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Though my blog entries of late have focused mainly on various screenwriting issues, this new one may not feel of immediate significance to those who ply the cinematic trade.
And I can’t say such naysayers are wrong.
But it’s an essay I’ve wanted to write for some time now. It may not tell you how to write a screenplay, but it may give you some insight into the history of film and where we came from and perhaps where we are going.
The topic, as the title suggests, is a list of the most important films ever made.
First, a few caveats. I am not saying these films are the greatest films ever made. In fact, the most important film in cinematic historicity is almost unwatchable today (at least, I’ve never been able to get through it) and another is seriously hampered by its incredible racism.
But I am claiming them as the ones that have had the greatest impact on the art form, movies that changed forever the way films were made.
If you want to know which films I think are the greatest, you can go to http://ow.ly/nJ9230nOnHw and see my list. If you want to know which films are generally considered to be the greatest films of all time, go to the Sight & Sound list (http://ow.ly/Q9Y330nOnIB) and/or the Cahiers du Cinema list (http://ow.ly/7JYA30nOnKC).
Also, this is a list of the films I maintain have had the greatest influence when it comes to the Western World. Other cultures may have additional films for their film history or some of these films may have had no impact on that culture at all.
Of course, there are many other movies that have had some sort of historic significance, but I suggest these are the ones that really rise above the others.
Through no planning or fault of my own, these films tend to fall into decades. This is not exact. Some will be off by a year or two, but perhaps fifteen or twenty years must pass before we reach a time for change.
So without more ado, here is the list.
- The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by DW Griffith and written by Griffith and Frank E. Woods, based on the novel and play The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, Jr.
I think it is safe to say that no one who went to films at the time had ever seen anything quite like this epic silent film (for a dramatic reenactment of an opening night’s audience response to it, see Peter Bogdanovich’s recreation in his film Nickelodeon). The movie tells the story of two families, old friends, one Southern, one Northern, torn apart by the American Civil War.
The film set the standard for the time, and for some time afterward, for its often breathtaking and innovative use of editing (influenced by the writing of Charles Dickens), fade outs, close ups, blockbuster type battles and other visual tools. Perhaps others might have used some of these techniques earlier, but never had they been used in such a spectacular way, all at once, and in such a brilliantly artistic creation. Griffith also used color tinting, live sound (such as people shooting guns during battle scenes) and an orchestral score written especially for the film (performed live, of course).
But it was also the story of Reconstruction, with black characters, played by whites in blackface, who are lazy, stupid and only want to rape white women, controlled by corrupt carpetbaggers from the North. In the film, the only force that can save the white way of life (and the purity of everyone’s daughters, sisters and wives) is the rise of a bunch of guys dressed in white sheets (inspired by white children pretending to be ghosts to scare black children), the Ku Klux Klan.
The film was a huge success, but also a bit controversial, to say the least. It was the first movie to play the White House where Woodrow Wilson, a staunch segregationist, is reported to have said, “It’s like history writ by lightning”. It caused protests, especially by the NAACP, riots and calls for boycotts (rarely successful). It also supposedly is responsible for the resurgence of the KKK. And to further show its influence, it should be noted that the Klan didn’t burn crosses until the movie dramatized such an event, something Griffith came up with because he needed a strong visual.
My father, who grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma, once told me that the film could still be seen at churches and community organizations throughout the 30’s. They probably reacted to it much the same way the Klan members do in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman.
In spite of all the racism and politics of the film, no one can deny its importance in film history.
- The Jazz Singer (1927), directed by Alan Croland, written by Alfred A. Cohn, based on the play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, adapted from his short story, The Day of Atonement. The story and play were based on the life of Al Jolson, but Georgie Jessel created the part on Broadway; however, a contract dispute caused Warners to dismiss Jessel and use Jolson instead for the film adaptation.
In this movie about the son of a cantor caught between his Jewish background and his desire to be a popular singer, the lead, played by Jolson, says, at exactly the 17.25 mark of the movie, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.”
And he was right. Because the audience didn’t read the above on a title card, they heard him say it. And with that an understatement was born. Though not a full talky, all the musical numbers were synchronized, and there was another scene where the central character speaks to his mother that is also done without title cards.
Movies were never the same again.
