The 10 Most Iconic American Movies of all Time
6. PSYCHO (1960)
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
Psycho is the point where the horror genre was legitimized. We had plenty of successful monster movies and creature features going back at least 30 years, but the slasher genre was born here. To some extent, the groundwork was laid with creepy classics like Night of the Hunter (1955), but Psycho took it up a notch and was noticeably different from the Hitchcock films leading up to that point (note that his two previous films were Vertigo and North by Northwest). Surprisingly, Parade magazine ranked Psycho the #2 slasher film of all time (#1 being another 1960 film called Peeping Tom), while Paste magazine ranked it #4, seemingly due to the low body count. However, it is hard to imagine the universes of Michael Myers and Freddy Kreuger existing if we had never been introduced to a mama’s boy named Norman Bates. As Paste described it, “You’ve never met a slasher (proto-slasher, really) like Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and no matter how many times the movies try to replicate his persona on screen, they’ll never quite get it right.”
Some thoughts about character in this movie, beyond the abovementioned uniqueness of the Norman Bates character. First, especially for those seeing the movie in the theatre in 1960, audiences walked in in part to see the acknowledged star of the film, Janet Leigh. Imagine their shock when, a third of the way through the film, Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, was brutally murdered in what is still the most famous shower scene of all time (more on the shower scene later). At that moment, the audience was left with no one to root for. Many were probably wondering, “What do I do now?” This has never really happened in a mainstream film before.
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The second most important character in the film after Norman Bates was not a person, but Bernard Herrmann’s frightening score. Using musical instruments to convey a feeling of terror had never been accomplished on such a scale before. Hitch himself acknowledged the importance of the score: “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music…Psycho depended heavily on Herrmann’s music for its tension and sense of pervading doom.” Herrmann felt that the all-string soundtrack fit properly with the black and white cinematography. No doubt his score also served as inspiration for Steven Spielberg and John Williams when they made Jaws 15 years later. Hermann’s score ranks fourth on the AFI list of best film scores.
Back to the shower scene. Psycho is acknowledged for setting a new level of tolerance for not just violence, but sexuality. Marion laying on top of a bed with her lover, clad in nothing but her underwear, was new to audiences used to seeing married couples on television sleeping in separate beds. The shower scene took that permissiveness to another level. It is clear, even without slow motion, that the actress is nude, yet Hitchcock somehow managed to film the entire sequence without showing any of the forbidden body parts (to the chagrin of male teenage moviegoers, I would imagine).
Conveniently, Hollywood waited until after the director’s death in 1980 to capitalize on his most valuable intellectual property. Three sequels of diminishing value were produced, all featuring Anthony Perkins (including one as director), with the last being relegated directly to Showtime. Gus Van Sant also produced a virtual shot-for-shot remake in 1998, with Vince Vaughn taking over the Norman Bates role. The best received tangential property was probably A&E’s prequel series, Bates Motel, which depicts the life of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga).
As previously suggested, Psycho inspired an entire genre of film, but several make that inspiration more apparent. Scream borrowed the trope of killing off a major star’s character early on in the film, one-upping the master by having Drew Barrymore’s character killed in the opening scene (Barrymore did not receive top billing, but was the biggest star in the cast, as indicated by her “and” credit). Halloween employed Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first major role (unless you were a teenage nerd like me who lusted after her on the short-lived John Astin sitcom, Operation Petticoat). Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill made very effective use of shower scenes at both the beginning and end of the films, though without having to be concerned with hiding any body parts. National Lampoon’s Vacation paid comical homage to the shower scene as well, while the previously referenced It’s A Wonderful Life-inspired episode of The Big Bang Theory included a brief fantasy sequence of Howard carrying his mother’s corpse upstairs to her bedroom while speaking in her voice (finally acknowledging how closely his relationship to his mother mirrored that of Norman and Mama Bates).
