This year marks the 100th anniversary of the release of The Great Train Robbery, a landmark moment in film history. To celebrate this important event, we took an informal poll of critics, directors and distributors on which motion pictures could join The Great Train Robbery as having a significant impact on both filmmakers and audiences.
It is important to note that, for the purpose of this article, we were not looking for the best films of all time. Instead, the experts polled were asked to identify the productions that influenced the manner in which films were created and presented, as well as to consider how certain films impacted public opinion while redefining social and cultural protocol.
And while we don’t pretend that this list is the be-all/end-all presentation on this subject – and, yes, readers are invited to gently remind us where we went astray or which cinematic landmarks were overlooked – we believe that this offering provides a cogent consideration of the medium’s ability to change the world.
Thus, for your consideration, here are 50 films that influenced how we look at the big screen and how we look at each other. They are, in chronological order:
1. The Kiss (1896). Created by Thomas Edison’s production company, this 47-second film of May Irwin and John Rice re-enacting a passionate scene from the play “The Widow Jones” created a sensation and sparked a debate on whether the nascent motion picture medium was responsible for corrupting public values. It seems that debate is still going on today.
2. Admiral Cigarette (1897). Leave it to Edison to incorporate product marketing into film production. This advertisement for a popular cigarette brand opened a new medium for selling consumer goods.
3. A Trip to the Moon (1902). French magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès brilliantly exploited the potential of film production with a series of delightful works rich with innovative special effects. His celebrated lunar odyssey literally took movies out of this world, and audiences have never lost their fascination with this style of film fantasy.
4. The Great Train Robbery (1903). Produced by Edison’s company and directed by Edwin S. Porter, this Western adventure (shot in New Jersey) thrilled audiences with its invigorating and somewhat (for the era) narrative, which was capped with explosions of unrepentant violence. The film’s celebrated closing shot, with a fierce-looking cowboy firing his gun directly at the camera, caused unsuspecting audiences to shriek with fear – and then applaud over the effectiveness of the scare.
5. Queen Elizabeth (1912). When French theater icon Sarah Bernhardt agreed to create a filmed record of her popular stage production, she raised the medium’s cred from a lowbrow distraction to a serious art form that was equal to any theatrical endeavor. And Bernhardt’s star power signaled the shift that placed audience emphasis on the actors as the main selling point for commercial releases.
6. The Birth of a Nation (1915). Following the release of several European film epics, D.W. Griffith sought to create a uniquely American epic. The resulting work rewrote the language of film production with aggressive direction, innovative editing, and a deliberately provocative narrative that recklessly courted controversy. Even at this late date, the mere mention of this film’s title creates agitation and anger among viewers who cannot forgive Griffith’s crassly racist subject matter.
7. Intolerance (1916). Griffith’s follow-up to The Birth of a Nation initially bewildered and alienated audiences with its unusual device of interweaving narratives from four different historic eras. But time has been this film’s ally, and it is rightly celebrated for its distinctive stye and its peerless merging of grand spectacle with intense drama.
8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The German film industry emerged from the ruins of World War I with Robert Wiene’s bold experimental work, which brashly challenged the established tenets of narrative and production design with a distinctive and stylized approach to cinematic storytelling.
9. Nanook of the North (1922). Robert Flaherty’s nonfiction portrait of the life of an Eskimo hunter enabled feature-length documentaries to enjoy commercial release.
10. Battleship Potemkin (1925). Not unlike Griffith and Wiene, Sergei Eisenstein redefined the cinematic language further with a violent vigor that is still seen by many as the apex of film art.
11. London After Midnight (1927). The influence of this Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaboration is strictly posthumous: considered by many as the holy grail of lost films, London After Midnight symbolizes the fragility of a medium where works that were once widely seen have seemingly disappeared without a trace. And while many once-lost films have been relocated and painstakingly restored, a painfully high level of films remain missing and are believed to be lost forever.
12. The Jazz Singer (1927). Al Jolson’s on-screen assurance “You ain’t seen nothing yet” was the ultimate understatement, as this Warner Bros. release single-handedly upended three decades of silent film production in favor of a new age of “talking pictures.”
13. The Broadway Melody (1929). Billed as the first “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” film, this MGM extravaganza laid the foundation for the movie musical, thus inaugurating one of the most endearing genres of film history.
