My 10 Favourite Christmas Movies

10. When Harry Met Sally (1989)


An impeccably scripted rom-com from Rob Reiner starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan (before she turned into an alien), When Harry Met Sally is not technically a Christmas movie.  However it does focus on family, friends, love, heartbreak and the passage of time – the embodiment of the holiday season.  The film’s primary recurrence is New Year’s Eve: taking stock of the past with hope for the future, as most of us experience at this time of year.  But there are a couple of Christmas scenes in the movie! In the earlier one, Harry buys Sally a Christmas tree and they carry it together, in the later one Sally is alone and must carry it by herself.   It’s simple juxtapositional throwbacks like these which make When Harry Met Sally a really lovely film to watch at Christmas.

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)


Christmas from the mind of Tim Burton, you say?  I don’t think anything more needs to be said about this stop-motion fantasy masterwork.  Imaginative, entertaining, and technically brilliant, it’s one for the whole family.

8. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)


Can’t we just watch a stupid, 80s Christmas movie starring Chevy Chase? It’s a damn classic, people!

7. Scrooged (1988)


Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been adapted so many times because of how perfectly it depicts the holiday spirit transforming even the biggest, uh, “scrooge” into a bell ringing, pudding eating Yuletide lunatic.  Flip a coin between The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) and this version, but it’s Bill Murray’s exuberant genius that makes Scrooged the one I’m voting for.

6. Love Actually (2003)


It’s soppy, and can be summarised as “a bunch of shit just packed into a bloated rom-com star vehicle.”  But good luck not beaming like a fool when Billy Mack’s (Bill Nighy) “Christmas Is All Around” hits number 1 on the charts and he finally acknowledges his long-suffering manager by suggesting they celebrate by getting drunk and watching porn.  The structure of the film (being around eight or nine separate but tenuously intertwined stories) lends itself to the craziness associated with having the family over for Christmas.  Whack it on the TV, and try to take five minutes to sit down and have a look.  Just make sure someone else is keeping an eye on the food cooking in the oven, because you’ll get hooked in.  It happens every year.

5. Go (1999)


It’s 24 hours until Christmas, and Ronna (Sarah Polley) is about to get evicted from her apartment because she can’t make rent.  Solution?  Sell some drugs.  It’s an unconventional Christmas plot told from three different perspectives, and that’s what makes it a heap of fun to check out.  It also stars Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant, and the dude from Party of Five.

4. Gremlins (1984)


Christmas movies tend to need a scrooge, and we usually see this character reform by the end.  Gremlins’ scrooge is surprisingly not the titular monsters, but Mrs. Ruby Deagle: an evil, anti-Christmas, would-be dog mutilator.  Surely she’ll find the meaning of Christmas?  Uh…no.  Gremlins have tampered with her staircase aid and now she’s DEAD.  It’s moments like these that elevate Gremlins above nostalgic children’s fare and make for delightful viewing with an overt but heartwarming message.

3. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)


This post-noir comedy thriller kicks off with Robert Downey Jr attempting to steal a Christmas present for his son, and from there goes deep down into the murder-mystery rabbit-hole.  Michelle Monaghan’s festively sexy Christmas outfit isn’t something that jolly old Saint Nick could pull off, but she absolutely slays it, rising high above the early casual objectification to a seriously layered character essential to the film.  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is ridiculously clever and Val Kilmer’s “Gay Perry” going toe-to-toe with RDJ makes for comedy gold.  Must see!

2. Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard Christmas

You’ll struggle to find too many action movies that celebrate Christmas.  So why not just watch the best action movie ever?  You can totally get away with it because it ingeniously happens to be set amidst an office Christmas party.

1. Bad Santa (2003)


Billy Bob Thornton’s Santa is a selfish, offensive, brash, alcoholic thief.  And he doesn’t give a fuck.  This is the Christmas movie for those who can’t stand schmaltz, but deep down know that at this time of year it’s important to be thankful for your loved ones.  His moment of seeing the light and noticing his partner-in-crime’s load of swag (“do you really need all that shit?”) embodies the Christmas spirit sans the forced consumerism.  Don’t worry, it’s not a political message – it’s completely heartfelt.  It’s also my favourite Christmas movie ever.


