The Top 100 Movies of All Time (2015 List)

About ten years ago, around 2003 or 2004, I first endeavored to put together a list of the top 100 movies ever made.  I would have been about sixteen or so at the time and given that I don’t think I did too bad of a job, but times change and tastes change and that old list is no longer something I’m satisfied with.  I’ve seen too many great movies since then and it was clear that it was time to give that list an overhaul.  As such I’ve spent the last year carefully assembling a new list from scratch and writing a few thoughts on each one of them.  Now, whenever lists like this get made the first question everyone seems to have is along the lines of “is this a ‘favorite’ list or a ‘best’ list?”  I kind of reject the notion that those need to be two different things, but if forced to choose one this is definitely a “best” list but really it’s a mix of both.  No movie has earned a place on this list simply because it’s something I enjoy watching to pass the time, it needs to have some legitimate importance to the history of film to be here.  That said, my specific tastes do play into this as well and I’m not going to put anything on this list that I don’t personally love as well.  For example, I’m well aware of the importance of the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Yasujirō Ozu, but while I respect both of those filmmakers their work doesn’t really speak to me so neither of them are going to be on this list.

Additionally, it should be noted that I can be pretty conservative about adding new movies to lists like this and really think films should have to withstand the test of time as much as possible before they’re canonized.  As such, I’ve decided to cut off eligibility for the list after 2009 (though I did make exactly one exception to this rule for reasons that will make sense once it’s revealed).  I’m not really 100% comfortable putting movies from the earlier 2000s on the list either but if you’re going to update a list there is a certain point where you need to open things up a little so I am going to try a few of these newer movies on for size.  That said, movies from the 2000s will be at a bit of a disadvantage here.   Finally there was the matter of how film trilogies and sequels should be handled.  I did not want to waste space on the list adding multiple sequels/installments to certain movies and there are some cases where series amount to a lot more as a whole than they do in their individuals parts.  On the other hand, there are definitely cases where the separate installments of certain series feel more self-contained and where certain sequels would only diminish the original if they were lumped in. As such I’ve opted not to have a consistent rule about whether trilogies are going to be lumped and have instead decided to take them on a case-by-case basis and aggregate when it feels right and not aggregate when that feels right.  And on one final note before we begin, if there’s one thing this project has taught me it’s that 100 is a really small number.  There were a ton of movies I absolutely loved that didn’t make the list and their exclusion should not be viewed as an insult.

Jump to: #90, #80, #70, #60, #50, #40, #30, #20, #10

100. King Kong

  • Year: 1933
  • Director: Merian C. Cooper
  • Writer(s): James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose
  • Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Armstrong
  • Studio: RKO Radio
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 100 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Today it’s taken almost as a given that special effects are the backbone of commercial cinema, which would seem to suggest that there are few films that the Hollywood of today owes more of a debt to than the original King Kong. Released at the height of the Great Depression, the film was the ultimate escapist adventure film and it’s perhaps surprising that it didn’t spawn more clear imitators around the time of its realease, at least not in Hollywood outside of the B-movie realm. The film’s stop-motion effects are extremely well rendered and you have to imagine that they were absolutely baffling to audiences in 1933. Admittedly, the film has some fairly problematic racial material. The native tribe on Skull Island is straight out of the “savage dark continent” tradition of pulp fiction and as anyone who’s seen Inglorious Basterds will know it isn’t terribly hard to read the relationship between Kong and Fay Wray as some kind of miscegenation allegory. It is definitely a film that needs to be looked at on its own terms, but it has definitely sent out ripples of inspiration. Just about all of the big special effects filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson cite the film as an influence, in part because it’s the kind of classic movie that can really reach people when they’re still young and not yet terribly sophisticated in their tastes.

99. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

  • Year: 1977
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer(s):Steven Spielberg
  • Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, François Truffaut
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 137 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Close Encounters of the Third Kind often gets forgotten within Spielberg’s blockbuster filmography. It might be because it didn’t have the massive impact on the film industry that Jaws had and it doesn’t have Raiders of the Lost Ark’s breakneck pace or Jurassic Park’s innovative effects. It is a massive mistake to overlook the film though, because it is in many ways one of his most mature works, which is odd given that it was made while he was still a very young man. In fact the movie is something of a rarity: a Hollywood science fiction film with no real action elements. The central theme is obsession. It’s about people who see something that profoundly affects them to the point where they can’t relax and live their normal lives until they get answers. It is perhaps fitting that this was made during a period of Détente because it’s one of the first Hollywood movies in a while to be about aliens on earth and yet not be some kind of paranoid Cold War parable. Rather than make a film about the fear of alien contact Spielberg made a film about the possibilities of alien contact and made good use of his signature whimsy to do it.

98. The Double Life of Véronique

  • Year: 1991
  • Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
  • Writer(s): Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
  • Starring: Irène Jacob
  • Studio: Sidéral Productions et al.
  • Country of Origin: France/Poland
  • Language: French/Polish
  • Running Time: 98 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Between making his epic Decalouge series and his famous “Three Colors” trilogy Krzysztof Kieślowski found himself making a standalone film that managed to be just as mysterious and interesting as his larger grand statements. The film sits at a transition in Kieślowski’s career in more than one way. Shot half in Poland and half in France, the film concerns two seemingly disparate women living on different sides of the iron curtain. These women are doppelgangers, both are played by Irène Jacob and they seem to share a strange sort of bond even though they never meet. Clearly an exploration in identity, both of the personal and national variety, the film is quite mysterious and open for interpretation. It’s also a beautifully shot film which takes full advantage of the larger budget that Kieślowski had now that he was making a French co-production.

97. The French Connection

  • Year: 1971
  • Director: William Friedkin
  • Writer(s): Ernest Tidyman
  • Based On: The book “The French Connection” by Robin Moore
  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzuffi
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 104 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Sometimes a film will have a scene that’s so famous that it wrongly overshadows the movie it’s in. Something kind of like that seems to have happened to The French Connection, which has a car chase that’s so famous that people often forget how amazing the rest of the movie is. Of course that car chase is something that’s certainly worth celebrating. It’s a sequence that’s highly exciting but also oddly believable in its scale and it ends with a shooting that is both exciting and complicated in its moral implications. The rest of the movie is notable for just how gritty it is. These days the word “gritty” gets thrown around so much that it almost seems like a meaningless buzzword, it’s something we take for granted, but in 1971 this form of grit was new and exciting. The idea of a police officer being simultaneously thuggish and heroic was a pretty new idea at the time, and it’s still a relevant concept today even if it’s become something of a cliché. The film was shot on the streets of New York during a low point in its existence and utilizes handheld photography (again, before that was a cliché) and features a really iconic performance by Gene Hackman which really portrays his character’s dogged obsession as he goes after the French gangster at the center of all this trouble. That obsession is really what’s at the center of the film, it’s what leads him to drive like a maniac after an elevator train and what leads him to shoot at shadows in the film’s final moments.

96. The Night of the Living Dead

  • Year: 1968
  • Director: George A. Romero
  • Writer(s): George A. Romero and John A. Russo
  • Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, and Marilyn Eastman
  • Studio: Independent
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language:English
  • Running Time: 96 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

“Night of the Living Dead” is not the kind of title you expect to see canonized on a list like this. Hell, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see it on a list of serious horror films either. It’s a dopey title, the kind you’d expect to see on a B-movie circa 1952, and yet I think the dopiness of that title is actually an asset. It’s like a sneak attack, you go into the movie expecting to have some cheesy fun and then BOOM! you’re hit with a serious hardcore horror film that assaults you at pretty much every turn. The characters you expect to survive don’t necessarily make it, the killer zombies rip off and eat flesh, a child turns into a zombie and massacres her mother with a trowel. It’s grim stuff and director George A. Romero leans into that rather than offer his audience relief. Much as he makes the silly title work for him, he also turns the film’s shoestring budget into an asset. The movie has a sort of captured documentary feel and its grainy black and white photography gives it a certain timelessness that other zombie movies lack. Content like this was shocking when the film was made but would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. 1968 was what can charitably be called an “interesting” year and the film clearly fed on the political upheaval that was happening in the streets and the carnage that was being wrought in Vietnam. It’s a chaotic movie for chaotic times and the film’s ability to shock really hasn’t been diminished all that much in the time since its debut.

95. A Man Escaped

  • Year: 1956
  • Director: Robert Bresson
  • Writer(s): Robert Bresson
  • Starring: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, and Roland Monod
  • Studio: Gaumont Film Company
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 99 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

I worry that I may have to discard a lot of filmbuff cred by saying this but here goes: I generally don’t care for the works of Robert Bresson. I know, I know. Maybe I just haven’t watched enough, but the appeal of movies like Pickpocket and Au Hazard Balthazar was generally lost on me. I don’t connect with whatever spiritual message those movies are supposed to have and their restrained visual styles don’t really jump out to me at all. There is however, one very notable exception: his 1956 film A Man Escaped. The movie probably stands out to me because, frankly, the surface level is a lot more interesting here than it is in those other movies. The film follows a man imprisoned by the Nazis for being a member of the French Resistance (it’s worth noting that Bresson was himself imprisoned by the Nazis during the war) as he plans his escape. This is distinct from most prison escape movies in that its protagonist is alone for much of the film, giving a certain purity to his desire for freedom. The film is at its heart about the desire to live and striving to do so and is supposed to be reflective of the human condition in doing so, and in my opinion its thriller elements only make these themes all the more clear.

94. Rushmore

  • Year: 1998
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Writer(s): Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
  • Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Olivia Williams
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 93 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

It’s a shock to realize but Wes Anderson has been making movies for almost twenty years at this point. This is shocking firstly for the “OMG, I’m getting old factor” but also because his aesthetic still seems incredibly relevant. Half of all indie movies coming out of Sundance seem to be borrowing from his sense of whimsy and his visual characteristics. The influence goes beyond filmmaking though and also pervades a certain generation of music, fashion, and culture. For better or worse, the guy is a pioneer of white hipsterdom, and the movie that really set off his revolution was probably his 1998 effort Rushmore. The film took the time-worn and somewhat dated genre of the private boarding school story and flipped it on its head by injecting it with a sort of French New Wave energy. Anderson drew on a couple of late 60s movies like The Graduate and Harold & Maude as well as the music of that era and made them relevant again. The film made Jason Schwatzman an icon of this aesthetic but also re-invigorated the career of Bill Murray by bringing the inherent melancholy of his earlier performances to the surface. Anderson is a sort of brighter flipside of Tarentino, he uses similar techniques but has different interests and a much different tone, and Rushmore is his Pulp Fiction.

93. Letters From Iwo Jima

  • Year: 2006
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Writer(s): Iris Yamashita
  • Based on: The book “Picture Letters from Commander in Chief” edited by Tsuyoko Yoshido
  • Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryō Kase, and Nakamura Shidō
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: Japanese
  • Running Time: 141 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

In 2006 Clint Eastwood made a film about the battle of Iwo Jima called Flags for Our Fathers that everyone thought would be an Oscar-sweeping sensation but when it finally came out it was mostly met with apathy. As that film is increasingly forgotten it is its companion piece told from the Japanese perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima, that has emerged as the true classic. Telling the story of Captain Tanida (played excellently by Ken Watanabe) as he defends the tactically important Island in a battle against the oncoming American troops. Of course a film told from the perspective of enemy combatants in a war against the United States is a true anomaly coming out of Hollywood and seems especially curious coming from a man synonymous with Western heroes, but Eastwood has always subverted people’s expectations when it comes to matters of patriotism and he does an amazing job of walking a tightrope of sensitivity, always falling on the side of humanism even when dealing with some of the Japanese soldiers’ fanatical tendencies. In fact it is probably no coincidence that Eastwood was making a movie that tried to empathize with a group of potential suicide bombers right at the height of the Iraq war. Beyond that Eastwood is simply on the top of his game in terms of pure filmmaking, injecting the film with a really beautiful lyricism while also depicting the horrors of war in harsh but necessary light. In retrospect this film is something of a peak in Eastwood’s 21st century career and he’s struggled to find the right material and execute on it properly, but Letters is a hell of a peak just the same.

92.The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  • Year: 1966
  • Director: Sergio Leone
  • Writer(s): Sergio Leone, Luciano Vincenzoni, Agenore Incrocci, and Furio Scarpelli
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian/English
  • Running Time: 177 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Let’s be clear: Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a dumb movie. It’s a shallow western about three rather thinly drawn badass gunfighters trying to find some buried gold and killing a lot of people along the way. That they were able to make a nearly three hour movie out of that concept and not have anyone complain about it is kind of amazing. So I think it’s safe to say that the film isn’t a success because of its script, and while Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef do deliver some iconic tough guy performances their intentionally simplistic characters also aren’t what make the film a success. Really what makes the film work is plainly Sergio Leone’s virtuosic filmmaking. Leone is a filmmaker who used the disreputable but unrestrained world of Italian exploitation genre cinema in order to create these needlessly grand entertainments. He utilized unconventional but clean framings and camera angles as well as some really pitch perfect editing in order to create exceptionally effective action scenes while also maintaining a really subversive sense of humor. His key collaborator of course is composer Ennio Morricone, who used a similarly experimental sensibility to create one of the most iconic movie scores of all time which seems to meld perfectly with Leone’s editing choices in order to really propel them.

91. United 93

  • Year: 2006
  • Director: Paul Greengrass
  • Writer(s): Paul Greengrass
  • Starring: Ben Sliney, Peter Hermann, David Alan Basche, and Omar Berdouni
  • Studio: Universal Pictures
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 110 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

I’m not a big believer in the concept of “too soon” at least when it comes to art and sensitivities. I do sometimes balk at movies that try to make conclusions about current events a little too quickly but I don’t think it’s a mistake to face our nation’s collective demons quickly and that’s exactly what happened when Paul Greengrass made the first film to focus on the September 11th attacks a mere five years after the fact. The film doesn’t try to explain the reasons behind the attack or suggest a direction for the nation to take up going forward, instead it’s a sort of thriller about the day of the attack and about the people forced to react to the situation and as they became the first Americans to enter into a post-9/11 mentality. The film is devoid of movie stars and almost anything else that would make this feel more like a movie than like a sort of reconstruction of what happened on board the ill-fated Flight 93. Greengrass who would make his mark by bringing a special sort of intensity to action films like The Bourne Supremacy, proved to be the perfect choice to helm such a project and takes a sort of solemn eye to the project but also isn’t afraid to make the film an engaging experience for the audience.

90. The Thin Red Line

  • Year: 1998
  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Writer(s): Terrence Malick
  • Based on: The novel “The Thin Red Line” by Jesse Jones
  • Starring: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 171 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Often it feels like the act of being a top tier director is built on a sort of momentum that gets built for a decade or so and is just as easily lost. As such it’s always heartening to see someone upend that myth by doing something like… say… taking a twenty year hiatus from filmmaking only to inexplicable return in the late 90s and operate on a grand scale without skipping a beat. That’s exactly what happened when Terrence Malick returned to the film world out of nowhere to make an expensive World War II epic. Actually, forget that, the comeback narrative was cool but that’s far from the most interesting thing about The Thin Red Line. What’s really amazing is that Malick was somehow allowed to make a large budget World War 2 movie without having to compromise the lyrical style he developed in the 70s at all. In fact that style is probably the film’s defining feature, without it the film is kind of a straightforward recreation of the battle of Guadalcanal, but with it the film becomes a sort of rumination on man’s place in the universe. By focusing almost as much on the Island landscape as it does on the soldiers in the field Malick is able to suggest that while he takes the lives of these men seriously, he also sees that it’s ultimately a rather minor blip in the grand scheme of the universe. It’s a theme that he would expand upon with his 2011 film The Tree of Life, but it’s always been the undercurrent of his films.

89. The Manchurian Candidate

  • Year: 1962
  • Director: John Frankenheimer
  • Writer(s): George Axelrod
  • Based on: The novel “The Manchurian Candidate” by Richard Condon
  • Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, Henry Silva, and James Gregory
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 126 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Sometimes movies just become creepier as they age. I’m sure The Manchurian Candidate was plenty creepy when it came out in 1962, but in the years since it’s taken on something of an aura. This is in no small part due to the fact that it ends with a politician being killed with a sniper rifle a year before the Kennedy assassination happened but even without that parallel I feel like the film would still linger in the mind. Part of that has to do with its paranoid conspiracy plotline which has its characters out of control of their own actions and constantly unsure of themselves. It might also have to do with its ending, in which all the “bad guys” certainly die but which still leaves you kind of unsure if good really won over evil. Frankenheimer was ahead of his time in many ways during the 60s, his brand of paranoia would become much more popular a decade later in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Beyond that though it’s just a damn good thriller with some really memorable set-pieces. The film seems to almost pick up where Alfred Hitchcock (who was still active at the time but was just beginning to enter his awkward late stage) was sort of leaving off except with a slightly more modern and bleak outlook.

