If you had to pick ten movies to suggest to someone who wanted to understand your opinion about movies, a crash course in taste and focus, what would those ten movies be?
It seems like a simple prompt, but it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around a long time. You see, when I started out getting into movies, I had this foolish idea of trying to bring friends along down this rabbit hole with me. For a while I would often sit them down for day-long movie sessions, doing my best to keep them up to speed with me so I’d have someone who shared my movie experiences.
I eventually found out what will likely be obvious to anyone reading this: passions are fantastic to have, but nearly impossible to fully share. However far I was going to go in this effort to see everything, I was going to have to do it more or less alone. Sure, people were interested and I still regularly see movies with friends, but trying to get others to keep pace is impossible.
Which lead me to the idea of a movie curriculum. It might not be a favorites list, though I imagine that it will share quite a few similarities with a favorites list. Instead, it’s more of a ‘these are the movies that shaped me, love ’em or leave ’em.’ And if you had to get someone up to speed with talking movies with you, these are the movies that are most important to providing a frame for the conversation.
Hopefully you’ll feel like joining in, especially if you’ve ever been the type who felt like you wanted to introduce somebody to film on a wider scale, or even more specifically get them into the movies you love. It’s real simple, just list the ten movies that make up your movie curriculum, along with some reasons why.
As always, feel free to tell me how wrong I am below in the comments, or post a link to your own list. I imagine these lists will be as individual as fingerprints, so I’m looking forward to seeing what other people think.
Matt’s Movie Curriculum
There’s nothing like a first love. Memento is the movie I give credit for turning me into the crazy movie guy I am today. I watched it on a whim way back in my innocence, a friend telling me it was on one of the premium movie channels and that I simply had to watch it. I wonder where I’d be if I had dodged that bullet.
Chris Nolan’s crazy tribute to memory and identity is probably is most complex of movies, with it’s forward backward editing gimmick providing structure for one of the greatest modern noir films. It’s easy to discount Memento because of it’s obvious single trick but in reality it provides the best, most elegant frame for a moody, low-key examination of what truth really is and just how much our own memories shape who we are.
One of the most ambitious and certainly one of the most flawed of Terry Gilliam’s storied filmography, Baron Munchausen has been my long-time favorite film of his. Starring John Neville as the titular Baron, the movie unfolds as part fantastical adventure story and part examination of the blurred line between fiction and reality, of the magical butting up against the rational.
This is a theme Gilliam touches upon in other movies, but I feel like Munchausen is the most hopeful of his movies. The Baron is larger-than-life, possessing a magic that is both frighteningly hard to understand and empowering in how it is turned so quickly to good in the face of crushing evil represented always by the petty and the boring and the mundane. More than anything, Baron Munchausen is a celebration of romance triumphing over realism.
This is the second film dealing with subjective reality we’ve seen already, and the last of this list. But if you’ve got a movie where the truth is fluid and even the reality of the world presented on film is bent by the will and beliefs of the characters, I’m all for it. These are just the two examples I love most.
Several years before Jurassic Park came and made CG cool for the masses, Jimmy C made a more crowd pleasing follow up to his dark future-thriller from the 80s and blew my childhood mind. As a kid, I grew up watching all sorts of age inappropriate stuff. A steady diet of horror movies and action films meant Terminator and Alien were as familiar to me as The Land Before Time and The Little Mermaid. It explains a lot, doesn’t it?
But it also meant that Terminator 2 might as well have been made for me. Not only was the Terminator back, but he was the good guy. And he was totally a cross between the world’s coolest dad and the world’s best pet, a character that you could put all your boyhood aspirations of badassery onto and he would always live up to them. And the antagonist was a guy who was all stern and a cop (as a child who grew up in an era mostly post-Rodney King 90s, I had a deep distrust of cops and authority figures in general), but could turn into liquid metal.
It was just about the coolest thing ever.
As an adult, Terminator 2 has its flaws. It’s not nearly as aggressive or interesting as the first Terminator, obviously making a film that despite its R rating was made to appeal to a younger audience. But its time travel story is relatively interesting and as I aged out of relating to Edward Furlong I grew to appreciate Linda Hamilton’s nihilistic ass-kicking all the more. Terminator 2 is the gift that keeps on giving, the juggernaut of action films that paved the way for many of the action blockbusters we still see each and every summer.
Takashi Miike is known for many things, but lucid movies are not among them. But once you get past all the yakuza movies and bizarre horror films, you find this more obscure gem. The story of a down-on-their-luck family running a cursed bed and breakfast, Katakuris appears, at first glance, to be an atypically normal family comedy.
Then people start dying. Then dance sequences start happening. Then the claymation action scenes kick in. Miike has always been happy with bending reality to create interesting storytelling, but this movie lives in the realm of cinema as a reality unto itself. The internal storytelling logic stays consistent, but the way its told veers wildly through whim and necessity.
