20 Films That Defined 20th Century Cinema
A Selection of Favorite 20th Century Movies
BY NEIL FAUERSO
Film in the 20th century has undergone as many trends, shifts, and styles as any other artistic genre. We have seen realists, surrealists, movements of stunning drama or startling style. We have seen hundreds of brilliant directors produce thousands of brilliant films. We have seen countless moments frozen in time on the silver screen, never to be forgotten.
Everyone has his or her favorites—favorite movie, favorite star,favorite director, favorite scene. For some it’s Citizen Kane, for others it’s Caddyshack. Some love John Barrymore, others John Belushi. No one is right and no one is wrong.
When it comes to creating lists of the best movies or scenes, there is a certain pointlessness to it. People will agree with you for one or two movies, but never twenty. Still, there is something distinctly satisfying and intriguing in creating a “best films of all time” list. The hard thing is finding a balance between personal favorites and worldwide importance. Such is the dilemma I am faced with. If I were to list merely my 20 favorite movies of all time, samurai and Coen Brothers films would dominate the list. If I were to make a list solely based on importance, I would end up with a list like the AFI’s 100 list—boring and predictable.
So I will try to find a happy medium. Not many of you will completely agree with this list and some of you may not of even heard of a few ofthe choices, but it is my desire to represent both my personal tastesand what I think defines cinema. The movies on this list are not onlyones that I cherish, they are also the exemplary gems of their genre,movies that manage to fully capitalize on the advantages and capabilitiesof cinema. I know I am walking on thin ice, so please bear with me andenjoy.
1. Best Movie of the Century: The Seven Samurai
Released in 1954, this masterpiece by Japan’s greatest director,
Akira Kurosawa, has never gotten the respect it truly deserves. Telling
the epic story of a village that hires seven samurai to protect them from
raiding bandits, the movie represents what cinema can do: that is, bind
multiple disciplines of art into one breathtaking package. The
Seven Samurai quite simply has it all: brilliant and controlled direction by Kurosawa,
beautiful cinematography, an exceptional script, and some of the best
The Seven Samurai cannot be classified in any specific genre. It is more
than that—it is one of the true classics. Like The Odyssey or The
Iliad, The Seven Samurai is universally appealing because it deals with
the fundamental issues of love, honor, respect, and destiny.
There are many scenes in the movie that are truly unforgettable. The
samurai’s first appearance, the raid on the bandits’ camp,
Toshiro Mifune’s passionate moral speech, and the final battle sequence—heartbreaking,
breathtaking, and poignant all at once. It is a sad truth that many people
have not seen this movie and some may have never heard of it, but like
all great pieces of art, this one will never disappear. It will always
be here waiting for us to discover its greatness again and again.
2. The Godfather
The Western equivalent to The Seven Samurai, The
Godfather has captured
the hearts of audiences and critics alike since its release in 1972. The
story of the Corleone family, The Godfather took the mobster genre and
elevated it to a place of near-mythic romanticism. The brilliance of The
Godfather, though, is not in its intoxicating seductiveness (name another
movie that you can walk in at any scene and be mesmerized by) but in the
way it manages to shock us while drawing us in all the while.
This is what separates The Godfather from any other epic ever made:
it manages to be a realistic telling of human nature and its dark side
and be one of the most entertaining movies ever made. No movie is richer
than The Godfather, from the stunningly deep visuals to Marlon Brando’s
unforgettable slur. It’s the kind of movie that you always remember
the first time you saw it.
Time after time, The Godfather holds up. Maybe it is Al Pacino’s
groundbreaking and still best performance. Maybe it is Mario Puzo and
Francis Ford Coppola’s remarkable script, or maybe it is just that
The Godfather taps into the American Dream better than almost any other
movie. The Godfather shows how our hopes and desires play out in the real
world with an unparalleled immediacy, at once intoxicating and bracing.
It’s truly an unforgettable piece.
3. Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring
Another pair of names that many will not recognize, the French films
Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring tell a truly karmic tale with more grace and poignancy than almost any
other ever made. The story—of a kind hunchback and his beautiful
family who go to the wine country of France to start a rabbit farm, only
to be thwarted by his greedy neighbors—packs an almost unmatched
But what makes these movies so effective is not just the story but the
way it is told. No character is absolutely evil, and thus it does not
allow us to take sides. The acting is some of the subtlest and best
ever. Gerard Depardieu delivers the performance of his career alongside
the brilliant French legend Yves Montand. In Manon the beautiful Emmanuel
Beart sparkles, while Daniel Auteuil plays his despair to perfection.
Directed by Claude Berri, the movie has a heartbreaking beauty, not
unlike Days of Heaven or La Strada. These movies cast you into a dream,
create a whole world into which you can’t help but fall. Like
The Godfather, Blade Runner, and even Raising
Arizona, Jean de Florette and Manon
of The Spring are great movies because they work on the level
of art and entertainment. Watch them at their face value and these movies
are simply great dramas. Look deeper and you’ll see a moral fable
as deep as anything Chekov ever wrote.
4. The Manchurian Candidate
John Frankenheimer’s weird, wild, funny, frightening, and blasphemously
entertaining thriller is so modern that 37 years after its release, it
still is a blast of fresh air. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), just
returned from the Korean War, has nothing but praise for his comrade and
Congressional Medal of Honor winner Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), or
so it seems. As the plot unravels, Marco becomes aware that both he and
Raymond were subject to severe brainwashing during the war and that Raymond’s
nagging mother (Angela Lansbury) is a lot more suspicious than she at
first seems. Brilliantly constructed, the movie is paced like a racehorse
and miraculously manages to combine suspense, comedy, and meaning. Like
all great movies, the film stands up under multiple viewings. Watch it
the first time and you’ll be blown away by the ending. Watch it
a second time and you’ll be weirded out by the recurring Lincoln
Sinatra is great, while Lawrence Harvey and Angela Lansbury nearly steal
the show with their hilarious/chilling relationship. Beautifully photographed
and with one of the most searing scripts ever, the movie beats out even
the best of Oliver Stone’s work.
How powerful is this movie? Shortly after its release in 1962, Kennedy
was assassinated, and The Manchurian Candidate was shelved for 25 years.
Sometimes America isn’t prepared for such revelatory forms of art.
This was one of those times.
5. Schindler’s List
With this heartbreaking, inspiring, and cathartically affective film,
Steven Spielberg showed the world that he was more than just smoke and
mirrors, that he could create a meaningful and powerful movie that stands
beside any of the greats. Schindler’s List, the story of a man who
is transformed through the act of saving 1300 Jews, is a crowning achievement,
not just because it really shows what happened in the Holocaust but because
it manages to find inspiration and heroism amidst the greatest tragedy
of all time.
Over three hours long, it’s the longest film Spielberg has ever
made, and yet somehow it feels surprisingly brief. Outstanding editing
and direction, alongside great music and writing, contribute to this,
making it one of the few epics that’s not even mildly boring.
The acting is superb. Liam Neeson gave the performance of his career,
while Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley are unforgettable in their supporting
Schindler’s List makes the top 20 mainly because there had never
been a movie like it. No movie before had even come close to revealing
the dark heart of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s achievement is that
he manages to show tragedy and triumph, horror and heroism. In one fell
swoop, he crafted a movie that understands life better than almost any
6. Raising Arizona
Many of you may raise your eyebrows at this choice, dismissing it as
fluff. But in truth Raising Arizona is the best comedy ever made: a fast-paced, hilarious
Southern tale that’s so entertaining, it takes a few viewings to
realize how smart it is. The story of an Arizona couple that steal a baby
because they’re unable to have one of their own may seem simple,
or even dumb, but if you pay attention to the camera work, acting, and
especially script, you’ll realize this is no ordinary comedy. What
separates the movie from the norm is the amount of detail it has. Watch
it again and there are lines that you never even heard the first time.
