Most films are ephemeral, some are slow burners, but there are just a few which become instant classics, and immediately connect with audiences. On average one movie a year will make to the list of the list of classics.
They are not necessarily the films that make the most noise, or have the highest grossing openings, because those movies often do not bear watching more than once.
To make it onto a list of Movie Classics a film has to make you want to keep rewinding.
They are films that you are still thinking about long after the end credits roll, they tell us something about ourselves or our relationships, and sometimes they even take cinema in a new direction.
There aren’t many Car Chase movies that make it onto a list of classic films. They are usually full of flashy cars, high-octane music, and people shouting ‘Drive!’ as if the person behind the wheel of the getaway car does not comprehend their role in the operation.
Not Drive. Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, an imperturbable stunt man/getaway driver with no name who is economic with his words. Stingy even.
He prefers to drive a nondescript family car within the speed-limits, observing all stop signs, whilst listening to police scanners and sports on the radio.
Drive is a Neo Noir car chase movie, with Carey Mulligan as the neighbor in falls in love with from afar. Like all Neo Noir love affairs, the course of true love does not run smooth. Not even close.
But if you want an intelligent, softly spoken car chase film that still delivers thrills ‘n’ spills, Drive is definitely the one.
9 2012—The Master
The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mentally fragile war veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic leader of a new religious movement, known vaguely as The Cause. Phoenix initially finds comfort and acceptance with his new family, which he needs after his haunting experiences during World War II, but he begins to realize that Hoffman may not be quite the Messiah that he. at first, seems.
Based (very) loosely on Scientology, The Cause is a religion made up ‘on the spot’ by Hoffman. Phoenix, however, is convinced and begins to work for The Cause.
However, the PTSD that he suffered during the war, keeps recurring, and, it turns out, PTSD does not mix well with charismatic religion and moonshine. Who knew?
The Master won multiple awards on its release, and received Oscar nominations for both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both actors were awarded the Volpi Cup at The Venice Film Festival, and the film was also awarded The Silver Lion. It should have won The Golden Lion for Best Film but was downgraded because of a rule that prevents any film from winning both best acting and best directing honors (Quentin Tarantino appealed this when he was Chair of Judges in 2010, but to date it has not changed).
There is no sweeping the boards in Venice.
Joaquin Phoenix was on great form in the 2010’s and in 2013 he starred in another classic movie, Her. Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely man who spends his days writing love letters to people he doesn’t know. When he upgrades his computer to include a virtual assistant that has Scarlett Johannsen’s voice, he slowly falls in love with her.
The computer is programmed to evolve based on their interactions, and she becomes, literally, his ideal woman. Except for the part where she is not actually a woman. Can their love conquer all? Of course not, but the film is a beautiful investigation into what makes us happy, and why we often struggle to express our feelings.
Her could probably win the award for Lowest Grossing Movie To Be Nominated For A Best Picture Oscar.
That’s not a real award. The lowest grossing movie ever for a film with a theatrical release is Zyzzyx Road, which made $30 in its opening (and closing) week. Probably because no one could pronounce it. ‘I’ll have 2 tickets for Zyz…, I’ll have 2 tickets for We’re The Millers please’. It was not nominated for an Oscar, or anything else.
Her made only $258,000 in its opening weekend, proving that you cannot judge a film’s quality by how much money it makes. We’re The Millers, a dreadful ‘comedy’ with Jennifer Anniston as an unconvincing stripper, was released the same year as Her, and made $26.5 million on opening weekend. Not all cinemagoers are smart.
Actors sometimes have fragile egos. And large egos. Really large egos.
Birdman, subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is a film about ego. The fragile ego of the aging star who never played the roles he wanted (it’s hard to have gravitas in a bird costume), and the enormous ego of the young pretender who believes that they are invincible.
Michael Keaton stars as the aging actor who is sick of his most famous character—a bird/man with superpowers -but he just can’t shake him. In order to try and reinvent himself as an actor, he invests all his savings in a Broadway show that he writes, directs and stars in, while his mental health is crumbling around him.
No one plays Man On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as well as Keaton. Edward Norton also stars as the gifted but extremely demanding actor hired to co-star in the show. Both men put in outstanding performances, and the film won a Best Picture Oscar, and a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
If you want a movie about unfulfilled dreams, the backbiting and shallowness of actors, or the fragility of ego, this is the film for you. A word of warning, though. There are an awful lot of scenes in which Keaton and Norton are dressed only in tighty-whities. No idea why.
Sometimes a movie becomes a classic because of its subject as much as it is for its acting. All The President’s Men was a great film, certainly, and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman put in stellar performances. But the thing that really makes that movie a classic is Watergate, and how 2 reporters broke the story.
The film is a great film not just because of the actors and directing, but because it made a great job of telling a story that was already important. The same can be said of Spotlight.
