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The Best Classic Movies for People Who Don’t Watch Older Films — IndieWire Critics Survey

A recent article argued that millennials don't care about old movies. But maybe one film — the right film — could change their minds.

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

A recent article (based on a very unscientific poll) argued that millennials don’t really care about old movies. Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t, but the fact remains that many people disregard classic cinema on principle. These people are missing out, but it only takes one film — the right film — to change their minds and forever alter their viewing habits.

This week’s question: What is one classic film you would recommend to someone who doesn’t watch them?

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Hello Beautiful, /Film, Thrillist, etc

“Rebel Without a Cause.” I’ll out myself by saying that I’ve only recently seen this film for the first time over the last two years. I remain so surprised by how layered and relevant it still is. Audiences who’ve grown up with teen movies like “She’s All That,” “Clueless,” and even “The Hunger Games,” which explore classism among the younger generation in a way that is instantly digestible yet still meaningful, can appreciate this 1955 classic led by a sublime James Dean for its searing portrayal of teen angst and repression. “Rebel Without a Cause” transcends era and does what every great teen film should do; give young characters full agency in a story that is uniquely and profoundly their own.

Manuela Lazic (@manilazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, Vague Visages

Being a millennial myself, I could feel attacked by this article claiming that my kind doesn’t care much for old movies. But in my experience  — outside of my “beloved” Film Twitter- it is kind of true! Depending on where the youngsters live, how old they actually are, etc, the answers vary of course, but I will never forget that time when my then-17-year-old cousin from Bosnia refused to watch “Tootsie” because it was ‘old’ (we still speak, but I don’t think she takes me too seriously ever since I got mad at her about that).

Generally, when a person around my age and who isn’t really into movies asks me for recommendations, I try to get a sense of their taste first -or I just recommend my favorite movies, however weird they might be, because they’re my favorites and everyone should watch them. Thanks.

If some youth came up to me with bad words for the movies of yore, however, I would have to wring their heartstrings properly. Everyone has at least heard of Marilyn Monroe, and teens might enjoy finally understanding where Madonna’s video for Material Girl took its style from, so “Some Like it Hot” might do the trick. Seduced by the very salacious title and its star, the millennial would then be immediately enraptured by the film’s dynamic opening sequence and its engrossing mixture of tones, from bleak film noir to comedy to action (without needing to register them!). This 1959 movie is not slow and boring! There’s even sexy music with a ukulele!

I don’t think it could suffer too badly from the attacks of woke readings either. Sure, it’s fucked up to dress as a woman to get a job, then to become a woman’s best girlfriend while also seducing her as a man who isn’t even your real self, and have to console her when you yourself have treated her badly while dressed as a man. But these men are so completely overwhelmed by the situation in which they have found themselves in by their own damn fault, you end up laughing more at them than at anyone else!

Karen Han (@karenyhan), freelance for /Film, Vulture

Though firmly a product of its time as a tale of love during World War II, “A Matter of Life and Death” hasn’t aged a day. I first saw it a few years ago and have re-watched it a few times since then, and each time I’m struck by how fresh the film feels; there’s nothing particularly “old” about it except the era in which it was made. The transitions from black and white to full Technicolor are dazzling, as is the way the film’s final act rests upon the selflessness that’s born out of being in love, as represented by a single tear. (It’s also notably optimistic and pure of heart in its sentiments as to the American Dream, both for its time as well as in comparison to the modern climate.)

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics and Film School Rejects

How far back is “classic” nowadays? Forty years? Then “Jaws,” if Golden Age then anything made by Billy Wilder, if we go back to the silents then “The General.” But regardless, I’d like to go one step further and say that millennials (and everyone else) need to also recognize more classic nonfiction cinema, as TCM has finally been doing here and there in the past few years. For the millennials I’d have to pick something accessible and entertaining to a degree. Some of the choices I’m still trying to pick one from include “The Thin Blue Line,” which is a riveting detective story, “Harlan County USA,” which is intense and dramatic, and Frederick Wiseman’s “High School,” because high school movies can be easily enjoyed in a relatable sense.

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Birth.Movies.Death.

