Designing the Curriculum for an Awesome High School Film Class: Part One

An old friend of mine who teaches at a public high school in Minnesota just got word that he’s inherited a 12-week elective course on film, and he’s reached out to me, asking if I might help him design the curriculum. All that he’s been given to work with thus far is a list of the films that have been shown in the past, by the teacher who initially developed the course, and the directive that his students should be encouraged to analyze films through “cultural, social, historical, artistic, and political” lenses. So, with that, I put together the following list of films for him to consider… films that I think are not only highly watchable, and compelling in a narrative sense, but also incredibly important for these times in which we live.

Before I get to the list, I should add that these aren’t necessarily my favorite films. If I were just picking movies that I love, this list would have a lot more Billy Wilder films on it, like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. And you can be damn sure that it would includes the likes of M, The Night of the Hunter, Mildred Pierce, and The Killing. But, as I alluded to earlier, when I was putting this list together, I was thinking about the situation we now find ourselves in, and the kinds of films that might generate constructive dialogue about relevant issues. And, I should add, I’m sure that there are huge issues with this list that need to be addressed. I know there are likely glaring omissions, and that’s why it occurred to me to share the list here, and open it up for debate. I’m curious to know what you think about the suggestions I’ve made, and my reasoning… With that, here are the twelve films that I wish I’d been shown in high school — twelve films that I think may help young adults of today make at least some sense of the world around them.

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957)… Directed by the controversial filmmaker Elia Kazan, the film tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, an angry alcoholic drifter who shoots to fame practically overnight by spinning folksy (made-up) tales of small town America. [Kazan, as you may recall, outed several of his friends as Communists before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, ending many a promising career in Hollywood.] As I said back in 2012, upon hearing that Andy Griffith, who portrayed the character of “Lonesome” Rhodes, had passed away, “A Face in the Crowd is an incredibly visionary piece of work, which foretold, among other things, the rise of celebrity culture in the United States, and the popularity of television-enabled con men like Glenn Beck, who drive big ratings by connecting with the masses through the telling of ‘simple truths’ (which are actually anything but), all while serving the political ends of their corporate masters.” And, of course, the film has only become more relevant with the ascent of our populist president, Donald Trump… Here’s the trailer.

2. The Conversation (1974)… I don’t know that it was the first film about surveillance culture, but it’s got to be among the earliest, and it’s just a brilliant, thought-provoking film. Written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring Gene Hackman in the role of surveillance expert Harry Caul, the film explores the idea of privacy, and how quickly it’s disappearing in the modern world. [That’s Hackman as Caul in the photo at the top of this post.] As the film’s trailer says, “This is a world of hidden mics, and two-way mirrors, where nothing is private.” And that realization weighs on Hackman’s character as the tables turn, and the surveillor becomes the surveilled. And it’s one of Hackman’s finest, most nuanced cinematic performances. Plus, as if that weren’t enough, you get to hear a pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford deliver the chilling final line — “We’ll be listening to you.” [As Blade Runner didn’t make my final cut, this is the only time you’ll see Ford in the class, assuming my recommendations are accepted.]

3. The Battle of Algiers (1966)… This is the only non-American film on my list. [I know this is as issue, but it couldn’t be helped.] It’s a Italian-Algerian film about imperialism, state-sponsored torture and terrorism. Again, there may have been other films on the subject of terrorism that preceded it, but The Battle of Algiers, which was co-written and directed by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, really brings the subject matter to life in a way that I don’t believe anyone else has come close to. In choosing to capture this particular chapter of the Algerian War of Independence [November 1954 and December 1957] in a pseudo-documentary fashion, using real Algerians instead of trained actors, Pontecorvo created a neorealist masterpiece that still resonates today. [The film really looks as though it’s constructed from newsreel footage, when it’s not.] Pontecorvo once described the film as a “hymn… in homage to the people who must struggle for their independence, not only in Algeria, but everywhere in the third world,” and that comes through in the vivid, yet sensitive, way in which he handles the subject matter. It’s the kind of complicated, nuanced treatment a subject like this deserves, and so rarely gets, and I can’t help but think that students growing up in post-9/11 America would benefit from the knowledge that society has been dealing with issues like torture and terrorism for quite a long time.

OK, I’d hoped to get a lot farther with this. I actually thought that I could write about all twelve films before falling asleep, but I only got though three. So, instead of debating my list, what if, instead, you just try to guess the other ten films that I’m going to be suggesting? Ad of course, feel free to make suggestions of your own.

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  1. EOS
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal?

