andrew burke





A Big List of Movies Worth Seeing

Posted on: 2010-09-25

A friend of mine admitted to me a while ago that, while she works in the film industry, she hasn't really seen that many movies. Since I like to talk about film and my partner is an actual Film Studies professor, she asked me to send her a list of movies to see - unfortunately, I've taken over a year to get around to it.

I thought it might be useful to other people as well, so I decided to put it on my blog. Obviously, this is a highly opinionated list of films, and it's mostly off the top of my head, so there are likely to be lots of mistakes and omissions.

Early Silents

Voyage to the Moon
You should be able to get this from YouTube or, since it's way out of copyright. One of the very first narrative films ever made, and it even has special effects!

Translating a silent film was pretty easy, so the popular films industry was much more global in the 20s than it is now. The German film industry was a world leader in the 1920s, and then between the talkies and the Fascists, things went downhill.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
This is a very influential Expressionist silent film, with a creepy story and really striking visuals. Huge inspiration for Film Noir, not to mention a lot of 80s Goth culture.

They wanted to make a movie of Dracula, but couldn't get the rights from Bram Stoker's estate, so they changed the story a bit and did it anyhow. Yes there were lawsuits. Cool note: the creepily thin actor who played the vampire was named Max Schrek, which is German for "Total Fear"!

Metropolis is a big science fiction epic with robots, flying cars, underground cities, and spectacular vistas. It almost bankrupted the studio and only survived in bad edits - a complete version has recently resurfaced in Argentina. The model work still looks great. Keep your eyes open for bits that inspired shots in Titanic and Madonna's "Express Yourself" video.

Pandora's Box
Louise Brooks in the role she was born to do. Dark social/sexual critique in Weimar culture. Also: Best. Hair. Ever.

Battleship Potemkin
Russians were making movies too - informing their technique with communist ideology. Sergei Eisenstein made this epic film about a key moment in the Russian Revolution, using his conceptually sophisticated 'Montage' technique. A lot of modern editing style comes from this film, especially the still-spectacular "Odessa Steps" sequence (which is quoted in 'The Untouchables' and 'Brazil' among others). Look for the amazingly expressive, painterly faces.

Charlie Chaplin: The Gold Rush and Modern Times
Back in the USA, some of the best films being made in the silent era were the high-concept comedies of Charlie Chaplin. He made hundreds of short films and then moved to surprisingly accomplished longer ones, eventually becoming one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, and eventually one of the co-founders of United Artists. The Gold Rush is one of his greats, and he was most proud of Modern Times - technically a sound film, but it doesn't have any dialogue.

The General
Buster Keaton was the other great comic of the silent era. He was more of an acrobat than Chaplin - notice the amazing feats of dexterity and strength he pulls off with seeming effortlessness in this film - all while maintaining a long-faced gravitas that makes it look like he's having a Very Bad Day. The DVD is saw this on also had some of his shorts, including a great one where he plays every single performer and audience member in a vaudeville show.

Germany Going Down

Fritz Lang managed to get this morally bleak proto-film noir out before the Nazis took over and forced him to leave the country. Peter Lorre plays a serial killer who has both the cops and the mob chasing him - and it's very hard to tell the two sides apart. Great use of sound, and some fantastic performances from Lorre and the leaders of both sides.

Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator
Speaking of Nazis, they knew the power of film and used it to great effect in their early days in power. They got Leni Riefenstahl to make a documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. This isn't necessarily a fun film to watch - and the last half hour or so is just a boring military parade - but every concert video ever made borrows techniques from this film, and it has been referenced in many other films (including Star Wars). It's also a good education in what Evil sounds and acts like before it has had the chance to really let itself loose.

A good double feature would follow Triumph of the Will with Chaplin's The Great Dictator, a before-its-time parody of Hitler and Fascism. Lots of great slapstick, and Chaplin uses his physical resemblance to Hitler to full effect. Rumour has it that Hitler had been a huge Chaplin fan, and he arranged a private screening of this once - no word on what he thought of it.

Screwball Comedies

It Happened One Night
An early high point in screwball roadtrip romantic comedies. The basic idea of this film would play just as well today with, say, George Clooney and Kate Hudson.

His Girl Friday
The snappy dialogue is almost too fast to follow in this movie - the director supposedly wanted it to feel like an Italian Opera. Watch it a few times and you'll start throwing bits of its dialogue into your daily conversation. "I've still got my dimple!"

Bringing Up Baby
If His Girl Friday wasn't wacky enough, why not add Katherine Hepburn and a real live baby leopard? Hepburn is a non-stop force of nature and Cary Grant is a nerdy palaeontologist who keeps trying to find his, uh, bone.

