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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.

The year I was born was the year Vittorio de Sica released Bicycle Thieves. I am not claiming to have seen it when it first came out, but when I search Wikipedia for all the movies that were made in 1948, Bicycle Thieves was the one that, when I did finally see it, moved me the most and stays with me the most permanently. 

My birth year was a decent year for cinema. Olivier’s Hamlet won the best picture Oscar; John Huston won best director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; he also made Key Largo, which I will watch every time I come across it channel surfing, even if I see only the final 15 minutes: It is like a favorite tune you love hearing again. 

Others from 1948: Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair; Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero; Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story; Orson Welles’ Macbeth; Howard Hawks’ Red River; Hitchcock’s Rope; Visconti’s Terra Trema; and the last great screwball comedy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, one of the stalwarts of my childhood of TV watching: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

My 73rd birthday is looming and I began to think — among many more important things — about all the movies I have seen in those seven decades. When I was a kid, I saw piles of them on TV, including those that aired 15 times a week on Million Dollar Movie, where I was first introduced to those English “kitchen sink” movies of the 1950s: Look Back in Anger; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; Room at the Top. There were a surprising number of British films on New York’s Channel 9. They certainly gave me a formative impression of the United Kingdom that later cleansed the palate after the Masterpiece Theatre syrup. 

And so, I thought to list the best movies for each of the years I’ve been alive. “Best” is the wrong term, of course: I couldn’t have seen all the movies made. But these are the movies I saw that I loved the most. Taken year-by-year, they make an uneven list: Some years were bumper crops and some were slender picking, but year after year, these were my picks.

When I was 1 year old, Orson Welles dominated Carol Reed’s The Third Man. When I was 2, Jean Cocteau made Orphée, which remains on my Top Ten list (although, I must remind you, my Top Ten list has about 40 films on it.)

1948 Bicycle Thieves

1949 The Third Man

1950 Orphée

The next decade begins with Jean Renor’s The River, although I should admit it is a late addition to my list. The first several times I saw it, it was in a miserable print with scratches, washed-out colors and blown-out contrast. I passed it off as one of Renoir’s lesser efforts. I was very wrong. Since then, Criterion (god bless’em) has sent out a gorgeous print and it would be hard to find a more gloriously beautiful film visually.

I saw Kurosawa’s Ikiru for the first time in a porno theater. I was recently graduated from college and a local film society could afford to rent out the theater for their film series. The posters in the lobby challenged the imagination. 

For 1954, I couldn’t decide between The Seven Samurai and Godzilla. When I was little and Million Dollar Movie ran the Americanized version of Godzilla with Raymond Burr, I thought it my favorite cheesy monster movie. Now that I am grown up and have seen the unmutilated version, Gojira, I recognize it as one of the most heartbreaking films ever made, up there with Bicycle Thieves and Mouchette, and is really an art film about the bombing of Hiroshima. It also has one of the greatest film scores, by Akira Ifukube, that expresses the grief. 

The decade ends with La Dolce Vita, which may top my Top Ten list. Every time I watch it, it seems deeper and more profound. 

1951 The River

1952 Ikiru

1953 The Earrings of Madame …

1954 Godzilla and Seven Samurai

1955 Pather Panchali

1956 The Searchers

1957 Wild Strawberries

1958 Hidden Fortress

1959 400 Blows

1960 La Dolce Vita

Up until 1968, all the films on this list were seen in retrospect, on television or on DVD. I was not a big moviegoer in my youth. There was no theater in my town. But after taking a film course in college, I got hooked and from Kubrick’s 2001,saw all the films when they came out. 

1961 Yojimbo

1962 Jules and Jim

1963 The Silence

1964 Dr. Strangelove

1965 Red Beard

1966 The Battle of Algiers

1967 Ulysses

1968 2001: A Space Odyssey

1969 The Passion of Anna

1970 The Wild Child

Choosing one from many is fruitless. It’s just a game. Take 1975: My favorite from that year is Ingmar Bergman’s version of Mozart’s Magic Flute. But it was a toss-up between that and Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I saw again recently and was even better than I remembered it. 

But how can you choose when in the same year, you could have picked: Jaws; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo; Dog Day Afternoon; Nashville; Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Love and Death; Kurosawa’s Derzu Uzala; Picnic at Hanging Rock; Hester Street; Barry Lyndon; The Man Who Would Be King; The Story of Adele H.; Grey Gardens; The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum; and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves

Lina Wertmuller gave us both Seven Beauties and Swept Away; Ken Russell released two over-the-top biopics on Mahler and Franz Liszt (Lisztomania) — to say nothing of Tommy. Pier Paolo Pasolini dared you to watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. And there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show

And 1975 was not exceptional. I could make a similar list for most of these years. 

