Grab Bag: What Makes These 10 Movies Classics?

by Wade Wainio 3 months ago in movie

10 Movies Declared Classic By This Random-Ass Writer

Grab Bag:  What Makes These 10 Movies Classics?
© Art by Daryl Joyce

I have a list of 10 movies I consider classics, with a few entries being iffier than others. Still, I think I make some solid points about what makes a movie a classic.

1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

There are plenty of werewolf movies in existence, but what makes some rise above the rest? John Landis' An American Werewolf in London is a pretty stellar example to dissect. For starters, it's definitely a bloody horror movie, but it also has heart. This can hypothetically win over even non-horror fans. There's a contemporary example of this, too. If you've ever discussed The Walking Dead with people, some will defend it as being "not really about zombies." Well, there's a similar dynamic here, too. Yes, An American Werewolf in London is undeniably about werewolves, but it puts us through what its main character, David (David Naughton), is experiencing. How would you feel if you were put in the throes of a bizarre werewolf curse?

Though this story has comedic elements, there are also classic tragic aspects, which is mostly what horror is about anyway. Plus, let's face it: The werewolf transformation scene in this movie is still largely unrivaled! Basically, this is just good, quirky storytelling that almost forces the viewer to relate to it. To really make it work, throw in bizarre nightmares, a rotting pal (Griffin Dunne), a love interest (Jenny Agutter), unexpected porn scenes, and a genuinely scary werewolf. Plus, a pub called "The Slaughtered Lamb" adds that extra layer of kooky fun that makes the movie so memorable!

2. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula has its share of detractors. That's a bit of a shame, though, because this film could easily be considered a classic depiction of the Dracula (Gary Oldman) character and legend. Why? To begin with, it establishes a unique atmosphere. How to describe it? I wouldn't use words like "exquisite," as at least one favorable critic did. In fact, plenty of this movie seems more profane than anything. That may be why I like it. It's not the dirtiest or wildest horror movie, but we are regularly reminded that things like vampires are not just 100% about romance. They are supposed to be evil, vulgar, hungry, and haunting. Those are mood elements that are tricky to convey successfully together, yet Bram Stoker's Dracula basically succeeds.

In addition to Dracula himself you have Anthony Hopkins' bizarre performance as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. What can be said about him? At times he seems about as crazed as Renfield (Tom Waits) himself! Then there's the seductive vampiress, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost), an interesting and sleazy werewolf scene, and Dracula feeding a baby to three vampire brides? Sure, why not?! The whole thing is a dark mixed bag, but most of its components work.

Sure, one might be a little disappointed in Keanu Reeves's performance as Jonathan Harker, and maybe Dracula's look as an old man is odd. However, isn't old man Dracula supposed to look odd? This movie is also interesting for tying Dracula to the legend of Vlad the Impaler. Although many scholars discredit those links between the characters, the public imagination obviously wants them to be there, much as wants Liz Bathory as history's vampire queen. On top of all this, the movie stars Winona Ryder!

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

Everyone knows porn is a dirty, dirty business. While falling short of being hardcore itself, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights still comes close to letting it all hang out. In fact, nudity and sex operate almost like a character in the movie. So why is it a good movie? Well, that's actually a big part of it. In many ways, Boogie Nights is actually not an anti-sex movie or even an anti-pornography movie. Most problems in the character's lives actually involve their more intelligent hangups and personality flaws (jealousy and greed), rather than sex acts themselves. Go ahead and watch this film with that in mind. You'll see that, if people wanted it to be, sex really could be mostly just for fun, pleasure, entertainment, and could potentially even solve problems.

However, outside factors tend to creep in and screw many of these things up. Sex is often used as a weapon throughout Boogie Nights, but we catch glimpses of how good it could be. Plus, let's face it: Many of us have paid special attention to a few key scenes with Heather Graham. Boogie Nights also stars Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)

A cult favorite, this film has surprisingly made it into the ⁠National Film Registry. Then again, maybe it isn't so surprising. Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is often considered an iconic slacker-type character, who gets wrapped up in a bizarre mystery involving a rug that gets peed on by some henchmen. While not the most poignant story, that's almost the point. There are many narrow twists and turns as the story develops, but the real appeal of The Big Lebowski is its characters and free-flowing hints of philosophy.

In addition to Lebowski you have John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, an unhinged Vietnam veteran, and the Dude's fellow bowling aficionado. There's also Sam Elliott as The Stranger, who narrates the film with his trademark voice. My favorite characters might be the nihilists, played by Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges, and Flea. Obviously I haven't mentioned everyone, but you get the idea. Is The Big Lebowski a bit overrated by some people? Maybe. Nevertheless, it's still a fun film, well worth checking out again every so often.

5. Pecker (1998)

Though not as beloved as some of his other films, John Waters' Pecker is one of his better "mainstream-accessible" movies. Oddly enough, people often criticize this one for lacking Waters' trademark shocks, but I give it a reprieve. It was a box office flop, but whatever. Long story short: I like Pecker and you should, too.

It stars Edward Furlong as the up-and-coming Pecker, a photographer whose nosy, honest style gets him in trouble upon becoming famous. It also stars Christina Ricci, Lili Taylor, Mary Kay Place, Martha Plimpton. If nothing else, maybe this film will inspire you to get out your camera and pull a Pecker or two!

6. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Many people say they can't watch this movie more than once. However, this powerhouse drama/psychological thriller by Darren Aronofsky definitely deserves repeat viewings. Granted, it can tug at your heartstrings while messing with your mind, while possibly even making you laugh awkwardly. It is, in many ways, a stylized look at the world of addiction. Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans all give great performances. However, most people will remember Burstyn's diet pill-addled character, Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), the most.

Then again, you will probably occasionally think you hear people chanting "Ass to ass! Ass to ass!" out of nowhere sometimes, too. Requiem for a Dream is a wild ride, for sure! One last point: That Ellen Burstyn didn't win an Oscar for her performance is a bit of a travesty, honestly. Her "red dress" monologue reminds us why we watch movies to begin with. It is powerful, as is the infamous "Feed me Sara" scene. This movie's just Burstyn with memorable moments! (Sorry, but I couldn't avoid it.)

7. One Hour Photo (2002)

Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo may be a psychological thriller, but make no mistake about it: This is more of a character study. Seymour "Sy" Parrish (Robin Williams) works as a photo tech at a Walmart-esque store called "SavMart." He gets a little too involved in the personal life of one of his regular clients, Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), to the point of obsession. As you might imagine, it doesn't end too well (or otherwise it wouldn't be a thriller, would it?).

One Hour Photo isn't the freakiest story ever committed to film, but it does suggest that loneliness and heightened emotion can transform people into potentially dangerous moral busybodies. This makes One Hour Photo a bit of a classic, and a unique film for Robin Williams (who, by this point in his career, seemed more interested in playing against type in his roles).

8. Secretary (2002)

Steven Shainberg's Secretary is fairly simple. A secretary named Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a history of self-abuse gets a secretarial position with E. Edward Grey (James Spader), and they develop a rather rigid dominant-submissive relationship. I know what you're thinking: Dominant-submissive relationship? One of the character's names is "Grey"? Is this a rip-off of Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, get ready for a shock: This came out well before 50 Shades.

Let me just say it: People seem to make that book/film too scandalous, blaming it for having an unhealthy influence on relationships. However, let's not forget that some people are dum-dums for misapplying a fictional story to their own actual lives.

The same would be true for Secretary, too. You probably shouldn't try either story at home, or at work. It wouldn't go over well in this age where even the slightest sexual overture at work can ruin a person's life. Always recognize that this is a work of fiction, that workplaces are supposed to be devoid of sexuality, and that intimate human relationships are horrible things anyway.

Is that the intended lesson of Secretary? No, not really, but it's a proper lesson anyway. With the right discipline, we can all become proper near-automatons in the workplace, and the business of sexual escapism can be properly hidden through power dynamics under strict, non-physically expressed capitalist discipline and reprimand. Then we can all be safe, and events like what we see in Secretary would be truly, 100% impossible. Can there still be relationships in the future? Perhaps. Maybe we can be assigned marriages by our state-corporate supervisors in the future, but there should definitely be strict, legally binding, contract-negotiated criteria for that.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked by this dystopian, semi-serious yet eerily real prognostication. Where was I? Oh, yeah...Secretary is a bit of a minor classic. Check it out! Also, if anyone ever tells you Maggie Gyllenhaal isn't attractive, urge them to check this movie out. It might change their mind.

9. The Last House on the Left (2009)

What makes a film a classic? That it has aged, giving a nostalgic quality on a re-watch? That's one angle, sure. But how about something that it's just a good story? What if it has style and decent performances? What if the story comes off as plausible, like something that could? Well, some might disagree that Dennis Iliadis' remake of Wes Craven's move has any of these elements, but I disagree, The 2009 version of The Last House on the Left might lack the aged, nostalgic quality of the original, but I would say it definitely holds up over a decade later.

Does it surpass the original overall? I won't be so bold, but I think it matches it in some places, and actually does a few things better than the 1972 film. While that movie is still a classic, there are a few scenes where Wes Craven injected humor that, if you ask me, just doesn't work. Frankly, those moments do way more to remind me that, yes, it is only a movie. Had the 2009 movie came out in 1972 instead of 2009, it would be a far more beloved picture today.

As a peace offering, I suggest you watch both as both are good, and are classics. And yes, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul does sort of steal the show in the remake, its other actors do well (Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Martha MacIsaac, and Sara Paxton).

10. Girls Trip (2017)

Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, and Jada Pinkett Smith, this seems like a movie someone like myself couldn't relate to. At first glance, it might seem like a female version of The Hangover. However, Malcolm D. Lee's Girls Trip is never groan-inducingly derivative, and will probably actually make you laugh, even if this sort of movie isn't your normal cup of tea.

In fact, I might like this movie more than The Hangover, if I'm being honest...which is totally unexpected. That might come down to personal preference, but it's not just me. Both audiences and critics seem to like it, and I'd be comfortable with calling this a modern comedy classic, with the caveat that some jokes wear thin if re-watched too much, too fast.

Wade Wainio
Wade Wainio
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Wade Wainio

Wade Wainio writes stuff for Show Snob, Undead Walking,, Vents Magazine and Haunted MTL. He is also an artist, musician and college radio DJ for WMTU 91.9 FM Houghton.

See all posts by Wade Wainio