The original – and still the best. Forget the recent series reboot which, despite its encouraging roots (writer/director Shane Black is actually in the cast of the original movie), chose to ditch the necessarily serious tone in favour of dumb jokes and a silly twist – it’s the 1987 straight-up action-thriller you want to put in your eyes and ears.
It’s got it all: a testosterone fountain of a cast including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura; CIA-sponsored black ops hijinks in Central America; macho jokes that would not be acceptable in today’s workplace; a sweltering, claustrophobic jungle setting; a tension-ramping soundtrack; and, of course, the titular alien trophy hunter, armed with an array of bizarre weaponry with which to eviscerate Arnie’s team. A classic.
The film that put an entire generation off skinny dipping, Jaws remains one of the most iconic, most influential and best-loved summer blockbusters of all time. Even if you haven’t dived into its murky, dread-filled yet, you’re likely aware of the beautifully simple premise: a New Jersey seaside resort is being terrorised by a killer Great White shark, and the local police chief decides to hunt it down.
But it’s Jaws’ script, direction and iconic John Williams score that make it so effective. Steven Spielberg cranks up the tension through his use of perspective and sound – very little violence happens on-screen – keeping the viewer constantly on edge, but he isn’t afraid to season the scares with lighter moments. More than four decades on, it’s still a must watch – but do yourself a favour and swim well clear of the dodgy sequels.
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.
Forget the tedious discussion about whether Die Hard is or is not “a Christmas film” (spoiler: it is). What’s not up for debate is its place in the action movie canon, thanks to its killer combo of charismatic, relatable hero (Bruce Willis in a career-defining role and a career-defining vest), memorable villain (the sorely missed Alan Rickman in full scenery-chewing beast mode) and assured, non-showy direction by John McTiernan.
For sub-rock dwellers out there who don’t already know the setup, the plot is simple: Willis’ New York cop comes to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife for Christmas, rocking up at her work party in a swanky hi-tech hi-rise just as the building is hijacked by Rickman and his gang of terrorists. Cut off from the outside world, outmanned and outgunned, Willis must use his wiles to save the day. Wonderful stuff to watch – any time of the year.
Napoleon Dynamite is a lad of many talents: dancer extraordinaire, time machine builder, friend to llamas and all-round poster boy for the semi-mythical 1980s.
In case you missed the t-shirts that are still knocking about 15 years after this movie was released, the plot (such as it is) revolves around Napoleon’s new pal Pedro running for class president, with obligatory indie teen comedy staples like girl trouble and dysfunctional family thrown in to season the mix.
Like a lot of low budget indie comedies, Napoleon Dynamite is carried along more by its tone (heavily ironic) and characters (deadpan and deluded) than its story. Just hop on and enjoy the ride.
It’s shocking that you have to go back all the way to 1986 to find a genuinely great Alien movie, but despite its advancing years, James Cameron’s action thriller take on the xenomorphs still feels fresh, frightening and frenetic.
When Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is picked up following the events of Alien, she finds out that she’s been in hypersleep for decades – during which time humans have begun colonising the planet where she discovered the creature that killed her crew. When contact with said colony is lost, she is sent in as with a gung-ho military team to investigate, and discovers… well, that’d be spoiling it.
Note: Now TV also has the Director’s Cut version, so if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer and more in-depth (if not necessarily “better”), feel free to go for that one instead.
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.
Lawrence of Arabia
Clocking in at a bum-numbing 216 minutes, David Lean’s biopic of mercurial British Army officer T.E. Lawrence is epic in every sense of the word (when first released, it had an actual intermission in the middle so cinema-goers could stretch their legs).
Stunning desert vistas, grand battles, a cast of thousands and some of the best acting talent of the time all go towards making Lawrence of Arabia an unforgettable film about war, Empire, loyalty, individual brilliance and, yes, what happens when foreign powers meddle in the affairs of the Middle East. There’s no better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.