In The Heat of the Night (1967)
Though it may have lost some of the impact of its original context - a black police officer solving a murder mystery in the racist South just after the passing of the Civil Rights Act - it is still a well-acted, tense mystery. It was an important film in 1967, and it is a great film now. Sometimes films that were significant historically don't hold up on their own, but In The Heat of the Night definitely does. Still, imagine the impact in 1967 of the moment when Sidney Poitier as Tibbs slaps a white suspect who has slapped him first.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
My immediate assumption here is "Who has not seen this movie?" but I am reminded that a friend of mine only saw Jonathan Demme's psychological thriller for the first time about a month ago, so - for those who haven't seen this tense FBI procedural about not one but two serial killers - here's why you should add this film to the top of your Netflix queue: canny direction by Demme keeps us on the edge of our seats (when we aren't crawling under them), Jodie Foster's well-balanced performance as the naive but cunning and driven FBI rookie, and, of course, the chilling performance by Anthony Hopkins as the diabolical, cannibalistic, brilliant Dr. Hannibal Lecter (who isn't even the central baddie in this film!) I'm not normally a fan of modern horror films, but I do love this film.
For fans of the movie, here's a bit of trivia: the role of Hannibal Lecter was first offered to Sean Connery. Others considered for the role were Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day-Lewis. If you want to see an earlier take on the role, check out Michael Mann's stylish Manhunter (1986) in which Brian Cox played the suave doctor (spelled "Lecktor" in that version). Manhunter would be remade as Red Dragon in 2002 with Hopkins assuming the role again.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)
When people ask me my what my favorite movie is, I laugh and say, "Favorite comedy or drama? Action? Western or Sci-Fi? New movie or classic?" However, if you really twisted my arm and made me pick a favorite: this would be it. I love this movie. Redford and Newman's chemistry is undeniable. The movie is witty and suspenseful and raucous and touching. Beautiful cinematography, great casting, lively and cleverly anachronistic music by Burt Bacharach, a sharp screenplay - the list goes on. I can watch this movie over and over, and when I find myself at a loss for words in real life, I often fall back on lines from this film. "Kid, the next time I say 'Let's go someplace like Bolivia,' let's go someplace like Bolivia."
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
This movie was not a big hit at the box office, but it has garnered a considerable following as a critical success. Roger Ebert said of this film that it as an allegory for maintaining one's self-worth in a hopeless situation. Based on a novella by Stephen King, the story of wrongly-convicted Andy DuFresne (Tim Robbins) using his wits to survive twenty years in Shawshank Prison is a tribute to perseverance and triumph over adversity. It also solidified Morgan Freeman as Hollywood's favorite narrative voice. Of course, those of us that grew up on The Electric Company didn't need to be told that Easy Reader was the choice for bringing words to life: "Top to bottom, left to right. That reading stuff is out of sight."
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Harrowing. That's the word I would use to describe my experience seeing this film. The opening sequence of the D-Day invasion, perhaps for the first time, gave audiences a glimpse of the nightmare that the Normandy landings were for so many American soldiers on that fateful and seemingly impossible day. My date and I were a mess of tears twenty minutes into the movie. (Not a date film, I know, but she picked it.) The film then gives a break, and becomes a touching, character driven story of the men who left their lives stateside to fight for the cause of freedom before putting us through another final, harrowing battle. This is the second Spielberg film that I absolutely loved, but have not been able to bring myself to watch a second time - the first being Schindler's List. A powerful film.
*Bonus* For those who weren't around to meet Easy Reader or for those wanting a bit of nostalgia: