Cinema history is long and full of landmark movies. Movies that redefined what was possible through cinema, either narratively or technically.
Any burgeoning filmmaker, who can’t afford film school, will do well to watch and study these landmark movies. These are films every film student should see.
Because context is a big part of any education. It’s not like A trip to the Moon will teach you anything new.
But it is a landmark movie. It is the grand-daddy of sci-fi films. Which, as you know, has taken up a large slice of cinema over the years.
There are other movies like it that have given the industry as a whole, a kick forward. The kind of movies that wouldn’t get standing ovations at the Sundance or any other international film festival of their time, because critics didn’t know what to make of them.
And I think any future filmmaker will benefit from knowing about them. Even if you don’t find it educational, it’s still a fun nostalgia trip.
So my point is, it doesn’t matter what you think about landmark movies providing context and the importance of context in film education, read the damn list.
I’ll include must-see movies for filmmakers that changed the industry with its release. Going chronologically seems to make sense too.
I have not included documentaries or short films, because they need their own lists.
Here’s a quick roundup of the best movie merch related to these movies (read movie posters):
Merch for films every film student should see
It may not be my favorite poster of the lot, but it is my favorite movie of the lot. The poster doesn’t do justice to the ride it’ll take you on. But it is quite distinct thanks to the artistic rendition of Jean Seberg.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
That’s right. Before I could begin reading about the importance of the movie, I had to wrap my head around motion pictures being around in 1902.
This French short film, and you’d know if you’ve watched it already, was a bit of a departure from the norm back in 1902.
The story itself was inspired by different sci-fi source material, including the work of Jules Verne. It was about an expedition to the moon.
This was shot with the help of theatrical performers, as the scientists who travel to the lunar surface, and as the Selenites, the locals of the lunar surface.
It all looks very silly now, but the set design and the special effects used to show this expedition were revolutionary back then, and expensive.
The funniest part when I watch it now is when the scientists, who are shot to the moon in a capsule, carry out the expedition in their civilian clothes.
Quite blasphemous if you’re not Hancock or One Punch Man, but it looked quite great for the time period.
Though it wasn’t what I took away from my first viewing, the story also had a touch of satire. That too was uncommon back then.
The iconic shot of a smiling moon, then grimacing as the capsule is shot into its eye, is one of cinema’s most iconic moments.
The General (1926)
The General, though it is considered a cinematic landmark now, was surprisingly a dud when it was released in 1926.
The budget was gigantic, $750,000. And the profit wasn’t large enough to justify the investment and time.
This must’ve been horribly unfair on one of cinema’s greatest actor-directors, Buster Keaton. He clearly knew this was ahead of its time.
But instead of earning plaudits for pushing the envelope, he ended up having his creative freedom snipped going forward.
What is particularly shocking was the luke-warm response from movie-goers. How does one not enjoy this non-stop thrill ride? We’ll never know.
Of course, now, every aspect of the movie is lauded. Its cinematography, the action choreography obviously, the story, and even its historical accuracy.
It should also be noted that Keaton wasn’t going for non-stop laughs as he does in his other classics like Sherlock Jr. or Steamboat Bill Jr.
It is the perfect movie to watch and learn about the silent era’s greatest performer.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
A force of nature for different reasons than the last one, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a French production from 1928.
It starred Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of arc, in one of cinema’s landmark performances.
It’s quite commonplace now, but having the entire story told by close-ups on the lead actor was a brilliant concept and this movie gets the credit for it.
For a more recent example, think Tom Hardy’s Locke.
But back in 1928, this must’ve been radical and out-of-the-world. That’s the kind of decision-making that defines a director, and Carl Theodor Drayer definitely made a mark with his direction.
The production was excellent throughout with a lot of mob scenes and shots of crosses and the manic energy of many of the characters coming through to the viewer.
Of course, the movie did face extreme pressure from the Church because of the subject matter. Only the God-sanctioned version was available until 1981 when the uncut version was found.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Let’s get something straight. I don’t get surrealism. My mind works in a way that it resists ambiguity of any sort.
I need to have anchors, of where the story started, and where it ends. I can take an ambiguous ending if the rest of the movie had me hooked.
So you can imagine the shock I got when I watched this Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali creation.
This 21-minute ‘video’ had no conventional plot. For me, they were vaguely connected images and any effort to make sense of them was futile.
But it is a landmark cinema. And I don’t want your craft to suffer, because my narrow-mindedness rejected this so-called masterpiece.