1971 Macbeth

1971 Macbeth

1972 The Godfather

1973 Amarcord

1974 Chinatown

1975 The Magic Flute

1976 Taxi Driver

1977 Annie Hall

1978 Pretty Baby

1979 Apocalypse Now

1980 Return of the Secaucus Seven

The 1980s was the decade it all went to hell. The top-grossing films of the decade were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Return of the Jedi; The Empire Strikes Back; Batman; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (also: Ghostbusters; Beverly Hills Cop; and Back to the Future, all among the top 10). Hollywood knew where the future was and it wasn’t back (“I am small; it’s the pictures that got big”). 

Yet, there are always great movies made. My best of the decade is Kieslowski’s Dekalog, ten short films based on the Ten Commandments — sort of. They were made for Polish TV, and the director made longer cuts of two of the segments, and for 1988, I have chosen A Short Film About Killing, one of the most brutal and truthful films I have ever seen. 

1981 My Dinner with Andre

1982 Fanny and Alexander

1983 l’Argent

1984 This is Spinal Tap

1985 Ran

1986 True Stories

1987 Wings of Desire and Full Metal Jacket

1988 A Short Film About Killing

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors

1990 Goodfellas

By the ’90s, I was working as a journalist and often functioned as back-up movie critic, and so got to see a lot of films, including a fair share of really bad ones, and so, perhaps, it made me a little more tolerant of those that were good but perhaps not classics to make the AFI list. Still, my list includes some of my all-time favorites. 

Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy — and especially its conclusion, Red, are among the most moving I’ve ever seen, deeply humane. And it changed my thinking about coincidence both in fiction and in life. 

It was the decade I finally discovered Pedro Almodovar. I now own all of his films on DVD and share them with whoever is willing to sit still long enough. He is, with Kieslowski and Jean Renoir, among the most humane of filmmakers. 

1991 La Belle Noiseuse

1992 Reservoir Dogs

1993 Three Colors: Blue

1994 Three Colors: Red and Pulp Fiction

1995 Before Sunrise

1996 Sling Blade

1997 The Apostle

1998 The Thin Red Line

1999 All About My Mother 

2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou

In 2017, some misguided Broadway producers attempted to make a stage musical from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, a film so cinematic it lives in a world of its own. The musical closed shortly after it opened. How could it have been otherwise? The movie has elicited a good deal of hate from those who could only see an impossibly sweet smile and goofy haircut. There’s a lot more going on in it. It was my favorite film from 2001. I loved the color manipulation, the inventive camera movement and the quirky editing. It is a film you can simply sit back and have fun with. How is that any different from Tarantino, other than the violence? 

2001 Amelie

2002 Russian Ark

2003 Dogville

2004 The Merchant of Venice

2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

2006 Children of Men

2007 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

2008 Man on Wire

2009 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version)

2010 Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

After retirement in 2012, I saw fewer and fewer films, at least in theaters. But I still ventured out for a few selected movies. In 2016, my wife became increasingly ill and I spent most of my time looking after her needs. There are no films for the whole year I can list. It is, until 2020, the only year left blank. After she died, I had little will to leave the house. But I have seen a few films since that I felt were notable. Now, most of the movies I watch are either streaming or from my DVD collection, which, at its peak, included about 200 French films, and all of Almodovar and nearly every drop of Werner Herzog. 

And I thank providence for Turner Classics and the Criterion Collection. 

2011 Tree of Life

2012 Lincoln

2013 Blue Jasmine

2014 Boyhood

2015 The Hateful Eight

2016 Nil

2017 The Death of Stalin 

2018 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 

2020 Nil

2021 ?

This is my list. If I made it again, I’m sure I would list different films. I’m sure if you made your list, it would be completely different. Again, it’s just a game, an exercise. It doesn’t mean anything.

Finally! One of the great films of all times has become available. For years I have waited for a good copy of Marcel Pagnol’s La femme du boulanger (“The Baker’s Wife”) to be transferred to DVD. The only version I have is one I recorded from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast decades ago. The subtitles were horrible and the print none too good. I have treasured it for years and proudly introduced it to friends whenever I could. 

