This list was hard to write, because I don't really believe in remakes. First, because filmmakers and studios should focus on new material (even though we all know they don't). Second, because while most older movies look dated today, they still fascinate as time capsules, and often have charming star performances that can't be replicated. Third, because most remakes are lousy. That said, I came up with nine well-known films that might not only survive the remake treatment, but could even be improved upon, a la The Fly or True Grit.
- Breakfast at Tiffany's. Other than "Moon River" and Audrey Hepburn's turn as Holly Golightly, Blake Edwards' 1961 rom-com is deeply flawed. George Peppard is dull. Mickey Rooney's Japanese stereotype is awful. The big party scene is painfully unfunny. And it misses the voice of Truman Capote's source material. The big question is, would a Tiffany's remake work at all today? Maybe, if you took a blunter, more cynical look at Golightly and her world.
- Soylent Green. This is one of those movies where everybody knows the ending – Charlton Heston's closing line is going through your head right now – but few have seen the movie itself. Like most films that deserve remakes, 1973's Soylent Green has a great concept but underwhelming execution. Edward G. Robinson, in his final performance, is touching, but other than that? Eh. The material could get a big goose by what we now know about corporate food culture, and there are lots of better actors than Heston.
- The Birds. Alfred Hitchcock is my favorite director, and films like Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, and Vertigo are unimprovable, relics though they may be. But while the second half of The Birds remains terrifying, its pre-digital special effects still impressive, the first hour is a total snooze. Almost nothing happens except for dull, pretentious dialogue. As for casting, one could easily do better than the stiff Tippi Hedren, who has zero chemistry with Rod Taylor.
- Shadow of a Doubt. Another landmark Hitchcock film, reportedly the director's favorite, and one that most Hitch fans wouldn't dream of touching. (In fact it was remade as a TV movie in 1991.) But friends, I've seen Shadow of a Doubt 4-5 times, and it just doesn't work for me. The problem is that Joseph Cotten, who I like, doesn't convince as a misogynistic serial killer or as a beloved uncle who has a special bond with his niece (Teresa Wright). His dialogue is also way too obvious, though 1943 audiences (and screenwriters) could be forgiven for not being familiar with how serial killers think and act. A good remake could more subtly explore his character's dual nature, as well as his complicated relationship with his niece.
- Judgment at Nuremberg. Usually, the more "Important" a film purports to be, the more badly it ages. (See also: Gentleman's Agreement and In Cold Blood.) This 1961 dramatization of the post-WWII trials of Nazi officials is solid, and Maximilian Schell fully deserved his Oscar as a German defense attorney. But the cast of fading Hollywood stars, many struggling with phony accents, distracts from the trials' real impact. I would love to see a cast that uniformly matched Schell's authenticity.
- Laura. Considered one of the great film noirs, this 1944 tale about a detective (Dana Andrews) who falls in love with the memory of a supposed murder victim (Gene Tierney) just doesn't do anything for me, even after two viewings. The detective's infatuation is given no time to develop, the plot twists are weakly delivered, and the film is stagy. You'd have to give Laura a major revamp to make me like it, but at its core there's a fascinating story, one that was already given a more effective treatment when Twin Peaks riffed on it in 1990-1991.
- The Towering Inferno. The apex of the 1970s disaster movie, The Towering Inferno was actually nominated for Best Picture of 1974, right up there with Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, and Lenny. And while it's hard to argue with a cast led by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and the fire effects are realistic, the movie itself is pretty cheesy. With today's seamless special effects and tauter direction, this story could be much more grippingly told.
- A Place in the Sun. Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy may have clunky prose, but the story, about a social climber who (sort of) kills his pregnant girlfriend while pursuing a society beauty, is devastating. Alas, it was drained of its epic sweep and its sociopolitical bite in this 1951 Hollywood adaptation, despite an appealing cast (Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Taylor). Someone still needs to do An American Tragedy proper justice, whether they set its story in 1925, 1951, or 2016.
- Weird Science. I'd never call Weird Science a "classic", but at a time when everyone on the Internet reveres 1980s movies, and John Hughes movies in particular, I thought to include it. Fact is, there remains a fun, creative idea at the heart of Weird Science. But like most Hughes comedies, it's suffocated by cheap humor and offensive characters. Also, Anthony Michael Hall is terrible in the film. Anyway, now that we have 3-D printers and lots of other high-end technology, the story of teenage boys creating a "perfect" woman could be handled in a much more clever and even thought-provoking way.