Top 10 Films Every Highbrow Should Own

Forrest Hartman


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.   


Author Bio:

Forrest Hartman is an an academic and film critic. He is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. He is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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An interesting mix of films, most of which I own, though I am hardly high-brow.  Thanks for including Terry Gilliam whose work always takes risks and most often tanks at the box office -- Brazil, for me, is about ultimate bureaucracy -- Robert DeNiro as a renegade heating duct repairman who has been issued a death warrant for fixing air ducts without the proper permits, and about a man who is killed in his place as the result of a typo.  I believe Billy Wilder's work belongs on every list, though I personally like the Apartment better than Sunset Boulevard (see... not highbrow).  Thin Red Line is an amazing adaptation of James Jones book, which was set on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, but which Jones notes in his preface that he never visited -- Malik actually filmed in the Solomons and brings home the reality of the intense fighting in the Pacific theater -- I love his scene where the U.S. GI's are heading inland, wondering when they will be fired upon, when they come upon and pass a Solomon Islander walking unconcerned the opposite direction on his way to go fishing (not HIS conflict).  I would also recommend Ridley Scott's "The Duellists," if only because I think it may be the most beautifully filmed movie ever made.  Thanks for this list.


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