When we think of “big” New Hollywood directors, James Cameron is definitely a name that comes to mind. He’s the director of a whopping three movies that are the biggest money makers of all time: #1. Avatar (2009); #3. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022); #4. Titanic, (1997). A winner of three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for the oceanic disaster romance Titanic (1997), James Cameron movies are synonymous with the word “megalithic.”
Cameron has also directed blockbusters such as The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2 (1991), and True Lies (1994). Known for innovative technical effects (Cameron is a pioneer of CGI), his movies are larger-than-life spectacles that transform a “film” into a bona fide “experience.” Although polarizing in his appeal, as some worry that non-technical elements such as script and acting are eclipsed by all the shiny special effects, one can’t deny the ambitious power and success of his films.
So, let’s look deeper into this director’s past. What movies have influenced him, spurring him to be the larger-than-life filmmaker that he is today? Sure, Cameron loves the usual suspects: Cue 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Godfather (1972). But, let’s look at some others. They might surprise us.
1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
Though not an obscure gem, The Wizard of Oz is still a surprising “favorite film” pick for a director, as it’s often considered a “kid flick.” A tale about a Kansas girl named Dorothy (actress Judy Garland) who gets whisked away by a tornado and ends up in a fantasy world called Oz, this film is Hollywood grandeur. The Wizard of Oz is Old Hollywood filmmaking, at possibly its “biggest.” So really, it’s no wonder that James Cameron is a fan.
There’s gorgeously bright Technicolor (serving to symbolize a departure from the black and white reality world of Kansas). Then there’s Dorothy encountering three memorable characters who become her dearest of friends. (Enter the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.) There is good vs. evil, and a host of other memorable characters who light up the screen. And then there’s that iconic song, “Over the Rainbow.” Definitely a must-see film, but maybe you’ve already seen it? The Wizard of Oz is reputed to be the “most watched film” in all of moviedom.
2. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
A satirical dark comedy that pokes fun at what “might” happen during an accidental Cold War nuclear bomb bust-up between global superpowers the USA and USSR during the turbulent 1960s, Dr. Strangelove has held the distinction of being the “highest ranked” movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes indeed. Directed by legendary Stanley Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) fame, Kubrick excels here. Dr. Strangelove’s humor is awesomely subtle, and not always obvious.
Kubrick tends to require his audience to be very observant in all his films, and Dr. Strangelove is no exception. What’s more, actor Peter Sellers is brilliant at the helm. He plays not one, or two, but a whopping three roles. Further, legend has it he improvised much of his dialogue, unsurprisingly earning himself an Oscar nomination.
Dr. Strangelove is a wonderfully “strange” watch. It masterfully blends comedy, political intrigue, and beautiful black and white cinematography. This film was a hit, and continues to be incredibly popular.
3. Wait Until Dark (1967)
Enter lovely Audrey Hepburn as Susy, a blind woman living in a sweet New York City apartment. Susy becomes an unwitting player in a nefarious drug deal, and falls prey to three criminals who are looking for a doll stuffed with heroin. Her husband is away, and Susy must fend for herself as she eventually comes to learn of her dangerous situation. But can she trust man #1? Because man #2 and man #3 are the criminals, right? Or instead, is it man #3 who is safe?
Wait Until Dark is a “slow burn” masterpiece. There are a lot of small scenes that all forecast danger, but it’s hard to tell when the true terror will come. So when it does, it’s sheer perfection. Wait Until Dark boasts one of the most frightening psychological thriller finales ever caught on film. Audrey Hepburn was nominated for a well-deserved Oscar.
4. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
One of the best “buddy” films of all time, and revered for being a “modern” take on an “old” film genre called “the Western,” this is another not-so-obvious “favorite film” pick of James Cameron. But what’s not to enjoy about two loveable outlaws in 1899 Wyoming, played by delightful Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy, and Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid? This film has all of what diehard Western film lovers crave. Enter independent and hard-nosed characters, gorgeous desert and prairie landscapes, and gripping action sequences.
Meanwhile, it also brings in contemporary touches, most notably the popular Burt Bacharach song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” played during a charming bike-riding scene. Based on real-life robbers of the same name, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a surprisingly “feel good” film. It’s perfect for a Saturday night couch-date.
5. Jaws (1975)
Let’s face it. Here’s a movie that we know James Cameron would love. Quite possibly the most popular “aquatic” horror flick of all time, Jaws represents Oscar award-winning director Steven’s Spielberg’s breakout hit. When watching Cameron “water” flicks like The Abyss (1989), Titanic (1997), and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), who isn’t feeling some subtle (or even not-so-subtle) Jaws vibes?
The Jaws plot is really simple: A killer shark terrorizes a fictitious resort called Amity Island during the July 4th summer holiday. Yikes. Can the humans kill the shark, and stop the carnage? But the brilliant acting, cinematography, and iconic Jaws theme music makes this movie so much more than its basic horror plot.
