Moonstruck Norman Jewison, 1987
What it’s about: The unexpected romance between a chatty 40-something-year-old woman (Cher) and the volatile younger brother (Nicolas Cage) of the man she’s planning on marrying.
Why it’s great: Bolstered by a magnificent performance from the Cher, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a warm and funny rom com that doubles down as a winning family drama, too. It’s a career-best for all involved.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Jacques Demy, 1964
What it’s about: A young blonde’s (Catherine Deneuve) having to choose between a lucrative diamond merchant (Marc Michel) and the penniless mechanic who left her pregnant (Nino Castelnuovo) before leaving for the war.
Why it’s so great: This all-sung, Jacques Demy-headed pop art melodrama is both visually and aurally wondrous. The colors – almost all pastels – are radiant, but you’d swear the bittersweet, classically tragic story were even more so. It’s a rare perfect film.
I Am Love Luca Guadagnino, 2009
What it’s about: The doomed affair between a wealthy housewife (Tilda Swinton) and her son’s best friend. Think of it as an Italian Douglas Sirk movie, just more academic and sweeping.
Why it’s so great: Recalling the lush melodramas of the Hollywood Golden Age, Luca Guadagnino’s breakout film, I Am Love, is a rush of sound, color, and aching sensuality. You don’t just watch these dramas, these romances – you feel them. If you loved this year’s Call Me By Your Name, watch this film next. And then 2016's A Bigger Splash.
Life is Sweet Mike Leigh, 1991
What it’s about: The decidedly unglamorous lives lived by the members of a lower-middle-class, London-based family.
Why it’s so great: Filled with three-dimensional, unaffected performances by a game cast, Life is Sweet, like the majority of Mike Leigh’s other movies, captures life as we know it. The naturalism’s never quite as tedious or depressing as we’d expect it to be, though. Leigh has a knack for finding the universality in even the most esoteric of characters. That it ends on a somewhat happy note ultimately makes the journey worth it.
The Last Seduction John Dahl, 1994
What it’s about: Femme fatale Bridget’s (Linda Fiorentino) scheming for another immoral payday, which involves the seduction of a hapless, small-town 20-something (Peter Berg) and the revenge being sought by the husband (Bill Pullman) she wronged.
Why it’s so great: Most of John Dahl’s movies are spirited homages to the film noir genre of the 1940s and ‘50s, and The Last Seduction, which was saddled with inept distribution upon release in 1994, is his masterpiece, if a forgotten one. Made instantaneously iconic by a severely underrated performance by Fiorentino (who recalls other classic deadly females à la Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth), not a moment goes by in which we aren’t completely enraptured by the central Bridget’s evil. A stylish, cold-hearted must.
Star 80 Bob Fosse, 1983
What it’s about: The rise and fall of Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), a promising, real-life Playboy playmate who was tragically murdered by her unstable husband (Eric Roberts) at the age of 20.
Why it’s so great: Though most directors would sensationalize the material at hand, Bob Fosse subverts expectations and instead uses Star 80 as a direct, stinging damnation of objectification and misogyny in the entertainment industry. Hemingway and Roberts so spotlessly embody the people they’re playing, it’s eerie.
After Hours Martin Scorsese, 1985
What it’s about: The series of bizarre encounters experienced by a New York yuppie (Griffin Dunne), who started the endless night thinking he’d simply be chasing a skirt (Rosanna Arquette).
Why it’s so great: Marking a departure from the gritty street style director Martin Scorsese had perfected in the previous decade, the outlandish black comedy After Hours makes for one of his most underappreciated works. The comedy sings, the style’s appropriately darkened, and the performances are informed with just the right amount of absurdity. An unforgettable, unhinged treat.
Tootsie Sydney Pollack, 1983
What it’s about: A struggling actor’s (Dustin Hoffman) incidentally hitting the big time as a female soap opera star.
