As Entertainment Weekly wrote on publishing its list of the 100 greatest films of all time, “Lists are silly.” They are inadequate and usually foolhardy. But we love them, and I love them. I’m keeping my list to 50ish for now in recognition of how few films I’ve seen, but will update this as the years go on.
Occasionally movies are paired on this list. I’ve done this in cases where I think two films offer similar treatises on life or similar arguments about humanity, where two filmmakers from disparate parts of the world have created works that complement each other and it is therefore impossible to pick one over the other.
Things you won’t find on this list: movies about despicable men who shoot each other——so no “The Godfather,” no “Taxi Driver,” no “Goodfellas” — and Hollywood epics that equate grandiosity with meaning, like “Gone with the Wind” or “Ben-Hur.” This list is my take on the most trenchant, inventive, and rhapsodic movies out there, and it is as international as I can make it; I am consuming films from Africa and Asia every month and look forward to one day compiling a truly global list of great movies, which is a hard thing to find even in this “globalized” age of cinema.
• • •
1963 • 138 minutes • Federico Fellini • Italy
Fellini’s may be the self-absorbed white man’s take on why we make movies, but as a deconstruction of the creative mind it is fascinating, and as cinema it is ravishingly hypnotic. Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido fairly glides through this dreamscape of his own making, as women fanciful and serious float in and out of view, until it all comes together——first in the delirious harem scene, and then in the ebullient closing circus march. These and countless other moments (Who can forget the magician rising into the spotlight at the dinner party?) consummated a decadent, hallucinatory signature style which today we simply call, “Felliniesque.”
Les 400 Coups
1959 • 99 minutes • François Truffaut • France
Truffaut’s winsome, semi-autobiographical tale of adolescence is the most heartfelt of the much-ballyhooed French New Wave films, and therefore the most accessible. It’s also a pitch-perfect capsule of the frustration and wonder that burn through those years when boys the world over do things that make their parents shake their heads. Jean-Pierre Léaud is the ragamuffin Antoine, doing the things that any boy loose in Paris would do, all the while running from everything that feels wrong, until he is shipped off to boarding school and suddenly the whole world begins to feel wrong. The final shot is a reflection and a question, asking us, now that we have grown up and can no longer be children: What now?
2001: A Space Odyssey
1968 • 141 minutes • Stanley Kubrick • U.S.A.
Visionary directors from Griffith to Lang have tried to explode conventional notions of what movies can do, but none have done it with such philosophical aplomb and eye-popping grandeur as Kubrick, one of the only directors who believed that film was a vehicle for ideas more than emotions. 2001 rises like a floating spaceship over trivial things like plot and characters, and invites us to revel in the sheer awesomeness of human evolution, from our ape ancestors to an imagined, enlightened superbeing. Its stark, almost scientific approach leaves many viewers cold (Pauline Kael called it “monumentally unimaginative”), but see it on the big screen and you will experience one of the most transcendentally optimistic visions of our future ever argued.
1962 • 150 minutes • Satyajit Ray • India
One of Ray’s least-known films, and the only one he ever made with the great actress Waheeda Rehman, Abhijan is a slow-burning tale of sleaze and redemption, as gracefully constructed as the scripts of Robert Zemeckis or Frank Darabont in America. Soumitra Chatterjee plays a cab driver who gets waylayed in a small town with dreams of better things, and finds himself drawn into a fringe business transporting opium. The events unspool with the grim calm of the Italian neorealists who so inspired Ray, and with none of the sentimentality of his Apu trilogy. Though it’s a cultural world apart, to me Abhijan evokes Wilder’s The Apartment; both films follow characters mired in the cynical morass of our modern world, who in the end manage to extract a quiet redemption that will make you weep.
Aguirre, der Zorne Gottes / There Will Be Blood
1973 • 100 minutes • Werner Herzog • Germany / Peru
2007 • 158 minutes • Paul Thomas Anderson • U.S.A.
Here are two towering entries in the “humanity is ruled by evil and mania” school of thought, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview and Klaus Kinski as Aguirre both channeling versions of the burning, power-starved demon that lurks in the hearts of all men who quest for greatness. Herzog’s misty, visceral journey ends in a sort of spiritual transcendence that rises above the madness; while Blood is like the surpassingly optimistic 2001 run backwards: instead of enlightened superbeings, we are all equally likely to end up as shrieking, murderous madmen wielding bowling pins like apes.
