My Must-See Movies Project

A Year with 50 Must-See Films

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Bottle Rocket: zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

It was cold and rainy on Saturday, so I snuggled up in my favorite chair and watched Bottle Rocket on my iPad through the magic of Netflix streaming. Well, I should say I watched the first half of Bottle Rocket, fell asleep, woke up, rewound to the point where I feel asleep, got totally bored and then turned it off. I finished watching the movie late Saturday night.

I don’t know that there’s much to say. I didn’t enjoy the film. I didn’t find the characters interesting or compelling. The dialogue was okay; it certainly had the mark of Wes Anderson, but just wasn’t enough to hold my interest. Blah.

I’ve now watched five of my Top 50 Must-See Movies. Two likes (The Apartment, The Big Lebowski) and three dislikes (Mean Girls, Trainspotting, Bottle Rocket). I hope it gets better from here.

Filed under Owen Wilson Luke Wilson Wes Anderson Bottle Rocket

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The Apartment: When Men Were Men And Women Were Beautiful

A few years ago, on a long, trans-Pacific flight, I watched four or five episodes of Mad Men-Season One. I watched because the entertainment was free and the flight was fifteen hours and it was before I knew about Ambien. I didn’t much like Mad Men, or at least the episodes I watched, and never watched it again when I returned home.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure what rubbed me the wrong way about Mad Men. Maybe it’s that I never had much nostalgia for the 1950’s. I’m a child of the late 60’s and 70’s, of changing times, changing roles, and changing expectations. I don’t romanticize my youthful years and I appreciate the upheaval all that change caused — in the workplace, in communities, in families. But I sure am glad all that change took place, as I likely would have ended up a very unhappy woman had I needed to conform to the mores of earlier times.

All of these thoughts rushed to the fore after I watched The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray. A young, goofy, almost impish Lemmon; a beautiful, girlish MacLaine; and an uncomfortably suave MacMurray. The film debuted in 1960 and very much reflects the time.

Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a white-collar cog in a large insurance corporation who devises an unusual scheme to work his way up the ladder. He loans out his apartment to senior executives in his company to use with their mistresses. There are hi-jinx, of course, when different execs want the apartment on the same night, or when they stay too late, leaving Baxter to roam the streets in the rain. The scheme works. The executives recommend a promotion and the boss, Sheldrake (played by MacMurray), agrees. He then demands exclusive use of the apartment for him and his mistress, Fran Kubilek, the cute elevator girl played by MacLaine. Baxter, of course, takes a liking to her and the two men unwittingly vie for her affection. The story plays out from there.

The Apartment may not have been intended as social commentary, but it fits that role perfectly when viewed in through the lens of 2012. Men had the big, important jobs. They drank and smoked and chased the office girls whenever they could. They were married with families in the suburbs, and spent nights in the city with their mistress — or mistresses. The office girls — they were called and very much considered girls — were dressed to the nines for their pink-collar jobs and competed for attention and affection. 

Lemon’s C.C. Baxter isn’t a particularly likable fellow for most of the film. He wants to move up the corporate ladder, but for what? To say he moved up? To impress a date with stories of his corner office? Even he doesn’t know. He’s a loner; a bachelor untethered to friends in the office, in his apartment building, and in his personal life. And yet, he’s the only character — aside from his doctor neighbor — who’s able to make a real connection with others; who’s able to sympathize and empathize; who tries to avoid the destructive consequences of his actions. 

I enjoyed the film. I expected to love it, but my feelings fell short of expectations. Which seems like a fitting way to feel about The Apartment

Filed under Jack Lemmon Shirley MacLaine Fred MacMurray The Apartment Billy Wilder

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Big Thumbs Up For The Big Lebowski

For years, I’d stayed away from The Big Lebowski. It was a guys movie. A bro film. The main character was named The Dude for god’s sake. 

But when I canvased my friends for this project, The Big Lebowski showed up on a lot of lists. So I looked deeper. And what I found surprised and pleased me: a cast that included some of my favorite actors, especially Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Late on Saturday night, with my daughter asleep in her bed after our Girls Night Out, I snuggled in my favorite chair and watched The Big Lebowski

I loved it.

The plot is a bit confusing, and, frankly, not all that interesting. Jeff Bridges did a fine job in the starring role of small-time drifter Jeffrey Lebowski who is confused with big-time rich guy Jeffrey Lebowski. There are debts and kidnappings and ransoms and porn stars and German nihilists and a sexual predator-cum-bowling champion who calls himself Jesus, played to perfection by John Turturro. 

Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman did not disappoint. Both were outstanding in their small roles, vibrating with restless energy on the verge of explosions that never come. Because explosions would have been superfluous. Destructive, even.

Moore and Hoffman were perfect counterpoints to John Goodman, who vibrated with powerful, dangerous energy as Walter Sobchak — Vietnam Vet, converted observant Jew, and the Dude’s good friend and bowling partner. Goodman was glorious; his booming voice and large body played to perfect effect. Unlike Moore and Hoffman, who I like in almost everything they do, Goodman is hit or miss with me. He was a big hit in Lebowski, just as he was in Argo, which I saw in the theater a few weeks ago. He made Lebowski a tremendously enjoyable film. 

Long live White Russians.

Filed under The Big Lebowski Jeff Bridges John Goodman Julianne Moore Philip Seymour Hoffman John Turturro

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Tough To Swallow: Trainspotting

Trainspotting couldn’t be further from Mean Girls for my second movie on the Top 50. Or could it? Both films explore youth, friendship, betrayal, obsession, choices, and consequences. Mean Girls treated these topics superficially. Trainspotting digs deep. Too deep, sometimes, for my liking. That’s not meant as a criticism of the film; it ‘s more about my squeamishness. It almost got the best of me. Only Ewan McGregor’s performance kept me watching.

McGregor plays Renton, a mid-20’s Scot with a heroin addiction who intermittently tries to get clean, only to be sucked back into his habit. His friends Spud and Sick Boy are also a heroin addicts. Pals Tommy and Begbie are clean, at least to start. They spend a lot of time in a heroin den, where a baby plays among the dirty needles. They steal to support their habit. They have sex with women they don’t love or respect. And they pretend to look out for each other.

I watched Trainspotting last night and then tweeted that I was looking for a light comedy to watch before bed, as a mind cleanser. Many responded that not even a light comedy could help me avoid nightmares from the “baby on the ceiling” scene. I didn’t fear nightmares from that scene. It was my favorite part of the movie.

In the scene, McGregor’s Renton is locked in his childhood bedroom by his parents after they’re called to pick him up from the hospital emergency room. He arrived at the ER in a taxi; he was placed in the taxi by his heroin dealer after a particularly potent injection sent him into a semi-conscious state. The heroin wears off and he craves more. There is none. No quick hit. No ecstasy. Just fears and sweat and withdrawal and hallucinations. It’s riveting. McGregor is superb.

The film ambles along with various plot twists after Renton gets clean, but none of it mattered to me. From that point forward, the film felt like an ordinary buddy movie in which the friends try to out smart each other, one of them dies, and the others move on with their lives. Alone. 

I didn’t enjoy the experience of watching Trainspotting but I appreciate director Danny Boyle’s work. He made a powerful, realistic film about desperate young men in 1980’s Scotland. 

Filed under Trainspotting Ewan McGregor

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First Up: Mean Girls

Mean Girls isn’t the first Lindsey Lohan movie I’ve seen in the last month, but it will be my last. 

My 8-year-old daughter rented the updated version of Parent Trap and I somehow was roped into watching it with her. Lohan played 10-year-old twin sisters who never knew the other existed until they find themselves at the same ritzy summer camp. One lived with the dad in California’s wine country. The other lived with the mom in London. They switch identities and leave camp with the parent they never knew, all with a plan to get the parents back together. There were fits and starts and oh-so-funny mishaps but of course, it all worked out in the end. 

Despite its predictability, Parent Trap works in a way Means Girls doesn’t. Parent Trap takes a largely unbelievable story and makes it believable, for a short time. The characters have depth, their interaction makes sense, and even if the story line is trite, the movie is still enjoyable for what it purports to be.

Not so for Mean Girls.

Mean Girls casts Lohan as a newcomer at a suburban Chicago high school. She’d just moved to the U.S. after growing up in Africa while her zoologist parents did research and home-schooled her. She’s smart and nice and pretty and naive, not about the ways of the world, but about the customs and mores of high school. She befriends two “outcasts” who then put her to the task of infiltrating “the plastics” — the prettiest, most popular, and most feared girls in the school. She dumbs herself down to catch boys, starts to wear revealing clothes, and transforms into a gossipy bitch, just like the girls she had vowed to take down. 

