If you’re a budding cinephile, it can be difficult to know where to start or even to find a baseline. Cinema becomes more daunting every year as new films are released and old films are reappraised. With this in mind, the staff of Collider.com has collaborated on 100 movies we think every film fan needs to see.
To be clear, this list is not an ending, but a beginning. It’s meant to serve as a starting point. Just because a movie didn’t make this list of 100, that doesn’t mean it’s “inessential.” Rather, we wanted to provide a good foundation that would spark a person’s curiosity about where to go next. Additionally, while many essential movies were done by white, male directors because historically those are the people who have had power, we didn’t want to neglect international cinema, female filmmakers, or filmmakers of color, and we have sought to include their work here.
Another group of film fans could come up with their own “Essential 100” and make a strong argument for it. However, we didn’t create this list to spark an argument, but to spark curiosity. If you look at this list as a guide rather than an end-point, then it should set you on a path to building your knowledge and appreciation of cinema.
Also, it should be noted that this list is organized alphabetically. We have not ranked these movies against each other because part of the purpose of this list is to get you to start with any film that piques your interest and see where it leads you.
Below is an overview of our list, and you can scroll down to read our justifications for why each film is essential. And if you want to test your progress, here is a checklist of all 100 movies. Make sure to let us know how many you’ve seen so far!
The 400 Blows
2001: A Space Odyssey
All About My Mother
All That Jazz
Back to the Future
A Better Tomorrow
Birth of a Nation
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
Cleo From 5 to 7
Creature From the Black Lagoon
The Dark Knight
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Days of Heaven
Do the Right Thing
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Empire Strikes Back
Enter the Dragon
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Evil Dead
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Gone with the Wind
The Great Dictator
His Girl Friday
In the Mood for Love
Lawrence of Arabia
A League Of Their Own
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
Menace II Society
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Night of the Living Dead
The Princess Bride
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Silence of the Lambs
Singin’ in the Rain
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
The Social Network
Some Like It Hot
This Is Spinal Tap
When Harry Met Sally
For additional curated recommendations from the Collider staff, check out our lists for the best comedy films of the 21st century, best documentaries of the 21st century, and best war movies of the 21st century so far.
8 1/2 (1963)
Director: Federico Fellini
Writer: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, & Brunello Rondi
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, and Sandra Milo
Why It’s Essential: A giant of Italian cinema, it’s difficult to know where to begin, especially with Federico Fellini, who also directed Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, and La Strada. So maybe the best place is where Fellini didn’t even know where to start. 8 ½ (the title referring to Fellini’s 8 ½ film since he had previously directed six features, two shorts, and a collaboration) is one of the great “writer’s block” movie where Fellini stand-in Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) wrestles with trying to put together his next feature while also grappling with creative pressure as well as the many women of his life.
In addition to being an essential film of Italian cinema, the dreamlike and autobiographical qualities of 8 ½ have been highly influential as we’re basically swimming in Guido’s (and therefore Fellini’s) subconscious and that makes for a strange and unique experience that helps provide insight into Fellini’s filmography and process. – Matt Goldberg
The 400 Blows (1959)
Director: François Truffaut
Writers: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Why It’s Essential: The directorial debut critic turned auteur François Truffaut also just happens to be one of the most achingly human films ever made and a distinct starting block for the French New Wave movement of the 1950s. The 400 Blows—an extremely literal translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which is closer to meaning “raise hell”—follows Truffaut’s on-screen stand-in Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a troubled teenager drifting his way through petty crimes and parents who just don’t understand in 1950s Paris. There’s not a whiff of nostalgia to Truffaut’s fictionalized take on his own childhood; The 400 Blows simply feels like being deposited into someone else’s black and white memories. In this endeavor, Truffaut was helped greatly by cinematographer Henri Decae, whose background in documentaries lent itself to the film’s unflinching, pointed gaze toward Antoine’s palpable loneliness. Like most films of the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows free-floats along its own path more than it tells a central narrative, but there’s not a single wasted shot across its entire runtime. The film’s entire vibe can be condensed down to the scenes where Leaud—truly one of cinema’s greatest sad ghost-looking faces that set the stage for the Timothée Chalamets of the modern world—sits in a cell answering questions from a psychologist. Although he hired an actress to provide the psychologist’s voice, Truffaut chose to shoot Léaud alone and give the young actor leeway to answer the questions as he chose. The filmmaker’s camera cares deeply for its subject, and The 400 Blows builds small revelation-by-revelation to one of the most arresting up-close-and-personal final shots of all time. – Vinnie Mancuso
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain
Two words: Stanley Kubrick. You could pick just about any title in the acclaimed filmmaker’s catalog and you’d have yourself a veritable clinic on movie-making right there on your screen. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a prime example of this, featuring both the tried-and-true methods of the art of the cinematic as well as breaking these conventions in every conceivable way. And for the fans of hard science-fiction who love a tale told with grounded science fact, 2001 is one of the best, thanks in large part to co-writer Arthur C. Clarke being along for the ride.
