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How do you learn more about filmmaking?
Most filmmakers learn by watching those who came before them. Watching movies helps you understand the craft better.
When you watch the work of master directors, cinematographers, and actors, you gain more insight into what it takes to produce a quality film.
Before enrolling in film school, check out this essential list of 30 films every film student should see.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo often tops the list of films all inspiring filmmakers must-see.
Released in 1958, Vertigo is a psychological thriller about a former police detective suffering from acrophobia and vertigo.
Vertigo was the first movie to use the dolly zoom. Hitchcock used the camera technique to recreate the disorientation experienced by the main character. The film is a master class in how to build tension.
Martin Scorsese also lists Vertigo as one of his favorite films of all time.
2. Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane is often considered one of the best films of all time. Director Orson Welles and writer Herman J. Mankiewicz create a powerful narrative that continues to amaze critics and new generations of filmmakers.
When the movie was released in 1941, almost every aspect of the film was original and groundbreaking.
The cinematography, story structure, pacing, editing, and music were all innovative at the time. There was nothing else like Citizen Kane at the time, making it an important part of film history.
3. Tokyo Story
Tokyo Story has a slow pace, low camera angles, and other elements that break with tradition. It also captures a unique time in Japanese history when the country embraced Western ideals and discarding traditions, which is also reflected in the story.
The plot follows a retired couple as they visit their children in post-war Japan. The children treat the parents as burdens.
The film is now considered essential viewing for its ability to showcase emotions without being melodramatic.
4. The Godfather
The Godfather is one of the films every filmmaker should see due to the realism of the characters, who are brought to life by a well-rounded cast. Marlon Brando won an Academy Award for his performance, which he turned down.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather is thought of as the quintessential gangster film.
However, it treats the Italian-Americans in the story with more respect than earlier movies about the mob, allowing the audience to sympathize with the characters despite their horrific deeds.
5. Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia is a beautiful film with sweeping landscapes. It won seven Academy Awards, including wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Music.
Peter O’Toole was also nominated for Best Actor, but the technical aspects are why film students need to watch this movie.
6. 8 ½
8 ½ is a movie about the struggles of being a movie director. It was also written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Federico Fellini.
The unique premise finds the director fantasizing about his past loves while dealing with his career challenges.
David Lynch lists 8 ½ as one of his top three favorite films of all time, and he even made a series of lithographs dedicated to the film.
7. The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption is an interesting film adapted from Stephen King’s novel and directed by Frank Darabont. It mostly takes place in a prison, yet it is incredibly inspiring.
There is a sense of hope and wonder throughout the film despite the dark setting and the horrible injustices committed against some of the characters, mostly due to the powerful script and the lead actors’ performances.
Cinematographers will recognize and appreciate the work of Roger Deakins.
8. Mean Streets
While every Martin Scorsese movie should be considered essential viewing for film students, Mean Streets is one of the most important works in Scorsese’s career. The plot is thin, but the performances and direction are extraordinary.
Robert De Niro is the standout star of the movie despite his supporting role.
However, the unique photography in the film is also worth paying attention to. The fight scene in a billiard hall is especially notable for its realism, as the camera keeps you focused on the action without distracting cuts or closeups.
9. Bicycle Thieves
“Ladri di Biciclette,” or Bicycle Thieves, is the story of a poor father in post-war Italy searching for a stolen bicycle.
The movie showcases the despair and devastation caused by war. The region is economically depressed, and many of the cities were partially destroyed.
The movie captures the atmosphere of post-war Europe and the hardships that Europeans faced as they tried to rebuild. The movies are also touching and heartwarming due to the connection between the father and the son at the center of the story.
10. Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s story is an example of how to learn filmmaking by watching movies. Tarantino did not attend film school. He was an avid movie buff who turned his love of films into a successful career.
Pulp Fiction manages to combine several stories into a non-linear movie. Along with a unique script, the film highlights how music can elevate a scene.
