Okay, hear me out kids! I’m doing something a bit… out of the ordinary today. I’ve been having a bit of a wave of nostalgia (wistful sigh) in my personal life and find myself feeling a bit… introspective. In this list I wanted to look at the movies that made me the slightly (ha!) nerdy film historian you read here before you. Why am I who I am? What resulted in all this craziness? Well, we looked at nostalgia with some majorly rose colored glasses in the 1990s… and I’m blaming that for all the good stuff we publish here. These might not all be critical darlings, but each of these hold a real place in my heart.
So, without further ado, here are the Top 5 Movies to Open My Eyes to Classic Cinema.
I hear all you snickering out there. This is a movie that sees a lot of… grief…from critics and I’ve never particularly understood why. Oscar holds the distinction of being the first movie yours truly ever owned on VHS… this must mean something.
Oscar follows the story of gangster Angelo “Snaps” Provolone after he resolves to go ‘straight’ in order to appease his dying father (Kirk Douglas). Peter Riegert, Marissa Tomei, Tim Curry, and Vincent Spano co-star in the period comedy. John Landis directs the film from a script by Michael Barrie and Jim Mullholland.
Thinking back on it, Oscar also served to introduce me to several classic Hollywood performers. Not only does Douglas cameo, but he’s joined by Yvonne DeCarlo, Don Ameche, and Eddie Bracken in the delightfully crafted comedy.
At the same time, Oscar seamlessly integrates a gorgeous, early 1930s aesthetic. It is a fun little movie and is very much a love letter to a certain kind of slapstick comedy. Perhaps the film had some trouble because it really isn’t a Sylvester Stallone movie (at a time when Sylvester Stallone was all the rage), but for lovers of all things nostalgia, it is worth a watch.
Little Women is one of those stories which many people can point straight to their entree as a fan. For me, mine was the 1994 film version of the famous Louisa May Alcott novel. Seeing this movie in theaters ended up being a formative experience and propelled eight-year-old me into not only reading the book, but also seeing each and every film version. So, while my love of classic Hollywood hadn’t quite started at that point, Little Women did a lot to kickstart just who I became as a film fan.
Little Women stars Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado, and Kirsten Dunst as the four March sisters growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War. Gillian Armstrong directs the film from a script by Robin Swicord.
As someone who watched seen each and every filmed version, this one holds the biggest place in my heart. To me, this one brings the truest sense of sisterhood and the pain, joy and struggle of growing up. Winona Ryder’s take on Jo March shaped me as a creative and is still important to me today.
I’m sure each of our faithful readers and listeners have their own gateway film; the movie which opened our eyes to classic cinema and started us down the road to all the nostalgic goodness. My gateway film is of course Singin’ in the Rain.
Singin’ in the Rain tackles the story of a silent film studio struggling to make the transition from silent film to ‘talkies’. The iconic cast is lead by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. Kelly directs the film with Stanley Donen from a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
While I had of course watched some older films before renting the 1952 musical classic, as I sat down to watch Singin’ in the Rain, I was immediately hooked. The look, the costumes, the songs, heck, even the sense of nostalgia, everything about this movie is flawless. This is a perfect movie plain and simple.
I’ve discussed my love Disney history and nostalgia before. As a child of the early 1990s, I came of age during a bit of a golden age for the studio and The Rocketeer is one of the first films I remember watching under the Disney umbrella. From that point on, I was obsessed with the glitz and glamour of the 1930s aesthetic. I wanted to be Jennifer Connelly with all her beautiful dresses.
The Rocketeer follows a young stunt pilot (Billy Campbell) who accidentally stumbles onto a jet engine– created by Howard Hughes of course! As he’s trying to duck the mobsters who also want to get their hands on the device, he crafts himself into a superhero… Much to the annoyance of his struggling actress girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly). Joe Johnston directs the film from a script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo.
This movie might be a bit of a blip as it relates to the cinema of the early 90s, but The Rocketeer has so much goodness for classic film fans. There’s Hollywood glamour, stunning period set design, and even a fun story. Heck, there’s even lots of name-dropping! Check this one out if it slipped under your radar.
Last but not least, I present one more film which received a surprising amount of vitriol at the time of its release, Radioland Murders.
Radioland Murders follows the employees of a radio station in 1930s Chicago. On the big day when the station is getting ready to go national, there’s a sudden murder spree. With the police largely stumped, a writer must step up to solve the crimes before anyone else dies. The varied cast includes Brian Benben, Mary Stuart Masterson, Ned Beatty, Michael McKean, and Stephen Tobolowsky. Mel Smith directs the film from a screenplay by Williard Huyck, Gloria Katz, Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn.
Like The Rocketeer in our last entry, this movie brings so much joy in its depiction of nostalgia and classic entertainment. Of course, there’s the delightful look of the film bringing the period setting to life. Everything is just so…. Perfect. The 1980s and 1990s made this era look so good on film.
At the same time though, there are a ton references, sure to appeal to fans of this era. There’s Spike Jones, Billy Barty, Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and even a Rudy Vallee reference. I’d go as far as to say… This movie was too nostalgic for mainstream audiences in 1994. With that being said though, it was right up my alley. It might be up yours too!
Thank you for humoring me as I talked about the five movies which mean the most to me as a classic film fan. These pictures might not be all works of Old Hollywood goodness, but there’s a love and respect for nostalgia and classic entertainment which is alive and well in each. These are the movies which made me who I am, and I will happily shill for them each and every day.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!