Classic films can be a bit daunting when you don’t know where to start. French New Wave? Italian Neorealism? German Expressionism? What do they all mean? Sometimes you don’t need to jump in the deep end with the 6-hour epics — there are classic films that are just as accessible as those made today, with the added bonus of operating as an easy gateway into the world of classic film. All it takes is that one movie — so we asked our regular writers: What film got you into classics?
‘Fanny och Alexander’, dir. Ingmar Bergman
My mom is not as enthusiastic about cinema as she used to be, but she, perhaps, triggered a crucial moment in the development of my passion for film. ARTE showed the entirety of the TV-cut of Ingmar Bergman’s last great film over the span of a single afternoon. This cut of ‘Fanny och Alexander’ lasts 312 minutes, which is a lot for someone my age back then, especially considering I had a slight aversion to older films. At first, as my mom proposed to me to watch it in its entirety, I shook my head.
But after I watched the first half hour, I pushed aside all other possible plans for that day and was fully invested into this sprawling masterpiece, that somehow manages to capture childhood and family from a perspective of universality and magnificent detail all at once.
To this day, the film is probably my favorite of Bergman’s works, solely because there is something so gargantuan about it. It feels like we experience an entire period of Alexander Ekdahl’s life, right down to the most inconspicuous, yet most crucial details. It’s a film full of life and full of realization, sad and beautiful, cold and warm. It showed me that cinema is never getting old, as long as it manages to hit the right notes.
– Kareem Baholzer
’12 Angry Men’, dir. Sidney Lumet
I remember when I first “got into film;” a semi-conscious decision that involved a good six months of exploring the IMDB Top 250 as though they were the only films out there worth watching. Sidney Lumet’s ‘12 Angry Men’ was an intimidating challenge for a fourteen-year-old with the pubescent attention span of a newt. Perhaps understandably, I put off the film for a while, choosing instead to introduce myself to Tarantino’s, Scorsese’s, and Nolan’s loud, explosive cinematics with recognisable actors and familiar pop culture references.
When I did finally sit down to watch Lumet’s classic, I realised almost immediately, how ridiculous I had been in my presuppositions. Perfectly paced, thrilling, emotional and a million overused adjectives more, ‘12 Angry Men’ remains to be the greatest dialogue-driven masterpiece that I have ever seen. Never before had I been so engrossed in a film. A film that takes place in one room, with 12 unnamed characters, and a complete absence of physical action. ‘12 Angry Men’ convinced me of what cinema could really achieve when in the hands of true talent, and when the richness of dialogue is placed at the centre of a filmmaker’s vision.
– Megan Christopher
‘The Sound of Music’, dir. Robert Wise
Each time spring rolls around, I think back to being in Miss Margie’s drama class as a young girl and being introduced to the classic musical. Seeing Julie Andrews command such presence on the screen, and hearing her sing with such grace, took all of my attention. Despite the horror of the time period the film is set, Andrew’s Maria made me wish I was one of the Von Trapp children singing and dancing with the utmost joy. ‘The Sound of Music’ introduced me to the magic of movie musicals and it continues to make me grin from ear to ear. Do you really love this movie if you don’t get “Do-Re-Mi” stuck in your head after you watch it? I think not.
– Sydney Bembry
‘The Graduate’, dir. Mike Nichols
An obvious choice for me would be to choose a Kubrick sci-fi film, so I’m going to opt for something different here. To be quite honest, I have had a lot of respect for classic films throughout my life, but I have always been more of a fan of what the modern cinema scene is doing with the art form. When I took my first film history course in community college I thought I’d be watching films that I’d appreciate more than I’d enjoy. This was true to an extent with a lot of my assigned viewings (Don’t kill me! I don’t regret seeing them!), but the film that eventually got me to see the sophistication, complexity, and perspective classic films can offer in the context of their time period was definitely ‘The Graduate’.
Mike Nichols’s sophomore film is a raunchy, coming of age romantic comedy that is subversive in its overt sexuality and exploration of adulthood. It’s a character piece featuring messy people in messy situations that feels culturally and historically relevant to the late 60s, but the emotions it captures remain in all of us now. I think the ending to the film is one of the most well executed, complicated endings I’ve ever seen. It wraps up the ideas of identity, isolation, and adolescent love neatly, and gives you a new context to view the film in reflection. When you’re young, you, naturally, take a lot of stupid risks as you try to forge the path you wish your life to be on. This is perfectly illustrated by the long take of Ben and Elaine riding off on the bus together. It was the right message for me at the right time.
