It’s my 23rd birthday today. Normally, birthdays don’t mean very much to me. I barely celebrate, nor do I really feel older each time.
Except I sort of do this year, and want to talk about something other than feeling inexplicably like I should be a fully-functioning adult by now, but truthfully am not one. So I’m going to blog about movies as that’s all I really am certain about in life.
Here are 23 films I would want everyone to see at least once in their lives. The list is numbered, with number one being the most recommended. But they are all incredibly special to me. Be warned! This is going to be lengthy.
23. Only Yesterday (1991), dir. Isao Takahata
Only Yesterday is the kind of film I wish I had seen when I was a child, but it’s also one that I definitely appreciate a lot more for its adult themes now. It is very much about the various struggles women face throughout their formative lives, as they’re constantly picked apart by societal standards. I particularly like how it unpacks difficult subjects related to young girls going through changes in their bodies, and with their emotions. It’s incredibly honest as it contemplates the validity of dreaming for people like its protagonist, Taeko, and is beautifully bittersweet. As always with Takahata though, prepare some tissues. You might very well cry.
22. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Arguably, any Coen brothers film is worth seeing, but as this one happens to feature Oscar Isaac ♡♡♡, it’s definitely going in this list. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a struggling folk musician in New York City in the 60s, but it’s definitely resonant in any time period. The music in the film is absolutely transportative, yet it’s the kind of soundtrack you can listen to on repeat after the movie ends. The film has very distinctive cinematography that’s totally immersive as well – the wintry images will have you shivering ever so slightly. It’s candid-yet-dire in a way only the Coens can produce, but I personally feel it’s one of their more accessible pieces. It isn’t outlandish by any means, and it’s by-and-large a “serious” offering, but the film is still allowed to breathe in spaces of pure comedy, striking a balance and bringing it to life.
21. Notorious (1946), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
This is definitely one of the most beautifully-shot films ever. It’s Hitchcock being suave and romantic in the most memorable way while employing some very disconcerting cinematography to disorient both character and viewer, in order to facilitate the “thriller” aspect of the narrative. Watching it makes your heart feel full, and the tension is in the love story that plays out gorgeously thanks to the electric chemistry between the actors. Cary Grant flexes some serious acting chops and Ingrid Bergman is tragically beautiful. Watching this is like taking a long drink of water on a hot day, so don’t blink. It’s good for your eyes.
20. Roman Holiday (1953), dir. William Wyler
Roman Holiday was actually my very first Classic Hollywood film, and what a wonderful first this was! It has all the makings of the perfect rainy day movie. Falling in love in a foreign country always seems a hundred times more romantic than if you did it in real life. But more than anything the film is about taking chances and being assertive. Of course, it’s reckless and ridiculous at times, but every gag is good-natured, and Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are very genuine actors. It’s purely fluffy and fun, and super easy to get invested in.
19. The Social Network (2010), dir. David Fincher
This wouldn’t be my list of film recs without some David Fincher! The Social Network is easily his technical magnum opus. Everything – from script to score, from editing to set design – is top notch. It’s also got one of the best ensemble casts ever. The film isn’t so much a biopic as it is a story about relationships – how college life negotiates trust, opportunity, and most obviously – change. Calling it “the Facebook movie” is almost a little too dismissive, when it is a much more layered dissection of friendship and maintaining it in an era saturated with the ever-growing possibility of the digital. It’s a true journey that’s simultaneously satisfying and upsetting, and it’s such a treat that it’s told via sumptuous imagery and sound design.
18. Hero (2002), dir. Zhang Yimou
One of the most visually intense films in this list, Hero expertly navigates the wuxia / martial arts genre towards the arty. The fight scenes are simply breathtaking, but they’re not all there is to this movie. Hero‘s signature rainbow colour palette serves as the perfect distraction for what is essentially a mystery story deeply rooted in historical and regional tensions. It amazingly holds off on character development only because the audience has no idea what should be taken as evidence and what’s fabricated. The languid storytelling doesn’t mean there aren’t fascinating and gripping twists throughout the narrative, which makes the film very unusually exciting and undoubtedly emotional.
17. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
I had to include a vampire flick as I am a huge fan of the genre, and nothing is better (at the moment) than Ana Lily Amirpour’s feminist masterpiece. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the epitome of MY AESTHETIC thanks to its amazing soundtrack and quiet-but-deadly female protagonist. It’s an amalgamation of many genres, from a Western to a fantastical superhero movie. The eponymous girl is pretty much a vigilante, but in this much more understated film with very real, very freaky scenes courtesy of gross men, everything she does feels justified. It’s an incredibly fresh take on the genre, turning all sorts of tropes and stereotypes on their heads.