To say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is an ambitious film is to far undersell it. The story goes to the roots of our existence as both primitive animals and ridiculously advanced sentient beings while the set design went to great lengths to realistically recreate the experience of traveling through space aboard a technologically advanced vessel. While the main conflict of the film appears to center on the disconnect between the malfunctioning supercomputer HAL 9000 and the human astronauts traveling to investigate a mysterious monolith, the film is, more broadly, an exploration of humankind’s connection to the universe. From the “Dawn of Man’ to the “Star Child” and the unknown expanse of time and space that comes afterwards, 2001 is no less than an attempt to tell humankind’s story in a matter of hours, bolstered by stunning, cutting-edge special effects.
Just as Clarke’s stories have influenced generations of writers, artists, creative, and scientists alike, so too has Kubrick’s sci-fi epic influenced untold numbers of filmmakers who came afterwards. It’s impossible to watch 2001 and not see the inspiration for new classic films like Star Wars and Alien, to contemporary sci-fi standouts like Gravity, Arrival, and Ex Machina. The creative impact of 2001 over the last 50 years can’t be overstated, but its influence on future films is a certainty. – Dave Trumbore
Writers/Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Cast: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack
Why It’s Essential: Surely, the screwball to end all screwballs, Airplane!, is an influential comedy and you’d be well within your rights to be salty about it. A lot of bad movies have resulted from the Airplane! formula, mostly parody flicks that only believe in quantity over quality in their joke-telling, but that only serves to highlight how much of a miracle Airplane! actually is. Sure, there’s a plot—it’s a disaster parody set on a virus-ridden aircraft that mostly borrows from the straight-faced 1957 drama Zero Hour!—but the amount of one-liners, zingers, sight gags, and yucks Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker manage to cram into these 90 minutes is enough to make your head spin. But jokes are like airplanes: No one is gonna’ be laughing if that thing doesn’t land. And, in the ultrabright lights of 2019, a lot of Airplane!’s jokes don’t! But that’s where the movie’s genius stroke of casting comes in; Abrahams and the Zucker brothers populated their laugh-a-second comedy with some of the most distinguished dramatic actors you could imagine. TV Golden Age dramatist Leslie Nielsen. Emmy-winner Robert Stack. Sea Hunt leading man Lloyd Bridges. The list goes on—led, of course, by the great Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays—and the result is a layer of deadpan gold that very, very few comedies have managed to reach since. Having to wade through your Disaster Movies and your Meet the Spartans is worth having Airplane!, an all-time classic comedy and a first ballot contender in the “Most Quotable Movie” Hall of Fame. – Vinnie Mancuso
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Dan O’Bannon
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, and John Hurt
Why It’s Essential: Ridley Scott sophomore feature, Alien is one of the best horror movies of all time, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, and one of the best movies of all time, no qualifier. Crafted with precision to create an immersive working-class world in space, Alien presents a vision of the future that is timeless; a trip through the universe from the perspective of the professional grunts who just want to get the job done and go home. And then they meet the Xenomorph; an alien creature that sits at the pinnacle of predatory evolution.
