“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
It’s not often that you come across a movie with a brilliant and absolutely flawless script. The Godfather and Casablanca fall into this category, and I had heard a lot about them growing up. But I had never even heard of Chinatown until I started putting my list together. Directed by Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, this is a film noir/mystery with a modern bite, and the script is absolutely amazing. In fact, most screenwriting classes and workshops will at least reference Chinatown. The mystery is great and keeps you guessing, and in true film noir fashion, it can get pretty dark. But this is a brilliant and entertaining movie that should be watched by any film fan.
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“That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
It’s no secret that movie-watchers love to watch people commit crimes. Crime drama is a huge sub-genre, and even films that don’t revolve around crime frequently use it to push the plot forward. There’s a bit of a voyeur in each of us that perks up when we see a crime on film, and it usually makes for a pretty entrancing story. Rear Window, directed by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, North by Northwest) and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, is a meta, almost self-aware reference to this tendency in us: it shows a man watching someone commit what he presumes is a crime. It’s a great classic suspense film with a unique gimmick: the movie takes place almost entirely in one apartment. Whether you appreciate the gimmick or not, this is a clever and entertaining suspense movie that holds up well today.
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“Let’s just say that we won’t be short of Chunky Monkey for the next month!”
We’ve had cop movies, and we’ve had funny cop movies, but I can’t think of another quirky British parody of a cop movie, let alone one that’s so hilarious as this one. Hot Fuzz, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is at once familiar territory, parodying famous cop movies, and also delightfully different, set in a small British town in the country. The combination makes for one of the best parodies I’ve ever seen, and it’s a very good comedy in its own right as well. The Wright-Pegg team matured a lot since Shaun of the Dead, and the brilliance and execution of this movie mark a point when both truly hit their stride.
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“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.”
If you’re looking for the best classic-era action film, this is it. North by Northwest, directed by master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo) and starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, may not be Hitchcock’s most thought-provoking film, but it’s certainly among his most entertaining. The action and suspense are top-notch—definitely not overdone like action movies today. Cary Grant delivers his trademark vintage-cool charm, and the script is full of iconic lines that make modern action flicks look painfully uncultured. This movie holds up very well today, even in the modern landscape of slow-motion quick-cut action sequences, and is universally loved by viewers—it’s one of the few movies to achieve a 100% rating on movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
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“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”
It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.
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“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light. But when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.”
A good mystery is not obvious, but neither is it impenetrable: it will give you all of the pieces of the puzzle in a jumbled mess, and then one of the characters will put them together. Most mystery movies fail on some level—they are either too obvious or, to get around this, will withhold key pieces of information until the end. Murder on the Orient Express (1974) is a true mystery, and it’s a good one. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Albert Finney and an all-star cast, this is a movie that won’t necessarily thrill you, but it will delight you as the pieces come together and the complex picture is revealed.
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“It’ll be just like in the movies: pretending to be somebody else.”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that makes you question everything you’ve seen. Fight Club and Donnie Darko have walked this path; but very few movies do it as masterfully as Mulholland Drive. Written and directed by surrealist filmmaker David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks) and starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, this is a movie that takes the typical Hollywood ending and shoots it and leaves it in a gutter to die. Most movies will cleanly wrap everything up by the end of the film, but this one seems to introduce new questions right up until the unexpected ending. Truth be told, it’s best that you go into an initial viewing without knowing a lot about the movie, so I’m going to leave the conversation on this one pretty sparse and reveal absolutely no spoilers. The movie is brilliant, though, if you’re willing to put in the time to piece things together.
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“Be careful with that gun! This ain’t no cartoon, you know!”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that asks, What if cartoons were real? These are usually cute and funny—for instance, Space Jam answers the age-old question of how well cartoons can play basketball. The original, though, is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it tells a very different story. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) and starring Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film noir that asks what happens when a cartoon murders someone. It follows the classic film noir formula, but injects it with classic cartoon gags and logic. The result is a darkly funny and unabashedly unique mystery-comedy that’s unlike any other movie out there.
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“I’m sorry I thought you were the murderer. But how was I to know he was as big a liar as you are?”
Describing a Hitchcockian mystery-thriller as “fun” may seem ridiculous, but that’s the first word that comes to mind for Charade. Directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face) and starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, this movie is equal parts comedy, mystery, and romance. Many of the lines and situations are genuinely funny, even silly, but it’s still a very competent mystery with plenty of twists and danger around every corner. As you can imagine, trying to build a romance through all of that also proves challenging for the characters, but that’s enjoyable too. Overall, this is a highly entertaining movie that’s a joy to watch.
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“Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.”
The Third Man is a difficult movie to sum up. Directed by Carol Reed (Oliver!, The Fallen Idol) and starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Orson Welles, this film noir is both suspenseful and whimsical, and seems to turn many Hollywood formulas on their heads. I’ll admit, there are a lot of movies that do suspense better, and a lot that do whimsy better, and even a few that do both just as well. But there’s something about this movie that’s just somehow more charming than others in the same league. It took me a while to reach this conclusion—I actually wasn’t all that impressed during the first half of the movie—but on reflection, I’m finding that I love this movie.
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