‘A Woman is a Woman’, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
I’m nearly positive that my first exposure to ‘A Woman is a Woman’ (Une Femme Est Une Femme) came from scrolling through Tumblr and happening upon a screenshot of Anna Karina as Angéla. She was saying something smart about love and wearing that iconic red button-up and blue eyeshadow. Being the pretentious, beauty-obsessed 14-year-old I was, nothing was more striking than a pretty French lady feeling sad. Shallow? Sure, but so is the movie.
‘A Woman is a Woman’ is far from Godard’s best. Stand it next to ‘Breathless’, which was made just one year prior, and it completely falls apart. But despite the pretentious writing and questionable sexual politics, I absolutely adored it. It was my first introduction to the radical French New Wave, and my first taste of how lively, playful, and personal film could be. And if we’re still being shallow, watching two handsome men fight over a beautiful, disinterested woman was my idea of fun.
– Cassidy Olsen
‘Breathless’, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
How I found ‘Breathless’ was a weird and wonderful coincidence. I had just seen ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’, and if you’ve seen that movie you know that two of the main characters make parody shorts of classic films, so I was determined to understand all of the references. I wrote a list, went to my local HMV, and bought the first DVD I saw that was mentioned. This so happened to be ‘Breathless’. I had no idea who directed this movie or what it was about. The only knowledge I had prior was the parody film ‘Breathe Less’ which involved Thomas Mann stumbling in an alleyway and puffing an inhaler.
Jean-Luc Godard is a terrible person (just ask Agnès Varda), but he has made some brilliant films, and ‘Breathless’ stands apart as one of his best. At its core, ‘Breathless’ is a crime film about a man running away from capture after he shoots a policeman, but it’s also about running away from responsibility and facing the real world. The film is somehow erratic and meditative at the same time, with its jumpy editing and extremely long takes. Evading the expectations of the genre, a large portion of the film sees two lovers talking aimlessly in a bedroom. As someone who, at the time, had rarely seen a film made before 1980, ‘Breathless’ was a small revolution — it opened a door to a new dimension of cinema just waiting to be explored.
– Iana Murray
‘Bicycle Thieves’, dir. Vittorio De Sica
After countless screenings of Classical Hollywood films, the shift into the era of Italian Neorealism was definitely drastic for me. I was still grasping my way to understanding film (barely…) and didn’t expect any film to be as earnest as ‘Bicycle Thieves’. When I say earnest, I don’t mean realistic in the way it used non-professional actors or even shooting on-location, though those factors contributed to how the film brims with visceral empathy. The film excels in portraying the struggles of the working class as it is: there is no melodramatic exploitation for the audience’s sentimentality. This is rare, even up till this day. Often films get caught up in what they think the audience wants, they forget that the struggles they’re presenting are real conflicts people like you and me go through. And our struggles aren’t for a curated audience.
‘Bicycle Thieves’ does the latter by presenting working struggles as it is: the individual against a society too caught up in their own issues to care, and the father who forgets to hold his son’s hand because the family needs money to survive. It was this film that convinced me about the potential cinema has in eschewing the grandeur to portray the gritty, not so pretty parts of our lives.
– Sharmane Tan
‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, dir. Howard Hawks
What started my love for classic film wasn’t a specific work, but a particular star. When ‘My Week with Marilyn’ came out in 2011, I was obsessed and intrigued by the famous actress that Michelle Williams was portraying–Marilyn Monroe. I got the film on DVD, bought a Marilyn Monroe poster for my room, and subsequently scoured my local HMV for a box set of her films (which I proceeded to binge-watch). The first film I grabbed from the set was Howard Hawks’ 1953 comedy-musical ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. The film follows Lorelei (Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell), two gold diggers who learn that there’s more to love than a diamond ring. By exploring Monroe’s films, I learned that not only was she a wonderful comedienne, singer, and an underrated dramatic actress, but I discovered and fell in love with the era’s style of filmmaking and its stars. Monroe’s work introduced me to a whole world whose famous characters I had heard of (Norma Desmond, Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly), but I could never place. I soon would transition from Monroe to discovering new stars like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, to more underrated talents like Greer Garson and Irene Dunne. I discovered the masterworks of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, the darkness of film noir, and the light of slapstick comedy. Marilyn Monroe’s popularity opened me up to an era of film that would become my most revered.
– Sara Clements