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Despite the film’s acceptance as a classic amongst slasher film aficionados, Psycho is also critically revered. The film is ranked #14 on AFI’s list of 100 best movies, not too far behind Hitchcock’s Vertigo at #9, and ahead of his other classics, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and North by Northwest. Norman Bates is ranked #2 on AFI’s list of top 50 villains (just behind Hannibal Lecter), and the quote “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” is ranked #56 on the AFI list of top 100 movie quotes.
7. DIE HARD (1988)
“Yippy kay-ay, motherfucker.”
This is the movie that became the “go-to” term for any subsequent film that pits a lone hero up against overwhelming odds (more on this later). It was Bruce Willis’ perception as an everyman that differentiated this film from the wealth of Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies that came before it. Those characters were portrayed more like superheroes, whereas Bruce Willis’ character John McClane was just a regular cop caught in an unexpected situation. It was a plot that many of us as viewers could picture ourselves in.
I suspect I’m not alone in thinking of Die Hard when I hear a question about favorite holiday movies. To me, the holiday theme, while not overwhelming, is certainly noticeable at various points of the film, particularly early on. Thinking of Die Hard as a Christmas movie is mostly a joke, but not entirely, and identifying it as such usually elicits a good chuckle from the other end of that conversation. However, Empire magazine lists Die Hard as the greatest Christmas movie of all time. The 30th anniversary home video version includes a re-cut trailer presenting it as a heartwarming holiday film.
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The most satisfying element of the film was the relationship that develops between John McClane and Sgt. Al Powell, the beat cop played by Reginald VelJohnson (of Family Matters sitcom fame). Personality-wise, Powell was not much different from the Chicago cop he played on television, which somehow makes it easier to buy into seeing this character in a situation so different from what we are accustomed to seeing on the small screen. I suspect many of you are nodding at this train of thought and will be surprised to hear that Die Hard actually hit the theatres a year before the sitcom’s television premiere. Since Die Hard is a movie that many of its fans watch on repeat, even if you did first see the film before Steve Urkel and company became ingrained in pop culture, you have seen it perhaps a dozen times since then. For those of us who find it harder to relate to a tough cop character like McClane, we have a real average guy like Powell to fall back on. Watching him be smarter than the so-called experts surrounding him was a particular joy. While some may suggest a similarity between Powell and Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon, the timing probably makes that coincidental, since Die Hard came out only a year later.
McClane, of course, is the seemingly achievable fantasy for many American males. Becoming Rambo, or even Martin Riggs, would be unrealistic, but I can certainly picture myself doing something heroic in the kind of situation like in Die Hard which is much less over the top. It’s this identification that makes the Die Hard model so effective. Consider these memorable entries in the “Die Hard with a ______” sub-genre:
- Speed – Die Hard on a bus
- Daylight – Die Hard in a tunnel
- Cliffhanger – Die Hard on a mountain
- Olympus Has Fallen – Die Hard in the White House
- Sudden Death – Die Hard in a hockey arena
- Passenger 57 – Die Hard on a plane
- Air Force One – Die Hard on the President’s plane
Ironically, two of these films starred Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone. The plagiarism came full circle when someone reportedly pitched “Die Hard in an office building”, unaware that this was the exact plot of the original classic.
Die Hard is the first entry in this essay that did not place on the AFI list of 100 best movies (although Empire lists it at #29). However, it did make it to #39 on AFI’s 100 years…100 Thrills list of the 100 most thrilling movies (Psycho was #1, and Jaws, Star Wars, and Casablanca all finished ahead of it). Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) is #46 on the AFI villains list, yet surprisingly, John McClane did not make the corresponding AFI heroes list. This is a movie that is more beloved by the audience than by the critics and Hollywood insiders.
Andy Samberg’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jake Peralta, is a die-hard fan of this movie. Memorable references include Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) using Die Hard references to delay a trip home from Los Angeles, and Reginald VelJohnson appearing on Jake’s bachelor party episode. The Goldbergs honored the movie during their 2018 holiday episode, titled “Yipee Kay-Yay, Melon Farmer”. Not much homage to John McClane beyond those, so we will have to live with the “Die Hard on a ______” sub-genre and the fact that none of them can hold a candle to the one and only original that, at this moment, some 40-year-old dude is watching for the 100th time.
