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10 Essential Starter Films for Aspiring Film Buffs

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from "The Armchair Directory" Link

#10. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange is probably Stanley Kubrick's most controversial film—it remains one of the very few non-pornographic films released in the U.S. with an X rating. A Clockwork Orange details the exploits of a violent youth gang in a future England, and the imprisonment and psychological indoctrination of its leader, Alex DeLarge, whose principle interests are rape, ultra-violence, and Beethoven.

Kubrick's adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name is a dark, fetishistic portrait of an England gone mad—and it invites its viewers to empathize, even identify, with Alex's distorted worldview. The visuals reflect this effort to present Alex's worldview: bizarre pop-art props litter the sets, wide-angle lens shots bends the fringe of the scene, and Kubrick even went so far as to throw a camera off a roof for a shot in which Alex jumps out of a window.

In addition to the innovative cinematography, A Clockwork Orange invited electronic composer Wendy Carlos to adapt classical themes, such as Beethoven's 9th and the William Tell Overture, for the Moog synthesizer and vocoder, lending an eerie technological feel to familiar pieces. This haunting, unsettling soundtrack adds another dimension to the world Kubrick builds that is so like, and yet unlike, our own.

In the end though, A Clockwork Orange works because Alex DeLarge, with his strangely androgynous dress and Anglicized Russian brogue, is still one of the most fascinating villains in the canon.


#9. Magnolia (1999)

Fresh off the heels of his critically-adored Boogie Nights, director Paul Thomas Anderson was rewarded with an opportunity that most artists can only dream of: New Line Cinema (a major American film distributor) offered to finance P.T.A.'s next film with complete artistic freedom. The result is Magnolia, a San Fernando Valley mosaic with the sleek, detailed appearance of a mainstream blockbuster, but the pulsing heart of an independent film.

It also gave Anderson the freedom to commit a handful of absolute Hollywood no-no's in Magnolia: the film runs over three hours long, features a sing-along of an Aimee Mann song involving the entire cast, and ends with a remarkable climax of seemingly Biblical proportions.

Despite this ambitious and liberated approach, Magnolia works because it feels so familiar, both from an aesthetic and thematic sense. It successfully makes nods to – yet never apes – Martin Scorsese's energy-aesthetic and Robert Altman's ensemble cast and expansive scope. And though the film covers several themes, it is, above all, a complex examination of the endless push-and-pull inherent in our lives: past vs. present, personal choices vs. chance, love vs. hate—a meditation on morality and mortality.

It is arguable that the film's critical success paved the way for Hollywood to take a chance on indie auteurs in the new millennium, like Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, and Alexander Payne, all of whom have gone on to build impressive resumes. Anderson has also continued to deliver strong projects, but even he admits, "I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make." And for some viewers, it's one of the finest we've ever seen.


#8. Akira (1988)

It is a disappointing but undeniable truth that Western, by which I mean American, studios have historically considered animation a medium suited only for children or the simpleminded. It's a shame, really, because animation has such potential for visual trickery with no counterpart in live action cinema.

The situation is improving—The Simpsons paved the way for a slew of animated comedy aimed at older viewers, Pixar films like The Incredibles are increasingly riddled with subtle jokes for parents, and the works of brilliant animators like Hayao Miyazaki are being distributed to a broader range of audiences.

Still, it's difficult to find any examples, let alone good ones, of American animated features that are neither children's movies nor comedies. Fortunately, Japanese animators have been making sophisticated movies for years.

Make no mistake, Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Akira is not your garden variety, huge-eyed Pokeball-wielding anime. It's a dystopic vision of growing up in a post-nuclear Tokyo, touching on deep-seated philosophical issues like youth alienation, social unrest, and the relationship between politics and technology, all done with a mind-bending visual intricacy rarely seen in Western films. Watching Akira can redefine your expectations of animation.


#7. Do The Right Thing (1989)

The rarest of marvels, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing sharply captures the social climate of the late-‘80s in America, yet even today, retains its original urgency, lending the film a sense both of immediacy and timelessness. Taking place entirely on the hottest day of the year in a Brooklyn neighborhood, Do the Right Thing closely observes a cast of ethnically diverse characters whose seemingly routine confrontations gradually escalate into a race riot of dire consequences.

Lee has long been a controversial filmmaker, but the controversy has always resided in the issues he covered, not in his approach to them. In fact, never has a film tackled a heated issue with such delicacy, such an unconditional concern for all of its characters, as this one does. Although Lee has gone on to make a bevy of powerful films – Malcolm X could have easily made the cut here – none of them feel so personal, as though Lee is chronicling people from his own backyard.

In fact, Do the Right Thing was eerily prescient for its time, mirroring the national temperament during the L.A. riots and O.J. Simpson trial. That was a time when America took pride in ridding itself of racial slurs, replacing them instead with suspicious glances, and mistaking it for progress.

Other similarly themed films, such as Paul Haggis’ Crash (a success in its own right) have stepped into the space carved out by Do the Right Thing but Lee’s approach is unique in its refusal to lecture us. There are no villains, except for the ones materialized out of our own racial attitudes. Every character does the wrong and right thing throughout the movie; Lee remains consistent throughout the film that although the color of our skin may be black or white, the reasons for our actions are often not.


