One of the great truisms of our time is that we live in an age of rapid technological and conceptual change. Like most such clichés, it's both true and not so true. As Salon reporter Damien Cave will document in an excellent upcoming piece about the apparent mutation of the Great Film canon, the tastes of even the most adventurous movie-watchers appear to have changed in the last couple of decades, although exactly how drastically is up for debate. So we began to think about a thorny question that recent history has made even thornier: What films are essential viewing for anybody who wants to understand, and discuss, the art of movies?
Even speaking as someone brought up in a '60s intelligentsia household, raised to worship a well-defined pantheon of European and Japanese art-film deities -- Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kurosawa -- some of the changes in the cinematic canon look pretty healthy. For one thing, Visconti's movies are tedious crap (and always were). For another, since those days we've lived through almost 30 years of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, five "Star Wars" movies, two or three indie-film rebellions, the sadly truncated acting careers of Andrew Dice Clay and Vanilla Ice, the Hong Kong invasion, Jim Carrey talking through his ass, Quentin Tarantino and Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas as an action star in "Gymkata."
Add to that the fact that we are experiencing a new golden age of art movies that's qualitatively different from any that has gone before (or so I believe). Bergman and Buñuel and Antonioni looked like revolutionaries in the aesthetic context of the '60s, but their films unmistakably derived from the heritage of the 20th-century avant-garde, with its roots in the classic traditions of drama, literature and the visual arts. Movies today are fundamentally rooted in pop culture: pop movies, pop music, pop spirituality, pop politics, pop philosophy and pop art. (As perhaps the first filmmaker to build his universe around pop, Jean-Luc Godard is the clearest ancestor figure for this new new wave.) Of course connections still exist to the Great Art of the past, but they have become attenuated and increasingly complicated.
All this is to begin to explain how I approached the impossible task of compiling a list of some finite number of movies that would establish film literacy. These aren't necessarily all movies I love: "Taxi Driver" probably isn't Martin Scorsese's best work, and I'm not sure "Blade Runner" is a good movie at all. I'm trying, rather, to guess at importance, influence, the cultural ripples a certain pebble created after hitting the pond.
My guiding principle was that movies that made the list had to simultaneously throw light on the past, present and future. The vast majority of these movies are well-established classics, but in every case they either illuminate some dark corner of the filmic past that I believe needs rediscovering, or they provide a crucial key to understanding the traditions and genres we find in movies today and where they may be going. (On the other hand, I've also got four movies made since 1980 on this list. That doesn't sound like a lot, but Sight and Sound magazine, published by the British Film Institute, recently ran its once-per-decade Top Ten polls of leading critics and directors -- and wound up with nothing more recent than "Raging Bull" on either list.)
I'm aware of how objectively horrifying this list is. Forty so-called important movies, and I've got nothing by Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi, Bernardo Bertolucci, Frank Capra, John Huston, Eric Rohmer, Preston Sturges, Fritz Lang or Ernst Lubitsch. Starting out, I was positive that Bresson, Mizoguchi and Rohmer would make the cut. Can I really justify two Stanley Kubricks, two John Fords and two Ingmar Bergmans, when those other guys don't even get one between them? Where are Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton? Where are Garbo and Dietrich? Marilyn Monroe and James Dean? Where in God's name is D.W. Griffith? (Good questions. I'm dismayed by them myself.)
You wind up having to make ludicrous choices, which aren't even comparisons between apples and oranges, but something more like apples and hyenas, or apples and aircraft carriers. I decided to do 20 films in each of two categories: movies you'd darn well better have seen already, and movies that I suspect you might not get around to without my benevolent interference. On the first list, I ended up somehow trying to decide between "Singin' in the Rain" and "Night of the Living Dead." (They, um, must have some similarities -- in both of them the dialogue pretty much sucks!)
