Movies 101: My "movie course in a box"

Movies 101: My “movie course in a box”

My friend Ariel confessed to me over dinner several months back she had never seen several movies that I considered seminal classics. Why she hadn’t done so was understandable. Ariel is much younger than me, over a decade. She grew up when the Internet wasn’t a new thing, but “newish”, and she had other things to focus on (like, an actual social life).

Over the course of the meal she said, “Tell me what to watch, and I’ll do it.” And thus the trap was sprung. Oh, you will watch some films, my dear. I will give you an education, a “movie course in a box” as it were… and you will like it.

Bwa ha ha.

So, after a longer period of contemplation (“What movies SHOULD I include, and why? And how much Orson Welles work can I unnecessarily shoe horn into said list?”) here it is: My Movies 1010 list, with reasons/talking points around why the movies are included and things to consider about each film. No genre separation, not grouping by decades, just… films. Great films.

Sow, Ariel, cancel any other plans… you need to get to work.

Citizen Kane

Why?
Because it is almost always listed as one of the, if not THE, best movies of all time. Because Orson could never make a movie ever better, and that haunted him. Because it used narrative conventions that were completely unthought-of at the time, and are now seen in very special episodes of CSI: Nantucket.

Because it’s still surprising, decades later.

What to look for:
The great cinematography of Gregg Toland. The wit and charm of young thin Orson. The music by Bernard Herrmann (who we will see in the list again, later).

Discussion Points:
What does Rosebud mean? Since we saw multiple narrators, who is “right?” Is Charles Foster Kane really a veiled hit at newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst?

The Seventh Seal

Why?
Because it is about mortality, it’s the best movie Ingmar Bergman made, and it’s about playing a game of chess with Death. What’s not to love?

What to look for:
The great performances. The dark humor. The stark lighting. The really grim pretentiousness of the whole endeavor.

Discussion Points:
Why chess? Why not Hungry Hungry Hippos?

The Godfather

Why?
Because as a movie, it is actually much better than the cultural impact it has hadreflects. Because it has an amazing story arc for almost every character. Because it is the last movie Marlon Brando did where he actually gave a shit.

Because it’s the best mafia/gangster movie ever. Every other film is a pale imitation.

What to look for:
The performances – by everyone. The period clothes. The great editing, especially at the end. Clemenza’s Spaghetti recipe. The darkness of the ending (imagine if that was the last we saw of this story).

Discussion Points:
Does Kay know more than she lets on, even at the end? Who is the “best” son of Vito? Why doesn’t Moe Greene have his own movie spinoff? Why doesn’t Abe Vigoda have more lines?

2001: A Space Odyssey

Why?
Because it’s beautiful. Because it is the first science fiction movie that actually treated the genre with any degree of seriousness. Because it featured amazing special effects work 9 years before Star Wars. Because HAL is the best character in the movie. Because it is at points REALLY funny (the scene where the zero G toilet instructions are being studied by Dr. Floyd, for example).

Because the movie looks so “real” people think Director Stanley Kubrick also faked the moon landing.

What to look for:
The realistic, almost boring, conversations. The beyond the Infinite sequence. The Dawn of Time sequence. How Kubrick lets the scenes just “be” and breath, almost lazily lasting beyond what audiences expect.

Discussion Points:
Is HAL sentient? What is the Monolith? What does the ending mean? What drugs should you take to REALLY enjoy it?

Jaws

Why?
Because it was the first summer blockbuster. Because it has a four-note theme that everyone can recognize, even if they haven’t seen the film. Because it was a fraking BRUTAL shoot that almost resulted in the firing of young director Steven Spielberg.

Because it is a near-perfect film.

What to look for:
The fact that the last half of the movie is set almost entirely at sea (and SHOT at sea – which resulted in Spielberg almost being fired because it took too long and went crazy over budget). The gorgeous cinematography. Roy Schieder’s performance. The obviously fake shark.

Discussion Points:
Is the mayor self-centered, stupid, or both? Should Hooper have died at the end? Why were there any sequels to this masterpiece?

Forbidden Planet

Why?
It’s the first film that actually embraced the pulpy sci-fi stories of the 1940s and 50s. It created a legendary character in Robby the Robot. It is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Gene Roddenberry aggressively ripped it off to make a little TV show called Star Trek.

What to look for:
Robby. Leslie Nielsen, playing serious. Anne Francis, barely clothed. “ID, ID, ID!”

Discussion Points:
“Will sixty gallons be sufficient?”

Apocalypse Now

Why?
Because it was the first movie to really deal with Vietnam in an original way (sorry, Coming Home and The Deerhunter). Because it was a loose adaption of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Because of Dennis Hopper. Because it was the first movie that Marlon Brando did after he decided he didn’t give a shit.

What to look for:
Brando, in his first “where’s my check?” roles, still completely mesmerizing. Martin Sheen, who almost died making the movie – and it shows.

