The VCR changed everything about the way we watch movies. Instead of rushing to the theater to catch the latest release — or eagerly awaiting the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz (No. 88) — video means watching what you please whenever you please. No longer stuck with the movie playing on TV or at the local movie house, now we can browse among classics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, last year’s theatrical smashes, or shamelessly entertaining exploitation junk with equal ease.
Great movies don’t always make great video — on the small screen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) looks like an insurrection on an ant farm and it isn’t on our list. More often, though, video allows movies overlooked in theatrical release, such as David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (No. 58), to find their true audience. And video gives that audience new ways to look at movies — with remote in hand you can replay a crucial scene, catch an errant line of dialogue, or even skip over the slow spots. To help choose the 100 movies most worth seeing at home, Entertainment Weekly asked some of America’s leading movie critics to vote for their video favorites. The envelope, please…
1. The Godfather 1902-1959: The Complete Epic(1977)
Nobody expected a film version of Mario Puzo’s gangland novel The Godfather to be more than a bloody pulp melodrama — except perhaps director Francis Ford Coppola, who created a tragic extended metaphor for the downside of the American Dream. Visually stunning, impeccably acted, and emotionally overwhelming, the two Godfathers are available in one reedited, chronological video version (386 minutes). But in any form, they’re exactly what Paramount’s ad hype suggested back in ‘72: ”Everybody’s Masterpiece.”
2. Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles’ tour de force about a newspaper tycoon who does everyone dirt is the ultimate tale of loneliness at the top. It changed the grammar of movies, making the camera as eloquent as any actor. Kane’s famous dying word, ”Rosebud,” isn’t actually heard by anyone onscreen, so the reporter’s effort to find out what he meant by it (the device that drives the movie) is either a big joke or a glaring oversight. We’ll never know.
3. Raging Bull (1980)
Director Martin Scorsese believes video helped keep this movie fresh enough in critics’ minds for most of them to name it one of the top 10 films of the ’80s. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta, the tormented boxing champ who was as prone to violence outside the ring as in.
4. Blue Velvet (1986)
Before the derivative Twin Peaks, director David Lynch and star Kyle MacLachlan were best known for this rabid oddity, a bizarrely sensational murder mystery that defies easy comprehension. It is both perfect for video — its dense imagery begs for repeat viewings — and poorly suited to it — the edges of Lynch’s wide-screen images get hacked off in the tape version. (Warner’s new disc version will be ”letterboxed” to keep the original shape.)
5. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear black comedy is also the funniest assault ever made on the assumptions of the Cold War. With Sterling Hayden in his most memorable performance (as Gen. Jack D. Ripper) and Peter Sellers in three roles, including the Kissinger-like doctor of the title.
6. Vertigo (1958)
Vertigo cuts closer to the bone than any other Hitchcock thriller. James Stewart becomes obsessed with a woman he has been hired to follow, and his investigation of her death veers dangerously close to madness. MCA’s video version beautifully preserves the original’s dreamlike Technicolor intensity.
7. Chinatown (1974)
Jack Nicholson investigates corruption and Faye Dunaway in ’30s Los Angeles: On the surface, it’s another of those trendy hardboiled-detective revamps that everybody made in the ’70s. But director Roman Polanski took the genre so far into the dark that Hollywood has been backing away from its wormy truths ever since.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The inexplicably underrated Joel McCrea stars as a director of successful but silly Hollywood pictures. He yearns to make serious message movies and hits the road to see how the other half lives. The result? Not just the best movie ever about filmmakers, but the funniest and wisest of the great string of comedies by Preston Sturges.
9. The General (1927)
Buster Keaton’s hilarious meditation on the Civil War is, among other treasures, a Mathew Brady photograph come to life and one of the purest pieces of visual comedy ever committed to celluloid. Unlike a number of shoddy video versions, HBO’s tape is struck from a pristine original print and comes with a fabulous orchestral score.
10. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Citizen Kane follow-up that turned Orson Welles from Boy Genius to Misunderstood Genius. Welles adapted Booth Tarkington’s sprawling novel of a family’s decline into an emotional epic, but the studio shortened the film into something much more prosaic. Still, Ambersons has moments that make other films seem klutzy.
11. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Warren Beatty is Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway, fondling a revolver, is Bonnie Parker. They rob banks. Audiences in 1967 were shocked by Bonnie and Clyde’s slow-motion violence. Today’s audiences may be more shocked by its tenderness.
12. Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s merciless view of New York is too grim to be entirely realistic, but Robert De Niro’s extraordinary portrayal of a deranged cabbie makes for an unforgettable experience. Jodie Foster is chillingly convincing as a teenybopper prostitute.
Caveat: This budget reissue tape is of lower quality than the original RCA/Columbia version.
13. Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen’s landmark comedy pits New York against Los Angeles more effectively than any film before or since, but he’s most funny and incisive when he delves into the dangers of dating. Diane Keaton plays the perfect romantic foil to Allen’s nebbish.
14. The Seven Samurai (1954)
Everybody who haunts the Action section of the video store should see this. Director Akira Kurosawa applied the techniques of Hollywood Westerns to his story of 16th-century Japanese warriors. But in the complexity of his characters and the sheer dazzle of his battle scenes, he outdid all models. Inspired The Magnificent Seven.
15. The Palm Beach Story (1942)
In Preston Sturges’ most out-of-control comedy, newlyweds Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea fight and get back together with help from a rich geek played by former teen dream Rudy Vallee, their own twins, and gun-happy members of the Ale and Quail Club. If you think old movies can’t be sexy, check out Colbert and McCrea’s steamy scenes together.
16. Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers’ most surreal blast of anarchy. A flop in 1933, the film was rediscovered by ’60s audiences who delighted in its ferociously absurd mugging of political pomposity.
Scene to rewind: The mirror sequence, which is still among the funniest three minutes in movies.
17. Psycho (1960)
Three decades and two sequels later, Hollywood has never recaptured the disturbing, intangible something that makes this Alfred Hitchcock flick the definitive horror picture. (On video, the truly obsessed can analyze that shower scene frame by bloody frame.)
18. Double Indemnity (1944)
Grade-A Hollywood sleaze from two grade-A Hollywood cynics, novelist James M. Cain and director Billy Wilder. Fred MacMurray has the role of his life as the small-time insurance salesman, and Barbara Stanwyck is all brass and cheap perfume as the bored tootsie who persuades him to kill her husband. A million movies have ripped off the plot, but none of them — not even 1981’s Body Heat — has captured the original’s seamy erotic thrill.
19. All About Eve (1950)
Bette Davis was never better than this — the volatile, vulnerable Margo Channing, an aging actress whose career and romance are theatened by Eve (Anne Baxter), a mousy girl who turns out to be a rat. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz races the movie along on some of the bitchiest banter ever written for the screen.
20. The Rules of the Game (1939)
Jean Renoir’s intricate tragicomedy about a hunting weekend at a chateau where everyone’s life, from the gamekeeper’s to the host’s, is in crucial transition.
21. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Director Billy Wilder’s blackest joke is cast like a cruel funhouse mirror: Aging silent film star Gloria Swanson plays the aging silent film star Norma Desmond, who enlists a hack writer (William Holden) as lover and coconspirator in a demented comeback bid. Sunset Boulevard peers behind Hollywood’s sunny facade to find a mansion full of bugs.
22. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
In director John Frankenheimer’s witches’ brew of absurdist comedy, political satire, and nail-biting thriller, Laurence Harvey is the GI hero brainwashed to assassinate a presidential candidate. Frank Sinatra tries to stop him, but there’s no stopping Angela Lansbury as Harvey’s malevolent mom.
23. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
James Dean defined disaffected youth in the ’50s. With that jacket, that hair, and that pout, he created a teen archetype for generations (and generation gaps) to come.
24. La Strada (1954)
Federico Fellini’s poetic account of the odd, mysterious relationship between a simpleminded waif, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), and a brutish circus strongman, Zampano (Anthony Quinn). Their progress through a series of tacky provincial towns is touching and memorable.
25. Aliens (1986)
The best sci-fi movie ever made. Substituting action-movie muscle for the lacquered, artsy horror of Rid-ley Scott’s 1979 original (see No. 65), writer- director James Cameron (Terminator) comes up with a movie so well crafted that one watches in awe as every piece falls into place.