The film that launched the Blaxploitation genre is actually a fairly traditional private eye story about tracking down a missing girl (in the original novel, Shaft was white). Two things set it apart: the first is Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, coolest man alive, giving a performance that would change the face of American cinema. And the second is Isaac Hayes’ theme song, which remains a classic to this day. “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks…”
Director Mel Brooks’ parody of westerns – a genre ripe for satire in the early 70s – was originally going to star Richard Pryor, and his influence can still be seen in the film’s no holds barred attitude to race. Not that this hilarious film has any kind of message to sell – apart from maybe that punching a horse in the face is a bad idea and when cowboys start eating beans around a campfire it’s a good idea to cover your nose.
Waiting for Guffman
Christopher Guest’s mockumentary comedy (which first began with Spinal Tap) reached some kind of pinnacle with this look at a small town theatre troupe falling over themselves with excitement at the news that a big time critic is coming to town to see their latest musical. Guest as astonishingly camp stage director Corky St Clair is just the tip of the comedy iceberg here, as the gang (including Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard) tell the history of their home town, “the stool capital of the United States!” through song. Very, very bad song.
Full Metal Jacket
The only Vietnam War epic ever filmed entirely in the UK, this look at the Tet Offensive forgoes the usual jungle warfare for bitter door-to-door urban combat. But while director Stanley Kubrick directs the violence of war with knife-edge suspense, it’s the first third of the film set during a Marine squad’s Paris Island training that’s made this a cult classic. Breaking down human beings and turning them into killing machines, largely through the use of some of the most inventively offensive insults put of screen, makes for compelling cinema.
It’s a classic '70s freakout concept – sensory deprivation will trigger evolutionary changes! – but it’s the behind-the-scenes team that makes this one so interesting. Teaming up Ken Russell and Paddy “Network” Chayefsky on a film that explores the death of God and the origins of man via spending time in a sensory deprivation tank is a pretty explosive combination and it’s no wonder that a): they fought like crazy and b): the end result is so memorable. Plus you can’t really go wrong with John Larroquette and Bob Balaban (even if they do only have minor roles).
Director John Waters was best known for films that shock as well as entertaining, so when he made a feelgood, family-friendly tale of a young girl in early '60s Baltimore who just wanted to dance (and improve race relations), a lot of people wondered: what’s the catch? No catch: Baltimore native Waters tells a warm, funny, note-perfect, perfect-haired teen tale where the good guys like dancing, the bad guys are horrible racists, and the Golden Age of America is both celebrated and exposed for the hotbed of racial segregation it was beneath.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Director Stanley Kubrick’s last-minute decision to ditch the extensive voice-over planned for his science-fiction epic turned what would have been a didactic lecture on the future into a near-wordless masterpiece of suggestion and suspense. Kubrick’s skill as a director makes every frame of this saga about man’s evolution (and the unseen aliens behind it) utterly compelling.
Death in Venice
In turn-of-the (20th) Century Venice, Count Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) travels to Venice for health reasons. Bad move: while he’s there the city is hit by a Cholera epidemic, which the locals try to hush up for fear it’ll damage tourism. But nothing would get the Count to leave: he’s become obsessed with a young man (Björn Andrésen), and while his intentions remain unclear – is his desire for the youth himself, or the beauty and potential he embodies – his love becomes all-consuming. Director Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella doesn’t hold back when it comes to stunning images: if you’ve ever had the slightest interest in Venice, this will have you on the next plane/gondola.
Memorably described by David Stratton as “a catalogue of sickening horrors”, this no-budget Australian feature set in a future where being hunted for sport is considered better than being confined to a death camp is, well… a catalogue of sickening horrors. But that’s the fun of this amazingly trashy film, which piles on the horrors (or considering the shoddy state of the special effects, “horrors”) in a desperate attempt to distract viewers from just about everything else in this film. Only the toughest prisoners will make it to the end: the same could be said for the viewers.
Surf movies don’t come much bigger than this. A coming-of-age classic looking at a trio of friends (played by Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey) as they go from the innocence of the early '60s through the Vietnam era and into the disillusionment of the '70s, it was a passion project for director John Milius (Conan, Red Dawn) and it shows. The surf footage looks great and beach culture is treated with a respect not usually seen in surf films, but it’s the characters – and the way the '60s chewed them up – that really show the stamp of a director with big things to say.
And for a limited time...
Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled teenager living in suburban Virginia, who is awakened in the middle of the night and led outside by a figure in a monstrous rabbit costume, who introduces himself as "Frank" and tells him the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds. At dawn, Donnie returns home to find a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom, but the authorities have no idea where it came from. Fans obsessed over every detail of Kelly’s trippy sci-fi tale have bonded over their shared knowledge, and a cult was born. (Cameron Williams)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
When a relationship turns sour, a couple (Carey and Winslet) undergo a procedure to have each other erased from their memories. But through the process of loss, they discover what they had to begin with. Carrey flirted with being taken seriously as a dramatic actor in the late '90s/early '00s, and his taste in roles, although varied (hello: The Majestic), yielded greatness like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There’s no doubting Carey’s star power enabled these films to get made, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a miracle. In the years following its release, the film would win an Oscar for best original screenplay and continue to grow in stature as one of the definitive films of the decade (2000–2009). When the BBC polled 177 film critics for the 21st century’s 100 greatest films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ranked sixth. (By Cameron Williams)