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The Dalenberg Library’s 100 Film Favorites from the Lifetime List—

By Dale D. Dalenberg MD


Is it the greatest film of all time? Or do we only think so because it is so obtuse that you have to watch it over and over again to figure out what it all means???? Is it the greatest film of all time? Or do we only think so because it is so obtuse that you have to watch it over and over again to figure out what it all means????


You will notice that this is not titled “100 Greatest Films.”  That would be a bit presumptuous, since I have not seen every film that there ever was.  But the following are (for the most part) my favorites.  Some of these are masterpieces, others are guilty pleasures that I like but others may detest, and most of them are special enough to benefit from repeat viewings.  There are probably 100 more on my lifetime list that could have made this list, but for one reason or another, these are the ones that made the cut.  Probably 40 of these could be exchanged for 40 others that are equally as good.  I find a lot of great comedies missing from this list, because somehow comedies don’t seem to be as “important,” but a few of my all-time favorites that would easily fall in the second 100 are Ruthless People, What About Bob?, and Life of Brian.  Some films I remember as utterly great, but I saw them so long ago I just don’t have a recent recollection (such as The Lion in Winter).  A few films I absolutely love, but I just ran out of room on the list (Time Bandits and Spartacus come to mind.)  As it is, I cheated and put some double features on the list, just to squeeze in a few more films.  I could write an essay on each of these (like I do for the Sunday Film Series movies), but I will present them here with brief annotations only.  They are in no particular order.  As always, I am curious to get comments from my readers, including agreements or disagreements.  And if there is something I’ve completely missed, a “must-see” film out there I don’t know about, please let me know and I’ll seek it out and watch it. 



The 39 Steps. (UK, 1935) Hitchcock’s finest early film where he mastered all the comic and suspenseful elements that made later ones—such as North by Northwest–so great.


City Lights.  (USA, 1931)  Chaplin’s penultimate silent film, a perfect blend of comedy and Chaplin’s signature pathos. 


Modern Times.  (USA, 1936) Chaplin’s last silent film, the absolute pinnacle of his art. 


Seven Samurai.  (Japan, 1954)  Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece about a village under attack by bandits which hires samurai for protection—but what makes it wonderful is that it is also a heart-wrenching love story. 


The Silence of the Lambs.  (USA, 1991)  Intense, career-defining performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. 


Stolen Kisses.  (France, 1968)  My favorite of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, very funny and very romantic—oh to be in your 20’s and falling in love again!


Dirty Harry.  (USA, 1971)  A high point for director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood.  Probably the greatest of all color neo-noir films. Iconic and unforgettable. 


Taxi Driver.  (USA, 1976) Twisted and dark, almost sick in spots—Scorsese’s finest film and arguably De Niro’s as well.  Essential viewing—the President of the USA got shot over this one.


Take the Money and Run.  (USA, 1969)  Nobody ever says this, because it seems like this is an almost forgotten film—but this is actually one of the funniest movies ever made, and it is Woody Allen’s most consistently hilarious film until Small Time Crooks in 2000.  


Unforgiven.  (USA, 1992)  Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.  Quite simply the movie which closed the book on westerns, an unforgiving revisionist re-examination of the Western mythos.  One of the 5 or 10 films which had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end when it was first released. Everything is impeccable about this film—the direction, the script, the story, the cinematography, the attitude. 


Strangers on a Train.  (USA, 1951)  Creepy, suspenseful, and chilling—Hitchcock was never better in black & white. 


Vertigo.  (USA, 1958)  Strange and mesmerizing, full of twists and quirks (fear of heights; a woman reliving a past life), Hitchcock was never better in color. 


Psycho.  (USA, 1960)  Creepier than Strangers on a Train and quirkier than Vertigo, this is Hitchcock in a film that frame-for-frame is as iconic as any film ever. 


Pulp Fiction.  (USA, 1994)  Quentin Tarantino’s greatest film, a brilliant exploration of the moral code of sociopaths.


2001: A Space Odyssey.  (USA, 1968)  I have always said it was my favorite film.  I just watched it for about the 10th time, and there is always something new.  Mind-blowing and surrealistic—everything Kubrick touched was a masterwork, but this might be his masterpiece. 


Apocalypse Now.  (USA, 1979)  Powerful and disturbing–Coppola’s Vietnam War retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Weird and memorable performances from Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper. 