There’s no better time to watch “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). When courting us millennials with older films, we tend to look at a couple of things: 1) Availability. Given the film’s 4K restoration a few years ago and the impending 70mm re-release, more of us will be able to watch it! 2) Historical context. The bloated, CGI-heavy studio epics of today feel like constant background noise, but films like “Lawrence of Arabia” were at once massive event film and acclaimed high art, a combination unfamiliar to us outside “The Lord of the Rings.” And 3) How gay is it? This isn’t true for all millennials, but it’s probably your best bet to get a lot of us to catch it on celluloid, the only way I’ve ever seen the film and the way it deserves to be seen. For a studio picture in the ’60s, “Lawrence of Arabia” is hella gay, as we say.

Jude Dry (@jdry), IndieWire

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. It just doesn’t get better than “The Philadelphia Story.” The legendary George Cukor directs from the smash hit Broadway play by Philip Barry a full-blown farce with a lot of heart. Shot in black and white, “The Philadelphia Story” is packed with color. Tracy Lord would throw her head back and laugh in the face of anyone who would slap a monochrome movie with the dreaded label of “boring.” That’s why it’s such a good intro to the classic film: This film funny as all get out, filled with the most charismatic screen legends of the time (or all time, for that matter), and delivers a master class in engaging dramatic writing. With rich characters, and a plot that spins along at a steady clip, “The Philadelphia Story” is a gem.

Miriam Bale (@mimbale), Freelance

“Red-Headed Woman” (1932).

It may not be the best pre-code movie, but this extremely naughty Jean Harlow film (written by Anita Loos) is definitely the most pre-code movie.

Ray Pride (@raypride), Newcity, Movie City News

There’s always an older film to seduce someone already interested in movies, music or visual art, but it requires the measure of their tastes to strike the right tastebuds. I wish “Rules of the Game” would strike the fancy of anyone and everyone, but it’s more often a movie like these recently shared eye-openers to a range of younger friends: Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” “Point Blank,” “The Conformist,” “Andrei Rublev,” “Out of the Past,” “Written on the Wind,” “Playtime” and several choice Borzages.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The syndrome is familiar—I suffered from it, and I can only prescribe the cure that worked for me. I was a baby-boomer who couldn’t care less about old movies (old Hollywood movies; I wouldn’t have known a foreign film if it bit me)—who actively disdained them as nostalgic and decadent. Then, when I was 17 and a college freshman, a friend suggested that I go see a movie that was playing on campus that night, called “Breathless,” and it made me a movie-person for life— except for one thing. I had no idea what it was referring to; I never heard of a film noir, had never seen a gangster film, and as for the little riff involving a still of someone called Bogie, I had no idea who that was.

On the other hand, I had now heard of a person called Godard, and I wanted to know everything about him that I could. So the next time I was in the city, a month or two later, I found and bought a book called “Godard on Godard,” which I figured would be something like a memoir. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a book of collected film criticism — of reviews written starting when he was nineteen — and that, in these reviews, he expressed a fierce passion for old movies, and especially old Hollywood movies. So, while devouring with my eyes any of his movies that came around, I also used the book as a guide and started to watch the old movies, Hollywood and otherwise, that he enthused about. To make a long story short, it worked, and quickly. But the question is why it worked. And one reason is that “Breathless,” made at the age of twenty-eight, is a young person’s film, a film the youth of which remains unabated; the reviews with which Godard expressed his passion for classic Hollywood movies were written in, and reflected, the heat of his own youth; and so, in the process, what he revealed of the beauties of “old” movies was that they were not old–they were, and are, the youth of the art.

Christy Lemire (@christylemire), RogerEbert.com, What the Flick?!

“The 400 Blows,” to teach millennials that their youthful angst, restlessness and narcissism are nothing special or new. It’s all been done before, and so much better. Plus, it’s in black and white, which makes it SUPER old.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail / Film Festival Today

As a college professor, and my department’s resident film historian, it is my constant challenge to answer this very question, albeit with more than one film: over the course of a 15-week film history course, what are the movies that will showcase various movements and important turning points in the development of cinema, yet also engage my millennial audience so that they will want to go and watch more old films? If one adds issues of diversity and representation, as one should, then the circle becomes even harder to square in such a short time. That’s not to say that I look only for films that my students will enjoy – there are lessons to be taught, after all – but engagement is pretty important. Sadly, some of my favorites sometimes fail to inspire my students, and so I constantly refine my syllabus.

