Every artist has an inspiration, a theme for their work. Filmmakers often create lists of films that have inspired them. These films usually exemplify mechanisms of successful storytelling. For many creative types, these inspiring movies serve as a place for reflection, which in turn can help to shape methods or mechanisms. Reflecting on what inspires us can help us get over creative blocks.
Gwyneth Paltrow put together a helpful and interesting list in an article on Goop.com called Some Famous Directors’ Favorite Films where she breaks down the favorite movies of filmmakers in sections. This is a great list because many of the films are older and criterion labels which we don’t see much of these days, so it helps to offer us a link to the past. With online services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and so on, it can become very colluded with the availability of options or worse, the unavailability. When these films are not in front of us they can be easily forgotten and disappear from mainstream access. Gosh I miss video stores.
Beth Hanna of Indiewire put together a fantastic article back in 2013 entitled 10 Filmakers’ Top 10 Film Lists: Scorsese, Kubrick, Allen, Tarantino, Nolan and More. The lists available here are solid. If there is one excellent reference available here, it is this article. In knowing what films were considered ‘top’ from these directors whose films we know and love, we have the ability to put ourselves in each of their perspectives as creatives. Here, we can share some of the inspirational processes many of these great minds were experiencing themselves. If there is a film in these lists you have not seen, it might be the next movie you should watch.
Erin Kelly wrote an article for Raindance.org on 2015 called 12 Movies every Filmmaker Must See which is also a very nice list due to it’s range. The films here are grouped as a more contemporary selection of essential films to watch based on what they have done to shape the Motion Pictures and Television industries of today. If you need to be reminded of the films that pioneered their paths, this is a fantastic list to get to know, though you’ve probably already seen most of the films on it.
With these films in mind, I wanted to have my own list available. It is important to remember that by limiting these selections to 10 or 12 that we are only seeing a small picture, but films take time to watch.
When you dig deep enough, you’ll find lists that are far more detailed like this massive list of films from FastCompany.com entitled Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film. Fantastic references, but who has time for this? I think the general idea is apparent, so the real task here is to be selective and open minded. Also, don’t let these lists stop you or interrupt your creation, that is the most important thing. Let’s end this article with a list I put together with descriptions on why these films were chosen.
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) : Directed by Stanley Kubrick and Written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, this masterpiece’s true meaning is still of great debate. Anything having to do with Kubrick and/or Clarke is very important to know about. Not to mention, the visual effects here are freakin’ amazing for the time period. Did I mention this film was financed by NASA?
Children of Men (2006) : Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, this is without a doubt the film to watch to see a modern story that embraces techniques of the past. The long takes in this film are so intense, precise and immersive it’s hard not to argue that they are the best. Even more food for thought; try comparing these long takes to the very famous crane shot in Touch of Evil Directed by Orson Welles.
Arrival (2016) : Directed by Denis Villeneuve and a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. Though it is based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, the elements, character arcs and much of the design of this film are heavily reminiscent of “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. In his book, Chiang mentions that the core of the film was inspired by Vonnegut's novel but the main inspiration was his fascination with the variation principle in physics and a performance from Paul Linke in his play “Time Flies When You’re Alive”. This film is essential for filmmakers in the sense that it re-iterates how we can fuse stories together and tell them again as a hybrid. Every time I watch this, it reminds me not to fear the judgments of others and to simply use what must be used to tell a captivating tale.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) : Directed by Sidney Lumet with a screenplay by Frank Pierson. It is based on a magazine article by P.F. Kluge called “The Boys in the Bank” about John Wojtowicz and an actual bank robbery and hostage situation in Brooklyn, New York. The article was adapted and Sidney Lumet even corresponded with Wojtowicz (who hated the film) while he was in prison. Regardless of all of those details, the content of the film is extremely important today. The motives presented are highly accurate and they involve sociological elements which we tend to deny had a voice back then. Mainly, the plot all revolves around the main character Sonny and his ability to afford a sex change operation for his boyfriend.
Twelve Monkeys (1995) : Directed by Terry Gilliam, screenplay by David and Janet Peoples. This film is a very fun and very basic mind twister about time travel. Originally a French short film in 1962 called “La Jetée” 12 Monkeys is a great example of editing and style. It also has a sort of predictable yet very smooth story arc.
The 13th Warrior (1999) : Directed by John McTiernan and the famous author who’s book it is based off of, Michael Crichton, this film has an interesting backstory. I do not want to reveal anything because, even though this movie is from 1999, if I explain too much it might spoil the impact of why it’s on this list. Let’s just say that it all started as a bet involving Michael Crichton. Now, go watch it. If you finish it and find yourself still pondering what the story actually is, that may be a good sign that you should be studying more classical literature, personification and anthropomorphism in adaptations.
Unbreakable (2000) : Directed and screenplay by M. Night. Shyamalan, how often are we reminded that Unbreakable was actually one of the first, modern, comic book hero films? Even more interesting is that the film was based on a world where superhero comics are like mythology and in fact, some people with superpowers exist among us. This is an excellent melding of reality and fiction. If Hitchcock made a movie about superheroes, it would be this, except that Shyamalan did it. Also, after fifteen years or so, the film has recently become a franchise.
Pink Flamingos (1972) : Directed and written by John Waters. I know, how did this movie make the list? Not only is their a pretty deep message about fame and celebrity contained in this movie, but if you can watch this movie and retain that message, you are meant for film, no doubt. This is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen visually. It is borderline porn and probably one of the reasons PITA exists. Surely, this film is not for the feint. This film is probably the leading example of shock comedy and the only reason I would recommend it, is as a challenge of the mind. You’ll never look at Pringles the same again…
Memento (2000) : Directed and screenplay written by Christopher Nolan. As one of his first, Major Motion Picture achievements, Memento is simply genius in it’s arc. It is arguable that this is the first film which has an arc that would appear symmetrical as a bow shape. If you have already seen it, I urge you to experiment and watch it backwards. Very amazing.
Network (1976) : Another one Directed by Sidney Lumet, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. This is a fictional film with elements that are probably more relevant than we would like to admit as a culture. The film is about a Television Network that is struggling with ratings and though it is heavily satirical, it leaves viewers with a somber and dark feeling. The relevance of the message follows us today, and is more meaningful than ever with the presence of self-publishing and social media. This is a fantastic film to reflect on satirical storytelling and how those stereotypes seem to last and evolve depending on how they are told.
So good luck watching the 100+ films listed in this article. Let’s be real, you’ll never get to them all. However, do not hesitate to take the time to learn the when and why behind at least some of the movies listed. All the sails need, is a gust of wind to get her out to the currents in order for the journey to embark.