The BFI continues to curate an outstanding catalogue of some of the most important films from over the last 100 years and, through their Amazon channel and standalone player on their own website, they offer a rotation of pictures from this catalogue for a small additional subscription fee. Though the quality of the presentation is a little variable, for anyone vaguely interested in the evolution of cinema it’s easily worth the price.
If you’re thinking of giving it a go here’s the first in a two part potted history of cinema from the 1920s to the 2010s as available on BFI (with some Amazon Prime extras thrown in for good measure). Rather than a strict ‘Best Of’, it’s meant as a selection of culturally, historically or technically important films from each decade.
By the twenties, cinema had truly come into its own. It had become available to all and the industry was growing exponentially. With the Great War over, it was an age of comedy and excess; but with the effects still being felt by many, deprivation and fear bubbled under the surface. Many of the films of the time reflected that tension and by the end of the decade, with the stock market crash, some of them would adopt an air of prophesy.
Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene – 1920)
(also available on Prime Video)
When two men meet in a garden to compare their woes, one of them begins to reveal a tale which nearly drove him and his fiancée apart. At his hometown’s annual carnival, the arrival of a mad hypnotist named Caligari and the sleeping man he keeps in a box whom he calls Cesare coincide with a spate of grisly murders. When his brother becomes one of the victims, the man becomes obsessed with exposing Caligari as the killer.
Now considered the first horror film, the sense of unease comes almost entirely from the stark production design. Wiene painted chiaroscuro directly onto the sets and combined the static shadows with twisting matte paintings and tricks of the eye. Windows appear to open at impossible angles, hallways warp and curl as they recede, black tendrils or fingers snake viciously up walls and across floors. This is undiluted German expressionism on film.
The General (Clyde Bruckman / Buster Keaton – 1926)
After being turned down for a position in the Confederate army, train engineer Johnnie Gray attempts to find a way to impress his fiancée. Caught up in a Union plot to launch a surprise attack on the southern troops, Johnnie must use all his railroad ingenuity to slow the Yankees, rescue the girl and deliver the warning.
The General was critically overlooked at the time and a box office bomb, but re-evaluated years later as Buster Keaton’s greatest triumph and as one of the best pieces of cinema ever made. It would be fair to call the film 15 minutes of plot followed by a one-hour train chase, but that short description belies the extent to how far that premise can be pushed. Though the comedy may not have aged perfectly, the logistics of the stunt work is jaw dropping with Keaton very literally risking his life on a split-second multiple times.
Metropolis (Fritz Lang – 1927)
A workers’ uprising in the factories of a futuristic city is threatened by a nefarious scientist and his newest creation: a human looking automaton. When the robot is sent out to impersonate the leader of the rebellion, the heart of Metropolis begins to crack, with catastrophic results.
Fritz Lang’s seminal science fiction masterpiece has been restored and rescored so extensively that, with the latest “Complete” release, the unique production design continues to be revealed in even greater depths and remains fresh and exciting. Told through a mixture of melodrama, genuinely perilous action and hallucinatory sequences, Metropolis, like all the greatest science fiction, tells us more about the society of the present than it does about the future. What’s more, its message remains powerful as we edge ever closer to the film’s setting of 2030 and see many of the inequalities highlighted by Lang still present today.
Elsewhere on Amazon:
Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau – 1922)
Dracula, by another name, Murnau’s film has become a cultural touchstone in the depiction of vampires. Not just directly inspiring a remake (Nosferatu: The Vampyre), and a fictionalised account of the making of the film (Shadow of the Vampire), Max Shreck’s depiction of Orlock has been retooled for Salem’s Lot, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade… the list goes on. Almost removed from existence by a lawsuit from Bram Stoker’s estate, enough copies survived to allow a gorgeous restoration. Sadly, that’s not quite the version we get on Amazon for free.
Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein – 1925)
Again, the quality of the print available for free leaves a lot to be desired but this depiction of an Imperial battleship rallying to the cause of the Communist revolution is an essential watch regardless. Devised as a piece of revolutionary propaganda, and using revolutionary techniques of editing and montage, the unflinching depictions of violence on the Odessa Steps are so affecting that they have become cinematic archetype.
By the thirties, the process of making sound-films, or “talkies”, had become widespread and directors and producers could now experiment with sound to enhance their work. With this advance the world saw a new wave of movie superstars. It was also an era of great technical innovation, allowing new ways of shooting, new lenses and new editing techniques to further push the limits of the art. Consequently, the thirties gave us some of the most atmospheric and compelling cinema ever produced.
The Blue Angel (Josef Von Sternberg – 1930)
Working as a high school professor, Dr Rath spends his time attempting to tame his unruly students. When he catches one of the boys with a lewd picture of local cabaret singer, Lola Lola, he is determined to expose their curfew breaking. But he does not anticipate the entrancing effect of Lola herself and he soon finds himself disregarding his own responsibilities to spend more time with her.
