As part of ISTA’s 40th birthday celebrations we are putting together lists of resources and things we love – and here you’ll find 40 fantastic films that should go straight on to your ‘must watch’ list.
We asked members of the ISTA community what their favourite film of all time is and why they love it.
Here are the answers…
The Graduate (1967) directed by Mike Nichols
This is a great film to teach students textual analysis. It’s on a topic that they can relate to, they all know the music and the cinematography is obvious enough that they can get it. There are countless scenes that students can choose and overall this is just a fantastic film.
Private Benjamin (1980) directed by Howard Zieff
Private Benjamin was one of the films that sat for awhile on one of my family’s seven recordable videocassettes so we watched it a few times and grew to love it. On revisiting it as an adult, I realized that the performance by Eileen Brennan of Captain Doreen Lewis (“…the swamp…”) is one of the most campy brilliant villains ever created. I also love Goldie Hawn: she is an actress that generally lifts the soul.
Shawshank Redemption (1994) directed by Frank Darabont
Great story. Quiet and strong characters. The scene where he plays the vinyl of the Madam Butterfly aria over the whole prison PA, knowing he would get the crap beat out of him. That expression on his face. That’s why people should watch it.
Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott
I was 14. This is the film that literally blew my mind in terms of where a story could go. What it could look and feel like. It was the light. And the long takes that allowed time and space to breathe in such a way that it all felt so real. The sets are rich, the characters are flawed, the action/plot simple and blunt but resulting in complex moments as the characters unpack themselves to each other and the audience. I was bitten and knew from that moment on, that I wanted to work in film and make images like that in my future. As a teacher it is fun to look at how low tech a lot of the designs were for the Los Angeles of Blade Runner’s future. I think this is one of the reasons is still works as a film – the design uses clever reference to an analogue world where the high tech of the future still requires a machine and a person to run it, replicants included.
Sharon Lacoste McDonagh
The White Ribbon (2009) directed by Michael Haneke
With honourable mentions for Requiem for a Dream, La Haine, Under the Skin and Kill List I am going to go ultimately for the film which I’ve seen recently and which most struck, disturbed and unsettled me – The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke. Set in a small German town just before the first world war, it depicts a series of small crimes, disturbances and violent acts, many of which possibly arise from a group of young children who roam the town. While never explicitly stating it, the film offers a deeply disturbing foreshadowing of the fascist movement that will emerge in the next 30 years in Germany. Shot in black and white and in forensic detail, the film is, as Andrew Pulver describes it: both “perfectly straightforward and utterly opaque” – a winning combination!
A Room with a View (1985) directed by James Ivory
Daniel Day Lewis. Nothing more needs to be said. Although Maggie Smith is also pretty fabulous and Simon Callow – pretty much the entire cast. I could probably quote the entire film line for line. It was one of the few VHS tapes we had with us in Switzerland when I was in high school – I was desperate for any films in English and I couldn’t get enough of this one.
Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola
If I had to pick one favourite film it might have to be Apocalypse Now. It’s not a perfect film, but it is filled with extraordinary sequences, stunning representations of the horrible beauty and madness of war. It’s not a feel-good movie, but it is an epic journey into another world. And real aficionados will want to follow it with Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. It’s even more insane than the film itself.
Casablanca (1942) directed by Michael Curtiz
I had only ever seen it on TV but last year watched it on the big screen for the first time and realised why it is such a great film all over again.
Cabaret (1972) directed by Bob Fosse
My favourite film of all time – incredible editing, great acting… read the book by Christopher Isherwood first.
Le Bossu (1997) directed by Philippe de Broca
I flirt with different films all the time but two films that travel around the world with me are Le Bossu directed by Philippe de Broca and The Italian Job directed by Peter Collinson. Le Bossu has some of my favourite ever fight scenes with swordplay to die for and sublime comedic moments. Vincent Perez as the Duc de Navarre is amazing and Daniel Auteuil gives an outstanding performance as the hunchback. The Italian Job – well, what’s not to like? 60’s cool with Michael Caine with camp cameos from Noel Coward and Benny Hill. It features one of the best car chases in cinema, underscored by a crackling script and music from Quincy Jones.
Angel Heart (1987) directed by Alan Parker
It was the first film to make me want to go right back to the beginning and watch all over again for clues. And I love the music in it.
