Written by Staff
Sentry Greg Barbrick reviewed the book Reel Culture where author Mimi O’Connor chose “50 films you should know about.” Her selections ranged from 1938-1991, because as she puts it, “Later movies are not ‘classics’ – yet.” But what makes film “a classic”? Mule asks, “Is it when a movie has tricked into the collective subconscious? ‘Cause I figure that’s bound to take a while. Is it when it’s richly referenced in other cultural contexts? When the images are quickly and readily recognizable when they pop up paraphrased and parodied ads and comics and popping up in The Simpsons?” A few of us at the site have some examples below that prove O’Connor’s contention is incorrect.
Pulp Fiction (1994) by Gordon S. Miller
I’d be surprised if anyone could declare Quentin Tarantino’s crime drama Pulp Fiction is not a classic. Now, much of QT’s work has failed to connect with me, but is there any denying what a landmark this film is in the history of cinema? Filled with many iconic scenes and oft-quoted dialogue, Pulp Fiction brought independent films into the mainstream so dramatically it led to numerous copy cats, similar to the what Nirvana’s Nevermind did for alternative music a few years earlier.
There are three main stories that find characters criss cross through the film’s non-linear narrative. Vincent Vega needs to keep his boss Marsellus’ (Ving Rhames) wife Mia (Uma Thurman) safe when he takes her out to dinner, but she’s the one who makes his job difficult. Boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) double crosses Marsellus after agreeing to throw a fight, but getting away with the money is harder than he thinks. Vincent and his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) go to their friend Jimmie’s (Quentin Tarantino) place looking for help after killing a guy in their car, but need to be gone for his wife Bonnie shows up.
Pulp Fiction captivated audiences, especially those not used to the inventivess QT exhibited in his screenplay and direction, and didn’t need an arbitrary grace period to be considered a classic.
Toy Story (1995) selected by Michael Nazarewycz
In 1995, Pixar changed the face of animated movies with Toy Story, the first feature-length, fully computer-animated film. The movie featured the voices of Tim Allen, whose TV comedy Home Improvement was at the height of its popularity at the time; and Tom Hanks, who was coming off back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for his work in 1993’s Philadelphia and 1994’s Forrest Gump. And it went on to be the box office champ for 1995, pulling in nearly $192 million domestic.
But for all of that … for all of the film’s technological, pop-cultural, and financial greatness, there is one reason why the film worked back then, and why it works today:
They. Brought. Toys. To. Life.
The big kids at Pixar didn’t just take us down memory lane by hitting us with well-timed product placement. That would have been nostalgia. No, the big kids at Pixar brought to life with computers the very toys we, as actual kids, brought to life with our imaginations.
That isn’t nostalgia; that’s magic.
Some might say that not enough time has passed to call Toy Story a classic. I say that I don’t care if the film was released in ’95 or ’05 or five minutes ago. When you project on a giant silver screen what we used to project in the endlessness of our minds, you have made a classic.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) selected by Mule
Not only did the movie win an impressive array of awards, including a bunch of Oscars, it was also a box-office hit, widely distributed and just as widely talked about. See, that’s the thing about a movie that’s going to have a chance at getting to classics-status. Steven Spielberg is a very technically proficient director, knows his trade and has the means and draw to get top-notch actors from all camps, independent and established alike, as well as being able to get the budget to actually film what is one of the reportedly most authentic re-enactments of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach.
The story itself has that mix of huge topics coupled with the smaller, intimate and immediate things, like the individual caught up in big historically significant events with the entire theatre of WWII as a backdrop. It is epic in the traditional sense of the word and still manages to be about core values surrounding sacrifice and family, duty and loyalty. That, in and of itself, does not a classic make, but the interesting thing is of course if this movie will make the transition into the cultural context and live in peoples memories after the initial hoopla has died down. I think there is a good chance it will considering how many of the “greatest war movies” and “top ten” and “top one hundred” it is included on. There are also plenty of mentions in popular culture, in everything from comedy and cartoons to pornography, and that is indicative of how well-known it is.
The thing about reaching classic-status is that it’s not always about artistic qualities and originality. Spielberg’s work is not flawless, and it is more traditional than innovative, there are aspects of it that reek of a kind of sentimentality that I, personally, have always had some trouble reconciling with, but even so it is still extremely competent and well executed. You have to try and cast your mind ten, twenty, thirty years into the future and see if you think the movie will still stand on its own merit. I think this one will.
Almost Famous (2000) selected by Ben Platko
Sunset Blvd., The Birds, and The Shining all have one thing in common: they’re undeniably classic films. What makes them classics is their ability to transcend time and affect generations of moviegoers. They also have another thing in common: they’re all old; they were released in 1950, 1963, and 1980, respectively. They’ve stood the test of time and come out on top. What about some of the newer films that touch audiences just as much? There have been more than a few “modern classics” released since the early ’90s, not the least of which was Almost Famous.
