Top up your watchlist... 41 films every budding film student should watch

As the university year kicks off, swot your way through this selection of film-studies favourites – all available to watch with a free 14-day trial on BFI Player. How many have you seen?

German Expressionism

Nosferatu (1922)

Director: F.W. Murnau

Nosferatu (1922)

Exaggerated sets and shadows were the name of the game in 1920s German cinema, establishing a hugely influential style that has shaped the crime and horror genres ever since. This early Dracula adaptation contains some of the era’s most famous images.

Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s expressionist, dystopian vision is one of the first science fiction feature films, and is arguably the most influential.

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang

M (1931)

The blueprint for the modern serial killer film can be found in this landmark crime movie, starring Peter Lorre as a compulsive child murderer on the run from police and criminals alike.

Soviet montage

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

A fixture in the critical canon (and university curricula) almost since its premiere, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about a 1905 naval mutiny was revolutionary in both form and content. Understanding the editing techniques known as Soviet montage begins here.

Italian neorealism

Rome Open City (1945)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Rome, Open City (1945)

Developed out of the ruins of the Second World War, the Italian neorealism movement brought a new street-level authenticity to filmmaking. Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City was a milestone release.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Vittorio De Sica’s story of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle on the streets of Rome is a classic of postwar Italian cinema.

World cinema classics

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Director: Fei Mu

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Fei Mu’s newly restored 1948 masterpiece, a piercingly poignant study of adulterous desire, was once voted the greatest Chinese film ever made.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

The Red Shoes (1948)Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with the BFI/The Film Foundation/ITV Global Entertainment/Park Circus

Among the most celebrated of all British films, this hugely influential melodrama from the creative duo Powell and Pressburger centres on a ballerina torn between love and her career.

Rashomon (1950)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon (1950)

Credited with bringing Japanese cinema to worldwide audiences, Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough tells the story of a murder in the woods from four differing perspectives.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Tokyo Story (1953)

A constant fixture in critics’ polls, Yasujiro Ozu’s most enduring masterpiece is a beautifully nuanced exploration of filial duty, expectation and regret.

Ordet (1955)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Ordet (1955)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s beautifully photographed tale explores the religious intolerance and tensions within a Danish farming family.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s best-known film is a brilliant allegorical drama starring Max von Sydow as a knight trying to elude his own death.

Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

Director: Luchino Visconti

Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s epic drama follows a mother and her five sons who move from a small town to Milan, changing their lives forever.

Red Desert (1964)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Red Desert (1964)

Michelangelo Antonioni’s mid-career masterpiece stars Monica Vitti as an emotionally anguished young woman embarking on a tentative affair with a businessman (Richard Harris).

The French New Wave

Breathless (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Breathless (1960)

Emerging in the late 1950s and early 60s, the young directors of the French New Wave threw out the rulebook and helped reinvent cinema for the modern era. Jean-Luc Godard’s extraordinary debut feature, an insouciant and iconoclastic crime film, is a release all film students will get to know.

Paris nous appartient (1961)

Director: Jacques Rivette

Paris nous appartient (1961)

This remarkable first feature from cinematic visionary Jacques Rivette brilliantly captures the mood of paranoia and uncertainty of the Cold War period.

British kitchen sink films

This Sporting Life (1963)

Director: Lindsay Anderson

This Sporting Life (1963)

British filmmakers of the 60s also embraced a new realism, shifting the focus to the working class and the cities of northern England. Lindsay Anderson’s fantastic first feature masterfully dissects the brutal life struggles of a rough-edged rugby footballer on and off the field.

Billy Liar (1963)

Director: John Schlesinger

Billy Liar (1963)

Mixing realism with fantasy, this classic from the British New Wave features Tom Courtenay as the clerk whose overactive daydreaming compensates for a dull provincial life.

New German Cinema

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Directors including Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were among the new guard who helped spawn the New German Cinema movement of the 60s and 70s. Fassbinder’s international breakthrough, Fear Eats the Soul is an unconventional love story that combines lucid social analysis with devastating emotional power.

Kings of the Road (1976)

Director: Wim Wenders

Kings of the Road (1976)

One of the finest achievements of New German Cinema, Wenders’ remarkable road-movie follows two young men as they travel through a country in the midst of momentous change.

Stroszek (1977)

Director: Werner Herzog

Stroszek (1977)

Werner Herzog’s uniquely skewed take on Americana follows the journey of Bruno S. as he leaves Berlin for the bleak trailer parks of Wisconsin.

