The best way to learn about films, in my experience, is to watch a lot of films. Duh, I know. But every film you watch teaches you how to watch the next. One of the good things about double features is that watching films together can illuminate both, each teaching you how to watch its partner. Here are five pairings that clarify genre focus, help to situate each other in history and otherwise enrich each other, both as films and as guides to future films.
The Apartment (1960) / When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
Christmas films get a lot of press, but New Year’s films are more or less completely unsung. It might be because there just are relatively few New Year’s movies; it might be because of the tinge of melancholy that clings to New Year’s like frost on a window; it might be because people traditionally spend New Year’s Eve out on the town instead of cooped up inside watching films on TV. But it’s a shame.
Aside from being two of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, The Apartment and When Harry Met Sally… make the perfect New Year’s Eve double feature. Although set over longer periods, both climax on a New Year’s Eve where the characters we know should be together are apart, one at home, one at a party. Then one of them runs through the streets of New York (the New-Year’s-iest of cities) to be with the person they love. (This is about as much a spoiler as telling you a western ends with a shootout.) While those big declarative moments make my heart swell, what makes them work is how much both movies earn them.
Both The Apartment and When Harry Met Sally… understand the all great romances are between best friends. They both take special care in the small details – the expression on Jack Lemmon’s face when he looks at a single spaghetti string hanging off a tennis racket will break your heart clean in half, trust me – and have all-time great witty, quotable dialogue. But mostly, they’re both films about both loneliness and connection, that feel like New Year’s the way Wizard of Oz inexplicably feels like Christmas.
If you want to make it a triple feature, throw in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925).
Bicycle Thieves (1948) / Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Bicycle Thieves and Wendy and Lucy are superficially different – Bicycle Thieves is about a man trying to support his wife and child in post-war Rome, Wendy and Lucy is about a woman living out of her car who breaks down in a small town in Oregon – but they’re variations on the same tune. Both are incisive, heartbreaking portraits of a depressingly universal theme: how people are punished for being poor.
Bicycle Thieves and Wendy and Lucy are both about getting one bad break when you’re already on the precipice. In Bicycle Thieves, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) pawns his bedsheets to buy a bicycle for work, only for it to get stolen on his first day. The film is the story of he and his son walking through Rome, trying to recover the bicycle, and as time goes on Antonio’s desperation becomes overwhelming, suffocating. In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy (Michelle Williams) is driving to Alaska when her car breaks down, and then her dog, Lucy, goes missing. Wendy’s stress, too, feels overwhelming: she tries to calculate how she could afford the repairs, and she tries to find Lucy, and as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, a policeman harasses her for sleeping in her car.
They’re both films about how when you’re poor, there are things you have no choice about for which you will nonetheless be punished. Antonio doesn’t have a choice; he must have a bicycle for work, but he spent all his money on the one that was stolen. Wendy doesn’t have a choice; she’s not supposed to live out of her car, that’s not permitted, but she has nowhere to go. Watched together, they’re a reminder that this problem transcends gender, nation, and period.
Secretary (2002) / Phantom Thread (2017)
It’s hard to describe a film completely in isolation, and so other films become reference points, a shorthand explanation. Secretary is one of the cinematic reference points I end up pulling out most often: it’s a film about a BDSM relationship, but its particular approach to its subject matter makes it the perfect shorthand for a certain kind of unorthodox love story. Any film with two people with complementary particularly extreme or weird desires who somehow find each other, and a comparison to Secretary will illuminate it.
Phantom Thread was one of my favourite films of 2017, but it’s also a film that’s easy not to quite get. It has a very offbeat sense of humour, and a very unorthodox romance at its heart. The most common reading I disagree with is that it’s about how the romantic partner of an artist should just put up with them being a shit, because the art they make is more important. But Phantom Thread is about a pair of absolute weirdos who complement each other perfectly. Things that seem incredibly fucked up are revealed to be romantic, because – like James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary – what makes it romantic is that the other person finds it so, even if they’re the only other person in the world who would.
Secretary is a great film in its own right, but also a great primer for watching Phantom Thread with the right eyes. (You also won’t go wrong throwing in Jane Campion’s The Piano.)
The Breakfast Club (1985) / The Big Chill (1983)
Every so often someone on the internet will throw out the idea of a sequel to The Breakfast Club – about the breakfast club reuniting as adults, presumably – and I always think, “Wow, that’s a terrible idea!” But I understand the itch they want to scratch, and I have the perfect solution: The Big Chill.
The Breakfast Club is about a group of very different teenagers brought together in Saturday morning detention and becoming friends. It’s a beautiful film, taking the teens as seriously as they take themselves, and I defy you not to cry when they talk about if they’ll hang out again after. The Big Chill is about a group of very different adults who were best friends in college, but haven’t hung out in a long time, brought together by a friend’s suicide. Big Chill feels like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist: it completely eschews clunky exposition about the characters’ old lives, acting as if we already know them, like the audience is part of the gang. It could be baby boomer nostalgia porn, but it always feels like something more: about what it means that you are no longer the person you were when you were young.
They’re both hangout movies; they’re both set-over-a-short-period movies (a day for Breakfast Club, a weekend for Big Chill); they both have kickass soundtracks. But mostly, Breakfast Club is about the pain of being young, and Big Chill is about the pain of growing older. They’re both self-conscious generational touchstones – Gen X for Breakfast Club, boomers for Big Chill – but they transcend that, because the feelings they chronicle aren’t the property of any one generation.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) / The Stepford Wives (1975)
If you’re a fan of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, you should definitely watch both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Describing a film as “X meets Y” is hackneyed, but also, Get Out is literally Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets The Stepford Wives.
I think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has been slightly misremembered by the sands of time. “White girl brings home black man to her racist parents” is technically true, but it diminishes the film, because crucially, the parents (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) are liberals. It never occurs to their daughter that they would have a problem with her engagement, because they were the ones who taught her from childhood that racism was wrong. It’s very much of a film of its time, but it is, thematically, about white liberals having to confront their values when they stop being theoretical.
The Stepford Wives is also a film of its time, I guess: a sci-fi horror riff on The Feminine Mystique, it’s about the expectation for women to be perfect housewives, perfectly subservient, always made-up beautifully, and with no interests of her own. The women come to Stepford one way, and then – Joanna (Katharine Ross), newly moved to the suburbs with her family from New York City – somehow, the women change. Much of the film’s horror isn’t sci-fi, just perfectly ordinary, garden-variety misogyny.
Get Out draws from both films, sometimes by going against them – switching the perspective in the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner situation makes it instantly fresher – but just as often, remixing them into a new context. If you like social-problem movies, they’re both mandatory viewing.