The five films from 1997-2012:
Boogie Nights (1997)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Master (2012)
While Paul Thomas Anderson’s gambling romp Hard Eight (1996) was a promising debut, the five films he made over the following 12 years marked him out as a master of American filmmaking and an astute observer – and subverter – of the traditional male experience.
It started in colourful style with Boogie Nights in 1997, in which Mark Wahlberg’s well-endowed Dirk Diggler finds a home in the world of 1970s pornography. Two years later, the narratively ambitious Magnolia featured an array of characters forced to face their own demons and shortcomings. This introspective theme continued into Punch-Drunk Love, which features a remarkably nuanced dramatic performance from Adam Sandler as a rage-consumed man struggling to maintain a personable facade.
While considerably more epic in scale, There Will Be Blood is no less personal a struggle between one man’s private and public faces. Anderson channels now-familiar themes of religion, greed and family into the gripping tale of ruthless oil prospector (Daniel Day Lewis) and his dealings with local preacher Eli (Paul Dano). Similarly, 2012’s The Master features a complex male relationship at its heart, the dynamic between Joaquin Phoenix’s drifting alcoholic Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s religious leader Lancaster Dodd being by turns a story of friendship, paternal conflict and unspoken desire.
Anderson’s focus may be squarely on narcissistic men who are forever seeking something more – faith, fame, power, profit – but he continually eschews the usual clichés of such narratives to create exquisite portraits of masculinity at its most potent and, crucially, its most vulnerable.
The six films from 1960-70:
La notte (1962)
Red Desert (1964)
Zabriskie Point (1970)
“Soon this poor villa will be smothered,” says the father about an encroaching housing development in the opening seconds of L’avventura – “nowhere to run.” There are few escape routes for the smothered characters in Antonioni’s cinema. To watch his astonishing run of 1960s features before arriving at Zabriskie Point imbues that film’s explosive climax with a sense of inevitability that transcends its own context; an obliterating catharsis to the psychological pressure-cooker of the five features that preceded it.
Antonioni had directed a number of features and shorts before turning the medium on its head with L’avventura, a film awarded with both boos and the jury prize in Cannes. The next two years would see him compound his studies of disaffection and emotional sterility with La notte and L’eclisse – together with L’avventura forming what would become known as the ‘alienation trilogy’ – before finding an even deeper stylistic profundity with his first colour picture, Red Desert. Heading to London for a quintessential deconstruction of an era in Blowup, Antonioni flirts with genre abstractions in one of cinema’s most reflexive interrogations of image-making, before Zabriskie Point took him to America for the decade’s symbolic immolation.
- Watch Red Desert online on BFI Player
- Where to begin with Michelangelo Antonioni
- Modern love is rubbish: Antonioni’s L’eclisse
The five films from 1971-78:
Harold and Maude (1971)
The Last Detail (1973)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Coming Home (1978)
Even in radical-chic 70s Hollywood, Hal Ashby cut a distinctive figure. With his unkempt hippie beard, he might have been the town’s requisite outsider. But Ashby was an Academy Award-winning editor before he ever directed a film, working on stalwart 60s classics such as In the Heat of the Night (1967).
From Harold and Maude to Coming Home, the director made a string of note-perfect counterculture movies. Between them, they span the marginal lives of all kinds of Americans: morbid rich kids, sailors, folk singers, and Vietnam vets. Each are treated with an oddball’s sense of kinship and a humane, twinkling sense of humour.
Two of his films from this period – The Last Detail and Shampoo – were penned by Robert Towne, one of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters. These share a lively wit and an acerbic, foul-mouthed hilarity – yet scratch the surface and a deep well of sadness can be found therein.
Then there are the performances Ashby eked out of his actors. There’s the unforgettable, spirited Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, or the political-sexual awakening between Jane Fonda and Jon Voight in Coming Home. Think of the crumpled melancholy behind The Last Detail’s bravado, or – in Bound for Glory – the weary earnestness of David Carradine as Woody Guthrie. These were some of most poignant cinematic creations of the Nixon era.
The five films from 1938-45:
Le Quai des brumes (1938)
Hôtel du Nord (1938)
Le jour se lève (1939)
Les Visiteurs du soir (1942)
Les Enfants du paradis (1945)
Branded a traditionalist of the so-called ‘cinéma du papa’, Marcel Carné has been unfashionable since Les Portes de la nuit (1946). But the pictures he produced with screenwriter Jacques Prévert remain among the glories of French classicism. They first teamed on the fatalist melodrama Jenny (1936) and the surrealist comedy Drôle de drame (1937). But Carné came into his own with three poetic realist gems that captured the gathering gloom cast by the collapse of the Popular Front coalition and the creeping inevitability of war with Nazi Germany.
