40 films to help you understand the art of the cinema...by Balthazar-5 | created - 25 Nov 2013 | updated - 6 months ago | Public
OK, the title is glib, but during the 35+ years I worked in cultural cinema I have come to realise that many people, even those who have a real cultural interest in the art, do not really understand 'where to look' for the art of the cinema.
If one asks what makes a good film, frequently one hears observations like 'a good story', or 'good acting' or 'good cinematography' or 'good directing', which begs the question as to what all these entail. Of course, all of those can contribute to enhancing the cultural value of a film, but they 'ain't really where it's at', to quote Bob Dylan. So this list intends to give anyone who is interested the opportunity to see forty films that, between them, display virtually all of the unique characteristics of the cinema that make it the apogee of human cultural endeavour. It invites you to see beyond a film's story and theme and into its expressive dimensions.
To 'see beyond the story' is the first and most important lesson. If 'content' was all that was important in narrative art, Readers' Digest-style reductions of great novels would have the same cultural validity as the originals. And remember that Shakespare never invented a single story from which he forged his plays. Cinematic expression is the art of elucidating the thematic complexity and subtlety of a story through cinematic means. Each of these forty films gives a clear example of how that is done, in different ways.
They are NOT 'the greatest forty films ever made', nor 'my favourite forty films', but if you seek to understand the cinema, and you haven't seen any of these, you are looking in the wrong place. Is the list too conventional? Perhaps: I purposely avoided the avant garde and the quasi-avant garde because I thought that many films would be a shock to the system for many, if not most takers. Also, many of the key works of the avant garde are not available to the populous at large.
I have tried (oh so hard) to avoid tokenism so there are no films by von Sternberg and Hawks, both of whom made films that were better than many of the films on the list, but their work was very much 'within' the conventional 'film-space', and I have generally chosen other works to typify what is best in their cinemas. But elsewhere, I admit to not being able to countenance a list without Godard the innovator, for example, even though most of his work leaves me cold. My biggest agony concerned Madame de..... Ophuls 'represents' a very important tendency in the cinema, but I finally came to the conclusion that there were shots in Citizen Kane, and Psycho that demonstrated the (partial) truth of Godard's dictum that 'a tracking shot is a moral judgement' as well as anything in Ophuls' work. Ophuls' contribution to cinema aesthetics is across his work, rather than within it.
Is the list too serious? Well, the cinema is an art, which, more than any other, exposes and monumentalises different aspects of the human condition. Regrettably, the human condition can be, and often is, fairly grim, and we should remember Welles' response when asked by a skeptical journalist if it was not possible to make a film with a happy ending... Welles said "Yes, but only if you don't tell the whole story"... Also, even the darkest of films, if it is wonderful at a cinematic level, can be transcendentally elating, as in Au Hasard Balthazar.
Probably the earlier films will be less controversial than the more recent ones (but maybe not). However, if so, this should not be a surprise, as greatness in art is not only recognised by the expression involved but by the fact that it stands the test of time. However, I am confident that at least two thirds of these films are likely to be in contention if another list of double the size is posited in a hundred years time.
It may be observed that the period from 1960 until 1967 has a large number of films in the list. There are two explanations for this and I am not certain which is the more important. The first explanation is that this corresponded to the era in which I first became 'seriously' interested in film - and so I became also acutely aware of the methodologies of the then contemporary films that were most celebrated at the time. The second explanation is, I contend, just as important and that is that the 60s really was the decade of innovation and experiment in the arts, and none more so than the cinema.
My greatest hope is that this list will lead some people into new areas of cinema that can expand and enhance not only the enjoyment and appreciation of those new works, but an even greater appreciation and enjoyment of the films that they already love. I invite everyone to watch the entire list in its chronological order and say if it has not, in fact expanded his or her understanding of what a film can be.
I do not claim that the list is 'definitive', but any list that seeks to illuminate the mysteries of cinematic expression would need to contain a good number of these films, unless it sought to be obscure; (and why be obscure when the aim is 'illumination')?
Finally, forty films on DVD, even in 'used' condition is a tall order at a financial level for many people. Why not persuade your friends to join you in watching the films on the list and then share the DVDs among yourselves (or sell them). That way the cost can be very little on a 'per film' basis.
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1. The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Not Rated | 195 min | Drama, History, War
The Stoneman family finds its friendship with the Camerons affected by the Civil War, both fighting in opposite armies. The development of the war in their lives plays through to Lincoln's assassination and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Votes: 19,597 | Gross: $10.00M
Before The Birth of a Nation the cinema had barely got beyond the fairground, after The Birth of a Nation it was well on the way to being the greatest art that our species had created. In these 'enlightened' days, the film is difficult because of the overtly white supremacist approach to a particularly difficult era in American history, but, to echo what I said in the introduction, to understand the cinema, one must forget the moral or socio-political thrust of the content and appreciate the extraordinary way in which this enormous dramatic canvas is presented in, for its time, incredibly subtle nuances of framing, acting and montage. Modern audiences seem ignorant of the fact that the view of the Reconstruction represented in the controversial second part of the film was, at the time, the academically accepted view of that era via the Dunning School, which was not challenged until the 1950s. Moreover, the caption that introduces the second part explicitly states "This is an historical representation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period and is not meant to reflect on any race or people today." If the film is 'stained by racism', as has often been claimed, the stain is on the back of the canvas, not on the front. To appreciate this magnificent masterpiece no more makes one a racist than to appreciate Battleship Potemkin makes one a Marxist, to appreciate Triumph of the Will makes one a Nazi or to appreciate Psycho makes one a psychopath... Through this film one learns the shape and structure of a good part of film aesthetics – the concept of thematic association through montage, the concept of parallel action, and simultaneity in the cinema, and all of the ‘basics’ of characterisation and mise en scène. They were to be the touchstones of film aesthetics for all of the silent era and many of them continue to dominate the way that ideas and emotions are visually expressed in films today. In my view, with the possible exception of Homer's 'The Iliad', there has never been a work of art that has defined its medium the way that this film defines a large part of the art of the cinema.
