100 Essential Films – July


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!



Knowing my year has officially passed the halfway point and is only moving faster, I hit July with a sense of urgency.  Thanks to another free weekend of HBO, the ever-helpful Turner Classic Movies and my own pretty decent DVD collection, nine more essential films got scratched off the list to begin the second half of 2018.  This month kicked off with a beachfront July Fourth film tradition, then before I was through headed to outer space, the frozen Midwest, the Japanese spirit world and even deep into the mind itself!




Year: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >20

The original summer blockbuster, one relentless great white shark terrorizing the crowded beaches of Amity Island during the Fourth of July changed the rules of Hollywood forever.  Along with “Star Wars” two years later, Spielberg’s masterpiece of seaside suspense ushered in high-concept, effects-driven spectacles as the goal for studios rather than the more personal auteur filmmaking that had arisen in the 1970s.  Far from brainless though, it’s a treat watching Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw square off in a class struggle between long-haired rich-kid oceanographer and grizzled veteran fisherman until they both realize each has his share of scars.  While not necessarily a political film, Roy Scheider’s police chief confronts a small-town government too willing to put the lives of citizens at risk with a post-Watergate pessimism.  And a John Williams score has never been as vital, generating dread from the rarely-seen shark with just a few ominous notes.




North by Northwest

Year: 1959

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 2

From the Saul Bass-designed and Bernard Herrmann-scored opening credits to that widescreen VistaVision finale atop Mount Rushmore, this high-tension tale about an innocent ad executive being pursued across the country by mysterious men paved the way for James Bond and all the Cold War spy films of the 1960s.  Cary Grant is suave in his iconic gray suit, unruffled by the intrigue he’s swept up in and the icy cool Eva Marie Saint might be my favorite “Hitchcock blonde.”  But this movie really didn’t hook me until about two-thirds of the way in after a plodding start.  Far be it from me to rewrite a classic, but it’s strange how early in the story they reveal the truth about the unseen target of the search, George Kaplan, and the secret Saint’s character Eve is hiding.  In a modern thriller, these would be huge final-act twists.





Year: 1979

Director: Ridley Scott

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: <5

One of the most influential films in the genre’s history begins with the simplest of sci-fi conceits.  When an alien killing machine makes its way onboard, the seven members of the commercial ship Nostromo are hunted one by one.  An extraterrestrial slasher flick, turning a spaceship into a haunted house with no escape, Ridley Scott combined the chocolate of horror with the peanut butter of sci-fi to create one indelible concept.  The sleek and silent monster, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is the stuff of nightmares.  Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley became the prototype for a new generation of fearless female hero, even if she still had to gratuitously strip down to her skivvies.  And though the franchise has gone into countless other iterations, the sweaty, bickering blue collar protagonists of the original provide a working class perspective too often ignored in big screen visions of the future.




Being John Malkovich

Year: 1999

Director: Spike Jonze

Method: HBO free weekend

Times Viewed: ~3

The feature film debut of both writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, this peculiar dark comedy about a sad-sack puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich was a surprise to see included on this list.  Making a huge splash in 1999, it hasn’t seemed to maintain the pop culture relevance of the other groundbreaking releases of that important year, so it was nice to revisit it.  At its core, it’s a story about fading love and the extraordinary lengths we will go searching for our place in the world.  John Cusack and Cameron Diaz play nicely against type, as the homely, lovelorn couple both pining over a wicked Catherine Keener.  But it’s Malkovich himself who gets to have the most fun, poking holes in his highbrow reputation and dancing like a puppet yanked by countless strings.





Year: 1992

Director: Clint Eastwood

Method: Sundance Channel

Times Viewed: <5

Clint Eastwood’s final Western serves as not only a statement on his legendary career but on the cowboy genre as a whole.  The tale of past-his-prime gunslinger William Munny, called back to the outlaw life after years of trying to find peace as a farmer and family man, is a meditation on violence, aging and pop culture’s ever-exaggerated views of the Old West.  “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” Eastwood famously says.  The weariness he carries isn’t just his creaky body, but his damaged soul.  This is one of the few films that calls attention to the heavy price a man like Munny pays after the bullets stop flying.  Plot-wise, the story probably isn’t as tight as it could be, but charismatic supporting performances from Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman make up for any lag in the pace.




The French Connection

Year: 1971

Director: William Friedken

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: ~3

This gritty crime drama about New York detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his single-minded quest to stop a million dollar heroin smuggling operation was the first R-rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  It’s an interesting mix of heady, pedigree filmmaking and bloody lowbrow action movie sensationalism.  The pace never slows down to make sure you’re keeping up, and the plot doesn’t go out of its way to explain what’s going on.  You really just strap in for the ride, as the cops and criminals circle each other in an ever-tightening net.  Gene Hackman imbues the heavily-flawed protagonist with outsized bravado and a hazy moral code, and like his unforgettable car chase through the streets of Brooklyn in pursuit of an elevated train, innocent people should stay far away from his path and the collateral damage he’s bound to cause.




Singing in the Rain

Year: 1952

Director: Stanley Donen

Method: TCM

Times Viewed: 1

Set in the Hollywood of the late 1920s, just as movies were transitioning from the silent era to “talkies,” Gene Kelly splashed around a lamppost and into one of the most legendary musicals ever made.  Several of the songs here have reached iconic status, and the choreography is complex and clever.  But for someone who’s not much of a fan of the genre, it wasn’t the spectacle that won me over here but the characters.  Donald O’Connor’s vaudevillian clowning as the goofy best friend grated my nerves, but the love triangle between Kelly and his two potential leading ladies more than carried the plot.  Debbie Reynolds is all girl-next-door sweetness, while Jean Hagen’s shrill and shallow starlet is what keeps his tumultuous career afloat and the interplay between them all led to some genuine laughs and those warm fluttery feelings films like this were made for.




Spirited Away

Year: 2001

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: <5

The only example of Japanese anime on the list, Miyazaki’s all-ages fantasy masterpiece broke box office records in its native country before crossing over to enchant Western audiences as well.  The film follows Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl accidentally stranded in a mystical world and put to work in a bathhouse that caters to spirits and deities.  While I’m sure I missed plenty of references to Japanese folklore or specific societal critiques, the story is too universal for the cultural details to matter much.  The allegorical journey from one world to another is a bedrock of world mythology, marking the transition away from childhood, while simultaneously weaving a modern environmental message throughout.  The character design is sensational, from Chihiro’s cutesy friends to the eeriness of the silent No-Face, and the distinctive Studio Ghibli animation flows like the vivid dream world that it is.





Year: 1996

Director: Coen Brothers

Method: Own DVD

Times Viewed: >10

The Coen’s most revered drama is about a kidnap plot gone wrong in a snow-covered rural town.  The unconventional plot, cheekily said to be based on a true story, paints its criminals as greedy and just stupid enough to be believable, and it’s always a kick watching William H. Macy become more and more unglued as the plan crumbles around him.  But the standout star is Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson, the very pregnant chief of police investigating the increasingly grisly crimes.  Her cheery “Minnesota nice” veneer isn’t a put-on, even if there are hidden layers of grit and shrewdness beneath.  And her Academy Award win wasn’t just for the distinctive yah, don’tcha know accent, but the way her heart breaks and she loses some innocence coming face to face with the kind of evil that would commit cold-blooded murder for a little bit of money.



Progress:  54 / 100


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