10. Late Spring (1949)
Why? I’ve only just this year been exposed to Yasujirô Ozu films, but I’m quickly beginning to realize why he was so great, and is considered among the best directors of all time. He tells stories that are timeless, tending to focus on themes like human development, families, traveling, etc Basically things that anyone of any heritage and culture can relate to. Late Spring, in particular, focuses on a widowed father and his daughter, who care about each other deeply, and the sacrifices they make for one another involving moving on in life. Just like any Ozu film, the shots are perfectly composed and have hidden meanings. This is a film that you can see multiple times and find something new every time. It also has a very powerful ending that doesn’t pull the strings on the audience.
Fun Fact: In the 2012 version of “Greatest Films of All Time” Sight & Sound poll, Late Spring appears as the 15th greatest film of all time.
9. My Darling Clementine (1946)
Why? One of John Ford’s greatest westerns. Starring Henry Fonda as the real life sheriff of a small town, Wyatt Earp, who seeks vengeance on the men who killed his brother, leading up to a climatic gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s such a beautifully shot film. The way Ford directed this was visual poetry, rarely moving his camera. Just one beautifully, well-crafted shot after another.
Fun Fact: John Ford, who in his youth had known the real Wyatt Earp, claimed the way the OK Corral gunfight was staged in this film was the way it was explained to him by Earp himself, with a few exceptions.
8. His Girl Friday (1940)
Why? This Howard Hawks screwball comedy starring Cary Grant as a newspaper editor who uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife, played brilliantly by Rosalind Russell, from remarrying. On the surface it may just seem like another average screwball comedy, but there is so much more underneath the surface, including a very intriguing crime tale. This film also has one of the best screenplays of all time with its fast-paced repartee and game-changing overlapping dialogue. It’s fast-paced, hilarious, and just super fun!
Fun Fact: As I mentioned before, His Girl Friday was a game changer for its overlapping dialogue. It’s one of the first, if not the first, films to have characters talk over the lines of other characters, for a more realistic sound. Prior to this, movie characters completed their lines before the next lines were started.
7. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Why? This classic romantic comedy, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, is based on a famous Hungarian play, about two working employees who fall in love and become pen pals without even knowing it’s them. It also may seem familiar if you’ve seen You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, which was an up-dated remake of this 1940 classic. The great thing about this movie is it never focuses just entirely on the two main characters of Alfred and Klara, played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan. Lubtitsh is just as interested as the others employees that work at the shop. All the characters have depth and are very memorable. Any other director would have treated them just as side characters who are a part of the lives of our two main ones.
Fun Fact: Soon after wrapping principal photography, Ernst Lubitsch talked to the New York Sun in January 1940. “It’s not a big picture, just a quiet little story that seemed to have some charm. It didn’t cost very much, for such a cast, under $500,000. It was made in twenty-eight days. I hope it has some charm.” Yes, it sure has charm alright.
6. To Have and Have Not (1944)
Why? The first Bogart and Bacall collaboration, and one that would cement their legacy as one of Hollywood’s greatest pairs and even get them married a year later. Howard Hawks is at his absolute best as a director, patiently and efficiently moving the camera through each scene. There isn’t a ton of action, Hawks is more concerned on building the characters, but whenever there is action, it is extremely affective. The film takes place in a French colony, called Martinique, now being controlled by pro-German Vichy France in the middle of WWII.
Another great Bogart and Bacall film is The Big Sleep.
Fun Fact: Although the source novel and the script were written by two Nobel Prize winners (Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner), most of the dialog was actually improvised by the cast. This was something that Hawks was commonly open to doing in his films.
5. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Why? Maybe James Stewart’s greatest film. This Frank Capra classic has pretty much everything you could ask for in a film: comedy, drama, romance, etc. It was a failure at the box-office back in 1946, but has evolved into one of America’s most popular movies to show during the holidays. However, I don’t see it as a Christmas movie. It’s more of a meditation on life and the will to live. The final sequence just happens to take place on Christmas Eve.
Fun Fact: For the scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock into the window of the Granville House, Frank Capra hired a marksman to shoot it out for her on cue. To everyone’s amazement, Donna Reed broke the window with true aim and heft without the assistance of the hired marksman. Reed had played baseball in high school and had a strong throwing arm.
4. The Red Shoes (1948)
Why? This British masterpiece, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, tells the tale of an aspiring ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. This film is a classic example of how the desire to master your craft can overpower and take over your personal life. Think Whiplash. It’s also one of the most beautiful color films ever made. The use of color was used cleverly especially the color red. The performances are all great but Moira Shearer (as the aspiring ballerina) and Anton Walbrook (as her overbearing instructor) are both mesmerizing in their roles. A long with the acting the directing, writing, editing, and cinematography are all incredible. The 17 minute extended ballet sequence in the middle of the film is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in film.
Fun Fact: One of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies of all time. He said of the film “for me it’s always been one of the very greatest ever made, and every time I go back to look at it—about once a year—it’s new: it reveals another side, another level, and it goes deeper.”
3. The Third Man (1949)
Why? This was my first time watching the Carol Reed masterpiece, and I was instantly blown away with the cinematography, musical score, and lead performances. Based on the cinematography, I could have chosen from at least a hundred different frames, shot by Robert Krasker, that were good enough to put on my wall. The musical score was performed on just a single zither by Anton Karas. Roger Ebert sums up the brilliance of the use of the instrument perfectly; “The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” It takes place in a post-war Vienna, shot on location. Reed’s tilted camera angles really helped to portray the uneasiness and despair of the city and it’s characters. And lastly, the performances are all top-notch. Especially from Orson Welles who eats up every bit of screen-time he was given.
Fun Fact: The Vienna Police Dept. has a special unit that is assigned solely to patrol the city’s intricate sewer system, as its network of interlocking tunnels make great hiding places for criminals on the run from the law, stolen property, drugs, etc. The “actors” playing police officers in the film were actually off-duty members of that unit.
2. Citizen Kane (1941)
Why? I wrote an entire article on why this film is so great. But lastly I will just say that Orson Welles created something that changed the landscape of filmmaking and something that still holds up extremely well today. From it’s sadly still relatable plot, to the way it looks. It’s really a magical experience. Especially when you realize that all of this was done with real plots, set-pieces, and sound. No CGI.
Fun Fact: Orson Welles was just 25 years old when he directed, co-wrote, starred in and produced this, his very first feature film–a feat unlikely to ever be matched on any film so highly esteemed.
1. Casablanca (1942)
Why? There is so much that can be said about Casablanca. I could write an entire essay on the politics alone in the film as much as the main plot line that finds our main character Rick Blaine, a cynical nightclub-owner, reunite with one of his long-lost lovers of his past (Ingrid Bergman). It takes place in, you guessed it, Casablanca, a Moroccan city, which during that time was a place of refuge for many prisoners of war and people escaping various forces of power including the Germans. There is a lot of WWII politics going on. Many desperate French people and other European civilians trying to escape from the Germans, but at the center of all of this is one of the greatest love stories ever told. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman have never been better, and the same can be said about American film in general. A true masterpiece.
Fun Fact: In the famous scene where the “Marseillaise” is sung over the German song “Watch on the Rhine”, many of the extras had real tears in their eyes; a large number of them were actual refugees from Nazi persecution in Germany and elsewhere in Europe and were overcome by the emotions the scene brought out.