Where to even begin with this one. Sigourney Weaver is iconic as Ellen Ripley, a beacon of competence and sensitivity in a devolving crisis. And her performance wasn’t just a game-changer for the representation of women in film, it was also just downright fantastic. And she’s matched by performers like Ian Holm, John Hurt, and Harry Dean Stanton, who endow the ill-fated crew with a lived-in presence that makes every casualty hit harder. Then there’s H.R. Giger’s still-unmatched design for the creature, Dan O’Bannon’s refined script, and their combined vision with Scott’s, which creates a provocative intergalactic nightmare that taps into still-taboo subjects and delivers a powerhouse story of class and gender divides, corporate cruelty, and ultimately, survival. – Haleigh Foutch
All About My Mother (1999)
Writer/Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Antonia San Juan
Why It’s Essential: You could arguably label Pedro Almodóvar as the finest filmmaker to come out of Spain, but the thesis behind his most decorated film, All About My Mother, might dispute the idea of labels in the first place. Winner of [deep breath] the 1999 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language, Best Direction and six Goya Awards, All About My Mother is, in every way, a film about identity. From the story to the performances to the characters to the color schemes, Almodóvar weaves his way through what makes someone who they are and the millions of beautiful contradictions that come with a personality. Our way in is through Manuela (Cecilia Roth), an Argentine nurse whose son Esteban (Eloy Azarin) is struck and killed by a car while chasing down a famous actress (Marisa Paredes) for an autograph. In the wake of this tragedy, Manuela resolves to track down Esteban’s estranged father—a transgender woman named Lola (Toni Canto)—an odyssey that leads Manuela into the orbits of an old friend working as a sex worker (Antonia San Juan) and a pregnant nun suffering from HIV (Penelope Cruz). Almodóvar cares so deeply for all these flawed, multilayered people, and that warmth spreads to the entire film, to the point where you’re not sure how to react. It’s obviously a deeply melancholic tragedy, but it’s just as often funny, rife with references to A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve, and boasting a set design filled with the gorgeously bright reds and yellows of a party. And it all ends with the perfect dedication: “To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” – Vinnie Mancuso
All That Jazz (1979)
Director: Bob Fosse
Writers: Bob Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur
Cast: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, and Ann Reinking
Why It’s Essential: Not just one of the best musicals ever made, All That Jazz is also one of the most groundbreaking autobiographical films in history. Legendary choreographer, director, and dancer Bob Fosse turns the camera inward as he tells the story of Joe Gideon, a theater director and choreographer who’s juggling the staging of his latest Broadway musical, the editing of a movie he just directed, and his relationship with his girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter. It’s a thinly veiled confessional, as Gideon is overworked, cantankerous, and on the brink of death, and the musical numbers are told entirely from his point of view.
Indeed, the musical sequences are exaggerated reflections of Joe’s inner turmoil, and the way in which Fosse transitions from dramatic scene to musical number drives home that singular point of view. But the film also inflates Joe’s ego—and by extension Fosse’s—building to a rousing, existential climax that features one of the most iconic and emotional musical sequences ever put to screen. – Adam Chitwood
Director: Milos Forman
Writer: Peter Shaffer
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, and Elizabeth Berridge
Why It’s Essential: Peter Shaffer’s original stage play is an ingenious way to tell the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) while actually telling the story of Antonio Saleri’s (F. Murray Abraham) jealousy and envy. But Milos Forman made it cinematic and breathtaking by never making the action feel staged or claustrophobic. Instead, Forman relishes the lush palace intrigue and gorgeous settings to not only emphasize the stakes, but also show Mozart as an abrasive outsider, someone who doesn’t really play by the rules that Saleri has lived his life by.
