100 Essential Films – February


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!



I was a little disappointed to only fit nine films into January.  Sure, that sets a pace to finish all 100 in a year, but I wanted to get out of the gate strong and build up a decent buffer during the winter months when there is less on my to-do list.  Thanks to a cold, dreary February, networks highlighting classic award winners in the lead up to this year’s Oscars and having free previews of several different premium movie channels nearly every weekend, I was able to knock off 12 more essential movies from my list.  Here is my output for the month!



The Sixth Sense

Year: 1999

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~3

I’d been spoiled on the famous twist ending before I ever got to see this unconventional ghost story originally, so denied that intended “ah-ha!” moment that astounded audiences around the turn of the century, I’ve never held this one up as one of the greats.  Bruce Willis and his understated performance is what everyone remembers, so it’s probably not surprising that I forgot how truly terrific Toni Collette is as a single mother barely holding things together.  Shyamalan has a masterful eye for visuals, and can capture mood and tone with the best of them.  But on repeated viewing, I was just left appreciating how clever it’s all constructed rather than being engrossed in the story.  Sure, it had a huge impact on pop culture, so I don’t argue its place on this list, but personally I’d rather just watch “Unbreakable” again.




Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Year: 1937

Director: David Hand

Method: Freeform channel

Times Viewed: ~2

This one was running on a back-to-back-to-back marathon on Super Bowl Sunday and I may have been the only guy in America watching the clock so I could turn over from the game and catch the last showing of this Disney classic.  The first animated full-length feature film, this adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale about a vain, bloodthirsty Queen and her lonely stepdaughter remains gorgeous to look at, if a bit slight on story, focusing much more on the physical comedy of the dwarves than on the title character, even if she was creating the template for every Disney princess to follow.  This was also the first American movie to release its own soundtrack album, and the songs like “Heigh-Ho,” “Whistle While You Work” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come” can zip you right back to your childhood.





Year: 1916

Director: D.W. Griffith

Method: Youtube

Times Viewed: 1

The earliest film on this list, from over 100 years ago now, is a silent black and white epic that clocks in at over three hours in length.  I didn’t know the first thing about it and, frankly, was dreading it.  The follow-up to the better known “The Birth of a Nation,” this held the record for the most expensive movie ever made for many years and its scope is still mind-blowing.  Telling four unconnected tales around the central theme of man’s inhumanity to man, it jumps around from the current era to 16th century France to the time of Christ to ancient Babylon, using very sophisticated editing and a cast of thousands.  I can’t even imagine how they pulled off some of the stunts without putting a lot of people in real danger, especially in the Babylonian scenes, with massive sets, swords clashing and chariots racing by.





Year: 1982

Director: Sydney Pollack

Method: Starz free weekend

Times Viewed: ~2

This cross-dressing comedy should have a renewed relevance in light of the current #timesup movement, and I was pleasantly surprised with how maturely it approached the subject matter.  There were no easy “gay panic” jokes about almost kissing a dude, and Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey approaches his alter ego Dorothy Michaels matter-of-factly, like any performance the self-serious actor would tackle, not at all worried about his fragile masculinity.  And while he sympathizes with what women put up with and learns a lesson or two, we don’t really see him regret his past actions or evolve in any substantial fashion.  Nor do we get much from the female point of view, despite lots of potential from Jessica Lange’s soap star, Teri Garr’s hot mess of a struggling actress and the wise-beyond-her-years Geena Davis.  (Naturally, Bill Murray provides all the best laughs in an uncredited supporting role.)





Year: 1976

Director: John G. Avildsen

Method: Showtime free weekend

Times Viewed: 1

I would’ve sworn under oath that I’d seen this movie before, but the more that ticked by, the more sure I became that I had never actually sat down and watched it from beginning to end.  So familiar is it as a piece of modern American mythmaking (and so ubiquitous were the sequels growing up) that I guess I just assumed I couldn’t have lived this long and avoided it.  Even though its DNA is in every underdog sports movie since, the boxing is really secondary here.  This is a character study of a bum with a hopeful streak, a sad, past-his-prime everyman with a little talent but no real opportunities ahead of him who is too stubborn to know when to give up.  Sylvester Stallone gives the kind of vulnerable performance I’ve never seen from him, full of brutish swagger on the outside hiding a sorrowful inner frailty.




The Grapes of Wrath

Year: 1940

Director: John Ford

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

Another film with an unexpected relevance to today’s politics, this Dust Bowl-era family drama was released almost immediately after its source material, the John Steinbeck novel, won the Pulitzer in 1939.  The country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and the solutions presented here seem awfully left leaning for such a conservative director like John Ford.  Henry Fonda’s iconic Tom Joad asks what good is “one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starving,” and dedicates himself to the fight for social justice after witnessing the miserable treatment of migrant workers.  John Carradine’s ex-preacher character still feels subversive here, as a man who has lost his faith when everything he believed in ultimately fails him.  Beyond inspiring a killer Springsteen song, it also holds up really well as a story of family bonds and connectedness to community overcoming the forces of greed.




