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Top List of Films that Every Filmmaker Should See

Updated: Apr 5

Why make another list of best films?

In the latest episode (#637) of the excellent Scriptnotes podcast, hosts John August and Craig Mazin spend some time discussing lists of the greatest movies (like AFI's "100 Years... 100 movies" list of the greatest American films). A recurring question that they ask each other when discussing titles that appear on these lists is whether or not it is necessary to have seen a particular film. John and Craig aren't talking to film fans in their podcast, but to filmmakers and screenwriters - professionals or aspiring professionals in the entertainment industry. The question of necessity, then, is one of professionalism.

They argue - correctly, I think - that in most Hollywood settings, the most useful references these days are references from within the last several decades. For the most part, the films they discuss are from 1980 or later. From a business standpoint, this is certainly true - whatever made for a box office success in 1952 simply isn't relevant today.

But creatively, I've found that familiarity with certain older films has been extremely helpful to me as a filmmaker and as a screenwriter (and even, on occasions, as a writer of comic books).

So I decided to begin a Best Films List of my own. This is the beginning of an incomplete list and an eternal work-in-progress, though I will probably close the list once it hits 100 titles. These are films that I feel can inform and inspire creative choices for filmmakers and screenwriters today, regardless of when the films were produced or released. A list of top films for filmmakers.

Most importantly, along with each title, I will share a few brief thoughts about why I think the title is creatively important for filmmakers and screenwriters to be familiar with. This, I think, is a big failing of many top-10 or top-100 film lists. AFI's list is wonderful, but there's no hint as to what makes each film great. And the thing that makes one film great might be unrelated to what makes another film great. It's a fun way for movie fans to discover new movies, but it's not as helpful an educational tool for those of us who are working to improve our filmmaking.

Note: If a film is available on Amazon, I'll include a link. This is an affiliate link. Because... why not?

Last updated: 4-5-2024

The List of Top Films for Filmmakers:

This classic from Sidney Lumet basically takes place entirely in the jury room of a stuffy courthouse on a hot day. It's a fantastic study in how to maintain tension and interest in a contained environment - particularly if it's viewed in conjunction with Lumet's fantastic book, "Making Movies", where the luminary director discusses his visual strategy of changing camera angles and focal lengths as the story progresses to maintain visual interest. For filmmakers considering making a contained thriller (or a contained narrative of any kind), a close study of this film - and the accompanying essay in Lumet's book - is required.

Duel (1971)

Anyone who knows me well knows there's bound to be at least one Spielberg film on this list. To me, "Duel" is a perfect choice, in that it's a perfect distillation of Spielberg's raw visual instincts, before he had the experience and resources to refine them. The visual narrative choices that Spielberg made in "Duel" are simple, repeatable choices that can be applied by all of us to our own films, regardless of budget. Watch for the way Spielberg uses depth in his images to establish and shift the physical relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. And study how Spielberg uses Hitchcock's old tricks (notably, POV shots) to draw the viewer into the protagonist's experience. "Duel" is an extremely simple and surprisingly effective film - which makes it a very useful alternative to film school.

This film comes up all the time, nearly a century after its release (and much longer since the publication of the book that inspired it). Frankenstein's monster is both horrifying and - through James Whales' masterful storytelling - painfully sympathetic. Any time I've ever discussed a monster story where the monster isn't just a monster, "Frankenstein" has come up as the reference point. Arguably, King Kong (elsewhere on this list) could also serve the same function, as that film's monster is also somewhat sympathetic by the end. But for some reason, it's always "Frankenstein" that emerges as the useful example. Some of the film's imagery has become iconic, too, and is worth getting to know.

I'm not including many silent films here, as the lessons worth learning from many of them were learned and improved upon by subsequent films from the sound era. There are, however, a few notable exceptions. Buster Keaton's brilliant "The General" is one of them. The story is cute, but the physical comedy is unsurpassed (except, perhaps, by Jackie Chan, several generations later). This is a fantastic film for studying the architecture of physical gags. Particularly, look at how Buster Keaton creates setups and payoffs, and what story work gets accomplished between the two.