On my second list, amid the faded glories and historical obscurities -- many of them unavailable on DVD, a factor I've tried to include -- I just kept bouncing around unpredictably. Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" or Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire"? (It's the Winsome Fantasy category.) Godard's "Breathless" or G.W. Pabst's great silent "Pandora's Box," which made Louise Brooks a star? (Hot Young Thing category.) "Triumph of the Will" or "The Birth of a Nation"? (Grandiose Racist Spectacle category.) Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" or Sergei Paradjanov's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors"? (I guess that's the Big-Ass Artistic Testament category.)
Anyway, I give up. Here it is. Whatever you have to say about it is probably right. Still, these are some doggone great movies; watch any of them and you won't be sorry. (Well, we'll get to the case of "Andrei Rublev" later.)
I've cheated in a few distinct ways. I'm including Francis Ford Coppola's first two "Godfather" films and Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy as one entry apiece, even though in both cases we're really talking about distinct and arguably quite different pictures. There are a few movies that I'm assuming you've absolutely, positively seen: "Gone With the Wind," "It's a Wonderful Life" (sneaking Capra in there after all) and "The Wizard of Oz." (If you haven't, I commend you. But you're much better off at this point spending the rest of your life climbing every peak in the eastern Sierras or rereading the novels of Trollope or something. Seriously, movies aren't that important.)
I will also confess that there's one ringer on this list, a movie I myself have not seen, where I'm relying heavily on the surrounding evidence and the opinions of friends. So sue me. (I'm not telling you what it is, though.) And if you disagree violently with something -- or everything -- on my list and wish to compile your own, rich with the works of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Nora Ephron or Herschell Gordon Lewis or whoever, I'll look forward to reading it.
(Note: In the interests of geeky thoroughness, I've included original foreign-language titles in a few cases where the standard U.S. title is anomalous.)
The 20 Movies You'd Better Have Seen Already
"All About Eve" (written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) Fasten your seatbelts, indeed. Everybody knows this movie today as the primordial Hollywood catfight, the best "backstage" drama of all time and a signature role for Bette Davis, perhaps the greatest actress in American film history. Watch it again for the density of its dialogue and its carefully structured drama. Mankiewicz was a stage refugee who saw the film medium as "a larger theater," a vision that for better or worse was mostly abandoned by mainstream American movies in the decades to follow.
"Battleship Potemkin" (directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) Enough said. If this crucial Soviet propaganda silent -- in which Eisenstein invented much of the language of modern cinema -- wasn't the first thing they showed you in that undergrad film class at Bedrock State, return your diploma and get a refund.
"The Big Sleep" (directed by Howard Hawks, 1946) The ultimate film noir -- even though, as an "A" picture, it may not technically qualify for the genre -- especially because the plot is finally too murky to be comprehensible and several scenes are lost forever. (A special-edition DVD reconstructs most of the missing soundtrack and a few images.) The ultimate Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall picture, the ultimate Raymond Chandler adaptation (partly scripted by William Faulkner) and an early example of Hollywood turning its poisoned gaze upon itself. (See also "Sunset Blvd.," below.)
"Blade Runner" (directed by Ridley Scott, 1982) The movie that invented the future. Been to Times Square lately?
"Blue Velvet" (written and directed by David Lynch, 1986) I saw the best minds of my generation pining, nay, virtually (and in some cases literally) dying for a work of art that captured the perversions and contradictions beneath the surface of the "morning in America" go-go Reagan era. This was that work. Certain things about the "Blue Velvet" aesthetic may seem hackneyed today (thanks to endless and often hapless imitation), but nothing this dark, this hallucinatory or this extreme had been seen in mainstream American cinema since, well, ever.
"Casablanca" (directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942) "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." The best-loved movie romance ever made.
"Chinatown" (directed by Roman Polanski, 1974) I didn't get this creepily brilliant neo-noir -- which introduced the genre to the post-Vietnam generation -- about capitalism, water and Los Angeles when I first saw it as a teenager. I still thought America could be redeemed.
"Citizen Kane" (directed by Orson Welles, 1941) What am I supposed to say here? By international consensus, the greatest movie ever made. (And, along with "Battleship Potemkin," the foundation of the Great Director legend.)
"Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1964) Confession: I don't love "Dr. Strangelove." I've always found its political satire grating and Peter Sellers' performance(s) irritatingly over the top. (Although, as in all Kubrick, the filmmaking is terrific.) Maybe you had to be there, in a world many rational people believed was about to be blown to smithereens by dueling packs of idiots. But there's no denying it shaped the sensibility -- and sense of humor -- of generations to come.
"The 400 Blows" (directed by François Truffaut, 1959) Teen rebellion goes to art school. Frankly, Truffaut gets on my nerves, and "Rebel Without a Cause" is probably just as important: the doomed and wounded hero, the mainstreaming of Method acting. So what is this movie doing here? Oh, yeah. The French New Wave. Well, there's that.
"The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II" (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 and 1974) Not just the gold standard of gangster cinema but also the greatest drama of American immigration and assimilation ever made. Don Corleone's grandchildren include not just Tony Soprano but also Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur. (Holiday gift suggestion dept.: The five-disc DVD set, including the muddled "Godfather: Part III" and the deleted scenes Coppola reinserted into the narrative in the mid-'70s, makes the perfect stocking-stuffer for any movie buff in your life!)
"Jaws" (directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975) The invention of the summer-event blockbuster, which has never been done better. I saw it at the mall with my mom, who grabbed hold of my arm and wouldn't let go, leaving fingernail bruises that took a week to heal. (Fortunately, I didn't see any girls I knew.) Oh, and seeing the movie in bits and pieces on TNT (which goes through phases of showing nothing else) doesn't count.
"Lawrence of Arabia" (directed by David Lean, 1962) No seeing this one on TV, either. A wide-screen entertainment like no other, and proof that an eye-popping visual spectacle doesn't have to be brainless crapola.
"Nashville" (directed by Robert Altman, 1975) Altman's sprawling, interlocking saga of Music City is the great work of American film's great improviser and became a crucial shaping force on the various independent-film rebellions of the '80s and '90s. (Hello, Paul Thomas Anderson.)
"Night of the Living Dead" (directed by George A. Romero, 1968) The ultimate zero-budget horror classic, this sent generations of geeks into the backyard armed with Super-8 cameras (or, latterly, digital video), raw meat and bottles of ketchup. Sure, "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead," Romero's sequels, have more social commentary, but few horror flicks are this genuinely terrifying or make such a virtue of poverty. (Due to byzantine copyright problems, this film is poorly served on DVD: Caveat emptor.)
"The Seven Samurai" (directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1954) I'd actually rather sit through "Yojimbo," "Throne of Blood," "High and Low" or "The Bad Sleep Well." But every subsequent movie dealing with masculine honor and violence, from Sam Peckinpah to Coppola, Scorsese and John Woo, owes an immeasurable debt to Kurosawa's majestic, marvelously composed trademark film.
"Sunset Blvd." (directed by Billy Wilder, 1950) Where did a director as lightweight as Billy Wilder (there, I said it) find the dark spirit of this grotesque Hollywood masterpiece, which prefigures a perverse moral-fable tradition in American movies that includes "Chinatown," "Blue Velvet" and "American Beauty"? I'll never understand it.
"Taxi Driver" (directed by Martin Scorsese, 1976) You talkin' to me? The only movie, as far as I know, to inspire an attempted presidential assassin. Many critics feel that Scorsese's "Raging Bull" is actually a better movie, and they might be right. But "Taxi Driver" distilled the mad mood of creeping urban anomie better than any other film of the '70s, and almost immediately became more a trope or a signifier than a movie. It also simultaneously launched the careers of Scorsese, Robert De Niro and screenwriter Paul Schrader.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968) There may be no explaining or understanding this picture, which seems just as strange now as the day it was released, and is basically a near-abstract art film disguised as a major Hollywood release. It changed the way people thought of movies, and not entirely in a good way. (And yes, for many viewers psychoactive chemicals were involved.) But here's the thing: Those images! That soundtrack, from the "Blue Danube" to "Also sprach Zarathustra"! That creepazoid computer! That psychedelic light show! Sheesh.
