I chose one film per director to stop movies made by Kubrick and Hitchcock clogging up the list. Prepare for superlatives.
1. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010) dir. Edgar Wright
A hybrid film that blends the formalism of the French New Wave, the exuberant choreography of the classic MGM musical, and the stoner/slacker attitude of Richard Linklater into one endlessly satisfying cornerstone of 21st-century cinema. This is my favourite film because it functions both as a gateway into an idyllically alternative cosy social world and as a tutorial in how to make a film. If I had never seen Scott Pilgrim, I wouldn’t be editing this section today.
2. L’Avventura (1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
I love Bergman’s Persona and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but this is my all-time favourite art film. Antonioni’s scathing examination of the emptiness of 20th century life holds me in a hypnotic trance every time I see it, thanks in no small part to Monica Vitti’s stark, timeless, mesmerising portrayal of Claudia, the emotionally confused lead. Glamorous and decadent, yet cold and elusive, this could be the most mysterious “masterpiece” ever made.
3. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) dir. Robert Hamer
A shockingly subversive dark comedy that encapsulates absolutely everything I love about British cinema. A quintessentially English, remorseless, controlled destruction of aristocracy, nobility, love, and honour, this Ealing Studios magnum opus is the definitive British film and the most wickedly funny movie ever made.
4. North by Northwest (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock may have made films that were more intimate, more shocking, and more influential, but this is the first film by him that I ever saw, and I will always consider it to be flawless. Cary Grant and James Mason are effortlessly suave as hero and villain caught in a bewildering Kafkaesque Cold War cat and mouse chase. Every single moment is perfect, and the funny, exciting, sexy, witty script is my favourite ever written.
5. Lolita (1962) dir. Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s most underrated film. James Mason gives his very best performance as the monstrously pathetic Humbert Humbert, a man whose polished academic posturing and refined tone of voice disguise his own pitiful ineptness. The horrific, deeply upsetting Nabokov novel is transformed into an (admittedly flawed) work of dark comedic genius. Emotionally affecting, laugh-out-loud funny, and captivating for all of its 153 minutes, it’s unbelievable that this film works at all. Every time I watch it, I cannot look away.
6. Apocalypse Now (1979) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
A standard choice, but an unavoidable one. Having recently re-watched Francis Ford Coppola’s encapsulation of the madness and surreal, violent pageantry of the Vietnam War, I found myself incredibly taken with the way that it perceptively focuses on Captain Willard’s mental health. Martin Sheen’s lead character is a lonely, isolated man, struggling with alcoholism and finding himself increasingly entranced by Marlon Brando’s rogue macho warlord character Colonel Kurtz. The opening scene depicting Willard’s solitary descent into the pain of his past experiences, the paralysing effects of drink, intense loneliness, depersonalisation, alienation, and the struggle to make sense of reality burrowed deep into my heart. The hallucinogenic, revelatory ending is a cinematic epiphany. Sacrifice, religion, blood, rain, life, death, and rebirth spiral and dovetail into a pure punch of life-changing cinema. Apocalypse Now is a classic that deserves its reputation.
7. Intolerance (1916) dir. D. W. Griffith
The film that cemented my love for early cinema. At three hours long, this silent classic about “love’s struggle throughout the ages” may sound like a nightmarish watch. It isn’t. Mae Marsh, Constance Talmadge, and Miriam Cooper are superlative actresses, conveying the emotional depths of this epic tale with stunning immediacy. The faces of these women will be burned into your mind forever after you watch this unforgettable historical epic, telling the tale of the fall of Babylon, Jesus’s crucifixion, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and wrongful imprisonment in 1910s America. Intolerance is more epic than Lord of the Rings and more intimate than the best of Ingmar Bergman.
8. Sorcerer (1977) dir. William Friedkin
A perfect synthesis of everything I love about New Hollywood. Inspired by European art-cinema, beautifully unsentimental, daring enough to eschew a happy ending, and principled enough to display the horrors of modern colonial capitalism, Sorcerer is the kind of film that doesn’t get made anymore. The story follows a small band of criminals who are forced to work together to transport a volatile explosive through the jungles of an unnamed Latin American country in beaten up old trucks. If the truck jolts, they die. Watch it and wait for the rope bridge scene, preferably with a spare pair of trousers nearby.
9. Come and See (1985) dir. Elem Klimov
The best film that I’ve ever seen. A brutally honest recollection of the sadistic Nazi atrocities committed in Eastern Europe, Come and See makes use of Steadicam, extended takes, a script written by a former Belorussian partisan, and an unbearably perfect lead performance to create the most traumatic (and the most indispensable) film ever made. No other cinema experience can hope to reach the emotional strength and unendurable magnificence of this definitive anti-war statement of the importance of memory.
10. Le Mépris (1963) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
To finish up, here’s Jean-Luc Godard’s best film. A vibrant mini-epic post-modern cinemascope adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, Le Mépris delivers a tone so bittersweet and languorously florid that it has me absolutely hooked. It’s a flawed film, with its regressive sexist elements particularly jarring, but in successfully capturing a story of acrimonious sensual love lost forever on a half-remembered melancholy summer afternoon, Godard creates a cinematic universe that feels like a second home. I return to it again and again and always find myself enraptured by its world of baroque, sublime tragedy.