Harbl 100 Must-See Films Part 3

Videodrome (1983)


Max Renn (played by venerable character actor James Woods) is sitting on a couch watching TV, scratching his stomach with the barrel of a handgun.  A vagina-like opening appears and he is compelled to insert the weapon.  Moments later, the gun is gone and his torso has returned to normal.  Did that just happen?  Or was it a hallucination?

Distortion of reality has rarely been done with greater finesse than in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  The classic “art through hardship,” Cronenberg wrote the film as he shot, and was under a lot of pressure to have it completed quickly under the banner of Canadian tax-break funding.  The one benefit of that situation was that Cronenberg was given almost complete artistic freedom, and he is one weird dude.  The viewer is put directly into the mind of Max Renn, and we are never sure what is real and what is hallucination.  An absolute trip, I consider Videodrome to be Cronenberg’s greatest vision come to fruition, from one of the most original filmmakers of all time.

Scarface (1983)


Scarface is probably the most quotable gangster movie courtesy of a hugely over-the-top performance from Al Pacino as Cuban mob boss Tony Montana.  Highly controversial at the time of its release, it was slammed for its use of language and violence as Montana left a trail of bodies and blow in his wake.  He also left a trail of “fucks”: 207 utterances in total, or an FPM (fucks-per-minute) rating of 1.21.  While this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, it was pioneering at the time insofar as allowing realistic portrayals of characters’ speech on film. De Palma actually brought in narcotics officers, familiar with real life characters such as these, to convince the ratings board of the dialogue’s authenticity.

It might be not the greatest gangster movie ever, but the pairing of writer Oliver Stone with director Brian de Palma provides enough awesomeness to guarantee a spot in the list.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)


The eponymous English rock band Spinal Tap used to be big news, but have since dropped off the radar into the “where-are-they-now” file.  Despite this, they have a brand new record and are going on tour in the United States.  The minutiae of their backstage antics are hilariously hammed up but never corny, while the intra-band politics make for amusing but interestingly heartfelt drama.

For many the definitive mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap is a must-see for any music fan.  The detail is astounding, and the line between fact and fiction is definitely blurred – the actors who play fictional band Spinal Tap often appear in character for public appearances and have completed world tours.

Only a modest success on release, This is Spinal Tap was one of the earliest films to gain a huge cult following on home video.  It has since gone on to develop further in complexity with the Special Edition DVD release that included a full-length audio commentary from the band themselves, and another feature’s worth of extra scenes.  It’s one of the few films that you really can watch over and over again and discover something new each time.  From the perspective of the musician and/or fan, and all those who appreciate the mockumentary format, I can’t recommend this film highly enough.

Back to the Future (1985)


The ultimate popcorn movie, Back to the Future’s perfectly constructed plot and inspired casting has to be the most fun experience in cinema.  In a science experiment gone awry, teenager Marty McFly is sent back to 1955, then unwittingly attracts the attention of his then 17-year-old mother.  To ensure he doesn’t alter history, he must reconnect his mother with his future father, and then find a way to return back to his time of 1985.

Michael J Fox was the first choice to play the lead role, but due to scheduling conflicts with his TV series Family Ties, the producers had to default to Eric Stoltz.  Four weeks into filming, director Robert Zemeckis realised the only way to make the film work was to get Fox back in the role of Marty McFly, so he delayed production at substantial cost to the studio.  When production restarted, many of Fox’s scenes had to be shot at night after he came straight from the Family Ties set, making it an exhausting period in his life.  Thankfully that exhaustion did not translate to film, as his energetic performance leaps off the screen, along with that of mad scientist Doc Brown (a once-in-a-lifetime role for Christopher Lloyd).

The Fly (1986)


“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Director David Cronenberg’s fresh take on what could have easily been an unremarkable remake* became his breakthrough film.  Mel Brooks, famous as a comedy producer, gave Cronenberg free reign to create a new version of the story from the ground up.  Given that the director is known as The King of Venereal Horror (horror of the body), simply whacking a rubber fly mask on the lead actor’s head was never an option.

Physicist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is experimenting with teleportation between two pods, but during his first human trial a fly enters the first pod, mutating Brundle’s DNA structure with that of fly.  When he initially exits the destination pod, it seems as though he has experienced beneficial side effects, but it soon becomes apparent that Brundle is losing his humanity and undergoing a complete transformation.  It’s a tour de force from Goldblum, who somehow manages to emote through some pretty full-on prosthetics, and nothing short of genius direction from Cronenberg.

