Like all great works of prose, this article began with my mother’s acupuncturist. She mentioned that I had recently begun writing about cinema and he asked for some recommendations. As my mother, friends, and readers know, my taste in film tends toward the kinds of things that maybe you wouldn’t suggest to someone you barely know. Sexual slavery, genital mutilation, and incest do regularly seem to find their way into my DVD collection… along with radical leftist propaganda as thoroughly masked as Ryan Seacrest’s sexuality (I hate making references like this, but everyone tells me that if I want people to think I’m funny, I have to reference things that they’ve actually heard of.) Or, at the very least, they require some degree of media literacy, which is still quite some time away from being “standard” in the US educational system.
However, I do like a handful of cinematic works that are unlikely to traumatize or seriously offend the average viewer. No, before you get ahead of yourself, Hollywood (even in its golden age) has always sucked: Frank Capra, Casablanca, All About Eve, it’s all crap (However, if you at all enjoyed The Big Sleep, Godard ingeniously re-imagined it in 1966 as Made in U.S.A, featuring Anna Karina as the hottest detective to ever live.) But below I have listed ten films that I believe everyone should (and could) watch before they die, accompanied by a list of another ten which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone I know… including my grandparents.
Ten Films to See Before You Die
Metropolis Fritz Lang (1927)
The fact that this remains the most successfully epic film of all-time, after nearly 100 years, just proves how fucking lame is the evolution of cinema… which is why I have made you this list.
Beauty and the Beast Jean Cocteau (1946)
Surely you’re at least moderately familiar with the fairy tale of Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (or the Disney film that was apparently based on this cinematic work). Have you ever, on a drunken night, taken the time to consider the things that you are told to want and how they contrast with the things that actually make you happy? When Cocteau’s calling the shots, it’s hard to ignore such questions.
The 400 Blows Francois Truffaut (1959)
If Dickens produced the seminal work on youth more than a hundred years previous, it’s Truffaut who produced the moving-picture equivalent for the twentieth century. Every film narrative revolving around the trials and tribulations of childhood, no matter how silly and melodramatic or poignant and biting, owes at least 99.5% of its sentimentality to The 400 Blows. To this day, Truffaut’s debut feature will be more effective at making you consider the viewpoint of “the next generation” than any other movie.
Breathless Jean-Luc Godard (1960)
As cliché as it is to say of this movie, in film, there was before Breathless and there was after Breathless. While much of the aesthetic produced by the screenplay of Truffaut and the direction of Godard seems simply cute by today’s standards, it would not exist if it weren’t for this love story played out by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. This radical appropriation of Hollywood narrative, constructed by heady and confrontational French intellectuals, serves as the framework for both the contemporary music video and romantic comedy… although the quality was never even close to matched.
The Virgin Spring Ingmar Bergman (1960)
Most of Bergman’s masterworks could have a place on this list. However, I find this to be one of his most exciting and short-winded, appealing to widely-pondered themes of faith, family, and forgiveness. It does revolve around the rape of a young girl but, based on a 13th century Swedish ballad, it is far more eloquent and moral than any of the “thrillers” and horror films it inspired. If you’re still slightly wary, it won an Academy Award… so, yeah.
Cleo from 5 to 7 Agnes Varda (1962)
The story of a pop star whose actual friends seem unconcerned with her looming mortality and whose “fans” see her as little more than a one-dimensional spectacle of the “greatest” aspects of their society. She, fortunately, finds an unfamiliar face that finds the humanity in her… I wonder if Amy Winehouse ever saw this.
Ivan’s Childhood Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)
Although Tarkovsky seems to have disowned this work to a degree, it remains a stunning beauty to anyone who has ever taken even an elementary art class and I’m pretty sure that Trent Reznor would use its stills as the backdrop to his next tour, if he was given permission. It is a celluloid tale of the tragedy of childhood and the loneliness of war.
Harlan County USA Barbara Kopple (1976)
Barbara Kopple’s depiction of striking coal miners in Kentucky not only displays the practical problems of big-business-driven neo-capitalism, but also the pride and beauty of working-class Americana. Regardless of your politics, it’s hard to imagine that anyone short of Bill Gates and Michael Eisner wouldn’t be moved by both the loveliness of Kopple’s subjects and hardships of their situation.
That Obscure Object of Desire Luis Bunuel (1977)
With the exceptions of Un chien andalou and Belle de Jour (which are intentionally not included on this list), I find Bunuel’s final film to be his best. A simple story (set during a period of not-so-simple revolution) about a man who loves a girl that will never love him and the supposedly fool-proof equation that financial success = carnal gratification that so frequently goes horribly awry for the sheer enjoyment of motion picture audiences. If this still sounds a bit racy, this also won an Academy Award. (I’m pretty sure that this film’s final scene served as the inspiration for the chorus of The Smiths’ “Ask,” but I’ve never found any sort of confirmation. Does someone wanna back me up?)
