10. “Swing Time” (1936)
No question “Swing Time” is the best-directed film in the exuberant Astaire-Rogers RKO canon. George Stevens elevates the usual romantic misunderstandings with four of the best song-and-dance numbers ever executed, with help from composer Jerome Kern and choreographer Hermes Pan. “Never Gonna Dance” feels like two people making love in front of our eyes. Played as comedy in the movie, Oscar-winning ”The Way You Look Tonight” became Astaire’s biggest hit record. Katharine Hepburn famously said of Astaire-Rogers: “He gives her class. She gives him sex.” But while Fred was lauded as the greatest musical dancer of all time (and under-rated for his fine tenor), Ginger had to do it backwards in clingy gowns, feather boas, and heels. Truth is, they both worked and sweated to soar so lightly. — AT
9. “The Lion King” (1994)
Though Disney’s recent strategy of remaking its animated classics into live-action star vehicles has rankled some viewers, even the most skeptical perk up at the mention of 2019’s “The Lion King,” set to star Donald Glover and Beyoncé. It’s probably because the original is still its best animated musical, not to mention the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time. A clever riff on Hamlet, the Sahara-set coming-of-age tale steered clear of clichéd romance to make it relatable to all kids. The “staging” echoed classic Hollywood musicals before it, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” features a particular nod to Busby Berkeley. The movie boasts one of the better Disney scores; three songs earned Oscar nominations, with Elton John and Tim Rice winning for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and Hans Zimmer taking home a trophy for his original score. “The Lion King” also claimed three Grammys and ushered in a revolutionary Broadway splendor; Julie Taymor became an instant legend as the first woman to accept a Tony Award for directing a Great White Way musical. — JM
8. “West Side Story” (1961)
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A movie that predated most of us and will surely outlive us all, “West Side Story” might open with some of the most iconic shots of New York City ever committed to celluloid, but so much of its magic results from the hermetically sealed (and obviously staged) snow globe of a world that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins created for this big-screen version of the Broadway hit. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s songs could have propped up even the latest adaptation, and the doomed romance at the center of the story all but tells itself. But “West Side Story” is an essential film because it sets itself against a vividly enchanted version of the Upper West Side, an unreal place where every brick and drip of spray paint feels touched by the technicolor love between Tony and Maria. Or maybe it’s just because Rita Moreno is there to pave over any flaws, the Puerto Rican star delivering a performance so full of life that it makes the whole movie seem real. — DE
7. “A Star is Born” (1954)
There are three versions (the 1937 original directed by William Wellman and a 1976 Barbra Streisand-vehicle), soon to be four (Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut starring Lady Gaga is coming in May), of “A Star is Born,” but it’s this 1954 film directed by George Cukor that is the true masterpiece. In addition to being a phenomenal musical, Cukor’s version is one of the most gut-wrenching melodramas ever made.
The premise is simple: James Mason plays a Hollywood star who falls in love with (the talent of) Judy Garland and helps make her a star while his career (and alcoholism) rapidly descends — but the emotional depth and what Cukor has to say about studio system as it is crumbling is revelatory. Judy Garland had a difficult time in Hollywood, ruled by the men in her life, and it is easy to see her singing about herself in some of the film’s musical numbers that at their core are about performing.
The film had a very troubled production, and the 154-minute released version cut a few key dramatic moments. The film was beautifully restored when they found Cukor’s pre-cut audio tracks, with production stills (think bad Ken Burns) added over the lost scenes. It’s the type of thing that’s an amazing DVD extra for fans, but difficult to watch if it’s the first time you are seeing the film. — CO
6. “Cabaret” (1972)
Anyone who’s never seen Bob Fosse’s masterpiece probably knows it as the movie that robbed Francis Ford Coppola of his Best Director Oscar for “The Godfather.” The Corleones may never admit it, but Fosse deserved it. The same may be said of Liza Minnelli, who earned the Best Actress statuette that eluded her mother, Judy Garland, as well as the six other Academy Awards won by this loose adaptation of the Broadway musical. One of those movies with an inner darkness that truly does sneak up on you, “Cabaret” begins in 1931 Berlin and charts the Nazis’ rise so gradually that, like everyone in the Kit Kat Klub each night, you won’t realize they’ve fully arrived until it’s much too late. In that way, it’s yet another film that feels far more relevant today than it should have to. Life may only be a cabaret, but eventually the show stops and the curtain comes calling for us all. — Michael Nordine