88. Star Wars

  • Year: 1977
  • Director: George Lucas
  • Writer(s): George Lucas
  • Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Peter Cushing
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 121 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

You know, when I was 12 the idea of a top 100 movie list that didn’t have the Star Wars trilogy taking up three of the top ten slots would have been unthinkable. As time goes on and I gain experience both as a film lover and as a person the series’ accomplishments are put into a bit of a different perspective and its cartoony thrills seem less and less special. Still, it’s easy to go too far with that and for the accomplishments of the franchise to maybe be forgotten and oddly enough it isn’t the ostensibly more mature sequel The Empire Strikes Back which really stands out to me. Rather, it’s the original film that George Lucas dropped on an unsuspecting public yearning for escapism back in 1977 that probably shines the brightest. The film tells a simple but timeless story about a young man from modest origins becoming a hero in a dangerous world. It’s an archetype but a well rendered one and it caught on with the public for a reason. The film also holds up pretty damn well after all these years, especially its climactic attach on the Death Star which is still one of the most thrilling dog-fights in film history. In making the movie Lucas pulled from everything from Lord of the Rings to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress but at the end of the day what stands out most is obviously the film’s affinity for 1930s serials of the Buck Rogers variety. Ultimately it’s a movie with a mixed legacy, on one hand it undeniably played a role in the dumbing down of American cinema, on the other hand it did leave audiences with a spectacular bit of entertainment that people of all ages have enjoyed for decades.

87. JFK

  • Year: 1991
  • Director: Oliver Stone
  • Writer(s): Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar
  • Based on: The books “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison and “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy” by Jim Marrs
  • Starring: Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, and Sissy Spacek
  • Distributor: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 206 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

The more I learn about the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy the less convinced I am about the case being put forward by Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s film JFK, but that doesn’t really change much about how I feel about the film. Whatever the true facts of the case may have been there’s little doubt in my mind that Stone believes there was a conspiracy going on and over the course of the film he presents a very vigorous and energetic case. Though the film runs well over three hours long it moves incredibly fast, in no small part because it is one of the most aggressively edited dramas ever released. The film expertly cuts away both to flashbacks and to documentary material and also just moves from shot to shot with expert precision. This kind of MTV inspired cutting is usually reserved for action films, but it works great with this film’s investigative format as well and never really feels like an out of place distraction either. Beyond that the film also has a remarkably accomplished cast and a surprisingly martial score by John Williams. This was a film made at the height of Oliver Stone’s prowess as a filmmaker and at a moment where he was finally able to use Hollywood’s money to bring his unique worldview to the screen.

86. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

  • Year: 2001-2003
  • Director: Peter Jackson
  • Writer(s): Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Stephen Sinclair
  • Based on: The novels “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, and Andy Serkis
  • Studio: New Line
  • Country of Origin: USA/New Zealand
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 558 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

You know, it’s really pretty crazy that one of the biggest and most expensive epics of all time was made by a semi-obscure New Zealander who got his start making movies about profane puppets. I certainly had never heard of Peter Jackson when he somehow landed the dream gig of mounting a full-scale adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and I’m willing to bet that even the biggest admirers of Dead/Alive and Bad Taste never quite thought he had this in him. But then this particular project would have seemed like a fairly impossible ask even if it was being helmed by someone with impeccable effects experience like Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott. Making a trilogy of effects heavy three hour epics out of notoriously difficult and nerdy source material back to back to back had to have been one of the most outlandishly difficult productions in film history and it has to have been some kind of miracle that Jackson not only managed to finish the film but also unquestionably knocked it completely out of the park. In their extended versions the three films collectively run damn near twelve hours and yet none of them drag in the slightest. The action scenes with CGI armies have (for better or worse) been extremely influential but the films don’t feel like they’re completely drowned in CGI either. They function quite effectively simply as action movies but Tolkien’s much celebrated story is all there and is brought to life with some very canny adapting and by an incredible cast that also seems completely in touch with the mission at hand.

85. Walkabout

  • Year: 1971
  • Director: Nicolas Roeg
  • Writer(s): Edward Bond
  • Based On: The novel “Walkabout” by James Vance Marshall
  • Starring: Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, and David Gulpilil
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Country of Origin: Australia/UK/USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 100 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Nicholas Roeg is a filmmaker who… well he certainly hasn’t been written out of film history but he’s been left on the sidelines in a number of ways. He doesn’t really fit perfectly within any film movements and while he certainly had a unique style it wasn’t always the easiest one to describe. His best and most famous film is probably his first solo directorial effort, 1971’s Walkabout. The film in many ways seems like a British/Australian take on a Terrence Malick film (even though it predates Malick by two years). It tells a story of a pair of siblings who are left stranded in the Australian outback and meet a young aboriginal who guides them. There are a million corny bullshit directions that a story like that could go in, but Roeg cannily takes a much more interesting and honest route with it. First and foremost, the way the film depicts this outback setting is fascinating. It’s hard to describe how exactly he does it but he makes this setting really palpably set a mood and accentuate the adolescent psychology in the film. The film is also unflinching about the serious and ultimately insurmountable culture clash that builds a wall between the white Australian children and the aboriginal boy. All of it leads up to an ending which is quietly cynical but also pretty true.

84. On the Waterfront

  • Year: 1954
  • Director: Elia Kazan
  • Writer(s): Budd Schulberg
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, and Eva Marie Saint
  • Studio: Columbia
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 108 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

If you look at movies from early in the sound era, roughly 1929 to 1950 or so, you find that film acting was in its infancy. Actors trained for the stage would exaggerate lines and play into melodrama and generally wouldn’t play out scenes naturalistically. Over time they took on a certain stylization which worked within the artificiality of the old Hollywood style but which still didn’t necessarily feel “real.” Then came Marlon Brando. Honestly, things probably didn’t happen that simply, there were probably steps along the way but most would agree that it was Brando who really brought “method acting” into the mainsteam and paved the way for the De Niros and Hoffmans who would emerge in the ensuing decades. Of course Brando could only change Hollywood acting because Hollywood was making movies that called for that kind of gritty performance, movies like On the Waterfront which tried to capture a more real working class milieu. The film has an authenticity that was rarely seen at the time and its story about corruption on New York’s docks was extremely topical and mature.

83. The “Before” Trilogy

  • Year: 1995, 2004, and 2013
  • Director: Richard Linklater
  • Writer(s): Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Ethan Hawke, and
    Julie Delpy
  • Starring: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
  • Studio: Columbia, Warner Independent, and Sony Pictures Classics
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 290 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

What’s amazing about the “Before Trilogy” is that it could have stopped after the first film and still been amazing. In the decade leading up to its sequel, Before Sunrise had already earned a place in film history as one of the great depictions of youthful romance. It was a really smart and oft imitated film that managed to do a whole lot simply by showing two young people walk through a city and talk about life and culture while clearly falling for each other over the course of a single night. The movie ended on a point of ambiguity and it seemed like absolute madness to answer that final question by making another film and then another, but not only did that work out it led to one of the great trilogies in film. Following the two characters Into adulthood and middle age, the three films seem to capture so much about life and love over the course of three or so days in these characters’ lives. Many films have tried to do the “two characters walk and talk for a day” format but almost none have done it as successfully and the fact that Linklater managed to pull off this trick three times is kind of a miracle. It remains to be seen if this series will continue from here, if it does I’m a little worried that they might ruin their streak of success, but then again Linklater has been doubted before and has proved the doubters wrong twice before.

82. Andrei Rublev

  • Year: 1966
  • Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Writer(s): Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky
  • Starring: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Sergeyev, Nikolai Burlyayev, and Irma Raush
  • Distributor: Mosfilm
  • Country of Origin: The Soviet Union
  • Language: Russian
  • Running Time: 205 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Andrei Tarkovsky was a cinematic master of the same caliber as many of the great directors of the golden age of world cinema but unlike many of the acknowledged masters he was stuck on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to deal with a lot of nonsense. In the case of his 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev that resulted in massive cuts by Soviet censors which made it so that the unaltered version of the film wasn’t seen in his home country for years. Tarkovsky’s unflinching depiction of the brutality of medieval Russia was part of why these cuts were made but what really angered the censors was the political allegory at the film’s center. The film, a biography of a 15th century Icon painter who lived through a time of great tumult in Russian history, was all about what it meant to try to create art while living in a repressive regime. It’s probably not too hard to see how that could be viewed as subversive. But one doesn’t need to be too enmeshed in the film’s politics to appreciate its greatness. The whole film walks an interesting line between epic sweep and bitter historical reality and Tarkovsky fills the film with almost surreally bleak period detail that creates a rather hypnotic tone for the whole film.

81. Barry Lyndon

  • Year: 1975
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick
  • Based On: The novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner, and Gay Hamilton
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: UK
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 187 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Barry Lyndon is not one of Stanley Kubrick’s more popular films, which is unfortunate because it’s a real gem on many levels. Based on a relatively obscure William Makepeace Thackeray novel, the film covers the entire adult life of an Irishman as he rises in the ranks and finds himself in the English aristocracy. The film has a rather unusual structure in which its first act moves at a breakneck pace as Lyndon fights in duels, flees his home, goes off to war, takes part in a gambling scheme and eventually marries into wealth. After the intermission though, things abruptly slow down as Lyndon settles into domesticity. This might seem jarring and the deliberate pace of this second half is probably what’s responsible for the misconception that the film is “boring” and “stuffy” but I feel like this abrupt shift in tempo says a lot about this character and about what usually happens as people age into middle age. It also may be something of a sly commentary on Kubrick’s own migration to the United Kingdom: despite taking place in Europe the film’s first half has a decidedly American feel to it with its Horatio Alger-like rags to riches narrative while the film’s second half is every bit the class obsessed costume drama that one expects coming out of Britain. Lyndon himself remains something of a bastard through both stages of life so if Kubrick saw any of himself in the character’s trajectory it is almost certainly a very cynical commentary. What’s not cynical is the care and effort that Kubrick out into the film on a technical level. He famously acquired a special lens from NASA in order to film scenes lit only by candlelight and the results are pretty stunning.

80. Munich

  • Year: 2005
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer(s): Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
  • Based on: The book “Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team” by George Jonas
  • Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, and Geoffrey Rush
  • Studio: Dreamworks/Universal
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 163 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Sometime you’ll think you’ll have a filmmaker pegged only to have them come out of nowhere and surprise you. That’s certainly what happened when Steven Spielberg made his most morally complex film back in 2005. Of course Spielberg had made violent movies for adults in the past like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but both of those movies took place during a conflict with fairly clear heroes and villains and there was plenty of room for the director’s signature sentimentality. Munich takes place in a much more difficult conflict with few easy answers and hardly an inch of room for feel good sentiment. This isn’t to say that his drama about Mossad strikes in retaliation of the 1972 Munich massacres is a slog that’s hard to sit through; on the contrary it’s a hell of a thriller with some really tense moments that are expertly staged by Spielberg, but the real takeaway is Steven Spielberg’s conflicted feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and about cycles of violence in general. The message of the film is not clear cut, when it came out people on both sides of the conflict found reasons to come out against it and general audiences were just generally uncomfortable with the whole thing. It’s one of Spielberg’s lowest grossing movies but you can tell it wasn’t his sharp commercial instincts that led him to make it so much as a deep desire to get certain concerns off of his chest in a post-9/11 world.

79. The Conformist

  • Year: 1970
  • Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Writer(s): Bernardo Bertolucci
  • Based On: The novel “The Conformist” by Alberto Moravia
  • Starring:Jean-Louis Trintignant and Stefania Sandrelli
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian
  • Running Time: 111 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

After seeing Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist at the Cannes Film Festival Jean-Luc Godard was reportedly disgusted and expressed this by handing Bertolucci a photograph of Chairman Mao with a note that said simply “You have to fight against individualism and capitalism.” Godard was most likely responding to the film’s relatively conventional narrative structure, stylish cinematography, and thriller elements which he likely viewed as a betrayal of the revolutionary film form that he had developed. I’d argue that Godard perhaps missed the point, The Conformist isn’t about a revolutionary, it’s about (as the title would imply) someone who goes who conforms to the fascist regime that has taken over Italy. The film’s psychology is fascinating but the formal elements (the ones that offended Godard) are even more delicious. The cinematography is slick in a way that moves often weren’t up to that point and the murder scene towards the end is one of cinemas most enticing set-pieces.

78. Unforgiven

  • Year: 1992
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Writer(s): David Webb Peoples
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett, Frances Fisher, Anna Levine, Saul Rubinek, and Richard Harris
  • Distributor: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 131 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

If there’s one thing that the film going audience loves more than building a genre up it’s tearing a genre down and no film does genre deconstruction as effectively as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Rather than using cheap snark the way modern genre deconstructions do, Unforgiven takes a tough look at the western genre by examining the genre’s morality and its place in American culture. By 1992 it certainly wasn’t shocking anymore to suggest that the old west was populated by violent jerks and one could imagine a version of Unforgiven that was bathed in bitterness and vitriol. What gives the movie power is that it’s being made by someone who has a long history in the genre and is in many ways questioning his own past and trying to reckon with the good and the bad of that past… something that was going on throughout American culture in the 90s. Beyond any meta level, Unforgiven is still just a damn good story told masterfully. Eastwood really evolved his style when making the film and became not just a solid studio filmmaker but a real master of cinema. He gives the film a beautifully melancholic tone and fills it with incredibly strong scenes.

77. There Will Be Blood

  • Year: 2007
  • Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Writer(s): Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Based On: The novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair
  • Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, and Dillon Freasier
  • Studio: Paramount Vantage
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 158 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Paul Thomas Anderson earned a really strong reputation as a filmmaker when he emerged in the late 90s but accusations of unoriginality dogged him. His early triumphs like Boogie Nights and Magnolia were indeed pretty openly influenced by Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman respectively, but as the 2000s passed he started to find his own original voice and in 2007 he finally made an epic all his own in the form of There Will Be Blood. The film is about weighty issues like the intersection of business and religion and about the power structures involved in oil (it is no coincidence that this was made smack in the middle of the Bush administration) but it’s made with a degree of subtlety and it is far more stylistically adventurous than most movies of this scale are these days. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers one of the great screen performances and Johnny Greenwood’s unconventional score gives the film a really off-beat feeling that you wouldn’t normally get from a period epic like this. It’s been over eight years since the film came out and honestly I’m still not sure we’re quite done comprehending just what Anderson has accomplished with this one.

76. Ran

  • Year: 1985
  • Director: Akira Kurosawa
  • Writer(s): Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide
  • Based on: The play “King Lear” by Shakespeare
  • Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Masayuki Yui, and Kazuo Katō
  • Studio: Toho
  • Country of Origin: Japan
  • Language: Japanese
  • Running Time: 160 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Akira Kurosawa went through a rough patch from the late 60s through the 70s due to changing tastes and a general lack of ambition in the Japanese film industry and by all accounts there was s new generation of Japanese directors who viewed him as the old guard and were kind of glad to see him on the outs. He remained a hero amongst a generation of international filmmakers though and their support allowed him to make two final samurai epics in the 80s including this final masterpiece adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear. One can surmise that Kurosawa saw something of himself in Lear, an aging man who isn’t respected by scheming youngers and whose life’s work seems to be falling apart. It has been argued that Kurosawa actually managed to improve in some ways on Shakespeare’s play by making the king a more ambiguous character and by making the conflict between him and his one most loyal son a bit more complex. What certainly remains of the play is its nihilistic outlook and tragedy and the film has a somber gloom to it that’s hard to shake. Interestingly, this bleak outlook does not pervade into the film’s look, which is lush and colorful. The film had “a cast of thousands” each wearing elaborate armored costumes. It’s certainly a movie that lives up to his reputation as a maker of epic action films, but the outlook is much changed. He’d make three more films after Ran, but they’re more of an epilogue than a climax, for all intents an purposes this is his swan song.

75. Strangers on a Train

  • Year: 1951
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer(s): Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook, and Czenzi Ormonde
  • Based on: The novel “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith
  • Starring: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 101 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Strangers on a Train is not necessarily one of the more famous Hitchcock titles with the general public, but it probably should be. It has a really potent high concept (courtesty of Patricia Highsmith mystery novel upon which it’s based) about a man who suddenly finds himself in a hellish situation brought on by someone who is essentially a psychotic stalker. That crazy person, played by Farley Granger, is probably the best villain that Hitchcock ever created (except of course for Norman Bates) and Granger’s performance is extremely creepy. Hitchcock’s visual style is also in top form here, it’s probably the closest that the filmmaker ever came to making a full-on film noir and it makes some of the suspense sequences, particularly the ones set at an amusement park, particularly potent. There is a sexual subtext to the movie which with modern eyes could be seen as homophobic but which I charitably think was meant more to be subversive more than anything. The movie in many ways seems to stand outside a lot of the trends in Hitchcock’s career. It doesn’t feel like one of the films from his color era exactly but it also doesn’t quite feel like one of the films he made in the 40s either, but it certainly feels very Hitchcock all the same.