Centring on flawed heroes with the odds stacked against them and enacted on Alexandre Trauner’s evocative sets, Le Quai des brumes, the Henri Jeanson-scripted Hôtel du Nord and Le jour se lève used expressionist chiaroscuro to tinge everyday lyricism with existential angst in conjuring the atmosphere that critic André Bazin insisted had “the ideal qualities of a cinematic paradise lost”. This “cinema of disenchantment” would profoundly influence film noir. But it was banned during the occupation and Carné and Prévert retreated into the past to extol the indomitable spirit of the people in the medieval allegory Les Visiteurs du soir and the 19th-century theatrical epic Les Enfants du paradis, which was filmed in defiance of the gestapo and released to celebrate the liberation.
The five films from 1976-82:
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
The Fog (1980)
Escape from New York (1981)
The Thing (1982)
After Dark Star (1974), his promising but more limited debut, John Carpenter delivered five masterpieces that would define the landscape of modern American genre. Take Halloween, for instance. While the slasher film may have originated in the Italian pulp cinema of the 1960s, Carpenter turned it into a definitive American form by tuning in to the tenor of the times, capturing the polarities of his country’s attitudes to sex and violence beneath the manicured suburban facade. Indeed, each film in the run repurposed old genre forms to shed light on contemporary society, from unchecked American exceptionalism in The Thing to law and order in Escape from New York.
Carpenter would revisit these films later in his career, with Ghosts of Mars (2001) reimagining Assault on Precinct 13 as a space western and Escape from L.A. re-hashing Escape from New York for the overblown blockbuster aesthetic of the 90s. It is arguable that Christine (1983) should also be considered part of the run, but while it certainly shares the same impeccable craft, its cultural influence has been more limited. Of the two television movies Carpenter made during the period, Elvis (1979) would easily merit consideration alongside the five.
The five films from 1925-40:
The Gold Rush (1925)
The Circus (1928)
City Lights (1931)
Modern Times (1936)
The Great Dictator (1940)
To devoted fans, the notion of selecting just a mere five-film run from the sensational career of Charlie Chaplin is almost sacrilege. However, the quintet of features he directed from 1925-40 is a remarkable feat, even for him. Chaplin may have been the biggest star in the world, but the famous ‘dancing rolls’ scene in 1925’s The Gold Rush had audiences in such a state of rapture that projectionists rewound the reel to give the scene an impromptu encore. The Gold Rush has remained the most successful silent comedy ever, and Chaplin followed it with his first Academy Award for ‘versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing’ for the hilarious The Circus.
The advent of talkies might have subsequently had him on the ropes, but he came out fighting with what many consider to be his crowning masterpiece, City Lights. Far from done, he went on to make a final paean to the silent era with his pitch-perfect comedy of technological advancement, Modern Times, before his famous lampoon of Hitler in The Great Dictator. That film’s back-to-back sequences involving a close shave and a bouncing globe may just comprise the greatest five minutes in all of cinema. Chapin was evergreen in his invention, and this run saw him at the peak of his powers.
The six films from 1961-68:
Pigs and Battleships (1961)
The Insect Woman (1963)
Intentions of Murder (1964)
The Pornographers (1966)
A Man Vanishes (1967)
Profound Desire of the Gods (1968)
With his fifth feature, Pigs and Battleships, future two-time Palme d’Or winner Shohei Imamura kicked off an astonishing six-film run celebrating the rumbustious potential of the earthy underbelly of postwar Japanese society, honing a spontaneous and hectic style that the director himself described as “messy”. Its portrait of black-marketers living off the spoils of a nearby US naval base concludes unforgettably with a stampede of escaped swine following a pork meat scam that goes awry, establishing the absurdist man-as-beast metaphor characterising his work. The Insect Woman, about a country girl who rises up the ranks of the flesh trade after moving to Tokyo, cemented Imamura’s reputation for portrayals of strong, single-minded women, continued through Intentions of Murder, in which a lower-class housewife is liberated from the confines of a loveless marriage-of-convenience by a burglar who breaks into her home and assaults her.
