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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 (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 vastly more 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).

UPDATE! All eight of the SIlent Era films, now public domain, are available FREE online. Links are to versions with the best image quality I’ve found. Enjoy!

Intolerance

The Silent Era (1894–1928)

1) 1916 — Intolerance
(c. 178 mins. / aspect ratio 1.33 / black & white / silent) — D.W. Griffith — US — Drama / Experimental — Monumental epic with innovative structure, it cross-cuts between four stories, each on the title theme, set in different historical periods. Currently free on YouTube.)

Nosferatu

2) 1922 — Nosferatu [my review]
(84 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent) — F.W. Murnau — Germany — Horror — Expressionist 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. Currently free on YouTube.)

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. Currently free at Internet Archive.)

Battleship Potemkin

4) 1925 — Battleship Potemkin [my review]
(65 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent) — Sergei Eisenstein — Russia — Drama / Experimental — Landmark of film editing (“montage”) creates a collective portrait of a pivotal historic event, transcends propaganda. Currently free on YouTube.)

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! Currently free at Internet Archive.)

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. Currently free at Internet Archive.)

The Passion of Joan of Arc

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. Currently free at YouTube.)

8) 1928 — The Passion of Joan of Arc
(c. 77 mins. / 1.33 / b&w / silent) — Carl Th. Dreyer — Denmark / France — Drama — Stunning use of Formalist design – with an emphasis on close-ups – and a towering performance by Maria Falconetti in the greatest film I have seen. Currently free on Vimeo without a subscription.)

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North by Northwest

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

King Kong

9) 1933 — King Kong
(103 mins. / 1.33 / b&w) — Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack — US — Fantasy / Adventure — Retelling 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.)

Bringing Up Baby

14) 1938 — Bringing Up Baby
(102 mins. / 1.33 / b&w) — Howard Hawks — US — Comedy — Archetypal Screwball Comedy, with a perfectly constructed screenplay, split-second timing, laugh-till-you cry hilarity, not to mention thematic richness… and a leopard.)

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. Racism remains a curse. This film, a product of its time, is a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it showcases one of the most powerful and resilient women in film and literature, Scarlett O’Hara. But while it ignores many aspects of racial violence, including the dehumanization of Blacks under slavery, it also has, as its moral center, the indomitable and wise Mammy. Much to discuss and debate.)

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.)

Citizen Kane

17) 1941 — Citizen Kane
(119 mins. / 1.33 / b&w) — Orson Welles — US — Drama — Often ranked the greatest film, with complex narrative design, breathtaking “deep focus” cinematography, and archetypal characters; made by 25-year-old Welles.)

18) 1942 — Ossessione [my review]
(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.)

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.)

Beauty and the Beast

21) 1946 — Beauty and the Beast [my review]
(95 mins. / 1.33 / b&w) — Jean Cocteau — France — Fantasy — Best live-action fairy tale, with enormous emotional resonance. Influenced countless later films, including Disney’s great 1991 animated musical.)

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 [my analysis of a scene]
(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.)

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.)

Tokyo Story

25) 1953 — Tokyo Story
(134 mins. / 1.33 / b&w) — Yasujiro Ozu — Japan — Drama — Subtle, 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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2001: A Space Odyssey

The “New Wave” and Beyond (1959 to Today)

Breathless

31) 1959 — Breathless
(89 mins. / 1.33 / b&w) — Jean-Luc Godard — France — Suspense / Experimental — Key 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 — Truffaut’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.)

L’Avventura

34) 1960 — L’Avventura
(145 mins. / 2.35 / b&w ) — Michelangelo Antonioni — Italy — Drama — Visually 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.)

Persona

36) 1966 — Persona
(90 mins. / 1.37 / b&w ) — Ingmar Bergman — Sweden — Drama — Unnerving 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 —Sublime mix of visual wonder and philosophical complexity, as mankind makes first contact with extra-terrestrials.)

40) 1969 — Fellini Satyricon [my review]
(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.)

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.)

A Clockwork Orange

42) 1971 — A Clockwork Orange
(137 mins. / 1.66 / color) — Stanley Kubrick — US / UK — Fantasy —Shocking 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.)

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

46) 1974 — Ali: Fear Eats the Soul [my review]
(93 mins. / 1.33 / color) — Rainer Werner Fassbinder — Germany — Drama — Poignant, 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.)

47) 1975 — Nashville
(159 mins. / 2.35 / color) — Robert Altman — US — Drama / Musical — Innovative use of dense, polyphonic soundtrack and many intertwined stories.)

Star Wars

48) 1977 — Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope [my structural analysis]
(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 — Sublime 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.)

Begun 1997 / Revised September 5, 2020

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