* original film The Fly (1958, Dir. Kurt Neumann)

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I

Thank you, George Harrison.  He’s one of only two cool Beatles, and he started Handmade Films, the production company responsible for giving us this outstanding piece of cult cinema.  Set in London during the late sixties, two unemployed actors (the “elegantly wasted” Withnail and the unnamed “I”) are just hanging around in squalor, getting drunk and high while they fail at life.  A frightening story in the newspaper prompts the pair to take a holiday to the countryside, which is not as rejuvenating as they had hoped. Difficult to adequately summarise how good this film really is in words, it’s the fantastic and hilarious dialogue combined with its gritty texture that make Withnail & I an absolute classic of British cinema.

Richard E Grant (Withnail) had never actually been intoxicated in his life due to not possessing the enzyme that processes alcohol, yet somehow managed to play a convincing alcoholic for the duration of the film.  This surely had more to do with Grant’s quality as an actor rather than director Bruce Robinson forcing him to drink a bottle of champagne on the last day of rehearsals.  Grant said it took him an entire night to force the bottle down, as he threw up after every drink prior to passing out for 24 hours.  Upon waking he described the experience as “deeply unpleasant.”

Full Metal Jacket (1987)


The world has become morally bankrupt, and has no qualms with brainwashing its inhabitants into merciless killers.  That is the war in Vietnam through Stanley Kubrick’s lens, and it is not easy to watch.  We start at bootcamp, following a small group of grunts as they are tormented by a believably terrifying drill sergeant (former real-life marine Ronald Lee Ermey).  Half way through the film we are dropped into Vietnam, where death is just a part of the day, and the reaction to it is minimal.  The point is that war is pointless, and Kubrick’s technical mastery delivers this message with manipulative excellence.  Full Metal Jacket is intense, horrific, and expertly crafted, and its haunting realism will draw you in and never let you forget it.

Die Hard (1988)


Arguably the best Christmas movie ever, Die Hard succeeds on so many levels where most contemporary action blockbusters fail.  Starring Bruce Willis as everyman NYPD detective John McClane, his wife’s office Christmas party is taken hostage by a group of German terrorists, and McClane is the only hope to save them.  A drum tight script that presents realistic challenges along the way, the character relationships develop and we genuinely care about what happens to them. With the perfect combination of tension and humour courtesy of a superb performance from Willis, forget the belated sequels and go back to see the original Die Hard.  And do it at Christmas time so you can get some of the warm and fuzzies.

Goodfellas (1990)


Tracking the rise and fall of real-life mobster Henry Hill, included in the budget for Goodfellas was a payment of $480,000 prior to production for the use of his name and story.  Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, director Martin Scorcese said he was attracted to the source material due to its honest portrayal of mob lifestyle.  Working with Pileggi on the screenplay, Scorcese convinced him that they didn’t need to follow a traditional narrative structure, instead cutting around time periods for maximum impact.

The casting has been praised, right down to its lesser parts, as the actors thoroughly researched their roles in the lead up to production.  Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, they are supported by impressively stylised direction from Scorcese, who employed everything in the cinematographer’s arsenal to produce a completely engaging look for the film.  Goodfellas is a brutal insight into the mob lifestyle, but an unmissable one.

FPM rating: 2.06

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)


See earlier (The Godfather, 1972) for Francis Ford Coppola’s unbending drive to maintain his artistic vision.  This film, shot with unprecedented access by his wife, is the story behind the making of Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous “troubled-shoots” in history.  Shot on location in the Phillipines, Coppola had to pour vast sums of his own money into the production while hurricanes ravaged the sets, military interfered with supplies, and the lead actor nearly died.  We get insight into the mind of one of the greatest filmmakers ever as he fights with his own demons and those over which he has no control. If you have your doubts about the importance and relevance of the auteur theory, this is the documentary that you need to see.

Harbl 100 Must-See Films Part 2

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


2001 polarised critics initially, with some struggling to get on board with the unconventional narrative and dialogue, and probably just for being extremely difficult to follow.  For years it was completely misunderstood, and I still don’t think I know exactly what’s going on.  But, similarly to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), sometimes it’s refreshing to not be handed everything on a silver platter.

