Let there be projector light: 80 films that take us inside cinemas

The dark is in sight! In the UK, cinemas have a provisional reopening date of 17 May. To celebrate, we count down 80 memorable movie-theatre scenes in the movies.

The Long Day Closes (1992)

From the date of this article’s publication, 80 days remain until cinemas in the UK (hopefully) reopen – and it’s been a long time coming. Our collective cinematic dry spell has been sustained via the substitute tonics of discs, streams and TV screens, but nothing comes close to the enveloping darkness of your favourite movie theatre.

This yearning for the collective big-screen experience is one shared almost universally by the filmmakers interviewed for our My Dream Palace campaign. In his beautifully heartfelt ode to cinemas, Edgar Wright put it perfectly:

Sitting in the dark with strangers is a communal experience that no platform streaming to your living room can provide. Don’t listen to the endless opinion pieces from doomsayers declaring that the big screen experience is over. Most of them haven’t watched a film in the cinema with paying audiences for years. Cinema on the big screen is for the people. It will be back and so will I.
Edgar Wright

Listed below are 80 great scenes set in the familiar environment of the movie theatre. Some are full to the brim, like the local cinema crowded with over-excited townsfolk in Divorce Italian Style (1961); others, like the one the titular character stumbles into in Wanda (1970), are quiet matinee screenings. Some are beautiful, ornate picture palaces, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), whereas others are on the brink of collapse (The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957).

No matter the location, however, the magic of film wins out. That is, unless you’re one of the many unfortunates below to have met their end in a cinema. Assassins, murderers and supernatural creatures frequently find comfort amidst the aisles, too…

Attached to each selection is a quote from the rich and ever-expanding archives of Sight & Sound and the Monthly Film Bulletin. Of course, subscribers can delve in deeper whenever they’d like:

The films

1. Those Awful Hats

D.W. Griffith, US 1909

The scene: hats of an increasingly absurd size obstruct the view in a crowded cinema.

What we said:

“As a singularly self-infatuated medium, almost as soon as cinema learned to walk, it toddled to the mirror and, with its first self-regarding gaze, reflected upon the means and methods of its own exhibition and reception.

“For about the first half of its life to date, ‘the cinema’ referred to both an art form and to the venue where that artform was, during that period, exclusively displayed, and in very little time the former was being used to contemplate the latter.

“Take D.W. Griffith’s short Those Awful Hats (1909), in which the sightlines of an audience attending a melodrama screening are violated by a parade of patrons wearing ostentatious top hats and millinery, the illusion of a film projection achieved through double printing and a travelling matte.”

— Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound Winter 2020-21

2. The Cameraman’s Revenge

Władysław Starewicz, Russian Empire 1912

The scene: a married couple of beetles watch a film in a cinema, leading to the wife learning about the husband’s infidelity.

What we said:

“The greatest curiosity however, was The Cameraman’s Revenge, an animated film made in 1912 by Władysław Starewicz, a Pole whom Khanzhonkov had been enterprising enough to ‘discover’ and bring to Russia.

“The film employs animated puppets, which I believe were not much in use at that time, and Starewicz uses beetle characters for his story of provincial infidelity. A bored husband falls for a music hall singer and takes her to a hotel (‘Hotel de I’Amour‘), where a cameraman who is in love with the singer follows them and films their night of love through the keyhole. Mr. Beetle’s wife, equally bored with married life, has meanwhile been receiving her lover, and there is a fight when Mr. Beetle comes home and surprises them.

“Husband and wife make up and he takes her to the movies, where the film they see is none other than the one which our cameraman had been filming of Mr. Beetle’s amorous adventure (and he is of course the projectionist). The wife swipes the husband, the husband swipes the cameraman and the cinema catches fire. Mr. and Mrs. Beetle are last seen in jail together, resigned and reconciled.

“The characters are all brilliantly conceived and animated beetles. Perhaps the most delightful invention, however, is the use of the cinema, the camera, as deus ex machina.”

— John Francis Lane, Sight & Sound Autumn 1978

3. Tillie’s Punctured Romance

Mack Sennett, US 1914

The scene: a thieving couple watch a film that makes them feel guilty about their past misdeeds.

What we said:

H.D. Waley, Technical Director of the British Film Institute, explains the mystery surrounding some of Chaplin’s early films.

“It might be imagined that anyone desirous of knowing the names and dates of all the films in which Chaplin appeared would simply have to open a book of reference in order to ascertain the facts. This, however, is not the case with regard to the films which he made for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company during the year 1914.

“No two authorities agree either as to their number or names. This curious situation is attributable to the fact that the original Keystone Chaplins were, owing to their popularity, reprinted again and again, sometimes with authority and sometimes without, but always with altered titles. It has thus come about that the Keystone Chaplins which have survived boast an assortment of names which must come near to totalling one hundred.”

— Sight & Sound, Spring 1938

4. Sherlock Jr.

Buster Keaton, US 1924

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

The scene: a projectionist falls asleep on the job and dreams that he walks into the film he is showing.

What we said:

Buster Keaton spoke to John Gillett at the 1965 Venice Film Festival.

John Gillett: You very often use gags which couldnt be managed except in films. For instance the scene in Sherlock Jr. where you are dreaming yourself into the picture, and the scenery keeps changing. How did you get the idea of this scene?

Buster Keaton: That was the reason for making the whole picture. Just that one situation: that a motion picture projectionist in a theatre goes to sleep and visualises himself getting mixed up with the characters on the screen. All right, then my job was to transform those characters on the screen into my (the projectionist’s) characters at home, and then I’ve got my plot. Now to make it work was another thing; and after that picture was made every cameraman in Hollywood spent more than one night watching it and trying to figure out just how we got some of those scenes.”

— Sight & Sound Winter 1965-66

5. Shooting Stars

Anthony Asquith, A.V. Bramble, UK 1927

The scene: one half of a movie-star couple watches their old performances in the cinema, yearning for the excitement that the scenes depict.

What we said:

“I was 19 when this film was made, and I have only an inexact, partly idealised and heavily censored recollection of how we really looked and behaved. I feel no identification at all with the people of this curious past life.

“No woman nowadays could, either seriously or in fun, posture and fret like Annette Benson does as the film-actress heroine of Shooting Stars: the same frailties of female temperament today have a totally different mode of expression. The things which always date a film most violently are feminine fashions and feminine behaviour. The men may look absurd, but their absurdity is at least identifiable as the same sort of absurdity as they practise today.”

— Roger Manvell, Sight & Sound June 1950

“Everyone loves a film about filmmaking, and Anthony Asquith’s first film, Shooting Stars (1928), is one of the best and earliest – a love-letter to the process.

“Shooting Stars was an audacious debut for Asquith – as Luke McKernan has put it, it was ‘a young man’s film’, intended to create a stir, a tactic followed by later prodigies such as Welles and Tarantino. Lampooning the film world was a risky strategy, a bit of barefaced cheek unlikely to ingratiate him to the industry or the fans who, the film implies, lap up the studio system’s shallow genre product.”

— Bryony Dixon, Sight & Sound November 2015

6. Show People

King Vidor, US 1928

The scene: an actress watches a film (one of Vidor’s own) and laments the relative light-heartedness of her own work.

What we said:

“Doubtless it was [partner of the film’s star Marion Davies, William Randolph] Hearst’s influence which turned Show People into Who’s Who at MGM, with Chaplin making a charming unbilled appearance as an autograph-hunting Charlie, John Gilbert turning up to be briefly adored, Lew Cody and Elinor Glyn sauntering by, and Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart and George K. Arthur clowning in the commissary.

“Doubtless it was King Vidor who turned it into what is now a fascinating documentary on Hollywood studio methods, with detailed backstage scenes, intriguing glimpses of the shooting of a slapstick chase, amiable satire on the star system (the leading man shuddering with revulsion as he is splashed with a bucket of water after supposedly diving to the rescue in a lake) and many in-jokes (Vidor’s own Bardelys the Magnificent is the ‘art film’ which Peggy Pepper drools over, and on which slapstick star Billy Boone pours so much scorn). But the engaging, offbeat charm belongs to Marion Davies alone.”

— Tom Milne, Sight & Sound Autumn 1986

7. Man with a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov, Soviet Union 1929

The scene: an audience take their seats to watch a stop-motion animation of an anthropomorphised film camera.

What we said:

“Man with a Movie Camera is a ‘city symphony’ film of a kind not uncommon in the 1920s. These films celebrated the vibrancy of the modern cityscape with pastiches of urban images, for the most part neither set up nor reconstructed. Vertov, though, plays fast and loose with the conventions of such films, to profound effect. He superimposes, splits the screen, deploys fast- and slow-motion and extreme close-ups, and animates using stopmotion. Most surprisingly, he shows us the processes whereby a documentary is made. The eponymous man with the movie camera is his brother Mikhail, and his wife, Yelizaveta Svilova, is his editor. Both appear at work on screen.”

— Brian Winston, Sight & Sound September 2014

8. Fast Workers

Tod Browning, US 1933

The scene: a couple watch a romantic scene from Laughing Sinners (1931).

What we said:

“Fast Workers stands out primarily because it takes Browning’s obsessions – sexual frustration and humiliation, fears of emasculation, love triangles, scheming, acts of revenge, deception, guilt and remorse – for a rare walk outside the confines of his natural home in genre cinema.

“The film was seen as something of a doghouse production for both filmmaker and star – displeased with Browning after Freaks (1931), MGM had assigned him a project it needed making post-haste to fulfil the contract of declining star Gilbert; Browning’s deal with the studio ultimately meant he made Fast Workers because he wanted to, not because his paymasters had him over a barrel. Despite his enthusiasm, when released in March 1933 it nosedived.”

— Martyn Conterio, Sight & Sound October 2018

9. Footlight Parade

Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley, US 1933

Footlight Parade (1933)

The scene: a failing Broadway musical producer turns to movie theatres for a new line of work, producing live in-theatre shows to precede the cinematic entertainment.