14. Ingagi (1930). This feature-length documentary was presented as the work of “Sir Hubert Winstead,” who supposedly traveled to detail the bizarre aspects of the African ecosystem and culture – including the hitherto unknown sexual encounters between humans and gorillas. The film created headlines when it was revealed to be a blatant fraud that was created by stitching together travelogue footage with new scenes shot in a cheap Hollywood studio. Whatever it lacked in taste and class, “Ingagi” compensated with audacity – thus making it the forerunner of the modern shockumentary.
15. Dracula (1931). Tod Browning’s film started the wave of classic horror during the 1930s, while Bela Lugosi’s landmark performance offered the definitive interpretation of the vampire as a lethal combination of sex appeal and supernatural danger.
16. She Done Him Wrong (1933). The Hollywood studios repeatedly pushed the censorship limits in the so-called pre-Code era, but few films blithely ignored the rules with the insouciant charm of Mae West’s bawdy starring debut. West’s gift for double-entendre and her unapologetic sexual appetite was, for many, the last straw, and She Done Him Wrong is credited as being the proverbial last straw that ultimately led to the establishment of the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code.
17. Triumph of the Will (1934). For better or worse, Leni Riefenstahl’s glorification of the Nazi regime opened a cinematic Pandora’s Box that allowed the artistic beatification of political poison. But while contemporary audiences remain repulsed by the film’s message, Riefenstahl’s mastery of the camera continues to influence filmmakers of all political stripes.
18. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Walt Disney’s landmark was not the first feature-length animated film, but it was the production that expanded the potential of animation beyond the one-reel limits of short subjects. The film’s unprecedented commercial success created new opportunities for animation, and the film’s impact still resonates in today’s animation-rich selection of first-run films.
19. Gone With the Wind (1939). The ultimate Hollywood epic, bar none. Every epic that has followed has, either intentionally or inadvertently, has tried to surpass its grand scope and deep emotional power. And, not surprisingly, no epic has achieved that impossible goal.
20. Citizen Kane (1941). No other film has been more discussed, dissected and debated than Orson Welles’ big screen debut. And while Welles never again experienced the artistic liberty he enjoyed with Citizen Kane, would-be auteurs continue to seek the level of control he exercised on this landmark endeavor.
21. Kukan (1941). Rey Scott’s documentary on the Chinese defense against the Japanese occupation brought a new depth of maturity to nonfiction filmmaking. Scott’s color footage brilliantly captured the indefatigable spirit of the Chinese against the foreign invaders – particularly in the still-jolting sequence that showed the bombing of the wartime capital Chongqing – and the film reshaped American views about the war in Asia.
22. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Avant-garde and underground filmmaking was reserved for a funky fringe of popular culture, but the persistent self-promotional talent of filmmaker Maya Deren (who co-directed this short with Alexander Hammid) helped to bring non-Hollywood fare to a wider audience.
23. Open City (1945). In the aftermath of World War II, the Italian film world experienced a sudden renaissance beginning with Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist depiction of wartime underground partisans fighting against the Nazi occupation of Rome. Rossellini’s raw visual style and visceral narrative created a shock that further reshaped the filmmaking process.
24. Los Olvidados (1950). This harsh portrait of poverty and juvenile delinquency raised the international importance of Mexican cinema and reinvigorated the career of Spanish exile Luis Buñuel, who re-emerged from obscurity to become one of the most daring and influential film artists.
25. Rashomon (1950). Japanese cinema was virtually unknown to the wider world until Akira Kurosawa’s invigorating mystery caught the 1951 Venice Film Festival by surprise. The film’s subsequent Academy Award-winning release in the U.S. helped to bring a new wave of Japanese cinema to receptive audiences while reintegrating Japan back into the postwar world.
26. This is Cinerama (1952). Film exhibition changed forever with the New York premiere of this feature-length travelogue, which was presented in a daring format involving three film projectors and a deeply curved big screen. As a result, Hollywood unleashed a skein of widescreen processes that permanently reconfigured the manner in which audiences view films.
27. This Island Earth (1955). Science fiction, which had previously been dismissed by many as fanciful diversion, took on a deeper vibe with this production, which moved beyond the us-versus-them obvious into a profound consideration of science and war.
28. Pather Panchali (1955). Indian cinema was barely acknowledged by the wider world until Satyajit Ray’s sensitive and deeply moving drama of a rural family’s struggle for survival slowly found its way into festivals and theaters.
29. Hercules (1957). The American release of this low-budget Italian action film, starring bodybuilder Steve Reeves as the Olympian strongman, marked the first time that a theatrical release was heavily advertised on television. And while “Hercules” brought forth a seemingly endless number of cheesy Italian sword-and-sandal flicks, a new era in film marketing was born.