It’s the purist’s science fiction masterpiece, dealing with evolution, artificial intelligence, and the great questions of humanity.  Kubrick, the consummate perfectionist, gives us some of his most beautiful images ever – to see the restored 70mm print would be the ideal way to experience this one-of-a-kind feature.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)


While director George A Romero is now well known as the godfather of modern zombie movies, his first entry into cinema Night of the Living Dead was not initially regarded with such reverence. Shot on a shoestring budget, substandard prints often circulated the horror film matinee circuit, causing it to often be mistaken as schlock played for laughs.  In reality, and retrospectively regarded as so, it was a fiercely original vision from Romero, and hugely influential.

It’s strangely light in tone at the beginning, and might even seem cheap, but the power of the film is that at some stage during the second act it turns.  The characters are holed up in a farmhouse and surrounded by “ghouls,” and all we can do is hold on for grim death while we witness their ill-fated attempts to survive the night.

Similarly to other genre-films like the western and science fiction, the horror film’s framework allows greater themes to be examined through symbolism and subtext.  While the casting of African American actor Duane Jones (the first time a black actor had been the star of a horror film) was not a deliberate artistic choice, it nevertheless gives a chilling gravitas to the film’s final moments.

With zombie filmmaking reaching another resurgent peak, now’s the perfect time to go back and see the contemporary formula at its inception.

Wake in Fright (1971)


Debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film’s director Ted Kotcheff was distracted during the screening by a seemingly cocky youngster who was very vocal in his support.  Kotcheff was later informed that the “boy” was a then little known Martin Scorcese.  Fittingly, Scorcese’s first order of business when he became curator for Cannes Classics many years later was to help push along the restoration of Wake in Fright.  It is courtesy of this 2009 print that the film is, thankfully, now widely available.

John Grant is a school teacher who has accepted an outback post, but is en route to the city to visit his girlfriend when he becomes stranded in a mining town known as “The Yabba.”  The conditions he endures to live through a hellish ordeal take an immense psychological toll, forcing him to question his desire to live.  The brutal realism of the many crafted set pieces must be seen to be believed. While the infamous kangaroo hunt scene would never be allowed to take place today, Wake in Fright comes across more a period piece than a dated film, having lost none of its original impact.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange’s iconic “droogs,” fronted by Malcom McDowell’s sociopathic Alex, terrorise the locals and fight viciously amongst themselves in a dystopian near-future London.  An investigation into totalitarianism, the film follows Alex as he rapes and murders, is imprisoned and then psychologically “rehabilitated” (read: tortured/reprogrammed).  While often referred to as “banned” in the UK, it was actually withdrawn at director Stanley Kubrick’s request after two murders involving teenagers were linked to the film.  This made it difficult to see A Clockwork Orange for many years, but has been widely available since Kubrick’s passing in 1999.

The Godfather (1972)


Powerful and compelling, The Godfather might be the great American film. Francis Ford Coppola’s reinvention of the mafia movie, using it as a metaphor for American capitalism, was both a blockbuster and a critical darling.

Deeply in debt with Warner Bros courtesy of flop production THX 1138 (Dir. George Lucas, 1971), Coppola was not Paramount’s first choice as director, and neither were many of his subsequent casting decisions.  It seems ludicrous looking back at a cast like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall and being anything but ecstatic at the prospect of this peerless collaboration.

An artist unparalleled, Coppola constantly fought with Paramount to attain creative control, nearly getting the sack on multiple occasions during production.  Given Coppola was only 27 years old at the time, studio boss Robert Evans probably thought he could push the young director around.   Seeing the dailies come in, Coppola was pressured to remove cinematographer Gordon Willis because the lighting was “too dim.”  On this, and many other points of contention, Coppola flat out refused, and maintained his artistic vision.  Had Evans gotten his way this masterpiece would never have eventuated.  If you have not seen The Godfather in full, it should be moved directly to the top of your list.

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist_1973

Directed by William Friedken at writer/producer William Peter Blatty’s behest, he was far from the studio’s first preference. They certainly wouldn’t have expected Friedken to chastise, slap, and borderline torture his cast…anything to get the right performance.  There was obviously an unsettling energy on set, but through the horrendous conditions a truly amazing film came out, and audiences cued around the block to see it.  The special effects were first-rate, used to frightening realism despite the occult setting, and caused some audience members to faint and even flee the cinema.  Films that use quality practical effects tend to age well, and The Exorcist still comes across as a well-crafted movie that has an excellent balance between shock and suspense.  Even by the so-called “torture porn” standards of the Saw and Hostel films, The Exorcist can still hold its own for shock value, but is a far more rewarding experience.

