Steve Kohn's Deserted Island Movies, the list    

(Latest update:  19 February 2023)


my favorite minor movies

my favorite foreign films

my favorite documentaries


major movies to avoid


Deserted Island Movies home page


Kohn's Corner


my Amazon reviews, mostly about books, movies and music 


I won't be saying much about the movies.

That's because the Internet already has so many fine film review sites (favorites: Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and Film Journal), what could I add that professional reviewers haven't said already, and better than I ever could.

Also, I don't read a review until after I've seen the movie, so why would I expect you to. The movie watched, I then look for reviews to learn more about the movie, to see how my thoughts compare with those of film experts. And to marvel, sometimes, at such a broad range of opinion.

Two reasons to not read reviews before watching a movie:

1. We're able to experience the film with a blank slate, without preconceptions. Our opinions are our own, not influenced by others.

2. Our pleasure is enhanced by not knowing anything about the film. I find it better to not know the plot, the actors, anything about the film ... except that someone I respect recommended it.

In February 2015, I watch RUST AND BONE knowing nothing about it except that I'd seen it on a list of best films of 2012. Had I read reviews first and known the plot, the story could never have been so immersing. What happens in the film -- in any film -- needs to come to us unexpectedly, just as in real life.

If I were king of the world, no actor would appear in more than one movie in his life, unless it was a sequel, so that a role in one movie could never clash in my mind with roles in others. Bill Murray as FDR? Please. Robert de Niro as nebbish Rupert Pupkin? Not after "Deer Hunter," "Godfather," "Raging Bull," or "Taxi Driver."

In alphabetical order, then, and recognizing that this list is, thankfully, never final:


AMADEUS.  How can I ever again enjoy Mozart, one of my favorite composers, without picturing his lusty, impish portrayal in AMADEUS?

Or why should I try not to?

Even if the movie plays loosely with history (said to malign Salieri), it's a fascinating tale, brilliantly presented.





COEN BROTHERS movies.  Years ago, before the many awards and box office hits, the Coen Brothers were one of those odd talents you were sure no one else could possibly appreciate.

Today, of course, they’re appreciated by everyone. Almost every year since 1984 they’ve brought us cinematic gems.

Not David Lean epics “with a cast of thousands” or movies reeking with computer-generated special effects. No, it's "just" people we get, unforgettable people.

And some of the best plots, dialogue, acting and cinematography committed to film.

So far only two of their many films, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY and THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, didn’t work for me. They had the Coen Brothers’ visual genius, but were mere attempts to show off their technical skills, I thought.

Almost any of their other films will probably delight you. You already know about FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, and TRUE GRIT.

All are wonderful, but I also, maybe especially, enjoy their period noir films like BLOOD SIMPLE, MILLER'S CROSSING, and BARTON FINK. They can do comedy, too, among them BURN AFTER READING (2008) and (my favorite) HAIL, CAESAR! (2016).

Basically, anything the Coen Brothers do seems to be worth watching. How much longer they can keep going, who knows. But if they stopped right now, today, their place on the Deserted Island would be assured.




DOCUMENTARIES.   I recognize the dangers. Film can select facts, can manipulate our emotions in ways that words on a page can't. But film can also let us see and hear people almost as directly as being in the same room with them.

I love documentaries, and these are some of my favorites. Thanks to Netflix and San Antonio's great public library system, it looks like I'll never run out.

In December 2015, I find I'm not the only fan of documentaries. And apparently there are so many out there. Here's an article that lists many sources.



THE EMIGRANTS - THE NEW LAND. For the past four nights I've been watching "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," taking a break at intermission in both long films to digest what I've seen.

Each film can stand on its own, with "Emigrants" one of the best ever. But they're really just two halves of one film, with "New Land" picking up where "Emigrants" ends.

Except for the first half of "New Land," where young Robert goes to California in search of gold, and which I found irrelevant, this may be the best film(s) I've ever seen.

Unpardonable that it's taken me almost fifty years to discover it.

Look for the 2016 Criterion edition, with its high-def digital restoration and its interviews of director Jan Troell, actress Liv Ullmann and others.