Do the Right Thing

Year: 1989

Director: Spike Lee

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: <5

“Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant **** to me.”  I may have heard Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power” in passing before seeing this film, but I’m pretty positive this was where I first heard it in all its unedited glory.  Those lyrics hit this sheltered rural white kid hard, leaving me stunned that there could be that level of animosity toward Elvis. (Or John Wayne.)  And Spike Lee’s breakout day-in-the-life movie about a single block in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn still feels like a culture shock, an authentic look into a world I had no experience with.  Sure, it’s blunt and as subtle as a trashcan through a window.  But it’s also a raw and powerful snapshot of a time, a place and a people with their own story to tell and portraits of their own heroes needing hung on America’s wall.




E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Year: 1982

Director: Steven Spielberg

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: >20

A sci-fi staple of rainy childhood afternoons, I can still remember every detail of our two-toned VHS tape as if I were holding it in my hands, but I haven’t rewatched it in more than a decade.  What strikes me most now is how young Elliott is.  Barely 10 when he filmed it, with that round baby-face, Henry Thomas does an awful lot of the emotional heavy lifting very capably.  It was a bit of genius to make Peter Coyote’s government agent a genuine good fellow.  Despite the menace he represents throughout, learning he isn’t out to hurt the creature elevates the importance of the bond between it and the boy.  I can admit I teared up at the end, just as I must admit that a drunk alien in a bathrobe stumbling into things is as hilarious to me now as it was back then.




Brokeback Mountain

Year: 2005

Director: Ang Lee

Method: HDNet Movies channel

Times Viewed: 2

The gay rights movement has made incredible strides in barely more than a decade since this barrier-breaking film’s release.  (Although celebrating straight actors for being “brave” enough to take on a gay role hasn’t changed much.)  More than a doomed romance, this is the story of a doomed life, an unhappy man haunted by a fear of how society would punish his love, knowing that surrendering to it would mean always looking over his shoulder and living in hiding, instead stubbornly choosing to make everyone else miserable right along with him.  I credit co-writer Larry McMurtry (author of the other great cowboy romantics, Gus and Woodrow from “Lonesome Dove”) with making the ranch-hand dialog so authentic and the hardscrabble world feel lived in.  Ang Lee’s vistas are gorgeous and Heath Ledger’s potential is on full display, a reminder of what Hollywood lost with his young passing.




Annie Hall

Year: 1977

Director: Woody Allen

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: 2

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t dubious about revisiting this unconventional relationship comedy in the recent wake of even more allegations of abuse against writer, director and star Woody Allen.  Even if he’s playing a character, it’s his voice and his point of view shining through here in his most recognizable film, where we’re supposed to either sympathize with his navel-gazing insecurities or find his overbearing intellectualism charming.  Fair or not, I had a hard time doing either.  Diane Keaton is still captivating in the title role, even if she’s constructed as an ideal woman for Allen’s character to chip away her idiosyncrasies and mold into his image of an even more ideal woman.  Many of the jokes have become cultural touchstones, but the only audible laugh I got this time around was a perfectly delivered line from a young blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Jeff Goldblum.




Rear Window

Year: 1954

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Method: Encore free weekend

Times Viewed: ~3

This Hitchcock thriller has been referenced, parodied and riffed on countless times, so it’s vital for pop culture aficionados to check out the original.  Set in a single room, with James Stewart confined to a wheelchair for the entirety, the film still manages to have an impressive scope, looking out from his window at a busy apartment complex and into a dozen human dramas playing out via brief glimpses through the shutters.  Only one (probably) involves a murder.  Grace Kelly is a knockout, but underused until she finally dives in with gusto and gets in on the investigative act for an ultra-tense climax.  (Thelma Ritter as the sassy nurse still gets all the best lines, though.)  The humor wrung from such voyeurism and candid talk of imagined bloodshed and dismemberment was probably way more boundary-pushing in the mid-fifties.  Today, this is basically a G-rated caper.




The Hurt Locker

Year: 2009

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Method: HDNet Movies channel

Times Viewed: 1

For whatever reason, I had never gotten around to seeing this Academy Award winner about the Iraq War soldiers tasked with defusing explosives in the most extreme conditions imaginable.  Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director, and the only female whose work is represented on this poster.  The handheld cameras do a great job of putting you right in the action, and the movie captures the stresses and strains placed on our modern military without being preachy or political.  I was always under the impression that the protagonist was a “Top Gun”-style hotshot.  Luckily, we got a character whose psyche is subtler and much more interesting than that.  This role put Jeremy Renner on the map, but he doesn’t do much more here than he normally does, with a quiet, low-key and un-flashy performance.



Progress:  21 / 100


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