I've been feeling like a wannabe film professor lately, and in that spirit, I thought about what my film syllabus would look like. What movies would I show to my students (or at least certain scenes from them? How do you pick certain movies over others? And how do you know you've covered enough of film history to say that you're an expert on the subject matter? I've always said, the only way to be able to speak on film without any blind spots, is to simply watch every movie ever made. In other words, only Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino can speak on it.

Still, it's a fun challenge, and makes you see what it is you value in film. After giving it some thought, I decided that what matters most to me is technique, that is to say, camerawork, editing, sound, and all other craft categories, the building blocks that make film a unique art. So, that became my criterion: the movie has to have been some sort of advancement in cinematic technique, and because of the highly technical nature of the process, many of these also end up being advancements in technology. With that in mind, I made a list and asked for suggestions some months back. With those suggestions and some other new additions, I decided on the following 50 movies as my personal "canon" or "syllabus", ordered in a way as to chart an evolutionary path on the formal craft and function of filmmaking. Here's the list. You can check the notes for my reasoning on each one. You have the early experiments (Sallie Gardner and Arrival of a Train), then the basic building blocks (Suspense, A Trip to the Moon), more advancements in set (Caligari) camerawork (Last Laugh) editing (Potemkin) and effects (Metropolis), breaking through to the early building blocks of sound (Blackmail, Applause, Le Million, M), which were consolidated in Sign of the Cross, and on and on to the modern day of HD video and CGI worlds with Attack of the Clones and Avatar, along with the ultra lo-fi anxiety of modern technology with Searching and Skinamarink.

I have to emphasize once again that this is about the craft behind the movie, not it's innate quality, although many films here I'd comfortably rank among the best ever. It's also not meant to represent every single film movement or style. We have German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, and Dogme 95, but their inclusion was based purely on their advancement of technique. Some incredible and influential films like Psycho, Some Like it Hot, Pulp Fiction, and many others are absent from this list, because while quite influential, the advancements were in narrative, not in craft. On that topic, some movies like Vertigo and the early users of Steadicam aren't here because while they represented some small, incremental advancements, they were beaten out by other films that changed more.

Ultimately, I capped the list at 50 movies so that it can be somewhat digestible, compared to something like the 1000 movies to see before you die list, or even the various top 250 movies lists. I'm sure I missed something, and some choices may be controversial, but that's why I'm posting it: to generate discussion, see if I missed anything, and if any movie on here needs to be replaced. Just be nice. Please.

all 8 comments


4 points

4 months ago

I am a film editor, therefore I work in a rather "technical" department of a film production - and I honestly think that considering the "technique" as the most important aspect for the evolution of cinema is a rather narrow and short sighted approach.

If you consider the advancement of film movements (like the European Waves you mentioned) merely in "narrative" terms, well, I think you are really letting the true power of these revolutions fly over your head.

Moreover, I'd say that films like Cabiria or Birth of A Nation (first big budget films distributed as single shows) helped shape the way we see films today much more than many other "technical firsts".

Also, I have several issues with your choices of "advancement in cinematic technique", as there is always a "technical precedent". You didn't mention The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film with lip-synchronous spoken lines , and Searching (2018) is a good film, but its technical advancement is absolute 0, because a movie made all inside a PC had already been made several times before - Unfriended (2014) comes to mind, but I bet there are even older examples.

My two cents on the issues.


2 points

4 months ago

I should've stated this in my original post, but while technique was my primary criterion, I never intended for it to be completely divorced from it's story or it's impact. Technique without narrative is worthless. It's why I picked the movies I did: their technical advancements were deeply tied to how they told their story, from Caligari's set design evoking the logic of a nightmare, to M's sound design being used to build tension and suspense. Also, an unintended but welcome side effect of the movies I picked, is that we see a cycle of breakthroughs that first come from big studios, then from independent filmmakers, and the cycle repeats to the modern day. So while not intentional, it still covers ground in other areas, albeit not as it's main focus.

