Old films clothed our imagination of the past — with classy or glamorous costumes, glistening technicolor or atmospheric black-and-white, whimsical or provoking soundtracks and intelligent lines.
To trace the birth, development and movement of this visual art form while obtaining the sensual indulgence from the intricacy of it is a luxury that has been overlooked by modern viewers. Another fascinating thing about old films is that they commemorate memory and history in a way that modern cinema cannot compete with as the mere existence of past works already becomes history itself.
Below, you can find five of my favorite old films (prior to 1990) in chronological order, unranked.
As the outside is blanketed in snow, it’s the perfect time to curl up with a pint-size jar of gelato and let David Lean’s 1955 romance film transport you to Venice in summertime —minus the stifling heat.
It’s hard not to be swept away by the grandeur of the floating city and the Piazza San Marco through the lens of Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn), an American secretary who saved up for a vacation to Venice alone to fulfill a longing for romance.
It’s a breath of fresh air to see how a hapless, rigid middle-aged woman navigates loneliness, tries to subdue her feelings and eventually falls in love passionately. This film is a guaranteed visual pleasure from its luxurious portrayal of Venice and Hepburn’s timeless, minimalistic fashion.
“Imitation of Life” (1959)
Douglas Sirk’s last Hollywood picture tackled race and gender roles in a pre-Civil Rights era and struck strong emotional chords. Two widowed mothers of young daughters, one white and one black, shared a roof for decades.
Over the years, the white mother, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), was an aspiring actress, who pursued and fulfilled her dream for stardom, while the black mother, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), shouldered the sole responsibility of keeping the house and rearing the two girls.
Annie’s light-skinned daughter's aggressive rejection of her racial identity, revealed the racial gulf and sent a social critique to American society at the time. Sarah Jane’s ever-lasting struggle with her identity and the powerless and shameful feelings when confronted by Annie’s unconditional love are heart-breaking and evocative to watch, as many still share the struggles today.
On top of the emotional turmoil that the plot and the acting incite, the film’s mise-en-scène delivers another pure visual pleasure — the sparkle of Lora’s sapphire and diamonds is impossible to miss.
"La Dolce Vita" (1960)
Freed from linear narrative, Federico Fellini has the plot of his iconic film structured like a Cubist painting: the emptiness of a seemingly “sweet life,” the emotional detachment and the decadence of the era can be perceived from every sequence.
The tabloid reporter Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), in a stream of consciousness way, drifts through life in Rome and chases events and women — heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) and movie star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) — while having his suicidal girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) at home.
Mastering plot symmetries and emotional resonance, the film also encapsulates beauty in its various hedonistic extravaganza and female characters, although everything seems to scream a sense of despair.
“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972)
The inconsistency, the bizarreness and the unfathomable are the allure of surrealist cinema. These days, reality has proven to not make any sense, and surrealism now feels like an artistic extension of our realities.
But, it’s a rather exhilarating experience to consciously walk in a carefully constructed dream state that seeks to represent the illogical and irrational subconsciousness. Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterpiece centers around a group of bourgeois friends who repeatedly make attempts for a soirée, but the endeavors fail to ensue whenever they sit down to eat.
That’s enough said for this film; it deserves a complete submission to it with no expectations, just like having an actual dream.
“Au revoir les enfants” (1987)
French writer-director Louis Malle’s autobiographical film tells a heartbreaking story that captures the unpretentious, sweet, ordinary life of children at a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France while alluding to the devastating historical reality of the Holocaust.
It's almost unbearable to watch the long closeup of Julien Quentin’s face in the end as his vision follows his comrade, Jean Bonnet, who is a young Jewish boy, being taken away by the Nazis. The film communicates memory, history and trauma in a profound way. I put this film on my favorites list mainly in hopes of raising more awareness of the genocide: It is the kind of history that we cannot brush aside and forget.
With excessive forms of entertainment and distractions in today’s age, watching old movies is perhaps the least overwhelming but most pleasurable escapism that can also save our short attention spans.
With definable character traits and rigid religious, social and moral beliefs, I understand that modern audiences can sometimes find old films alienating. But give it a try, you may find as much joy and appreciation for the fireworks of cinematic techniques, the witty dialogue and the meticulously designed structures as I do.