10 Classic Movies You May Enjoy

I find a lot of people are resistant to classic movies. When I do talk to someone who watched a classic movie, they say didn’t enjoy themselves. So I decided to make a list of classic movies modern audiences would be more likely to enjoy.

If you haven’t seen many classic movies, just know that patience is key. The pace will be slower and there will be less action.

(Please note: Obviously I haven’t seen every “classic” movie and would love for nothing more than your suggestions for this list, or just classic movie recommendations in general. This list isn’t meant to be a “best of” classics, merely classic movies you may enjoy. Also, I used a time frame of 1979 and before. Personally I don’t want to call movies from the 70’s classics, but you don’t see many movie lists these days that discuss movies released before 1990, so 70’s movies seemed OK).

 

The Great Escape

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The Great Escape is the safest pick for this list because it has the fewest problems for modern audiences.

The film is about an escape from a German prisoner of war camp during World War II. The plan is to dig three separate tunnels and to use whichever one isn’t discovered get 250 men out all at once. It is planned by a large group of officers, which allows for a large cast of stars, including Steve McQueen (Hilts), James Garner (Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett), and Charles Bronson (Danny). Each officer has a specific task. Danny is in charge the tunnel digging teams, Hendly is the one that acquires the items they need, and Hilts is in charge of reconnaissance.

Even though the film is three hours long, no scene feels wasteful. It is merely meticulously designed so that when we see a scene of Danny digging, and a scene of Hendley stealing a guard’s documents, we feel like we’re a part of their plan. That way, when the escape sequence arrives we’re as invested as the characters are.

More than any other film on this list, this is of those movies you watch and say, “Oh is that where ‘that’ comes from?” You’ll certainly recognize the film’s theme, and there have been numerous films and TV shows that pay homage to The Great Escape.

It’s worth finding out why.

 

The Birds

classic movies the birds

You wouldn’t have thought a bird attack would be believable or interesting, but in director Alfred Hitchcock’s hands almost anything can become terrifying.

The Birds is about a town where all the birds inexplicably become violent (and oddly coordinated). We follow the events through Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). Though the film has a lot more dialogue than you’re used to, when Melanie is on the screen her beauty and character are curious and compelling. She plays pranks, she pretends to be things she’s not, she lies constantly, and she has a flirtation with a man who challenges her every tale. All this helps us adore her and worry about her when she’s attacked by the birds.

Truthfully your interest in the film relies almost entirely on your ability to suspend disbelief when you see the film’s special effects. When fluffy white gull wings smash through windows you may find that laughable. The trick is to focus on the characters, which isn’t too hard because we never stop caring about Melanie.

It also helps that Hitchcock is so good at creating tension. In one scene the camera cuts between Melanie and the playground. The cuts between each scene help build the tension. First we see one bird appear on the jungle gym, while Melanie lights a cigarette on a bench. Cut back to four birds on the jungle gym. Melanie waiting. Then five birds. Then six. Melanie begins anxiously looking back at the school, then notices one bird flying. As her head turns to follow it, we can see there are now fifty birds on the jungle gym.

There are many great Hitchcock films, but hopefully you’ll find this one as compelling as I did.

 

All the Presidents Men

classic movies all the presidents men

There’s a different feel to All the President’s Men than other films. It isn’t focused on making its characters interesting. Much like a proper newspaper article the focus is on the heart of the story.

All the President’s Men is all about two Washington Post newspaper reporters, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), trying to uncover the Watergate conspiracy. They both have their own personality and style, but that’s entirely besides the point. The movie is focused on uncovering facts and following one piece of information to the next, trying to reveal the truth.

There’s a different pace to the news story than you’re used to. Details are unravelled with phone calls on rotary phones, notes made on notepads with pencils, numbers are looked up in telephone books, and stories are typed up on typewriters. It will seem odd, but it also makes their investigation feel more tangible.

Each fact the two reporters uncover embeds you further in the discovery of the Watergate conspiracy, a conspiracy which may not have even been revealed without these (and other) reporters’ efforts.

Their Editor in Chief frames the importance for us: “Nothing’s riding on this except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

 

The Lady Eve

classic movies the lady eve

The Lady Eve is about a guy, Charles (Henry Fonda), and a gal, Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). He’s as bumbling, naive, straight-laced, and rich as they come. She’s a schrewd criminal trying to con him into marrying her. “They say a moonlit deck is a woman’s business office,” she says, right as he proposes. But she doesn’t expect to fall in love with him too.

