These aren’t the best films ever made—or ones recommended for essential viewing. Few of them could even be called classics–and none is about to play at an art house. Instead, here’s a list of movies that simply give me pleasure whenever I return to them. They’re more like your mother’s stuffing. Somehow you don’t grow tired of it.
In no particular order:
The Big Sleep (1946)
From the moment Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe walks into the Sternwood mansion and meets Carmen Sternwood, played by the electric Martha Vickers, Howard Hawks’ mystery takes us into a world of sharply drawn characters, all of whom engage Marlowe with sharp-edged, tart dialogue, usually either challenging or flirtatious.
The woman alone make it a heavyweight bout, with Lauren Bacall (barely) edging Vickers and Dorothy Malone, who steals the show as a bookstore clerk. In few films is the plot so irrelevant and the protagonist so inconsequential. And that doesn’t matter at all. Hawks manages to turn a detective thriller into a hang-out movie, as he would later do with a Western, Rio Bravo. See also: Duplicity (2009)
Out of Sight (1998)
More sexual hijinks in Steven Soderbergh’s underrated caper film. Probably most famous for the conversation about movies George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the trunk of a car. The movie has style to burn and features a tremendous supporting cast, from Ving Rhames to Don Cheadle to Albert Brooks. It’s a shame that Lopez didn’t stay serious about her acting career; she exudes charisma in this movie. And Clooney has rarely been better. See also: Midnight Run (1988)
North by Northwest (1959)
Not Hitchcock’s best film, but his most fun—and the movie that gave us Cary Grant at his most iconic. (Nowadays, the movie also serves as a template for “Mad Men.”) The plot is loopy and the movie becomes increasingly ridiculous, culminating in a chase across Mt. Rushmore (Hitch started with this idea and worked backward). James Mason makes a charming villain with Martin Landau stealing the scene as his creepy henchman.
When Grant isn’t dodging crop dusters, Eva Marie Saint’s cheeky sex talk propels the action just as effectively. Hitchcock even shamelessly gives us a train entering a tunnel as our lovers consumate. Over the top, in a good, good way. See also: Minority Report (2002)
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
For years, it’s been the Movie I Can’t Turn Off whenever it would show up on cable. For whatever reason, this film has had a longer shelf life than you’d expect. Filmed when Alec Baldwin was still an up and coming movie star, the story takes advantage of his quick mind and intelligence, rather than his action chops—and as a true fish out of water, he gives the film and emotional center. (The later Clancy movies featuring Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan were much less interesting.)
Another example of a stellar cast elevating the rather standard material, particularly Scott Glenn as a submarine commander and Fred Thompson as an avuncular admiral. “Crazy Ivan, sir!” See also: The Enemy Below (1957)
Another basic-cable staple that I ignored for years, and then got hooked. It’s a strange film, filled with all sorts of odd casting choices, from Michael Biehn, to Powers Boothe, to Jason Priestley (!). In fact, the villains aren’t very memorable; certainly they’re not in the same league as the Walter Brennan-led Clantons of My Darling Clementine (And I’d never argue Tombstone is a superior movie).
It was famously ghost-directed by star Kurt Russell. And it’s really Russell’s intensity that keeps the movie going, along with the florid performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. And I’ve always been a sucker for Dana Delany. “I’m comin’! And Hell’s comin’ with me!” See also: The Untouchables (1987)
George C. Scott never gives an inch in his performance. If you made a list of films where one actor so dominates the proceedings, this might be the top entrant. (Others off the top of my head: Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull).
For some reason, I always enjoy Karl Malden’s Omar Bradley, who mainly seems to find Patton’s theatrics more amusing than threatening. See also: There Will Be Blood (2007)
Lone Star (1996)
A version of the axiom favored in John Ford’s movies: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” John Sayles’ tale of two generations of Anglo and Mexican residents of a Texas border town is sometimes derided for being all talk and no action.