King Kong (1933)

What is there to learn from this old classic? Everything this film did right has been repeated by Hollywood blockbusters for over 90 years. But I've found this film a useful reference when exploring a particular quirk of narrative structure: The best movies don't end when the hero achieves the hero's superficial goal. In King Kong, the protagonist filmmaker's goal is to come home with something to brag about. He succeeds... at the end of the second act, when he decides to drag the unconscious Kong back home to New York. The film could have ended there - and many lesser stories do end in this way, with the achievement of a protagonist's stated goal - but this film doesn't. The protagonist's very success is is the "second act slingshot" that launches the story into the legendary Manhattan climax. You know what other movie does this? Star Wars! Luke achieves his stated goal of becoming an intergalactic hero when he rescues the Princess from the Death Star. But in rescuing the Princess, Luke inadvertently leads the Empire to a critical secret rebel base... and launches the film's climactic third act. So, yes, you can learn this lesson from "Star Wars", too, but I've found the "King Kong" example particularly powerful, perhaps because that film's third act is so different. It's almost a separate movie, but it still feels organically and essentially connected to the rest of the story.

If you can, find a 70mm screening of this film and go watch it that way. It's a monumental biopic that plays spectacularly on the very largest of screens. The cinematography is beautiful, and worthy of study, but take a close look at how director David Lean uses that cinematography not just to convey compelling images, but to shape the mood and tone of the story. This film is particularly important to study today because of the way many films are now shot. With green screens, 'volumes' and other virtual production technologies, we rarely have the option of working with massive crowds of extras across a vast desert landscape... and as a result, many filmmakers forget to stage their scenes with that kind of depth and breadth. A lot of filmmaking these days defaults to a sort of 'flat' aesthetic, where foreground actors operate almost independently of a digital backdrop. New technologies can achieve the types of images that David Lean presents to us in "Lawrence of Arabia", but only if filmmakers choose to create them.

Metropolis (1927)

This silent classic from the peak of German expressionist filmmaking has had tremendous impact on film design, particularly for science-fiction films, but also for movie musicals and other forms of "spectacle". Don't watch it for the story, which isn't bad, but isn't particularly special, either. Instead, watch it for the design - the framing of the shots, the use of visual effects, the way large crowds of extras are directed and choreographed. You might be surprised by how much of it feels familiar and recognizable from recent film and TV.

There's a lot we can still learn from Orson Welles, but I think there's more to learn from this later film than from his groundbreaking classic, "Citizen Kane." (If you do watch Kane, try to find a DVD with the late Roger Ebert's stupendous audio commentary). The two things I keep coming back to in "Touch of Evil" (well, three, if you count the incredible score) are the use of light and the camera movement in the film's many long takes. Coming at the very end of the original film noir era, "Touch of Evil" uses every trick in the book to create evocative, moody, and in some cases quite ominous lighting that does wonders to contribute to the story. And the long takes... The legendary opening shot is a spectacle to behold, but watch the film carefully, and you'll see there are several moments in the film where the camera simply doesn't cut at all. Long, drawn-out takes with complex choreography between subjects and camera. It's done so well that you might not even notice it at first. Even today, few filmmakers know to achieve this level of mastery of a long take. Spielberg and Cuaron have done it well - Spielberg in "War of the Worlds," Cuaron in "Children of Men." (And I'm not talking about long-take 'gimmick' films like Cuaron's "Gravity" or Sam Mendes' "1917" - both excellent, but neither quite achieving this unique effect of incorporating a very long take into an otherwise traditionally filmed and edited narrative).

Vertigo (1958)

I debated with myself before adding this Hitchcock classic to this list. It's an absolutely stunning film - one of my all-time favorites - and if you're in the right frame of mind the first time you see it, it can leave you absolutely reeling with its knockout punch of an ending. But, by modern standards, it's also a little slow. It's much more deliberate than many modern movies. So why is this film here? It's precisely that deliberate storytelling that I think is important to understand. While we operate in a whiz-bang world of speedy cuts and flashy camera moves, I think it's really valuable to unpack and understand how slower storytelling can still work. We might not want to make a movie like "Vertigo" in the 21st century, but every movie needs its quieter beats, its moments to breathe. "Vertigo" accomplishes these moments beautifully, and is worth studying for those moments (at least!)

What Else should Filmmakers Watch?

As mentioned above, this list is just the beginning - a work in progress on my end that will never fully encompass every useful piece of cinema out there. What movies do you think are essential viewing? Remember, the question here isn't what movies are "great" - or what movies are "important" from an historical standpoint. The question is: for filmmakers and screenwriters, what are the films that we must study to elevate our craft, and to be conversant about our craft within our industry? Feel free to suggest more titles in the comments below!

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