What we said:

“This picture is very reminiscent of other song and dance spectacles and the story is accountable for much repetition. Spectacular scenes are novel, including an original water-ballet.”

MFB Staff

Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1934

“There are rare demonstrations of Cagney’s dancing prowess in Yankee Doodle Dandy and 1933’s Footlight Parade: the hips, legs and feet appear to move at blinding speed without any apparent effort from the upper body; the singing voice is diction perfect, the delivery robust and confident.”

— Simon Louvish, Sight & Sound July 2004

10. The Only Son

Ozu Yasujirō, Japan 1936

The scene: a son takes his mother to see her first ‘talkie’.

What we said:

“In this poignant haha-mono (‘mother story’) a widowed mother pays a rare visit to her son, whom she has supported through his studies in Tokyo by working diligently in a provincial silk mill, only to discover that the metropolitan lifestyle he now leads, while completely alien to her, is none the easier for her sacrifice.

“Thematically foreshadowing Tokyo Story, the film already manifests elements of the Ozu visual style, refined almost to the point of abstraction in his late-career works: low static camera angles, mismatched eyeline shots during dialogue sequences, and the poetic ‘pillow shots’ of extended transitional cutaways to surroundings and objects.”

— Jasper Sharp, Sight & Sound August 2010

11. Sabotage

Alfred Hitchcock, UK 1936

The scene: a young crowd watch an animation with glee, but the cinema owner’s wife can see only tragedy.

What we said:

“Hitchcock’s movies are getting cleverer and cleverer and correspondingly more detached and cold-blooded. Sabotage has all the characteristic neatness of construction, suggestive cutting and excitement that have put Hitchcock into a class by himself so far as British directors are concerned, but by rights he should be making documentaries instead of animated crossword puzzles. All the same, Sabotage is good cinema and first-rate entertainment; it was just that I could not work up any enthusiasm for the principal characters.”

— Alan Page, Sight & Sound Spring 1937

12. Sullivan’s Travels

Preston Sturges, US 1941

The scene: a classic Disney cartoon delights an audience at a makeshift screening in a church.

What we said:

“Preston Sturges has made in this film a more than worthy successor to The Lady Eve. He has managed to cover almost the whole range of human emotion, and the slapstick is as brilliantly touched as the drama. Joel McCrea gives a very satisfying performance as Sullivan, and Virginia Lake proves that she is not only extremely personable but also has great ability, which will no doubt be made the most of in the future.

“It is interesting to note the extreme effectiveness of the interpolation of silent sequences in this unusual production, some of the success of which is undoubtedly due to a most able company of players. The lighting throughout has been given praiseworthy attention.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin February 1942

13. Brief Encounter

David Lean, UK 1945

Brief Encounter (1945)

The scene: a woman and a man, meeting coincidentally for the second time, go to the ‘pictures’ together.

What we said:

“Trevor Howard in his first film part, which demands high powers of acting, never fails to evoke the sympathy both character and situation demand. Yet the essential credit on the side of acting belongs to Celia Johnson. It is her film completely. The emotional approach is hers, and we enter the story through her need to tell it to someone to ease her suffering. David Lean and his colleagues in production, Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame, have made a film of such unity of atmosphere that it is no service to it to differentiate the contribution of individuals.

“The poetry of its conception includes the imagery without which the poet cannot work. The imagery here is of trains, corridors and platforms, the rush and roar of passion, the loneliness of half-lit stretches, the illicit secrecy of damp stone passages. The shunting slowness of the local trains is the vision of long years of placid living in a domesticity of unawakened passion. The film’s localities, apt and true to English small-town existence, are seen in the emotional colour with which Laura invests them. This is a poet’s film, harsh, cruel and lovely. There have been few better British films than Brief Encounter even at a time when our studios are taking their place in the vanguard of this great contemporary art.”

MFB Staff

Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1945

14. Vida en sombras

Llorenç Llobet Gràcia, Spain 1948

The scene: a screening of Rebecca (1940) reignites a man’s passion for cinema.

What we said:

“Llorenç Llobet Gràcia was a Catalan filmmaker, cinephile and businessman born in Sabadell in 1911. He created several short and amateur films and one remarkable professional feature: Vida en sombras (’Life in Shadows’), a semi-autobiographical ode to the cinema, the medium that had enraptured him since childhood.

“The hero of Vida en sombras is Carlos (Fernando Fernán Gómez), whose life is entwined with the cinema from his first breath: he is born in a fairground during a projection of early Lumière shorts. He starts making movies as a teenager, woos his wife at a screening of Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936), and goes to work as a cameraman.

“This often whimsical and theatrical movie paints Carlos’s passion for the cinema as somewhat dangerous – more vampiric than nourishing. The cinema is a shadow world in which he is immersed, while real life passes him by.

“Carlos’s joy in movies develops into a compulsion to capture the Spanish Civil War with his camera. After a personal tragedy, his passion for cinema turns to bitter hatred, and it takes a Hitchcock film to lead him back to his first love. This absorbing film is a story of obsession, rather than a portrait of an artist.”

— Pamela Hutchinson, Sight & Sound September 2019

15. La Marie du port

Marcel Carné, France 1950

La Marie du port (1950)

The scene: a man and a woman meet in a crowded cinema, striking up conversation during the newsreels.

What we said:

“Were it not Carné’s new film, one would note gratefully the well directed performance of Nicole Courcel, seductively equivocal, the authentic Channel port environment and witty dialogue, and say that a slight, unambitious subject had been ably handled. But, remembering the deeper tones of Carné’s films noirs Quai des Brumes, Le Jour se Lève – and contrasting (unfairly) Gabin the young outlaw with Gabin mellowed, humorous and eligible, one feels that Carné should do better things. This is, however, no criticism of the film in itself.

“La Marie du Port, a love story without murders and with a happy ending, is, as Carné (who was at Cannes) said, a new departure for him. Though the milieu is similar to that of earlier films, he has endeavoured to treat it differently and to achieve a comedy tone. Referring to his work generally, he said: ‘One expresses oneself through the air of the times. If I were to remake Les Visiteurs du Soir today, I should get rid of the now dated aestheticism and the ballet motif, and would be more concerned with warm humanity.’”

— Catherine de la Roche, Sight & Sound May 1950

16. The Magic Box

John Boulting, UK 1951

The scene: pioneering filmmaker William Friese-Greene watches early films by the Lumières.

What we said:

“The facts of Friese-Greene’s life, as far as we know them, appear to be accurately presented; the man himself is not idolised, but on the contrary is presented with a candour which does credit to the makers of the film and shows him not a heroic, but a human figure. He is not even claimed as the sole inventor of cinematography, but simply as one figure taken from a gallery which includes Mary, Edison, Le Prince and others.

“There is also a compensating attraction in The Magic Box largely independent of the story it has to tell, and that is the cast which enacts it. The supporting parts are played by no less than 60 stars of screen and stage, and the surprising thing is that so many talents and personalities do not distract to any disturbing extent from the story itself.

“The players fall into place with an admirable discipline, and the story is not in any case of a kind to hold one at full tension, so that it is possible to gain a legitimate additional pleasure from the expectation, identification and appreciation of each performer. Some are unmistakably themselves; others (such as Sir Laurence Olivier playing a suspicious and dumbfounded policeman) disappear almost completely into their parts.”

— Ernest Lingdren, Sight & Sound January-March 1952

17. Singin’ in the Rain

Gene Kelly, Stanley Donan, US 1952

The scene: a preview screening of a brand new ‘talkie’ becomes an inadvertent comedy when the audio falls out of sync.

What we said:

“It was a good idea to use Hollywood in the twenties as the background for a musical; the place and the period provide a brilliant surface, sometimes absurd, sometimes nostalgic.

“Its story, about a ridiculous costume picture, completed just as sound comes in, having to be turned into a musical and the intrigues involved when its vapid blonde star is found to have a hideously nasal voice, is basically simple enough; but in the scripting it has become rather over-plotted, and a tendency to elaboration seems to have infected the film as a whole.

“The appeal of Kelly’s personality, and the appeal of On The Town, lies in its naturalness and simplicity – here in his wonderful Singin’ in the Rain solo, which is as good as anything he has ever done; in his final ballet, though it contains many exciting effects, it is a little swamped by ‘art.’”

— James Morgan, Sight & Sound July-September 1952

18. Autumn Leaves

Robert Aldrich, US 1956

The scene: a couple laugh along to a Mr. Magoo animation.

What we said:

“Milly, a hardworking, middle-aged typist is neurotically afraid of emotional involvements. After meeting and falling in love with a young man named Burt Hanson, she agrees against her better judgment to marry him. Before long, however, she discovers that her husband is a pathological liar and has been married once before.

“A highly-coloured piece of emotional fantasy which is rigidly tailored to Joan Crawford’s personality and range. She manages successfully to impose her own kind of sense on the wildly improbable series of events, despite routine direction and a somewhat restricted budget. Cliff Robertson, as her psychotic husband, gives a tense performance in a taxing part, but the film’s appeal is probably limited to those who are prepared to accept its many sophisticated falsities.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin December 1956

19. The Smallest Show on Earth

Basil Dearden, UK 1957

The Smallest Show on Earth (1957)

The scene: a young couple inherit a run-down cinema, the Bijou, as well as its loyal team of staff.

What we said:

“The whole weight of this gay idea is carried by Bernard Miles, Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers [who play the cinema staff]. All the fun is in them – an impossible, loony, genial, larger-than-life music-hall trio (the Bijou itself makes them a quartet); and the best scenes are exclusively theirs.

“Peter Sellers’s little dance of joy and his drunken subsidence in the projection booth, Margaret Rutherford’s mastery of the Bijou’s accounting system and her devotion to the late proprietor, Bernard Miles’s startling displays of idiot shyness, are all in an excellent and robust tradition; and it is remarkable that such different and eccentric performers should have formed a team so homogeneous.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin January 1957

20. The Blob

Irvin Yeaworth, US 1958

The scene: the titular creature oozes into a cinema, terrifying the patrons.

