Film, it is said, was THE twentieth-century art form. But what is meant by this? That it was the most important, influential, rapidly maturing art-form of that era, but also that its history was virtually contemporaneous with the century. Moving pictures strung together to tell stories were first shown as entertainment to paying audiences in the mid-1890s; now, just over 100 years later with digital technology set to affect not only the way films are made but how they are sold, sent around the globe, shown and (in the widest sense) seen, cinema is facing dramatic changes.
It is timely, then, to look back over that brief but often brilliant history. If there is a bias towards American and European cinema, that merely reflects what you are most likely to be able to see in the West. Hopefully, this guide will not only introduce you to some truly glorious movies, but also Portugeuse cinema, Taiwanese film or the very early silents. All it needs is open eyes and an open mind: the riches of film await you.
The Silent Era
Birth of a Nation Silent Film Plus Bo (D.W. Griffith 1915) Aiming to make the greatest film ever, D.W. Griffith deployed all the technical experiments of his previous movies for maximum visceral effect, along with a prepared score mixing classical music and folk tunes. The longest and most expensive American film made as of 1915, Birth opened to raves for its artistry and record-breaking box office returns, helping to legitimize movies as "respectable" entertainment.
The Battleship Potemkin (Enhanced Edition) 1925 (Sergei Eisenstein 1925) Selected to make a film commemorating the failed 1905 revolution against the czar, Soviet filmmaker, film teacher, and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein decided to concentrate on one exemplary event, the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. After its 1926 debut, Potemkin rapidly became world-renowned; even in countries where it was officially banned as Soviet propaganda, the power of Eisenstein's unprecedented cinematic creativity could not be denied.
The Gold Rush (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Charles Chaplin 1925) The film he said he wanted to be remembered by, Charles Chaplin's masterwork seamlessly combined humor and tragedy as his refined and compassionate little tramp struggled to strike gold in 1898 Alaska. Even as Chaplin makes comedy out of starvation and struggle, he reveals the dehumanizing effects of greed as it impinges on the capacity to love.
Metropolis (Restored Authorized Edition) (Fritz Lang 1927) Set around the apocalyptic year of 2000, Metropolis has had a seminal influence on science fiction and futuristic movies as diverse as The Bride of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and Dark City. Featuring literally a cast of thousands, Metropolis creates a reality so complex and artistically unified the viewer gets swept away to this future world.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (The Criterion Collection) (Carl Theodor Dreyer 1928) One of the undisputed masterpieces of cinema, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc glows with the fervor of spiritual and aesthetic single-mindedness that is so intense it's almost blinding. With a script culled from the actual proceedings that led to Joan of Arc's burning at the stake, the movie seems an artifact from a lost time.
- Short Films (Lumiere company 1895-1905)
- A Trip To The Moon (Georges Melies 1902)
- Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade 1915)
- Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Horror (F.W. Murnau 1922)
- I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu 1932)
America: The Studio Years
King Kong (Collector's Edition) (Merian C. Cooper 1933) Generally thought of as a monster movie, King Kong is actually an old-fashioned adventure story on the grand scale, complete with fearless hunters in search of uncharted islands, angry natives appeasing their god, damsels in distress, and a dashing hero on hand to save said damsel. While the 1976 remake already seems hopelessly dated, the original King Kong remains rousing entertainment with brains, brawn, and a heart.
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming 1939) As epic as the 1,000-plus-page Margaret Mitchell bestseller on which it was based, David O. Selznick's production of Gone With the Wind went through three directors, a well-publicized search for Scarlett O'Hara, and a then-enormous four-million-dollar budget, resulting in one of the all-time highest-grossing movies. Earning an unprecedented 13 Oscar nominations, Gone With the Wind won eight statuettes and two special awards, taking Best Picture in Hollywood's "miraculous" year, as well as Best Director for Victor Fleming, and Best Actress for Vivien Leigh.
The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch 1940) The Shop Around the Corner is one of the screen's best romantic comedies, and an excellent example of the subtle humor and wry character interplay that marked the films of director Ernst Lubitsch. The central story has been reused in various films, including Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail.
