25. Once (2006)
Made for less than $200,000, this scruffy indie from writer-director John Carney redefines the musical form. It stars an actual musician — Glen Hansard, of the Irish rock band the Frames — as a fictional busker who falls for a quirky pianist (Marketa Irglova) on the streets of Dublin. They have a tortured romantic flirtation, and pour their hearts out to each other in mournful original tunes that feel utterly real because they’re not played as musical fantasy. A must.
24. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
The star here is choreographer Michael Kidd, who turns the big barn-raising scene into something that’s part dance sequence, part gymnastic contest, and part action spectacle: It starts out real neighborly, but it degenerates into a brawl when the building teams start sabotaging each other. The rest of the movie gene-splices Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with The Taming of the Shrew, as a frontier gal (Jane Powell) copes with making a home for her sexist-pig husband (Howard Keel) and six mangy siblings.
23. The Music Man (1962)
Robert Preston repeats his Broadway role as Professor Harold Hill, a swindler who organizes small-town kids’ bands so he can steal their uniform and instrument money. Costar Shirley Jones has great chemistry with Preston, little Ronnie Howard lisps and mugs shamelessly, and composer Meredith Wilson gives his melodic all to ”Seventy-Six Trombones,” ”Marian the Librarian,” ”Till There Was You” (later a hit for the Beatles) and lots more. Best corn you’ll ever consume that’s not popped.
22. Gigi (1958)
Screenwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe basically cloned their stage hit My Fair Lady for this adaptation of French author Colette’s 1945 novel about a teenage Parisian courtesan. It’s got the same ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation for the leading lady (Leslie Caron), and the same half-sung 11th-hour epiphany for the confirmed-bachelor leading man (Louis Jordan). But thanks to director Vincente Minnelli, it feels original — and works better as cinema than George Cukor’s film of Fair Lady does.
20. Funny Girl (1968)
Can you imagine today’s pop machinery making a star out of someone as unusual looking as Barbra Streisand? She keeps this biopic of Fanny Brice, her movie debut, from becoming completely soggy in the second half, and takes her vowel-bending vocals to spine-tingling places in ”People” and ”I’m the Greatest Star.” Homage alert: The belting-out-on-a-tugboat shot that caps ”Don’t Rain on My Parade” shows up transposed to a garbage truck in Hairspray.
19. The Sound of Music (1965)
Its initial runs played in theaters for several years, it was so popular. Some of the more maudlin passages may make you wince — like ex-nun Maria (Julie Andrews) comforting adopted daughter Liesl, or Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) singing ”Edelweiss” — but the Austrian scenery will beat you into submission, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein score will penetrate your noggin and remain there forever. The opening hillside shots haven’t been topped, though they have been cribbed in Beauty and the Beast and Enchanted, among other places.
18. The Busby Berkeley Disc (2006 compilation)
The trouble with all those old ’30s movies with Berkeley production numbers is you have to sit through a lot of creaky, tedious exposition to get to the good parts. But this DVD roundup (sold as part of a Berkeley boxed set) gives you just about every sequence you need from 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935, Footlight Parade, and many others. Highlight: The expressionistic mini-epic ”Lullaby of Broadway,” a sort of retro club-kid cautionary tale.
17. Chicago (2002)
There’s not much left of Bob Fosse’s original Broadway choreography, and not all the John Kander-Fred Ebb songs made it, either. But that’s OK, since director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon find ingenious ways to make the overtly stagy source material work as a mind’s-eye musical fantasy on film. Dandy performances by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and John C. Reilly help elevate okay work by Richard Gere, and the cross-cutting only occasionally gets too busy. By and large, razzle-dazzling.
16. A Star Is Born (1954)
Judy Garland’s character, Vicki Lester, wins an Oscar for Best Actress, but Garland lost offscreen (to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl). Dopey vote, given Garland’s powerhouse takes on ”The Man That Got Away” and ”Born in a Trunk.” She’s also got a freaky ability to cry so hard onscreen she gets hiccups. The studio chopped half an hour, but a theatrical and video reissue put most of the scenes back (some as still-photo montages). If those are missing, you’re watching a butchered version.
15. Hairspray (2007)
Swathed in a fat suit, John Travolta looks like a startled hamster as early-’60s housewife Edna Turnblad. But his weird Baltimore accent works, and he plays Edna as an actual woman instead of the drag creature of John Waters’ original 1988 film and the Broadway show (from which this is adapted). The Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score pays shrewd homage to period pop, even if it folds in some later-’60s sounds, and director Adam Shankman brings irresistible energy to the dancing.
14. Grease (1978)
Who cares if the students at Rydell High look like they’re already past graduate school? John Travolta doing a chicken dance to ”Summer Nights,” Olivia Newton-John announcing she’s an exchange student from Australia, Stockard Channing crowing ”Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with bad-girl panache, Frankie Avalon showing up for ”Beauty School Dropout” — this is the stuff of repeat-playback heaven. Don’t look for much 1950s rock-music flavoring, though: The title tune smacks of disco and the rest is show-tune pastiche.
13. On the Town (1949)
Three randy sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin) have 24 hours to find love in New York City. Producer Arthur Freed chopped out much of the original Broadway score by Leonard Bernstein and Comden & Green. (Too sophisticated, and too raunchy.) But what remains of it — buoyed by the leggy dancing of Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen, and a hilarious turn by horse-faced Alice Pearce as a loser named Lucy Schmeeler — is, as a Brooklynite might put it, ”cherce.”
