7. The Great Escape (1963)
The classic jailbreak film from John Sturges, adapted from Paul Brickhill’s 1950 novel wherein he recounts first-hand his true life story of a daring mass escape from Stalag Luft III, a POW camp in Poland during World War II. This thrilling, fact-based account of Allied soldiers escaping their Nazi captors via tunnelling out of their prison is a thrilling and often harrowing cinema classic.
Leading the big deal cast is Steve McQueen as American Captain Virgil Hills and Richard Attenborough as British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, with other luminaries such as Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Donald, James Garner, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, and William Russell in this often parodied, spoofed, and highly influential tale of alliance, survival, and tragedy.
6. Grand Hotel (1932)
Historic as the first film to have an all-star ensemble (including Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Jean Hersholt, Lewis Stone, and John Barrymore in one of his last roles) and was rightly billed as “the show of the century.”
Based off of Vikki Baum’s popular 1929 novel of the same name, Grand Hotel follows a disparate rabble over a handful of days, and how their paths intertwine at a swank Berlin Hotel. The hotel set was, at the time, the largest ever built, and director Edmund Goulding, was in top form (his overhead establishing shots of the massive hotel are breathtaking, even by today’s standards), as was Garbo, whose memorable reoccurring line from the film, “I want to be alone,” would later haunt the famous recluse.
Grand Hotel is a classic of the Golden Era, netting the Best Picture Oscar in 1932, it stands today as grandiose escapism populated by the most glamorous stars of the era. A gem.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel thrums with the dual dispositions of the sublime Golden Age director Ernst Lubitsch and the jam-packed chapter and verse of Stefan Zweig. In this calorie-rich and joyously effete film, exuberance is the mainstay, as it exists in a baroque bubble of an imagined Old Europe where period styles, historical allusions, and joyful generic conventions intersect amidst a seeming compendium of potential films of adventure, emotion, humor, hubris, and tragedy.
The luxury hotel setting, indebted to Edmund Goulding’s 1932 classic Grand Hotel (see above), is the anchor of a shaggy dog story that unfolds over three distinct timelines, featuring a gargantuan cast with such luminaries as F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and Owen Wilson.
Combining so many styles and storytelling modes, including pastiches of American-style comedy of manners, World War I espionage, romantic comedy, broad slapstick, and elements of farce, this is an energetic charmer that will make your head spin in delirious delight.
4. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Easily the most influential film of the 1990s, Tarantino’s pop culture-saturated dialogue is an outright delight and his visual style is more than just a grab-bag of showy devices — it adds immeasurable dimension to the characters and settings — making for an intricate, artful, yet totally trashy crazy-quilt celebration of cinema.
Like the yellowing pulp magazines it’s title explicitly references, Pulp Fiction tells multiple interlinked stories — none of which are told in sequence — in a film as ambitious as it is zeitgeist defining.
A diverse and extensive cast (which includes Rosanna Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Samuel L. Jackson, Maria de Medeiros, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis) delights in its archetypal noir situations (Willis’ boxer who won’t go down, Jackson’s hitman who’s gonna go clean, etc), unafraid of shaggy dog detours and black comic violence and vitriol, this is Tarantino’s first masterpiece and will certainly be what he’ll be remembered for.
Few films have been as quoted, as cloned, or as dissected, and yet, after repeated viewings, this Jean-Luc Godard-worshipping, hard-hearted, always half-joking gem is untouchably awesome.
3. The Godfather (1972)
When Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the Don of a notorious New York crime family intones, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” he uttered one of cinema’s most famous lines. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and based on Mario Puzo’s best-seller, this ambitious crime saga would spawn two sequels, inspire scores of imitators, win a heap of awards, and give the makers of this film enough street cred to canonize them all.
The A-list cast, anchored by heavyweights Brando and Al Pacino, also includes Richard S. Castellano, James Caan, Richard Conte, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Diane Keaton, and John Marley.
A classic in every sense of the word, if you’re one of those four or five remaining weirdos in the world who haven’t seen this picture, you don’t respect nothin’.
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
2. Short Cuts (1993)
This magnificent LA-based ensemble piece weaves together a batch of Raymond Carver’s trademark spare and disturbing short stories into an unordinary quagmire of disparate, desperate characters in a precarious and incensing fashion that could only stem from the legendary Robert Altman, here at the height of his considerable powers.
Short Cuts, bookended between two disasters; aerial spraying during a medfly outbreak and an unsettling earthquake, also uses a huge and totally committed cast — some twenty-two principals, including Anne Archer, Bruce Davison, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andie MacDowell, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, and Tom Waits — under Altman’s twinking, assured direction.
As with Altman’s best work, and Short Cuts easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nashville (1975), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). and The Player (1992), it touches upon many moral issues but does very little moralising. This mixture of sentiment and cynicism, heartbreak and hysterics careens fearlessly into self-reflexive thoroughfares, boldly and brazenly taking the viewer into the darkest avenues that humanity lurks and leans in.
An emblematic example of 1990s cinema, it may be Altman’s greatest work, awash with restless, allusive imagery, insights, and intensity. Short Cuts is a long ride, and an extraordinary wandering of unforgettable nonstop art and impact.
1. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
This epic comedic chase picture from producer/director Stanley Kramer is so ambitious, so frantic, so full to burst with stars, and so sprawling in scope, that it’s impossible to resist and succumbing to its many charms is easily effortless. Dubbed as “the comedy to end all comedies” this is a madcap monstrosity from the word “go” and it never lets up for its 210 minutes run time, which happens to just whizz on by with so much comic momentum that it all seems to end so soon.
The million laughs that It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World promises and makes good on is largely due to the million stars who populate the picture. Opening on one honey of a traffic jam, a dying driver named Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) tells the good samaritan drivers who try to help him (which includes Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters), that he has $350,000 buried in Santa Rosita State Park. With that the race is on to get the stolen booty that will be found under “… a big W.”
Counting the nonstop cameos, the gargantuan cast, a veritable who’s who of Hollywood comics, there’s too many to count (70 plus superstars, with more than a few celebs going “uncredited”), lead by Spencer Tracy and including the likes of Edie Adams, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Paul Birch, Andy Devine, Peter Falk (hilariously ad-libbing all of his lines), James Flavin, Edward Everett Horton, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Charles Lane, Jerry Lewis, Ethel Merman, ZaSu Pitts, Carl Reiner, Eddie Ryder, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, the Three Stooges, and many more.
A logistical and technical marvel with an amazing gag-to-laugh ratio, and the quintessential cross-country ensemble comedy, this is an extravaganza so rich it will push out your fillings and give you cavities. Join the madness and feel the fun.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.