74. City of God

  • Year: 2002
  • Director: Fernando Meirelles
  • Writer(s): Bráulio Mantovani
  • Based on: The novel “City of God” by Paulo Lins
  • Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, and Seu Jorge
  • Distributor: 02 Filmes/VideoFilmes
  • Country of Origin: Brazil
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Running Time: 130 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Five years ago I ventured to make a list of my top 100 movies of the 2000s and the movie I selected my number one choice was Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. I guess I still think that’s true because, spoiler alert, there will not be another movie from that decade higher up on the list. I don’t know that it’s going to stay there forever, There Will Be Blood is nipping at its heels and the fact that Meirelles’ later career has turned out to be something of a dud is not helping its legacy but what keeps coming back to me was that initial feeling of discovery I got from watching this movie for the first time. To see all the energy and talent on the screen as the film goes through multiple decades of Brazilian street life, seeing street kids grow into hardened gangsters, seeing the way the street conditions changed over the years. It was wonderfully realized and yet still highly accessible world cinema and there was and is something positively intoxicating about it. The movie has been influential (the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire more or less borrowed its entire aesthetic from the movie) and who knows how deep it’s influence is going to go once a new generation of filmmakers start borrowing from it.

73. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

  • Year: 1943
  • Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  • Writer(s): Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  • Starring: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, and Deborah Kerr
  • Studio: The Archers
  • Country of Origin: UK
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 163 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are perhaps best known for two things: glorious Technicolor photography and creative ways to work around the propaganda requirements of the times they worked in. Their 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has both of these things, it looks beautiful and it also found a very interesting way to make a patriotic movie about Britain going to war with the Nazis. The film is ultimately about fostering respect for the old guard officers in the British army, the ones that were probably easy for young officers to giggle at for being anachronisms, and it does this by simply playing out what their experiences over the course of the last thirty-some years of British exploits. It also cannily avoids jingoism by focusing in on a friendship between the central officer and a German soldier over the course of many years and in one of the most memorable scenes this officer tearfully explains how his country went down such a destructive path, indicting the Nazi regime without demonizing the German people.

72. Sullivan’s Travels

  • Year: 1941
  • Director: Preston Sturges
  • Writer(s): Preston Sturges
  • Starring: Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 90 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

When film directors make movies about film directors the results can often be a bit… pretentious. Not so with Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a movie that in many ways sets out to lightly skewer pretension and act as an oddly agreeable defense of what Hollywood does. The film depicts an odyssey of sorts taken on by a musical comedy director as he tries to experience some of the pain of the Great Depression in preparation for the making of a serious drama meant to tackle social issues. The mentality of this director is not unlike what I see a lot of privileged people going through shortly after they leave college as they attempt to see how “the other half” lives, often with grand plans to singlehandedly save the world somehow. Preston Sturges was always interested in finding humor in difficult material and here he manages to make a comedy out of traveling in poverty stricken areas without ever really coming off as insensitive or out of touch. The film’s ending is a defense of the value of escapism and perhaps in defense of Stuges’ own career. It’s not really a message I personally agree with necessarily, but by the time it comes up I do think it’s well argued and earned.

71. Nosferatu

  • Year: 1922
  • Director: F.W. Murnau
  • Writer(s): Henrik Galeen
  • Based on: The novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker
  • Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Ruth Landshoff, and Wolfgang Heinz
  • Distributor: Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal and Prana-Film GmbH
  • Country of Origin: Germany
  • Language: German
  • Running Time: 81 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The first and in many ways best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was F.W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu. A part of the German Expressionist movement, the film used a number of very unconventional camera tricks in order to create a gothic tone while still coming off a little more naturalistic than some other examples of that movement. The bald and animalistic Count Orlock is distinct from the other sexier takes on the Dracula character that would come later and remains a template for a certain kind of screen vampire even today. The film also makes excellent use of shadows and of course Murnau’s signature camera movements in order to create some really iconic horror movie imagery. The movie was nearly lost to time after Murnau lost a copyright lawsuit with the Stoker estate, which is interesting because this is hardly a faithful adaptation of “Dracula.” Hell, the film more or less omits the final third of that novel, but what it does include is incredibly moody and interesting.

70. To Be or Not to Be

  • Year: 1942
  • Director: Ernst Lubitsch
  • Writer(s): Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer
  • Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, and Sig Ruman
  • Distributor: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 99 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Ernst Lubitch’s To Be or Not to Be certainly wasn’t the first movie to get humor out of the Nazi regime during World War II. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was probably the most famous movie to do it, and given that that movie was made and released before America entered the war it was arguably bolder, but that movie had some issues (namely Caplin’s rocky transition into the talkies). To me it was Lubitch’s movie that did it the best, in part because of the film’s rather curious blend of straightforward thriller moments and out and out farce. Even without the topical boldness, the film would work great as a fast-paced screwball comedy of sorts with characters impersonating one another and getting into hijinx. The movie is also notable for being pretty much the only film to properly utilize the radio host and comedian Jack Benny, who creates a perfectly smarmy but likable screen presence.

69. Raiders of the Lost Ark

  • Year: 1981
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer(s): Lawrence Kasdan
  • Starring: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, and Denholm Elliott
  • Distributor: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 115 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

In the 90s Quentin Tarentino made an art out of taking elements from his favorite genre movies, improving on them, and then sort of remixing them into a newly relevant work for a new generation. It seemed like something of a fringe idea but oddly enough Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the most commercial of all filmmakers, had been doing the same thing for years and the most prominent example is probably Raiders of the Lost Ark. In creating the film Lucas and Spielberg drew from a long history of pulp B-movies that had remained in the pop culture ether and brought it back to the forefront by executing on the material with 80s action movie production standards. That idea alone wouldn’t have been enough to propel the movie to greatness but everything just seemed to click into place so well on this one. The film almost certainly passes the “three great scenes and no bad ones” test for greatness, hell it could pass the “five or six great scenes and no bad ones” test. Indiana Jones remains one of the most iconic characters in film and Harrison Ford really brings him to life as no one else could have. The action scenes still completely stand up today and are in many ways the standard bearer for modern western stuntwork. Of course there were no shortage of action movies in the 1980s but there’s a reason why this one feels so much more special than the rest of them and that’s the sincere joy that Spielberg brings to these action scenes. The guy just “got it” and the results show on screen.

68. Once Upon a Time in the West

  • Year: 1968
  • Director: Sergio Leone
  • Writer(s): Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati
  • Starring: Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, and Gabriele Ferzetti
  • Distributor: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: English/Italian
  • Running Time: 175 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

A lot of directors start strong and then never quite reach the early highs of their careers, but other directors gradually build up to a certain point. Sergio Leone was definitely in the later camp in that there was a clear progression in his career. He started out making a down and dirty western in A Fistful of Dollars, then he upped the ante with A Few Dollars More, and seemed to reach an epic peak in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Seemed to. As it turns out the movie he was really building towards was Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie so operatic that it almost sinks under its own grandiosity. The film isn’t as famous as its predecessors, in part because it lacks Clint Eastwood’s iconic presence and in part because it isn’t quite as focused on stylish shootouts, but it remains the famous director’s last great statement on the Western. Made on a larger budget and in part actually filmed in the American West, the film feels like less of a B-movie and it also features a major actor in Henry Fonda, who plays against type as one of the most brutal villains ever seen on the silver screen. Leone stretches the tension in some scenes almost to the breaking point and here and there he probably does go too far, but the resulting film still works as pure cinema and also feels more substantive than many of the spaghetti westerns that came before.

67. Alien

  • Year: 1979
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Writer(s): Dan O’Bannon
  • Starring: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 117 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of those extremely rare movies that truly feels 100% timeless. By that I mean that if you put the movie in theaters right now pretty much the only thing that would really give away the fact that it’s actually thirty five years old are some of the hair-styles. I can hardly think of another effects-heavy science fiction film that you could say that about and I think that says something about how ahead of its time the movie was. Ridley Scott has always used his fair share of visual effects, but he’s never really been an “effects maestro” in the way that a James Cameron or a Peter Jackson is. Rather, he harkens back to an older tradition of people like Cecil B. DeMille who put together large scale productions from the ground up and really made them stand out on all levels. In the case of Alien that meant constructing elaborately detailed space ship sets, envisioning a wholly unusual alien spacecraft in the middle of a barren planet, and commissioning a distinctive artist (H.R. Giger) to design one of the most iconic creatures in film history.

Even more interestingly, all this work was done in service of what is essentially a slasher horror movie. Most directors would half-ass their assignment when making a film in a disreputable genre like this, but Scott made his monster movie stand out by creating an ominous tone, avoiding stupid clichés, creating a believable cast of characters, and taking the film seriously. There are no throw-away one-liners in Alien and the film never feels compelled to turn into an action/chase movie two thirds of the way in. Instead it entertains its audience through incredibly shocking jolts (like the infamous chest-burster scene) and through moments of abject suspense (like Dallas’ ill-fated attempt to hunt the alien in the airlocks). The film is not unlike Spielberg’s Jaws in that the filmmakers were given pretty much every excuse to settle for mediocrity but instead sought to make something more deeply memorable and ended up with something special to show for their trouble: a movie that was simultaneously an amazing horror film and an expertly realized piece of science fiction. It’s been imitated over and over again, but almost never matched.

66. Hiroshima Mon Amour

  • Year: 1959
  • Director: Alain Resnais
  • Writer(s): Marguerite Duras
  • Starring: Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada
  • Studio: Pathé Films
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 90 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The French New Wave was largely kicked off by three landmark films: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. Of the three it was Resnais’ film that probably stands out a bit. Resnais was not a filmmaking rookie (although this was his first narrative feature) and he didn’t start his career as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma but the film was none the less extremely innovative and its spirit definitely influenced the New Wave going forward. The film was less anarchistic than Godard’s films but also less idealistic than Truffaut’s. It’s a sort of a puzzle movie, but not a completely perplexing one like his follow-up film Last Year at Marienbad. Instead it’s a sort of meditation on the differences between personal tragedy and national tragedy in its juxtaposition between the suffering of a French woman who was abused and abandoned for having a naïve affair with a German soldier and the overwhelming suffering of the victims of the Hiroshima bombings. Joseph Stalin allegedly once said that “A single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic” and sure enough it is the highly personalized tragedy of the French woman that resonates more than the extreme deathtoll of the Hiroshima bombing and Resnais clearly has mixed feelings about this. The exploration into the question that he left us with is bold, intriguing, sexy, and beautiful.

65. Badlands

  • Year: 1973
  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Writer(s): Terrence Malick
  • Starring: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri, and Warren Oates
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 95 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

When Terrence Malick emerged on the film scene in 1973 it wasn’t at all clear that he would become the reclusive and uncompromising filmmaker we know today. Released in the same year as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, his debut film Badlands has many of the elements of the later Terrence Malick films (voiceover, beautiful outdoor photography, an existentialist worldview) but it plays out in a way that is a little more accessible and less conspicuous in its tone. The film uses the same basic “two lovers on a crime spree” setup that made Bonnie and Clyde so memorable just six years earlier but approaches it in a much different way. The film launched the careers of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, who play a psychopath and an infatuated accomplice respectively, and the whole film is told from the warped perspective of Spacek’s character who views the whole crime spree as a sort of romantic adventure. In this sense it’s one of the only Malick films that’s told from a decidedly human rather than cosmic perspective, but by the standards of any other filmmaker this wouldn’t really seem “conventional” at all. The movie was ahead of its time and you can tell why Malick’s career went in a different direction from some of his New Hollywood peers.

64. Raging Bull

  • Year: 1980
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writer(s): Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin
  • Based on: The book “Raging Bull: My Story” by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty, and Johnny Barnes
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 129 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

“Likability” is, generally speaking, a much prized asset in a film protagonist. Perhaps part of what makes Martin Scorsese such an impressive director is his ability to make great movies with protagonists that completely lack likability but even amongst his many films there are few characters quite as unsympathetic as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. This is of course curious given that so many of Scorsese’s protagonists are out and out killers whereas La Motta is just a self-destructive asshole who brings misery to himself and everyone around him. It is perhaps telling that the film was made at a low point in Scorsese’s life both personally and professionally. His last film bombed, he’d just gone through a second divorce (no small thing for a devout catholic) , and he was just beginning to get over a cocaine addiction. It’s possible that he needed to be in that place of self-loathing to find a way in to a character like this. Fortunately he was backed up by Robert De Niro, who gave a truly bravura performance in the lead, becoming one of the first method actors to impress by intentionally gaining weight for a role. Scorsese’s abilities as a technical filmmaker were also on fire when he made it and the boxing scenes are some of the most intensely shot sequences in cinema complete with some really intense editing by Thelma Schoonmaker.

63. Casablanca

  • Year: 1942
  • Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Writer(s): Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch
  • Based on: The play “Everyone Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
  • Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre
  • Distributor: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 102 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Casablanca is a movie that I spent years resisting. It and Gone With the Wind have long been the two populist “classic” movies that end up on AFI lists and the like which always seemed like over-rated movies for old people. I still don’t really care for Gone With the Wind, but I have come to really appreciate Casablanca for what it is. The movie doesn’t really do much of anything at all to innovate either technically or narratively but what it does do is execute like a motherfucker. It’s set in a really compelling and exotic location amid a tense Second World War backdrop (and it’s easy to forget that this conflict was topical at the time the film was made, adding to its resonance) and its screenplay is just loaded with memorable lines. Bogart and Bergman both create memorable characters and co-stars like Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains also bring a whole lot to the movie. All of it rests on this highly relatable love story about regrets and difficult choices which almost certainly resonated in a time when so many people were putting their relationships on hold to go fight for a greater good. It’s a rare movie where everything just seemed to come together perfectly, almost by luck. It’s a triumph of a studio system that so rarely creates triumphs.

62. The Leopard

  • Year: 1963
  • Director: Luchino Visconti
  • Writer(s): Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Luchino Visconti, and Suso Cecchi d’Amico
  • Based on: “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  • Starring: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Serge Reggiani, Mario Girotti, and Pierre Clementi
  • Studio: Titanus
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian
  • Running Time: 185 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.21:1

In 1958 a novel about the Italian Risorgimento written by a man with a vague aristocratic lineage named Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was published posthumously and quickly became a controversial sensation. Given that the novel had become Italy’s “Gone With the Wind” it was inevitable that it would be the subject of an epic film, but I don’t know that many people expected that it would be made by a leftist veteran of the neorealism movement. In actuality, Luchino Visconti was the perfect man for the job. Though his politics differed dramatically from Tomasi’s, Visconti was also from a noble family and proudly held the title “Count of Lonate Pozzolo.” How does someone maintain a membership in the communist party while also unashamedly living a lavish lifestyle? With very conflicted feelings I suspect, and you can definitely see them coursing through this film about a Sicilian Prince living in changing times as the aristocracy gives way to a unified Italian Kingdom and a certain degree of republicanism. This prince doesn’t fight these changes tooth and nail so much as he sees the writing on the wall and attempts to adjust to the times. Among his many other accomplishments, Visconti was a director of Opera and he brings that same sense of grandeur and opulence to this film with its elaborate sets and sweeping scope.

61. Duck Soup

  • Year: 1933
  • Director: Leo McCarey
  • Writer(s): Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, and Nat Perrin
  • Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, and Zeppo Marx
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 68 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

If any movie on this list is acting as a stand in for a career achievement it’s probably this one. That’s not to say that Duck Soup doesn’t stand out a little from the other films the Marx Brothers made but really it’s a long career of zany comedy that needs to be acknowledged more than any one film. Hell, Groucho Marx alone could have been a star even if he didn’t have his brothers to tag team off of. His innuendo laced zingers are consistently some of the best written bits of screen witticism of the time while Harpo’s physical gags and Chico’s dated but still more amusing than it should be ethnic humor all fit together with the soul intent of driving all the establishment figures around them absolutely crazy. It was that element of clever slobs outwitting pretentious snobs that made the trio so appealing to Great Depression audiences and also made the trio ripe for rediscovery during the 1960s when Duck Soup (the film where they most directly mock people in power) was singled out as their signature film. Of course you can still see that dynamic play out in the works of the many comedians that followed in their footsteps. Bill Murray in particular seems to have built a career out of the concept. But the original Brothers remain the kings of this style and few of their films were quite as anarchistic and uncompromising as this one.

60. The Night of the Hunter

  • Year: 1955
  • Director: Charles Laughton
  • Writer(s): Charles Laughton and James Agee
  • Based on: The novel “The Night of the Hunter” by Davis Grubb
  • Starring: Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 92 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Night of the Hunter seems to sort of fit into a lot of trends without comfortably conforming to any. Is it a Noir? Sort of, it’s certainly got a shadowy visual style and a bleak world view but its rural setting makes it pretty distinct. Is it perhaps more of a Southern gothic? It’s certainly Southern and a bit gothic, but its focus on children and on the lower class kind of pushes it away from that. Is it a horror movie? It’s villain, played deliciously by Robert Mitchum certainly pushes it towards that genre in a number of ways, but it isn’t really trying to scare its audience really. The auteur theory doesn’t really help unravel the mystery too much given that it is the only film that actor Charles Laughton ever directed. It is of course rather strange that Laughton, a genteel Brit of a certain generation, managed to make a movie that’s so loaded with American iconography. Maybe the reason the film is so hard to classify is because it’s so bold and original in many ways. Laughton wasn’t content to do simply make something that was cookie cutter. He certainly drew from a lot of great Hollywood genre traditions, but what he ended up making was almost more of an art film, albeit one with a lot of really accessible thriller moments and images.

