“Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man—including the old bag—for himself!”
It’s not often that the word “epic” is attached to the word “comedy.” Epics are usually found amongst crime dramas or historical or fantasy pieces and are more serious affairs. But 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took that epic formula and effectively brought it to comedy. This was directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and stars virtually every name in comedy in the 60s, including older names like Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges (with many only appearing in cameos). And with a runtime of over three hours, this is the Lord of the Rings of comedy. It spawned a number of ripoff epic race comedies in the 60s, though none were as memorable—or as epic—as the original. Is it funny? I’ll admit, there are times when this film feels tedious; its saving grace is that when it works, it really works. This is a fun watch with some very memorable characters and scenes, which is no small feat considering the scope of the film.
“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?
“SANTA! OH MY GOD! SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!”
Will Ferrell has always been really hit-or-miss for me; so have Christmas movies. Thankfully, Elf, a 2003 Christmas movie starring Will Ferrell, is a huge hit. Directed by Jon Favreau (About a Boy, Iron Man) and starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, and James Caan, this Christmas film is just the right amount of goofiness and sentiment to make it special without making it so sugary sweet that I need to watch Fight Club afterwards. I debated whether it belongs on my list of classic and essential films, but after watching it again this holiday season, I have to admit: this is a great film that’s fun to watch and will be around for decades, much like A Christmas Story. Even after watching this virtually every Christmas for the last ten years or so, it’s still a joy to watch. It’s a fun holiday film that can make any dreary December a little more merry.
“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”
There’s no film that embodies the term “cult classic” more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman (Shock Treatment, The Night, the Prowler) and starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, this delightfully deviant rock opera started showing in 1975 and saw its greatest success with midnight showings. Some theaters have been hosting midnight showings regularly since 1975, making this the longest theatrical release in history. This quirky film gathered a strong cult following and became a cultural phenomenon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful independent films in history. Despite coming out in 1975 (with the original stage play coming out 1973), this is still sharper and edgier than most films being made today. It doesn’t really discuss controversial topics so much as celebrate them, and this is more fun than most other films from any era.
“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”
There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.
“When people exist under one roof, a tiny society forms—the stuff of novellas. Masters and servants unconsciously dancing in lockstep. So that when things go wrong, problems converge.”
When someone mentions the American immigrant story, we have lots of examples of Europeans coming to America in the 1800s to start their new life in the new world, but we don’t have a lot of examples of modern immigrants from other places who are trying to do the same thing. Spanglish gives us the perspective of a young girl immigrating to America with her single mother from Mexico. Written and directed by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets) and starring Paz Vega, Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, and Shelbie Bruce, this is a film that really captures the beauty of Mexican-American culture and evokes some deep feelings that you don’t often see in film. It’s definitely more of a feeling movie than a thinking movie. The plot feels at times like a sitcom and some of the situations feel a bit forced. But the feelings it stirs up and the ideas it deals with are specific, unique, and very real. How many other films deal with cultural appropriation, white guilt, and gender stereotypes while keeping things light, funny, and watchable? Reviews on this film were very mixed—as of writing this, this is the lowest-ranked film on my list according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with a 52% approval rating. But this is a film I’ve loved for years and enjoy every time I watch it.
“Have you ever noticed how it just keeps destroying everything in its path but it never looks down?”
Mark Twain once said, “If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don’t tell them he’s a damned fool, they’ll never find out.” Now, Mark Twain clearly had something against St. Louis, but that’s not my point. My point is that if you’re ignorant about something and you live in a place where nobody is going to point that out to you, you’re likely to remain ignorant about that your entire life. I lived in small-town Florida for most of my adolescent and young adult life, and let me tell you: in those towns, it is very hard to come by people who will challenge you to think outside of the microcosm of small towns in America.
Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) and starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, is a high-concept film with a lot to say about life in a small town. It’s very metaphorical, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it’s trying to say. That’s not a bad thing, because it has a lot to say and it will probably speak differently to different people. It’s kind of a dark comedy, kind of a story of redemption, and kind of a giant monster movie (in a literal sense). It got some bad reviews from people who likely missed the points it was trying to make and saw it as an ill-conceived monster movie, but there’s a lot here for people who are willing to dig into the film a bit more.
“I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object. I was upset.”
There are many films about hitmen, but In Bruges is different. It doesn’t show a slice of life like similar films do. Instead, it uses light allegory, dark humor, and razor-sharp wit to tell a story of growth and atonement for two distinct characters who both happen to be hitmen. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this film is at times funny and at other times depressing, and it goes way deeper than telling the story of a string of contracted hits. This film hits the deepest parts of the soul for these two flawed protagonists as they struggle emotionally with the lives they live. This film is funny, poignant, and definitely worth a watch.
“A flop—that’s putting it mildly! We’ve found a disaster, a catastrophe, an outrage! A guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty! … Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Wow!”
It’s been a long time since World War II ended, so it’s become more acceptable to joke about Hitler. But there was a musical parody of Hitler that hit much earlier. The Producers was released in 1967—a mere 22 years after the war ended—so it’s easy to forget today how audacious this film was in its time. Directed by Mel Brooks (Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles) and starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, this film was made to be vulgar, and it’s the film’s audacity that makes it such an enduring classic. (Brooks’s parents were both Jewish immigrants who had escaped from WWII Europe, so if any director has a right to joke about Nazi Germany, it’s this one.) Honestly, Mel Brooks films are kind of hit or miss for me. I loved Spaceballs, but wasn’t so crazy about Blazing Saddles. The Producers, a movie about a flop, is a certified hit. This is one of Brooks’s finest films, and it’s stood the test of time, even warranting a remake in 2005 (that wasn’t nearly as good).
The 80s were a time of great financial growth, but also great greed, and Generation X was getting old enough to have an opinion about it. Gen X started their own cultural movement in the 90s and basically torched everything to the ground, but it started with some general unease in the 90s. Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness) and starring Robin Williams and a host of young talent, makes an interesting statement to the emerging Gen X ideology by showing how their parents dealt with that same problem of greed and success at the detriment of truth and beauty in the 1950s. This is admittedly not a universal movie—it delves deeply into Romantic and Transcendentalist ideologies and definitely appeals to lovers of old books more than the general population. But there’s a lot here that teenagers of any age will relate to. Whether you agree with Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau or not, there’s plenty to think about and plenty to like in this film.