These are my go-to “on-the-list” movie recommendations, so make sure you tick each of these movies off that will stay with you long after you get out of quarantine.
Don’t Look Now (1972)
Director: Nicholas Roeg
What’s it about? – A British couple start a new life in Venice after the tragic death of their young daughter at their home. They encounter a strange set of elderly, psychic sisters who seek out the grieving couple.
Why should you watch it? – It’s a gripping assault on your senses, and you’ll never look at the iconic, winding canals in Venice the same way again. They take on a gothic quality, and the suspense is magnetic thanks to Roeg’s fantastic direction who sets up his characters in menacing sequences, leaving you completely vulnerable throughout. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie give compelling performances as grieving parents who are equally repellent and receptive of the signs that indicate the presence of their deceased daughter.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director: Sidney Lumet
What’s it about? Al Pacino’s character is a closeted homosexual who robs a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for his lovers sex-change operation. As relatively inexperienced bank robbers, Pacino and his partner run into a host of obstacles to execute the heist.
Why should you watch it? Dog Day Afternoon is another standout performance from Pacino, showcasing just how versatile he is. Pacino plays Sonny, who initiates the robbery and brings his reluctant partner, John Cazale along for the ride in his last great performance. Desperate to raise the money for his lover’s operation, Sonny becomes increasingly anxious as the hostages realise their relative incompetence and the police and a crowd of intrigued onlookers gather to watch it unfold. Solid performances make Dog Day Afternoon memorable, the script that brings out the best in its leads and that famous sequence of Pacino screaming “Attica!” in defiance to the crowd is unforgettable.
Play it again, Sam (1972)
Director: Woody Allen
What’s it about? It sounds ludicrous, but one of Woody Allen’s best films sees Allen himself play another obsessive neurotic who deals with the dissolution of his marriage by envisaging Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca as his own personal, imaginary confidante.
Why should you watch it? Absurdity is a dimension that Woody Allen thrives in, and Play it again, Sam is full of it. Alongside the parodic appearances of the Bogart character, he confides in a married couple, Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton who are equally dedicated to the absurdity of the film. Watch this for a laugh as Allen habitually gets himself caught up in comedic scenarios and seeing him claw his way out with his wit is half the fun of it.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Director: John Schlesinger
What’s it about? Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck, a helplessly naive Texan cowboy who sets off for New York in the late 1960’s. As he finds work as a hustler, he finds that the big city can be a ruthless place.
Why should you watch it? Schlesinger showcases a gritty side to New York that sharply contrasts with the Texan lifestyle Joe Buck is used to. He strikes up a friendship with Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman in a career defining turn, who limps down streets like he was missing a fourth wheel. Together, they are an unlikely pair, facing the perilous city with a mix of street guile and naivity. As Roger Ebert remarked, “Midnight Cowboy” is one of the essential American myths: The eager youth comes from the country to the city, and his simplicity and freshness are ground up in the urban jungle.”
The Apartment (1960)
Director: Billy Wilder
What’s it about? – Jack Lemmon’s character is a push-over at his insurance company job. As a single man, he hopes to advance his career prospects by lending his apartment out to top tier executives who use it for their own clandestine love affairs. His own romance and troubles soon get in the way of this arrangement.
Why should you watch it? Wilder’s film is a fabulous work of art. As is customary, he infuses his film with equal parts anarchic wit and cynicism. It’s beautifully made and a powerful film noir that is devastating and uplifting, through standout performances from Jack Lemmon and a young Shirley McLaine. Above all, the scene in which Lemmon makes five or six phone calls with a persistent sniffle is a genius piece of film that I could watch all day.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Director: Sam Mendes
What’s it about? A young couple in 1950’s suburbia realise that married life, and the person they’ve married, are not working out as they had expected.
Why should you watch it? People go on about the chemistry that Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet had in Titanic, but that was marginal in comparison to what they have here. The energy is completely upended in Revolutionary Road, as the young Wheelers both express their disappointment and despair at having fallen victim to a conventional life. Each blame the other for their fate and Mendes chisels away at their insecurities by using the superb Michael Shannon as a mentally ill neighbour who directly exposes their frailties by taunting them, “look at the young Revolutionaries on Wheeler Road.” Mendes has a knack for exploring the deep-seated resentment that suburban conformists wrestle with, tackling the suffocation of suburbia here as he so eloquently did in the equally devastating American Beauty.
Walk the Line (2005)
Director: James Mangold
What’s it about? Johnny Cash’s life story with a focus on his childhood growing up as a poverty-stricken cotton picker, before moving on to his relationships with women, music and drugs.
Why should you watch it? Walk the Line is a beautifully constructed biopic that doesn’t conform to the conventional, self-indulgent tropes of recounting an iconic figure. Mangold doesn’t tiptoe around his subject, he toes the line between Cash’s inherent genius and his persistent childhood demons and explores how they informed each other. Joaquin Phoenix is a wonderful embodiment of Cash, playing a man tortured by guilt and plagued by the difficult childhood memories that impede a smooth ride through the ups and downs of fame. Although there has been some artistic license and family bias with John Carter Cash producing (Cash’s first wife is perhaps unfairly portrayed), it still manages to feel authentic. It’s a feel-good film that you don’t come across too often, as you see a full, warts and all life played out in front of you.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Director: Elia Kazan
What’s it about? Budd Schulberg’s script is an undisputed masterpiece, capturing the true plight of longshoremen in 1950’s Hoboken.
Why should you watch it? Nerves of steel are a must to watch these broken men, who have no other choice but to engage with the pressures inflicted upon them by the local mob. At the heart of it there is that universal sibling relationship complex between Brando and Steiger’s characters, the climax of which results in a brutal, but disarming exchange during the infamous taxi scene. Eva Marie Saint is another huge draw in this movie, and Kazan took a bet on her when he cast the young inexperienced ingenue as Brando’s love interest. Where Saint portrays Edie in her most vulnerable moments, she simultaneously displayed fleeting indications of strength. Her soft and gentle prods at Brando’s troubled disposition serve not only as the film’s solitary female opinion, but as the films’ moral conscience. We can always identify with the thwarted and damaged soul of Brando, after all his defensiveness and street gall has been one of the films’ most infamous draws, but arguably it is Saint’s portrayal of Edie which resonates as reflections of our own longing to want to do better.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Director: Tom Ford
What’s it about? A wealthy L.A based art gallery owner is disturbed by the arrival of a package containing a copy of a violent novel written by her ex-husband. Through his written word, she is viscerally pulled into the story that forces her to confront her past.
Why should you watch it? Tom Ford’s depiction of wealthy Los Angeles as a pristine and superficial cover-up of a dirty underworld is beautifully executed. Ford can make perfume and fine clothes, but he is also an exquisite filmmaker. His story is harrowing as it tells three different stories; Amy Adams in the present day, the story of the novel and her past relationship with her ex husband. As the stories unfold and we see the complexities of the characters, fictional and real interwoven, this unearths the frailties of their relationship and we begin to understand why he had to write such a devastatingly potent story that deals with love, remorse and revenge.