Every actor in the movie is pitch perfect, from Nicolas Cage’s
blundering yet lovable hero to John Goodman’s pompous loser. The
movie has that magical quality where every element of the film has come
together. It was made by the Coen brothers, who for the last 15 years
have created some of the most original and brilliant films around.
There’s something truly special about this movie—no other
movie has better replay value. No matter how many times I watch it,
I always feel humor and sadness, grace and terror, normality and oddity
intertwined. In other words, I experience the Coen brothers’ view
of life with perfect lucidity. If that’s not a great film, then
I don’t know what is.
7. Blade Runner
The masses love Star Wars, while movie snobs go ape over 2001, but the
greatest science fiction film of all time is none other than the lyrical,
poetic, and startlingly visceral masterpiece Blade
Runner. Released in
1982, the movie was initially a box ofice failure, but it soon became
apparent that it has influenced every sci-fi movie made since. Directed
by Ridley Scott, the movie is a triumph of style, one that still dazzles
today. Artfully filmed with a haunting score by Vangelis, the film is
real enough to scare us and inventive enough to enthrall us.
This is the story of a man who hunts cyborgs, robots that look and act
human. There is more than just a stylish story here, though. The movie’s
themes are still relevant and thought provoking today. Harrison Ford took
an enormous risk with his portrayal of Deckard, the sad and distant Blade
Runner who turns to alcohol to bury his pains. Sean Young is also good
as Deckard’s cyborg love interest. Nothing is clichéd or
foolish in this movie—even the climactic battle between Deckard
and the superhuman cyborg Roy (Rutger Hauer) ends in an unexpectedly touching
The movie is not Hollywood—it is difficult, non-linear, and dark.
It is also life affirming, revelatory, and uplifting. Great movies are
the ones that you can’t pin down, the ones that are too big for
their genre. To say that Blade Runner is simply a sci-fi movie is like
saying that Citizen Kane is about a boy and his sled.
8. Touch of Evil
Not only the best film Orson Welles ever made (and, yes, I am remembering
Citizen Kane) but the best film noir ever, Touch
of Evil is the tale of
an honest Mexican cop (Charlton Heston) who gets involved with a corrupt
sheriff (Orson Welles) in a sleazy border town. The movie would be straight-up
pulp if it weren’t for the remarkable talent Welles brings to the
picture. Brilliantly photographed, the movie smolders like an ember, creating
images that are both beautiful and repellent.
Made in 1958, the film is remarkably intense and fast paced, and it
is obvious that directors like David Lynch, Brian De Palma, and Oliver
Stone were heavily influenced by it. Charlton Heston never gave a better
performance in his career. As Vargas he’s trying so hard to do
the right thing that he ends up almost losing his humanity. Welles matches
him all the way with his astounding and undeniably striking rendition
of Hank Quinlan. Fat and sloppy, Hank is the epitome of evil, now burnt
out by years of wear.
Touch of Evil has enough style for ten movies but its brilliance lies
on a deeper level. The film touches on the themes of lost innocence, hidden
corruption, and the dark side of man. But the most interesting thing is
how Hank Quinlan is a reflection of Welles’ own life. Whether or
not he intended this, it still remains one of the riskiest moves an actor
has ever made.
The movie is a perfect machine, from the stunning opening sequence (believe
the hype, it is the best ever filmed) to the blistering finale, Touch
of Evil has more fire, intelligence, and heart than almost any film
9. Raiders of The Lost Ark
The perfect action movie, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders
of the Lost Ark is one of those pop masterpieces that transcends its superficiality.