I maintain that The Jazz Singer is the most important movie ever made because it changed film forever and changed it everywhere in a way no other movie has before or has since and in a relatively short period of time. Once the audience heard actual words and songs emanating from the screen, there was no retreat. Silence became persona non grata; the audience, like the screen, had spoken; and studios rushed to put in recording equipment and owners rushed to set up their cinemas for sound.
Even Charlie Chaplin, who still made silent films, began using background sound effects and music, as well as a line of dialog in Modern Times, and after that only made talkies, beginning with The Great Dictator. And visual clowns like Jacques Tati, though downplaying dialog, used synchronized sound to great effect.
In England, Alfred Hitchcock had almost finished shooting his film Blackmail. He now had to reshoot certain scenes to accommodate the new technology (both sound and silent versions are available), directing the first sound film in Britain. This caused a problem because his leading lady, Anna Ondra, was Czech, with the accent to prove it. Joan Barry was then called in to say Ondra’s lines off camera while the star moved her lips-and thus dubbing was born.
Critics and film theoreticians were not as welcoming when it came to the new technology. They felt that movies had lost something and that they were now less realistic-ironic because we actually hear in real life.
I find The Jazz Singer almost unwatchable. It’s creaky and dated and to be honest, I’ve never been able to get through it. And the blackface hasn’t aged well, one might also say.
Still, no other movie has had the impact that The Jazz Singer had on the future of filmmaking.
- Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles, with an original screenplay written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.
When this story about the rise and fall of a millionaire who thought it might be fun to run a newspaper (it was based on such luminaries as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer), people reacted to it in much the same way they reacted to The Birth of a Nation: they had never seen anything like it.
Welles, who knew a lot about drama, but very little about making a movie, found there was an advantage in ignorance: if he didn’t know what could and couldn’t be done, what the rules were, then, well, couldn’t he do just about anything?
And since he was given absolute free reign, anything he did. The camera work, sharp black and white photography by Gregg Toland that showed ceilings for the first time (The Maltese Falcon did the same thing that year), was innovative and set the standard for cinematography after this.
Welles and Mankiewicz filled the story with exciting visuals (a nurse reflected in a broken snowglobe, a disintegrating marriage dramatized in a series of changing table settings, a cavernous estate with its own zoo).
And the story (also like The Maltese Falcon) was far more psychological in its approach to character than ever before. Rarely had people been portrayed in such a deep and penetrating manner, almost as if looked at through a microscope.
And it gave us one of the most famous lines (and macguffins) in film history, “Rosebud.”
The movie, though a critical success and praised by Welles’s contemporaries in the film world, was not a box office success. Some blamed the influence of Hearst who is reported to have thought the movie was based on his life and worked against it (Welles always told a story, which may not be true, that when he was on an elevator with Hearst, he asked the great newspaperman if he had seen the film; Hearst said he had not, and when he left the elevator, Welles said, “Kane would have”). However, others claim it was more that it was too much an art film-it did well in the large cities, but outside of those locations, people didn’t even go much when it hit the second and third run theaters.
Today, also like The Birth of a Nation, the innovative camera work and directing style no longer has the shock of the new when people see it because not long after, everyone was using the new approach in making their films and the innovations became same old same old.
But today, filmmakers often divide the history of movies into two time periods: Before …Kane and after …Kane.
4. The 400 Blows (1959), directed by Francois Truffaut, with an original screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy.
Breathless (1960), written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
L’aventtura (1960), directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with an original screenplay by Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra.
Before the end of the 1950’s and beginning of the 1960’s, the most important films had all been American. But that was all about to change. It may be unclear why it took this long for other countries to revolutionize an art form. Certainly having a world war in one’s midst probably got in the way a bit. And the US always had more money and technology to make films (a reason that still today, as before, many foreign filmmakers come to our shores to make movies, if at all possible-I often say, make a unique, original and innovative film and for your sins Hollywood will come calling and ask you to make a movie for them).
In fact, it may have been the influence of World War II and the lack of technology that enabled three new directors to turn the tables on American filmmaking. As people now existing in a brave new world with an audience that was growing a bit tired of the Ford factory way of California moviemaking, these artists had something to offer that was new and unique and exciting.
Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a semi-autobiographical story of a youth from a dysfunctional family who gets into more and more trouble until he ends up in a juvenile home, is often credited with the beginning of the French New Wave. Though some people claim the first such film is actually Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte in 1955, The 400 Blows, and then Godard’s Breathless, made it an international phenomena.
