The 22 Most Important Films of All Time

While historical significance certainly plays its role in helping me determine my favorite films (see my “Greatest Films of All Time” list), other factors played equally poignant parts: my own personal bias, the impact of the film upon viewers, film quality and popularity, to name a few.  But, insofar as this blog is designed to help the casual movie-goer become a competent one, I must help by making more specialized lists.  This particular list looks at historical and cinematographic significance as a complex dual-characteristic: namely, “importance.”  Often, lists of this type go by the name of “influential.”  But “influential” means important only in the context of history and fad.  “Important,” on the other hand, involves the goal of this blog.  These films are “important” in that they help create a backdrop wherein one can contextually understand the development of film and the proper languages of film—as André Bazin would put it—which open your eyes to the world of cinema.  I wish I had paid better attention to lists like this one in my early days of movie-going.  I believe that it would have helped a lot.

The following movies were “influential” to other movies that followed.  They are “important” to you and to me, the viewers, in our attempt to become more competent movie-watchers.

  1. The Birth of a Nation (1915/D. W. Griffith):  The ultimate movie epic, famous for some of the most important film inventiveness and innovation in history.  While Bergman may be famous for the close-up, Griffith invented it.  While the Soviets lay claim on the innovations of montage, Griffith invented that too.  A perfect combination of formative and realist tendencies, Birth of a Nation acts as the penultimate historical drama that not only greatly effected films to come, but played a significant cultural role in the real world as well.
  2. Bronenosyets Potyomkin [Battleship Potemkin] (1925/Sergei Eisenstein):  If Griffith did something tantamount with his use of montage in Birth of a Nation, Eisenstein did something paramount with his.  The ultimate example of montage at its finest, Potemkin played off of the established cinematographic language and established a permanent form of movie construction that carried over even into the sound age.
  3. Voyage dans la Lune [A Trip to the Moon] (1905/Georges Méliès):  Where the Lumière brothers stayed true to the seventh art (the camera) and its aesthetics, Méliès depended on only the technicalities of film to become the father of formative film, envisioning the medium as one of many in a cinematographic “Gesamtkunstwerk” (see The Godfather review on this blog).  Trip to the Moon is his finest work.
  4. L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat [The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station] (1895/Auguste and Loius Lumière):  Unlike Méliès, Lumière focused on the camera as the medium, and attempted to provide the very aesthetic quality of realism that separated the camera from the canvas or stage.  Arrival of a Train is said to have terrified the first crowd of viewers who saw it back in 1896, as the train came silently screaming into the La Ciotat Station.
  5. Citizen Kane (1941/Orson Welles):  On one hand biting drama and on the other hand playful comedy, Kane is the ultimate example of an auteur picture, and paved the way for director-centric pictures of the future.  Kane, in a nutshell, was cinema experts finally reaping what they had sown, a composite picture of multi-genre, pseudo-realism that introduced such cinematographic necessities as deep-focus, trick photography and flashbacks.
  6. The Jazz Singer (1927/Alan Crosland):  The first major film of the sound era.  Most likely, that is enough said.  Also, a powerful precursor to a brand new genre: the musical, particularly the comedic one.
  7. À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960/Jean-Luc Godard): While this film did not necessarily start the French New Wave (Varda’s La pointe courte, in my opinion, takes those honors), it undeniably changed the wave from a ripple to a tsunami.  This movie set the stage for the fast paced, hand-held, jump-cut style “art/action” picture that has come to dominate theaters today.
  8. Roundhay Garden Scene (1888/Louis Le Prince): While there were zoopraxiscope renditions of a more primitive nature that have claim to the “first things ever filmed” (like the horse named “Sallie Gardner”) Roundhay is the oldest surviving celluloid…and by far the shortest film on this or any major list at only 3 seconds long.  But, its worth a quick look on YouTube, and it would be very beneficial to put yourself in the shoes of those who first viewed it.
  9. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens [Nosferatu] (1922/F. W. Murnau):  Before Murnau’s crusade in Hollywood which would bring us some of his finest work, his Nosferatu was controversial and inventive.  This was the jump start of German Expressionism, which is exactly what it sounds to be, and the next step in the movement of formative cinematography that Méliès began.  Its use of angles is some of the finest in film.  If one ever needed a lesson on “mise-en-scène,” this is the movie to watch.
  10. Chelovek s kinoapparatom [Man With a Movie Camera] (1929/Dziga Vertov):  The first real experiment with film since the pioneers Le Prince, Von Stampfer, Plateau, Horner and Muybridge, Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera symbolized film as an art unto itself, independent of literature, theater or painting.  His film with no intertitles, script or plot was not only beautiful and poignant, but introduced questions into the world of cinema as to the true purpose of the camera, and gave us a look at the world that none other film ever has.
  11. Journal d’un curé de campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] (1951/Robert Bresson): True adherence to solving the “problem of film”, i.e. how to best manipulate the film itself to provide the best possible work of art has always been focused on either grandiosity or minimalism.  While Bresson’s minimalism is more apparent in his later films (A Man Escaped comes to mind, which is so deceptively minimalist that it passes as one of the best thrillers of all time), said minimalism truly began with Diary of a Country Priest,  setting the stage for the emergence of all those “realist” movements of the last sixty-some-odd years.  And it worked.  André Bazin said that “for the first time, the cinema gives us a film in which the only genuine incidents, the only perceptible movements are those of the life of the spirit.”