8. CADDYSHACK (1980)
“It’s in the hole!”
My initial experience with this film was attempting to see it at the Westfield Cinema as a 16-year old in 1980. My friends and I had previously been successful getting admitted to The Blues Brothers, Kentucky Fried Movie, and The Blue Lagoon, so we got a little cocky and mistakenly let the youngest looking member of the group go up to the ticket booth. She immediately requested proof of age, and we wound up just having pizza at Ferarro’s and asking someone’s parents for an early ride home. I had to wait for my neighborhood to get cable the following year before I finally got to see the movie for the first time.
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Caddyshack is beloved by golfers across America. Golfweek magazine’s recent profile of the film started as follows: “On July 25, 1980, Caddyshack hit movie theatres. Golf would never be the same.” Golfweek recognized the film as best golf movie ever, besting a rather thin list of competitors that included Happy Gilmore, Tin Cup, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and The Greatest Game Ever Played. The fact that golf movies aren’t necessarily a who’s who of great cinematic achievement does not take away from the movie’s place of honor in our popular culture. Even the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) recognizes it as golf’s funniest film. Tiger Woods reported that he had seen the movie close to 100 times when asked back in 2010, and some may remember a commercial several years earlier in which he did his best Bill Murray as Carl Spackler imitation.
According to the PGA article, a fan attending the Phoenix Open yelled out “Noonan!” while tour pro Chris DiMarco was putting on the 16th green, a reference to a scene from the film during which two caddies attempt to distract Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) while putting for the caddy championship. Like Noonan in the film, DiMarco made the putt anyway on his way to a tournament victory. If you play golf on a somewhat regular basis, you probably hear the movie quoted at least once per 18 holes. The above quote is a golf course favorite (if you are lucky enough to make a great shot), and the full dialogue is #92 on the AFI list of top 100 movies quotes:
“Cinderella story. Outta nowhere, a former groundskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac…it’s in the hole! It’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!”
The movie is a regular quotefest, as some of our best comedies tend to be. Other memorable quotes include:
“What brings you to this nape of the woods, neck of the nape? What brings you here?”
“So I got that going for me, which is nice.”
“It looks good on you, though.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Judge. You’re a tremendous slouch.”
“We have a pool and a pond. The pond is better for you.”
“In order to conquer an animal, I have to think like an animal, and whenever possible, look like one.”
“Did somebody step on a duck?”
“Thank you very little.”
The gopher subplot was absurd, but still incredibly funny. Caddyshack is #71 on AFI’s list of 100 funniest films (100 Years…100 Laughs).
9. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
“Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”
Speaking of quotefests, for my money, there is no movie more quotable than Animal House. This is the movie that inspired many from my generation to join fraternities at their respective universities, with hopes of recreating the magic that we first saw on screen. This was in the days before cell phone cameras and social media, so I suspect the joy of this little movie is lost on the millennial generation, which constantly lives in fear of their sophomoric hijinks becoming part of their permanent record. The confirmation of our newest Supreme Court Justice made it clear how much more people could get away with back in the day. My son did not embrace this movie at 17 the way I did.
This is the movie that defined “rewatchable” for me. It came out when I was in 9th grade, and it seemed everyone I know had seen it a dozen times in the theatres. At age 14, I knew better than to ask my parents for permission, and at that point, I was too afraid of whatever repercussions might emerge from trying to gain admission to an R rated movie (as I subsequently learned with Caddyshack, the answer was none). I finally got to see it on cable, first at a friend’s house in 1980, and subsequently in the comfort of my own parental home when we finally got cable in 1981. By 1983, we had our first VCR, at which point it became a regular rental. My fondest New Year’s Eve memory is watching it with my friend Nitin in 1984 after we had outgrown our high school crowd. I have never outgrown Animal House.
