Eric Barker

I’ve been an actor, director and screenwriter at various times in my 50+ years, and spent the first half of this decade as a web film critic and historian. I continue to write; mostly prose fiction these days. Some past writing on film: Shotgun Reviews

50 is an interesting number for a list of great films: it’s way more than 10 for instance, which can’t begin to touch on film history or the landmarks of multiple genres, but it’s half of the typical 100, a number that invariably reveals the listmaker’s own weaknesses as a scholar, critic or casual viewer. In many ways, 50 is a great equalizer, forcing us to break through some of the cognitive dissonance that inevitably rules movie love.

I’m calling my list of votes: 50 films that everyone should see, and sooner rather than later. In chronological order:

  • Intolerance (1916) .. D.W. Griffith
    D.W. Griffith was the first filmmaker to synthesize film “grammar” from many disparate influences, and this extraordinary and exasperating epic is his greatest achievement.

  • The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) .. Robert Wiene
    Robert Weine’s bizarre, twisted universe is the first great visualization of unhinged consciousness in the movies.

  • Greed (1924) .. Erich von Stroheim
    Even in severely truncated form, Erich von Stroheim’s pitiless examination of an ordinary man’s journey into a self-made hell is compelling and frightening, with a devastating finale.

  • Sherlock, Jr. (1924) .. Buster Keaton
    Possibly the greatest comedy short of the silent era, a 45-minute condensation of Buster Keaton’s genius that never grows old.

  • Battleship Potemkin (1925) .. Sergei M. Eisenstein
    The first masterwork on Sergei Eisenstein’s resume and the most important statement on the uses of montage in film history. There is only before Eisenstein, and after.

  • Sunrise (1927) .. F.W. Murnau
    F.W. Murnau’s brilliant drama of love and desire meshed Expressionism with realism to create a viewing experience that influenced nearly every serious filmmaker who came after him.

  • City Lights (1931) .. Charles Chaplin
    Everything that is wonderful in Chaplin, from the madcap to sublime, with plenty of schmaltz for good measure. The Tramp was no Eisenstein, but his mise-en-scène was impeccable, and then there’s the fact he was one of the indispensable performance artists of the last century.

  • M (1931) .. Fritz Lang
    Though he began as a fantasist, Fritz Lang reached his zenith with this ultra-realistic policier that looks homicidal psychosis in the eye and never blinks; Peter Lorre astonishes as a child murderer.

  • King Kong (1933) .. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
    An iconic technical achievement of the movies’ first half-century and a fever dream of sexual anxiety in the same era, it’s also a thunderous explosion of creativity without equal in film annals and a balls-to-the-wall thrill ride.

  • Top Hat (1935) .. Mark Sandrich
    An irresistible delight that spins nonsense into gold, showcasing the unparalleled Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at their sexy-funny-rhythmic-graceful best (with a little help from Irving Berlin).

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) .. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
    The first color film on the list. The granddaddy of all “action/adventure” movies, knee-slapping, breathless mythmaking that can only be equaled, never surpassed. 90% directed by master journeyman Michael Curtiz, who was brought in to pick up the pace.

  • Gone With the Wind (1939) .. Victor Fleming
    The “Gone with the Wind” of Cinema. A masterpiece of film storytelling from Hollywood’s signature year of 1939, its virtues as narrative tower above its historical weaknesses. A producer’s film (and Vivien Leigh’s), the pinnacle of studio system moviemaking.

  • La Règle du Jeu (1939) .. Jean Renoir
    Jean Renoir’s clear-eyed dissection of amour, class-consciousness and bourgeois morality during a weekend at a country estate is brutally honest yet somehow forgiving, the triumph of a fierce intelligence.

  • Pinocchio (1940) .. Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
    “Snow White” was but a warm-up: this second major work by Walt Disney and company set the bar on animated features for almost 60 years, a children’s film of great beauty and, yes, terror.

  • Citizen Kane (1941) .. Orson Welles
    Let’s get something straight: It’s not merely the “technical” achievement of this film that garners near universal praise from critics, it’s the prismatic story of a famous man’s life, told from multiple perspectives and revealing the limits of human ambition.

