As students, we watch a lot of movies. It’s how we escape from the grind of the classroom and let our minds go numb for a while. Most times we don’t even care what we are watching, just as long as we find it entertaining. This normally doesn’t present a problem, unless of course you actually care about movies as an art form. If so, it’s really easy to let this “numbness” get you headed off in the wrong direction. In today’s era of instant gratification (and by that I mean “Netflix Instant” gratification), it’s easy to get lost in a maze of ill-informed customer reviews, stars, thumbs, and algorithmically contrived recommendations. Might I offer a suggestion? If you really want to give yourself an education in cinema, start with the ten films below, each not only great in their own right, but also largely influential on all the films that came after them. Any one of these films can open a door to an entire universe of fascinating and engrossing movie genres.
PLEASE NOTE: These are just a starting point, of course. This list is by no means definitive or above scrutiny. If you have anything to add, please feel free to offer up your opinion. Enjoy!
- Seven Samurai – Five true samurai, one samurai in training, and one farmer’s son who wants nothing but to be a samurai, all join forces to protect an isolated farming village from a troop of roaming bandits. The result is the greatest action film of all time. One that (in some opinions) set standards that have still never been surpassed. A lot of critics think that the anti-war message at the ending is laid on too heavily, and is a bit tongue in cheek given the horrific battle sequences that precede it. My thoughts? As the last five minutes of a three hour movie, it’s thought provoking, but by no means merits dismissing the whole movie.
- The Godfather Parts I & II – For years, critics polls have all reached the same conclusion: Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all time. But every year the first two Godfather films move closer to the top, and it’s probably only a matter of time before they reach it. An epic tragedy rooted not only in family connections and violence, but in the history and culture of the country as a whole, the Godfather films weave a strangely hypnotic spell. Few films so brilliantly mix quiet and stillness with moments of intense and cathartic violence. Forget about The Godfather Part III, which is a mistaken afterthought—if there’s such a thing as a follow-up to the first two Godfather films, it’s Apocalypse Now!, which follows its themes into Vietnam and their ultimate conclusion in horrific insanity.
- Intolerance – D.W. Griffiths’ sweeping silent epic, made in 1916, tells four different stories in four different historical eras, cross-cutting back and forth between them. Over the course of his career, Griffith invented almost every film technique that we now take for granted. Do some research on Griffith, and you’ll be surprised how many movies you watch utilize techniques pioneered by him. In Intolerance he uses a large portion of them, along with a few that have unfortunately disappeared.
- Sunrise – Made near the very end of the silent era, Sunrise tells a simple story in a way both profoundly true and profoundly beautiful. Every time critics get together to vote on the greatest films, Sunrise rises(no pun intended) a couple of notches up the ranks. It may never be ranked as the greatest movie ever made, but it’s certainly one of the most gorgeous. A must see in a theater if you can ever find it showing.
- Grand Illusion – The greatest anti-war film ever made, one which includes not a single battle scene. Instead, we find ourselves in a prisoner of war camp in Germany during the first world war. As French prisoners plot their escape, we witness the death of the old European society and the good it carried; making way for the rise of a new, egalitarian society too easily torn apart by the most basic human needs.
- His Girl Friday – In its original incarnation, as the newspaper farce The Front Page, the material that forms the basis of this story was the first great screwball comedy. This version, made ten years later, and with one of the characters transformed into a woman, was the last of the classic romantic screwballs, and possibly the best. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were never better, and the supporting cast(including Ralph Bellamy), is one of the best ever assembled.
- The Maltese Falcon – The film that not only cemented Humphrey Bogart’s persona, but also invented the noir genre; with its dark imagery, darker motives, and nearly impossible to parse plots. No one is who or what they say they are, but they all deserve everything they get. The Maltese Falcon is a must see in my opinion, and easily falls into my top 10 movies of all time.
- Singing In the Rain – Arguably the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals, Singing In the Rain is not only great because of it’s singing and dancing, but also because it makes fun of itself and all the Hollywood musicals that had come before. Gene Kelly always had a tendency to take himself too seriously, but here we see his lighter side. Gene constantly makes light of himself in this film, which has a surprisingly refreshing effect. The lack of seriousness allows for some creative freedom, which is evident in every step and every shot.
- Zazie Dans Le Metro – The French director Louis Malle is best known in the United States for Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre, but this film, made in the early sixties, is of an entirely different type, and is one of the most stylish and entertaining movies ever made. Much of it is a parody of other films, and especially of the rising French new wave, of which Malle was a part. Malle throws in just about every experimental film technique of the time, and ties it all together with the loose story of a young girl visiting Paris who’s only desire is to ride the Metro. Many of the techniques that were considered revolutionary five years later first appeared in this charming piece of fluff.
- Bonnie and Clyde – The film that opened what might be called the second golden age of Hollywood. Films made during this time were more realistic and darker than ever, but each just as inventive and energetic as the next. It’s hard to think of a single great film of the 70s that wasn’t influenced by this movie in some fashion. Bonnie and Clyde perfectly encapsulates the pop culture revolution of the 60s. If you are into movies made during this time period, you have probably seen it. Even if you haven’t, I can guarantee some of your favorite movies from the late 60′s and 70′s would cite Bonnie and Clyde as an inspiration.
That should be enough to get you started. One other word of advice: try to see these in a theater if you can. Blu-Ray offers great quality, but nothing tops the experience of comfortable theater seating, a big bowl of popcorn, and a great movie on a huge screen. These are all classics, so you probably won’t find them in your local “Cinema For The Masses”. More than likely you will have to travel to a major metropolis in search of something more like an “Indy Dive” theater. It may be a bit time consuming, but that shouldn’t be a problem though. We all know we only watch movies when all of our studying is done. Right?