The French New Wave was a rebellion against conventional filmmaking of the time (especially period and epic films). It focused on more political and social themes. And it looked different. The style was a new film language, made of unconventional approaches to visuals, editing and storytelling.
Breathless, in turn, a story about a gangster on the lam and his girlfriend who betrays him (it’s very influenced by American film noir), not only helped introduce the New Wave, he may be the first post-modernist in the way he completely deconstructed the visuals of film with odd jump cuts, both visually and in use of sound, and a jaundiced and often tongue in cheek view of society and film language.
His style is so unique, that even today a viewer new to this master will still be taken aback by his style, a style no one has really been able to duplicate since (Leo Carax has tried and while many feel he is a resounding success, I can barely get through his films). It’s also a model of guerilla filmmaking with a script made up as it went along and scenes filmed on the street without permits with a hidden camera.
The main difference in audience reaction today, perhaps, is that when Godard first made films, they were taken quite serious by the audience (I saw a few in college in the 1970’s). But what often stands out more today is the humor and sarcastic approach to film language and how he is even making fun of the whole art form.
That leaves L’Avventura, a story wherein a group of spiritually vacant upper middle class friends go to an island where one of their group disappears overnight, a mystery never solved. In the end, the group gives up the search and goes on with their life.
With this film, Antonioni introduced existentialism to the silver screen, a philosophy especially influenced by the war, one that explores what it means to exist in an absurd world that ultimately makes no sense, often leaving us with a sense of ennui and meaninglessness to our being alive.
The film was premiered with a mixed reception at Cannes. It won the Grand Jury Prize, but was laughed at and booed by many. He is often criticized for his pacing, but for me he is one of the few filmmakers who can make ennui interesting.
The shock of these films was felt in the US among a rising generation of new filmmakers like Martin Scorcese, Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Robert Benton, David Newman, Woody Allen, William Friedkin, Paul Shrader, and almost any contemporary filmmaker like the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. In fact, it would be difficult to find any filmmaker or artist who hasn’t been influenced by these filmmakers since their debut.
5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), directed by Arthur Penn, written by David Newman and Robert Benton.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, partially inspired by Clarke’s short story The Sentinel. As the screenplay was being written, Clarke also wrote the story in novel form which departs from the film in some areas.
Easy Rider, (1969), directed by Peter Fonda, written by Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern.
Another triumvirate of movies, all made through the support of American studios.
First, Bonnie and Clyde, the based on a true story tale of a young couple who were young and in love and killed people, changed cinema in many ways. It was the first American film to fully embrace the French New Wave of filmmaking with its modern visuals and film techniques (both Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were offered the screenplay, but both declined), which would become the standard for filmmakers who followed.
It flew in the face of film censorship and American mores of the time by giving gangster films a more comic feel when it came to sex and violence, taking characters that were previously treated as bad guys and making them sympathetic and likeable (a more fun and romantic version of earlier portrayals like Little Caesar, Scarface and Public Enemy).
It was imbued with the spirit of the new breed of youth coming into their own with the Viet Nam War in the background; it “spoke” to the younger generation while old fogies didn’t quite know what to make of it.
And, perhaps most importantly, it did it by making a fortune at the box office and getting ten Academy Award nominations, winning two. This, perhaps more than anything else, signaled that the new wave was here to stay.
But it described three periods in the history of mankind in which a…well, large black monolith appeared to humanity and caused a huge leap in progress and/or evolution of mankind: the first when primitive man developed the ability to reason and as a result, went to war; the second, an appearance on a moon excavation to show man they are not alone; and the third at the end of a spaceship’s travels where an astronaut is reincarnated as a child of the universe.
Again, to be repetitious, no one had seen anything like it before. It was a serious and philosophically penetrating look at humanity in a genre that had rarely gotten any respect before in film, science fiction, and done on an expensive budget with technical aspects most filmmakers could only dream of.
Perhaps that summarizes the two ways that 2001… influenced films forever. First it was existential, trying to explore what it meant to be human in what seemed to be at first a cold, unfeeling universe, and inquiring whether there was more to it than there appeared to be at first sight, as well as the idea that if one can’t tell the difference between a human and a computer, is there actuallya a difference?
