Every ten years, renowned film publication Sight And Sound compiles a list of the 50 greatest movies of all time. Often enough, most movies that top the list were produced before 1980. Even with the wealth of great cinema made in the last thirty-odd years, critics return again and again to the old classics. Some films, like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, are best known for how innovative they were for their time. They’re arguably wonderful, but a perhaps little dated in today’s broad cinematic world.
Still, some of the old standbys seem right at home in 2014. While this is by no means a complete list, here are five classic films that feel modern.
The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), 1959
This seems apropos with the release of Boyhood, which some are calling “the 400 Blows of its era.” The 400 Blows, or Les quatre cent coups (from the French idiom, “faire les quatre cents coups,” or to “raise hell”), is French nouveau vague director Francois Truffaut’s beautiful debut film about the journey of a misunderstood adolescent boy. Peppered with comedic moments and slashed with heartbreak, Truffaut’s film gets to the heart of what it means to be a kid with no one on your side.
The 400 Blows came out in 1959, but Truffaut’s Antoine could easily be a twelve-year-old kid today. Far from heavy-handed, the movie is full of delightful snippets—one that comes to mind is an aerial tracking shot of Antoine and his school peers following their gym teacher down the streets of Paris. The camera trails at a high angle as the children break off and ditch the group until there are only two students following their oblivious teacher. It’s a brief, inconsequential scene, but it might be one of my favorite tableaus of all time. In the end, kids 50 years ago aren’t too different from kids today.
The Birds, 1963
The majority of Hitchcock’s work has a timeless quality, though I might not go so far to say that all Hitchcock feels modern in today’s suspense horror standards. Maybe that’s okay—I don’t know that we’re living in a golden age of horror thrillers. And some classic horror films do feel dated; The Exorcist, for example, while the premiere horror film of its time and an incredibly influential piece, failed to strike much fear into my heart.
Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, The Birds, however, is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen in my life. The premise is terrifying in its simplicity—bird begins viciously and inexplicably attacking people in a small town. That’s it. That’s the entire movie. It’s a slow burn, starting out as more of a screwball comedy than a horror movie—but the film’s slow devolution into darkness proves that build-up is the key to suspense. The film’s plot and stylistic choices work together to produce a chilling piece that I’d wager would rattle even the most seasoned of today’s horror buffs.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975
One of the best page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest holds up almost 40 years after its release. Jack Nicholson plays rakish Randle Patrick “Mac” MacMurphy, hoping to avoid a hard labor sentence for statutory rape by pretending to be mentally ill. Mac quickly realizes that a prison farm is a cakewalk compared to the mental institution he is transferred to; the film blends comedy and tragedy to showcase the fatal flaws of our country’s mental health system.
Unfortunately, the issue bears relevance today, and the concept still feels ripped from the headlines. Louise Fletcher does a formidable job as cold, controlling Nurse Ratched, the unyielding and quietly power-hungry warden of the hospital; Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Will Sampson also star as fellow patients with a myriad of real (and not so real) ailments. The rag-tag team of mental patients and its villainous nurse do an excellent job rousing a simultaneous feeling of anger and helplessness—you can only stand by and watch the abuse.
The Last Picture Show, 1971
Though it came out long after the invention of color television, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show was shot in black and white, an aesthetic choice made to convey the bleakness of the Texas town it takes place in. The film is set in 1952 but could easily be a coming-of-age tale from 2014. It deals with the dynamics of sex, power and virility within a small-town group of teenagers in a surprisingly raw way considering its 1971 release date.
The coming-of-age film genre owes a lot to The Last Picture Show; the film would influence similar tales of adolescent friendship and heartbreak, like Stand By Me or American Graffiti. But unlike its successors, Bogdanovich’s masterpiece is unflinchingly dark. The movie’s unwillingness to find humor in the clumsy chaos of initial teenage sexual encounters, and its quest to reveal the confused cruelty of youth only strengthens its staying power. It’s a film whose relevance rests with you.
It’s A Wonderful Life, 1946
While it might not necessarily feel at home in today’s cinematic world, It’s A Wonderful Life makes a contemporary viewer feel nostalgic for a time they never even knew. Frank Capra’s Christmas tale is an absolute triumph, with Jimmy Stewart as its hero, George Bailey, a tired man with a good heart who has sacrificed his happiness for those around him. The film revolves around one question: what if George Bailey had never been born? Predictably, as Clarence Odbody, Bailey’s literal guardian angel shows us, the world would be a much worse place.
It’s A Wonderful Life is so refreshing in its earnestness; with modern cinema in an apparent competition of who can produce the most darkly depressing movie, Capra’s film proves that feel-good doesn’t necessarily mean empty or saccharine. It’s A Wonderful Life is a beautiful portrait of a man and a town in a certain time; those moments, despite being marked by the 1940s, are incredibly poignant. Capra truly lassos the moon with this one.