Jaws is also revered as an example of “1970s film realism,” as it was impressively shot on-location, on those cold blue waters off New England. Though a very difficult shoot, it paid off. Jaws became the highest grossing film of all time up until that point.
6. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Here’s another movie that we know James Cameron would love. Just as Cameron brought to life friendly “underwater” aliens in his early film The Abyss (1989), Spielberg brings to life friendly “sky” aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Enter Roy (actor Richard Dreyfuss), an ordinary family man and electrician from Indiana who has an awe-inspiring, scary, and ultimately life-changing encounter with a UFO. He is transformed emotionally and psychologically, wherein he embarks on a physical quest to understand his obsession with this alien encounter.
Thoughtful, contemplative, and sometimes even dreamy, this film is also suspenseful and gripping. We see Roy lose nearly everything in his “earthly” life. Will he emerge okay, and perhaps most importantly, sane? Close Encounters of the Third Kind earned Spielberg his first Best Director Oscar nom, and it continues to be one of the most highly respected sci-fi films of all time.
7. The Star Wars franchise (1977 – present)
There’s no denying that the Star Wars franchise ushered in a New Hollywood era that was downright gargantuan. And there’s no denying that this movie series should be highly appealing to James Cameron. From the innovative special effects, to the intricate, dramatic, and truly gasp-worthy plot lines, and finally, to the myriad of talented actors and invented characters (cue alien Yoda!) who became superstars as a result of starring in these movies, Star Wars is a living legend.
The original trilogy of sci-fi space adventure movies was released in 1977, with the first flick titled A New Hope (called Star Wars when first released). Then, in 1999 a new trilogy commenced, with the first flick titled The Phantom Menace. Boasting a total of ten movies and counting, and the brilliant brain-child of director George Lucas, the Star Wars films continue to enthrall audiences. Many diehard fans would say that there are no movies like them on planet Earth, or anywhere else in the galaxy! Get ready for the iconic line, “May the Force be with you.”
8. Alien (1979)
Alongside Jaws, Alien is another film that offers a unique take on the classic horror trope of man vs. monster. This time, the monster is out in futuristic, sci-fi space. Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, an officer who is tasked with saving herself and her crew members when a blood-thirsty, crustacean-looking alien comes on board their spacecraft.
Yes, this is Sigourney Weaver in the role that made her famous. And yes, it’s the same Sigourney Weaver that would grace both of James Cameron’s Avatar flicks decades later. So, of course James Cameron would love this movie, right?
But awesome Sigourney Weaver aside, Alien is simply one of the best sci-fi horror movies. Directed by highly-acclaimed Ridley Scott (cue 2015’s The Martian), this movie is like a master class in filmmaking. All the ingredients add up to an absolute smorgasbord of terror. Yes, a smorgasbord fit for a dangerously hungry alien. Note, James Cameron loved this movie so much that he went on to direct its sequel called Aliens in 1986.
9. Inception (2010)
The first millennial film on the list, Inception is a mind-bender that’s sure to become a modern classic. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and a bevy of talented actors, Inception takes us on a kind of “dream-stealing heist.” Leonardo DiCaprio plays a criminal dream-stealer who has a chance to leave his criminal past behind if he performs one final dream act: Implant an idea in someone’s subconscious mind. Sounds simple, right? Not really. Nothing about Inception is simple. And that’s what makes it amazing.
Inception skillfully takes us down the rabbit hole of dreams, bringing us deeper and deeper into an unknown maze-like world. What’s more, it boasts absolutely stunning visuals, enhancing all the “dreaminess.” Be prepared to have not just your mind, but your eyes stretched, folded, and turned inside out (figuratively speaking of course). No spoilers, but the finale “snow” scene is also particularly memorable. Jaw-dropping!
10. The Woman King (2022)
What recent movies does James Cameron like? Enter Viola Davis as fierce General Nanisca, a nineteenth-century African woman who trains an all-female contingent of warriors to protect themselves against New World slave traders in Africa. Viola Davis, known for her Oscar-winning role in Fences (2016) and the hugely popular The Help (2011), is one of only a few actors to achieve impressive EGOT status (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). And The Woman King is a great showcase of her skills.
It involves high survivalist drama, where Viola Davis displays strong acting skills, but also a physicality that makes viewers go wild. Think exercise work-outs, upon work-outs, upon work-outs, to prepare for this role. She also wields a machete on-screen! Further, we get introduced to some stellar acting cast-mates, making this African-set and African-shot film a true cinematic “experience.” This film is said to have taken seven years to complete. Viewers, including James Cameron, agree that all the hard work paid off.
Eclectic and awe-inspiring, James Cameron’s “favorite film” list offers a bit of everything for everyone. Outside of the movies mentioned here, you can also try Taxi Driver (1976), Borat (2006), and The Lord of the Rings fantasy franchise (2001-2003). Cameron is sure to keep wowing us with his own next-level films. His entertainment quotient remains sky-high. But until then, why not explore all these amazing movies that inspired him? Happy watching!
I was once an exec for a prominent financial magazine. GDP what??? Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.