For all of the absurdities, Katakuris is a surprisingly heartwarming film. It’s a movie about family that’s smart and light on its feet, quick to acknowledge cliches and play with them without resorting to outright parody. It’s visually inventive, narratively playful, and a bright optimistic spot in the filmography of Japan’s most infamous director.
Perhaps my favorite comedy, Sam Raimi’s horror/comedy sequel is a pretty amazing follow up to the weirdly camp Evil Dead. Picking up right where the first movie left off, Evil Dead II is a weird sequel in that it took all the flaws of the first movie and ran with them, making weaknesses strengths and creating what might be the perfect genre film.
From the moment it starts, Evil Dead II is content with being ridiculous and evocative, hitting surprisingly good horror beats while still having scenes straight out of slapstick comedies and Warner Bros cartoons. It is a great nerdy cultural pastiche, thrown together into something that feels vital and exciting even now over 20 years after it first released.
Besides, who can say no to Bruce Campbell strapping a chainsaw to his arm? NOBODY.
You might laugh. This is a not particularly well regarded modern entry into what is otherwise an unsurprising list. But Tokyo Drift is better than that, and better than your assumptions about it. Tokyo Drift is genuinely awesome, and more people should experience the wild experience of this crazy offshoot.
The story of a young man running from trouble to Japan, Tokyo Drift combines two things that are crazy (Japan and street racing) into a neon paradise of sight and sound. Just like the next film on this list, Tokyo Drift revels in its Tokyo setting, making the world’s most wild city into a cinematic version of a neon dream world, a place where anything is possible and everything is awesome.
Add to that a surprisingly solid coming-of-age story wrapped inside of a silly Yakuza film, with a particularly awesome cameo by an unexpected name in Japanese cinema, Tokyo Drift is hilarious and well-made, an action movie with heart, a film that deserves better treatment than it gets.
I’m a sucker for the existential crisis. There, I said it. Sure, it’s the malaise of the bored and privileged, but there’s something interesting about people dissolving into their own worst enemies. When set against one of the best, most surreal of real life backdrops (in this case the bustle of modern Tokyo) Lost in Translation becomes an exploration of people completely removed from all that’s familiar, forced to cling to the things they know and hate about themselves.
Lost in Translation is a surprisingly delicate film. It hinges upon how well someone relates to two admittedly hard-to-like characters in a string of increasingly ridiculous culture clashes that borders on the offensively ignorant. But for all of that, there’s a sweetness and a romanticism to the story of two wildly different people finding each other in the midst of chaos to create this refuge of kindred spirits.
Of all the movies on the list, this is the movie that I could sit and take screen caps of every frame and they would make incredible wallpapers or prints. Every single frame of this movie is art, sprawling surrealist vistas of an American southwest that never existed, a place of antiheroes and villains.
Epic is a strange word for a story that is essentially a lengthy study of three men, but when put against the amazing cinematography of Leone it evolves into something larger than life. Faces fill the screen and revolvers become cannons, where violence isn’t in the firing of the gun but in the minutes of agonizing buildup to the explosive release of so much cinematic and narrative tension.
This is the movie I could look at the most, beautiful and desolate and stirring all in the same breath. There’s a reason that this is the movie most remembered of Leone’s, for despite (or perhaps because of) its minimalism, it turns the classic cowboy movie into something closer to myth.
A sci-fi epic before terms like epic were applied to film, Metropolis is a work of art that feels both ancient and immediate, completely timeless in its storytelling but even now impressive in its scope and ambition.
It’s hard to talk about Metropolis with people who haven’t seen it. It’s bigger than Blade Runner. It’s the movie George Lucas keeps wishing he could make. It’s the great grandfather of every big blockbuster that comes out today. Looking into Metropolis is like seeing the echoes of hundreds of other movies throughout time.
But unlike most artifacts of the past that cast a long shadow, Metropolis doesn’t feel looted by the present. Its presentation is incredible, its imagery a deco futurist wonderland the likes of which even 9-figure budgets seem to have a hard time recapturing. It’s like stepping into the past and seeing the future all in one grand, sweeping vision.
Of all the movies I’ve ever seen in my life, this is the one that keeps coming forward as the one I consider the most. I turn it over in my mind over and over, considering its complexities and marveling at its beauty. Not to stray too far into hyperbole, but I think Spirited Away is easily one of the best movies ever made.
The story of a young girl, moving to a new place, who loses her parents and stumbles through the normal world into the world of magic and spirits. Spirited Away is an exploration of the fantastic, the deep magic of a world outside of our own, a tale of a child passing that first cusp of adulthood through the veil of what is normally discounted as the childish and inconsequential. It is the same magic that has informed stories such as Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland, etc. but put through the filter of shinto and the power of Miyazaki at the height of his abilities.
The film is breathtaking and subtle, fun and bittersweet at the same time. It is a look at childhood almost devoid of sentiment, but for all of that it’s never bleak. Storytelling almost never reaches the perfect marriage of image and plot that it does here. Spirited Away is a film of a lifetime, the best representation of one of the greatest storytellers in film.