"Vertigo" (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) OK, so I'm famous (well, famous among my friends) for not liking Hitchcock and especially not liking "Vertigo." Let me clarify: Its message, as far as I can tell, is that love is an unhealthy obsession and art is a mean-spirited trick. It's also a beautiful, magnificently crafted film, and without serious doubt the most influential Hollywood thriller of all. And it was made by a sick bastard.
Films You Might Never See (Without My Benevolent Guidance)
"Andrei Rublev" (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1969) Many cinéastes regard Tarkovsky's leisurely, impressionistic epic portrait of the great medieval icon painter as the best film about artistic creation ever made. It's a work of extraordinary cinema that drags you almost bodily back to the timeless brutality of the Middle Ages and -- at 205 minutes in the full-length DVD version! -- virtually makes you live through them. I'll never forget the first time I saw it, mostly because I got so bored I thought I was going to die. Then came the fabled bell-making scene and I realized, oh, you stick with this, you get bored out of your skull, you come out on the other side of boredom into some kind of timeless state of marvel and you're never quite the same person afterward. These days we flee in terror from boredom. We believe that art is supposed to be clever and pretty and quip-laden and always entertaining. But in fact the ability to use stillness, silence and nothingness to pull an audience out of history and mortality into the infinite space of God -- or the soul or the connectedness of all life or whatever you want to call it -- is one of the artist's most important functions. "Andrei Rublev" is the greatest work of the 20th century's most intractable major film artist; it isn't chocolate and it isn't trying to be.
The Apu Trilogy: "Pather Panchali," "Aparajito" and"The World of Apu" (directed by Satyajit Ray, 1955-59) This unforgettable tragicomic trilogy following a boy from a poor Bengali village into manhood is one of the great achievements of world cinema. Not merely because it dignifies an obscure peasant family by making it the subject of epic drama, but because in doing so Ray always insists on the wanton, irrepressible individuality of young Apu and everyone else in the story. The trilogy was a minor art-house hit in the U.S. on its initial release, but its effect on aspiring filmmakers and artists all over the developing world was incalculable. (Although a VHS box set of the trilogy can still be found, it isn't available on DVD.)
"Badlands" (written and directed by Terrence Malick, 1973) The ultimate American road movie, this makes "True Romance" and "Natural Born Killers" look like the cheap and snarky imitations they are. I love Malick's movies (he's the other, weirder Stanley Kubrick), including "Days of Heaven" and even the overwrought "Thin Red Line," which was buried amid the recent onslaught of World War II flicks. But this one, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as killers on the lam, has a purity and clarity unique in American crime movies.
"The Bicycle Thief" (directed by Vittorio De Sica, 1948) The heartrending classic of Italian neorealism and the film -- along with Roberto Rossellini's "Open City" and "Germany Year Zero" -- that pretty much launched the European film vogue in the U.S. Certainly should be part of that freshman-year film class, but you never know; they probably showed you "Kiss Me Deadly" or something instead. Used in Michael Tolkin's "The Player" as the movie even the most disgusting Hollywood vermin watch to prove they still have souls.
"Breathless" (U.S. title of "À bout de souffle," directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) There are plenty of Godard movies I might rank above this one in terms of pure enjoyment -- "Band of Outsiders," "Alphaville," "Pierrot le fou" -- and in truth I find the whole rebellion-romance thing in "Breathless" a bit juvenile. But this is the movie that made Godard a celebrity filmmaker overnight, and Jean-Paul Belmondo as a dreamboat, Marlboro-smokin' thug, alongside Jean Seberg's Yank-tomboy-in-Paris routine, really created something here. And I don't have to admire it entirely to see that it has echoed through generations of youth culture to this very day.