Why it’s so great: While tainted as an effect of the myriad reports of sexual misconduct on the part of Hoffman, Tootsie is nonetheless an influential, effortlessly funny screwball comedy that ironically also makes interesting points about gender inequality in the workplace.
The Red Shoes Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948
What it’s about: A young ballerina’s (Moira Shearer) having to choose between her love life and her fledgling career. All ends tragically.
Why it’s so great: Visually dazzling and housing one of the greatest dance sequences in the history of cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s best film, The Red Shoes, is a sensational and vivid melodrama that lingers in the memory long after the screen fades to black. Shearer is dynamic, and so is the work of cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
Sophie's Choice Alan J. Pakula, 1982
What it’s about: The torrid love triangle between lovers Nathan and Sophie (Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep) and an interrupting, naive 20-something who moves to the city hoping to make it big as a writer. As the movie progresses, though, it becomes increasingly clear that it is about the Holocaust-surviving Sophie, who has a heartbreaking story of her own to tell.
Why it’s so great: Meryl Streep gives one of the finest performances in film history in Sophie’s Choice, a powerful and heartrending melodrama that grows more excruciating as it moves along. If tears don’t threaten to slip from your eyes as the titular Sophie recalls her days trying to survive in an internment camp, you might need to reevaluate your empathic abilities.
Rosemary's Baby Roman Polanski, 1968
What it’s about: The otherworldly pregnancy of a frail, young housewife (Mia Farrow), who has plenty reason to believe that her gestation has been thwarted by sinister forces.
Why it’s so great: Rosemary’s Baby is an unheard-of horror masterwork, characterized by such corporeal dread that even the disturbing finale can hardly compare to the impeccability of the slowly building tension coming before it. Come for the terrors; stay to see how director Roman Polanski ingeniously executes them.
Z Costa-Gavras, 1969
What it’s about: The conspiracy-driven assassination of a Greek politician (Yves Montand) and the suspenseful investigation that follows.
Why it’s so great: Preceding the decade-defining political thrillers of the 1970s, Z is a spine-tingling tale of governmental corruption that cynically wonders if good can actually conquer evil in our ever-unforgiving world. Smart and agitated, it is labyrinthine but sharp as a tack – and director Costa-Gavras renders it all with a sort of palpable passion he’d never quite find again.
Mean Streets Martin Scorsese, 1973
What it’s about: The internal struggle of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a well-connected hood who longs to ditch the criminal life and live a normal one with the girlfriend (Amy Robinson) of his best friend (Robert De Niro).
Why it’s so great: Mean Streets was the movie which turned Martin Scorsese into a household name, and from its opening sequence is it abundantly clear why: the filmmaker possesses a natural knack for capturing street life in all its seedy glory, and the movie in store as much captures the spirit of its setting as it does the turmoil that afflicts its leading characters. It’s a quintessential gangster picture.
The Last Picture Show Peter Bogdanovich, 1971
What it’s about: The disparate lives lived in a miniscule southern town circa 1951.
Why it’s so great: One of the defining features of the ‘70s, Peter Bogdanovich’s third film, The Last Picture Show, is a no-frills ensemble drama that depicts small-town life so persuasively we’re wont to think we’re watching a documentary made about this central bunch in this pivotal 1951. The movie is relentlessly sad and determinedly ambiguous, but its themes of disaffection, alienation, and repression remain timeless. The performances are exceptional, too.
Ordinary People Robert Redford, 1980
What it’s about: A privileged family’s coming to terms with the tragic death of one of its teenage sons.
Why it’s so great: Never has grief been illustrated as lucidly as it was in Ordinary People, a potent, Robert Redford-directed family drama so unbearably real it doesn’t feel the need to pander to the audience-pleasing cliché of the happy ending. Watching this movie is a thoroughly devastating experience, made even more poignant as a result of the magnificent performances of Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Judd Hirsch. But through all its melancholy does it also feel like a subtly optimistic testament to endurance; subtextually it says that pushing through all one’s utmost pains will be worth it in the end, even if getting to a place of emotional stability makes for an agonizing journey.