Dancer in the Dark Lars von Trier (2000)
I was honestly hard-pressed to think of a tenth film that belongs on this list. And I’m not entirely sure that this musical by Cannes’ public enemy #1 belongs among the other nine entries. But it is one of my favorite films that I don’t think is too alienating. And it is something I’ve shown to (and was enjoyed by) random samplings of 18-year-olds at Temple University: there’s singing, there’s dancing, there’s Bjork. If you’re the kind of person who has an American flag raised on your front lawn, this could potentially offend. Otherwise, you’re all good.
Another Ten Worthwhile Cinematic Works Unlikely to Offend
Dont Look Back D.A. Pennebaker (1967)
The greatest rock doc ever made depicts a young Bob Dylan traveling across the UK, spreading a gospel of nearly-extinct folk culture to young men and women attempting to balance a fashion movement with a political one.
Z Costa-Gavras (1969)
Everyone loves a good political thriller. Well, not really, but white people from the suburbs sure seem to. And this one is actually pretty good. It is perhaps the most mainstream film to ever feature the cinematography of Raoul Coutard (one of the heroes of the French New Wave). This work of historical fiction tells the story of the assassination of Greek political activist, Gregoris Lambrakis. So at your next dinner party you can fake being well-versed in “the arts,” politics, and world history. Shit, you’re gonna be like the Michelangelo of Cedar Drive.
Metropolitan Whit Stillman (1990)
Whit Stillman’s first installment of his UHB (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) trilogy is perhaps the funniest film ever made not by John Waters… and certainly the funniest to ever gain less than an R rating. If you enjoy Woody Allen, but wish he occasionally had the added bite of the youthful and the socio-political, then this is the perfect movie for you.
Basquiat Julien Schnabel (1996)
In the past decade or so, fandom of Andy Warhol has become especially shallow and annoying. However, this movie, about one of his many protégés, Jean-Michel Basquiat, is one of the better biopics you’ll ever see. David Bowie plays the part of Mr. Warhol and the cast also includes Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Courtney Love, and Benicio de Toro, so you should be more than comfortable with the bevy of red carpet regulars. Jean-Michel climbs from the depths of a homeless street artist to one of the most respected and “valuable” painters in the world. Whether you’re a fan of the “little-guy-takes-the-world-by-storm” scenario or the “rich-exploiting-the-poor-for-another-15-minutes-and-another-couple mill” scenario, I find it hard to believe that this film won’t touch you.
Clockwatchers Jill Sprecher (1997)
Jill Sprecher’s debut film, Starring Parker Posey, Toni Collette, and Phoebe Buffay, turns the contemporary melodrama of life as an office temp into poignant and humorous poetry about the absurdity of our existence. It may not make you feel any better about your own personal situation, but it will at least help you to find the existential comedy of it all.
The Straight Story David Lynch (1999)
David Lynch paired with Disney sounds a bit like… Ron Jeremy paired with Disney. But there’s nothing laughable about this biopic of estranged and resentful siblings burying the hatchet as they approach their deathbeds. Alvin Straight, upon hearing his brother, Henry, was about to beat him to death’s door, traveled 240 miles on a riding mower to leave Earth with a clear conscious. This story outdoes quite a few of those in the Bible… and it actually happened.
Twin Falls Idaho Michael Polish (1999)
This tale of romance revolves around conjoined twins and a hooker. Yes, it sounds a bit Tromatic, but it actually plays out like a postmodern opera, a tragic tale of love, completely devoid of sensationalism of any kind. Charmingly heavy, it is reminiscent of Lynch at his most subtle (see: above). Plus, you know you’ll get to knock off points from any general guilt you may have for not passing judgment on men who love a whore or a woman who loves a freak… even if that judgment-free zone only spans 111 minutes.
The Princess and the Warrior Tom Tyker (2000)
Run Lola Run convinced more Americans to sit in a dark room and read than any other single thing in the 1990s. However, Tyker’s follow-up was even better (Unfortunately, it didn’t also have the business savvy to cash in on youths’ craving to wear glow-in-the-dark jewelry and suck on pacifiers while hanging out in warehouses the way that RLR did.) As its title implies, it is a modern day fairy tale of sorts. It’s filled with glorious romance and glorious action and adventure. It’s pretty much everything I hate but, Tyker proves that, when cooked to perfection, any formula can be truly beautiful.
Soul Kitchen Fatih Akin (2009)
After establishing his controversial identity as a member of “The New Extremism,” Fatih Akin put out a shockingly light-hearted romantic comedy about family and the-less-than-worthy-love-that-might-get-away. This film, depicting a do-gooder, down-trodden hero of the working class is as cute and endearing as anything Tom Hanks ever starred in, but displays the craft of a genius.
The White Ribbon Michael Haneke (2009)
I have criticized this film for being, simply, a G-rated ( it’s actually rated R) take on Salo (which the director has cited as his fourth-favorite film of all-time). However, I realize it is unrealistic to expect the average person to sit through Salo, and this film presents nearly all of the same ideas in a manner far more palatable to the masses. We see humans pitted against one another along lines of age, gender, and income, in the promise of a greater good. You may leave this film feeling a bit dirty, but it won’t be due to vulgar imagery.