What’s the “checklist” that goes into recommending a film? Does there need to be a likable protagonist? Should the goals reflect universal human emotion no matter how “out there” the plot actually is? Can it only be passed along if it’s not based on other source material? Those are just some of the questions we asked ourselves as we looked to curate a list of films that we deem necessary viewing.
While summer is primarily known as blockbuster season, we haven’t neglected the genre, but we have attempted to unearth some dusty classics, spotlight independent cinema, as well as attempt to predict what contemporary icons will be deemed classics in 20 years time.
Here are 30 movies to see before you’re 30.
2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick‘s timeless sci-fi film about the progression of the human race hasn’t aged in over 40 years. It covers a myriad of concepts regarding the plight of humanity, which are all as relevant now as they ever were. If symbolism isn’t your thing, it’s worth watching for the stunning, distinctive visuals in the film alone.
The Great Escape – This film is a British institution in its own right and is shown on TV every Christmas without fail. It’s got everything you want from a family-friendly classic – a simple storyline of plucky prisoners escaping a German POW camp, hilariously over the top accents, dry British humour and plenty of action culminating in Steve McQueen looking cool as fuck on a motorbike.
Annie Hall – Essential for understanding Woody Allen‘s impressive body of work as it marked a major shift between his early slapstick comedies and his later films exploring more serious themes. The film also helped define our contemporary notion of the romantic comedy with Allen playing a fictionalized neurotic, pseudo-intellectual version of himself in the leading role. As in most of his films that take place in New York City, Annie Hall perfectly captures the American metropolis in all its 1977 glory.
Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese’s classic isn’t an example of textbook narrative, but it does stack memorable scene after scene so that the viewer is given a claustrophobic peek at what the life of a wise-guy really entailed. If there’s a more sombre closing line to a film than “Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook,” I’m yet to encounter it.
The Shawshank Redemption – An allegory for maintaining one’s feeling of self-worth when placed in a hopeless position, integrity is an important theme in the film’s storyline. The Shawshank Redemption provides a great example of how one can be free, even in prison, or unfree, even in freedom, based on one’s outlook on life.
Airplane! – Despite being nearly 35 years old, the combination of razor-sharp script, classic storyline and masterfully deadpan performances mean Airplane! still knocks the punchline out of 90% of comedies produced today. In fact, its rapid fire, sketch-show style of delivery set the blueprint for everything from Hot Shots to Family Guy, though few have since come close to its consistency. Shirley, the greatest comedy ever made.
Apocalypse Now – Arguably the peak of Francis Ford Coppola’s career, Apocalypse Now is a generation defining film set during the Vietnam War, that was in part based on Joesph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” A great story combined with brilliant acting, the film almost didn’t get made and there is even a documentary showing how difficult the shoot was. Although it tackled subjects relevant to the time, it is completely timeless.
The Graduate – Though nearly 50 years old, The Graduate remains a classic comedy that still feels relevant today. Returning home to a by-the-book upper middle class California suburb after graduating from college, 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, finds himself unemployed and worried about his future, as young people still do. In his confused, anxious state, Benjamin ends up involved in a love affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson, and a chain of awkward, embarrassing and ridiculously hilarious antics ensue. If I were to say The Graduate set the precedent for smart, quirky, coming of age comedies ever since, I would probably be right. Queue up the Simon & Garfunkel, here’s to you Mrs. Robinson. A classic worth picking up.
Chinatown – Lauded as having one of the best written scripts of all time, as executed by the master Robert Towne, Chinatown is film noir at its greatest. Matching mystery with psychological drama, it plays out like a smoke-filled eulogy for the California Water Wars of the early 20th century.
Stand by Me – Combining two tried-and-true methods of filmmaking – coming of age and the road trip – Stand by Me digs deeper than merely ripped jeans to understand what it means to love your friends more than your family. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
The Indie Darlings
Waking Life – This animated film takes on a variety of challenging topics. The protagonist embarks on a variety of encounters with people who explore a range of philosophical issues – from the nature of reality to freewill, dreams, consciousness, and the meaning of life. All whilst during an elusive state of lucid dreaming – this film is so trippy it’s as good as taking drugs.
My Little Eye – Watching this film when I was 12 drove me mad with paranoia for about a year. It’s basically The Truman Show and Big Brother but with murders instead of Jim Carrey and Z-list celebrities. It’s all shot on grainy, super realistic CCTV cameras and just writing this in my empty apartment has convinced me that someone is watching me and I’m going to die.
Synecdoche, New York – The directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York is a postmodern masterpiece. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers one of his most slept-on roles in a film that explores a number of themes including the process of creation, death, companionship, loneliness and much more. Thanks to some of the more surreal scenes, the film stays with you long after the credits roll, leaving you to wonder what the hell Kaufman had in mind with this one.
Mud – Many will credit Matthew McConaughey‘s return to acting royalty thanks to his turn as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club, or as the nihilistic gumshoe, Rust Cohle, in True Detective, but his portrayal as a fugitive looking to right things with his true love in Jeff Nichols coming-of-age drama/thriller really put him on the path. Set against the Arkansas River, the film feels like Stand by Me meets The Fugitive.
