Twenty Films You Should See Before You Die

20 Movies You Ought to Watch

These are just 20 movies that I think either have technical genius (Triumph of the Will) or just crack me the hell up (The Godfather). They aren’t my 20 favorites, nor are they my choices for the 20 best films ever. I just like them, and most of them I can watch multiple times in a week.

Herewith, the list (in no particular order):

  • Casablanca. A lot of people don’t get it the first time, but it’s my favorite movie ever. It has intrigue, crime, Nazis, French Underground agents, Humphrey Bogart in his best role, Claude Rains as the perfect foil for Bogart, and a supporting cast almost all of whom really escaped Hitler’s Third Reich. The tears you see during “La Marseilles” are real. Truly awesome film.
  • Citizen Kane: Some parts of it seem dated now (yellow journalism, e.g.), but the technical and theatrical advancements Orson Welles created with this film make it timeless.
  • Double Indemnity: One of the best examples of film noir, with a perfect tag team of Fred McMurray and Edward G. Robinson trying to figure out who killed Barbara Stanwyck’s husband, and was it only for the insurance money? Plenty of shadows and cigarettes, like any good noir has.
  • Apollo 13. Just awesome filmmaking and acting, all in a claustrophobic space.
  • Cotton Club. Sort of like The Godfather’s musical, African-American cousin. The fictional story is centered around the real Cotton Club, where the entertainers were all black, but no blacks were allowed in the club. Gregory and Maurice Hines show what tap dancing is all about, but Gregory has a solo, a cappella dance toward the end that is damn near perfect.
  • The Godfather. Really? Do I have to describe The Godfather? In one beautiful scene, you can see Brando’s forehead acting. Every other actor who gave a great performance that year probably watched Marlon Brando in The Godfather and thought, oh shit. No use rearranging the shelf this year.
  • Capote. Speaking of Secretariat-like locks on an Oscar…the tragically late Phillip Seymour Hoffman didn’t portray Truman Capote so much as he became Truman Capote. The voice, the mannerisms, the personality—all spot-on. A great script, too, excellent direction, and an Oscar-worthy supporting performance from Catherine Keener.
  • Fanny and Alexander. This movie is three-and-a-half hours, entirely in Swedish, and it is a wonder. Needless to say, it’s not for everybody, but it captures life through the eyes of a twelve-ish-year-old boy. He grows up in a wealthy, loving theater family. Then has to move to austere, cruel surroundings, then back again. This film won four Oscars, and deserved every one. Beautiful, autobiographical film from Ingmar Bergman.
  • Au Revoir Les Enfants. Louis Malle’s autobiographical story from his World War 2 experiences at a boarding school. He befriends a new boy, a Jewish kid the monks are harboring, trying to save him from the Nazis. The ending will break your heart. Great film, though.
  • Giant. At over three hours, Giant is an apt title for this film, based on Edna Ferber’s novel. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor have flawless chemistry as a married couple. They live on a ranch, where a twitchy hired hand (James Dean) twitches around, over-acting 75% of the time. If you can forgive that—and I exaggerate his twitchiness, but I swear he method acts sweating—this film will ensorcel you so deeply, that you won’t know it’s three hours long.
  • All the President’s Men. This is one of those films that’s scarier because it’s true. It’s the story of how Woodward and Bernstein investigated and broke the Watergate Scandal wide open. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play “Woodstein,” as editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his role), referred to the two. Thus, we can see the “Bennifer” portmanteau was really preceded by two decades. The film is wonderfully acted, fast paced, and shows how newspapers really work (at least to a point).
  • Good Night, And Good Luck. If All the President’s Men shows how newspapers work, Good Night, And Good Luck takes us into the early days of TV news, when Edward R. Murrow and CBS reigned supreme. David Strathairn gives an amazing performance of the unflappable Murrow, and George Clooney plays Murrow’s producer and friend, Fred Friendly. This cast is amazing, and the film is shot in black and white. Clooney also directs, and does a superb job.
  • His Girl Friday. This is widely considered the first romantic comedy, and is the first film where people’s dialogue actually overlapped, as it does in real life. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are a perfect match as journalists covering a hanging. The problem is, Russell is supposed to get married and go on her honeymoon that day. This pre-WW2 gem is still funny today.