Star Wars (1977)


Fresh from a successful release of American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas was given carte blanche to produce pretty much whatever he wanted, borrowing heavily from Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to create a film that was no guaranteed hit.  Unaware of the film’s immense potential, the studio signed away merchandising rights to a deviously cunting…err…cunning Lucas.

The opening shot is one of the great images in cinema.  The camera tilts down after the famous title crawl to reveal a huge spacecraft easily overpowering a dwarfed vessel that has seen better days.  This simple visual cue establishes everything we need to know about this fictitious galaxy’s balance of power, and sets up the greatest Good versus Evil sci-fi western ever.

A flawlessly plotted film, it builds perfectly from slow character development early in the picture, gradually increasing in pace before hurtling towards the final battle.  Practical effects and excellent casting have allowed this film to age well, with the original cut of Star Wars holding up far better than Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) whose tacky CGI creatures looked dated even at the time of its release.

Lucas will likely never allow a release of the original cinematic cut, so if you really want to experience this outstanding piece of history, you need to track down Harmy’s Despecialized Edition.  Google it, torrent it, thank me later.

The Shining (1980)


Even when Stanely Kubrick doesn’t quite hit the mark, his films still beg to be seen, and The Shining definitely has that “imperfect masterpiece” quality.  Starring Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence, an author who takes his wife and son to a vacant hotel to look after it over the winter offseason, the combination of writer’s block and paranormal activity gradually send Jack over the edge.  A psychological horror, it is often mentioned when talking about the scariest films of all time.  Probably more creepy than scary, it nevertheless puts the audience right into the hotel with the characters for the film’s duration, making for intense viewing.

The way Kubrick sets the mood and tells a story is so fluidly visual, and his use of the Steadicam (a 1976 invention combining a handheld camera’s versatility with the stability of a standard tracking shot) represents this ideal perfectly.  Now commonplace in a cinematographer’s arsenal, Kubrick wasn’t the first to use Steadicam in a film but he pushed the technology to new heights.  The most famous use is the tracking shots that follow Jack’s son Danny as he rides around the hotel corridors on his three-wheeler.  Kubrick’s incessant drive for perfection was at the forefront yet again, forcing his cast and crew to regularly do forty takes of a scene before he’d move on.  Nicholson would do his takes quite differently each time, leaving Kubrick to craft a realistically manic performance during editing.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Tied with The Godfather II as the best live-action sequel ever, The Empire Strikes Back takes what was a swashbuckling intergalactic adventure film into deeper thematic territory.  Like any decent three act structure, the second film has its protagonists fighting against impossible odds while at their lowest point.  Much of the credit must go to the writing of Lawrence Kasdan and brooding direction of Irvin Kershner for taking Lucas’s crafted galaxy and stripping it back to its fundamental basis – why we care about these characters.  While a decent chunk of Return of the Jedi (1983) foreshadows the mindboggling stupidity of the “Special Edition” re-releases and the prequels, Empire transcends the greater Star Wars universe and its huge nerd following to be, simply, an unmissable piece of cinematic history.

Body Heat (1981)


Having enjoyed successful screenwriting campaigns on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence Kasdan revived film noir with his provocative directorial debut.  Kathleen Turner apparently used to be a slammin’ hottie back in her day, and she is never more sexy than as the femme fatale to William Hurt’s womanising but otherwise well-meaning chump. The classic film noir conventions are adhered to but, courtesy of a more forgiving ratings system, they are pushed much further than in their previous incarnations.  Gone is the implied sexuality familiar from classic noir, Body Heat’s steamy love scenes borderline on softcore pornography.  It also features Mickey Rourke in his first significant film role.

Harbl 100 Must-See Films Part 1



Basically I made a comment to a friend the other day that inspired me to create a Harbl 100 list for film: I said that I would rate Shaun of the Dead in my top one hundred films ever.  That got me to thinking what my actual top one hundred films would be.  Would Shaun of the Dead really make the cut, or was that just a throwaway comment to inspire him to re-watch a film that I love, but that didn’t really do much for him?