The Philadelphia Story
Hepburn and Grant again, this time joined by Jimmy Stewart. This is a lovely comedy, more theatrical than screwball, with great performances all around.

Some Like It Hot
This is from the 60s, but it's set in the late 20s and feels very much like something from the 40s. This might be one of the funniest movies ever made. Marilyn Monroe's looks and her life story often distract from the fact that she's a really funny comic actress. One of the great last lines in cinema, too.

When Harry Met Sally
A classic that must be seen!
"I'll have what she's having!"
"I'm turning 40!" "When?" "Someday!"

One Fine Day
You'd think with our sped up media that there would be more zippy movie dialogue these days - but it is still a rarity. Every so often Hollywood manages to come out with a movie that feels like classic screwball. One I like is One Fine Day, with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer as single parent New York yuppies whose cell phones get crossed.

A surprise hit, featuring a whole lot of people who would go on to do bigger (but not necessarily better) things. Rat-pack obsessed singles in 90s L.A. - it's a guy film, but it has a lot of heart where other ones would have fart jokes. Includes a thin Vince Vaughan and an early part from Heather Graham.

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play corporate spies in love - but they (and we) can't tell what's real and what's part of a deception. Great chemistry between the two leads. Came out quite recently and sadly didn't do as well as it should have.

Black & White Action and Drama

Citizen Kane
Many critics call this the greatest film ever made. I personally wouldn't go that far, but it is quite a piece of work - especially since this was Orson Welles' first movie. Check out the ridiculous depth of field he gets with custom lenses on some of the shots.

The Dam Busters
Engineering Nerd as War Hero. A British film about the effort to build a bouncing bomb that can destroy German dams, and the daring aircrews who used it. The big attack sequence at the end was lifted almost line-for-line for the end of Star Wars.

This was just another factory-made film from the studio system, but somehow everything just worked perfectly. You'll wonder how they could have managed to put so many cliches in one movie - and then you'll realize they all started here.

The Longest Day
Huge panoramic epic about D-Day. A bit slow to start but really engaging once it gets moving. Personally, I think this is a way better film than Saving Private Ryan. There are several long elaborate battle scenes where they didn't use special effects: they just got lots of people to run around while they blew things up - some of these are done in long single takes as well.

Film Noir

M (mentioned above) is sort of the first Film Noir, but the stylized gritty style came into its own in the 30s and 40s - heavily influenced by German Expressionist filmmakers fleeing the Nazis.

Touch of Evil
Orson Welles' film about the greasy side of a Mexican border town. Amazing cinematography - especially the virtuosic long opening shot.

The Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart showing how it's done. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet almost steal the show as a pair of shady antiquities dealers.

The Big Sleep
Humphrey Bogart once again showing how it's done, now with Lauren Bacall also teaching the Master Class. Don't worry if you can't follow what's going on - Raymond Chandler wouldn't tell the screenwriters either!

The Third Man
Vienna right after the war, with its moral collapse and evocative ruins. Fantastic cinematography. Sewers never looked so good.

Miller's Crossing
The Coen brothers' mid-90s homage to the genre. One of my favourite all-time movies, with standout performances from Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro. Convoluted plot but fantastic dialogue.

Blade Runner
Technically, this is Science Fiction, but the feel is straight out of The Big Sleep. Visually, probably one of the most important films of the 80s. In the future, they have flying cars, synthetic humans, and building-sized video billboards - but no bright overhead indoor lighting. The synthesizer soundtrack was really influential as well.

Dark City
Not very big when it came out in the 90s, but a sleeper favourite on DVD. Mixes the visuals of Blade Runner and M with a surreal science fiction story. The 'watchers' look a lot like Nosferatu as well.

Before they did The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers did this stylish lesbian-themed Film Noir, starring Gina Gershon's upper lip and Jennifer Tilly's cleavage.

Great neo-noir from a few years ago, set in an Orange County High School. Snappy sharp dialogue and a number of stars who would go on to bigger things, like Inception.

The Ladykillers
The Lavender Hill Mob
Kind Hearts and Coronets
British comedies with a bit of a noir context - all featuring amazing character performances from Alec "Obi Wan" Guinness.

Le Samourai
Stylish French gangster film featuring the ridiculously attractive Alain Delon as a hit man who is having a bad day.

One of the great noir films, even if it's mostly in sunny Los Angeles. Watch it before somebody ruins the ending for you.

L.A. Confidential
Just an all-around great film - cast of great actors, including Guy Pearce and Russel Crowe back when nobody knew who they were.