Starring Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Kate Hudson, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical comedy-drama tells the story of a teenage Rolling Stone journalist touring with a band in the early ’70s. Critics loved it, raving about the depth of the characters, and calling it, “funny and touching in so many different ways.” Apart from being a critical success, it has the feel of a classic. It is masterfully paced, written, photographed, and directed (something else the aforementioned classics have in common).
But wait, there’s more! Remember how the critics loved the character depth? It’s because absolutely every single character is real. There is not a single moment in the film when the audience doesn’t believe in everything they are seeing; it touches everyone in the audience from the very old to the very young, and that is really what makes Almost Famous a classic.
Yi Yi (2000) selected by Dusty Somers
One of the leading figures of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, the late Edward Yang is a filmmaker whose works would seem no-brainers to achieve widespread consensus as classics — that is, if they weren’t so hard to come by. His final film, Yi Yi (A One and a Two) — the only Yang film available in an authorized, watchable U.S. home video edition right now — is a bona fide classic. It requires no hedging or concessions.
Possessing a universal scope in its intimate look at the lives of an extended Taiwanese family, Yi Yi is all about transitions and milestones. Over the course of a year, marriage, heartbreak, life and death touch the family, led by patriarch NJ (Nianzhen Wu), who both observes a host of changes for his wife, children and in-laws and sees an opportunity of his own to avert his path when a former flame reenters his life.
Yi Yi can be a hard film to sell just on the basis of narrative description alone. Calling it an intuitive, thoughtful and emotionally complex slice-of-life film is technically correct but woefully inadequate at the same time. Over three hours, Yang deftly and invisibly slices open windows into the inner lives of his characters. Yi Yi is the kind of film that changes with you — its resonances evolve as you encounter different milestones and transitions in your own life. I know it’s a film that will be with me for a lifetime, ever-shifting but always remaining an unmitigated classic.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) selected by Mat Brewster
I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in the theatre when it came out. I had no idea what it was about, but had heard good things and the cast looked interesting. I loved it from the start and was blown away by the end. It was the sort of cinematic experience I dream of – I came in knowing nothing and left completely satisfied. I became a huge fan of Wes Anderson after that, but Tenenbaums remains my favorite of his films to this day. The script is funny, and sad, and poignant. The cast is filled with big stars and great actors – Gene Hackman, Angelica Houston, Ben Stiller, Luke and Owen Wilson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, and Danny Glover fill their roles to perfection. Its quirky and a tad pretentious – just enough to make you feel in on the jokes but not enough to make you roll your eyes.
Anderson fills each shot with immaculate detail from the costumes to the color scheme to even the minutia of the props. There is one scene in which Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller move an argument into a small closet. The room is lined with classic board games. The characters don’t do anything with the games, they neither play nor even mention them, but they are there just like they are in my closet and likely yours. The film is filled with little perfect details just like that. While the movie is often luxuriously hilarious some of my favorite moments are filled with melancholy and more than a touch sad. There is another scene towards the end where Ben Stiller’s character, who lost his wife before the film begins, says to his his estranged dad, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad” to which Gene Hackman, playing the father says, “I know you have, Chassie.” Written on the page like that it doesn’t seem like much, but in those two lines the actors pull a deep well of emotion and meaning. The Royal Tenenbaums is filled with all sorts of small moments just like that which make the film a true classic in every way.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) by Gordon S. Miller
If I could only watch one comedy created this millenium, it would undoubtedly be Jared Hess’ hysterical Napoleon Dynamite, a movie that is not only funny throughout but remains funny, if not funnier, with each viewing. Hess and his team did an amazing job creating memorable misfits whose unusual antics and off-the-wall dialogue stay with the viewer long after the credits roll.
Set in a small town in Idaho, nerdy highschooler Napoleon (Jon Heder) lives at his grandmother’s with his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who claims to spend his days chatting online with babes and training to be a cage fighter. When Grandma gets hurt riding a quad at the sand dunes, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) watches the boys to Napoleon’s frustration, especially after Rico causes a rift between Napoleon and a girl he likes named Deb (Tina Majorino) while working a get-rich-quick scheme. Napoleon becomes friends with transfer student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and when Pedro decides to run for school president against the very popular Summer, Napoleon helps with his campaign.
Part of makes Napoleon Dynamite so freakin’ sweet is the characters are captivatingly unpredictable in their actions and responses. I’d vote for Pedro, as many t-shirts beckon, and I’d vote for this movie as a classic.
Now it’s your turn. Can you name a classic film that has come out since 1991?