So little time and so many books to read, ideas to create/realize, places to visit, and films to watch. While I have spent years of my life watching countless films, I still have a lot to go and wouldn’t dare to call myself a film connoisseur. However, here is my attempt to put together and review briefly (have in mind I’m no Roger Ebert) a list of my favorite top 15 best films of all time. The vast majority of these are considered high art cinema and the best films of all time according to film critics and filmmakers themselves. Therefore, they are not aimed to appeal the masses, but rather focus on serious artistic and experimental work. So, if you are expecting Hollywood box office hits, you’ll be most likely disappointed.
Since most of these movies are more like niche/underground films (with a couple of exceptions) and are incredibly influential, I suppose you can call them some of the most un-famous famous films of all time. They are really brilliant and beautiful masterpieces you need to watch before you die.
As you will be able to notice, I favor mostly surrealistic (Murnau, Wiene, Bunuel, Lynch), metaphysical (Tarkovsky, Tarr), sci-fi (Kubrick, Lang), and dystopian (Gilliam) cinema. However, I do also love French New Wave and appreciate auteurism. Having said that, all of these films have something in common: they attempt to portray the human condition, they mirror society, they explore the limits of reason and the mind, and they are inspired by actual historical events, scientific discoveries, and philosophical schools of thought. These are the factors that make these films so significant and important to watch.
Scroll down to discover these incredible best films of all time and read my thoughts on them (no spoilers, so no worries).
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Stanley Kubrick
Like most of Kubrick’s films, this one is no exception in its exploration of the human condition. Kubrick also often recurs in several of his films to the Nietzschean idea of Eternal Return and the relationship between man and machine, in this particular case: Dave and Hal 9000, i.e. the artificial intelligence operating the spacecraft. The whole film focuses on the origin, current, and future state of mankind through a whole everchanging voyage.
2. Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang
A milestone regarding sci-fi cinema, without any doubt, this is the mother of all modern sci-fi films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey itself, as it pioneered and experimented with several cinematique techniques and camera angles. Don’t expect aliens or space and time travelling, though, because this expressionist, dystopian film is more like an allegory of the conditions that were developing in Germany in the time between the two world wars in a pre-Hitler Weimar Republic . The economic and political aftermath of Germany’s defeat after World War I led to hyperinflation, economic misery, oppressive working conditions, exploitation of workers, and subsequently, revolts. The film is clear in showing the decadence of the upper classes and the peoples’ dissatisfaction with them which causes an uprising. It also depicts the conditions of the working class and the relationship with machines in an Industrial Revolution-esque future world.
‘The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must be the Heart’ is the recurring and main message of the film, which depicts the struggle between good and evil, reason and emotion, and humanity versus machines.
The remarkable architecture is surely linked to the futuristic movement. The vertical city (instead of horizontal) echoes very much the ideals of modernist architecture.
3. Stalker (1979) – Andrei Tarkovsky
Don’t get mistaken by the title, since this is not a mystery crime movie. Watching this film is like experiencing a dream all along. Is it a spiritual voyage towards the unknown or is ‘The Zone’ an allegory about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster? Perhaps both. Either way, this is one of the most soulful movies you will ever watch.
My favorite quote:
Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.
4. Persona (1966) – Ingmar Bergman
What is real and what is a dream? The word ‘persona’ derives from the Latin word meaning “mask,” and it also depicts the Jungian notion of an artificial personality used to conceal the real self. This psychological masterpiece unravels the duality of the two protagonists, who become so involved with one another that the question of whether they are two different individuals or if it is the internal struggle of a single personality become an apparent reality like anything else.
5. Sátántangó (1994) – Béla Tarr
Satantango deals with the conditions, experiences, and relationships between people in a remote village go through right after the collapse of communism. Eternal recurrence, long yet mesmerizing scenes, desolated landscapes, and poetic moments, this masterpiece will not fail to hypnotize you during every second of its 7 1/2 hour length.
6. La Jetée (1962) – Chris Marker
With a groundbreaking way to narrate a film with still photographs and a very original concept of telling the story of a war experiment and time travel from the point of view of an outsider, this post-apolocalyptic dystopian film which influenced modern blockbusters such as Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, or Cameron’s Terminator, will not fail to touch you.
7. Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920) – Robert Wiene
If you are familiar with Tim Burton and deconstructive architecture, this masterpiece of German expressionist cinema was the one where it all started. The scenography alone in this film is an artwork in its own right displaying a whole new world with an architecture in all kinds of angles except right ones, crooked doors, skewed windows, warped walkways, and out-of-this-world fictional characters, all which originated a whole aesthetic movement that is influential to this day.
8. The Exterminating Angel (1962) – Luis Buñuel
Trying to choose a favorite amongst several of Buñuel’s films is like choosing a favorite song, because most of them excel in their depiction of humanity and of society in beautiful surrealist cinematography. While many would rather list Un Chien Andalou, Viridiana, Belle de Jour, or Los Olvidados (all incredible films), I listed The Exterminating Angel, because of its satirical and pitch black humor and social critic. In spite of it being released in 1962, this is a timeless movie with an universal message that will not fail to make you laugh and keep you glued to the screen in absolute tension.
9. Eraserhead (1977) – David Lynch
Eraserhead is not a film for the faint of heart, perhaps many would even see it as a dreadful nightmare. However, despite its strange and sometimes even disturbing imagery, there is a very soulful contrasting surreal side to this Lynch film, very much like The Elephant Man. As a master of putting you in the shoes of the alienated, of the stigmatized, of the ‘freak’, this dark, yet beautiful masterpiece will not only shock you a/o make you feel horror, but it will also touch you in different ways.
10. Pierrot le Fou (1965) – Jean-Luc Godard
A love story? Definitely, but certainly not your typical one as it can be considered a collection of artistic, political, cultural, and literary references as the main characters fall in love with one another. Full of black humor and political allusions and even pioneering in scenes with the famous Brechtian distanciation, Pierrot Le Fou will shock you with its unexpected ending.
11. In the Mood for Love (2000) – Wong Kar-wai
If “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, then In The Mood for Love is hauntingly beautiful imagery dancing gracefully before your eyes about the rhythm and melody of falling in love.
12. Woman in the Dunes (1964) – Hiroshi Teshigahara
One can easily interpret this film as social criticism regarding humans’ most primate instincts such as cannibalism and herd behaviour. In any case, it depicts the cruelty of humans in masses. However, this is also a love story, though not a typical one, but one that is very good at impacting you both emotionally and intellectually.
13. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) – Alain Resnais
A deconstructed and dream-like narrative where the boundaries of reality and fiction are not defined make this an enigmatic work difficult to interpret. However, the mesmerizing scenes are so harmonic that they seem to be even rhythmic and will keep you hypnotized.
14. Brazil (1985) – Terry Gilliam
If George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 could be epitomized in film form, Brazil is it. While the stories differ, there is an obvious influence of Orwell’s vision of a future totalitarian world narrated through the life of a bureaucrat with escapist dreams who has to go back to his dreaded world, where he seems to be the only sane person amongst a brainwashed society.
15. El Topo (1970) – Alejandro Jodorowsky
With lots of surreal imagery and symbolism, this is not your average Western film and I say this because I am actually no fan of classical
nor any type of Westerns. So there will be a lot of blood and shooting, there will be villains and heroes, outlaws and seekers of justice, but don’t expect any John Wayne style cowboys in this experimental and bizarre masterpiece.
I’ve followed Jodorowsky for years on Facebook and it’s no secret that he’s quite interested in Zen Buddhism, which has evidently influenced his films. In the case of El Topo, the main character is in quest for nirvana/enlightenment after experiencing loss and devastation. Furthermore, the heavy religious and socio-political symbolism throughout this piece might seem distasteful to some, but all in all it is an allegory about the exploitation of the Americas.
Nosferatu (1920) – F. W. Murnau
8 1/2 (1963) – Federico Fellini
The Great Dictator (1940) – Charlie Chaplin
Mother and Son (1997) – Aleksandr Sokurov
Earth (1930) – Alexander Dovzhenko
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) – Werner Herzog