Running on Empty
Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix
Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix in Running On Empty | Warner Bros. Pictures

The next time you’re stumped as to what to rent from Netflix, Blockbuster, or your local rental store, take a look at my list of favorites. You can read the second 20 here.

My list runs the gamut from modern dramas to vintage comedies to TV – there’s something for everyone. Unless you’re a major film buff, I’ll bet there are some movies here you’ve never seen.

1. Love in the Afternoon. This Billy Wilder masterpiece from 1957 is my favorite romcom of all time. It stars an effervescent Audrey Hepburn, dashing Gary Cooper, and lovable Maurice Chevalier. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and Audrey makes me cry every time. (Yes, I’m a sap.)

2. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Another in the vintage black and white category, this film with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison is beautifully shot, mysterious, and romantic. It’s the reason I’ve been in love with lighthouses for as long as I can remember.

3. 25th Hour. This Spike Lee film is somber but moving, about a man played by Edward Norton who is set to enter prison. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Rosario Dawson co-star, and it has a haunting score by Terence Blanchard.

4. The Painted Veil. Another Edward Norton film, this story based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel is intense but beautiful. Naomi Watts and Toby Jones costar.

5. Crossing Delancey. One of my favorite romcoms, this sweet little movie is about a young woman in New York who learns that the best man may not be the flashiest one. It stars Amy Irving and Peter Riegert.

6. Domino. Want to see Keira Knightley as a bad ass? Here’s your chance. She plays the real life daughter of actor Lawrence Harvey, Domino Harvey, who worked as a bounty hunter for a while. Not a masterpiece, but stylishly shot and entertaining with Mickey Rourke as a costar.

7. Running on Empty. This film by the great Sidney Lumet has been one of my favorites for years. Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play activists running from the law, and the movie depicts what this running has done to their children. In my opinion, it’s the late River Phoenix’s finest performance.

8. The Skeleton Key. I’m not a huge fan of horror movies, but I love this one set in Louisiana with Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Gene Rowlands. It’s scary without resorting to gore, and it has a cool twist at the end.

9. Grace is Gone. John Cusack gives an utterly heartbreaking portrayal of a man who loses his soldier wife. It’s a heavy film, but gorgeous in its understated emotion. Clint Eastwood wrote the score and channeled the brilliant film composer, John Barry, in the process.

10. Backbeat. In the first of three Beatles-themed movies on my list, Backbeat is an entertaining chronicle of the Fab Four’s time in Hamburg, Germany at the start of their career.

11. Nowhere Boy. A more recent Beatles-themed movie, this one is about John Lennon’s teen years when he loses his mother and first meets Paul McCartney.

12. Across the Universe. Julie Taymour’s masterpiece weaves a story from Beatles music and creates not just a film, but a painting and anti-war poem that, of course, has a fabulous score. Evan Rachel Wood plays the lead, and all actors in the film do justice to the music.

13. American Heart. A little known father and son story with Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong, American Heart gives both actors a chance to deliver moving and layered performances.

14. Just Like Heaven. It’s a sappy romcom, but if you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this one. It’s a little bit supernatural, but not enough to ruin it. Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo knock it out of the park.

15. The Majestic. I love this movie so much. It’s a throwback to the feel-good films of Frank Capra with Jim Carrey playing it straight as a screenwriter who gets amnesia and ends up testifying during the McCarthy era. His speech about the First Amendment always gets me right in the gut.

16. Kitchen Confidential. Here’s a television entry for you – a series that was loosely based on Anthony Bourdain’s book. This lightning fast, sexy sitcom was short-lived despite the fact that it’s deliciously funny. Bradley Cooper plays the chef with a terrific cast including John Cho and Nicholas Brendon.

17. Tsotsi. This Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film is set in South Africa and based on a novel by Athol Fugard. It’s harrowing, but moving beyond belief. I can’t recommend it enough when you’re in the right mood. I also love the soundtrack, which is South African rap music by a group called Zola.

18. The Legend of 1900. Another of my very favorites, this movie stars Tim Roth as a man who was born on a ship and becomes a virtuoso pianist. The twist is that he’s afraid to set foot off the ship onto dry land. Deeply felt film with an excellent supporting performance by Pruitt Taylor Vince.

19. Velvet Goldmine. This film isn’t for everyone, but if you’re into rock history and not squeamish about homoerotic story lines, you’ll enjoy it. Loosely based on the glam rock era, it stars Ewan McGregor, Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Toni Collette in a weird and enigmatic tale. I love every minute of it.

20. Moulin Rouge. No, not the one with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. I’m talking about the vintage movie starring Jose Ferrer as French artist Toulouse Lautrec. I’ve loved this movie since I was a child. It was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for John Huston, and it’s probably the reason I chose to study French in school.

There you have it – my first 20. Read 21-40 now.



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