I will say that the images were hypnotic. Like a dog watching a movie without understanding it, but still glued to the images.
Another thing I’d like to drop in is that you may see echoes of choices made by filmmakers from the past. Like a refined, more digestible version of a crazy choice made back in the day.
So I like to think a lot of the dream sequences, that admittedly make sense to a viewer, may have drawn inspiration from movies like this.
Rome, Open City (1945)
From something that sent my mind on a loop to something so grounded, I wanted to look away (pause the movie) at times.
Rome, Open city was a landmark for the way it was shot and the way they portrayed the story of Romans under Nazi invasion. It employed what is known as neorealism.
It involves shooting on location to really ground the story in the time and place it plays out in. The movie used semi-pro actors as they came without the baggage of stardom and gave more naturalistic performances.
So someone out of their depth, on paper, played someone out of their depth. After all the invaded citizens weren’t sure of their actions either.
This also meant this atmospheric movie was low budget. Another feather in its cap.
In execution and narration, it was brutal. So the viewers weren’t afforded the tension relievers. Something filmmakers have to employ to ensure the audience isn’t overwhelmed.
All this combined to create an experience unlike any other at the time.
Seven Samurai (1954)
From Europe to the land of the rising sun. The Japanese great Akira Kurosawa is credited with many iconic movies and for extracting iconic performances from great Japanese actors.
Few are more iconic than The Seven Samurai. It is still considered one of the best movies of all time and possibly the best to come out of Japan.
Other than the straight rip off for The Magnificent Seven (a great movie in its own right), this movie has inspired, directly or indirectly, any movie that has a group of selfish individuals come together as heroes.
The plot is simple. A village is under threat from bandits. The villagers cannot expect any help from their ruler. So they have to arrange for it themselves.
They turn to wandering Ronin, wandering masterless Samurai, for help. It starts with one and slowly, steadily becomes seven.
It is never like the team-up of Avengers. It is slow, there is friction and truces are temporary. Then comes the actual part of fighting off the bad guys.
The movie’s 3+ hour runtime means Kurosawa can take his time building up to the inevitable climax. And the movie is great because of the time taken to build the characters and the situation.
You will immediately be reminded of the greatest Westerns because of the framing of the shots, and the time taken in each scene.
The Searchers (1956)
Did someone mention the greatest Westerns? I did. For a segue. I’m shameless that way.
The John Wayne classic is considered the greatest Western to ever be made. For good reason. The vibe of the movie isn’t quite like the Westerns that came before.
Even John Wayne’s performance is restrained when compared to vintage Duke.
This shift in storytelling is clear from the very start when the movie introduces many of the plot’s central characters.
This was director John Ford and John Wayne’s 12th collaboration, and it’s safe to say it is the best of the lot. It’s also saying a lot considering their collaborations include Stagecoach, Rio Grande and The Man who shot Liberty Valance.
I wrote a post about western movies and how they’re popular now because of the simplicity of the story. Characters spell out what they’re feeling most of the part.
But a lot of the storytelling in The Searchers is subtext. The extra second of eye contact between characters, the comfort or lack of comfort between two characters.
It’s a fun departure from the Westerns that were the norm back then.
Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature as director is credited with starting the French New Wave. He’s the sort of golden standard any independent filmmaker will aspire to.
If you’ve already seen the movie, you can guess why. The use of jump cuts to leave characters mid-conversation to one of the characters mid-transit to someplace different was revolutionary.
And even now after being exposed to the relentless noise of Hollywood blockbusters with fast cuts, the movie keeps you off balance.
Because the cuts are not to make the action fast-paced. It’s like being asked to form a full picture after being shown quick shots of parts of it.
The plot is dark. But due to the breeziness of Godard’s style, you’re a bit confused about the seriousness of the character’s actions and their impending consequences.
There’s a dream-like quality that seems to keep reality at bay until it is not. It was very stylish, casually dark and ride you don’t want to bail out of. Though you’re constantly wondering why the characters are not bailing.
The sound design is excellent. Using deft switches between dialogue and music throughout.
It’s one of the best films for film clubs. It has the kind of style that lets pretentious dopes exclaim in excitement every 2 minutes. After watching it, you can imagine the excitement of film critics falling over themselves to write about it.
Legend. But imagine me saying that in a Cockney accent. It’s cooler that way.
This is one of the more obvious cases of movies reinventing a genre, and maybe the American film industry. I’ve found it hard to appreciate the movie.
It does not age well like, say Breathless, but it was fundamental to the direction movies and filmmakers took.
