When we talk about the old cult movies of film history, it’s hard to determine what the line is that makes a movie a classic.
For some, everything in black and white is now considered museum exhibits, something that has passed its expiration date.
It may be true about special effects since even 80s and 90s movies can’t compete with modern CGI.
As for everything else, which is direction, plot, and acting? Shouldn’t those be the things of primary importance?
Perhaps this explains the massive success of superheroes today, often closer to fireworks shows than real movies.
But using these parameters, when can an old movie be considered old?
The concept of time obviously applies based on our age and when our first movie experience began.
Personally, I would say that we can start talking about classics when a film is at least 30 years old.
With that in mind, today, I want to take one film per decade from the 1990s to the 1920s through eight films of fundamental importance to at least three generations.
Probably, even if you haven’t seen them, you will have at least heard of them being incredibly famous.
In the unlikely event you haven’t; however, I’m more than happy to be the first to introduce these old classic movies to you.
Old Classic Table of contents
1994 – Pulp Fiction
Let’s start with a classic movie crowning Quentin Tarantino‘s talent, following his old debut with Reservoir Dogs.
The film frames different characters who meet and clash in the distant Los Angeles of the 90s.
Drug addicts, drug dealers, homosexual rapists, and fast food robbers are just a few members of this urban criminal ecosystem.
A boss arranges a rigged fight with a boxer while his woman dates one of his henchmen.
The same henchman retrieves a valuable briefcase and then gets a dead body in his hands to dispose of.
Finally, the boxer above cheats the boss, winning the fight for the high stakes, giving him the underdog.
Tarantino’s genius lies in taking situations already seen many times and molding them into something totally new and different.
Shuffling these staggering plots temporally, the director creates his purest and most complete film.
Pulp Fiction shook the foundations of the genre and style, becoming widely copied and grossing over $200 million worldwide.
At the cost of fewer than 10 million, it projected Tarantino’s rising star on the unstoppable road to success.
It is impossible to count quotations and situations, from great American classics to the martial heroes of the Far East.
There’s also room for Italian cinema that Tarantino venerates, from Mario Bava‘s horror thrillers to Federico Fellini‘s more subtle influences.
Pulp Fiction revived lost John Travolta and brought new luster to Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson, and Bruce Willis.
In short, an unmissable masterpiece, perhaps already old for the new generations, still so new like it came out yesterday.
1984 – Once Upon a Time in America
We move to an old movie that fills me with joy by being among the great classics of Italian cinematography.
However, it also makes me sad because it was Sergio Leone‘s last creation, sadly died at the age of 60.
The plot concerns an old criminal, long out of the game, returning to NYC, where he grew up as a boy.
Together with his little friends, they had a gang that committed petty thefts to survive in the extreme poverty and violence that surrounded them.
By dismantling their enemies and becoming friends with politicians and union representatives, they became the most dangerous gangsters in the city.
But with power and money also came problems and the first major internal divisions in their friendship.
When one of them is determined to carry out an impossible robbery, their fate is sealed.
Now past sixty, this man is the only survivor among his companions when a mysterious message invites him to return.
Even not knowing who the sender is, he cannot ignore the proposal: to kill an essential politician for a million dollars.
A production full of obstacles, including American distribution that wanted to re-edit and cut almost an hour of this film.
But the director’s tenacity eventually prevailed, bringing this masterpiece to theaters precisely as he had intended.
It’s a grand epic of nostalgia and regret, equally joyful of America’s change from the 1930s to the 1970s.
And in the end, what it represents is the farewell of a beloved and inimitable author who conquered the hearts of all film lovers with only a handful of unforgettable films.
1977 – Star Wars
I think this old classic needs no introduction, as it is simply the most beloved sci-fi movie of all time.
We know the story: after his adoptive parents’ death, Luke Skywalker begins a long journey to become a Jedi knight.
His master Obi-Wan, two curmudgeonly mercenaries, a fierce princess, and a couple of cute tiny robots accompany him.