16. Se7en (1995), dir. David Fincher
Visually, Se7en is both gross and captivating. Here, Fincher explores the dark(est) sides of humanity while making sure we also get Brad Pitt in all his classic handsome glory to ogle at. But in all seriousness, Pitt delivers a fantastic performance alongside Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow – which is essential given that the film demands so much of its audience in terms of character trust and likeability. It’s definitely one of the more confronting films on this list, but it’s so worth it. It’s also got one of the best opening credits sequences in any of Fincher movies – in any movie, probably.
15. The Breakfast Club (1985), dir. John Hughes
A film that isn’t at all about breakfast, here continues the theme of young people trying to find themselves – this time, in high school. This is a movie for anyone who’s ever felt like kind of a misfit, even if they had a specific group or clique at school to fall back on (as I had). It’s for those who’ve questioned the status quo because it simply never gave them enough. You don’t have to have had detention with these characters to realise they’re more than their tropes suggest, and there is something to love about them all. Furthermore, there’s a brilliant dance sequence tossed in there for good measure.
14. Death Proof (2007), dir. Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino is a staple in my film language – he was one of the first directors I really connected with and it would be a crime to not recommend something of his. And even though I could easily include something like Inglourious Basterds or Kill Bill in this, I’m going to go for Death Proof which is, in my opinion, ridiculously underrated. The film is truly such a blast; a high-octane action film packed with tons of awesome stunts. But my favourite part about it is its cast. Full of charismatic, gorgeous ladies, it’s so easy to love every female character, even if they’re pitted against one another. It’s a wholly unique vibe compared to other Tarantino films.
13. Prisoners (2013), dir. Denis Villeneuve
With Villeneuve, it’s all about taking subjects and tropes we’re already familiar with and making them good. Prisoners is a drama-thriller with a family angle, but it’s one of the tensest movies in recent years. There is just something about Villeneuve’s directing coupled with Roger Deakins’ luscious cinematography that is definitely voyeuristic, but in it is a willingness to leave things up to the audience’s imagination once in awhile. Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman each offer one of the best performances in their careers. What should have been a straightforward, almost clinical drama about fraught allegiances becomes extremely psychological.
12. Wadjda (2012), dir. Haifaa al-Mansour
This next recommendation is even more specific to the theme of young people – young women fighting back against oppressive structures that seek to silence who they are. Wadjda is a comparatively simpler tale about those fundamental struggles. It’s about a girl whose only wish is to ride a bike with her best friend. In a secondary storyline, the girl’s mother takes centre stage as she decides how to deal with a failing marriage. What’s great about this film is that both of these characters show utter determination to get where they want to be. It is perhaps idealised, but an inkling of that never hurt anybody. Definitely one of the most heartening films around.
11. Oldboy (2003), dir. Park Chan-wook
As is evident from the screencap, Oldboy is a very deliberate film. Unsettling and darkly funny, it’s definitely not something for the faint of heart. Park Chan-wook crafts the most memorable of his Vengeance anthology with this film, telling a story about deep familial roots and the consequences of small, seemingly irrelevant choices. Generally, Park’s filmmaking proves that the coming-of-age process isn’t just something reserved for children and young adults. His work usually seems to uproot expectations of established adult behaviour, and Oldboy is no different. Sorry to be vague about it, but that’s the only way to go with this film – you’ll only know what I mean once you’ve seen it.
10. Pacific Rim (2013), dir. Guillermo del Toro
DEFINITELY THE MOST FUN, MOST BADASS FILM ABOUT ROBOTS AND GIANT DINOSAUR LIKE CREATURES. Truly, Pacific Rim is just too cool for words. Apart from the straightforward action and adventure and the epic world-building of the film, there’s the classic del Toro touch with every character – how they’re immediately fully formed without much introduction and how they’re all 100% relevant to the story. The film’s aim towards diversity is also a winning factor. It’s nice to be able to see everyone try to fight off monsters at the end of the world. Ramin Djawadi delivers a magnificent iconic soundtrack as the perfect accompaniment, and it gets you pumped for anything.
9. Jurassic Park (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg
…Which leads me to one of the most formative blockbusters I’ve ever seen. Dinosaur films are super important, even if it’s just for the escapism. They’re the best blend of fiction, science and history, and their stories are normally especially rich. More than anything, I want everyone to watch Jurassic Park with the same sense of wonderment I did growing up, which is even something I have now as an adult. The special effects for this film are unparalleled and definitely hold up over the years, and the admittedly simple narrative still manages to be thoroughly engaging. The film is as much about the humans as it is about how cool and scary dinosaurs are.
8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), dir. John Hughes
Breaking the fourth wall is one thing, but doing it right is a whole other challenge that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off not only takes on but utterly succeeds in. This film is cheeky, funny, and – because the audience is most likely going to side with Ferris than Edward Rooney (I hope) – really exhilarating. The film manages to balance these kids’ rule-breaking antics with a true sense of uplifting camaraderie among friends. It’s as good as if not better than the next heist film, and another great feel-good option. There’s something special about kids being allowed to be themselves without the pressures of growing up per se. It definitely made me wish I was a little more reckless.
