North by Northwest (1959)
I love Hitchcock's spy thrillers, and this tale of an "ordinary" man mistaken for a secret agent is one of my favorites. The quotation marks are because there isn't really anything particularly "ordinary" about Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill, but neither is he cut out to deal with cold-blooded assassins or James Mason's villainous master spy - except: that's exactly what he must do if he is to stay alive. Most people will be familiar with the iconic image of Grant fleeing for his life pursued by an old biplane, and that scene is a perfect metaphor for the "WTF", nightmarish scenario our hero finds himself in for this film. This is a brilliant action film, and - if you haven't seen it - you should.
This is another brilliant film from Altman. It may not be as slick as Nashville or The Player, but it is by far the most overtly comic film in the Altman oeuvre. It also spawned one of the most popular television comedy-drama shows ever. Set during the Korean conflict, this film's release was perfectly-timed to meet the anti-war sentiment of a public disillusioned with the war in Vietnam. It was extremely popular at the time, and it still stands on many lists of the funniest films ever made. The football game near the end of the film is a real highlight.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Of all the films on this list, this is the one with which I have the biggest gripe against its inclusion. It received many accolades and awards when it was released, but I could write another lengthy series of blog entries about all of the times that the Academy Awards got it wrong, and many of the critics later recanted their positive reviews upon subsequent viewings of the film. The performances are pretty good, but this was not the best work of Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, or Christopher Walken. Director Michael Cimino deliberately misled the media about his military service record in order to purport that this was an "autobiographical" film, and the central conceit of the movie - the forced Russian roulette of Vietnam P.O.W.s - was most likely a complete fabrication. Minor parts of this film are way too protracted (the wedding sequence, for example) while more plot-central sequences are truncated or glossed over. It may be one of the first films to have looked at the Vietnam War from an anti-war perspective, but many other films have done it better since, and, in my opinion, this film just isn't good enough to be on this list even with extra points added for "historical significance." I wouldn't even put this on a list of the top 200 films.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Now this is a De Niro performance that could earn a movie a place on this list even if it had nothing else going for it. Fortunately, that isn't the case here. Scorsese's direction is moody and engaging. Paul Schrader's script perfectly captures dark reverie of insomnia and loneliness. The story explores the fine line between misanthropic villainy and avenging heroism, and it leaves one (me, at least) recognizing the value of human connection. Others may perceive different messages in this film. John Hinckley certainly did.
West Side Story (1961)
This is a lavish musical production. The orchestra was tripled from the Broadway version (somewhat to the chagrin of composer Leonard Bernstein), and Jerome Robbins's choreography absolutely soars beyond the confines of a theater stage. The movie perfectly captures the struggle for identity among the poor, devolving into prejudice and gang violence. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet provides us with the hope that love will conquer all, and we are moved to find that it can - even if it must descend into tragedy. Beautiful film.
Saul Bass's opening credit sequence got a lot of attention at the time in 1961. This was before audiences would be treated to the opulent opening credits of the James Bond films, but this is still very cool. (And it includes one of Hitch's famous cameo appearances.)