Alice in Wonderland / Spirited Away
1951 • 75 minutes • Geronimi/Jackson/Luske • U.S.A.
2002 • 125 minutes • Hayao Miyazaki • Japan
It’s almost impossible to describe the way imagination worked when we were children——the way stories could twist and turn into fantastical realms on little more than a feeling, always with a kind of sideways logic and consistency——which is why the achievements of Miyazaki and the early Disney animators with these twin fairy tales are to be cherished by viewers young and old. Whether we’re cowering in the dark with the Mome Raths or chasing a wounded dragon across an infinite sea, these films make us feel like children again——and that, surely, is something only cinema can do.
Aliens / Hard Boiled
1986 • 154 minutes • James Cameron • U.S.A.
1992 • 126 minutes • John Woo • Hong Kong
Between Chow Yun-Fat sliding iconically down the railing, both guns blazing, and Sigourney Weaver shouting “Get away from her, you bitch!” to roars of audience delight, each of these films could easily claim the title of Greatest Action Movie Ever Made. But each, in its way, transcends the “action” label. By the time Chow is fending off gunfire while cradling a newborn baby——having waded through a shootout spanning two stories in one three-minute-long single take——Woo has created something like ballet with bullets; meanwhile, the final hour of the full Aliens (don’t settle for the dumbed down theatrical cut) contains the most relentless and terrifying series of sense-stunning action sequences ever filmed.
All About Eve / Kaagaz ke Phool
1950 • 138 minutes • Joseph L. Mankiewicz • U.S.A.
1957 • 148 minutes • Guru Dutt • India
War may be hell, but so is making movies——according to these two withering tales of cinematic giants being devoured by the industries they helped create. Anne Baxter plays Eve, the is-she-or-is-she-not-pure-evil ingenue who slowly pulls the red carpet out from under a radiant Bette Davis, and Guru Dutt plays a doe-eyed director named Suresh who, tragically, might as well be the real-life director himself——Dutt committed suicide five years later. Their descents into obscurity are made epic by striking imagery from Milton Krasner and V.K. Murthy, including the shaft of light number in Phool and the evocative final shot from Eve, reflecting infinite aspiring Eves, all waiting to claw their way to the top.
1960 • 125 minutes • Billy Wilder • U.S.A.
Classically speaking, a tragedy will always end in death, and a comedy will always end in marriage. The singular brilliance of Wilder’s greatest film is that for all of its wry, trenchant 125 minutes, indeed up until its final seconds, when a terrified Shirley Maclaine rushes up to Jack Lemmon’s door to find… it is unclear whether we are watching a comedy or a tragedy. Maclaine as the coy Fran Kubelik and Lemmon as the flu-stricken C.C. Baxter have their feet planted so firmly in reality that they make the sort of coldly practical decisions unheard of in most Hollywood romances; so when they both finally rise above the cynical trappings of their world——Lemmon with the light clunk of a key and Maclaine with a rapturous run through the streets——their liberation brings vicarious tears to our eyes. If only life were like this.
1925 • 75 minutes • Sergei Eisenstein • Russia
By 1925, Eisenstein had refined film editing almost to a science, and this was his resounding proof of the power of association. Each shot represents an idea, and a series of shots in sequence constitute an argument——in this case a powerful emotional argument. Much of Potemkin is questionable Bolshevik propaganda, but the shocking Odessa steps scene late in the film can still make viewers gasp today, and the calm, relentless rhythm of the cutting makes this impassioned saga feel something like cinema in its purest form.
1943 • 102 minutes • Michael Curtiz • U.S.A.
For all the Hollywood smoke and glamor in which it has become encased, the lasting appeal of Casablanca is that its characters are just like us. Rick Blaine is after all only a weary bar owner, a guy trying to make his way in a troubled world and leave his past behind; and Ilsa Lund is a lost woman with the humble sense to grab on to a man with loftier pursuits than hers. The magic is in the way the screenplay, the deftest ever not written by Billy Wilder, slowly ushers us toward Rick’s moral awakening, which seems both shrewd and poetic in the way that only real-life great acts——and great movies——can be.
Children of Men
2006 • 109 minuts • Alfonso Cuáron • United Kingdom
In an age when we have grown weary of colossal battles and starships flying through space, Cuarón’s gritty, handheld tour of dystopia is a film to astonish us——one of the most visceral films ever made. "With editing, you manipulate time, Caurón says. “Here, you have just the constant flow of a moment. I believe heartbeats get connected in that moment.” More likely your heart will skip in your chest as Emmanuel Lubezki’s astonishing camera work follows Clive Owen through a desolate future England in search of the Bogart-like conviction to rise above himself, and hope, at last, for a better world.