Citizen Kane (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Orson Welles 1941) Widely considered the greatest American movie ever made, Orson Welles's film debut reconceived Hollywood conventions of story-telling and visual structure, suggesting the essential mystery of a person's inner self and inspiring countless filmmakers with its technical accomplishments. Despite the film's artistic approbation and subsequent wide-ranging influence, from 1940s film noir to the French New Wave to American film school grads, Welles never again had creative control in Hollywood.
Rear Window (Universal Legacy Series) (Alfred Hitchcock 1954) On the surface a comic thriller about a photographer and the crime he thinks took place across the courtyard, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window turns into an interrogation of voyeurism and movie-viewing. Wryly entertaining as well as skillfully executed and thematically complex, the popular Rear Window earned Hitchcock an Oscar nomination for Best Director and inspired such later films as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma's Sisters (1973).
- The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey 1937)
- His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks 1940)
- Meet Me In St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli 1944)
- It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra 1946)
- In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray 1950)
America: Years Of Change
The Godfather - The Coppola Restoration (Francis Ford Coppola 1972) "I believe in America" -- and America embraced The Godfather, turning it into a landmark artistic triumph and blockbuster hit. In 1998, the American Film Institute named The Godfather one of the three greatest American films ever made, testifying to its enduring artistic legacy.
Jaws (Widescreen Anniversary Collector's Edition) (Steven Spielberg 1975) Tapping into an abiding dread of the unknown, made scarier by the reality of Great White sharks and corrupt bureaucrats as well as by Spielberg's effective orchestration of excitement, Jaws became the first film ever to return over $100 million to its studio. With the lines at the box office, the proliferation of Jaws products, and a rash of reported shark attacks, Jaws became a cultural phenomenon and the first bona fide summer event movie, leading the thrill-packed and profitable way for summers to come.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen 1977) Annie Hall is perhaps the best example of Woody Allen's early work: a blend of slapstick, fantasy, and bittersweet romantic comedy, it is not so much about two people falling in love as about two brains trying to negotiate a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. The film set a new standard for romantic comedies, its name alone becoming synonymous with the sub-genre of the intelligent, New York-based romantic comedy.
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (Two-Disc Widescreen Enhanced and Original Theatrical Versions) (George Lucas 1977) Bursting with excitement, and throwing in one wild chase, life-threatening dilemma, and dazzling effect after another, George Lucas' Star Wars packs a remarkable amount of story into 121 minutes; if the characters and dialogue sometimes lack depth, they have plenty of flash and boundless energy, and the film keeps just enough of its tongue in cheek to acknowledge an undercurrent of sly, low-key wit without snickering at either the characters or the audience. Commercially, Star Wars opened new vistas in merchandizing toys and other movie tie-ins, as it helped transform science fiction from a fringe market into one of Hollywood's dominant genres.
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino 1978) The film won the Best Picture prize from the New York Film Critics' Circle and got nine Academy Award nominations as it went into national release, including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting nods for Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. The film's awards and acclaim manifested Hollywood's willingness finally to reckon one way or another with a war that had been all but absent from movie screens while it was happening, leading the way for such later films as Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
- The Hustler (Robert Rossen 1961)
- The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer 1962)
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)
- Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson 1970)
- The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood 1976)
America: The Modern Era
Raging Bull (Special Edition) (Martin Scorsese 1980) In Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro explore the soul of a profoundly violent man and search for the human core buried deep inside him. With screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, Scorsese tells the story not of a boxer or a bad man, but of a lost soul struggling for a way out of the emotional damnation of his own brutal nature; and he tells it with such unblinking horror and understated compassion that Raging Bull has been widely acknowledged as one of the most powerful films of its era.
Aliens (Special Edition) (James Cameron 1986) For big-budget, high-octane showmanship, Aliens (the sequel to Alien, directed by Ridley Scott) is hard to beat. The dialogue is often horrendous, and the characters other than Ripley are little more than fodder for some impressive scenes of carnage, but this remains one of the most enjoyable action movies of the mid-'80s.
