Essential Viewing, Part 1: The Classics

I’ve given a lot of thought recently to the films I would teach if I had control over a film studies department. What films are most indicative of greatness? What products stand out as the most innovative and original and important? The problem that some may have with academia is this idea that there are canonical works of art that all people must appreciate. You have James Joyce and William Shakespeare on one end of the spectrum, and then you’ve got Nicolas Sparks and Susanne Collins somewhere on the other end.

What makes one side more important? What makes one end of the spectrum essential to literary studies? Of course it’s subjective. What pleases me won’t always please you. But we can certainly appreciate innovation and explosive creativity over formula. But, as happens so often in our culture, sometimes that formula is used so effectively that the product is every bit as good as that of the innovators’.

Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this. Maybe I should just give it to you straight. If I were the head of a film studies program, these are the films I would require of my students. This is the first part of my Essential List, where I will be giving you some of the essential classics.
What makes a classic movie a classic? I suppose it has to be old, perhaps made before 1960, and I suppose it has to be respected by critics and audiences. Moreover, a classic film needs to be innovative and timeless. Watching a classic film today needs to be every bit as riveting as it was at the time of its release (of course, this sometimes requires the context of the time to be understood by the viewer).  So, based on these criteria, here are some classic films that I would consider essential viewing for those who are interested in film studies.

The General (1926)

Buster Keaton’s The General is a marvel of filmmaking. Watching Keaton perform those stunts without any kind of safety is, in my opinion, even more impressive today than it was back in 1926. We no longer have Vaudeville acts in the city that perform these kinds of physically demanding stunts. Sure, there’s Cirque Du Soleil, but there are still safety measures implemented into those routines. Keaton, when he runs up and down the train and narrowly escapes death, is doing it for real. He risked his life for his art and his comedy, and watching him on screen is endlessly fascinating. It’s a tragedy that he died in poverty. He is one of the great early geniuses of cinema.

Metropolis (1927)

This list isn’t going to linger in the silent era for too long, but I do believe that this era has a lot to teach modern filmmakers. Now I’m not going to a rant about shaky-cam or formulaic action films, but I do think that the silent era, more than any other time, was completely devoted to the story of an image. The composition, the staging, the blocking of the actors–it is all so crucial in a silent film. I love how unbelievable Fritz Lang’s world really is in his silent masterpiece Metropolis. I’ve not seen a single dystopian film that doesn’t have some sort of nod to this film in its production design. Sure, the pacing is a bit wonky, and, yeah, the story is a bit silly by today’s standards, but you don’t see visuals like these very often. And when you do see them, they owe it all to Lang.

Grand Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is often credited as his masterpiece, but I’ve always been more partial to Grand Illusion. There’s just something about a great prison break narrative that gets my gears grinding. What I like most about Renoir’s film is its excellent use of silence. The film begins as a straightforward narrative about soldiers who are captured and imprisoned behind enemy lines, but as the film goes on, it becomes more and more evident that the film is a beautiful love letter to those who sacrificed their lives in the war. We realize that there is no true honor in war, and that there is no real escape.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Where would we be without the Italian Neo-Realists? For starters, the French New Wave wouldn’t have happened nearly as fast as it did. Robert Bresson wouldn’t have had much of a career, seeing as how Bicycle Theives was his inspiration to get into the business (and also gave him the idea to use non-professional actors). Vittorio De Sica’s classic tale of desperation, greed, and mercy is about as timeless as it gets. In post-war Italy, a man has finally been given a job by the state. He is ordered to buy a bike in order to do his job. His bike is stolen almost immediately, and so the man and his son go searching for the bike. That’s it. You may not believe me, but Bicycle Thieves is one of the most emotionally devastating films I’ve ever seen. It is so raw, so personal, and so honest that I can hardly breathe when the man decides to take his fate into his own hands. It is a powerful film, and the fact that it started a filmmaking revolution is just icing on the cake.

Rear Window (1954)



One of the most written-about films of all time sort of needs no introduction, but I’ll do it anyway. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen. It’s also, you know, infinitely interesting in its study of gender relations and surveillance. The entire film is shot from the point-of-view of a man looking through a bay window, and, somehow, it works. This is the film that proves Hitchcock’s brilliance as a filmmaker and a master of suspense, and there is no way I could leave this film out.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

A knight returning from the crusades is challenged to a game of chess by the Grim Reaper himself in Ingmar Bergman’s classic film. This film is probably most responsible for the reputation that foreign films had in the mid-twentieth century. It’s dark, introspective, moody, atmospheric, deliberately paced, and its ending is both confusing and disheartening. In other words, The Seventh Seal is an Ingmar Bergman film. What classics list is complete without Ingmar Bergman on it?


Touch of Evil (1958)

That brilliant opening shot, the groundbreaking sound design, the excellent performances, the strange and surreal narrative. Everything works here in Orson Welles’ (yes, I said it) best film. Working in a genre that many feared dead and cliche, and working with material that many felt to be sloppy and too controversial, Welles took the “maverick director” approach to filmmaking and did whatever he wanted to do with his money to make the best film he could make. The cinematography here is ambitious and unbelievable. You’ve never seen a movie shot quite like this. After the film was completed, the studio re-cut much of the footage and released the film in a, as Orson Welles put it, castrated state. Years later, the studio released the film as it was originally intended. Scary, dark, strange, and perfect.

The 400 Blows (1959)

Some may call Breathless the French New Wave film that started it all, but it isn’t. Francios Truffaut’s 400 Blows is a fascinating, daring, and remarkable film. It doesn’t self-consciously use the jump-cut to make a statement about French youth, or use its formalistic rule-breaking to try and change the way we see cinema. Instead, Truffaut’s film is rugged and individualistic. The style folds over its protagonist. The protagonist is the film. The editing, the hurried camera-work, the quick pacing. This is all a part of the character as he struggles to get attention, to break out, to become his own man. Antoine breaks the rules because he hates them. The rules have made him unremarkable, and he has a statement to make. The film’s final, haunting image reminds us of the unknown future in front of all of. It’s a spellbinding work of cinema.

There are plenty of other classics that I love and cherish, but I find these to be the most essential for a beginning film studies student. What am I missing from the classics (per my criteria)? 

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  • Great list!

  • I'm among those who consider Rules of the Game to be the superior film, though much of that really comes down to my expectations of the prison break genre. Case in point, the other week, I watched Bresson's A Man Escaped and Jarmusch's Down by Law back to back, and actually found the latter film to be far more engaging and rewarding. I suppose I'm just more engaged by the time before and after the escape rather than the escape itself.

  • I've only seen 2 of these movies!