I have never been a big movie-goer. I see a few movies in the theater each year, usually blockbusters, and stream a couple of movies each month at home, mostly documentaries. I took four film study courses in college, all heavy on writing. All were terrific. Here is my list of films that made me think, or wowed me with gorgeous cinematography, or cracked me up, or were otherwise hard to shake.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Possibly the best movie made in modern times. Career performances by Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones.
La Femme Nikita (1990)
Gritty, action-packed with a female sniper-assassin protagonist, in french. Someone gets dissolved by acid in a bathtub. A perfect shoot 'em up.
The Conversation (1974)
Gene Hackman's 2nd best best performance. Slow, tight, cerebral. Very '70s.
El Capitan (1978)
Until Meru (2015) came along, El Capitan was by far the best of the climbing genre. This is Yosemite bigwall climbing in 1969: Pounding pitons, dirty offwidths, webbing aiders, wool pants, live banter between climbing partners, rattling carabiners, pendulum swings, and swami belts. Four years before Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia.
The introduction of the Upper Midwest accent into pop culture. Someone gets shredded in a snow blower.
Cinema Paradiso (1988)
A wonderful, simple, enjoyable foreign film about a theater and the people of its town.
The birth of the monster film. Every scary movie made since has borrowed something from this film.
The Birth of Sake (2015)
A documentary about the men who make the finest sake in Japan. An examination of close-quarters living, "monastic" life, family sacrifice, tradition, and work worth doing.
Easy Rider (1969)
There are a handful of films about the 1960s that must be seen. This is one of them. The entire cast owes all of its subsequent Hollywood success to this film.
Mean Streets (1973)
Harvey Keitel comes into his own in this gritty, classic 1970s film about brash young men coming of age amidst violence, fast money, Catholic guilt, racial divides, neighborhood justice, and organized crime. A soundtrack unmatched until Pulp Fiction (1994). I suspect this film influenced the Blau twins.
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1978)
Among the 10 best Westerns ever made. A young Clint Eastwood at the height of his powers.
Among the 10 best Westerns ever made. An old Clint Eastwood at the height of his powers.
This is Spinal Tap (1985)
If you grew up in the '80s with an older brother who played in a heavy metal hair band, this film will always be poignant and funny.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
One warrior, his journey, and 2 hours of pure Scandinavian rage. In true Nordic fashion, he treats everyone the same - like butchered meat.
Rear Window (1954)
Thinking man's thriller that will keep you glued to the screen from beginning to end. Its Hitchcock.
The French Connection (1971)
The best of the Big Mick Cop genre. The emergence of Popeye Doyle. A great ending and a car chase not matched until Ronin (1998) and remake of The Italian Job (2003).
If your parents are Baby Boomers, this film will go a long ways toward helping you understand them. This is what cultural influence on an entire generation looks like.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)
The best of Werner Herzog. As in, not as weird as some others he's made. This film is about the discovery of a major new set of cave paintings in southern France. The director throws in a few albino alligators at the end to remind you who's in charge.
All the Presidents Men (1976)
Another generation-defining movie. This film portrays two reporters who achieve the very highest level of success in media: The destruction of a U.S. President.
The Godfather I (1972)
The modern film classic. The emergence of Al Pacino.
The Godfather II (1974)
A perfect film in both narrative and cinematography.
Raising Arizona (1987)
Coen brothers' brand of funny. Nicholas Cage before he became Nicholas Cage.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
The emergence of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
The Hanson brothers. "God save us."
Mad Max (1979)
This film is like gasoline in your eye. You cannot wipe it away. Grime, grit, fear, grease, heat, chrome, leather, unspeakable damage, and the road. The emergence of Mel Gibson.