Why do we love movies? Film is the ultimate storytelling medium, a fantastical combination of the other great arts – photography, theater, literature, music. Transcending the sum of its parts, it is both familiar in its reproduction of the real world and strange in its ability to show us fictional worlds.
This quasi-apocalypse we have been living through has served as a reminder of the importance of movies. So, how about yet another “GREATEST MOVIES OF ALL TIME” list for your consideration? It is true, there are an abundance of critical lists in existence. But the most well-known ones vary in quality.
The Village Voice, good. Time Out New York, so-so. Time, so-so and not even ranked. AFI, so-so and strictly American. BBC, good but separate lists for American and foreign. BFI, excellent. Indeed, the BFI’s Sight & Sound “Top 100 Greatest Films of All Time” is by far the best and the only one taken seriously by leading film professionals, scholars, critics, and cinephiles*. (*Update: The 2022 version has been released, substantially inferior to previous ones. RIP Sight & Sound, 1952-2012.)
Many insist that the interpretation of art is entirely subjective, which is not true. A few will claim that it can be entirely objective, which is highly questionable. In practice, art criticism consists of both subjective elements (substance, or what the artist has to say) and objective elements (style, or how the artist says it). Although it is certainly feasible to present a mostly objective analysis of art, which is what this article aims to do.
Just as there is no such thing as a perfect movie, no critical list can be perfect since people view life and thus the reflection of life (i.e. art) in different ways. Even the greatest critics get it wrong on occasion (most egregiously Pauline Kael on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Vertigo). Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile exercise. There is definite value in building an expert consensus in order to acknowledge great films, which is conducive to their dissemination, enjoyment, and discussion. Because that is really the point, isn’t it? And people love lists.
What exactly makes a movie great? Story (what it is about), writing (how is the story told – characters, plot, dialogue), acting, directing (mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing, sound), watchability, influence? It is a successful merger of all these, but they should not be given equal weight. As film is a visual medium, directing is the most important. The technical aspects of directing are also given to objective evaluation.
A great movie may excel in some categories while other category(ies) are notably deficient. Films in the canon that fit this description include: Battleship Potemkin (writing is propaganda), Metropolis (writing is simplistic and heavy-handed, acting is melodramatic), L’Atalante (directing is careless, writing is long-winded), Gone with the Wind (writing is bombastic, acting is overwrought), All About Eve (directing is stagey), Ordet (directing is stagey), Au Hasard Balthazar (writing is disjointed, acting is wooden), Schindler’s List (writing is superficial), and Pulp Fiction (writing is vacuous).
These movies are still among the all-time greats owing to their strengths, but they are not quite top 100 great owing to their weaknesses. They could have been so if everything clicked, and it’s the director’s fault when it doesn’t, as he or she is the central figure who oversees and brings all the components together. See Auteur Theory, which proposes that the director is the primary creative agent who shapes a movie. Critics Andrew Sarris and François Truffaut were chief proponents.
Writing is the second most important criteria. Movies by directors who are stylistically proficient but tend to devalue substantive writing (e.g. Jean-Luc Godard – Breathless, Quentin Tarantino – Pulp Fiction) are hurt in this category. A clever script is one thing, but a film should have something to say to justify its exalted status. Or a director’s effort at substantive writing tends to be heavy-handed (e.g. Jean-Luc Godard – Weekend) or somewhat heavy-handed (e.g. Steven Spielberg – Schindler’s List).
Then comes acting. Actors and actresses are only as good as the material they are given to work with (the writing) and the quality of a performance typically varies with the director. The greatest directors demand, and get, the best possible performances. Under the guidance of a less gifted director, the acting usually suffers. Kirk Douglas, not an exceptional actor, was in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Natalie Portman, a fine actress, was not in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels.
And while an ambitious/consequential story is commendable, without remarkable writing, acting, and directing, its promise will go largely unfulfilled and the end result will fall short of greatness (e.g. Richard Linklater – Boyhood). In other words, a noteworthy premise but a merely adequate execution. Story is also fairly subjective, along with watchability, and so they are given less weight. Influence is the least important, as a movie has to stand on its own merits.
Movies by directors who effectively integrate style and substance are well-represented. The two best, as it is impossible to declare a clear winner, are Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. You could make a cogent argument for either one being the greatest ever. Honorable mentions go to Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles. These six filmmakers are indisputable geniuses: visionaries, innovators, perfectionists, each having made numerous masterpieces.
They are followed by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, John Ford, Terrence Malick, Jean Renoir, Sergio Leone, Billy Wilder, Werner Herzog, Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, F.W. Murnau, Yasujirô Ozu, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Robert Altman, David Lean, and Fritz Lang.
That makes 25 and is sufficient for the purpose of this article. These directors are so good that you know you are watching one of their films due to the particular style which defines their work. Just as the greatest authors can be identified by their writing styles, so can the great directors, who are the “authors” of their films (again, Auteur Theory).
