With more than a century of film history to navigate, deciding which films should be ushered into the pantheon of genuine cinema classics is a pitiless, not to say perilously subjective, business. Undaunted, we challenged 50 cultural luminaries to nominate their favourite film, and tell us why they love it. The results, like the films themselves, range from the intriguing to the hilarious and poignant, and are, in one or two cases, succinct to the point of inscrutability, as you will discover below. We urge you to use this compendium – which, we should warn you, is light on CGI action blockbusters and heavy on Werner Herzog – as our go -to list of recommendations for the winter evenings, (or perhaps afternoons), that lie ahead.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
It blew my little six-year-old mind and continues to do so. Watching it is like entering into a spell.
2001: A Space Odyssey
I’m not really a big fan of sci-fi movies, per se; in general, I’m drawn to moody, earthbound films in which not much happens, action-wise. Of course, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is hardly an ‘action film’: it’s as much a psychological drama, and a cosmic treatise about the meaning of life, the universe, God, etc., as it is a movie about futuristic space hardware and stereotypical matters extra-terrestrial. My dad took me to see it in a big West End cinema when I was a little boy, and the impression it left on me was profound: the vivid depiction of a plausible near future, the inscrutable mystique of Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s fable-like screenplay, the incredibly potent use of music, all of these elements impacted on my fledgling mind as readily as the film’s colourful space suits and giant revolving space stations, rough daubings of which were soon filling my drawing books.
Similarly, the film’s final, synapse-melting ‘psychedelic’ sequences were a poetic, yet eerily, even brutally powerful introduction to the mind-altering potential of abstract film imagery – not something, I suspect, that my dad had quite anticipated when booking tickets for a sci-fi yarn, filmed in the suitably futuristic but rather cosily 1950s-sounding ‘Cinerama’ format.
I have seen the movie a dozen times or more since then, and its uncanny allure has simply never diminished. Curiously, the date 2001 still seems incredibly futuristic – to me, anyway…
The film remains, as one film poster put it, ‘The Ultimate Trip’. Oh, and Leonard Rossiter’s in it. Q.E.D.
After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)
I’m sometimes agnostic about the work of Martin Scorsese, but I love this, and ‘The King of Comedy’, which preceded it. Robert de Niro ruled that film, but Griffin Dunne, the protagonist in ‘After Hours’, is far more self-effacing, helping to create a loose ambience where the top-notch supporting cast can really stretch out. And what a cast it is: co-star Rosanna Arquette was in Desperately Seeking Susan the same year and would go on to give memorable turns in Pulp Fiction and Crash. Then there’s Teri Garr, who stole scenes in Tootsie and lit up the underrated One From the Heart. John Heard had the title role in Cutter’s Way, and the lead in the remake of Cat People before slipping down the bill. Verna Bloom and Linda Fiorentino epitomised very different types of femme fatale in Animal House and The Last Seduction, respectively.
After Hours is a sort of comedy, an early entry in the yuppie nightmare cycle of the mid-to-late eighties. Some of the scenes have dated somewhat – Dunne and Arquette strike up a conversation over a Henry Miller novel in a late night diner. Others are still sublime and offbeat, like the slow dance to Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is’ in deserted punk dive Club Berlin. In a way it’s a belated farewell to the New American Cinema Scorsese helped create, which had its roots in the low budget exploitation flicks of the ’60s; there’s an extended homage to Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, signalled by the talismanic presence of Dick Miller. It may not be his best film, but it manifests Scorsese’s passion for cinema on so many levels, and you’ve got to love a film that culminates with inveterate stoners Cheech & Chong stealing a living, breathing work of art.
Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955)
The film shows the constrictions of a suburban lifestyle on lonely widow Carey (Jane Wyman), as she pursues a romantic relationship with her (young) gardener (Rock Hudson) after the death of her husband. She’s perceived by her social group as too old for desire and romance and is expected to be married off to a much more ‘suitable’ older man who promises her companionship rather than love. She is shown in contrast to the women being portrayed in films at the time, such as Forbidden Planet, who never participate in the action.
The depiction of women finding their roles post WWII was representative of a much wider issue across America, specifically following the liberation they experienced during the war. The plot structure is simple but the story is very moving. I love the film because it is dramatic and non-conformist and the colours are so incredibly rich and beautiful (and it’s quite camp).
Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet 2001)
For some people this film is too sickly sweet and quirky but, for me, it is pure visual Prozac. Little Amélie’s revenge on her neighbour, sat on the roof, unplugging the aerial of his TV just before every goal is scored while he watches football. The stranger breaking down upon the discovery of his lost childhood in a tin box. The ghost of the Photo-Me booths… The garden gnome’s holiday. There are too many great moments to list them all.
American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
For me, American Psycho is an overlooked and misunderstood modern-day classic. In the wrong hands this could have been nothing more than cheap gore-porn, but Mary Harron handles the subject masterfully, inverting all obvious misogynistic connotations and projecting them through a feminist lens. Funny, absurd, elegant, perverse and executed perfectly (pun intended) by Christian Bale, you’ll never hear Phil Collins in the same way again.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
The most beautiful and mysterious opening scene ever.
The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
It’s just a perfect film. It’s hard to get romantic comedies right, but this absolutely does. It has a slight cartoon-like quality about it; Jack Lemmon is terrific and Shirley MacLaine fits the bill as a sexy lift attendant. It has a funny premise, a clever, witty script, and a beautiful, sweet, understated ending. The most joyous, smartest, funniest film I’ve ever seen.
It would have to be The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007). The opening of the film is beautiful; the script is lyrical and poetic; it is beautifully shot; the characterisation is superb and the music is amazing.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The atmosphere, the acting, the story, the sound of the film and the craziness of the whole project…
Auntie Mame (1958)
Mise en scène. Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday, The Women) dazzles as a woman whose interiors always reflect her own fluid personality. Cerulean velvet sofa; hydraulic Danish benches; crystal bead matrix; Yul Ulu’s portable furniture… A Technicolor object lesson that says
situationism starts with the walls and then moves to the stairs; and that we all need somewhere to sit down.
HARRIET CHARITY VERNEY
Belle De Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Appalling script but the outfits and mise en scène are amazing. I could watch it over and over again (on mute, obviously).
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater 2013)
For the South Peloponnese.
I’m going for Badlands (Terence Malick, 1973), because of the use of music, the cinematography, the acting, the dialogue… It’s faultless.
Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)
It’s a fascinating documentary about the New York City photographer, his work and his personal history, which is very tender and touching.
Blades of Glory, (Will Speck and Josh Gordon, 2007)
Because gay jokes shouldn’t be funny but they are.
I’m not much of a film buff but for me, Blazing Saddles, (Mel Brookes, 1974) is a classic. Gene Wilder’s delivery is enough to make this my top movie.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
There is almost no plot in this film, just dozens of little unfinished narratives, yet it is completely engaging from start to finish. Beautifully shot, expertly acted, faultlessly soundtracked and scripted with finesse, it shows the power of cinema that isn’t purely plot-driven. I’m also still young enough not to have given up hope that one day I’ll grow up to be just like Sundance.
Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), because of how the soundtrack (Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ from Symphony No 5) carries the story of an ageing composer’s overwhelming, unrequited desire for a beautiful young boy during a summer on the beach in Venice. It’s a romantic tragedy that feels accurate to anyone who has fallen in love or chased an elusive ideal, whether in art or life. Plus, it’s the best music video of all time.
The Dog (Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, 2014)
The amazing ‘real story’ behind the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz, 1988)
Because if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
A modern take on the Jacobean revenge tragedy, with the most over-the-top ‘Mexican standoff’ scene ever filmed.
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
I love Lorraine Bracco for her tone and dialect when she speaks, and the almost unhealthy passion surrounding Karen Hill, Henry Hill and their money. I’m a sucker for a ‘rise to the top to fall to the bottom’ story, and I like the way this one is told by both husband and wife. Classic!
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
It seemed that on Saturdays, as a child, I was fuelled with Westerns on TV, and, of course, this was the time when the Texan bar was at its zenith in the confectionary world. Ennio Morricone’s score was transfixing and created a sonic landscape for the incredible West. Coupled with Clint Eastwood’s fascinating and subtly masculine performance as Blondie, and the final terrible twist that leaves his enemy dangling between life and his share of the gold, this was the benchmark for the genre and the soundtrack is still one of my favourites.