2. The Adventurer (I) (1917)
Unrated | 24 min | Comedy, Short
The Little Tramp escapes from prison; saves a girl and her mother from drowning; and creates havoc at a swank party.
How can it be that a film of only a bit less than 30 minutes long deserves a place in some universal list? The Adventurer is edge to edge brilliance: a narrative sonata on the number 3... three locations - all triangular with one on a different level from the others. Three main characters in each scene. And then there is the incredible originality and joy of Chaplin's comedy that fizzes out of nearly every shot. I must have seen it fifty times and new wonders reveal themselves on each and every occasion. This film demonstrates how structure can be embedded in a simple film at an incredibly deep level.
3. The Kid (1921)
Not Rated | 68 min | Comedy, Drama, Family
The Tramp cares for an abandoned child, but events put that relationship in jeopardy.
Votes: 90,564 | Gross: $5.45M
Probably the main reason why the cinema is the greatest of the arts is that it seems to have a direct line to the deepest part of our psyche. My belief is that the reason for this is that films have the structure of dreams; and our minds take the same total immersion into great films as they do with dreams. So here is a dream of a film that accesses our emotions by the mainline. Sentimental? No, this is a film that exposes and illuminates perhaps the most elemental part of the human condition - the need to be with someone that you love. In The Kid Chaplin give a copy-book example of how mise en scène enhances emotional engagement.
4. Greed (1924)
Not Rated | 140 min | Drama, Thriller, Western
The sudden fortune won from a lottery fans such destructive greed that it ruins the lives of the three people involved.
Votes: 8,041 | Gross: $0.16M
Of all of the great artists of the cinema, Erich von Stroheim is one of the most difficult to appreciate. Stroheim, in Greed, effectively makes a film with the same intensity of expression that great writers achieve in their best novels. The problem arises when one discovers that the film is only about one quarter of the length that it was originally (10 hours). It was sequentially reduced twice by Stroheim himself (with Rex Ingram) to six then four hours, and then by another hour and a half by an un-credited editor against the director's will. How can a 'butchered' film be that good? Well, the only way to find out is to see it - repeatedly, actually, as it is a very complex work. The historian William K Everson also pointedly remarked in 'The American Silent Film' that what remains of Greed is so good that it is incredibly difficult to imagine that that level of expression could have been maintained for over twice the length of film.
5. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Not Rated | 66 min | Drama, History
In the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutiny against the brutal, tyrannical regime of the vessel's officers. The resulting street demonstration in Odessa brings on a police massacre.
Votes: 46,509 | Gross: $0.05M
Between 1915 and the end of the sound era, great strides were made in developing the grammar of cinema. The Soviet 'school' was among the forefront with its creative use of montage (editing) following experimental works by Lev Kuleshov and Eisenstein's own essay: 'The Montage of Attractions'. This is the most important work by that 'school' of film making. Eisenstein uses the story of a naval mutiny against the cruel czarist régime to demonstrate the poetics of montage, with rhythmic and tonal elements to the spectacular editing. In fact, this, in common with all of Eisenstein's films, exhibits a far greater range of expressive visual devices than just montage, but it is for the montage that the film is most and justly celebrated.
6. The General (1926)
Passed | 67 min | Action, Adventure, Comedy
When Union spies steal an engineer's beloved locomotive, he pursues it single-handedly and straight through enemy lines.
Possibly the most unambiguously enjoyable and popular of all silent films, The General shows Buster Keaton's art off to perfection. Keaton had a wonderful if worrying view of the world as being slightly too much for us ordinary humans to contend with. Gravity, friction, kinetic energy, they frequently conspire to make Buster's life difficult, but shining through is his extraordinary resilience and ingenuity, which allows him to triumph over the third law of thermodynamics and create order out of chaos..
7. Sunrise (1927)
Passed | 94 min | Drama, Romance
An allegorical tale about a man fighting the good and evil within him. Both sides are made flesh - one a sophisticated woman he is attracted to and the other his wife.
Although Nosferatu is Friedrich Willhelm Murnau's best-known and loved work, The Last Laugh his most theoretically interesting, being 'wordless' and Tabu his most aesthetically pleasing, for our purposes, Sunrise is the one. In it, Murnau creates a unique sense of the film world being a 'continuous space' in the same way that he had with other 'kammerspiel' scripts by Carl Meyer. This creative partnership was one of the most fruitful in all cinema.
8. City Lights (1931)
G | 87 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance
With the aid of a wealthy erratic tippler, a dewy-eyed tramp who has fallen in love with a sightless flower girl accumulates money to be able to help her medically.