  12. Nanook of the North (1922/Robert J. Flaherty):  Film experts like Bazin and Kracauer hold Nanook on a pedestal for its incorporation of what Bazin calls “the language of film.”  Multi-layered montages insufficient, Flaherty composed multi-layered single shots that would come to define the success of films like Citizen Kane.  Controversial for its staging of “real” events, Nanook was able to combine the actualities of realist tendency with the constructivism of formative tendencies to create what is, along with Man With a Movie Camera, one of the greatest documentaries ever made.  It was the first of a genre of film that would later be called “salvage ethnography” and another called “cinéma vérité.”
  13. Stagecoach (1939/John Ford):  After the incorporation of sound, many skeptics foresaw the abandonment of the true language of film for the cop-out of actual language, which would lead to the abandonment of pure film aesthetics for the more “primitive” art forms of theater and music.  Their skepticism lacked foresight, and John Ford proved them wrong with this picture focused on montage, close-up and angular photography: central aspects of original film.
  14. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937/David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen and Walt Disney):  Like The Jazz Singer, this requires little explanation.  Snow White is the first full-length animated film.  We often forget that it was one of the most important color pictures of all time, too.
  15. Greed (1924/Eric von Stroheim):  Much like Birth of a Nation before it, Erich von Stroheim’s tour-de-force was an epic. Originally purported to be 8 hours in length, the version we get is only 2 and a half.  But, where it is different from Birth of a Nation is its slight tricks like gold-tinting the images, and its focus on individualism that had much more in common with the works of Murnau and Chaplin than those of Griffith.
  16. Intolerance (1916/D. W. Griffith):  Birth of a Nation on steroids (and with a little more ADHD).  Where it is not as famous or influential as its predecessor, Intolerance is even more epic and is important because of its outstanding set direction which came to set the stage for future epics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Lord of the Rings.  Also, like Greed, Intolerance plays with light coloration techniques, as each of the interlocking plots are represented by a different color filter, from green to red to blue to orange.
  17. Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914/Charlie Chaplin):  I originally intended to put The Gold Rush or The Kid on this list, but it would make far more sense to put Chaplin’s first movie down.  Though it is a short film, it still harnesses the grace that put slapstick back on the map for the first time in a century.  The original film comedy, Venice introduced us not only to an endearing character in Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” but also with the most important genre in popular film as we know it today.
  18. Gone With the Wind (1939/Victor Fleming):  The most popular film of all time.  Again, enough said.  But, consider its use of wide-aspect lenses, master set-directions and incorporation of dialogue, music and special effects, no matter how primitive, and you can see why it is so important to watch this movie in order to better understand the world of cinema.
  19. Grand Hotel (1932/Edmund Goulding):  Look at most lists of the most important films of all time and you will not see this one.  Why is it included in mine?  Because, I believe that this was the movie, above all, that made Hollywood what it is today.  It is elegant, complex and plays on stereotypes.  All this stereotypical commentary and elegant complexity is propelled forward by superb acting by an all-star cast.  And therein lies the crux: an all-star cast.  Grand Hotel brought the star power aspect to Hollywood that has both made and unmade American films ever since.
  20. Ladri di biciclette [The Bicycle Thief] (1948/Vittorio de Sica):  The greatness of this film lies first in its quality and plot, but its importance lies in its role as the chief film amid the pantheon of movies that make up the Italian neo-Realist movement of the 1940s and 50s.  While this is important in and of itself, I add an observation of my own: it also came to influence the indy movement in general as we know it today.  When it comes to low-budget films made with first-gig non-professional actors that come to define societal commentary and film-making mastery (take Beasts of the Southern Wild for example), Bicycle Thief was the first and greatest.
  21. The Wizard of Oz (1939/Victor Fleming):  Sharing criteria for importance with Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz also finds its importance in its permeating nature into contemporary culture.  Also, its creativity with the camera in creating special effects remains influential and magical.  It is a story made for children and adults alike, and that makes it so important to watch, understand and appreciate.
  22. Singin’ in the Rain(1952/Stanley Donen):  Where most musicals, even now, are adaptations from Broadway or elsewhere, this classic was made in Hollywood, by Hollywood, about Hollywood.  It’s Hollywood’s musical, in every meaning of the word, and a superb film at that.  And good luck finding a more influential movie song than “Singin’ in the Rain” (except maybe for a certain ballad in film number 21 on this list…you know what I mean).

Anyway, there you have it, the most important films of all time.  I can go on, with honorable mentions such as Star Wars, Un Chien Andalou, Shadows, Adam’s Rib, The Blair Witch Project, All Quiet on the Western Front, Easy Rider, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Passion of Joan of Arc but no need.  This is an important list about important films and sets an important backdrop from my next film review.  Hint…it’s a silent film from this list.

2 thoughts on “The 22 Most Important Films of All Time

  1. Pingback: Battleship Potemkin (1925)* | A Slice of Cake

  2. Pingback: Modern Times (1936) | A Slice of Cake

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