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11 powerful movies you must watch before you die

I was busy perusing answers to Quora’s list of top movies you must watch before you die. Instead of providing my response on that platform, I decided to post my own opinions on my blog. You see, when it comes to content marketing, while every marketer agrees on its value, each one of us would kill to help our client get a page 1 Google ranking without the need for paid advertising. It’s awfully hard to do but the more you discover and exploit your niche the better chance you get at achieving higher search results. This topic isn’t niche but it’s one I’ve wanted to blog about for a long time. I’m so cynical about the state of cinema and how few quality movies ever get made.

Now a post about your top ten movies is awfully personal. I’m selecting these films for the following reasons:

  1. I never get tired of watching them 
  2. I own them in my DVD collection
  3. These are American films because I grew up in the United States and our country pioneered movie making from its earliest days
  4. My choice covers a few different genres – the more you experience, the more you discover what you like and don’t like. That’s healthy. On the other hand, there are foreign films which I’ve excluded in this post but may address in a future blog post.

A favorite movie is one that begs for repeat watching. The story engrosses you and the writing, directing, and the acting all combine to make it memorable. Sometimes one facet is greater than the other. But in the end all play a pivotal role in making the movie one you could discuss, watch again, and contemplate for the rest of your life. I give you my list in no particular order.

(SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t seen any of these movies, by all means please see them first if you don’t want any of my reviews to spoil your enjoyment of them).

Network – 1976

This film blew my mind. I was 8 when the movie came out but did not actually watch it until I was a freshman in high school. Even at 14, thoughts about the division between rich and poor, the corruption of our democracy by money, and the powerful influence of television were not foreign ideas to me. Paddy Chayefsky’s exquisite screenplay is unforgettable. The script alone I found to be the equivalent of Shakespeare. Yes, it’s that good. The writing came across as if you were watching a play. The monologues in this movie are so engrossing you could imagine they could only be written for theater.

Network is pure satire but Chayefsky point-blank tells the audience that they are mere puppets of the corporate state. Television became corrupted by corporate influence and brainwashes the masses. If you’re wondering just how compromised our country’s democracy is today because of money, listen to Ned Beatty’s speech. It’s Chayefsky’s reality check to those of us who still dream and yearn for a country ruled by the people, for the people, and of the people.

I’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times from start to finish. It never gets old. The English language has never been more beautifully written for the cinema and for me, it sets the highest bar possible. No other movie screenplay has ever come close to matching Chayefsky’s remarkable work. I can’t recommend this movie enough. I don’t think there has ever been another movie produced by Hollywood that castigates the oligarchy and mocks the general population as a bunch of television addicted sheep. It won’t cheer you up. But you will laugh out loud and come away wishing you had drafted such a sardonic and provocative script.

12 Angry Men – 1957

I remember first seeing this movie back in high school. In my civics class one of the things our teacher made us do was watch this film. The first few things that impressed me were the following: the use of B&W, the soundtrack, and the superb acting by every juror depicted. Reginald Rose’s screenplay powerfully captured just how agonizing it was for these characters to face one another.  Lee J. Cobb’s acting blew me away and his comeuppance is handled with such class (thanks to the humility of Henry Fonda’s character).

This movie depicts an ideal for all of humankind to strive for. For if every single person on the planet were to honestly meet themselves and their prejudices and do the “right thing” then maybe we would all treat ourselves with greater respect and dignity. Henry Fonda represents human goodness while Lee. J. Cobb symbolizes our shameful bigotry. It’s to know that when we do confront the worst part of ourselves, we can admit to it and recognize that we can do better. It’s rare to feel so gratified by the ending of a movie. Light and shadow are used to great effect not to mention the soundtrack. When one thinks of soundtracks today, at least by Hollywood standards, this is anything BUT a Hollywood soundtrack. No loud synthesizers or electronics. It is a plaintiff cry of violin and piano.  The acting is the best that it ever gets. Not one false note or emotion. Reginald Rose improved upon his script from the very first telecast of this story back in 1954. I can watch this movie any time with anyone. That opening scene right after the judge tells the jury of its solemn duty and the camera pans back to the young teenager is so moving. You know this poor kid did not commit murder. And when Henry Fonda helps put Lee J. Cobb’s jacket back on after he just went through a gut-wrenching admission that the indeed the kid is not guilty, it reminds you that we can forgive and act like gentlemen.