Chung Hing sam lam / Pulp Fiction
1994 • 102 minutes • Wong Kar-Wai • Hong Kong
1994 • 154 minutes • Quentin Tarantino • U.S.A.
This might seem like the most bizarre pairing on this list, but I think even Tarantino would approve——after all, he famously fell in love with Wong’s film and helped to promote it in the USA. Both movies are essays in form and flow, experiential wonders that demonstrate how cinema, despite featherweight content, can charm us into a state of trance which we gladly return to. Both movies play with our sense of narrative, skipping backward in time and abandoning storylines halfway through. And both movies, with only their flowing cinematography (Pulp’s is perennially underrated) and fascinatingly meandering stories, transform the ordinary streets of LA and Hong Kong into buzzing, otherworldly places, full of possibility down every unseen alley.
1941 • 119 minutes • Orson Welles • U.S.A.
Citizen Kane is the filmmaker’s Great Film. While neophytes burdened by high expectations often find it cold and inscrutable, critics and industry insiders have swooned for decades at the deep focus and evocative mise-en-scène, all too often placing it at the very top of lists like this. What inevitably gets overlooked, however, is Kane’s superbly crafted and genuinely moving story, which rumbles quietly through so much pomp and intrigue before suddenly dollying in on one of cinema’s most famous revelations, and blindsiding us with, of all things, a poignant ending, and a testament to our collective innocence lost in the smoke and bustle of the industrial age.
1931 • 87 minutes • Charlie Chaplin • U.S.A.
There is a kind of creative purity on display in the best films of Chaplin and his silent contemporaries. The story of City Lights is simple——a tramp tries to woo a blind girl who believes he is a rich businessman——but hung at intervals along the plot are scenes of endlessly inventive comedy which are often at such tangents to the story that they call attention to the brilliance of their premises. It’s as though we can see the scrawling on Chaplin’s napkins, ingenious ideas in search of a story: “swallowed whistle attracts dogs”…“trying not to fight in a boxing match”… The grace with which each vignette is rendered would be proof enough of Chaplin’s genius——and yet it’s City Lights’ ending, which was met with a tearful standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in 1972, that will stick in your heart forever.
1970 • 111 minutes • Bernardo Bertolucci • Italy
Yes, it’s a master class in exquisite cinematography all by itself, but this provocative venture into the fascist psyche is also dense with ideas, all strung together at impressionistic tangents like in a Susan Sontag essay. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the meek, prickly Marcello, who is so afraid of the homosexuality lurking inside him that he enlists as a flunky of the fascist state, and agrees to take his bimbo of a fiancée on an undercover mission to Paris. Like Kubrick and Kieslowski, Bertolucci conveys his ideas through imagery——never better than in the mesmerizing dance sequence, or the final, torchlit parade, when a battered, desperate Marcello finally breaks free from the crowd.
Devi / The Seventh Seal
1960 • 93 minutes • Satyajit Ray • India
1957 • 96 minutes • Ingmar Bergman • Sweden
“There is no God.” To the liberal Western cinephile this may seem a simple enough phrase; but to the true believer, especially in bygone days, this was a revelation which could shatter the soul. Two journeys, one in rural India, the other in medieval Sweden, chart the unraveling of faith in devout communities and the devastation that ensues, as observed by Ray the humanist and Bergman the impressionist. Devi was revolutionary in India at the time, and Sharmila Tagore’s transformation from teenage girl to presumptive Goddess is an inspired performance; but the image that lingers most is Seal’s teenage witch, strung up before the fire that will take her life, her eyes wide as she stares into her future——and sees “nothingness” for the first time.
Do the Right Thing / Nishant
1989 • 120 minutes • Spike Lee • U.S.A.
1975 • 140 minutes • Shyam Benegal • India
Two of the most powerful and important films on this list are also two of the most overlooked——especially Benegal’s masterpiece, called Night’s End in English. Both present slice-of-life views of communities coping under the weight of poverty and oppression, and both invite the viewer to share in the anger and buried desperation that course through these places. The anger courses so strongly, in fact, that violence comes to seem like a necessary release——until the violence actually erupts, in climaxes of awful power that shatter our conceptions of revenge and violence as noble or exciting. There are no easy answers in these films, but by holding chaos up to the light, they help to trace the inexorable way that everyday cruelties can lead to devastation.