When he discovers she’s a card shark and rejects her, she’s genuinely hurt. So much so that she decides to dupe him again, this time posing as “Eve,” a wealthy Lady from England. She doesn’t disguise herself at all (other than a mild accent) and merely dresses the part. Then Charles starts to fall for her again.

The double con is a pretty bold take on that old, “love is blind” saying, particularly in a comedy. That’s the part you have to be able to tolerate. Just to be sure I showed my friend the most famous scene from the film. He said it was, “oddly sexy” given when it was made and even laughed. That’s because the chemistry and comedy created by Fonda and Stanwyck isn’t localized to one generation — it’s timeless.

 

Some Like It Hot

classic movies some like it hot

There are some movies that are so good you want to hug yourself while watching them. A lot of film classics you’ll see advanced the medium in some way, or had something poignant to say about a generation — but they’re difficult to watch, let alone rewatch. I’ve seen Some Like it Hot three times now and the laughs feel as fresh as the first time.

The film is about two musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), who witness a mob killing and decide to hide by dressing as women in an all-girls band headed for Florida. They end up getting a little too caught up in their roles. Jerry receives a marriage proposal from a millionaire. He tells Joe, “I’m not stupid. I know there’s a problem.” Joe replies, “I’ll say there is.” And Jerry says, “His Mother, we need her approval.”

There are three musical numbers, but they’re all sung by Marilyn Monroe who plays “Sugar Kane.” Even though Lemmon and Curtis are the stars it seems the movie revolves around her when she’s on screen. Joe pursues her as man while posing as millionaire, but is her confident while dressed as woman, Josephina. The entire audience is captivated by Sugar’s naiviety, sweetness, and buxom figure she flaunts and jiggles in every dress and neglige in the film.

It’s a shrewd movie that mixes humour with sex. While kissing Sugar, Joe asks, “Where did you learn to kiss like that?” Sugar replies, “I used to sell kisses for the Milk Fund.” Even though sensibilities on humour and sex change over time, trust me — few films will ever play with both as well as this one.

 

The General

classic movies the general

I know that I shouldn’t put a silent movie on this list, but how can I not when The General might be the funniest one on here?

The General takes place at the start of the civil war. Our Southern hero, Johnnie (Buster Keaton), is a man we are told loves two things: His engine, and his girl, Annabelle. When the North inadvertently kidnaps Annabelle when trying to steal his train, Johnnie attempts to get them back.

Eventually Johnnie manages to rescue her and his train, but they are pursued by a train with enemy soldiers. Johnnie’s tension is high because he only has himself and Annabelle to man their locomotive, while the other train has several men to load the heavy, wooden logs required fuel the engine. His eyes dart back and forth from the tracks ahead to the train behind, while operating at the same time. He tells Annabelle to load the wood into the fire. She throws a stick the size of a ruler into the fire then looks at Johnnie for approval. Jonnie picks up a tiny twig, hands it to her, and she dutifully turns around and throws it in the fire, before again turning to Johnnie. “Is that good?”

Buster Keaton’s expressions and timing sell every gag. You’ve probably seen GIFs of his stunts before, now it’s time to see his comedy.

 

The Deer Hunter

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The Deer Hunter is a Vietnam War movie that largely follows three friends, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken), and Stevie (John Savage) before, during, and after the war.

Truthfully, The Deer Hunter doesn’t belong on this list. It’s long. Three hours long, in fact. You spend a full hour before they get to the war. The first hour is filled with getting off work, singing and drinking in a bar, getting dressed for a wedding, then more dancing and drinking, followed by driving on the way to a hunting ground; the mundane details of our lives. But it paints a full picture of these men’s lives.

And then the war begins.

The first thing we see are bombs dropped on a small Vietnamese home. We see Michael unconscious nearby, presumably from the blast. A lone Vietnamese soldier reveals a family of six buried in a make-shift bomb shelter. The soldier lifts the cover, tosses in a grenade, closes the lid and runs away. Then the soldier shoots down the woman and child who escape. In response, Michael burns him with a flamethrower. Two American choppers descend on the village containing Nicky, Stevie and other soldiers. When they see Michael they can’t believe it’s him. Michael attempts to walk past them, seemingly not recognizing them.

