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The 30 Most Influential Movies In Cinema History

02 March 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Lee Schroeder

The Godfather, Part II (1974)

These days, many people, particularly cinephiles, or simply just people with a special and more than fleeting and/or passing interest in cinema, may wonder, “Where should I begin in regards to watching great movies? Which are the key works of this medium and why? Why is it important that I watch movies that are mostly not even popular anymore and even sometimes hard to find? Why should I watch this forgotten piece of celluloid? Where do my favorite movies come from?”

Well, we’ve humbly compiled a (partially subjective and arbitrary, of course, these things are always at least partially subjective and arbitrary, as there can be no absolutes in art) list of 30 films any person with a real, actual interest in cinema should watch at least once (although many times repeated viewings are practically required) in their lifetimes, and why.

Please note the films on this list are ranked in alphabetical order.

 

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick. (1968, USA).

2001-A-Space-Odyssey

What can possibly be said about “2001: A Space Odyssey”? It changed and renovated cinema, audiovisual communication, popular culture, science fiction and contemporary narrative forever, and predicted the iPad and many of the advances in technology we now take for granted, among many other things.

Kubrick painted a supremely beautiful and astonishing fresco of the History of the Universe and the History of the Human Species, where the groundbreaking narrative encompasses man’s preternatural hubris, destructive and self-destructive impulses, his continuous strive for advance and discovery but also tendency towards violence and preoccupations with death, and the indifference and unspeakable vastness of our universe along with its infinite mysteries.

It illuminated and inspired an incredible amount of fellow filmmakers, practically every single one that came after him, among them Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Ridley Scott, Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini and Woody Allen. It paved the way for films like “Solaris”, the “Star Wars” saga(s), “Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”.

Never before had so-called “mainstream” cinema gone nearly this far, and never before had a film been so brazenly bold. cinema is what it is today because of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and we have Stanley Kubrick and his infinite genius to thank for this.

 

2. 8 ½, by Federico Fellini. (Otto E Mezzo, 1963, Italy, France).

8½

Fellini’s masterpiece. After the enormous and international success of “La Dolce Vita” three years previous, the Italian genius set out to make a film about what it is to make films.

What resulted is a bittersweet ode to cinema, but also an examination of the creative mind and process and how the creative man deals with them.

Over the course of the film, we get to follow our protagonist, the successful and desired filmmaker Guido Anselmi (played to perfection by Marcello Mastroianni, of course), as he tries to manage his own complicated life, come to terms with his mistakes, losses and own selfishness, and face the responsibilities that come with being a successful artistic genius.

All of this is wrapped in a deep, serious, but also funny look at the life of dreams and the dreams of life.

 

3. Andrei Rublev, by Andrei Tarkovsky. (Andrey Rublyov, 1966, Soviet Union).

Andrei Rublev

Behold a key piece in the world of cinematic art, and Tarkovsky’s definitive masterpiece. An impressive epic based on the life of the 15th century Russian icon painter of the title.

Tarkovsky’s intention was to portray the importance and prominence of the artists in the world that surround him, and the influence of the Christian religion in shaping Russian history.

During the time the film takes place, Russia was torn by the Tatar invasions and constant struggles to the throne.

“Andrei Rublev” is divided into a prologue, eight chapters and an epilogue. The prologue is only metaphorically linked to the rest of the film, while the epilogue is a montage of some of the titular character’s actual filmed masterpieces.

An essential as it is complex and rich masterpiece.

 

4. L’Avventura, by Michelangelo Antonioni. (1960, Italy).

L'Avventura (1960)

Following and severely expending in what other filmmakers like Ford, Rossellini and Dreyer had hinted at before, Antonioni’s sixth film completely subverted, revolutionized and altered what had become narrative in cinema.

Eschewing completely the usual and conventional ways to make narrative cinema, Antonioni instead chose to make a film driven solely by its characters and their (very) hidden internal, emotional turmoils and the very gradual changes that come upon them, and the way they look at and regard life, themselves and love.

Portraying perfectly the lives of a privileged group of elite Roman people immersed in selfishness, ennui, boredom, non-communication, and above all meaninglessness, Antonioni chills his audience showing the immense fragility of life, existence, love, and any hint of meaning.

The sudden and obviously mysterious disappearance of a wealthy heiress is just an excuse for Antonioni to astonish us with his indelible and gorgeous art that will make you question many things that you take for granted.

 

5. Battleship Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein. (Bronenosets Patyomkin, 1925, Soviet Union).

The Battleship Potemkin

Based on a true story about a group of crewmen and sailors who worked in a Russian battleship named, obviously, Potemkin, who rioted and rebelled against their superiors in 1905.

The film is divided into five acts: Men And Maggots, Drama On The Deck, A Dead Man Calls For Justice, The Odessa Steps and finally One Against All.

