Though film school education – much like any degree – varies from university to university and professor to professor, there is a commonality to the films shown to students in those first few semesters. First year students will almost always have to take a required cinema history course, which covers the earliest prototypes that led to film cameras (for the rest of your life, you will wonder why you know what a zoetrope is) and the first film experiments.
No matter where you go to film school – shelling out the sixty grand a year for the NYU Tisch School of the Arts or signing yourself up at the local community college – that very first course will likely reveal the same early important films, plus specific classics plucked from the decades that followed. It all builds to create an understanding of how film has changed and developed and grown through the years. For every off the wall, cliché film school experience (like, say, being forced to sit through a short film of soapy water running over black top – an anecdote taken from personal experience), there are the cinema staples, the tried and true movies that set up the foundation for your growing education.
And here are twelve of those films.
12. Modern Times (1936)
Modern Times was written, produced, and directed by Charlie Chaplin, who also stars as his most famous character, the Little Tramp. It was the character’s last appearance on screen, as well as Chaplin’s last (sort of) silent picture, already an anachronism in the mid-thirties, though the film did have occasional lines of spoken dialogue (none of which were spoken by Chaplin himself). In the film, Chaplin works in a factory (becoming overwhelmed by an assembly line in a famous scene that would be recreated later in I Love Lucy), is jailed, escapes, finds new work, is almost jailed again – all while falling for Paulette Goddard’s suffering, bread-stealing, arrest-evading ingénue.
At the time of its original release, it was a very topical film. Modern Times tapped into the worries of the era, including fear of growing technology and the struggle of the ongoing Great Depression, which left so many people without employment and going hungry. It’s often a favorite in school settings because it covers so much ground; not only is it a perfect example of Chaplin’s comedic genius and filmmaking skill, but it also reveals a lot about the time it was made and the issues facing the country.
11. Persona (1966)
Often considered the masterwork of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, Persona is a psychological horror film that deals with identity. It follows two women: a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) and an actress who looks an awful lot like her, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) who are spending some time in a remote cottage. Elisabet appears healthy but is mute, and it is left to Alma to care for her, though this begins to put a strain on both women and eventually the boundaries between them blur, leading to confusion and violence.
Persona‘s legacy is long-reaching, influencing the work of Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and David Fincher. One could see echoes of Persona in many films that deal with the duality of identity and the unreliability of the protagonist, not knowing if what you are being shown is true or imagined. It even breaks the fourth wall, with the film visibly breaking apart at one point and the director and crew being revealed at the end. It is an example of the truly risky, groundbreaking cinema that began to emerge in the mid to late ’60s.
10. A Trip to the Moon/Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
The oldest entry on this list, A Trip to the Moon is the work of George Méliès, a prolific early filmmaker who produced as many as five hundred and twenty films in less than twenty years, though most of them are lost. You might know Méliès as the subject of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which he is played in his later years by Ben Kingsley, as an unknown toy salesman, years after his films excited audiences across France.
A Trip to the Moon is a short film, running under fifteen minutes give or take (frame rates can vary), as most early films were short and very experimental. The highly theatrical film follows a group of astronomers who travel to the moon and the adventures they have there. The most enduring image is of the grinning moon, a man’s face visible on its bumpy surface, and the rocket that lands right in its eye.
It was an incredibly impressive achievement for the time. Most moving pictures at this point were simple, brief – another film school staple, 1896’s The Kiss, doesn’t even crack half a minute in runtime and merely shows a giddy couple kissing a few times – and A Trip to the Moon had elaborate sets as well as an exciting plot. It was space travel sixty-seven years before we landed on the moon, and the first example of space-themed science fiction on film – over a hundred years before the likes of Interstellar.
9. Nosferatu (1922)
Directed by F.W. Murnau (another film school Murnau favorite is Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, whose plot deals in adultery and attempted murder) and based, unofficially, on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu is generally considered the very first vampire film. They didn’t have the rights to Stoker’s work, and so some details are changed in the adaptation – though not enough to avoid a lawsuit from Stoker’s widow. It also stands as a perfect example of German Expressionism, which involves stark visual contrasts of black and white, and often emphasizes silhouettes and shadows.
