Coming up with five specific films to rank as films that affected me the most/that I think are the best is no easy task. It is a daunting, perhaps an impossible way to celebrate your favorite films, because surely people have more than five films they absolutely love. Nor is it possible for your feelings about a certain film to stay the same: when somebody asks me which Star Wars film I love the best, numbers two through five change pretty much every time I am asked.
However, there are indeed a few films that fundamentally changed the way I understand the cinematic experience. To me, these films are more than great films; they are significant films because of what they represent in my cinephilic life. These aren’t necessarily the films that changed my life either—that list would be far humbler than this—but these influence me the most when I’m watching individual films and looking at film medium as a whole. They are in a way guidelines; they represent a new and an exciting way of thinking of movies, as much as they are great films.
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)
Probably the weirdest of the bunch, Pasolini’s (second-most) provocative work looks like a typical European art film befitting for the 60s—and not just any 60s, but 1968. However, Pasolini has always been considered sort of a black sheep among his Italian peers, regardless of the cinematic trend in the country at the time, and Teorema is certainly at his (second) most aggressive attitude. But while Salo takes home the prize for the most f*cked up crazy thing he has done, Teorema is certainly his best and most unique. The premise of the film is simple: an unusually attractive young man (Terence Stamp) visits a bourgeois family in Northern Italy and seduces everyone in the household, which leads to events that spiral out of capitalist-patriarchal traditions. Part religious piece, part social experiment, and part autobiography, Teorema is no ordinary art film, or even an experimental film, but it just may be one of the best Catholic films. The beautiful use of Mozart’s Requiem is just an added bonus.
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
One of the films that defined the Golden Age of Hollywood, it is also the most heartfelt, bittersweet eulogy to its history reaching back to the beginnings of the studio era. Underneath the noir-esque aesthetic Wilder is known for, one can describe Sunset Boulevard simply as rich: rich in aesthetic, rich in mise-en-scene, rich in characterization, and rich in passion. It is like a letter from one master of Hollywood to the rest. Sometimes, it is a love letter, lovingly and nostalgically recounting the romantic memories they had shared; at others, it is an open letter, loudly and cynically criticizing where it’s led. Regardless, its style of writing is consistently dramatic, bitter, cynical, charming and of course, perfect; thus, the film remains immortal to this date. This is not just a Hollywood story; it is the Hollywood story.
Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
Kurosawa’s last pic is just a thing of beauty. A rendition of Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, Ran moves its story not with words, but with its composition and movement of color. Ran‘s very first impression is its vibrant colors, pleasing the eyes even before it starts its magic. Then, Kurosawa moves those colors. The ceaseless motion of flags and colorful armors work in cohesion to create a symphony of visuals that are quite difficult to match, even in this CGI-saturated age. Kurosawa is really the maestro here, and his music overwhelms the eyes. And underneath all those bursts of color, he carefully interweaves strings of silence to offer an insight into violence and madness.
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
This is perhaps the best Coen brothers film ever made. The ever-so-praised opening long take aside, Welles’ idiosyncratic mystery thriller set around US-Mexico border oozes with color—figuratively, of course, because the film is in black-and-white. I would even go so far as to argue this is the most colorful black-and-white film I’ve ever seen. The strange cinematography Welles employs, a more twisted and darker version of his signature style best exemplified by Citizen Kane, secures this film as one of the more unique film noir experiences during the last days of traditional film noir. Despite its troubled post-production, and despite the fact there is no true director’s cut remaining, what we have now (via a 1998 release) is still one of the closest films that may be labeled as visualized perfection.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1963)
Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm is sort of a rite of passage as a cinephile: it is, I believe, an experience that should be on every serious movie-goer’s to-do list. It is not a film that I dare describe the experience of watching easily—other than the fact that it is one of the only films that I consider “experiencing” rather than “watching.” I’m usually peculiar about the difference between the two verbs, and so far in my cinephilic life, not many films were truly about “experiencing” than “watching.” Sure, Stan Brakhage and his cohort of experimental filmmakers comes to mind, but Kubrick’s 1963 masterpiece is the only one that truly engaged me fully to its experience. It is one of the films that I believe defines cinema but unlike classic films such as Citizen Kane which shows how cinema works and what cinema is, 2001: A Space Odyssey shows how cinema can work and what cinema can be.
Honourable mentions that may have been included if I was in a different mood: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960), The General (Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926), Amadeus (Miloš Forman, 1984), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), and of course, Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954).