The 20 Best Classic Films of 2016
As I’ve mentioned a few times this year, I didn’t have nearly the wide swath of classic films consumed as I’d hoped. It could explain why creating this list was harder than usual because so many of these have been forgotten to time. However, out of the 55 titles in contention these are the twenty that kept me captivated through a very tough year.
Clicking titles will take you to my original review or to purchase film
Honorable Mentions: Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Silk Stockings (1957), Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and Gentleman Jim (1942)
20. Lady of the Tropics (1939)
This swoony tale of forbidden love and miscegenation is a fantastic introduction to the beauteous Hedy Lamarr, who steals the show away from Robert Taylor. Unlike other movies dealing with colonialism, or this film’s closest comparison, Casablanca (1942), Lady of the Tropics is loaded with lines and imagery that comments on race relations in America. Have I mentioned Lamarr is gorgeous?
19. The Cat and the Canary (1927)
You’d be surprised to see not one but two silent films made the list this year! I’m getting better at appreciating the work of cinema devoid of dialogue. Though not nearly as fun as Bob Hope’s wiseacre in the 1939 remake, the original silent version of The Cat and the Canary is a fun haunted house film with “shades of Agatha Christie and James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).”
18. Girl Crazy (1943)
This is my favorite of the Mickey and Judy films I saw during the July Five, probably because Garland isn’t demeaned throughout. In previous outings, Mickey’s given all the fun as Judy sulks and pines for him. Here, everyone is “girl crazy” for the lovely Garland, as cowgirl Ginger. She’s allowed to be attractive and responds to the opposite sex. The film also has a genuine story that’s not dependent on the music, possibly due to being adapted from a successful play.
17. Thrill of a Romance (1945)
The second of six films pairing aquatic sensation Esther Williams and good ‘ole boy Van Johnson, Thrill of a Romance doesn’t have the staying power of Dangerous When Wet (1953) but is one of the funner Williams films. There isn’t an overabundance of musical numbers like the swimmer usually had padding her films; the romance between Johnson and Williams feels authentic and whimsical. This is a great dive into the pool!
16. Why Worry? (1923)
The actor who started off the first in my Fridays With… series this year – there’s a new poll on the homepage if you’d like to cast your vote for the next in the series, by the way – Harold Lloyd’s become a favorite of mine. Why Worry? doesn’t have the wit and narrative fascination as another film on this list, but it’s fun regardless. Lloyd plays a wealthy man who learns that traveling outside the U.S. is terrible – this was 1923 after all. Lloyd’s brand of comic quirkiness and hypochondria never gets old.
15. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (1972)
Upon an initial viewing I didn’t expect this to stick with me, but it has. Maybe it’s Shelley Winters’ over-the-top performance, or the overall message that children are really terrible. As I said in my review, “This Hansel and Gretel-inspired horror film takes Shelley Winters at her flashiest, if that’s even possible, and places her in what, in actuality is a tenderhearted tale of love and loss that asserts the fact that kids aren’t nothing but trouble!”
14. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
With the way the world’s turning right now the last we need are additional scares, right? Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes is a genuinely terrifying jaunt that will leave you saying, “maybe we should never go on a road trip again.” An average family ends up being attacked by incestuous cannibals with an appetite for baby meat and if that doesn’t give you pause you have a heart of stone! Craven’s directorial style improves from his debut film, The Last House on the Left (1972), finding a way to keep exploitation low and scares high. He also rightfully avoids peppering this with recognizable faces, leaving audiences expectations undefined. You genuinely aren’t sure if any of these people make it out alive, proof that Craven knew horror.
13. Good News (1947)
Good News is all kinds of bizarre fun. June Allyson and Peter Lawford play some of the oldest college students this side of Grease (1978); Lawford is the school’s football star who needs to pass a class with the help of Allyson, and get the girl of his dreams. I’m a soft touch for Peter Lawford. The man doesn’t even pretend to be the all-American he’s touted as – a precursor to that other “all-American” star, Arnold Schwarzenegger – but I could care less. Songs like “Pass That Peace Pipe” are choreographed to perfection!
12. The Girl Most Likely (1958)
A harbinger of things to come, The Girl Most Likely was the last of the big studio musicals, as well as the last film shot on the RKO lot. Despite being a depressing piece of Hollywood history, Jane Powell is darling as “girl mostly likely,” Dodie, torn between three very different suitors. Tommy Noonan and Cliff Robertson are delightful as two of Dodie’s paramours, though Robertson gets the edge for A) being Cliff Robertson and B) spending an inordinate amount of this film’s runtime shirtless.
11. Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)
The Western isn’t my go-to genre, but I enjoy a good send-up and Support Your Local Sheriff is a hilarious Western lampoon, as well as a strong entry into the genre in its own right. The always reliable James Garner plays Jack McCullough who becomes the sheriff of a wayward Western town. Hilarity ensues, along with commentary on how the Western formula is revered. Unlike Blazing Saddles (1974), Support is a taste more respectful though so much of it is wrapped up in commentary on Nixon’s America. And who doesn’t enjoy James Garner in a cowboy hat?
10. Marnie (1964)
Hitchcock’s final film with ingenue Tippi Hedren gives the actress her best performance of all time. Packed with sexual double-speak, veiled lesbianism, and Diane Baker side-eye, Marnie is as dense as the richest cake. It’s near impossible to sum up the numerous thoughts I had watching this, so read my review/deconstruction. I expended a lot of words on this one!
9. Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Vincente Minnelli masterfully weaves a tale that’s more than meets the eye. Initially, Tea and Sympathy is the straightforward story of a young student (John Kerr) falling in love with a teacher’s wife (Deborah Kerr, no relation). But underneath that is a fount of metaphor regarding homosexuality and changing definitions of masculinity. Of course, being 1956 there’s no way to explicate that completely which makes Tea and Sympathy a narrative requiring deeper exploration. Tragic, beautifully composed and affecting.
8. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
I enjoyed Son of Frankenstein so much I went and did a Ticklish Business episode on it to boot! This last A-list Frankenstein picture takes the 18th-century Creature (played for the last time by Boris Karloff) and thrusts him firmly into pre-WWII England. The budget and sets leave a lot to be desired, but the humor is so witty. Basil Rathbone is right as home as the new Dr. Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi, who’d initially wanted to play the Creature, is having nothing but fun as Ygor. And let’s all raise a glass to little Donnie Dunagan who steals the picture as the titled “son of Frankenstein.”
7. The Way We Were (1973)
“Memories light the corners of my mind…” Yes, until 2016 I’d never watched the Barbra Streisand/Robert Redford romantic classic The Way We Were. This year’s TCM Classic Film Festival left me with a ton of memories of my own, one of which was watching this in the Chinese multiplex with the awesome Lara Fowler at around 11am. We had such fun wondering why Barbra’s clothes always look so ’70s despite the film starting in the ’30s, and whether both characters are terrible human beings. However, who can really hate on this when Robert Redford is so gosh-darn gorgeous? This is one I’ve watched since the festival and though it’s far from perfect, it’s a fun watch.
6. The Freshman (1925)
2016 turned me into a Harold Lloyd fan with The Freshman, the story of Harold Lamb’s trip (nearly dying in the process) through Tate College. I missed seeing this with an audience at this year’s TCM Film Festival, but regardless the humor is conveyed whether you’re surrounded by people or watching at home as I was. Lloyd is utterly darling, Jobyna Ralston is preternaturally exquisite, and the laughs range from slap-stick to animals stuck in weird places.
5. The Second Face (1950)
I talked about The Second Face a bit further in my latest Ticklish Business episode, but in a nutshell it’s a remarkably feminist film for 1950. Ella Rains plays a Plain Jane who gets an opportunity for a second, more beautiful, face in this condemnation of physical beauty. Raines’ character sees the way beauty is a societal construct perpetuated on women by men, and how it limits women from being true individuals. You’ll cheer for her character and be amazed at how honest and forthright the film is, particularly considering this would be soon be the era of domesticity.
4. All That Heaven Allows (1955)
This was another TCM Classic Film Festival screening. I was the only member of my friends willing to wake up at 9am on a Sunday to see this, but who can pass up a Douglas Sirk film introduced by Alison Anders? Illeana Douglas even dropped by and sat in for a few minutes! Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are just as lovely to see in glorious Technicolor as they were in Magnificent Obsession (1954). Here, the drama involves a widow (Wyman) and the handyman (Hudson) she falls for. The entire thing has a lovely “return to nature” theme alongside the typical Sirkian melodrama and reiteration that kids freaking suck! If you can see this on the big screen, that’s the best way!
3. My Sister Eileen (1955)
This was a recent discovery and boy am I glad to have seen this before the year’s end! My Sister Eileen is a bouncy musical starring Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh as sisters with a bevy of man problems. For Eileen (Leigh) it’s the fact that every man she meets instantly falls in love with her; for Ruth (Garrett) it’s the fact that every man she meets instantly falls for her sister! However, the two women never put men above their relationships, and if anything make the best of it. The men at the center create an ensemble of bizarre casting decisions, from Bob Fosse (who choreographs the film) as a mild-mannered soda jerk to Tommy Rall playing another dice-throwing cad. And let’s not forget Jack Lemmon who sings! Did you know Jack Lemmon could sing? The entire film culminates with a conga in a basement, and if you want to know the rest…watch the film!