If for nothing else for the grief it gave the prudes on the Censorship board. There is no era of cinema where these cockroaches haven’t rejected, cut or bullied good cinema.
Even something as mellow as showing toilet water being flushed was banned. That is the most blatant example of prudes letting their prudishness seep into their work to the delight of other super-prudes.
The iconic scenes from this movie are many. I’m not gonna list them. I’m gonna link them.
An interesting tidbit about the movie is that they used black-and-white to keep costs down and to make sure the shower scene isn’t too gory.
Though this may have been to please the prudes, it probably ended up being the right decision with hindsight.
8 ½ (1963)
Yeah, no. I don’t get Federico Fellini. I sort of understood what the filmmaker was going for with La Strada and La Dolce Vita. Sort of. But not 8 ½. So that means it’s a smart movie right?
Possibly a case of a filmmaker being a bit too in love with themselves and their craft.
But most likely a case of s#%t going way over my head. One must learn to accept that about oneself. And 8 ½ is the movie that brought me to that realization.
Of course, it’s a surrealist movie. Damn you, deep thinkers with the capacity to balance more than one thought at a time.
Plot-wise, it’s about a filmmaker struggling with creative inertia. This professional crisis is made worse by the turmoil in his personal life and the fact that the people causing this is also nearby.
The whole experience was made easier because of lead actor Marcello Mastroianni, whom I loved in L Dolce Vita but mainly Divorce Italian Style. A very funny, very dark comedy. I believe these are called dark comedies.
8 ½ is considered the dog’s balls because the story seemed to resonate very strongly with Fellini’s own life and career. So it had this weird effect of where you get the feeling he made this as stuff was happening in his own life.
A sort of directorial improv. The director in the movie also wants to make a good movie but struggles with the surrounding noise and doubts about his own capabilities.
The movie does end with a realization from the fictional filmmaker, and one hopes Fellini also came to the same realization.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Sticking with movies I can’t wrap my head around, 2001. The grand-daddy of movie greats. The one movie every best-of list should have, the one in every discussion of film history.
With visual effects that defy belief, and a level of big-picture plot that leaves most viewers in awe for most of the 142-minute runtime.
Any discussion of visual effects during film studies is sorely lacking if it doesn’t spend some time with how far ahead of its time, 2001 was.
There’s very little dialogue to distract you from the hypnotic images before your eyes.
There are themes of human evolution, artificial intelligence, even alien life. And healthy dollops of existentialism. A philosophy that says that an individual gives their own life meaning.
And that is not from constructs like religion or society. Ooh, controversial. But since it’s all very vague, I don’t think it was pulled up for it.
One detail I liked about the movie’s alien-life was that it wasn’t being a jerk. It was a smarter life-form guiding the primitive humans, rather than bully them or invade them. Kind of similar to whatever it is that Interstellar was going for.
But it is the experience. The stunning visuals, the legendary music and large stretches of silence that draws you in even though you may not be grasping it all.
It did win the Academy Award for Visual Effects, unsurprisingly. Even the Oscars ain’t that thick.
Well, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. Remember what I told you at the start about critics not knowing what to make of these when they came out.
Then there’s the matter of inspiring every film professional working on sci-fi and space films after it.
The Godfather (1972)
Quotable lines out the wazoo. Marlon Brando. Al Pacino. Robert Duvall. Diane Keaton. James Caan. An epic story spanning years. The book.
Pretty compelling arguments. If only there were people who haven’t watched it yet, I’d bother making an argument.
Directors every film student should know
Of course, the list is just a starting point. The list already covered Buster Keaton, Jean Luc-Godard, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Fellini, Hitchcock, Coppola.
Just going through their filmographies should be enough. But let’s throw a few more into that pile.
Tarantino, Scorcese, Terence Malick, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, Chan-wook Park, Joon-ho bong, Ang Lee, Coen Brothers, David Fincher, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Takeshi Kitano and many more.
And thanks to the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix, there are web series based on some of these luminaries of film direction and screenwriting.
I’m certain I’ve missed more than I included. But what the heck. I can always add to the list and say it was my first try.
One that I was obsessing over was La Jetee. It is this story about time travel that Twelve Monkeys ripped off, admittedly to good effect.
It is the only film to use still photos for the entire movie, that I have seen so far. If any of you guys have seen it, let me know your thoughts.
Maybe comment on your favorite director and their best work. I believe that starts some sort of conversation. I’ve seen blogs where that sort of thing works out semi-successfully.
Let’s give that a try here.