The story follows reporters from The Boston Globe’s team of investigative journalists, known as Spotlight, and their investigations into child sex abuse.
The film had a stellar ensemble case, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci and Rachel McAdams.
The team begin to investigate reports that a pedophile priest has been operating in Boston, and the diocese covered it up. As they continued to investigate, however, they found evidence of systematic abuse going back decades.
Based on the real-life investigation into the pedophile ring in Boston, published in 2002, the film is genuinely suspenseful. It won a number of Oscars, including Best Picture, with supporting actor nominations for Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams.
This one probably falls into the category of Important Movie, but it’s not a feel-good film.
5 2016—Hunt For The Wilderpeople
If you are looking for a lighthearted feel-good film, you need look no further than Hunt For The Wilderpeople. An adventure-comedy from New Zealand, the film stars Sam Neill and Julian Dennison, who seems to have made a speciality of delinquent foster kids who really just want to be loved (see also Deadpool 2).
Dennison is a city kid whose criminal past includes ‘littering’ and ‘kicking things’. He is fostered by an empathetic but short-lived foster mother, and Sam Neill as a reluctant foster father who finds it difficult to express emotions of any kind.
The story of their escape into the bush so that Dennison is not taken back into foster care is funny and touching, without ever being sentimental. Neill teaches his foster son how to survive in the bush, and Dennison teaches him how to love. And read. Hunt For The Wilderpeople was a modest success on release, but its reputation has grown and continues to grow. It definitely deserves a watch.
4 2017 Call Me By Your Name and The Shape Of Water
Some years produce a bumper crop of classic movies, and 2017 produced 2 great, but very different, movies.
Call me By Your Name is a beautifully shot simple coming-of-age first love movie, set in Italy in the sort of summers that exist only in nostalgic memory. Bright colors, languid afternoons, bicycles and a young man’s intense arousal by, well, everything.
Timothée Chalamet is wonderful and Armie Hammer turns out to be a much better actor than anyone gave him credit for.
The Shape Of Water is an entirely different sort of film, although every bit as beautiful. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water is like a fairy tale. A mute woman falls in love with monster when they learn to communicate over hard-boiled eggs and dancing.
The film has moments of comedy, fantasy and drama, as well as a fair few moments that are, frankly, bizarre. Sally Hawkins stars as the young woman, and Michael Shannon is chilling as the soulless ministry man with no heart, who comes between them.
The Shape Of Water is as beautiful as it is dark, and as romantic as it is peculiar. If you have never seen it you should watch it, and if you have seen it, you should watch it again.
Most great movies have epic themes. But some work on a much smaller stage and examine small lives minutely.
Alfonso Cuarón’s movie, Roma, is one such example Set in Mexico City, the film follows the life of an ordinary woman and her unglamoros life. Yalitza Aparicio plays a domestic worker in a middle-class Mexican household, who is abandoned by her boyfriend after she becomes pregnant.
Roma is the story of women who support each other, and the men who let them down. It is about resilience and solidarity and prevailing.
Roma is beautiful, too. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and became the first winner of the Best Foreign Language award to also win the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
2 2019—Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
2019 was a Tarantino year.
Tarantino years are always good years. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s 9th movie, depending on a counting system that only he really understands, was something of a departure. While his movies have always heavily referenced Hollywood, they have never been set in the world of Hollywood. Until now.
The film weaves together stories of the glamour of Hollywood stars, and the darker glamour of the Manson Family. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, the has-been TV star reduced to guest starring roles in other people’s show, with Brad Pitt as his stunt double, Cliff Booth. As with all Tarantino movies, it references a million other films, songs and even TV adverts that most of us have never heard of. That doesn’t matter.
Unlike the other 8 movies, the heroes are pretty straight guys. Almost normal, at least in comparison with his usual characters.
If you are expecting another Pulp Fiction, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood takes a little getting used to. It’s better on the second viewing, and by the third it is a masterpiece.
1 2020 Placeholder—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2020 has been pretty much a washout for new movies, so we thought we would take the opportunity to pick a film from the first decade of the 21st century to round out this list. We considered Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro’s stunningly beautiful fantasy, but we already have one of his films on our list.
Then we considered Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s complicated neo noir/psychological suspense masterpiece, and Boyhood, the astonishing project of growing up filmed over 12 years.
But in the end, romantics that we are, we went with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Starring Jim Carrey giving a much more restrained performance than usual, with Kate Winslet as the woman he can’t quite forget.
The film is about love and loss and the bitter sweetness of memory. If you erase the past from your mind, are you doomed to repeat your past mistakes?
Eternal Sunshine is just the right amount of soppy. You might need tissues, but that’s OK. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You will watch a lot of movies that are best forgotten. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not one of them.
About The Author: Ward Hazell is a freelance writer and travel writer, currently also studying for a PhD in English Literature