What Makes a Movie a “Must-See”?

These days, I see so many people (myself including) labelling films ‘must-sees.’ Exactly what does this mean, and how does a film qualify to be a ‘must-see.’ I think it’s a useful label, but it is becoming overused and it is losing its value. Everyone has their own opinion of what films they consider to be ‘must-sees,’ and that opinion always varies. So after careful consideration, I have decided to compile a list of ten films that I believe the general public would all agree are vital viewing for people hoping to understand and appreciate cinema. There are no personal tastes involved here; these are just important, influential films that all cinemagoers must-see, and it’s as simple as that. The films are, in chronological order:

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D.W. Griffith’s morally flawed masterpiece is still, nevertheless, a masterpiece, and an important film that must be seen. It’s very difficult to rationalise why this is a great movie, especially because of its blinding racism, but I think the best paper I’ve ever read on the film was written by Roger Ebert, and if you plan to see this, which I suggest you should, I recommend you read his review first.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Sergei Eisenstein was a hell of a filmmaker, and The Battleship Potemkin is by far and away his best film. It was also revolutionary: it is legendary for its use of montage as a means of making the film seem more threatening, and making the audience feel emotion without knowing it is a director who is making them feel this way. In every way, The Battleship Potemkin is a must-see masterpiece.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

The shortest film on this list, at a whopping sixteen minutes, is Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s experiment, a short surrealist adventure which was a harbinger of Bunuel’s career ahead, which was set to get even freakier. Such memorable images as a razorblade slicing an eyeball and ants crawling out of a hand have made their way into the history books as among cinema’s most memorable images, and in ways still difficult to comprehend, they have had a lasting effect on film.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Though it is ludicrous to give any single film the title of “Greatest Film of All Time,” AFI have nevertheless consistently branded Citizen Kane with that title. And indeed, it is worthy of such a grand award. Fantastic camera angles that you won’t notice the first time round but become apparent after rewatches help prove the film’s technical brilliance, and an engaging plot with superb acting performances only enrich its beauty.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Billy Wilder is easily one of the best American directors who has ever lived, working in a range of different genres, from the heavily dark and horrific to the tremendously light and fun. Sunset Blvd. is somewhat in between, leaning toward the sadder side. It is a blindingly brilliant portrait of what Hollywood can do to its naive stars, one minute rewarding them with fame and then cruelly snatching it away (a theme which David Lynch would examine in more depth with Mulholland Drive).

Night and Fog (1955)

The second and last short film on this list, Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog is, with very little argument, the best documentary ever made about anything. In thirty minutes Resnais manages to examine the process which saw Jews administered to the concentration camps, forced to work and then quickly snuffed out in brutal gas chambers. While not as powerful as films such as Shoah released years afterwards, Night and Fog is still deservingly the best film to tackle the subject.

Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is easily one of the best films to deal with the subject of mental sickness and paranoia and how it can affect a person’s sanity. It starts out as a mystery, but soon becomes more detailed and complex, leading up to the film’s brilliant ending. It is definitely Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

8 1/2 (1963)

Federico Fellini was one of the most delightful filmmakers who has ever existed. Perhaps his most colourful film is the black-and-white 8 1/2, a beautiful journey through the mind of a struggling filmmaker, who is collapsing with exhaustion while working on his next film, and decides to use his time to reflect on his childhood memories and use his imagination as inspiration, with unexpected results. A fantastic, musical film that is a magnificent example of Fellini’s talent.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

All films of its genre both before and after it pale in comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001. Stunningly shot with an unforgettable soundtrack and transcendant visuals that have stood the test of time, 2001 is a film which grabs the viewer and takes them on a wonderful, magical experience dealing with such subjects as the future of the human race and even the meaning of life without becoming preachy or pretentious.

The Godfather (1972)

Many of Coppola’s films have been plagued with issues during production, The Godfather included, but more often than not the finished products have turned out to be brilliant accomplishments. The Godfather has gone down in history as a masterpiece, and it is nothing short of that: an influential, powerful portrait of a crime family’s transition into the drug trade.

There. That’s my list of ten absolute must-see movies. It was difficult to make the cut, but I am confident that this is as good a list as I can write. I’ve recommended movies to readers before, but these are ten I am fully confident that you need to see, if you haven’t. I can’t guarantee you will like them, but they will definitely help you to appreciate cinema even more. So how many have you seen? Leave a comment below.

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Posted on October 29, 2011, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. I quite like this list. I’m not sure that Sunset needs to be here, but otherwise…

  2. I have seen a few!!!! Check me out!!!

    Great list of great films.

    Must see is a tricky one huh? I recently told a friend the he must see Midnight in Paris. He hated it and I felt really guilty. 😦

    Have a good weekend

  3. I actually really dislike the term ‘must see’. It is used far too often and so needlessly in some cases. Mind you, one movie I say that everyone my age ‘must see’ before they die is Schindler’s List. Which is good because we watch it in year 13 for our film study in English.

    I agree with most of your list. Night and Fog is definitely a must see as it is probably the best film to deal with the Holocaust. The Godfather probably is the film you ‘must see’, because it is so great. Mind you, I’d probably add The Shawshank Redemption, since that’s rated number one on IMDb and all. Good film, that one.