Votes: 138,426 | Gross: $0.02M
The nature of an art is usually to be found in the way that it permits the artist to transcend its technical limitations through the exploitation of its creative possibilities. Silent cinema is a different concept from 'wordless cinema'. The world that Chaplin created in his greatest silent films reached extraordinary levels of subtlety. At a time when the rest of the cinema was generally peopled by characters gabbling for no reason other than, in the sound era, they could, City Lights persented a story where words were barely necessary, but through the director's conceptual brilliance, we experience the sound of life without hearing it. This was the last time that this type of cinema was made until 1989, the young director, Charles Lane made a black and white silent film called Sidewalk Stories that had many of the stylistic and thematic characteristics if Chaplin at his best.
9. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Not Rated | 83 min | Comedy, Crime, Romance
A gentleman thief and a lady pickpocket join forces to con a beautiful perfume company owner. Romantic entanglements and jealousies confuse the scheme.
It is true, but difficult to imagine, that at the time of this film, in the English-speaking world, Ernst Lubitsch was probably the best-known film director after Chaplin. Trouble in Paradise is not only his greatest film, but also his most enjoyable - a romantic comedy that set the standard for sophistication and subtlety. What we see in Trouble in Paradise is the concept of grace in film style. It is light and insouciant, but also expressive and profound.
10. The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Passed | 104 min | Drama, History, Romance
A German noblewoman enters into a loveless marriage with the dim-witted, unstable heir to the Russian throne, then plots to oust him from power.
Von Sternberg's films, most of which are quite short, are, for me, exquisite examples of the way in which every visual aspect of accommodation can be employed to express the thematic threads of a story and the subtleties of characters' emotions. This light-hearted telling of the rise to power of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia thrusts the viewer into the machinations of the czar's court and delicately but unforgettably, shows the sweep of a turbulent period of European history in an inspiring and delightful way. Von Sternberg's came to the cinema during the period of German Expressionism and his use of set design recalls Dr Caligari.
11. The Rules of the Game (1939)
Not Rated | 110 min | Comedy, Drama
A bourgeois life in France at the onset of World War II, as the rich and their poor servants meet up at a French chateau.
Funny yet tragic, logical but paradoxical, and brutally ironic, Renoir's masterpiece is regularly placed in 'all-time top fives' by film historians and fully engaged critics. Often imitated yet never approached, let alone surpassed, the film proceeds to represent an aristocrat's weekend hunting party in which infidelity and deceit create a toxic atmosphere upstairs and downstairs. The final twenty-five minutes - following the 'Dance of Death' sequence is, for me, the most perfect extended sequence of film ever made. Again, it sometimes needs a couple of viewings to 'get it'.
12. Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Not Rated | 90 min | Adventure, Comedy, Drama
A director of escapist films goes on the road as a hobo to learn about life, which gives him a rude awakening.
Vying with Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Blvd as the greatest Hollywood film made about Hollywood, Preston Sturges' magnificent socio-comedy asks a load of difficult questions about the relationship between the artist and society, but unlike most other films that try to do the same, it never forgets to entertain. Preston Sturges, for a time, was Hollywood's most celebrated writer-director. Sullivan's Travels, one of the very best satires in the cinema. is also one of the finest examples of great script-writing in American cinema.
13. Citizen Kane (1941)
PG | 119 min | Drama, Mystery
Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.
Votes: 350,566 | Gross: $1.59M
Any catalogue of excellence in the cinema that omits Welles' phenomenal first feature just isn't to be taken seriously. At a level of density of expression, it is difficult to find a film that comes even close. And that is precisely where one finds greatness and excellence in the cinema. Virtually every single creative element of cinematic expression is utilised to turn this thinly disguised bio-pic of Randolph Hearst into the greatest cultural icon of the mid-20th Century. When one begins to see its incredible layers of meaning, it is difficult not to weep at its perfection.
14. Paisan (1946)
Not Rated | 120 min | Drama, War
The language barrier has tragic consequences in a series of unrelated stories set during the Italian Campaign of WWII.
Although Rome: Open City is better known and critically admired, I find much of it fairly turgid. Rossellini's second film, however, is a joy to behold. Consisting of six episodes during the allied invasion of Italy, the film confronts many of the 'issues' of the sociology of modern warfare. These have been so frequently played out by infinitely lesser films and TV shows in the intervening sixty years, that they might seem slightly clichéd here, but they are not, because these are the true originals. Neo-realism was able to inject poetry into the filming of hardship. Above all, Rossellini always seemed to know exactly where to place the camera, and how to light his sets for greatest effect. This is the true cinema of immediacy.
15. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
G | 103 min | Comedy, Musical, Romance
A silent film production company and cast make a difficult transition to sound.
Votes: 187,192 | Gross: $8.82M
This list is, perhaps, rather short on barn-stormers. When it comes to barn-storming musicals, however, you can't get better than Singin' in the Rain, a film that lightly satirises the end of the silent era in Hollywood. The result is a film that is funny, fascinating, intriguing, breathtakingly beautiful, hilarious and incredibly moving by turns. All films are composite works of the creativity of several different people. For the most part, it is the director who gets the credit, and that is the case for almost all of the films on this list, but there are exceptions and Singin' in the Rain is a rare example of a genuinely collaborative masterpiece. Anyone who doesn't understand when film enthusiasts go into raptures about the original Technicolor process should see a good print of this film - it is stunning! And Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" number is an an incredible piece of formal camera choreography.
16. Tokyo Story (1953)
Not Rated | 136 min | Drama
An old couple visit their children and grandchildren in the city; but the children have little time for them.
