For the last few weeks, I’ve been showcasing a running column highlighting some classic films that most people have never seen, but should. This week, I’m bringing you five more famous flicks that you probably haven’t seen – yet. Now that you have the time, here are the next handful of movies you should get to watching.
1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Of all the movies I’ve shared so far, this one might be considered more a cult classic than traditional classic. It’s certainly the most nihilistic and violent – Stanley Kubrick isn’t exactly known for making uplifting or hopeful movies. Still, it’s on this list for a reason. Kubrick’s 1972 film perfectly encapsulated the gritty cynicism of the New Hollywood movement of the ’70s and his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ work lost none of the black comedy and dystopian satire of the original novel. It was simultaneously beloved and controversial upon release, with some, such as the New York Times, saying it was “a brilliant and dangerous work, but it is dangerous in a way that brilliant things sometimes are,” and others detracting it for its brutality and the way it dehumanized gang leader Alex DeLarge’s victims. The United States gave it an X rating at the time, and Britain banned it entirely. But Clockwork Orange is one of the rare films in which both views can be correct, in which it can be loved and hated simultaneously, even by the same person – and that’s what makes it so fascinating.
It was ultimately nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing, though it won none, along with a number of Golden Globes and BAFTAs that year. To this day, it continues to inspire debate and disagreement, regularly landing on Top 100 lists even as people question its bleak amorality. Thanks to Kubrick’s unique, genre-less style of filmmaking, it’s a film that still continues to be referenced and parodied almost 50 years later. And we still question how we feel about ourselves and the world when we’re done watching.
2. Young Frankenstein (1974)
After the depressing nihilism of A Clockwork Orange, let’s turn to a comedy, shall we? We look to legend Mel Brooks for that. I consider Young Frankenstein to be the funniest of all Brooks’ works – yes, more than Blazing Saddles, more than Spaceballs, more than Robin Hood: Men in Tights. For me, Young Frankenstein is it, and I’m not alone in that. Watching it today, it might seem a bit dated to younger audiences – at first. But at the time, it was revolutionary. Though Brooks had been doing comedy writing since the 1940s, it wasn’t until he perfected the parody format that he really hit his stride. In the ’60s and ’70s, when Brooks directed his first few films, parody was still a largely new concept: the earnest ’40s and clean-cut ’50s never would have allowed for his brand of irreverent parody or the irony necessary for satire. Brooks was in a class all his own.
Young Frankenstein is arguably his best work because it corrects the flaws of his earlier movies. If there is one criticism to be made of Brooks’ first three films, it finds its root in his variety show background: They are meandering, not so much cohesive plots as much as a series of sketches held together by jokes – still excellent, but rougher. But his fourth film is the first one to have a narrative throughline and to stay cohesive in story while not sacrificing any of the silliness or fiendishly clever wordplay that characterized Brooks’ comedy. The parody was only heightened by the clear love Brooks had for the Universal Classic Monster movies he was spoofing, right down to using the original props from the 1931 movie. It was both a critical favorite and a box office smash, and often regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. In 2003 the Library of Congress chose it for preservation in the National Film Registry. And perhaps the most significant thing of all: Brooks himself considers it his finest work as a writer-director to this day.
3. All The President’s Men (1976)
It feels as though I’ve been writing a lot about Robert Redford movies lately. I’m just in a Redford kind of mood, I guess. But no Redford film is more prescient or relevant to right now than All the President’s Men. The movie adaptation of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their dogged investigation and reporting of the Watergate scandal has ultimately become better-known than the book itself and with good reason. As with previous Redford vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the script for All the President’s Men was written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman (whom I’ve written about before in a previous 5 Classic Films column). Redford and Dustin Hoffman brought it to life as Woodward and Bernstein, becoming the role models and inspirations for an entire generational wave of journalism students who decided they wanted to be investigative reporters. It also might be the most accurate portrayal we’ve ever seen on screen on the life of a working journalist.
Often, a film based on true events that still immediately in the rearview mirror fail to find audience support – just look at Bombshell. But not so All the President’s Men, which racked up $70.6 million at the box office on a budget of $8.5 million – today, that would be a return of $321 million on a $38.6 million budget. It was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, ultimately winning the categories of Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Direction and Best Sound, as well as being nominated for a number of Golden Globes and BAFTAs. In 2010, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
4. Do The Right Thing (1989)
If All the President’s Men is relevant to what’s happening today politically, then Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is relevant to what’s happening culturally. Lee has been making films that explore themes of racism and black identity in America for decades now, and Do the Right Thing is considered his masterwork. What on the surface appears to simply be a slice-of-life film about the characters that populate a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the year is a film that digs down into themes of racism and classism, gentrification and struggle, and the discordant rhythm of an uneasy neighborhood that reaches its boiling point and is finally torn apart by racial tension. The scene of Radio Raheem being choked to death by cops while being arrested for an altercation was hauntingly prescient of the death of Eric Garner in reality 25 years later. What’s always been the breathtaking truth in Lee’s work: nothing has ever changed from then until now.
It also features an all-star cast before they really hit the stride of their fame including Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence. Do the Right Thing was arguably the launchpad for at least three of their careers. Though Lee wrote the screenplay in just two weeks, the rawness of the script and the unstilted performances of the cast made it something special. It was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay, as well as being placed in the National Film Registry in its very first year of eligibility thanks to its cultural significance. Not only is it one of the most important films to come out of the ’80s, it may be one of the most important films to come out of the second half of the last century.
5. Vertigo (1958)
Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers often revolve around themes of paranoia and obsession, but Vertigo might have been his pinnacle achievement in portraying it. As the lonely, romantic Scottie, James Stewart’s turn from infatuation to fanaticism is one of the saddest and most macabre love stories ever told, with Hitchcock spinning a deft tale of a trapped and tragic man who loses not one, but two, loves in his lifetime. It’s a prickly and frustrating story that, to many today, might not have aged well. But Vertigo is one of those cases where it’s so good precisely because it’s so difficult to grapple with.
The story itself stands on its own merits, but it’s the visuals that really make Vertigo sing. To emulate Scottie’s intense acrophobia and vertigo, cameraman Irmin Roberts developed a technique known as the “dolly zoom,” where the camera was moved toward or away from an object while zooming in at the same time. The effect is one that messes with perception, creating a distorted and elongated visual effect – most people know it as “the Vertigo effect” today. And while other filmmakers also messed with strong color and composition, Vertigo came out right as Classic Hollywood was transitioning into New Hollywood, and its expressive visuals became a bridge between the previous generation and the new. Though it underwhelmed at the box office at the time, its influence of it on future filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Brian De Palma is unmistakable – just watch Scorsese talking about it below:
Today, it’s considered one of the greatest American films ever made and a master class in camera techniques and the use of color. Few filmmakers have influenced the next generation like Hitchcock influenced the auteurs of New Hollywood. So many of our classic films have Hitchcock to thank for their style and tone.