What makes a film important? Well, there are some criteria for that. While an important movie doesn’t necessarily need to comply with all of these rules, nailing several of them helps assure a film’s lasting importance.
- It has to be more than mere entertainment (or at least be perfect entertainment in an iconoclastic way).
- It has to innovate or influence the craft itself in technical and artistic ways.
- It has to capture or reflect a cultural or historical moment.
- It has to open your mind or imagination to new ideas or ways of seeing the world.
- Its same effect wouldn’t exist if it was a book or a play.
Of course, while recent movies can be important to the medium, it’s much more likely for older films to take the mantle (however, watch this space for the most important films of the 21st century). After all, they did it first. While later pictures may be more entertaining or aesthetically pleasing, there’s a discernible difference between “the best” and “the most important.”
As such, these aren’t exactly popcorn flicks, and that’s totally okay; movies don’t have to be important. No, these are films for filmmakers, cinema for cinephiles. Though there’s some crossover, these were the movies that influenced the best; these were the films that walked so that your favorites could run; these are the most important films ever made.
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
While later documentaries like Nanook of the North and The Great White Silence would understandably get more attention, it was In the Land of the Head Hunters that got there first, and did it surprisingly well, too. Made a dozen years before the term “documentary” was even coined, Edward Curtis’ haunting, uncomfortable film studied the Kwakwakaʼwakw people in British Columbia.
While the film is technically scripted, the same way that most early documentaries were, In the Land of the Head Hunters did chronicle much of the authentic rituals, clothing, and art of the culture, and humanizes the people in a way that was much more empathetic than other ethnographic short films and studies.
D.W. Griffith had a phenomenal run between 1915 and 1921, making multiple masterpieces that would influence film language forever. While Birth of a Nation was his first great epic, that film’s stained legacy prevents it from being anything other than an academic interest. It’s his next film, Intolerance, which remains his best, taking the cinematographic experiments he began to their fullest potential with the technology he had within an anthologized narrative that’s actually interesting and heartbreaking.
An exploration of iniquity throughout human history, from Babylon to contemporary California, Intolerance was ironically far removed from Birth of a Nation‘s cruelty, and remains emotionally impactful to this day. With its carefully crafted dolly shots, massive sets, and legions of extras, it’s arguably the first perfect epic.
Within Our Gates (1920)
The great Oscar Micheaux was kept out of the cinematic canon for a long time, but thanks to some wonderful reissues in recent years, more people are discovering the first great Black filmmaker. Working outside the studio system, Micheaux’s independent films focused on what we didn’t see in Hollywood — working class people of color and female protagonists.
Within Our Gates is his first film, excluding the now lost The Homesteader, and remains Micheaux’s most influential and one of his boldest. The film centers on the trials and tribulations of Sylvia (a heart-wrenching Evelyn Preer) as she suffers institutional racism through a series of tragic events, romances, and arbitrary violence.
The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Victor Sjöström innovated a new kind of aesthetic through camera tricks and editing genius with the magical, downright haunted film The Phantom Carriage. Using double exposure in-camera with multiple layers among other trailblazing special effects, Sjöström and his cinematographer, Julius Jaenzon, paved the way for much of the horror, fantasy, and magical realism people know and love today.
The Phantom Carriage has a truly unique mood, telling a ghostly New Year’s story across wintry Sweden where the last person to die before midnight on New Year’s is cursed to harvest the souls of those who die throughout the next year.
Maybe the most famous silent horror film, Nosferatu loosely adapted Bram Stoker’s classic to tell the first truly scary movie, about a vampire invading a small town and going after a young woman. While horror had existed since the beginning of cinema in the late 19th century, and had legitimately spooked audiences at the time, the antiquated technology creates a distance between the horror and the audience for most viewers today; they just aren’t scary.
Nosferatu, however, remains immensely creepy to this day, and influenced the way that atmosphere and jump scares would develop over the next century. Part of this is the great direction from F.W. Murnau, who made some of the greatest films of the 1920s, but most of the scares come from Max Schreck’s incredible performance, which was so disturbing that people honestly thought he was a vampire. 100 years later and Nosferatu is still great horror.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Sergei Eisenstein didn’t invent montage, but he mastered it in a way that revealed facets of film never before accessed. With his greater emphasis on editing and camera angles than previous directors, Eisenstein brought Marxist materialism to cinema with the dialectics of editing, combining shots with reverse-shots to create fuller, more powerful scenes.