#6. Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall reminds us of a time when films were patient, and allowed its characters to simply talk. In this regard, this is the anti-blockbuster, and it is fitting that the dialogue- and character-driven Hall beat out the special effects-laden Star Wars for the Best Picture Oscar in 1978. It is a testament to the film’s wit and intellect that people mention this nowadays merely as an anecdote, and never as an injustice.

Of course, Hall too is guilty of using its fair share of sight gags, but it works to convey the nervous state of mind of its protagonist, Alvy Singer, and not as shameless trailer-fodder: an animated sequence, subtitles, double-exposures, and oh! perhaps the most effective (and entertaining) breaking of the fourth-wall, this side of William Shakespeare. Make no mistake—these are seemingly well-worn and tired ideas done with an original, tongue-in-cheek twist.

Hall’s story is a familiar one – boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl – so it’s Allen’s use of this unique and clever narrative that elevates it to modern classic status. The film marked the arrival of Woody as the auteur that recent audiences have come to recognize: from his self-deprecating Jewish humor, fascinating obsession with New York City, and oft-criticized habit of casting himself (or casting others for characters that uncannily embody his neurotic tendencies)—all wrapped into a free-wheeling but reflective work of art.

Equal parts humorous and sad, this is a film whose one-liners are still referenced today, and continues to serve as a benchmark for movies of nearly all genres, be it comedy, romance, or drama. And rarely has all three co-existed with such charm and bittersweet delight as it does in Annie Hall.


#5. Rear Window (1954)

No film buff starter list could possibly be complete without a Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. Hitchcock was one of the most popular and successful directors of all time—a director who time after time managed to craft immensely entertaining stories, without ever compromising artistic merit. In modern films, we take for granted the idea that the director is the dominant creative force, so it's easy to forget the way Hitchcock helped redefine the position. In his era, the role of director in artistic vision was more commonly eclipsed by the role of producer, and Hitchcock's bold, aggressive style was instrumental in permanently shifting the balance of power.

Rear Window tells the story of L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photojournalist confined to his room by a broken leg, who channels his frustration and boredom into spying on his neighbors in the courtyard behind his apartment. With a neat sequence of partial revelations and point-of-view camera angles, Hitchcock draws the audience into the same voyeuristic fixation that consumes Jeff, drawing an undeniable parallel between peering out through the window and peering in through the movie screen.

There are, of course, more famous Hitchcock works—but Rear Window, with its sly gallows humor and its quiet commentary on the nature of the cinematic experience, is particularly well-suited for an introduction to filmic art.


#4. The Graduate (1967)

Very few movies get as deeply embedded in popular consciousness as The Graduate did—even if you haven't seen Nichols’ most famous film before, you'll probably recognize the seminal scenes in the film: Dustin Hoffman pounding on the glass wall in a church, or sitting in a scuba suit at the bottom of a swimming pool, or dully sitting through the career advice of his father's friends ("Plastics!").

And, of course, one of the most famous lines in American cinema—"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me!" Parodies, homages, and oblique references to The Graduate abound in modern entertainment, appearing in Simpsons' episodes, SNL skits, a scene from Tarantino's Jackie Brown—even a recent GEICO commercial.

In addition to the slew of allusions, The Graduate inaugurated an entire sub-genre of knock-offs – like the promising but imperfect Garden State from Zach Braff – which aspire to recapture the moody, aimless ennui with similarly minimalist dialogue and aggressively mix-tape-esque soundtracks; not that Garden State isn't a fine film, but as with all connoisseurs, the film aesthete should be familiar with the original.

And the original is well worth the watch—it served as a jumpstart for Hoffman's prolific and superlative career, and gave national awareness to burgeoning musicians Simon and Garfunkel, allowing them to bump the Beatles’ White Album off the top of the charts. It is the hallmark of a classic film that despite being released in the ‘60s, it still feels just as relevant to post-collegiate life today.


#3. Rashomon (1950)

Even though most American moviegoers have little to no experience with Japanese movies, it – and in particular, the works of Akira Kurosawa – have had a profound impact on Western cinema. The Magnificent Seven is essentially a retelling of The Seven Samurai, George Lucas has acknowledged that the plot and characters from Star Wars are drawn heavily from The Hidden Fortress, and Rashomon had such a sweeping effect on storytelling that it is now a buzzword for the impossibility of reconstructing the truth from conflicting accounts.

Rashomon tells the story of a rape and a murder from the perspective of four witnesses, including the victim himself, from beyond the grave. Each account differs profoundly from the others, and each is tainted by obviously self-serving editing of the events. Like many films valued by film lovers, Rashomon was an early pioneer of a technique that we now take for granted: using the camera to present a false account of events. Kurosawa plays with our natural tendency to trust visual information as being objective, leading us down one false trail after another.