If you want to learn to develop strong characters and dialogue, study Quintin Tarantino.
11. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick is known for his distinct visual style, which is most evident in The Shining. It is also considered one of the most terrifying blockbuster films, thanks to the creepy visuals and Jack Nicholson‘s performance.
The movie takes place almost entirely in a large hotel during the offseason.
The cinematography and set design keep you on edge throughout the movie, including several unforgettable cinematic moments.
12. Good Will Hunting
Good Will Hunting is frequently included in lists of films to study in film school due to its screenplay.
The screenplay for Good Will Hunting is an example of how to maintain focus. The story rarely treads too far from the main plot.
However, this almost wasn’t the case. The original script included a subplot involving Matt Damon’s character working for the US government.
13. Seven Samurai
Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is frequently listed as one of the most inspiring movies for filmmakers.
The movie was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven and likely influenced other movies, including the original Star Wars.
The movie features rich characters and original cinematic artistry that still stand out over six decades later. The visual style was unique.
The film was even nominated for Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
14. City of God
City of God is the story of two adolescents growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s. One of the kids becomes a photographer while the other becomes a local drug kingpin.
However, the movie is notable for its realism. The audience feels as if they are walking through the favelas with the characters.
The movie has an epic scope, powerful imagery, and amazing direction. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles captured phenomenal performances from a group of mostly untrained actors.
Instead of relying on dialogue, the film uses visual storytelling to propel the story forward.
The story is about a young warrior attempting to find his wife and child following the massacre of his tribe. The movie is relentless as it follows the warrior.
While the run time is 139 minutes, the film’s quick pace and dramatic scenes keep you glued to the screen until the credits roll.
Students can learn about editing from this film, as it is carefully cut to maintain a sense of urgency throughout the entire runtime.
16. Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is a showcase for what a cinematographer can achieve with a blank canvas. Set in the not-too-distant future, Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to Blade Runner (1982), which helped define the cyberpunk subgenre.
The setting gives the cinematographer Roger Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve free reign to compose breathtaking scenes.
As with Stanley Kubrick’s work, Denis Villeneuve uses symmetry and balance to guide the audience through expansive set pieces.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, Casablanca is one of the top-rated movies of all time. The plot involving a love triangle is relatively straightforward.
Overall, Casablanca is a technical masterpiece. The movie benefited from the experienced director, composer, cinematographer, screenwriters, and great performances from the actors.
Any film student needs to see Casablanca.
Joker stands out for a variety of reasons, including the cinematography.
Cinematographer Lawrence Sher expertly recreated the look of films from the 1970s, several of which were a direct inspiration for this movie.
The filmmakers borrowed heavily from Taxi Driver, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon when establishing the movie’s style.
Along with the direction of photography, the movie is worth watching for Joaquin Phoenix’s Academy Award-winning performance as the Joker.
The movie is a psychological study of a villain, and Phoenix keeps you captivated from the start to the end.
19. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre provides the blueprint for a successful adventure film.
It introduces the characters and quickly establishes their personalities. Written and directed by John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre follows three men searching for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.
The movie features action, bandits, and betrayal. It is also a character-driven story, using adventure as a method for testing the characters.
20. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a groundbreaking film directed by Steven Spielberg.
After a close encounter with a UFO, a man’s life gradually unravels. The performance by Richard Dreyfuss is relatable, which helps the audience get drawn into the story.
The movie is also notable for its complex storylines. Along with following Richard Dreyfuss’s character, the film follows the efforts of scientists to contact aliens.
Steven Spielberg keeps the complicated plots from becoming too muddled throughout the lengthy film.
As with many of the must-see movies for filmmakers, Breathless broke new ground when released and has influenced countless directors and cinematographers. It is a 1960 French film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Breathless is the most influential movie to come out of the french new wave cinema of the 1960s. The movie had a bold visual style that Western audiences had not yet seen.
