Well I gave it five stars David
August 15, 2012 4:21 AM   Subscribe

I've seen very few movies. Educate me about the classics of world cinema.

When I say I've seen few movies I mean it. I can go entire years without watching anything, on TV or in the cinema. I have a vague idea of what I'm missing, for example it would probably be good to watch a film directed by Stanley Kubrick and as an Australian I am apparently obligated to watch The Castle. I'm not certain I've seen all of the original Star Wars trilogy. After the obvious I'm a bit lost though.

I'm about to be moving to a much quieter town for a year and a half. Opportunities for movie viewing will increase. The internet and a video library will be to hand. Where should I start?

I like pretty well anything, although action films rarely do anything for me and I'd rather not watch horror. Non English is fine. Arthouse is fine. Romantic comedy is fine (if it's a bit above average). Dark depressing drama is fine. Dystopian SF is fine. Film from yesterday is fine. Silent film from 100 years ago is fine. You get the picture.

So give me the high points of the history of film.
posted by deadwax to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
You could certainly do worse than to start with the latest Sight & Sound film poll.
posted by hot soup girl at 4:28 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should see Casablanca and Citizen Kane. Watch It's A Wonderful Life this Christmas. Other than that, there are the AFI's top 10 & 100 lists, restricted to American films:
10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres
100 Years...100 Movies
Instead of the critical route, you could go the popular route, and see the highest-grossing films.
posted by knile at 4:41 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know a lot about film, and I grew up somewhere where it was hard to access films either at the cinema or to rent (obviously this was pre-internet and LoveFilm) and I would have to travel to my nearest city to see anything foreign or non-mainstream. I used to read a lot of books of film criticism - a Roger Ebert compilation led me to set the video for Breaking Away (which was very possibly the last time it was shown on UK TV and it isn't easy to get on DVD here), Gregory's Girl, and anything else that sounded good, and when I had access to stores that carried foreign or arthouse films I felt I could make a more informed choice.

Time Out does a guide called, I think, 1000 Films To See Before You Die. I keep meaning to get a copy and work my way through it, as I don't know much about action or horror films and it would be a good starting point. If you can't get this where you are, there's bound to be some kind of book based on list-making or compiling the canon of cinema.

And there's always the charts on IMDB - most films on there are regarded as classics or modern classics, and while there are at least two on there I really loathed, at least I know why I loathed them and why others did not, rather than thinking they were just awful films.
posted by mippy at 4:43 AM on August 15, 2012

"Paths Of Glory" is an excellent way to begin with Kubrick
posted by devious truculent and unreliable at 4:47 AM on August 15, 2012

I recommend watching Mark Cousin's excellent "The Story of Film" which traces film making right from the beginning to the very latest blockbusters. Cousins looks at both blockbusters and world cinema - and you will definitely end up with a list of films that you a) have never heard of and b) want to see right now. It's also a far better overview of what films can do and what classics might interest you than having a cursory glance at IMDB's list which slants very contemporary Hollywood.
posted by kariebookish at 5:02 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Doing some modules on film theory at university back in the day I did it by auteur, grabbing as many films by each as I could and trying to see the individuality and messages they brought in their cinema as well as the differences between different cultural styles of filmmaking. Here's a list and some examples. (I really envy you the chance to see this stuff for the first time!)

Hitchcock - Rear Window, Vertigo
Tarkovsky - Solaris
Wong Kar-wei - In The Mood For Love
Herzog - Fitzcarraldo
Bunuel - Un Chien Andalou
Cocteau - La Belle et la Bête
Almodovar - All About My Mother
Kurosawa - The Seven Samurai
Allen - Annie Hall
Bergman - Wild Strawberries
Keaton - The General
Powell and Pressburger - A Matter of Life and Death
posted by brilliantmistake at 5:12 AM on August 15, 2012 [9 favorites]

You said you want to watch "the classics of world cinema", but many (most) people who watch movies regularly probably haven't seen those. What's your goal here? Are you interested in seeing, "what that whole 'movie' thing is all about?" or are you trying to acquire some sort of cultural literacy regarding the mass culture that everyone else has experienced/experiences?
posted by deanc at 5:25 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I worked my way through the IMDB Top 100 list a few years ago. It looks like it's expanded to 250 movies now.
posted by COD at 5:34 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of the Australian classics that have been influential in world cinema, and that I've also enjoyed: Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Walkabout.

A more recent Australian movie that I thought was amazing was The Tracker.

And on the lighter side, The Castle, Muriel's Wedding, and the magnificent Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Not Quite Hollywood is a fun documentary about the Australian movie industry during the "Ozploitation" years of the 1970s and 1980s.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:59 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

That Sight and Sound list mentioned above is very useful, but those sorts of lists usually tend to emphasize older works.

