Movie Literacy 101: The Essential Cheat Sheet

What if you wanted to help a teenager, or really anybody who doesn’t watch movies, develop a more sophisticated taste in film?

I met someone recently who had only seen a few movies in her lifetime. It wasn’t that she didn’t like movies. She did.

She didn’t share her flimsy film education with any arrogance like, ‘I don’t own a television.” Watching movies was just something she hadn’t spent much time doing.

FAST FACT: USA Today reports the average movie goer will watch 5,000 films in their lifetime

She asked me what films she should watch to start catching up. That got me thinking about movies and how you’d even begin developing a movie literacy.

It’s a bit like wine, right? There’s a big difference between “Two Buck Chuck” and a Mossback 2013 Cabernet.

You don’t start with Mossback just like I don’t think you could jump into, “Citizen Kane” and appreciate what you’re watching without first building a bedrock to understand the magnitude of its genius.

Citizen Kane - Campaign Promises Scene (5/10) | Movieclips

Yet movies are like any other kind of art, you like what you like. Case in point:

Some people love abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, while others won’t ever “get it” no matter how much context you provide. That’s how it goes with movies. Some appreciate director Stanley Kubrick. Others don’t or won’t.

So what movies would make up a basic literacy of the medium?

Here would be my picks…

The Classics

“The Caine Mutiny,” “Hud,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North By Northwest,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Nanook of the North” and “Singin’ in the Rain”

Science Fiction & Fantasy

“Blade Runner,” “Terminator,” “Terminator 2,” “Alien,” “Aliens,” “The Matrix”, “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Return of the Jedi,” the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, the “Harry Potter” franchsie, “Metropolis,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Avatar,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (1937), “Field of Dreams,” “Excalibur,” “Weird Science” and “Mad Max”

Blade Runner (3/10) Movie CLIP - "Retiring" Zhora (1982) HD


“Pale Rider,” “Unforgiven,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Searchers,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Nashville”

Detective & Crime Noir

“LA. Confidential,” “Chinatown,” “Mulholland Drive,” “The Godfather” Trilogy, “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Public Enemy,” “Bullitt” and “Body Heat”

Stoner Detectives

“Inherent Vice,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Easy Rider” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Action & Adventure

“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws,” “The Dark Knight,” “Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2,” “Die Hard,” “Inception,” “Rashomon,” “Ben Hur,” “Enter the Dragon” and “Jurassic Park”


“Stripes,” “Caddyshack,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “The Hangover,” “Superbad,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Modern Times,” “The Graduate,” “Airplane!” “Annie Hall,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Breakfast Club” and “Seems Like Old Times”


“Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon,” “Dunkirk,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Schindler’s List,” The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “Das Boot” and “Midway”

Dr. Strangelove (1/8) Movie CLIP - Ripper's Motivations (1964) HD


“Pleasantville,” “Fight Club,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Memento,” “12 Angry Men,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Gandhi,” “Do The Right Thing,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Toy Story,” “Spirited Away,” “King Kong” (1933), “Wall Street” and “The Year of Living Dangerously”


“The Shining,” “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012), “The Thing” (1982) “The Witch,” “28 Days Later,” “Dracula,” “Se7en,” “Psycho” (1960), “Night of the Living Dead,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), “The Exorcist” (1973), “The Blair Witch Project”


“Knight of Cups,” “The Tree of Life,” “Boyhood,” “Fantastic Planet,” “Eraserhead,” “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Wear Rabbit,” “Fantasia,” “Pink Floyd: The Wall,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”


“Casablanca,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “A Walk on the Moon,” “Her,” “sex,lies & videotape,” “Blue Velvet,” “The Notebook,” “Up,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “The African Queen,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Risky Business,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “500 Days of Summer”

Now, you’re ready to watch, and fully appreciate, “Citizen Kane.”

This list represents the movies most people talk about and are taught in film classes. They’re generally considered some of the best and most important movies ever made.

Sure, that’s close to 160 movies to see in order to build a literacy. It’s worth it. These are some amazing films!

What essential films would you add to these categories?


    1. I think this wasn’t my best writing and certainly the premise got lost… the idea wasn’t the best films, most important films, or even a list of films I love… it was attempting to answer… what films would you have to watch to have a baseline in any genre… if you were going to try to appreciate Sci-Fi for example as a genre, what would you have to watch. That was the idea anyway… poorly executed.

