When I was a teenager, I watched way too many mainstream movies specifically targeted to my age group. I generally hated these things. Thanks to a decent art-house theatre in my city, an intellectually adventurous high school girlfriend, a new Blockbuster video rental store and a brilliant film lover at my college, I had no problems finding Kurosawa’s “Ran,” Ingmar Bergman, French stuff (Breathless, Last Year at Marienbad, Les Comperes, etc) and satires like Dr. Strangelove. All great works — and the sort of thing that English majors go crazy about. For this list, I am listing movies which I wish I’d seen in college, but didn’t learn about until later. Most movies here aren’t that radical or artsy-fartsy, and yet most of them are beautiful and insightful and essentially about adults doing adult things. I have tried to stay away from R-rated movies and various escapist fare (and even well made-made escapism) in favor of underappreciated movies which non English majors could enjoy and benefit from watching. Feel free to add any recommendations of your own in the comment section.
- Casablanca. Epic romantic movie that takes place in Morocco – a so-called neutral zone during World War Two. Everyone’s favorite movie.
- Bicycle Thief. Italian Post-war humanistic drama about a father who needs to recover his stolen bike in order to accept a job (and feed his family).
- Tokyo Story. Powerful and serene family drama about an elderly couple who visits their adult children who are too busy with their own lives. The director (Ozu) is very famous for his low tracking shots, and this movie was ranked as the #1 film of all time by world directors in a 2012 poll. Many things are amazing about this film; I always found amazing how it portrays the dramas of ordinary living as intrinsically interesting.
- Best Years of Our Lives. This beautiful film captures the lives of WW2 soldiers returning to USA as heroes who find that adjusting to life as a civilian is challenging and difficult. This film is about ordinary heroism in adapting to changed circumstances in life.
- AI (2001). Steven Spielberg is known for making children’s films full of wonder and adventure. This fairy tale for grownups tells the story of a robot kid who runs away from home and learns about the real world. Ignored upon release, this film’s reputation has only increased over time. It is very thought-provoking.
- Sixth Sense. Philosophical mystery film about a young kid who “sees dead people” and a psychologist who tries to help him. Starring the same kid from AI!
- Amadeus. This film which embellishes upon the life of Mozart captures the joy and heartbreak of the Viennese musical scene in the late 18th century. This movie is a feast for the eyes and ears.
- Pather Panchali. This simple first film by Indian director Satyajit Ray tells the story of two poor kids who try to escape poverty. This famous low-budget movie won many awards and became the first of 3 films called the Apu Trilogy.
- Rear Window. Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological masterpiece about an injured photographer who notices suspicious activity outside his apartment window. People watch it for the suspenseful story, but the sound design and sets are also beautiful.
- Downfall. (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel). Powerful movie that tries to film the unthinkable: the last days of Hitler in his bunker as witnessed by a young female secretary. Amazing performances which reveal the delusions and closed-mindedness of the German leaders throughout the war. My pick for the best film of the last decade.
- Wages of Fear. Utterly harrowing movie about young men who are paid enormous money to transport explosives (and risk their lives) over the South American terrain.
- Frances Ha (2012). Funny and poetic film about a woman in her twenties who lives in New York City while trying to pursue a dream career as dancer.
- Encore (1953). British directors made short movies about the witty and sad short stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Three volumes of movies were made (and well-received), with this one being probably the best. Great characters and stories!
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Tragic film about German high schoolers who were recruited to fight in World War 1 with tragic consequences. This movie has been remade many times, but the original version is still the best.
- Before Sunrise. Charming film about an American college student who spends a lovely day in Vienna with a French girl he meets on a train.
- Travelers and Magicians. Wonderful (and little-known) movie in the country Bhutan about a man who wins a visa to move to USA and befriends a Buddhist monk while waiting for the bus out of his village. This Buddhist monk tells him all kinds of amazing stories, causing the man to reconsider his dreams.
- Brooklyn. Wonderful story of a young Irish woman in the 1950s who moves to New York to earn a living and go to college. I like how it reveals the challenges and struggles of people traveling to new lands and having to start from scratch. This story (adapted from a novel by Colm Tóibín) is sad, funny, unlifting.
- Two films about the business world. You might think they are boring, but they are actually really interesting stories — and raise a lot of questions about what constitutes business success. The Big Short tries to explain the 2008 global recession by focusing on several people who spotted the financial disaster before everyone else did. It is told in a fast-paced comic style and unlike anything you’ve seen before. The Founder is a fascinating biographical portrait about how Ray Croc started the MacDonalds restaurant franchise — the dealmaking, the struggles, the disputes.
- Teen Movies
- Ave. I recently saw this incredible Bulgarian movie directed by Konstantin Bojanov. It’s about two Bulgarian teenagers who hitchhike across Bulgaria together, have all sorts of crazy adventures and learn about why people lie (to others and themselves)
- Breaking Away. Great 70s comedy about a biking fanatic (and recent high school grad) who decides to enter a biking competition where most of the contestants are college kids. They grow up fast!
- American Graffiti. Star Wars director George Lucas made this great movie about what people do during the summer between high school and college. This movie made movie stars out of a dozen actors (and inspired a #1 TV show called “Happy Days”). I like this movie much more than his Star Wars movies.
- Stranger Than Paradise. (Jiri Jarmusch) A teenage girl from Hungary arrives unannounced at the apartment of her American cousin (who she’s never met) and has to spend 10 days with him. She discovers how hard it is to persuade him to do anything fun. Hilarious! Also, hilariously relevant (most of adult years is figuring out how to deal with the daily boredom and how to get other people off their butts to enjoy themselves).
- Other classics. Here are some very famous movies which are probably on everybody’s list. Interestingly, I saw most of these after graduating from college.
- Wizard of Oz. The first time you watch this movie as an adult is eye-opening. You realize how much was percolating underneath this movie all along, how much its themes resonate in adulthood: finding the man behind the curtain, the emptiness of some objects vested with significance, the importance of the will in working towards goals.
- Night of the Living Dead. This tightly constructed horror film is both cheaply made and extremely sophisticated. Watching it as an adult, you appreciate the social dimensions and historical context. The movie doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the hero is African-American, yet it takes place during a time of great social upheaval when this detail would have historical significance. This was probably the first time I realized that that horror movies can be a great mirror for a nation’s fears and insecurities.
- The Graduate (with Dustin Hoffman). Besides being a silly sex romp, the running joke is that the “responsible adults” of the film are mean, selfish and short-sighted while the kids are the ones to see the hypocrisy. The remarkable thing about this movie is how everyone is trying (in their own self-serving way) to steer the two college kids on paths which are unsatisfying, messy and just plain wrong. By the end, the film puts the burden of figuring out how to proceed squarely on the shoulders of the young adults.
To clarify: these aren’t necessarily my favorite movies of all time (although several titles are on both lists), but movies which I think would be best watched when in college. Perhaps later I will prepare a “Favorite Movies” listicle, but that is a far more ambitious task.
What movies do you wish that people could discover when they are 19 or 20?