25 Films You Must See to Be Film Literate

There are certain films you must see in order to discuss film intelligently. I have showcased several of them in my essentials by genre pieces on this blog. But this week,no genres! Instead,here is a list of 25 films you must see in order to be film literate and appreciate cinema as art. Below is my list with reasons for each selection. Now,in no particular order…

1. Casablanca

Why?: There are too many reasons to list why Casablanca is an essential film! But here are a few. For my money,it’s the greatest film ever made. It has a great love story,the best screenplay in the history of cinema (the whole movie is quotable!),it’s the essential Bogart film,has one of the best casts in any movie top to bottom,and it also boasts one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. The dueling anthems scene in the cafe…I get chills just thinking about it!

2. Star Wars

Why? Star Wars was a game-changer! It changed how movies were made and marketed. Star Wars required special effects so unique that new technology had to be invented. Those effects would be made ba little studio that would become known as Industrial Light & Magic. You may have heard of them. Star Wars was one of the first movies to make a lot of money off of tie-in merchandise. That’s common now,but back then it was unique. It was a film made against all odds that had a universal story of good vs. evil. If you haven’t seen it…I find your lack of taste in film disturbing!

3. When Harry Met Sally

Why? It’s the essential romantic comedy. The two stars (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) have great chemistry. The screenplay is brilliant! It has some of the most honest dialogue between men and women that’s ever been put on film. It’s smart,funny…and the scene in the deli where Meg Ryan is “faking it?” Classic!

4. Rocky

Why? Rocky is the king of underdog sports movies. It made a star of Sylvester Stallone. Rocky has become synonomous with people persevering against all odds. When you hear someone say, “this is my Rocky moment/story,” it’s an homage to this great crowd-pleasing sports film. Rocky has inspired a slew of imitators,but very few of them come close.

5. The Third Man

Why? It’s the definitive film noir. It features the best performance by Orson Welles as well as Joseph Cotten. The cinematography,especially in the sewer chase scene,is amazing! Then there’s the zither music that serves as the score. Amazing!

6. The Wizard of Oz

Why? It’s the definitive film musical. No childhood is complete without watching it. There’s a good reason it’s still going strong 75 years later!

7. Halloween

Why? It’s the original slasher film But it’s not just a scary movie. It’s made with a lot of craft. From director John Carpenter’s creepy score,to Jamie Lee Curtis’ breakthrough performance,Halloween is special! Slasher films today rely mostly on gore for scares. This one relied on suspense.

8. Bullitt

Why? It has the movie car chase to end movie car chase scenes. Before directors relied solely on CGI,this film made one of the most exciting action sequences shooting with real cars on location in San Fransisco. Steve McQueen defined cool in this movie and The Great Escape.

9. Lawrence of Arabia

Why? David Lean defined epics. That term gets thrown around a lot today. But Lawrence of Arabia earned that label for good reason. It’s a sprawling,ambitious historical epic. Peter O’ Toole is brilliant in the role of TE Lawrence,a mercurial historical figure. See this one on a big screen to appreciate the sweep and scale!

10. Rear Window

Why? It’s arguable the most suspenseful of all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. The third act in particular had me on the edge of my seat. It’s one of the best performances James Stewart ever gave.

11. Rashomon

Why? Akira Kurosawa is one of the best directors. Period. Rashomon is his masterpiece. It’s his most challenging film. By telling the story of a crime through the perspectives of four witnesses, Kurosawa creates a fascinating portrait of the human psyche.

12. Alien/Aliens

Why? Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley was one of the first female action stars. The strong female characters of today owe her a debt of gratitude. Both Alien and Aliens seamlessly blend the genres of science fiction and horror. Enjoy the action,but stay for the great acting!

13. Fantasia

Why? Fantasia is simply the most audacious film Disney ever produced. It’s not a traditional movie with a narrative. Instead,it’s great animation set to classical music standards. While it flopped on initial release, it has rightly earned it’s place among the classics.

14. Metropolis

Why? It inspired practically every modern science fiction film. Watch Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, then check out Blade Runner and Dark City. You’ll see the influence plain as day. And the storyline of what makes us human is a question still being asked by science fiction writers and directors today.

15. The Producers

Why? Mel Brooks,Zero Mostel,and Gene Wilder. It’s the best film ever directed by Mel Brooks. The screenplay is hysterical. Plus, the way Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel play off each other’s opposite characters is a master class in acting. Then there’s the musical number Springtime for Hitler,which has to be seen to be believed!

16. The Searchers

Why? John Ford and John Wayne define the western genre. The Searchers is of special note because John Wayne’s character is not a likable law and order man. He’s very much  a racist antihero. Wayne’s performance is downright chilling!

17. The Turning Point

Why? It’s not just the great dancing. It’s a great portrait of the trials and tribulations of life in show business. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft are great as the leading ladies. And then there’s the fact that this movie introduced us to the dancing talents of Mikhail Baryshnikov. 

18. Superman

Why? It birthed the genre of the comic book movie. Superman proved you could spend real money on a comic book movie and that it could be commercially successful. Plus,it proved a movie could be successful if you cast an unknown as your lead. It worked out well for Christopher Reeve. Pay special attention to the opening credits which feature one of the best scores John Williams ever composed!

19. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Why? It has one of the most iconic action sequences (Indiana Jones running from the boulder). But Raiders is about far more than action set pieces. It introduced us to a great character (Indiana Jones,played brilliantly by Harrison Ford),has a great score by the amazing John Williams,a feisty leading lady in Karen Allen,witty writing,and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching a movie. In fact,it inspired my love of movies!

20. Hoop Dreams

Why? It’s one of the most engrossing documentaries ever filmed. It follows two inner city kids as they struggle with life and their aspirations to play professional basketball. We get a glimpse at their lives over the course of five years. Few documentaries have that much depth and ambition.

21. Goodfellas

Why? It’s THE gangster movie. Movie over Godfather! This film is not only one of Scorsese’s best,it features great performances from Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. Another reason it stands out is that,unlike other mafia films,it doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle. The characters face genuine consequences for being in that world. It’s riveting from start to finish!

22. The Dollars Trilogy

Why? For a Fistful of Dollars,For a Few Dollars More, and The Good,the Bad and the Ugly made a star out of Clint Eastwood. His performance as the Man with No Name is a great portrait of a bounty hunting antihero. Director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns are great fun and very well-made!

23. To Kill a Mockingbird

Why? Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Enough said! This film,with it’s deep look at racism and the need for equality is just as relevant now as it was in 1962. It’s no surprise that Atticus Finch constantly ranks high on the list of great movie heroes.

24. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Why? It was our first glimpse of the unique talent that was director Stanley Kubrick. It also featured a villain that was not human. H.A.L. 9000 showed us what could happen if we let technology become too powerful. There are also the breathtaking shots of space and Kubrick’s brillant decision to use classical music in the film instead of a traditional score. Who hears Thus Spoke Zarathustra without thinking of 2001? Probably no one.

25. The Right Stuff

Why? It’s a great companion piece to Apollo 13. The Right Stuff is not just a movie about astronauts going into space. It shows them as genuine and flawed human beings. These are not cardboard cutout heroes. The struggles of the early days of NASA are told in exhilarating detail in this gem.The bigger the screen you can see this on,the better!