There’s really no excuse for any biopic to be as staid and predictable when Forman showed a unique approach to a person’s life over thirty years ago. If you’re looking for a “faithful” recessitation of Mozart’s life, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find a much richer story about professional jealousy and knowing your limitations when meeting greatness. Amadeus is really the story two tragedies: the tragedy of Mozart, who died young and was betrayed by his friend, and Saleri, who was confronted by his lack of genius. – Matt Goldberg
The Apartment (1960)
Director/Writer: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, and Jack Kruschen
Why It’s Essential: Just one year after he made one of the greatest farces ever with Some Like It Hot, filmmaker Billy Wilder created one of the best romantic comedies ever made: The Apartment. The 1960 masterpiece stars Jack Lemmon as an insurance clerk named Bud who enmeshes himself with the higher-ups at his company by allowing them to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He subsequently falls in love with his work building’s elevator operator Fran (Shirley MacLaine), who it turns out is having an affair with his boss—in his apartment no less.
The Apartment was pretty ambitious for the period during which it was made. The film’s subject matter covers extramarital sexual liaisons and suicide, and the skill with which Wilder vacillates between comedy and drama is marvelous. In that way it would prove influential to other comedy/dramas to come, as Wilder showed a comedy could also confront issues that human beings face in the real world. This dimensionality makes Bud and Fran all the more relatable, and Lemmon and MacLaine deliver a pair of all-timer performances as the iconic duo. – Adam Chitwood
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writer: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Robert Duvall
Why It’s Essential: There are plenty of movies that deal with the psychological toll of the Vietnam War, but none are as surreal and unhinged as Apocalypse Now, a movie that almost killed its director as recounted in the excellent documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, the story follows Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) who has been tasked with finding and killing the AWOL Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
There are movies that go more to the facts of the Vietnam War (Platoon, based on the experiences of director Oliver Stone) or the difficulty in returning home from that war (Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July, The Deer Hunter), but Apocalypse Now hits at something far more psychological and ineffable. It’s one thing to say that “war is hell”, but for Coppola and Apocalypse Now, war shatters the mind and the spirit, creating some unholy abomination that can’t be easily explained or recreated. – Matt Goldberg
The Avengers (2012)
Director/Writer: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, and Samuel L. Jackson
Why It’s Essential: The Avengers is technically just a big superhero movie in which a team of heroes battle a formidable foe attacking New York City, but it’s the larger implications of the film that make it an essential piece of film history—especially for the 21st century. The film marked a culmination event for Marvel Studios, which began making its own superhero movies with 2008’s Iron Man, and after that started to thread standalone films together with cameos and recurring characters, much like a TV series (or, obviously, a comic book). After the films Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, the idea was to team up the individual heroes in a “team movie” called The Avengers. There were naysayers who thought it wouldn’t work, who assumed that people who hadn’t seen Thor or Captain America or Iron Man 2 would skip The Avengers because they weren’t “caught up.” They were wrong.
The Avengers broke the box office record for opening weekend and went on to gross $1.5 billion worldwide. Moreover, the individual films after The Avengers were more successful than their predecessors, and as Marvel Studios kept building out and moving towards additional “team” movies, the success rate—both at the box office and with critics—just keep improving.
The Avengers quite literally changed how movies were made, as other major studios looked at this Marvel Cinematic Universe model and attempted to recreate its success. It was easier said than done, as Warner Bros.’ DC version eventually stalled out with 2017’s Justice League and led to a reworking of their approach, and Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe” of monster movies was one-and-done with 2017’s The Mummy. Regardless of the film’s quality (It’s good! But it’s not one of the best movies ever made), The Avengers has solidified its place in film history as an important marker for moviemaking in the 2010s. – Adam Chitwood
Back to the Future (1985)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover
Why It’s Essential: Until scientists actually figure out a way to travel through time, Back to the Future will have to suffice. It’s obviously not the first movie to deal with time travel, but it’s one of the few feature comedies to do so and do it with style. The DeLorean, more iconic as a movie vehicle than its real-world counterpart, makes for a more impressive time-travel conveyance than H.G. Wells’ titular time machine ever did (yes, even in Time After Time), and the film’s attempts to establish the basics of time travel through grounded “science” lends a practical, realistic feel that’s absent from flicks like Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Back to the Future made time travel feel contemporary, immediate, and possible, even as we watched a souped-up sports car powered by plutonium rocket through a shopping mall parking lot and disappear into the not-so-distant past.