My Own Private Idaho (The Criterion Collection) (Gus Van Sant 1991) A harsh, beautiful, and fervently original portrait of alienation, betrayal, and unrequited love, My Own Private Idaho was one of the defining films of both Van Sant's career and the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. River Phoenix's quiet, raw portrayal of the young hustler would be constantly referenced in tributes to the actor following his untimely death in 1993, and the close association seems fitting: with its bleak, dreamy ambience and mournful yet unsentimental story, My Own Private Idaho feels less like a narrative than like an elegy for the romantic aimlessness of youthful alienation.
Pulp Fiction (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) (Quentin Tarantino 1994) A critical sensation and a box-office hit, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction embedded its movie-made world of loquacious hit men and fateful coincidences into the popular consciousness, becoming one of the most influential films of the 1990s. None of its many imitators has yet come close to matching Pulp Fiction's impact.
Eyes Wide Shut (Two-Disc Special Edition) (Stanley Kubrick 1999) Stanley Kubrick's first film in more than a decade, Eyes Wide Shut had already attracted attention before Kubrick's death several months prior to its release sent the hype into overdrive. Though it fell off at the box office and was shut out of year-end awards, Eyes Wide Shut's defenders suggested that it may still find a place in the Kubrick legacy.
- Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling 1982)
- Videodrome (David Cronenberg 1982)
- Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee 1989)
- Thelma And Louise (Ridley Scott 1991)
- Hoop Dreams (Steve James 1994)
Europe: The Golden Age
M (The Criterion Collection) (Fritz Lang 1931) One of the most distinguished and technically accomplished early sound films, Fritz Lang's M revealed the expressive possibilities for combining sound and visuals, in a metaphorically loaded story about pre-Nazi Germany. A worldwide success and a star-maker for Peter Lorre, M influenced movies from those of Orson Welles to the American film noir of the 1940s; Lang himself left Nazi Germany for Hollywood in 1933.
Vampyr (The Criterion Collection) (Carl Theodor Dreyer 1932) Vampyr isn't the easiest classic film to enjoy, even if you are a fan of 1930s horror movies. Although not exciting in terms of pacing, it's a good choice if you want to see a film that establishes a compelling mood.
Earrings of Madame de... (Max Ophuls 1953) A wonderful companion piece to director Max Ophuls' La Ronde, Madame de... spins a similar tale of serial affairs among the rich and idle. But its darker tone has rightfully earned its status as the filmmaker's great triumph.
Pickpocket (The Criterion Collection) (Robert Bresson 1959) Loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's classic novel Crime and Punishment, Robert Bresson's Pickpocket examines the director's signature concerns with faith and redemption through the experience of a compulsive thief. Shown in competition at the 1960 Berlin Film Festival, Pickpocket was not released in the U.S. until 1963.
La Dolce Vita (2-Disc Collector's Edition) (1961) (Frederico Fellini 1960) An international hit, partly due to its then-frank sexuality, La Dolce Vita marked an artistic turning point in Federico Fellini's career, confirming him as one of the premier filmmakers of international art cinema. With La Dolce Vita appearing the same year as Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura, Fellini joined his compatriot as one of the leading cinematic poets of the modern condition, yet with a visual splendor and affection for the carnivalesque that would distinguish his work for the next decades.
- By The Bluest Of Seas (Boris Barnet 1936)
- Aniki-Bobo (Manoel De Oliveira 1942)
- Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945)
- Viridiana (Luis Bunuel 1961)
- The Enchanted Desna (Julia Solntseva 1970)
Europe: New Waves
Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961) One of the most enigmatic and distinctive movies ever made, this collaboration of director Alain Resnais with leading French novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet has confounded and intrigued audiences since it first led the wave of European art movies in the early 1960s. This is, for better or for worse, an unforgettable and unique movie, a high-water mark of postwar European art cinema.
Alphaville (The Criterion Collection) (Jean-Luc Godard 1965) In 1965, six years after his feature film debut with the groundbreaking Breathless, writer-director Jean-Luc Godard was an acknowledged leader of the French New Wave. Entering his most prolific period, he produced one of his most ambitious and unusual films, a science-fiction comedy-thriller whose full title was Alphaville, une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution.