For someone who hasn’t really got the patience for movies, I can watch The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963) over and over again. I think it’s the best example of triumph (and heroic failure) in the face of adversity in a movie ever made. Based on a true story, it offers a very uncomplicated, goody versus baddy scenario; there’s not even a love interest in the film, which is refreshing, just men with one objective – to escape from a Nazi POW camp. The cast includes Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn and that Scottish actor from The Professionals who always steals the show, Gordon Jackson. The movie is also about ingenuity. How this group fooled and hoodwinked the Nazi prison officers is remarkable and required immense teamwork and cooperation. Perhaps I also like it – being half American and half British – because the two cultures meet in a middle ground to defeat a common enemy.
The best and probably most universally popular scene is when Steve McQueen, as Capt. Virgil Hilts, the ‘Cooler King’, reaches the Swiss border on a stolen Nazi motorbike and is blockaded by a barbed wire fence with an array of German soldiers pursuing him. He rides up and down the border, helmet-less and jacket-less in a plain t-shirt and jeans. He attempts to jump the double-width fence several times and you really want him to do it. The Nazis are getting closer and closer and Steve McQueen is just six feet away from freedom. But he just can’t make it and falls at the last hurdle, and gets tangled in the barbed wire fence only to be captured again.
But that’s why it’s such a great movie. Some of the prisoners succeed and escape, others are captured and some are rounded up and cruelly shot dead. It’s a film about triumph and failure, but above all never giving up.
Heat, (Michael Mann 1995)
I find its depiction of LA very beautiful, while at the same time it’s a brilliant modern action movie. As well as being a great escapist fantasy, it also has an underlying sense of human sadness, heightened by the photography and music.
Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog, 1979)
In your ears, a Bavarian chorus yodelling in nostalgic portrayal of Herzog’s native landscape, while your eyes capture a very still figure perched on a fallen tree in the foreground. He is a tableau vivant; the actor, or non-actor, is mute and transfixed on grazing cows glimpsed through a timeless mist. I couldn’t help but think of Caspar David Freidrich, the German Romantic landscape painter best known for his lone figures who are pictured in deep contemplation against a backdrop of morning mist, rolling hills or ruined monasteries. Herzog invites the viewer to take ample time to experience the opening scenes, allowing the eye to gaze on the film as it does on a painting. It was shot in the tiny village of Sachrang and set in the 1800s, a time when art’s reflections were an overflow of Romantic envisioning. Finally, the mist grows into a sublimely flowing river, from which the first words are uttered in prophetic monologue: “I look into the distance, to the end of the world. Before the day is over, the end will come…” A new age is dawning, and Hias is the prophetic hero who, unlike the rest of the cast, many of whom acted while hypnotized, remains conscious throughout. I adore this film for so many reasons: the costumes; the painterly eye of the camera; the props; the mesmerized actors; the music of Popol Vuh; the scenes shot on the Skellig islands off the coast of Kerry, the Alps and Yellowstone National Park; Herzog’s deep appreciation and understanding of the uncanny landscape… the list goes on.
Joan of Arc of Mongolia (Ulrike Ottinger, 1989)
For three reasons: the trans-Siberian train; a lesbian princess colony; ponies!!!
La Baie Des Anges (Jacques Demy, 1963)
A poetic essay in melancholia, the film stars Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann and charts the highs and lows of a fatalistic love affair played out on the roulette wheel. If you’re not hooked by the end of the opening sequence, shot out of the back of a car speeding along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, with its accompanying score by Michel Legrand, you’re a lost soul.
Even though I sometimes write music to pictures, a strong strand of filmmaking that I respond to has no music in it whatsoever. Maybe it’s because these films start from a different point as regards the need to sentimentalize subjects, or extract emotive responses from the audience. In my opinion, music is overused in film. Two fairly recent examples, that don’t rely on music, spring to mind, a Turkish film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and an Italian one, Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2011). If I had to I would maybe choose the latter. It is strange and meditative, and besides not having any music, it also has virtually no dialogue.
