It was hard narrowing my original list of 78 films – all of which garnered three Ronnies and above – down to a scant twenty. Thankfully, if you read my 20 Worst Films list, you’ll notice I saw far more I enjoyed as opposed to hated, so much so that the top 20 is exclusively made up of films that garnered four Ronnies and above. Much like that previous list, the films here are first-time viewings, either written for the site (allowing for post-1980s titles) or pre-1980s without a proper, written review. Feel free to tell share some of the best studio era (or films about the studio era) features you watched this year below.
Clicking titles will take you to my original review
20. The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) – 4 Ronnies
This evening I made a friend watch this and he found it thoroughly enjoyable. In my championing of it I mentioned how the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd could easily find the jokes within, but the acting is first-rate for the genre and though the story knows how loony it all sounds, it never plays things over-the-top. This second watch left analyzing things from the monster’s point of view – these scientists break into its home and steal stuff before assaulting it! It’s a home invasion thriller…under the sea. The monster may not challenge the world, but gives us an enjoyable sci-fi film, and Kino’s transfer is one of the best home video releases of the year.
19. On the Town (1949) – 4 Ronnies
Gene Kelly used On the Town as practice for his other work on Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951), but this is one of the better “try it and see” efforts he did. Frank Sinatra plays a very un-Sinatra character to great effect. You can never go wrong with Ann Miller in anything. And Betty Garrett as a man-hungry cab driver who snags Sinatra? That’s progressive. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, indeed!
18. Move Over, Darling (1963) – 4 Ronnies
Cary Grant’s My Favorite Wife (1940) is one of my favorite comedies and its plot has been done endlessly in various forms; for a gender-swapped version seek out Too Many Husbands (1940). A pall of doom surrounded this version, being the final film project of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe’s death caused the film to stall, later being recast with a lighter, less A-list, group. I’ll watch James Garner in anything, particularly when paired up with Doris Day (another pairing of theirs makes the list later). The story remains the same but there’s a slight 1960s feel that never goes overboard with “women’s liberation” and other trappings of the decade. Day’s character’s attempts to learn new technology is timely fun, Garner and Day have effortless chemistry, and Polly Bergen as the sex-starved wife is delightful, even if she’s daffier, unlike Gail Patrick’s original ice princess.
17. The Prowler (1951) – 4 Ronnies
Joseph Losey’s The Prowler stuck with me months after reviewing it. A dark, gritty noir that “wants audiences to question relationships, and where the line is between normal affection and something scarier,” there are additional layers regarding love for one’s country, the blurry line of obsession – particularly where women are involved – and how we treat noir in general. After watching it, I started looking at the genre from the other side, i.e. the angle of the jilted husbands we only hear about in hushed whispers maybe getting the wrong end of the deal. VCI’s restoration wins as one of the best transfers I’ve seen this year.
16. That’s Entertainment! (1974) – 4 Ronnies
Place a movie series showcasing the best moments in dance in front of me and I’m a kid in a candy store! I love cinematic dancing so much I even did a top 21 list on the subject. The first of three films that explored the happy feet of MGM musicals, all three
That’s Entertainment! installments included interviews with classic stars of the era. The entire experience leaves a bittersweet journey, not just seeing stars who are no longer around, but also seeing them wandering the then-abandoned MGM lot. Everything on-screen may be jaunty and fun, but the world that birthed it no longer exists, then as now.
15. Cria Cuervos (1976) – 4 Ronnies
I bemoaned using the word “experience” to describe a film, usually in the case of movies audiences don’t immediately cozy up to. In the case of Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos, experience is just what the movie gives and we need. The story of three orphaned sisters reconciling to life without their parents, and ultimately understanding the life before their parents died wasn’t so ideal, gives us characters we identify with, specifically Ana Torrent as Ana. Much of Ana’s journey deals with fears of mortality, not wholly understood at a young age but noticeable, and the pedestal we place our parents on. Torrent should be heralded by everyone who’s seen this because she is one of the BEST child actresses I’ve come across, conveying so much emotion with just her wide eyes, always acting like a child but with some semblance of adult knowledge pushing at the periphery. I watched this back-to-back with The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), also starring Torrent, and while it’s just as worthy of your time, this is the superior work.
