Inspired by this post by oldfilmsflicker, I decided to try my hand at making a list of twenty films “essential for a basic film education,” to quote the question asked. Impossible? Futile, you might even say. But for each choice, I’ve given a little explanation of why this film was chosen over another that just as equally could have taken its place. Here we go!
The Last Laugh (FW Murnau, 1924)
- Although I personally prefer Murnau’s Sunrise from 1927, The Last Laugh is probably the finest example of purely visual filmmaking ever attempted. There are no title cards and only one insert of writing in the film. Also it’s a good representation of German expressionism at its height, before Murnau moved to Hollywood and his style co-mingled with American culture.
The General (Buster Keaton, 1926/7)
- If I started in on the merits of one Keaton film over another, we’d be here all day. Here’s the truth: The General is the best. It’s the most ambitious (featuring the most expensive single shot of the silent era), the most technically astonishing, the most singular expression of Keaton’s prowess as a director (not necessarily as a performer, though he is as ever, perfection), and the most influential. Do yourself a favor and watch this on Blu-Ray.
City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
- Again, when it comes to Chaplin, throw a blind dart and you’ll hit a masterpiece. I happen to favor City Lights. It’s poetic, it’s lyrical, it’s unabashedly romantic and slyly anti-modernist (subtler than the careening satire of Modern Times); sad, funny, thrilling, heart-breaking: it is perfect. Truly.
La regle du jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
- Both an example of a master auteur at work, of a national literary and filmic tradition (the bourgeois satire of Moliere, et al.), and a time and place (pre-WWII france), Rules of the Game is dually hysterical comedy and incisive class invective. You’ll never quite feel so many feelings at once as when you’ve finished watching this film. It is quite the overwhelming experience, as cinema should be.
Fantasia (various directors, 1940)
- Fantasia is my animation entry and I chose it because I wanted to bridge the gap between more experimental cinema and a form with which almost everyone is familiar. Live action is often a slave to narrative and animation can free itself so easily from those restraints; even from a conservative outfit like Disney, you can get poetry like Fantasia.
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
- Classical Hollywood filmmaking in a nutshell. The strength of the script, the sparkling ensemble and the unadorned (but still very pretty) direction: ingredients for the “invisible” Hollywood cinema we all know and love today. Plus, fuck Nazis, honestly. Everyone loves a good “Fuck Nazis” picture, don’t they?
To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
- If Casablanca is the Classical Hollywood “Fuck Nazis” drama, To Be or Not to Be is the Classical Hollywood “Fuck Nazis” comedy. Decades before Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler,” Lubitsch (himself a German-Jewish expat), devised a story about a Polish theater troupe running circles around the SS in war-torn Warsaw. A couple things: the film is hilarious, and it’s downright ballsy. Here we are, in the middle of a war, and we’ve got Polish Jews quoting Shylock’s “Do we not bleed” speech to a bunch of stormtroopers. Awesome.
Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
- By far the weakest picture on the list, I chose Gun Crazy to represent film noir for a couple of reasons. 1) Most films noir are not the A-productions like Double Indemnity or Sunset Blvd. Most are low budget B-pictures with scrappy, or sometimes downright dirty, aesthetic styles. Gun Crazy isn’t really dirty (visually), but it does feature some of the classic hallmarks of noir: the doomed man, the femme fatale, sexual perversion (always a plus!), and brutal violence. 2) More than most films noir, Lewis’ picture is a direct forerunner of the French New Wave gangster films (Breathless chief among them) as well as New Hollywood fare like Bonnie & Clyde. Gun Crazy helps bridge the gap between ’40s noir and ’60s New Wave and it’s fuckin’ crazy to boot. Good stuff.
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
- I almost went with Seven Samurai but I chose Ozu instead. Arguably the more conservative choice (although Kurosawa’s canonical supremacy has rendered him a little un-hip, no?), I just have to come clean and admit my Ozu preference. Which is not to say the filmmakers are comparable at all, except that they are compatriots, and I am shamefully lacking in my knowledge of Japanese cinema (and Asian cinema as a whole).
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
- Again, I almost went with another choice, North by Northwest, for Hitchcock, but if this list is about what’s essential, and I believe in showing films that give you a sense of what the filmic medium can do, Vertigo is it. North by Northwest is an easy film; Vertigo is a hard film. But I think in terms of presenting the true spirit of a single artist, Vertigo reveals more about Hitchcock than perhaps any other film—the twisted perversity, the obsession, the longing—so good. Also, Bernard Herrmann’s impeccable score: perfection.
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
- The essential epic, filmmaking on a grand scale, vast landscapes, brilliant vistas, a large cast of characters, one of the greatest leading performances in history…I mean, what can I really say? It’s Lawrence of fuckin’ Arabia! Take a Saturday and watch it on a really, really big TV. Better yet, find a theater that plays it (I know it plays regularly in Los Angeles).