  2. EOS
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil, The Stranger, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Sgt. York, Cool Hand Luke, Extreme Measures?

  3. dogmatic dolt
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Aloha MM, I know I can’t guess what is in your mind. You have a very extensive movie repertoire. Only having one foreign film though is not good. A big part of America’s problem is our insular and “exceptional” belief in our self (part of our narcissistic culture). I would have included at least one Costa-Gavras film. Z or State of Siege are both excellent films.

  4. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    He should have you give a guest lecture about the downtown Ypsi film scene of the 70’s and the sociological value of how it made people come together.

  5. Jcp2
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I know your list will be the 12 films you wished you saw in high school. What about films that have been released since after that time? Is this for a private high school class or a public high school class? Rural, suburban, or urban? Secular or religious school? Prep school, all boys school, all girls school? General student body? Dedicated academic or art track?

    I nominate Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing.

  6. John Brown
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 8:59 am | Permalink


    Consider “Get Out” as an up to date statement of race relations and neo-liberalism.

    And “The Motorcycle Diaries” , because everyone knows the whole point of education is romanticized lefty indoctrination.

  7. Posted August 2, 2019 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I don’t want to give too much away, but “Do the Right Thing” is on the list. And “The Fountainhead” is not. In fact, I can say with confidence, that nothing penned by Ayn Rand was even in consideration. [**audible gasp**]

    And, yes, it’s a public high school, and the class is open to all students. [In past years, they would show one rated-R movie, I’m told, but students needed to get the approval of their parents.]

    As for my adding films that played in Ypsi during the ’70s, I think we all know what HW is referring to, right?

  8. Posted August 2, 2019 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I wonder, if I added Hot Channels, how many parents would sign the permission slip.

  9. Bob
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Drugstore Cowboy
    Annie Hall
    This Is Spinal Tap
    Miller’s Crossing
    The Road Warrior
    A Woman Under the Influence
    Tender Mercies
    Mean Streets
    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original)

  10. Doug Coombe
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I just saw Face In A Crowd last week for the first time. So amazing, so ahead of it’s time with it’s pop culture/media critique and sadly completely timely today. Don’t know how I lived this long without seeing it. Also the The Criterion Collection Blu Ray of it that recently came out looks amazing.

  11. Posted August 2, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Mark — Ten plus three equals thirteen, not twelve. Brush up on your math or you won’t be able to comment on this blog. I assume your other choices are:

    Gertie the Dinosaur
    Big Business (the 1929 one)
    Un Chien andalou
    Upa en apuros
    À la conquète du pôle
    Sins of the Fleshapoids
    Space is the Place
    Crocodile Dundee II

  12. ElsieGal
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Well, since Night of the Hunter isn’t included, I am hoping you include another amazing Shelley Winters performance: Lolita. The topic is pretty contemporary, it is adapted from a famous Russian writer, it also stars James Mason and Peter Sellers, AND is an amazing film. (Speaking of Sellers, I just saw Being There again recently and though it’s aged a bit, it is maddeningly believable.)

    Though glitzy musicals from the 30s-50s aren’t usually “great timeless films” they do occupy a very specific place in American cinema (just like screwball comedies a la Ernst Lubitsch and others) and reflect a certain kind of twinned hope and escapism when the country needed both. Love this post….thanks so much!!

  13. Posted August 2, 2019 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I can’t even think about Crocodile Dundee II without becoming angry… The “toilet citizen” character should have gotten his own film!

    As for Gertie the Dinosaur, I like the idea, as Winsor McCay started his career right around the corner from where I’m writing this now, but I don’t see how it really fits the theme as I’ve presented it…. Speaking of McCay, what, if anything, do you know of the following incident? “In 1911,” I’ve read, “there was a curious incident where it looks as if Winsor McCay and a friend dressed in blackface and attacked a man they thought was trying to blackmail the cartoonist’s wife Maude McCay.” I’ve thought about asking you before, as you seem to know such things, but I keep forgetting.

    As for the other films, I’ll have to get to them later. Arlo and I have a date to watch Patrick McGoohan as Danger Man now.

    [note: For those of you who might not understand that first comment, Doug portrayed “toilet citizen” in Crocodile Dundee II. And he was awesome in the role.]

  14. Posted August 2, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Ernst Lubitsch isn’t on the list, sadly, but I did consider To Be Or Not To Be, which is one of my all time favorites… With that said, I am still considering Sullivan’s Travels, which has within it a reference to

  15. Biff
    Posted August 2, 2019 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    “…the situation we now find ourselves in, and the kinds of films that might generate constructive dialogue about relevant issues.”