A collection of Sunday serials and ’40s pulp comic books, the movie
works because it knows exactly what it wants to be and succeeds at this
Everyone knows the story of Indiana Jones, the rough and tumble archeologist
who always manages to escape the bad guys and booby traps, steal the prize,
and get the girl. There’s nothing new in this formula, but in the
way director Spielberg, producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Lawrence
Kasdan manage to simultaneously make the story believable and fanciful,
Raiders always walks the line between reality and our imaginations.
No other action movie can thrill again and again like this one. There
are so many breathtaking scenes of action and stunt work that the movie
almost feels like a workout. Who can forget the great opening, the gunfight
in Tibet, the car chase, or Indy’s face-off with the man with the
scimitar? Raiders creates a vivid and lucid world for the viewers, drawing
them in through the movie’s style and grace.
How seductive is this movie? After seeing the trilogy on video when I
was seven, I spent the next six years convinced I wanted to be an archeologist.
Raiders doesn’t make any groundbreaking meditations on human life—it
celebrates it, showing us who we are and what we love. You can’t
ask for much more than that.
10. Strangers on a Train
There are a lot of great Hitchcock movies. Who can forget the crop-dusting
scene in North by Northwest, the bell tower in Vertigo, the view in Rear
Window, or Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho? But his best, the one
that shows his genius in its most apparent and tantalizing way, is perhaps
one of his lesser-known masterpieces. Strangers on
A Train, released in
1951, is Hitch’s most brilliant set-up.
Two strangers meet while traveling, both hating someone close to them.
One of the men, Bruno, brilliantly played by Robert Walker, suggests that
they kill each other’s enemies, thus eliminating the evidence. The
other man laughs it off, but when it actually happens he’s in a
sticky situation: not only is his wife dead, but now Bruno expects him
to return the favor.
One of great things about the movie is how Hitchcock uses moral ambiguity
as a device to heighten the suspense. The hero and the villain shift
many times, until you find yourself not knowing whom to root for.
Unlike Vertigo, which, although brilliant, is flawed and sometimes
inaccessible, Strangers on a Train is one of those rare movies that
can seriously be called perfect. There is literally no frame that
needs to be changed, and Hitch’s
control over the movie is so assured that you can’t help but be
swept up into it. Add stunning acting, sharp photography, and a terrific
script and you have, bar none, the best thriller ever.
11. The Graduate
One of the definitive ’60s movies, The Graduate makes this list
because it is still a clear and honest meditation on the difficulties
of youth. The story of a recent graduate facing several dilemmas (he doesn’t
want to do anything, he’s having an affair with the mother of
the girl he loves), the movie has an ethereal edge that makes it all
the more memorable.
Dustin Hoffman gave a groundbreaking performance as the title character.
As Ben he’s apathetic yet compassionate, spacey yet appealing. Anne
Bancroft is also excellent—as Mrs. Robinson, she makes her character
both scary and sexy.
Directed by Mike Nichols, the movie has the artistic intelligence of
a foreign film without the pretension. The Graduate is filled with great
scenes: Ben in the pool with the scuba suit, his meeting with Mrs. Robinson
at the hotel, the plastics monologue, and the great silent finale. All
of these make up the ambience of the movie, one of defiant absurdity and
then fresh irony in the face of gross materialism. The ’60s may
have ended but The Graduate still speaks loud and clear.
It may seem ordinary and boring to choose Casablanca—everyone does.
But despite its cornball premise, this one gets me every time, and no
other movie succeeds at being as unabashedly romantic as this. The story
of Casablanca is familiar: Rick (Humphrey Bogart), the lonely, cynical
nightclub owner, gets one last chance for love and redemption when his
past flame, Elsa (Ingrid Bergman), walks into his bar.
The truth is, it’s not really the story that makes this a great
film, but the elements and details of the story that make it so memorable.
Everything is in place, from the design of Rick’s bar, to the monkey
on Sydney Greenfield’s shoulder. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who
made such classics as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The
Wizard of Oz,
Casablanca has a light and delectable grace that’s almost unseen
in movies today. Like Laura, the movie casts a spell that magically works
again and again. The late great Howard Hawks once said that a good movie
is five good scenes and no bad ones. Casablanca more than fulfills that
Diva is not only one of the best French films in the last 25 years, but
the most exiting one ever. Made in 1980 by the youthful upstart Jean Jacques
Beneix, the movie has the vibrant energy of a young Welles or Scorsese.