A model of stylistic and narrative simplicity, Tokyo Story glides across the screen with a grace and serenity only matched elsewhere in the work of Robert Bresson. Nearly all art is grounded in human emotion and the emotions portrayed in Tokyo Story are possibly the most authentic in all cinema. Ozu exquisitely dissects the causes and effects of human fallibility, the gulf between generations and the ability of the human psyche to make the best of a bad situation. His films make life both more enjoyable and more endurable. If you think 'subtlety' and 'clarity' in filmic expression are mutually exclusive, take a look at this wonderful work.
17. Seven Samurai (1954)
Not Rated | 207 min | Adventure, Drama
A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves.
Votes: 271,606 | Gross: $0.27M
I have the sense that, of all non-English speaking directors, Kurosawa is 'overvalued' - being given a status that really belongs to Renoir or Bresson, for example. But that is also, I think precisely because so much of his work is heroic, and clearly on a higher level than American films that seek the same qualities. But that does not in any way deny the towering place of the great director's masterpiece in the list. To be 'heroic' is often an aspiration for films, but it is seldom achieved. When it is (achieved), it is usually through the theme and, sometimes, the acting. Seven Samurai is not only thematically heroic, it is structurally and stylistically heroic, as well and features one of the finest examples of black and white cinematography in all cinema.
18. The Searchers (1956)
Passed | 119 min | Adventure, Drama, Western
An American Civil War veteran embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches.
It is easy to forget just how brilliant a director John Ford was. Of course his timeless imagery of Monument Valley, and columns of cavalry charging against the Indians remain in the memory, but when one re-sees a Ford film after a period of years, one is always struck by the extent to which his magnificent imagery is utilised throughout his films and not just in the spectacular scenes. If, as I contend, the art of the cinema is like the other arts, the 'how' is more important than the 'what' - as long as the 'what' is not so banal that the 'how' becomes irrelevant. Throughout the work of John Ford , and especially in The Searchers, exquisitely subtle insights into character and motivation are layered one upon another by simple gestures and camera positions that tell us more about the theme than a page of dialogue would have done. The Searchers is the Ford film that has received the greatest critical acclaim in the time since his death and its savage theme and mournful denouement set it apart from even the greatest Westerns of its era. 'Consistency of vision' is one of the tenets of film aesthetics both across and within films - Ford is arguably the finest exponent of this in his westerns.
19. Vertigo (1958)
PG | 128 min | Mystery, Romance, Thriller
A former police detective juggles wrestling with his personal demons and becoming obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman.
Votes: 305,563 | Gross: $3.20M
Virtually any of the films that Hitchcock made between 1951 and 1966 could have been chosen for a place in this list. By that stage in his career, Hitchcock was such a master of cinematic expression that the films, when repeatedly viewed are like masterclasses in the film-maker's art. I have chosen the two (Vertigo and Psycho ) with one-word titles ending in 'o'. Alternatively, I have chosen two of the three which most clearly demonstrate his mastery. I came to Vertigo late, as Hitch had withdrawn it from circulation just after I became interested in the art of film, and it was not until after the director's death that I saw it. Like virtually all of the films on this list, it is a film that grows in stature each time you watch it. Probably the most important of many reasons why it is on the list is that it demonstrates the cinema's ability to get totally within the mind of a character. Scotty is one of the great tragic heroes that the cinema has created. Though the spectacular perspective foreshortening is its most famous attribute, its greatest achievement from my perspective is that it monumentalises the 'falling' part of falling in love.
20. Psycho (1960)
R | 109 min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller
A Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer's client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother.
Votes: 511,128 | Gross: $32.00M
If this list has been entitled 'How to understand the cinema in two films', this would have been one of them (the other would have been Citizen Kane). The reason is very simple, both these two magnificent masterpieces use all of the major elements of cinema to create something great, something profound and something wonderful. Psycho, based on a lowly, but interesting, crime novel by Robert Bloch, is very spare on dialogue, but we get to know everything we need to know about Marion Crane, her dilemma and what she feels about having stolen $40,000 through Hitchcock's exquisite visual expression. Witness, for example the car headlights in the rain searing into Marion's guilty soul like the eyes of God, only to be replaced by a scene in blinding sunlight where the black eyes of the malevolent (just threatening really) traffic cop in sun glasses, like the eyes of the Devil! There is barely a single shot in the film that does not contribute to its thematic core. Nowhere else in cinema is the audience conducted like an orchestra. Some horror enthusiasts may protest that many of the best horror films have the same irresistible effect, but Psycho is not a horror film, it is a very funny and very deeply profound black comedy in which Hitch 'puts us through it' better than in any other of his films.
21. Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Not Rated | 94 min | Drama, Mystery
In a strange and isolated chateau, a man becomes acquainted with a woman and insists that they have met before.
Votes: 17,108 | Gross: $0.14M
Perhaps the quality which gives film its pre-eminence as an art is its innate ability to mimic mental processes - memory, dream, musing. If there is one film that one must see in order to understand this, it is L`Année Dernière à Marienbad. Set in a huge hotel or mansion, it chronicles the menacing relationship between three un-named characters. The main reason it is so important in the history of film aesthetics is that it occupies a very curious and complex mental space. That mental space is part dream, part recollection, part uncertainty. At the time of its release (shortly before I became interested in cinema), much was made by the film press of the alleged dispute between the writer of the avant garde novel/scenario, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais as to whether the central characters did, in fact meet the previous year, in Marienbad or elsewhere. But, as so often, the journalists were looking in the wrong place. L`Année Dernière à Marienbad expands our understanding of what a film can be.
22. Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Not Rated | 115 min | Comedy, Drama, History
The career of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff as a roistering companion to young Prince Hal, circa 1400 to 1413.
Votes: 6,366 | Gross: $0.12M
Welles has twice contributed to the misunderstanding of his work - once in his own inactivity in the last 15 years of his life - much of which, in my researches, seems to be from self-induced problems. Secondly, since his death, much of his later work has been tied up in pointless and damaging legal disputes that has made them barely available for us to remember the magnificence of them. Chimes at Midnight was, according to his mammouth and wonderful interview for BBC's Arena programme, 'the film he would use to get him into Heaven'. And it deserves to be put alongside Citizen Kane and what remains of The Magnificent Ambersons as his greatest work. For Welles, films came to life in the cutting room (which is why the butchering of Ambersons was such a tragedy). In this film, the lyricism of his montage is transcendental. Welles' Shakespeare adaptations help us define the nature of cinema and its relation to the superficially similar but ontologically very different art of the theatre.
23. Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Not Rated | 110 min | Crime, Drama, Romance
Pierrot escapes his boring society and travels from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea with Marianne, a girl chased by hit-men from Algeria. They lead an unorthodox life, always on the run.
The first draft of this list had no films by Godard in it, partly, at least because I have never really forgiven the director for abandoning aesthetics for ethics in his work at the end of the 1960s - Pravda and onwards where he abandoned the discipline of fiction for the tedium of didacticism.
However, the more I thought about it, the more important Godard's contribution to modern cinema seemed to be, and eventually his two major innovatory works found their way into the list.
Richard Roud, one of my two most admired film critics, called Pierrot le Fou "The first film set in the conditional tense". Not all of it is in the conditional tense, but large sections in the middle of the film give alternative versions of the story, concomitant on decisions made by the characters - it is a device most famously used much later in Sliding Doors - a very engaging but minor work. Godard uses it to express the mental chaos of l'amour fou.
Maybe it isn't as unnerving now as it was at the time (I haven't seen it in over 20 years) and all great stylistic innovations are gradually absorbed into the body aesthetic, but this is, still, in my view the definitive use of the device.
Incidentally, (pace the IMDb summary), it is not Pierrot who escapes with Marianne, but Ferdinand, who becomes Pierrot in the process.
24. Blow-Up (1966)
Not Rated | 111 min | Drama, Mystery, Thriller
A mod London photographer finds something very suspicious in the shots he has taken of a mysterious beauty in a desolate park.
If there is any film of this era that ought to be extremely dated, it is Blow-Up - a vaguely existentialist fable set right in the heart of Swinging London, in which the central character is a fashion photographer with high-minded ideas. But it isn't dated, it is as fresh as the day it was made. Several of Antonioni's films were in the mix for inclusion in the list - the baffling L`Avventura, L'Eclisse for its extraordinary final sequence amongst others. But Blow-Up trumped the rest because it contains a sequence that actually explains how the art of cinematic montage creates logical associations - a kind of masterclass in the discoveries of Lev Kuleshov. I don't want to say any more on this subject for fear of spoiling one of the cinema's most exquisite experiences for the uninitiated. Antonioni's most unique quality otherwise is his extraordinary ability to create and reveal resonant three dimensional spaces in both natural and architectural contexts.
25. Persona (1966)
Not Rated | 83 min | Drama, Thriller
A nurse is put in charge of a mute actress and finds that their personas are melding together.
Looking again at this list as I write these introductions, I am amazed how the films up to and including Psycho are largely straight-forward narratives while seven of the following eight films are complex works that either play fast and loose with conventional narrative structures or tackle thematic or stylistic ideas that made them decidedly challenging for contemporary audiences. But that was the 60s... Ingmar Bergman was already one of the world's foremost and best-known directors at the beginning of that decade following The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. In the 60s, he started to make films that peered into the depth of the human psyche, which anticipated, to some large extent, his major themes for most of the rest of his career. The most instructive of these, for our purposes was Persona in which he explores the way in which our dealings with others define and transform our image of ourselves. This he does through exquisite mise en scène and precise visual expression. The cinema advances.
26. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Not Rated | 95 min | Drama
The story of a mistreated donkey and the people around him. A study on saintliness and a sister piece to Bresson's Mouchette.
Votes: 14,485 | Gross: $0.04M
Robert Bresson has a position in the cinema unlike any others, in post-war cinema, at least. While other directors made their films with an aesthetic that was clearly related to those of their contemporaries, Bresson ploughed his own aesthetic furrow, making films whose subjects were spiritual and dense in a style that had only a tangential relationship with the drama that is at the heart of almost all other films. In a way, I could have chosen any of the films he made from Diary of a Country Priest onwards, as all of Bressons films are masterworks in what I can only describe as 'stylistic distillation of meaning'. In Bresson's films, every shot, every gesture, every sound has a focussed contribution to the spiritual function of the scene. I chose Au Hasard Balthazar because it is, IMHO the purest and most perfect of his films; for many years I regarded it as the greatest film ever made, but it is also an enigma. It can deliver the most crushing and transcendental experience that you are ever likely to experience from a work of art, but on other occasions, it can leave you slightly empty. It is as though your psyche needs to have resonance with Bresson's wondrous art while you are watching it. This is not 'difficult', it is not an intellectual process, indeed to allow the intellect to function too actively is likely to destroy the moment, but if the film gets through to you, you will never, never forget it.