Second, it began the introduction of post-modernism into film by taking a genre that was usually considered mainly worthy of B-filmaking and making not just an A-picture out of it, but making a great A-film out of it, perhaps the greatest ever made. Soon after this, all filmmakers would be not just using B-film genres, genres that no self-respecting filmmaker would touch unless they had to before then, they would be going out of their way to put a sci-fi, horror or film noir on their resume.
And perhaps it is simply one of the most important films for no other reason than because it is one of the greatest, if not greatest (as far as I’m concerned), films ever made.
Easy Rider, the ultimate counterculture film, belongs on this list for perhaps one reason and one reason only: it was a low budget film (the filming cost $400,000, music licensing rights eventually cost more), made by avant garde filmmakers outside of not just the studio system, but the overall culture as well, and made…$60 million at the box office.
It was an attack on the older generation, its racism, intolerance and war mongering, as well as to their traditional method of filmmaking, and a paean to the new generation of hippies, anti-war protesting and free love. But all the studios heard was the sound of a cash register.
After Easy Rider, the studios, realizing that perhaps they didn’t understand the younger generation of movie goers, or movie makers, tended to throw their money at any filmmaker who claimed they knew how to make films for this youth demographic. And with that, studios started allowing the filmmakers to lead rather than be lead.
Which leads to the next film.
6. Jaws (1995), directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based upon the book of the same name by Peter Benchley.
Jaws, a story about a rogue shark feasting on tourists in Martha’s Vineyard during July 4th weekend, could, in many ways, be considered the antithesis of Easy Rider. After the loosening of the purse strings and allowing filmmakers to dictate to the studio what movie they will make, and after the studios discovered that that was actually no guarantee of a good movie or profits (it has been described as letting the inmates run the asylum), Hollywood was having buyer’s remorse.
Then Jaws opened, a huge, Hollywood studio blockbuster that cost a lot to make (it went over budget), but made a fortune, and what a fortune. And it made this fortune for two reasons.
One is that the audience loved it, absolutely loved it. And second, Jaws changed distribution methods. Rather than open a film on a relatively few screens and then expand based on response, Jaws was wallpapered across America, opening on an unprecedented number of screens at the same time (actually not done because they had faith in the film, but because they were uncertain what the reaction would be and needed to recoup as much money as possible in as little time as possible-and Jaws made a profit in two weeks).
At first, studios continued indulging other filmmakers with less, perhaps, ambitious projects. But while the studio’s more independent-like productions only garnered modest profits, studio blockbuster movies like Jaws kept making incredible returns on investments, ridiculous amounts of revenue, almost Midas like earnings.
At the same time, they were so expensive to make, something had to go. These studios became dependent on these movies to keep the studios open. Which meant they had to spend more and more money on making these films to make the profits they needed to keep the studios going. And thus a ruthless circle was born
So slowly, the more challenging, arty films they had been making were slowly cut loose, and the new group of filmmakers that arose from the revolutionary 1960’s now, more and more, had to go begging, with the irony that today, even Spielberg has trouble finding financing for his movies.
So studio films more and more became blockbusters.
And the doors that creaked open with Easy Rider were now clanging shut.
7. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), written and directed by Steven Soderberg.
Pulp Fiction (1994), directed by Quentin Tarantino, written by Tarantino based upon a story by Tarantino and Roger Avery.
Festen (1998), directed by Thomas Vinterberg, written by Viterberg and Mogen’s Rukov.
Just what do these three films have in common? Well, let us see.
Sex , Lives and Videotape, an independent film about the sexual lives and relationships of a group of yuppies, surprised (or stunned) the world by first winning the Palmes d’Or at Cannes, and then making a fortune worldwide.
Its importance is that it showed that anyone could make a movie. And after the success of Sex, Lives and Videotape, everybody did. The little Dutch boy took his finger out of the dyke and the floodgates were opened, and nothing could be done to staunch the flow.
Certainly Soderberg was not the first to make an independent film. The Coen brothers had made Blood Simple in 1984 and Spike Lee made Do the Right Thing the same year as Sex… (and that wasn’t Lee’s first film).
But I suggest Sex… gets and perhaps deserves the credit for a reason that may outrage many people. It’s simply not a particularly good film. It feels especially independent in that technically it looks cheap and inexpensive. The themes are ones that would appeal to young people and couples of the time, but are not particularly challenging or insightful, they just seem like they are. It’s non-confrontational and asks little of the viewer.
