When one asks why films are so important, I say it’s for the same reason tales as old as time are important. A common tale most, if not all, know about and discuss amongst each other. Common themes, imagery, moral lessons, religious implications, political positions, quotes, iconic characters, or even just an event that happens. They contain some element that can unite different-minded people if only for that one topic, or shapes small groups who are built around one or more of those films/stories, or gives something that a civilization can highly regard.
Inevitably, an over-saturation point will be reached. There can only be so many films with memorable moments that a society can handle. Probably why aspects of society eventually fracture into specialized groups who primarily appreciate certain films. Could be a genre, could be from a time period, could be from certain directors/actors/cinematographers/etc. I say we are past the over-saturation point. Streaming services are one of the reasons, the downfall of theaters another. But the main contributing factor has to do with a film release no longer being something special. The mainstream no longer treats the release of a film as a special event to get the nation hyped up for it. They’ve become too commercialized for that. The process too controlled by organizations who care more about the return investment and the subliminal/overt political messages than they are the art. Because there isn’t much interest in the quality of the art compared to the other aspects, it’s ultimately not going to result in something culturally impactful. Rather, the cultural impact comes as the result of overall film trends, rather than what is brought about from a single film.
Some may say it is dependent upon the times you live in with regard to which films will culturally impact you. As in, it depends on what films are made while you’re alive. I know for a fact this isn’t the case. I may be a 90s kid, but I was raised on films that pre-date the 1990s. Going all the way back to the 1930s in some cases. Films that had an impact in the past that reverberates all the way to the present, to the point where some may want to either remake it or censor it (thus making some cultural history taboo; which is a temptation for rebels). What films will be remembered 10 years from now? How about 20 years? How about the day/week/month/year after you last saw it? How often do you treat a film as just a typical consumable product that you’re one and done with like fast food?
Well, there are films that I revisit frequently. There are films that I generally don’t care for, but have a moment so iconic it cannot be ignored. There are some I may not have seen but that I know about because of a particular moment. It could be a scene, a line of dialogue, a character… Some moment that stood out. These are the ones I find the most memorable/entertaining. Ones that I don’t believe should be ignored or forgotten. And I’m going to do my best to exclude stuff that became famous primarily through Internet memes. Which pretty much means I’m only going to be covering films that were made prior to the Internet becoming widely used enough, with enough powerful streaming service and meme generators. Don’t expect me to list them all, just the ones I’m personally fond of and grew up with to an extent.
Will give an honorable mention to some films I would like to include, but excluded just to cap this list at 50:
* The Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999-2005)
* The Big Lebowski (1998)
* Saving Private Ryan (1998)
* The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
* Schindler’s List (1993)
* Aladdin (1992)
* Total Recall (1990)
* The Little Mermaid (1989)
* Hellraiser (1987)
* The Princess Bride (1987)
* The Fly (1986)
* Aliens (1986)
* Dune (1984)
* The Blues Brothers (1980)
* Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), Spaceballs (1987)
* Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
* West Side Story (1961)
* Sleeping Beauty (1959)
* The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
* Dracula (1931)
Everyone should know the line, “It’s alive!”
King Kong (1933)
Everyone should know about that finale with Kong on the Empire State building fighting against the planes, and the famous line to end the film, “It was beauty who killed the beast.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
Everyone should know “Hi ho. Hi ho. It’s off to work we go.” Plus that whole thing about the poison apple. And true love’s kiss (before Disney did Sleeping Beauty).
Gone With The Wind (1939)
Everyone should know the line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Everyone should know the songs are all iconic, but I’m pretty sure the line, “There’s no place like home,” takes the cake.
Everyone should know about the iconic character Jiminy Cricket, and the song There Are No Strings On Me. Of course, who could forget the song that’s probably the most famous one in Disney history When You Wish Upon A Star.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Everyone should know about “Rosebud.”
Everyone should know about the song When I See An Elephant Fly. Among other things.
Everyone should know the last line of the film, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Song of the South (1946)
Everyone should know the song Zippity-Do-Da.
Everyone should know about this monster, his flame breath, him destroying a bunch of miniature sets and props, and his theme music.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Everyone should know about the spaghetti scene. Honorable mention to We Are Siamese If You Please.
Everyone should know about that shower scene.
The Sound of Music (1960)
Everyone should know that opening music sequence.
Everyone should know about the gunshot opening (which in all fairness is a trend the 1962 film started), the titular song, and that sequence where Bond is about to be split in half by a laser. I’m only going to single out this particular Bond film out of the whole franchise because it’s the most famous.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Everyone should know Supercalifragilisticiousexpialadocious, and A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down. Plus that image of Poppins floating around on an umbrella.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Everyone should know about H.A.L. 9000, and his line, “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I cannot do that.” And that monolith. And the music this film made famous.
