By Jack Paganelli
Before we begin, I’d like to say that I don’t believe that the following movies are the “best.” They aren’t even my favorites (though there is a significant overlap, and I would have found it difficult to include a film on the list that I don’t personally like). These are just 101 films that I believe will make you gasp, laugh, cry, stare in awe, etc. These are movies that I have seen once or twice or even six times (in the case of Die Hard) and have a strong impulse to share with other people. They stretch as far back as 1922 and as far forward as 2017 (in the case of one, which has yet to be released in theatres), have been directed by old, established auteurs, fresh-faced newbies, comedians whose only goals were to induce laughter, intense artists who only wanted to induce deep contemplation, and some who found a middle ground between the two and held it. There are some movies on this list that are batsh*t stupid. But I love them, and I want you to love them too. So, with all that in mind, enjoy. Or don’t. I don’t care. I actually care deeply and desperately need the validation of others to function, so please do enjoy or I’ll cry. (That probably won’t happen actually.)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
The primary importance of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking film about space travel is its reliance on visual storytelling as opposed to dialogue; a polarizing choice that reflected the silent era’s dependence on beautiful cinematography, which 2001 exemplifies. Every shot is crafted with such delicate color balance and attention to detail that the story and its characters seem to fade into the background of a moving art piece. It’s a gorgeous reflection on man’s place in a supposedly empty universe and, if nothing else, an excuse for Stanley Kubrick to eschew dialogue in favor of pure visual beauty. Best enjoyed on the big screen.
The 400 Blows (1959)
Director: François Truffaut
The 400 Blows is an honest, heartbreaking portrayal of a boy that is stuck in a dysfunctional household and fights back with petty delinquency. His mother drinks, smokes, and cheats; his father is an honest man and the end of his wits. The boy steals from his family, skips school, vandalizes; anything to fight back against… what? His parents put him in an abusive behavioral correctional facility, he loses his best friend, he drops out of school. They think he’s a lost cause, and he’s not too sure himself. It’s a simple story, taken straight from the director’s heart.
The film’s high-contrast black-and-white cinematography and high average shot length underline the simplicity of the story and its freneticism. This was seen as the first film of the French “New Wave,” marked by an uptake in jazzy, experimental cinematography, honest storytelling, and protagonists who defy authority. The 400 Blows is visually striking, warm, and tragic.
8 ½ (1963)
Director: Federico Fellini
8 ½ is so deeply rooted in its own magic that it forgets to help viewers understand what it is they are truly watching. You will have to watch the movie twice if you want to understand the story, and another once or twice to understand its core “message”— but all that doesn’t matter. 8 ½ is completely engrossing on a first, second, third, or any viewing. To say what the movie is “about” is to ignore everything that it embodies— which is essentially the absurdity of how we, as people, deal with our memories, experiences, and relationships. This idea is expressed through a fabulous and seamless blending of the fantasies and the reality of the protagonist, Guido. We, the viewer, are not presented with a means of knowing which is which; thus an ordinary film viewing will become a public execution of a critic he dislikes. We see the inner workings of Guido’s mind.
The movie is also visually gorgeous. Careful attention is given to every detail of the high-saturation black-and-white cinematography, which smoothly sweeps through spas, hotels, and film sets, stopping to hang on a conversation or two. The soundtrack is another part of the sheer beauty of this film— when the scene is calm, Nino Rota’s score is calm, maybe to accompany a slow dance or a date. When the scene is frenetic, the music seems to match the tempo.
8 ½ is the closest movies have come to completely encapsulating all the inner workings of a single person in all of their psychological complexity. It is fun, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and poignant. While it is hard to understand the “true” narrative— that is, what’s going on on-screen— it is enough to simply let yourself be taken away by what is one of the greatest films ever made, to simply watch and surrender to the energy. 8 ½ inspires a tremendous amount of awe.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Director: Michael Curtiz
The Adventures of Robin Hood is as pure as an “action” movie has ever been. It emerges from a time when morality was less nuanced than it was today, when “good guys” solely embodied positive moral traits and “bad guys” were 100% evil. If that makes The Adventures of Robin Hood sound like a simple cinematic fable, well, you’re right— that’s what Robin Hood has been since the fourteenth century. But isn’t that refreshing? This is, for all intents and purposes, an action movie; there are swordfights, foot chases, ambushes, etc. But only two people die, there is very little suspense, and it is, instead of being gritty, a completely enjoyable movie that anyone could appreciate, regardless of age. It was one of the first Technicolor movies, and, ironically, one of the most visually striking; the greens are lush, the reds are deep, the blues are beautiful azure. Errol Flynn isn’t too short on looks too, if we’re being honest. His non-masculine beauty and the also striking Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian make for a beautiful couple, and a very interesting take on a familiar literary romance. The Adventures of Robin Hood is pure fun, nearly untouched by age.