Before Sunrise (1995) directed by Richard Linklater
A Richard Linklater film which is basically about two people that meet on a train and have a really long conversation. There are no big effects or car chases. Nothing overly thrilling or dramatic. Just two people talking about potential and possibility and expectation and falling in love. What I also love is that there is a sequel where the same people meet up nine years later called Before Sunset and then for those who really love the story – more years go by and we get Before Midnight – which is where we get to see where it all goes. It’s a beautiful film/series which for me is a total piece of art.
Back to the Future (1985) directed by Robert Zemeckis
Well, I watch Back to the Future time and time again… so I guess that… but… hmmm! I love Leon! Wait a second… this is always tough… OK got it… The Goonies. Actually… a bit goofy that one… erm… right this time… Back to the Future (the first one).
The Green Mile (1999) directed by Frank Darabont
Based on Stephen King’s novel. Why? It was such a perfect cast to begin with. You have award winning actors, nominated actors and popular fan actors in the movie. The “green mile” refers to the death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It’s such a lovely metaphor about the journey in life and it touches many topics about humanity being cruel and barbaric. It clearly illustrates how man likes to kill except for the character Coffey who truly seeks to heal. I share this thought to my fellow drama teachers and students – the movie is awesome! There are so many quotes/lines from this movie – I think the one that sticks to me the most is when Coffey said “He killed them with their love. That’s how it is; everyday all over the world.”
Brooklyn (2015) directed by John Crowley
A poignant film about being homesick. Something that every ISTA artist and teacher knows. Also a great book!
Running on Empty (1988) directed by Sidney Lumet
Running on Empty is a hidden coming of age film. It creeps up on you. Layer after layer until the viewer is never really sure as to who is actually coming of age. The children or the adults? There is a moment when this question is answered in a sudden and joyous revelation as the restraints of a family appear and disappear simultaneously and a new existence leaps forward while leaving questions in its wake.
Chinatown (1974) directed by Roman Polanski
A 1974 American neo-noir mystery film directed by Roman Polanski from a screenplay by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The film was inspired by the California Water Wars, a series of disputes over southern California water at the beginning of the 20th century, by which Los Angeles interests secured water rights in the Owens Valley. Such a good film. The cinematography is vast – it makes you look at the commodity of water (and the evolution of Los Angeles) in very new ways. Nicholson and Dunaway both give amazing performances and neither character is incredibly likeable.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) directed by Peter Jackson
I remember watching this for the first time and thinking to myself that nothing would ever be likely to top it. It’s now fourteen years later and nothing has. It’s a masterpiece, a rollercoaster and one of the most adept pieces of storytelling I’ve ever seen on screen. For me, as far as cinema goes it doesn’t get any better than this.
Children of Paradise (1945) directed by Marcel Carné
Very French but a monument of world cinema. And I’m not the only one to say it! Some of the best movie artists of the time, director, actors, script writer (Jacques Prévert), set (Alexandre Trauner). It speaks of a time when theatre was a popular activity where rich and poor would meet and the world around it.
Interstellar (2014) directed by Christopher Nolan
Earth’s future has been riddled by disasters, famines and droughts. There is only one way to ensure humankind’s survival: interstellar travel. A newly discovered wormhole in the farthest reaches of our solar system allows a team of astronauts to go where no man has gone before – to a planet that may have the right environment to sustain human life. I love this film. Too often films are created from fantasy with no real bearing on fact or even an ounce of possibility (don’t get me wrong these have their place). Interstellar, while slightly out of our grasp currently is very conceivable. It utilises our known laws of physics, nature and what we know of the universe to create a film which is entirely believable, intense and emotional – one that is convincing and could be achieved one day. It plays to our curiosity and desire to explore. It’s long but it needs to be. A mind blowing film – superbly produced.
Farewell My Concubine (1993) directed by Kaige Chen
This is a very long one but a great film to show students the opening scenes of children being trained in the Beijing opera.
The Jungle Book (1967) directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
This was my favourite Disney film growing up. I love the characters, especially Baloo, King Louie and the little baby elephant. Also the four vultures and how they portrayed The Beatles so greatly. On my twenty first birthday (quite a few years ago now) Mum made me a Jungle Book themed birthday cake. Probably not the coolest cake for a twenty one year old nowadays, but it was fab and delicious too!
The Lives of Others (2006) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
A German film about the Stasi (secret police) in former East Berlin and the artists who protested against them. Inspiring and heartbreaking. For me it reinforces the value and the unvanquishable humanity of the arts in the bleakest of cultural and political environments.