The journey takes them across the universe, trying to deliver secret plans of the Galactic Empire’s most deadly weapon.
A weapon large as an entire planet, yet he will destroy in the ultimate dramatic battle with his own hands.
I don’t consider Star Wars the greatest of 70’s movies, given masterpieces like A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, or Jaws.
However, it is what influenced, for better or worse, subsequent years’ science fiction productions.
Perhaps the latest generations are more familiar with the new trilogy, starting with the disappointing Episode I in 1999.
The new saga had a large budget, and that’s why it lost the old B-Movie charm this great classic possessed.
Star Wars beautifully combined science fiction and fantasy in a spectacular cauldron, starting one of the most profitable sagas ever.
A few years later, the countless Star Trek would come, beginning with Robert Wise‘s 1979 masterpiece.
Two distinct approaches to universe travel, going where no one has gone before with unique mix of adventure and action.
But seeing where they’ve crashed now, it’s safe to say we’ve really fallen from the stars to the stables.
1963 – High and Low
For the 60s, we go to the other side of the world, admiring an outstanding masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa.
The story is about kidnapping a wealthy Japanese businessman right at the most crucial moment of his career.
Obviously, the kidnappers demand a disproportionate amount of money for his release, knowing his financial means fully.
Surprisingly, we discover they have made a fundamental mistake and haven’t kidnapped the entrepreneur’s son but that of his driver.
Being a poor man, he certainly cannot pay the ransom and asks his master to show mercy by helping him.
The money and the hostage exchange succeed, and the criminals escape the police, taking refuge in the slums of Yokohama.
Then investigations try to track them down, while the entrepreneur’s rise to success now seems irretrievably ruined.
Kurosawa sculpts a ruthless detective story that pits the rich life of the bourgeoisie against the harsh world of the slum dwellers.
Rhythm flies breathlessly throughout the opening, with suspense omnipresent in the protracted, grueling negotiations between the police and the kidnappers.
The second half moves from the wealthy entrepreneur’s home into the poor streets of the massive slum of Japan’s second-largest city.
Final ending is unforgettable with the kidnapper’s words, like a nail driven into a coffin, bringing down the curtain on the story.
Immense as usual is the interpretation of Toshirô Mifune, a faithful actor whose success will follow that of the director.
A great old collector’s classic that revolutionizes all the clichés of movies of this genre with a clean and dirty style at the same time.
1957 – Paths of Glory
From faraway Japan, we land in the middle of the German and French trenches of WWI.
Paths of Glory tells a small episode of that vast and horrendous conflict, summing up the stupid and obtuse bureaucracy of the Army at its best.
However, the story begins with several French battalions that besiege a German castle without being able to breach the fortification.
However, the leading general believes in victory and decides on an assault with all the forces at his disposal.
Immediately, the enemy brutally decimated the first wave, so the men in the second line refused to continue.
The general commands his artillery to bombard his men in a fit of rage, but fortunately, the soldiers don’t obey.
The officer then decides to execute three soldiers to justify the resounding failure, making an example of them for all the others.
In a performance of pride and dignity, Kirk Douglas plays the defense during the quick mock trial before the execution.
War lives in the horror of daily survival, against the stupidity of one’s superiors even before the enemy fire.
Despair that the camera’s elegant and innovative use amplifies with the flawless historical reconstruction of every detail.
Paths of Glory confirmed Stanley Kubrick‘s immense talent, which critics idolized even more than his previous film, The Killing.
The Kubrick/Douglas duo would return a few years later, in top form, with the exceptional success of the legendary Spartacus.
Another classic old film where, like this one, power crushes the humble, ordinary person in a social struggle lost at the start but always worth fighting.
1946 – Notorious
Going back to 1946, we move forward in time for a classic old post-World War II spy movie.
Adolf Hitler is dead, but unfortunately, many of his men were still alive and well, organizing plots worldwide.
Convinced that a dangerous Nazi cell is hiding in South America, the U.S. government sends an agent to investigate.
