9 Classic Films to Watch Alongside the 2017 Best Picture Nominees

By Maureen Lee Lenker

This Sunday, February 26th, marks the 89th Academy Awards -- the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a film and one that evokes all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.  This year brings us a crop of 9 Best Picture Nominees, all compelling and fabulous examples of film-making.  But if you’ve already made your way through all of the nominees and are looking for something similar to whet your palate, try one of these 9 classics!

 

1.  If you loved La La Land, watch: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Though La La Land  is a nostalgia feast full of references to everything from Ingrid Bergman to Fred & Ginger dance routines to Audrey Hepburn (in Funny Face 1957), it owes its greatest debt to the French musical that made Catherine Deneuve a star, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The film, sung from start to finish, tells of the ill-fated love affair between Guy and Genevieve whose love for each other is beset by war, pregnancy, and more.  The film features a distinctive color palette embodied by the umbrellas of the title and brings a series of vivid blues, hot hot pinks, and deep, rich greens and purples to the screen.  And one of La La Land’s most striking features is its use of color.  Also, though “Umbrellas” may seem a musical trifle it packs an emotional wallop in its final act which La La Land heavily borrows down to its bittersweet five-year flash-forward.

 

2.  If you loved Hell or High Water, watch: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

America has long needed folk heroes with a bad streak, and no film does it better than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.  It launched Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to super-stardom as the titular lovers and bank robbers who wreaked havoc on banks across the American South during the Great Depression.  In the midst of their violent crime sprees, you can’t help but root for the pair against the big banks that brought the country to its knees in 1929.  With the financial crisis of 2008, we’ve been ripe for a film that picks up the strands and themes of films like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Hell or High Water’s sympathetic, dynamic take on bank-robbing brothers brings it to life with poetic romance and screenwriting.  The new film merges the iconic tropes and imagery of Westerns with the amorality of Bonnie and Clyde.  With its shocking onscreen violence, Bonnie and Clyde changed the tide of Hollywood history -- giving us a pair of criminals we couldn’t help but root for, all the while knowing they would meet a sticky end.  Without the vision of Beatty and his collaborators and their willingness to question the status quo, films like Hell or High Water wouldn’t exist.

 

3.  If you loved Arrival, watch: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Films about space invaders have long been used as metaphors for our fears of the “other” and various global concerns here on earth.  From Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) riffing on communist hysteria to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) take on disaffected masculinity, we use aliens and science fiction to explore questions we mere mortals are grappling with in our world.  Arrival is no stranger to this theme with its use of an alien invasion as a window into discussions about gender, motherhood, loss, peace, and more.  The Day the Earth Stood Still was made as a call for peace in the wake of World War II, and its tragic depiction of humans who willfully misunderstood and perpetrate acts of violence out of fear is as timely now as it was in 1951.

 

4.  If you loved Moonlight, watch: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

With its three-act structure and its examination of what it means to be poor, black, and gay in contemporary America, Moonlight is really not like any film that’s come before it.  But if you’re looking for something just as groundbreaking, take a peek at Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, which tackled issues of racism and racial profiling more head-on than any film prior.   Sidney Poitier turned in a career-defining performance.  He’d already become the first African American to win an Oscar for a leading role with 1964’s Lilies of the Field but with In the Heat of the Night and its tagline, “They call me Mr. Tibbs,” he became an icon of American cinema.  It was also notable for being the first film to use lighting that properly considered an actor with dark skin -- cinematographer Haskell Wexler toned down the lighting to display Poitier in his best light.

 

5.  If you loved Fences, watch: A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

For decades, August Wilson has earned his place in the theatrical canon alongside American greats like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but he’s never received the kind of rich cinematic adaptations he deserved until now.  Many Miller and Williams adaptations could be a great choice here, aligning with Fences view of 1950s dissatisfied home life and stifled masculinity.  But Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was one of the first plays to shine a similar light on the lives of people of color.  Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee turn in stellar performances amidst an all-star cast in this heartbreaking look at the “American Dream” with the added weight of what it’s like to be black in America.  Hansberry’s tale of hard-working folk who just crave a better life while also finding their footing amidst shifting race relations seems almost a model for Wilson’s Fences, first published in 1983.