So I went through and did a huge list followed by a heap of culling and, for various reasons, I’ve narrowed it down to the following hundred.  The films were picked to appeal to the contemporary viewer who likes good movies, but sees them as entertainment rather than something that needs to be painfully dissected to gain any benefit.  I’ve seen too many of these lists that are clogged up with academic bullshit to pander to other critics and film geeks…this list is hopefully not one of them.

Why should you listen to what I have to say?  I probably have the bare minimum requirements to be considered a vague academic in the field, having completed six units of Cinema Studies at La Trobe University, but I have a fairly wide range of cinematic taste, and I invest in every film I watch.  I always give a film that others have enjoyed a good shot at drawing me in before making my own judgement.  I’m confident in saying that all of these films I have included are good films, and they have enjoyed relatively universal acclaim, it’s just a question of whether they resonate with you as much as they did with me.

The foundation behind my recommendations are both “is it entertaining for a variety of people” and “was it made with a solid artistic backbone.”  For this reason, a film like The Cable Guy (1996) would not make the cut because, while I consider it to be comedy genius, it has quite a selective appeal.  Comedy was probably the most difficult genre to include because of this very reason: you can’t really explain why something is funny, it’s just simply whether you find it funny.

I’m going to list these films chronologically rather than 100 to 1 because there’s no real reason to pit these movies against each other.   It interestingly ended up heavily weighted to recently released films, with more than half of them released after 2000.  Given this list is for the contemporary audience, it will likely be quite different in ten year’s time, but I do believe that the last decade or so has been a great time for cinema so why not get around it!

I apologise to anyone who is offended that I’ve included only two foreign language films.  If it was a list of one thousand there would be plenty, but I’ve only got one hundred and the films I’ve included are the most important to me and, hopefully, will be similarly important to you.  I also apologise for overusing the words “influential” and “innovative” in these early films – it is understandably difficult to work around.

If you aren’t interested in reading my summaries I’ll post the entire list of the Harbl 100 Must-See Films sans my little notes once I’m done.


Scarface: the shame of a nation (1932)


You’ll see lots of lists on “must see” films going way back to the very early days of cinema, citing The Great Train Robbery (1903) or A Trip To The Moon (1902).  Yes, these are important milestones and are interesting to film school slackers and wankers like myself…but I’m as interested in insisting you go back and check out the silent era as I am urging you to delve into your family ancestry – who gives a shit?  Compared to today’s standards, the films are clumsily shot, acted, edited…basically if these films came out now they’d struggle to find an audience at all.

I consider Scarface: the shame of a nation to be the earliest essential piece of cinema for anyone interested in present day films because it’s actually good.  That’s it.  A prohibition era crime drama loosely framed around the world’s most famous gangster, Al Capone was said to have owned a copy himself.   It was made just as Hollywood was beginning to grasp advanced filmmaking techniques, in that very small window of artistic freedom before the Production Code came into place in 1934 and put the squeeze on what you could actually show.  It’s what makes this film in particular stand the test of time, while many films subsequent to 1934 feel awkwardly gagged.

Citizen Kane (1941)


Hot off a successful run of stage shows and radio broadcasts, Orson Welles was only 25 years old when he made his first foray into film, and he created one of the greatest films ever made.  The reason it needs to be seen can be summed up in a word: innovation.  The fractured narrative and unique shot composition failed to hit the mark with audiences on its release, but has subsequently been recognised as an early indication of the United States’ entry into the auteur theory, which places the director atop the artistic intent of a film.  As the co-writer, director, producer and star of Citizen Kane, Welles continues to inspire filmmakers to this day – an auteur of the first order.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)


Retrospectively classed as the earliest major feature in the film noir genre, The Maltese Falcon features Humphrey Bogart at his best – trench coat, trilby hat, plain white cigarette dangling from the lips – an American cultural icon.  It has all the great conventions that defined film noir, with the conflicted hero, the femme fatale, and the innovative use of shadow in composition.  These conventions have been parodied to death, but when you go right back to the classics they can still cut through and draw in an audience.