The birth of American indie

The Exiles (1961)

Director: Kent Mackenzie

The Exiles (1961)

Away from the big-budgets and gloss of Hollywood, there’s the alternative history of American independent filmmaking. Made on a shoestring, The Exiles is Kent Mackenzie’s gritty, vérité depiction of the lives of marginalised Native Americans living in Los Angeles.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Director: John Cassavetes

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

John Cassavetes is a major figure in the story of US indie. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is his uncompromising character study of a gangster, with Ben Gazzara as the small-time club owner whose life begins to spin out of control.

Anger Me (2006)

Director: Elio Gelmini

Anger Me (2006)

This documentary tells the story of another key filmmaker of the American undergound, Kenneth Anger. Made on the fringes of Hollywood, Anger birthed bold, erotic fantasias, including Fireworks (1947) and Scorpio Rising (1963), that remain classics of avant-garde cinema.


Un chien andalou (1929)

Directors: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí

Un chien andalou (1929)

A scabrous study of desire, the subconscious and anti-clericalism, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s provocative first film is a classic of surrealist cinema.

Peeping Tom (1960)

Director: Michael Powell

Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s dark, disturbing, once controversial tale of a shy camera technician who films women as he kills them is now rightly deemed a classic.

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Director: Laura Mulvey

Riddles of the Sphinx (1977)

Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s visually accomplished and intellectually rigorous film is one of the most important avant-garde films of the 1970s, examining the position of women within the patriarchy through a prism of psychoanalysis.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Director: David Cronenberg

Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg’s multi award-winning psychological thriller exploring the bizarre lives of identical twins Elliot and Beverly, both played by Jeremy Irons.

New forms in British cinema

London (1994)

Director: Patrick Keiller

London (1994)

The first in Patrick Keiller’s highly imaginative trilogy of films is a photographic trip through London, recounted by our unseen narrator.

Red Road (2006)

Director: Andrea Arnold

Red Road (2006)

Andrea Arnold’s highly acclaimed film, winner of top prizes at Cannes and the BFI London Film Festival, is a haunting drama about a woman confronting past demons.

Sleep Furiously (2008)

Director: Gideon Koppel

Sleep Furiously (2008)

Gideon Koppel’s charming documentary about a small farming community in mid-Wales, observing the unalterable rhythms of country life and the monthly visits of a mobile library.

The Arbor (2010)

Director: Clio Barnard

The Arbor (2010)

Clio Barnard’s film about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar mixes reconstruction, interviews (performed by actors) and scenes from the plays.

Further Beyond (2016)

Directors: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy

Further Beyond (2016)

Desperate Optimists’ (Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy) deliriously deconstructed biopic of the extraordinary Ambrosio O’Higgins, who left Ireland to become the captain general of Chile in the Spanish Empire.

New directions in international cinema

The Headless Woman (2008)

Director: Lucrecia Martel

The Headless Woman (2008)

Start our tasting menu of new trends in world cinema with Lucrecia Martel’s acclaimed psychological thriller, in which a woman is plagued by paranoia after she hits something – or someone – with her car.

Dogtooth (2009)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth (2009)

Yorgos Lanthimos’s scary, witty tale of a dysfunctional Greek family is original, ingenious and sadly relevant as a study of parent-child relationships.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethaku

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Apichatpong’s Cannes prizewinner, about an ailing man revisiting his past, is a measured, lyrical evocation of mysterious beauty and quiet humanity.

Elena (2011)

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Elena (2011)

Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, Loveless) relates a taut, caustic tale of need and greed leading to desperate deeds; a bleak and brilliant study of contemporary Russian mores.

Norte, the End of History (2013)

Director: Lav Diaz

Norte, the End of History (2013)

Lav Diaz’s epic drama follows the contrasting stories of two men, a law school dropout who descends into criminality and the humble family man wrongly accused of his crimes.

Jauja (2014)

Director: Lisandro Alonso

Jauja (2014)

Viggo Mortensen is a distraught Danish military man searching his fugitive daughter in this visually breathtaking drama from Lisandro Alonso, part of a younger generation of international filmmakers pushing modern cinema in new directions.

By the Time It Gets Dark (2016)

Director: Anocha Suwichakornpong

By the Time it Gets Dark (2016)

Anocha Suwichakornpong’s mesmerising and innovative treatise on memory, politics and cinema.

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