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The movie portrays pretty much an all-white world, pretty realistic for 1962, but the affection the Deltas had for Otis Day and The Nights (the all-black band that played at the toga party) was genuine. The experience of the Deltas attempting to attend their performance as the only white people at the Dexter Lake Club was played for laughs, despite the tension being very real. As a white kid, I got a taste of what it might feel like to be a minority in that scene. Having said that, it does not surprise me to find some pushback to the movie through our much more enlightened lens of today. Not only from a racial perspective but also as an affront to women. Consider the following:
- As referenced above, a roomful of black nightclub patrons was portrayed as an intimidating group that did not take kindly to a group of harmless white kids. Pinto (Tom Hulce) referred to them as Negroes, which is not a welcome term today, though it was acceptable in 1962. Having his date indicate that her major is “primitive cultures” during a scene portraying African-Americans as dangerous gives the scene a racist undertone that white folks like me found easy to laugh off at the time, but which is insulting in hindsight. The presence of a knife, a large man pulling a table out of its bolts, and multiple sneers, suggested very clearly that a roomful of African-Americans is dangerous to white people. Not a good message, especially in 2020.
- Larry did not take advantage of his passed out date at the toga party, but the angel and devil dialogue taking place on his shoulders suggest that he was at least thinking about it, and although he took her home, leaving her at her front door in a grocery cart and running away was not the noblest method he could have chosen. The imaginary devil calling him a “homo” is no longer kosher either.
- The casual attitude toward excessive drinking has not aged very well. The scene of Bluto (John Belushi) chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels should come with a “don’t try this at home” warning.
- Bluto becomes a peeping tom in another memorable scene, getting an eyeful of sorority girls in various states of undress. Even in 1962, this would have been considered at least a misdemeanor.
- Katy (Karen Allen) refers to her boyfriend Boon (Peter Reigert) and his pal Otter (Tim Matheson) as “well known homosexuals”, and this was intended as a dig that would make others uncomfortable. At least they didn’t use any of the bluer terms, but the idea would still be unpopular in 2019.
- During the kangaroo courtroom scene, Otter proudly makes reference to “taking a few liberties with our female party guests,” as if it were acceptable to do so.
- The girl that Larry picks up at the grocery store (Sarah Holcomb), right before sex on a football field, admits to Larry that she is only 13 years old. In a later scene, she introduces Larry to her father, Mayor Carmine DePasto (played by Cesare Danova), as the “boy who molested me last month” and tells him that they “have” to get married.
- Most egregiously, in the overall sequence that includes the abovementioned visit to the Dexter Lake Club, Otter posed as the fiancée of a female Dickinson student who had recently died in a freak accident. He convinced the deceased girl’s roommate Shelly (Lisa Baur, in her only film role) to go out with him that evening, as well as bring three dates for Boon, Pinto, and Flounder (Stephen Fuerst). While the others are encountering the uncomfortable situation inside the bar, Otter manages to lure his date into the parking lot, which leads to a full-blown sexual encounter. Meanwhile, the other young ladies have been asked to dance by a large black man (the exact dialogue was “You mind if we dance wif yo dates?”). Boon allows this to proceed, and then the fellas hightail it out of the club, forcing a topless Shelly to dive into another car for cover, and leaving the four young women to walk home in the dark.
The questionable elements of Animal House suggest that the film will probably lose its iconic status as my generation ages. But since most of us are still alive today, it makes my list of most iconic American movies. Let’s close with a random list of memorable quotes from the film:
- “I’ll give you a hint. She’s got some major league yabboes.”
- “Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman. Damn glad to meet you.”
- “Well usually, unless the pledge in question is a real closet case. Like Fred.”
- “You guys playing cards?”
- “We need the dues.”
- “This guy’s a real zero, that’s true. But think back to when you guys were freshmen. Boon, you had a face like a pepperoni pizza. What about Stork here? Everyone thought the Stork was brain damaged. I myself was so obnoxious, the seniors used to beat me up once a week.”
- “I, state your name.”
- “Who dumped a whole truckload of fizzies into the swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets…explode.”
- “As of now, they’re on double secret probation!”
- “It’s time for someone to put their foot down. And that foot…is me.”
- “Thank you sir. May I have another?”
- “He can’t do that to our pledges.” “Only we can do that to our pledges.”
- “A pledge pin?! On your uniform?!”