Back to the Future has an absolutely wacky premise that really helps to put the antics of Rick and Morty into perspective. Basically, eccentric scientists Dr. Emmett Brown recruits high-schooler Marty McFly to meet him at the mall parking lot, which is totally normal, as is the fact that Brown stole plutonium from Libyan terrorists (also in the parking lot) who shoot him, forcing Marty to travel to the past in order to change Doc’s fate. The problem is that Marty is now stuck in 1955 with no plutonium and no way to get … back to the future.
While the film may be 100% wish fulfillment from beginning to end, where Marty saves the day after nearly making out with his mother but getting to bring some ‘80s-era rock ‘n’ roll to the stuffy ‘50s, it’s still as entertaining as hell. Zemeckis made his mark as a cutting-edge special effects wiz and pioneer of the next great tech here, continuing a career that’s brought audiences and filmmakers alike some astounding achievements. But it’s Back to the Future’s crowd-pleasing antics, wonderfully absurd pseudo-science, and compelling sci-fi aesthetic that made it a blockbuster feature, a franchise-starter, and a pop culture icon. – Dave Trumbore
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Writer: Nina Agadzhanova
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barskiy, and Grigoriy Aleksandrov
Why It’s Essential: Do you like editing and montage? These pillars of cinema owe a debt to Eisenstein and his 1925 propaganda film Battleship Potemkin. The story is based on the revolt on the Battleship Potemkin where soldiers revolted against their officers who expected the men to eat spoiled food. This act of rebellion reverberates to the people who start fighting back against the government forces and sacrifice their lives at the hands of their cruel masters.
Make no mistake: Battleship Potemkin is unabashed socialist propaganda, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t advance the entire artform of cinema. Eisenstein pioneered the kind of narrative devices and editing techniques we take for granted today, and basically made one of the first action movies of all time. These kind of techniques are so essential and relevant that Brian De Palma pretty much wholesale lifted the Odessa Steps sequence for The Untouchables, and if you’re going to steal, steal from one of the most important movies of all time. – Matt Goldberg
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Director: John Woo
Writers: John Woo, Chan Hing-kai, Leung Suk-wah
Cast: Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-fat
Why It’s Essential: The film that cemented the creative partnership between director John Woo and leading man Chow Yun-fat is so influential—and so influentially violent—it left bloody bullet hole in both Chinese cinema and Hollywood. Crashing onto a Hong Kong scene that was mostly made up of cartoonish martial arts movies at the time, A Better Tomorrow was a gritty gangster flick infused with Woo’s trademark style, filled with over-the-top bloodshed and double-fisted gunplay that the director filmed with all the grace of a choreographed dance. Ti Lung leads the show as Sung Tse-Ho, a former Triad member forced to decide between living a clean life like his police officer brother (Leslie Cheung) or teaming up with former criminal colleague Mark Lee—Yun-fat, playing a character so freaking cool he successfully rocks a trench coat—to take down the fools who once betrayed them. Bursting with genuine emotion and dramatic stakes, yes, A Better Tomorrow also—to use a technical term of film critique—whips a ton of ass. Woo’s electrifying brand of blood-letting not only led directly to a Hong Kong movie rating system, it also spawned the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre, a style of film that emphasized gun-fu, gangsters, and brotherhood. (But also shooting two guns at the same time.) That influence soon trekked on over to Hollywood, not only with Woo-directed films like Hard Target and Face/Off, but the Wachowski’s conspicuously trench coat-filled Matrix trilogy, most of the nine films from Quentin Tarantino, and the Keanu Reeves-led John Wick movies. – Vinnie Mancuso
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writers: Thomas Dixon Jr., D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods
Cast: Henry B. Walthall and Lillian Gish
Why It’s Essential: Let’s be absolutely clear: the plot and message of Birth of a Nation is absolutely loathesome. It’s a three-hour silent film whose narrative can only be described as incredibly racist as it speaks to white fears of black power and that the only way to put black people (all portrayed here as white people in blackface) “in their place” is through terrorism. It’s a film you only want to watch once.