The Pornographers, about an unorthodox family setup involved in 8mm pornographic filmmaking, consolidated Imamura’s love of bawdiness, while A Man Vanishes, his first independent production and first in the documentary field in which he would work exclusively for much of the 1970s, used its investigation into a missing person’s case to question the limitations of the medium. Profound Desire of the Gods, about the superstitious denizens of a remote southern isle under threat from development from the mainland, marked the culmination of a decade’s project questioning the nature of modern ‘Japanese-ness’. After an 18-month shoot, this unique and eccentric magnum opus flopped upon its release and sadly remained Imamura’s final fictional feature until Vengeance Is Mine (1979).
The six films from 1954-61:
On the Waterfront (1954)
East of Eden (1955)
Baby Doll (1956)
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Wild River (1960)
Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Can a person make amends by making movies? It’s a question Elia Kazan must have asked himself after 1952. Kazan’s justification for singing to the House Un-American Activities Committee was that he wished to continue working: he would not put a match to his filmmaking career for something he did not believe in.
However one regards Kazan’s “friendly” testimony – with contempt or clemency – this, at least, can be said for the director: if his justification was meant as a kind of exculpatory promise, he made good on it: he worked, and worked well.
If for nothing else besides, these films may be considered classics because they yielded the screen-debuts of Eli Wallach, James Dean, Jo Van Fleet, Lee Remick, Carroll Baker and Warren Beatty. All would become big names; all but Wallach and Beatty would have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Several of these actors credited Kazan with extracting from them the best they ever gave on screen. But these films are not made great by separate performances. Rather, it is the chemistry between players – the heat (not exclusively sexual) between Baker and Wallach in Baby Doll, Remick and Clift in Wild River, Dean and Julie Harris in East of Eden that hasn’t cooled in 60 years – that makes them still so special.
The five films from 1964-80:
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick made a baker’s dozen of fine features with perhaps only the first and last being significantly less than masterpiece quality. If one removes this ordinary crust from Kubrick’s almighty cinematic loaf, there’s plenty to chew on. But if one focuses tightly on his middle five films, each bite is awe-inspiring.
In a 17-year period from Dr. Strangelove (1964) to The Shining (1980), the director tore into his chosen medium like Miles Davis did with jazz, reinventing as he went and inspiring those that followed like few others. Thematically, the big five – the two above and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975) – grapple with universal and sometimes universe-sized issues. Man and mankind’s struggle and inhumanity is a constant theme, always tackled with gallows humour. There are many films about the threat of nuclear war but none are as distinctive, hilarious, and audacious as Dr. Strangelove. Many directors have a coming-of-age film but few are as memorable or as controversial as A Clockwork Orange.
The technical leaps in progress made in these films have been documented endlessly elsewhere but it would be remiss not to mention 2001’s retina-scorching phantasmagoria, a clear influence on multitudes of sci-fi filmmakers for nearly five decades; Barry Lyndon’s extraordinary candlelight-shot scenes and use of camera lenses developed for NASA; and, of course, The Shining’s revolutionary Steadicam tracking shots, which helped make the Overlook Hotel even more terrifying.
The five films from 1998-2005:
Divorce Iranian Style (1998)
Gaea Girls (2000)
The Day I Will Never Forget (2002)
Sisters in Law (2005)
Few female filmmakers get to make as many as five features – and rarely in a concentrated burst. Kim Longinotto is not only one of the UK’s most internationally garlanded female feature filmmakers, but the most prolific, always speaking truth to power in alliance with rebellious young women.
In 1996, Longinotto returned from a decade in Japan to make Rock Wives, unlikely precursor to the emergence of her mature style in the BAFTA-winning Divorce Iranian Style (with Ziba Mir-Hosseini), one of the two outstanding legal dramas that bracket her great run. The other is 2006’s Sisters in Law (with Florence Ayisi), which won awards at Cannes, Amsterdam and Nuremberg. In the first, the female subjects are defendants in the byzantine divorce courts in Tehran; in the latter, they are the legal eagles reshaping Cameroon’s laws on gender violence.
In between, she returned to Japan for the glorious Gaea Girls (with Jano Williams), revisited Tehran for Runaway (with Ziba Mir-Hosseini) and indicted FGM in Kenya in The Day I Will Never Forget. Longinotto is still ablaze, as 2015’s Dreamcatcher shows, but it’s these five consecutive films that raise her game to international documentarian of rage against the patriarchy.