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
- Fellini may not be the most characteristic mid-century Italian director, but he’s great, so who cares. 8 1/2 represents the beginning of his detachment from Italian Neorealism into the distinctly Felliniesque (and forever after imitated) magical realism of sex and dreams and impeccably tailored, impossibly good-looking people. But if you want to get into Fellini (or even foreign cinema broadly) start here, then work backwards, and then forwards again.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
- I didn’t want to put Singin’ in the Rain for my musical, so I went a little left of center and picked this equally colorful film made a decade later. Bonus: it’s French! And it’s kind of a tragedy! Yay! But, seriously, this is a pretty amazing movie with an incredible score by Michel Legrand. And the entire thing is sung—no spoken dialogue at all.
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
- This is another one of those “must be seen to be believed” movies. Like Lawrence, an historical epic on a grand scale (205 minutes!) and it is a very, very challenging watch. Thematically, it’s about the struggle to create art. Also at play here are everything from government censorship to questions about religion and the church, sickening brutal violence, a nearly silent protagonist and long stretches of time where nothing you see seems to make any sense at all until 70 minutes later when it suddenly does. But it’s a hell of a film and if you’re interested in the experiences film can give you that you can’t get anywhere else, this is the movie for you.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
- Like Andrei Rublev, 2001 is an experience. Capital ‘e.’ But, of course, 2001 has been oversold by anyone who’s ever spoken of it, so you don’t need more of that. Just know it’s on this list because 1) it’s the only science-fiction movie you ever need to watch, and 2) it will stun you that something this good was ever made by humans and not, like, fuckin’ HAL or something.
- Like I even need to convince anyone how good these movies are. An element of their success which is not often spoken of is how good they are as adaptations of a novel. Which they are, but that element of the discourse tends to be, well, squashed, in favor of them just being great movies. This is also my bid for the gangster genre, which is rich in American film culture. If you want to watch and learn more about the gangster genre, listen to everything Martin Scorsese has ever said about film and watch everything he recommends. Here’s a good place to start.
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
- Pulp Fiction is just hands down the definitive postmodernist ’90s movie. But unlike a lot of its imitators, the film manages to be of a time and place (and in a generic tradition of film history) while maintaining a uniqueness that affords it a kind of out-of-timelessness. Plus, oh, that soundtrack!
Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
- Dead Man is my bid for a Western, a nontraditional choice because it is a revisionist, postmodern Western that’s more poetic art film than John Wayne vehicle. The film also represents a nice nexus between the American independent film scene at the time (coming off the high watermark ’80s) and that most entrenched and emblematic of American genres. That collision lends the film its force, power and credence because although it is at times mystical, spiritual, because it is a Western, we believe it. We believe it because it is our land and our history and our collective myth and Jarmusch mines that for all its worth.
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
- It was either this or Apocalypse Now for war films, and I admire Malick more than I do Coppola (who already has two films on this list, for crying out out). This movie is interesting because it’s both contemporary (starring everyone and their mother, it seems; how many times can you shout, “Hey, it’s that one guy!”) and classic (Malick has an ancient visual sensibility, mired in natural imagery). Malick’s affinity for nature butts up abruptly against extreme violence (as it did in Badlands and later The New World), and a Malick-helmed war picture just seems like one of those delicious incongruities you have to see to believe. Which you do. Get the Blu-Ray and thank me later.
Mulholland Dr.(David Lynch, 2001)
- I can’t make a list without mentioning Lynch, who’s that singular figure in contemporary American cinema who’s so outre, he’s in, nearly a brand and a genre until himself. This slot could have easily been Blue Velvet, but I’m partial to Mulholland Dr., which skewers Hollywood as acerbically as Blue Velvet sent-up the suburbs. Getting back to the theme of movies that you can’t experience any other way, this one does a great job of supplanting all your notions of filmic structure, managing to disorient you so jarringly, you’ll be feeling the aftereffects for days. Or, at least, I did. Add to that a wonderful performance from Naomi Watts, one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever experienced (fuck you, Lynch, you gave me nightmares forever!), and some totally gripping, entrancing, purely Lynchian mindfucks—great movie. See it, freak out, see it again.
Notes: Yes, I skipped the ’80s. Yes, Orson Welles is not on this list. Yes, it is Western-centric. (So am I. Sue me.) There are also no shorts or mini-series on the list because I wanted to focus on the codified feature film length (which, just by its definition, eliminates a large portion of early cinema). I tried to make it as international as possible without excluding Hollywood just to be cool, or something. Hollywood’s good, too. Also, I know I cheated with two Godfather movies. Boo hoo.
Comments, question? Make your own list! I want to see what Tumblr considers essential viewing.
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