59. Blade Runner

  • Year: 1982
  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Writer(s): Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
  • Based on: The novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” by Phillip K. Dick
  • Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 117 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

His track record is pretty spotty now, but with his first two Hollywood movies Ridley Scott gave us one of the greatest one two punches in film history. The second of the two, Blade Runner, stands out as one of the most ambitious and creative science fiction films to come out of Hollywood. The film is perhaps most famous for its exquisitely detailed futuristic Los Angeles sets, depicting a city where it always seems to be nighttime, overcrowding is rampant, and Japan seems to have the dominant culture. The film cleverly uses the conventions of film noir to make the film a sort of futuristic detective story with Harrison Ford as the central gumshoe put in the middle of a morally dubious case. The film leans into this “future noir” gimmick just enough to give the film an interesting flavor without making it feel silly. Beneath the surface this is actually a pretty serious science fiction film based on a Phillip K. Dick novel which asks poignant questions about what it means to be human and whether machines deserve rights and it did it before these questions had become total science fiction clichés. The movie went out to theaters in a compromised form in 1982, but over the years it’s been recut a number of times and as time went by it’s been recognized as one of the most intriguing movies to ever come out of the studio system.

58. Ikiru

  • Year: 1952
  • Director: Akira Kurosawa
  • Writer(s): Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
  • Starring: Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, and Minoru Chiaki
  • Studio: Toho
  • Country of Origin: Japan
  • Language: Japanese
  • Running Time: 143 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Old age and dying are two aspects of the human experience which most directors need to tackle at some point. Most of them wait until late in their lives to get that degree of introspection but every once in a while you get a case like Ikiru, which Akira Kurosawa made when he was 42 and was more or less at the height of his career. The film is about an old man who has diligently worked all his life as a bureaucrat only to suddenly be diagnosed with a terminal cancer. The film is about what this dying man does knowing he doesn’t have long to live and knows he has to do something with his life. When he wasn’t making period films Kurosawa’s work always had a touch of Frank Capera in it, especially during the early post-war era. Ikiru is a good example of this in the way that it ultimately about a good person trying to do good in the face of an uncaring world. It feels like it’s about go down a fairly expected route, but then it suddenly pivots about 60% of the way through and flashes forward to after the protagonists death and sits in on his funeral as we hear people reminisce about how he manages to accomplish his big goal (the construction of a playground). It’s a really unconventional move but Kurosawa somehow manages to pull it off, leading to the film’s iconic image, the sight of the old man sitting on the park swing singing “Life is Brief” in the snow. It’s certainly not Kurosawa’s most funloving work, but it has an emotional power that transcends.

57. Amarcord

  • Year: 1974
  • Director: Federico Fellini
  • Writer(s): Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra
  • Starring: Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël, Pupella Maggio, and Armando Brancia
  • Studio: F.C. Produzioni
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian
  • Running Time: 123 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Amarcord is often thought to be Fellini’s last great film and by extension it almost kind of feels like an end of an era for the great world cinema boom that lasted through the 60s. By 1974 Godard had retreated into highly experimental work, Kurosawa was having trouble getting financing, Buñuel would only make one more film, Truffaut had moved away from the New Wave style that made him famous, Bergman still had a number of good films left in him but he was less than a decade from retirement too. This is of course only something we know in retrospect, Fellini certainly didn’t know he was making the film that would be viewed as the swan song of his “classic period” but what a wonderful finale it is. Set during the fascist era and autobiographical in many ways, the film is a bawdy and irreverent rumination on memory and nostalgia. It’s essentially an episodic narrative that’s kind of (but not entirely) told from the perspective of a young boy who sees some of the horrors of Mussolini’s Italy on his periphery but is largely sheltered from it and because the film is told from his perspective the time still feels colorful and full of life. Fellini has no love for fascists and he certainly isn’t trying to suggest that this time period was actually like that, but he is showing what it was like to this young man who is presumably looking back on it with rose colored eyes as an adult. The film’s flights of fancy are very entertaining in their own rights and the way Fellini manages to bring them all together is really amazing.

56. Pulp Fiction

  • Year: 1994
  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Writer(s): Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
  • Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Walken
  • Studio: Miramax
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 154 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

It’s a truly rare and special thing when a young and ambitious filmmaker can throw down the gauntlet and release a film like Pulp Fiction that can be immediately recognized as something special by the critics, influence a generation of filmmakers, and even become a fairly sizable hit with the general public at the same time. Granted, like all Tarantino movies the film borrows liberally from a number of films and sources but also in Tarantino fashion the film manages to mold those elements into something that feel fresh and original. Interestingly, the main cinematic vein Tarantino draws on this time around is not lowbrow genre fare; it’s the French New Wave. Even though he’s working with much different source material his M.O. remains the same, he found a way to bring the Nouvelle Vague into the 90s and make it accessible to mainstream audiences without really compromising it or dumbing it down. The film is also a masterclass in screenwriting given the way it manages to intertwine three storylines (in non-chronological order no less) beautifully and in a way that almost never comes off as confusing to audiences that aren’t used to watching movies like this. Add to that the film’s incredibly witty dialogue (which references pop culture in ways that films rarely did before Tarantino came along) that’s delivered by a really smartly assembled cast. By the time Jules and Vincent are robbed in that restaurant and the whole movie goes full circle, the audience has this overwhelming feeling that nothing and everything just happened and it’s really satisfying.

55. Rosemary’s Baby

  • Year: 1968
  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Writer(s): Roman Polanski
  • Based on: The novel “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin
  • Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, and Angela Dorian
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 136 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Roesmary’s Baby isn’t exactly a horror movie but it was instrumental in the development of that genre all the same. Before the late 60s horror movies were still primarily defined by the likes of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff and this movie played a big role in both maturing the genre and making it respectable. A psychological thriller at its core, the film brings a frightening situation into a contemporary and urban setting while also bringing a chilling ambiguity to the proceedings. Paranoia is probably the dominant running theme through all of Polanski’s work, and here he explores it to the fullest as Rosemary finds herself torn apart as to whether she’s truly the victim of a satanic conspiracy or simply imagining it because of her own fears of motherhood and her marital problems. The movie does a great job of playing things right down the center up until the last twenty minutes or so when we finally get the chilling reveal and a tantalizingly mysterious ending. The film made Mia Farrow a movie star and also won Ruth Gordon an Oscar, but Polanski was clearly the one who benefited the most from the film’s success. This was the perfect vehicle for the Polish/French director to bring his talents to Hollywood and it set up a long lasting career in English language cinema (even if it was interrupted by some unfortunate actions in his personal life), and for all his future accomplishments I don’t think he ever found a more perfect fusion of his European artistry and his American ambitions.

54. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

  • Year: 1927
  • Director: F. W. Murnau
  • Writer(s): Carl Mayer
  • Based on: The short story “The Excursion to Tilsit”
    by Hermann Sudermann
  • Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston
  • Distributor: Fox Film Corporation
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 95 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

For some reason, the dramatic actors of the silent era have sort of been lost to time. We know all about the major comedic actors of that generation like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd but most dedicated cinemphilles probably can’t even name a dramatic actor from the era with the possible exceptions of Lilian Gish and Rudolph Valentino. That’s a shame because there were some really great performances in these movies and George O’Brien’s work in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is among the best. But perhaps I’m burying the lead. This movie is in many ways the final dissertation of the silent era and brings together much of what made it so compelling. The film was made in Hollywood at the very tail end of the silent era but was helmed by the famed German expressionist director F. W. Murnau, who found a way to mix his signature stylistic touches with Hollywood production values. The resulting film doesn’t just feel like one style transplanted so much as a natural evolution on that style. Murnau uses all sorts of really groundbreaking techniques to really get into the characters’ heads and create a sort of parable that’s meant to comment on the wider human condition.

53. The Searchers

  • Year: 1956
  • Director: John Ford
  • Writer(s): Frank S. Nugent
  • Based on: The novel “The Searchers” by Alan Le May
  • Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 119 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

John Ford is a filmmaker who is generally appreciated more for form than for content these days. His mastery of golden age Hollywood studio filmmaking is consistently admired but his content often lacked ambition. He was a stone cold professional working in a factory-like environment and compromises were inevitable. Every once in a while though he buckled down and made a film that was truly worthy of his talents and no movie did that quite as well as his 1956 masterpiece The Searchers. Though I’m sure many audiences went to the movie expecting just another John Wayne western like many others, what they got was something much grander, much darker, and much more mature than its contemporaries. Though it doesn’t openly criticize its genre the way the “revisionist” westerns would start to do in the next decade, the film does implicitly question some of the values of the genre that made both Wayne and Ford wealthy, specifically the genre’s hostility toward Native Americans. A modern movie would tackle racism by focusing in on the victims of oppression, but here the focus is more on the perpetrators of oppression. It’s a movie about the ways in which hate, and to a lesser extent obsession, twists one’s own soul and clouds one’s judgement. The film boldly makes its protagonist a somewhat ambiguous anti-hero, a man who’s understandable desire to save his niece drives him to murderous extremes. It’s a beautifully rendered western any way you cut it, Ford really went above and beyond to make this his masterpiece, but it’s that extra level of ambiguity right up to the film’s iconic final shot that really makes the film stand out from the rest of the pack.

52. The Three Colors Trilogy

  • Year: 1993 and 1994
  • Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
  • Writer(s): Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz
  • Starring: Juliette Binoche, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Irène Jacob, and Jean-Louis Trintignant
  • Studio: Canal+
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French/Polish
  • Running Time: 288 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

“Trilogies” normally refer to sets of sequels designed to milk successes as long as possible, but every once in a while someone embarks to make a trilogy that is themeatic and tonal rather than an attempt to make a single story go on forever. One of the greatest examples of this is Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, a set of three films that were made one after another and always intended to be viewed together even though they tell three more or less independent stories. The three films are called Blue, White, and Red and each is named in reference to the colors on the French flag and are each meant to be ruminations on what each color represents: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. These are however very human stories at their core which deal with far more than just one theme. Blue is a tragedy about a woman finding her own individuality, White is a dark comedy that deals with the differences between Eastern and Western Europe in a post-Cold War world, and Red is a romance of sorts about a friendship between a judge and a part-time model. The three films all feature a striking performances by a different iconic French actresses and all three have beautiful cinematography rooted in their titular colors. Taken as a trilogy the project seems like a wildly ambitious work that makes profound statements about humanity while also being a striking portrait of a Europe at a crossroads.

51. Do the Right Thing

  • Year: 1989
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Writer(s): Spike Lee
  • Starring: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Bill Nunn, and John Savage
  • Studio: Universal
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 120 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

While American film in the late 1960s and 1970s was generally defined by how young and passionate its filmmakers were, the 1980s by contrast seemed oddly middle aged and safe. It was a time of highly establishment filmmaking but the indie film boom was right around the corner and finally seemed to break out in 1989 when Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape faced off against Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at the Cannes Film Festival. The former won the Palme but it’s almost certainly the later film that seems like the greater achievement 25 years later. Set over the course of a single day the film shows racial tensions mounting and eventually exploding in a Bed Stuy neighborhood. The film pre-dated the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots and continues to seem relevant as ever today. But to simply look at it as a movie about racial violence is to miss a lot of great things that are going on in the film. For one, it’s a rather beautiful and colorful work that uses a number of interesting techniques in order to convey the heat of the day and to paint a portrait of what the neighborhood is like. Also, while it gets into some very serious subject matter at times it never feels like a heavy film, hell it’s almost a comedy for large portions of its runtime. Most importantly it was made with a sort of youthful passion by an important voice that was about to take the world by storm. Lee has struggled for most of his career to find this perfect balance again, occasionally he’s gotten close but this remains his biggest home run.

50. Notorious

  • Year: 1946
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer(s): Ben Hecht
  • Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, and Leopoldine Konstantin
  • Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 101 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Notorious is not one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous movies with the general public in part because it doesn’t have the high concept of something like Rear Window or the shock moments of something like Psycho or the action set-pieces of something like North By Northwest. Instead the movie has really earned its reputation among the critics and film lovers who have dug a bit deeper into Hitchcock’s work. Truth be told, while there are some tense moments the movie is only barely a thriller. Instead the focus here is on the other elements that have made Alfred Hitchcock such an intriguing figure. At the center of the film is an intriguing woman played by Ingrid Bergman and a rather mature romance between her and an FBI agent played by Carey Grant. Together they go through a rather tense assignment to take down a group of fugitive Nazis which puts her in the rather compromised position of going undercover as one of these Nazi’s former lovers. This isn’t a terribly complex story but it sets up a very thematically rich film that has held up to very close scrutiny by academics and film theorists. It’s in the character dynamics that the film truly functions as a suspense thriller as you find yourself watching this crazy love triangle play out with incredibly high stakes.

49. Taxi Driver

  • Year: 1976
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writer(s): Paul Shrader
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, and Cybill Shepherd
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 113 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Taxi Driver may just be the most grim movie to ever become an iconic part of American Culture. Behind the iconic “you talkin’ to me” line lies what is really a rather depressing portrait of a deeply disturbed and isolated man. In today’s society Travis Bickle may well have become a mass shooter of the Newtown or Aurora variety but who in the culture of 1976 was an attempted political assassin and vigilante. Whatever the final outcome of his madness, the film remains a shockingly believable portrait of the downward spiral that would lead such a man towards violence and of a New York City that was really going to seed at that time. The film takes place in a really hellish urban landscape that seems largely devoid of common decency, just about everyone Bickle encounters seems to be a pimp or an elicit gun salesman or a deranged husband. You can almost see why this would turn someone to want to be a vigilante, but this is no Death Wish and the screenplay is under no delusion that his supposedly righteous violence is done with any higher motivation or that it’s in any way fun to watch. The film isn’t exactly light viewing and if it had been made in any other decade it probably wouldn’t have caught on with the public the way it did, but it remains a powerful character study about a dangerous personality type that society can’t afford to ignore.

48. Stagecoach

  • Year: 1939
  • Director: John Ford
  • Writer(s): Dudley Nichols
  • Based on: The short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox
  • Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, and George Bancroft
  • Distributor: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 96 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The western has been a staple of American story telling since… well pretty much since the old west was still the modern west. However, that does not mean that the western was always the staple of American filmmaking that we all assume it was. There were certainly westerns made in the silent era and early 30s, tons of them in fact, but they were almost all hastily made and poorly regarded B-movies… many of them with singing cowboys. With Stagecoach John Ford didn’t necessarily turn the western into a prestige genre but he was able to turn it into an “A” caliber production that wasn’t just meant to be enjoyed by children going to Saturday matinees. The film starts with a really clever high concept about following a group of disparate people united in their mission to cross through dangerous territory in a stagecoach. For the film’s starring role he introduced audiences to a young actor named John Wayne, who would for better or worse become a cultural icon, and he also set the standards for what western action and stunt work was supposed to be like. The film’s influence runs deeper than just the western genre though, just about every aspect of the film is a textbook example of how a Hollywood film should be made and Orson Welles reportedly watched it 40 times while preparing to make Citizen Kane. Really, the more you think about it the more this looks like it may well have been responsible for more hours of derivative work than almost any other film and for good reason.

47. Safety Last!

  • Year: 1923
  • Director: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
  • Writer(s): Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, and H. M. Walker
  • Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, and Westcott Clarke
  • Studio: Hal Roach Studios
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 73 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The sight of a bespectacled man hanging from a clock on the side of a building is one of the most iconic images of the silent era, so iconic that a lot of people forget that this image is attached to an entire movie that is just as great. The signature achievement of the great silent comedian Harold Lloyd, Safety Last tells the simple story of a young man going to “the city” in order to make good and create a home for his fiancée. He gets a job at a department story and proceeds to live out a story right out of the pages of a Horatio Alger book but it never really comes off as too corny (or at least not corny in a bad way) simply because Harold Lloyd brings a lot of charm to the table and does a lot to make the audience sympathize with this character. By the time he’s finally is climbing that building you fully understand what’s motivating him and it makes you want to see him survive all the more because of it. The mixture of comedy elements and thriller elements in this final sequence are both curious and exhilarating. The slapstick gags that Lloyd comes up with would be awesome on their own, but they’re made all the more exciting because they’re being performed by someone who could fall to his death. He certainly wasn’t the only silent comedian to combine death-defying stunts and comedy, but here he really blended them better than most and the extent to which audiences sympathized with his characters really added an extra dimension.