Never Cry Wolf – 1983

Did Walt Disney pictures actually produce this film? It’s unlike any other Disney film ever made. It’s not animated and has political undertones that I don’t think Disney has fully explored in any other movie since. This film is an adaptation of Canadian writer Farley Mowat’s story Never Cry Wolf, which tells the story of his stint as a researcher in the tundra of Canada exploring the claims that the wolf is depleting the wild stocks of Caribou. Ultimately, he shows that the wolves have nothing to do with the declining deer population and more importantly, human development is encroaching upon the wild habitat of the wolves themselves. This film has so many things going for it.

First, the cinematography, especially on a wide-screen, showcases the wondrous wild tundra of Canada. It’s a real treat to the eyes. The casting of Charles Martin Smith was brilliant because he is believable as a government researcher setting out to explore the habitat of the wolves not knowing what exactly he’s getting himself into. I like the sound of Smith’s voice. His heart is in the right place while his mind implements the science to prove the wolves innocence. More importantly, the conclusion of the film that seems to go over the heads of most people who watch it is just how much a juggling act it is to maintain what wild habitat we have left when confronted with human development. Even the Inuit do what they must to survive, which means killing a wolf to improve their quality of life. It’s not just about the “white man” coming in to a wild place and wanting to destroy it by exploiting its natural resources.

Then there is Mark Isham’s soundtrack. The 1980’s saw some of the worst synthesized sounding soundtracks that Hollywood could ever produce. Near all of them are forgettable (IMO) and ones I’d never spend time listening to. But Isham uses that digital sound so sparingly and he matches his simple theme to the visuals on-screen exquisitely as to make you feel not just isolated but also at peace.

Each time I watch Never Cry Wolf I want to experience what Farley Mowat experienced, or at least what Smith’s character realized towards the end of the film. I want to learn more about mother nature and how we can avoid our continued destruction of it. The final segment when Smith meets up with the Inuit and he teaches him how to juggle made me realize that however daunting it is to try to do better in our relationship with nature, it still might be possible to avoid catastrophe if we really take pause and remind ourselves just how connected we all are with life. By purposely destroying any life, we in turn help to destroy ourselves. Living in the wild is about survival of the fittest. But living in society does not have to be that way. Social Darwinism is a human construction that benefits a few at the expense of the many. As an animal species at the top of the food chain, we can do better.

Midnight Express – 1978

I remember watching this film for the first time at home during high school on a rented VHS tape. I had NO IDEA what exactly I was getting myself into after having read the brief description about the story on the tape box. But from the opening scene of Istanbul to the sound of Billy Hayes’s heartbeat in the bathroom after he has taped to his body these blocks of hash, my palms began to sweat for poor Billy because I knew something bad was going to happen. And sure enough, when he does get busted right outside the airplane, you know he’s in for the nightmare of his life and you are along for the ride! I’ve seen this film multiple times and it never gets old for me. There have been many movies exploring the fight for individual human survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. But in this case, a very unjust court ruling that in no way bears resemblance to the crime committed is enough to make you feel so deeply for poor Billy Hayes.

Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay. He’s been criticized for how racist it is. In particular, the courtroom scene where Billy Hayes knows he’s going to be unfairly sentenced and no matter what he says the judges will rule against him because of the decision by the higher court in Ankara. He describes Turks as “pigs.” Well, put yourself in Billy’s shoes. If you were about to be sentenced to more than 30 years in a Turkish prison, I’m not sure you would feel kind and generous towards Turks especially if you felt the punishment did not match the severity of the crime.

I never interpreted what Billy says as being racist. If I’d been in his place, I probably would have uttered those exact words myself! The grave injustice being perpetrated upon him makes it almost impossible to be cool, rational, and understanding of the Turkish court system. The guy is getting screwed over and he’s supposed to take it like a man and not be angry and want to lash out at all of Turkish culture? If you read the book by Billy Hayes, Oliver Stone took Hayes speech in the courtroom verbatim from the novel but added in the “hate speech” towards Turks to spice it up. Was it necessary? No. Oliver did so to further dramatize Hayes situation. The movie’s director obviously felt comfortable in using Stone’s racist dialogue. Regardless of how racist you feel this movie portrays Turks or Turkish culture, I for one did not come away thinking that Turkish society is out to screw over Westerners. I’m actually planning on visiting Istanbul for the first time! Rest assured, I won’t try to duplicate Billy’s stupid idea of taking illegal drugs with me on board an airplane.