 

6.  If you loved Manchester by the Sea, watch: Hud (1963)

Kenneth Lonergan’s portrait of a man devastated by grief in the wake of an accident for which he is partially responsible mirrors the catatonic rage of Paul Newman as Hud.  Newman’s cowboy was seen as a portrait of alienated youth in the 60s, but his amorality and alcoholism arising out of his grief after killing his brother in a car crash are the perfect parallel to Casey Affleck’s deeply affecting performance in Manchester by the Sea.  The film even provides an impressionable nephew, Lon (Brandon de Wilde), who initially aspires to be like Hud until he sees the havoc he wreaks on others’ lives -- it’s almost as if Kenneth Lonergan watched this film and saw fit to put his on stamp on the tale by transferring it to the 21st century Northeast. Hud earned Paul Newman an Oscar nod, and it won astonishingly gifted method actress Patricia Neal her only Academy Award.

 

7.  If you loved Hidden Figures, watch: The Women (1939)

Yes, the historical implications and trappings of Hidden Figures are a crucial part of its storytelling, and it is truly mind-boggling that these women’s accomplishments have remained obscured in history until now.  But the real delight of Hidden Figures is watching the camaraderie and sisterhood of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae -- they support each other through personal and professional triumphs and riff on each other as only sisters can.  1939’s The Women is still one of the finest depictions of the rewards and perils of sisterhood ever put to film -- the women are both deliciously catty and unflaggingly loyal.  Their inner lives are so rich that this film famously has no onscreen male characters in sight.  The Women scores bonus points for it featuring Joan Crawford in one of her most delectably bitchy roles.  If you’ve delighted in the smarts of the women of Hidden Figures, revel in the dynamic femininity of The Women.

 

8.  If you loved Hacksaw Ridge, watch: Sergeant York (1941)

Mel Gibson has returned to Hollywood’s good graces with his violent true story of Desmond T. Dobbs (Andrew Garfield) who saved countless lives and won a Congressional Medal of Honor despite being a conscientious objector during World War II.  Long before Dobbs’ story made it to the big screen, Hollywood told the tale of another famous war hero and conscientious objector, Alvin York who saved many lives during World War I.  Hollywood had long sought to make a film about York’s heroics but he would only agree to it on the condition that his share of the profits go towards a Bible school and that Gary Cooper portray him.  Cooper was initially reluctant to take on a role that felt too good to be true but meeting the real York changed his mind.  Cooper went on to win his first Oscar for the film.  The film is similar to Hacksaw Ridge in its biographical account of a man at war.

 

9.  If you loved Lion, watch: The Little Princess (1939)

I know what you’re thinking -- what does a true-life tale about an Indian man’s quest to find the family he lost have to do with a Shirley Temple movie loosely based on a 1905 novel?  Shockingly, a lot.  Both films tell the tale of young people separated from their families who persevere through any number of challenges to be reunited with the loved ones they lost.  Lion is one of the biggest traditional tearjerkers of this year’s pack of nominees, and The Little Princess packs a similar yet surprising emotional wallop.  It was Shirley Temple’s first Technicolor film and features less musical numbers and more dramatic acting than some of her other entries though it’s impossible to forget her ermine-lined dress from a fantasy ballet sequence.  Both films rely on the precocious talents of its young stars to carry the action and bring emotional truth to the proceedings.

So, if you’re still looking for some cinematic enrichment prior to Hollywood’s biggest night, pull out one of these classic gems. Then on Oscar night, you can celebrate cinematic excellence with a deeper appreciation for the films that came before today’s modern classics!

 


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent, Chillin’ with Larry Magen

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.

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