"Bride of Frankenstein" (directed by James Whale, 1935) This hallucinatory, tragic, witty masterpiece is many things: a tripped-out Gothic comedy, a heartbreaking homoerotic romance, a series of jaw-droppingly beautiful black-and-white compositions. It isn't, however, a horror movie. (Although I guess Elsa Lanchester's bride, with that streaked Susan Sontag do, is pretty scary.) Don't miss Whale's original "Frankenstein" or his 1936 "Show Boat," but his tragic genius -- a tremendously influential force in a way no one could have foreseen at the moment of his greatest fame -- found its fullest expression here. (A great DVD edition is available.) If you haven't seen "Gods and Monsters," starring Ian McKellen as Whale, don't miss that either.
"Children of Paradise" (directed by Marcel Carné, 1945) My college girlfriend dragged me to this epic backstage romance -- set in the Parisian theater world of the late 19th century -- assuring me that it was the greatest movie ever made. You might agree with her, if you're precisely the sort of softie whose top-10 cultural experiences include productions of "A Chorus Line" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Filmed in Nazi-occupied France, "Children of Paradise" is the last and loveliest gasp of the lavish, poetic style of French studio filmmaking. Watch it while snuggled under a blanket with you-know-who on a rainy Sunday afternoon. An influence on every tragic screen romance to follow, although I can't think of one to match it.
"The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (directed by Luis Buñuel, 1972) Combine Marx, Freud, Jung, Sartre and Monty Python (the latter of whom, of course, Buñuel more or less predates). Serve with fine cognac and Cool Whip. A group of upper-middle-class Parisian suburbanites trying to have dinner are continually interrupted by sexual misadventure, the misbehavior of their social inferiors and an invasion of soldiers who want to smoke pot and discuss their dreams. The profound influence of film's greatest surrealist is most easily seen in his flourishes of absurdist comedy, but "Discreet Charm" is also a haunting and serious work, and seems almost as cinematically daring today as 30 years ago. (A fine DVD edition comes with marvelous, if miscellaneous, extras.)
"8 1/2" (directed by Federico Fellini, 1963) Yet another case where the director's most agreeable work may lie elsewhere: Fellini escapes his narcissism more effectively in "La Strada" and the devastating "Nights of Cabiria," and "La Dolce vita" is more fun. But "8 1/2" invented -- or at least perfected -- the self-referential films-about-filmmaking tradition later continued by Woody Allen, Peter Greenaway, Robert Altman and countless others. An unmatched work of pure cinema, it can seem breathtaking and massively self-indulgent at virtually the same moment, but even in 1963 that was sort of the point. Marcello Mastroianni is of course irresistibly stylish as Fellini alter-ego Guido Anselmi.
"A Face in the Crowd" (directed by Elia Kazan, 1957) For those of you who thought that corrosive critiques of the crypto-fascist media state belonged strictly to the postmodern era. "A Face in the Crowd" offers the best work of both director Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who might not have been best pals when you consider that Kazan infamously sang like a canary to the House Un-American Activities Committee, while Schulberg was a true-blue radical. Andy Griffith (yes, that Andy Griffith) plays an Arkansas hobo who is catapulted to TV superstardom and becomes the mouthpiece for a creepy right-wing political movement. This cynical magnum opus is a shattering indictment of many things that hadn't happened yet: TV as a method of creating and shaping mob mentality, the Reagan presidency, Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura, the media machinery that builds up celebrities only to destroy them. (See also Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," made 16 years earlier and almost as amazing.)