Casablanca.  (USA, 1942)  The finest film to ever come out of the old Hollywood studio system with contract players and directors.  More quotable lines than almost any other film.  Impossible to think of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, or Peter Lorre without recalling images of them in this film. 


Some Like It Hot.  (USA, 1959)  Billy Wilder made a lot of great films, but note finer than this.  One of the funniest good movies ever made, with career-defining performances by Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. 


The Wizard of Oz.  (USA, 1939)  How many films are perfect in every way from beginning to end?  This is part great Hollywood musical and part greatest fantasy film ever made.  Who could ask for more? 


 A Christmas Story.  (USA, 1983)  A droll memoir of one man’s childhood Christmases.  This box office flop turned into a sleeper hit that grew and grew and became one of the best Christmas films ever. 


The Empire Strikes Back.  (USA, 1980)  George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy is wonderful as a whole, but this middle film in the trilogy is where the science fiction fan in me was won over.  I’ve often said that Star Wars was a glorified Western/Samurai film and The Return of the Jedi was a Roman comedy (as the brother and sister discovered their identities and the love triangle was resoved), but The Empire Strikes Back was pure, unadulterated space opera.  Science fiction fans had been waiting for a space opera on film since Buck Rogers in the 1930’s, and this was it!


The Freshman.  (USA, 1925)  Harold Lloyd’s funniest silent film comedy moment as he tries too hard to be Big Man On Campus and suffers various misadventures going out for the football team and attending the college ball. 


The Graduate.  (USA, 1967)  Mike Nichols’ most perfect film and the one that made Dustin Hoffman a star—a taboo-busting comedy about a young man having an affair with his girlfriend’s mother. 


Jaws.  (USA, 1975)  Steven Spielberg’s breakout moment—a gut-wrenching and gripping film when I was 15, but still completely enthralling for all the cinematic tricks, camera angles, tracking shots, played by the young wunderkind film-maker.  I love this movie, and it hasn’t gotten old after 40 years. 


Mary Poppins.  (USA, 1964)  Disney never did anything better (at least not while Walt was still alive)—another perfect film in every way. . . music, performances, screenplay, unforgettable images. 


The Sound of Music.  (USA, 1965)  Perhaps the best translation of a Broadway musical to the big screen.  Lots of revisionists have attacked this film for not being true to the source material, etc, etc.  But I just watched it again after many years, and it is still majestic and beautiful and romantic.  A wonderful film. 


Meet Me in St. Louis.  (USA, 1944) Judy Garland’s finest moment post-Wizard of Oz.  Vincente Minnelli at the helm of a new kind of musical where the songs belong in the story (not the old way where the action stopped for a production number).  This film is quietly affecting—it speaks to the heart. 


Séance on a Wet Afternoon.  (UK, 1964)  Bryan Forbes’ small black & white psychological suspense film boasts excellent understated performances by Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough.


The Searchers.  (USA, 1956)  The greatest of the old-style Westerns with John Ford directing John Wayne as he searches for his young niece kidnapped by Indians. A powerful film with layers of complexity that merit argument, exploration, and repeated viewing. 


Shane.  (USA, 1953)  Iconic Western about a young boy’s adulation of a gunfighter.  The moral underpinnings of this film and The Searchers are complex, and while they were filmed in the peak era of movie Westerns, they themselves are somewhat revisionist—but Clint Eastwood had the last say on revisionism in Westerns with Unforgiven.  It is an interesting comparison/contrast exercise to discuss Shane and Unforgiven. 


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  (USA, 1936)  Disney’s early masterpiece, the first feature-length animated film, has aged remarkably well.  It tells the story more simply and straighter than any modern film would do, but you don’t care, because it is so perfectly animated, with moments of sheer drama, and the music is so memorable.  For me, the moment when Snow White collapses and the poisoned apple rolls out of her hand, is one of the most terrifying moments in all of cinema.  Either this is not a film for children, or children were tougher back then. 


Umberto D.  (Italy, 1952)  Director Vittorio De Sica considered this his greatest work, a “neo-realist” film about an aging pensioner and his beloved little dog scraping to make ends meet.  If you’ve ever loved your dog more than life itself, this is a must-see film.  If I ever get a little dog again, I’m naming him “Flike” after this movie. 


West Side Story.  (USA, 1960)  Aside from The Sound of Music, this is the other great film adaptation of a Broadway musical (although I’ll give a nod to The Producers and Chicago in more recent years.)  And I LOVE Leonard Bernstein as a composer.