FOREIGN FILMS.   In the past few years I've discovered foreign films. Their common denominators seem to be that

1) they don't approach Hollywood's budget or ticket sales,

2) the actors are not famous, so are characters in the film not celebrities, and

3) the plots emphasize inter-personal relationships instead of explosions, zombies, aliens, or computer-generated special effects.

Sometimes, though, it's foreign films, especially European films, that are the very worst. Pretentious pap. Little to no plot. Inane dialogue. Long takes without movement. The best (worst?) example for me is NOSTALGHIA by Andrei Tarkovsky.

But when they're good, they're the best.

To find these films, search for Kino Lorber, Criterion or Film Movement. All three companies have gathered a large number of quality films in their catalog. (And some terrible ones, though I'm in a minority in my opinion of them.)

Here are some recommendations.

As always, I urge learning as little as possible about the film before watching it. Let surprise be among the pleasures these films bring you.

After creating this category in 2012, it now occurs to me that some of my favorites, like HERO (below), would certainly qualify as a foreign film. I'll sort it out later. 




HOOP DREAMS. It doesn't matter if we're not basketball fans, because this film isn't about's about family.

Two talented 14-year-old boys in Chicago -- and their families -- are covered by the documentary team for the next five (5!) years. After a while it's clear the cameras and microphones have become invisible.

What we see in this landmark film could provide grist for an entire year's curriculum in sociology, criminology, psychology, leadership or education. Maybe religion and business too.

At the same time, it's as riveting and unforgettable a film as we'll see in a long while.



KEN LOACH films. He made his first movie in 1967, but it wasn't until 2016 that I "discovered" him. I suspect you haven't yet yourself, as most of his films are not typical Hollywood blockbusters. I doubt he's ever used computer generated graphics, and most of his films take place in Great Britain.

Loach doesn't apologize for rooting for the the weak and vulnerable in society, and that's clearly seen in his films. Regrettably he thinks the Palestinians and Arabs are the underdog in the Middle East, and foolishly supports the BDS movement. Another sad example of the heart over-riding the brain.

But it doesn't detract from the joy I get from his films. I've now seen seven of them, all that were in our public library's catalog, and liked or loved them all. He's said he's made some clunkers, but I haven't found one yet, and anyway, in forty years how could that be otherwise.

On all of his films I've had to turn on subtitles. Though the actors spoke English, the dialect was too strong. Wasn't a problem, except to make clear how utterly profane the normal language of northern Brits can be.

As I write this in 2017, his 2014 JIMMY'S HALL proves Loach is still on top of his game.




MUSICALS and CONCERTS.  Afflicted as I am with a total inability to dance, sing or play an instrument, I admire (and so envy) all the more those who can.

First, the musicals:

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Not just the terrific dancing, but some good comedy. And of course, "Singin' in the Rain" and "Make 'em Laugh."

SOUTH PACIFIC. "Some Enchanted Evening," "Bali Hai," "There Is Nothing Like a Dame"....

MY FAIR LADY. "Why Can't a Woman be More Like a Man," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," "I Could Have Danced All Night"....

OLIVER! Engrossing plot, good songs (that would be better if shorter), strong characters, amazing sets.

THE MUSIC MAN. We got trouble in River City, friends ....

WEST SIDE STORY. The musical I might bring to the deserted island if I could choose only one.

Update: the 2021 Spielberg version is even better.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Or this one. "If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Do You Love Me?"

SWEET CHARITY. So sexist, so Sixties, but how to deny the charm of Shirley MacLaine. A Bob Fosse classic.

ALL THAT JAZZ. Speaking of Fosse.... This is a movie, not a musical, but filled with much music and dance, and how I admire it. The first half hour or so is boring but don't give up. Only later do we understand why it had to be.

LA LA LAND. With two great actors (Stone and Gosling), smart lyrics, fine songs, sharp dialogue, an important story, and images that never stop pleasing, what's not to like? Absolutely nothing.

Looking back at this list of concerts and musicals, I see they all had, in addition to great songs, some quite serious themes. 