But the film approaches its material in a studied, thoughtful way, with the laconic Chris Cooper turning in a true leading man performance as a thoughtful sheriff. His romance with Elizabeth Pena feels real; they’re complicated people with messy lives. The ending is brave. And the movie makes you wish Kris Kristofferson had had a better acting career. See also: The Straight Story (1998)
His Girl Friday (1940)
Pure, unbridled joy. Possibly at the very top of my desert island list. Howard Hawks again. For years, I made prospective girlfriends watch Annie Hall (see previous entry.) In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have shown them a movie about a failed relationship. Now, I’d be much more likely to show a woman this movie instead. Of course, this may explain why I don’t have girlfriend at all. But if and when I do, I hope she’s like Rosalind Russell.
Walter Burns: Sorta wish you hadn’t done that, Hildy.
Hildy Johnson: Done what?
Walter Burns: Divorced me. Makes a fella lose all faith in himself. Gives him a… almost gives him a feeling he wasn’t wanted.
Hildy Johnson: Oh, now look, junior… that’s what divorces are FOR!
See also: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
A River Runs Through It (1992)
A beautiful, haunting and moving film. The ending narration by director Robert Redford never fails to touch me. And as a brother to a younger, more wild-at-heart sibling, I’m sure I found parallels in this tale of 1920s Montana. A movie that was able to take advantage of Brad Pitt’s charisma before he was saddled with star vehicles, although Craig Sheffer’s heartfelt performance holds it all together. Underrated. See also: Days of Heaven (1978)
I fell out of love with Woody Allen a long time ago, but this was his masterpiece. Viewed after its release as inferior to the film it followed, Annie Hall, it’s now looked upon as a more complete fulfillment of Woody Allen’s artistic vision. He’s never combined humor, wit, romance, storytelling and visuals like this since, although he has certainly come close in films like Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Favorite line: “It’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots on.”
The romance between Allen and Mariel Hemingway still makes some uncomfortable, given Allen’s real-life romantic foibles. (“I’m dating a girl whereupon I can beat up her father.”) Like Polanski, some will never give Allen or his work a pass. See also: Barcelona (1994)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
A fever dream of a film, as much of a funhouse as its final scene. Watch this noir, and you’ll understand how Orson Welles went from Citizen Kane to Touch of Evil. It features a truly bizarre performance from Everett Sloane as the cuckolded husband (“Loveahhhh.”) The plot makes no sense. Welles plays an Irishman and sports a terrible accent.
But its strangeness begins to make more sense when you considering that this is a movie about the suspicious husband of Rita Hayworth directed by a man whose marriage to Hayworth was falling apart at the time. (Here’s a more thorough analysis.) Welles forced Hayworth to dye her hair blonde for the role, which sounds like a fairly hostile act (also, completely heretical). As a capper, the city of “Shanghai” has absolutely nothing to do with Hayworth’s character or the movie.
Let’s bring in one of those insightful commenters from IMDb to talk about the film:
Well OK I’m not going to diss anyone who likes this film, but I just finished watching it and didn’t care for it at all. I think that is an extension of the fact that I do not care for Wells’ direction at all in any of his films I’ve seen. I find his style distracting from the storyline. His habit of overlapping dialogue annoys me to no end, his deep focus close-ups are unsettling and obvious. Overall his cloying style is never far from my mind when I watch one of his films.
Thanks for that. See also: Wild at Heart (1990)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
You just have to go with the idea that you’re watching a story about a lunkhead trucker battling martial arts mystics in the catacombs beneath San Francisco. Don’t even question it. Kurt Russell’s John Wayne-style delivery and his willingness, despite being the hero, to come off as the dumbest man in the room at all times makes this carnival work for me.
Also, director John Carpenter is a big fan of Howard Hawks, so no surprise that Kim Cattrall’s reporter character talks a lot like Hildy Johnson. It’s a screwball martial-arts action comedy. Got that?
See also: The Blues Brothers (1980)