2. The Beguiled (1971)
If someone had told me a 1970s Clint Eastwood movie would stick with me into December and become number two on this list I wouldn’t believe it. However, The Beguiled is on this list and for good reason. The story follows a wounded Civil War coward (Eastwood) who finds himself trapped in a Southern boarding school for girls. Laid up with a bum leg the guy instantly assumes he can spend his days seducing all the ladies. But these good girls aren’t all they appear. Now, the film is heavily steeped in male fears of the encroaching arrival of second-wave feminism, but that’s actually a benefit. The cast of women assembled are all fantastic, particularly Elizabeth Hartman and Geraldine Page. What’s even better is the film is set to be remade in 2017 directed by Sofia Coppola! If the original film is about the fear of female sexuality and independence, I can only imagine how a female director makes the material even better.
1. The Harvey Girls (1946)
My appreciation for The Harvey Girls knows no bounds! Judy Garland as Susan Bradley travels to a small-town and becomes a waitress at popular Harvey House restaurant. Unfortunately the local prostitutes and saloon girls don’t find these prim “harvey girls” worth their time. Judy Garland sparring off against a bedazzled Angela Lansbury, everyone! You should be running to see this.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Nice, Kristen! I actually went to the Harvey House in Barstow, California. Also, when I first saw The Beguiled, I had read the epistolary novel that it was based on. I wasn’t disappointed!
Ooh, I should read the book before the remake!
I enjoyed reading your list.
All That Heaven Allows is an all-time great, not just visually, but thematically as well. I thought the scene where Wyman picks up the Thoreau book was central.
By the way, Hudson didn’t play a handyman — he had a gardening business and grew trees and plants. (Did you actually watch it? LOL) The film was re-actualized in 2002 as Far From Heaven, starring Dennis Quaid, and Julianne Moore, with Dennis Haysbert as the gardener. Patricia Clarkson plays the best girlfriend in the latter picture, and intentionally bares a good resemblance to Agnes Moorehead.
Support Your Local Sheriff was released a mere two months + one week after Nixon was inaugurated, which means the script was written BEFORE Nixon became President. But go ahead and blame it on the Republican President! (LOL) Perhaps since you’re a liberal, you see a Republican boogeyman hiding underneath every rug, eh?
Also, you referred to Van Johnson as a “good ol’ boy” but I don’t know anyone else who characterizes him that way. Van may have been “the boy next door,” but certainly not a “good ol’ boy.”
Hi Tim, thanks for reading! You have to excuse my misremembering Hudson’s profession in All That Heaven Allows. I saw the film back in April and as a full-time critic I watch so many movies that sometimes plot points are swapped. As far as Support Your Local Sheriff, I’m just stating what many other critics have “read” the film to be about. If you don’t see a deeper meaning, that’s fine. I use “good ole boy” interchangeably with “boy next door.” Both are connotations for wholesome, again you might see a different meaning to that. Thanks for stopping by!
Some wonderful films! So very glad to see The Second Face show up, I ran across it on TCM not expecting much but since I like Ella Raines decided to give it a chance. It is all those things you said, with a wonderful performance from her.
The Beguiled is an odd one but fascinating in its strangeness. Did you know that Gerry Page and Eastwood DID NOT hit it off behind the scenes leading her to remark “Yes I have acted with Clint Eastwood. Or rather, I have acted opposite Clint Eastwood.”
I’ve never been able to get into Magnificent Obsession-all that gobbledgook the different characters spew-but love All That Heaven Allows. Very trenchant and the cinematography is breathtaking.
Also love The Way We Were, whatever its fault it’s so swooningly romantic. I think it’s Babs best performance and the 40’s look is very flattering to her.
Also Good News!! Ya June & Peter are a bit on in years to be convincing college students but both are bright and sunny and the dancing is amazing. Pass the Peace Pipe is awesome but nothing beats The Varsity Drag.
Personally I’d have Love Me or Leave Me higher. Doris Day and Cagney rock their parts, dramatically it’s Doris at her peak as it is for her vocally and she has a great score to use her gifts on. They had to soften the characters somewhat but they were still clearly climbers and users which for both a big star vehicle and an MGM film rather unusual for the 50’s.
The only one that I’ve seen that I’d disagree about is Tea and Sympathy. I hated that movie, doubly disappointing since it took me so long to track it down.