Top 10 films to watch before going to film school
Anybody who has attended university will know about reading lists. For first timers it can seem daunting. Before you start your classes the tutors send a list of recommended reading as an introduction to learning for the upcoming year of tuition. But when attending film school there’s another list attached – recommended viewing.
It makes total sense since film is a visual medium. Indeed, it seems entirely appropriate to put the Watch list ahead of the Read list. In compiling this top ten I wanted to look at films that have influenced cinema, notably American cinema. I also wanted to look at examples of film that pushed the boundaries of the medium, developed new techniques in cinematography, camera movement, editing, sound and special visual effects.
And I wanted to look at genuine classics – filmmaking at its best from masterful film directors. The following list features ten filmmaking geniuses: Fritz Lang, Sergie Eisenstein, John Cassavetes, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Jean Luc Godard and Orson Welles. But it was so difficult deciding on just ten, having to leave off other auteurs like David Lean, Sam Peckinpah, Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and others. But it would have been easy to list twenty or thirty films. Picking just ten made the task much harder but helped focus on the films and the filmmakers that, without doubt, have changed cinema for the better.
The following ten films should be watched (preferably more than once) by anyone preparing to or already studying film.
10. The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Russia, 1925)
The Battleship Potemkin has been hailed as the most influential propaganda film of all time. Eisenstein’s look at the 1905 incident in which sailors mutinied against their Tsarist officers was banned in Britain until the 1950s when it received an X-rated certification. The film is renowned for its montage editing, most significantly in its most talked about sequence on the Odessa Steps. Here, the Tsar’s Cossack’s massacre civilians. Eisenstein wanted to use the experimental editing techniques he studied at the Kuleshov school of filmmaking to influence the audience. Here, editing is strategically used to place the audience’s sympathy within the plight of the rebellious sailors and against the ruling officials.
Eisenstein therefore invented montage editing where bold, dramatic images assume greater power through the way in which they are juxtaposed together. His work had a huge influence on many filmmakers around the world, not least Alfred Hitchcock who would use montage editing techniques in such sequences as the Psycho shower scene.
9. Shadows (Cassavetes, USA, 1959)
John Cassavetes 1959 film was the precursor to the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation of filmmaking that formed the American new wave of the late 1960s and 1970s. Cassavetes, inspired by the authenticity seen in European cinema as film cameras left the studios in favour of on-location shooting, made the film on a tiny budget, using handheld photography with 16mm film on the streets of New York. When Hollywood was still stuck in the studios, throwing huge budgets at lavish productions such as poorly conceived musicals that failed at the box office, Cassavetes was taking to the streets. Encouraged by his European contemporaries, Cassavetes shot the film quickly, with a small crew and a tiny budget. Much of the film was improvised and its story of an interracial relationship was considered taboo at the time. The plot only highlights further how the film was way ahead of its time. Without Shadows we may never have got Easy Rider or a whole host of European cinema-inspired work during the 1970s. Leonard Maltin said the film was “a watershed in the birth of American independent cinema.”
8. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, USA, 1950)
Billy Wilder had to be on this list somewhere. I genius writer-director, Wilder’s best film is the fabulous romantic comedy The Apartment, however, Sunset Boulevard, like so much of his work, is a masterpiece to be cherished (see also Some Like It Hot which appears in our Top 25 Films to Make You Happy). This is a great film to see before studying cinema because it is about the film business – celebrity and star power, the industry itself and the filmmaking process, the introduction of sound, and the Hollywood lifestyle during the studio era. The whole thing is held together by the relationship between a struggling screenwriter and an aged Hollywood silent film starlet who wishes for a triumphant return to the big screen. The film is widely praised by critics as one of the finest American films ever made.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)
It is difficult to explain what Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is about but that is part of its appeal. Kubrick’s film is an intriguing cinematic experience that affects every viewer in a different way. Its biggest influence was on science-fiction because it took the genre away from the campy “us versus them” alien invasion movies of the 1950s. It gave the genre the same sort of authenticity that science-fiction literature had bestowed on it for many years. Spacecraft were not silly flying saucers but huge mechanical creations that looked much more realistic. The science behind the fiction was exactly that and much of what was envisaged by Kubrick and the film’s production and special-effects staff was based on intelligent projections of how technology could one day be used. Without 2001 it is unlikely we would have seen Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien and host of other modern science-fiction movies.
6. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)
Carol Reed’s 1949 film about an American searching for the killer of his best friend in post-war Vienna is widely considered the greatest British film ever made. Starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, The Third Man is still as vividly mesmerising as it was on its release. It is an important film in many ways, not least for its use of Vienna as a location, its rugged and dishevelled buildings displaying the wounds of war. It is also renowned for Welles’ fleeting performance.
5. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
Watching an Alfred Hitchcock film is a must before studying the medium at university. Most of his films are worthy of seeing but Psycho is perhaps the most obvious. Whether you’ve seen Psycho or not, you will know about the shower scene and may have seen it as a clip on YouTube or a film documentary. Hitchcock’s expert use of montage editing, sound design and framing is a masterclass of direction. The film is also hugely entertaining with Hitchcock making use of classical Hollywood narrative to formulate a suspenseful thriller with a terrific twist ending. See our top 10 Alfred Hitchcock films here.
4. 12 Angry Men (Lumet, USA, 1957)
There are few films with a screenplay so precise, so perfectly developed, so full of character and great dialogue. 12 Angry Men is a how-to when it comes to writing for film. Lumet’s drama is simple in its set-up (twelve jurors retire to the jury room to decide the fate of a man accused of murder) and sparse in its locale (the characters leave the jury room only to use the bathroom). That essentially means there is no action scene to fall back on, and no sub-plot to cut away to in order to propel the momentum of the story. The script has to hold the audience’s attention through well-rounded characters that are seamlessly developed through a story driven by character interaction and conversation. The film’s quality is also testament to Lumet’s skill as a director – his control of character and his skilful use of the camera within the limited physical space available. 12 Angry Men is one of the best American films ever made, and one of the most enjoyable.
3. Breathless aka À bout de soufflé (Godard, France, 1960)
The French new wave had a marked influence on the American film industry. Friedkin, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Cassavetes, Hopper, Scorsese and many more have all spoken about how French film during the 1950s and 1960s breathed new life into cinema. These films directly influenced the American new wave period beginning in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde.
One of the biggest features of the French new wave, which was adapted for movies made in American, was the use of location shooting taking the need for a formal studio out of the equation. It meant filmmakers didn’t need huge budgets to shoot their films, opening the medium to a host of creative people who wouldn’t ordinarily have had the opportunity to make movies. Because of the low budget, films were often made with friends taking key roles on the film crew and non-actors appearing in front of the camera. Director’s had to improvise as well, for example, moving shots had no cranes or camera tracks so shooting out of car windows or hand-holding the camera was needed.
Breathless appears on this list because it is arguably the best film to come out of the French nouvelle vague. The film was shot on location in Paris with a documentary, handheld style, and with a largely improvised script. The film is also known for its use of jump cuts. Peter Bradshaw enthused: “There is simply no other film which demonstrates so perfectly what it feels like to be young and in love.” See our Top 10 Jean Luc Godard films here.
2. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927)
Metropolis appeared during the time of the German expressionism era of filmmaking during the 1920s and 1930s. Other notable films of the period worth checking out include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922) and M (1931). The films, especially Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, featured hallucinogenic visuals produced through lavish and unrealistic set designs thanks to large budgets and the visual eccentricities of the filmmakers. German expressionism tried to comment on society in a way that went beyond typical genre convention, and the films have been categorised by their use of lighting to enhance mood such as contrasting light and harsh shadow. This era of filmmaking in Germany can be seen most significantly in the horror and film noir genres in 1930s Hollywood film and beyond. The techniques and styles were quickly embraced in Hollywood, a transition made much easier because so many German filmmakers emigrated to the USA after the Nazi’s took control. Notable filmmakers such as Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger introduced America to this visionary style of filmmaking in the proceeding years.
1. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1943)
Orson Welles was 25 years old when he wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane. It doesn’t seem possible that such a young and inexperienced actor could create arguably the most iconic American film ever made. But it is testament to his talent not only as an actor but as a writer and director. Citizen Kane is not only the most praised movie ever made, it is also the most analysed. It features on nearly every film course simply because it is as good as the critics say.
Some acknowledge it as the first time movies became “cinematic”. Welles, who had spent a number of years in theatre and radio productions (most notably the 1938 War of the World’s broadcast), dazzled audiences with his innovative cinematography (the use of deep focus photography making the foreground and background appear in clear focus, as well as low angle shots that had not been widely used in Hollywood film previously), stylish storytelling technique (non-linear narrative with the story told in flashback from different perspectives, and montage editing) and the use of the latest technology (as well as use of current technology and creative editing to make the film appear more expensive than it was) to propel the film industry into the next stage of its development. It remains one of the most influential Hollywood films and simply has to be seen by anyone thinking about film school (especially in the key disciplines of screenwriting, editing, cinematography and direction).
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
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