The downfall of Rath begins as something comic, a farce where he is the butt of the joke, but as his descent deepens, the jokes become sparser and a troubling darkness begins to rise. The first feature length “talkie” to come out of Germany, The Blue Angel is the film which rocketed Marlene Dietrich to stardom, and with good reason. Her portrayal of Lola encapsulates not just the archetypal seductress perfectly, but a believable vulnerability and emptiness. She became the standard by which other femme fatales would be measured and her presence, through homage and parody, can be felt throughout the history of cinema.
M (Fritz Lang – 1931)
(also available on Prime Video)
Children are going missing on the streets of Berlin. Citizens are scared to go out, the police are at a loss and even organised crime is being disrupted by the terror. The serial killer, Beckert - Peter Lorre’s first and best role - is being hunted by all, but who will track him down first, and what justice will he face?
Fritz Lang continued his peerless career into the thirties with this atmospheric progenitor of the police procedural drama. Detective fiction was at the height of its golden age, but Lang eschewed the usual genre trappings to tell a story which laid bare the workings of the mind of a serial killer and demonstrated cutting edge techniques being used by the police to analyse evidence. M uses all the newfound powers of ‘sound film’ to tell an intensely dark, claustrophobic tale of society breaking down.
La Règle du Jeu – The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir – 1939)
Three couples and their open-secret lovers retreat to a large French country estate for a weekend of hunting, feasting and dancing. Featuring lovers’ quarrels, cases of mistaken identity and witty repartee, Jean Renoir’s comedy of manners hides a vicious streak.
Filmed against the backdrop of the advent of World War 2, Renoir’s deeply cutting portrait of the French upper classes was met with pure vitriol when it was released in 1939. Mainly because the majority of the people able to see it were the very people the film was criticising. The plot and structure could be mistaken for a Shakespearean comedy but, unlike Shakespeare’s ultimately lovable nobles, Renoir pulls no punches in revealing his characters to be vacuous, infantile, narcissistic and cruel. Recognised now for its skilful shooting and pioneering use of deep focus and wide shots in motion, it’s a monumental political, artistic and technical achievement.
Elsewhere on Amazon:
The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock – 1935)
You could choose any of Hitchcock’s pre-war talkies and name it one of the greatest of the 1930s. The 39 Steps was a turning point for Hitchcock’s career, being his first internationally recognised hit and garnering interest from producer David O Selznick, for whom he would go on to earn a Best Picture Oscar with Rebecca. The 39 Steps is pure espionage entertainment and the liberties it takes with John Buchan’s source material, are pure Hitchcock.
A Star is Born (William A. Wellman – 1937)
One of the most enduring stories in cinema started here, with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March as the rising star and her mentor turned husband playing the doomed couple. Unlike the succession of ever more music-oriented remakes, pursuing ever more elaborate and needlessly grim finales, William A. Wellman’s original charts a rising through the ranks of Hollywood. It’s maybe the least revisited version of the story thanks to superstar turns from Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Lady Gaga as Esther in the subsequent decades, but there’s power in its understated depiction of the grim realities of fame.
It seems barely worth mentioning that the spectre of World War 2 looms large in 1940’s cinema. Any top ten list of the best films ever made is likely to include at least two entries from this period. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Great Dictator, It’s a Wonderful Life: none of these are available through streaming without paying a few extra pennies, so it is almost entirely to the period following the end of the war that we turn to for our five recommendations.
La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau – 1946)
With Belle’s family suffering from debt and unwanted suitors asking for her hand, it is with little hesitation that she offers to take her father’s place as the prisoner of a great beast in a magical chateau. Sure, he comes on a little strong too, but she realises he has a depth and honesty that slowly turn her feeling of repulsion to love.
Cocteau’s film begins with a title card imploring the audience to remember the naivety of childhood, the acceptance of simple magic, and to allow some of that childhood wonder back into your life as you watch the film. One heck of an ask for the recovering people of post-war France. Yet, the film hit its mark perfectly and entranced all who saw it. There isn’t a frame of the movie that isn’t elaborate and transportive.
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica – 1948)
Post-war Italy. Antonio Ricci is called up at the work line for a job pasting posters with only one condition: he must have his own bike. But when on his first day his bike is stolen, he must scour Rome, calling in every favour he can to retrieve his family's only lifeline and save them from destitution.
A moving piece of Italian Neo-realism by Vittorio De Sica, Bicycle Thieves is an unflinching depiction of Italian society following the end of the second world war. The bonds and divisions between the class strata, all of which boil down to varying degrees of having nothing, are both infuriating and life affirming. It's a simple but powerful story perfectly told and its bitter-sweetness - the camaraderie and selfishness and moral ambiguity - make it one of the truest depictions of what it means to be human ever committed to film.