What we said:

“Teenagers Steve and Jane have difficulty in persuading the police that the community is threatened by a rapidly growing ‘blob’ of mobile and human-consuming gelatinous mass. Eventually, however, the sceptics are convinced when the ‘blob’ storms a cinema and creates a panic prior to making itself comfortable on top of a restaurant, in which Steve and Jane are among those trapped.

“In its early stages, the blob resembles a transparent, colourless jellyfish. It attaches itself to an old man’s hand, spreads up his arm and finally consumes him. As it grows, it becomes globular in shape, in texture rather like thick reddish treacle, and finds no difficulty in squeezing under doors or through the apertures of a film projectionist’s box. Although these special effects are splendidly contrived, the blob’s eventual restaurant-absorbing feat goes far beyond conviction, and the film fails to maintain its early promise as an eerie exercise in Science Fiction hokum.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin March 1959

21. The Tingler

William Castle, US 1959

The scene: a parasitic creature worms its way into a silent movie theatre and attacks an audience member; the audience scream to repel the ‘tingler’.

What we said:

“The sheer effrontery of this piece of hokum is enjoyable in itself, while the script and direction follow Castle’s usual format of laying down a persuasively horrific exposition and then, at the right moment, parodying it outrageously. A kind of armoured centipede, the Tingler crawls along and goes thump-thump-thump like an over-recorded heartbeat, its noise apparently being operated from the projectionist’s box. Vincent Price, needless to say, plays for all and more than his material is worth, and Judith Evelyn has a high old time as the deaf-mute.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin December 1960

22. Divorce Italian Style

Pietro Germi, Italy 1961

The scene: people pack a cinema to the rafters to watch the premiere of La Dolce Vita (1960).

What we said:

“It is not hard to see why this film has been such an enormous success in its native land (heading the box-office lists alongside Barabbas and El Cid, and winning the 1961 Italian critics’ Oscars for its theme, script and Mastroianni’s performance) for, like the best of the Ealing comedies, it makes extravagant fun of all those national characteristics which endear a people in the eyes of others as well as themselves.

“For instance, Cefalu, having decided to find his wife a lover, begins by buying her a new dress and taking her out to see how much staring she still merits; and his plans reach fruition on the evening when the entire community, their appetites whetted by condemnations in church of “the lewd film”, has rushed to see La Dolce Vita.

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin July 1963

23. Cléo from 5 to 7

Agnès Varda, France 1962

The scene: Cléo watches a silent movie from the projection booth with her – the short stars Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina.

What we said:

“If one were not afraid of burdening this delicate and luminously beautiful film with quasi-religious labels, one might call it the record of a woman’s pilgrimage in search of her soul. For, if Cleo has found consolation by the end, it is not because she will be cured, or because she is in love (that old panacea for all ills) but because her two-way contact with another human being has drawn her out of her egotistical isolation, and shown her that the world of which she is part is a miraculous thing which exists in spite of her.

“Both Corinne Marchand (after a shaky start when she has to cry in her first cafe scene) and Bourseiller are excellent. But it is Agnès Varda’s film, from beginning to end.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin December 1962

24. Vivre sa vie

Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962

The scene: a young woman watches The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in the cinema, her expression matching the film’s famous stills.

What we said:

“So much has been made of the Brechtian structure of the film, its ‘objective’, ‘anti-romantic’ quality, that it is perhaps time to insist again on the passionate romanticism embodied in the endistancing epic framework.

“When Godard talks of Anna Karina’s qualities as an actress it is the comparison with Garbo which predominates; within the film the author called upon to epitomise the creator’s attitude to his work is the arch-Romantic Edgar Allan Poe, whose story of the painter who painted a portrait of his beloved so perfect that she died as it was completed, is read to Nana by the young man she loves with the voice of Godard himself (literally, dubbed on the soundtrack).

“And the purpose of the film is not really at all a study of prostitution psychologically or sociologically considered, even though the facts and figures are clinically retailed in section VIII; for such a purpose Karina’s Nana would be a wildly unsuitable centrepiece – this glamorous being who weeps at Falconetti’s Joan of Arc and talks philosophy, who chooses prostitution as a conscious, existential choice and at the same time retains her soul, who is, in short, no more credible as a ‘representative’ prostitute than Garbo’s Camille.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin February 1963

25. Bonnie and Clyde

Arthur Penn, US 1967

The scene: Bonnie and Clyde meet in the dark of a cinema, where Gold Diggers of 1933 plays.

What we said:

“In his previous films (Mickey One and The Chase in particular) Arthur Penn’s considerable talent has been undermined by a tendency to let his imagination run away with itself. So it comes as a welcome surprise to find that in Bonnie and Clyde he has made a beautifully modulated film. This is a film of levels, violent, tender and comic by turns, and Penn does a superb job of creating a pattern of moods, so that at the end of the film they coalesce to produce an odd sense of ambivalence.

“It is a long time since one has seen an American film so perfectly judged as this. Bonnie and Clyde is far and away Penn’s best film; but credit is also due to the entire cast, and in particular to Burnett Guffey’s exhilarating, richly evocative camerawork.”

MFB Staff, Monthly Film Bulletin October 1967

26. Wanda

Barbara Loden, US 1970

The scene: Wanda, looking for a place to rest, wanders into a screening and falls asleep.

What we said:

“Inevitably, I suppose, one has to say that this is Bonnie and Clyde told the way it looked rather than the way it felt. Deglamorised, in a word, and with its touching note of tragedy stemming from the characters’ total inability to cope with either themselves or the world they live in. Fragile, freakish and forlorn in grubby jeans and hair-curlers, Barbara Loden plays one of those Fellini waifs who look on the world with shining innocence and seem to thrive on misfortune.

“Laconically agreeing that she is a lousy wife and mother, she drifts out of the divorce courts into a one-night affair with a travelling salesman, is unceremoniously dumped by the wayside, loses all her belongings, and finally stumbles into a bar to cadge a free drink from the barman. He, as it happens, is tied up under the counter, and the greyish, bookish man she accosts is busy rifling the till. And since the latter’s imagination won’t stretch far enough to encompass this unexpected development, he just takes her along for the ride.

“Impossible, in the space I have here, to define the strange, sidelong poetry of scenes like one in which they stop for an alfresco meal in a field and he suddenly leaps up on top of the car as an aeroplane flies overhead, calling “Come back! Come back!” Impossible, too, to draw out the note of indefinably quirkish humour which runs through both characters and situations to give them an engaging air of self-deprecation. But Barbara Loden, actress and director, is definitely somebody.”

— Tom Milne, Sight & Sound Autumn 1970

27. The Last Picture Show

Peter Bogdanovich, US 1971

The scene: the final film shows at a local cinema, symbolising the decline of small Texan town.

What we said:

“In one of the final sequences of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, two teenage boys miserably outgrowing their adolescence in the year 1951 attend the closing performance of the only cinema in the disintegrating town of Anarene, Texas.

“On screen, John Wayne surveys the cattle herd that fills the Texas plainland as far as the eye can see and orders, ‘Take ‘em to Missouri, Matt!’ The boys agree that Red River was a good film and wander out into the deserted street, making no connection between the tumbleweed wasteland that surrounds them and its proud, and in part mythical, pioneer heritage.

“The only character old enough to remember better days and lament the emptying of the landscape (Sam the Lion, played by Ben Johnson, a sideshot rider from many a more recent Western) dies a short while before the town’s cinema, his death somehow formalising the end of an epic era.

“For the boys themselves, there is nothing to mourn and little to aspire to. Too passive to rebel against the ever narrowing circles of their lives, they convert their frustration to instant regret, endlessly replaying their memory-brightened high school relationships like so many dusty gramophone records.”

— Jan Dawson, Sight & Sound Spring 1972

28. Messiah of Evil

Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, US 1973

The scene: a cinema-going woman meets a grisly end when she discovers that the other audience members are flesh-eating vampires.

What we said:

“There is much about Messiah of Evil (originally titled The Second Coming) that would not work at all were narrative ingenuity truly its ace in the hole: the hero and heroine are so passive they’re barely conscious (after much cat-and-mouse play, they pass up the opportunity to have sex because they’re both too tired); the liveliest characters are killed off first; and the framing device tips us off right away that Arletty will survive whatever the story throws at her.

“Nevertheless, the film brilliantly captures a lightning essence of horror that no other ever bothered to bottle: the horror of neon by night, of 24-hour gas stations and grocery stores, of muzak that sounds as if it’s played by long-dead musicians, of streets lined with now extinct franchises (W.T. Grant, Florsheim Shoes), looking no different in 1971 than they did in the 1940s – in short, the horror one finds in Edward Hopper paintings.”

— Tim Lucas, Sight & Sound January 2010

29. Amarcord

Federico Fellini, Italy 1973

Amarcord (1973)

The scene: a woman smokes alone in a cinema; a man enters and slowly moves seats until he is next to her.

What we said:

“Amarcord is virtually as plotless as all the Fellini films preceding it since Satyricon. The title is Roman dialect for ‘I remember’, and although Fellini has discouraged a strict autobiographical reading of the film in interviews, fanciful memory is crucial to the overall texture.

“Designed perhaps as a companion piece to Roma – a city film that was equally studio-shot – this latest version of the Fellinian fresco can be distinguished from its predecessor by the broadness, simplicity and calculated directness of its vulgarity, particularly in relation to its arsenal of sexual and scatological jokes: one feels that the director largely made it for as well as about the inhabitants of his hometown.

“While Roma had a tendency to linger over certain conceits (e.g. the ecumemcal fashion show) long after their implications had registered, thereby underlining Fellini’s penchant for pure spectacle beyond narrative pretexts, most of Amarcord seems more carefully geared to the anecdotal appetites of a less demanding audience, delivering its comic punches like signal cards in a linear bead-like procession.”

— Jonathan Rosenbaum, Monthly Film Bulletin September 1974

30. The Spirit of the Beehive

Victor Erice, Spain 1973

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

The scene: two young sisters in 1940s Spain watch Frankenstein (1931) when a mobile cinema visits their village.