The unofficial golden age of cinema was the 1950s to the 1970s, during which the film industry was producing at least one and more often than not several all-time great movies every year. Thus, a preponderance of movies on this list is from that period, about 60%. By comparison, there have been at best three top 250 movies in the last 20 years (definitely The Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood, maybe A Separation) and none in the last 10 years.
It’s easy to look back on the good old days which in actuality weren’t always so good, or to place more importance on the time we’re living in than is rightfully due. Maybe certain classic movies remain nearly unassailable due to a strong sense of misplaced nostalgia (e.g. Gone with the Wind)? Or perhaps recency bias leads to modern movies being rated higher than they deserve (e.g. Boyhood, Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction)? While there is some truth to both, the old cliché is accurate: they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
100. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Forman)
“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.” A nonconformist is committed to a mental institution, where he is met with rigid opposition from the staff and residents. Funny, inspiring, and dispiriting, the balance between order and freedom is considered and the distinction between sanity and insanity is made unclear, as the dissenter affirms his and his fellow inmates’ individuality and dignity. It features one of the all-time best performances.
99. The Conversation (1974, Coppola)
“He’d kill us if he got the chance.” A typically indifferent San Francisco surveillance expert gets thoroughly involved in a job when he believes a young couple are at risk of losing their lives. An intelligent mystery/thriller, it is about privacy in modern society, professional obligation versus personal responsibility, and the reliability of one’s senses. Similar to and influenced by Blow-Up and also comparable to Rear Window.
98. The Thin Red Line (1998, Malick)
“What difference you think you can make, one single man in all this madness?” A company of soldiers attempts to secure a strategic hill during the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal. Other than Apocalypse Now, it is the greatest traditional war movie which also addresses deeper truths about humanity and the natural world. While the voice-over narration can be tiresome, the spectacular visuals and solid acting more than make up for it.
97. Star Wars (1977, Lucas)
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” A farm boy on a dismal planet dreams of breaking free and finds himself plunged into a galactic civil war. Obviously influential (though not in an entirely positive way) and ambitious, it has a superb use of music, an iconic villain, and is pure movie magic: escapist, captivating, and stirring. (It is essentially a pastiche of many other movies: Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, Flash Gordon, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Buck Rogers, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, The Dam Busters, The Searchers, The Hidden Fortress, Lawrence of Arabia, 21-87, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
96. Rome, Open City (1945, Rossellini)
“It’s not hard to die well. The hard thing is to live well.” During the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944, an Italian Resistance leader is aided by a fellow member’s fiancée and a supportive priest, based on a true story. While not quite the first Italian Neorealist film, it is the most influential. Made while the war was ongoing, which lent it an authenticity and immediacy, it serves as a vibrant record of the nameless freedom fighters and civilians who resisted the brutal regimes dominating Europe.
95. The Wizard of Oz (1939, Fleming)
“There’s no place like home.” The greatest family movie. A girl gets lost in a mystical realm and desperately tries to find her way back home, assisted by a few companions she meets along the way. Highly influential, it is a fantastic voyage of self-discovery and friendship in a world remote yet familiar, which after 80+ years has for the most part retained its ability to enchant.
94. Charulata (1964, Ray)
“You’re very lonely, aren’t you?” In late-19th century India, a bored, lonesome housewife wed to an overworked, intellectual newspaper editor decides she wants more from her life when her husband’s bohemian cousin arrives for an extended stay. Elegant and languid, it furnishes the uncommon “female gaze” as she discovers her artistic talent and wonders about the lack of affection in her marriage.
93. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, McCarey)
“Fifty years go by pretty fast.” An elderly couple lose their home and are forced to move in with their children, who offer them a lukewarm reception. Audacious for its time, it is a candid, comical, and painful portrayal of a decades-long romance, intergenerational conflict, and people outliving their usefulness. One of the most underrated movies on this list, although it was revered by such luminaries as Orson Welles, John Ford, and Jean Renoir. It was remade as Tokyo Story.
92. Sátántangó (1994, Tarr)
“Never mind, old man, you’ll see. We’ll have a great life! A great life!” There are very long narrative films, and then there’s Sátántangó. Bold and uncompromising, it clocks in at seven-and-a-half hours and is distinguished by striking black and white cinematography with extremely long takes. Trailing a failed collective farm in Eastern Europe from alternating points of view and in multiple time frames, forgotten people eke out an existence in a bleak landscape and are stalked by fear, greed, deceit, desperation, and near perpetual rain. But they are not completely beyond humor, frivolity, and hopes for freedom and success.
91. The Trial (1962, Welles)
“Yes, that’s the conspiracy: to persuade us all that the whole world is crazy, formless, meaningless, absurd. That’s the dirty game.” Adapted from the novel, a man is arrested for an offense he is not informed of and hounded by his accusers and those who purport to aid him in his defense. An endless, waking nightmare of paranoia, the beleaguered Everyman exhibits indignation and confusion, resolve and anticipation, loneliness and fear, and guilt and resignation along his peculiar, albeit common, journey.