7. Queen (2014), dir. Vikas Bahl
This film is so heart-warming, if also heart-wrenching in just how very real it is. I’m no expert on Bollywood films, but Queen is simply one of my favourite movies ever. A little different than all the coming-of-age stories already featured in this list, this is one I relate to the most. The feeling of being so small and mousey you could disappear and then finding yourself and rejuvenating not only the way you feel but how you act around others? What a beautiful, freeing message to send out. It emphasises personal strength without having to be typically or ostentatiously gutsy, and revels in small victories that seem more everyday and mundane. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
6. Mommy (2014), dir. Xavier Dolan
Simply put – this movie changed my damn life. It changed everything I understood about filmmaking and its limitations (or lack thereof). From the fluidity of the camera work (those!! aspect ratio!! changes!!) to the unapologetic youthfulness of its soundtrack (taking cliches and making them practically classic again), from the very real pressures of womanhood and family to the almost sci-fi vibe used to exemplify that… Not only do I love it all, but relate to it, even if that can never be a literal experience for me. Mommy is a huge movie about a very small group of people – too vast to be contained in a single, constant method of image capture. Yet it’s still incredibly explosive and vibrant. It also sports some of the best performances in all of Dolan’s films; Anne Dorval never skips a beat.
5. The Cabin in the Woods (2012), dir. Drew Goddard
The Cabin in the Woods possibly has my favourite ending of any film I’ve watched. I genuinely can’t say more without being spoilery, but listen: it’s absolutely hilarious, somewhat gory (but not excessively so, which I’m a fan of), and it manages to commentate without getting preachy.
4. Zodiac (2007), dir. David Fincher
I would consider this a hidden gem in Fincher’s filmography, just because I barely hear people discuss it in my circles. But this is probably the Fincher film I recommend most to other people – it’s honestly quite accessible and simply innately intriguing. Zodiac is a very engaging crime story that doesn’t scrimp on the necessary details. It almost feels forensic. But it’s never stale or static, and manages to be completely different compared to Prisoners. Even though Fincher’s directorial style is very much focused on finding the utmost balance in every shot, there is once again no sense of prescription going into each storytelling device. Instead, and much like Fincher’s other movies, there is a strong focus on its core characters. This is also a great film spanning a long period of narrative time – something that I find a lot of other movies struggle with.
3. Laurence Anyways (2012), dir. Xavier Dolan
Tied with Mommy as one of Dolan’s most mature features, Laurence Anyways is one of the most powerful, complicated love stories I’ve seen onscreen. It’s definitely the first time Dolan’s filmmaking style seemed the most distinctive. His penchant for larger-than-life imagery depicting very close, personal relationships began with this movie, and even though he’s obviously still evolving – he’s after all, only 25 – it’s almost like witnessing the formation of his signature. In terms of story, the film very sensitively deals with issues of marginalisation and difference, as well as the renegotiations of love and relationships. It manages to allude to real-life dismissiveness towards trans stories without actually becoming dismissive itself because it’s very interested in being empowering – bombastically so.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), dir. Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is my favourite movie. I classify all three as a single, 12-hour extravaganza but for the sake of the people who don’t want to sit through it all, I’m recommending the first film. I’ve heard people say it’s the “most boring” one of the three because of “how slow” it is – don’t listen to them! The Fellowship of the Ring is actually incredibly funny, obviously very pretty to look at, and really establishes the core values of the trilogy as a whole. While it does concern itself with the fun and exciting aspects of adventure, the film draws together many character-driven arcs: (found) families, growing up/growing apart, impossible choices, and loss. It has a true investment in the emotional journeys of every character that it works despite there being so many protagonists – no one feels left out. An invaluable addition to the world of cinema, and I will be forever grateful to Jackson for it.
1. Spirited Away (2001), dir. Hayao Miyazaki
As though coming full circle, this list ends on another Studio Ghibli offering. I’m putting Spirited Away at the very top of my list because in my opinion, even if someone isn’t big on animated or anime-style films, they’ll most likely adore this. I speak from experience – it’s not like I don’t enjoy animation, I just don’t gravitate towards it. So I basically saw this film by accident and completely fell in love with it, Miyazaki, and Studio Ghibli – I hope others do too! Particularly because it has a very strong narrative about a young girl at the crossroads of her life without being melodramatic in a way that makes it difficult for the audience to empathise with. Chihiro is one of my favourite female characters of all time. Throughout the course of the film, she has to gain independence, strength and wisdom beyond her years in order to survive, but she is far from perfect. And as with many of the films in this list, Spirited Away uses fantasy and escapism to discuss themes of resilience, perseverance and compassion. The film is humorous and emotional, sometimes at the same time, and it’s basically timeless.