“Battleship Potemkin” is mostly famous and celebrated for its innovations in editing, employing an incredibly and extremely rapid and dynamic (for the time) style, which Eisenstein hoped would help make the audience sympathize with the sailors, and also, for the The Odessa Steps act, which depicts a fictional massacre of civilians enacted by the Czarist Empire of that time.

 

6. The Birth Of A Nation, by D. W. Griffith. (1915, USA).

Birth of a Nation (1915)

This is the film that turned cinema from an occasional diversion for some people into what it is today.

To call it groundbreaking is an understatement. It showed that cinema could be a an exciting new medium for narrative, entertainment and art. All of them. All at the same time.

Griffith introduced narrative and technical innovations that helped shaped the medium like no other film.

 

7. Breathless, by Jean-Luc Godard. (À Bout De Souffle, 1960, France).

Breathless film

The official third entry of the French New Wave, after Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”.

Based on a screenplay first written by Truffaut based on a real story from 1952 to be directed by him, it was ultimately discarded by the director.

Godard read the screenplay, loved it, and asked his then best friend Truffaut if he would let him use it. Truffaut did, absolutely free of charge.

One of the first truly modern films, “Breathless” was a total success, influencing hundreds of films since then, with its focus on youth, beauty, so-called “coolness”, rebellion, total irreverence, dynamism, humor, fast-pacing, endless references to previous films, and, most importantly, pop culture; the disregard of conventions and rules, and the charisma of its protagonists, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

It is notable is its use of the famous jump-cuts, an original idea of the master and genius filmmaker revered by Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville.

 

8. Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Buñuel. (1929, France).

Un chien andalou (1929)

One of the first Surrealist films ever and without a doubt the most notorious and popular Surrealist film of its era, and the most influential one of all time.

Based on a screenplay by the director himself and Salvador Dalí, the film is more a collection of images and shots than an actual plot and has been called the first music video ever, as it uses, decades and decades before that medium came to existence, all the conventions and stylistic devices it has always utilized, 

It also introduced violence to cinema like no other film before. Its most famous fragment, by far, is when the character played by Buñuel takes a razor, holds a young woman’s (played by Simone Mareuil who decades later would commit suicide by self-immolation) head steady, opens her left eye wide open and, after the film cuts to an extreme close-up of the eyeball, slits it completely with the razor (in reality, an eyeball of a dead calf was used).

 

9. Citizen Kane, by Orson Welles. (1941, USA).

citizen-kane

The summit, the Everest of the cinematographic medium. There’s literally nothing that can be said about “Citizen Kane” that hasn’t been already said, either in words or by images.

To even invoke “Citizen Kane” and discuss its importance requires already previous and well-founded knowledge from the audience.

We’re in the presence of a work so essential, so innovative, so gigantic, that perhaps the best and most adequate thing that can be said is: “If possible, drop everything right now and run to see it, if you haven’t. If you have, run to see it one more time.”

Co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and produced, starred, co-written and directed by Welles, it was Welles’ first ever foray into anything remotely cinematographic, when he was only 25. How was he able to make “Citizen Kane” at all in that case? By watching Ford’s “Stagecoach” dozens of times, and asking technicians and/or people from the studio how one thing or another was made.

 

10. Days Of Heaven, by Terrence Malick. (1978, USA).

days-of-heaven

Five years after his unforgettable debut feature film “Badlands” took the world by surprise, Malick astonished the world with this film, his second feature, set in Texas just before the Great War but shot in Canada. Two orphans living in poverty, Linda and Bill, along with Bill’s girlfriend, Abby, flee Chicago where Bill accidentally killed his former employer, and set out to find work and a place to live as far away as possible, settling on a Texas plantation.

But that’s just the beginning, and, in any case, Malick uses this narrative and its twists you could say almost as an excuse to literally make visual poetry, expanding on what filmmakers like Ford, Antonioni, Visconti and Tarkovsky had already done and taking his cues from Kubrick and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. That is, the images, the sound, and the score by Ennio Morricone tell the story.

The images being amongst the most mesmerizing, arresting, gorgeous, unbelievable, breathtaking and jaw-dropping in the history of cinema, captured by Malick’s DP, Néstor Almendros, who had worked with people like Truffaut before and was actually going blind while the film was being shot. It is an out of this world, moving and poignant meditation on life and its fragility, love, greed and jealousy, set inside some of the most wondrous landscapes you’ll ever see.

 

 

 

 

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  • Xanian

    Wonderful list. I still haven’t caught a few on this list.

  • mckracken

    dont like goodfellas. it feels a bit like an overlong gangsta rap music video. (with white dudes)

    • Martin

      why?