What we said:

“Set in Castille shortly after the ending of the Civil War, Brice’s film takes a single ‘ghost’ village (only the travelling picture show galvanises it into some semblance of life), its surrounding windswept fields and the drawn and painful circumspection of its family relationships, and reveals a country in the grip of malevolent enchantment.

“Those things that are never shown but which can be intuited from every frame become a kind of invisible blight. Fernando, the father, is almost wordlessly lost in his carefully nurtured routine; Teresa, the mother, is frozen in a posture of unrequited longing for an adopted child in France to whom she writes but from whom she receives no reply.

“Their activity behind the comb-like leading of the house’s stained glass French windows emotionally mirrors the frantic physical activity described in the passage from Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bee, which Fernando appears to copy repeatedly, with its description of ‘the agitation, the perpetual unceasing activity… the useless efforts…’ Erice frames conventionally beautiful still-life after still-life, compositions in the golds and browns of the hive, which he holds, repeats and insists on as they involve us more and more deeply in the world of his characters.”

— Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1974

31. Kings of the Road

Wim Wenders, West Germany 1976

The scene: a projector repairer travels across West Germany, visiting tired, old cinemas.

What we said:

“There were two ‘metaphysical’ road pictures in competition [at Cannes 1976]: Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which the roads are the night streets of New York, and Wim Wenders’s Im Lauf der Zeit (also known as Kings of the Road).

“’The Americans have colonised our subconscious,’ says one of the Kings of the Road in Wenders’s film, when he finds some pop tune running insistently through his head. But they have not colonised Wenders.

“There are many similarities between his film and a number of John Ford pictures (Two Rode Together would have been a perfect title had it not been pre-empted by Ford), but the film remains solidly anchored in German reality, and in a kind of realistic German filmmaking tradition of which the most distinguished example is Fritz Lang (to whom there are many references in the film). Lang plus Ford equals Wenders? Something like that, except that Wenders is unique.”

— Richard Roud, Sight & Sound Summer 1976

32. Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese, US 1976

Taxi Driver (1976)

The scene: Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle takes his date Betsy to a porn film, much to her disgust.

What we said:

“The opening shot of Taxi Driver plays probably the most seductive of trumps in the recent craze for power totems that has overtaken the American screen (from The Towering Inferno to Jaws). Out of a cloud of steam gushing over a New York street, a yellow cab floats majestically, mysteriously forward, its foreboding trajectory paced to the growling thunder of Bernard Herrmann’s score, its surface awash with abstract patterns of neon light.

“The powerful physicality of the image, and the state of extreme dislocation which it conveys, are the key to a kind of muscle-flexing sense of paradox on many levels: the film is about the soul sickness of urban alienation, played out (despite the red herring and basic implausibility of Travis Bickle’s Arthur Bremer-like diary) as a series of extrovert power plays involving American myths of gunmanship and Ideal Womanhood; its mood is one of determinist doom, feverishly embraced (as [Paul] Schrader has indicated in remarks on what his Protestant ethic and Scorsese’s Catholic temper contributed); and, following from this, its method is to construct a series of steel traps for its hero, all of which have firmly shut before the film is half over, though Scorsese’s grandstanding style and Schrader’s Bressonian pretensions continue to push for moments of religious transcendence.”

— Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin September 1976

33. 1941

Steven Spielberg, US 1979

The scene: US Army officers watch Dumbo (1941) in a sparsely-populated movie theatre.

What we said:

“The first thing to be noted about 1941 – and the only point to be made in the uniformly bad press which the film has received in the US – is that it is not very funny. The only joke liable to raise a belly laugh in fact occurs at the very beginning, when Spielberg sends himself up by having a man-made Leviathan erupt beneath a terrified nude bather.

“Uninhibited movie-consciousness is all that 1941 offers, and as its opening coup demonstrates, the joke basically is on itself and the whole apparatus that has called it into being. When Sergeant Tree decides to create a blackout by shooting down Christmas illuminations (including huge plastic Santas), and later takes his tank by an inadvertent short-cut through a paint factory, the resultant orgy of ‘light and colour’ is more significant than the non-existent comic content of the scenes.”

— Richard Combs, Monthly Film Bulletin April 1980

34. Camera Buff

Krzysztof Kieślowski, Poland 1979

The scene: an amateur filmmaker enters a film festival, winning third prize.

What we said:

“The script of Camera Buff is a collaboration between Kieślowski and Jerzy Stuhr, a staggeringly versatile comedian and actor who seems almost indispensable to the films of the new generation (the other indispensable is Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, the cynical university lecturer in Camouflage). In Camera Buff Stuhr plays a little man who is happy in his work and his home until the day he acquires an 8 mm camera to record the first years of his new baby. Since his is the only camera in the little town, he naturally becomes official chronicler of the factory. His films win prizes in amateur contests and spur him on to new creative heights.

“As a result of disapproval of his films (the management consider a cinema verite portrait of a disabled worker does discredit to the factory, even though the man is a model at his job), his boss is sacked. ‘Why him? Why not me?’ ‘You’re young. You can still be allowed mistakes.’”

— David Robinson, Sight & Sound Winter 1979/80

35. The Muppet Movie

James Frawley, US 1979

The Muppet Movie (1979)

The scene: the Muppet gang take their seats in an auditorium and watch a movie that shows their origin stories.

What we said:

“The enduring attraction of the Muppets, that heterogeneous family of TV cloth creatures (partly imaginary, partly animal, partly human), stems in large measure from the fact that they came into the world without a ‘history’. Their lives revolve entirely round the belief, at least on TV, that their music-hall show must go on. The Muppets carry this through with such anarchic singlemindedness that the viewer soon banishes any thought that they are themselves implausible, ludicrous and faintly dated creations.

“The film’s most telling scene occurs when the Muppets arrive in Hollywood and confront Lew Lord [president of World Wide Studios, played by Orson Welles] himself. The mogul calls his secretary and at once orders her to draw up ‘the standard rich and famous contract’. It is as though the producers of The Muppet Movie believed that a simple contract, the mere presence of the Muppets on a cinema screen, was enough to transmit their appeal. The film, sadly, neglects to reproduce all the circumstances which made them ‘famous’.”

— John Pym, Monthly Film Bulletin July 1979

36. Simone Barbes or Virtue

Marie-Claude Treilhou, France 1980

The scene: two women work as ushers in a porn cinema.

What we said:

“Female perspectives on the operations of adult cinemas in the years before they had largely become queer havens, meanwhile, can be found in Marie-Claude Treilhou’s Simone Barbès ou la vertu (1980) and Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) [see below]. Both films focus on female employees at adult cinemas in, respectively, Paris and New York, and are attuned to the particular personalities of the various scuttling regulars, the combination of timidity and sexual aggression found in these establishments, and the uneasy relationship between the women tearing tickets and the women at work on the screens.”

— Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound Winter 2020-21

37. An American Werewolf in London

John Landis, UK/US 1981

The scene: a man transforms into a werewolf in a busy London cinema.

What we said:

“Sophomore humour appeals, if at all, simply because it is sophomoric; thus, there was no dickering with ‘sophistication’ in the John Landis team’s Animal House. Here, however, the material calls for a much lighter tread, so often has the ground been covered by film-makers in hobnail boots. Landis ends An American Werewolf in London with a title card congratulating the Prince and Princess of Wales on their marriage; and hovering above the preceding action is a feeling that it is taking place in a cinematic country of the imagination not far removed from tourist Britain.

“Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge, the Zoo and Piccadilly Circus are all used, and all perceptibly draw attention to themselves. What is refreshing, however, about the film’s ambience is that these British cliches are neither extended nor dwelt on. The Eros cinema in Piccadilly where the climactic transformation occurs is showing an authentic (though specially made) piece of homegrown tat titled See You Next Wednesday.”

— John Pym, Monthly Film Bulletin November 1981

38. The Boys from Fengkuei

Hou Hsaio-hsien, Taiwan 1983

The scene: a group of teens sneak into a cinema hoping to see a porn movie, but instead watch a classic Italian film.

What we said:

Director Hou Hsaio-hsien spoke to Tony Rayns about his films.

“I filmed The Boys from Fengkuei entirely in wide shots because I just felt instinctively that those shots were right. I didn’t even shoot any close-ups for safety. I’ve thought about it a lot since. Say you’re in a street and you see something a little further along; a group of kids standing on a corner or a little kid who runs out into the road to pick something up and then runs back. Even from a distance, you can feel the tension. That’s the kind of feeling I wanted in my shots.”

— Monthly Film Bulletin, June 1988

39. Variety

Bette Gordon, US 1983

The scene: a woman takes a job at a New York porn cinema and meets a rich patron.

What we said:

Director Bette Gordon spoke to Jane Root about her film.

“My life, my sexual identity, is as a feminist, but my films don’t fit easily into that category – they are not easy films at all, in fact. Films like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, which I really like, and Michelle Citron’s What You Take for Granted, are a lot more comfortable for women to deal with and simpler to use in an issue-raising way. Mine ask difficult, disturbing questions and come from another place, a different category. Or maybe no category at all, which is very exciting for me as a filmmaker. Variety is a curiosity piece. It is there to raise a lot of eyebrows.”

— Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1984

40. Gremlins

Joe Dante, US 1984

The scene: badly-behaved creatures wreak havoc on a local cinema before watching a classic Disney animation.

What we said:

“The monster horde, whether brawling and break dancing in the local bar, indulging in acts of petty mischief with various bits of machinery, or providing a rapt but rowdy audience for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, are less a fearsome threat than the epitome of unrestrained irresponsibility.

“A mild mea culpa on the parts of Dante and [Executive Producer Steven] Spielberg can be detected in the last-minute appearance of Keye Luke, who chides the unworthy Peltzers for corrupting the babyish innocence of the mogwai (‘You taught him to watch television’) and provides a moral homily on man’s misuse of nature’s gifts that is as deeply felt and half-relevant as any of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone afterwords.”