The story of an opera junkie whose bootleg tape of a diva performing gets
swapped with an incriminating tape revealing the existence of a prostitution
ring, the movie crackles and burns with more excitement and suspense than
ten American action movies.
Stunningly filmed, the movie is a tour de force of style, obviously influencing
directors like Luc Besson and Quentin Tarantino. All the best action movies
have a great car chase, and this one has perhaps the best ever. Twisting
through the curvy streets of Paris, the scene takes on an unparalleled
claustrophobia that heightens the suspense to a point of surprising tension.
The movie is beautifully constructed, juxtaposing scenes of intensity
with moments of startling serenity. Like Raiders
of the Lost Ark, this
movie is not particularly deep, but is a stunning example of what cinema
can be in the right hands. If film excels in visuals and style, Diva is
its ace in the hole.
One of the best epic movies ever made, Amadeus is an outstanding combination
of top-notch sets, direction, screenplay, and acting. Milos Forman’s
rendition of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is a true literary and visual
masterpiece. Telling the story of the composer no one ever heard of, Salieri
(a brilliant F. Murray Abraham), and how contempt for his contemporary
Mozart may have led him to murder, the movie is not just a fascinating
concept, it’s a searing study of a man who refused the cards he
As Mozart, Tom Hulce plays his role to perfection, rendering him as a
sort of idiot savant. Hulce is so convincing that his Mozart feels like
the truth. Forman also has a wonderful understanding of Mozart’s
music, capturing the divinity of it and the irony of who it came from.
F. Murray Abraham greatly deserved his Oscar for his stunning portrayal
of Salieri. Perpetually dissatisfied, yet smart enough to realize Mozart’s
greatness, Salieri to this day remains one of the more complex characters
ever seen on the screen.
Beautifully shot and exquisitely paced, the movie, like Lawrence
is an epic with brains to match its beauty.
Laura is a true classic, not in the sense that it is well made or has “good
direction” but in the way it captures the glamour and grace of ’40s-era
film. A combination of film noir and dapper love story, Laura remains
a satisfying and enticing gem after 55 years. Laura is a beautiful and
intelligent socialite, who has presumably been murdered. Detective Mark
Mcphereson approaches the case indifferently, but eventually he begins
to fall in love with Laura’s ghost, who she was and what she represented.
The movie has as many twists and turns as any Hitchcock movie. Beautifully
filmed by the great director Otto Preminger, the movie takes on an air
of style and seduction, of darkness and light. The cast is perfect:
Gene Tierney is stunning as Laura, using both her looks and her wits
to attract; Dana Andrews, although never a good actor, is perfectly
wooden and a good balance to the flamboyant performances by Clifton
Webb and Vincent Price.
There are times when I watch a movie and am buzzed, when I realize I
have seen a perfect combination of commerce and art, when the movie’s
vision sweeps me away. This is why I love movies. It doesn’t happen
much, but Laura was one of the times it did.
The only truly great movie Roman Polanski ever made, this gritty noir
still has enough power to remain a shocking and riveting experience. A
tantalizingly complex tale of corruption in postwar L.A., Chinatown has
perhaps more ominous moments than any other in history.
Filmed mainly in the early morning, Chinatown takes on a quietly melancholy
ambience, like an old faded postcard. Jack Nicholson made a big career
leap with his portrayal of Jake Gittes, a hardened private eye. Manic,
funny, and intelligent, Nicholson makes Gittes devoid of all clichés.
The rest of the cast also shines, with Faye Dunaway as the female love
interest with a dark secret and John Huston as her evil father.
Robert Towne wrote the dense and near-perfect screenplay, which to this
day remains one of the best ever.