The Fall – Shot in more than 20 different countries, The Fall is one of the most stylish and visually arresting films you are ever likely to come across. Part fairytale, part dark and poignant personal drama, the costume and set design are like a cross between a graphic novel and a haute couture runway show. Held together by superlative performances from a cast of relative unknowns—including one irresistibly compelling 8-year-old—this is a true slept-on masterpiece.
Nowhere – The third film in Gregg Araki’s teenage apocalypse trilogy, Nowhere is an absurdist look at being a teenager in the capitalist age. Set in Los Angeles, it follows the lives of a group of high school kids, from their seemingly fickle problems to bigger issues. Very dark humor, and it features a who’s who of ’90s actors.
Videodrome – Written and directed by David Cronenberg, it follows the CEO, played by James Woods, of a small television station who discovers a broadcast signal featuring extreme violence and torture. As he uncovers the signal’s source, layers of deception unfold as he begins to lose touch with reality in a series of increasingly bizarre and violent hallucinations. Videodrome‘s musings on technology, entertainment and politics continue to feel fresh today. Note: follow it up with Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.
Kids – The first time I saw the 1995 Larry Clark film Kids was probably circa 1997 at around age 12. At the time I was utterly amazed that a movie existed that documented what I perceived as my lifestyle. I don’t want to come off as a juvenile delinquent – 12 is not the 16 of the main characters Telly and Casper – but at that time (I felt as though) my days were spent much like the characters in Kids. Thinking back I must have been extrapolating somewhat. I did not live in Manhattan and party all night, but still, skateboarding, drugs and girls were nearly all that mattered to my circle of friends. Until I saw Kids, life and movies felt very separate, but the raw, bleak and unfiltered feel of this film opened my eyes to the darker, grittier side of cinema.
Reservoir Dogs – Named the greatest independent film of all-time by Empire Magazine, the debut of writer/director Quentin Tarantino was created for a measly $1.5 million dollars following Harvey Keitel’s involvement with the project. While it showcased a number of elements that would go on to permeate his work, his choice to never show the heist felt more indicative of a cinematic decision rather than merely budgetary.
The Usual Suspects – Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s mind-bending heist thriller is a testament to the notion that a writer and director should be in complete control of the narrative at all times. No sloppy loose ends. No sloppy reversals just to reinvigorate a plot. Just authority and the actors with the chops to execute it.
The Newer Kids on the Block
Four Horsemen – A poignant documentary that explores the manipulation and corruption that occurs in each sector of our wildly unequal, capitalist society. It breaks our society down into different topics and ages, comparing them to each age that lead to the fall of the Roman empire. It’s a fascinating and liberating watch, “because to understand something is to be liberated from it.”
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – I’m really not one of those super critical, analytical kind of film buffs but I am a sucker for short, sharp and charming films which Kiss Kiss Bang Bang definitely is. With playful editing, lots of witty dialogue, and a clever storyline, it’s just the right combination of easy going entertainment and dark humour to spend an hour and a half on.
The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick is one of those rare film-makers who is able to work solely on projects he wants to work on, whether they be Hollywood hits or epic experimentals, as is the case with The Tree of Life. Despite starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, the film is vast in nature and is inspiring merely in scope and beauty. Besides Malick’s magnificent directing, most impressive is the camera work handled by Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
Moonrise Kingdom – While it may never be referred to as his most iconic or important work over his lustrous and symmetrical career, Wes Anderson‘s take on the coming-of-age/travel story really captures the awkwardness of youth while also opening up adults’ eyes that being an adolescent doesn’t make you irrelevant.
The Prestige – Obsession, secrecy and sacrifice fuel a battle as two magicians compete in a deadly duel of one-upmanship, Prestige begs to ask the question of how far one would go to devote oneself to an art. This film is easily one of the most innovative, twisting, turning films of the past decade.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – The film that brought Casey Affleck to the world is, surprisingly, not a big-budget action thriller, nor a quirky indie think-piece. This remarkable Western, starring Brad Pitt as the infamous titular highwayman, is a real slow burner, but manages to be tense, personal and incredibly beautiful over its nearly three-hour runtime. Despite knowing right from the start that one character will kill the other, the relationship built up between them will have you on the edge of your seat right up until the final moment. The Nick Cave-penned soundtrack acts as the perfect accompaniment to the stunning prairie cinematography.
The Artist – A modern silent film, give The Artist a chance before dismissing it for its lack of dialogue. It manages to tell a great story about the film industry without any (spoken) words, and is an example of how powerful great acting can be.
The Departed – Let’s start by getting the elephant out of the room – 2006?s The Departed would not exist without the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Even so I believe this film belongs on this list. Martin Scorsese’s American crime thriller is cut from a similar cloth as his other genre classics like Goodfellas and Casino, but its introduction of the seedier mob elements into law enforcement is what really causes this film to move at a much more frenetic pace.
City of God – In his four-star review of the film, Roger Ebert noted, “The film has been compared with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and it deserves the comparison. Scorsese’s film began with a narrator who said that for as long as he could remember he wanted to be a gangster. The narrator of this film seems to have had no other choice.” Focusing on the lives of those in and around the notorious favelas in Rio, the visual style of film-maker Fernando Meirelles made the film drip with authenticity.
The Social Network – When it was announced that David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin would be collaborating on a film about the birth of Facebook, many were sceptical about whether they could make the story dramatic. Focusing more on the people and the relationship than the product, it serves as the perfect cinematic time capsule for a generation rooted in a DIY ethos.