glass of wine between aristocrats. Still, the lower class forms their own unions — in this film through a sort of vaudeville show, as well as a tunneled escape. Renoir examines all of them with a kind of gentle gaze. Eric von Stroheim plays the German calvary captain Von Rauffenstein, with a neck brace and a flower he tends to. Jean Gabin is Marechal, the charming representative of the working class prisoners. I dare you to watch even a minute of this and not be captivated til the end. Orson Welles said he’d take this movie “on the ark.” That’s high praise.
Citizen Kane (1941 D: Orson Welles, W: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles)
The “smartest” distinction is a tough one. I tend to think of “smartest” as having the deepest layering of ideas, themes, notions and moments, as having the longest resonance. Orson Welles struck this bell as a 24-year-old in 1940, and it’s still ringing. It may be ranked, deposed, and ranked again as the greatest film ever made, but it’s certainly one of the smartest. Welles and Mankiewicz, and, it should be said, cinematographer Gregg Toland, created an immense portrait of a fictionalized William Randolph Hearst, from lonely childhood to rambunctious youth to corrupt, powerful adulthood to bitter, beaten old man. Welles’ booming presence is unbeatable — you can see now why everyone told him he was a genius. Watch the film now and the energy is still palpable. I still find new things every time I watch it. Welles’ later career is full of unfinished, challenged works and the occasional near-masterpiece. Nothing touches this one.
Quatermass And The Pit (1967 D: Roy Ward Baker, W: Nigel Kneale)
I am obsessed with the Quatermass series. Massively influential in the UK, the series jump-started British televised science fiction (it originally aired as BBC serials) and Hammer Films, who adapted the serials into feature films. This is the absolute highlight of the series, about an often cranky, aging British scientist played by Andrew Keir (Brian Donlevy played him as an American in the first two films, although they were still set in Britain), Professor Bernard Quatermass. When a large, strange metallic object is discovered buried in the London Underground, efforts to uncover it are thwarted by strange energy emissions and erratic behavior. Quatermass deduces it to be a Martian spacecraft, buried thousands of years ago. The movie’s DNA can be found in many later films, and, of course, Doctor Who episodes. Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers is a pretty straight rip of the storyline. John Carpenter’s subtle Prince of Darkness — one of my favorite films — was written by Carpenter as “Martin Quatermass” and uses substantial tropes developed by Quatermass Nigel Kneale. Kneale’s worth digging into — his BBC movie The Stone Tape is a cool little ghost story.
The Shop Around The Corner (1940, D: Ernst Lubitsch, W: Ben Hecht, Samson Raphaelson)
Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan are co-workers at a shop in Budapest who detest each other, but, unknowingly, are also falling deeply in love through anonymous letters in this brilliant, nuanced and funny classic. It’s a perfect romantic film for a first date, full of charm, as long as you can hold it together at the end. Yes, it was remade as You’ve Got Mail.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948, D: Charles Barton, W: Robert Lees, Frederic Rinaldo, John Grant)
I first saw this as a very young kid watching the Saturday matinee shows they used to broadcast in regional markets — mine was Seattle — often with a host but always with a theme: Chiller Matinee, Sci-Fi Saturday, whatever worked for the station and their budget. I remember vividly being too frightened by Frankenstein’s monster. I must have been 6 or so. I told my mom , “This movie is for grown-ups.” But it was formative. Just a couple years later, I couldn’t get enough horror movies, books about horror movies, anything I could get my hands on. I scoured the school library, the local video store, the public library, and anywhere else I could find out more about Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, the — at the time — impossible to find Hammer Films. This movie started a lifelong affliction and addiction — in the best possible sense — to classic horror. We showed it at my house at my last Halloween party.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 D: Steven Spielberg, W: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman)
I’m not saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark should never have a sequel. I just wish it wasn’t the sequels we got. Have you tried to watch Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade lately? Raiders of the Lost Ark was the greatest thing a 12 year old boy could ask for. The other movies were distant shadows of the original, with increasingly disconnected plots, chase scenes and gags. I couldn’t even make it through the last one. This particular entry just barely beat out the following films that also shouldn’t have had a sequel: The Hills Have Eyes, CHUD, The Blues Brothers, Escape From New York. If you even try to convince me there was a good reason for Escape From L.A., we need to talk.
The Evil Dead proves that an entire career and franchise can be built on imagination and ambitious creativity, regardless of budget. Sam Raimi’s “ultimate exercise in grueling horror” was shot in Morristown, Tennessee in a cold, cow-dung-covered cabin. By the time the crew froze out and left, it was only Raimi, producer Rob Tapert and actor/future star Bruce Campbell left to complete filming. And then they shot four days of re-shoots (in Wisconsin, in someone’s aunt’s basement, I believe). Joel Coen edited the film. It had a brief theatrical release, and then nothing. For a while. Until home video, and every teenage boy started to discover it. What we found was the most inventive, thrilling, seat-of-the-pants horror film we’d ever seen. The Evil Dead 2 gets all the love, but the original is still my favorite; it proves you can do pretty much anything as long as you have determination, dogged perseverance and, preferably, lots and lots of stage blood.
This one falls squarely in the Guilty Pleasure category because, for some time, it was always on cable. And if it was on, I wound up watching it. More than a couple times. I feel funny even telling you this. I have no rational explanation whatsoever. Tate Donovan invents a love potion. Sandra Bullock has bad hair. The end.
Blazing Saddles (1974 D: Mel Brooks, W: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger)
It’s tough competition with the Marx Brothers out there, but Blazing Saddles has the most consistent joke per second rate of any film I can remember. Brooks wanted Richard Pryor to play the lead — a role that went to the great, unsung Cleavon Little — but the film’s underwriter wouldn’t insure him. So Brooks asked Pryor to co-write the film. Pryor, the story goes, wrote a lot of the straight jokes in the film — he created Mongo — but would tell the rest of the writing team which racially-pointed jokes worked and which went too far. Harvey Korman is unbeatable as Hedley Lamar (“That’s HEDLEY”), Slim Pickens gets some of the best lines, and a cast of brilliant character actors work through perfectly tuned jokes and dialogue. It’s amazing that a film can toe the line on potentially offensive material yet stay on the right side of the fence the whole way through. That said, Brooks had already created the idea of “Springtime For Hitler,” so he was probably the man for the job.
Caddyshack (1980 D: Harold Ramis, W: Brian Doyle-Murrray, Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney)
Now I’m just starting fights. It’s the ultimate “Classic, bro!” movie. I couldn’t imagine watching this again. I’ve heard every line from the movie quoted by drunk dudes since 1985. And consistently I see people I know, love and trust put this in their “funniest movies ever” list. Either I’m officially dead inside or I’m right. It’s not especially fun to be either in this case, but there it is.