The Soviet filmmaker’s early masterpiece Battleship Potemkin dramatized the mutiny against a Russian navy battleship which would light the fuse for the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union.
With Metropolis, Fritz Lang pioneered many of the filmmaking techniques that would come to define science-fiction for decades. The German film is kind of the ‘Ur’ sci-fi text for cinema, mastering early tropes like androids or cyborgs, dystopian futures, and the suffering proletariat beneath a shiny veneer.
Metropolis used miniatures in a way that would inspire wonderful fantasy and sci-fi films like King Kong and Things to Come in the 1930s. Lang and his crew created a meticulously detailed world of the future where the underclass toil away, ultimately using a powerful android to take down the upperclass.
Un Chien Andalou (1929)
The great Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí teamed up to create perhaps the pioneering Surrealist work in film history, Un Chien Andalou (or An Andalusian Dog). There’s no real plot here, only a series of iconic, possibly allegorical scenes that experiment with film form and content, creating indelible images in the process (from ants on a hand to perhaps the single most representative image in film, an eyeball with a razor about to slice through it). Un Chien Andalou would influence boldly experimental films of the future, such as Meshes of the Afternoon, Dog Star Man, and La Jetée.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Another experimental film but one with a completely different motivation and aesthetic than Un Chien Andalou, the Soviet masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera probably features more cinematic innovation than any other one film. While the previous film experimented more with ideas and images, Dziga Vertov experimented with technology and the mechanics of filmmaking itself.
Match and jump cuts, fast and slow motion, Dutch angles, split screen, multiple exposures, and stop-motion animation are all included and innovated upon in this brilliantly energetic, extremely meta film about a cameraman documenting various parts of Moscow, Kyiv, and Odesa.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
One of the first great war films, All Quiet on the Western Front is an emotionally powerful and cinematically riveting account of young men on the battlefront in World War I. Lewis Milestone, one of the most hardworking directors in show business, was a master of cinematic adaptations (also directing Of Mice and Men, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Front Page, also classics), and this is his best.
The American epic follows students to the front lines and trenches of war as they turn from idealists to disillusioned, traumatized veterans. All Quiet on the Western Front has influenced every anti-war film in ideology, and nearly every war film in technique. It was made in 1930, but it’s still required viewing today.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Before other quick-talking classics like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday came along to steal its thunder, Trouble in Paradise paved the way for smart comedies that valued dialogue, romance, and plot over slapstick and narrative excuses for set pieces (not that there’s anything wrong with that; Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., or The Gold Rush could certainly be added to this list).
The first great master of rom-coms, Ernst Lubitsch directed this charming early talkie which benefited greatly by coming out before the Hays Code cracked down on sexuality and “immoral” behavior onscreen. Two criminal lovers try to scam a rich woman at a perfume company, but romance complicates things in this delightful early gem that feels just as fresh as modern rom-coms like Crazy Stupid Love or Sleepless in Seattle.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
While Walt Disney would do a better job three years later with Fantasia, it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which burst the dam of creativity for animated films, slowly flooding the market. The first Disney feature-length film remains one of its best thanks to whimsical music and dialogue, gorgeous animation, and truly imaginative storytelling techniques. In a way, all animation owes something to this film.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Color cinema was slowly perfected after years of trial and error, leading to a variety of visually stunning films at the end of the 1930s, growing from films like Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X to Gone with the Wind and +9. There’s a hell of a lot of competition, but The Adventures of Robin Hood may be the most vibrant and gorgeous of all of them thanks to its bold Technicolor palette.
The first big film for Warner Bros., Michael Curtiz’s classic remains just as fun and exciting today, 85 years later, thanks to the excellent stunt work (real arrows and archery), rousing score, and charming performances from Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Alan Hale.