27. El Dorado (1967)
Not Rated | 126 min | Drama, Romance, Western
Cole Thornton, a gunfighter for hire, joins forces with an old friend, Sheriff J.P. Hara. Together with an old Indian fighter and a gambler, they help a rancher and his family fight a rival rancher that is trying to steal their water.
Votes: 20,782 | Gross: $12.97M
In this first list update, Howard Hawks' wonderful comedy Western was first on the list to replace the slightly rather soulless Memento. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine two films more different. Hawks film, a rich re-working of his earlier, highly successful Rio Bravo. Although the film is shorter than Rio Bravo, it has a structure that makes it seem longer and more complex than the earlier film.This is an example of how magnificent the script, by Leigh Brackett, was. In fact, according to Leigh Brackett, it was the best script she ever wrote, but Hawks would not accept the tragic denouement that she has planned, so to her disappointment and our pleasure, Hawks increasingly played on the irony between the comic aspects of the story and the highly dramatic and morally challenging central theme. Two of the key parameters of cinematic expression are the expression of character and the expressive use of camera placement. After a career of making many of the greatest American films of their era (Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Red River, by the time of El Dorado, cinematic expression was second nature to Hawks. Film theorists frequently, in fact usually, ignore the function of pleasure in films, largely, I expect, because they fear that the spectator is being deceived by their pleasure in thinking that the film has cinematic qualities. El Dorado has immense cinematic qualities, but it also gives pleasure in almost every scene.
28. Belle de Jour (1967)
R | 100 min | Drama
A frigid young housewife decides to spend her midweek afternoons as a prostitute.
Votes: 34,369 | Gross: $0.03M
With Belle de Jour, Buñuel stepped up a gear from his brilliantly scathing iconoclastic satires of the early 60s. The story is an only mildly shocking tale of a well-to-do housewife, who, for unexplained reasons, decides to become a prostitute in a down-market Paris brothel while her husband is at work. Onto this situation already replete with meaning and frisson, Buñuel weaves a narrative structure of wish-fulfillment musings, dreams and, maybe, reality. Along with Last Year at Marienbad it is the perfect way to understand how film mirrors the mental process, but in a different way.
29. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)
Not Rated | 87 min | Comedy, Drama
A day in the life of a Parisian housewife/prostitute, interspersed with musings on the Vietnam War and other contemporary issues.
Votes: 5,517 | Gross: $0.10M
Often people say that film is 'like a language'. But that is not exactly right, it is like language itself, and, just as one can use language to write novels and poems of exquisite complexity and profundity, one can also use it to write political or sociological essays. The language one uses for these two related, but different, forms of writing is the same for both, just the content is different. Jean-Luc Godard's films from Masculin Féminin until Week-End plus Le Gai Savoir corresponded to the auteur's increasing wish to express political ideas alongside cinematic ones. The result was an extraordinary series of films in which contemporary fiction or quasi-fictional stories were interlaced with leftist rhetoric to create a very aesthetically exciting but very challenging form of cinema. Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d'elle is the most lyrical of these films and the most thought-provoking. In it, a lower middle class housewife wants to increase her spending power and becomes a prostitute. There is clearly some similarity in situation between this film and Belle de Jour on the one hand and Godard's earlier Vivre sa Vie on the other, but, in essence, what makes this film important is not its subject, but its conceptual and stylistic structure. Godard punctuates the undramatic story with philosophical and sociological musings to create a philosophical fiction that exists in literature but only rarely in film. Sadly, the advances of these six fascinating and sometimes wonderful works were not pursued and Godard became, largely, a tedious propagandist who preached to the converted and frequently forgot, or chose to ignore, the discipline of narrative fiction in his films.
30. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
NC-17 | 129 min | Drama, Romance
A young Parisian woman meets a middle-aged American businessman who demands their clandestine relationship be based only on sex.
Votes: 42,998 | Gross: $36.14M
For a while, I doubted if this magnificent masterpiece belonged in the list, then I re-viewed it , and was immediately reminded why, without it, the list would lack a certain special something that is at the heart of great cinema. This is the most unflinching stare into the depths of a tortured human soul that the cinema has produced - a sort of 'Crime and Punishment' without the crime.
Even that might not have been enough to get it into the list, but Bertolucci's mise en scène is exquisite, showing characters behind distorting glass and shut off from a large part of the frame by some enclosure.
The contrast between the two men in Jeanne's (Maria Schneider) life could barely be greater - Paul (Brando) tortured, damaged, old, deep, is contrasted with Tom (Léaud) gay, carefree, young, frivolous. The theme - the meaning and limits of love and mortality - is challenging, but it is monumentalised by Brando's performance which, as far as I am concerned is easily the finest piece of acting in all cinema.
Like all of the films in this list, it delivers more and more with each subsequent viewing - watch, for example, for Brando's gestures that repeat but subtly change through the course of the film.
Incidentally, IMDb's description of the film is inaccurate, Paul is not a businessman, but simply the husband of a hotelier, and the agreement between Paul and Jeanne is not 'only for sex', it is for an anonymous relationship: "No names!!!" screams Paul.
31. Day for Night (1973)
PG | 115 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance
A committed film director struggles to complete his movie while coping with a myriad of crises, personal and professional, among the cast and crew.
