5. The Apartment (1960)
The Apartment is the greatest silver screen romance ever made. And that’s coming from a connoisseur of romance movies.
This list could have been entirely made up of romantic dramas. Films like Call Me By Your Name, When Harry Met Sally, Bringing Up Baby, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Each of these classics of the genre changed my life in their own way. I am a firm believer that love in all its forms (communal, familial, romantic, and so on) is the only thing in our modern world that money can’t buy, and per the result is the most naturally human thing to experience. My friends often tease me that I love love, 90-minutes at a time. They’re right.
The Apartment tells of a single man, C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), looking to progress up the corporate ladder by loaning his city apartment to his bosses at his job in a New York City skyscraper so they can have extramarital affairs, and the development of his crush on the “elevator girl” Ms (Fran) Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. Both Lemmon and MacLaine are at career bests (which is saying something given their monumental contributions to the form) and inject so much life into each of their characters, colouring in each crisp and timeless black and white frame with quirks and eccentricities that pop their personas right out of the screen. The trials and tribulations they go through (workplace drama, affairs, suicide attempts) on their way to forming a bond make for unconventional rom-com story beats, but vital and hugely successful ones that you can’t for a second turn away from. If ever you needed reassurance that romantic love does exist, The Apartment has you covered.
Some of the tropes of the great Hollywood romances are present here, and have been borrowed and repurposed time and time again. Many of these tropes were themselves recycled from earlier films, such as David Lean’s unmissable Brief Encounter (1945) – a noted inspiration for the plot of this film. The Apartment remains a fresh viewing experience, however, because it refrains from presenting these tropes as cliché, joyfully utilising the earnest intentions behind them to encourage us to will the characters together. Intricate genre-topping screenwriting that concentrates on character development and relatable points of interest (which are still relatable more than 60 years later) ensure that a mad last-minute dash through the streets of New York to confess recently discovered feelings doesn’t set up an over-the-top monologue, or even a dramatic kiss in the rain. To do so would be to betray the longing that exists between the characters, in the silences between each word they utter to one another, and Wilder knows it. This moment, instead, simply ensures that the characters get to where we all believe they belong… together.
The director and co-writer is steadfast in presenting the central relationship of The Apartment as being the opposite of the extramarital affairs that Baxter’s (Lemmon’s) bosses use his apartment for, that Ms Kubelik is used for. In a genre of confessional monologues, The Apartment doesn’t verbalise many of the feelings that the central duo share. It goes so far as to not even explicitly tell us, through dialogue, whether their story is complete; we must instead read into the story that which we wish to see. In life, things aren’t laid out as plainly as they are in the movies, and to see this realised with all the beauty of The Apartment seems like one of cinema’s most valuable celebrations of the everyday. Love, in all its forms, can change us, but when it does we don’t necessarily jump down the throat of whomever we feel, nor do we take several minutes to burst out a monologue filled with existential themes and references to past moments; sometimes, we simply sit down on the couch and play cards.
Beyond the romance that only silver screen celluloid can deliver, The Apartment is a beautifully shot, tight, and funny, piece of cinema. If you’ve never seen a Jack Lemmon film, this is the one to start with. If you’ve never seen early Shirley MacLaine, go back and watch this. For more than sixty years, this Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Editing Oscar winner, has been as vibrant and relatable as it ever was. It is the closest cinema has ever been to replicating the elation one feels when falling in love.
4. La Haine (1995)
Our society has a problem. Too many people are trodden on for too long, generations even. It’s a pain that moulds your bones, forges your being. For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, would-be Amélie star Mathieu Kassovitz gave a voice to this pain. The authorities branded his original work “an anti-police movie”, but those disillusioned with the systems that oppressed them knew it was more than just that. La Haine was a petrol bomb.
The story goes that Kassovitz was inspired to write La Haine in the aftermath of the 6th April 1993 Paris riots caused by the death of teenage boy, Makome M’Bowole, who’d been shot in the head while in police custody. Released in 1995, La Haine became instantly iconic internationally for providing a voice to such victims and the people who fight for them, its opening shots being amongst the first to feature guerrilla-style footage from the perspectives of rioters (as opposed to the perspectives of police officers, whose side most news cameras had long been stationed on for “safety purposes”). The film tells of three men traversing the thirty kilometres from their Paris banlieue (social housing suburb) into the French capital’s more reputable city centre, encountering discrimination and trouble on their path to tragedy.
27-year-old Kassovitz intended his black and white film to be 24 hours in the life of “black-blanc-beur” (black-white-arab), and as such cast three appropriate actors playing characters with their real names. The always tremendous Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) leads a trio of exceptional, empathetic and relatable leads in his breakout role, playing the hot-headed jewish man Vinz. Saïd Taghmaoui (Wonder Woman) plays his Arab friend of Moroccan descent, and Hubert Koundé plays a black amateur boxer who struggles to express himself beside his more boisterous friends. Together, they encapsulate the oppressed French, the same overlooked people whose oppression caused the riots that inspired the film.