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
I watched this for the first time one Christmas on my own in a hotel room in Cornwall. I’d always imagined it would be basically some good-looking people in cool clothes. It is that, obviously, but so much more, too. It’s really about trying to find meaning amongst all the superficial clamour of life, and how hard it is not to be let down by those who you look to for inspiration. It’s so cleverly structured that you don’t, on first viewing, realise how you’re being guided through a series of episodes toward a kind of redemptive ending. I find the end of the film especially moving. Marcello Mastroianni’s character has stayed up all night partying with a bunch of sophisticates and aristocrats. He has, it seems, given up on finding any meaning in life, or any belief in morality. The partygoers all drunkenly tumble onto the beach at dawn. There, in his hopeless, disoriented state, Mastroianni sees a young peasant girl who was his waitress earlier in the day. She recognises him and just smiles. Her simplicity gives him hope in goodness. For me, it’s weirdly heartbreaking.
Miracle in Milan (Vittorio De Sica 1951)/ Lucifer Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1980) I know it’s two films, and neither is the greatest movie ever made, but both represent the dreamlike hallucination of life on film and the magic/magick evoked by imagery and strange somethings… One is very sweet and uplifting, the other is arcane and mythical, but both see the illusory seep through into the brain and heart. The scenes I dig are the tramps flying off into ‘heaven’ at the end of ‘Milan, and, in Lucifer’, the UFOs over the pyramids.
Not necessarily my all time number one, but a film that has stayed with me since I first watched it in the late ’70s, is Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Robert De Niro shines as Johnny Boy, a live wire, a loose cannon, a fuck up, but so cool in the Italian-American rude boy style. The soundtrack was incredible; it worked brilliantly in the background and choreographed everything, whether the sound of the New York streets, the Feast of San Gennaro or Harvey Keitel as he finger-clicked his way through the strippers and sailors to the sound of the Rolling Stones playing ‘Tell Me’, a song of theirs I hadn’t heard before I watched the movie. But the key moment, the one that still ups my heart rate like nothing else I know, is right at the start, the opening credits, even. Keitel, in bed, wakes with a start; he’s troubled; shit is going to go down and he knows it. He gets up, puts his hand through his hair and paces the room. The light is coming through the bedroom window and police sirens can be heard in the neighbourhood. He gets back into bed and as the sirens fade in the distance, his head hits the pillow to BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, CRASH, BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, CRASH…Be My Baby. Hal Blaine, Phil Spector… and here comes Ronnie. Man, that gets me every time.
I think my favourite film has to be Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984). Sparse and sometimes improvised dialogue, utterly convincing characters, luminous cinematography, meditative soundtrack, a non-conventional leading man and possibly the best opening to any film ever. My favourite scene is probably the Super 8 movie footage: literally no words are necessary.
This may be predictable filmmaker behaviour, but if I name a single “favourite” film, I land on Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939). Because it does all this at once: highly mannered and beautifully composed and also dense with human gesture of character, highly modern and also deeply personal and elegaic. Because it lifts off and takes flight without looking back, as only the rare best movies can. And lastly because it has a central famous quote I think of often: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
ANNE LAURE GUILLAIN
There are too many films to have a firm favourite, but, without thinking too deeply about it, the one that springs to mind is Rocco And His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960) and the scene depicting Nadia’s murder. It’s a heart-stopping moment in cinema, for me, played by the tragically underrated Annie Girardot.
Room and A Half (Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, 2009)
I love this film as it’s a charming and moving mixture of fantasy, whimsy, biography and documentary, exploring the impact of historic events on personal lives and the émigré condition through the life of Josef Brodsky. It is beautiful and the characters are sympathetic.
Godfrey Ho’s schlock, cut’n’paste po-mo classic Scorpion Thunderbolt (1988). Fight and sex scenes featuring B-movie micro-star Richard Harrison are cut fairly randomly into a Hong Kong horror movie that’s been bought off the shelf. Copyright is infringed left, right and centre on the soundtrack – the most extraordinary example being the use of Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygène’ for a sex scene set in a porno cinema!
OLIVER CHERER (DOLLBOY)
The Small World of Sammy Lee (Ken Hughes, 1963)
I love everything about this film, not least the fact that Anthony Newley was a complete revelation to me. I am now a born-again Newley fan and currently obsessing over his absurdly brilliant early ’60s TV series The Strange World of Gurney Slade. The Small World of Sammy Lee struck me as a film that I ought to have been familiar with as part of the ’60s wave of kitchen sink dramas, as it shares a gritty vérité with them, but Newley’s quiet, naturalistic performance sucks you into the notion that you’re watching a real man dig himself out of a hole of his own making with as little fuss as he can get away with. It also features a perfect British jazz score, pitched somewhere between the soundtracks to Alfie and Kes.