And it somehow won Cannes (beating out Do the Right Thing) and made a fortune.
So perhaps it gets a posting as one of the most important films because, well, because Lee’s angry young man film and the Coen’s post-post modern take on the traditional genre of film noir, were too good from a technical viewpoint, from a stylistic viewpoint and from a thematic viewpoint.
I can’t see people looking at Do the Right Thing or Blood Simple and say, “Oh, I can do that.” But I can easily see them saying, after viewing Soderberg’s novice film, not only “Oh, I could do that,” but “I could do that, only a lot better.” When all is said and done, Do the Right Thing and Blood Simple might have been a bit too scary, threatening and in your face for many filmmakers to be inspired by them. But Sex… is such a cuddly toy of a movie, who could possibly be dissuaded?
Sex, Lives and Videotape told the film world that anyone can make a movie. Pulp Fiction, the post-post modern tale of three intertwined stories of criminals, said that not only can anyone make a movie, it’s also possible to make art.
Pulp Fiction was not Tarantino’s first film. That was Reservoir Dogs, a film that heralded a new and exciting talent upon its release (the writer/director sold his screenplay for True Romance to help finance it).
But Pulp Fiction was a seismic wave that changed independent filmmaking forever. It inspired filmmakers not just to make their own films, but to strive for uniqueness, for originality, to make films that challenged the audience and the status quo. To make the sort of independent film that Sex, Lies and Videotape was not.
It did what Do the Right Thing and Blood Simple should have done, but for some unidentifiable and hard to explain reasons didn’t. Timing is everything and time seemed to work its way such that Tarantino and Pulp Fiction would be the movie that changed filmmaking.
Which leaves Festen, a Danish film that told the story of a large family gathering for an annual celebration (hence the title) which results in some ugly family secrets being revealed. This movie is quite possibly the most important film ever made that most of my filmmaking friends have never heard of, much less seen.
Yet its importance to the film world almost equals that of the groundbreaking The Jazz Singer.
And that is for one reason, and one reason only: it was shot digitally, all of it.
Danny Boyle saw it and realized that shooting digitally would make it far easier and far more inexpensive to shoot his film 28 Days Later…, a film which almost all my filmmaking friends have heard of.
And with the success of that fresh take on living dead films, the digital revolution was on. And in almost the same amount of time as the title of Boyle’s film, more and more movies were being shot digitally because it required less time, money and technology.
So to finish the trilogy: Sex, Lives and Videotape showed that anyone can make a movie; Pulp Fiction showed that anyone can not just make a movie, but make art; and Festen tells us that not only can anyone make a movie, and not only that anyone can make art, it tells us that now anyone can AFFORD to make a movie.
Of course, don’t forget the new twist on an old saying: the great thing about film today is that anyone can make a movie; the worst thing about film today is that…anyone can make a movie.
8. We have now reached the new millennia, so what movie made recently, will end up being the one that changed filmmaking in important ways.
This was not an easy question for me to answer. And because the movie is so recent, and we haven’t had the benefit of critical distance, I may surely be incorrect.
My first immediate thought was Avatar because of James Cameron’s innovative use or 3D. But though successful, and in its wake many films were also produced with the same stylistic choice, 3D doesn’t seem to be the game changer it might have been. After a few years, it feels more like the introduction of Cinerama, good for some films, but generally more of a gimmick than anything else.
My ultimate choice is based upon my belief that we have now entered a new zeitgeist, that we are leaving post-post modernism and entering the new age of genre meets diversity, that of taking traditional genres and reimagining them with diverse casts, technicians and themes.
Get Out took the traditional genre of horror and imbued it with a diverse cast (the lead character is black) and with a diverse theme about modern day racial relationships (a sort of African American take on The Stepford Wives which is a somewhat feminist take on Pygmalion and even Frankenstein).
Certainly Get Out was not the first to do this, but in many ways it has risen to the top for a few reasons. First, it was a huge success, made on a relatively low budget, but taking in $255.5 million worldwide. It was also a critical success. And it had staying power; in opened in February of 2017, but managed to get four Oscar nominations (an almost impossible achievement), winning one for original screenplay.
And more and more, films in all genres are being made with the same approach, breathing new life into a movie industry that was approaching staleness.
Again, I should reiterate these are not the greatest movies ever made (though some may be), but are the most important.