There are some films you hear people discuss that you kind of just nod your head along to. You pay them little mind, because you expect them to be declared great and essential films.
But this cinema is essential for a reason. There’s something larger at play in these masterworks and the fingerprints of these filmmakers extend well beyond their individual films– they influence and inspire everyone that comes afterwards.
These three films won’t surprise you. They’re not deep cuts in the lexicon of cinema. But they’re three of the greatest and always warrant a return visit.
The 400 Blows (1959) dir. François Truffaut
Look, I can discuss the auteur theory and how François Truffaut was an early advocate for it. But I’d rather let his film, “The 400 Blows,” speak for itself. It was when released, and still is today, one of the most personal pieces of cinema ever conceived by a filmmaker. His spirit shines through every frame, imbuing the film with such honest emotion. Many filmmakers tackle childhood in their first films, as those experiences we gather during our adolescence always seem to leave the most raw and indelible marks. However, few filmmakers can take from the clay of childhood and mold it into something as engaging and accessible as “The 400 Blows.” The child may be gone by the time Truffaut made this film, but one gets the sense that he never really left him. And perhaps that’s why that still frame at the end still resonates so strongly today. He is stuck in time, staring at us from that beach, inviting us to confront him again regardless of how badly it hurts to expose those old wounds.
Seven Samurai (1954) dir. Akira Kurosawa
There’s something rather beautiful about Akira Kurosawa’s role within the fabric of cinema. He’s the linchpin, connecting not only east and west, but also art house and Hollywood. While he was very much influenced by the western cinema of John Ford, he inspired countless filmmakers that came after him, from George Lucas (“Star Wars”) to Sergio Leone (“A Fistful Of Dollars”) to Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”). Even those that aren’t a direct disciple of his school of filmmaking have such profound reverence for him, Scorsese once remarking, “Kurosawa is the master of all of us.” Clocking in at over three hours long, “Seven Samurai” certainly does not feel it. No, it is lean. Precise. The character work is marvelous, each of the samurai fully realized. The action scenes are as well-composed and visceral as anything put out in the six proceeding decades (if not better). “Seven Samurai,” and Kurosawa by extension, is pure inspiration in the form of cinema. I’m reminded of a story Kurosawa once told about a night of drinking he shared with Russian master Andrei Tarkosvky, “Tarkovsky, who does not usually drink, got completely drunk and cut off the speakers at the restaurant and began singing the theme of Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. I joined in, eager to keep up. At that moment, I was very happy to be on Earth.” And we were lucky to have him.
Citizen Kane (1941) dir. Orson Welles
It almost seems a like banal and empty platitude to praise the perfection that is “Citizen Kane.” What hasn’t been written about this film in the 70 years since its release that hasn’t already been said? It is, to this day, the film that changed everything—when we realized the heights that this medium was capable of reaching. Orson Welles is communicating through a new language in “Citizen Kane” and it’s apparent in every frame. The extreme depth of field and deep focus of the lens. The direction and movement of the camera. The choice of the cut. One of my favorite moments comes during a discussion between Kane and Mr. Thatcher on how to run his newspaper. The majority of the scene plays out in a wide, but as Kane begins to win the argument, the camera dollies in closer. We are intoxicated by his presence. When we finally do cut to a close-up of Kane (the first cut in this scene) Kane has won the discourse and he gets the last word, “(At the rate of a million dollars a year), I’ll have to close this place in 60 years.” To boot, this is a story about America, or at least our pursuit of the idea of America… how that idea, that dream, could be as fleeting, discarded, and forgotten as a wooden sled tossed in a fire.