But now, Criterion will be offering a new, cleaned up, re-titled version. It is one of the greatest films ever. After watching it, Orson Welles claimed that its star, Raimu, was “the greatest actor in the world.” He called the move “perfect.” 

Raimu etches a perfect line between the comic and the tragic, playing a French village baker whose wife runs away with a younger man and who, heartbroken, refuses to bake another loaf until she returns. The villagers, despairing of ever again getting a good baguette, go all out to retrieve her. All the fine details of pre-war village life are drawn with subtle precision. As novelist Graham Greene said of the film, “the human actors are only part of the general setting — the well and the olive trees and the crude, crowded church and the Cercle Republicain (tavern) with the tin advertisements, and the hunter going out in the dawn with his dog and his gun while the baker sleeps in his (dough) trough beside the oven.”

It is a closely observed and beautifully seen world. 

(It is hardly the only great film too long unavailable: Abel Gance’s famous 6-hour silent film, Napoleon, has been restored, but is unavailable in the U.S. for ridiculous legal reasons — blame Francis Ford Coppola — but is available on a Region 2 disc from Amazon. All-region DVD players are common and inexpensive and worth the small investment.)

The popular conception of “foreign films” has changed over the years. Where once the term meant Bergman, Fellini and French films, it has now gone on to mean Pedro Almodovar, Johnnie To and Oscar-winning Mexican directors. A foreign language film is more likely to be in Cantonese than in Swedish. 

But I was born in the earlier era, and for me, the great movies are French. Yes, I have almost all of Bergman’s films on DVD, and most of Tarkovsky, but the great majority of the discs on my shelves are in French. I once catalogued them and counted well over 200 of them. 

Most people, when they think of French movies, think of the New Wave — that handful of directors in the late 1950s and into the 1960s who brought new techniques and new energy to the industry, along with an appreciation of Hollywood’s best work. 

But French cinema is much more. There were great movies before Truffaut ever came along. And great directors. Pagnol, Becker, Duvivier, Vigo, Clair, and above all, Jean Renoir. 

And there have been great directors since the wave hit the shore: Patrice Leconte, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Agnes Jaoui, Catherine Breillat, Jamel Debbouze.  

I am going to suggest a few of their movies, all (at least when I bought them) available on disc. Many are also available on streaming video. 

I have listed no more than a single film from any one director, to ensure a variety and a wide scope. I have tried to avoid the obvious choices, because you may already be familiar with them: Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion, Breathless, Jules and Jim, Wages of Fear. And, I have not included any Renoir films, mostly because they are self-recommending and any real movie lover should already be familiar with them. 

The earliest of these films is Pepe Le Moko, which was remade (and sentimentalized) in the Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer, Algiers. The French original is much better, in large part because Jean Gabin is so much greater an actor than Boyer. Julien Duvivier was a great standard of French directors in the 1930s. 

I am including also a peculiar film, The Story of a Cheat by Sacha Guitry. Guitry is one of the great French comics, who wrote many stage comedies, was as famous a performer in his day as, say, Richard Pryor was in his. This film is unusual in that it is presented almost entirely as voice-over narration. It is excellently clever. 

Mainstream French films of the ‘40s and ‘50s include many wonderful genre films, almost all better plotted and with more interesting characters than their Hollywood cousins. 

Touchez pas au Grisbi, by Jacques Becker, is one of Gabin’s greatest roles. And that is saying a lot. (The title translates, roughly, as “Hands off the loot.”) 

Les Diaboliques, by Henri-George Clouzot is the greatest suspense movie of all time, outdoing Hitchcock by a large margin. It was remade in Hollywood  in 1996 with Sharon Stone. Oy. 

A third crime drama from the 1950s is Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, which has a great soundtrack by Miles Davis. It marks a shift in French film. Malle’s early work is not generally considered part of the New Wave, yet, there were several directors working at the time who prefigured the New Wave, giving us very personal films and often using locations rather than sets, and a more naturalistic style of acting.

Among those directors is Jean-Pierre Melville. Most of his work comprises heist dramas or crime stories. But I didn’t want to overweight this series of films with gritty thugs and grittier cops. And Army of Shadows tells an almost autobiographical story of the French underground in World War II. It has plenty of suspense and drama. 

Now we come to the New Wave itself. There were a handful of directors working in this new style, more free and improvisational, using location shooting rather than studio sets, and breaking up the normal beginning-middle-end narrative structure. 

