Here’s the list I pass along to anyone who asks about my favorite films. I’ve always found that question a little bit silly, and this is NOT such a list. Much as I love them, things like CONAN THE BARBARIAN, HONDO, DODGEBALL, PREDATOR, SMALL SOLDIERS, GALAXYQUEST, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, THE WIND AND THE LION, STARSHIP TROOPERS, WHAT’S UP DOC?, ALIEN, FIRST BLOOD, HARVEY, FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, OM SHANTI OM, CRIMSON TIDE, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, HOOSIERS, SHAOLIN SOCCER and on and on are NOT here (oh, wait a minute…)! Instead, I made up a list of films which I think are important to see for one reason or another, though (for the most part) I’ve tried not to include anything that I didn’t personally find rewarding or enjoyable at some level. There are a number of ways to do this (by genre, by director, by critical reputation, etc.). I’ve mixed things up to cover all genres, restrained myself to no more than two films for any given director (oh, wait, I cheated once on that rule), and at least considered critical reception. I’ve also split the list into “American” and “Foreign” films (and cheated a little bit by putting SUNRISE on the “foreign” list – since much of the lead technical crew was German, and it’s just so darn Germanic). I’ve also only included films which are part of the Carnegie Mellon University Video Collection (with the exception of CHELSEA GIRLS which is in the screening rotation at The Warhol). This list might be considerably different if I could include anything I’ve ever seen, but I stuck with what’s reasonably accessible.
Of course, this is all highly idiosyncratic, but there have been times (though I hesitate to admit it) when I’ve watched upwards of 500 films in a year, so I like to think I have some basis for making these suggestions. The whole “listing” exercise is fraught with difficulty, and I could certainly make a connected list for every film here (“10 Best Silent Films”, “10 Best Chinese Films”, “10 Best Film Noirs”), each of which could then further create lists of their own (Silent comedy feature or drama feature?). That’s all part of the task, though, and this is what you get for now. Please rest assured that thrown into the gladiatorial ring of film-critical combat, each of these choices should be instantly recognizable to anyone truly interested in film, and each would have its supporters. The descriptions are for general guidance/occasional provocation, and in no way meant to be comprehensive
The attached descriptions are for general guidance, and in no way meant to be comprehensive. I’m certainly happy to regale anyone with more detailed opinions on any of these if given the opportunity. Anyway, here we go (pointedly in no particular order):
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (John Ford) – Everyone should see both a John Wayne film and a Ford western. Some would pick THE SEARCHERS (about which I have some reservations) or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (which isn’t necessarily the best starting point for Ford), but I’m going with this. Wayne gives a great performance.
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (John Ford) – Oft cited as Ford’s personal favorite, and a prime example of how movies turn history into legend.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Howard Hawks) – The ultimate screwball comedy. A remake of THE FRONT PAGE (which is also excellent), but this is better known.
THE BIG SLEEP (Howard Hawks) – This is the best Bogart noir. To my mind, recent noir efforts don’t understand that the hero has to be a good guy MADE cynical by the world (not just a tough-guy). Bogart did “jaded cynic” better than anyone.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (William Keighley/Michael Curtiz) – People make fun of Errol, but nobody else could come close to pulling this off (which he does). All the usual Warner Brothers players and a landmark Korngold score.
THE PALM BEACH STORY (Preston Sturges) – Sturges’ best comedy (which means one of THE best comedies).
THE CROWD (King Vidor) – One of the most important “social issue” films ever made, and powerful drama. Even people who are hesitant about watching this usually come away impressed.
CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles) – It’s great, but overhyped. Personally, I think if we could see Welles’ original cut of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, this would come down a peg, but that’s impossible, so “oh well”.
SUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder) – Brilliant black comedy. Several silent stars turned this down because it cut too close to the bone.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (Robert Wise) – One of the most intelligent and thoughtful sci-fi films ever. Klaatu barada nikto.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (William Wyler) – Preserves the feelings of an entire generation, and does it with Wyler’s usual degree of technical skill. Great photography and a great score from Friedhofer.
MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (Frank Capra) – One of the best Capra comedies (before he completely transitioned to “Capra-corn”), though he still has that problem with endings…
CITY LIGHTS (Charlie Chaplin) – Chaplin’s my least favorite silent comedian, but this is arguably his most “important” film. The pathos! The pathos!
CASABLANCA (Michael Curtiz) – Probably THE example of all the benefits of the studio system. Everything clicks. No matter how many times I’ve seen this it never fails to grab me (and give me something else to think about).