  • The Lady Eve (1941) .. Preston Sturges
    Legendary writer-director Preston Sturges was never better than when he created this beautifully acted farce about modern love and hypocrisy. “Positively the same dame!”

  • Casablanca (1942) .. Michael Curtiz
    The ultimate WWII romance, or Andrew Saris’ “happiest of happy accidents,” or the movie-est of movies, whatever: A compulsively watchable film about politics and desire with the world on the brink of destruction, and eminently quotable besides.

  • Double Indemnity (1944) .. Billy Wilder
    Film noir, the elusive trickster of film criticism, congealed from many sources into a highly influential style with this chilling, Production-Code-defying masterpiece of lust, insurance fraud, murder and chiaroscuro lighting. And priceless Wilder-Chandler dialogue.

  • Henry V (1944) .. Laurence Olivier
    Laurence Olivier’s directorial debut brought Shakespeare out of the shadows of esoterica and into the Technicolor light, showing everyone how it could be done. Wildly inventive, thrilling to look at and listen to, a magical film.

  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) .. William Wyler
    One of the all-time great dramas, and a highly personal film for William Wyler, an emotional roller coaster following the lives of three men as they return home from war to discover that nothing will ever be the same, for them or anyone else.

  • Bicycle Thieves (1948) .. Vittorio De Sica
    A jewel of Italian Neorealism, director Vittorio De Sica cobbled together a powerful tale of poverty and desperation, and as he was often inclined to do, capped it with a devastating finale that defies moral judgment.

  • The Third Man (1949) .. Carol Reed
    In his typical style, Graham Greene concocted an entertaining mystery with a disturbing center. Carol Reed’s film explores American naiveté and disillusionment in postwar Vienna with unforgettable visual panache.

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) .. Billy Wilder
    Billy Wilder’s penultimate masterpiece remains the greatest of all Hollywood satires, exposing the faded dreams and everyday madness going on just behind Tinsel Town’s one-dimensional façade. Essential and unnerving.

  • Singin' in the Rain (1952) .. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
    The antidote to “Sunset Blvd.” An exuberant, peerless entertainment, not only one of the most joyful movies ever made, but guaranteed to provoke giggles from the toughest audience.

  • Tokyo Story (1953) .. Yasujiro Ozu
    Yasujiro Ozu’s minimalist style belies his profound understanding of human nature, but it becomes ever so subtly apparent as this elegant portrayal of a Japanese family in dissolution unfolds.

  • On the Waterfront (1954) .. Elia Kazan
    Enter Brando. Not his first great performance by any means, but the culmination of his lasting impact on the art of acting; messy, poignant, electrifying. “Shut up about that ‘conscience’, that’s all I been hearin’!” Crammed to the top with stellar supporting actors.

  • Seven Samurai (1954) .. Akira Kurosawa
    A remarkable adventure film about war, courage, and the true meaning of heroism, served up by a Japanese master who was an avid student of Western filmmaking (especially John Ford).

  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) .. Don Siegel
    One of several excellent sci-fi films of the 50s, this one has been unfairly maligned by critics who want you to believe it’s just thinly veiled, anti-communist propaganda. Don’t believe it. The critique, instead, stabs closer to human complacency and a particular brand of American conformity.

  • The Searchers (1956) .. John Ford
    A maddening epic of obsession and revenge in the Old West, John Ford’s most enigmatic Western defies the easy categorizations of political correctness. As with much of Ford, the structure bears more than passing resemblance to Elizabethan drama.

  • Wild Strawberries (1957) .. Ingmar Bergman
    Tough call, but I’m going with Bergman’s unsentimental portrait of a man at the end of his life, full of primal fears, lost dreams and unanswerable questions. One of the best films ever made.

  • The Four Hundred Blows (1959) .. Franτois Truffaut
    François Truffaut’s first feature is simply one of the best films about childhood--its indignities, dangers and confusion--that anyone has ever attempted.

  • Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) .. Alain Resnais
    The boldest narrative experiment since “Citizen Kane” 18 years earlier, Alain Resnais’ obsession with the intermingling of space, time and memory represented a quantum leap in the expressive potential of film. The movies have not been the same since.

  • Rio Bravo (1959) .. Howard Hawks
    Howard Hawks, the maestro of antic pacing, slows down, spreads out and stays awhile to make a quintessential “indoor” Western, a gathering of characters who, over time, become the viewer’s lifelong friends.