- “You’re all worthless and weak. Now drop and give me twenty.”
- “See if you can guess…what I am now.”
- “Food fight!”
- “Toga! Toga!”
- “Road trip!”
- “If you talk about extortion to me again, I’ll have your legs broken.”
- “Greg, honey? Is it supposed to be this soft?”
- “My cucumber. It’s bigger.”
- “We’re willing to trade looks for a certain kind of morally casual attitude.”
I’m sure I’ve missed some memorable quotes here, but you get the gist. As poorly as the film has aged relative to our current moral standards, my generation will continue to laugh in spite of our better judgment.
There were attempts to capitalize on the popularity of Animal House. ABC rolled out a short-lived sitcom, Delta House, with the pilot written by the film’s screenwriters. Flounder, D-Day, and Hoover returned with the original actors (Furst, Bruce McGill, and James Widdoes). Peter Fox replaced Tim Matheson as Otter, and Belushi’s character of Bluto was replaced by his fictional brother, Blotto, played by Josh Mostel (James Belushi was offered the role, but declined). Michelle Pfeiffer made her acting debut as Bombshell. NBC’s Brothers and Sisters, which followed the hijinks of fraternity and sorority members at Crandall College, was canceled after three months, while CBS aired all of one episode of their campus comedy, Co-Ed Fever, set in a dorm at a college that only recently started admitting male students. Two attempts at creating a sequel film also fell by the wayside, and a Broadway musical version seems to have gone nowhere.
While the sequels and spin-offs all failed terribly, the genre that Animal House inspired enjoyed several years of success, which all thankfully occurred during my high school and college years. The most memorable follow-ups include:
- Porky’s (essentially Animal House in a Florida high school in 1959, conveniently three years before the events of Animal House took place)
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (essentially Animal House in a then-modern day high school)
- Police Academy (essentially Animal House at a police academy)
- Revenge of the Nerds (essentially Animal House populated by collegiate nerd stereotypes)
However, there were plenty of other booze-and-boobs-type flicks to fulfill a teenage boy’s desire to live vicariously through much cooler and/or luckier peers, including Spring Break, Fraternity Vacation (with Tim Robbins!), Bachelor Party (with Tom Hanks!), Hot Dog: The Movie, Up The Creek, Losin’ It (with Tom Cruise!), Screw Balls, H.O.T.S., School Spirit, The Beach Girls, Zapped, Private Lesson, Hardbodies, The Last American Virgin and The Swinging Cheerleaders. Since the 80s, there have been a couple of successful updates to the formula, particularly Old School and the American Pie series.
National Lampoon’s Animal House is ranked #36 on the AFI list of funniest films, with Bravo ranking it #1 on their list.
10. JAWS (1975)
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
My first exposure to Jaws was a paperback that my dad brought home every day from his commute by train to New York City. Peter Benchley’s book was published in 1974, and even though I had not read it, I was not at all surprised to learn that it was being made into a movie. Having recently stood on a long line that wrapped around the corner of the Rialto Cinema in Westfield to see Earthquake in 1974, I fully expected a similar wait when Jaws premiered at that same theatre the following year. My 10-year old eyes had seen death portrayed on screen with seeming realism in both Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, but having read the novel, my father forbid me from seeing Jaws in the theatre. I feigned disappointment, but in reality, I was relieved, as it was already known to be quite scary. While I saw the sequel a few years later at that very same cinema, I did not see the original Jaws from start to finish until my brother-in-law showed it to his neighborhood on the beach at night in Massachusetts in the summer of 2015.
Like Star Wars, Jaws was the kind of film that I could learn a lot about without actually seeing it. Many of my classmates saw the film at the Rialto, and couldn’t stop talking about it at school. I knew about the nudity at the beginning right away. I received a full description of the young boy’s death from my friend Eric, which again made me secretly happy that I had not seen it (although it wound up not being as frightening as I imagined it for all those years). I knew the famous quote above for decades, I knew what happened to Captain Quint, and I knew who won the battle at the end of the movie. When I finally saw it in full in 2015, I felt like I had already seen it before, even though I was truly seeing it for the first time.
