How to Look Smart: Movies You Need to Know About (Part I)

The AFI top 100 summarised, with key characters, cult quotes, and major learnings.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

How to Look Smart & Impress Your Friends

While I would encourage you to watch all the movies on this list (and in the subsequent articles I will publish), you certainly don’t need to in order to look smart and cultured.

Most of the people referencing them haven’t watched them either!

This guide into the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time (according to the AFI) will provide you with the essential knowledge you must possess to shine in society (in a few dozen words or less).

So let’s begin with the Top 5 !

Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed by Orson Welles (his first movie), from an original screenplay.

Plot Summary

C.F. Kane, media tycoon, one the richest men in America, dies. His last enigmatic word: “Rosebud”. A journalist tries but fails to understand the meaning of the word. Doing so, he discovers the life of a man torn away from his family and his dreams by power and money.

Key Characters

Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles himself, is seen through flashbacks and newsreels. Inspired by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Cult Quotes


C.F. Kane dying words. The audience learns at the end that this word was etched in the wood of a sled Kane played with as a kid. His wealth and power notwithstanding, Kane led an empty and unhappy life. He lost his idealism and dreams.

Known For

  • Considered the greatest picture of all times
  • Innovative and groundbreaking cinematography, editing, music, and narrative structure

The Godfather (1974)

Directed by Francis Ford Copolla, adapted from a novel of the same name by Mario Puzo.

Plot Summary

Michael, youngest son of the Corleone crime family, returns from WWII a hero. Decided to live his life away from the family business, tragic events will force him into crime and exile to Sicily. After coming back to America, and after the death of his father, Michael becomes the head of the family.

Key Characters

Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the original Godfather and head of the Corleone crime family in New York.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the son of Vito, veteran of WWII. Becomes the head of the family after the death of his father.

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Consigliere to the Corleone family, treated like a son by Vito.

Cult Quotes

I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Vito’s godson desperately wants a part in a movie, and asks his godfather to help with the movie producer. The offer implies severing the head of the producer’s preferred horse and subtly inserting it between his bedsheets.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

After dealing with Paulie, shooting him in a car out of the city, Clemenza utters the above words. The quote is famous for being ad-libbed by the actor. Its apparent detachment from the horror of the situation makes it a small comedic relief after a dark scene.

Known For

  • Won 3 Oscars, including Best Picture.
  • The Godfather Part II (which we will cover in a following article) was the first sequel to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
  • It was John Cazale’s (who played Michael’s brother Fredo) first movie. He would go on to star in 5 movies before his untimely death. All of them were nominated for best pictures.

Casablanca (1942)

Directed by Michael Curtiz, based on an un-produced stage play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

Plot Summary

During WWII, a cynical American expatriate, Rick Blaine, runs an upscale night club in the French Moroccan city of Casablanca. After a former lover, Ilsa, enters his life, Rick struggles to decide whether or not he should help her and her fugitive husband escape to neutral Portugal. Eventually, Rick helps them escape.

Key Characters

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)

Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman)

Cult Quotes

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.

Isla is the cause of Rick’s cynicism. She comes in his nightclub, unbeknownst to him, and asks the pianist to play “As Time Goes By”, a song Rick forbade him to ever play. Angry at the pianist, he sees Ilsa.

Here’s looking at you kid.

An endearing way for Rick to compliment Ilsa and flirt with her.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

After Rick gets Ilsa and her husband on their plane for Portugal, helped by Louis Renault, a French police officer, Louis suggest they both flee Morocco and engage in the French Free Forces in Congo. As they both walk away in the night, Rick utters the above words.

Known For

  • Ilsa asks the Pianist, Sam, to play a song, and to “Play it Again, Sam”. This quote was used by Woody Allen as a title for one of his movies. Allen’s movies are regularly referencing Casablanca.
  • Winner of 3 Oscars, including Best Picture.
  • Roger Ebert loved Casablanca, and stated that “Citizen Kane is generally considered to be a ‘greater’ film, but Casablanca ‘is more loved.’”

Raging Bull (1980)

Directed by Martin Scorsese, adapted from Jake LaMotta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story.

Plot Summary

The movie follows the life of Jake LaMotta, famed boxer and great champion. Unfortunately, he treats his family and friends the same way he treats his opponents on the ring. The movie outlines this permanent conflict between his sports achievements and his personal failures.

Key Characters

Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) was a real-life boxing champion. You can read more about him on Wikipedia.

Cult Quotes


Known For

  • When the movie was released, reviews were mixed. While praising De Niro’s performance, the audience disapproved of the violence.
  • The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won two: Best Actor for De Niro (his second Oscar) and Best Editing.
  • Raging Bull is considered Scorsese’s magnum opus and one of the greatest films ever made.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly.

Plot Summary

The difficult transition from silent movies to “talkies” seen from the point of view of a production company and its cast.

Key Characters

Donald Lockwood (Gene Kelly). His performance in the song “Singin’ in the Rain” is iconic.

Cult Quotes


Known For

  • It’s iconic songs that have stood the test of time and that everybody knows by heart.
  • Singin’ in the Rain was one of the first 25 films selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
  • It is considered the greatest musical film of all times.

Written by

I write about politics, business, society and culture on Medium. For startup/business content, check my newsletter:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store