After Hours (1985)
Director: Martin Scorsese
After Hours is a comedy, I think. I’m not entirely certain, primarily because the main goal of a comedy is to make the audience laugh and feel, to some degree, comfortable; but After Hours is one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen. The plot revolves around someone who is seemingly the only sane person in SoHo, Manhattan, and his struggles to get home, and, more importantly, survive the night. Through a series of unfortunate events, he loses all his money, becomes unable to contact anyone (everyone is asleep anyhow), and, despite not really having done anything wrong, he becomes pursued by a mob hell-bent on vigilante justice, headed by a sexually frustrated loner and her ice cream truck. So, yeah, I laughed. A lot. But the movie adopts this objectively terrifying premise with all its frenetic energy about 45 minutes in, right around the time a girl he’d only just met commits suicide, and it just doesn’t stop until the last two minutes or so. There isn’t an emotional break. You are left wanting comic relief from a movie that is objectively a comedy, and it’s wonderful.
Directors: David Zucker, Jim Abraham, Jerry Zucker
Airplane is a movie that I like to call a “pure comedy”— that is, its purpose is single-minded in eliciting laughter from the audience. There are no underlying morals, no serious moments, no dramatic interruption; it is just a series of absurd events and throwaway jokes that last for an hour and a half. It’s a beautiful thing, really— this is a movie that exists only to make you laugh, and it works well. Very well, actually. There’s no way to describe the joy of an in-flight movie that is simply a series of fatal plane crashes, a line of 12 people lining up to “smack some sense” into a woman going into hysterics whose last queuer is an old woman with a handgun, and an airplane crashing into a terminal, killing about four, never addressed again throughout the film. It’s absurd, it’s beautiful, and it’s irreplaceable.
All the President’s Men (1976)
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two journalists for the Washington Post, have become perhaps the most reputable living characters in the journalistic world. They were the two that exposed scandal after scandal plaguing the Nixon administration in the early days of his second term, not bowing to pressure from his corrupt Attorney General or Chief of Staff. All the President’s Men was originally a memoir written by the pair; this Pakula film is the highly stylized adaptation, suspenseful in its own right without sacrificing believability or adherence to the source. It’s a thrilling look at the “good old days” of journalism, before the 24-hour TV news cycle took precedence over hard-hitting investigations, and when newspapers could truly make tactile political differences.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, known more for his musical genius, was a hardcore (read: Hardcore.) party animal. We have a tendency to revere dead geniuses, unwilling to admit their flaws, forcing them into our cookie-cutter definition of genius as something totally stoic and emetic. Watch any other film about dead composers, then watch Amadeus, a two-and-a-half-hour long tribute not only to Mozart’s genius, but to his humanity. He is a hard drinker, a sex fiend, a scatological humorist, and, at the same time, an extremely talented pianist (capable of improvising sonatas on the spot!), and an unbelievably brilliant composer. Everyone knows that Mozart was writing concertos and performing in front of royalty in his single-digit years; he seems to be more mature then than in his adulthood. On one occasion (and this is, unfortunately, not portrayed in the film), he wrote a song called “Lick My Ass” and sent the lyrics to his mother.
Objectively, the main character of this film is Antonio Salieri, a “rival” composer who is more well-respected than Mozart, and the Austrian court composer. His envy of Mozart’s clearly God-given talent drives him to commision a requiem from Mozart, which taxes him mentally to the point where he dies, as Salieri predicted he would. The film takes significant liberties with history—Salieri, of course, was more-or-less friends with Mozart—but it stays true to the characters as people.
The music in the film is obviously great—it’s all Mozart, after all—but the way it is used is better. In one scene, Salieri jealously reads a collection of Mozart’s sonatas, and as he turns the page, the audio follows along with his eyes. In another, Salieri is dictating the “Confutatis” suite of Mozart’s requiem, and as Mozart illustrates his ideas, the audio syncs with Mozart’s dictation. There are several minutes-long interludes where we see the product of Mozart’s works, as we would if we were actually at one of his operas. The “Don Giovanni” segment is particularly beautiful; the camera consistently cuts to Mozart, clearly exhausting himself composing his most mentally trying opera, conducting the orchestra with incredible passion nonetheless.
Amadeus is a film with visuals as beautiful as its music; its costuming and set design is true to the period with careful attention to the contrast of colors. The use of lighting is also particularly gorgeous; an opera like “The Abduction from the Seraglio” is lit brightly, with heavy tonal saturation, while “Don Giovanni” is much darker, and the colors seem to fade together, save for the darker ones, which seem to have dozens of different shades.