Also, I can't see that it recommends any documentaries. Two obvious omissions in this case are Triumph of the Will (1934 Nazi propaganda film) and Night and Fog (1955 film about the Holocaust).

For recent films, you might check out:

-- Romanian New Wave
-- recent Winners of the Palme d'Or, which generally has a more international and high-brow focus than, say, the Oscars. (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is both a good film, Romanian, and a winner of the Palme d'Or.)
-- Pedro Almodóvar, as mentioned above. Probably Europe's greatest active film-maker. His third-most-recent film, Volver, is probably my favourite, but his last two films in particular have been very much influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's work, so you might enjoy watching them after you've seen Vertigo, North by Northwest, etc

Also, regarding Alfred Hitchcock, Blackmail is a great early work. The sound version is particularly interesting in that he originally planned to shoot it as a silent film, but then changed to sound part-way through. It's very interesting to see him immediately experimenting with the potential that sound has to build suspense, while also continuing some of the conventions of the silent era.
posted by mattn at 6:03 AM on August 15, 2012

Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is a classic, and deanc's list is a good start. (Although I prefer Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, well anything really.)

I took a lot of film classes in college.

Do you want a recommendation for a survey of film study, or do you want movies you'll enjoy? (Not that those things are mutually exclusive, but it really does depend on what you want.)

Throw some silent movies in there, Birth of a Nation, important for it's nacent use of the moving camera, and for it's racism!

My film teacher showed, Casablanca and La Grande Illusion together because pivotal moments occured during a playing of La Marseillaise.

I recommend watching that 4 hour marathon of enchantment, That's Entertainment.

Then watch any of the movies mentioned that pique your interest.

Then you can do movies by the decades.

One can go on and on and on.

Some that come to mind at random (and no links, I've got to get to work):

Taxi Driver
Gone with the Wind
Full Metal Jacket
Dr. Strangelove, or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb.
Shag (no really, I loved it!)
The Bandwagon
Sunset Boulevard
Singin' in the Rain (coming to the big screen!)
The Godfather
The Right Stuff
The French Connection
Star Trek (the latest one is the best, and I'm a die hard Trek fan.)
Planet of the Apes (the seventies one)
Blade Runner
Saturday Night Fever
Anything by Quentin Tarantino. Anything.
Mrs. Miniver
Jane Eyre
Suddenly, Last Summer
Robin Hood (the one from the forties)
Blazing Saddles
Young Frankenstein
The Best Years of Our Lives
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance movies
The Thin Man series
Buck Rogers serials
If you can get it, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, for awful movies with hilarious commentary
Our Man Godfrey
It Happened One Night
Desk Set
Pat and Mike
The Lion in Winter
My Favorite Year
Valley Girl
Pride and Prejudice
Mansfield Park
A Taxing Woman
Cinema Paradiso
A Man and A Woman

As soon as I post, I'll think of others that I love. Start with older movies so you can see their influence on the later works. I kind of envy you, getting to see all of these wonderful movies for the first time!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:27 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Film is fascinating, but there are really two ways to think about it: either as an art form, wherein you read up on film critique and the things that directors do (sometimes even unconsciously) to make great films great, or as popular culture, whereby you're looking at film as more passive entertainment, and don't dig into the framing of particular shots or the formal arrangement of the thing you're watching, and instead focus on plot and acting.

There's no rule that precludes doing both, but the former requires active participation and at least some training, even if only self-taught. By way of analogy: anyone can wander through an art museum, but the casual viewer will perceive things differently from the art historian, who can look at a piece and see both the context and playful rearrangement of certain elements within that context.

If film as art is what's interesting to you, pick up a college-level introduction to film textbook. Back when I was studying film, the canonical text was Film Art. It will have suggestions for what to watch, what to watch out for when viewing those films, and some thoughts on why certain films are recognized as classics. If film as entertainment is what matters to you, you could do worse than perusing old Siskel and Ebert reviews and watching the stuff that appeals.
posted by ellF at 6:28 AM on August 15, 2012

Lean - Lawrence of Arabia
Antonioni - L'Avventura
Godard - A Bout de Souffle (Breathless)
posted by Egg Shen at 7:16 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

No, no, no. Don't start with the Sight and Sound film poll or Bunuel or Citizen Kane. Most of these films are historic examples of the expansion of the language of film. Some will still be great and accessible under any circumstance and for most anyone, but a lot of them will leave you feeling that film is an art form only for the initiated.

Decide first what sorts of stories you like. From your few experiences with comedy, did you like those? Then start with the classic canon: Some Like It Hot, His Girl Friday, Dr. Strangelove (and you'll have your first Kubrick), Young Frankenstein, A Fish Called Wanda. (I purposefully chose one from each of five decades.)

Do you like suspense? Casablanca, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark, Chinatown, Aliens, Silence of the Lambs.