Next, the concerts:


DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN (John Hartford, Cox Family, Allison Krause, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, others)

ERIC CLAPTON GUITAR FESTIVAL "CROSSROADS"  2004, 2007, 2010,  2013 (countless musicians, most great)



I'M YOUR MAN (Leonard Cohen)


LIVE IN JAPAN (Rodrigo y Gabriela)

LIVE IN LONDON (Leonard Cohen)

THE McGARRIGLE HOUR (McGarrigle Sisters)

PLAY THE BLUES (Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton)

REAL LIVE ROADRUNNING (Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris)

STOMP LIVE, 2008 (varied performers)


Played at home on a good quality HDTV and sound system, these concerts are matchless in entertainment value for me. Not as good as being at the concert itself; in fact, better.




PIXAR Movies.  I had to think twice about including the genius of Pixar, something already known by everyone. It goes a little against the spirit of this site, which tries to give glory those unfairly overlooked, and Pixar surely isn't.

But how can the most wonderful animators ever not be honored for their brilliance? Aren't their movies delightful?

These are just children's movies like fine wine is just grape juice.




THE SINGING DETECTIVE.  No, not the 2003 remake with Robert Downey Jr, but the 1986 original with Michael Gambon.

THE SINGING DETECTIVE was actually -- amazingly -- a BBC 6-hour series, not a movie shown in theaters.

Fortunately, it's now available in a 3-DVD package (though the third disk, with extra features, could be discarded).

Fortunate also is anyone seeing this movie for the first time. Your mind will go places it had never been before.



STEVEN SPIELBERG films. Steven Spielberg's films seem to be the antithesis of the foreign films I love, which have small budgets, mostly unknown actors, and few explosions or special effects.

But what list of deserted island movies could leave out Spielberg? And who could say they did not like this master of cinema?

Many of the films he's produced or directed are classics and will, safe to say, be watched forever. For example:

Some films he directed:
-- Jaws (1975)
-- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
-- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
-- E.T. (1982)
-- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) (plus sequels)
-- Jurassic Park (1993)
-- Schindler's List (1993)
-- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
-- Minority Report (2002)

And some he produced:
-- Back to the Future (1985) (and II and III)
-- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
-- and the many documentaries on World War II

An excellent summary of his remarkable life is the 2017 HBO documentary, "Spielberg"
( showing us he's more than a craftsman, he's a wonderful person.



WOODY ALLEN films.  Let's count them all as one. They're all pretty much the same, anyway, a continuing riff on the fundamental questions of man/woman/life/death that Allen makes enjoyable with his wit and heart.

He's made a movie a year for 46 (!) years now. We can't say the recent ones have been among his best, but that's only because some of his earlier films were so very good. Maybe we can. Some of the last decade's films were great, too.

I liked these the most, and recommend them to you. 

BANANAS (1971)


SLEEPER (1973)





















The only of Allen's movies I will never watch again are WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY; ANOTHER WOMAN; TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN; SHADOWS AND FOG; STARDUST MEMORIES and TO ROME WITH LOVE. But they got good reviews, so give them a try, too.

Allen may have brought tragedy to his private life. He's brought joy to the silver screen. has a short interview with Allen you might enjoy.



ZHANG YIMOU films. What comes to mind when I hear his name is artistry, imagination, craftsmanship.

But I won't have any idea what the film will be like. Will it be set in ancient times or modern? A comedy or a drama? Fantasy or realism?

Unlike Woody Allen, his films are all over the place. They include "flying through air" martial arts wonders like HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, comedies like HAPPY TIMES, art films like JU DOU, absolute tearjerkers like COMING HOME, and a brilliant remake of BLOOD SIMPLE by the Coen brothers but set in China, A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP.

The only film of his I didn't like was THE FLOWERS OF WAR, but that was probably for the terrible script. Zhang is a master director, but even he couldn't make gold out of tin.

I look forward to watching more by Zhang Yimou. As much as I can.


"Given a reasonable budget, it is hard to make an entirely boring movie." -- Kenneth Tynan (in his essay, "The Difficulty of Being Dull")

But apparently, at whatever budget, it seems hard to make a great movie. 

A great movie makes us forget it's a movie we're watching. We become so completely lost in it that at least for a while we're taken to a different place and time.

In the end, a great movie is an engrossing story, presented with skill and commitment by a talented team of writers, actors, directors, cinematographers, production designers, costumers and editors.

I am so grateful to them.