Kurosawa also went out of his way to create elaborate visual effects—it was the first film to ever shoot directly into the sun, and Kurosawa even tinted the rainwater in the movie with black ink so that it would show up on the cameras of the time. In addition to its experimental dimensions, Rashomon is also a showcase of classic techniques of silent film, such as extended, extreme close-ups to impart emotion. Mostly though, Rashomon's impact continues to reverberate as a forerunner of the cinematic lie, which modern films (Jet Li's Hero and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects both come to mind) continue to be indebted to.


#2. Chinatown (1974)

Originally intended as the first of a trilogy, Chinatown is a masterpiece in genre film making, simultaneously paying loving tribute to the noir films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and providing a fascinating story in its own right.

Roman Polanski manages to build a period piece that is delightfully unself-conscious and contemporary—avoiding anachronism, but still feeling modern and relevant. Robert Towne's complicated, edgy screenplay about the politics of water in Los Angeles keeps us as confused as the protagonist, detective Jake Gittes, right up until the moment of discovery, and promptly resolves itself with admirable ease—earning him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year. And Jack Nicholson offers up perhaps the best role of his career as a private investigator so drenched in old-school-cool, that he is still riding its wave.

That Chinatown is a labor of love is evident not just in the quality of the performances, but in the attitudes of the people involved. Towne turned down $125,000 to adapt The Great Gatsby and accepted a mere $25,000 to write Chinatown; Nicholson even went so far as to turn down all the similar roles he was offered, so that the only detective he would ever play would be Jake Gittes.

Despite being made several decades later, Chinatown works perfectly as both an homage to and a prime example of noir, and is a particularly worthy introduction to the genre.


#1. Citizen Kane (1941)

Okay, so Citizen Kane was an obvious choice. Still, it's difficult to imagine a more monumentally significant work of cinema, and it's an absolute must see for anyone to consider themselves the least bit versed in film-as-art.

Orson Welles’ magnum opus, which follows a reporter learning the history of the late Charles Foster Kane (modeled after the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), pioneered so many film techniques, it's difficult to even grasp—there are more special effects in Citizen Kane than there are in Star Wars. Welles, the radio mastermind behind the legendary War of the Worlds broadcast, had the camera fly through windows, sink beneath the floor—everything but jump through hoops.

Kane broke ground in matte drawing effects, deep-focus cinematography, even special-effects make-up, believably aging the cast over the course of the movie. In short, it redefined the art of filmmaking in its era, and is widely considered to be the greatest American film ever made.

And for a jump-start in film buff know-how, the DVD edition even contains a wonderful audio commentary track by Roger Ebert that takes you step-by-step through the significance of every shot in cinema history—perfect for impressing your friends and loved ones with movie trivia.

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I have not seen Magnolia, Do The Right Thing (I've seen excerpts from it), and Annie Hall (also seen excerpts from it). It's an okay list with some solid mentions: Chinatown, Rashomon, and Rear Window. I've seen hundreds of movies (averaging around 100-150 movies per year) and I can say now that I wouldn't lose sleep over not seeing A Clockwork Orange, The Graduate, and Citizen Kane again. Akira is an excellent film and probably the main reason why Japanese animation resurfaced in the US, but Oneamisu No Tsubasa is the crowning achievement of storytelling using animation. That, and Toy Story. I'm amazed to not see a quintessential indie film, although I suppose Do The Right Thing would take care of that category. I also see a lack of movies made outside of the US - only three. No Bergman, no Tarkovsky, no Truffaut and Godard, no Nair, no Pereira Dos Santos... no muthaf**** FELLINI! Filmmakers whose work an aspiring movie buff has to see above most of these ten.

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The artistic sigfinicance of those films is inarguable, but some of them are intellectually daunting and would possibly be difficult viewing for an "aspiring film buff's" "starter" list.

For example, a person with "conservative" values and viewpoints might find A Clockwork Orange to be nihilistic rubbish.

Or, a person who has no experience with foriegn cinema might find the pace of Rashoman tediously slow.

Even Citizen Kane, although stylistically groundbreaking for its' time, would probably underwhelm some younger viewers raised on glossier Hollywood fare.

I'm not so sure Do The Right Thing belongs on that list at all. To Kill a Mockingbird would have been a better choice of movie dealing with the subject of racial prejudice. But it is Spike Lee's finest work and deserves some merit.

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When I first saw/read "A Clockwork Orange," I thought of it as an aberration. These days, if you wander into the wrong big city neighborhood, you will face down "Droogs" and hope the "Millicents" are nearby to save your bacon! I haven't seen "Magnolia," but I've toured the South with "Steel Magnolias," "Fried Green Tomatoes," and "Cookie's Fortune." ("Places In The Heart" would do for the modern Conservative movie buff.) That reminds me, I'll have to add "Casablanca" to the DVD collection, along with "Scrooge." (With Reginald Owen playing a very interesting "Ebeneezer Scrooge.") :beatnik:

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I've seen seven of the ten. The foreign films I can't speak to, but, I'd have to agree with the thought of putting To Kill A Mockingbird on the list, and possibly moving Spike Lee down to #11. Though Citizen Kane is always at the head of these lists, it really is not an incredibly enjoyable movie.

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