      1. That’s hard to do because of the way genres splinter. Even in a genre as limited as the Western, it’s hard to decide because of so many different subgenres and approaches to the material. Then there’s the fact that devoted fans of a particular genre will often have different opinions as to what constitutes an “essential” film from the wider audience. Most contemporary viewers name The Wild Bunch or The Good the Bad and The Ugly as the “essential” Western but hardcore Western fans are just as likely to name a movie by Ford, Mann or Boetticher, and a Leone fan might name Once.Upon a Time in the West and a Peckinpah fan Ride the High Country or The Ballad of Cable Hogue instead. The Sound of Music is the favorite musical of casual filmgoers, Singing in the Rain the favorite of film aficionados, but those devoted to the genre may prefer one of the classic Busby Berkeley or Astaire-Rogers film as the essential movie in the genre.

  1. re: Westerns “… and “Nashville”

    I think the author may have meant to refer here to the classic Robert Altman western film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and mistakenly wrote in another classic Robert Altman film (a Musical) by mistake.

  2. ” The postman always rings twice”, a romance?
    And where is the brilliant “Roman Holiday”, and the recent gem “5 To 7”?

  3. While there are many I would add, there are a few on the list I would take out (Cabin In The Woods…really?).

    1. What would you add? Cabin in the Woods is there because of the meta commentary on slasher porn like, “Saw” and violence in our movies in general. Brilliant.

      1. The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Suspiria, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, The Fly (original)…I could go on (And add They Live to Science Fiction while we are at it).

        Commentary on violence in general isn’t brilliant…movies horror films have been doing that for years. Saw is yesterdays flash in the pan and most likely isn’t worth much focus on. You like the movie…fine. I just find it pretty lame and sub par for a list of must see movies for the genre. But hey…it’s your list. Have fun.

        Also I would add the Great Escape to war and move Schindler’s List to Drama.

      2. Halloween and The Fly for sure… I’ve avoided movies like Suspiria on purpose because you could have an entire other list on great cult movies. And yes to Great Escape… I knew there would be films I’d miss and yet that was kinda the point… to get readers to think about the movies that make up their own literacy.

        Cabin is better than you give it credit for, my review at the time:

        “Cabin in the Woods” has reminded me just how glorious a movie can be. Best movie of 2012 so far. It’s working on three distinct levels, plus it’s also scary and funny, and provides a depth of commentary on generational conflict. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that “Cabin” is this generation’s “Breakfast Club” or “Easy Rider” and if you haven’t seen it you should.

      3. Again, I’m glad you liked it. I found it dull, an certainly not scary (or funny) in any way. I did notice after watching it I could have done better things with my time. Until I noticed it in this article, I completely forgot about it (For a moment I had it mistaken for Cabin Fever). The original My Bloody Valentine leaves a better lasting impression on me.

        It’s all subjective (I love Lifeforce while critics bashed it…as if I care what they think). The Thing is a fantastic choice (And one of my all time favorite films), though I would also put it under Science Fiction (It should get a special “slashy” for Horror/Scifi.

        And though in Patton under war as well. This really could go on and on. (And don’t get me started on the Comedy list…Forgetting Sarah Marshall is on the list and no Sideways or the Jerk? Painful)

      4. You’re probably right about Sara Marshall, it came out right as I was getting divorced and had special meaning, although in it’s favor it did have Mila Kunis and lines like this…

        Sarah Marshall: And you know what? Let me tell you something about these tattoos, okay. That is Buddhist, that is Nordic, that is Hindu, that’s just gibberish. They are completely conflicting ideologies, and that does not make you a citizen of the world, it makes you full of shit!

        But should have had more Mel Brooks. History of the World, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein… so many damn good movies.

        Sideways? So overrated. Insanely overrated. And I’m a fan of Paul Giamatti, Billions on Showtime is brilliant… and ‘The Jerk” minus a few scenes is unbearable to watch and I’ve been to Martin’s plays and loved “Shopgirl.”

      5. A lot of movies have great lines (And that one from Marshall is very good), but they don’t save a film as a whole. Funny thing, I went to go see Knocked Up based on a line in the trailer, that turned out not be be in the film. I leaned a hard 2 and a half hour lesson from that (And comedies over 2 hours…really?).

        As far as Sideways, find a better movie about two 35-45 something year old men grappling with both their pasts, conflicting personalities while on a real adventure anyone of us could have. Talk about layering. I read the book, and this was an example of the movie being far better then the source material. But Sideways is a movie that people either really like or they don’t. And like you with Sarah Marshall, when I saw it in the theaters (five times…and most likely twenty on DVD), it struck a nerve for me at the time…and still does to this day.

        And yes…more Mel Brooks, please.

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