Every critic seems to have a list of either their favorite films or what they view as the most influential films of all time. The term “favorite film” is frankly too abstract for me. I could list all of the films that I will watch no matter how many times I have before, or I could list the DVDs I have that have too many scratches from one too many plays. Frankly though, it depends just as much as me and where I am in my life that will help me determine what my “favorite” are. I would not like On Golden Pond or Driving Miss Daisy at this point in my life. I could, perhaps, see what other people like about those films, but they would be meaningless. I will not go through life as the same person. Get back to me on my deathbed and I may be able to give you a definitive answer. Much easier is to determine the list of the most “influential” films. These are the films that have been left in the desert and have been picked clean by vultures (re. other, less creative filmmakers). But they become a sort of grand archeological exhibit. People keep coming back to them to see how life was in the “good old days” and what they can do to improve the current era. This may be laziness, but I am choosing to look at the most influential films of all time. So, in chronological order:
1.) Birth of A Nation (1915)-A film so crippled by its reputation that people barely even notice the impact the film had and the new ground that D.W. Griffith broke.. No longer did films have to be short pieces (the film clocks in almost three hours) they could be spectacles that people could keep coming back to. Battles could be portrayed “realistically” (many viewers today would find that claim laughable, but do keep in mind the audiences of 1915 had never seen anything like this) and films could be a very successful business. The film is also a perfect time capsule at how the Reconstruction period was viewed at the turn of the century. Intolerable, Griffith was trying to apologize for the overt racism displayed in the film. And he did…but there is no need to apologize for inventing the epic. As much as it is complained about in the modern world, filmmakers are still discussing its impact.
2.) Nanook of the North (1922)-As the world’s first mainstream documentary, this has had a far greater impact than anyone at the time could have possibly imagined. Films actually started out as documentaries of sorts. People would set cameras up in everyday locales and capture everyday life. This was slowly falling by the wayside as films became longer. Then this film came out, just as the conservation movement in America was dying. The result was a colossal hit that invented a new genre. Sadly, the subject of the film never was allowed to reap the benefits…he died before the film was released.
3.) The Gold Rush (1925)-This is usually stated as Charlie Chaplin’s best film. I and many others still prefer the Depression era satire Modern Times. But Modern Times came later in his career and was ignoring many of the conventional trends of the time period: for example, dialogue. The Gold Rush is what cemented Chaplin as one of the most influential comedians and filmmakers of all time. In addition, Chaplin invented the concept of the movie star. He was the first widely known movie star in history. Hitler’s facial hair was not a coincidence..it was meant to look like Chaplin’s. Chaplin’s legacy is still felt across Hollywood.
4.) Rules of the Game(1939)-The first ever ensemble film, so Robert Altman would not exist without this. But that is only a small part of it. Rules of the Game also showed how dangerous a film could be. People in the theater rioted upon seeing the film. One person reportedly threatened to burn the theater down (and we wonder where the adage about shouting “fire” in a theater comes from). Like others on the list, it ignored conventions of the time (the story revolves around a Jewish nobleman. This was a film released just two years before the Nazi occupation of France). It also helped the conservation efforts of film take off. This used to be a “lost film” until it was reconstructed in the 1950s. How many films have been saved since that time?
5.) Citizen Kane (1941)-The film that was, for once, a film. Before this film, movies typically concentrated on telling a story as efficiently as possible. The fun was seeing how the filmmakers defied the Hayes code. But Citizen Kane was a film as we truly know a film to be now. It played with conventions. The focus was not the story, but how the story was told. It flirted with every single method of film out there. The story is nonlinear (this may be the first film to do so) and it als0 toyed with the boundaries between reality and fiction (the swipes at William Randolph Hearst were not subtle). That is the reason this has been called the greatest film ever made. It came to Hollywood like a sort of instruction manual. Orson Welles was showing people once and for all how to make a film.