Dirty Harry (1971), Sudden Impact (1983)
Everyone should know the line, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Plus a few other scenes and lines from the first film that made this character famous.
Everyone should know about those dueling banjos. And about squealing like a pig.
The Godfather (1972, 1974)
Everyone should know the entire film, and its sequel, is chock full of iconic cultural moments. It has it all: music, characters, events, dialogue. Only part I’m going to highlight from the first film is the sequence where that director wakes up with his horse’s head in his bed. Second film had, “You broke my heart Fredo.” I suppose I could give an honorable mention to part III for, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Everyone should know that moment where Bruce Lee gets clawed, then licks the blood off his fingers. Plus that yell of his.
Everyone should know about the poster (itself an icon), and the famous (yet simple) music. Plus the famous line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Everyone should know about that duel with the Black Knight resulting in the line, “‘Tis only a flesh wound!” Plus the killer rabbit.
Everyone should know that music track Gonna Fly Now. And how he talks. Plus when he runs up those stairs.
Star Wars (1977, 1980, 1983)
Everyone should know about Darth Vader, lightsabers, and “May the force be with you.” Plus the sequel The Empire Strikes Back had the whole, “I am your father,” moment.
Animal House (1978)
Everyone should know about that sequence where Belushi is peeking in on a girl through the window. Plus that zit moment. And toga parties.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Child’s Play (1988), Scream (1996)
Everyone should know about the most famous slasher villains of all time. Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, and Screamer. I’m grouping them all together just because I wanted to make room for other films on this list. Chose Friday the 13th Part 3 because that’s the film where Jason actually dons the hockey mask. Each film has something memorable about it beyond just the villain himself, such as Scream’s opening sequence.
Everyone should know about that chestburster sequence.
The Shining (1980)
Everyone should know “Here’s Johnny!” Among the film’s other iconic moments, such as the twins in the hallway.
Everyone should know the Leslie Nielsen line, “I just want to tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you.” Plus just be familiar with the gags this comedy came up with.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Everyone should know about that opening sequence where Jones goes into this hidden temple to steal the artifact, which ends with him running from a boulder. And when he pulls a gun on the swordsman. Plus the film’s finale where God smites the Nazis.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Everyone should know about that moment when E.T. causes the bicycle to fly, and be a silhouette in the moon. Plus the music that accompanies it. And, “E.T. phone home.”
Everyone should know the line, “Say hello to my little friend!” along with the shootout that follows.
Everyone should know about the stay puffed marshmallow man. Plus the slimer. And “Don’t cross the streams.” Plus something about a gatekeeper and keymaster.
The Terminator (1984)
Everyone should know the line, “I’ll be back.”
The Karate Kid (1984)
Everyone should know, “Wax on. Wax off.”
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Everyone should know the image of Rambo using that explosive arrow. Plus that line he delivers after he’s been tortured.
Everyone should know the lines, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Or, “You’re move… creep.” And a bunch of one-liners from the villains.
Everyone should know about the Predator itself, plus the line, “You’re one ugly motherfucker.”
Die Hard (1988)
Everyone should know the line, “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”
When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
Everyone should know that restaurant sequence that ends with the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Everyone should know that music Danny Elfmen made famous. Plus the Batman logo. And just the image of the suit and the vehicle. Plus Joker’s line, “Wait until they get a load of me.”
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Everyone should know the titular song.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Everyone should know about Hannibal. Plus that other guy who is all like, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.” Plus, “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”
Jurassic Park (1993)
Everyone should know about the film that revolutionized the film industry with computer graphics. Plus that famous scene with the water rippling from the T-Rex footsteps. Poster is iconic too.
The Lion King (1994)
Everyone should know about that opening at Pride Rock where Simba is lifted into the air. Plus that song, Can You Feel the Love Tonight.
Everyone should know that line, “I’m the king of the world!” And that moment where Jack makes Rose feel like she’s flying. Plus that drawing sequence. And the song My Heart Will Go On.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Everyone should know about Dr. Evil saying, “Zip it!” Or Austin going, “Yeah baby!” Just the general mannerisms to be found in this 007 satire.
The Matrix (1999)
Everyone should know about blue pills, red pills, and something about a spoon (or lack thereof).
The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Everyone should know the line, “One ring to rule them all.” And, “You shall not pass!” All of which are moments found in Fellowship of the Ring, but then the sequels capitalized on the famous line, “My precious,” as much as I would like to think the 1977 Hobbit film made that line famous before this film did.
Edit: Replaced Aladdin with Enter the Dragon; and Fantasia with Cinderella; and Gremlins with Austin Powers.
Edit (5-13-2021): Replaced Cinderella with The Matrix.