Movies You Can’t Refuse, Part 1

A friend of mine, Dan, is a movie critic, with his own web site and everything. Imagine my surprise (and consternation) when last week he posted that he had just watched The Godfather for the first time. At least one person told him that was un-American (if McCarthy were alive he’d have been arrested), and while that is slightly (but only slightly) hyperbolic, it’s certainly a situation far less than ideal.

Dan’s reply was that they don’t ask what you’ve seen or haven’t seen before they give you a press pass. Yes, and that and the lack of Bluebell and the clown car that is Trump for President are a huge part of what’s wrong with this country. What kind of world do we live in where a movie critic never has to have seen a movie?

A movie critic that hasn’t seen The Godfather is like a geek that doesn’t have a Star Wars figurine. Like a non-classical music critic that’s never listened to the Beatles. Like a Cowboy fan that thinks Jerry Jones is a great GM. Like… well, you get the idea — it just isn’t done. Or it shouldn’t be.

So, I decided to try and help Dan out by choosing one movie from every decade since the 30’s that every one who calls themselves a student of film should have seen. These aren’t necessarily the best movies, they aren’t the most popular movies, they’re not even the “most essential” movies, but they’re at least part of the list that need to be seen by anyone wanting to talk about film.

I restricted myself to one per decade, just to keep the post from going on forever (it’s two parts as it is). I know you could name another four or seven or ten each decade, and so could I. I’ll have “other choices” for each decade, but I’ll (mostly) restrict the discussion to the one movie chosen.

I also restricted myself to American films, because, one, I’m not as familiar with as many foreign films as I would like, and two, it helped me focus. Again, there are lots of fantastic foreign films that are also required viewing by film students; maybe we’ll talk about them another time.

30’s

This decade had the first of only three films in history to win all the Big Five Oscars (It Happened One Night), the film adaption of what many consider to be the Great American Novel (Gone with the Wind), and a musical so beloved it was shown annually on TV (back when there were only three networks) for over thirty years (The Wizard of Oz).

We’re not going to talk about any of those.

My film from the 30’s is Bringing Up Baby. With Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, you shouldn’t be able to go wrong, but it wasn’t that well received when it was released. I can’t imagine why not — it has everything you want in a comedy: wit, charm, brilliant dialog (the throwaway lines here are funnier than any of the main dialog in most modern “comedies”), and a leopard. (Actually, two leopards.)

Hepburn and Grant both play against what would become their type. Hepburn is a rich heiress who is more than a little loopy, and Grant is a bumbling paleontologist. There is a plot involving a dinosaur bone, but nobody cares. You’re pretty sure you know where the movie is going, but I promise you have no idea how they’re going to get there. Howard Hawks would hit it big again a couple of years later with His Girl Friday, but with Baby he’s at the peak of his game.

Other choices: any of the three named above.

40’s

This might be the hardest decade in which to choose only one movie. My sentimental choice is Casablanca, a film I could watch every day for a month and not get tired of. With Bogart and Bergman and Greenstreet and Lorre and a bunch of Nazis, what’s not to love?

But, while it is a great film, it stands in the shadows of the film. Citizen Kane is a marvel of cinema for any number of reasons:

  • It was the first film from its director and star, Orson Welles, who had already made his mark in radio by causing panic in the streets a few years earlier during a broadcast of a fake Martian landing.
  • Welles was given the keys to the kingdom by the studio that hired him: carte blanche as to screenplay, cast, crew, and final authority over the editing of the final product (unheard of for almost any director, much less a first-time one, and something he famously lost in his next movie, The Magnificent Amberson’s.)
  • It has perhaps the finest black-and-white cinematography ever put on celluloid (or pixels).
  • It has one of the most famous “reveals” in history, and like all of the really good ones, causes a re-evaluation of all that’s gone before.

Aside from all that, it’s a great movie. It is the story of a man in search of meaning, of all the people around that life and how his search impacted them in positive and negative ways. It is a deeply personal film, as all biographies (even fictional ones) should be. And, as should be true in all movies but often isn’t, Welles communicates much about the man in visuals. (Note the first and last shots of the movie.)

This is not a movie for those with short attention spans — you have to see as well as look, you have to keep an eye on the entire screen, because Welles used all of it to tell his story. It’s a movie that grows in richness with repeated viewings.

Other choices: the aforementioned Casablanca.

50’s

The question isn’t whether a Hitchcock movie will make the list, it’s which one. Any of two or three choices would be excellent ones, but narrowing it to one is a difficult chore. It can even make one dizzy…

I saw Vertigo for the first time in 1984, along with the other four movies that made up the infamous “missing Hitchcocks” (aka “Five Lost Hitchcocks”) that were re-released in theaters that year. (That makes 1984 one of my favorite years for film, even though all of the five were 25-35 years old by then.) I left a bit confused. Kim Novak played two parts, but it was obviously the same woman. Why wasn’t it obvious to James Stewart? What was I missing?

Everything, as it turns out. Stewart plays a cop with the titular affliction, who becomes less and less sympathetic until at the end you don’t like him at all. Novak plays a mysterioius woman who doesn’t even speak until forty-five minutes into the movie, and when that woman disappears, Novak in turn plays another woman who Stewart eventually forces into the image of the first woman. Except neither of them are who he thinks they are.

It has a truly Hitchcockian ending (the kind Rod Serling would later make famous in The Twilight Zone), it has a camera shot named for it, and it has a pre-Dallas Barbara Bel Geddes.

Just keep the Dramamine handy.

Other choices: Sunset Boulevard, On the Waterfront, All About Eve.

60’s

The 60’s saw the ending of “The Code” and suddenly movies could cuss as much as they want and show as much skin as they want and the result was a lot of movies with a bunch of bad words and breasts that had no reason to be there. Much like today, in fact.

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick decided not only did he not need to add anything to his movie to make it great, he could take away something generally regarded as necessary, a narrative framework, and make it even better.  2001 might be the most polarizing of the entries on this list. You either loved it or were bored to death by it, and both groups have perfectly valid reasons for their conclusion.

“Forty-five minutes of apes?” Yep.
“Was there a point to that docking sequence going on for (seemingly) an hour-and-a-half?” Nope.
“What was all that weirdness with the old man and the baby-in-the-womb at the end?” No idea.

2001 is visuals set to music, and each enhances the other far beyond what they would have been on their own. (The music was famously just “filler” until the actual soundtrack could be finished, but Kubrick quickly realized what he had and kept the “filler.”) Its most sympathetic character is a computer that kills four people. It’s about nothing less than who we are as a people and our place in the universe. It is film as philosophy; it begs to be not just seen, but discussed. And probably cussed.

I consider Kubrick over-rated as a director (no use whatsoever for The Shining, a horrid adaption of perhaps Stephen King’s best psychological thriller), but 2001 is a masterpiece.

Other choices: Bonnie and Clyde1

Coming up in Part 2, the movie that caused all of this hubbub…


  1. And, if the discussion weren’t confined to American films, the two greatest Westerns ever made: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Sorry, The Searchers and Liberty Valance, you were overtaken by an Italian.

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