— Kim Newman, Monthly Film Bulletin January 1984

41. Demons

Lamberto Bava, Italy 1985

The scene: in a Berlin cinema, a mysterious mask turns a prostitute into red-eyed demon.

What we said:

“Although directed by Lamberto Bava, whose career has been languishing somewhat since his impressive debut with the twisted Macabre, Demons suffers from the same uncertain, over-emphatic tone that brought down producer Dario Argento’s own Phenomena (a.k.a. Creepers).

“Set, for no apparent reason, in an unatmospheric Berlin, the film has horror effects aplenty – gory deaths, transformations into dribbling monsters, a demon bursting out of a girl’s back – and an interesting set of ideas and situations, but flounders badly as it tries to build up a high-energy cumulative effect.

“The overdose of heavy metal on the soundtrack (as in Phenomena) simply proves that, for all the music’s satanic overtones, it really isn’t as suited to the horrific mood as Ennio Morricone or Goblin, who scored Argento’s earlier, far more original, films.”

— Kim Newman, Monthly Film Bulletin April 1987

42. Tampopo

Itami Juzo, Japan 1985

The scene: a gangster, eating a lavish meal in a cinema, complains about noisy eaters.

What we said:

“Tampopo, ltami’s second film, does for food what The Funeral [his first] did for death. It is the most joyous of the three pictures he has made to date, an unlikely Odyssey in search of the perfect noodle.

“Tampopo has the big heart of a bon viveur. It pokes fun at its characters only because people in thrall to a four-square meal are inherently amusing. It’s a gourmet’s salute to the ecstasy of eating: ‘To man, eating and sex are the same thing intrinsically,’ ltami says. ‘I wanted to describe people in a situation where sex and eating are not yet clearly separated.’”

— Alan Stanbrook, Sight & Sound Winter 198⅞8

43. Matador

Pedro Almodovar, Spain 1986

The scene: a woman and a man stand at the back of an almost-empty screening of Duel in the Sun (1946).

What we said:

“In Matador, Almodovar plays a harried, fussy clothes designer whom an interviewer asks if weddings are neces­sary. ‘Yes,’ he assures his interlocutor, ‘otherwise there would be no wedding dresses.’

“As casual as this remark may appear, Almodovar means business: his aesthetic is also purely surface-is-content. He’s delighted in the way people present themselves to the world. They are what they wear. And in fact what one remembers from a film may be a colour, a dress, a stick of furniture, or an unusual face such as Rossy de Palma’s toucan-like visage. One does not remember scenes: Almodovar’s movies feed on the caprice of their own moments.

“This aesthetic is, I think, an unconscious outgrowth of the age of Warhol, where surface was emphasised at the expense of depth, and thinking became both pop- and self-referential. It’s an aesthetic that tends to sneer at conventional methods of expression; in fact, it often rejects them out of hand.

“Almodovar brandishes a ‘cool’ aesthetic, which is more about itself than its ostensible subject. His movies keep screaming ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ They are anti-establishment, anti-grown-up, anti-anything that gets in their way. In a word – juvenile. Wherein lies the charm and curse of his work.”

— Lawrence O’Toole, Sight & Sound Autumn 1990

44. Cinema Paradiso

Giuseppe Tornatore, Italy 1988

Cinema Paradiso (1988)

The scene: a young boy watches films from the projection booth of his local cinema, beginning a lifelong friendship with the projectionist and a lifelong love of film.

What we said:

“Giuseppe Tornatore’s film is sentimental-romanesque: it begins emblematically with word of a death and a funeral motivating a journey into the past; we then dissolve from present-day Rome, where Salvatore (Jacques Perrin), the middle-aged protagonist, is some undesignated force in the film industry, to the Sicilian village of his birth.

“This flashback, beginning during the war, in which the boy’s unseen father is killed, centres on the local picture house, around which Salvatore’s life revolves, and on its projectionist Alfredo, played by Philippe Noiret in a manner worthy of French prewar character-acting. Alfredo is a surrogate parent; and subsequently, after being blinded in a horrific fire, he places his professional mantle, imbued with magic, on Salvatore’s shoulders. Eventually, though, it is Alfredo who persuades Salvatore that he must seek wider horizons.

“Cinema Paradiso certainly contains a rich collection of archival snippets, but these do not, save perhaps for a couple of early glimpses of title cards to Renoir and Visconti, evoke an aura of self-congratulatory film buffery. Rather, they interact with Tornatore’s elaborately detailed creation of a world in which everyday life is enhanced by the folklore of the movies.”

— Tim Pulleine, Sight & Sound Winter 1989/90

45. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Renny Harlin, US 1988

The scene: a teenage girl is sucked into a cinema screen and transported into the film’s world, where Freddy Krueger awaits her.

What we said:

“Finnish director Renny Harlin won the assignment of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master by combining flamboyant grue with a sure understanding of multi-genre conventions in Prison. But here he is confronted with a plot that simply ties up loose ends from the earlier films and introduces yet another generation of disposable young people (‘Did you ever look at our town’s history – it’s not exactly a safe place to be a teenager,’ says Rick) who are yanked into tidy dream sequences to be done away with by Freddy.

“This is the blandest collection of heroes yet, and the fumbled business about Alice’s status as ‘The Dream Master’, guarding a never-seen Gate of Good Dreams, goes nowhere at all. There are several well-handled sequences – an eerie opening involving an angelic child chalking a picture of Freddy’s haunted house on the pavement, Alice’s plunge through the screen in the tattered local cinema, a recurring dream as Alice and Danny rush to the rescue in repeat footage but never actually get anywhere – but the effects horrors, no matter how well executed they are, somehow miss the imaginative tone of Dream Warriors.”

— Kim Newman, Monthly Film Bulletin, May 1989

46. Salaam Bombay!

Mira Nair, India 1988

The scene: a young boy, living on the streets of Mumbai, visits a local movie theatre and sings along to a musical.

What we said:

“The film’s success derives chiefly from its lack of pretension, and that, one guesses, derives chiefly from the circumstances of its whirlwind production. None of the little stories which the screenplay deftly weaves together is given undue weight; and this being the tough city of Bombay, neither undue indignation at nor sentimentality for the plight of the downtrodden is, on the whole, allowed to intrude.”

— John Pym, Monthly Film Bulletin February 1989

47. Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Robert Zemeckis, US 1988

The scene: the titular toon rabbit watches a Disney cartoon from the balcony seats of a picture palace, before being pulled away from the film by a human detective.

What we said:

“There is no denying that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical and logistical landmark, not only in its near-seamless blend of human and animated action but in the legal tussles that must have been necessary in order to get cameo appearances by a horde of copyrighted cartoon characters from Disney, Warner Bros, MGM, Fleischer and Walter Lantz.

“In the end, this does seem more like an exercise in mammoth self-indulgence by cartoon-lovers Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg (who, in a small way, cleared the way technically with his Amazing Stories episode The Mission) and [animation director Richard] Williams than a real movie. But given the wealth of animated riches on view, and the considerable box-office success it has won with a generation of moviegoers who can hardly be expected to get more half of the jokes, it would be churlish to complain.”

— Kim Newman, Monthly Film Bulletin December 1988

48. The Bodyguard

Mick Jackson, US 1992

The scene: an actress watches Yojimbo (1962) in a Japanese-styled cinema with her bodyguard, who claims he has seen the film 62 times.

What we said:

“In the final scene of The Bodyguard, a priest gives his blessing to a rotary club dinner. He talks about the protection offered by the beatific Bodyguard on high, while the camera focuses on Frank Farmer standing discreetly behind him. It is a measure of the film’s portentousness and ludicrous plotting that it makes this connection between God and Kevin Costner.

“With Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves and JFK, Costner has become a champion of the American Way, demonstrating that the ordinary Jims, Johns or Franks are capable of sublime and, in this instance, sacrificial goodness. At one point, Frank Farmer even gives Rachel Marron a little cross fitted with an alarm device allowing her to contact him at any time.”

— Lizzie Francke, Sight & Sound January 1993

49. The Long Day Closes

Terence Davies, UK 1992

The Long Day Closes (1992)

The scene: the camera floats over the heads of a cinema audience in a stunning montage sequence.

What we said:

“In the most strikingly virtuoso sequence in the film, an overhead camera, looking down vertically and impossibly, tracks continuously from the boy swinging on a bar in front of his house, over the heads of a cinema audience, reverses direction over a school classroom, continues over a church congregation, and ends up back where it started. Street, cinema, school, and church: the ceremonial detachment of the overhead tracking shot breaks up realistic space, traces the continuity of the institutions which define the culture, and places them in an imaginary configuration perceived from the removed objectivity of the artist.

The movies provide a constant reference point throughout the film. People talk about movies and go to movies. Movie dialogue punctuates the soundtrack: “In those days, they had time for everything” from The Magnificent Ambersons introduces a Liverpool New Year street party; Judy Garland sings from Meet Me in St Louis; a scene from The Ladykillers is inserted for no other apparent reason than that a doorway in that film looks like the doorway in this film. None of it is simply gratuitous, since cinema – like school and church – are central metaphors of the film, placing it in the fantasy of memory rather than in the reality of experience.”

— John Caughie, Sight & Sound May 1992

50. Porco Rosso

Miyazaki Hayao, Japan 1992

The scene: a porcine pilot watches a Betty Boop cartoon in a cinema whilst meeting a military man.

What we said:

“Miyazaki’s flying pig movie probably shouldn’t be your first brush with one of the wildest filmographies in all cinema, but between the poles of My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Princess Mononoke (1997), his songs of innocence and of experience, we need a nod to his romance with European landscapes and with flying machines.

“Alpine trainee-witch story Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) is the perfect coming-of-age fable and definition of uplift, but this serio-comic fantasia and tribute to the freelance pilots of the post-World War I Mediterranean (as well as their plane designers), centred on a war ace turned porcine loner, is the signature curio that’s as heartfelt as it is whimsical.