    1927 Metropolis (worker struggles and robotics).
    1936 Things to Come (ideological battles of war vs progress).
    1956 Forbidden Planet (technology fatally outpaces wisdom).
    1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (MAGA).
    1960 The Time Machine (cannibalistic class warfare).
    1964 Dr Strangelove (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb).
    1966 Fahrenheit 451 (surveillance, tv addiction, banned books).
    1968 Planet of the Apes (you maniacs, you blew it up).
    1970 Colossus the Forbin Project (AI gets out of hand).
    1971 The Omega Man (infectious conformity).
    1973 Soylent Green (riot control).
    1981 Mad Max 2 / Road Warrior (last gasp of fossil fuel).
    1982 Blade Runner (enslavement of skin jobs).
    1982 Tron (video games and tech companies).
    1983 War Games (the way to win a nuclear war).
    1989 Back to the Future 2 (money turns Biff into Trump).
    1997 Gattaca (genetic screening and genetic determinism).

  16. Posted August 3, 2019 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Yes, I put Gertie on the list for the Ypsi connection. I looked up that blackface incident in John Canemaker’s bio of McCay. A man named John Muir claimed two men in blackface, one in a policeman’s uniform, had attacked him outside McCay’s home, and that McCay had spoken to them. McCay said it never happened. Maude McCay and Muir’s wife were friends, but McCay didn’t seem to like Muir. The whole business is baffling, but apparently McCay was not one of the men in blackface, if they ever existed.

  17. dogmatic dolt
    Posted August 3, 2019 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Aloha MM, If you are watching old Patrick McGoohan movies, I think Arlo would really like the Scarecrow

    Disney serialized this film when I was a kid—took me two seasons to watch the whole thing (they played it over the course of 3 weeks I think). The second week of the first season coincided with the first Ed Sullivan appearance of the Beetles. My sisters had to watch the Beatles and it took until Disney reran the Scarecrow for me to catch the middle of the movie.

  18. Posted August 3, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I know of The Scarecrow. Ive searched for it. I’ve never been able to find it, though. If you have any suggestions as to where I might be able to find a copy, I’d love to know. It seems like one of those things that’s just evaporated from the face of the earth.

  19. Posted August 3, 2019 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Doug. I’m happy to know that McCay didn’t make it a habit of putting on blackface and accosting his enemies. With that said, I still struggle with McCay’s legacy when it comes to his portrayal of non-white characters. I know it’s probably not exactly fair to judge his work by today’s standards, but it’s difficult to look at his work, as influential and brilliant as it may have been, and think, “Hey, I want to defend this guy.”

  20. dogmatic dolt
    Posted August 3, 2019 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    aloha MM, If I had called the film by its correct title it would be helpful. But what else can you expect from a dolt. I don’t think this was ever in theatrical release.

  21. dogmatic dolt
    Posted August 3, 2019 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to share before it disappears. Manifesto of El Paso terrorist.

  22. Elvis Costello
    Posted August 3, 2019 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Harlan County, USA
    The Fog of War
    The Commitments

  23. Posted August 5, 2019 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    With the idea of “cultural, social, historical, artistic, and political” moments in film as the subject and also of the films themselves, a couple ideas to mix it up a bit:

    * “Singin’ In the Rain,” because it is a movie about the cultural, historic, artistic shift from silent to “talkie” movies. And because a lot of high school students will have never seen an old timey musical like this before.

    * In the camp of “films that are themselves examples of “cultural, social, historical, artistic, and political” touchstone as films, I’d add *The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari*, *Nosferatu*, *Metropolis*, and *City Lights*. Speaking of Chaplin: *The Great Dictator* might be an interesting one too. And also the usual suspects of *Citizen Kane* *Casablanca*, etc. Oh, and *It’s a Wonderful Life.*

  24. Emma
    Posted August 6, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Faster Pussycat Kill Kill

  25. Emma
    Posted August 6, 2019 at 1:38 pm | Permalink


  26. Jean Henry
    Posted August 6, 2019 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Fear Eats the Soul– Fassbinder
    Wings of Desire– Wenders
    Picnic at Hanging Rock – Weir
    Vagabond- Agnes Varda
    Chungking Express– Wong Kar Wa
    The cook, the thief, his wife, and her lover– Peter Greenaway
    the Five Obstructions– Lars Von Trier
    Variety –Bette Gordon
    Daughters of the Dust– Julie Dash
    To Sleep with Anger– Charles Burnett

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