TCM’s The Essentials–Digging into 52 Must-See movies that matter

Review by C.J. Bunce

Usually the books from Turner Classic Movies highlight lists of select genre favorites by a single author, with selections that are always on-topic, but can often provoke readers to pull out their hair, since it’s very likely nobody’s personal list will match the author’s–or anyone else’s.  We’ve seen great insights and and I’ve personally found numerous selections to track down from the likes of Must-See Sci-Fi, Dynamic Dames, Forbidden Hollywood, Christmas in the Movies, and most recently Fright FavoritesBut now I am going to double back to the book, and the list, that started it all.  It begins with the 2001 Saturday night series, TCM’s The Essentials.  The book is TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter, by film historian Jeremy Arnold, a very different look at classic films.

This is not Mr. Arnold’s selections of the 52 best, or his favorite, classic films.  Instead this is a well-vetted listed pulled from the first 14 seasons of the series beginning in 2001.  So you’ll consider this less of a book of lists than a movie encyclopedia of pretty much undisputed films worthy of your attention.  In fact my recommendation is to first come up with your own list of the top 20 movies you believe are true film classics.  My guess is, if you’re in sync with the world of film critics, your list will include at least 90% matches to the 52 films showcased here.

More important than descriptions of the films is inclusion of the context of the films, how they influenced cinema and/or society, the impact on audiences and the contribution toward the development of film production.  So while you’ll see whether a film was a hit upon its release or took years to develop a fan following, you’ll also see the development of visual effects, storytelling in moving pictures, and the addition of new genres and tropes to the history of cinema.

Citizen Kane, Casablanca, It Happened One Night, Seven Samurai, The Best Years of Our Lives, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Metropolis, The Thin Man, Duck Soup, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws, Vertigo–wait–Vertigo didn’t make the list?  The film that tops more American Greatest Film lists than any other?  OK, this isn’t a complete list, but just the beginning of what will likely build to become an essential film reference library.

The series, and the films included in the book, end in the 1980s.  It’s probably fair to say the list should stop 50 years prior to the books initial release in 2016, if you follow Professor Robert Schofield’s view that we cannot properly judge the impact of a work in the context of history until 50 years have passed.  Case in point?  The book includes This is Spinal Tap, likely as a nod to long-time host of The Essentials, director Rob Reiner.  Still, Arnold justifies its inclusion based on the influence the comedy “mockumentary” had on later films, certainly a fair point.  Again, the purpose of the book is not to celebrate the best films, but highlight films that should be seen by audiences for a variety of reasons.

TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter includes a foreword by long-time TCM host Robert Osborne, plus quotes from hosts of the The Essentials series.  If film buffs and film lovers don’t find something new here to add to their watch lists, they’ll at least gain a new look at films they already love.  The photography choices are useful (especially if you forget a face easily), with many rare, primarily stock film stills and marketing photos of the cast and films, plus classic movie posters.

TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter is available in paperback with 288 pages and hundreds of photographs in black and white and color, from publisher Running Press.  Get your copy now here at Amazon, or via TCM, or your local bookseller.  Keep an eye out at the TCM website for future airings of films from the book.  And don’t forget to check out the other books in the TCM series I’ve reviewed here at borg, Must-See Sci-Fi, Dynamic Dames, Forbidden Hollywood, and Christmas in the Movies (also by Jeremy Arnold), and Fright Favorites.  Better yet, come back tomorrow for my review and preview of a new second volume of The Essentials series, TCM’s The Essentials: 52 More Must-See Movies.

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