It’s unfathomable to me that Brad Davis did not win an Academy award for his superlative acting. You root for Billy Hayes from start to finish wondering how is he going to survive this Turkish prison nightmare? How is he going to escape? The movie differs from the book as Billy Hayes did not escape prison by murdering the main prison warden. It doesn’t matter.  I’ll never get tired of watching this film.

The Thing – 1982

I’m only going to feature one horror film in my list of top nine. I was going to select Jaws (1975) because it is a favorite of mine. But when it comes to sheer horror, it came second to The Thing. Horror is a legitimate movie genre. It dates back to the silent movie days with films like Nosferatu and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Back in 1983, I was 14 years old. I remember seeing this film with a few other student friends of mine. How we got into the cinema without our parents I no longer recall because I believe this was an R rated film. Anyway, seeing this movie on the big screen scared the living shit out of me. The special effects floored me. The horror depicted never seemed more real to me.

The simple story line kept getting creepier as you tried to discover who was “The Thing.” Ennio Morricone’s simple “one note” bass line eerily captured the snowy, chilly and barren antarctic landscape melding it perfectly to the tragic fate of all the characters portrayed. I loved the casting. The narrative frightened me. Opening the movie with Norwegians in a helicopter trying to kill a husky was a brilliant move on the part of director John Carpenter. It immediately heightened the drama and you kept wondering what exactly is wrong with this dog? No one back in 1982 could have imagined to what degree Carpenter would have invested in the special effects to pull off such grotesqueness. I sure didn’t. That’s why at every turn Carpenter kept grossing out and freaking you out as the movie kept its course of not knowing exactly what is going to happen next. Could it get any worse for Outpost 31?

Ending the movie on such a hopeless note felt all too visceral to me. This was no traditional “hollywood ending.”  I mentioned Jaws at the start of this film, which is another of my favorite horror movies. But that has a “disneyesque” ending. Why? Because Steven Spielberg directed it he nearly always ends his films on a positive note. Blah! The Thing ends with unforgiving reality. Knowing that we all are going to die and we must accept our fate! Except in The Thing, both characters will freeze to death before help arrives. Talk about a dark and depressing conclusion! I loved it!

Catch-22 – 1969

I can’t recall when I first saw this movie but having read the book by Joseph Heller I was definitely expecting a funny satire of war. It delivered. The basic premise is that of a man who is desperately trying to stay alive in the midst of war and how he’s confronted with the military’s ridiculous “Catch-22” way of working.

Nichols shot the movie using real B-25s from WW2, something that could never be done today. The opening scene is unforgettable as you watch these flying behemoths get off the ground to bomb their next target. I love the acting in this movie and felt that the casting was spot on, except for Jon Voight who I think was miscast as Milo Minderbinder. Alan Arkin as Yossarian more than proved his acting chops. I imagined myself as Yossarian stuck in the madness that is not just the military but war itself. A terrific coup was getting Orson Wells to play General Dreedle. He is hilarious. If hell is the impossibility of reason then that is how I would describe what Catch-22 was trying to depict and it does so successfully. There are scenes that are so powerful.

  1. Yossarian discovers Snowden’s insides were completely ripped apart. He wants to barf. And so do you.
  2. Art Garfunkle as Lt. Nately getting his ideals completely obliterated by an old Italian man who opines about why Italy survives so well as a country. He’s the “shameful opportunist” that reinforces a certain cynicism about humanity and how easy it is to shoot down idealism.
  3. Yossarian’s medal ceremony. This scene just cracked me up from start to finish.
  4. The silent scene of Yossarian walking the streets of Rome at night

Many movies have lampooned the military and war in general. Films like Mash, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, etc… Each of these films tried something a little different in their portrayal of combat and war’s impact on the human psyche. But none of them covered as much psychological ground as Catch-22 did. Catch-22 is not perfect in its execution. And I keep reading negative comments online by readers of the book that the movie gave too short thrift to the character of Hungry Joe. Maybe so. But then this movie was essentially “impossible” to turn into a film to begin with given the multitude of characters being portrayed. I think it is Mike Nichol’s most ambitious, creative cinematic project he ever took on in his lifetime.