It also featured numerous jump cuts, which heightened the tension and sense of urgency in some of the scenes.
Patton won seven Academy Awards, which is enough of a reason for film students to watch it. The movie won awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor.
However, George C. Scott turned down the Best Actor award for his portrayal of General George S. Patton. Scott didn’t believe in competition and awards because every piece of art should be considered unique.
Patton is an epic movie that traces the general’s career from a major defeat in Tunisia through victories in North Africa and Italy. The movie does not attempt to make the audience sympathize with Patton. It instead presents the general as a stubborn military leader.
23. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another film that students need to watch if they ever plan on adapting a novel.
Released in 1975 and based on the novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest puts the audience in the mental hospital with the other patients.
Throughout the film, you feel the emotions of the characters, which is due to a combination of fantastic direction, set design, cinematography, and actors’ performances.
The movies’ sadistic asylum nurse Mildred Ratched later spawned the spin-off series Ratched (2020) on Netflix.
24. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back is often considered the greatest film in the Star Wars franchise. It includes many storytelling elements that film students can learn from. It is a character-driven story that allows its protagonists to grow, fail, and learn from their mistakes.
The Empire Strikes Back is also unique for defying expectations, with unexpected plot twists that blew the audiences’ mind in 1980 when it was initially released.
25. Some Like It Hot
Some Like It Hot routinely tops the list of the greatest comedies of all time. It starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. Curtis and Lemmon play fugitives on the run who disguise themselves as women in an all-female band.
The movie perfectly blends genres, including romantic comedies, crime capers, buddy films, and musicals. It also delivers a strong message of acceptance and tolerance. These features help the movie remain relevant over 60 years after its release.
26. District 9
The movie includes a combination of film styles, including found footage. The filmmakers also found a way to make the computer-generated aliens appear lifelike.
Instead of choosing to give the movie a glossy sheen, the filmmakers kept the visual style gritty and realistic.
This helps mask some of the limitations of CGI. Applying grain and other effects helps blend the CGI creatures into the real world.
Titanic is one of the top-grossing movies of all time, making it essential viewing for aspiring filmmakers. While critics argue that the story has not held up well over the years, Titanic remains an amazing filmmaking achievement.
Titanic is one of the most expensive movie productions of its time. It is one of the last Hollywood blockbusters to feature massive set-pieces built to scale instead of relying solely on CGI.
28. This Is Spinal Tap
Directed by Rob Reiner, This Is Spinal Tap helped define the mockumentary genre of films. The movie follows a fictional English rock group during a US tour to promote a new album.
Critics mostly praised the witty dialogue, which was entirely improvised. However, film students should also appreciate the mockumentary style of filmmaking. Rob Reiner manages to keep the audience interested in the antics of a fake band by humanizing them.
29. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson, easily belongs on the list of essential films for filmmakers to study. The trilogy shows how to adapt novels to screen in a way that pleases fans of the original work while appealing to a wider audience.
The films also feature heavy use of special effects, especially during carefully choreographed fight scenes and battles featuring thousands of real and computer-generated extras.
30. Hoop Dreams
The only documentary on this list, Hoop Dreams follows two student-athletes and their pursuit to become professional basketball players. The International Documentary Association (IDA) ranked it as the greatest documentary of all time.
Released in 1994, Hoop Dreams was originally planned as a 30-minute short. The filmmakers ended up chronicling the two young athletes for eight years, recording over 250 hours of footage.
Hoop Dreams is a great example of how to edit years of footage into a compelling story that clocks in at just under three hours.
So that’s it. 30 great movies to watch for different reasons if you want to learn filmmaking on your own.
These are just the beginning of course, and every movie can teach you something–even the bad ones.
But if you want to learn filmmaking from the best these are the perfect place to start.
Did you know that you can actually take online classes with A-list directors, actors, and screenwriters? Read more here.
About the author:
Jan Sørup is a videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.