  • Psycho (1960) .. Alfred Hitchcock
    Grimly funny as it terrorizes its audience, a cold wind from the graveyard blows through Hitchcock’s most influential film, whispering of an uncaring universe.

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) .. David Lean
    Every shot and every cut is a work of art in David Lean’s magnificent film about T.E. Lawrence, one part biopic, one part mythic adventure, which should never be seen anywhere but on a giant screen with full 6-track stereo.

  • Simon of the Desert (1965) .. Luis Buñuel
    Another 45-minute short encapsulating the vision of a genius, it’s Luis Buñuel’s ultimate critique of temptation, cutting into, even as it tickles, the funnybone.

  • Bonnie and Clyde (1967) .. Arthur Penn
    The death-knell of the Production Code and Hollywood’s old guard, brimming with New Wave sass and technique, a dazzling meta-movie that comments upon modern celebrity, genre, the Great Depression and its own pugnacious attitude, and all at once.

  • The Graduate (1967) .. Mike Nichols
    Mike Nichols’ second film relentlessly skewers middle class values, including the worldview of it’s protagonist, an idealist who learns that avoiding responsibility is another form of action. A comedy just when it should be serious, and vice versa; stunning cinematography and editing.

  • Weekend (1967) .. Jean-Luc Godard
    Godard’s stylistic blowout is a mind-bending trip through modern ideology, endlessly demanding, surreal and horrifying. Oh yeah, and witty as a Cahiers du Cinema staff meeting.

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) .. Stanley Kubrick
    A landmark film that takes all of humanity as its protagonist, all of human history as its theme, and frames the boundaries of our understanding. And all this while Stanley Kubrick makes the leap to a “pure cinema” aesthetic and remains just this side of accessible.

  • The Wild Bunch (1969) .. Sam Peckinpah
    A breathtaking Western drama steeped in literary and cinematic traditions, so truthful about the American character and human nature that some people mistook it for a commentary on the Vietnam war. Instead, it is unrivalled action filmmaking that examines the price of a life lived with violence.

  • The Godfather (1972) .. Francis Ford Coppola
    The Godfather: Part II (1974) .. Francis Ford Coppola
    Awesome is the only word for Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement with this one-two knockout saga: the first a gripping journey into the heart of the underworld/capitalism, and the second an epic overview of the immigrant experience in America. That’s all.

  • Chinatown (1974) .. Roman Polanski
    For this savage lesson in absolute power, Roman Polanski infuses the L.A. daylight with creeping unease and the balmy nights with appalling revelations. Still one of the best screenplays ever written.

  • Taxi Driver (1976) .. Martin Scorsese
    The first of several Martin Scorsese masterworks is a vortex of a movie, pulling us into the deranged world of an ordinary psycho and building to a shattering climax filled with bitter irony.

  • Star Wars (1977) .. George Lucas
    George Lucas’ epochal entertainment rocked audiences around the world with affectionate laughter and brought them to their feet cheering. No exaggeration.

  • Manhattan (1979) .. Woody Allen
    Making good on the artistic promise of “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen crafted this wry love letter to his home town, a bittersweet comedy of modern manners with ravishing widescreen photography by Gordon Willis.

  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) .. Steven Spielberg
    The heart-wrenching tale of a boy and his alien. Who knew? It’s also a hilarious, uplifting movie-movie for all ages, bursting with energy and an irrepressible love of life, the film Steven Spielberg was born to make.

  • La Belle Noiseuse (1991) .. Jacques Rivette
    Possibly the best examination of the artistic process ever put on film, Jacques Rivette’s 4-hour opus captures, almost literally, every stroke of pencil and brush, inviting us to see form, shape and human relationships anew.

  • Pulp Fiction (1994) .. Quentin Tarantino
    A mega-stylized, eclectic homage to Quentin Tarantino’s influences that revitalized independent filmmaking for most of a decade. Uproarious, cringe-inducing, indelible entertainment.

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) .. The Coen Brothers
    Among the Coen Brothers’ comedies, this one is the most ambitious, loony, and startling. Sort of a bona fide encyclopedic narrative with quality hair jelly. “Pete, it's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”

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