The Razor’s Edge – 1946

I read Somerset Maugham’s book while a student at college. At the time, I fell in love with Maugham’s writing. I read many more of his novels but felt the Razor’s Edge did hold a special place because it did two things. It focused on the central meaning of life. Why are we here and what is our purpose? And it spent time (in the penultimate chapter) introducing us to Indian culture, in particular, Brahmanism. That was heady stuff for Western culture back in 1944 when the novel was first published. It became a bestseller and was soon required reading on many college campuses. I did not think it possible to film this story told strictly through conversation. This film does some things very well and others less well. But even though it’s not “perfect,” it’s a beautiful example of where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I chose this film as a must watch because I don’t think Hollywood has ever come close to producing another film that strictly focused on life’s ultimate purpose. We get to watch a person strive for something greater than himself and see how his journey impacts those around him. The film gives you the passion and the love that Isabel Bradley had for Larry Darrell and Gene Tierney’s acting is superlative for its time. In watching this film, I never questioned Isabel’s obsession for Larry and it came across as genuine as any love/obsession story could be today. She wanted him and was forever destroyed that she could never have him.

I think it was a stroke of genius for screenwriter Lamar Trotti to insert Somerset Maugham (played by actor Herbert Marshall) into the story. Screenwriter Lamar Trotti created the drama helping to move the story along. Keep in mind that Maugham’s story is told principally through discussion and reflection.

However, where the movie did fall short was in explaining or truly showing what Larry’s time in India did for him. We know he has that magical moment on the mountain top as he’s looking at the sun but that doesn’t get specific enough as far as I’m concerned. If Trotti could have somehow borrowed from Maugham’s chapter on Brahmanism and given Larry more intellectual depth so he could have shared it with both Maugham, Isabel and her family, I think it would have made it far more compelling. Otherwise, Larry’s character as played by Tyrone Power is rather dull. Power, though a very good actor, really isn’t the most engaging of characters in this picture. Actor Clifton Webb as Elliott Templeton is superb and very much captures the character as portrayed in the novel.

Just as important is the depiction of the passage of time. We see how hard times subtly affected the wealthy. It’s thanks to Templeton’s generosity or “noblesse oblige” ethic that Isabel and her family have a place to stay in Paris while Gray recovers from his depression. All in all, I never get tired of watching this movie. I want to yearn for something greater than myself and want to believe that there are more people like Larry Darrel who yearn for the same thing.

Planet of the Apes – 1968

Science fiction rarely gets any better than in this phenomenal re-interpretation of French author Pierre Boulle‘s novel. I read Boulle’s novel and while I enjoyed it, found this adaptation far more compelling. In addition, the screenplay kept most of Rod Serling’s (one of television’s greatest writers) best ideas. While he wrote the earliest drafts,  screenwriter Michael Wilson revised it, providing more action to the drama. The ending alone is the type of conclusion that a hollywood movie rarely makes today. People loved to be entertained but in general don’t go to see movies that depict the end of human civilization as we know it. It took a tremendous amount of guts and vision for Serling to inject this cynical fate for mankind as the movie’s conclusion and for director Franklin J. Schaffner to keep it.

None of the rest of the Planet of the Apes movie and television franchise comes close to matching the original. It it is so complete on its own. Charlton Heston commands the screen and asks the question that fundamentally should cross the minds of people the world over. Is there something better than humankind out in the universe? A creature that doesn’t make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving? 

As a species humanity destroys its own habitat for the sake of short-term benefit. Does it make any sense? Rod Serling made sure that nearly all of his Twilight Zone episodes imparted some sort of wisdom about the frailties of human nature. He does the same with Planet of the Apes just on a more grandeur scale.

Midnight Cowboy – 1969

First off, if you’ve never read author James Leo Herlihy eponymous novel, than it is a must read. It’s a story about human loneliness. A con man and a wanna be Texan hustler find an unexpected love for each other on the gritty streets of New York. Their need to connect isn’t given a full chance to flower as the realities of fate robs them both. We are born alone and we die alone. This movie captures the loneliness of Herlihy’s novel.

The opening sequence probably went over the heads of most people watching it back in ’69. You hear the sounds of cowboys shooting and screaming, making you think we’re back in the 1840s. And then a desolate drive-in movie lot materializes and later we see Joe Buck singing an ‘ol cowboy tune in the shower. He’s as naked as the cowboy mythology itself. No one is celebrating this checkered past of American history. It is a myth that lives and ultimately dies in the mind of Joe Buck.