The six films from 1949-57
Whisky Galore! (1949)
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
The Maggie (1954)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Modern fears are mirrored in the early films of Alexander Mackendrick. There’s man’s obsolescence at the hands of technology (The Man in the White Suit), or the merciless and amoral media (Sweet Smell of Success). If only he had made Passport to Pimlico (1948), we could have covered Europe too. He worked big themes on a small canvas – probably as a result of his time in advertising – to extract the most acute satire of its time. His versatility astounds, from the gentle laughs of The Maggie to the jet-black anarchy of The Ladykillers, with Whisky Galore somewhere in-between.
Mackendrick made two divergent dramas in his first six features. The first was Mandy, an underrated story of a deaf girl’s struggle to assimilate, which showed his technical brilliance. The second was his crowning glory: Sweet Smell of Success. This tale of a reptilian gossip columnist and his stop-at-nothing apprentice is squalid, brutal and poetic, often simultaneously. The director’s capacity with his cast is never clearer: Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were never better. Clifford Odets’ lines still zing, and there’s an urgency and polemic which age cannot wither.
One of them urges the weaker man to “Match me, Sidney.” In terms of natural skill and talent, few could ever match Mackendrick.
The seven films from 1984-2001:
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Castle in the Sky (1986)
My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Porco Rosso (1992)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Spirited Away (2001)
Japan’s emperor of anime, recognised as a global titan by other animation mavens (Disney/Pixar’s John Lasseter, Aardman’s Nick Park), Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s stunningly detailed, hand-drawn creations have been a source of magic and wonder for more than 30 years. His second feature, 1984’s post-apocalyptic adventure Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, adapted from Miyazaki’s own unfinished comic series, established many of his themes and tropes: a winningly resilient heroine (see also San in Princess Mononoke, Chihiro in Spirited Away or the eponymous trainee witch of Kiki’s Delivery Service); righteous ecological fears (Mononoke and Spirited Away again); surprisingly nuanced notions of good vs evil; and an unfettered imagination that soars, notably when depicting the graceful exhilaration of the various flying craft (Nausicaä’s glider, the World War I fighter planes of Porco Rosso) that aviation fan Miyazaki so idolises.
Guilelessly childlike in expression, effortlessly sophisticated in execution, this 17-year-run contains seven films of breathtakingly varied fantasy: masterpieces as gently ruminative as forest sprite pastoral My Neighbour Totoro, as pacy and plot-driven as Castle in the Sky and as bewitching and mysterious as perhaps his crowning achievement, Spirited Away, still the only foreign-language film to win the best animated feature Oscar.
The six films from 1943-48:
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Black Narcissus (1947)
The Red Shoes (1948)
Each of the films that Powell & Pressburger made together as The Archers begins with an arrow fired into the middle of an archery target, and for an extraordinary six-picture run from 1943 to 1948 they delivered on that promise with bullseye after bullseye. These six films are not so much classics as a moment in which British cinema seemed to levitate, ascending to dizzying heights of imagination from which – as if daunted by the altitude – the medium has since drifted back down to earth.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was the first strike, an affectionate epic about the national character. A Canterbury Tale begins with Chaucerian pilgrims before a jump-cut vaults us 600 years forward in time to the Kent countryside during World War Two. “I Know Where I’m Going!” shows how intoxicating places (in this case the Western Isles) can be. A Matter of Life and Death trips the light fantastic between a black-and-white heaven and a Technicolor Earth. Black Narcissus traces erotic frustration at a Himalayan convent, and The Red Shoes features Moira Shearer dancing herself to death. Further glorious Powell & Pressburger movies come either side, of course. But this half-dozen found the team’s quiver enchanted, producing arrows that flew directly at the heart.
- Watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp online on BFI Player
- Watch A Canterbury Tale online on BFI Player
- Watch A Matter of Life and Death online on BFI Player
- Watch Black Narcissus online on BFI Player
- Watch The Red Shoes online on BFI Player
The six films from 1970-82
“Don’t Look Now” (1973)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Bad Timing (1980)
Of the major British directors who emerged in the 1960s and were able at some point to maintain style and intent across a straight flush of theatrical movies, Nicolas Roeg is the most anomalous, if only because he took an old-fashioned route to the canvas chair. Whereas Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Alan Clarke honed their skills in agitational television drama and John Boorman in TV documentaries, Roeg was a man of the cinema who graduated from editing assistant and clapper loader to cinematographer for the likes of Roger Corman, François Truffaut, Richard Lester, John Schlesinger and David Lean. He was destined to become a visual stylist.