  • SCParegien

    Thanks for including Kurusawa. He’s often left off of many lists. Shouldn’t be.

    • Prudvi Nath

      A list without Kurosawa has no credibility IMO.

  • Yan Villeneuve

    Fantasia would have been a nice input in this list!

  • Andreas P.

    Solid list, well done. A top 50 would probably be more suitable for big thematic lists like this one, but I know that this would not have been possible. Just a few points below:

    – If you think Scorsese should have been included, then “Mean Streets” or “Taxi Driver” would have been the appropriate films for a list related to the “being influential” factor. “Goodfellas” does not do it for me, especially since that there is also “The Godfather part II” here.

    I personally would not have made a Top30 including “Fireworks”, “Journey To Italy”, “Goodfellas”,”Olympia”, “Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory In Lyon”, “Sunrise” A Song Of Two Humans”, and “A Trip To The Moon”. And I would probably have avoided selecting more than one film by director (you almost did that).

    – What big names are missing?
    Kieslowski… “Dekalog” or “Three Colors” should have been here
    Haneke… especially “Caché”
    Altman… “Nashville” being the most obvious omission
    Lumet… both “12 Angry Men” and “Network” are easy choices
    Herzog… “Aguirre” is in any top30 for me
    Kar Wai Wong… “In The Mood For Love” is probably the greatest and more artistic dramatic romance
    Watkins… For a study in docudrama, “Punishment Park” or “Edvard Munch” deserves a spot
    Renoir… “La Règle Du Jeu” is a must
    Mizoguchi… “Ugetsu Monogatari” was the other Japanese masterpiece of this era next to “Rashomon” and “Tokyo Story”
    etc.

    – You should have included at least one comedy I think. I would have inlcuded a parody like “Life Of Brian”, a cult indie classic like “Down By Law”, or a black comedy (“Fargo” for instance).

  • Frankie

    A great list

    I think that misses:
    ” Aniki Bobo” of Manoel de Oliveira,
    “Brutti, sporchi e cattivi” – Ettore Scola,
    ” Once upon a time in America” Sergio Leone,
    ” Cinema Paradiso” – Giuseppe Tornatore,
    “The Life of Brian” – Terry Jones

    and I also think that misses a animation movie in that list.
    For me the work of Hayao Miyazaki specially , “Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi ( Spieited away)” and “Mononoke-hime ( Princess Mononoke)”

  • mckracken

    and if you dont care about influential (read fall asleep stuff like Tokyo Story and cold fish like Citizen Kane) but unique, i would put a ton of David Lynch on that list.

  • Brandon Thompson

    Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio De Sica?

  • Jason A. Quest

    You lost me at “some of the titular character’s actual filmed masterpieces”

    The phrase you want here is “title character”. The only people who write “titular character” are those who think that a longer word makes them sound smarter… but are betraying that they don’t understand that it’s the wrong word, one meant to be used differently. HINT: Just because people are using it that way on Wikipedia doesn’t make it correct.

  • Jacob Lyon Goddard

    Needs a token animated film.

  • Clint

    The Dark Knight

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

  • Kevin Reeves

    Buster Keaton was a greater filmmaker than Chaplin; ‘The General’ knocks ‘The Kid’ out of the cinematic park.

  • Arnel Ortiz

    Bicycle Thief…

  • Pazzo Di Borgo

    Metropolis – Fritz Lang?

  • Shashi Kumar

    I am just wondering are Indian movies so bad that they don’t appear in this list? 🙂

    • Xanian

      They’re not bad. The Apu trilogy on its own itself is capable of standing up to some of the greatest films ever made. However, an influential Indian film that has shaped film making in countries across the world? We’ll have to wait a long while for that.

  • Cristian García Osorio

    Annie Hall

  • The Shawshank Redemption?

    • Relf

      It didn’t influenced cinema, so no

  • Lars Franssen

    I don’t get it. Is this just a list of films you think a cinephile should see or is there any objective basis to the claim that these have been the most influental? To me, influental means that works have been cited by other film makers as their sources of inspiration, or something like that.

  • PBear92

    No documentaries at all? And I would have included Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”. It was a huge influence on the “Film School Generation” of directors who came to prominence in the 70’s (Scorcese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, etc.)

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    James Bond.

  • Circumflexdrome

    For those that are more intrested in the workers leaving the factory motif I can recommend Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik by Harun Farocki (1995) that take the theme of workers just leaving the factory and how it is potrayed through history. It’s kind of celebration of the cinema turning 100 years old

  • Jake LaMotta

    Well,it’s difficult to compile such a list,maybe a top 50 would be better.
    Nevertheless,I think that Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon is a must for this list.Maybe the most influential surreal film of all time,only behind Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.And Lynch’s biggest influence,don’t forget that!!!