1944 • 107 minutes • Billy Wilder • U.S.A.
Wilder’s film noir par excellence is the kind of movie that gets shown in film courses when there’s only time to show one great noir, one movie that encompasses all of the angst, regret, and shadowy paranoia of the 1940s. It’s the quintessential story of American descent, with Fred MacMurray, never better, as the everyman coaxed by greed and lust out of a respectable existence and into a freefall toward moral reckoning at the hands of Barbra Stanwyck——the quintessential femme fatale. From a script co-written by Raymond Chandler and containing some of the deftest dialogue ever written (“How fast was I going, officer?”), Wilder spins a tale of criminal mischief which is somehow grippingly suspenseful even though we know how it ends from Scene 1.
The Drunken Master / Strictly Ballroom
1978 • 107 minutes • Yuen Woo-Ping • Hong Kong
1993 • 94 minutes • Baz Luhrmann • Australia
Both are likely targets for “fluffiest” film on this list, but for all their kookiness, these are two of the cinema’s most rhapsodic celebrations of the human body. When moving pictures were first invented it was the sheer wonder of seeing bodies in motion that thrilled audiences; and the bodies here are in dazzling, spinning motion from the grassy fighting styles sequence in Master to Ballroom’s rapturous final number. The latter is the purest of Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain” films, while the former gave unto the world in Jackie Chan a physical actor on a par with Buster Keaton. You don’t have to love dance or kung fu to watch these; you just have to soak up the glorious kitsch, the eye-popping colors, and the sight of human bodies at the graceful limit of their physical potential.
1990 • 92 minutes • Derek Jarman • United Kingdom
Luis Buñuel famously employed surrealism to make oblique intellectual jabs at lofty notions like religion and classism; Jarman’s dreamscapes have their share of prickly symbolism, but his cinema is experiential as well as experimental——The Garden hijacks the sheer in-the-moment-ness of cinema to form a flowing, hallucinatory rendition of the homosexual experience in our modern world. The disjointed flow of scenes doesn’t get old but rather more hypnotic as it goes along, which is a remarkable feat both cinematically and rhetorically; this is moviemaking at the fine outer edge of cinema: abstract, bizarre, disturbing——and important.
1991 • 189 minutes • Oliver Stone • U.S.A.
Stone’s deeply patriotic magnum opus is on this list because it reminds us that movies——not only documentaries——can respond urgently, meaningfully, and with astonishing articulacy to the real events and movements that shape our world. JFK may be just a series of speculative reenactments tailored around one man’s interpretation of the Kennedy assassination, but it is as persuasive as any written investigation could ever be——and horrifying in its implications. By the time Kevin Costner finishes his closing speech and turns to face the camera with real tears in his eyes, this three-hour argument will leave you floored——and, perhaps, inspired to take action against today’s myriad injustices.
1933 • 104 minutes • M. C. Cooper/E. B. Shoedsack • U.S.A.
The original stop-motion King Kong isn’t memorable so much for giving birth to one of the great iconic movie figures as for giving birth to the cinematic idea of a journey into the great unknown, complete with mysterious maps, islands that aren’t there (Lost, anyone?), horrible beasts lurking just out of sight, and the prospect of an uncharted world waiting to be discovered. Griffith by this point had already showed us that movies can be epic in scope and story; King Kong declared that movies could bring the most fantastical adventure yarns and children’s bedtime stories to life with a vividness that would capture the global imagination.
Der Krieger und die Keiserin
2000 • 135 minutes • Tom Tykwer • Germany
Too easily lumped in with the great morass of European Art House Films, this ponderous fable from Tom Tykwer——who, for a time, was as visually inventive a director as any alive today——happens to contain some of the most invigoratingly romantic scenes ever filmed. All the Meet Cutes that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond ever cooked up would crumble next to the excruciating trachiotomy scene under which these two lost souls, played to brooding perfection by Franka Potente and Benno Furman, first encounter each other. But nothing will move you more than the poetic final confrontation, when the star-crossed lovers leap together into tragic abandon…or freedom.