14. On an Island With You (1948) – 4 Ronnies
On an Island With You’s plot is inherently problematic: a flying ace (Peter Lawford) obsessed with a movie star (Esther Williams) gets a role on her latest film and kidnaps her for a few hours in the hopes she’ll fall in love with him. Because he’s Peter Lawford – so stinkin’ cute – he can be forgiven for being slightly (that’s putting it mildly) obsessed with a star, right? Williams is shellacked in horrid brown makeup – she’s starring as an East Indies native in the film within the film – that looks muddy, and she’s upstaged by Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse. However, this movie grew on me, becoming one of my favorite of Williams’ films. The choreography here is fantastic, particularly between Montalban and Charisse, and while those two are dancing Lawford and Williams convincingly make goo-goo eyes at each other. Williams’ films didn’t always have the best plot, and though this is creepy as hell, it’s entertaining as can be.
13. The Thrill of It All (1963) – 4 Ronnies
Too often the terms “1960s” and “relationship comedy” leave me cringing before I ever pop in the disc. Every decade of film has issues regarding gender, but the 1960s saw a lot of male pushback against women leading up to the start of second-wave feminism in the 1970s. Doris Day, ably blending her sexual side with her maternal perfection, plays a commercial spokeswoman at odds with her husband, mainly because they’re equals in the workforce. Norman Jewison and Carl Reiner’s The Thrill of It All doesn’t seek to give us characters speaking for their respective sex, and by doing so they give us a relationship drama that feels as timely today as it did in ’63. Their drama never devolves into ridiculous gimmicks or unrealistic desires and there are no movie-star solutions to be found, just compromise and love, which works wonders and leads to a slew of “thrills.”
12. Waterloo Bridge (1931) – 4 Ronnies
Waterloo Bridge is a great example of the pre-Code tone in a world where pre-Code’s definition is generally cut and dry. From my original review: “This gritty drama eschews clear-cut villains and heroes for the moral ambiguity of a tortured past and a murkier future.” Mae Clarke’s earthy, down-on-her-luck prostitute who finds love can’t be redeemed due an unforgiving and increasingly violent society that tramples over love and redemption. Her demise at the conclusion is laughably over-the-top, but it doesn’t dampen the overall tragedy of the love story and the characters, all trying to capture a moment of respite in an unforgiving world.
11. Dangerous When Wet (1953) – 4 Ronnies
Dangerous When Wet helped me discover my favorite actress of 2015, Esther Williams. The tale of a woman uninterested in fitness and her goal to swim the English Channel has some fantastic songs, colorful characters, and Williams’ bubbly personality. Her pairing with Fernando Lamas has genuine heat, unsurprising since they married a few years later. Unlike other Williams films I’ve seen (or like the one above), there are no big band performances shoehorned, or an incredibly insane finale; it’s a simple story of a girl finding herself, and that’s good enough for me. “Dangerous When Wet is pure escapism and it’s hard finding the escape in most movies without losing something in the entertainment, but this accomplishes both tasks.
10. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (2015) – 4 Ronnies
To be blunt, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is one of the best biopics I’ve watched. I was sad Kelli Garner didn’t get some type of recognition at the Globes (in a world where Nicole Kidman was nominated for Grace of Monaco). Don’t let the Lifetime title fool you; this is a smart, sensitive portrayal of Marilyn, eschewing persona in favor of personality and authenticity. “Screenwriter Stephen Kronish actually takes a rather radical approach to the material by not portraying the heinous elements of Monroe’s life we’ve come to know.” The luminous Garner doesn’t coo out her lines, but shows the character’s love, fear, passion, and sensitivity; it’s not an impersonation, it’s a performance based on what we know and what we hoped we knew.