12. Swing Time (1936)
The lightest, sweetest outing for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Lots of folks say the pinnacle is 1935’s Top Hat, with a score by Irving Berlin, rather than this outing, with songs by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. But Swing Time deserves the edge for the passionate romantic longing on display in ”Never Gonna Dance.” It’s enough to make your loins ache. Dancing with the Stars? Amateur night by comparison — a joke. This is dancing with starlight itself.
11. An American in Paris (1951)
There’s a lot of romantic twaddle involving Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron before you get to the climactic 18-minute ballet, but wow — the finale is an unparalleled rhapsody in Technicolor. Set to George Gershwin’s instrumental music, it depicts a fantasy Paris rendered in the styles of great French painters (Utrillo, Lautrec, Renoir, among others), and stands as the most dynamic fusion of ballet and cinema that anybody’s come up with yet. Another from Vincente Minnelli, whose name we’ll soon see on this list again.
10. Love Me Tonight (1932)
You won’t believe how frisky the pre-Production-Code banter is between Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in this delightful fable about a tailor who falls in love with a haughty princess. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote the songs, and director Rouben Mamoulian finds ingenious ways to use them — especially in a segment that follows ”Isn’t It Romantic?” as it’s passed along from a taxicab to a train to a marching regiment of soldiers, the orchestration shifting with each dissolve.
9. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Even if you hate people breaking into song, you’ve got to admire how gracefully director Vincente Minnelli handles the trick in this nostalgic portrait of a turn-of-the-century family. ”The Boy Next Door,” delivered by Judy Garland on a sunny porch in midsummer, feels completely natural, as does her rendition of the downbeat ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in a darkened bedroom late on Christmas Eve. Pure high-fructose eye and ear candy, with a bittersweet kick.
8. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
The penis-joke title is one of the tamer gags in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s totally obscene, utterly inspired musical take on their Comedy Central TV show about the world’s trashiest-talking grade-schoolers. (By one online count, the F-word is uttered here 146 times.) It’s better than any episode, thanks to outrageously dirty ditties by Parker and Marc Shaiman like ”Uncle F—a,” ”Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch,” and the Oscar-nominated ”Blame Canada.”
7. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
A black-and-white farce spun out of a pop band’s latest album? It shouldn’t have worked. But screenwriter Alun Owen turns the Beatles into the most anarchic comedy quartet this side of the Marx Brothers, and director Richard Lester wraps it all in shaky, hand-held shots that perfectly match the brash humor. As ”the boys” scramble from gig to gig, they roll out more great tunes than most modern popsters do in their entire careers. Behold their fecundity and marvel.
6. The Band Wagon (1953)
In which screenwriters Comden and Green (see Singin’ in the Rain) and director Vincente Minnelli (see also Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, and Gigi) send up the New York theater world. Meet Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pompous windbag of a director-producer-actor who convinces a washed-up movie hoofer (Fred Astaire) to star in a musical Broadway version of Faust. It bombs, then becomes an old-school revue. Peak scene: Astaire glides through Central Park with Cyd Charisse to the strains of ”Dancing in the Dark.” Patently fake set, sublimely convincing star chemistry.
5. Mary Poppins (1964)
Okay, so Dick Van Dyke mangles his cockney accent. He’s still magic as Bert, a chimney sweep in 1910 London infatuated with nanny Poppins (Julie Andrews, in her Oscar-winning movie debut). What makes the treacly lilt of tunes like ”Jolly Holiday” and ”Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” work so well? The sexy subtext of Bert and Mary’s romantic fling. And dig the swipes at English imperialism, as in a fantastical cartoon scene where Bert and Mary rescue a bedraggled Irish fox from stuffy British hunters. Cheeky!
4. Cabaret (1972)
A truly adult movie musical — yet rated PG! — charting the ”divine decadence” of 1930s Berlin as the Nazis come to power. A kinky M.C. (Joel Grey) is your host, along with delusional fag-hag chanteuse Sally Bowles (winningly played by future tabloid staple Liza Minnelli). Bob Fosse’s direction copped him an Oscar, and the smash-and-grab editing helped usher in modern music videos. The songs, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, never wear out their Wilkommens.
3. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
A happy mix of pitch-perfect elements, attached to a sendup of early talking pictures: Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; a zinger-laden script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; peerless high comedy from Jean Hagen as a silent-screen star cursed with a hard-as-nails voice; abundant charm from Debbie Reynolds as a feisty ingénue; agreeable hamming by Gene Kelly as a vain actor; and sidekick Donald O’Connor doing extreme backflips. Nimbly codirected by Kelly and Stanley Donen.
2. West Side Story (1961)
Natalie Wood doesn’t make the most believable Puerto Rican Juliet to Richard Beymer’s pretty-American-boy Romeo. But choreographer and codirector Jerome Robbins injects the opening gang-warfare finger-snapping ballet and other big numbers with so much energy, it carries the whole thing along. Genius scene: The edgy, angsty, jazzy setpiece ”Cool,” which feels like a nihilistic ’50s teen-rebel movie on drugs. Kudos to composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim for the most sophisticated score ever to go mainstream.
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Who’d pine for drab, dusty Kansas after visiting fab, glamorous Emerald City? Homebody Dorothy Gale, that’s who — and it’s a testament to Judy Garland’s hyper-emotional acting that you believe the kid really does want out. Entire books have extolled Oz‘s splendors, but here we’ll just cite the eternally charming songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (anchored by the bathetic, Oscar-winning ”Over the Rainbow”) and the endlessly rich background score by Herbert Stothart (another Oscar).