By movie’s end, the achingly sad notes of Jean Toots Thieleman harmonica  have seeped deep into your conscience making you feel that you too are not as removed from Buck’s loneliness as you might think. You must cherish those relationships with the people who matter most to you in your life. You must treat all strangers as souls traveling ever onward not knowing where their final resting place might be. You are one of those souls.

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are perfectly cast. Their portraits of Joe Buck and Ratzo Rizzo are unforgettable. This movie launched Voight’s career while Hoffman was already riding high from his success with The Graduate. I enjoyed the psychedelic “Andy Warhol party” that takes place late in the film. I think  the party represents estrangement itself, the interacting with strangers whom you have no connection with, other than the sharing of drugs. Joe is able to connect thanks to the drugs while Ratzo remains stuck in the prison of his reality.

I also enjoyed how the film finally takes us out of the cruelty of New York’s streets and catapults us to sunny Florida, giving what we hope will be a new start for Joe and Ratzo. Alas, it’s not meant to be. There are a number of flashback scenes that screenwriter Waldo Salt inserted into the script to capture Herlihy’s description of Buck’s past. Sometimes they work and sometimes you’re left not sure what they really mean. Is there a subtext of latent homosexuality in Joe Buck? I didn’t think so when I saw this film but some critics, like the late Roger Ebert believe otherwise.

This movie transcends its late 60’s period. And the soundtrack is so original and memorable unlike the dreck of movie scores today. You will be humming to the theme of Toot’s harmonica playing long after you’ve seen this film.

Wall Street – 1987

This film came out when I was a sophomore in college. By 19, my ideas about capitalism, greed, and the selfish pursuit of wealth were on their way to being permanently formed. I read enough preliminary news stories about the rising tide of economic inequality in the United States to know that without government regulations, Wall Street itself was nothing more than a soup made of avarice, gluttony, and rapacity. Oliver Stone came along and writes the best screenplay about the making of money I’d ever seen. The character of Gordon Gekko typified for me all that was wrong about the institution of Wall Street itself. American finance was not driven by the public interest or the public good. It was driven by capitalists set out to make a killing for themselves and their stockholders, nothing more.

Oliver Stone’s screenplay brilliantly depicted just how exciting it could be at the thought of making millions if you worked as a stockbroker. Of course, it helps to have insider information. And watching Charlie Sheen go down the path of breaking the law and pursuing wealth accumulation at all costs grabbed my attention and never let go. To be “liquid” in the words of Gekko made you actually wonder just what it must be like to be obscenely wealthy (Hello Donald Trump.)

I thought the acting by all involved in this production was uniformly superb. More importantly, this film will never age. It’s the story of Icarus, where a son flouts the advice of his father, choosing to aim higher than he’s ever been, willing to break the law for the sake of avarice. Instead, he falls back to the ground having learned a valuable lesson and lucky to still be alive.

American Splendor – 2003

I had never heard of Harvey Pikar when this movie came out. I knew nothing of his comic book or anything having to do with his art. I found the creativity behind the production of this movie astonishing because I’d never seen anything like it before. Comic book movies are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. You’ve got superheroes fighting evil villains and tons of CGI. That’s it. The genius behind Harvey Pikar was his vision of the comic book and expanding what was previously never conceived of before. Harvey believed he could take his ordinary, mundane life as an office file clerk for a VA hospital and turn it into a comic book, filled with his own personal joys and travails. He turned it into American Splendor, which received numerous accolades for Harvey’s insight into the day to day monotonous life most of us live. He was able to shine a spotlight on his observations about human nature and express them graphically, thanks to the support of underground comic book artists, like Robert Crumb.

American Splendor, the movie, is creative in its use of special effects that splices in comic books with that of actors who portray Harvey Pikar, in particular, the main actor, Paul Giamatti. Paul is superb in what I’d call a break-out performance worthy of an Academy award. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Harvey loved jazz and the directors do an excellent job of integrating various jazz music compositions throughout the entire soundtrack. It compliments the drama and humor so well that I’d call it the best example yet of what a soundtrack can and should do to amplify a stellar screenplay. It’s a rare phenomenon. The vast majority of movie soundtracks suck. But study the use of music in American Splendor. You will learn plenty.

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10 movies to watch before you die
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10 movies to watch before you die
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My editorial on the 10 must watch movies before you die.
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