46. Grand Illusion

  • Year: 1937
  • Director: Jean Renoir
  • Writer(s): Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
  • Starring: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich von Stroheim
  • Studio: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 114 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

With his most famous film, The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir primarily treated the upper class as an object to be ridiculed. With his second most famous film, Grand Illusion, he also critiqued the aristocracy but came at it in a different way. The film, which is set in a World War One prisoner of war camp which in many ways comes to represent greater Europe with its class distinctions and inter-country squabbles. It is perhaps most famous for the cordial relationship between the aristocratic German commandant and a captured French officer who is treated more as a fellow aristocrat than as a sworn enemy. Rather than viewing these upper-class people as leeches on society, here Renoir views them more as tragic figures who adhere to the standards of a breed that’s dying out. He doesn’t exactly glorify them or forgive them for their sins, but he isn’t coming at them with pitchforks either. That’s in part because this isn’t a movie that’s trying to tear down the establishment, rather it is a movie made right before the outbreak of World War II and it’s trying to call for Europeans to see their commonalities and avoid getting into another futile and destructive war. Clearly his plea went unheeded, but the film he left behind is a fascinating document just the same.

45. Pandora’s Box

  • Year: 1929
  • Director: G.W. Pabst
  • Writer(s): G. W. Pabst and Ladislaus Vajda
  • Based on: The plays “Erdgeistand “Die Büchse der Pandora” by Frank Wedekind
  • Starring: Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, and Alice Roberts
  • Studio: Süd-Film
  • Country of Origin: Germany
  • Language: German
  • Running Time: 133 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Much of what makes silent filmmaking so compelling is that it works on rhythms that are distinct from the flow of modern films and employ a very specific kind of pantomime. G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box isn’t anything like that. This movie was made during the very twilight of the silent era and does seem to be shot in a very modern way but at the same time I also couldn’t really picture it being a sound film, at least not a sound film in the way that the early “talkies” were. The film feels really adult in a way that the films coming out of Hollywood and a bit more down to Earth than a lot of the films being made by the other European masters of the time. The film is daring in its frank sexuality but also rather mature (if a little retrograde) in its portrait of a fallen woman who more or less ends up in a prison of her own making. Most of all I just really love the setting and feel of the movie. I love the look and feel of Weimar Germany and its roaring 20s decadence and this feels like a film that was made right before all of that started to fall apart. G.W. Pabst might have gotten name-checked in Inglourious Basterds, but in general I don’t think he’s gotten his due by the greater film world and this remains his crowning achievement.

44. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

  • Year: 1948
  • Director: John Huston
  • Writer(s): John Huston
  • Based on: The novel “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” by B. Traven
  • Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, and Bruce Bennett
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 126 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

John Huston was a director who emerged at a rather unusual time for the studio system. He was of a younger generation than the than the likes of Frank Capra but he was also a bit too old to have been at the forefront of the boundary pushing cinema that emerged in the late fifties. He was a consummate journeyman who had a very long and productive career but he’ll probably forever be most remembered for the rapport he formed with Humphrey Bogart. While Huston did not direct Bogart in his most famous film, he did direct most of the other performances that Bogart is most fondly remembered for including the amazing work that he did in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Bogart always had a certain darkness to him and was never a straightforward screen hero but in this film he was pretty much a straight-up villain and a somewhat weak and pathetic one at that. The film is a parable about the dangers of greed set against a rip-roaring adventure story that was (uncharacteristically for the time) filmed on location in Mexico. The film ends on a sort of cosmic joke on the characters and really that’s the only way it could end. It’s one of the darkest movies to come out of the “golden age” studio system and the fact that it still holds up as a fun adventure really says a lot about it.

43. La Dolce Vita

  • Year: 1960
  • Director: Federico Fellini
  • Writer(s): Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi, and Pier Paolo Pasolini
  • Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimée, Yvonne Furneaux, Magali Noël, Alain Cuny, and Nadia Gray
  • Studio: Cineriz
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian
  • Running Time: 174 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita may or may not be the greatest film of the 1960s arthouse golden age but it is almost certainly the coolest. The film is a wonderfully delicious portrait of post-war European decadence and its inherent stylishness seems both highly specific to a certain time and place and absolutely timeless at the same time. In fact one could say that this particular film is still the gold standard that the rich and the stylish are trying to live up to and you can tell that the film has had untold influence over celebrity culture. It’s even the direct source of the word “paparazzi.” That the film would become such an aspirational model is perhaps ironic because the film is actually deeply ambivalent if not openly hostile towards the society that it depicts even while it revels in its inherent glamour. When the film opened in 1960 it was an instant sensation, it won the Palme D’or and became a huge box office hit despite being condemned by the Catholic Church and also made Fellini a titan of world cinema. It was definitely Fellini’s biggest hit at the time even if it’s something of an aberration in his career in that it’s carnival elements seem less like a surreal vision than a slightly exaggerated version of reality.

42. Jaws

  • Year: 1975
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer(s): Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
  • Based on: The novel “Jaws” by Peter Benchley
  • Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, and Murray Hamilton
  • Studio: Universal
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 124 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film Jaws holds a slightly infamous place in film history because it’s largely credited for the creation of the summer blockbuster as a Hollywood institution that would soon kill off the “New Hollywood” movement and usher in an era of crass commercialism that lives on to this day. Whatever responsibility the film has for this state of affairs, it certainly isn’t Spielberg’s fault that he made a movie that was so damn entertaining and effective that it made millions upon millions of people want to see it. The film is frequently classified as a horror film because of its highly suspenseful moments accompanied by John Williams’ minimalist score. However, much of the film takes place in broad daylight and when the heroes are going after the shark at the end it almost starts to feel like a high seas adventure movie. The film is a beautiful example of how a little bit of ambition and a lot of skill can elevate pretty much anything because at its core this is a very dumb story based on a trashy book about a monster eating people, but it doesn’t feel like that at all because Spielberg makes all the right decisions to keep the film on the right side of tasteful. The film’s likable cast, well defined characters, and thrilling set pieces all combine perfectly to create a creature feature like no other.

41. Psycho

  • Year: 1960
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer(s): Joseph Stefano
  • Based on: The novel “Psycho” by Robert Bloch
  • Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and John McIntire
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 109 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

People will always debate what Alfred Hitchcock’s best film is, but it’s pretty clear that within popular culture his most famous film is almost certainly Psycho, which is odd because while it is Hitchcockian to its core is also differs from his other films in certain key ways. The film is clearly a lot cheaper than the technicolor extravaganzas that he was making at the time and this was intentional. He used the production crew behind his TV series rather than the Hollywood talent he’d normally use because he wanted to give the film almost a sort of sleazey B-movie aura. The film also doesn’t barter in the usual “wrong man formula” and has a much less sympathetic protagonist than most of his films. Janet Leigh’s character starts off the movie in bed with a man (which was eyebrow raising in 1960) and is shortly thereafter stealing money from her boss. At this point audiences are expecting a sort of noir-tinged crime film to play out when out of nowhere the film’s star is graphically stabbed to death by what appears to be an old woman. The extent to which this must have been shocking in 1960 probably can’t be understated. A mid-film plot twist of this gravity was almost unprecedented and the sex and violence up to this point must have really seemed transgressive at the time. Honestly, I’m not sure how he got away with it, but I’m glad he did. Some people think that this invented the slasher movie (not entirely true, it doesn’t follow that formula) and its famous score and the meticulousness of its editing are rightly famous.

40. Bonnie and Clyde

  • Year: 1967
  • Director: Arthur Penn
  • Writer(s): David Newman and Robert Benton
  • Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons
  • Distributor: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 111 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde started a lot of revolutions within Hollywood. The most obvious is that it was the first major film to really take advantage of the fact that the production code was finally gone and really pushed the envelope for what would be allowed in American film. This was a bloody movie, not only was it violent but one could argue that it both glamorized and sexualized its violent content in a way that audiences had never really seen before. Beyond that though, the movie has a lot more going on beneath the hood. Arthur Penn’s clear and stated goal at the time was to bring the style and attitude of the French New Wave to Hollywood and while the film is a bit more straightforward than something like Shoot the Piano Player, you can certainly see the youthful energy of something like Band of Outsiders on display in the film. This was no small accomplishment, one could easily argue that it was the first shot of the New Hollywood revolution that would last for the better part of the next decade and give us countless classic films. But it is perhaps doing this breezy crime film a bit of a disservice to solely assess it for its role in influencing other films. The movie is a very entertaining ride in its own right which worked just fine as a great drive-in movie for audiences that had no idea what the French New Wave was.

39. The Battle of Algiers

  • Year: 1966
  • Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
  • Writer(s): Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas
  • Starring: Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Brahim Haggiag, and Tommaso Neri
  • Studio: Rizzoli
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: French/Arabic
  • Running Time: 120 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Colonialism of the overt variety seems fairly archaic today but it’s easy to forget just how recent a phenomenon it really is. Gillo Pontecorvo’s recreation of the war which ended France’s rule over the nation of Algeria was made a mere four years after Algeria gained its independence and it tackles that recent conflict with a fearless fervor that only a truly bold filmmaker could have managed. Like a lot of people of my generation I first encountered the film in 2004 at a low point in the second war in Iraq and the parallels between what was happening in that war and what was happening in the occupation depicted in the film were pretty chilling. Looking at it now it’s easier to look past that and place the film in its original context again and get a better idea of just how ahead of its time it was. The film feel less like a narrative fiction film and more like a sort of Docudrama, and while it doesn’t glorify everything that the Algerian resistance did it does clearly seem to be firmly on their side, which was not an easy stance to take so shortly after the actual events. Pontecorvo was clearly a man of strong convictions and it’s strange that he didn’t make more over the course of his career. He was alive until 2006 but only made a couple more films after this.

38. 12 Angry Men

  • Year: 1957
  • Director: Sidney Lumet
  • Writer(s): Reginald Rose
  • Starring: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley Sr., E. G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 96 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

There are a lot of movies that achieve greatness on a large scale but it takes a really special talent to make something amazing when given more or less the same tools as a stage play. Such were the challenges faced by a very young Sydney Lumet when he made the film 12 Angry Men, a scathing film that manages to take a tough look at a lot of American society all while being set almost entirely in a single room. Focusing on a jury’s deliberations, which is one of those high concepts that’s so brilliant that you have to wonder why no one thought it up sooner, the film takes a hard look at just how easily someone can get railroaded into prison by institutions that don’t have the patience to stop and really think about someone for a couple of minutes. It’s a film that taps into a very real desire (perhaps fantasy) that a lot of people have that they can help someone out just by being the one person who gives a damn and takes a stand on their behalf. It isn’t just the script that the film draws its power from though, it also has a cast that just seems to have clicked perfectly and it’s a perfect vehicle for Henry Fonda. The film is really effective drama throughout and there’s a really exciting thrill to seeing Fonda win over juror after juror as the deliberations proceed.

37. The Crowd

  • Year: 1928
  • Director: King Vidor
  • Writer(s): King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver
  • Starring: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, and Bert Roach
  • Studio: MGM
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 104 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

King Vidor is often overlooked in discussions of Hollywood directors and of silent filmmakers, but he managed to do a lot of interesting things with his career. Martin Scorsese once posited King Vidor as one of the first great players of the “one for them, one for me” game that allowed him to experiment within the studio system. Case in point, look at The Crowd, a film that Vidor was able to make because of the spectacular success of his World War I epic The Big Parade. The film tells a decidedly un-Hollywood story about the struggles of a common man to survive in an uncaring world and provide for his family. That sounds a bit dour, but Vidor really makes the story come to life with some Murnau inspired camera movement and gives the movie this really universal feel. It also has some of the best written title cards of the era, giving it the unlikely distinction of being a silent movie with great dialog. It is perhaps ironic that this movie about economic struggle would be made one year before the stock market crash. Durring the Great Depression filmmakers like Frank Capra would find more accessible (if cornier) ways to tell stories like this but they rarely matched Vidor’s film. It’s not the easiest film to find today, I believe it’s the only film on this list to not have a DVD or Blu-Ray release, but it’s well worth checking out.

36. Sunset Boulevard

  • Year: 1950
  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Writer(s): Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D. M. Marshman, Jr.
  • Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, and Lloyd Gough
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 110 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Pretty much since its inception Hollywood has been making movies about itself and an overwhelming majority of them have been pretty negative. I guess it’s because there are a lot of frustrated and disillusioned people walking around L.A. and littering the streets with angry screenplays but there are few rosy movies about the lives of people in “the business.” Of course the undisputed king of the “Hollywood sucks” genre is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a really bitter noir infused film about the fleeting nature of fame and about the lengths that people will go to in order to be somebody in that industry. The film follows a bitter screenwriter as he enters the weird world of the washed up silent film star Norma Desmond, who has gone insane and is under the delusion that she’s still a beloved star. Desmond is a fascinating and disturbing character made more interesting by the fact that her biography mirrors that of Gloria Swanson, the woman who plays her. The movie does a lot of meta stuff like that to slightly blur the lines between reality and fantasy like its decision to feature Cecil B. DeMille as himself and Erich von Stroheim as a character not unlike himself. The whole movie has a weird vibe to it right from the start where it becomes clear that it’s being narrated by a dead person. It’s a bitter movie, but a comically bitter one that never feels indulgent or unpalatable.

35. Rear Window

  • Year: 1954
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer(s): John Michael Hayes
  • Based on: The short story “It Had to be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich
  • Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 112 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

If I were to pick one film to show someone who was completely unfamiliar with Alfred Hitchcock I’d probably choose Rear Window. Hitchcock certainly had other movies that were arguably better but they departed a bit from his usual M.O. while this one is Hitchcock through and through. Volumes have been written about how Hitchcock was able to use a high concept mystery thriller in order to tell a rather meta story about the voyeuristic nature of watching a film, but enough has been said about that, what else makes this function so effectively as a film. A big part of it, I’d argue, is actually the love story at the film’s center between the James Stewart and Grace Kelly characters. He’s a globe hoping photojournalist, she’s a New York city socialite and he’s skeptical that she’d be up for accompanying him on his various adventures. Over the course of the movie Kelly’s character takes more and more of an active role in the adventure at hand, and it’s this which moves Stewart’s character over the hump and makes him realize that she really is the one for him. The film also probably has one of Hitchcock’s most gasp inducing moments of suspense in the scene where Kelly infiltrate’s the killer’s apartment and suddenly finds herself cornered.

34. The Gold Rush

  • Year: 1925
  • Director: Charles Chaplin
  • Writer(s): Charles Chaplin
  • Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, and Tom Murray
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 95 minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The Gold Rush is not Charlie Chaplin’s bravest film (that was probably The Great Dictator), his smartest film (that was probably Modern Times), or has most potent film (that was probably City Lights, or maybe The Kid) but it is almost certainly his funniest film and also probably the Charlie Chaplin movie with the highest memorable moment to minute ratio. Between the dinner roll dance, the man picturing Chaplin as a chicken, the shoe eating, and the falling house antics, this is one of the most iconic movies of the silent era and a master-class in silent comedy. It’s not all fun and games though, there’s actually kind of a dark edge to a lot of this comedy. Chaplin’s character is basically suffering through most of the movie, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was such a clown this movie would actually be kind of depressing. Chaplin’s interest in the line between tragedy and comedy was actually one of the less discussed aspects of his career but it can be seen in its purest form here.

33. Metropolis

  • Year: 1927
  • Director: Fritz Lang
  • Writer(s): Thea von Harbou
  • Based on: The novel “Metropolis” by Thea von Harbou
  • Starring: Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge
  • Studio: UFA
  • Country of Origin: Germany
  • Language: German
  • Running Time: 148 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is often called the first science fiction film, which certainly isn’t true (just ask Georges Méliès) but in many ways it feels like that’s the case simply because it was the first time that audiences were treated with a vision of the future that had been so fully constructed and fleshed out. Today this industrial future is even more interesting than it probably was originally simply because it takes on a sort of retro art deco quality that makes it extra fascinating. The film is steeped in symbolism but also influenced by the labor unrest of its time. Lang’s vision of a decadent city atop a factory-like underground is certainly a potent, if perhaps on the nose, metaphor for class warfare and it’s as potent now as it ever was. The film also features Maria, one of the first cinematic androids which is interesting both in its robotic form and when it’s disguised as a sort of uber-flapper. As the film goes on its immense production value becomes more and more pronounced, especially as it leads up to an epic finale which almost feels like it comes from a modern action movie in a strange sort of way. The film was quite possibly the most expensive movie that had ever been made up to that point and it was one of the last movies for a while to really attempt to create a massive fantasy world like it did. Nothing even really attempted to match it for at least a decade and it remains one of the greatest movies of its genre.

32. The Wild Bunch

  • Year: 1969
  • Director: Sam Peckinpah
  • Writer(s): Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green
  • Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, and Ben Johnson
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 143 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Few genres feel more like it was meant for “the establishment” than the western which is odd given that it was a genre all about rugged people, often outlaws, living outside of polite society. By 1969 westerns were the enemy, the domain of right wing assholes like John Wayne who almost seemed to have personally inspired the drive to Vietnam. It was in that environment that people like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah emerged to give the genre a much needed kick to the groin, and no movie subverted the genre quite like The Wild Bunch. Set way in the tail end of the “old west,” the film follows a gang of criminals who are more or less the last of their kind. The movie shows these men as violent and destructive thugs and while it doesn’t completely dismiss them it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to glorify them either. The movie fully differentiates itself from the more traditional westerns in its violence. Westerns of the John Ford variety were of course hyper-violent themselves, but in a sanitized PG kind of way. The violence here is by contrast brutal and bloody, yet also very exciting in the way that Peckinpah films it. The film’s rapid editing and use of slow motion is pretty much the direct forefather of the kind of stylized bloodletting that would be employed by the likes of John Woo and the Wachowski Brothers later on.