Ever since 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, the Wild West has been explored on film, but never very well until the late 1930s. That’s because silent Westerns were often very cheap and cheesy, and then film studios abandoned the genre with the advent of talkies (it just cost too much). In 1939, though, everything suddenly changed with the release of several classics like Destry Rides Again, Jesse James, and Dodge City, but it was John Ford and John Wayne’s masterpiece, Stagecoach, that truly changed the game.
Ford’s imagery in Stagecoach, paired with Wayne’s perfectly matched performance, would become instantly iconic, and the director’s techniques for filming Western action and balancing landscape photography with medium shots and close-ups would define the visual language of Western movies for years to come. In many ways, Wayne’s performance here would be the template for just about every Western protagonist for decades.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A work of immense imagination and magic, The Wizard of Oz is a visually stunning, quietly creepy spectacle of the highest quality. Essentially creating an entire world within the young protagonist’s mind, The Wizard of Oz taps into the creativity of childhood by anthropomorphizing its fantasy landscape and populating it with colorful, timeless characters. Appreciated by children as much as by adults, the film is simply technical (and musical) perfection, even if the production was a deadly nightmare.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Yeah, yeah, we all know about this one. That doesn’t change the fact that it altered the language of cinema forever, but we’re all probably tired of hearing about Citizen Kane by now, even if many do understandably consider it to be the greatest film ever made.
Double Indemnity (1944)
One of the ultimate film noirs, and one of the first real ones, Double Indemnity is Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s masterful portrait of misguided motivations and jealous obsession. The film follows a femme fatale wife (a perfect Barbara Stanwyck) and the chump who falls hard for her (a perfectly normal Fred MacMurray as an everyman sadsack) as they scheme to murder her husband for insurance money.
Double Indemnity kicked off a wave of nihilistic, cynical classics after World War II that upended the idea of American exceptionalism and moral absolutes. While other film noirs of the 1940s may be better (Out of the Past) or weirder (D.O.A.), Wilder’s Double Indemnity got there earlier and classed up the joint with a perfect script. Also, Edward G. Robinson gives one of the best performances of all time as an insurance investigator in this witty, acerbic classic.
Rome, Open City (1945)
Helping launch the endlessly influential wave of Italian films in the 1940s and 1950s, Roberto Rossellini’s classic was perhaps the first post-war masterpiece, studying the trauma and destruction that was left in the wake of World War II. Following the Resistance against German Nazis and Italian Fascists in Rome circa 1944 as the losing side become more violent and desperate, Rome, Open City centers mostly on a priest who is determined to help and save as many people as he can.
While it’s not the greatest Italian Neo-Realist film (that could be Umberto D., Paisa, or Shoeshine), and is more stylized and melodramatic than others, the importance lies in its historical context and closeness to the sad subject of war. Filming in the dilapidated streets and documenting the distressed state of Italy and the world after the war, Rome, Open City remains viscerally poignant today.
The legendary Akira Kurosawa helped introduce cinema to unreliable narrators, postmodern subjectivity, and ethical ambiguity with his great film, Rashomon. It may not be as cool, epic, or emotional as some of his other films, but its deconstruction of narrative and investigation of memory make it universal, timeless, and infinitely influential.
The film follows the recollections during a trial, in which three different people give three different accounts of the same crime, each version elucidating and complementing aspects of the others, while obfuscating other elements of the truth. With a gorgeous use of rain and a wild performance from Toshiro Mifune, Rashomon is a gripping experiment in storytelling.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
While its plot has a great deal of psychological complexity and the dialogue is stunning, A Streetcar Named Desire would simply be a very good movie that could’ve easily remained a play by Tennessee Williams, but it’s the specifically cinematic acting which actually makes this one of the most important films ever made. The cast (Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunted, Karl Malden, Peg Hillias) is close to pitch-perfect, but A Streetcar Named Desire contains what may be the single most important performance in movie history — Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski.