If you want to continue along these lines there are a couple of dozen more canonical films in each category that are equally accessible.

Or, if you are ready for more subtle pleasures, try the Sight and Sound poll.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:24 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

A film you're not going to see on a lot of lists that I really recommend you watch is Ed Wood. While not in-and-of-itself a brilliant movie, it is quite good and brings a lot of relevance to the table:

- It was directed by Tim Burton, who was one of the most important directors of his heyday in the 90's.

- It stars Johnny Depp, who is a classic "brilliant character actor trapped in a leading man's body" performer, and one of the best actors working today.

- It features a brilliant performance by Martin Landau, who is a Hollywood institution, as Bela Lugosi, another Hollywood institution.

- Most importantly, it's a great look at the world of B-movies and what it takes to get a film made outside the "system".

For a lot of the same reasons, I'd also recommend Boogie Nights, which is about the porn industry. It's also wildly entertaining and a great ensemble movie, a love letter from one auteur (Paul Thomas Anderson) to another (Robert Altman).

Also, if you've never seen Airplane! or The Naked Gun, you should, because they're full of jokes and references that are still in circulation. And they're totally hilarious.
posted by mkultra at 7:50 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I saw Ed Wood when I was young and, not being clued in on cinema or B-movies, I didn't really get it. I should really revisit it as an adult.
posted by mippy at 8:07 AM on August 15, 2012

I think film is now so rich that you can't talk about one canon set of classics, any more than you can really talk about canon literature - especially as you get into world cinema. I tend to think of things in genres/times/places - like the best silver screen American, best European, best Asian. One of the most important directors in the world, I think, is Zhang Yimou, known for his stunningly beautiful action films and his poignant slice-of-life dramas. But he doesn't make a lot of the "best 100" lists - I first encountered his non-action films in a Chinese language class. To Live is probably his most famous (other than Hero), but I liked The Story of Qiu Ju better, as it was lighter.

And this isn't even beginning to touch the world of animation, which I tend to think of as its own thing.

But yes, beginning with some kind of top 100 list isn't a bad idea, especially if it's more world-oriented than IMDB. But also just exploring - when I was really into film (and I want to get back into it), I was poking around the foreign films on our local public television channel, and also watching the obscure 80s movies shown late at night on another channel as filler. In the US, I could see Turner Classic Movies, and that was great.

And you can ask people to nominate great films for you, or certain directors to check out. Obviously, I would recommend Zhang Yimou, but also (from animation) Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao both of Studio Ghibli. From western film, you could do much worse than watching your way through Spielburg's corpus (popular but also acclaimed), or Kubrick, of course (though some of those are too violent for me, I recognize how great they are).
posted by jb at 8:46 AM on August 15, 2012

Also, Turner Classic Movies is so great for dipping into the silver screen -- sadly, I don't know if they have that outside of the US.

I didn't mention Hitchcock, because he's kind of obviously important - but I would say that I recently saw The 39 Steps, and while it's not as famous in North America as Vertigo, etc, it's hilarious and a great Hitchcock film for non-horror/non-thriller people (like me).
posted by jb at 8:52 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Throw some silent movies in there, Birth of a Nation, important for it's nacent use of the moving camera, and for it's racism!

Or just skip the racism, and go for some awesome Chaplin (The Kid or Modern Times), since life is short.
posted by jb at 8:54 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, those AFI lists are really...flawed. The top 10 animation films don't have a single non-American film, despite the fact that animation is a much stronger genre outside of the US. Bambi is better than Spirited Away or Grave of the Fireflies? Maybe in a mirror-universe.
posted by jb at 9:03 AM on August 15, 2012

A friend of mine arranged a showing of Ed Wood at his house, but he made sure to show Plan Nine From Outer Space first. I don't think the former can be understood without the seeing the latter.

I'd grab a copy of Ebert's "Great Movies" (or "Great Movies II") and start reading. If a movie sounds pretty nifty, watch it. If it really doesn't sound like your thing, skip it. Just because a movie has historical value doesn't mean you actually have to like it (and you don't have to like it all the time, either. There are plenty of movies that I have to be in the right mood to watch and others that I can watch any time).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:13 AM on August 15, 2012

The Criterion Collection is a good place to start for respected arthouse and world cinema. Check out their top 10 lists from all kinds of cool and knowledgeable folks. Read their essays on films.

Off the top of my head, some personal notables:

Herzog - Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Bergman - Fanny and Alexander
Tarkovsky - Andrei Rublev
Godard - Breathless
Kar-wai - Chungking Express
Malick - Days of Heaven
Marker - La Jetee / Sans Soleil
Farhadi - A Separation
Ozu - Late Spring
posted by naju at 10:30 AM on August 15, 2012

Yeah, for silent films I would start with the master comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd.

Chaplin has a famous persona, which you'll see in any of his big hits.