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Jaws launched a couple of important Hollywood standards in 1975. It was the first true summer blockbuster film, annihilating box office records previously held by The Godfather. It introduced Hollywood and America to the concepts of wide national release and heavy television advertising. It also became the first film franchise, spawning three sequels, though none nearly as good as the original. But probably its most important accomplishment was that it launched the career of the then 26-year old Steven Spielberg, whose career has been as iconic as any of the American movies mentioned here. It is also the first famous film score from multiple Oscar-winner John Williams. Williams’ two-note instrumental became as important as any character. It wound up standing in for the mechanical shark during the early scenes of the movie – Spielberg and crew’s inability to get the thing to work properly became a blessing in disguise, as the music instilled a greater feeling of terror than they could have accomplished with their malfunctioning equipment. Williams’ score was described as “Hitchcockian”, with Psycho being an obvious influence.
One other economic impact of Jaws was that it made people afraid of the ocean. 1975, the year of the film’s release, saw a noticeable drop in beach attendance, and the movie was the most likely cause. It also made it more difficult for conservationists to convince the public that sharks should be protected, and there have been enough actual shark attacks in the past 40 or so years to perpetuate that negative stereotype about one of Earth’s oldest living species.
Ridley Scott’s Alien was originally pitched as “Jaws in space”, though that film is iconic enough in its own right to be able to avoid that comparison. There were many high concept thrillers that attempted to ride the coattails of Jaws, including Orca, Grizzly, and Piranha, which Spielberg declared “the best of the Jaws ripoffs.” More recently, two independent films that revolved around sharks, Open Water, and The Shallows, and the Sharknado series of basic cable films, achieved notoriety. Of course, if you google “shark movies”, you will find more than enough cheesy shark flicks to fill an entire weekend or more, including the recent box office hit, The Meg. And let’s not forget the annual televised event that is Shark Week.
If you look hard enough, you can find some comic references to Jaws in some interesting places. Perhaps the most famous is the series of Land Shark sketches performed on Saturday Night Live. The Land Shark, played by Chevy Chase, fast-talks his way into women’s apartments, confounding Sheriff Brody (Dan Akroyd) and Matt Hooper (an overacting John Belushi). He gains entry into these ladies’ homes by posing as a deliveryman and claiming to be a dolphin, among other ruses. In Adrian Lyne’s notorious 9-1/2 Weeks, a character claims an ability to fart the Jaws theme music. In Back to the Future II, Marty McFly encounters a theatre marquee advertising Jaws 19. John Williams’ theme music has been copped for other films, including Spaceballs, Airplane, Weekend at Bernie’s II, Finding Nemo, and the “Baby Ruth bar in the pool scene” from Caddyshack. The famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” quote was co-opted in Clerks, Shanghai Knights, Evan Almighty, and Batman and Robin (as “We’re gonna need a bigger cave).” And let’s not forget Dickie Goodman’s hit single, Mr. Jaws, which hit #4 on the Billboard singles chart in 1975.
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Jaws is ranked #56 on the AFI list of greatest films. The shark is ranked #18 on the AFI list of greatest villains, and the film is ranked second on the AFI list of most thrilling movies, behind only Psycho. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is #35 on the AFI list of 100 best movie lines. John Williams’ score is #6 on the AFI list of best film scores.
Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out.”)
Dirty Harry (“Do you feel lucky?)
The Night of the Living Dead (launching two generations worth of zombie flicks)
The Toy Story franchise (making adults cry for 20 years)
The Terminator (“I’ll be back.”)
Alien (“In space, no one can hear you scream.”)
Rocky (“Yo, Adrian!”)
The Shining “(“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”)
E.T. (“Phone home.”)
Pulp Fiction (making Quentin Tarantino a household name)
Grease (successfully merging the movie musical with the Top 40)
Feel free to challenge me on this list. I’m sure cases can be made for many more movies than what I’ve mentioned here, particularly the absence of any other Disney movies, or anything from the master, Martin Scorcese. Have at it, and have fun!