While Brando had strutted his stuff onscreen once before in The Men, here he combined his experience in filmmaking with his experience on the stage (and doing Williams’ play) to create modern film acting. The realism, spontaneity, and neurotic tension of Brando’s performance was entirely new to Hollywood, and would change the way ‘serious’ acting was seen in film, paving the way for the New Hollywood movement and actors like De Niro, Pacino, Hackman, and Hoffman.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
While obviously international cinema had popularity and acclaim since the flattening effect of the silent era (which homogenized nationality by only needing text and images), it wasn’t until director Ingmar Bergman and especially The Seventh Seal in which international and ‘arthouse’ cinema became commonplace, influential, and even profitable. The Academy Awards introduced the then-termed Best Foreign Language Film category the year of Seventh Seal‘s release, and directors and artists everywhere would be inspired by its extremely unique aesthetic.
The intimate chamber dramas and depressing existential probing of Bergman was the perfect antidote to the cheerful Technicolor of 1950s Hollywood, and many people found cinematic honesty and integrity overseas for the first time. The Seventh Seal mastered the now clichéd and parodied arthouse ideal of gloomy meditations on death, following a soldier returning from the Crusades who plays chess with Death and travels Sweden with a band of artists and performers during the bubonic plague. It’s actually a much funnier and more interesting movie than it’s often made out to be, but it’s the uniquely international flair and philosophy that made it such a hit.
The 400 Blows (1959)
One of the first films to launch the endlessly inspiring French New Wave, The 400 Blows was François Truffaut is also one of the first movies to have a realistic, genuine look at childhood, alongside Pather Panchali and Little Fugitive. The film follows a young Alain Delon, who seemingly can’t stop misbehaving in school and feels ignored at home and alienated from the world. Full of energy and mischief, Delon is such an iconic figure that Truffaut would make four more films about the character, all played by the same actor (the great Jean-Pierre Léaud) over the next two decades.
Continuing with the French New Wave, many people consider the movement to have split between two major poles — the more spontaneous, heartfelt, and romantic films of Truffaut, and the more experimental and political films of Jean-Luc Godard, which reinterpreted Hollywood history in the unique setting of 1960s France. Before Godard got political, he launched his career with the instantly legendary debut feature film, Breathless.(or À bout de souffle).
With an immensely charming Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg (whose pixie haircut forever changed fashion), the film is a jump cut-filled exploration of cinema, youth, and dreamers, following a petty criminal as he wheels and deals, falling hard for a newspaper girl. With more energy in 10 seconds than found in most entire films, Breathless changed cinema forever.
While movies about movies had existed before 8½ (namely the great Sunset Boulevard and Sullivan’s Travels), it really wasn’t until the dreamy, angst-ridden Federico Fellini film that they became a genre unto themselves.
Similarly, while filmmakers had flirted with heavily autobiographical works about themselves, Fellini inspired a whole wave of directors to make movies about suffering directors trying to make movies, from Woody Allen (in his 8½ rip-off, Stardust Memories) to Truffaut (in Day for Night) and pretty much every director to emerge in the past 30 narcissistic years. Fellini’s surreal sequences, amalgams of sex and sadness, and meta meditations on movies would capture the attention of artists everywhere.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick continually reinvented genres, from war films (Paths of Glory) and comedies (Dr. Strangelove) to historical epics (Barry Lyndon) and, of course, science-fiction with the timeless masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arguably the first modern mainstream sci-fi film, 2001 perfectly reflected the trippy hippy-dippy era with its psychedelic exploration, and, like most great sci-fi, illustrated fears of advancing technology with creepy accuracy.
Full of finesse and downright magisterial direction, it’s the groundbreaking special effects and experimental ending which make this film about a compromised mission to Jupiter so damn important.
Watch this space for more films to be added.
In conclusion, this film has captivated audiences with its mesmerizing storytelling, compelling performances, and stunning visuals. It has transported us to worlds both familiar and unknown, evoking a range of emotions that have left a lasting impact. The director’s artistic vision and the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew have brought this story to life in a truly extraordinary way. From the gripping plot twists to the heartfelt moments of connection, this film has reminded us of the power of cinema to inspire, entertain, and provoke thought.
Whether you’re a fan of the genre or simply a lover of great storytelling , this film is not to be missed. It’s a testament to the magic of filmmaking and serves as a reminder of the profound impact that movies can have on our lives. So grab your popcorn, sit back, and immerse yourself in this cinematic masterpiece.