The film is known for its distinct and hideous vampire, played by Max Schreck, whose claw-like hands and rat-like visage would eventually be replaced through cinematic history with much more attractive, alluring vampires. It still features a staple of the genre: a male vampire obsessing over a beautiful and “pure” human woman, then ultimately killing her, a blend of erotic obsession and threat that has evolved but remains present even in today’s vampire works. For example, the vampire of Nosferatu, Count Orlok, is so distracted by the lead female’s beauty that he is compelled to watch her sleep throughout an entire night and is eventually destroyed by the rising sun; minus the immolation, there are certainly shades of that even in Twilight.
8. North by Northwest (1959)
Film connoisseurs just love Alfred Hitchcock, and by including North by Northwest on the syllabus you get not only an example of the master of suspense’s work, but also a necessary dose of Cary Grant, one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time. Grant plays a Madison Avenue ad man who is mistaken for an international spy and has to go on the run, dodging constant danger and other, actual spies who are trying to kill him.
The film is widely considered one of Hitchcock’s best, and certainly his most stylish. It became the template on which many chase-filled action films and spy movies were based, often cited as a model for many James Bond films. There are all of the traditional Hitchcockian signatures in it as well: Cary Grant himself being a multiple collaborator, the “icy blonde” (this time portrayed by Eva Marie Saint), the exciting chase, dubious morality, and something termed the “MacGuffin” – an object everyone in the film is chasing after that is ultimately incidental to the plot. As an example of the genre and the director, one could do worse than North by Northwest.
7. Birth of a Nation (1915)
Birth of a Nation is a turn of the century film by D.W. Griffith that is often credited for its visual style, the development of many important cinematic techniques, and early use of narrative filmmaking (also present in A Trip to the Moon). It is also grotesquely racist.
Birth of a Nation is notably so racist that it incited protests and backlash even in 1915, when it was released, and in its wake there was a rash of racially motivated violence and Ku Klux Klan activity. Its depiction of black men (many portrayed by white actors in blackface) as simpleminded and sexually threatening relied on racial stereotypes, and it also glorified the KKK as the heroes of the film. While the film is technically important to the evolution of modern filmmaking, it also represents some of the darkest aspects of our history. This makes it worth discussing, even if it is an uncomfortable discussion.
6. The Bicycle Thief/Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thief is an Italian neorealist film that was considered one of the greatest films of all time even in the years immediately following its release. Filmed and set in the aftermath of WWII, it tells the story of a father struggling to support his family when his bicycle is stolen – and without the bicycle he will not be able to do his job, so he tries to go after the thief. By the end, desperation has pushed him to become a thief himself.
Neorealism was a notable trend in Italian filmmaking at the time, resulting in many of the country’s most classic and exalted films. Like other entries in this list, it is notable for its combination of style and historical relevance; it dove into and revealed the hardships in Italy post-war, with films focusing on poverty and despair, often featuring non-professional actors and shot on location. They were about everyday life and shot right on the streets where these events were happening, starring the people they were happening to. These films almost seemed to blur the line between documentary and narrative, bringing a greater sense of reality to film than had ever been present before, with lasting effects.
5. Taxi Driver (1976)
The emergence of new American talent in the late 1960s and through the 1970s (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma) led to a second golden age of American cinema, though one a great deal darker and grittier than anything that had come before. It’s an important time in our film history, so film students will almost always be treated to one or more motion picture from the oeuvre.
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is one such film. A violent, unsettling movie that edges into a kind of nouveau noir, it exposes and explores the American psyche post-Vietnam War. The protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is a returning soldier who is having trouble adjusting to life back in the States and who works as a taxi driver all night because he cannot sleep. Consumed by his neurosis and becoming ever more unstable, he becomes obsessed with the dirtiness of New York City and his desire to clean it up – through any means necessary. An attempt to save a teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster) ends in bloodshed, but also raises Travis up as a hero. The dreamy visuals, the moral ambiguity, the sense of isolation and brutality – all conspired to lead us into a new kind of movie.