There is a young girl with him, daughter of a well-known German officer shortly before found guilty of espionage.
Exploiting her attractiveness to a man who may be part of the plot, she infiltrates his life among his accomplices and friends.
But finally, she will discover that she has walked into a deadly trap, from which only the agent in love with her can get her out.
The elegant and ironic Cary Grant and the splendid Ingrid Bergman are a pair of legendary spies at the service of an impeccable plot and direction.
Equally intense is the villain Claude Rains, making up a triangle between perversion and revenge of rare beauty.
Alfred Hitchcock mixes genres to tell us about war never really won, with the enemy still around to sow his poison.
The thriller then gently slips into the romance between the suffering protagonists, united in their desire to give up that world of lies and betrayals.
Magnificent finally all the final part, where it becomes a thriller almost horror with the beautiful trapped in the monster’s house and his horrible mother.
The great English director then turns the knob to the maximum bringing the tension to the maximum, until the mechanism closes the plot with the chivalrous rescue of the heroine.
Notorious is one of the most beloved classic melodramas within an old spy movie with perfectly oiled gears.
1939 – Stagecoach
This may not be the first western movie ever, but it is an old classic unshakable foundation of the genre.
The story is a long, obstacle-filled journey from Arizona to New Mexico amid a war between cavalry and the Apaches.
A motley crew of strangers embarks on this stagecoach, each with their own personal demons to battle.
Gorgeous Claire Trevor is a prostitute who must change towns because of a group of bitter, bigoted women.
One of them, Louise Platt, will be by her side throughout the journey, pregnant with a child that her husband is waiting to see born.
The movie was a game-changer for John Wayne, although, at the time, his filmography was already remarkable and numerous.
But what struck the collective imagination was this role of anti-hero and renegade gunslinger seeking revenge for his brother.
Elsewhere, George Bancroft is the sheriff who tries to dissuade him from his intentions, fighting alongside him soon after.
Immense John Ford delivers incredible pacing to something that becomes the basis for more fights and chases like Mad Max.
The great director does a great job of amalgamating a group of very different people who have to put up a united front to save their skins.
Maybe it’s bland the stereotype of the Geronimo‘s bad Indians led, yet we must remember that we are talking about the 30s.
To make up for the historical figure of the Apache chieftain, I recommend Walter Hill‘s 1993 Geronimo, which is much deeper and more reflective.
Nevertheless, Stagecoach remains a thrilling action movie that winds its way through Monument Valley in one of the most famous old classic westerns ever made.
1921 – The Kid
Finally, let’s close with the legendary Charlie Chaplin, one of the most influential figures in the eternal history of cinema.
The old Tramp inspired entire generations of filmmakers, including the aforementioned Sergio Leone with his great classics.
Leone often said he took that kind of comedy from him, combining it brilliantly with dramatic poverty and suffering.
The Kid is no exception to this rule, and he brings his usual character to the scene.
He is always lovable and rascally bum, yet elegant and likable, who has to take care of a newborn baby.
His mother cannot afford it and abandons him in a basket in front of an orphanage, immediately regrets his actions.
But when she goes back to get it, two thugs have already stolen the basket, and after various vicissitudes, the child ends up in Chaplin’s hands.
Initially trying to get rid of it in every way, he becomes attached to it and raises it as his son.
However, years later, someone is looking for him again when a doctor reports to the police for the child’s living conditions.
As they flee wildly in a series of absurd and irresistible gags, the mother is still searching for her baby after all these years.
The Kid is a landmark film, a silent film classic whose strength lies in its wonderful, sad, and funny protagonist.
A kind of humor still survives today with actors like Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) or Jim Carrey and their great comedy in body mimicry.
Charlie Chaplin wonderfully blends melodrama with comedy in an uninterrupted series of unforgettable gags, jokes, and pirouettes.
Despite this, he always squeezes out a tear without being oppressive but always leaves a sweet smile on our lips.