9. East Side, West Side (1949) – 4.5 Ronnies
Relationship dramas can be hit or miss as the tendency towards playing the blame game usually falls on the woman. East Side, West Side’s script, compliments of Isobel Lennart, throws that idea out the window. Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason’s married couple suffer from past infidelity on his part, but Stanwyck’s Jessie wants to be reasonable by giving him another chance. The film plays with this being a positive and negative, especially when Mason strays again, but in the end there’s never an outright hatred for these people, just painful realizations that sometimes love fizzles out. The cast is exceptional, particularly the women. Ava Gardner could be the femme fatale – of which her death certainly implies – but her and the rest of the women don’t fall into narrow boxes; they’re flawed but never demonic, sensitive but never pathetic.
8. Homicidal (1961) – 4.5 Ronnies
Master of the macabre, director William Castle takes on gender confusion in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Homicidal sees Jean Arless playing a young woman, all in white with a blonde bob to die for, who might be suffering from some “homicidal” tendencies as the title implies. The twist ending is pretty well-known, due to its release in the wake of Psycho, but Arless is just fantastic and Castle employs elements from both Hitchcock, and possibly inspires pieces of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962).
7. Why Be Good? (1929) – 4.5 Ronnies
My friends will tell you silent films are a glaring omission in my work as a cinephile and I have no one to blame but myself. You really have to search for the right silent film to grip you and I found it with Colleen Moore’s Why Be Good? The story of a young woman delighting in frivolity doesn’t seek to punish her actions. In fact, it is the uptight, workaholic father of the man she loves who ends up threatening her fun and comes off as incredibly square. There’s real humor, drama, and warmth from all involved, and Moore is a walking, talking (kind of) sprite of mythic proportions who I ate up in every scene. If you haven’t been swayed by silent film before, give this carefree comedy a watch.
6. Gorillas in the Mist (1988) – 4.5 Ronnies
“Gorillas in the Mist is a vibrant examination of one woman’s passion for a cause” and considering how 2015’s symbolized the year women dominated cinema Gorillas in the Mist couldn’t be timelier. Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Baker’s ape effects, are spellbinding to watch. The inevitable sadness of the conclusion works two-fold – you mourn the lives of the countless apes hunted as much as you mourn Fossey’s tragic murder. Prepare to cry your eyes out.
5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – 4.5 Ronnies
2015 marked the year I discovered the colorful delight of the work of director Jacques Demy and his leading lady, Catherine Deneuve. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is such a delightful gem of a film that’s a jewel-toned musical blending tragic romance with painful realities, letting the darkness and light come in equal measure. With all the dialogue sung, it’s difficult to become too sad, but by the end there is a lingering melancholy not even the most upbeat song can fix.
4. Judgement at Nuremberg (1963) – 5 Ronnies
An important movie about tolerance, acceptance of the past and present, and the fluidity of truth, Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg should be required viewing. “Kramer condemns equally; chastising the Germans wholeheartedly, but also touching on the US desire for leniency on the judges in order to use the Germans as allies against the Soviets.” Where “heroes and villains don’t exist,” all the movie can present us with is flawed people and the historical atrocity they’re all forced to reconcile with. Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, and Spencer Tracy are unforgettable.
3. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – 5 Ronnies
I’ve talked about this Powell and Pressburger film to so many people that I have very little to say on the subject. The duo that gave us the sumptuous The Red Shoes (1948) creates a world both familiar and feared, idealized and false, and I’m not talking about Heaven itself. The set pieces, David Niven and Marius Goring’s performances, the lush Technicolor that defines our mortal state, all of them are tinged with beauty and realism in the surreal.
2. The Major and the Minor (1942) – 5 Ronnies
Billy Wilder crafts a comedic masterpiece with the story of Sue Sue Applegate (Ginger Rogers) in The Major and the Minor. So much of this film’s irreverent humor knows it’s creepy and unsettling, yet Rogers is game and plays up the laughs expertly. Ray Milland shows off a flair for humor, while Diana Lynn continues to play the annoying “little sister” character as an actual teenager wise beyond her years.
1. The Unfinished Dance (1947) – 5 Ronnies
From my original review: “The Unfinished Dance hit on all the things I enjoy about films: dancing and Margaret O’Brien for starters. The film isn’t without its melodrama…but it’s such a sweet movie with expert dancing and superb production design.” Beautiful, gracefully acted, with two actresses I utterly adore, The Unfinished Dance is the perfect movie, in my opinion.