Charles Musser

Professor of Film and Media Studies

Voted for

Body and Soul1925Oscar Micheaux
Do the Right Thing1989Spike Lee
The Gleaners and I2000Agnès Varda
The Pawnshop1916Charles Chaplin
The Thin Blue Line1988Errol Morris
Dont Look Back1967D.A. Pennebaker
Killer of Sheep1977Charles Burnett
À bout de souffle1960Jean-Luc Godard
Sunset Blvd.1950Billy Wilder


Body and Soul

1925 USA

Micheaux was arguably the Americans' greatest silent film director. Certainly his work speaks to us more directly than the more familiar masterworks of the silent period. Body and Soul is a remarkably rich, complex film. It is a devastating indictment of what he saw as Paul Robeson's Uncle Tomism, and also his best film performance. At least one other Micheaux film could also be on this list: Within Our Gates (1920). And of course, most of his silent film work is lost. Sigh.

Do the Right Thing

1989 USA

This is one of those films that changed my view of the world – specifically New York City where I lived. And not just my world – it changed New York City and also the American film industry. There were precursors, to be sure (even Lee's She Gotta Have It, 1986), but this was the decisive opening act of the New Black Cinema. I saw it three times when it came out and many, many more times since.

The Gleaners and I

2000 France

Varda's film has become my favorite documentary. I recommend it to students as essential viewing – more than any other film. Moreover, in the process of making my last documentary (Our Family Album, 2019), I came to realize that Varda's work was more than 'an influence' – it was a model. One is inspired and humbled by its brilliance at the same time.

The Pawnshop

1916 USA

Chaplin's films are often about the oppressive nature of work, particularly the constant ordeals of the working class as the assembly line method of production proliferated. Embedded in the nature of industrial capitalism is time – efficiency through piecework and other methods of getting the most work out of people while paying them the least amount of money. Chaplin directed his comic aggression at work in many of his films but no more so than in The Pawnshop. Charlie does everything he can to undermine work – whether through destructive gestures or through play. When Charlie arrives late to work at the pawnshop, he is puzzled. He compares his pocket watch (the kind a gentleman wears – but since Charlie is a gentleman tramp, it doesn't work) to a calendar. They seem to agree. Over the course of the film, the pawnshop mysterious fills with alarm clocks – the first thing a newly unemployed worker can hock. Charlie disassembles one of the clocks as if to try to understand how it works. Yes, how does large-scale industrial capitalism endow the clock with such power? Indeed, to the tramp, it remains a mystery.

The Thin Blue Line

1988 USA, United Kingdom

I had become less and less interested in documentary in the 1980s. It seemed to have come to a dead end of sorts. While that was clearly not the case in retrospect, The Thin Blue Line dispelled that thought and permanently re-engaged my interest in documentary even while it put truth back on the documentary agenda in a big way. Its rich, complex and unfamiliar representational methods were so radical that some (notably the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science) refused to even recognise it as a documentary. Today most of its techniques seem much more familiar, turning the film into a classic. Of course, one thing it did was save a man's life and prove that a state truth – Randall Adams was guilty of murder – was a lie. Morris then goes on to identify the actual murderer – a man who murdered again. Many other documentaries on wrongful murder convictions followed: it became a whole documentary subgenre.


1922 France

This film still needs restoration, or perhaps 'reconstruction' is the proper term. The print at the Cinémathèque Française is from the one Jay Leyda got to the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) in the 1930s. The print in the Swiss Cinémathèque has bilingual intertitles that contradict the film's visual logic – but has a few key additional shots. The film is a rich, feminist reworking of a popular play. It is easily my favourite example of French Impressionist cinema and reveals the ways in which Dulac was so remarkable.

Dont Look Back

1967 USA

American cinéma vérité at its finest: Pennebaker watches Dylan in a series of constantly changing situations as he becomes famous. But there is more to the film than that. There is an equivalence between Pennebaker's simple home-made camera and Dylan's guitar. "The times, they are a-changin'," sings Dylan, and Pennebaker's film shows that cinematically as well.

Killer of Sheep

1977 USA

Haunting. Most of all the goats, the sheep and Robeson's lullaby.

À bout de souffle

1960 France

If the French New Wave propelled so many of us into cinema, somehow it always goes back to Breathless (at least for me). It was all about throwing off the shackles of Hollywood. Rebellious. Liberating. The dirty image. Its virtue was in the act, not perhaps to be found in a careful, reflective critique. Didn't Godard later call it fascist? Yes, but the petty hoodlum who lives on the edge of (or outside) the system – that is who we sympathised, if not phantasmatically identified, with.

Sunset Blvd.

1950 USA

Film noir at its best. The typically Hollywood movie – or Hollywood novel – has the young aspiring actress encounter and be mentored by an older more established male star (A Star is Born). Or perhaps a director (What Price Hollywood). Wilder just did the old switcheroo à la Horace McCoy's I Should Have Stayed Home (1938). An older woman seeks to mentor a younger man with all the benefits that should seemingly entail. Yet the reversal doesn't seem to work out nearly as well.

As with other Hollywood films that I favour (particularly those starring Bette Davis), I am always intrigued by my changing sense of identification with the actors as I grow older. Gloria Swanson, while still somewhat crazed seems more and more attractive – and so more and more trapped by the men (her first husband Max von Mayerling, DeMille) and less and less a trapper/spider woman. Joe Gillis – himself trapped – sees this at times. That admirable insight costs him his life.

Further remarks

I am not sure that I believe in these kinds of lists. As least as objective assessments. There are so many great films, from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939) to Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (1961), Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and Altman's The Player (1992). The films I chose are ones I have lived with and engaged in personal terms. I discovered their richness and depth by repeated viewing and in the process of writing about them. And then there are shorter films that deserve some kind of recognition, from The May Irwin Kiss (Edison, 1896) and Porter's Life of an American Fireman (1903) to Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Resnais's Night and Fog (1956). Citing such films, however, just underscores what has been left out.