10 Best Films of All Time: Katie Doyle

2. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

5 Reasons Why You Need to Watch Midnight Cowboy

Why is it that certain stories become legends and get told over the centuries, whilst others fade away alongside the passing of a generation? What makes a film timeless? Does a movie being a product of its time necessarily mean that it’s dated?

It is in the exploration of these questions that I was able to ascertain why I have a general malaise towards contemporary cinema in comparison to the classics. Often with the good intentions of creating greater diversity and representation within the film industry (or the very cheap vested interest of boosting public relations for the sake of profit), production via an agenda often gets in the way of the storytelling. It cheapens the whole effort.

This is where the award-winning Midnight Cowboy arrives at centre-stage. Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, it tells the story of a young man called Joe Buck (Jon Voight); escaping from a tragic past and a bleak future in Texas, he travels to New York to become a gigolo to serve the rich old women of high society in the hopes of getting rich quick. As the harsh reality of the Big Apple sets in and Joe is fleeced of the little savings he brought with him, an unusual but strong bond forms with native homeless con-man, Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, or Ratso to his enemies (Dustin Hoffman).

Although there is no explicit revelation, it is widely regarded by viewers from both the time of its release and today that the relationship between Joe and Rizzo is queer. As impactful as any form of queer representation from 1969 is, it is all too easy to dismiss the significance of Midnight Cowboy considering the often reported standards of many modern cinephiles on social media.

As a quick disclaimer, a select few scenes from Midnight Cowboy do feature shocking levels of homophobia present alongside certain slurs. For those who would be triggered by such content, it would be wise to avoid a watch. However, to accuse the film itself of homophobia or being inappropriate for modern audience is incredibly reductive and tone deaf. To deny this film would be to deny oneself of one of the most beautiful and remarkable movies of all time.

In 1969 USA, an explicitly gay romance was not possible. Although, the film’s British director John Schlesinger was an openly gay man, homosexuality had only been legalised in his homeland two years prior to the film’s release – heck, it wouldn’t be fully decriminalised in the USA until 2003. Even with the implications surrounding the film’s central relationship and extremely brief homosexual encounters, this was enough at the time for the project to face political backlash. An X-rating was quickly slapped upon it. Despite this, it still won the Academy Award for Best Picture and it is the only X-rated film to have achieved this. It also really pissed off John Wayne whose own True Grit lost out to this accolade. Wayne later bitterly told Playboy magazine:

“Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of these two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two f*gs, qualifies as a perverse movie?”

So, although it would be very disappointing for a modern film to fail to be explicit about any LGBTQIA+ relationship it features, for Midnight Cowboy it was groundbreaking and allows for more natural storytelling which leads to more impactful representation.

The central relationship is in effect open to any interpretation, all of which validate the experiences of the ones who see themselves mirrored on screen. Be it gay, bisexual, queer platonic, gender non-conforming, the most important thing about Joe and Rizzo is that they love each other and that their love is the most valuable thing in each of their lives. Greater then is the injustice and atrocities the pair face.

What Midnight Cowboy may lack in explicit LGBTQIA+ representation, its unapologetically fierce realism makes up for it via the representation of the basic human right to love and to dream. Without having to lecture us or tick boxes with clumsy exposition, we are brought to be absolutely appalled by the poverty the pair face, the evil of internalised homophobia and that which comes from external sources. It leads us to be truly devastated and moved by their tragic ending.

The merits of the film’s bravery were almost immediately evident, a corner having finally been turned in the history of queer cinema with the likes of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) produced hot off its tail. Midnight Cowboy kills the conversation around a movie’s attempt to win brownie points and instead silences us as it walks us through one of the most powerful and moving stories of cinema.

1. The Sound of Music (1965)

Instead of explaining through words why The Sound of Music is the greatest film of all time, I’d honestly prefer to run to my nearest hill to spin around with my arms outstretched and feel the wind blow through my hair. It is the embodiment of joy and countless agree.

The film is based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical inspired by the book penned by the real Maria Von Trapp, “The Story of the Von Trapp Singers”, and has enjoyed immense and continuous popularity since its release, with the film’s adoration coming from some unexpected sources. It is the professed favourite movie of ‘Family Guy’ creator Seth McFarlane, 90s heart throb Hugh Grant (who claims he cries through every sitting), and pop legend Gwen Stefani (who reportedly knows every word). Lady Gaga famously performed a medley of The Sound of Music to celebrate its 50th anniversary at the 2015 Oscars.

Furthermore, this isn’t the case of the film becoming a cult favourite or a sleeper hit, The Sound of Music was massive from the offset. It was the most profitable film of all time before the position was taken by Grease 13 years later (although accounting for inflation, it still has the highest box office takings of any movie musical). In fact, when considering box office earnings (accounting for inflation of course), The Sound of Music passes the $1billion mark. Of course, the soundtrack is also hugely popular, with it enjoying the status of never being out of print. It is one of the best-selling albums of all time, with it remaining in the UK charts for 70 weeks.

This is a lot of success to attribute to mere joyfulness, but The Sound of Music is such a magical experience because of its simplicity – its appeal is universal. It has the intrigue of being based on a true story (and one that involves a daring escape from Adolf Hitler), its protagonist is a spunky and insatiably likeable rebel (Julie Andrews), the love interest is a brooding older man (Christopher Plummer) inexplicably wounded by a past but eventually healed by the power of love. As cliched and cheesy these tropes are, they are consistently associated with sell-out hits and classics (I’m looking straight at “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre”).

Additionally, it has a very unique way of garnering the attention of younger audiences more so than many other family films. The tragedy of the Von Trapps is communicated in the most desperate terms to any children watching, with there being no hope of being allowed to play and having to wear a uniform outside of school.

Many of the highlights of cinema which I have covered in this list are outstanding because of their examination of the grey areas of life and of society as a whole. But one of the main reasons the art of cinema even exists is for its aspirations and for its pure escapism. Through the lows of human existence, alongside the history of film, droves have continued to flood to the theatres though depressions, recessions and social degradations for moments of respite and invigoration. It is not always the scathing social commentaries that draw in the audiences, but the movies that portrayed the glimmers of hope in our existence.

The Sound of Music is one of these beacons of hope: as drastic as the dichotomy of nuns and Nazis is the crispness of the black and white nature of its morality – the virtuous succeed as the wicked fail, but not before the good prove themselves of their worthiness.

The angry and romantic tension between Maria and the Captain, the seductive romantic threat of the Baroness, and the slimy nature of the wannabe fascists who welcome the Anschluss, all work together to remove the saccharine edge of the film. This added depth makes the small victories that more hard fought, particularly the Captain’s emotional reunion with his children, the romantic confession of Maria and the Captain, and of course the finale.

As we find ourselves yet again in dark times, where much of life seems out of control, we take comfort in the victories of love and small kindnesses. It is therefore even more joyous to see the finale of the Von Trapps crossing the Alps to Switzerland as the music swells in the background. We are left believing that our own love will help us to climb every mountain.

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