Discussion Points:
“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Head

Why?
Because it was the pop culture eating itself for the first time. It had The Monkees walking away from their fame and manufactured image, and setting fire on the soundstage. Because it is one of the most surreal pop culture films ever made.

What to look for:
Frank Zappa. Toni Basil. Jack Nicholson, who co-wrote this crazy thing. Victor Mature as “Big Vic.” The Porpoise Song.

Discussion Points:
What is the point of this movie? Did they intentionally sabotage their careers?

Vertigo

Why?
Because it is Hitchcock at his most personal. Because it has replaced Citizen Kane as number one in several noted “Best Film” polls. Because Kim Novak is sexy as hell.

What to look for:
The great rack-zoom shots when Jimmy Stewart’s character is experiencing, umm, vertigo. The amazing initial sequence. The way the shots are staged. Stewart’s fantastic performance. Novak’s fantastic performance. How this movie is a window into Hitch’s soul. San Francisco in all its classic beauty.

Discussion Points:
After the last scene, what happens next? How messed up IS Hitch, anyway?

Halloween

Why?
Because it is the first big hit for John Carpenter. It kicked off the modern slasher genre. Because it is still amazingly scary.

What to look for:
The late 70s awesomeness. The music. The cinematography. The almost complete lack of blood. Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first major role. Donald Pleasance.

Discussion Points:
Who is Michael Meyers? What does he represent? What does he want?

Lawrence of Arabia

Why?
Because it is the best epic film ever made. Because it introduced the world to Peter O’Toole. Because it’s gorgeous.

What to look for:
David Lean’s directing. The long shot that introduced Omar Sharif’s character. The story of Lawrence, as told by those who knew him at the beginning. The music.

Discussion Points:
Was Lawrence a hero? Why did he do what he did? And how amazing is Peter O’Toole in this film?

Psycho

Why?
Hitchcock, again. Because it is kind of an indirect prequel to Halloween (actually, you may want to watch this before that one). Because the movie did something no other film ever did before around the half-way mark. Because Hitch made the movie on a shoestring budget with a TV crew, and it is one of his most successful and best remembered films.

What to look for:
Anthony Perkins’ amazing performance. Janet Leigh (mother of Jamie Lee Curtis) in her different bras (and what they mean – not very subtle, that). The scene with the shower. The music by Bernard Herrman (who also scored Citizen Kane).

Discussion Points:
Don’t we all go a little mad sometimes? And what is the movie REALLY about (text and subtext)?

Alien

Why?
Because it was the first major film that combined science fiction and horror, and incredibly well. Because it had a lead character that was written for a male actor and a female actor (Sigourney Weaver) was cast – they didn’t rewrite a single line.
What to look for: The dinner scene. The incredible sets. The great directing by young Ridley Scott (it was only his second film). The great cast. The shadows. The screams. The sounds. The Xenomorph. The music by Jerry Goldsmith.

Discussion Points:
Watch the first 30 minutes. Who is the hero in that segment. Then ask yourself who it is in the next hour. Try and find an unreal character moment. Try to ignore the obvious fake head in the last part of the film.

Chinatown

Why?
Because it is the best film noir movie ever. Because it is Jack Nicholson at the peak of his powers as an actor. Because it is dark as fuck. Because the bad guys win – keep in mind Watergate was happening at the time.

What to look for:
Nicholson’s nose. Dunaway, in every scene – she is amazing in the film. John Huston, as… just watch. The cinematography. The music (again, by Jerry Goldsmith). ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.’

Discussion Points:
Water. And Power.

Some Like it Hot

Why?
One of the best constructed movie comedies ever made. Funny, witty, and well performed by the whole cast – especially Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.

What to look for?
The incredible dialogue. Curtis’ Cary Grant impersonation. Marilyn Monroe at her Marilyn Monroe-est. The last scene, especially the last line.

Discussion Points:
Drag queens, and how women are treated now versus then.

Casablanca

Why?
Because it is the best “studio film” ever made (sorry, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz). Because it was made as WW II was just getting started, and many in America didn’t want to fight that war. Because of Bogart – his best performance in his best role.

What to look for:
Claude Rains. Peter Lorre. The song. The ending.

Discussion Points:
This movie was cranked out of the journeyman “studio machine” that was Hollywood in the 40s. Why is it so good, and so much better than similar movies that are now forgotten?

Goldfinger

Why?
It’s the James Bond film that everyone points to as the best. It’s also an amazing snapshot of the world circa 1963/64.

What to look for:
Connery, obviously, with his swagger and uberBond. Honor Blackman. Gert Frobe, who did not actually speak his lines (he was dubbed). How masculinity was portrayed on film in the 60s.

Discussion Points:
Goldfinger’s plan. Bond’s relative passivity in most of the film. Is Pussy Galore “playing for the other team” as she was in the book? How potent is Bond’s dong, if he can make her switch teams? Does Bond force himself on her?