Batman Returns. (USA, 1992) I have a soft spot for the eccentricities of director Tim Burton and film composer Danny Elfman.  This twisted psychological tale is my personal favorite of all the Batman films. 


Being There.  (USA, 1979)  For all his comic genius, Peter Sellers had a tendency to be in bad film vehicles.  This is one of the rare great ones (another one was Dr. Strangelove.)


The Devils.  (UK, 1971)  Ken Russell’s self-indulgent monstrosity of a movie is full of depravity and wallows in the filth, corruption, and sacrilege of all parties involved during a medieval plague.  I was blown away by this film on the big screen, but it has effectively been buried and forgotten—no decent wide-screen home video has ever been released, and you’d probably have to go to a film library to see it. 


Diva.  (France, 1981)  Jean-Jacques Beineix’s first feature film, visually arresting and suspenseful, with one of the greatest chase scenes of all time. We didn’t know it at the time, but this film inaugurated a French movie genre which came to be known as the “Cinema du look.”  These films featured young, alienated characters with attitude who acted and dressed very cool—the other great Cinema du look film that made it to these shores is Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita. 


Dr. No.  (UK, 1962)  The original Sean Connery James Bond film, still my favorite after all these years.  Bond was closer to a real secret agent and less of a superhero, and the movies were closer to Ian Fleming’s vision. 


Fanny.  (USA, 1961)  A gorgeous and romantic film.  It works because you fall in love with Leslie Caron, one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the silver screen.  Also with memorable performances by two greats, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer.


Groundhog Day. (USA, 1993)  One of the funniest movies ever made as well as sporting one of the greatest premises of any comic film. 


The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  (USA, 1939)  The list goes on and on demonstrating why 1939 was the greatest year ever in American cinema.  This is one of the reasons (right up there with The Wizard of Oz.)


Kind Hearts and Coronets.  (UK, 1949)  Alec Guiness is one of my top 10 favorite actors, and this film is his comic tour de force as he plays all 8 victims of a royal who is bent on killing all of those ahead of him in the family order of succession. 


La cage aux folles.  (France, 1979)   Very funny comedy about a gay couple trying to act straight in order to keep up appearances for visiting in-laws.  Perhaps someday the premise will seem old-fashioned, but we aren’t there yet. 


Letter from an Unknown Woman.  (USA, 1948)  Young woman (Joan Fontaine) falls in love with concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) listening to him practice through the walls of the tenement house where they live; complications ensue.  This is a grand tear-jerker unlike any other, probably the most unsung film on this list that is a must-see.  One of my favorite films of all time—I’ve probably watched it once every decade since I was a teenager.


Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  (UK, 1975)  You either “get it” or you don’t.  But if you don’t, you are either too stupid or didn’t go to college. 


Snakes on a Plane.  (USA, 2006)  Just like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you either “get it” or you don’t.  Only this time I’m not sure you’re all that stupid if you don’t “get it,” and you definitely don’t need to have gone to college.  I loved every minute of this outrageous film, but some people couldn’t get past the silly premise. 


Phantom of the Paradise.  (USA, 1974)  The young Brian De Palma was an auteur director who was so much more brilliant than the Hollywood sell-out De Palma of the past 25 years.  This movie seemed like a throw-away drive-in theater comedy spoof in its day, but it is a whole lot more.  It captures a feel of mid-1970’s songwriting and glam rock that no other film (except maybe Tommy) quite tapped into.  I LOVE this movie and never grow tired of it. 


Romeo and Juliet.  (UK/Italy, 1968)  Franco Zeffirelli’s amazing film adaptation of the Shakespeare play is the only one for me, because Juliet (as played by Olivia Hussey) is not only as young as she should be for the play, but you can’t help but fall in love with her right along with Romeo. 


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  (France, 1964)  Jacques Demy’s all-singing love story is another film that works because you can’t help but fall in love with the ingénue—in this case, the lovely Catherine Deneuve. 


Young Frankenstein.  (USA, 1974)  Mel Brooks’ comic send-up of the Universal horror cycle of films is every bit as great as, or greater than, the originals themselves.  Career-defining performances by Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Marty Feldman.


Best in Show.  (USA, 2000) The funniest “mockumentary” ever made, about animals and their humans participating in a dog show.  The only rival in this category would be Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap.  