The two most famous moments in the movie best encapsulate the film’s impact and lasting relevance. The first, which comes as the three young men arrive in central Paris, is one of the greatest dolly zooms of all time. It captures visually how oppressive the culture of central Paris is to three men not born of the city’s ideas of “normal” and “acceptable”. As the background magnifies, it’s as if the city is swallowing them whole. The second is a brief moment of hope that best encapsulates Kassovitz’s message, and this is when Saïd graffitis an advertisement to change its meaning from “the world is yours” to “the world is ours”. It is ours, all of ours, and together we struggle, together we suffer, together we accomplish – there’s a reason this moment has long been plastered all over The Film Magazine’s social media channels. The slogan change was like a call to arms for an entire class of people, its relevance passing from the streets of France to the post-1992 riot streets of Los Angeles and around the world to all who felt powerless to resist the imbalance they felt.
La Haine is said to have been the best representation of the voiceless people of France that had ever existed, and it captured that very French sense of revolution in a universally appreciated manner. A short-lived movement was born of its success, iconic filmmakers like Claire Denis contributing to this legacy (Beau Travail), but the energy and vibrancy of the film’s revolutionary attitude and presentation persists to this day in Best of Year films like Les Misérables (2019) and Athena, even mainstream Hollywood films like The Dark Knight Rises and Joker.
Cool, artistic and borderline revolutionary in its day, and tremendously impactful and important more than a quarter of a century later, La Haine is the great feature debut of its decade (a decade which includes debuts from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes and Paul Thomas Anderson) and a film that still bites just as hard as it ever did.
3. Modern Times (1936)
I still remember the feeling I had when watching my first Charlie Chaplin film. I was 18, and Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) was being shown as part of an exploration of the language of cinema in my Film 101 class at university. As was often the case with these screenings, the majority of attendees were simply too cool or too preoccupied with other things to fully immerse themselves, but I was hooked; watching Chaplin for the first time was like seeing childhood joy come to life.
The following decade (and then some) of film-watching, context-acquiring, knowledge-building, pointed me in the direction of his other films, highlighted his influence, and solidified the filmmaker as being one of my all-time favourites. He was a talent with an undeniable eye for empathy, a caricature who never lost sight of the humanity that connects us all to each other. He understood film as an empathy machine long before the legendary critic Roger Ebert coined it as such. As a child of a mother deemed “insane” by the British government for giving birth to him outside of wedlock, as the product of a workhouse, Chaplin created his character The Tramp, making a statement on his own unjust treatment while never succumbing to the righteous anger he felt towards it. To this day, Charlie Chaplin’s large-booted, shabbily-presented, moustachioed everyman, is one of the most recognisable figures in the world; an icon of the 20th century.
The monumental writer, director, performer’s greatest film is Modern Times. It combines the wholesome situational comedy of his earlier classics such as The Kid, The Gold Rush and the aforementioned City Lights, with the political satire that would come to be more and more prominent (or at least more obvious) in his later career, some of which contributed to him being forced to leave the USA after coming under investigation for being a communist during the Black List era. Shot and released years after the rise to prominence of sound in American cinema (which started with The Jazz Singer in 1927), avid anti-sound campaigner Chaplin promised that Modern Times would be the first film in which audiences would hear The Tramp speak…
After 79 minutes of his film’s 86-minute runtime, we finally got to hear The Tramp for the first time. Taking to the stage to sing a number for the patrons at a restaurant he was hijinxed into working for, The Tramp sang… in a completely made up and nonsensical language. It was the perfect punchline.
Beyond the sheer bravado of making the evolution of the form the butt of his biggest joke yet, Chaplin made an emphatic statement on the timelessness and universality of silent cinema. Though he would later embrace the change, making one of the few truly great Nazi satires The Great Dictator in 1940, Modern Times is the film that has appropriately become his most iconic. From his diminutive frame being forced through the gears of a machine (which has been paid tribute to countless times, including in Paddington 2), to an automated shaving machine slapping him in the face and squirting shaving cream all over him, to the hilarious physical comedy of the boxing match he wants no part of but somehow wins, Chaplin was never this consistently outrageously great.
Much of what Chaplin eventually put to screen originated in the vaudeville, a touring performance art that primarily told stories through farcical comedy. The techniques of that unique artform, often associated with the underclass, have never been better realised on screen. Creative set pieces are one thing, but Chaplin always knew how to make things uniquely cinematic, and he was always willing to put his best foot forward politically. In Modern Times, Chaplin took on the rise of automation, fought for the everyday worker, and proved his character was bigger than any developments within his own industry, making people grin ear to ear all the while. Per the result, the vaudeville lives, its legacy burned onto celluloid forever.