I’d like to point out, though, that I don’t think millennials, as a generation, are inherently any more adverse to the output of previous generations than their parents or grandparents were, as young people; that has not been my experience. But they are just so bombarded with new media content all the time that it is natural for them to feel overwhelmed with today’s choices, much less with those of the past. And who can blame them? I feel overwhelmed, too! In any case, if I had to choose (today, as tomorrow I might recommend something different) just one classic film to recommend to someone who doesn’t think they like old movies, with the goal to generate a future interest in watching more such films (with, perhaps, another agenda, too), I would recommend Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” (1942). A brilliant comedy that pokes hilarious fun at Nazis while never losing sight of how dangerous they were/are, the film features a true battle of the sexes, with Carole Lombard (this was to be her last role, sadly) as a very strong female lead opposite Jack Benny. Lubitsch’s masterpiece proves that one can tackle weighty subjects with wit and wisdom, both, and is a marvelous point of entry for anyone who thinks of old films as stodgy and serious. It is anything but. Plus, it teaches people to find the trappings and belief systems of Nazis both abhorrent and ridiculous, a much-needed lesson (for some) in our current political climate.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for the Guardian, Vulture, Nylon

Convincing my fellow millennials that they actually do like old movies is easy enough; reminding them that “The Wizard of Oz” was made in 1939 usually does the trick. (It is, to my knowledge, the only artifact of pop culture that everyone knows and loves, irrespective of generation.) But on the off chance that I meet someone in my age group who confesses to “not liking black and white movies,” I tell them that they’re either lying or just haven’t seen “Sherlock Jr.” Buster Keaton would make more technically accomplished films, but none so generously lovable. The virtuosic slapstick comedy is firmly planted in the silent era; the daydreaming of a kid unstimulated by his humdrum daily life transcends its century.

Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire

Orson Welles is a gateway drug for many movie lovers by virtue of sacred aura surrounding “Citizen Kane,” but it’s actually the filmmaker’s last completed film — not his first one — that provides a genuine cinematic experience on many levels at once. Welles’ multi-layered essay film is a meditation on the creative process through the framework of a documentary about art forgery that takes a series of digressions, including anecdotes from the portly multi-hyphenate’s own career and a climactic tale about Picasso that may or may not be true. The film is a “classic” in the sense that it is “classic Welles” — it embodies the full scope of his playful, acerbic, literary genius, and anyone unfamiliar with his appeal will get the full scope of it here. “F for Fake” plays off Welles’ iconic status as a movie legend, and I have shared with students who are so blown away by the experience that they can’t wait to dig deeper into Welles’ oeuvre. There are many instances of this throughout film history: Pick the most exciting/different entry in an auteur’s filmography, share it with curious viewers, and make sure they know there’s more where that came from. Once they get a taste, they’re almost certain to come back for more.

Vadim Rizov (@vrizov), Filmmaker Magazine

I can’t answer the question, because I never recommend anything to anyone unless I know a fair amount about what their taste and what they’re likely to (not) respond to. Making one-size-fits-all recommendations is a fundamentally flawed endeavor.

Setting that aside, this poll is kind of ridiculous. I am deeply touched by this sentence from the article writing it up: “Less than half of millennials have seen the likes of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ or even ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ — rated the greatest film of all time on IMDB.” Even tabling that inadvertent punchline of a final clause, I think it’s safe to say we are no worse off as a society if a plurality hasn’t seen “The Shawshank Redemption.” We’ll be fine.

I also don’t understand why millennials need to see older films. There’s an assumption here, I guess, that it’s valuable to have some kind of shared national cultural reference points, the “shared monoculture as uniter” concept, but I’m not so sure that’s true. Most interesting movies are an increasingly specialized endeavor issued to an insular, pretty limited group of people, which is just reality. I’m not sure why it’s important for anybody without the interest for something outside of their cultural intake comfort zone to sit down and watch “Rear Window.” I’m sure they can find other things to do with their time, and not everybody needs to care about movies. They already don’t.

The other thing is that people used to sit and watch older movies on TV for hours at a time simply because they had nothing better to do. Now people have tons of “content” they can consume, so they’re not sharing a collective, inertia-driven intake of older movies, and that’s not coming back, so it’s logical that fewer younger people would be watching older movies.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Good Time”

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