But if you care about how cinema developed and its storytelling techniques, you do have to endure this wretched movie. D.W. Griffith basically made the first blockbuster with Birth of a Nation, and because he did his job so well, it shows that while cinema has the power to inspire, it also has the power to corrupt. We have to respect art because of this power and that there’s really no such thing as “pure entertainment” because while white audiences surely found Birth of a Nation entertaining when they saw it in 1915, they also had no problem with a movie that upheld the Ku Klux Klan as American heroes. The historical contributions to cinema from Birth of a Nation are undeniable, but we also have to balance that against the evil of its story. – Matt Goldberg
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Director: Mel Brooks
Writers: Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Al Uger, Andrew Bergman
Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens
Why It’s Essential: If you smudge Blazing Saddles from cinematic history you are quite literally erasing one of the most cherished staples in comedy history: the fart joke. Yes, friends, Blazing Saddles deserves its place in the pantheon strictly for being the first to feature recorded on-screen flatulence. Trail-Blazing, indeed. There’s also, right, the fact that it’s master of the joke-a-minute parody Mel Brooks operating at the absolute peak of his powers, crafting a Western that manages to pack a wagon train’s worth of gags right next to some truly biting commentary on race and the ten gallon morons who misunderstand it. It’s 1874, and corrupt State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) appoints a railroad worker named Bart (Cleavon Little) sheriff of Rock Ridge, knowing the locals won’t take too kindly to a black man keeping the peace. Undeterred by a barrage of slurs from all sides, Bart becomes Lamarr’s worst enemy with the help of boozed-up gunslinger Jim “The Waco Kid” (Gene Wilder). Both freewheeling and fearless, Blazing Saddles is so loaded with double entendres, anachronisms, and trademark Brooksian fourth wall-breaking, it’s easy to miss just how mad this move is at the racism that permeated Westerns and still hovers over the movie industry today. (The action literally spills out into the Warner Bros. backlot and all over Hollywood Blvd at one point.) It’s no surprise at all that Richard Pryor had such a strong hand in the script. The fierceness of his comedy combined with Brooks’ glee at poking a subject in its eye result in one of the sharpest satires of all time.
Plus, like, the scene with the farts is really funny. Great films contain multitudes. – Vinnie Mancuso
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sarah Miles
Why It’s Essential: Part of the reason we don’t have a Production Code (a self-censorship set of rules run by that prevented explicit content from reaching cinemas so that outside forces wouldn’t censor Hollywood) anymore is because of Blowup. Antonioni’s movie is explicitly violent, sexual, and includes drug use, which may not seem like a big deal today, but it wasn’t exactly commonplace when the film was released in 1966.