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
1998 • 179 minutes • Karan Johar • India
Simply put, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is pure joy on film. With all the magic of larger-than-life Bollywood and none of its deplorable excess, Karan Johar’s debut film——one of the most impressive in history——is like some sort of emotional stimulant: no matter what mood you are in, within 20 minutes KKHH will extract tears and a beaming smile in equal measure. At times, like little Sana Saeed exhaling “Mother!” in the first of many perfectly timed scenes, the tears flow literally on cue. But all the sweeping camera moves and ebullient songs would be for naught without a radiant Kajol as love-torn Anjali Sharma, bouncing and beaming through the first half and flowing like rain through the second, to give this epic its glowing, infinitely lovable heart.
Ladri di Bicyclette / Mandabi
1949 • 93 minutes • Vittori De Sica • Italy
1968 • 90 minutes • Ousmane Sembene • Senegal
Unfolding with the eerie inevitablity of a closing circle, these two allegories of poverty and desperation are some of the saddest films ever made. The simplest of events——a day laborer’s bicycle is stolen, and a husband receives a gift of money from a relative——lead to humble quests through the city streets, and there are no plot twists or dramatic turns; only the slow peeling back of the layers of society that prevent millions from overcoming their crippling poverty. Sembene meted out his country’s history like this through film after film, in understated, angry outcries; while De Sica simply lets the viewer weep as he stoically turns his camera on one of the most heart-rending endings in all of cinema.
1927 • 145 minutes • Fritz Lang • Germany
Many people put Blade Runner on lists like this because it so inspired the look of science-fiction cinema thereafter——but why not go all the way back, to the original dystopian sci-fi epic, without a doubt one of the most influential films ever made. Lang’s silent vision of a Time Machine-like world of underlings, elites, and skyscrapers is a captivating journey in its own right, as well as being the epitome of archetypal cinema——from the towering cityscapes echoed in movies like Star Wars and the The Fifth Element (to name a very few), to the mad scientist’s lab so perfectly stocked with wires and arcs of light that film students who have never even seen Metropolis find themselves imitating it 80 years later.
2001 • 147 minutes • David Lynch • U.S.A.
Upon first viewing, Lynch’s lucid nightmare is universally met with a big “What the fuck…??” By the third or fourth time through (which is only as many times as all great films should be watched), you realize that Lynch has actually accomplished something extraordinary: Mulholland Dr. is a cinematic manifestation of the emotional experience of watching dreams slip away into a life of regret and shame. It’s a movie about an actress named Diane, sort of, but in its woozy broken narrative and the floating specters that haunt the soundtrack, it’s less a film in the usual sense and more like an impressionist painting of a life gone wrong, a tragedy put to film in tones and breaths and shadows. As soon as you think you have “decoded” it, a still deeper meaning will arise on the next viewing, because the film depends on your own emotions. Mulholland Dr. is one of the great haunting experiences of the cinema.
The Night of the Hunter
1955 • 92 minutes • Charles Laughton • U.S.A.
Surely there has never been another movie like The Night of the Hunter. Part fairy tale, part film noir, part mystery, part chase thriller, part biblical parable——the only way to accurately describe Laughton’s dreamlike directorial debut is as one of the most captivatingly beautiful films ever made. (Indeed, Cahiers du Cinéma put in on its list of the 100 Most Beautiful Films in the History of Cinema.) Robert Mitchum is hypnotically eerie as the silken-voiced preacher trailing two children with a stash of money; their journey will take them through an astonishing set of atmospheric gear-shifts that will leave you white-knuckled with suspense one moment, and transported to a sing-song children’s fantasy world the next.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1975 • 133 minutes • Milos Forman • U.S.A.
Is this the finest screenplay ever written? It’s a contender, for sure, epitomizing the way great stories can be absorbing and unpredictable, and then when it’s all over we feel certain that was the only way it could possibly have ended. Jack Nicholson, in his most iconic role as R.P. MacMurphy, charms us into total immersion with his I-can’t-believe-he-pulled-that-off antics, but it’s non-actor George Sampson, as the lumbering Chief Bromden, who will move you most as he slowly comes to life, then acheives a somber, allegorical liberation in the unforgettable final scene.
1923 • 73 minutes • Buster Keaton • U.S.A.
Every film Keaton made, including The General, contains wondrous stunts and tricks as well as dull bits. For my money, though, Our Hospitality encompasses the best of Keaton’s never-say-die inventiveness. The premise alone inspires chuckles: In the feudal South, Keaton finds himself inside the home of a rival family bent on killing him. As long as he is a guest in their house, however, Southern hospitality forbids them to harm him. Keaton must therefore come up with one excuse after another to avoid stepping outside——but when he finally does, what follows is a climactic sequence of such finely crafted comedy and suspense, it invariably leaves even the most jaded modern viewer in stitches——and on the edge of his seat.