“Its aeronautical hijinks look back to the comic-book action-adventure of Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986); its intimations of rising militarism anticipate Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises (2013); and its once-bitten love story and paean to professionalism carry the silver-screen antics of a Howard Hawks drama onwards and upwards.

“As for the lapsed hero of the title: Miyazaki knows like no one knows that the point of animation is to make pigs fly.”

— Nick Bradshaw, Sight & Sound Summer 2020

Read more: 50 key anime films

51. Dear Diary

Nanni Moretti, Italy 1993

The scene: Moretti watches Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) with displeasure.

What we said:

“Nanni Moretti is a filmmaker of immense charm; not the sentimental cuteness beloved of British audiences who made such a huge success of Cinema Paradiso, but the real thing: a gentle irony and effortless control of character which enables him to say the simplest things with maximum effect.

“His previous work has always contained autobiographical undertones, but this time he has gone all the way. His message in Dear Diary could be interpreted as a trite one – it is essentially a feel-good movie, with a few wry asides on modern society thrown in along the way – but the unravelling of his visual diary is so skilfully paced that one is left feeling something profound has taken place.”

— Peter Aspden, Sight & Sound December 1994

52. Last Action Hero

John McTiernan, US 1993

The scene: a young boy consoles himself by watching action films at his local movie theatre following his father’s death, before being given a magic ‘golden ticket’ that transports him into an action film’s world.

What we said:

“Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to have been asking for trouble by parodying Hamlet in Last Action Hero; no one in Hollywood is immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not even as apparently inviolable a sweet prince as him. Variety went so far as to suggest ways in which the titan – brought low by overweening hubris – could set about re-inventing his career. But Last Action Hero is already too thorough-going an exercise in self-reinvention, or at least self-deconstruction, to satisfy a market that prefers to take its stereotypes neat.

“Among the charges brought against the film is that it is in bad faith. But bad faith is hardly a flaw of Last Action Hero — it’s the film’s raison d’etre. The complex film-within-a-film framework means that it partakes at once of ‘genuine’ action-genre requirements and of the ‘irresponsible’ parody exemplified by Airplane!, Naked Gun and the Mel Brooks canon. Last Action Hero is neither fish nor fowl, but a strange self-regarding hybrid that owes its characteristics to a long line of nested narratives represented in film by Hellzapoppin’ at one end of the scale, Godard at the other.”

— Johnathan Romney, Sight & Sound August 1993

53. Heavenly Creatures

Peter Jackson, New Zealand 1994

The scene: two teenage girls watch The Third Man (1949) in a cinema.

What we said:

“Heavenly Creatures is a beautifully choreographed descent into the realm of the personal and therefore (to an outsider) the inexplicable. Initially we observe with curious detachment as the girls strip down to their underwear and dance around trees to a lush Lanza soundtrack proclaiming, “She’s the one for me”; but we are then jolted into their ‘Fourth World’, the real hills dissolving into their ornamental fantasy paradise.

“Such literalising of characters’ fantasy worlds can have embarrassing results, as it did in Sirens, which made one wish that people never allowed their deepest sexual desires to surface at all. What disciplines the excesses of Heavenly Creatures is that the subconscious sequences are always clearly located within the teenage imaginations that concoct them; they’re not some abstract, ashamedly adult vision of what Peter Jackson might assume constitutes dreamland.”

— Stella Bruzzi, Sight & Sound February 1995

54. The Shawshank Redemption

Frank Darabont, US 1994

The scene: prison inmates watch Gilda (1946) in a crowded, smoky room.

What we said:

“With its unlikely coincidences and upbeat denouement, this is the prison movie as male melodrama par excellence. In a film where the only women are either feckless and dead (the prologue contains a brief peek of Dufresne’s wife) or pin-ups, it is also very much a nostalgic, ‘platonic’ male romance that yearns for an uncomplicated time when men could be men in the movies. Spanning the years 1945 to 1967, it could conceivably have been made during that period.

“Its liberal intentions and strong sense of performance also hanker for an era of quality cinema when actors could be giants. The towering Tim Robbins has a solidity and gentle interiority that occasionally reminds one here of Burt Lancaster. Of equal excellence is Morgan Freeman as Red, who holds the film together with his poetic, often quipping narration.”

— Lizzie Francke, Sight & Sound February 1995

55. Kolya

Jan Svěrák, Czech Republic 1996

The scene: a young boy, obsessed with the cinema, drags his father along to see the Russian animation Nu, pogodi! and watches with rapt attention.

What we said:

“At the centre of the film is an utterly affecting performance by the five-year-old Muscovite, Andrej Chalimon, as Kolya. The boy was found for Sverak by Nikita Mikhalkov’s casting director, and his acting is as winning as that of Nadia Mikhalkova in her father’s Burnt by the Sun. Initially tearful and bereft, he soon shows his toughness and resourcefulness.

“Here too the film draws on the perspicacity of Zdenek Sverak’s script. A scene in which Louka loses him in the underground is made memorable by the boy’s terror at having to step first on and then off the escalator. Andrej Chalimon’s performance is also nuanced and rigorous enough to transcend the potentially maudlin in later scenes when he admits to not knowing when his birthday is or ‘telephones’ his absent grandmother with the shower head, begging her to come back for him.

“Kolya follows Sverak’s first feature, The Elementary School (1991) in being scripted by his father and having a young boy in the central role. It is surely its young hero’s charm that has enabled Kolya to secure a British commercial release denied Sverak’s more ambitious second film Accumulator 1 (1994) a likeableness which has helped it win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It’s a charm that is deployed with enough irony and artfulness to melt most hearts.”

— Julian Graffy, Sight & Sound May 1997

Read also: Małgorzata Szumowska, speaking about the movie palaces of her youth, recalls watching the same animation as young Kolya.

56. The Replacement Killers

Antoine Fuqua, US 1998

The scene: a gun battle erupts amidst the crowds of the Orpheum Theatre.

What we said:

“As prolific as Gerard Depardieu and charismatic as Cary Grant, Chow Yun-Fat is without question Hong Kong cinema’s foremost leading man. He is perhaps best known for his elegant hitman in John Woo’s The Killer, a role he now reprises for The Replacement Killers, his first US movie.

“Chow is given full star treatment here, set among a strong supporting cast including Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker and Danny Trejo. The movie is slickly directed by newcomer Antoine Fuqua who, as a music-video director turned feature film-maker, is not as bombastic and choppy as, say, Michael Bay (The Rock).

“Fuqua’s style is more seamless and gliding. His camera caresses the interiors and gadgets with fetishistic delight, or dashes after the actors as they flee from photogenic bursts of gunfire. Wreckage is observed in beautifying slow motion: this is action movie as abstracted kinetic choreography.”

— David Tse, Sight & Sound June 1998

57. Notting Hill

Roger Michell, US/UK 1999

The scene: a man, unable to find his prescription glasses, wears swimming goggles on a movie date.

What we said:

“Notting Hill is a sly film. Although in many ways it exploits the Four Weddings and a Funeral formula screenwriter Richard Curtis created, it’s actually quite a different beast.

“In Four Weddings, ‘vulgar’ America is in thrall to cultured, wealthy Britain. But aside from such embarrassing worship, the US barely figures in it (Andie MacDowell’s character could have been any nationality). In Notting Hill there’s no competition: big, bold, glamorous America is on top; Britain has banana-slipped from importance to impotence. In Four Weddings, Hugh Grant’s character knew one of the “six richest men in Britain”; here all his friends are financial failures.

“America is shown to have a clear identity, while Britain is all at sea. Anna is a somebody; William (mistaken first for a journalist, then a room-service cleaner) could be anybody. Such an antagonism can be enjoyable, and the sections of the film that deal with Anna/America’s narcissistic prowess are remarkably acute. Grant, meanwhile, makes the most of his role, the perfectly pained martyr to comic calamity.”

— Charlotte O’Sullivan, Sight & Sound June 1999

58. Dancer in the Dark

Lars von Trier, Denmark 2000

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

The scene: a woman with a sight impairment watches a musical at the cinema with her friend, who describes the action to her.

What we said:

Most of the first hour of von Trier’s assault on the musical genre teeters on the brink of the magical as we keep our fingers crossed that a hard-working Björk will remain plausible as Selma, a near-blind Czech immigrant factory worker in the US whose fund to save her son’s sight is stolen by her cop neighbour.

The first few musical numbers are ebullient and shatteringly effective, particularly I’ve Seen It All – set on a railway bridge as empty lumber wagons roll across – where the camerawork and choreography subvert the likes of The Sound of Music while retaining their own majesty.”

— Nick James, Sight & Sound July 2000

59. Scary Movie

Keenan Ivory Wayans, 2000

The scene: a couple go to the cinema to see Shakespeare in Love (1998) and meet grisly ends.

What we said:

“Arriving barely months after the alleged conclusion of the Scream series, which it parodies, and far out-grossing its inspiration, Scary Movie may well be the most commercially successful spoof yet, as well as the quickest off the mark.

“Indeed, Scary Movie has been such an immediate hit that it must have clicked more with mainstream audiences who appreciate the Farrelly Brothers – whose style of gross-out humour is in evidence throughout – than with the sizeable but cult crowd who saw Scream.”

— Kim Newman, Sight & Sound October 2000

60. Donnie Darko

Richard Kelly, US 2001

The scene: a teenage boy and his friend watch a Halloween double bill in a cinema; when the friend falls asleep he is visited by Frank, a person in a rabbit costume.

What we said:

“What makes this such a fine film, even an astounding one given that its director was fresh out of film school and only 26 years old when he made it, is that despite (or maybe because of) its multiplicity of generic touchstones and filmic allusions, it never settles in one genre for long or steals too much from any one film.

“Yet Donnie Darko has a texture and tang all its own, despite its remarkable mixture of genres and expressive modes – horror, romance, science fiction, teen flicks, and Robert Bresson meets Generation Y, to name a few. There’s also a dry realism in its evocation of suburban life, which abrades nicely gainst the bouts of slow- and fast-motion photography that jiggle time and make the ordinary shiver.”

— Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound October 2002

61. Frida

Julie Taymor, US 2002

The scene: Frida Kahlo watches King Kong (1933) and visualises herself in the film.

What we said:

“Director Julie Taymor, best known for her acclaimed stage adaptation of The Lion King, is happiest with the fantasy sequences, such as the three-dimensional reproductions of certain well-known paintings. She is constrained, however, by the limits of the biopic genre and historical realism.

“The script, based on Hayden Herrera’s book and credited to four screenwriters, contains some crass dialogue. Characters seem to speak to each other in headlines: ‘The marriage of an elephant and a dove’ (Frida’s mother on her daughter’s wedding); and this memorable exchange near the end: Frida: ‘You’ve lost weight.’ Diego: ‘You’ve lost your toes.’”

— Paul Julian Smith, Sight & Sound March 2003

62. The Dreamers

Bernardo Bertolucci, France, UK, Italy 2003

The scene: three students meet at a protest against the dismissal of Henri Langlois as head of the Cinémathèque Française and grow closer over their love of film.

What we said:

“A return to form for one of the great directors, The Dreamers recreates the heady sexual and cultural ferment of 1960s Paris through the coming together of three beautiful young student cinephiles. A French twin brother and sister – the cool and cerebral Theo (Louis Garrel) and theatrically enigmatic Isabelle (Eva Green) – take in the sharp and intuitive young American Mathew (Michael Pitt) when their parents go away on vacation.

“While outside the epic protests of ’68 are sparking into flame, inside the apartment disturbing mind – and body – games ensue, which reverberate with images from classic cinema (with Melville and Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles the most prominent influence) and lay bare the fears of a generation. The grace and eloquence of the camera style is only what you might expect, but there’s real passion and tenderness here too.”

— Nick James, Sight & Sound September 2003

63. Goodbye, Dragon Inn

Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan 2003

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

The scene: a scattered audience watch the final film at a Taiwanese cinema.

What we said:

“Dragon Inn, a King Hu actioner from the 1960s, is an unlikely final attraction for a cavernous Taipei movie palace the night before it closes – and a world apart from the cinema Tsai Ming-Liang makes: one of extended inaction, slow-burning absurdism and elegiac reflection.

“Tsai’s film hovers a little uneasily between formal conceit and quirky comedy, but casts a peculiar spell; arthouse programmers everywhere will wince with recognition at the empty stalls and inattentive patrons. But they’ll appreciate the ghosts who haunt this place to watch themselves, a mirror image Tsai throws back on us: you’re constantly aware of your own position in the auditorium, working out a teasing dialectic between on- and off-screen space.”

— Tom Charity, Sight & Sound September 2003

64. Jarhead

Sam Mendes, US 2005

The scene: US soldiers scream at – and sing along to – Apocalype Now (1979).

What we said:

“Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), our hero of sorts, observes near the end of Jarhead, Sam Mendes’s quizzical, visually striking and ultimately glib film about the Gulf War of 1991, that ‘Every war is different; every war is the same.’ Such paperback Buddhism could be applied to war movies themselves: they are all the same (young men, guns, stuff about heroism) and they are all different, as new wars come and go and new filmmakers emerge and move on. Appropriately given the above, Jarhead is simultaneously audaciously original and so mired in the cliches it knowingly acknowledges, sends up and honours that it has little new to say.

“Midway through we see Swofford and Troy at their training camp’s cinema watching the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ sequence from Apocalypse Now; they whoop and holler with delight every time there’s a strike, in defiance of the received wisdom that Francis Ford Coppola’s movie is the big kahuna of anti-war films. (There’s an extra irony in the fact that Jarhead and Apocalypse Now share the same sound editor, Walter Murch, whose work here is typically excellent.)”

— Leslie Felperin, Sight & Sound January 2006

65. Walk the Line

James Mangold, US 2005

The scene: Johnny Cash watches Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison whilst stationed in Germany with the US Army.

What we said:

“All pop biopics inevitably face the challenge of dramatising the moment when the star stumbles upon their most famous hit. The degree to which this scene manages to side-step toe-curling cringe-worthiness is a fairly reliable indicator of the film’s accomplishments and/or shortcomings.

“The Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line boasts not one but three such die-casting moments in which writer/director James Mangold risks death by ridicule. The first has Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix, in career-best form), watching the 1951 movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and promptly penning the line ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,’ which flows unbidden from his troubled soul.

“Scenes two and three feature Cash’s longtime muse June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) telling a drunken Johnny that he’s going to blow a tour because he “can’t walk no line,” and later privately lamenting the wretched state (“it burns, burns…”) in which her angst-ridden soulmate finds himself.

“The fact that none of these scenes raises even a titter (they provoke instead both smiles and tears) speaks volumes about the solid dramatic achievements of Walk the Line, which ranks alongside the Loretta Lynn movie Coal Miner’s Daughter and Rash’s previously cited Buddy Holly film as one of the very best products of this oft-maligned genre.”

— Mark Kermode, Sight & Sound February 2006

66. Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, France/Iran 2007

The scene: a young girl watches Godzilla (1954) in the cinema; her mother is unimpressed by the film’s violence.

What we said:

“Adapted from Satrapi’s highly successful series of French graphic novels, it’s a frequently hilarious autobiography-as-Bildungsroman, a lesson in recent Iranian history and a feisty feminist fable, all in one package.

“Working with cult French illustrator Vincent Paronnaud as her co-writer and co-director, Satrapi wanted to adapt her memoirs with her trademark ‘stylised realism’ intact, feeling that the black-and-white abstraction gave her work a useful universality.

“It’s true that the spare yet fluid quality of Satrapi’s woodcut aesthetic allows the viewer to slip easily into the world of seven-year-old Marjane (‘Marji’), whose interests range from Bruce Lee to fervent communism (“Down with the Shah!”) when not conversing with God about her future as a prophet. But it also provides a strong authorial signature which ties together the film‘s different visual and emotional moods (from stark expressionist horror as Tehran is bombed by Iraqi missiles to playfull-ovestruck teenage transformations) into a distinctive whole.

“Watching Persepolis‘s pen-and-paper images, produced via traditional cel animation, one is struck by how mobile and engaging they look when set against the cookie-cutter CGI naturalism omnipresent in today‘s animated features, giving an appropriately personalised look to this highly individual story.”

— Kate Stables, Sight & Sound May 2008

67. Tony Manero

Pablo Larraín, Chile 2008

The scene: a man, obsessed with John Travolta‘s character in Saturday Night Fever (1977), repeatedly attends matinee screenings of the film.

What we said:

“Chilean director Pablo Larraín has remarked that his second feature Tony Manero can be seen as an allegory of life in his country under the Pinochet regime. Yet the film can also be taken as a more or less realistic evocation of life in Santiago in the late 1970s, depicting working-class Chileans who retreat from the realities of life under dictatorship into fantasies of other lives and other identities – or, in the case of the film‘s anti-hero, into narcissistic psychosis.

“As played by Alfredo Castro, Raúl Peralta is one of the most disturbing and intractably unsympathetic figures in recent cinema. Both physically and in character, he is strikingly unlike the movie character he consciously emulates, John Travolta‘s disco dancer from Saturday Night Fever, and closer to Taxi Driver‘s deluded loner Travis Bickle. Raúl‘s dreams, however, are entirely self-serving, without the social-crusade fantasy that fuels Travis. (Facially, Raúl resembles Robert De Niro as little as he does Travolta – a scrofulous-looking Al Pacino would be nearer the mark.)”

— Jonathan Romney, Sight & Sound May 2009

68. Public Enemies

Michael Mann, US 2009

The scene: bank robber John Dillinger goes to the Biograph Theater with an acquaintance; she is working as an informant for the FBI and sets him up to be captured.

What we said:

“As well as genre thrills, the film offers itself as a historically accurate account of Dillinger‘s notorious career, and the surface of the film is certainly rich with brand-new period cars, beautifully tailored suits and meticulously researched radio broadcasts and advertising hoardings.

“Many of the key sequences, including the shoot-out at the Little Bohemia and Dillinger‘s escape from Lake County Jail, are filmed in the actual locations where the events took place. Clever sound design also sets the scene nicely with Depression-era blues and Appalachian Baptist spirituals set alongside Otis Taylor‘s contemporary reworking of the protest songs of the period.”

— Guy Westwall, Sight & Sound August 2009

69. A Useful Life

Federico Veiroj, Uruguay 2010

A Useful Life (2010)

The scene: a man is thrust into the throes of existential angst following the closure of the cinema at which he works.

What we said:

“Cinema is the tool that the protagonist, Jorge, deploys to understand his world and change it. When the Montevideo cinematheque where Jorge works closes down due to economic problems, he finds himself outside his comfort zone, only to rediscover the world – and himself – as the hero of the film he starts living. Shot in black and white, and nodding at famous scenes and music set pieces from classical Hollywood, Veiroj‘s film is a witty and loving ode to cinema.”

— Mar Diestro-Dópido, Sight & Sound December 2010

70. The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius, France 2011

The scene: Tears of Love, the final silent movie by a movie star, premieres at the Los Angeles Theatre.

What we said:

“Hazanavicius, who made the two OSS 117 spy spoofs, Cairo: Nest of Spies and Lost in Rio, says he made The Artist because all the directors he most admires came from the silent era. There are echoes here of A Star Is Born, City Girl, Sunset Blvd. and – as Valentin seems to develop a Gene Kelly look – Singin‘ in the Rain (only without the songs).

“The film is every bit as inventive as the Donen-Kelly classic – in one great scene Valentin has a nightmare with full sound effects (which we hear), but nothing will come out of his own mouth. Yes, The Artist is pure pastiche – and digital pastiche at that – but I doubt you‘ll find a more light-hearted, energised and witty package in the cinema this year.”

— Nick James, Sight & Sound July 2011

71. Carol

Toddy Haynes, US 2015

The scene: a woman watches Sunset Blvd. (1950) from a cinema projection booth.