Overall, Amadeus is a beautiful, brilliant, lustful, over-indulgent film, a perfect tribute to one of music’s most lit geniuses.
Director: Federico Fellini
Amarcord is the kind of film that, know it or not, all directors want or have wanted to make; a magical, ethereal, totally personal ode to nostalgia. It is bawdy, funny, raunchy, tragic, and meditative. Like 8 ½ before it, Amarcord seamlessly combines fantasy and reality and transposes the effects on to figures from Fellini’s childhood in the town of Rimini (Amarcord translates to “I remember” in the town’s dialect of Italian). What is superb is that the film documents an entire year, and yet time moves by so gradually that we don’t notice that, an hour and fifteen minutes after the film begins, the seaside beaches of early spring have already given way to beautiful snow-covered shoppes and ristorantes.
The film makes ridiculous caricatures of childhood figures, from the Catholic priests that dominate the boys’ Catholic feelings of guilt and repressed sexuality to the teachers that bore meaningless facts into their heads, to the fascists that gleefully have their way with the town’s most lusted-after women, to the women themselves. Fellini lets us see people through the lens of teenage fantasy and whimsy.
There are, of course, unrelated moments of beauty where the audience pauses for moments of silent reflection; like a count’s peacock flying down over a snow-covered town square, attracting the awe of everyone present; like a silent moment where a boy who’s just lost his mother walks towards the Mediterranean and just sort of pauses, staring at the Sea; like when the uncle of the protagonist is let free from an institution, only to climb a tree on the family farm and shout “I want a woman!” until he goes hoarse; and like the finale of the film, a wedding so depressing as the culmination of the events of the previous year, that, in spite of the scene’s happiness, it still emerges as the saddest, most personal scene from all of Fellini’s films.
Amarcord, if its lustfulness can be overlooked, is a thoughtful film about nostalgia and the way memory is perverted by sentimentality; it is, simultaneously, a film about the necessity of fantasy to contrast how boringly repetitive life is.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director: Otto Preminger
Court, as I’ve heard from lawyers, is boring. But legal dramas normally aren’t. Why the disparity? The answer is that most legal dramas are completely unrealistic. Lawyers don’t make impassioned, screeching, emotional pleas for their clients to be released, attacking prosecutors in the process; they make reasoned, well-informed arguments, and maintain a good relationship with the opposing council. Anatomy of a Murder has been critically reviewed by several attorneys and deemed, along with My Cousin Vinny, as one of the more realistic legal dramas, more knowledgeable when it comes to procedure, fine print, and the investigative process. So how does it remain entertaining?
The most entertaining part of the film is its characters. There’s the protagonist, a jazz-playing Michigan attorney, his old, alcoholic mentor, their long-suffering secretary, the smug, guilty, ex-military client, and the opposition, a catty, brilliant prosecutor’s assistant played by George C. Scott. While all of these sound like simple archetypes, they are portrayed with humanity, warmth, and endearment (or, in the case of the Scott character, just enough humanity so as to be real). They interact in fascinating ways, coming into frequent confrontations and reconciliations.
Another factor is the undeniable energy of the film. It has unbelievably rapid pacing for a legal drama, carrying the weight of the investigation and the trial with insight, humor, and thought. The soundtrack is a great contributing factor to this film as well, composed by jazz legend Duke Ellington (who also had a cameo in the film, playing jazz alongside lead Jimmy Stewart) and comprising about twenty original songs that would sell very well as an original, unrelated jazz album. The compositions are smooth, flighty, thoughtful, depressing, calm, frenetic; it’s probably one of the ten best original film soundtracks, and if you don’t have the time to check the film out, at least listen to it on Spotify.
Images: http://www.indiewire.com/2014/10/watch-the-first-2001-a-space-odyssey-trailer-in-four-decades-will-blow-you-away-68867/; http://www.bam.org/film/2015/the-400-blows; http://www.flickeringmyth.com/2015/05/movie-review-8-12-1963/; http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/old-robin-hood-movies/images/5738518/title/adventures-robin-hood-screencap; http://www.larsenonfilm.com/after-hours; http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/236109/airplane-is-even-better-side-by-side-with-the-movie-it-parodied/; http://emanuellevy.com/review/featured-review/all-the-presidents-men-1976-hollywoods-most-significant-film-about-democracy-politics-and-journalism/; https://www.buro247.ru/culture/cinema/arkhitekturnoe-kino-v-parke-gorkogo.html; http://www.popmatters.com/review/138110-amarcord/; https://billsmovieemporium.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/review-anatomy-of-a-murder-1959/;