Historical Epics

Lawrence of Arabia
My candidate for Worst Movie to See on an iPod Nano. Worth waiting to see on the Big Screen if possible. Peter O'Toole is fantastic as the eccentric British officer who organizes the Beduin tribes of Arabia against the Turks in WWI and wrestles with his own demons. Almost five hours long, but never boring.

Master and Commander
One of my favourite movies, based on one of my favourite series of novels - it didn't do well enough in theatres for sequels, unfortunately. Fantastic visuals and Oscar-winning sound, and great performances from Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany.

Dangerous Liaisons
On paper, this shouldn't work at all, but it's almost perfect. John Malkovich at his lizardy best as a decadent womanizing aristocrat in the days before the French Revolution. Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, and Uma Thurman are among his targets and foils. Look for an early part for Keanu Reeves as an earnest brainless young Chevalier.

The Seven Samurai
One of the best action movies ever made - from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Inspired by westerns it then inspired one of its own (The Magnificent Seven). A small Japanese town hires seven mercenaries to protect it from brigands - which they eventually do, but not without a whole lot of Awesome.

Akira Kurosawa's later epic Japanese retelling of King Lear. Huge epic battle scenes and grand tragedy. His famous earlier work was in black and white - this was in full glorious colour (mostly red, though).

Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Technically this is a series of Fantasy movies - but part of what makes them so much better than, say, Conan the Barbarian is that the film-makers approached the world of Middle Earth like it was real history. Yes there are trolls, elves, wizards and swordsmen, but unlike almost any other fantasy film, it has Heart. Already, the special effects don't seem so special anymore, but the films still work because of how well the personal stories of the characters are written and performed.

Stanley Kubrick

If you're hanging around with film people, Kubrick will come up with quite some frequency. He was perhaps a bit crazy, but definitely left his mark on cinema - especially in his later films that became much more distinctively his own. I've found the trick with Kubrick is to realize that he's a very funny film-maker - it's just that he doesn't make 'comedies'. The grimmer the films, the funnier they turn out to be, on some level - although you can hate yourself for laughing. He's British that way.

Creepy but really funny - sort of like the book. James Mason and Peter Sellers are standouts.

Doctor Strangelove
Super dark satire about nuclear war. Even though we (somehow) managed to survive the Cold War, this is still a spot-on critique of militarism.

If you're going to do a big sand-and-sandals epic, you might as well do it like this.

2001 A Space Odyssey
Wait for the chance to see this in a movie theatre. It is a remarkable cinematic experience - almost religious. Many of the special effects still look remarkably good.

A Clockwork Orange
Once you get past the brutality, it's actually a kind of satire. Worth watching even if just for the synthesizer soundtrack and the outrageously mod futuristic decor.

The Shining
Yes there's a crazy Jack Nicholson, ghostly twin sisters, and an elevator full of blood - but the most terrifying thing in this movie is a stack of typewritten paper.

Full Metal Jacket
The early scenes at a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp are so strong, they overwhelm the rest of the movie, which is still quite good.

Movies About Movies

Singin' In The Rain
A musical about the coming of sound to films in the late 20s. Some very funny riffs on the film business, and some fantastic song-and-dance numbers that makes Glee look like, well, a bunch of high-schoolers.

The Player
Robert Altman is an 'auteur' film-maker with a very distinctive style. This 1992 film is a blackmail mystery set in Hollywood with lots of star cameos and inside jokes. Learn a few of the lines and impress the L.A. people you meet.

Postcards From The Edge
Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher was born into Hollywood, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds (from Singin' In The Rain), and by her 30s had already led a very strange life. This is a film version of her semi-autobiographical book, with Meryl Streep playing the Fisher alter-ego and Shirley MacLaine playing her flamboyant attention-hogging mother. Lots of fun all around.

Barton Fink
The Coen brothers wrote this during a bout of writer's block on Miller's Crossing. A disturbing film about how nasty Hollywood can be, with some great surreal and Noir flourishes.

New Wave

In the 1960s, European film-makers started getting intellectual and avant-garde about their filmmaking technique, turning a cheezy commercial medium into a self-aware art form (and letting them flaunt themselves around Paris as sexy clove-smoking intellectuals).

The 400 Blows
I'm not actually that much into the French New Wave, but this is the one that everybody talks about.

Vivre Sa Vie
Loosely inspired by Pandora's Box, it's about a very attractive young woman who is tries to figure out her life by becoming a call-girl. French men don't seem make a lot of movies about average looking women finding themselves through reading books, do they?

8 1/2
Fellini's movie about a movie director who is having trouble finishing his 9th movie. Yes it's self-indulgent, but it's very well done and Fellini's alter ego is the inhumanly cool Marcello Mastroianni, who can wear a towel better than most people can wear a tuxedo.