It’s more meaningful to witness this change in Michael after spending an hour with his daily life. A change so profound that after four additional minutes of screen time he momentarily doesn’t recognize his own friends.

Movies aren’t just about entertainment. They use storytelling, characters and sequences to convey emotion. Movies get us to consider our lives, history, culture and how we feel about those things. They should fill us. When they are forgettable we’re emptier. Some scenes in The Deer Hunter are so memorable you’ll carry them forever — you’ll remain full. That’s why it’s on this list.

 

Sunset Boulevard

classic movies sunset boulevard

When I was making this list I told my friend no film noir would be on it. Film noir often has peculiar, first-person narration between scenes. It’s gaudy dialogue that isn’t in any kind of hurry. It uses old-timey language like, “making with the golf sticks,” instead of, “playing golf.” And dramatic — always dramatic.

Sunset Boulevard is a story about a former silent movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who makes a sort of gigolo out of a younger man, Joe (William Holden). Joe’s a struggling, middle-aged screenwriter who’s nearly washed out of Hollywood. Norma is a delusional diva and recluse from a world that forgot about her. Joe happens into her mansion accidentally one day and ends up living with her (at first) under the pretense of re-writing a script for her. He becomes a kept man. He never leaves. She buys him expensive things. She threatens to kill herself if he leaves.

If you can get passed the dialogue, it’s a real bang-up picture. It’s hard not to get pulled in by Joe’s vulnerability, the queer, yet alluring world Norma has created around herself, and the gradual ease in which Joe allows himself to be usurped by it.

 

Midnight Express

classic movies midnight express

Midnight Express is one of those movies that transforms you. The film achieves this effect by relentlessly focusing on creating an empathy with the main character, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis). At the start of the movie, Billy is just a nervous kid trying to smuggle hash out of Turkey. When he is discovered by the Turkish authorities he is sentenced to four years in prison (which eventually turns into a 30-year sentence). By the end of the movie Billy is practically unrecognizable.

Billy gets things taken away from him gradually. He steals a blanket during his first night and is beaten for that. He spends some time in prison; starts to adjust. All the while Billy hopes his court date will come and he will be set free. Instead he gets sentenced to four years. Billy makes friends in prison; the Turkish guards do bad things to them. All the while Billy hopes to go free when his four years is up. And then he gets a longer sentence.

The more Billy loses and the more villainous the guards become, the tighter the hold the film has on you. By the time Billy starts to crack, you’re so consumed with empathy that you start to crack a little with him.

It’s a difficult journey, but most worthy ones are. When people look back on their favourites movies they don’t typically cite blockbusters, they pick something more poignant — they pick something like Midnight Express.

 

Imitation of Life

classic movies imitation of life

Frankly, I’m not sure anyone would appreciate melodrama, but more than any other pick on this list, Imitation of Life (1959) is from the heart.

One of the things that makes the TV show Mad Men so fascinating is seeing what was acceptable back then: The drinking, the smoking, the way men treated women, and the casual racism. The same appeal exists in Imitation of Life.

The movie is chiefly about Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her struggle between achieving her dreams of becoming a successful actress and her desire to be a good mother and to marry for love. She has a daughter and lives with her maid, Annie (Juanita Moore), and Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). There’s some interesting commentary in Lora’s story about how Hollywood treats actors and how actors allow themselves to be treated, as well as a woman’s conflict between family and career, but for me the most interesting story is Sarah Jane’s.

Annie is visibly black, but Sarah Jane looks white. Because racial segregation and discrimination were still very prevalent in 1959 Sarah Jane seizes an opportunity to “pass as white.” Annie says its a sin to ashamed of what you are, but every time Annie publicly outs Sarah Jane, her peers react with venom and dismissal, even violence. While Annie’s philosophy is correct, it’s difficult to watch how differently Sarah Jane is treated. Is Sarah Jane wrong to pretend? I’ve seen many films on race, but few as introspective as this one.

The melodrama of the film is thick. There’s a fair amount of crying and even more dramatic gesturing, where actors suddenly turn from the camera, or collapse in someone’s lap. And the film’s soundtrack is all violins. However, if you can get passed that kind of thing Imitation of Life is worth your time.

You’ll want to see how Sarah Jane’s story ends.

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