Women in the Director's Chair: Facets 2-Pack (Vera Chytilova 1966) A surrealist comedy way ahead of its time, Daisies uses unconventional film techniques in its telling of two girls' wholeheartedly creative way of destroying what surrounds them. Stylistically, the film is sprinkled with numerous camera tricks, color filters, and jarring edits.
The Young Girls Of Rochefort (Jacques Demy 1967) When originally released, Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort suffered in comparison with his earlier The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but its reputation has grown in the intervening years. Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are sheer delights, and Danielle Darrieux is a treat.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism (The Criterion Collection) (Dusan Makavejev 1971) Of the numerous films of the late '60s and early '70s that positively gloried in the sexual revolution and the release of social shackles on free expression in general, WR: Mysteries of the Organism is one of the most ambitious, most confused, and downright weirdest. Its audaciousness and radicalism invite both admiration and irritation.
- Ashes And Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda 1958)
- Chronicle Of A Summer (Jean Rouch 1961)
- Before The Revolution (Bernardo Bertolucci 1964)
- Celine And Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette 1974)
- Perceval (Eric Rohemer 1979)
Europe: A New Fin De Siecle
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog 1974) Visionary New German Cinema director Werner Herzog's U.S. breakthrough, Jeder fur Sich und Gott Gegen Alle or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser is a poignant, visually exquisite allegory of how civilization breeds despair. Enhancing Herzog's burgeoning reputation as an intense iconoclast after Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and became an international success.
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky 1979) Structured like a winding religious pilgrimage, Stalker moves cautiously and slowly through its paces as the three men move closer toward the metaphorical Holy Center at the heart of the Zone. Stalker is all the more compelling for not relying on a single gimmick or special effect to create its atmosphere of another world bordering our own.
Europa (The Criterion Collection) (Lars Von Trier 1991) Lars von Trier's first breakthrough in the American art-house circuit, Europa (re-titled Zentropa in the U.S. to avoid confusion with Europa, Europa), similarly unleashed a host of marvelous cinematic tricks. If the film is somewhat pretentious, he's forgiven, since the optical trickery and the black-and-white cinematography are so sensational.
Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski 1994) The concluding film in his "Three Colors" trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red explores the mysterious connections among isolated lives. Red was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.
Beau Travail (Claire Denis 1999) Loosely based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd and clearly influenced by the works of Alain Resnais, Claire Denis's film is a complex, beautifully photographed look into foreignness of all stripes. Making use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Denis spins a poetic, passionate, and compelling tale of envy and alienation.
- Passion (Jean-Luc Godard 1982)
- The Crowns Of The Sailor (Raul Ruiz 1983)
- The Green Ray (Eric Rohmer 1986)
- Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatjana (Aki Kaurismaki 1994)
- Earth (Julio Medem 1995)
Brief Encounter (The Criterion Collection) (David Lean 1946) A model of narrative restraint and emotional power, David Lean's Brief Encounter won over post-war audiences with its fidelity to the ordinariness of its story and ambiance. raised for its feeling and its realism, including the lack of Hollywood-ized glamour of its stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter became a rare foreign import hit.
The Red Shoes - Criterion Collection (Michael Powell 1948) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film The Red Shoes was, for nearly four decades, the most successful British movie ever released in America. Movies had used ballet as a subject before, but the public had mostly ignored them.
The Third Man - Criterion Collection (2-Disc Edition) (Carol Reed 1949) Carol Reed's The Third Man is one of the odder successes among international films of the late 1940s: at a time when movies were supposedly getting dulled-down, in keeping with audience sensibilities, here was a quirky movie from England, with Hitchcock-like touches and an odd sense of humor, that manages to be grim, topical, and wryly witty, while retaining, even augmenting, a good bit of author Graham Greene's sensibility.