Double Indemnity (1944)


This and The Killing are two more quality entries from the film noir canon – both fantastic movies in their own right, but I rate Double Indemnity as one of the finest ever.  It’s difficult to put a finger on why, but the murder/insurance scam plot plays out with such suspense that you occasionally may find yourself literally holding your breath through some of the more claustrophobic scenes.  It’s also quite possibly because this film embodies the shift away from classical Hollywood’s generic patterns to the more realistic acting and writing conventions that we take for granted in contemporary cinema.

The Killing (1956)


I could confidently include a whole swathe of must-see films similar in tone (Out of the Past, In A Lonely Place, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killers), and if you are well versed in films noir you likely will have differing but equally valid favourites.  The Killing just happens to be one of the more entertaining entries in the genre – if you get the time it’s worth checking out.

Coming well after the peak of film noir, The Killing is nevertheless regarded as one of the genre’s best.  Only Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film, he was already experimenting with the kind of non-linear narrative that would later influence filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan.  Starring Sterling Hayden as a career criminal fresh out of jail, it is the story of a meticulously planned racetrack heist that doesn’t quite come off.  It is with this film that Kubrick announced himself as a major contributor to cinema, impressing future collaborating studio MGM despite the minimal financial success of The Killing.

The Searchers (1956)


Made for the big screen, The Searchers was shot in Technicolor Widescreen, featuring the greatest collaboration in the history of the western, with John Wayne being directed by Tom Ford.  The western is probably an underappreciated genre courtesy of a rash of poor imitations and parodies but, as with film noir if you can get yourself to look past the cliché and embrace the classic, this film is well worth a look.  Visually stunning and thematically rich, The Searchers is as powerfully arresting as they come, and the last shot will stay with you forever.

Seven Samurai (1957)


The undisputed (well…pretty much) masterpiece of Japanese cinema, Akiria Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was the country’s then largest investment in a single film with a budget of half a million dollars.  A fairly simple story that tracks seven samurai protect a village of farmers from bandits, it innovatively established a lot of the conventions of adventure and action films.  Hugely influential for decades after its initial release, it was very well received locally and made waves internationally, inspiring an alright but far less impressive remake by Hollywood in The Magnificent Seven (1960)..  At 207 minutes long, it’s a slog, but you really need to see at least one Kurosawa film, and I think this is the one.

Vertigo (1960)


A critical and commercial failure on release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has since been reclassified as one of his best films.  His technical mastery is shown to full effect here, never more potent than the famous “vertigo effect” (the technique of physically moving the camera toward or away from the subject while zooming in the reverse direction – the dolly zoom) to represent inspirational actor James Stewart’s titular affliction. A psychological thriller, Vertigo is weird, off kilter, and dreamlike – without doubt my favourite from the great director.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)


The common theme thus far of including inspirational auteurs continues with Stanley Kubrick’s second entry into the Harbl 100 Must-See Films.  Such was Kubrick’s attention to detail that on Ronald Regan’s initial White House tour when he took office in 1981, he asked to be taken the then non-existent “war-room” featured in Dr. Strangelove.

Regularly showing up on greatest comedy film lists, what makes this film worthy are its darker qualities.  An air force general has gone rogue, authorising an uprovoked nuclear drop on Russia, and there is precious little time to avert all out nuclear war.   While this seems like an unlikely foundation for comedy, the realism of the situation combined with the controlled ludicrousness of Peter Seller’s multiple roles works like a genius.  As with many of Kubrick’s films, there are shots that have entered the collective consciousness so deeply that you’ll feel you’ve already seen it even if you haven’t caught a frame.  It’s pacy, and while requiring a lot less dedication to get through than other Kubrick films like Barry Lyndon (1975) for example, it still resonates long after its thrilling conclusion.

The Graduate (1967)


One of the reasons chosen to include certain films over others in this list came down to a key performance or set piece.  In this case, it was a bold casting choice by director Mike Nichols to put then-untested Dustin Hoffman in the lead role of Benjamin Braddock, drastically changing the dynamic of the entire film.  Benjamin arrives home from college with no real plans for the rest of his life, is seduced by an older woman, and then falls in love with her daughter.  While not seeming the most involved of plots, the unconventionally handsome Hoffman made his character accessible and realistic, often prompted by Nichols to “not act.”  Whatever they did worked, because it went on to become one of the most commercially successful films of all time relative to its budget.  Along with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate heralded the “New Hollywood” movement of independent films working outside the Hollywood studio system to varied but often great artistic and financial success.