GLORY (Edward Zwick) – One of the best historical dramas ever made. The minor drawbacks are lost in the sweep of it, and the final five minutes are a model of montage.
SEVEN CHANCES (Buster Keaton) – Not one of Keaton’s better known films, but one of my personal favorites. Underappreciated, but very funny.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Alfred Hitchcock) – Intelligent suspense from the acknowledged master. Accomplished in every category, but with an especially great script.
INTOLERANCE (D.W. Griffith) – BIRTH OF A NATION usually upsets people, so they don’t get to this better film. Long, but involving, and the editing of the conclusion has rarely been matched.
HEROES FOR SALE (William Wellman) – Another of the great “social conscience” films, though unjustly neglected. Definitely making the kind of statements about American life that the Code would soon shut down.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen) – One of the best musicals (though most of the music – including the title song – is recycled from films of the late Twenties and early Thirties). Historically “loose”, but entertaining.
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (Joseph Mankiewicz) – Maybe I’m just too “capital R” Romantic (which has been markedly out of fashion for a long time, of course), but this is probably my favorite romance.
FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Anthony Mann) – Arguably the greatest epic film. GLADIATOR rips off this and SPARTACUS about equally. This features some of the most impressive production design EVER.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (Lewis Milestone) – Brilliant, edge-of-your-seat film noir. Could Stanwyck be any more manipulative? I prefer this to DOUBLE INDEMNITY any day.
GUNGA DIN (George Stevens) – One of the all-time adventure stories, and a good example of the “British Empire” genre. Some people won’t get past the imperialism, but it’s their loss.
THE WEDDING MARCH (Erich Von Stroheim) – Stroheim was accused of vulgarity, perversion and bad taste. Yes, but…. This is his best film (even if it’s only the first half of his script).
JAWS (Steven Spielberg) – The film that saved/destroyed Hollywood (thanks to its influence over marketing strategies) is a notably polished piece of work. Spielberg’s crass audience manipulations are skillfully used to their best effect (with special mention for the music and editing).
THE MUMMY (Karl Freund) – DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN may get more attention, but Freund’s stylish film avoids most of the creaky moments of those films, while delivering the poignant story of a tragic love – it just so happens that the lovers have been mostly dead for a few thousand years…
LAST OF THE MOHICANS (Maurice Tourneur/Clarence Brown) – Possibly the best version of the story (closest to the original). Wally Berry is suitably evil, and it looks great.
SHOW PEOPLE (King Vidor) – Hilarious comedy about a girl breaking into Hollywood. Davies never got credit when she was acting, and was ripped on even more after CITIZEN KANE made fun of her. This single-handedly proves that attitude wasn’t fair.
RED DUST (Victor Fleming) – One of the best exemplars of Pre-Code filmmaking since the entire story really can be summed up in one word: SEX. Gable and Astor are good, but Harlow is better (to me, this is the film where her reputation as a sex goddess makes the most sense).
THE SAND PEBBLES (Robert Wise) – Steve McQueen’s best performance, and a beautiful film (which demonstrates that “personal epic” doesn’t need to be an oxymoron). I’m partial to the book, but that shouldn’t matter.
THE PUBLIC ENEMY (William Wellman) – Tough, no-nonsense, gangster film, which both helped to define the form and make Cagney a star.
GIRL SHY (Fred Newmeyer/Sam Taylor) – Priceless, character-driven comedy from the underappreciated Harold Lloyd. If he’d handled his films differently, everyone would still realize that he was the funniest comedian of the Twenties instead of that Chaplin fellow.
MY BEST GIRL (Sam Taylor) – Pickford is arguably the most important person in Hollywood history, and most people have never seen her work. Shameful. This is one of her most enjoyable films.
THE CHEAT (Cecil B. DeMille) – DeMille turned into a joke in his later years, but he’s a vitally important figure in Hollywood history and up until the mid-Thirties he made consistently interesting films. In this early high-point, he artistically combines money, power and sex – with an interracial angle thrown in for good measure.
THE SEA HAWK (Michael Curtiz) – Another great Errol Flynn adventure. Nobody buckled a swash like Errol, but he still doesn’t get any credit for it. This is the ultimate swashbuckler, against which all others are measured.
SPARTACUS (Stanley Kubrick/Anthony Mann) – The most involving epic film. Kubrick may have disowned it, but much of that seems to be sour grapes. A powerful, well-acted piece of work.
GRASS (Merian C. Cooper/Ernst B. Schoedsack/Marguerite Harrison) – One of the best documentaries ever, made by three of the most fascinating people ever to be involved in filmmaking.