Keaton too, the "stoneface", who faces adversity with athleticism and ingenuity, but with never a change in his expression. His most famous movie is The General.

Lloyd is the lovable boy next door, always trying to get the girl.

These are best if you can see them in a theater with an audience (and live accompaniment) but I really think the humor holds up. Silent drama and epic has much more of a learning curve, I think.
There's a wonderful book called "Silent Clowns" by Walter Kerr - see if you can find a copy in your library, it's a great read, tons of photos and explanations about the early days of movie comedy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:12 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please do yourself a favor and see the film Baraka (Short clip: "What is Baraka?").
It is a non-verbal film, created over 30 months and filmed in 25 different countries. If I were stuck on a desert island forever, and only had one thing to watch, I would pick this movie. I first saw it when I was a teenager, about 15 years ago, and the experience was profound for me. I recommend this movie to all of my friends (and those that have seen it said that they loved it just as much).

Oh, and its successor, Samsara, is coming to theaters very soon!
posted by erasorhed at 11:30 AM on August 15, 2012

What a great list of movies here! Here are a few off the top of my head that I have not seen above, mostly what I think are newer movies that are already classics since most posters have gone with older films:

Orson Wells "F For Fake" is an awesome underrated movie that is unlike any other movie.

Anything by Paul Thomas Anderson, my favorite is "Punch Drunk Love". "There Will Be Blood" is required watching

Coen Brothers Movies are really fun. I like "Miller's Crossing" but they have made many fantastic films.

All of Wes Anderson's films have amazing artwork, I love every one. "Moonrise Kingdom" is my favorite and is still in some theaters (I already saw it twice!)

Terry Gilliam, "Brazil" and "Time Bandits" are both beautiful sci fi type films and are very different

Spike Jonze never dissapoints, "Adaptation" might be my favorite

Michel Gondry - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
posted by JayNolan at 11:30 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few personal faves which haven't been mentioned;

Le Samourai
Cleo From 5 To 7
La Strada
posted by "But who are the Chefs?" at 12:15 PM on August 15, 2012

I came back to say that Bollywood has some amazing movies. I like anything with Aishwarya Rai, Bride and Prejudice is a good starter because it's half English and the rest is subtitled and the songs are fun.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:04 PM on August 15, 2012

I'd skip the arty stuff (for example that Sight & Sound poll linked upthread, Gondry, Baraka, Herzog, etc) and go for the simple things first.

The Wizard of Oz

The complete first Star Wars Trilogy


Fast Times At Ridgemont High

The Godfather

Some Like It Hot

Bonnie And Clyde

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Back To The Future

The Birds

Howl's Moving Castle


Simple, good movies that are entertaining and enjoyable to watch. Movies that make you feel something, whether it's fear, excitement, joy, or humor. Root for the good guys. Wonder what's going to happen next, how the main characters are going to get out of the jam this time.

Also, start going to the movies more. Try to be aware of what's in theaters right now, and what you typically like. Since a new release is circa $12 now, I usually save my money for things I know I'll want to see ASAP. I tend to like quiet films with a lot of talking, so I usually pay attention to what gets nominated for the Oscars. Some others like action movies and big spectacles, so they pay attention to the big summer releases and comic book franchises.

Get a Netflix subscription. I'd recommend one that includes both DVDs and streaming, because a lot of the great movies aren't available to stream, and if an alien who'd never seen a film started with "oh, y'know, whatever's streaming on Netflix Instant", said alien would conclude that movies are a complete waste. I watch a lot of movies, and one DVD at a time is plenty for me.

In high school in the late 90's, it was the thing to make your way through the AFI Top 100. That said, unless there's been a major overhaul of that list, it stops circa 1998. Also, yes, the AFI lists have their flaws and are by no means an exhaustive list of every great film ever. But they are movies that are agreed upon to be pretty great, and they tend to be very watchable and entertaining. Which I think it easier to digest if you're not already a film buff.

After you've done some of this stuff, then you can branch out into Tarkovsky and Bollywood and the French New Wave. Not to knock those movies at all, but they're not really entry level. And if you've never even seen Star Wars or The Sound Of Music or Risky Business, you're entry level.
posted by Sara C. at 2:38 PM on August 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, there are some great replies here.

To answer some of the questions regarding whether I am looking for film as popular culture or as an art form, I'd probably say both. I've worked in the cultural/arts sector (galleries and museums mostly, but I did a lot of theatre years ago - as a technician) for 15 years, so I'm literate in at least a sub-set of the art scene and I am very interested in that language, but it would also be nice to know what wider cultural references I'm missing.

And yes, I'm absolutely infamous among my workmates for not having seen much.
posted by deadwax at 4:45 PM on August 15, 2012

When you're stuck for an idea, go to the imdb and browse the charts by genre and decade.
posted by pracowity at 7:38 AM on August 16, 2012

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