Jim's Film Website: 50 Landmarks of Film History

Here are 50 of the best and most representative films from all periods of cinema history (silent to contemporary), all genres (from comedy to documentary to fantasy), and many countries both West and East. To do justice to the richness and diversity of film, there should be ten times as many works. But even on a list as limited in scope as this – which is intended as an introduction to film history – you will find many of the world's most acclaimed, popular, and enduring works. There are many more recommendations at 10 best films in over 30 categories and best English-language films from 1930 to today. Enjoy!

To explore cinema from its beginnings, see Landmarks of Early Film (1894–1913), a superb two-hour collection of 40 short films from Europe and the US. Highlights include the Lumière Brothers' short films of everyday life (1895–1897), Georges Méliès' pivotal Science Fiction comedy "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) – a perfect miniature of a Hollywood blockbuster, and two very different works which show the power of cross-cutting: D.W. Griffith's drama "The Girl and Her Trust" (1912) and Mack Sennett's comedy "Bangville Police" (1913).

#

Year 

Title

Director

Country

Genre

Comments

The Silent Era (1894–1928)

1)

1916

Intolerance
(c. 178 mins. / aspect ratio 1.33 / black & white / silent)

D.W. Griffith

US

Drama / Experimental

ImageMonumental epic with innovative structure, it cross-cuts between four stories, each on the title theme, set in different historical periods.

2)

1922

Nosferatu
(84 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

F.W. Murnau

Germany

Horror

ImageExpressionist design melds with psychological horror in this genre's most influential early film, even as Murnau expands the flexibility of film language. Early films, as here, were often presented with scenes tinted in various 'emotional' colors and musical accompaniment. [my review]

3)

1922

Nanook of the North
(65 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

Robert Flaherty

US

Documentary

This fascinating look at the Eskimos's vanishing way of life set the standard for all later documentaries; its staged "re-creations" of events also raise the still-controversial issue of what constitutes "truth" in "non-fiction" film.

4)

1925

Battleship Potemkin
(65 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

Sergei Eisenstein

Russia

Drama / Experimental

ImageLandmark of film editing ("montage") creates a collective portrait of a pivotal historic event, transcends propaganda. [my mini-review]

5)

1925

The Gold Rush
(82 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

Charlie Chaplin

US

Comedy

Silent comedy's, and Chaplin's, masterpiece. See the Little Tramp eat his shoe!

6)

1926

Metropolis
(c. 120 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

Fritz Lang

Germany

Science Fiction

Spectacular vision of a class-divided future society which highlights both the poetic and political dimensions of SF.

7)

1928

Man With the Movie Camera
(68 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

Dziga Vertov

Russia

Documentary / Experimental

Innovative, exuberant example of popular "city symphony" documentary (here Moscow, Odessa, Kiev), and a revelation about the potential of non-acted (avant-garde) documentary, as well as the power of visual special effects.

8)

1928

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(c. 77 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent)

Carl Th. Dreyer

Denmark / France

Drama

ImageStunning use of Formalist design – with an emphasis on close-ups – and a towering performance by Maria Falconetti in the greatest film I have seen.

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The Sound Era's First 30 Years (1929–1959)

9)

1933

King Kong
(103 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

US

Fantasy / Adventure

ImageRetelling of Beauty and the Beast with a giant ape is a landmark of Fantasy, Action/ Adventure, and special effects

10)

1933

Zero for Conduct
(44 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Jean Vigo

France

Comedy

Quirky, lyrical, subversive and profound look at childhood from a young boy's perspective.

11)

1935

The Bride of Frankenstein
(75 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

James Whale

US

Science Fiction

Witty yet emotionally resonant, visually striking, and enormously influential on later SF and Horror films, especially those in the 1980s and later.

12)

1935

Triumph of the Will
(110 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Leni Riefenstahl

Nazi Germany

Propaganda

Horrifying in its technical, aesthetic, and emotional effectiveness.

13)

1937

Grand Illusion
(c. 117 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Jean Renoir

France

Drama

Classic of "mise en scène" (background, mid-ground, and foreground action all in focus, so we have to process information from all areas of the frame), with a powerful anti-war theme.

14)

1938

Bringing Up Baby
(102 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Howard Hawks

US

Comedy

ImageArchetypal Screwball Comedy, with a perfectly constructed screenplay, split-second timing, laugh-till-you cry hilarity, not to mention thematic richness.

15)

1939

Gone With the Wind
(222 mins. / 1.33 / color)

Victor Fleming, George Cukor, et al.

