Marge Gunderson smiles in Fargo

“And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”

Picture in your head a plot where a man hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can keep most of the ransom money paid by her father. There’s murder and a big investigation. Unless you’ve seen Fargo, I highly doubt the picture in your mind is set in small-town Minnesota. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) and starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo turns the normal police-investigating-a-string-of-murders plot on its head by focusing on simple, conservative small-town folks and largely incompetent, unsympathetic characters. These aren’t people in the dark underbelly of some large city, these are people who get excited when new stamp designs come out. Under the hood, this is a black comedy as well as a crime drama, and the writing is top-notch. If you’re looking for something different and clever without being over-the-top, this might be it.

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I, Tonya

Tonya Harding strikes a pose in I, Tonya

“America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. I mean, come on! What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”

Biopic films have, to me, always seemed like pieces of a far-off history, far removed from my actual life. It’s very rare that one hits as close to home as I, Tonya did. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) and starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney, this tells the real-life story of Tonya Harding, the infamous figure skater whose scandal rocked the world in the 90s. It’s a story I got a periphery glance at, through media headlines and rumors passed around school, but I never knew Tonya—only the scandal. This film lets you know Tonya, and it does an amazing job of bringing her to life in a way that’s not only sympathetic but also tragic. In-between tragic events are darkly funny happenings and self-aware humor that keep this from getting too depressing. This is a great story that adds some depth to events that I remember from my childhood, and it’s definitely one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.

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Bottle Rocket

Dignan and Anthony chat in Bottle Rocket

“Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers—can you see how incredible this is going to be?—hang gliding, come on!”

In 1996, before Wes Anderson was really making Wes Anderson movies, he made his debut with Bottle Rocket. He involved some of his friends, including Luke and Owen Wilson, neither of whom had acted before. This film is far from perfect and is definitely not Anderson’s best, but it was enough to crown him the new king of indie filmmaking and put Luke and Owen Wilson on the map. Woven into the story, you’ll see the themes that are so prominent in Anderson’s later works: subtle ennui, loneliness, and chronic abnormality, all glazed over with quirky humor and a rebellious streak. For his first feature film, this is actually a very impressive feat. The writing is clever, the story is memorable, and the soundtrack is killer. Overall, this is a pretty impressive indie comedy that’s a great glimpse into the formative years of Wes Anderson’s career in filmmaking.

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The Usual Suspects

Five criminals in a police lineup in The Usual Suspects

“After that, my guess is that you will never hear from him again. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that… he is gone.”

A good mystery will leave the viewer clues throughout that point the ultimate revelation, and The Usual Suspects does exactly that. Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns) and starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, and Chazz Palminteri, this is an extremely intricate film that rewards multiple viewings and in-depth analysis. Some have criticized it as gimmicky, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The performances are excellent, the details that hint at the ending are subtle but very intentional, and the script is brilliant. This is an independent film, and that’s a great thing—Hollywood studios would have dumbed this down to make it much more obvious for average viewers. I’m glad they didn’t—as it is, this film is a masterpiece.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“What a loss to spend that much time with someone, only to find out that she’s a stranger.”

The manic-pixie dream girl is a common trope that pops up in a lot of movies. You know the ones, where there’s a guy who takes life too seriously and he meets this girl who’s wild and free and teaches him to have a new appreciation for life. Think Penny Lane in Almost Famous, or Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Zooey Deschanel’s character in any movie she’s in. We always see the beginnings of the relationship and the transformation. But we never see how that plays out. We rarely see that while manic-pixie dream girls can be amazing, they can also be high maintenance, and it takes serious work to keep up the amazing aspects of the relationship—work that not every guy is willing to put in.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fills that gap by showing us a manic-pixie dream girl relationship after it has failed. Directed by Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, this film offers a fresh look at what a romantic relationship really means and what it takes to make one work for imperfect people. It maintains a lot of that quirkiness from the other movies, but this one is layered with some heavy bittersweet moments as well. At times funny, at times sad, this is a great film about the ups and downs of love that doesn’t try to water down what makes relationships difficult, but still captures what makes them meaningful.

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Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

“Err, bad breath, colorful language, feather duster. What do you think they’re gonna be armed with? GUNS, you tit!”

It’s said that there’s no honor among thieves, and I can’t think of any better example of this in action than British crime film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This is the directorial debut of Guy Ritchie (Snatch, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and it stars Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, and Nick Moran. This is a story from the criminal underground of London, and it’s got lots of British charm and sensibility that makes this stand out from the crowded genre of American crime films. The script is also exceptionally smart, especially for a first feature film from the writer/director. If you like crime films but want something delightfully different, this will probably fit the bill.

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Ghost World

Ghost World

“Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody.”

The 90s were a great time for apathy and cynicism. I graduated from high school in ‘99, and let me tell you, we hated everything. Ghost World, an indie art house film directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Bad Santa) and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, took that 90s angst and injected it with a bit of Existential angst. It’s equal parts Daria and Waiting for Godot. It’s a biting satire not only of the world of the 90s, but also of the angry counterculture that sprang out of it, showing that even all those people who said that everything sucked also sucked. Sardonic, darkly funny, and vaguely depressing, this film is edgy in a way that many other films try to be, and it dares to push further into that territory than any other film I’ve seen.

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Lady Bird

Lady Bird

“I wish I could live through something.”

Cultural revolutions happen when a generation gets old enough to get their ideas out into the world. The baby boomers had their revolution in the 60s and 70s. Gen-Xers like me had ours in the 90s. Well, guess what? We’re due for a new revolution for the Millennials. Over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to start seeing media through the eyes of Millennials. Leading the charge in this revolution is the brilliant Greta Gerwig with her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, this film neatly encapsulates the gap between Millennials and Generation X, as well as the frustrations that Millennials faced in adolescence. It’s also a sweet, funny, and touching story about a daughter growing up with an overbearing mother. This film works equally well as a coming of age story and a metaphor for the coming of age of an entire generation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Millennial anthem than this film.

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The Room

The Room

“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”

After some internal debate, I’ve decided to review The Room, written and directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau. Now before you freak out, I know this movie is bad. If you don’t know, it is so, so, so bad that it’s become legendary simply for how bad it is. So what’s it doing on this site of classic, essential, or just plain good movies? It’s so bad that it’s actually extremely entertaining to watch. There is no parody movie in existence that so perfectly parodies basic tropes in major movies as this, and this was done with total sincerity. It’s often said of bad but interesting things that they’re like a train wreck; this is like a train colliding with a submarine in the middle of the jungle. It is just so out there and completely inept that you wonder how any of this got put together in the first place. But it’s all there, and it’s immortalized on film, and there’s really nothing else like it.

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Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction

“Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger. Vincent, ever have a Big Kahuna Burger?”

Director Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs) has distinguished himself as a unique and innovative moviemaker. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that he’s important. I consider Pulp Fiction to be his finest film. Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Samuel L. Jackson, this is a wild, entertaining ride, brimming with wit and style as well as Tarantino’s signature grit and violence. You’ll probably feel a bit like a modern gangster while watching this. Tarantino takes the world of the modern professional criminal and brings it to life in a way that few other filmmakers do, showing what happens in-between crime hits as well as the hits themselves. It’s a unique view that’s highly stylized and extremely entertaining, and it earns its spot on this list of great movies.

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