I think my favourite movie of all time is Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972). The whole atmosphere of the film is unique, from the set design, the story, the cinematography, the score (and repeated use of Bach’s ‘Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’). It is the closest feeling I’ve had to waking from a dream where I don’t quite remember or understand exactly what happened, but I felt very emotional afterwards. The score, by Eduard Artemev, was unnerving, otherworldly and perfectly fitting for the kind of tone Tarkvosky set with the imagery and pace of the film. It changed my idea of how music could be used in film. The last shot of the film is something that’s stuck with me: a patient ending to a complicated film, not at all didactic or emotionally instructive yet profound. While Soderberg’s remake was very good (and Cliff Martinez’s score an amazing piece of art by itself), Tarkovsky’s vision of the story seemed more subtle, raw and daring.
This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963)
Set in Yorkshire – God’s country, and my own – it’s a British ‘kitchen sink’ drama in which Richard Harris plays a young bloke navigating his way through the popular acclaim bestowed on him thanks to his prowess on the rugby pitch. The film unzips the dilemmas of a man oscillating between the lower and middle classes, and the complex desires of two very different women from across the social divide. Harris’s character lays bare the composite archetypal strata of manhood, while being pulled from desire to despair, affection to cruelty, and through the short-lived exuberance of success before the inevitable wane. His is a powerful physical and psychological presence that practically bathes the screen in testosterone.
For me, the film would have to be Stroszeck (Werner Herzog, 1977), which is subtitled ‘A Ballad’, which says it all, really – if, by ‘ballad’, one understands death, despair, fate and the mad circus of bad luck and misfortune ending in tragedy. It’s just heartbreaking and weepingly funny. It’s also, allegedly, the film Ian Curtis watched on TV on his last night.
Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)
My favourite clip is when Monika is laid on top of a boat, sunbathing. It’s a beautiful image and a perfect scene. You are totally drawn into the film at this point. The image reveals an idyllic, fleeting moment because, as the story unfolds, the beauty is short lived and the crass realities of life start to creep in…
Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)
Tampopo (Jûzô Itami, 1985)
Probably the most insightful film about noodles ever made.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)
Both Gary Oldman and John Hurt are fantastic at nailing that clipped English public school boy accent… particularly in the “George, get in here” scene.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
It’s Eddie’s exasperation with Roger’s ‘toon sensibilities. There’s a moment when Roger escapes from a pair of handcuffs but explains he could only have done it “when it was funny”, which is a bind that all comedians recognise.
GEMMA DE CRUZ
I caught Eric Rohmer’s A Winter’s Tale (1992) by accident, which is appropriate for a filmmaker whose work centres around the notion of ‘chance’. The start and the end of the film are almost beyond perfection, as they echo everything you see throughout the film and bookend it at the same time. It begins with a flashback, presented like a soft focus dream, but the events in the final scene, that take place in an ordinary, everyday setting, exceed the main character’s most powerful dream. The way Rohmer achieves this isn’t predictable or ‘Hollywood-ish’; he does it in a way that is believable, and while the cynical side of you says ‘As if that would happen in real life’, the romantic side of you says ‘That could happen’, because you know that sometimes things like that really do happen.
KATIE GROCOTT MURDOCH
For some reason – probably because I’m fairly clueless when it comes to films – I’d never heard of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) until my best friends at university sat me down and insisted that I watch it one night in our college common room. Withnail is often cited as the archetypal ‘student’ film, with a stream of quotes (“Get in the back of the van!” “Fork it!” “Monty, you terrible cunt!”) repeated ad nauseum by (ahem) earnest young scholars. But you can’t miss the bittersweet, elegaic quality permeating every scene of this tale of out-of-work actors at the tail end of the 1960s; as the decade draws to a close, decisions must be made about growing up, shaping up and moving on. Far from being a bromance, Withnail is one of the most heartwrenching breakup films you’ll ever see, with Richard E Grant left at the film’s end quoting Hamlet at the wolves in Regent’s Park, his only remaining certainty being that he, like his washed-up actor uncle Monty, will never play the Dane.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
Unashamedly. Been with me since I was a kid and, unless I lose all hope, will be there when I’m begging on the streets of Pottersville, reminding me why Bedford Falls is worth fighting for.