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  (Hong Kong/Taiwan/USA, 2000)  A mix of epic grandeur, martial arts, love story, exoticism, and magical realism.  Back in 2000, you wanted to find people who hadn’t seen it just so you could go again—that hadn’t happened since Star Wars in 1977. 


House of Sand and Fog.  (USA, 2003)   Depicts the subtle psychological battleground between two people from wildly different backgrounds clashing over a piece of real estate.  The characters are so well drawn and the performances by Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley so precise that you really care, and the results are emotionally devastating. 


Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring.  (France, 1986)  Claude Berri’s masterpiece takes two movies to tell the tale, but it’s really one movie in two parts.  It is the kind of sweeping family drama that sucks you in and won’t let you go until you’ve lived these people’s lives for 4 or 5 hours. 


La Femme Nikita.  (France, 1990)  Luc Besson’s most memorable contribution to the “Cinema du look.”  In those days, I knew and had a fleeting romantic attachment to a girl who looked and acted just like Nikita.  It made the film amazingly relevant. 


Mean Girls.  (USA, 2004)  Before this film, I was completely unaware of actress Lindsay Lohan and screenwriter/actress Tina Fey. This very funny film put them on the map for me.  Reminiscent, in a way, of another film that almost made this list, also about a new girl at school trying to fit into an established clique:  Heathers from 1989, with Winona Ryder. 


Speed.  (USA, 1994)  The prototype of the non-stop action movie.  My “worst movies of all time” list is littered with non-stop action movies.  They should study this one before making that kind of movie. 


Stand By Me.  (USA, 1986)  In his first few years as a director, Rob Reiner could do no wrong. And this is one of the two or three best films ever based on a Stephen King story.  Also check out The Dead Zone (directed by David Cronenberg) and  Misery (also directed by Rob Reiner), which proves that when great directors do King the results can be fabulous, lesser directors not so much. 


The Sweet Hereafter.  (Canada, 1997) Atom Egoyan’s heart-wrenching exploration of a small town torn apart by the death of many of its children in a school bus accident and the lawyer who comes to town to sue whoever was responsible.  People either love or hate this movie, but it is haunting and thought-provoking. 


Three Kings.  (USA, 1999)  For me, this film is the ultimate statement on the Persian Gulf War, in a way like the novel Catch 22 was for World War II.  Plus, it is visually arresting.  And it is George Clooney’s best work (with a nod to 1998’s Out of Sight and 2000’s The Perfect Storm)—otherwise, despite his good looks and towering talent, Clooney is often wasted in the roles he chooses. 


Trainspotting.  (UK, 1996)  Starkly realistic look at the life of heroin addicts in Scotland.  How many American movies would let a baby die from neglect while everyone is shooting up drugs?  That’s one of the reasons foreign films are worth watching—for a dose of realism and honesty now and then. 


Sid and Nancy.  (USA, 1986) Bio-pic about British punk rocker Sid Vicious (of the Sex Pistols) and his American girlfriend morphs (like Trainspotting above) into one of the finest anti-drug films without becoming preachy.  Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb so completely occupy these characters that you might as well really be watching archival footage of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen themselves. 


When Harry Met Sally. . . (USA, 1989)  The fake orgasm scene is famous, but this film is more than that. . .a remarkable exploration of the Men are From Mars/Women from Venus phenomenon.  And I am a sucker for films where the man/woman of your dreams is right under your nose, but you just can’t see it because you are best friends (Clueless is a film that comes to mind that almost made this list.) 


Alien.  (USA, 1979)  Ridley Scott made two of the most intelligent and artistic science fiction films of all time, spiritual successors to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This is one of them. 


Blade Runner.  (USA, 1982)  This is the other Ridley Scott science fiction masterpiece.  The original 1982 release was chopped up and essentially destroyed by the studio with, among other bad decisions, a stupid film noir voiceover.  I dismissed it and so did everyone else.  Then, the film was resurrected in 1993 and further re-edited in 2007 to reflect the director’s original intentions.  What emerged was a masterpiece and arguably the greatest science fiction film ever made. 


Aliens.  (USA, 1986)  When James Cameron took over the Alien franchise, he took it from the cerebral sphere it had occupied into non-stop action film territory.  When you want to make your action film, after you study Speed in order to learn how to do it right, study this one. 