Awakenings (1990) directed by Penny Marshall
(Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams) I used to watch this film when I was young. I remember being really drawn to questions about how mental illness was “cured” in the past and what it would be like to be awakened like the characters were and the ethics behind it all. I haven’t seen it in a few years but am inspired to watch it again as an adult.
All That Jazz (1979) directed by Bob Fosse
This is an American musical drama film and a semi-autobiographical fantasy based on Bob Fosse’s own life. I saw it when I was really young and have since then re-watched it countless times. I am sure that it played a part in me choosing a life in the theatre. It’s simply a fantastic film showing the highs and lows of being an artist with some great musical numbers in it. For me it has the greatest climax ever in a movie as Joe Gideon (played by Roy Scheider of Jaws fame) takes centre stage in the last live musical variety show he will ever take part in. I dare anyone not to get goose bumps during this part of the film. Any high school students interested in the crazy world of show business should see this film.
The Holiday (2006) directed by Nancy Meyers
Starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. It’s the best rom com ever. Just a complete indulgence. Oh and it’s got Jude Law in it!
Some Like it Hot (1959) directed by Billy Wilder
Everything about this film tickles my fancy. The premise, two slightly dodgy musicians escaping the mob dressed as women. The fun starts with a ridiculous train journey and their stay at a resort where romance blossoms for both the men (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis). The dialogue is brilliant and has Marilyn Monroe playing a fantastically naïve ukulele player called Sugar Kane, wearing some of the best dresses created for a woman who is actually shaped like a woman. I can chant along with this film and shout with glee when the luggage boy, repulsed by Tony Curtis as “Josephine” says “That’s the way I like ‘em, big and sassy!”
Billy Wilder directs and I would like to imagine that filming this must have been a hoot as Mr. Wilder was known for his pithy comments: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.” Watching the film I am always hugely entertained. There is no spiritual elevation (Shawshank Redemption) no visual awe (Blade Runner) and no terror (Alien). There is a feeling that I am watching actors at the top of their game, directed by a man who made some of the best films that Hollywood ever produced.
Cinema Paradiso (1988) directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Certainly at the top of my list. I find it wildly romantic, heartbreaking and hilarious. It also shows how art can change lives and guide us to our truest selves. Bill Bowers
Aliens (1986) directed by James Cameron
I find it tough to pin down a favourite film, especially now when there is so much good TV! I think TV in recent years has demonstrated a lot more creativity and far better production values than film. My favourite TV series (among many) include Deadwood, Fargo, House of Cards (damn you for spoiling that one Spacey!) and most recently Stranger Things. The last of these TV shows brings me to my no shame film pick – Aliens (1986) which was so heavily represented in the latest season. I love this film for the action, horror, sci-fi blend which it captured so well, the female heroine who was underrepresented in Hollywood for so long and it’s lasting impact on so many levels.
Simple Men (1992) directed by Hal Hartley
This film by Hal Hartley is the story of two brothers who embark on a mini road-trip around Long Island to find their father, who has been in hiding for twenty years after he may or may not have attempted to blow up the US government. It’s poignant, funny and superbly acted, while the dialogue and direction has a very theatrical feel to it (think Beckett or Pinter) that is typical of Hartley at his best.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra
A dark but feel good fairy tale for the modern age. For my money head and shoulders above anything else. A brilliantly structured, layered film starring one of Hollywood’s most outstanding actors. Did poorly at the box-office on its release but now a Christmas perennial favourite. You need a heart of stone not to be moved by George Bayley’s dilemma. “Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.” Gets me every time I hear it.
The Big Lebowski (1998) directed by Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen
This movie is about a man and his simple life. A simple life with simple habits disrupted for no apparent reason. Stoicism all the way, from when the sun rises – empathy when a friend calls. I love how “The Dude” travels the movie always teaching a lesson on how to be patient, gentle and accepting, even if it comes with a pinch of naivety. I do find myself immersed in The Dude’s infinite proverbial wisdom and love how the Cohen brothers can find humor in anyone’s life.
Romeo + Juliet (1996) directed by Baz Lurhmann
I remember watching Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet in a cinema in Paris when it first came out and being blown away by the theatricality of the whole film: it never loses sight of the fact that the text was originally a piece of theatre and plays with the boundaries of film and theatre throughout. The language is spoken in a way that makes it so clear for a modern audience to follow and I love the clever touches – such as the advertisements that use quotes from other plays and the way the prologue is repeated in three different ways so as to emphasise its message and to train the audience into hearing and understanding the language.
