100 Essential Films – January


I’ve set a goal for 2018 to make my way through the movies represented on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart.  Learn what 100 movies they consider “essential,” follow my progress here in detail and listen to my reactions on Ka-Pow the Pop Cultured Podcast!



Before a single mark is made, this poster is already beautiful to look at.  It contains ten rows of clever minimalist movie posters featuring some iconic detail from each entry you must scratch off to reveal, along with release dates, directors and actors.  By my count, I believe I’ve already seen 75 out of the 100, but just scratching off three-quarters of the poster doesn’t sound sporting and many of those were probably only viewed once or so long ago that I have little memory of them.  So the challenge is to revisit the all-time classics, catch up with anything I’ve neglected, apply as much of a modern context as possible and document the experience as I go.  Here are all the ones I got to in January!



Get Out

Year: 2017

Director: Jordan Peele

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: 1

The newest film on this list is absolutely deserving of a spot.  It’s rare to witness an instant classic, when something captures the cultural zeitgeist so fully and so uniquely as to become immediately iconic.  But that’s exactly what this does, using the all-too-familiar beats of a horror movie to portray real fears felt on a daily basis by a minority population too often left out of the pop culture conversation.  Manipulating its audience with the surface trappings of the genre, it’s able to present those struggles in a kind of visceral way that yet another movie about slavery or a biopic about freedom marchers just can’t accomplish.  Being tense, unpredictable, scary and hilarious helps, too.




No Country for Old Men

Year: 2007

Director: Coen Brothers

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >5

The Coens are my favorite directors, so even though this Cormac McCarthy adaptation is unquestionably terrific it’s probably still about halfway down my list of their best films.  Slow, quiet and thoughtful, this crime story doesn’t rely on flashy action scenes to show how destructive violence can be to the world at large, but on mournful looks, bad decisions and plaintive conversations to show how destructive it is to the soul.  It maps the human toll of living long years in an increasingly cold world.  Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem give career-best performances as the three leads, but even the bit players here are phenomenal.  The ending doesn’t sit right with everyone and may feel unsatisfying the first time you see it, but the journey there is unforgettable.




The Graduate

Year: 1967

Director: Mike Nichols

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~2

I’d only seen this coming-of-age comedy once before, when I was close to protagonist Ben Braddock’s age.  I connected to his character, cast adrift into the world with no plan for the future, and can still empathize now that I’m nearly his parents’ age.  It feels ahead of its time, especially with today’s millennials and all their “adulting is hard” ennui that might not be as specific to their generation as they believe.  The directing is nimble and it contains multiple shots that have become absolutely iconic.  Dustin Hoffman gives an amazingly subdued performance, wringing humor from every mumbly, befuddled reaction.  Though some of the gender politics are odd for a modern audience.  Mrs. Robinson is a three-dimensional character, but her daughter has zero agency throughout and is little more than a prize to be won.  (Not to mention all the stalking.)




Toy Story

Year: 1995

Director: John Lasseter

Method: Disney Junior channel

Times Viewed: ~3

From the sequels, TV specials and merchandising it eventually spawned, it’s surprising how simple and straightforward this original movie really is.  This is the film that began the Pixar revolution of truly all-ages animation, appealing to children with their humor and colorful characters, but entertaining adults as well with copious brains and heart.  Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are perfectly cast, imbuing these toys with real emotion.  I had forgotten how petty Woody behaves toward his high-tech replacement, how for much of the movie he’s not a very good guy and also how the others rightfully call him on it.  I’d also forgotten how much it spotlights Don Rickles (and even gives him a well-placed “hockey puck!”).  The animation has gotten ever better since those stone-age 90s, but at the time it was a quantum leap forward.




The Maltese Falcon

Year: 1941

Director: John Huston

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~2

Humphrey Bogart seems born for the hardboiled role of Dashiell Hammett’s private detective Sam Spade.  With a suit cut perfectly for him, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and a hat tilted at the precise angle, his tough-guy swagger and rapid-fire dialogue helped to define crime noir.  Sure, there’s some questionable subtext about masculinity, but I tend to forgive that of the genre.  It’s still thrilling to watch Bogey walk into a room outnumbered and outgunned and be able to macho his way out of it with a wisecrack and a wink.  Plus, the downer ending paints the whole thing with a sorrowful can’t-win-for-losing sheen that makes the famous Shakespeare riff “the stuff that dreams are made of” still so incredibly poignant.





Year: 1986

Director: Oliver Stone

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~3

I was let down by this Vietnam drama the first time I saw it.  It didn’t feel that exceptional to me, especially for an acclaimed Oscar winner.  I still can’t tell you if it’s truly the best picture of 1986, but I’m glad I re-watched it and definitely appreciated it more this time around.  It stars a who’s who of fresh faced young actors and the battle scenes are brutal and unrelenting.  There are no unsullied heroes to root for and Americans aren’t painted as the perfect altruistic good guys, which ends up being a much more grounded, modern take, especially coming at the tail end of the Reagan-era 80s.  Though the metaphor between the compassionate Elias and the merciless Barnes struggling for control was a little too on the nose, especially when Charlie Sheen specifically points it out through dramatic voiceover.




King Kong

Year: 1933

Director: Merian C. Cooper

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <5

I’m not sure what genre I’d classify this classic monster movie as, but it’s definitely the granddaddy of a lot of horror, sci-fi, action and fantasy films that followed.  I was impressed with it as a kid and remain impressed to this day.  The scale is still remarkable, and stop-motion animation didn’t get much better for decades after Kong first thumped that T-rex.  Fay Wray is stunning, even when she’s not doing much.  I either forgot about – or only saw edited versions that omitted – the unnerving scene of the ape peeling off layers of her clothes like a banana.  There are some icky racial bits, like their complete condescension toward the primitive tribe and the cowardly Chinese cook used for comic relief.  But it seems novel to frame the story around an entertainer, commenting on the nature of show biz and trying to top what came before.




Dr. Strangelove

Year: 1964

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <5

Granted, Stanley Kubrick’s pitch black Cold War comedy about tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union boiling over into absurdity is still funny.  But for some reason, ignorant zealots prone to believing conspiracy theories starting a nuclear war to prove their manhood just isn’t as hilarious a concept as it used to be.  Peter Sellers is extraordinary in multiple roles, and I could watch hours of just his fretful one-sided telephone conversations.  But for my money, he’s outshined by George C. Scott who appears to be having a ball with his blowhard scenery chewing.  And it surely says something about the specific brand of national pride instilled in me as I always get a stirring feeling when old-fashioned American grit and ingenuity overcomes our better angels and Slim Pickens rides that bomb down to oblivion.




It Happened One Night

Year: 1934

Director: Frank Capra

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

I knew very little about this one going in, but what a charmer it turned out to be.  Recognized as the first “screwball comedy” and the prototype for a century of on-screen romances to follow, the beats might seem familiar from the meet-cute beginning to the can’t-stand-each-other start to the will-they-or-won’t-they middle to the complications-arise culmination to the happily-ever-after ending.  Even though the hitchhiking skirt-lift is the most famous scene, it’s pretty G-ratedly steamy throughout and Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert have terrific, natural chemistry and a playful energy that sells even the corniest jokes.  The persistent misogyny that could have soured the picture with age, as three men vie to control a willful girl, is lessened by the fact that Colbert always seems unflappably in control, even when she’s being hoisted over somebody’s shoulder and carried off.



Progress:  9 / 100


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