Even with Tina Fey as the smart but downtrodden math teacher, and Amy Poehler as the mother of the queen bee of the plastics, the movie falls under the weight of its caricatures. The characters and plot lines are predictable. But the movie fails because it stops short of showing the real pain, the real emotion, the real meanness that many girls experience in high school. Sure, there’s the conflict scene where all the junior girls must confront their feelings and transgressions, but it’s filled with the kind of psycho-babble you’d find on Dr. Phil. And after ten minutes or so, everyone’s worked through years of social conflict and are now friends. 

Why start the project with Mean Girls? Why not something more substantial, like a Coen Brothers’ film? Convenience. Mean Girls is streaming on Netflix right now. It was raining, hard, I’d had two glasses of wine, and wanted to get started.

So the night, and the movie, were a big disappointment. Not a great way to start off the project. I suppose it will only get better from here.

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What is this all about, anyway?

I love movies. I love watching movies in the theater. I prefer old-time theaters but don’t shun the multiplexes just to make a point. I love the tiny ticket stubs, half ripped by the gentleman ticket taker. Yes, even now, even in San Francisco, it’s usually a gentleman ticket taker. I love buying the biggest bag of popcorn, knowing I could never finish it, and then finishing it half-way through the movie. I love slinking down in my seat, with an extra jacket on me like a blanket. I love the previews and the movie score and staying until the very, very end to see all the credits.

And yet, I don’t see movies in the theater all that often. Mostly because I have two kids, and my free nights are for seeing friends or (gasp!), trying to have an adult conversation with my husband that doesn’t involve after-school logistics or where the kids will go to camp next summer. 

Like so many other things, life got in the way of something I love. 

The kids are older now, and I’m working freelance, writing about baseball. And while that gives me more time to go to the theater to watch movies, I am, instead, starting a project to catch-up on what I’ve missed.

And so, I have compiled a list of 50 “must-see” films that I’ve never seen or, in the case of Casablanca and Citizen Kane, saw only once, and too long ago, to have any meaningful memory of it or relationship to it. I’m going to spend the next year watching these 50 “must-see” films and chronicling my journey here. Some posts will probably look like movie reviews. I’m guessing others won’t resemble reviews as much as diary entries, spurred on by a character or dialogue or theme from one of the films on the list. Whatever form they take, the posts will reflect this journey in some way. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

The list. 

I compiled the list by asking my friends and colleagues on Twitter and Facebook to recommend their top three “must-see” films. That led to a list of 100 or so movies that I then pared down to 50. Removing the movies I’d seen was the first step, and the easiest one. From there, I read many, many, many movies reviews, and enlisted the help of friend who fashions himself as a movie buff. He came up with his own Top 50. I compared that to my draft list and them made the final choices. 

The result, in alphabetical order:

Amores Perros (2000)

Blood Simple (1984)

Bottle Rocket (1996)

Burden of Dreams (1982)


Children of Men (2006)


Cidade de Deus (City of God) (Brazil 2002)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Diabolique (1954)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes (Rififi) (1955)

Fight Club (1999)

His Girl Friday (1994)

In The Heat of the Night (1967)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

La Notte (1961)

Local Hero (1983)

Love and Death (1975)

Mala Educacion (2004)

Matewan (1987)

Mean Girls (2004)

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Night of the Hunter (1955)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Of Gods and Men (2011)

Okuribito (Departures) (Japan 2008)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Ran (Japan1985)

Reservoir Dogs (1992) 

Rope (1948) 

Stardust (2007)

Tampopo (Japan1986)


The Big Lebowski (1988)

The Conversation (1974)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1966)

The Inner Circle (The Projectionist) (1991) 

The Last Picture Show (1971)

The Lives of Others (2006)

The Phantom of theParadise(1974)

The Producers (1968)

The Third Man (1949)

The Wages of Fear (1953)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Three Seasons (1999)

Trainspotting (1996)

True Romance (1993)

Wings of Desire (1987)

I have decided what order I’ll watch the movies in. Most likely, it will reflect what’s streaming on Netflix coupled with my mood that day. Some weeks I may watch three movies or more. Others maybe none at all. We’ll see how it goes.

This project has been on my mega to-do list for some time, and I’m delighted beyond measure it’s finally happening. 

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch some movies.