Essential Movies

It’s happened a couple of times: while chatting with colleagues I reference a seminal movie, and I get a blank look, or “I’ve never seen that.” My jaw drops. “You’re kidding!”

We’re talking about such mammoths of cinematic history as Apocalypse Now, or The Ten Commandments.

So I started putting together a list of essential movies. And here’s what I’ve found: there are essential movies, and there are really, really good movies. And sometimes, the difference between the two depends on your own introduction to the movie. So, yeah: this is my own opinion of what constitutes an essential movie. And the line is blurry; and it may move. But this is it for now.

12 Angry Men
12 Monkeys
A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick
A Fish Called Wanda
American History X
American Pie
Animal House
Apocalypse Now
Babette’s Feast
Blade Runner
Blazing Saddles – Mel Brooks
Breakfast Club – John Hughes
Cool Hand Luke
Dr Strangelove – Stanley Kubrick
Dune – David Lynch
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – John Hughes
Fiddler on the Roof
Frenzy – Alfred Hitchcock
From Dusk Till Dawn
Full Metal Jacket – Stanley Kubrick
Galaxy Quest
Groundhog Day
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle
History Boys
La Femme Nikita
Lifeboat – Alfred Hitchcock
Like Water For Chocolate
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – Guy Ritchie
Lucky Number Slevin
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python and the Meaning of Life
My Life as a House
Night of the Living Dead
North by Northwest – Alfred Hitchcock
Office Space
On the Waterfront
Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock
Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino
Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino
Rocky Horror Picture Show
Sixteen Candles – John Hughes
Sleepless in Seattle – Nora Ephron
Snatch – Guy Ritchie
Soylent Green
Taxi Driver – Martin Scorcese
Ten Commandments
The Beach
The Big Chill
The Dark Crystal
The Fabulous Baker Boys
The Godfather (1 & 2)
The Great Escape
The Karate Kid
The Lives of Others
The Longest Yard
The Secret of NiMH
The Shawshank Redemption
The Spanish Prisoner
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Usual Suspects
To Sir With Love
Wonder Boys
You’ve Got Mail – Nora Ephron
Young Frankenstein – Mel Brooks

The list will change. And at some point I’ll be adding more functionality, like making these into their own custom post type, and adding all kinds of info, like the year and director and categories. Then I’ll put it all in a table and you’ll be able to sort it by different columns.

But for now, this’ll get you started. Enjoy.

12 thoughts on “Essential Movies

  1. “Dune” are you serious? That’s a MUST see?…that stunk so bad.. people who where curious about “Stings” acting career bothered to watch that..

    I have only seen maybe 20 of the movies you mentioned..but,I will dig into the list and see what you found amazing with these….

    • @Moru: So about Dune. Yes the acting was stilted, but it was directed by David Lynch, and I loved the book; though the rest of the series left me yawning. That scene where Baron Harkonen opened the slave’s heart plug? Man, that was harsh.

  2. I read the intro and looked at the list. I think you hit the nail on
    the head when you referred to a movie’s place in cinematic history. A
    movie is essential, in my view, if it influences other movies or
    culture at large. It should go beyond your own personal impression to
    be essential otherwise it is only essential to you. You did not
    include Citizen Cane, John Ford’s The Seekers or Its A Wonderful Life.
    Your list is light on classic films from the decades before you began
    attending movies. Very few of the films are earlier than 1970. Does
    this imply that only films made in the last forty years can be
    essential viewing? Zoom out.

    • @morty: I agree about needing to zoom out. This was a first pass at the list. It is evolving. For instance, forgot about The Wizard of Oz, or Snow White. I considered Citizen Kane long and hard; my decision not to include it will no doubt be reversed, because, as you say, it has had such a deep influence on the cinematic arts. But frankly, I have a hard time seeing its merit today, because the techniques it pioneered are so commonplace now, it’s difficult to imagine a time without them. It may be a useful exercise to list and view the top five or ten films from the year or two before CK was released.

      I’m going to agree with you about a movie’s “essentialness” being related to its effect on other movies and culture. But it can also be an essential movie to you if it holds some special place in your own personal history. This is, without any reservations, a very personal list.

      I keep saying it’s an evolving list. I will be removing titles and adding others. I knew when I started the list that it would grow over time: I couldn’t hope to remember all the films I’d want on the list in one go. And the input of my friends is very helpful. Thanks.

  3. AAA – you notorious basterd – I wasted all of yesterday creating a list of movies that I have found personally essential – including the year they came out, the director and who starred in them. Left me so cramped from sitting at the computer into the wee hours of the morning that I could hardly walk to bed as the sun was getting ready to rise!
    However, that being said – I have the beginnings of a list – let’s say: 340 films in .xls ready to be considered for comparison with your piddly little essential list. And I agree with Morty – where are the pre-70s flicks?
    hugs and – urgggh, no wait, no hugs, it hurts – I’m sooo stiff, aaahhhhh!

    • @solocontinuity: I’m delighted to have wasted your time so profitably! I’ll happily plunder your list with wanton abandon. Of course now you need to publish it. Two options: 1- Start your own blog; 2- Guest post on my blog.

  4. btw: some pre-1970 films from my list include: (from the 1936 through 1940 – not counting The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) — Mr Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels…. and there are more like these on my list.

  5. hmmm – options. I’m thinking it may be time to start my own. If I wanted to post my list, can I make a database so that it can be sorted by category?

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