Given its British context, Roeg’s accomplishment is formidable. His engagement with identity issues, sex, and temporal and psychic dislocation across his first six films – Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, “Don’t Look Now”, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing and Eureka – is rigorously adult, entirely un-English. It was barely understood when they were made that he was an arthouse director closer in spirit and intellectual reach to Alain Resnais or Antonioni. If Insignificance (1985) and Track 29 (1988) marked a tailing-off, Roeg’s affinity with writers Terry Johnson and Dennis Potter was logical, and they remain underrated films.
The seven films from 1940-44:
The Great McGinty (1940)
Christmas in July (1940)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
After years as a screenwriter coiling frustration at other directors adapting his work, Preston Sturges sprung an astonishing run of seven crackerjack dialogue comedies in his four years as a writer-director at Paramount. Sturges skewered the hypocrisy of the American dream while creating warm, accessible jollies, accompanying pratfalls with firecracker monologues for stars like Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, interrupting them with wise, unexpected asides from a troupe of eccentric character actors including William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn.
An aristocrat who knew the foibles of his own class and courted the cheers of the mass audience, Sturges was a conscious societal lampooner: The Great McGinty chronicled a bum who rose to a governor’s mansion through graft, only to be undone by an honest deed; Christmas in July satirised the doldrums of a dreamer placing his faith in a get-rich-quick contest; The Lady Eve spun a romance between a street-smart con-woman and a head-in-the-clouds heir; Sullivan’s Travels portrayed the odyssey of an earnest filmmaker poking his nose in social injustice, making fun of message pictures as opposed to straight-up entertainment, while actually being both. The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero told risqué stories of divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and fake heroism that created sprawling community farces out of themes that normally wouldn’t get past the Hays Code.
With their fast pacing, and balances of sentiment and cynicism, intellect and populism, star power and oddball character, Sturges’ Paramount years represent the zenith of the Hollywood comedy. “It’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy…”
The five films from 1962-79:
Ivan’s Childhood (1962)
Andrei Rublev (1966)
In Tarkovsky’s 30-year career, he completed only seven full-length films. Although most of his working life was spent wrestling with the ideologically motivated censors of the USSR, he still managed to create five monumental consecutive films, each unique in their uncompromising thematic ambition.
Ivan’s Childhood, a largely interior treatment of the Second World War was the first film to alert international critics to Tarkovsky’s remarkable ability to harness the harmony of feelings and thoughts. His follow-up Andrei Rublev is an expansive biopic about the eponymous 15th-century religious iconographer, its release delayed five years after it fell foul of the censor. With Solaris and Stalker Tarkovsky manipulated time and place to veil his criticisms of the political situation in the Soviet Union. Attempting to bring a new emotional and intellectual depth to the sci-fi genre, these films contain dream sequences and hallucinations that deliberately obscure time, forcing the viewer to submit to the unhurried rhythms of Tarkovsky’s style and ponder the existential questions his imagery provokes.
Coming in between these two, Mirror is the summation of Tarkovsky’s work during this period. This endlessly haunting film combines memories of Tarkovsky’s own childhood with archival news footage to create a fissure between personal memory and collective history. These five films, produced under the watchful eyes of the Soviet authorities, beautifully illustrate Tarkovsky’s remarkable ability to sculpt with time.
- Where to begin with Andrei Tarkovsky
- 10 great films that inspired Andrei Tarkovsky
- The Tarkovsky legacy
The six films from 1974-82:
The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
The Last Wave (1977)
The Plumber (1979)
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
The initial sextet of films that Peter Weir directed make for as impressive a calling card as any filmmaker could wish for. A leading figure in the Australian new wave, Weir’s striking run of films, from the lo-fi, off-kilter gem The Cars That Ate Paris in 1974 to 1982’s sweeping political thriller The Year of Living Dangerously, showcased a director both technically talented and confident in tackling complex themes.
Weir followed up his cult Ozploitation debut with the haunting Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975, a tale of emergent sexuality with a mystical bent that remains one of the high points of Australian cinema. No less unsettling, thanks to its supernatural leanings and symbolic imagery, was The Last Wave, a waking dream of a film in which modern rationality and indigenous spirituality clashed in provocative and prophetic fashion. Weir changed pace and medium in 1979 for the sadly little seen TV movie The Plumber, a scabrous black comedy cum psychological thriller in which the titular figure’s mind games constituted an insidious, extreme form of class warfare.
The emotionally powerful First World War drama Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously then cemented the director’s growing reputation and international recognition was soon to follow. Hollywood may have subsequently made Weir one of its own, but his early Australian outings are the ones I hold up as his collective crowning achievement.