Votes: 17,106 | Gross: $0.02M
What, one might ask, if one exists, is the single common quality of all truly great filmmakers? I would answer with great confidence that it is that they all love the cinema with an abiding passion and want to express their love for it through the films that they make. Of all of the truly great filmmakers, the one whose love for the cinema was best known and most celebrated was François Truffaut, and the film that most expresses his love for the cinema is Day For Night. There have been several films set in the world of film production, but, fine though some of the others are, as films and as representations of filmmaking, none comes within a distance of Truffaut’s masterpiece. The film expresses the complexity, the difficulty, the insecurity and the joie de vivre of film production, and it is infused with Truffaut’s love in every frame.
32. Badlands (1973)
PG | 94 min | Crime, Drama
An impressionable teenage girl from a dead-end town and her older greaser boyfriend embark on a killing spree in the South Dakota badlands.
When one is passionate about cinema, the arrival of a filmmaker who sees film in a different way is always exciting. Terrence Malick's Badlands re-invented the voice-over and used it to free the film, visually, from the narrative for some sequences. The result is to most conventional film what poetry is to prose. There are many aspects of the film that are totally euphoric for the cinephile, but they are much better experienced than described.
33. Taxi Driver (1976)
R | 114 min | Crime, Drama
A mentally unstable veteran works as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City, where the perceived decadence and sleaze fuels his urge for violent action by attempting to liberate a presidential campaign worker and an underage prostitute.
Votes: 609,527 | Gross: $28.26M
In Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese gives us a huge dose of moral outrage, but tempers it with liberal doses of irony. Exactly what Travis Bickle experienced in Vietnam is sensibly left to our fertile imaginations. He spends his life on return engaging in that most American of pastimes - making money - as a taxi driver in the most squalid quarters of New York. De Niro, Michael Chapman the cinematographer, Paul Schrader's script and Bernard Herrmann's magnificent, final score all contribute to the film, but it is the way in which Scorsese ties it all together that makes it a masterpiece. It is this 'tying it together' that amounts to the notion of 'film direction' in the modern context. Cinema is the art of darkness and this film takes us unswervingly into that darkness.
34. Stalker (1979)
Not Rated | 162 min | Drama, Sci-Fi
A guide leads two men through an area known as the Zone to find a room that grants wishes.
Votes: 92,203 | Gross: $0.23M
One of the things that many people find irritating about very complex works is that they are obviously 'about something', but it is not always immediately evident what they are about. One such film is Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. Set in a bleak rural Russian landscape in winter, it centres on the existence of a mysterious zone (unhelpfully just called 'The Zone') where miracles are said to take place. Two characters - a Professor and a Writer - are searching for this Zone and are to be led by a guide called Stalker. The complex theme of the film is played out in the conversations between these characters and in Tarkovsky's highly resonant and evocative imagery. Stalker leads its audience, very obliquely, through a debate on art and science and belief, certainty, mortality and responsibility, it shows any who would doubt that cinema is the intellectual equal of the other arts that they are seriously mistaken. Several viewings are highly recommended.
35. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
PG-13 | 104 min | Comedy, Drama
An ophthalmologist's mistress threatens to reveal their affair to his wife while a married documentary filmmaker is infatuated with another woman.
Votes: 48,763 | Gross: $18.25M
Woody Allen's sardonic reflections on the lives of the chattering classes is, arguably, the most philosophically cohesive body of work in modern cinema. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a magnificent film that teases out two stories that are tangled but largely separate in a narrative sense. Thematically, though, the stories are a perfect pair, an examination of two of life's greatest tragedies - to be loved and not love in return, and to love and be not loved. In his stories, Allen finds a mountain of irony that lifts them to almost Shakespearean levels of profundity. At the same time, he finds enough light to provide us with some of his wryly funniest moments and one liners - e.g. Halley (Mia Farrow - referring to the excruciating TV producer, Lester): 'He wants to produce something of mine. Clifford (Allen): 'Yes, your first child.' The film also comes from the era in which Woody's characters, no matter how flawed, seemed worthy of redemption, these days, most of them don't.
36. Lost Highway (1997)
R | 134 min | Mystery, Thriller
After a bizarre encounter at a party, a jazz saxophonist is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison, where he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life.
Votes: 114,213 | Gross: $3.80M
We are getting into really quite contemporary cinema now, and there are few directors as 'modern' as David Lynch. Lost Highway is a nightmare of a film that does extraordinary things with time and space, turning the 'linear' narrative into something resembling a Möbius strip. The film, which is, for me, a great masterpiece, is difficult at a level of conventional logic, but shows - as did the director's monumental Twin Peaks at the beginning of the 90s - that the cinema can create the cinematic equivalent of wormholes down which an entire plot can disappear, only to re-appear in a different but related 'space'. Lynch entered the same sort of universe in Mulholland Dr, which is a 'better' film, perhaps, and Inland Empire, which is stranger but not so good; but neither demonstrates the contortion of the narrative structure so well. Of all 'commercial' directors, David Lynch most understands the shackles that conventional narrative structures needlessly impose on a film, and succeeds, frequently in breaking free of them.
37. Talk to Her (2002)
R | 112 min | Drama, Mystery, Romance
Two men share an odd friendship while they care for two women who are both in deep comas.
Votes: 94,972 | Gross: $9.28M
For over half of the period between The Birth of a Nation and today, (mainland) European cinema has been a pillar of the art, producing seventeen of the filmmakers whose films make up this list as opposed to thirteen American/British - with two being Japanese. But these days European cinema seems to be in disarray. In the 50s, 60s & 70s, one could rely on Fellini, Rohmer, Tati, Chabrol, Fassbinder etc., plus most of the contemporary European directors whose works grace this list to produce interesting major works on a moderately regular basis. Now, as far as I can see, the only moderately reliable European auteur is Amodovar, and even he makes the occasional lemon. On the other hand, he has made, in Talk to Her, one of the three or four greatest films of this young century. The film has (almost) everything: a complex, morally challenging story told in a structure that zigzags back and forth in time like a slalom skier; arguably the finest characterisation in the cinema since Norman Bates in Psycho; a film within a film that eventually anticipates the savage denouement of the film per se, and a coda that pulls a sliver of hope from a slough of despond. Like all great films, it reveals its deepest secrets only after several viewings.
38. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
PG-13 | 132 min | Drama, Sport
A determined woman works with a hardened boxing trainer to become a professional.
Votes: 567,129 | Gross: $100.49M
One of the problems with arts that are simultaneously part of the 'entertainment industry' - film, music, literature - is that the 'great public' seems to expect instant gratification within the work. Music - it's got to have a beat; literature - it must be fun to read; film - something dramatic/spectacular must happen in the first ten minutes. But in art it is frequently the case that the more the spectator puts into the work, the more (s)he will get out of it. There is no better example of this in modern cinema than Million Dollar Baby. After an hour, very little has happened, except that we have been meticulously introduced to two magnificently complex characters. But what goes in slow, goes in very, very deep. So when, later in the film, things go dreadfully wrong, we care so deeply about these characters that the dilemma that is presented becomes as unbearable as any dilemma in a film that I can remember. Andrew Sarris, writing with typical insight about Au Hasard Balthazar concluded his review with the remark 'it stands alone atop one of the loftiest pinnacles of artistically realised emotional experiences.' The same remark could equally be applied to Million Dollar Baby.
39. The New World (2005)
PG-13 | 135 min | Biography, Drama, History
The story of the English exploration of Virginia, and of the changing world and loves of Pocahontas.
Votes: 77,246 | Gross: $12.71M
One way of looking at the cinema is in regarding it as what I like to call 'a million meaningful moments', that is a collection of moments so wonderful that they elevate even a fairly turgid work into a commanding position in the art. The 'Odessa Steps' sequence in Battleship Potemkin is an example. But, in those very, very rare occasions when such moments become extended over several scenes, like the last 25 minutes of La Règle du Jeu, for example, one is looking at something close to cinematic perfection, and often the entire work can be regarded as simply a prelude to this 'glory'.
The first just over two hours of The New World is wondrous, poetic cinema that makes virtually all of its contemporaries look very pedestrian, but the last 15 minutes, commencing from the arrival of Captain Smith coming to visit the now celebrated Pocahontas at her home as Mrs John Rolfe, is simply stratospheric. The more I look at it (and I must have seen it fifty times), the more I am convinced that with this coda, he seems to have created a kind of Meta-cinema, related to but 'beyond' the wonders of the cinema of the past that we know and love. ... And he went on to monumentalise it with his masterpiece of six years later.
40. The Tree of Life (2011)
PG-13 | 139 min | Drama, Fantasy
The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents' conflicting teachings.
Votes: 152,697 | Gross: $13.30M
When The Tree of Life was released in May 2011, I had been waiting for it for almost thirty years. This was, in part, the film that had, in 1982, been described to me by John Sayles as Malick’s project that was 'cosmic: too cosmic even for Hollywood!'
As it turned out, the film was both less and more than the project that I had waited for. For the most part, I find autobiography doesn't make the best cinema, and as the film unfolded before me for the first time, I became aware that it was, effectively, an account of Terrence Malick's childhood in Texas in the 1950s.
However, it also became evident, as well, that this film had integrated the hyper-lyrical ‘Meta-cinema’ of the late stages of The New World into a richly complex temporal structure to explore in an oh-so poetic way the philosophical notion of existence. It dared to ask: who am I? Where did we (as a species) come from? Is there a guiding light that answers all of the questions that the complexity of life presents? How is the cruelty of fate compatible with a loving God?
The film is conceptually huge. For me, it was, initially, too huge. There were too many imponderables. But as I revisited it in cinemas several times and then on DVD again and again, its wonder unfolded and it almost became the magnificent masterpiece that would displace Citizen Kane from its perch on the top of the cinema that I had been hoping for.
Some of the first ‘precepts’ that were discovered in relation to the cinema were Kuleshov’s ‘axioms’ that I have mentioned in regard to other films on the list. They attest the ability of film images to carry forward emotion, associations and ‘knowledge’ into adjacent images. In this film, Malick takes these simple precepts several stages further. There are images that recur not even in the same scene, that bring their emotional and thematic associations with them to allow the beautiful and complex web of meaning that is at the heart of the film to be sensed, consciously or not, by the viewer. Persistence of vision is the physiological characteristic that allows the cinema to represent continuous time, Malick extends that into a kind of persistence of mind that carries forward the emotional associations of his images.
I am not here claiming that this film or Malick was the first to discover these possibilities - some of David Lynch's films have done the same and images that pre-envision future events are to be found fairly frequently in some horror films, for example, but this film and Malick's Meta-cinema uses it in an enriching and philospohical way that elevates the technique above simply causing disquiet in the audience.
Great art expresses and endures. There is no doubt in my mind that The Tree of Life expresses as well as, and as much as, any but a tiny handful of great masterpieces of the past. To what extent it will endure in the same way that The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane have endured, I cannot be sure. But if audiences of the future are willing to open their minds and their hearts to this staggeringly brilliant work, I see no reason why, in 50 years, it will not be regarded as the peer of both of those two seminal works.