90. Ran (1985, Kurosawa)
“I had a dream. I was walking through a desolate field…never encountering another soul no matter how far I went, hearing no reply no matter how loudly I shouted. I was alone. All alone in the whole wide world. I was terrified.” The greatest adaptation of a Shakespeare play, King Lear, transported to medieval Japan. A warlord cedes power to the eldest of his three sons, intending that they will co-rule and he will retire peacefully, but it does not go as planned. Gloriously colorful, it is a blunt illustration of family strife, ambition and power, betrayal and loyalty, warfare and savagery, and madness, despair, and absolution.
89. Shoah (1985, Lanzmann)
“No one can describe it. No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible! And no one can understand it. Even I, here, now.” Taking over 10 years to complete and running nearly 10 hours, it forgoes photos and videos of the Holocaust, instead utilizing first-person perspectives of Jewish survivors, German perpetrators, Polish neighbors and bystanders, a diplomat/resistance member, and a scholar. Meticulous, fascinating, and horrifying, it presents humanity at its very worst and the many quandaries which inevitably arose: the inability or unwillingness to resist, the incredulity at the wholesale extermination of a people, the injustice and unspeakable suffering that spared no one, the deep-seated instinct of self-preservation, and the effort to inform and appeal to the civilized world for salvation.
88. Stagecoach (1939, Ford)
“Well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” A motley group of characters share a stagecoach ride from Arizona to New Mexico through dangerous territory in 1880. Influential and exhilarating, the various personalities are developed with a maturity atypical of the time, and along with groundbreaking cinematography, it revived the Western genre and initiated the myth of the American West. (Orson Welles watched the movie dozens of times before making Citizen Kane. Asked which three directors impacted his work, he answered, “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”)
87. On the Waterfront (1954, Kazan)
“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” A longshoreman on the bustling, corrupt, post-war docks of New Jersey questions his way of life after becoming interested in an idealistic girl. He wavers between misplaced loyalty, acquiescence, and mediocrity, and risking all to achieve moral awareness, redemption, and self-worth. It suffers in the writing as it is clearly a “message movie,” but the fluid, proto-vérité directing and the masterful, revolutionary performance are enough to earn its spot.
86. Jaws (1975, Spielberg)
“You yell ‘shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” A killer shark terrorizes a picturesque Cape Cod town, and the police chief, a scientist, and a seafarer team up to hunt it down. The problem of balancing freedom and prosperity with safety and security in an inherently dangerous world, and the primal fear of nature and the unknown are explored, complemented by a frightening score.
85. The Graduate (1967, Nichols)
“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me.” A disaffected, directionless college graduate has an affair with a much older, married woman. It is an influential, darkly comic, and satirical coming-of-age story in which a young man exists in his privileged Los Angeles bubble but is simultaneously lost, as he strives to make a meaningful connection and find purpose. It has one of the great soundtracks.
84. Do the Right Thing (1989, Lee)
“Always do the right thing.” An Italian restaurant owner finds himself increasingly at odds with the African-American residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood on a sweltering summer day. A frank and humorous look at race relations and cultural differences, it is also an earnest yet equivocal take on socioeconomic disparities, fellowship and loyalty, motivation and responsibility, institutional bias, and the fine line between civilization and chaos.
83. The Crowd (1928, Vidor)
“And I bet his father thought he would be President!” A young man’s quest for self-realization in the big city (New York, of course) is severely tested by life’s trials and tragedies. An early auteur film and still one of the best movies about ordinary people, the notion of the American Dream harshly collides with the aphorism, “The world owes you nothing.” Like Make Way for Tomorrow, it is another nearly-forgotten film which nonetheless is timeless. (When asked why he does not make movies about regular people, Jean-Luc Godard replied, “Why remake The Crowd? It has already been done.”)
82. The Leopard (1963, Visconti)
“We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.” In 1860s Sicily, a nobleman attempts to uphold his family’s heritage and standing amidst broad societal changes. An expansive epic and one of the most beautiful color movies, it is a portrait of a wealthy, powerful man whose time has come and gone and his reluctance or inability to embrace a new era. Similar to its predecessors The Magnificent Ambersons and The Music Room, and a direct influence on The Godfather.
81. Viridiana (1961, Buñuel)
“You know, the first time I saw you, I thought, my cousin and I will end up shuffling the deck together.” The greatest Spanish-language movie. A young nun visits her uncle’s estate and ends up housing local derelicts. It is an outlandish, devastating satire on upper- and lower-class degeneracy and middle-class hypocrisy, the veneer of social norms and restraints, and the futility of guilt, good intentions, and asceticism.