US

Romantic Drama

Quintessential Hollywood epic, from the "Studio System" era.

16)

1940

Fantasia
(120 mins. / 1.33 / color)

Walt Disney / Ben Sharpsteen

US

Musical / Animation

Pivotal work in the histories of both animation and film musicals, still mesmerizing.

17)

1941

Citizen Kane
(119 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Orson Welles

US

Drama

ImageOften considered the greatest film, with complex narrative design, breathtaking "deep focus" cinematography, and archetypal characters; made by 25-year-old Welles.

18)

1942

Ossessione
(140 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Luchino Visconti

Italy

Suspense

Riveting (unauthorized) adaptation of Postman Always Rings Twice inaugurates Neorealism, a highly influential style noted for its rough technique, use of non-professional actors, and political emphasis. Other Neorealist directors include Rossellini and De Sica. [my mini-review]

19)

1943

Shadow of a Doubt
(108 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Alfred Hitchcock

US

Suspense

Dark underside of small-town life; a dramatic and visual masterpiece of suspense construction and a pinnacle of Film Noir; Hitchcock's personal favorite of his films.

20)

1946

Great Expectations
(118 mins. / 1.37 / b&w)

David Lean

UK

Drama

Inspired filmmaking on all levels, and one of the greatest literary adaptations (here Charles Dickens).

21)

1946

Beauty and the Beast
(95 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Jean Cocteau

France

Fantasy

ImageBest live-action fairy tale, with enormous emotional resonance. Influenced countless later films, including Disney's great 1991 animated musical. [my review]

22)

1952

Singin' in the Rain
(102 mins. / 1.37 / color)

Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen

US

Musical Comedy

Radiant and hilarious, the ultimate film musical comedy, with a story set during Hollywood's transition from silent movies to the "talkies."

23)

1952

Othello
(92 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Orson Welles

US

Shakespearean Drama

Greatest Shakespeare film, Welles brilliantly finds visual and sound equivalents for the original text. [my mini-analysis of a sequence]

24)

1953

Earrings of Madame de...
(105 mins. / b&w)

Max Ophüls

France

Drama

Fluid camera movement and long takes achieve emotional and thematic depth.

25)

1953

Tokyo Story
(134 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Yasujiro Ozu

Japan

Drama

ImageSubtle, deeply moving tale of Japanese family life, with a brilliant use of meticulous, low-angle compositions.

26)

1954

Seven Samurai
(141 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Akira Kurosawa

Japan

Action / "Western"

Although set in medieval Japan, this is arguably the greatest "Western" ever made – Kurosawa revered the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

27)

1955

Pather Panchali
(112 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Satyajit Ray

India

Drama

Boy comes of age in a poor Bengali family, in this first part of the Apu Trilogy; also marks emergence of India's thriving film industry, nicknamed "Bollywood."

28)

1956

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
(80 mins. / 2.35 / b&w)

Don Siegel

US

Science Fiction / Horror

Paranoia perfectly captured, in image and drama, with the "pod people" standing in for any creeping global menace.

29)

1956

The Searchers
(119 mins. / 1.75)

John Ford

US

Western

More emotional and ethical complexity than in most Westerns, yet with all of the genre's excitement and visual splendor.

30)

1959

North by Northwest
(136 mins. / 1.85 / color)

Alfred Hitchcock

US

Action / Adventure

ImageModel for all later Action films, with a flawless blend of suspense and comedy, all set to Bernard Herrmann's dazzling music.

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The "New Wave" and Beyond (1959 to Today)

31)

1959

Breathless
(89 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Jean-Luc Godard

France

Suspense / Experimental

ImageKey example of French New Wave, which challenged, and re-invented, cinematic conventions. Landmark of elliptical editing ("jump cuts") and deconstructive reimagining of genre (here Suspense), through realistic locations and performances and documentary-like but poetic visual style. Other New Wave directors include Truffaut, Resnais, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, Malle, and Varda.

32)

1959

The 400 Blows
(99 mins. / 2.35 / b&w)

François Truffaut

France

Drama

ImageTruffaut's autobiographical tale of a wayward boy reflects the French New Wave's more overtly humanist side; also one of the most perceptive films about childhood ever made.

33)

1959

Hiroshima mon amour
(91 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Alain Resnais

France

Drama / Experimental

A haunting love affair between two married people – a French actress and a Japanese architect – comes to shatter the boundaries between past, present, and future; from novelist Marguerite Duras's screenplay that is arguably the most original ever written.

