I have seen a boatload of movies over the span of my life, some more significant than others. Those few important ones are outweighed by those that are completely unmemorable, even when perfectly enjoyable while sitting through them. That describes most movies and that’s fine. Not every film needs to be Citizen Kane.
This is my list of significant films, listed decade by decade. It is a personal catalog and limited first by including only movies I have actually seen. There are significant films I have not yet been able to view. Further, the list tends to reflect my own tastes, although it is not a list of my favorite films or of the “best” films, but of those that I believe have some significance in the history of cinema. You should make your own list. It would undoubtedly be different from mine.
What makes them significant? Here are my criteria: In order to make my list a movie must hit one or more of these markers: 1. Be of historical importance; 2. Advance film grammar or technique; 3. Be influential on other films and filmmakers; 4. Have something profound to say about existence and humanity; or 5. Simply be so memorable as to be missed if not included. That’s a pretty wide and pretty loose range of qualities. Most films on this list hit more than one of them. And for my esthetic, No. 4 counts above all the others.
Most movies, whether from Hollywood, Bollywood or Cinecittà, seek only to tell a good story and keep our attention. Many of these are truly enjoyable, but their making is merely efficient, using the tried-and-true techniques which remain invisible to the average moviegoer. The vast majority of films created never attempt to do more — nor should we ask them to. The old Hollywood studios were brilliant at this: perfect camera work, lighting, editing, sound recording, etc., but with never a thought to making us see these techniques. If we had noticed them, they would have felt that they had failed at their job. Others, like Citizen Kane, dance and sing their innovations. The significant filmmakers, for me, are those that do something above and beyond the call of duty.
I make this apology: My taste tends toward the more arty. That’s why you should consider making your own list. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand. The way some readers read not books, but authors, so some filmgoers watch not individual films, but filmmakers: all of Bergman or all of Almodovar. I could not include all of their films in this list without it becoming more cumbersome than it already is, and so have whittled their works down to a few exemplars. So, for each of the big names, I have included mostly just the first important film they’ve made (a film that defined their style or themes), or when including more than one, when subsequent films meaningfully expanded their work.
Some of these films might lead you to scratch your head. But I can justify any one of them. Or try to.
Among the earliest films are the shorts made by the Lumière brothers in France in the 1890s. They are each under a minute long and show everyday scenes. They astonished their original audiences, but are of mostly historical interest now. The first filmmaker to create something we might still want to see and enjoy was the P.T. Barnum of early filmmakers, Georges Méliès, who used trick photography and surreal plots to draw his ticket-buyers in.
When we get to 1915, we have to take a deep breath and watch Birth of a Nation, which is so blatantly and obscenely racist, I feel dirty even listing it. But it is, apart from its story and acting, so important in the development of cinema and film language, you kinda have to hold your nose and see it.
Film really took off in the 1920s — the first “golden age” of cinema. A language and grammar of filmmaking developed that could tell a story with a minimum of words in intertitles. So many films are lost now, but many of those that remain are classics, including the amazing five-hour Napoleon by French director Abel Gance. It has been difficult to find commercially for years (blame Francis Coppola), but now is available on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray from the British Film Institute in a magnificent restoration by Kevin Brownlow. It’s worth it to buy a region-free player just to see this film. (You can also find things on Amazon UK that are otherwise not available in the U.S., and Region 2 versions of some films that are cheaper than their American counterparts. A region-free player is a treasure.)
The 1930s were another “golden age,” when the studios ran things and did it right. Even the lowliest of studio B pictures was made with a professionalism that is hard to credit. Everyone was on top of his game.
But Hollywood was interested more in melodrama and comedy than in searching explorations of the human condition. They were really, really good at it. But in Europe, the darker tides of history were leading to more textured work, as in the work of Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol. In the U.S., we had Ernst Lubitsch, who could be more sophisticated than the Hollywood norm, but then, he was born in Berlin.
The one thing America had that no one else seemed able to copy was the “screwball comedy.” I have only one on my list, but there could be dozens. I have My Man Godfrey because I think it is the most perfect one. But I love ’em all. By the war, they couldn’t make them anymore without seeming to be too self-conscious about it. A genre no longer possible.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film I have never cared for, but it is on my list for its score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as exemplifying the great movie music by European emigres.
I have to apologize for Leni Riefenstahl being on this list. Like Birth of a Nation, there is a moral stink to her films, but one should see them anyway for their influential filmmaking. Yell at the screen while you watch if you want — I do — but see them at least once before washing your eyes with lye.
Even the worst eras of filmmaking have their gems. After 1939, the high-water mark for Hollywood films, we hit a lull. The war is certainly one cause — so many actors, technicians and filmmakers joined up and spent the war in Europe or the Pacific. But John Wayne stayed home to fight the enemy on the screen. I watched tons of those films on TV when I was a kid. I can’t say how many times I watched Guadalcanal Diary on the Million Dollar Movie.
I include Maltese Falcon as the closest a film has ever adhered to the book. If you read Hammett’s book, you will think you’re reading a novelization of the film. John Huston did a great job with it. Casablanca is there as proof that a committee can make a masterpiece. Grapes of Wrath is here for its cinematography, which so perfectly catches the tone of the FSA photographs of the Great Depression.
Still, the majority of movies on my list are European. They deal with real things; they had to.