    • One of my criteria for this list was not to include films that were directly inspired by other movies. All these films were at key moments early in their genre, and they were probably the most influential and original films of their genre. Movies like SCHINDLER’S LIST or SHAWSHANK didn’t make this list because they dealt with subjects that had already been done before, and done better. These are all films which paved the way for hundreds of movies ahead of them, which is really what makes them must-sees.

  4. Very well-written piece, Tyler! You have quite the way with words.

    Only seen Vertigo and The Godfather, both of which I enjoyed. So I can’t comment much on what films made your list. It seems to be a fair representation of the overall canon.

    What’s interesting to me is the quick leap that is made inbetween title and blog post: “Must-see” becomes “must-see for people who want to learn more about film”. There are plenty of different ways to define “must-see”. I’d be curious to know whether this was a concious choice of yours. When you first had the core idea for this blog post, was it just the term “must-see” that was in your mind or was it always “films to see to learn more about film”?

    Another curious thing: you say there is no personal taste involved in your selection. Is there any film on this list that you don’t particularly like?

    Again: very nice post. Keep up the good work!

    • “Must-see,” in my mind, refers to films that cinema lovers simply have to see because without seeing them, there is a huge gap in their cinematic knowledge and experience. It’s difficult to explain, but these are all films that are important, that we can learn from, and people who love cinema owe it to themselves to see them simply to ensure that their cinematic knowledge is of the bare minimum required to talk in depth about the topic of film.

      I’ve seen all these movies numerous times, and love them all, except for BIRTH OF A NATION, a film which is unarguably great and important but also incredibly racist. Just read Ebert’s review, which I linked to in the post, and that best sums up the attitude which this film should be faced with.

  5. Great post! You gave some interesting choices there, especially the old movies like Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane, I will look for them in the future! I agree, we can’t really say it is a must-see, maybe we can just recommend it, after all it is our own opinion!

    • Yeah, exactly! Opinion is opinion, but for once I tried to make a list that was devoid of opinion, purely based on the factual credibility of these films.

  6. At least I’ve seen one of these… But I do agree with you, by overusing the must-see-label, it might lose its value. But then again, why can’t there be loads of must-see films – life’s long!

  7. Hi, Castor and company:

    Very interesting, solid list!

    I especially like the inclusion of ‘Sunset Blvd’ for revealing the swaying pendulum of fickleness and attack pack mentality of the Hollywood press surrounding Gloria Swanson for her final close-up.

    • Yes, SUNSET BLVD is a true masterpiece for exactly that reason. That one scene at the end is one of the few completely perfect moments in film history.

  8. I haven’t saw at least one of these. I’m just wondering by chronological order you mean to say, I should watch first Citizen Kane before I watch Godfather?

  9. I’v seen a few couple of these, and i will try to track down the rest.I’m not sure 2001 and Un Chien helped me appreciate cinema more, as i wasn’t a fan of them…although i suppose i learned what i don’t like in movies from them. That has to count for something i guess

    I generally don’t use terms like Must-see, or “best ever” lists, only because movie blogging has showed me how varied peoples tastes are. I also sent someone a True Blood minisode thinking there wasn’t anything offensive in it…lets just say said person wasn’t exactly pleased with it. Ever since then i have tried to shy away from recommending a film to everybody(With the exception of Franklyn, but that’s only because i’m pretty sure its one of the least potentially offensive movies i like and want more people to see).

    • I can’t guarantee people will like movies such as UN CHIEN ANDALOU and 2001, but I stand by my statement that they are important and necessary films that are so influential you wouldn’t believe it.

  10. This is an excellent list and hits a lot of the key moments in cinema that should be seen. I’ve seen all of these but Night and Fog. I wouldn’t remove any of these that I’ve seen, but another great choice is Stagecoach. It had a major influence on Orson Welles when he made Citizen Kane and was monumental for its 1939 release. Nice job.

    • Haven’t seen STAGECOACH, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I recommend you watch NIGHT AND FOG today, as it is only thirty minutes long and available on YouTube.

  11. I consider myself to be fairly good with films, but I have to admit to only having seen about 5 of the movies on this list. I am so disappointed with myself….

  12. I think your list might be a bit too challenging for ‘general movie goers’ but is definitely a must see list for cinemaphiles.

    • Perhaps films like UN CHIEN ANDALOU and 8 1/2 aren’t for the general filmgoers but I still reckon everyone who at least respects cinema should see all these films.

  13. I’ve seen a bit fat zero… Sorry, Tyler! I’m trying to spread my cinematic wings so I’ve added these to my rental list 🙂

  14. Seen ’em all, love ’em all. It’s particularly ballsy of you to include Un Chien Andalou and Night and Fog, two shorts that should be essential viewing for any fan of cinema.

    Another. Great. List.

    • Thanks! I don’t think it’s very ballsy to put them there; they deserve to be there. The former one is the most influential short film ever made, and the latter is the most important documentary ever made.

      • I meant ballsy in the way that those are probably the two most obscure selections here, though no less brilliant. A call to action for people to watch them.

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