The Big Lebowski
The Coen brothers’ cult comedy hit – a louche, lackadaisical and outwardly lightweight follow-up to the multiple award-winning thriller Fargo – is packed to the gills with clever call-backs, references to other films and other oh-so-clever touches for astute viewers to pick out.
But it’s also an absolute riot, as Jeff Bridges’ middle-aged stoner The Dude sets out to right a wrong (in a case of mistaken identity, two hoodlums “soiled” his beloved rug) and ends up sucked headlong into a kidnapping case involving German nihilists, pornographers, a wealthy paraplegic, performance artists, a sullen teenage car thief, the police chief of Malibu, possibly hallucinatory cowboys… and bowling.
With an outstanding script and supporting cast including Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and John Goodman, The Big Lebowski is a rare cinematic gift – one that keeps on giving with subsequent viewings.
Ridley Scott’s stunning vision of a future in which rogue AI-driven robots, indistinguishable from humans but faster, stronger and more deadly, are hunted down by sanctioned enforcers set the tone for an entire generation of cyberpunk fiction.
Harrison Ford plays replicant-chaser Deckard with typical understatement, but there’s so much flair, atmosphere and spectacle in this neo noir yarn that Blade Runner will stay with you for a long time.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone set aside the Dollars trilogy’s crowd-pleasing antics to create two and half hours of cinematic history with this scorched-earth homage to the gritty realities of homesteading on the new frontier.
Expertly paying homage to practically every film in the genre, Leone helps the everyman Henry Fonda find his dark side while giving Charles Bronson his own theme tune (supplied, of course, by long-term Leone sidekick Ennio Morricone). It’s beautiful, brutal and iconic stuff – and a must-watch for any would-be cinema connoisseur. This is the spaghetti Western – gourmet style.
Quentin Tarantino’s western (or, more accurately “southern”) takes its cues both from Sergio Leone and the blaxploitation genre. Set mostly in the Deep South, Django Unchained pits Jamie Foxx’s titular freed slave against the plantation owners, traders and overseers who’ve separated him from his wife.
He’s joined on his quest by German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (an Oscar-nominated Christoph Waltz) but equally impressive are Leonardo Dicaprio as Calvin Candie, who cloaks the barbarity of his gladiatorial slave fights beneath a veneer of civilisation, and Samuel L Jackson as Candie’s house slave (and éminence grise) Stephen.
Foxx plays Django as a modern Man With No Name – though in his case his silence is more the result of tightly-wound righteous fury than stoicism, and when he eventually unleashes bloody vengeance on his oppressors it’s spectacularly cathartic.
The Godfather trilogy
Look, if you haven’t seen The Godfather and The Godfather Part II by now, stop reading this and just go watch it. And then maybe watch the third one just to round things out, even though it’s a bit of a dud by comparison.
Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic spans a generation, weaving the tale of a Sicilian immigrant who becomes a powerful mobster and his son, who strives to turn his father’s “business” into a legitimate concern but finds it impossible to keep his two families together without getting his hands dirty. With fantastic performances all round and a true sense of scale and grandeur that no later mob movie has ever matched, the Godfather trilogy (or at least the first two thirds of it) can rightly be called one of the greatest feats in cinematic history.
Saving Private Ryan
Ex-schoolteacher Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) sets off across France to find Private Ryan – whose three brothers were killed during D-Day – and y'know, save him. It's Steven Spielberg's take on the classic "men on a mission" movie, a grand epic rich with the sort of masterful camerawork, thrilling action and touching sentimentality that tend to be associated with the director.
It's worth watching for the intensely terrifying opening scene of the Normandy landings alone, one of the most pioneering bits of filmmaking in recent history. Spielberg deliberately aped the look of vintage newsreels during the 20-minute sequence, fiddling with the shutter timing on the cameras and treating the film to desaturate the colours.
The Shawshank Redemption
Banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) gets a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit - and in the grim confines of Shawshank Penitentiary, he’d be forgiven for giving in to despair. But a series of small victories against the soul-squeezing bureaucracy, the mentorship of old lag Red (Morgan Freeman in one of his career-defining roles) and an interest in geology help to chip away at the walls that threaten to crush him.
Frank Darabont’s adaptation of a lesser-known Stephen King short story failed to set the box office alight but - appropriately, given its theme of persevering against the odds - it’s since found a strong following on home video. Its story of hope in the face of impossible odds - and a slow-burning style that recalls the classics of the ‘30s and ‘40s - has won it a place at the top of countless best films lists. You owe it to yourself to watch this one.
Martin Scorsese’s much-lauded exploration of isolation, obsession and mania is certainly one of the best classic movies available on Netflix, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of cinema and hasn’t already watch it should drop everything, fire up their Netflix app of choice and settle down for 113 minutes of masterful moviemaking, as Scorsese’s camera follows increasingly unhinged Vietnam veteran and cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro in one of his defining roles) as he navigates the sleazy streets 1970s New York.