31. Goodfellas

  • Year: 1990
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Writer(s):Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
  • Based on: The book “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” by Nicholas Pileggi
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, and Paul Sorvino
  • Distributor: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 145 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

It’s easy to forget now, but in 1990 Martin Scorsese was not in the good graces of Hollywood or the general public. The 80s were tough on the filmmaker and while some of the films he made in that decade have come to be well liked by film buffs few of them were financial successes and while most of them were respected few of them were major critical triumphs. There was The Color of Money I guess, but that was such a mercenary effort that it felt more like a win for the actors involved than the filmmaker. This bad stretch culminated in The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that caused protests, divided critics, and was mostly ignored by ticket buyers. Goodfellas wasn’t as much of a financial hit as it should have been either but it was undoubtedly a comeback for Scorsese on every conceivable level as a filmmaker just the same. The film dramatized the life of Henry Hill, a sort of middle management gangster through the highs and lows of his crew over the course of multiple decades of crime. Scorsese made the film with a renewed energy that is palpable on the screen, it’s a compulsively watchable film that moves at an incredible pace over many years and utilizes one of the best voice-over narrations in film history. The film’s true crime narrative format would be highly influential and was often copied both by other filmmakers and by Scorsese himself but never quite as well.

30. Vertigo

  • Year: 1958
  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer(s): Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor
  • Based on: The novel “The Living and the Dead” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
  • Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, and Henry Jones
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 128 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

On the latest iteration of Sight and Sound Magazine’s famous critic aggregate poll Citizen Kane was usurped for the first time in decades from the top spot. According to that poll the greatest film of all time is now Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and as you can probably guess from its placement on my list, I don’t agree. However, it is a damn good movie and I can definitely see why it’s held on a pedestal as Hitchcock’s supreme masterpiece. The film is unmistakably Hitchcock and yet it also feels oddly different than many of his other films in that it doesn’t exactly play out like a traditional thriller. There’s certainly suspense here but the stakes seem emotional rather than physical. It’s a movie about the dangers of obsession, specifically a sexual obsession with a woman who almost seems to be a ghost. The film was shot in a particularly vivid technicolor, features a particularly memorable Bernard Herman score, and has an iconic opening credits sequence courtesy of Saul Bass (which was also turned into a famous poster). So I can definitely see why an argument could be made that this is one of Hitchcock’s most technically accomplished films, but really I think what makes it stand out so much is the way it makes the viewer feel. Rather than merely being thrilling, this Hitchcock film is haunting, and that’s something that lingers.

29. Chinatown

  • Year: 1974
  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Writer(s): Robert Towne
  • Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, and John Huston
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 131 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

It is odd that in many ways Roman Polanski’s most famous movie doesn’t feel wildly Polanski-esque to me. That’s perhaps a silly thing to say given that Polanski has certainly made movies that are even more off-brand, but generally when I think about “early Polanski” there’s a certain amount of claustrophobia and madness involved, and there isn’t a whole lot of that going on in this film which is set in a sunny period Los Angeles. What does link the film to the rest of the director’s work is its incredible cynicism. The basic message of Chinatown is that the world is not fair, you can’t really fight the system, and sometimes you just have to throw your hands up and move on. That’s not the most pleasant message but there’s a certain truth to it and there’s a good chance that all the crazy events of Polanski’s life led him to the point where he was going to embrace such a message. This cynical world view is of course rooted in film noir and so is the rest of the film, which was one of the first attempts to make a neo-noir in full color and also make it work. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this cynical post-war outlook would be revived the same year that Nixon resigned over Watergate and revived paranoia for a whole new generation.

28. Annie Hall

  • Year: 1977
  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Writer(s): Woody Allen
  • Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, and Colleen Dewhurst
  • Distributor: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 93 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

It’s easy to forget now, but Annie Hall was something of a transitional work for Woody Allen. The director’s pre-Annie Hall output was a lot more broadly comedic (they’ve been termed “the early funny ones” by those who were less fond of his career reinvention), while much of his later work would be increasingly realist and seek dryer laughs. Annie Hall presents something of a middle-ground; its characters are realistic and have believable motivations and yet Allen is also unafraid to constantly break the fourth wall in order to get a laugh. Future Woody Allen movies would never suddenly break into animation or include a gag where Allen is able to conjure Marshall McLuhan out from nowhere in order to one-up a blow-hard who’s babbling nonsense while in line at a theater. Similarly, the film’s close analysis of the ins and outs of modern relationships would not be found in one of his early farces like Take the Money and Run.

I hesitate to call the film a romantic comedy, simply because that phrase reminds modern audiences of a very specific formula that doesn’t really apply here, but it is a comedy about a romance and if that makes it a romantic comedy then it’s one of the best. This is the film where Allen finally really managed to turn his comedic persona into a real character and paired that character with the film’s title character, who is played perfectly by Diane Keaton. Of course both Allen’s character and (to a lesser extent) Keaton’s character are oddballs rather than super-attractive Hollywood archetypes and in many ways that made their attraction to each other all the more compelling. You really begin to feel that these people are made for one-another and that’s what makes their eventual separation so bittersweet. This must have seemed incredibly fresh back in 1977, and it still seems fresh today. This is the movie against which pretty much all of Woody Allen’s future films would be judged and is pretty clearly the definitive starting point for anyone trying to get into his work.

27. Z

  • Year: 1969
  • Director: Costa-Gavras
  • Writer(s): Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprún
  • Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, and Jacques Perrin
  • Studio: Reggane Films
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 127 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Though his career was harmed by inconsistency Costa-Gravas remains a remarkable, if somewhat under-appreciated, voice in cinema. A staunch leftist, Gravas sought out injustices to speak out against all over the world, but his most famous film is probably the one that hit closest to home. Z is set in an unnamed country and is in the French language, but there’s little doubt that the movie is about Gravas’ home country of Greece and depicts a fictionalized version of the events which led up to the military junta that was still ruling the country at the time of the film’s release. Much of the film functions as a political thriller where people are trying to get to the truth about an assassination that was seemingly carried out by the government and the uprising that came in its wake. The film came at a hyper-relevant moment and struck a chorde. In the late 60s people were rising up, trying to change things, going up against entrenched power structures and often feeling the wrath of the blowback. The film’s ensuing influence is manifest, its blend of exciting thriller elements with cynical politics and militant conviction would be copied a number of times through the years but the original has seldom been bettered.

26. The Apartment

  • Year: 1960
  • Director: Billy Wilder
  • Writer(s): Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
  • Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, and Jack Kruschen
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 125 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

The Apartment is something of a paradox. It’s a comedy, directed by a largely comedic director, staring a largely comedic actor, and featuring a rather comedic premise and yet it’s also an incredibly melancholic movie steeped in loneliness and pain. In fact Billy Wilder very specifically shot the film in black and white in order to remove all the color and mirth from the film’s Christmas décor and in widescreen in order to emphasize the distance and isolation of its characters. Personally I think it’s a little misleading to even call it a comedy and yet there’s a sort of hidden warmth and humanity at the film’s center, it makes you work for your catharsis but it does get there. The film was made at a time when Hollywood was slowly maturing, learning how to better make films for a more sophisticated and adult audience. This was definitely part of that trend and not just because it used comedy and euphemism to get sexual themes past the censors. Rather the film is a mature work because of its frankness and insight. It’s a movie about highly relatable characters who are the opposite of the conventional Hollywood heroes, these people lack confidence and are riddled with insecurities, but over the course of the film they work and struggle to become just a little bit better. It’s not the kind of dramatic character arc we’re used to out of Hollywood, but it’s certainly a meaningful change for these people and that’s what matters.

25. The Red Shoes

  • Year: 1948
  • Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
  • Writer(s): Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, and Kieth Winter
  • Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, and Marius Goring
  • Studio: Eagle-Lion Films
  • Country of Origin: UK
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 133 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

“Why do you want to dance?” “Why do you want to live.” It would be hard to find a more succinct summation of the heart driving Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece The Red Shoes than that famous exchange. The film, which is set in the world of ballet but could probably just as easily be about any art form, looks at the triumph and the agony of dedicating one’s life to a single craft. Filmed in some especially lush technicolor, the film features some amazingly rendered dance sequences that bring the storytelling of the ballet to the forefront in a way that actual ballet does not. The real meat of the film though is in the backstage drama, where the film’s protagonist is put into a love triangle of sorts where she must choose between the man she loves and her craft as a ballerina. It’s a choice that mirrors the narrative of the ballet at the film’s center and ultimately leads to tragic results. It’s a film about the dark side of creative expression which is probably why it resonates so strongly with filmmakers and why we see echoes of it in so many other movies.

24. Fanny and Alexander

  • Year: 1982
  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writer(s): Ingmar Bergman
  • Starring: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Börje Ahlstedt, Anna Bergman, Gunn Wållgren, Kristina Adolphson, Erland Josephson, Mats Bergman, and Jarl Kulle
  • Studio: Gaumont
  • Country of Origin: Sweden
  • Language: Swedish
  • Running Time: 312 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Very, very, few directors have the luxury of making a magnum opus and then retiring but Ingmar Berman more or less pulled it off when he made Fanny and Alexander in 1982. The Swedish master would live another 25 years, direct a number of stage productions, write some screenplays that other directors helmed, and directed a handful of TV productions, but for all intents and purposes Fanny and Alexander feels like his final word on the cinematic form and a summation of his entire career. Technically a TV mini-series itself, the film runs a good 312 minutes and tells the story of a turn of the century family of theater actors. Much of the film feels in keeping with the director’s prior work from the theater backdrop to the subtle supernatural elements to the presence of a domineering Lutheran minister in the second half, but the film is more than a greatest hits package. The new element is that the film is frequently told from the perspective of two children and their uninformed perspective gives many of the events a unique spin. I could go on and on about the film’s themes, but more than a lot of Bergman films this is just a really good story which spans a number of years and feels almost like a novel at times.

23. Bicycle Thieves

  • Year: 1948
  • Director: Vittorio De Sica
  • Writer(s): Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Oreste Biancoli, and Adolfo Franci
  • Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, and Vittorio Antonucci
  • Studio: Umbrella Entertainment
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian
  • Running Time: 93 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Great ideas are rarely fully formed right out of the gate and I would argue that that was the case with Italian neo-realism. Few would argue that the film that really kicked off the movement was Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City but to me the movie that really perfected the form was clearly Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The Neo-Realists sought to use a gritty shooting style to tell down to earth stories about the difficult living conditions of post-war Italy. In this most famous example we watch as a father finally gets a job only to lose it shortly thereafter because the bike he needs for the job is stolen. The rest of the film is an odyssey he undertakes with his son to recover this bicycle and along the way he runs into a number of scenarios that were emblematic of the rough conditions of the time and place. Admittedly, the twist at the end is a bit on the nose, but not every film needs to be subtle and if there was ever a time and place to scream for fairness and decency in the world this was it. It’s remarkable how many movies owe a debt to the neorealists. Pretty much every movie that tries to tell a slice of life story about the lower class is going to be compared to them and Bicycle Thieves is clearly the flagship of the fleet.

22. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

  • Year: 1920
  • Director: Robert Wiene
  • Writer(s): Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer
  • Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, and Hans Twardowski
  • Studio: Decla-Bioscop
  • Country of Origin: Germany
  • Language: German
  • Running Time: 71 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

They say that people are blessed to “live in interesting times.” I don’t know that that’s true, most of the people who live in “interesting times” end up suffering in “interesting” ways, but they can be good times to be an artist. That was especially true in the immediate aftermath of the first world war when painters, writers, musicians, and other creative types engaged in exciting ideas like Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Dada, and a variety of other artistic movements that are collectively referred to as modernism. In Germany the most famous of these was “expressionism,” which is notable in part because it received more input from filmmakers than a lot of these other styles did, and one of the earliest and most famous of the German expressionist films was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. More than a lot of other expressionist films you can really see how this movie operates as an extension of a movement in painting, in part because its extensive use of stylized matte paintings and intentionally unrealistic sets really make it look like a semi-abstract painting come to life. It’s probably something that wouldn’t really work outside of the language of silent cinema but it’s very effective here at making the movie look like a nightmare captured on film.

21. Battleship Potemkin

  • Year: 1925
  • Director: Sergei Eisenstein
  • Writer(s): Sergei Eisenstein and N.F. Agadzhanova-Shutko
  • Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barksy, and Grigori Aleksandrov
  • Studio: Mosfilm
  • Country of Origin: Soviet Union
  • Language: Russian
  • Running Time: 75 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

There are two sides to film analysis, examination of narrative and examination of form. Looked at from a narrative standpoint Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin isn’t necessarily the easiest movie to defend. It certainly tells a story compellingly, but it is also almost certainly a work of Soviet propaganda which is more interested in pushing the party line than it is in telling the unvarnished truth. It’s really when it comes to the film’s form and style that it more than earned its place in film history. The film was made during a period where Russian filmmakers were heavily experimenting with editing and finding ways to use the montage to create films with great energy and intensity. In the case of Potemkin, the movement’s most famous achievement, that led to some really amazing sequences like the famous Odessa Steps scene. Any director who rejects traditional editing techniques in favor of something a little more visceral, be they Sam Peckinpah or be they Paul Greengrass, owes a bit of a debt to Sergei Eisenstein. Now, I’ve established that this is propaganda, but one must remember the exact historical context in which it was made. This film came out just eight years after the October Revolution and before Stalin took over and started building Gullags. The Soviet experiment was still young and exciting and you can see how this sort of dramatization of the early victories would have been incredibly meaningful to audiences of the time, especially when it’s rendered this amazingly.

20. His Girl Friday

  • Year: 1940
  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Writer(s): Charles Lederer
  • Based on: The play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
  • Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and Gene Lockhart
  • Distributor: Columbia
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 92 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

To me, Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is the ultimate screwball comedy, and perhaps the ultimate Hollywood comedy of the early sound era. The film is based on a play called “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, but Charles Lederer’s screenplay notably reworks that source material by making one of the two main characters a woman and having her be the ex-wife of the other main character, which really gives the whole thing a very different dynamic. It also makes the film a very interesting text from a feminist/gender analysis perspective, because it presented audiences with a tough-as-nails female reporter who is professionally the equal of her husband and more than able to take on the cynical world of front page journalism. What’s more, while the film’s central conflict is whether she’ll be marrying a dull insurance salesman or return to her first husband, the real conflict that’s going on there is whether or not she’ll return to her job or become a housewife, and the fact that the film clearly favors the former over the later was a quietly revolutionary concept in 1940.

Beyond that though, this is just a really effective comedy. The script has some really amazing rapid-fire dialog that is both entertaining in its chaos and also gives you a good idea of the crazy world that these characters inhabit. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell have great onscreen chemistry in the film, and Russell in particular delivers a really iconic comedic performance that would influence the way “career dames” of the era would be played for decades to come. It’s often easy to underappreciate comedies when making lists like this, but this is one movie that manages to demand respect while still being light on its feet and highly accessible. It’s one of the few comedies of this era that really holds up and would still entertain most audiences today.

19. The Shining

  • Year: 1980
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
  • Based on: The novel “The Shining” by Stephen King
  • Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 144 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1

Some directors like Wes Craven and Eli Roth spend their entire careers trying to make the ultimate horror film, but Stanley Kubrick seemingly managed to do it in what appeared to be a thrown together side-project. Truthfully though, that happens more often than not. Often it takes an outsider like Ridley Scott (Alien) or Steven Spielberg (Jaws) to approach a genre in a new way that sees past the limitations of certain conventions and really make horror into something grander than it so often is. Of course Stanley Kubrick couldn’t be more of an outsider to this genre and the very idea of someone that lofty doing a Stephen King adaptation really is kind of bizarre if you stop and think about it. And yet, Kubrick was indeed able to take this pulpy novel and really craft it into a film that was both genuinely intense and also psychologically rich.

The film makes great use of its isolated location to give the viewer a great sense of claustrophobia and to build the tension as Jack Torrance goes further and further off the deep end, and once he finally does become a monster in the second half things get incredibly intense. On top of that, Kubrick manages to fill the movie with puzzles and mysteries, knowing exactly what to leave unexplained in order to give his haunted hotel a mysterious aura and keep the viewer guessing. Many movies would kill to have just one scene as iconic as the Grady Twins or the “here’s Johnny” moment or blood coming out of the elevator or the “all work and no play” moment, but this movie is filled with moments like that and has been terrifying and mystifying audiences in equal measure for thirty-five years.

