12. Memento - 2000
Are you tired of cheesy, computer-generated superhero movies? Do you crave a good psychological thriller now and again? If you’re ready for something different, Memento is a film by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk) about a man searching for his wife’s killers. The only problem? He suffers from anterograde amnesia and can’t form new memories. The film’s title is a reference to the fact that the main character must get tattoos, constantly write notes, and provide little mementos to guide himself along. The film does not have a linear plot, and will likely require more than one viewing - but gets better with each time you watch it.
11. Cape Fear - 1991
The 1962 version of Cape Fear, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, was a great film. However, Martin Scorsese's 1991 film includes a heightened feeling of suspense and is clearly hostile toward the South in an almost satirical way. It was the first film I saw growing up that had a distinctly Southern villain. Allegedly, Scorsese wanted to make his version of the movie extremely critical of the many fundamentalist types that negatively reviewed his film The Last Temptation of Christ. In the opening scenes of the film for example, we see the criminal Max Cady (played by Robert De Niro) working out in his jail cell amidst pictures of Robert E. Lee and Stalin on the wall. As the film unfolds, more layers are added to the character that explore the themes of religion, race, class, and masculinity within the South. For example, the story takes place in New Essex, North Carolina and Cady’s people are described as “from the hills, Pentecostal crackers.” Cady himself later remarks “My grandaddy used to handle snakes in church. Granny drank strychnine. I guess you could say I had a leg up, genetically speaking.” Cady’s portrayal by De Niro is an effective one, and is essentially that of a poor white-trash psychopath. Pentecostalism seems to be his one redeeming value, as he quotes the Bible and even drives around with bumper stickers that read “You’re a V.I.P. on EARTH, I’m a V.I.P. in HEAVEN” alongside a campy Confederate bumper sticker that says “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.” Even if you hate to see the South portrayed in such a light, this film is worth watching to see De Niro scarred from burns, drowning, and shouting in tongues at the end.
10. Gangs of New York - 2002
This film was a coming of age experience for me that opened my mind to the possibility that maybe the War Between the States wasn’t all what I was taught in school. The film feels like a true period piece and the acting is top notch. Daniel Day Lewis’s performance was particularly engaging, right down to the dirt underneath his fingernails. This film exposes the racism, deplorable conditions, political greed, and disunion within New York while balancing drama, action, and romance. It makes me think less of Scorsese’s South-bashing in Cape Fear.
9. Paths of Glory - 1957
My all-time, anti-war favorite. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this film uses his fantastic camera work to take the viewer inside the trenches of WWI. Kirk Douglas stars as a French colonel, who is ordered to take a massive German fortification known as “The Ant Hill.” When the assault goes bad and the regiment retreats, the French high command decides to execute some of the soldiers who retreated so that an example might be set for future assaults. Douglas’s character decides to defend his men in a court martial that exposes war for the dirty racket it can be.
8. The Grey - 2011
This would probably be my “guilty pleasure’ film on the list. If you’ve seen any of Liam Neeson’s films, you know that he typically stars in action films without much depth. However, The Grey is an allegory for survival, life, and death. After a group of oil miners get in a plane crash that lands in Alaska, they must fight for survival while being stalked by wolves. To cap things off, the film is presented in a poetic, almost dream like atmosphere.
7. Vice - 2018
A dark, humorous, and intimate portrayal of former president Dick Cheney. The actor who portrayed him, Christian Bale, gained an intense amount of weight and credited Satan as inspiration for the role. The film explores Cheney’s fascination of power, but lack of charisma. It also delves into the issue of the “Unitary Executive Theory,” which is that assumption that “anything the president does is legal, because he’s the president.” At the end of the day, there are just some unanswered questions about Cheney, especially related to 9/11, that this film will hopefully help us get answers to. But it also leaves some unanswered questions. For example, there are a few scenes that show how Cheney got into politics under the wing of Donald Rumsfeld. They had a longstanding friendship, so it was interesting that the film left out Donald Rumsfeld’s speech, just one day before 9/11 when he announced 2.3 TRILLION dollars went missing from the Pentagon. This film, along with Oliver Stone’s W, have done much to make George W. Bush seem as if he was a simpleton with no idea what was going on while other people ran his administration.
6. The Hateful Eight - 2015
Two former Confederates, a former Union cavalry soldier, a bounty hunter, and some bandits are trapped in a cabin during a bone-chilling blizzard. Do I need to say much else? Typical of a Tarantino film, the dialogue and music choices are top notch. Unlike his other films, the setting of a small home in a blizzard causes a feeling of cabin fever to kick in. This film also has some hidden symbolism about America and has some moments that made me jump out of my seat. A must see, especially if you like Westerns.
5. The Shootist - 1976
This was John Wayne’s final cinematic role, which is very important when taking into consideration that he began his career during the silent film era. He plays dying gunslinger, J.B. Books, who “never killed a man that didn’t deserve it.” When news spreads that Books is dying, aspiring cowboys from all over begin to come after him in order to gain some notoriety. The dying shootist takes on several challengers as he chugs laudanum to quell his own pain. This film ends in one of the greatest shootouts John Wayne was ever seen in, and ultimately is a film about rejecting violence.
4. The Battle of Algiers - 1966
A film about the Algerian fight for independence from the French, commissioned by the Algerian government. This film has been banned in some countries and has even been screened at the Pentagon. It’s a very important piece in that it exposes European imperialism and the high cost of blood it has caused. Terrorism and torture are just a few of the relevant issues that would make this movie important for everyone to see.
3. Heaven’s Gate - 1980
An epic western set during the Johnson County Range Wars of the 1890s. The original film was shot in such a way as to give a dusty, western look. The director, Michael Cimino, made the critically acclaimed film, The Deer Hunter, and was given a lot of money and artistic liberty with Heaven’s Gate. As time went on however, the production burned through millions and millions of dollars. The sets were all incredibly detailed and the film looks completely authentic to the period, with very few anachronisms. This painstaking attention to detail eventually made Michael Cimino a target to his own production company. Overall, Heaven’s Gate was a box office flop that ruined the career of Cimino and studio (United Artists). But the film was recently acquired by The Criterion Collection and has been beautifully restored and deserves a viewing. The performances by Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken alone are worth the cost of the film. It’s a long one, but a true hidden gem!
2. Diabolique - 1955
A French psychological thriller that will blow your socks off. A misogynistic school master is killed by his wife and mistress. But when his body goes missing and ghosts seemingly appear, nothing is as it seems. One of the biggest plot twists you will ever see in a move. When I was still dating my wife, she saw this film on my shelf and recognized it. That’s when I knew she was the one.
1. Badlands - 1973
A breakout role by Martin Sheen, set in the 1950s and based on the real life killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate. Sheen plays a rebellious youth that falls in love with a local girl a bit younger than him. When he tries to take the girl away with him, he winds up shooting the girls father and the two wind up on a cross country shooting spree. The real life story on which this movie was based turned out to be one of the first such cases in American history, and the film launched the career of Terrence Malick, who went on to make the amazing WWII film, The Thin Red Line and a film about John Smith and the early exploration of Virginia, called The New World.
Michael Martin is a teacher and historian residing in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of Southern Grit: Sensing the Siege of Petersburg and his work has been published on The Abbeville Institute, The Imaginative Conservative, and Dixie Heritage. His goal is to shatter the paradigm of centralization and show the world what the Southern Tradition has to offer.