City Lights (1931) directed by Charles Chaplin
I love this film for a number of reasons. First of all, we all need to tip our bowler to Charlie Chaplin. He popularised the medium of film probably more than anyone else in the world ever. In City Lights, Chaplin was at the height of his artistry. His “Little Tramp” was never better. Every moment in this film is thought through and it contains some of the most memorable moments of film comedy. I teach the boxing scene in my “Silent film in performance” class. The lazzi and comedic routines and patterns are unbelievable. In 2007 the American Film Institute ranked it eleven on its list of the best American films ever made. In 1949 the critic James Agee called the film’s final scene “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”. And it is! The double-meaning of the moment – the way in which class division melts away and compassion comes into view – is exquisite!
Barry Lyndon (1975) directed by Stanley Kubrick
This film is epic in so many ways. At nearly three and a half hours long it is an indulgent, slow paced, character led, aesthetically beautiful, candle-lit piece of art. I love Barry Lyndon, not only because it is a great film but because I have fond memories of watching it on a lazy Sunday morning with my now husband.
To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) directed by Robert Mulligan
It always has to be To Kill a Mocking Bird for me. Although it is sure to be a popular choice it needs to be seen by anybody who is serious about telling stories, acting and compassion. I can’t think of any other film which captures the essence of a time, a place and what growing up is meant to be. It is a film where every character is acted with virtuosity and complete honesty including all the children. Every teacher should take time to simply show this film and then discuss, discuss and then discuss again.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) directed by Wes Anderson
This movie is the story of two twelve year olds who fall in love, make a secret pack and run away into the woods on an exciting adventure. It is a magical and imaginative coming of age film set in 1965 on an island in New England. It’s full of quirky characters, children outsmarting confused adults and community thrown into turmoil by lack of leadership.
Elizabeth Hunt Lucarini
The Fall (2006) directed by Tarsem Singh
This film is based on the earlier Bulgarian film, Yo-ho-ho by Valeri Petrov. A lavish tale that spans two worlds– that of the storyteller and that of the world of the characters as imagined by the little girl to whom the story is being told – The Fall is a beautiful example of our inability as artists to control the experience and perceptions of our audiences. The stunning visual experience of this film is fed by incredible design elements and perhaps some of the finest work by costume designer Eiko Ishioka.
For those of us in this industry, this film holds two great teaching points:
1) The determination and foresight in the process of creation. The film took ten years to come to fruition as no studio would back it. The writer/director risked everything he had to tell this story and I find value in the lesson of trusting one’s vision so deeply that risk is inherently worth it.
2) Perfection in casting (unwillingness to compromise). The child who plays the lead in this film was being sought before she was born. Until the director found her, the film could not be made. The Fall is an incredible film – not to be missed.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) directed by John Ford
Starring Henry Fonda, this film puts a spotlight on a very important period of history. The editing and the acting in the movie were far beyond the standards of that period.
Love Actually (2013) directed by Richard Curtis
OK, slightly embarrassed to admit it, but why not: Love Actually. Heart-warming, fun, romantic comedy of intertwined stories all delving into different aspects of love with something for everyone and a great remedy if one is ever feeling even slightly blue.
Amadeus (1984) directed by Milos Forman
A period drama film directed by Milos Forman, adapted by Peter Shaffer from his stage play of the same name. Set in Vienna during the latter half of the 18th century, it is a fictionalised biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film follows Italian composer Antonio Salieri and his jealous vendetta against his rival, Mozart. The film is a fictionalised exploration of how Salieri might have felt when he realized that despite all his hard work, talent and popularity at the time, he could never hope to approach Mozart’s genius. Salieri is driven to madness by this jealousy and tells his story from the confines of an insane asylum; he fantasises that he is responsible for the death of Mozart. I like this film because I love reading about personalities and seeing biographical films. I also enjoy classical music and opera. The screenplay is well crafted and Milos Forman filmed it beautifully in the Czech Republic. Tom Hulce is delightful as Mozart. He portrays Mozart as an immature but likeable, charismatic demigod. Oscar and Golden Globe winner, F. Murray Abraham gives a stellar performance as the jealous contender to Mozart, meaning to bring him down. The costumes and setting give a very good impression of another time in history. Mozart’s music is skilfully incorporated to enhance the scenes. I feel that teachers of many areas of specialty would love this film and might use bits and pieces of it with their classes. It’s got history, drama, “biography”, and classical music/opera. The film is excellent for investigating character study and historical accuracy. The film is a creative work about jealousy, rage and cosmic betrayal with tons of laughs. It’s a film to watch more than once. Each time you watch it, you will find something new and special.