18. The Bridge on the River Kwai

  • Year: 1957
  • Director: David Lean
  • Writer(s): Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson
  • Based on: The novel “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” by Pierre Boulle
  • Starring: William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, and André Morell
  • Studio: Columbia
  • Country of Origin: USA/UK
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 161 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

The Bridge on the River Kwai is, in addition to being a great film on most objective levels, a movie that means a lot to me personally. This was the first movie I went out and rented after having been intrigued by a number of movies featured on one of those AFI “Best of” specials and that viewing was, for all intents and purposes, the viewing that sent me down the rabbit hole of being a connoisseur of classic cinema. This was the first of David Lean’s trilogy of classic epics and the one that really cracked the code for how a movie could be both big and bombastic while also being intelligent and human. The film is set in World War II but it’s a movie about battles of will rather than battles with firearms and explosives (well, maybe there are a few explosives). There are side stories but at its core it’s about the conflict (of sorts) between Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson as played by Alec Guinness and Colonel Saito as played by Sessue Hayakawa who have different if oddly complementary opinions about how a bridge that the prisoners are being forced to construct should be built and their respective senses of honor take them in unexpected directions. The movie has as very conflicted view of these antiquated senses of honor as it sees them as noble while also viewing them as a sort of madness that ultimately hurts more than it helps. Also, the movie has a really cool explosion at the end.

17. Rashomon

  • Year: 1950
  • Director: Akira Kurosawa
  • Writer(s): Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto
  • Based on: The short stories “Rashomon” and “In a Grove” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
  • Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, and Minoru Chiaki
  • Studio: Daiei
  • Country of Origin: Japan
  • Language: Japanese
  • Running Time: 88 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Some movies earn a place in history simply for setting a template that would go on to be endlessly repeated throughout film and television history. For example, anytime we’re given a film which tells multiple conflicting versions of the same story from different witnesses anyone with a knowledge of film will know it owes a debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Made just five years after the end of World War 2, this is the movie that brought Japanese cinema to the world’s attention and instantly became a fixture of the golden age of world cinema. At the center of the film is a rather existential question about perception but it’s explored in a highly accessible way that almost anyone can understand. The film was made right as Kurosawa was entering the classic period of his career when he was trying all sorts of adventurous things like directly photographing the sun in an early scene. Kurosawa would go on to make many classic films but nothing quite eclipsed the influence and popularity of this breakthrough effort.

16. 8½

  • Year: 1963
  • Director: Federico Fellini
  • Writer(s): Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, and Brunello Rondi
  • Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, and Sandra Milo
  • Studio: Cineriz
  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Language: Italian
  • Running Time: 138 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

By 1963 Federico Fellini had made seven films and co-directed one movie with another director but for movie 8.5 he found himself unsure what to do. He’d just achieved a major triumph in making La Dolce Vita, which was possibly the most popular film of the entire arthouse golden age, and he quickly experienced extreme pressure to follow it up with reporters and pseudo-intellectuals bugging him at every turn. Experiencing writer’s block, Fellini decided to do something incredibly meta and simply make a film about a filmmaker experiencing writer’s block while also coming to terms with his past and with his various interpersonal relationship woes. The resulting film is not only one of the greatest films about filmmaking but also one of the greatest works in any medium about the creative process. Fellini’s simple but iconic black and white look and surreal touches in the film became instantly iconic and have been parodied in some of the more literate film satires like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. The film’s energy and intelligence are infectious, it’s the film that more than sealed Fellini’s legacy and remains one of the most famous and enjoyable movies of the era.

15. The General

  • Year: 1927
  • Director: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
  • Writer(s): Buster Keaton, Al Boasberg, and Clyde Bruckman
  • Based on: The book “The Great Locomotive Chase” by William Pittenger
  • Starring: Buster Keaton and Marion Mack
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 75 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

As long as there is cinema there will be cinephilles arguing about whether Chaplin or Keaton was the best of the silent clowns. I’d argue that it’s mostly a matter of quantity vs. quality. Chaplin has at least two movies that I consider stone cold masterpieces as well as a number of slightly lesser classics and his very best work probably comes close to eclipsing anything Keaton ever made. Keaton by contrast was more prolific and a bit more consistent in his extremely high standard of quality. As such there’s only one Keaton movie on this list but it kind of stands in for his broader body of work. The one thing that Keaton almost certainly has going for him over Chaplin is that he’s clearly the bigger daredevil of the two and his dangerous slapstick stuntwork was rarely better than it was in his 1927 masterpiece The General in which he does all manner of death-defying feats on top of a moving train. These stunts are made all the more interesting by Keaton’s trademark stone faced reactions which give the gags a sense of absurdity without giving them comically exaggerated reactions. I suppose at the end of the day I’m on Team Chaplin in the great battle of the clowns, but Keaton was damn awesome too and The General is a testament to it.

14. Apocalypse Now

  • Year: 1979
  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writer(s): Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius
  • Based on: The novel “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad
  • Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 153 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

To say that Apocalypse Now is the greatest movie about the Vietnam War is certainly true, but it also vastly undersells just how deep and important the movie is. Following the template of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the film both chronicles the harm done by westerners meddling in other countries’ business while also taking a long and hard look at what this meddling does to the meddlers themselves. Unlike Conrad’s book however, Apocalypse Now is not looking at the depravity of a rival country and contrasting it to supposedly noble imperialism of its own.

The film’s first two thirds chronicle a journey down the Nung River deeper and deeper into the depths of enemy territory and provide a sort of survey of the chaos being caused by the war. These scenes are disturbing, but also darkly comic and are highlighted by Robert Duvall’s surfing obsessed Colonel Kilgore. These sections are episodic, but they are building to something as they wear and wear on the psyche of Martin Sheen’s Willard character right up to the point where he comes face to face with the embodiment of America’s degradation: Commander Kurtz as played by Marlon Brando. Many view these late scenes with Kurtz as an incredible buzz-kill, but I think they’re missing the point. Vietnam was not some fun “run through the jungle” and the scenes with Kurtz emphasize this and bring the psychological tension to its logical endpoint.

The filming of Apocalypse Now was famously chaotic and almost destroyed Francis Ford Coppola, and you can sort of see that on screen. Normally that works against a film, but here it fits the content perfectly and gives the film a dark almost insane mood that one could hardly make happen deliberately. The film was the perfect mix of the right material, made at just the right time in history, by the exact right people to all come together perfectly. It’s a hell of a ride, one that makes you question yourself and question the world.

13. The Seventh Seal

  • Year: 1957
  • Director: Ingmar Bergman
  • Writer(s): Ingmar Bergman
  • Starring: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Inga Landgré, and Åke Fridell
  • Distributor: Svensk
  • Country of Origin: Sweden
  • Language: Swedish
  • Running Time: 96 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Is Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal the most famous movie of the art house golden age? Possibly. It’s certainly unlikely that you’ll see a euro art film that’s so well known that it can be parodied in everything from Woody Allen’s Love and Death to The Last Action Hero to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. It’s a movie that a lot of people discover in college, in part because it examines spiritual and philosophical issues in a very direct and poetic way. Its setup of a crusading knight playing chess with death was originally a motif in medieval art but from a storytelling perspective it seems to mostly be original to the film even though it feels like some kind of timeless legend. As the film goes on it becomes almost a sort of road movie with the knight (played by Max Von Sydow in the role that made him famous around the world) going through medieval society and coming across horror after horror and contemplating age old questions about god’s place in a world full of suffering. The film’s philosophical directness has hurt its reputation slightly over the years, but I feel like that backlash is misguided. Subtle messages are great but there should be a place for movies that really wear their philosophical musings on their sleeves and I also like how the film never really comes to an easy answer for any of the many questions it raises. Either way, it’s a beautiful movie, one that has more moments of levity than you’d probably think.

12. The 400 Blows

  • Year: 1959
  • Director: François Truffaut
  • Writer(s): François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
  • Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, and Claire Maurier
  • Studio: Cocinor
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 99 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Among the French New Wave auteurs Jean-Luc Godard certainly viewed as the mastermind of the bunch, the cinematic warrior who was the true innovator who revolutionized cinema, but his movies always leave me a little cold. He made movies that I perhaps appreciate more in theory than in practice. I’ve always gotten a lot more out of the work of his frenemy François Truffaut whose films advanced the New Wave as much as anyone’s all while also being a lot more accessible and watchable in the process. His undisputed masterpiece is probably his debut, The 400 Blows, which was a huge shot across the cinematic bow when it was released in 1959 but which wasn’t consciously made to alienate audiences. The film revolves around a young boy named Antoine Doinel who was based on Truffaut’s own memories of childhood. Normally I’m skeptical about auto-biographical films, which can all too often be narcissistic exercises, but it works so well here in part because Truffaut seems to have some real distance and insights about his youth and he renders this character in such rich detail. Truffaut doesn’t take a lazy social realist approach to this film about troubled youth either, instead rendering the boy’s life as this highly cinematic widescreen portrait with highly influential editing to boot. The film ends on an iconic freeze frame, that was a provocative New Wave touch when the movie came out, but the reason it still works is that the movie that the movie earns that final shot the whole way.

11. Modern Times

  • Year: 1936
  • Director: Charles Chaplin
  • Writer(s): Charles Chaplin
  • Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, and Chester Conklin
  • Studio: United Artists
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: Englsih
  • Running Time: 87 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The silent era was already pretty much ancient history by 1936 even if it had been less than a decade since The Jazz Singer had first brought talking pictures to the masses. Just about all of the stars of the silent era had either adjusted to the new technology or been disposed of by Hollywood… with one exception. Charlie Chaplin remained the one lone holdout still beloved enough to get away with releasing a silent film this late into the sound era. He didn’t do this because he was a luddite (although he most probably was), he did it because he didn’t want to see a great thing (pantomime comedy) lost simply because of the march of time. With Modern Times he showed that this world-view extended far beyond cinema and into a larger indictment of a world that was increasingly becoming dehumanized by industrialization and machinery.

The film “drew from the headlines” of a Great Depression filled with labor unrest and exploitation by those in power. It opens with a truly famous first act in which Chaplin is a factory worker slowly being driven mad by the repetitive work he’s forced to do which is being made worse and worse by the various corners that his bosses are trying to cut. When he finally breaks down he’s treated with no understanding and is cast out. Now, that description doesn’t exactly make this sound like a laugh riot, but Chaplin constructs all sorts of wonderful gags that bring this material to life. From there we get what is ironically a sort of origin story for Chaplin’s famous Tramp character even though this is the last film he’ll be officially featured in. The second half of the film is, in its own silly way, a story of a man trying to find a simpler and happier life outside of the constricting confines of modernity. The is the kind of brilliant era-defining masterpiece that very few comedies aspire to be and even fewer actually manage to become; it’s funny, touching, visually enchanting, and a worthy sendoff for Chaplin’s career as a silent comedian.

10. M

  • Year: 1931
  • Director: Fritz Lang
  • Writer(s): Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jansen, and Karl Vash
  • Based on: A newspaper article by Egon Jacobson
  • Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, and Gustaf Gründgens
  • Studio: Nero Film
  • Country of Origin: Germany
  • Language: German
  • Running Time: 111 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.19:1

The usual log-line about M is that it gave us cinema’s first serial killer, which I suspect isn’t exactly true but even if it was that would be a rather shallow description. As serial killer movies go this is closer to something like Zodiac than Psycho. The story was “ripped from the headlines” of a real life serial killer who terrorized the city of Düsseldorf, which caused a mass panic across Germany which generated a great deal of worry about how a society should protect its children. The killer himself is brought to life in a chilling fashion by Peter Lorre and seems like a true monster in the opening scene where he’s introduced as a shadow stalking a young girl while whistling Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” but as the film goes on it curiously shifts your allegiances slightly as it becomes clear that this man isn’t a cruel monster so much as a mentally disturbed individual acting on impulses he can’t control and as the movie goes on he almost becomes a protagonist of sorts as he maneuvers to escape vigilante violence. Really though, this isn’t so much a movie about a serial killer as it is a film about how the city reacts to him. The film provides a rather sophisticated look at the ways that various institutions including the police, the politicians, the media, as well as the criminal underground react to the murders and about the terror it reeks on common mothers across Berlin. It’s an astonishingly sophisticated piece of sociology, especially for its time. It’s almost like “The Wire” but made some seventy years before that show.

The film was made by Fritz Lang and was the second from last film that he made in Germany before fleeing to France and then the United States fearing the rise of Nazism. The movie doesn’t intentionally comment directly or indirectly on the rise of Hitler that was slowly going on at the time but there are definitely a lot of interesting things to be gleamed about the Berlin of the time from the film. The Great Depression had hit and the decadent Weimar era clubs and riches we saw in other Lang film like Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler were gone and he’d also abandoned the expensive expressionist fantasies of films like Metropolis and Die Nibelungen. In their place were a lot of dirty streets, run down tenements, and smoke filled rooms where power brokers plot the city’s fate. Lang drew from the street scenes from Bertolt Brecht’s work on the stage to bring to life a seedy underworld. This was Lang’s first “talkie” and I might argue was also the first great film of the sound era. The technology was just starting to get past its early growing pains and filmmakers had finally somewhat adjusted to what the new format was capable of. You can’t help but wonder what German cinema would have been like if it hadn’t been disrupted by other events. Rather than building on what he did here for long Lang was swept away to Hollywood. There he certainly made some good movies but he would never really be the same.

9. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

  • Year: 1964
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George
  • Based on: The novel “Red Alert” by Peter George
  • Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, and Tracy Reed
  • Studio: Columbia
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 94 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

The line of what is and isn’t “comedy in good taste” is always going to be debated over and so is the question of what constitutes good satire. It always takes a certain degree of courage to take a topic that is deathly serious and use it to make something hilarious and as far as I’m concerned the gold standard for dark comedy is still Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Despite his reputation for making “cold” and “disturbing” movies, Kubrick was always characterized by his tendency to inject comedy into his otherwise rather twisted movies and Strangelove might be the most extreme example of this. The film was based on a serious novel about the threat of nuclear war written by an RAF officer and rather than play it straight he focused in on the absurdity of nuclear deterrence. The film presents a scenario where a couple of misunderstandings and a few rogue individuals managed to lead the United States and Russia to the brink of nuclear annihilation… and then past the point of nuclear annihilation. It’s one thing to watch this in 2015 knowing that the cold war eventually more or less work itself out without missiles flying, but to have watched it in 1964 knowing that the absurd scenario on display and the ludicrous mentalities making it happen were all too real must have really been a hell of an experience.

Even without the element of bold political satire, Dr. Strangelove would still have the makings of a comedy classic. First and foremost it features a really cool triple role from Peter Sellers who plays a befuddled RAF captain, a hilariously deadpan U.S. President, and the bizarre title character who speaks in an odd German accent and can’t seem to control his hands. It also features George C. Scott in an unexpectedly hilarious turn as a gung ho general who thinks with a strange right-wing mindset and of course there’s Slim Pickens, a self styled cowboy who will forever be remembered as the man gleefully riding a large phallic A-bomb as it falls to earth where it will almost certainly unleash the apocalypse. The whole film is filled with sexual wordplay and imagery, all in an attempt to ridicule the ultimate dick measuring contest that was the arms race. You’ll note that the film’s visuals are a lot looser than what you’d normally expect from a Kubrick movie, which was almost certainly a deliberate decision in order to prevent his usual meticulousness from smothering the comedy and also to give it a sort of radical slackness. I can hardly think of a movie that more boldly asserts the absurdity of the human condition at a specific moment and it definitely caught on with the public in a big way. Of course, what’s really sad and funny is that Mutually Assured Destruction would more or less remain official policy for another twenty five plus years.

8. The Rules of the Game

  • Year: 1939
  • Director: Jean Renoir
  • Writer(s): Jean Renoir and Carl Koch
  • Starring: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parély, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Roland Toutain, Gaston Modot, Pierre Magnier, and Jean Renoir
  • Studio: Gaumont
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 106 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Generally speaking, I don’t have a whole lot of patience for the “comedy of manners” genre of literature. You know, books and movies about stuffy rich people gossiping amongst themselves in drawing rooms while their “downstairs” servants are occasionally given token attention. If you’ve ever watched PBS during sweeps month you know what I’m talking about. However, I’m nothing if not open minded and when this genre (or any genre really) is done right it can still achieve true greatness. The very best of them, to me, is Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, a film made on the eve of the second world war which closes the casket on the old world aristocracy that led the world into yet another global conflict. Set at a country estate where various members of the French upper class have assembled to take part in a hunt. On its surface the various storylines that go on at this estate take the form of soapy love triangles and comic travails, but the film’s true intent to show the callous vapidity of the aristocracy. Of course given that Renoir was no propagandist he also never lionizes the “downstairs” servants just to present a simple tale of class warfare, they are just as capable of behaving foolishly as anyone else at the house.

The Rules of the Game certainly draws on a number of theatrical sources from authors like Oscar Wilde and Molière but also has an element of Hollywood screwball comedy as the wacky hijinks start to go down over the course of the evening. Renoir had achieved a great deal of clout at this point in his career and used it to mount what had been the most expensive French production up to that point. He used that funding to bring top of the line visual techniques to the screen. That might not be readily apparent at first glance but the film employs a lot of the deep-focus cinematography that would be made famous two year later by Citizen Kane and includes a number of chaotic long takes and it also has a really complex audio mix for the time. The film was truly ahead of its time… so ahead of its time that audiences and critics hated it upon its initial release. It was the wrong film at the wrong time and after a short release it would be banned in France for being “depressing, morbid, immoral, and for having an undesirable influence over the young.” It was only later that the film would be restored, reassessed, and canonized as the classic it clearly is. It’s just one of many examples of how easily people can miss the point of a great movie on first blush.