  • JFK. If you believe this film is true, you probably believe in the tooth fairy as well. Even Oliver Stone has said it’s an amalgamation of multiple theories. What it ends up being is a well-told film, with stellar performances from its cast, especially Donald Sutherland and Joe Pesci. To me, the parts between protagonist Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife drag unnecessarily, but that could just be me. Some people hate this film because they disagree with Garrison’s argument—or that he seems to be arresting Tommy Lee Jones’s character (Clay Shaw) with no clear evidence linking him to the JFK assassination—but agree or disagree, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking (try NOT to get the director’s cut, which has extra, terrible scenes, and an even longer closing argument).
  • The Maltese Falcon. A film noir that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Once again, Humphrey Bogart stars as the hard-boiled guy who takes shit from nobody, not the Nazis, the Vichy French, or the San Francisco Police Department. Director John Huston also wrote the screenplay, and the film is seamless, perhaps because of this. Sidney Greenstreet and his “gunsel” are quite a pair, and the whole film is a serious doughnut with a drizzle of comedic glaze.
  • Wings of Desire. Wim Winders’s story features two angels whose assignment has been to watch over what has become modern day Berlin. Now, they can hear people’s thoughts and, while they can’t perform miracles, they can offer comfort and reassurance. Peter Falk (Peter Falk) is in Berlin making a film, and he finds a way to communicate with the angels, one of whom is thinking about quitting and becoming human. (note: Hollywood remade this into a meh film with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan.)
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Yes, I went there. The storyline—censorship—is valid, and the kids’ foul mouths is still oddly funny. What amazes me, though, is the songs. The song “Blame Canada” was nominated for an Oscar (although everyone who’s seen it knows which song should have been nominated and won the award), and the film got some surprisingly good reviews.
  • V for Vendetta. I love both the poetic language and violence in this film. If I’m feeling down (or on powerful meds for some reason), this is my go-to film. Natalie Portman does a good English accent as Evie Hammond, but it’s Hugo Weaving’s big-ass voice bellowing Shakespeare before he bashes someone’s skull in that steals the film. Good stuff for the kids. (I’m joking)
  • Triumph of the Will. This is not an entertaining film by any stretch of the imagination. It is Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg. It is also the first truly great piece of propaganda ever. Riefenstahl invented techniques and angles, lighting and camera tracking that nobody had done before. If you’ve seen any slick documentary about someone trying to pretend he or she is a god, you’ve seen Ms. Riefenstahl’s work. It’s on YouTube. If nothing else, watch the first five or ten minutes, as we see Hitler emerge—godlike—from the sky. It’s spectacular.
  • Judgment at Nuremberg. As compared to Triumph of the Will, Nuremberg looked verrrrrrry different in Judgment at Nuremberg after the Allies bombed the crap out of it. Oddly, one of the only buildings left standing was the Palace of Justice, and that’s where the infamous Nuremberg Trials took place. Judgment at Nuremberg doesn’t cover the infamous trials. Rather, it follows the trials of four German judges by a three judge panel led by Spencer Tracy. The writing and direction are excellent, but it’s the performances that make this film so good. Spencer Tracy is his usual great self, but a scarred, drug-addled, skeletal Montgomery Clift steals the film. Judy Garland, Richard Widmark, and Burt Lancaster all shine as well. Good God, it’s another three hour movie.

And that’s it. Twenty films that have some merit or another, be it humor, tragedy, or technical excellence. Oh, and you’ll find yourself singing that Terence and Phillip song in “South Park” all day long. 😉


About tom

B.A. in Literature, Minor in Film Theory and Criticism, thus meaning all I’m trained is to write blog posts here. Neptune is my favorite planet–it vents methane into the solar system like my brother does. I think Chicken McNuggets look like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. There are times when I’m medicated, which is why I wrote about McNuggets. Buy some today and tell me I’m wrong! Anyway, Beyond that: mammal, Floridian, biped.Good Night, and Good Luck. Besos, tom
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