Chinatown, like Bonnie and Clyde or Taxi Driver, is so effective because
it conveys an image of America not seen before. With movies like these,
the curtains were pulled back on the so-called perfect American Dream.
What we saw wasn’t pretty, but you couldn’t then and still
can’t look away.
17. The 400 Blows
With The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut single-handedly started the French
new wave. That would be achievement enough, but the fact that The
400 Blows is still the best of that genre and remains the most honest and
poignant tale of childhood ever told gives it a place on this list. Almost
plotless, the movie follows a young boy and his experiences in life. We
see him fight with his parents, shoplift, sent to juvenile detention,
and escape, and all the while there is only a feeling of empathy and compassion—we
can all relate to this boy.
The greatness of the movie is the way it makes the boy’s seemingly
existential existence seem meaningful. Truffaut may have been aware of
the insignificance of most things, but his films always have an awareness
of something greater, a sense of hope and redemption that Godard’s
work often lacks.
Tastefully directed with remarkable photography, The
400 Blows is like
Paris, Texas in the sense that it doesn’t really tell a story—it
conveys an experience and shows us the emotional possibilities opened
up by cinema. The 400 Blows will have you shaking your head in awe.
18. Annie Hall
Annie Hall, the best Woody Allen movie is also the best romantic comedy of all time.
This funny, smart, charming, and always believable story of two people
trying to fall in love in modern times is the best kind of comedy—it
makes you laugh and think.
Brilliantly constructed and written, Allen takes the formality out of
cinema and renders the movie as a sequence of real life. In Annie
Hall the spectator is invited to join in the fun. Never again in his career
would Allen have the comic timing he has in this one, and few films can
match its balance of comedy, romance, and drama.
As the title character, Diane Keaton started her career and a new trend
with her ever-ditzy, always hip, and surprisingly independent Annie.
If The Graduate was a clear and honest portrait of the ’60s, then
Annie Hall is the movie that defines the ’70s, showing the angst,
insecurities, and hope everyone felt at that time. Great under repeat
viewings, Annie Hall remains one of the only comedies that has humor and
19. 2001: A Space Odyssey
The best film Kubrick ever made was the one that managed to be his most
distant as well as his most feeling. In 2001 he took on the whole scope
of human evolution and tried to find answers to such perplexing questions
as where did we come from and where are we going.
Starting with a wordless segment that shows the evolution of apes, 2001 takes a removed and observatory perspective throughout the whole film.
Thus the space sequences are filmed with a chilling precision. As we watch
them to the chords of classical music, it becomes apparent that Kubrick
wanted himself and the audience to take on the role of god in the picture.
Almost a silent film, the movie relies on its visuals, editing, and scene
construction for its impact. All of these, of course, are flawless and
Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail is most evident in this
film. Daringly poetic and rebelliously non-linear, the movie may not carry
the startling intensity Blade Runner has, but there’s no denying
that through its transcendental style it provides many revelations.
20. Paris, Texas
Wim Wenders’ magical and melancholy meditation on America is about
as good as slow-paced art films can get. Ever beautiful and always ominous,
the movie never feels boring. The tale of a drifter and the life he left
behind, Paris, Texas is about many things: loneliness, rejection, and
the feeling of being foreign to everyone, including yourself.
As the drifter, Harry Dean Stanton is amazing, acting with his face and
his eyes, conveying his emotion without words. Natasja Kinski is heartbreaking
as Stanton’s wife, while Hunter Carson delivers the best child performance
It is truly remarkable how Wenders, adapting a Sam Shepard play, manages
to understand and film our culture so well. Paris,
Texas shows the broken
communication and isolation that come with our land of opportunity. With
amazing cinematography, editing, and especially music, Paris,
a haunting and unshakable experience, one that shows the lyricism and
emotion of film better than most.
For more "Best Movies of the Year" lists and other movie reviews, see the Index.
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