The Abyss.  (USA, 1989)  James Cameron not only went under the sea for this science fiction film, but with the help of his fabulous wealth and his personal sense of adventure, he has made solid contributions to ocean science.  Cameron is a national treasure.  Who doesn’t love

The Titanic, the Terminator movies, and Avatar But The Abyss is as unique and exciting as anything he has made, plus it’s a one-shot without a sequel, and I like that in a science fiction film.   


Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  (USA, 1968 & 1970)  My favorite science fiction double feature of all time.  You have to see them together. 


Edward Scissorhands.  (USA, 1990)  Offbeat fare as mid-20th Century cheese (one of the characters is the Avon Lady) meets timeless fairy tale.  Tim Burton’s formula, combined with Danny Elfman’s inimitable music, works best here (with a nod to Batman Returns and The Nightmare Before Christmas.)


The Road Warrior.  (Australia, 1981)  Low budget look with big budget feel—one of the best post-apocalypse films ever made.  There are other good ones (The Postman and A Boy and His Dog) come to mind, but this one stands out. 


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  (USA, 1982) It helps to already be a fan and to know the TV episode for which this film is the sequel.  But aside from that, this is one of the best science fiction movies ever made.  And the Star Trek franchise was never better (except perhaps the story arc in the TV series when Captain Picard was assimilated by The Borg). 


Star Trek/Star Trek Into Darkness.  (USA, 2009 & 2013)  Never has an old TV show been made more current and relevant on the big screen than with the brilliant Star Trek reboots.  You don’t have to be an established fan to love these two films, but if you are, you are richly rewarded by all the references to the old canon and the way past story lines get recycled and turned inside out and upside down. 


Starship Troopers.  (USA, 1997)  Am I the only one who thinks this movie should have been the Star Wars of its era?  Unfortunately, most people (and critics) just didn’t “get it.”  Paul Verhoeven’s film succeeds brilliantly in being a faithful homage to Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novels at the same time as being a parody of them.  Verhoeven pulled off the exact same stunt with author Philip K. Dick in the original Total Recall (1990).  For a fan of both writers, like myself, these two films are legendary for that mix of homage and parody, but for most viewers and critics, they didn’t have the literary background to pick up on the homage and they mistook the parody for bad film-making.  Their loss. 


The Lion King.  (USA, 1994)  Disney’s last great foray into old-style pre-CGI animation, an unforgettable film with a narrative and pictorial sweep, not to mention wonderful music. 


Frozen.  (USA, 2013) There is a reason why an entire generation of pre-teen girls knows everything about this film, every line, every costume, every song.  Adults, take notice. 


The Gold Rush.  (USA, 1925)  Silent comedy at feature film length was never better.  One of Charlie Chaplin’s many masterpieces. 


Ben-Hur (USA, 1925), and Ben-Hur (USA, 1959).  One of the few examples where the remake was every bit as good or better than the original.  Arguably the only good Biblical epic that ever came out of Hollywood.  The 1925 version was the pinnacle of silent film-making before the talkies set the industry back technically about 10 years.  The 1959 version is the best thing Charlton Heston ever did.  The chariot race is exciting in both versions. 


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  (USA, 2002).  Peter Jackson’s dumbed-down teen dream version of Tolkien’s Rings trilogy has its moments of sheer inspiration among its many lapses.  I find more grievous faults with the first and last movies, but the middle section is an amazing book-into-film transformation.  Jackson rearranges the story, even changes the meaning of which two towers are meant by Tolkien’s title, but it is all in the service of making the book work as cinema.  He turns the central installment into a war story with a huge pivotal battle, and it works. 


Raiders of the Lost Ark.  (USA, 1981)  Back when Spielberg made movies that were more fun than roller coaster rides, I’ll never forget the day I went to see this for the first time.  The movie I wanted to see was sold out, and this was on its opening day.  I didn’t know anything about it walking into the theater, and I was blown away.  One of the most unforgettable experiences of my film-going life. 


Equus.  (USA, 1977)  Not as great as the stage play, but a respectable adaptation nonetheless.  They stole the Oscar Richard Burton deserved for his portrayal of the psychiatrist and gave it to a forgettable performance by Richard Dreyfuss that year.  I have never forgiven the Academy. 


Frankenstein.  (USA, 1931)  Iconic horror film made all that much more intense with the long-censored footage restored in 1987.  The very early 1930’s were a drab time for American film as movies adjusted to being talkies and were mostly stagebound and static.  This film rises above all that. 