A Hard Day's Night
Meanwhile in England, when the Beatles were asked to do a film, the producers probably expected a silly Elvis-style music movie. Instead, they got this great slice of the swinging 60s, with a nice side order of Pythonesque inanity. The fab four are really cute here too.

Point Blank
The in-your-face stylistic experiments of the European New Wave made it the U.S. with films like Point Blank. The movie is - aw Hell, just watch this clip from the beginning of the movie. Lee Marvin is Unhappy.

Bonnie and Clyde
Two beautiful young lovers go on a crime spree in the Depression-era West. Very stylish and sometimes shockingly violent - coming out in 1967, this blew people's minds much like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Jimi Hendrix did.

Woody Allen

His early stuff is screwball comedy. His later stuff is more intellectual. He's still making about a movie a year, although he has never quite regained the level of his earlier work.

Woody Allen ends up in the future, where junk food is good for you and everyone has their own 'Orgasmatron'.

Annie Hall
The archetypal Woody Allen film. A love letter to New York. Look for a small part from Christopher Walken, and an amusing bit with Marshall McCluhan.

Bullets Over Broadway
Every so often Woody Allen just makes a fun film. This is one of them. He's not even in it - instead it has John Cusack!


High Noon
Deep down, it's a leftist fable about McCarthyism. It's also really good.

The Searchers
Western as Opera. The film itself is well made and is probably John Wayne's best role. What's more interesting now isall the layers of subtext (intentional or not) in it.

Fistful of Dollars
"Spaghetti Westerns" were Italian films mostly shot in the deserts of Spain. Sergio Leone brought a bleak, existential artsiness to the genre - and Clint Eastwood brought a lot of steely-eyed glaring and ass-kicking.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
This was perhaps the most polished of the Spaghetti Westerns, this one actually shot in the USA.

Clint Eastwood came back to the Western genre in the 90s with this masterpiece. It brings forward a lot of the subtext in older movies such as The Searchers, and does a thorough deconstruction of the gunslinger mythology.

Days of Heaven
One of the most beautifully shot movies ever. Set in Texas but actually filmed in Lethbridge.

Blazing Saddles
To fully understand Post-Modernism, you could read a lot of dense academic writing from people like Jaques Derrida and Terry Eagleton - or you could just watch Blazing Saddles. Also: way more slapstick than Derrida.

Science Fiction

Logan's Run
What science fiction movies were like in 1976. Mostly interesting now for its core idea and its disco-shopping-mall sets and costumes. This won for best special effects, believe it or not. To show how much can change in one year, make this a double-feature with...

Star Wars
Seen right after Logan's Run, not only are the visual effects massively superior, but the production design is still stunning - it's hard to believe that this was only one year after Logan's Run. Also, notice how much the sound effects sell the picture - from the robot bleeps to the screams of spaceship engines and the scuba breathing of Darth Vader. Keep an eye out for references to The Dam Busters, Casablanca, Triumph of the Will, The Searchers, and dozens of other movies.

The Matrix
The first of the Star Wars prequels came out in the summer 1999, but The Matrix, also out in 1999, was perhaps truer to the spirit of the original film: a gleeful energetic mash-up of lots of different styles. Star Wars was a mix of Westerns, Gangster movies, WWII, and Flash Gordon serials. The Matrix was a Martial Arts / Hacker / Anime / Goth / Action thriller. The sequels never matched the energy and inventiveness of the original.

This is one of my favourite movies of all time - which perhaps says more about my personality than it does about the movie. It's hard to describe this film from Terry Gilliam, but here goes: Monty Python do a SteamPunk adaptation of Orwell's 1984. There's a fantastic 3-DVD set available from Criterion that includes a big documentary about the epic battles Terry Gilliam had in getting this movie released by the studio - as well as the studio-edited 90-minute 'love story' version of the movie, which is a great example of how much you can change a film with editing.

Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather, parts I and II
On their own, two of the greatest films of the 70s. Together a masterpiece. About family, the immigrant experience, evil, and the corruption of power.

Apocalypse Now!
Jean Baudrillard said that while the North Vietnamese may have won the war, the Americans got this film, which has been seen around the world. War as a Bad Psychedelic Trip.

Hearts of Darkness
Another good double-feature. This is a documentary by Coppola's wife about the making of Apocalypse Now, which was almost as epic as the movie itself. They had too much money and too many people and too much gear in the middle of the Phillipine jungle for too long and everyone went kind of crazy.


I have a lot more to cover - Canadian Movies, Musicals! High School Movies! Finish watching these ones and I'll put some more up in a future blog post.

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