As a film major, you learn to keep a list of movies that you can always go back to in reference. That’s why DVDs aren’t a waste of money for us cinema students, because we genuinely treat them as textbooks, constantly going back to those films that help shape our own styles and visions.
As I prepare an essay for a film class I’m taking this semester, I figured I’d share my findings on here as well. There are tons of movies I always refer back to but it seems these 25 films are the most constant. They continue to inspire me as a filmmaker, in all their creative aspects, from direction to design, to sound and screenwriting. In my humble point of view, these 25 films never fail to ignite the creative auteur in me.
In my opinion Scorcese’s best, better than Mean Streets and Raging Bull. The film is so visceral, literally knocking you down to the ground. I go back to this film just in terms of detail in direction and movement. It’s a long movie but it moves like a freight train and the impact of the scenes will continue to hit you after countless viewings.
24: A Hard Day’s Night
Perhaps the movie that created MTV. I go back to this movie because of its sheer originality. Or maybe because it feels so fresh. You want to make movies that feel this alive and bursting in song, or at least, with some kind of musicality.
23: Jackie Brown
Forget Pulp Fiction. Put aside Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill flicks. Jackie Brown is undeniably Tarantino at his finest. Tarantino has always been one helluva wordsmith but here it’s his complete realization of characters, and how he leisurely takes his time in revealing plot points and interesting character development.
I’ve referenced Robert Towne’s killer screenplay numerous times on here. The acting is top notch. I’m not a huge fan of Polanski, but Chinatown is a towering achievement in screenwriting and performance especially if you have a copy of the script and you can see how the screenplay translates so vividly onto the screen. You want to be able to give direction that will service the script to the best of your directing skill.
21: Good Will Hunting
Probably one of the best screenplay of recent years, and to think its written by this duo! Again, when a screenplay is that good, get a copy of it and see the DVD. Do a compare and contrast. Great screenplays translate well. This is another great example. Plus Robin Williams gives a tour-de-force performance as Damon’s shrink.
20: A Touch of Evil
Everyone honors Citizen Kane, but I lean more towards this Orson Welle’s classic. It’s just how he paces the film. Clear direction and staging. The opening sequence is probably the best opening sequence in cinema history, one that has been copied, homaged and referenced to, most notably Robert Altman’s The Player.
Sometimes you want to make a film that will hit a nerve with your audience. The right elements just fell into play for this movie. Amazing ensemble. Unforgettable lines. (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”) Underneath every filmmaker lies the desire to create a film that’s scathingly true. Network is the film that always comes to mind.
18: Cinema Paradiso
If you love movies, you can’t deny the magic of this movie. Great storytelling. Epic in the most intimate sense. Avoid the 2002 Director’s Cut and stick with the original version. The director’s cut gives away too much in my opinion. What makes this movie a great reference for filmmakers is to understand what is essential in storytelling and editing. What parts do you leave out for the audience’s imagination? Not only is this a central theme in the movie but its also the strength of the movie itself. How much do you give, and how much do you leave up to the audience.
Michael Mann is the epitome of style and Heat just oozes with it. The coffee shop conversation showdown between giants Pacino and DeNiro still keeps me riveted. It’s a clash of two titans but its the least violent scene in the film, yet it makes the most impact.
16: L.A. Confidential
1997 was a great year for movies. L.A. Confidential is a marvelous film no doubt but the true strengths lie in its technicalities, particularly sound, editing, design and cinematography. One of the best lit scenes in recent history is when Kim Basinger enters the liquor store. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights everything beautifully; Basinger’s face soft and glowing, but that deep velvet black of her cape and coat is so rich and textured. Also, sound-wise, if you’ve got the home theater to muscle it out, check out the final duel in the motel. Great use of sound.
15: Singin’ In the Rain
One of the best movies ever. But I always go back to this for music, sound, and staging.
Stephen Soderbergh’s my favorite director and this is his best so far. It’s just the no nonsense way the film is made. I usually refer to this film in post-production when I’m editing my films. It’s just how he puts all these fragments into a beautiful collage of a movie.
Spielberg at his most clever. The film is a clear example of Syd Field’s 3-Act Structure but really it’s all in the direction of the film. Spielberg practically reinvented the whole tension/release pacing in modern cinema. Here, he shows his patterns clearly: the slow reveal of the beast, a character who resembles the hunted, etc. Spielberg has created new conventions here, and it’s always neat to go back to this film and see the techniques of a cinematic genius.
12: Rear Window
One of my favorite Hitchcock film’s. With Hitchcock, where do I begin? All his films should be textbooks for any filmmaker! One of James Stewart’s best performances. You can see where Pierce Brosnan gets all his tricks.
11: The Sting
The definition of genre filmmaking, and my favorite: the caper film! This film and Magnificent Seven are films of such great bravado and camaraderie. Every filmmaker who would ever want to make heist/caper movies really should study this film in and out.
10: Band of Outsiders
My love affair with the French New Wave. This is probably one of the best films to come out of that era.
9: All the President’s Men
This film has always been the prime example of less is more. If you want to just tell the story, no frills, no special effects, and still keep it interesting, this is the film you have to see. One of my favorites.
8: Do the Right Thing
Probably referred to as the Citizen Kane of modern cinema because of its innovation in storytelling. There’s just so much to refer to. The editing. The writing. The direction. Not only is the film a masterpiece, it’s also probably one of the most important films ever made.
“You’re movie’s got to have heart,” a professor once told me. He then reminded me of this little movie.
6: 400 Blows
Along with Band of Outsiders, this is probably the best example of the French New Wave. It’s the first film I ever saw in film school. (I saw this and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story in one sitting! Can you imagine? I went home and started writing!) I like how unconventional French New Wave is, and this film is a constant reminder of straying away from formula. Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is also one of my first movies in film school (and one of my favorite movies). Just prime examples of other cinematic routes outside of Hollywood conventions.
5: The Conversation
Best use of sound in a movie. Period. I always thought Coppola’s Godfather films were his best. I’ll admit I’m partial to this film moreso than most of Coppola’s offerings. Much better than Apocalypse Now.
4: Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
The epitome of style in a movie. Okay so the movie is kinda blah (the remake is much better), but the style! No wonder this final scene has been ripped off by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs, Scorcese in GoodFellas, and in numerous cool guy movies! Stylish, cool. The remakes and the sequels it spawned reinvented and updated it, but if it weren’t for this movie, all those other cool guy movies it gave birth wouldn’t be as cool.
3: Raiders of the Lost Ark
The movie that made me want to be a film director when I was a kid. To this day, when I see this movie, it just reminds me of the magic and adventure of film, and the limitless possibilities. More of an inspiration than a reference.
2: North by Northwest
Hitchcock. Again.Where do I begin? My personal fave of his. I’m a huge Cary Grant fan. I did a whole spiel on this movie a little over a year ago.
No other movie moves me the way this film does. I can see it over and over again and I’ll never get tired of it. Seen it on the big screen, seen it on laserdisc (my introduction to the movie, thanks to my Dad) and now seen it numerous times on DVD. Just everything about this film is ideal filmmaking. There is always something new to find and it encompasses the best of every aspect; music, editing, lighting, direction, performance, etc. You can have Citizen Kane (no doubt a masterpiece in its own right) but Casablanca, in my opinion, is the greatest American film of all time. They don’t make movies like that anymore.