[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Movies On Demand. Catch up on this year’s Awards Season contenders and past winners On Demand. Today’s list is a selection of the best must see classics on MOD.]
There are few performances in film history as definitive as Jack Nicholson’s searing turn as Randle Patrick McMurphy in Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, the film centers on Nicholson’s free-spirited, small-time convict who fakes being crazy so he can get transferred from the state penitentiary to what he thinks will be a more comfortable state mental hospital. Unfortunately for McMurphy and his fellow patients, the mental hospital is run by Nurse Ratched, a tyrannical authority figure played with hellish fury by Louise Fletcher. In the hands of both performers, “Cuckoo’s Nest” makes for powerhouse drama.
“Midnight Cowboy” (1969)
Seven years before “Taxi Driver” invited audiences into the seedy underbelly of New York City, the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” took to the streets in a similarly provocative, character-driven fashion. Starring Dustin Hoffman as a dying con man and Jon Voight as the titular Texas hustler, “Cowboy” follows the strange union formed between the two as they try to survive on the tough streets of New York. The lead performances alone warrant a recommendation, but it’s really John Schlesinger’s direction that elevates the material as it takes the audience through the grime and haze of prostitution and drug-fueled Warhol parties.
Starring the great Charlton Heston in one of his most iconic leading roles, “Ben-Hur” is the epic story of a rebellious Israelite Jew who takes on the Roman Empire during the time of Christ. Simply put, Hollywood just doesn’t make movies anymore as grand, sweeping and operatic as this historical drama. From the immaculate set design to the period-specific costuming, “Ben-Hur” transports you to a bygone era of epic moviemaking. Come for Heston and stay for director William Wyler and his keen eye for heart-pounding suspense. Watch the legendary chariot race and be dazzled old-school style before the big budget remake hits theaters in 2016.
“On the Waterfront” (1954)
The highlight of this gripping film chronicling the conflict between a corrupt labor boss and a crusading Catholic priest is one of Marlon Brando’s signature performances. As dock worker Terry Malloy, Brando is a blistering feat in what may just be the best movie performance of all time. Nailing every complex shade of the character, from his tenderness opposite Eva Marie Saint’s Edie to his escalating torment, Brando secured a spot in acting history with his work here and inspired a wave of future talents to go full on method. It’s a performance that simply cannot be missed.
“All the King’s Men” (1949)
Confidently following in the storytelling footsteps of “Citizen Kane,” writer-director Robert Rossen’s “All the King’s Men” is a scrutinizing character study that tracks the rise and fall of a corrupt politician who makes his friends richer and retains power by dint of a populist appeal. As Willie Stark, Broderick Crawford is an authoritative, charismatic presence, expertly building his character’s arc from budding country lawyer to powerhouse politician. Even more astute is how Rossen punctuates his anti-hero’s soul by framing the story through the eyes of a journalist who is infatuated with Stark and his complex relationships. Be sure to ignore the glossy 2006 remake with Sean Penn and opt for this classic instead.
“We’ll always have Paris.” “Play it again, Sam.” “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The list of legendary quotes from Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca” goes on and on, and anyone who hasn’t seen this romantic drama starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman is simply missing out on one of cinema’s most integral titles. To put it mildly, this story of a jaded nightclub owner and his old flame who reappears to seek his help in escaping from the Nazis defines “classic” in every sense of the word. “Here’s looking at you, kid” indeed.
“Gone With the Wind” (1939)
With its immortal cast, magnificent cinematography and sweeping score, Victor Fleming’s magnum opus is easily cinema’s greatest epic of passion and adventure. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, “Gone With the Wind” tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a southern belle determined to keep her family’s plantation afloat at any cost. While much of the film deals with O’Hara’s romantic pursuits, most notably her marriage to the dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), it’s really her strong-willed resilience that makes the film a classic beauty, and in the hands of the show-stopping Leigh, the character is one of cinema’s most legendary and unforgettable protagonists.
“It Happened One Night” (1934)
In the heyday of the romantic-comedy screwball era, Frank Capra’s delightful “It Happened One Night” reigned supreme and continues to do so to this very day. The first film to ever sweep the five major categories at the Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), this quick-witted romance stars the beautiful Claudette Colbert as a rich society girl who escapes her millionaire father after he demands she stops marrying a playboy. En route to New York City via bus, she gets involved with a recently laid off newsman (Clarke Cable). You’ll know exactly where the story is heading, but the charming shenanigans (dipping donuts, hitchhiking) are impossible to resist.
One of the most influential anti-war films ever made, this drama form director Lewis Milestone follows a group of young men as they join the German Army during World War I and are sent to the gruesome Western Front trenches. Most modern audiences equate visceral war filmmaking with “Saving Private Ryan,” but Steven Spielberg’s genre classic owes everything to this devastating drama that exposes just how corrosive World War I was to the human condition.
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