A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester 1964) It's a blessing to Beatles fans that someone had the foresight to capture them on film in the midst of the first flash of Beatlemania. A Hard Day's Night has aged as well as the Beatles' music from the same period: timeless yet inescapably a product of its era.
Brazil (The Criterion Collection Single Disc Special Editon) (Terry Gilliam 1985) Director Terry Gilliam's comic fantasy-nightmare portrays a future in which Big Brother is definitely watching. The film suggests no particular time, boasting a retro style that gives it an ominous timelessness.
- The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock 1935)
- The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton 1951)
- Performance (Donald Cammell 1970)
- Blue (Derek Jarman 1993)
- Topsy Turvy (Mike Leigh 1999)
Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu 1948) The tone of this romantic drama, Xiao Cheng zhi Chun, is set by the very title itself. By using the classical "zhi" (pronounced "jr") to indicate that this spring "belongs" to the small town, director Fei Mu exchanges the normal colloquial language for the literary.
In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima Nagisa 1976) Shocking in its graphic sexual content and riveting in its portrayal of passion run amok, Nagisa Oshima's brilliant, notorious Ai no Korrida is a cinematic landmark. Though it has accured the musty-sounding title "film classic," Ai no Korrida has lost none of its subversive power to incite, offend, disturb, and arouse.
Yol / The Road (DVD) (Serif Goren 1982) The notoriously brutal Turkish prison system undergoes a rare moment of compassion in Yol. Five convicts are given a week's leave from jail so that they may visit their friends, families and lovers.
Boiling Point (Kitano Takeshi 1990) Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano directs, writes, and acts in this gangster comedy about the Yakuza, the notorious criminal organization of Japan. Masahiko Ono portrays the hapless Masaki, a local baseball player and gas-station attendant who runs afoul of some local gangsters.
Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai1997) Wong Kar-Wai at his most lyrical and mannered, Happy Together is a voluptuously photographed meditation on love and loneliness. Both leads, Leslie Cheung and the sad-eyed Tony Leung Chiu Wai, give brilliant, fearless performances.
- Humanity And Paper Balloons (Yamanaka Sadao 1937)
- Manila: In The Claws Of Neon (Lino Brocka 1975)
- Mandala (Im Kwontaek 1981)
- Yeelen (Souleymane Cisse 1987)
- Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami 1989)
The Art Of The Impossible
Pinocchio (Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition) (Hamilton Luske 1940) Though only Disney's second feature-length cartoon, Pinocchio is still celebrated as one of the company's greatest achievements for its Academy Award-winning music, its humor, its beauty, and, most of all, its production value. Pinocchio's box-office returns did not surpass Snow White's, but its ingenuity and polish impressed critics and further established Disney as an artistic force.
The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein (DVD NTSC) (Yuri Norstein 1979) Skazka Skazok (Tale of Tales) is a 27-minute animated short film, considered the masterpiece of influential Russian animator Yuri Norstein. Tale of Tales was named "the best animated film of all time" by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival.
Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki 1986) Inspired by a passage in Gulliver's Travels about a floating castle, Hayao Miyazaki created the myth of Laputa for Castle in the Sky. Assembling the production team for Castle in the Sky led to the formation of the successful animation company Studio Ghibli.
Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park 1993) The second short film to feature the claymation antics of eccentric inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit, The Wrong Trousers sees the duo become unwitting accomplices to a jewel theft. This Oscar-winner for "Best Animated Short" works both as a hilarious parody of film noir and as an exciting, action-packed adventure in its own right, combining skillful visual design and superb animation with inventive, witty storytelling.
Toy Story (10th Anniversary Edition) (John Lasseter 1995) Toy Story is the rare film that viewers will remember for years afterward simply for the wordless wonder it inspired in them. The first of its kind, Toy Story arrived as a fully mature organism, as flawlessly animated as it is brilliantly scripted and energetically voiced.
- The Cameraman's Revenge (Ladislaw Starewich 1911)
- Betty Boop's Snow White (Dave Fleischer 1933)
- Blitzwolf (Tex Avery 1942)
- What's Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones 1957)
- Dimensions Of Dialogue (Jan Svankmajer 1982)