The 1950s were the great age of European art film. When we think of an art film, we are likely to picture The Seventh Seal, Rashomon or Orphée. Hollywood could squeeze out an occasional great film, but mostly it was sinking into the doldrums with flat TV-style lighting, uninspired editing, and a dependence on big-name stars, often miscast. Yet, it managed to make On the Waterfront, Anatomy of a Murder and Some Like It Hot — the closest thing Hollywood ever made to a post-1930s screwball comedy. I wish I had room on the list for more Billy Wilder.
Oh, and Godzilla is here, not as the kiddie monster movie that it was turned into with Raymond Burr added on, but as its original Japanese parable of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. If properly seen, Godzilla is a heartbreaking film.
The French New Wave hits full force in the Sixties, taking up the slack from Hollywood, which, in the first two-thirds of the decade was practically moribund, making dreck like Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Cleopatra. Oy veyzmir.
Things brightened up in the last years of the decade as the studios threw up their hands and let the young turks in to update the artform. (Don’t feel sorry for the studios, they have come back with a vengeance with superheroes and CGI, but for the time being, they were playing dead. Never count out Capitalism, while there is still money to be made.)
The one great studio film of the era is Lawrence of Arabia. I had not counted it much until I saw it on the giant screen (the 70-foot screen of the old Cine Capri in Phoenix, Ariz., in a 70mm print in 1989.) It was a wonder. I weep for the kids watching movies on their iPhones.
What started in the Sixties continued for the next decade, but the warnings were there to be seen. Young turks grew in style and technique, but the worm in the apple had jaws, then it had Star Wars. Filmmaking mega-corporations saw where the big bucks could be had.
Before le déluge, though, a cadre of brilliant auteurs were given money to make Chinatown, Nashville and Taxi Driver. And the crazed, driven Werner Herzog broke through consciousness with Aguirre. And who else, really, was der Zorn gottes?
Filmmakers who first popped their heads above ground in the 1970s went on to be the grandmasters of the next several decades.
A new generation of auteurs arose in the 1980s to again refresh the cinematic cosmos. Some had made earlier films, but they all hit their stride in the Reagan years: Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Errol Morris.
There was coming problem, though: film schools. In the old days, directors learned their craft on the job. Increasingly, they learned it all in school and became ever so glib at the three-act script and the POV, the Final Cut Pro. They knew their B roll and their axial cut, their Dutch angle, their key light and post production color timing. Result: filmmakers more interested in technique than in content. But the full misery of all that happens after the ’80s, when these well-trained technicians were given the reins of a $200 million CGI and green-screen superhero epic, where they functioned more as field generals than as artists.
The film-school esthetic was also the natural result of the rising Postmodernism: the knowingness that made the process of filmmaking its own subject, along with the expectation that the audience knew what you were doing and could nod their heads knowingly. The story became its own MacGuffin.
For me, the ’90s is the Kieslowski decade. The Polish filmmaker had been working since the ’60s, but didn’t break out into international note until The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, following that with his masterpiece trilogy, Colors (Blue, White, and Red). His 10 shorter TV films, Dekalog, had come out at the end of the previous decade, but together, all his later work makes a case for film as art in the same manner as the films of Bergman and Fellini in the 1950s. They are one of the high-water marks of film as literature.
New names appeared and stuck: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Richard Linklater, Baz Luhrmann, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Wachowskis. They all continued to make interesting films of lasting power. Pedro Almodovar finally won international fame after decades of making idiosyncratic films in Spain. And Martin Scorsese continued to up his game, becoming the de facto “greatest living film director.” (Not that there is such a thing, but if there has to be someone named, most agree Scorsese wears the badge.)
It’s hard to believe, but Peter Jackson made the first Lord of the Rings movie 20 years ago. With those films, and with King Kong, Jackson became the field general commanding the largest forces and a budget rivaling that of the invasion of Normandy. That the films were as good as they were proves Jackson could overcome the disadvantage of so much money. Not everyone given such a purse could. The major movies of the decade were also blockbusters, a form that took over the studios, leaving behind small budget indie films to the do-it-yourself crowd. Lucky for all, digital cameras and editing made it possible to make meaningful films with almost no budget at all. The bifurcation of the film industry was nearly complete.
Outside Hollywood, however, worthwhile films continued to be made by directors who actually had something to say. Increasingly, they said it in Spanish. Since the shift in the millennium, four of the putative top 10 movie auteurs are either Mexican or Spanish (Cuarón, del Torro, Iñarritu and Almodovar). We’ve come a long way from those cheesy old El Santo movies.
Among the others are two very peculiar directors: Lars von Trier and Guy Maddin, both acquired tastes that I have acquired. I had to narrow it down to a film apiece for this list, but I would love to have included Maddin’s My Winnipeg.
I’m afraid that when I retired in 2012, my moviegoing dropped precipitously. So, my list for the past decade is incomplete. I leave it to younger eyes to see the future.
So, that’s my list. If I had made it tomorrow or next week, it would likely be entirely different. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some I wish I had included, and I might change my mind about some of those I listed. If I had made the list when I was 20, or 30, or 40, it would have reflected a very different — and unfinished — sensibility. Now, at 73, I’ve pretty well rounded off my sense of taste and esthetic.
The list is mine and no one else should be blamed for it. And your list would undoubtedly head off in some other direction. Vaya con los dioses.