The two gods of Nouvelle Vague couldn’t be more different. Jean-Luc Godard is anarchic, innovative and indefatigably political. He wants to destroy the status quo. He probably never made a completely successful film, but moments in every one of the astound with brilliance. He does things no one ever thought to do: drop out the soundtrack, edit arbitrarily, shoot dialog from behind the heads of the actors, shift from color to black and white and back, point the camera away from the actors. Godard freed up filmmaking for the next 40 years. Band of Outsiders is one of his most famous films, and includes the race through the Louvre that is quoted in several other films.

Francois Truffaut, on the other hand, is a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, and he finds the humanity in pretty much everything he films. As warm as Godard is cold, he is everyone’s favorite New Waver. So many of his films are so well known, I’ve tried to find one for you that you probably haven’t seen, The Woman Next Door. It’s a late film and features Gerard Depardieu before he became a joke. He was then a great actor. 

Claude Chabrol was the most prolific New Wave director, with nearly 60 films under his belt. He was also the most conventional of the New Wave directors, turning his talents primarily to suspense and crime films, but seen in the fresh style of the New Wave. Le Boucher is probably his most characteristic film. 

Eric Rohmer may be an acquired taste. They are talky, and were made in series, one group called “Moral Tales,” and another called “Comedies and Proverbs.” Summer (in French Le Rayon Vert: “The Green Ray”)  is one of the Comedies and Proverbs. 

Jacques Rivette is another New Waver, and he is notable for the length of his films, and his patience. It can try the patience of his viewers, but not if you pay attention. My favorite film, La Belle Noiseuse, is four hours long and spends a lot of that time showing an artist drawing with a crow-quill pen on paper. I’m not letting that out of my house. 

But I’m going to suggest instead, Va Savoir, probably his most accessible film, that has a great part for Jeanne Balibar. Claude Berri has a supporting part as a librarian.

I only mention that because Berri is really a director, and The Two of Us is a great film, and probably the only one in which an anti-Semite comes across as lovable. Michel Simon is a force of nature and I recommend seeing any film he is in. 

Finally, two recent films. French cinema has long ago taken what it could from the New Wave and moved on to more contemporary themes. 

One of my favorite living directors is Patrice Leconte. The Hairdresser’s Husband is quirky and heartbreaking and stars Jean Rochefort. He’s great in everything he does. 

There are several women directors who should be included. My favorite is Agnes Varda, but I’m including here instead Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat. It can be rather brutal, but it is definitely worth seeing. 

Lastly, I’m including a musical. Yes, a musical. It is Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, and it features an “all-star” cast of great French actresses: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard. This is like lining up Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, all in the same movie. It’s a doozy. 

I hope you enjoy all these. There’s plenty more to see, if these whet your appetite for Gallic filmmaking and if any of these directors particularly hits your buzzer, there are another five or ten films by the same maker. 

That’s your first 15 recommendations. But here are 25 or so more (I cheated. Some are trilogies, one is a pair). These are all films I love dearly:

Quai des orfevres by Henri-Georges Clouzot

La bete humaine by Jean Renoir

La ronde by Max Ophuls

Une femme est une femme by Jean-Luc Godard

Bob, le flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville

Betty by Claude Chabrol

Le quai des brumes by Jacques Prevert

Monsieur Hire by Patrice Leconte

Le Trou by Jacques Becker

Mouchette by Robert Bresson

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 by Jean-Francois Richet

Under the Roofs of Paris by Rene Clair

Man on the Train by Patrice Leconte

The Taste of Others by Agnes Jaoui

Vagabond by Agnes Varda

The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci

The Marseille Trilogy by Marcel Pagnol, three films: Marius; Fanny; and Cesar

The Earrings of Madame de … by Max Ophuls

Trilogy by Lucas Belvaux, including: Cavale on the Run; An Amazing Couple; and After Life

La Vie en Rose by Olivier Dahan

The Widow of St. Pierre by Patrice Laconte

Inspecteur Lavadin and Cop au Vin by Claude Chabrol

Le Samourai by Jean-Pierre Melville

Shoot the Piano Player by Truffaut

Jet Lag – (Decalage Horaire) by Danièle Thompson

Sex is Comedy by Catherine Breillat

Ridicule by Patrice Laconte

I am deeply embarrassed by the films I have left out. If you have a favorite, please add them to the comments.

Click any image to enlarge

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.