7. The Third Man

  • Year: 1949
  • Director: Carol Reed
  • Writer(s): Graham Green
  • Starring: Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard
  • Studio: London Films
  • Country of Origin: UK
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 104 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

It’s pretty amazing how much a good backdrop does for a movie. The Third Man is a great movie that’s made ten times more fascinating simply for being set in an extremely interesting time and place: post-war Vienna during the Allied occupation. During this period the neo-realists were using similarly bombed out cities to make gritty dramas about poverty and strife, but this Graham Greene penned yarn goes in a different direction and makes Vienna into a sort of den of intrigue for expatriates working their way through the city’s seedy underbelly. That’s not to say that the film is lacking in insight into the weight of the war and the struggles of life in a location like this, in fact the war seems to haunt many of the film’s characters who seem to be fighting to find some way to return to normality after such a trauma. I’m not sure I’d classify it as a film noir but it definitely uses some of that genre’s cool visual style; most of the film seems to be set at night and director Carol Reed milks the atmospheric black and white cinematography for all its worth. He also successfully plays up the exotic locale through Anton Karas’ distinctive score performed entirely on a strange instrument called a zither.

At its heart, The Third Man is a thriller, and of all the films in my top ten it’s probably the one with the leanest and most straightforward story but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a deep resonance. The film takes on a whole new dimension when (spoiler) we meet Harry Lime, the man who was supposed to be dead the whole time but clearly wasn’t, and get to learn about his strange decent into evil. Played by Orson Welles in one of his best performances, Lime has a rather cold-blooded philosophy that he imparts in the film’s famous “Cuckoo clock” speech atop Vienna’s famous Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel. Villains are rarely as fascinating as Lime, who sort of over-shadows the film’s hero at times and what makes him so interesting is that he was said to have once been a good man and a close friend of the film’s protagonist. We never see him before he “turned” and a big part of what makes the character work is that it lets you imagine how the course of the war and its chaotic aftermath must have changed him. It’s a simple reminder that of how no one came out of that war the same and the film also leaves the audience with a distinct impression that the events of the film wouldn’t leave its survivors unchanged either.

6. Seven Samurai

  • Year: 1954
  • Director: Akira Kurosawa
  • Writer(s): Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni
  • Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Yukiko Shimazaki, Eijirō Tōno, and Bokuzen Hidari
  • Studio: Toho
  • Country of Origin: Japan
  • Language: Japanese
  • Running Time: 207 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

All too often these days screen time is viewed as some kind of toxic substance that should be reduced as much as possible and that longer movies should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve been paying attention to this list you probably already know that I don’t agree. Sure there are some movies out there that could use some trimming but the knee-jerk reaction that some movies get for being long misses how much richness a movie can take on when it tries to do more than to rush through an adventure storyline and get to the action scenes. Case-in-point: Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1954 film Seven Samurai. On its surface this movie should be a pretty standard western of sorts where a handful of warriors show up to a village, kill off some bandits, and then ride off into the sunset. That’s how Hollywood would handle it, and we know this because that’s more or less how the 1960 remake The Magnificent Seven played out. The Japanese original on the other hand runs a full 207 minutes and uses every one of them to explore its characters and examine the class struggles that shade their interactions with the villagers that they’re ostensibly supposed to be helping.

Kurosawa applies a sort of John Ford western technique to this very Eastern story to give the film a very rough and tumble feel that subverts the mythmaking and supposed nobility of the samurai class. The samurai here aren’t noble heroes so much as they are mercenaries who are taking on this mission for various self-interested reasons but the villagers are hardly blameless victims either, they’re just as prone to selfishness and pettiness; this is a film about flawed humans coming together to reach a common goal. The “action” scenes are well rendered with some great slow motion effects employed in certain key moments but it isn’t really an “action movie” per se. When the swords come out the skirmishes are more like messy real-world battles in the mud rather than highly choreographed duels between acrobats. It’s a movie with a very real sense of how unglamorous violence is, but it isn’t snobby about it and doesn’t let its subtle pacifism get in the way of it being a fun and watchable yarn. This movie has long been a sort of “gateway drug” into the world of older foreign films, in part because it uses a very accessible Hollywood structure to tell a story with some more depth and flavor and it executes in a way that’s very hard to argue with.

5. The Passion of Joan of Arc

  • Year: 1928
  • Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • Writer(s): Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil
  • Starring: Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Eugène Silvain, André Berley, and Maurice Schutz
  • Studio: Société Générale des Films
  • Country of Origin: France/Denmark
  • Language: French
  • Running Time: 82 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

No one will deny that the transition to sound was necessary in the long run but man was it sad what had to get torn down to do it. Film had seemingly reached a pinnacle and the absolute high point of the era just might have been Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. The film tells the story of the final couple of days in the life of the titular saint and the title refers both to the conventional meaning of “passion” as well as the traditional meaning of “suffering” (e.g. The Passion of the Christ). The film focuses in on Joan’s inquisition style interrogation and leads up to her eventual death by burning. That would sound like a rather depressing character arc, but Dreyer films the movie in such a way that Joan’s suffering is seen less as a defeat and more as a sort of triumph of perseverance. The film stars a French stage actress named Renée Jeanne Falconetti and this was basically her only screen role, but what a record to leave behind. The movie is filled with these artful close-ups of Falconetti’s face and she has this look of anguish mixed with conviction that is really just an amazing thing to behold.

When the film was first released it was controversial in many circles. French nationalists objected to a film about the country’s patron saint being made by a Dane, it was banned in England for its unsympathetic portrayal of the British soldiers holding Joan captive, and most damagingly the Catholic Church objected to a number of elements of it and the film was heavily cut because of this against Dreyer’s wishes. An uncut version of the film wasn’t to be found until 1981 when a version of the film was found in an insane asylum of all places. This newly restored version has been paired with a beautiful score by Richard Einhorn called “Voices of Light” and while I wouldn’t normally use a piece of music written sixty some years after a film’s initial release when assessing its greatness, this score really does bring the film up to yet another level in its ability to play to the emotion of the film. That emotion is important, this is a movie that’s all about what’s going on in Joan’s head and heart. The movie is about seventy minutes of tension and contemplation before it explodes into this big Battleship Potemkin inspired finale.

4. Lawrence of Arabia

  • Year: 1962
  • Director: David Lean
  • Writer(s): Robert Bold and Michael Wilson
  • Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and Arthur Kennedy
  • Studio: Columbia
  • Country of Origin: USA/UK
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 227 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1

The “epic” movies of the 50s and 60s could be a mixed bag to say the very least. There were some respectable ones mixed in there like Spartacus but more often than not they were just bloated and childish; the franchise blockbusters of their time. It’s with that in mind that you begin to better appreciate just how exceptional David Lean’s epics were and he really topped himself with Lawrence of Arabia. Lean’s previous epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was certainly amazing but most of its power came from its writing and acting. It was a fine looking movie to be sure but it didn’t really pave new stylistic ground and generally stuck to the conventional playbook of expensive Hollywood films. By contrast, Lawrence of Arabia is gorgeous. Where most filmmakers thought the best use of the cinemascope format was to fill it with extras, Lean instead decided to fill the screen with the vast expanses of desert that characterize the film’s setting. The vistas on display are beautiful in themselves but Lean had the sense to really photograph them correctly, putting small figures into the vastness and slowing things down when necessary. Of course “slow” shouldn’t be taken the wrong way. At its heart this is a big war movie with some really exciting battle scenes that take place over the course of a guerrilla campaign that would perhaps unintentionally mirror a number of conflicts that would occur over the course of the Cold War. Then of course there’s the film’s second half, which isn’t discussed enough even though it does show the birth of the Arab states that are central to modern conflicts.

At its heart though, this is a character study. Of course T.E. Lawrence was a real person and I guess you could call this a biopic, but the film lacks all the telegraphed “greatest hits moments” that tent to taint movies in that genre. Lawrence as depicted in the film is a really complicated figure and the film has a great deal of time to flesh out his idiosyncrasies. His exact motivations are never entirely clear, perhaps he truly felt a kinship with the Arabs, perhaps he was manipulating them to help mother England, or perhaps he was simply a vainglorious attention seeker. It certainly helps that this character is being played by Peter O’Toole, who was pretty much plucked from obscurity in order to take this part and it also marked the international debut of the great Omar Sharif. There are a great many people who will tell you that this film absolutely must be seen on a gigantic screen, preferably in 70mm, and I can certainly attest that that is an excellent way to see the movie but I feel like that advice all too often needlessly scares people away from seeing the film in a timely manner and that it’s misguided advice in the first place because it reduces the film to pure spectacle when there’s a whole lot more there to dig into.

3. Citizen Kane

  • Year: 1941
  • Director: Orson Welles
  • Writer(s): Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz
  • Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, and Agnes Moorehead
  • Studio: RKO Radio
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 119 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

I’ve run into a severe case of the “what more is there to say” syndrome when writing about a lot of the movies on this list, but none more than Citizen Kane, which has a long history of being declared the greatest movie of all time. As you can tell by the film’s ranking here I’m not quite on board with the notion of this being the absolute pinnacle of cinematic achievement but it’s certainly up there. There’s something about the movie that’s just hard to argue with, it’s about as close as a movie comes to being objectively perfect. Just about every textbook element of filmmaking here is exemplary. It’s got excellent acting, set decoration, camerawork, and features a screenplay which is structurally ambitious, thematically rich, and pleasantly written. It featured technical innovations in terms of camera work and cinematography and is also accessible enough to be appreciated by people who aren’t dedicated cinephilles. You can’t help but wonder how Orson Welles managed to get so much right, especially considering that he’d never made a film before writing, directing, and starring in his undisputed masterpiece.

At its heart Citizen Kane is a veiled biopic of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (a fact that would come to haunt the film after the real Hearst tried to bury it) but it doesn’t really feel like a biopic, partly because the real Hearst has increasingly faded into history and partly because the film doesn’t hue at all to the usual patterns of film biography. In fact the film almost mocks the very idea of a biopic by going out of its way to suggest that there’s no way to truly encapsulate a single life in a simple set of stories and anecdotes, and yet Charles Foster Kane is nonetheless one of the richest characters in fiction. It’s a film that can be both meticulously deconstructed through shot by shot analysis but also casually watched as a sterling example of what old Hollywood could have been like if it had allowed more of its filmmakers to put a little extra thought and time into their work. The maturity that Welles injected into the film is probably a big part of why it stands out so much. Much as he did with his Mercury Theater radio program, his goal here was to use a new medium to create art for adults but not in a way that pretentious or above the heads of a general audience.

2. The Godfather Parts I & II

  • Year: 1972/1974
  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • Writer(s): Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
  • Based on: The novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo
  • Starring:Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, James Caan, Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale, and Richard Castellano
  • Studio: Paramount
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 375
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve continued writing for this project the is how often I’ve brought up “accessibility.” Part of this might be a defensive measure to highlight that these movies aren’t as difficult as they may seem at first blush but mostly because I do think there’s a certain nobility in being able to bring artistic merit to the screen while still making movies that are exciting to watch and easy for all audiences to enjoy. No movies more perfectly fuse the demands of populist entertainment with the weighty thematic and narrative resonance of art cinema quite like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. For the purposes of this list I’ve hesitantly lumped the two films together into a single slot partly to save space on the list, partly to save myself from having to pick between the two, and partly because it’s really when taken together as a single saga that the full greatness of this character arc really becomes apparent. The first film runs through its narrative with a streamlined efficiency as the audience watches in suspense as Michael Corleone descends into the life of a cold blooded gangster. The second film employs a rather brilliant format in which we watch a sort of prequel about the rise of Don Vito Corleone intercut with the fallout of Michael Corleone’s decisions in the first film and it becomes increasingly clear that what we’ve been watching this whole time is an epic tragedy about the father’s best intentions leading to nothing but bloodshed for his family as his sins linger on.

Like Citizen Kane, this is another case where every individual element of a film somehow manages to be functioning on all cylinders. The film’s script somehow managed to take a rather trashy novel by Mario Puzo, strip it down to its essentials, and mine it for its thematic richness and add a lot of really quotable dialogue. The film’s cast is a who’s who of brilliant young actors like Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Robert De Niro (in part II), and of course featured the legendary comeback of the veteran movie star Marlon Brando. On the technical side the films featured vivid cinematography by Gordon Willis and of course it also featured an iconic score by Nino Rota. The two films have a collective runtime of 375 minutes but neither films feels that long at all. The films were made at a time when filmmakers were looking back on the genre films of Hollywood’s past like westerns and film noirs and trying to make them relevant for a new generation, in part by seeing how they could play out when freed of the limitations of the old production code. In the case of this movie that meant we could see more onscreen violence but more importantly there could be a more complex morality onscreen. The films in their totality certainly still condemn the criminal lifestyle but they didn’t need to express this through didactic moralizing and could instead use more subtle tactics. It’s the film’s violent genre elements that probably got the film its mass audience, but it’s that complex morality that has made it a classic for the ages.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

  • Year: 1968
  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Writer(s): Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
  • Based on: The short story “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and Douglas Rain
  • Studio: MGM
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • Language: English
  • Running Time: 142 Minutes
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1

How exactly does one justify selecting a single movie over so many other great movies to be dubbed “the greatest movie ever made?” I’m not sure really, at its base my decision to declare Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as my number one choice largely came down to a gut instinct. Kubrick’s film is a bit of a contradiction in that its science fiction vision is almost certainly dated and yet the film still seems wildly ahead of its time and perhaps even ahead of our time. If nothing else the film seems pretty far removed from the various trends in filmmaking that existed in 1968. I suppose the film could sort of be compared with the other Cinemascope epics which shared the film’s scope and roadshow presentation, but are completely different in tone and structure. The film’s experimental edge and arguably psychedelic elements could be said to be something of a piece with the counter-culture cinema of the era, but its slow pace and heavy production values certainly distance it from something like Bonnie and Clyde. Even within Kubrick’s filmography the film is a bit of an aberration. It’s certainly got his perfectionist visual style, but it lacks the director’s usual aberrant sense of humor and is a little more oblique in its storytelling and symbolism.

That the film took science fiction seriously at all was definitely unusual in the late 60s. There were certainly distant historical precedents like Metropolis for serious science fiction but for the most part it had been the domain of cheesy B-movies and the occasional A-movie like The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Forbidden Planet which still sort of felt part and parcel with the pulpy Buck Rodgers tradition. To make a “hard” sci-fi film like this was really forward thinking and probably something they only got away with because the real life space program had started in earnest and people were starting to get a better idea of how slow and laborious real-life space travel was likely going to be. Even today the film is held up as a high water-mark for scientific accuracy in films by people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and is almost certainly responsible for pushing forward the look and feel of a number of other science fiction movies that would follow like Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Sunshine, Interstellar, Wall-E, and Moon but its influence certainly extends long past a single genre.

The film’s opening is audacious. Choosing to open a film about the future in the distant past certainly wasn’t the most intuitive choice to make but it almost instantly makes a pretty cool statement about human progress while also being pretty crucial to the film’s story and it provides for one of the greatest jump cuts in film history as we move straight from the moment where man’s ancestors learns to use tools for evil to the height of human achievement. From there we begin a stretch of the film that’s mostly dedicated to introducing the audience to the nature of this future while also setting up the mission that will take up much of the film’s second act. This section is probably the best showcase of the film’s special effects and serves a necessary purpose of easing the audience into the film’s story telling rhythms. That second act in which the crew must contend with the cold logic of the renegade A.I. HAL is the most conventionally entertaining section and serves as a necessary reminder of the darker side of technological advancement. Finally the film reaches its climax in which Dave encounters the mysterious entities which have been pushing forward human progress and is eventually re-born as the “star child” which will push forward human evolution once again. The movie has often been accused of being “cold” but I couldn’t disagree more, there’s nothing cold at all about the sense of grandeur and awe in this final scene and the questions it leaves unanswered are still being discussed to this day.

At the end of the day it’s kind of hard to really explain why this is my choice. I certainly don’t think the movie is perfect (the wormhole sequence is a bit too long and some of the acting in it is pretty dry) and it definitely isn’t a movie that’s easy to love. In fact the first time I saw the movie (at too young an age) I didn’t even like it. In fact I feel like most people don’t like it the first time they see it. It was only over time that I started to really understand the film even on a basic story level and to really appreciate the film’s unconventional pace and it’s incredible scale. Seeing a 70mm print of the film at one point probably helped a lot but really I think this is simply a movie that requires more out of an audience than what we’re normally used to. There’s just something about the film that stands out and feels bigger and more important than most movies, it isn’t content just to tell a story or provide entertainment, or deliver a pat message, or offer esoteric experimentation. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you astounded that any human being had the vision and the skill to make it.

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