6.) Rashomon(1950)-Here we see another film that has had a large impact on the way the story is told. Much more important is that this is a foreign film. Through cinema, cultures were starting to trade each others’ methods. This particular idea has reappeared in multiple items, from films (particularly Hero, a Chinese film) TV sitcoms, and political science dissertations. It also may have helped make Kurosawa popular in nations outside of Japan. Without Kurosawa, there would be no modern western (and consequently, no modern action film) and no Miyazaki. And far too many films would be far too linear.
7.) Night of the Living Dead (1968)-This film strangely seems to be left off these lists. I don’t know why. I can only name te number of filmmakers who have borrowed their sensibilities from George Romero. Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, Guillmero del Toro, Stuart Gordon, Zack Snyder, Ridley Scott, and Paul Verhoeven all owe part of their career to this film. This was also the first film that caused those 50s drive in films to be reexamined as lost pieces of art. Before this, they were simply viewed as ways to cash in on various popular genres of the day. And for the most part, this remains true. Yet some of the directors were truly passionate about their material. They used the opportunity to experiment, not worrying about raking in the millions of dollars that studios were concerned about it. Romero was the best at this. He used 50s b-movies to express sixties paranoia that society was slowly eating itself. Monsters became a reflection of society, introducing all sorts of pop psychology into the B-movie. Every time you hear someone discussing a monster representing the plight of an AIDS or Cancer victim, just remember to thank Romero.
8.) Star Wars (1977)-If Chaplin and D.W. Griffith invented the early blockbuster, than George Lucas can be credited with creating the modern one. Star Wars is the only film that has created a mythology in American film that has lasted as long as it has. Indeed, this idea has been replicated by all of the most trivial of summer releases. Go into any department store. How many toys will you see based upon the latest blockbuster release? Star Wars was the first to do this. Fox laughed at Lucas’ proposition. Now, they are first in line to replicate it. Star Wars also dispelled the notion of star vehicles. Some people can name who played who, but the film was hardly a launching vehicle. Mark Hamill gained nothing by being in Star Wars. Harrison Ford could have had a similar fate if not for Indiana Jones. And no one knows who played Chewbacca, (well, the general population) but everyone knows what he looks like. Everyone knows who Luke Skywalker is. Characters and special effects could be made stars. Should we even list all the films that have followed this example? Star Wars created a generational gap between films; the next big generational gap has no sign of emerging any time soon.
9.) Pulp Fiction (1994)-In the early nineties, two large revolutions in entertainment occurred. The first was in music with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Was the album really original? No, it owed a lot to a variety of trends from the psychadelic trends sixties and the punk trends seventies that had been forgotten with the emergence of eighties pop and heavy metal. Yet it popularized them for a new group of people. What had been on the fringe was now in the mainstream. The other occurred in film with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Was the film really original? No, it owed a lot to a variety of trends from the French New Wave Trend s of the sixties to the Asian Kung Fu films of the seventies. Yet it popularized them…oh, you get the point. Pulp Fiction is what officially made independent films part of the mainstream. It ignored many of the conventions of big budgeted blockbusters and has been emulated so many times in the last decade that it seems as picked clean as one of those early films. Yet it still retains its reputation as the ultimate focal point of “cool,” with every hipster having seen and emulated it. Too bad no one has been able to match its impact. Not even Tarantino himself.
10.) The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)-A little premature to include this? Perhaps. It will be some time before we see if this film has the lasting effect that the other films have. But look at what has happened to comedy over the last four years since the release of this film. Before this, the typical American comedy depended upon bodily functions and the awkward happenstance of said functions. I never found biology or human anatomy particularly funny, but those directors must have found it absolutely hilarious. I can only imagine what was going through their heads upon hearing the word “mitochondria.” We may never know. Apatow changed this trend. Instead of comedy about the human body, it was comedy about the human condition. Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carell’s careers were all launched by this film. Modern television and films owe a great dept to this release, and one can only hope this trend continues.