17. Grand Hotel (1932)
Historic as the first film to have an all-star ensemble (including Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Berry, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Jean Hersholt, and John Barrymore in one of his last roles) and was rightly billed as “the show of the century.”
Based off Vikki Baum’s popular 1929 novel, it follows a disparate rabble over a handful of days, and how their paths intertwine at a swank Berlin Hotel. The hotel set was, at the time, the largest ever built, and director Edmund Goulding, was in top form (his overhead establishing shots of the massive hotel are breathtaking, even by today’s standards), as was Garbo, whose memorable reoccurring line from the film, “I want to be alone,” would later haunt the famous recluse.
Grand Hotel is a classic of the Golden Era, netting the Best Picture Oscar in 1932, it stands today as grandiose escapism populated by the most glamorous stars of the era. A gem.
16. Dead of Night (1945)
This gothic horror anthology from Britain is rightly considered a classic, and the ghost stories it contains are most certainly essential viewing for fright fans.
When a group of strangers meet in an eerie house in the middle of nowhere the stage is set as they recount frightening tales from their past; a haunted mirror, a Christmas-themed ghost tale, a spectral hearse, and a nightmarish ventriloquist’s dummy amongst them.
A favorite film of Martin Scorsese’s, as well an influence on every single horror anthology ever since, including The Twilight Zone television series, Dead of Night is a blood-curdling classic through and through.
15. Babel (2006)
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s third feature, Babel, takes four interlocking stories spread out over several international locations and an impressive cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Ronko Kikuchi.
“Cinema is just a fragmented emotional experience,” Iñárritu has said, “I don’t care about the chronological order of the facts but rather the emotional impact of the events.” This might as well be Iñárritu’s maxim, and it’s certainly true of Babel.
Of all the penetrating stories, told in a riddle-like fashion, it may well be Kikuchi’s startling cinematic debut as a deaf-mute school girl, Chieko, mourning her mother’s death, that resonates with the most power. But truthfully, all these intertwined vignettes are startling and strong (Blanchett’s and Pitt’s American tourist couple in peril tale is nightmarish and heart rending), each with their own deeply rewarding payoffs, all aided immeasurably by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s gritty, washed-out and loose lensing. It’s a riveting picture from one of Mexico’s greatest talents (incidentally, another anthology from Iñárritu, Amores Perros, also almost made this list).
14. Traffic (2000)
Steven Soderbergh’s wide-ranging crime drama epic on the illegal drug trade is a meticulously constructed omnibus picture, inundated with powerful analogy, shrewd social commentary, and an artfully restrained sweep.
An expansive A-list cast, including Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Salma Hayek, Erika Christensen, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, all bring their a-game, and many of them were rewarding for their efforts (Del Toro won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, Zeta-Jones also won a Golden Globe), as was Soderbergh (along with a Best Director Oscar, Traffic won Best Picture, and several other awards), bumping him into the upper echelon of American directors.
Rarely has the human cost and bad faith of the anti-drug movement been so unreservedly and deftly explored and detailed. It’s a dark tone poem, unsettling, uncompromising, occasionally didactic, but always on point, it’s a modern American classic.
13. Poison (1990)
Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) burst onto the scene as a pioneer of the New Queer Cinema with his feature film debut, Poison. An unflinching portmanteau triptych drawing on Jean Genet’s risque BDSM-addled writings (Genet was a French iconoclast, labelled transgressive, and a queer icon).
Each of the stories in Poison adopt radically different genres: 1950’s sci-fi horror, gay prison romance, and faux documentary. And each story dissects traditional views on homosexuality. While later films from Haynes would later eschew many of these overtly gay themes, Poison, steeped in the American indie film breakout spirit of the 1980s, is a visceral, in turns subtle and OTT compilation of cinematic styles, tenors, and tropes, clearly indicative of the arrival of a major talent, and one who hasn’t stopped making polemical and graceful cinema ever since.
12. City of God (2002)
Co-directors Fernando Meirelles’ and Kátia Lund’s decades-spanning crime drama epic set in the sprawling slums of Rio de Janiero is a post-Scorsese fever dream. It’s unshrinking and outright shocking violence, quotable, often hilarious dialogue, and vibrant visuals — the labyrinthine, infraction-filled streets and housing projects of Rio astound — not to mention the harrowing yet luminous performances from its child actors, make City of God a rememberable and momentous picture, worthy of the world-wide acclaim it accrued.
11. Black Sabbath (1963)
Mario Bava’s visually opulent, garishly stylish and atmospherically baroque Italian-French horror anthology is an outright chef d’oeuvre. Narrated by the legendary Boris Karloff, these frightful vignettes, each now familiar Halloween perennials, include Jacqueline Pierreux in The Drop of Water and Suzy Andersen in The Wurdalak.
And if there was ever any doubt, so influential and affecting was Black Sabbath that English rockers Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne, and company, co-opted the name for their seminal act. But love for the film doesn’t end there, nouveau riche filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly quipped, “what Mario Bava did with the horror film in Black Sabbath, I was gonna do with [Pulp Fiction].” ‘Nuff said.
10. Kwaidan (1964)
This 4-part Japanese anthology of ghost stories by Masaki Kobayashi (“Kwaidan” directly translates as “ghost story”) are based on the folk tales of Lafcadio Hearn, and amounts to an opulent enduring classic.
Shot on enormous studio sets with striking theatricality, Kwaidan is symphonic in its splashes of color and bold uses of sound, and while it may take its time in gracefully unravelling its intricacies, it’s a film of rare subtlety and skill.
Roger Ebert called the film “an assembly of ghost stories that is among the most beautiful films I’ve seen,” and its haunting hues are difficult to shake (Katsuo Nakamura as the blind ballad singer is unforgettable).
9. Wild Tales (2014)
Argentine writer/director Damián Szifrón, a gifted storyteller with a knack for comedy, gets a lot of laughs out of dire and diabolical situations in Wild Tales, his third film, which is an outright howl. Cineastes will be elated, for instance, with the road rage tour de force detailed in The Strongest, which recalls Spielberg’s The Duel but gets decidedly darker, or the thrill to the schadenfreude eventually restituted from the meek to the tight-fisted in Little Bomb.
Szifrón proves throughout the six stories presented in the aptly titled Wild Tales, to be an insanely talented late arrival, a risk-taker who can be scabrous one minute, heartrending the next, and then follow that with genuine comedy. He’s a force to be reckon with alright, and this may well be his delirious, demented, and utterly delightful calling card.