There are a plethora of "must-see” films that I had never seen prior to 2020.
In the weeks preceding any of our issue launches, I’ll spend time mocking up concepts for the cover art, moving into a rough draft, and ultimately rendering and finalizing the artwork. As is the case with a majority of the country, The Office served as a nice background stream as I worked through the artwork. So, on January 1, 2021, along with the new year’s resolutions came the crucial dilemma of what stream would replace one of my all-time favorite shows.
Enter 2001: A Space Odyssey. Never having the patience to sit through one of Stanley Kubrick’s three-hour slow crawls, it dawned on me that this was the perfect scenario to build a list and catch up on all the essential cinema that, for whatever reason, I just never got around to watching. 64 films later (out of a growing list of 125+), here are some personal thoughts on the “must-see” films from the 1970s to the present.
Green means good, red means not so good, yellow means something in-between.
With over 13 personal Academy Award nominations and close to 80 global nominations for his films, Stanley Kubrick classics were a mandatory inclusion on a list of movies I should've seen, and it’s an interesting sensation watching original scenes that would become the trope for so many other derivatives in American pop culture. From Full Metal Jacket’s iconic drill sergeant in basic training to The Shining’s “here’s Johnny,” I had to remind myself that these scenes weren’t pop culture references, they were pop culture original sources. Equally incredible is each films dialogue, story, and (in the case of 2001: Space Odyssey) special effects, all of which have stood the test of time. What I appreciated most is that Kubrick was willing to present ultra abstract concepts like goodness and the morality of “good” behavior in A Clockwork Orange while never feeling obligated to explain the abstract imagery and metaphors used in his films. I will admit that Kubrick’s style of storytelling did eventually age out as the pacing of Eyes Wide Shut seemed to be a little lethargic for the relatively simple concept it was trying to portray.
80s Dance Classics
I am shame-faced to say that I never previously saw any of these iconic films. But the neglect has ended and I can’t believe I waited so long. Watching the smokescreen of dust as Johnny Castle drives off while “She’s Like the Wind” plays in the background (Dirty Dancing) reminds me of the first time I had watched a Britney or Christina music video on Total Request Live; it’s like watching pop cultural iconographic art portrayed right in front of your eyes. Watching Ren McCormack passionately testify in front of city council for the dance and then drop kick some guy right outside of said dance (Footloose) are scenes I’ll rewatch for the rest of my life. Which brings me to Alex Owens… the steamtown girl who wants to dance (Flashdance). Only 97 minutes long, but what a drag. Instead of watching this film again, I’ll just watch Vince Vaughn describe the film, as it brings me more of an emotional reaction than any time spent watching it. But the other two will certainly have plenty of repeat screentime in my future, because as they say, “no one keeps Baby in a corner.”
The Meta World of Charlie Kaufman
I had previously ventured through the head of Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and remember thinking to myself, “what a trip.” I’ll admit, I was a freshman in college at the time and don’t think my roommates nor I had the maturity to truly appreciate the film. Flash forward more than a decade later, and now having the intellectual capacity to analyze and appreciate Being John Malkovich, all of a sudden, I’m a Charlie Kaufmann fan. Here’s a truly meta scenario that I’ve only seen in a Kaufman film: you have a puppeteer occupying and puppeteering the brain of a celebrity who is becoming a puppeteer. You have a screenwriter who is screenwriting his own life, screenwriting the life of writer (Adaptation). Yeah, don’t stream these movies if you’re looking to turn your brain off.
Here’s a question that I have after watching all these films: was there truly a limited pool of talent capable of playing and on-screen gangster or was Robert DeNiro truly the best? After watching all of these movies in close succession, I stopped seeing the characters like San Rothstein (Casino), Al Capone (The Untouchables), and Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas) and instead they all just became Robert DeNiro.
Now of course, before starting down this path, my journey started in the home office of Vito Corleone on his daughter’s wedding (The Godfather) and watched Al Pacino masterfully transformed into the new boss. Then, I watched a very different Al Pacino (in a Cuban-alternative to blackface?) masterfully fall in hubris from an actual self-made throne (Scarface). Pure cinematic gold.
Special note: though not considered classics, I highly recommend The Departed and Eastern Promises. Unexpectedly fantastic storylines.
This part of the list gets a little tricky as Tarantino’s films are problematic in a number of ways; just search “Tarantino criticism” on Google and you’ll get a whiff of what I’m talking about. But from a storytelling and pop culture perspective, there’s a lot of artistry to recognize. There’s the iconic dance of Vincent and Mia and the biblical monologue of Jules in Pulp Fiction, the graphic novel-esque slashing of the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, and the revisionist narrative of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Especially noteworthy is Jackie Brown, a unique female POC protagonist in a time when that wasn’t often seen in cinema… it’s still not often seen in cinema.
Side note: Watching Reservoir Dogs was like watching a the party game mafia played out onscreen.