4. Breathless/À bout de souffle (1960)
Each nation has reached its own cinematic zenith at one point or another, and in the study of film you are likely to hit each at least once. For France, that high point was the French New Wave of the 1960s, exemplified by Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. The film follows Belmondo as a young, Humphrey Bogart-obsessed criminal going on the run from the police and taking refuge in his girlfriend’s (Seberg) apartment. She turns him in eventually and the police come for him, resulting in Belmondo’s death.
Much of the script was improvised and the film was shot documentary-style on handheld cameras, with an often spontaneous schedule. It became famed for its editing style too, which utilized purposefully jarring jump cuts. French New Wave was not dissimilar to Italian neorealism in that it often shot on the streets and dealt with current concerns, but the movies were also artistic and stylized, with young casts and characters. Their legacy could be found in indie movies of the 1990s, where characters agonize over existential issues in voiceover or stop to break the fourth wall.
3. Chungking Express (1994)
The work of Chinese auteur Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express tells two separate, but similar, stories that focus on two men trying to get over a breakup and the tentative connections they make with new women. Set in Hong Kong, the film takes full advantage of its setting, exploring parts of the city that are heavily frequented and trafficked to emphasize connections made and lost. It’s almost Godardian in style but still totally unique to its director and country of origin.
The first story of the film follows Takeshi Kaneshiro as a young cop who isn’t doing too well after his girlfriend leaves him. He gets involved with a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) who is trying to evade the fallout of a drug deal gone bad. The second story is about a fast food worked played by Faye Wong who falls for another heartsick cop, this time Tony Leung, and ends up breaking into his apartment on the regular to do little things to cheer him up. This film was contemporary and romantic while still maintaining the action and fast, exciting tone characteristic of Hong Kong films.
2. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un chien andalou is the work of two incredible surrealist artists, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, and therefore can cover a lot of educational ground. Not only can it touch on the evolution of film and on surrealist art, but it can also open up a discussion about the many other important figures in Buñuel and Dalí’s social circle, such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Federico García Lorca. It perfectly illustrates the blending of cinema and art. It was also Buñuel’s first film; he would go on to make equally bizarre and dreamy films like Belle de jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Perhaps the most famous image from the film intercuts an image of clouds sliding in front of the moon with a man slicing open a woman’s eye (in reality a deceased cow’s eye). The film has no real plot to speak of, instead merely a collection of dreamlike images that may or may not have any meaning. This was the point of the film; inspired by dreams of the two artists, the images within it are not intended to be significant or even cohesive. Un chien andalou was very much a response to more linear cinema popular at the time, with Buñuel and Dalí setting out primarily to shock and disgust audiences. However, against their hopes, it proved wildly popular and endures even today.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane is the kind of movie that is talked about in such grand terms that watching it as a modern viewer can potentially feel like a bit of a letdown. Directed by and starring Orson Welles, the film is a thinly veiled fictional portrayal of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (renamed Charles Foster Kane). The story is told through interviews and flashbacks as a journalist tries to solve the mystery of Kane’s dying word: “Rosebud.”
What makes the film so iconic (which it was not upon release; it was a critical success but a box office flop) is its combination of classic film techniques. Welles borrowed heavily from the styles of German Expressionist films and, considering it was his first time acting and directing for the screen, he immersed himself in other films to glean their techniques. The nonlinear style of the narrative, one that shifts backwards and forwards in time, was also unique, though now it is very common. Citizen Kane could be credited with utilizing and popularizing a style of filmmaking that would go on to become the norm, making it a standout at the time but less impressive to audiences who have grown up used to seeing its influence on cinema.
Any film school movies you wish you’d never seen? Any that you loved? Let us know in the comments!