1966 • 85 minutes • Ingmar Bergman • Sweden
Tilda Swinton once said that watching a movie in a crowded cinema was like “being alone, in a group——which is what being alive is.” Certainly, Bergman seems to equate the two; Persona is about the dissolution of the boundaries between audience and film, between me and you, between my memories and yours. Liv Ullman is a stage actress who has mysteriously stopped speaking. The nurse hired to look after her begins to divulge increasingly intimate secrets about herself in a bid to unsettle her mistress, until she resorts to violence just to see if the other woman is truly alive…only to discover that she has exposed so much of herself that the two have become one. Fascinating, impenetrable, and disturbing, Persona unspooled the conventional “reading” of films into a burned, cacophonous montage of sheep guts and spiders——and cinema was never the same.
The Pianist / Touching the Void
2002 • 150 minutes • Roman Polanski • France / Poland / Germany
2003 • 106 minutes • Kevin MacDonald • United Kingdom
Two excruciating testaments to the human will to survive, and harrowing accounts of the toll that survival takes on the body and spirit. Polanski’s best film follows a skeletal Adrien Brody through the Warsaw Ghetto and Uprising with a detached realism that is all the more moving given the director’s personal stake in the events——Polanski himself was a young boy in the Ghetto during the war. MacDonald’s calm docu-thriller, meanwhile, is equally realistic and ten times as visceral; you can almost feel your bones grating and your lips freezing. In the end, it’s the will to creativity that saves both men (Joe Simpson survives through mind games that force him to keep putting one foot in front of the other), a truth which is all the more remarkable because it comes from life——both films are based on real stories.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
1981 • 115 minutes • Steven Spielberg • U.S.A.
It’s hard to imagine what the movies might have been like without Steven Spielberg. His trademarks——sly cross-cuts, precocious children in danger, perfectly timed action choreography, and always a dogged exuberance, something like sheer joy at pictures in motion——have become so entrenched in our collective moviegoing psyche that it’s easy to forget these are only one director’s tricks; today they just feel “right,” like movies had to be made this way. Raiders is the most effortlessly thrilling of Spielberg’s many great adventures; from minute to minute, no other movie is as deliriously fun as this one.
1954 • 112 minutes • Alfred Hitchcock • U.S.A.
Devilish old Hitchcock came up with a lot of devices to tie his viewers in knots over the years, but never were his machinations more in full view——or as excruciatingly effective——as in this purified exercise in suspense. Rear Window is essentially a movie about watching someone watching a movie, which happens to be playing out in the apartment across the courtyard. But when a dapper Grace Kelly ventures through the fourth wall and inside that dark apartment as our surrogate, it’s as though we too have stepped into the film in question——and the danger is suddenly deliciously real. Never have I heard audiences gasp louder than when the sinister Thorwald quietly appears at the end of the hallway, walking forward, wrenching the suspense tighter with each step….
1954 • 207 minutes • Akira Kurosawa • Japan
There are great films that are esoteric and difficult to get through——and then there’s Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s seminal team-of-warriors epic is a thundering, red-blooded adventure yarn with some of the most awesome battle scenes ever staged, which is all the more remarkable when you consider they were also some of the first battle scenes ever staged. Toshiro Mifune plays the original Jack Sparrow, the wooziest, snarlingest swashbuckler who ever pranced across the silver screen, and his entourage is a collection of stock warrior types who come together to protect a village against raiding bandits. We follow them through methodic strategy sessions and delightful dalliances, until the suspense opens up into an hour-long barrage of masterfully photographed clashes that gave birth to the next 50 years of action adventure filmmaking.
1980 • 142 minutes • Stanley Kubrick • U.S.A.
Every film Kubrick made is a showcase for some new innovation in film technology, but perhaps none is more striking, or hypnotic, than this epic Steadicam glide into madness. The Shining is to most horror films what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to the old Flash Gordon serials. It aspires to not simply frighten us with jumps and ghouls, but to burrow behind our eyelids with a slowly broadening aura of menace, which reaches a fever pitch of terror after more than two hours in the infamous scene where a demented Jack Nicholson axes his way into the bathroom where his wife his cowering. It’s the most exquisitely filmed, and disturbing, of Kubrick’s many essays about mankind’s destructive inner demons.
Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
1977 • 121 minutes • George Lucas • U.S.A.
Notwithstanding the fact that in the past two decades George Lucas has become one of the more overrated filmmakers of his generation, the first Star Wars movie is without a doubt one of the most sensational and influential pieces of cinema to ever blast across our screens. An old-Hollywood swashbuckler catapulted into outer space, it predated the Indiana Jones movies but matched them in spunk, verve, and wildly tongue-in-cheek adventure. Nowadays the state-of-the-art multiplex experience routinely sends us hurtling at breakneck speeds or has huge machines tower over us with thunder on the soundtrack, but A New Hope was the first time that going to the movies felt like a physical experience.
1997 • 194 minutes • James Cameron • U.S.A.
The Hollywood epic that feels most like the sweeping, quintessential Hollywood epic we all carry in our minds was made in 1997, more than five decades after the so-called Golden Age that produced the originals. That’s a tremendous achievement for Cameron, who gets so much flack for being a technical and totalitarian director that he is rarely credited for also being the most unabashedly sentimental filmmaker working today. Titanic is as much a women’s weepy as Gone With the Wind——but while millions swooned for Leo, it was the sheer scale of the spectacle, and the cinematic grace with which the catastrophe was realized, that made this one of the most popular old-fashioned love stories of all time.
Tôkyô Monogatari / The Way We Are
1953 • 136 minutes • Yasujiro Ozu • Japan
2008 • 90 minutes • Ann Hui • Hong Kong
Hitchcock famously declared that cinema should be “life with the dull bits cut out.” The Master’s films are thrilling, to be sure, but Ozu understood that the simple living of life, with all of its quiet conflicts and compromises over the years, was really the only subject the movies ever needed. His Tokyo Story is one of the slowest and most gentle films ever made, and one certain to bring the viewer quietly to tears——the kind of deep-welling tears that come from nowhere in particular, and make you think more about your own life than what’s on screen. More than half a century later, in East Asia’s other great metropolis, Hui zooms in similarly on a soft-spoken lower-class family in the pointedly titled The Way We Are, and simply observes their lives, with sensitivity and grace that would have made Ozu proud.
Trois Couleurs: Rouge
1994 • 99 minutes • Kryzystof Kieslowski • Poland / France
Along with Persona undoubtedly the most philosophically dense film on this list, Rouge is the film in Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs without which the others could not exist. In a way, the entirey of the first two films is contained within this one, as are all of the endless possibilities in life——Rouge is about the randomness of the encounters that determine the paths we will take; the tragedies and dalliances endured in Bleu and Blanc are mere moments along the way. Kieslowski, like Wong Kar-Wai, was fascinated by paths not taken, and no film will make you think about life like Rouge does: how the people we happen to meet seem so much more important than the millions we don’t; how we are all stumbling along our paths in the same way, bumping into each other and passing each other by; and how we will never know what might have happened if we had knocked on this door instead of that, gotten on the boat instead of the plane, or fallen in love with the person we saw walking in the street outside.
1988 • 107 minutes • George Sluizer • Holland
In the same vein as Aguirre and There Will Be Blood, only much, much more horrifying, the original Dutch version of this slowly-coiling mystery is more of a character study——a meditation on the existence of evil in our ordinary world——than a “thriller,” as it often gets labeled. It begins like a conventional slasher film, then veers into a slow, meandering second act in which the genesis of the kidnapping is slowly revelealed in all its quiet, calculated coldness. But nothing prepares us for the jaw-dropping ending, or the realization that this quiet horror story won’t leave its viewers with anything but a sinking, sickening feeling of dread.
Vivre Sa Vie
1963 • 80 minutes • Jean-Luc Godard • France
The movie camera has done so many fantastic things in its short life, what with being strapped to cars and soaring through space and such, that it’s almost startling to watch a film in which the camera behaves like an ordinary person. Under the direction of Raoul Coutard, Godard’s camera in Vivre Sa Vie is a living being, wandering and floating, glancing this way and that as it follows Anna Karina through twelve sketches of life as a dapper prostitute in Paris. This is the best film from Godard, who would later turn to fanciful allegories and films that try desperately to Mean Something, because it exists without affect, serving simply to reflect the way we float through life, and the way we glance wonderingly at others along the way, and then do nothing.