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (Sam Fuller) – In-your-face, take-no-prisoners, filmmaking from one of the toughest bastards ever to get behind the camera (and that’s saying something). Combining film noir, Communist espionage and the ever-malevolent Richard Widmark (even when he’s the hero) makes for an explosive piece of work.
CHELSEA GIRLS (Andy Warhol) – Warhol’s 3 ½ hour double projection is an endurance test (though that’s part of the point), but it’s also consistently intriguing, and sets the stage for a lot of later video and film art.
INTRUDER IN THE DUST (Clarence Brown) – Brown’s polished skills are much in evidence in this excellent adaptation of the Faulkner novel. Exemplifies the postwar period of socially aware studio filmmaking.
THE UNKNOWN (Tod Browning) – Surely one of the most bizarre stories ever committed to the screen, created by the dynamic duo of mainstreamed strangeness, Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. Jaw-dropping, and not to be missed.
THE OCEAN WAIF (Alice Guy-Blache) – A charming, romantic bauble from a mostly (though unjustly) forgotten pioneer.
TOL’ABLE DAVID (Henry King) – A bucolic, pastoral, coming-of-age story which clearly reflects a world passing then, and gone now. Simple, gripping storytelling.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernest Lubitsch) – Probably the best example of “The Lubitsch Touch”. A sophisticated rondelay of beautiful, intelligent people dueling (verbally and otherwise) over sexual politics and jewel thievery.
OBJECTIVE, BURMA! (Raoul Walsh) – Tense, realistic, World War Two combat film, the quality of which is always slightly overshadowed by the troubled history of the production (which the British banned for underrepresenting their Army’s efforts in Burma).
DR. STRANGELOVE (Stanley Kubrick) – I think Kubrick is one of the most overrated directors ever, but this is his best film. How can you not love a brilliantly written, acted and directed comedy about nuclear war?
APPLAUSE (Rouben Mamoulian) – Yes, it has creaky moments (though way fewer than most early talkies), and yes, the story is fairly standard. It’s all about the style of it, though, as Mamoulian willfully points the way to the new possibilities of filmmaking. He takes the best of silent films visual achievements, combines them with a willingness to experiment with sound techniques, and creates a landmark.
KING KONG (Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsak) – The first mega-blockbuster special effects movie also first demonstrated that (used appropriately) effects really CAN create entirely imaginary sympathetic characters. Landmark visual and sound effects, as well as Steiner’s vital musical score, keep this essential viewing.
THEM! (Gordon Douglas) – O.K., the ants don’t look like they’d look now, but if you get hung up on that you’re missing the point. The ultimate “nuclear monsters on the loose movie” is astonishingly well-made right down the line, starting with Douglas tight direction. A poster child for cultural studies people trying to prove that something doesn’t have to be high-minded to be an important reflection of a cultural moment.
STRIKE (Sergei Eisenstein) – Eisenstein’s WAY overrated. Most of his work is too cold and theoretical (and I’ve seen it all). Plus Abel Gance did the montage editing years earlier. However, this is Eisenstein’s best film. Kill the capitalists!
SUNRISE (F.W. Murnau) – One of the most visually impressive films ever made, and a fitting testament to the virtues of silent film. Even though I’m not a big fan of the comic interlude, the rest works beautifully.
LA BELLE NOISEUSE (Jacques Rivette) – Rivette’s four hour opus portraying the painting of a single portrait is the best movie about the creative process ever made. It’s so intellectually rewarding that you completely forget that Beart spends most of the film naked (and I consider that quite an accomplishment).
IKIRU (Akira Kurosawa) – A modern masterpiece, and important message. Anything by Kurosawa is worth watching, but this is one of his best “contemporary” films.
YOJIMBO (Akira Kurosawa) – Great action, great visuals – and very wry. Kurosawa may have been the best director ever. Note how the pictorial composition often stays balanced – even as the camera moves. Genius.
M (Fritz Lang) – Excellent crime drama from one of the greatest German directors. This film proves that the introduction of sound didn’t need to slow anybody down (if they knew what they were doing).
SANSHO THE BAILIFF (Kenji Mizoguchi) – Mizoguchi remains the least known of the Japanese “Big Three”, but this is one of the most accessible films for those new to his work. His overriding concern with the plight of women is less prominent here than in WOMEN OF THE NIGHT or STREET OF SHAME, but still clearly in evidence.
LE MILLION (Rene Clair) – Clair disdained the coming of sound on an intellectual and artistic level, but managed to take full advantage of its possibilities as soon as he got the chance. This charming musical isn’t his first sound film, but it neatly demonstrates his facility with the new technology.
