20. Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
“Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.” The greatest horror/thriller. A female thief on the run gets mixed up with a male motel proprietor with identity issues, based on a real-life serial killer. Influential, subversive, and shocking, with two astonishing twists (one of which is the most famous scene in movie history) perfectly complemented by the terrifying score. As in Rear Window, the audience is made complicit in the events.
19. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, Herzog)
“I am the Wrath of God. Who else is with me?” The greatest German movie. Inspired by the true story of a Spanish conquistador’s 1560 quest in the Amazon to increase his nation’s holdings and locate the fabled city of El Dorado. It is a spellbinding, haunting display of power and madness, and the hubris, greed, brutality, and ineptitude of colonialists in the face of hostile, indigenous people and impassive, unappeasable nature.
18. Andrei Rublev (1966, Tarkovsky)
“I am what I am. You couldn’t teach me integrity.” The greatest historical epic and the art house movie to end all art house movies: lengthy running time, black and white, deliberate pacing with extended takes, heavy with symbolism and philosophical musings, and altogether to be experienced more than comprehended. Inspired by the life of the eponymous Russian medieval painter, it is nominally about the relationship between art and spirituality, and the responsibility of the artist to alleviate suffering and spark enlightenment.
17. Barry Lyndon (1975, Kubrick)
“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” An Irish social climber in Enlightenment Europe ceaselessly endeavors to free himself from his predetermined life and secure his place in the world. A sumptuous, entrancing, and parodical narrative, the anti-hero contends with a romantic rival, thieves, war, political intrigue, gamblers, and finally a filial rival.
16. The Searchers (1956, Ford)
“Someday, this country’s gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” The greatest Western. In 1860s Texas, an ex-soldier hunts for years for his niece, kidnapped by Native Americans. It is an influential, absorbing, ambivalent study of the celebrated, flawed folk hero who helped mold the nation: his selflessness, bravery, obsessiveness, racism, hatred, and violence. With cinematography exceeded only by Lawrence of Arabia, it shows the desolate beauty of the American West, giving a sense of pioneer life on the inhospitable frontier.
15. La Dolce Vita (1960, Fellini)
“You are everything, everything! You are the first woman on the first day of creation. You are mother, sister, lover, friend, angel, devil, earth, home.” A paparazzo in Rome drifts from party to party and woman to woman, but aims to get serious about writing something of substance. The whirlwind, decadent tour of his life serves as an endless distraction to combat malaise and loneliness, demonstrating the difficulty of communication, the tenuousness of relationships and ambitions, and the elusiveness of fulfillment.
14. Bicycle Thieves (1948, De Sica)
“Why should I kill myself worrying when I’ll end up just as dead?” The greatest movie about lower-class family life and the greatest Italian Neorealist movie. A desperate man in a bombed-out, post-war Rome must recover his stolen bicycle to maintain his livelihood. Improving on the naturalistic style made famous by Rome, Open City which has come to characterize modern cinema, it is about struggle and cruelty, but also hope and salvation through determination, compassion, and love.
13. Persona (1966, Bergman)
“‘The cries of our faith and doubt against the darkness and the silence are terrible proof of our loneliness and fear.’ Do you think it’s like that?” The greatest Scandinavian movie. An actress undergoing an existential crisis is cared for by a nurse at a secluded seaside cottage, where things get a bit strange. Friendship and trust, love and desire, resentment and anxiety, and identity are probed, but as in Mulholland Dr. (one of the many films it influenced) we are reminded it is only a movie.
12. 8½ (1963, Fellini)
“I really having nothing to say, but I want to say it anyway.” The greatest surreal movie and the greatest Italian movie. A harried film director is frustrated by his latest project and reflects on his life. A gorgeous, intoxicating, indulgent fusion of reality, memories, and dreams, it illustrates what makes a man and man’s attempt to create something of meaning. Similar to Citizen Kane.
11. Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa)
“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” A pioneering film about an attack on a samurai and his wife recounted from various points of view. It is a revelatory examination of truth, morality, and justice as relative and subjective, particularly in the context of how people view themselves and their actions, and others and their actions. Although it is set 1,000 years ago and human society has obviously changed much, it makes clear that, paradoxically, human nature has not changed at all. (The film introduced Western audiences to Eastern cinema.)
10. Stalker (1979, Tarkovsky)
“May everything come true. May they believe. And may they laugh at their own passions. For what they call passion is not really the energy of the soul, but merely friction between the soul and the outside world.” The greatest Russian movie. A mesmerizing allegory, an Everyman, an artist, and an academic journey into a mysterious, precarious, post-apocalyptic area called the Zone. It ponders motivation and desire, fulfillment and happiness, faith and knowledge, hope and despair, and love and redemption, and may be the most humanistic, compassionate film ever.
9. Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu)
“Perhaps we expect too much out of our children.” The greatest movie about middle-class family life and the greatest movie about aging. An elderly couple visit their children for a short period but are not treated especially well. The transitory nature of life – cultural change, the balance of time with family and mundane demands, the challenge of intergenerational bonding, the evolution of the parent-child relationship, and death – is exhibited in a direct and heart-rending manner. It is a remake of Make Way for Tomorrow.
8. Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa)
“This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself. If you think only of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.” The greatest action-adventure and the greatest Japanese movie. Timid farmers hire itinerant warriors for protection against bandits in the medieval age. A major influence on American films, it is a humanistic assertion of the brotherhood of man, sacrifice in defense of the oppressed, and strength and meaning in community.
7. Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
“I’m not an animal!” The greatest biopic and the greatest sports movie. Based on the life of “The Bronx Bull” Jake LaMotta, the ultra-masculine, self-destructive boxer becomes world champion and later a stand-up comedian. Compellingly shot in black and white and featuring probably the best performance ever, LaMotta’s obsessive and violent tendencies enable his professional success but threaten his personal relationships, while his aspirations beyond the ring severely conflict with his limitations.
6. The Rules of the Game (1939, Renoir)
“The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.” The greatest comedy/drama, the greatest foreign movie, and the greatest French movie. On the verge of World War II, a group of wealthy individuals meet at a country estate to hunt animals and each other, the last hurrah of the doomed European ruling class. Thematically and technically influential, romance, comedy, and drama are chaotically yet effortlessly mingled, exposing the complexities of love, the fragility of relationships, and the consequences of not conforming to the dictates of society.
5. The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but I taught her never to dishonor her family.” The greatest crime movie. In 1940s New York, a mafia don nears retirement as his sons aim to carry on the family business. Covering themes such as family, power and corruption, love and violence, honor and hypocrisy, and loyalty and betrayal, it is about the immigrant experience and how they have shaped America, and how the American Dream and capitalism are distorted by unscrupulous men. Influential and engrossing, it features iconic dialogue and the best ensemble acting ever.
4. Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola)
“Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.” The greatest war movie. Adapted from the novella Heart of Darkness, an officer in the Vietnam War undertakes a nightmarish expedition to find and eliminate a fellow officer who has ostensibly gone insane. Visually spectacular and enthralling, it is an exploration of the clash of so-called civilized and uncivilized cultures, the absurdities and psychological effects of armed conflict, the nature of identity and the incomprehensible duality of man, and the unspeakable recesses of the human mind. Influenced by a similarly harrowing trek, Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
3. Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
“If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?” The greatest mystery/thriller. A former police detective is hired to investigate a cryptic, alluring woman. Influential, unconventional, and moody, it is a study of guilt, obsession, and deception, an observation of the obscure, elusive, ephemeral nature of love and identity, and a submission of the indistinction between reality and fantasy. With an exceptional color scheme, it is the best movie filmed in San Francisco, the most beautiful American city.
2. Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
“It isn’t enough to tell us what a man did. You’ve got to tell us who he was.” The greatest drama, the most beautiful black and white movie, and the most important movie ever made. A New York newspaper magnate and his personal and professional successes and failures are followed, from childhood to old age. As the ultimate character study, it is about the mysteries of what constitutes a human life and how that life is interpreted by others. It is the supreme statement on the individual’s quest for love and fulfillment and his place in society, considering themes such as truth and identity, money and ambition, morality and ethics, friendship and marriage, power and corruption, idealism and cynicism, solitude and abandonment, and regret and the passage of time. Basically, life in two hours, with the most poignant ending besides. (It is also the best debut film.)
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Kubrick)
“Except for a single, very powerful radio emission aimed at Jupiter, the four-million-year-old black monolith has remained completely inert, its origin and purpose still a total mystery.” The greatest movie ever made, the greatest science fiction movie, and next to Citizen Kane the most important movie. A baffling artifact is discovered on the Moon, leading to a voyage to Jupiter to determine its significance. Ambitious and scientifically accurate, visually and aurally poetic and awe-inspiring, it was 50 years ahead of its time and is the ultimate metaphysical vision of life’s most profound mysteries. It is the supreme statement on humanity’s quest for knowledge and meaning and its place in the Universe, considering themes such as the origin and evolution of life, space exploration, the role of technology in society, artificial intelligence as human, the influence of extraterrestrial intelligence and/or a supernatural force, and our final destiny. Music has never played a more brilliant, critical part. (Demands to be seen on the big screen.)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Bresson)
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein)
Children of Paradise (1945, Carné)
Contempt (1963, Godard)
Cries and Whispers (1972, Bergman)
Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953, Ophüls)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974, Herzog)
The Exterminating Angel (1962, Buñuel)
The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin)
Gone with the Wind (1939, Fleming)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Resnais)
It Happened One Night (1934, Capra)
Journey to Italy (1954, Rossellini)
King Kong (1933, Cooper)
L’Atalante (1934, Vigo)
La Jetée (1962, Marker)
La Strada (1954, Fellini)
The Lady Eve (1941, Sturges)
The Last Laugh (1924, Murnau)
Late Spring (1949, Ozu)
Los Olvidados (1950, Buñuel)
A Man Escaped (1956, Bresson)
Mean Streets (1973, Scorsese)
Metropolis (1927, Lang)
The Music Room (1958, Ray)
Night and Fog (1956, Resnais)
Nights of Cabiria (1957, Fellini)
Nosferatu (1922, Murnau)
Nostalghia (1983, Tarkovsky)
Ordet (1955, Dreyer)
Paths of Glory (1957, Kubrick)
The Piano (1993, Campion)
Pickpocket (1959, Bresson)
Pierrot le Fou (1965, Godard)
Pulp Fiction (1994, Tarantino)
Red Desert (1964, Antonioni)
Rio Bravo (1959, Hawks)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960, Visconti)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Polanski)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Mizoguchi)
Sherlock Jr. (1924, Keaton)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen/Kelly)
Strangers on a Train (1951, Hitchcock)
Three Colours: Blue/White/Red (1993/1994, Kieslowski)
Ugetsu (1953, Mizoguchi)
Umberto D. (1952, De Sica)
Up (1964/1970/1977/1984/1991/1998/2005/2012/2019, Almond/Apted)
Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Tarr)
The Wild Bunch (1969, Peckinpah)