34)

1960

L'Avventura
(145 mins. / 2.35 / b&w )

Michelangelo Antonioni

Italy

Drama

ImageVisually stunning film begins as a mystery then evolves into something much more ambiguous and complex. Also example of post-Neorealism, whose other directors include Fellini, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and Wertmüller.

35)

1965

Loves of a Blonde
(88 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

Milos Forman

Czechoslovakia

Comedy / Drama

Poignant, beautifully-made tale of a girl looking for love, also marks the importance of Eastern European cinema by such directors as Polanski, Skolimowski, Passer, and Menzel.

36)

1966

Persona
(90 mins. / 1.37 / b&w )

Ingmar Bergman

Sweden

Drama

ImageUnnerving psychological, yet symbolic, study of two women whose personalities begin to merge; also showcases Bergman's austere but richly poetic style, which has influenced countless filmmakers.

37)

1968

L'Amour Fou
(252 mins. / 1.33 / b&w )

Jacques Rivette

France

Drama

Complex, engrossing interplay of life, theatre, and film (different stocks – 35mm and 16mm – used to powerful effect) as a stage director and his wife/lead actress descend into madness; masterful control of filmic time/duration.

38)

1968

Night of the Living Dead
(96 mins. / 1.33 / b&w)

George A. Romero

US

Horror

Most influential modern Horror film, deserves its place in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. Also showcases the viability, and growing importance, of Independent Filmmaking.

39)

1968

2001: A Space Odyssey
(139 mins. / 2.35 / color)

Stanley Kubrick

US

Science Fiction

ImageSublime mix of visual wonder and philosophical complexity, as mankind makes first contact with extra-terrestrials.

40)

1969

Fellini Satyricon
(129 mins. / 2.35 / color)

Federico Fellini

Italy

Drama

Gorgeous, grotesque, unforgettable film about picaresque adventures of two young men in Nero's Rome. I think it's Fellini's masterpiece, but others would disagree. [my mini-review]

41)

1970

Gimme Shelter
(91 mins. / 1.33 / color)

David & Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

US

Documentary / Music

Not only the best film of a concert (here the Rolling Stones), but an apocalyptic view of the "peace and love" 1960s disintegrating into chaos.

42)

1971

A Clockwork Orange
(137 mins. / 1.66 / color)

Stanley Kubrick

US / UK

Fantasy

ImageShocking exploration of connections between sex, violence, and politics, shot in cool Formalist style; trenchant use of music.

43)

1972

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
(102 mins. / 1.66 / color)

Luis Buñuel

Spain

Comedy / Experimental

Surreal political comedy in which reality and illusion, love and violence blur into one another.

44)

1972 & 1974

The Godfather, Parts I & II
(I: 175 mins. / 1.85 / color & II: 200 mins. / 1.85 / color)

Francis Ford Coppola

US

Suspense

Riveting saga of the Corleones, the most (in)famous fictional crime family, and a masterpiece of popular filmmaking. (Consider ignoring the lackluster Part III – and imagine your own continuation.)

45)

1972

Aguirre, the Wrath of God
(94 mins. / 1.37 / color)

Werner Herzog

Germany

Drama

Visionary, hypnotic biopic about 16th c. Spanish conquistador in Peruvian jungle; and a masterpiece from the 1970s New German Cinema, which also included Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Wenders, Syberberg, and Petersen.

46)

1974

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
(93 mins. / 1.33 / color)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Germany

Drama

ImagePoignant, beautiful – and political – story of a middle-aged cleaning woman who falls in love with a young Moroccan immigrant, and how they deal with the bigotry they encounter; a key film of the New German Cinema. [my review]

47)

1975

Nashville
(159 mins. / 2.35 / color)

Robert Altman

US

Drama / Musical

Innovative use of dense, polyphonic soundtrack and many intertwined stories.

48)

1977

Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
(121 mins. / 2.35 / color)

George Lucas

US

Science Fiction

Still the greatest and most influential "space opera," a model of narrative construction and editing.

49)

1993

The Piano
(121 mins. / 1.85 / color)

Jane Campion

New Zealand

Drama

Passionate, lyrical, disturbing masterpiece about a mute "mail order bride" in remote 19th c. New Zealand.

50)

2001

Spirited Away
(125 mins. / 1.85 / color)

Hayao Miyazaki

Japan

Fantasy / Animation

ImageSublime fable, from the greatest animator, about a young girl trapped in a world of spirits and gods, where she learns much about herself, her family, and diversity. Thematically, we have come full circle from Griffith's Intolerance.

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