"Fanny and Alexander" (written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1982) Bergman fans may well be wondering where "The Magician," "Smiles of a Summer Night," "Wild Strawberries," "Cries and Whispers" and "Scenes From a Marriage" are. Essentially, they're all here, in this great comic melodrama about theater, childhood, family, magic, ghosts and God that provided the capstone to a magnificent career. ("The Seventh Seal" isn't here, however, which I myself can't quite believe. I still recommend it, but it isn't as central to the film canon as it once was.) Bergman is still alive and still directing films for television, of course, but he has stayed away from cinema on this scale. The onetime consensus that Bergman is the greatest of all filmmakers has long since fractured; the recent Sight and Sound critics' poll failed to place him in the top 10 (while the directors' poll placed him at No. 8). But he will always be the greatest filmmaker of his type -- which is to say the greatest moralist and the greatest dramatist -- and I'm confident that as critical fashions ebb and flow, "Fanny and Alexander" will ultimately be seen as the kind of overflowing, enduring work that outlasts everything around it and its own unfashionability, like the novels of Balzac or Dickens or the plays of Chekhov or Ibsen. (In the meantime, it's not even available on DVD, although that will apparently be rectified soon.) As should be obvious, the tradition Bergman inaugurated continues to reverberate throughout upscale world cinema, from Lars von Trier to Abbas Kiarostami to "American Beauty," "You Can Count on Me," "In the Bedroom" and almost anywhere else you care to look.
"Nosferatu the Vampire" (U.S. title of "Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens," directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922) It's truly appalling that the entire silent tradition is represented on my list only by this movie and the next one -- I've got no Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, no "Metropolis" or "Greed" or "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," no "Birth of a Nation" or "Intolerance." (I freely concede, for example, that silent comedy remains an important influence on many filmmakers and performers, from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey. Ultimately, though, I guess I'm not that interested.) Still, Murnau's genuinely spooky "Nosferatu" is a fine choice on its own terms -- it not only invented the vampire movie, it's one of the rare silent classics that can hold a contemporary audience transfixed through its entire running time. As the title suggests, it's a beautifully composed symphony of light and darkness, coffins, rats and the unspeakably creepy visage of Max Schreck as Count Orlok the vampire. (Fans should also catch Werner Herzog's great 1979 version with Klaus Kinski, but skip the arch and befuddled "Shadow of the Vampire," which fictionalizes the making of Murnau's film.)
"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) You could make a half-convincing case that this silent, black-and-white Euro-classic, telling the story of Joan's trial and execution in a series of unbearably intense close-ups, doesn't really belong here, and that its influence on film history -- most directly expressed through high-art gods Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky -- has largely faded. I'm not buying it. Driven as much by Maria Falconetti's unforgettable performance as by Dreyer's technique, "The Passion of Joan of Arc" set a kind of aesthetic gold standard for the movies, and established once and for all that emotional impact didn't depend on a huge budget and lavish scenery. Furthermore, if we can't clearly see Dreyer's influence that's because it's everywhere: commercials, made-for-Lifetime movies, those contemplative scenes in John Woo films.
"Persona" (written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1966) Has the cinematic breakthrough represented by "Persona" been so abused by generations of TV commercials and music videos that it now appears trite? People whose taste I generally respect think so, but that point of view is simply impossible for me. I first saw "Persona" in a college film series around 1980 and could hardly sleep afterward. The hard-edged psychological realism in the relationship between nurse Bibi Andersson and the mute (or is she?) psychiatric patient Liv Ullmann, combined with the pomo film-history explosion in the middle of the movie, blew my mind worse than any drugs I've ever had before or since. I went back to see it the next night and the night after that. A friend of mine used to check out a print from the Baltimore public library every weekend and project it against his bedroom wall. "L'Avventura," "Last Year in Marienbad" and "Pierrot le fou" had already done considerable damage to the boundary between narrative and experimental film, but after "Persona" it would never be convincingly rebuilt. (For some unimaginable reason "Persona" isn't available on DVD, and even the VHS cassette is pretty hard to find.)
"The Red Shoes" (directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948) I told a friend to watch "The Red Shoes" about a year ago, when the superb DVD came out. He looked it up on IMDB. "You mean the ballet movie?" he asked, a mixture of disgust and contempt in his voice. I did. I meant the ballet movie, the fairy tale (adapted from Hans Christian Andersen), the sadomasochistic love triangle, the hallucinatory Technicolor spectacle and the parable about the destructive power of art. English director Michael Powell, one of the screen's true half-demented visionaries, was excavated from obscurity in the '80s and '90s, thanks largely to devoted fan Martin Scorsese. Those who appreciate this bizarre and beautiful fable will want to graduate to the next level: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "A Matter of Life and Death" (aka "Stairway to Heaven"), "The Small Back Room," "The Tales of Hoffmann" and the tremendously influential "Peeping Tom."