But the reason the film endures, not just because of how it upended the Production Code, but also because of what it means to the concept of the male gaze, and the power of it has over its subjects. The protagonist is Thomas (David Hemmings), who unintentionally witnesses a murder while taking a photo of two lovers. Blowup examines the intrusiveness of the camera, and the power of the Observer effect in which the mere act of observing an act changes that act. It’s a film that revels in its ambiguity and openness to interpretation, and while some may find such ambiguity frustrating, Blowup can certainly stimulate an intellectual itch. – Matt Goldberg
Blue Velvet (1986)
Writer/Director: David Lynch
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini
Why It’s Essential: Choosing David Lynch’s “most accessible movie” is like picking the most flammable part of the Atlantic Ocean, but the filmmaker’s surreal 1984 mystery Blue Velvet acts as the perfect introductory course in all things Lynchian for anyone looking to to take that wild ride. Nearly a decade removed from his art-film nightmare Eraserhead, just after the box office mega-bomb that was the Dune adaptation, and just a few years away from drastically changing network television with Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet is Lynch at his most beautifully mystifying. Part coming-of-age tale, part voyeuristic look into a small town’s perverse underbelly, the film stars constant Lynch companion Kyle MacLachlan as a fresh-faced college student named Jeffrey who discovers a severed ear in a field, leading him and a police detective’s daughter named Sandy (Laura Dern) down a rabbit hole and into the orbit of abused lounge singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) and the monstrous gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Like all of Lynch’s work, that surface story is just there to draw unexplainable emotions out of his audience. Blue Velvet plays like someone dreaming a classic neo-noir story; you’re drawn into and eventually repulsed by Jeffrey’s descent into this mad underworld, even when it feels like you’re being tugged down with him. The two biggest benefactors of Lynch’s style are Rossellini and Hopper, who both enjoyed something of a revitalization thanks to Blue Velvet. Rossellini gives every ounce of energy she has to to the tragic, desperate figure of Dorothy, while Frank Booth remains one of the most horrifically comic creations in all of movie history. Whether or not David Lynch is for you, I can guarantee you will never erase from your head the sound of Dennis Hopper screaming “Baby wants to fuck!” – Vinnie Mancuso
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Director: James Whale
Writer: William Hurlbut
Cast: Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger
Why It’s Essential: If anyone ever brings up the topic of the best sequels of all time without mentioning Bride of Frankenstein, it is they who are the true monster. Dracula and Frankenstein might have jumpstarted Universal Studios’ era of creature feature talkies, but it’s director James Whale’s follow-up to the latter that stands as the classic monster-verse’s crown jewel. Tasked with creating a suitable sequel to the Boris Karloff-starring Frankenstein, Whale and screenwriter William Hurlbut borrowed a plot from Mary Shelley’s source novel and built the monster a mate. The result was one of the most enduring bits of iconography in all of horror history, the tall-haired, white-striped visage of The Bride, etched in history forever thanks to—and this is always a surprise for first-timers—just over five minutes of screentime. So what makes the Bride such a force? There’s the fierce, unforgettable embodiment by Elsa Lanchester—who also plays Shelley herself in a prologue—the creature design, the prosthetics, the immediate recognition that marrying a monster man is a trash decision. Like these beasties themselves, it’s an amalgam of parts put together and jolted with lightning to create something undeniably alive, in this case one of, if not the best monster movie ever made. – Vinnie Mancuso
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
Why It’s Essential: Like so many groundbreaking films for their time, it’s hard to imagine just how transgressive Brokeback Mountain was in the context of today’s culture, but Ang Lee’s sublime, tragic romance was a pivotal stepping stone in bringing queer cinema to the mainstream. To the point that the filmmakers answered queries about the central love story being “disgusting” after its premiere. With an acclaimed filmmaker like Lee at the helm and former teen-dream movie stars like Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway in the lead, Brokeback Mountain held a cultural cache as one of the first LBGTQ films to hold major sway on the awards circuit – even if it lost Best Picture in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history.
But the film’s impact wasn’t thanks to its prestige, it was because Brokeback Mountain is a gorgeous, melancholic love story about two fascinating characters, told with Lee’s elegant eye for detail and talent for stories of tremendous empathy. Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain is the story of Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger), two otherwise good, old-fashioned country boys who happen to fall in love with each other. Lee charts their passion and repression – and the fallout from both – with a mix of tenderness and cruelty, and the result is as captivating as it is devastating. The film was added to the US National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in 2018, cementing its legacy as a formative work. Who needs a Best Picture statue, anyway? – Haleigh Foutch
This week, the CBS All Access series based on Stephen King’s lengthy tome debuts. But how closely does it follow the novel?
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