30. Breathless (1960). While the flood of films in the French New Wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s invigorated film appreciation, Jean Luc-Godard’s iconoclastic masterpiece stood out in this period for its audacious style and hypnotic substance. More than any other film of this genre, Godard’s work continues to resonate with contemporary audiences and future filmmakers.
31. Psycho (1960). The horror film genre was brutally and brilliantly reinvented with this Alfred Hitchcock masterwork, and the endless narrative and visual innovations that came out of Psycho can be detected in almost every horror film that followed.
32. Victim (1961). Prior to the release of this British drama, homosexuals were presented in films in miserable stereotypes. But Basil Dearden’s film of a closeted London barrister facing down a blackmail ring offered an uncommonly sympathetic consideration of the subject, thus offering the first cinematic challenge to homophobia.
33. Dr. No (1962). Agent 007’s ability to save the world without spilling a drop of his martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) invented a very different action hero whose appeal has yet to wane.
34. The Zapruder Film of the Kennedy Assassination (1963). The most infamous amateur film of all time, this brief and blurry record of a presidential murder has been responsible for endless discussions of just what took place 50 years ago in Dallas.
35. A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone imported U.S. television actor Clint Eastwood for a so-called “spaghetti Western,” and the result offered a startling new approach to a well-worn genre.
36. Hamlet (1964). This filmed record of the Broadway production starring Richard Burton as Shakespeare’s doomed Danish prince was the first theatrical release to be shot on video (in the black-and-white Electronovision process). Although not a visually remarkable work, Hamlet was the first blow against the reign of 35mm film as the medium’s technology standard.
37. A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Richard Lester’s captured the playful spirit of The Beatles’ music and personalities with this kinetic realignment of the musical genre. Many of the techniques used by Lester to visualize the classic Beatles tunes would later influence the MTV generation’s approach to filming rock music.
38. Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The notorious bank robbers of the 1930s became the unlikely antiheroes of the disillusioned 1960s youth movement via Arthur Penn’s stylishly violent reworking of the gangster genre.
39. The Patterson-Gimlin Film (1967). This shaky and blurry film of an alleged Sasquatch in the wild was solely responsible for starting the national obsession over the elusive creature dubbed Bigfoot. And while scientists and anthropologists dismissed the film as a nutty hoax, the footage is still being analyzed at painstaking depth by those who believe that Bigfoot is somewhere out there.
40. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Melvin Van Peebles’ independent production offered the African-American perspective on a racially divided nation, and the production’s unexpected commercial success enabled a new wave of black creative artists to find a place in the film world.
41. Deep Throat (1972). Pornography became respectable and (for a brief period) even chic with this delightfully silly soft-core comedy.
42. Fist of Fury (1972). Bruce Lee solidified his status as the first international superstar of the martial arts genre with this Hong Kong production.
43. Jaws (1975). Steven Spielberg’s shark bait represented a new approach to film distribution, with Universal Pictures opening this feature in a wider-than-normal national rollout that was quickly copied by other studios.
44. Star Wars (1977). Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
45. The Last Wave (1977). Australia was a relatively sleepy corner of the world movie map until Peter Weir’s disturbing film found its way across the Pacific, thus sparking a never-ending flood of cinematic talent from Down Under.
46. Heaven’s Gate (1980). The power of the press was never more brutal when the hostile reviews accompanying this $40 million Western’s New York premiere set off a chain of events that resulted in the abrupt withdrawal of the film’s release and culminated in the collapse of United Artists.
47. Reservoir Dogs (1992). For better or worse, Quentin Tarantino’s full-throttle calling card ushered in a new era of brash, loud independent filmmakers.
48. Dazed and Confused (1993). Richard Linklater’s celebration of stoners and slackers offered an honest and non-condescending view of modern American subculture, thus elevating the underachiever to a new iconic status.
49. Walls of Sand (1994). San Francisco filmmaker Erica Jordan’s drama made history as the first contemporary feature film to be made available for real-time viewing on the Internet in 1998, via a now-defunct site called The Sync. And while the film has mostly disappeared from view (excerpts can be seen on Vimeo), its online presence opened another new door for film exhibition.
50. The Blair Witch Project (1999). This no-budget horror flick inspired a generation of D.I.Y. filmmakers while deviously tapping into the Internet as a force of film marketing.
(Special thanks to Antero Alli, James Hennessy, Michael Legge, Donald J. Levit, Robin Lung, Joe Meyers, Ben Ohmart, Jeffrey Peters, Randy Pitman, Betty Jo Tucker and Clint Weiler for their input.)