The Third Man (Carol Reed – 1949)
Post-war Austria. Famous writer, Holly Martins has been offered a job by his childhood friend Harry Lime. But Martins is too late. He arrives to discover that Lime was killed in a car accident. But were two men at the scene or three? What is Lime’s associate Popescu hiding? And could Lime really have been mixed up in racketeering? Martins is determined to uncover the truth, however uncomfortable it might be.
Even those who have not seen the film will likely recognise the iconic imagery of the light accidentally cast across Orson Welles’ face, Harry Lime’s withering “cuckoo-clock” speech, and the earworm zither score. Graham Green’s story of powerlessness in the face of corruption and the lasting impact of war is one of the greatest films ever made.
Elsewhere on Amazon:
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawkes – 1940)
Something a bit lighter now with one of Howard Hawkes’ finest screwball comedies and one of the funniest films of the era (though Bringing up Baby often pips it to the post). Hawkes is famous for putting his leading men and women on a level playing field, both capable of holding their own but neither getting the upper hand. There’s much to be said about the directorial artistry of Hawkes but, just as importantly, it’s very funny.
The Stranger (Orson Welles – 1946)
While not the zenith of Welles’ career, The Stranger warrants a good deal of recognition. Ostensibly fitting snugly into the popular Noir genre, the films deals in imagery far more nightmarish than most of its ilk. Distributed by RKO, the same company as was producing Hitchcock’s Nazi hunting thriller Notorious, and released just 8 weeks prior, where Welles’ film offers something unique is in his use of real holocaust documentary footage as part of the story, giving it a very real, very dark edge over its more successful and better remembered cousin.
The 1950s was decade of binaries in cinema. At one end, huge spectacle was achieved both in storytelling and in technical advancement with Cinemascope and VistaVision epics such as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments dominating the box office. At the other, quiet, introspective character pieces such as On the Waterfront and Sunset Boulevard began to explore the human condition with more nuance than ever.
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa – 1950)
In a grove near Rashomon city gate, events unfold leading to robbery, rape and murder. The three eyewitnesses of the crimes - a bandit, the murdered man’s wife, and a woodcutter – each tell their story of the events but it becomes apparent that self-interest and guilt are clouding their accounts.
Much of modern cinematic storytelling owes a debt to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. The film is famous for playing with multiple accounts of the same events until the viewer is able to make an uneasy judgement on what the real events may have been. An examination of the subjectivity of truth is especially powerful when seen in the context of the political landscape of Japan (and of the world) following World War 2.
Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman – 1957)
Antonius Block and his squire, Jöns, wash up on a beach upon their return from the crusades. Block awakes to find the robed figure of death standing over him. His time has come. Block, still searching for answers about the nature and meaning of his life in the great plan, and desperate to see his wife one last time, barters a little extra time over a game of chess with Death. As the game is played, he and Jöns must find his way back home through a plague-ridden country full of flagellant zealots.
The questions that Block grapples with are as big as any represented in film – how does God stay silent in the face of such horror? Horror visited upon the world by plague and horror done in his name through witch burning and crusading. The film is almost magical in its handling of such existential angst as each character finds their own peace with the inevitability of both death and new life and Bergman’s script manages to find moments of true humour in even the direst situations. Deeply philosophical and fiercely compelling.
Shadows (John Cassavetes – 1959)
A brief glimpse into the lives of three African-American siblings, Shadows is a chronicle of the black experience of beat culture in 50s New York. Including such outrageous themes (for the time) as interracial relationships, bigotry and sexual inequality, it’s a frank look at the compromises being made simply to live a normal life by black Americans at that time.
Now seen as progenitor of the US indie scene, Shadows is the root which would eventually grow a family tree including filmmakers as diverse as Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, David Lynch, and John Waters. In each of their films there are methods which can be traced back to Cassavettes, whether its in the improvised dialogue; the casting of non-actors; documentary style camerawork; or, perhaps most importantly, the passion to tell the types of stories that are underrepresented in Hollywood. While greatly flawed in the eyes of today - only one of the ‘African-American’ siblings in the film was born of black parents, one was Sicilian by heritage and the other one sixteenth black - Shadows is an incredibly influential film in American cinema.
Elsewhere on Amazon:
The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest – 1955)
The 50’s was a golden era of science fiction, and one of the greatest British entries into the genre was Hammer’s first Quatermass film based on the BBC series of the same name (give or take an ‘E’). Until 1955, Hammer had not been particularly highly regarded as a production company, known rather for churning out cheap schedule filler. Quatermass changed all that and, with its international success, Hammer Horror was born, changing the face of British cinema and world horror.