Eyes Without a Face.  (France/Italy, 1960)  Georges Franju’s haunting horror film has no successful parallel in American cinema. In my review in this blog, I called it “the French Psycho,” but that doesn’t quite capture it. 


District 9.  (USA/New Zealand, 2009)  Neill Blonkamp’s brilliant science fiction film about stranded aliens who are herded into concentration camps on Earth and only desire to get back home or at least have their rights respected while they are here.  Allegory anyone?  


A Clockwork Orange.  (USA, 1971)  Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel.  With this movie, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick managed to melt his creative impulse with that of the author of the source material unlike any other film-maker, resulting in two brilliant films that are as essential to the material as the books themselves.  He wasn’t so successful with Stephen King and The Shining, but so what?  Every one of Kubrick’s films could have made this list (with the exception of the disappointing Lolita). 


28 Days Later  (UK/USA, 2002) and 28 Weeks Later (UK/USA, 2007).  I can’t understand the fascination with zombie films, but these are the best ever.  I have to give a nod, however, to Shaun of the Dead, which is deadpan brilliant dark comedy. 


Clerks.  (USA, 1994)  Kevin Smith’s masterpiece of slacker humor, an example of how inspiration can overcome a shoestring budget.  Neither Bill & Ted nor Harold & Kumar were funnier at many times the $27,000 it took to make Clerks.     


Blue Velvet.  (USA, 1986)  Here you have the basic template of the movie that David Lynch made over and over again, including his TV show Twin Peaks.  More accessible and less densely weird than, say, Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr.  Watch this one first, then tackle those (if you dare.)


Red Beard.  (Japan, 1965)  Epic and episodic, one of the best doctor movies ever made.  Kurosawa lays down his samurai swords for this one, but he tells a profoundly human and affecting story about a young doctor in a charity clinic and his stern master. 


The Postman Always Rings Twice.  (USA, 1946)  Film noir masterpiece from James M. Cain’s classic novel.  Like Casablanca, another rare triumph from the American studio system of the 1940’s. 


Laura.  (USA, 1944)  More film noir with surprising plots twists along the way. 


Double Indemnity.  (USA, 1944)  Another James M. Cain novel turned unforgettable film noir.


A Place in the Sun.  (USA, 1951).  It may seem a bit dated and nobody reads the novel anymore (Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy), but you have to watch this one for the mesmerizing and stellar cast:  Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, and Montgomery Clift.) 


Despair.  (Germany, 1978)  A personal favorite of mine because it combine 3 great elements:  source material by Vladimir Nabokov, a starring performance by Dirk Bogarde, and direction by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 


Raise the Red Lantern.  (China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1991)  Powerful tale of a young woman forced to join a wealthy man’s harem.  One of the films that earned the “Banned in China” label to help market them in the West.  (The truth is that the screenplay was approved by the Chinese censors, and the film itself was only banned for a while.) 


Rashomon.  (Japan, 1950)  Kurosawa’s tale of a rape told four different ways by four different participants in the events is a must-see film for the ages.  Required viewing in film school for sure. 


Hud.  (USA, 1963)  Featuring a brash and unforgettable performance by the young Paul Newman.  Also, with a nod to Cool Hand Luke, which almost made this list.  People think of Marlon Brando, James Dean, and the young Robert De Niro, but Paul Newman in the 1960’s was one of the greatest of the Method actors, and these are two films that show it. 


How Green Was My Valley.  (USA, 1941)  Riveting saga of Welsh coal miners and their families.  Haven’t seen it since high school, but of all the “great” or “important” films I saw in those days, this one was one of the most affecting, while others (like All the King’s Men, for instance) never did much for me. 


Kagemusha (Japan, 1980) and Ran (Japan/France, 1985).  Akira Kurosawa’s last two samurai epics, films of great power and majesty from a director at the pinnacle of his art. 


Deliverance.  (USA, 1972)  John Boorman’s unforgettable film about city slickers in over their heads on a river trip in the deep South.  Boorman is an always-interesting director who never repeats himself.  Several other of his films vied for inclusion on this list, including Excalibur, Beyond Rangoon, and Zardoz, but Deliverance is his least flawed and most perfect work. 


Black Orpheus.  (France/Brazil, 1959)  Beautiful film about falling in love in Rio during Carnival—and, at the same time, an updated retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend.  If there are 5 or 10 essential films to watch as a primer in world cinema, this is one of them.