"Rules of the Game" (directed by Jean Renoir, 1939) Neglected on its first release, Renoir's country-house comedy -- an alternately scathing and genial portrait of European class warfare on the eve of the Great War -- was rediscovered in the years after World War II and rapidly became enshrined on the short list of Greatest Films Ever. (It ranks at No. 3 on this year's Sight and Sound critics' poll, after "Citizen Kane" and "Vertigo.") Its never-stable combination of violence and humor, the breadth of its sympathy and the exquisite choreography of its ensemble comedy are hugely influential and have been endlessly emulated, if never quite matched. But as the class system it documents fades ever deeper into history, "Rules of the Game" is increasingly in danger of becoming a dated, semicomprehensible oddity. (The multitude of scratchy VHS editions -- and lack of a DVD -- sure aren't helping.)
"The Searchers" (directed by John Ford, 1956) My brief dissertation on John Ford is found in the next entry. This tale of a tormented Civil War vet (John Wayne, of course) hunting for his long-missing niece -- and the Native American warriors who apparently abducted her -- is Ford's acknowledged masterpiece, the work where all the sexual and racial anxieties partly submerged in his masculine mythologizing burst to the surface. Its echoes reach almost everywhere in film history: Kurosawa, Clint Eastwood, "Easy Rider," "Taxi Driver," John Woo, George Lucas.
"Stagecoach" (directed by John Ford, 1939) It's become fashionable in critical circles to bash Ford in general and this stagy (har, har) ensemble drama in particular. With the western in near-total eclipse as a genre, they might not have shown "Stagecoach" in that undergrad film class of yours, and it's a shame. If Ford's filmmaking combined the cornball optimism and thoughtless racism of his country, is that really his fault? It's a richly engaging tale, effortlessly and economically shot (at just 96 minutes), that introduced most of the character and scenery tropes that would define the western. And it launched bluff, agreeable John Wayne on his iconic trajectory. As for Ford himself: Give me a break. Sure, his politics are fatally confused and he was no great intellect, but people will still be watching "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "My Darling Clementine," "The Quiet Man," "Rio Grande" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" when the films of Antonioni and Alain Resnais are decaying digital data in the basement of history.
"Tokyo Story" (directed by Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) It's asking a lot of contemporary Americans, I admit, to appreciate the almost imperceptible dramatic currents in Ozu's deceptively simple tale of an older couple's journey to visit their children in Tokyo. The minimalism and restraint of "Tokyo Story" not only became the fountainhead of modern Japanese cinema, but also became seen, after its U.S. release in 1964, as a powerful antidote to Hollywood's melodramatic excess. In terms of technique, Ozu's most notable American disciple is Jim Jarmusch, but I think Ozu's true influence is more general: Any filmmaker who believes that movies shouldn't be about themselves or about their makers or about sensational acts of violence, but rather about real people's lives, is following his example.
"Wings of Desire" (U.S. title of "Der Himmel über Berlin," directed by Wim Wenders, 1987) OK, it's a personal choice: The apotheosis, and also the renunciation, of black-clad '80s hipster culture. Why has this beautiful and heartbreaking romance -- in which an angel watching over a still-divided Berlin falls in love with a human -- been so thoroughly abandoned in 15 years? Because Hollywood remade it, with Nicolas Cage and other noxious ingredients, as "City of Angels"? Because Wenders' subsequent career has been a series of ever more baffling embarrassments? Because so many of us who lived through that decade would prefer to forget it? Well, I guess those are reasons. Still, a thrilling cinematic accomplishment that strongly influenced '90s indie film and shaped a moment in late-bohemian world culture. But in order for viewers too young to have seen "Wings of Desire" to catch up with it, we may need a definitive DVD edition (reportedly, one has just been released in Europe).