PYAASA (Guru Dutt) – Other than Ray (who has “art cred”), most Indian filmmakers are completely (and absurdly) ignored in the West. Dutt’s skilled, sensitive and powerful film demonstrates why that’s a mistake.
LATE SPRING (Yasujiro Ozu) – There’s a lot of nonsense written about Ozu (mostly written by people who’ve only seen his later work and none of the earlier stuff). What’s indisputable, however, is his position as one of the greatest filmmakers in history. For the uninitiated he can take some work, but he’s well worth it. Simple tales of average lives, told with real compassion.
BLACK NARCISSUS (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger) – One of the most visually impressive color films ever made, from two of England’s most important filmmakers. Absolutely drips with exoticism and repressed sexuality.
THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE (Jean Renoir) – One of my favorite Renoir films. How many socialist black comedies do you really get to see?
TOKYO OLYMPIAD (Kon Ichikawa) – There are Olympic documentaries going back at least to the Twenties. OLYMPIA gets all the attention (despite the fact that it’s a crashing bore), but Ichikawa’s is the best of them. Observant, humanistic filmmaking.
GRAND ILLUSION (Jean Renoir) – Not my favorite, but everyone else’s. Von Stroheim is always worth watching, and World War One vets voted this the most honest film about war they’d ever seen (which should definitely count for something).
JALSAGHAR (Satyajit Ray) – A dark, tragic film from India’s most “important” filmmaker (at least as far as Western scholarship is concerned). The tone is often compared to that of a Shakespeare tragedy (the brooding parts, not the bloody ones)
VERA DRAKE (Mike Leigh) – Leigh’s searing drama about a friendly matron who “helps out” young women “in trouble” is perhaps most notable for being quietly profound, yet absolutely neutral about an explosive topic. No one is a villain, and all sides are equally explored. Every moment confirms the genius of his directorial techniques, and shows (once again) that he’s one of the finest directors active in the last twenty years.
SAMURAI REBELLION (Masaki Kobayashi) – Brilliant, involving drama from a skilled filmmaker. The shot compositions alone make this worth watching. I have yet to recommend this to anyone who walks away unimpressed (unless they’re all lying to me).
CITY OF GOD (Fernando de Meirelles) – The hyperkinetic editing style may be too much for some people, but they’re missing out if they don’t stick with this intricate tale of the underbelly of Brazilian society. Vital filmmaking.
KWAIDAN (Masaki Kobayashi) – Another of the most visually impressive films ever made, and creepy besides! I especially like the visual elements of the “Hoichi the Earless” segment.
THE SEVENTH SEAL (Ingmar Bergman) – Great Bergman allegory of life and death, enacted by the Bergman “stock company”. The man struggled with his life and philosophy in all of his work and put it out there for the world to see.
THE CRANES ARE FLYING (Mikhail Kalatazov) – Produced during a brief thaw in government control over Soviet filmmaking, Kalatazov’s tragic love story contains some of the most amazing photography ever put on film.
WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman) – A moving reflection on life, and a gift (of sorts) from Sweden’s second great filmmaker to the first. Sjostrom died shortly after this acting swan song.
CHINESE ROULETTE (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) – This intense, cruel psychological drama isn’t the most discussed Fassbinder film, but I think it shows most of his quirks and tendencies while being more engaging (in an odd “New German Cinema” way) than much of his other work. Plus it’s reasonably representative of the entire movement.
CHILDREN OF PARADISE (Marcel Carne) – Long, but important, French film made during the Occupation. Carne spent the last forty-five years of his life trying to justify making this during the war years. Judged simply by the beautiful and involving result, he can hardly be condemned.
MURDERERS ARE AMONG US (Wolfgang Staudte) – Stark film made in the rubble of the Soviet sector of Berlin, examining the complexities of postwar life for a returning refugee and the alcoholic doctor she finds living in her apartment.
VIOLENCE AT NOON (Nagisa Oshima) – Oshima’s searing, brutal masterpiece of the Japanese New Wave out-Godard’s Godard with it’s thousands of shots and hundreds of jump cuts, all in the service of the twisted tale of a serial rapist/murderer, his wife, and the victim who loves him. Uncompromising social criticism, in an uncompromising artistic form.
QUAI DES BRUMES (Marcel Carne) – Moody, “poetic realist” film from France. Not quite a film noir (a bit too much romance), but with all the same moral ambiguity.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Jean Cocteau) – One of everyone’s favorite fairy tales. Great visuals from one of the most respected of visual poets.
BICYCLE THIEVES (Vittorio de Sica) – Solid, important, but not my favorite (I prefer SHOESHINE). On the leading edge of Neo-Realism, and worth seeing as a representative of the movement.