The 60s saw an explosion in genre filmmaking. Spy movies, sci-fi, horror, westerns, crime movies – all reached their apogee during the course of the decade. But these genre obsessions also allowed directors and producers to play with genre expectations and, in some cases, to defy genre completely.
La Dolce Vita (Frederico Fellini – 1960)
Marcello Rubini, an gossip journalist, spends seven days and nights caught up in the incredible feel-good celebrity culture of Rome. He charms wealthy women, reconnects with influential friends, investigates a “miracle” and discovers a beached sea monster. But in the background are the lives of the normal people who frequently find their lives to be less than “sweet”.
In Fellini’s characteristic masterful understanding of cinema, he plays with the carefree attitude that sensation is all. The sights, the beauty, the dancing, the fashion – sensory stimulation and immediate gratification are the ideas that drive the protagonist to question what depth his life has. Filmed as a series of episodic scenes, rather than a more traditional plot, Fellini uses the split between day and night to play with the differences between love and lust; good times and true happiness, exuberance and introspection. Despite a very sharp undercurrent, the film frequently manages to inspire unadulterated delight.
Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester – 1964)
The Beatles were a little known pop band from the nineteen sixties and seventies who put out one or two vaguely memorable tunes. They were a bit like the Spice Girls of their day, but with boys. John was Funny Beatle; Paul was Affable Beatle; George was Bemused Beatle… and also Ringo Starr was there.
The film has little plot beyond the band getting mixed up in silliness and trying to contain Paul’s trouble-making grandad – played to perfection by Steptoe himself Wilfrid Brambell (“he’s very clean”) - while preparing to perform a concert.The screenplay is so spot on, and the delivery from the band so natural (well…mostly) that it barely feels like a film at all; more like an opportunity to just hang out with the band for an hour and a half. Absolutely hilarious and a complete joy to watch, there is no piece of cinema that is a truer slice of 1960s British culture.
Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo – 1964)
Feudal Japan struggles in a civil war; a struggle which is felt most keenly by the people at the mercy of the system. With son and husband Kishi now deceased, a woman and her daughter-in-law have no recourse but to ambush samurai returning from the war and kill them in order to sell on their weapons and armour. Armour such as the terrifying mask of an Oni demon, used by one samurai to hide his disfigured face. When an awkward affair begins between returning soldier, Hashi, and Kishi’s widow the livelihood of the two women is put in some jeopardy. Not as much jeopardy, however, as is created by the mask of the fearsome Oni.
The film is a chilling depiction of desperation and the base urges which drive people to survive. Interested more in symbolism than coherence, Onibaba straddles a line between period drama, traditional Noh theatre and horror. With its striking imagery, stark lighting and heavy atmosphere, it does not struggle to capture the attention required to unwrap its mysteries. Onibaba’s innovative design includes many themes and techniques now considered J-Horror staples.
Elsewhere on Amazon:
8 ½ (Frederico Fellini – 1963)
A very meta commentary on Fellini’s own struggles with the pressure to deliver profound works of artistic genius to budget and schedule, 8 ½ is one of the most ambitious films ever made. It’s Fellini’s best work and combines his genius for creative insight with his genius for filmmaking. Yes, Fellini is on this list twice. Yes, I did use the word genius twice. Not until Charlie Kaufman’s films Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York would the creative process be so intricately studied and questioned again.
If… (Lindsay Anderson – 1968)
British counterculture is distilled and weaponised in Anderson’s film which squarely takes aim at the upper-class establishment, literally putting their traditions and decadence under fire. Inspired by a 1930s French film, Zéro de Conduite (Zero for Conduct), if… was incredibly subversive when it was released and, with an ever-increasing number of school shootings in the news, has taken on a much darker tone in the 21st century. With its non-traditional structuring, surrealism, violence and brazen sexuality, it was this film which inspired Stanley Kubrick to cast Malcom McDowell as Alex in his adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.
Bad Movie Bonus:
The history of cinema wouldn’t be complete without recognising some of the biggest failures. From the first 50 years, here’s a strong contender for the worst:
Manos: The Hands of Fate (Harold P. Warren – 1966)
Lost while holidaying in Texas, Michael, Margaret, their daughter Debbie and their dog Peppy stop at a run down building. Greeted by custodian Torgo, they are told that 'the master' is away but grudgingly allows them to stay the night. Who is the sinister man in the painting? Why does he have so many wives? How long does this film go on for?
Made famous by cult B-Movie comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000, Manos is a master class in how not to make a movie. The film came about as the result of a bet that anyone could make a horror movie and was produced for a mere $19,000. The production has become infamous for many reasons, not least being that the entire salary expenditure for the movie was one bicycle and a month of dog food, both going to star Jackey Neyman. Harold Warren himself declared at the premiere that it was probably the worst film ever made. Everyone who watches it is forced to agree.
If anything on this list has piqued your interest, stay tuned for part 2, 1970 - 2020, coming soon.