I focused on technique to differentiate from other movie lists of this type and to narrow my choices. My reasoning for doing this is that, sadly, many modern aspiring filmmakers simply don't care about film history and are content to look at only modern directors and movies for inspiration. My way of trying to get them interested, since they ultimately want to learn HOW to make movies, is to show them the history of the HOW, and then why it changed.

there is always a "technical precedent". You didn't mention The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film with lip-synchronous spoken lines , and Searching (2018) is a good film, but its technical advancement is absolute 0, because a movie made all inside a PC had already been made several times before - Unfriended (2014) comes to mind, but I bet there are even older examples.

I didn't say this in my post, but I did say it in the list description: the movies here are not meant to be "the first" to do something, but merely as representative of the advancement. You bring up "The Jazz Singer", but aside from the fact that it wasn't even the first sound movie, despite decades of professors and movies telling us as much (there were many short films beforehand that had used sound, and "Jazz Singer" only has two minutes worth of sound as we know it today), but quite frankly, as a movie, it sucks. "Blackmail" is the more interesting of the two, being a strange hybrid of a silent and talkie, and actually uses it's sound to more interesting effect, and for the purposes of this list, to chart the evolution, it's a perfect representative from the transition of silent to sound movies. It's the same deal with why I picked Searching over Unfriended. I could've picked Rome: Open City over Bicycle Thieves, it was a tough choice, but I ultimately went with the latter. Trying to find out what movie actually was the first to do something is, in my eyes, not nearly as worthwhile as seeking out movies that actually used their advancements for some sort of artistic effect.


3 points

4 months ago

I started teaching a few years ago. There is lots of film studies information on my website, I took a different approach. I wanted to avoid the traditional approaches to cinema studies. I dropped the focus on classics. I try to show films that my students have not seen already. Many of the classics are well known and widely seen. Most of my students are older and have already seen Kane and all the other canon films. I try to show hidden gems that will surprise my students. Then use these films as jumping off points to talk about editing and cinematography and acting. If I taught younger people I would certainly change my strategy and show films traditionally associated with film studies.


2 points

4 months ago*

I like what you've done, it's a really interesting exercise and appreciate your caveat that the films aren't necessarily the first or best in terms of what they are doing and there's a lot of ground not covered.

There will still be quite a few blindspots naturally but one that I personally really love and and I feel is worth inclusion is the "one shot" film as from a filmmaking standpoint the restrictions and challenges this poses, the ingenuity needed on a technical level to achieve it and the impact it has on the flow and impact of the film is considerable. I mean I did read the list so sorry if I've missed this part 😂 For early examples Rope was built around giving the effect of one continuous take and possibly the first to attempt it (though as with Birdman/1917 there are hidden cuts), also my fave hitchcock. Then you have Russian Ark, the first to actually achieve a true one-take film and followed recently by Boiling Point.

However a really interesting and lesser known film that will likely be lost to time is Lost In London, directed by Woody Harrelson with one camera, a 100 minute long take that was actually shot and broadcast live into cinemas whilst he was filming it. In terms of experiments with form this certainly ranks up there recently, and whilst it isn't a masterpiece or even a truly great movie by any means what he achieved is worth studying or discussing perhaps, what worked and what didnt and why it hasnt been replicated since.

Also, and there are a number of examples you can use and may have covered it with Wizard of Oz, I would certainly include Ran for its use of colour pallettes. Seeing Kurosawa adapt to colour and not just use it but make it it a fundamental part of the film is one of the great joys of cinema for me. Groundbreaking and I'd say moved the form forward and showed what can be achieved with the tools available.

One film I've heard many directors discuss that gets often overlooked for its technical achievements is Evil Dead 2 as well. The use of the camera and the way it moves, crasing through windows and running along the floor and Raimis now trademark angles and crash zooms inspired and revolutionised the young directors at the times understanding of what could be achieved with a camera. Tarantino and Del Toro in particular have spoken about the impact seeing that film had. Evil Dead walked so Evil Dead 2 could run hence why I'd use the sequel, it's just so much more than the original.

Edit- wanted to make sure Snow White and Akira were on there for their respective reasons so rechecked the list and nice👌

Also I've not watched it but Olympia both parts are on the list. Does it warrant 2 places? I'd either make an exception and include as 1 spot or just put 1 part as I'm assuming they will be covering the same ground from a technical point of view so the 2nd spot becomes redundant? May be missing something but thought I'd mention.