PRINCESS MONONOKE (Hayao Miyazaki) – Miyazaki is generally considered the greatest Japanese filmmaker of the last thirty years, and this is one of his finest achievements. All of the expected visual splendor in the service of a complex fable about social and technological progress. A key work in the argument that anime should be taken more seriously.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Carl Theodor Dreyer) – Some people HATE this (“It’s all just close-ups!”). I disagree, especially in the latest restoration, with the Einhorn orchestral accompaniment.
THE LADY VANISHES (Alfred Hitchcock) – Fun “British” Hitchcock. The forefather of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and any of Hitchcock’s other “wrong man” films. Often considered the best of the British pictures.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI (Akira Kurosawa) – Brilliant, but long. Not the best Kurosawa to start with, though an essential piece of work.
ODD MAN OUT (Carol Reed) – At the top of the list of important British films. Touchingly tragic, brilliantly photographed and well-acted.
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (Ingmar Bergman) – Witty Bergman sex-comedy. A polished gem, and a refreshing counter to all that glorious, Bergmanesque depression.
TO LIVE (Zhang Yimou) – Sweeping, yet personal, epic from China tracing the history of the nation through the fate of a single family. Some consider it too melodramatic, but I much prefer this to the other films of the “Cultural Revolution” genre (THE BLUE KITE, FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE).
BURNT BY THE SUN (Nikita Mikhalkov) – Excellent rumination on life, history and Stalinist excess, from the best living Russian filmmaker, and an interesting comment on the Russian experience.
NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (Federico Fellini) – Fellini’s most accessible film (and I’m not a big Fellini fan). Masina does a great job in the lead, playing a downtrodden prostitute always trying to look on the bright side.
YI YI (Edward Yang) – Long, but involving, family drama from one of Taiwan’s most important filmmakers. Lots of directors have tried to recapture the feel of Ozu, but this comes closer than any other attempt.
THE 400 BLOWS (Francois Truffaut) – Truffaut’s best work, and one of the best products of the French New Wave. The semi-autobiographical account of the director’s youth pulls no punches, but exhibits the more traditional style Truffaut would adopt (defining, contra Godard, the two poles of the movement).
THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (Keisuke Kinoshita) – Stately, visually impressive retelling of the traditional Japanese tale. In my book, this is MUCH more interesting than the later Oshima version.
NAPOLEON (Abel Gance) – Important and entertaining, but not everyone’s favorite – and very long. I happen to think it’s a key work in cinema history and would love to see the FULLY restored version (which is an hour longer than the “restored” cut released in the U.S.).
THE KILLER (John Woo) – The operatic grandeur! The melodramatic excess! The “beautiful bloodletting”! Woo’s film set the standard for action films for years to come AND marked the advent of respectability for Hong Kong cinema.
MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (Eric Rohmer) – A writer spends a night in the apartment of a woman to whom he’s attracted (but who he doesn’t really know). The “talkiest” of Rohmer’s “Moral Tales”, but with talk like this you just want them to keep going.
COLOR OF PARADISE (Majid Majidi) – This story of the life of a blind Iranian boy provides an idea of what New Iranian Cinema looks like without delving into the more obtuse/foreign styles of Kiarostami or Makhmalbaf.
OLDBOY (Chan-wook Park) – For awhile Korea could claim one of the most vital national cinemas, and this intense thriller explains why. Not for the squeamish, but a thoroughly gripping piece of work for those with the stomach for it (not to mention some of the best technical work of any Korean film thus far).
THE CELEBRATION (Thomas Vinterberg) – An example of the most self-conscious “movement” of recent film history, this searing story of a family reunion demonstrates that the “Dogma” rules don’t prevent solid storytelling.
THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE (Victor Sjostrom) – This begins as a typical melodrama (based on a traditional Swedish story), but Sjostrom’s use of exteriors (especially in the second half), elevates it to the level of art. Enormously influential for its use of nature as a character AND for moving filmmaking outside.
HERO (Zhang Yimou) – Old-fashioned “wu-xia” heroic tales forcibly dragged to a whole new level by Zhang Yimou’s directorial abilities. The use of color, well-choreographed action sequences, fine acting by a raft of stars, and complicated narrative structure make this a landmark film.
VIVRE SA VIE (Jean-Luc Godard) – The clearest example of all of Godard’s technical innovations (tendencies, quirks) in film. A version of Zola’s “Nana” in twelve, Brechtian parts, with the director willfully breaking every rule he can. Takes some work, but rewards.