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5 Films You MUST SEE Before You Die

Updated on October 16, 2009

Writing this is a far cry from the cold and analytical property related material I normally produce. It’s a diversion. A piece that had to be written and something I think will benefit anyone that enjoys curling up on the sofa on a leisurely Sunday afternoon to watch a good film.

I could of course list the blockbusters I’ve enjoyed over the years, but that’s not the purpose here. There are quintessentially and universally accepted top films of all time listed over and over again on various TV channels and cable networks – and if you want to read about those films (which you have probably already seen several times anyway), then this isn’t the piece for you.

This is about the films you may not have seen and some you may never have heard of. They have never pulled in the crowds at Cannes and were never bill boarded or premiered at the Leicester Square Odeon (as far as I know). If you are under thirty, you may never find a reason or an opportunity to see them – because you would never ordinarily seek them out or catch them on a primetime Saturday night slot. And that means you are missing out on some of the best storylines, the best acting and the most entertaining couple of hours you will ever spend.

Okay, so it may not be considered cool to watch these films and you may not want to tell your social network about seeing them, but that’s the advantage of DVDs – you can sit and watch them in private – and enjoy them, without losing any of your street-cred.

These are films that are true masterpieces. Some are classics in their own right, while others are contemporary jewels of cinematography. There was a time when these films would have been shown on one of the two or three TV channels we had back when programs were memorable, but there’s little room for them nowadays in the glut of reality TV and wannabe shows that fill the ever-expanding cable void. And that’s a shame, because these films are fantastic and should be seen by a new generation.

Seek them out at your local DVD shop. Some of the bigger stores may stock them. If they don’t, ask them to find them for you or try getting them online. Although I have put them in order of my preference, they all deserve the No 1 slot, so give them all a try in whatever order you like.

One final thing and just in case you are wondering … I AM a fan of modern films and I love the special effects of sci-fi, the gut-wrenching blood-soaked gore of blockbuster horror films and the all-new spectacular 3D thrill of recent additions showing down at the local cinema. The gems on this list don’t fall into those categories; so don’t expect to see any of that. DO expect to see great acting, extraordinary cinematography and original scripting. And once you have seen these films, expect to remember them for the rest of your life, because most of them offer a subliminal message about who and what human beings are and what they are capable of achieving, personally and emotionally. Some will make you cry (yes, even you) and others will make you laugh out loud. Most will do both, while taking you on a journey of a lifetime.

Above all else … enjoy these films, both for their simplicity and the fantastic entertainment value they provide! And if you want to supply your Top 5 in a comment, feel free, but please think carefully about your choices and try to leave the blockbusters out of your list. It would be much more interesting and more useful to hear about little-known films worth seeing. That said, here's my choice:

1. The Whales of August (1987)

A relatively modern film, in comparison to the others on this list, but one that has rarely been seen on our TV or cinema screens. There is a fairly loose storyline, though it doesn’t really have a ‘start, middle and end’ scenario. It is actually more about the passage of time and the interaction of its main characters. And what characters they are! The portrayals of real people doing real things in an unassuming but extraordinarily interesting way. The result is captivating. And best of all, the main characters are played by Hollywood Greats … the all-time prima donna of the silver screen Bette Davis, a goddess of the silent era Lillian Gish, and the velvet-voiced master of classic horror films Vincent Price. The Whales of August tells the story of how lives are changing in a small region of Maine and how, when this particular summer is over, nothing will ever quite be the same again. Fantastic.

2. Harvey (1950)

This black and white classic is widely assumed to have inspired the more recent Donnie Darko, which many of you might have seen; but actually the writer and director is on record saying he’s never seen Harvey, so it couldn’t possibly have influenced him. I find that rather hard to believe, as the similarities are substantial. An attempt at remaking the original was undertaken fairly recently (heaven help us) and the DVD of this poor immitation of the original was released in 2005 (starring Leslie Neilson). Remakes are rarely a good idea when the original can’t possibly be bettered. Harvey is the story of a very ordinary man, Elwood P. Dowd, whose life is turned upside down when others come to the conclusion he is going very slightly but very definitely insane. Why? Well, because he sees and talks to a human-sized white rabbit called Harvey, who he says is actually a friendly spirit from the other side, as it were. Is Harvey real? Or does he just exist in Elwood’s over-stimulated imagination? The film twists and turns as it progresses, employing both comedy and tragedy, while remaining consistently enthralling throughout. Hollywood legend James Stewart plays Elwood to perfection, creating a rounded and believable character occupying an unbelievable world in which fantasy and reality collide.

3. Soylent Green (1973)

One for sci-fi enthusiasts. The two main characters here are yet again, Hollywood Greats … Edward G. Robinson and Charlton Heston … which means the level and quality of acting underpins what transpires to be a brilliant and frighteningly believable storyline. It’s the year 2022, so not that far off (ha), and the world is grossly overpopulated. Food is in short supply. But thankfully the government provides a supplement called Soylent Green. Detective Thorn (Heston) is a New York cop who gets too close to the appalling Soylent Green secret and consequentially becomes a marked man. Meanwhile, Edward G. Robinson gives the performance of his life, as he considers the hopelessness of old age and the strange and unfamiliar world he finds himself living in … and in 2022, there are acceptable options made available to those that want out.

4. The Haunting (1963)

You have probably seen one or more of the many variant remakes of this classic top British horror, but forget the rest and check this one out. It reigns supreme, despite the fact there are no special effects to talk about and not even the slightest sign of blood-splattered gore so commonly associated with modern horrors. In fact, this relies entirely on psychological effects – and as a result, it is one of the most frightening films I have ever seen. The story is straightforward and fairly basic. A team of paranormal investigators opt to spend the night in a haunted house, but for one of the group, the supernatural events stir-up deep-seated emotional problems which combine to cause havoc during the investigation. Is Eleanor’s behaviour irrational? Why does the activity in the house seemingly centre on her? There is a moment in this film that actually had a lifelong effect on me. Eleanor and Theadora try to sleep in separate beds in the same bedroom, just as the inexplicable phenomenon begins. In the dark, Eleanor asks Theadora to hold her hand, as she is so petrified of what is happening. I won’t spoil it for you, but will just say, ever since seeing this film for the first time many years ago, I now sleep with my hands tucked safely under the duvet. One to watch in the dark on a thunder-ridden stormy evening.

5. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

David Niven stars in one of the most original and awe-inspiring love stories ever to hit the cinema screens. This is true cinematic genius at its very best. A story depicting how love conquers all, even when the goal (or should that read girl) seems utterly unattainable. And while this is a slushy and over-romanticised classic, it has so many extraordinary elements it is always watchable, sometimes jaw-droppingly funny and an amazing spectacle. The use of colour and black-and-white reminds me of the more recent and brilliant Sin City (for those that have seen it), while the depiction of heaven is widely accepted as the best ever captured on film. Snuggle up for a rare treat by watching an upgraded and enhanced DVD version during a long Sunday afternoon.

DVD Titles Available Through Amazon

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