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Top 10 Films Every Highbrow Should Own
Just before this year’s Independence Day weekend, I appeared on a morning radio show in Reno, N.V., and the hosts asked me to name my favorite July 4 movie. Without hesitation, I came back with the 1942 James Cagney film “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Considering the hosts’ befuddled responses, I might as well have suggested a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda piece. Not only were they unfamiliar with the film, I had apparently strayed too far from the blockbuster titles I was expected to produce.
Fortunately, one eventually grows immune to the blank stares that come upon recommending a movie produced prior to 1999. It’s simply the lot of an educated film lover living in the modern world. Since readers of this magazine can feel my pain, I thought it would be fun to assemble a list of the top 10 films every highbrow should own:
1) “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick
Why it’s a highbrow choice: College professors have been torturing students with this black-and-white classic for years, doing their best to convince the glassy-eyed co-eds that its script, cinematography and makeup were ahead of the times. Bottom line: They’re right. “Citizen Kane” was not just innovative, it remains a great, pure drama. Thing is, modern viewers need to approach it with a sense of history. It helps to know that the movie, about the excessive life of a wealthy man, is a thinly veiled meditation on 19th and 20th century newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Highbrows, no doubt, do.
2) “Casablanca” (1942)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains
Why it’s a highbrow choice: As with “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” – set in Morocco during the early days of World War II – requires some knowledge of history. The reason it made the list, however, is its infinite quote-ability. The film probably has more famous lines than any in history. They include: “Play it, Sam” (often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam”); “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”; and “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
3) “Seven Samurai” (1954)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura
Why it’s a highbrow choice: One can’t compile a highbrow film list without representing another culture, and the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has influenced everyone from Steven Spielberg to Francis Ford Coppola. “Seven Samurai” is probably his most famous movie, and it’s also one of his best. Because of that, director John Sturges famously Americanized it with 1960s “The Magnificent Seven.”
4) “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Nick Nolte, James Caviezel, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson
Why it’s a highbrow choice: Discussing films for highbrows and omitting Terrence Malick would be like examining classical music minus Beethoven. The director’s work is so lyrical, he leaves many viewers flummoxed, but he’s a treat for those who get him. Malick made “The Thin Red Line” after a 20-year hiatus from directing, and its depiction of American soldiers in World War II is unlike anything else in its genre.
5) “Network” (1976)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: William Holden, Faye Dunnaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall
Why it’s a highbrow choice: It was no fluke that Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient script won an Oscar for best original screenplay. The film, which casts a blinding light on broadcast television’s willingness to do anything for ratings, is more relevant today than when “Network” hit theaters 35 years ago. There’s also no forgetting the iconic scene where Peter Finch declares, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
6) “Brazil” (1985)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Kim Greist, Bob Hoskins, Katherine Helmond
Why it’s a highbrow choice: Writer-director Terry Gilliam’s cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarian government mixes black humor with sincere drama on its way to an affecting and unforgettable finale. Like George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the movie paints a bleak view of the future. And, like “Network,” its message has grown more urgent with the years.
7) “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-2003)
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, John Rhys-Davies, Cate Blanchett
Why it’s a highbrow choice: It may seem odd to place special-effects blockbusters on a list of artistically and culturally superior works, but that’s exactly why the “Rings” films are here. With “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” director Peter Jackson reminded viewers that it’s possible to make an effects film with brains. Put simply, the “Rings” trilogy is one of the greatest filmmaking achievements of all time.
8) “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Why it’s a highbrow choice: We’ve seen many dark visions of Hollywood, but none have surpassed that of this black-and-white classic. The opening sequence, in which the dead body of writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats in a pool, is unforgettable, as is the fact that Joe narrates the story from beyond the grave. Also, Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of a silent movie star left behind by the sound era is stunning.
9) “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Petter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens
Why it’s a highbrow choice: Stanley Kubrick’s tale of a mad general determined to start a nuclear war manages both humor and a poignant message. Take into account the fact that Kubrick rolled this into theaters at the height of the Cold War, and the film seems even more impressive.
10) “The Wizard of Oz” (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Stars: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke
Why it’s a highbrow choice: This list is populated by war films, media critiques and rants against totalitarian government, but highbrows can have fun, too. “Wizard” was pure joy when it hit theaters more than 70 years ago, and it’s still a treat. The performances are unforgettable, the music outstanding, and the sharp, Technicolor presentation a reminder of simpler times.
Forrest Hartman has more than a decade of daily newspaper experience, including 11 years as the arts editor for the Reno Gazette-Journal, the most widely circulated publication in Northern Nevada. An accomplished film, television and theater writer, he has interviewed many of the biggest names in entertainment, and his byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press, Arizona Republic and Indianapolis Star.
Although he routinely covers a variety of topics, Forrest is best known as a film writer, and his self-syndicated home video column runs in the Reno Gazette-Journal, Lansing State Journal and a number of smaller outlets. Also, Forrest was the Gazette-Journal’s primary film critic – and a contributing critic for Gannett News Service – until late 2009.
Forrest’s journalistic endeavors have been honored in the Nevada Press Association's Better Newspaper contest almost yearly, most notably with a first place for Entertainment Writing in 2002 and a second place for Critical Writing in both 2007 and 2009. Outside of his work in the arts, Forrest has established himself as a high-profile technology journalist, having written many freelance stories about television and home theater for the nationwide Website About.com.
He is a member of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society and Broadcast Film Critics Association.