The Essentials

Sometimes I get asked for movie recommendations.  I like to take that one step further – in my opinion there are ten films that are essential to understanding the development of the modern movie, from Oscars contenders to summer blockbusters to independent and foreign films.  In order of date, here goes:

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Russia, Director: Sergei Eisenstein)

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Battleship Potemkin was consistently ranked in surveys as the “greatest film of all time.”  It wasn’t the first propaganda film or the first film to use montages to tell its story.  But it was the first combine these techniques effectively to influence audiences.  It is an important film to see because if you understand its elements and its techniques you will know when the filmmaker is trying to manipulate you.

Metropolis (1927, Germany, Director: Fritz Lang)

It was difficult to imagine how Metropolis’ reputation could be enhanced until a nearly complete reel of the film was discovered a few years ago.  The nearly complete version, once thought lost forever, cements Metropolis as not only the first great science fiction film but also the first film to resemble modern Hollywood blockbusters.  It is debatable, but with Metropolis the first era of film-making may have reached its full potential.

Citizen Kane (1941, US, Director: Orson Welles)

While viewing the Venus de Milo in Paris, I learned that it isn’t considered a masterpiece merely because of its form and detail, but because it was sculpted hundreds of years before those techniques were thought to be invented.  Citizen Kane is similar in that it is the first film to embrace the sense of realism that we take for granted in every film we see today, and it was not widely seen until years after it was first released.  The list of innovations that Orson Welles introduced in the film is summarized by Roger Ebert in a 2004 article entitled “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane” ((c) 2004

Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Director: Vittorio De Sica)

Italian Neorealism is possibly the most influential movement in the history of cinema.  Simply put, films such as Bicycle Thieves present fictional stories in a way that makes them feel like documentaries.  De Sica’s masterpiece was the first film of the movement to earn widespread international acclaim, and it went on to influence dozens of realism movements in other countries.

Rashomon (1950, Japan, Director: Akira Kurosawa)

“They say that even the demon who dwelt here at Rashomon fled in fear of the ferocity of man.”  Rashomon was the first of Kurosawa’s films to become popular outside of his native Japan.  It is most notable for Kurosawa’s fragmented, unresolved story and his use of natural effects to establish mood and move the story along.  While almost any Kurosawa film could be considered essential viewing, Rashomon is one of his shorter films and a good place to start exploring his catalog.

Pather Panchali (1955, India, Director: Satyajit Ray)

In the first film of Ray’s Apu Trilogy, Ray takes realism to its logical conclusion.  There is very little “plot” in Pather Panchali, instead the viewer is pulled along by authentic emotion and unforgettable images.  Its importance stems from the fact that it was one of the first films to come out of the developing world that rose to international acclaim, and by doing so inspired filmmakers across the world.

Psycho (1960, US, Director: Alfred Hitchcock)

The more movies people see, the more they think they know what to expect.  The brilliance of Psycho comes from its defying of audience expectations in a visceral and horrifying manner.  While it could be said that Hitchcock wrote many of the rules for plot development in Hollywood films, Psycho broke through those conventions so completely that it changed our perception of what movies could get away with.

Breathless (1960, France, Director: Jean Luc Godard)

Much has been written about the French New Wave and the film regarded by some as “the French Citizen Kane.”  After all, the conventional film had been done so well, and with such compelling back-story with 1945’s Children of Paradise that its young filmmakers were left with really no place to go except to invent an entirely new style of film.  Simply put, the French New Wave is why shots are shorter and movies are faster paced than they used to be, and Breathless is the film that started it all.

Persona (1966, Sweden, Director: Ingmar Bergman)

Bergman once said that he put all of his skills as a filmmaker to work in Persona, and the result is one of the most powerful and thought provoking films ever made.  If you describe what Persona is about based on the plot alone, it may be difficult to get someone interested in seeing the film.  After all, there are only two characters in most of the film, one of which barely speaks.  However, the film isn’t about these characters, but the dark recesses of our own minds.  Persona isn’t a film so much as it a mirror.

The Godfather (1972, US, Director: Francis Ford Coppola)

While Citizen Kane is the most important American film, The Godfather is the best constructed.  The writing, acting, production, cinematography, directing, and every other element of the film is so well done that only the most nit-picky of critics can find weaknesses.   This is what a film looks like when all of its elements are firing on all cylinders, and it is a good a place as any to bring our list to a close.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe