40. Breathless (1960) Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 90 mins.
Made with a cinema-verite style consciously opposed to the aesthetic of traditional French cinema, Breathless was one of the work’s that signalled the arrival of the New Wave and became the movement’s emblematic film. It is an anarchic and freewheeling story of a young petty criminal Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who, while searching for purpose in life, guns down a policeman and goes on the run with his seemingly naive American girlfriend, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), until she betrays him. Godard’s debut feature managed to capture the cultural mood of the time and, as well as its intellectual and aesthetic resonances, it’s the radical challenge to conventional narrative, using jump cuts and extended long takes shot with hand held cameras, that make it one of the medium’s great artistic creations, able to be derivative of commercial cinema and yet, at the same time, truly original. Watch
39. Blue Velvet (1986) Dir. David Lynch, 120 mins.
Lynch’s unsettling and provocative drama centres around a college student, Jeffrey Beaumont, who, upon returning from visiting his ill father in hospital, comes across a human ear in a field in his idealised hometown of Lumberton. Intrigued by what he’s found, Jeffrey journeys behind the facade of a supposedly normal small town into the terrifying criminal world of the malevolent Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Initially disliked for the level of violence, the film has grown from a cult following to be considered one of the best films of the 1980s. Watch
38. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Dir. Sergio Leone, 161 mins.
The third of Leone’s ‘dollar’ films centres around three gunslingers competing to find a fortune in Confederate gold during the American Civil War. A successful combination of Clint Eastwood’s acting style and Leone’s brilliant direction. Watch
37. Fanny and Alexander (1982) Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 188 mins.
Bergman made a triumphant return to form, and to his roots, with this colourful, expansive family saga, that follows the well-to-do Ekdahls, and is set in turn of the century Uppsala. With a surprising amount of warmth and generosity, it’s Bergman at his most visually ambitious. Watch
36. L’avventura (1960) Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 141 mins.
Helping to signal both the definitive demise of neo-realism and the arrival of new art cinema, L’Avventura was developed from a story by Antonioni about a young woman’s disappearance during a boating trip in the Mediterranean. During the subsequent search for her an attraction grows between her lover (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend (Monica Vitti). Shot entirely on location and beset by constant logistical and financial problems, the film was greeted with catcalls from sections of the audience at Cannes, but was passionately defended by a handful of critics and, with its innovative aesthetics, has gone on to be seen as one of the most influential films ever made. The appeal of the film was also enhanced, no doubt, by the dazzling performance of the then unknown Vitti. Watch
35. The Seventh Seal (1957) Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 96 mins.
A film that came to epitomise not just Scandinavian cinema but the European art movie in general, The Seventh Seal is a metaphysical allegory that follows a medieval knight (Max von Sydow), who, having returned from the Crusades, journeys across a plague-ridden landscape, and plays a game of chess with the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot). One of the film’s that shifted Bergman’s focus from comedy to more serious themes, and elevated his status to preeminent cinematic artist. Watch
34. Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott, 117 mins.
The crew of the commercial towing spaceship Nostromo are stalked and killed by a highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature while on a return trip from Thedus to Earth. Acclaimed for its brilliant aesthetic work that adds to the realism. Watch
33. The 400 Blows (1959) Dir. Francois Truffaut, 99 mins.
Reacting against the supposed formulaic and studio controlled mainstream films of the 1950s, outspoken Cahiers du Cinema critic, Francois Truffaut helped trigger the New Wave with a film revolving around an ordinary adolescent in Paris, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who is thought by his parents and teachers to be a trouble maker. His teacher singles him out for criticism and punishment, while his mother is cold and demanding, and frequently argues with her husband (Antoine’s stepfather). The 400 Blows has elements of autobiography as the precocious Truffaut was incarcerated as a teenager for failing to pay debts while in the film the young protagonist is jailed for stealing a typewriter. Showing an allegiance to the visual style of filmmakers such Renoir and Welles, Truffaut uses moving camera shots and long takes to create an open fluid mise-en-scene. However, it’s the performance of Leaud, who provides an intelligent yet innocent portrayal of the troubled but often humorous youth during his initiation into a callous adult world, that gives the film its brilliant pathos and is ultimately the key to its success. More…
32. Barry Lyndon (1975) Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 184 mins.
The film follows the exploits of an 18th century Irish adventurer, Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal). Kubrick turns Thackeray’s novel into a chilling theorem on the illusions of the Enlightenment and the ontological limits of the human condition. Watch
31. Persona (1966) Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 85 mins.
The story revolves around a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) and her patient, well-known stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has suddenly stopped speaking. They move to a cottage, where Alma cares for the traumatised Elisabet, confides in her and begins having trouble distinguishing herself from her patient. One of the most analysed films of all time, some will find it dated and others too ambiguous, but Bergman’s use of close-ups helps to exert a hypnotic intensity that along with the superb performances of the two female leads, propels Persona into the realm of cinematic genius. Watch
30. A Clockwork Orange (1971) Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 136 mins.
Set in the future, the film concerns Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a charismatic, psychopathic delinquent whose pleasures are classical music, rape, and what he refers to as ‘the ultra-violence’. He spends his nights as the leader of a youth gang, that speaks an argot combining Russian and English word forms, and, as well fighting amongst themselves, commit robberies, assaulting anyone they find in the vicinity. Captured after a murder, the hooligan undergoes behavioural modification treatment designed to make him sick at the idea of violence. Managing, once again, to bring to life a world of ambiguity, Kubrick brilliantly combines flamboyant and inventive visuals with the choreography of violence to create a grotesque attack on utopian beliefs. Buy
29. Goodfellas (1990) Dir. Martin Scorsese, 146 mins.
The satirical film follows the rise and fall of three gangsters, spanning three decades. The protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) admits, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Outstanding story telling from Scorsese and a great performance from Liotta that became something of an albatross for his career. Watch
28. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Dir. Sergio Leone, 165 mins.
To get his hands on prime railroad land in Sweetwater, crippled railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) hires killers, led by blue-eyed sadist Frank (Henry Fonda), who wipe out property owner Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) and his family. McBain’s newly arrived bride, Jill (Claudia Cardinale), however, inherits it instead. Both outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and lethally mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) take it upon themselves to look after Jill and thwart Frank’s plans to seize her land. With Ennio Morricone’s notable melodic score, that’s in stark contrast to the brutality of the action, as well as great performances and masterful visual detail, Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic western masterpiece. More…
27. Ran (1985) Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 162 mins.
Made possible by more of the overseas funding that helped reignite Kurosawa’s career in the 1970s and 80s, Ran tells the story of the ageing Warlord Hidetora Ichimonji who makes the decision to retire from his position as head of his family faction and split his kingdom between his three sons. Tragedy follows amid a visual splendour that helped to reinforce Kurosawa’s reputation as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. More…
26. Chinatown (1974) Dir. Roman Polanski, 131 mins.
Having left Poland and then made several quirky horror films for the European and U.S. markets, Polanski took a large stride forward with this revisionist work, set in Los Angeles in 1937, and inspired by the historical disputes over land and water rights that had raged in southern California during the 1910s and 20s. The film stars Jack Nicholson, in one of his finest roles as cynical private investigator J.J. “Jake” Gittes, who is out of his depth in a world of politics, sexual power and corruption. Watch
25. La Dolce Vita (1960) Dir. Federico Fellini, 180 mins.
Marking a watershed moment in the history of Italian cinema as neo-realism moved to a new art cinema, La dolce vita is the three hour epic story of a passive journalist’s week in a morally decaying Rome, and his search for both happiness and love that will never come as he declines into decadent sexual play. Also seen as a crucial turning point in the battle for freedom of expression against censorship, the film’s sexual candor helped make it a sensation, La Dolce Vita depicts an absurdist spectacle of contemporary life and is deemed one of the great triumphs of post war art cinema. Buy
24. Come and See (1985) Dir. Elem Klimov, 140 mins.
Set in 1943, during the Nazi German occupation of the Byelorussian SSR, Klimov’s anti-war psychological horror follows a young peasant boy (Alexei Kravchenko), who, having defied his parents by joining the resistance movement, witnesses the atrocities committed on the populace. Although it went on to be a large box office hit in the Soviet Union, Klimov had had to wait 8 years before he was given approval by the authorities to produce it. Unrelenting in its brutal realism, Come and See combines disorienting camera work, extreme facial close-ups and a brilliant use of sound to enhance some of the most harrowing imagery ever seen on film. There was much speculation as to why Klimov had made no more films after this. In 2001 he provided an answer, “I lost interest in making films…Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” For those who have seen Klimov’s lyrical and nightmarish masterpiece, this seems like no idle boast. Buy
23. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Dir. Sergio Leone, 229 mins.
Sergio Leone was by far the most talented director of spaghetti westerns, but arguably his best film is this gangster epic that he made having earlier turned down the chance to direct The Godfather. The long but always fascinating story chronicles the lives of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in New York City’s world of organised crime, particularly David “Noodles” Aaronson, initially a poor street kid struggling to survive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1920s. One of the few great Italian films of the 1980s and featuring a remarkable reproduction of New York’s Lower East Side, Once Upon a Time in America is visually stunning, violent and desperately sad. More…
22. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 110 mins.
Dreyer’s last silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc was shot in France with massive technical and financial resources and in conditions of great creative freedom. Having spent over a year researching Joan of Arc (played here by stage actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti), Dreyer forgoes medieval pageantry or Joan’s military exploits, instead using the records of the Rouen trial to focus on the spiritual and political conflicts of her last day as a captive of England. Instantly acclaimed by critics as a masterpiece (although it was a commercial failure), the film is probably most notable for the symbolic progression of close-up faces that reaches an apotheosis in the long sustained sequence of Joan’s interrogation against a menacing architectural backdrop. Despite French nationalists’ scepticism about whether a Danish person could be in charge of a film that centred on one of France’s most revered historical icons, it’s Dreyer’s brilliant direction, particularly the unconventional emphasis on the actors’ facial features, that along with Falconetti’s unforgettable performance, gives the film its immense emotional power. More…
21. The Mirror (1975) Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 106 mins.
Propelled by autobiographical reflections on Tarkovsky’s own childhood trauma, The Mirror unfolds as an organic flow of memories recalled by a dying poet (based on Tarkovsky’s absent father Arseny, who in reality outlived his son by three years) of key moments in his life both with respect to his immediate family as well as that of the Russian people as a whole during the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. Extremely experimental, the film uses an unconventional nonlinear structure featuring contemporary scenes combined with childhood memories and dreams that have a hallucinatory and rhythmic quality that speaks directly to the subconscious of the viewer. Although when released the film was considered an unfocused failure by some critics and the narrative incomprehensible by many cinema-goers, The Mirror has grown in reputation since to now be considered one of the most beautiful and poetic films ever made. More…