What we said:

“Haynes‘s continuing fascination with women trapped by social norms runs back as far as Safe‘s life-allergic trophy housewife, through Far from Heaven‘s doomed interracial love and Mildred Pierce‘s class tensions.

“In Carol, which is to some extent a companion piece to Far from Heaven, the master of postmodern melodrama and loving pastiche has created instead a swooning yet adroitly understated love story. A knowing, heartfelt lesbian do-over of the Old Hollywood template for impossible romance, Carol wears its yearning as stylishly as Cate Blanchett‘s patrician Carol sports Sandy Powell‘s gorgeously fitted 50s costumes, her popping red hats, scarves and curvy mouth hinting at banked fres.

“Elegant restraint is the film‘s watchword – it seduces its audience as nimbly as it does Rooney Mara’s awestruck Therese. We’re reeled in by the exquisite dance of gestures exchanged over a crackling martini-fuelled lunch or an elaborately innocent upstate New York visit: darting eye meets, questioning glances, shared smiles.”

— Kate Stables, Sight & Sound December 2015

72. La La Land

Damien Chazelle, US 2016

La La Land (2016)

The scene: a struggling jazz musician invites an aspiring actor to watch Rebel without a Cause with him; she accepts, forgetting a prior engagement with her boyfriend.

What we said:

“La La Land, the new film by Damien Chazelle, is a cinematic ghost. This apparition is a movie musical, and it is set in Hollywood, the town that used to make this kind of film all the time, once upon a time. Nowadays, the musical genre is in a very uncertain place, at least as far as American cinema is concerned, which makes La La Land a spectre, haunting the scene of its own demise. Many will take one look at La La Land and say, “They don’t make ’em like that any more,” but this expressive film has almost as much to say about the shaky future of the Hollywood musical, as its celebrated past.

“In the film, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play Seb and Mia, two young wannabes who also find themselves in an uncertain place. Are they living in Los Angeles, or la la land? Are they destined for Hollywood or just living a delusion, hoping for a break that will never come? Seb is a jobbing musician who yearns to achieve greatness in his chosen form of jazz. Mia is an actress, or as Seb unkindly corrects her, a barista who attends a lot of auditions. They meet and fall in love, but the dreams that they are both chasing put their romance to the test. There’s not much to the story, but there’s more to this film than plot.”

— Pamela Hutchinson, Sight & Sound January 2017

73. Paterson

Jim Jarmusch, US 2016

The scene: a married couple go to the cinema on the weekend to watch a classic horror movie.

What we said:

“Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who happens to write poems; his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is into monochrome home decoration. They live in Paterson, New Jersey, a city that inspired William Carlos Williams to write an epic poem.

“Jarmusch’s taste for ordinary vibrant things – such as a perfect box of matches – is here the launchpad for a diary film that captures a week in the life of our couple. We see the town drifting past the bus’s windows. We see the limpid poems (beautifully read by Driver) appear word by word on screen. They’re in the same vein as Williams’s famous imagist poem ‘This Is Just to Say’, about eating delicious plums left by his wife in the icebox, but leaner still – the poetry of the everyday.

“It’s an exquisitely modest, heartfelt film with a quietly moving way with gags – pure Jarmusch, yet reminiscent too of Aki Kaurismäki’s tributes to working stiffs, such as Shadows in Paradise (1986). If there’s more than a hint of manic pixie dream girl about Laura, it’s offset by her growling English bulldog Marvin, to whom Paterson is just as much married.”

— Nick James, Sight & Sound July 2016

74. Atomic Blonde

David Leitch, US 2017

The scene: a fight scene takes place in West Berlin’s Kino International, the arthouse film on show serving as a dramatic backdrop.

What we said:

“One of those conspicuously cool media properties that is either the product of data mined from social media or savvy creative talent of a certain age, Atomic Blonde offers a strong female lead, 80s pop hits, Cold War espionage, neon lighting and a lengthy fight scene inside a cinema that’s showing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

“What occasionally makes the film more than the sum of its ‘I love the 80s’ parts is Charlize Theron as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, not quite nailing her British accent (a slight improvement on Rita Leeds in Arrested Development) but fighting like a professional assassin. Unlike most contemporary action sequences, the blows here aren’t constructed through fast-paced cuts that hide the lack of contact between the combatants, but instead play out in lengthy takes, shot from a distance. Impressively choreographed, these battles manage to be both suspenseful and verisimilar.”

— Violet Lucca, Sight & Sound October 2017

75. Roma

Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico 2018

The scene: a woman and her boyfriend kiss at the back of a movie theatre; she tells him that she is pregnant and he abandons her.

What we said:

“The world of Cuarón’s youth is the world of Roma, which follows the travails of a live-in housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and the disintegrating upper-middle-class family that she keeps fed and coddled, a silent cushion to absorb occasional eruptions of abuse from the abandoned matriarch (Marina de Tavira).

“The film’s title refers to Colonia Roma, the Mexico City district where much of the movie takes place, though it also lends an Italianate air to the proceedings – appropriate, since Cuarón’s use of black-and-white widescreen and long, patiently unwinding sequence shots, often organised as a series of deliberate panning pivots from a planted point, suggests at times the Italian drama of the 50s and 60s.

“There is a bit of Federico Fellini in its bigger-than-life inflation of autobiographical memory, of the legacy of neorealism in its mixture of professional and nonprofessional performers, and also of the lesser-known Antonio Pietrangeli, whose filmography is filled with instances of quietly intricate blocking and camera-play.”

— Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound January/February 2019

76. Dolemite Is My Name

Craig Brewer, US 2019

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

The scene: Dolemite shows his independently produced kung-fu movie to a sell-out crowd.

What we said:

“While he hasn’t vanished entirely, Eddie Murphy has been pretty quiet over the past decade. From 2010 the comedian took began to slow, taking a four-year hiatus following a string of lacklustre roles before 2016’s Mr Church. Now he’s back in another leading role – and finally one that suits him. Dolemite Is My Name takes great delight in exploring the creation of Moore’s alter ego, the loquacious and larger-than-life pimp Dolemite, and the bizarre, DIY production of the 1975 blaxploitation film that bears his name.

“Murphy is surprisingly restrained and steady in the role of Rudy Ray, resisting playing up his eccentricities and insecurities for easy laughs. It’s a more humble performance than expected, both from this performer and given the braggadocio of the film’s title.

“It’s satisfying that Dolemite Is My Name takes great pride in its subject matter, never demeaning Moore’s seemingly misplaced ambition and hopeless schemes, which it takes a lot of joy in recreating. Overall, this is a fun, and fitting, return for a comedian and actor whose time was considered up, even it indulges in the occasional moment of nostalgia and sickly sweet sentimentality.”

— Kambole Campbell, Sight & Sound online

77. Once upon a Time… in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino, US 2019

The scene: Sharon Tate drops into a screening of her own film, The Wrecking Crew.

What we said:

“The times they are a-changin’, and the barely constrained subtext is that the movie business has become no country for old men. And that’s without even mentioning the dead-eyed Mansonites holed up at the defunct Spahn movie ranch, the former site of so many make-believe standoffs, now transformed into a different kind of ghost town. The western is, fundamentally, about the battle to create and control civilisation, a trope that Tarantino understands and exploits smartly.

“For the first two hours of Once upon a Time… in Hollywood, he sets up a playful, purposeful dichotomy between his mock-heroes, both of whom are humorously played by irresistible alpha-male movie stars, and the interchangeably skinny, leggy, generally female countercultural usurpers massing threateningly at the edge of the story. In the last half-hour, he provides the payoff, which has been designed so that the fate of one of this scrupulously allusive film’s only authentic characters – ie, a real person with a tragic legacy – hangs in the balance.”

— Adam Nayman, Sight & Sound September 2019

78. Photograph

Ritesh Batra, India 2019

The scene: a couple watch a film in a charming but run-down Mumbai cinema and have a pivotal conversation in the lobby.

What we said:

Ritesh Batra spoke to Isabel Stevens about his search for the perfect cinema to shoot in.

“We looked at a lot of old cinemas for the final scene of Photograph [the tale of the romance between a poor street photographer and a shy, rich stranger]. I wanted the audience to witness the conversation between the two protagonists in a cinema lobby from a distance and see both of them in the frame in every shot. But I also wanted a location that had a magical power and nostalgia to it.

“It was important to us to find a working cinema because Mumbai is in a stage of transition right now, with old buildings being knocked down. We found a lot of cinemas were closed up, either scheduled for demolition or about to be refurbished as multiplexes. None of them had a sense of living character.”

79. Talking about Trees

Suhaib Gasmelbari, Sudan 2019

The scene: a group of elderly men attempt to hold a screening at a Sudanese cinema.

What we said:

“Shadad is one of four Sudanese filmmakers, all now in old age, who here look back on their experiences of repression and censorship as they put on free public screenings to try to revive a cinema culture stifled since the 1990s by Islamist state forces. Their project is enthusiastically welcomed by a population largely raised without big-screen exhibition – the pure glee with which one man declares, ‘Seeing a movie with friends is better than watching one alone at home!’ will warm any cinephile’s heart – but meets stumbling blocks in terms of technical presentation and official interference.

“It’s slow progress, and as the friends very slowly puzzle over what sort of projector they need, it’s hard not to wish they’d find themselves a hotshot intern to help with the tech side. But their confoundment in the face of a transformed communications culture is resonant: not only have the films they might have made been prevented, and the films they did make suppressed, but the very form they learned is obsolete. Checking out a disused movie theatre, they find themselves trampling masses of tangled film stock. ‘Here is the history of Sudanese cinema!’ one declares.”

— Hannah McGill, Sight & Sound February 2020

80. The Woman Who Ran

Hong Sangsoo, South Korea 2020

The scene: a woman eats her sandwich whilst watching a relaxing film at an arthouse cinema.

What we said:

Towards the end of Hong Sangsoo’s sardonic chamber drama The Woman Who Ran, a happily married florist, Gam-hee (Hong’s partner and longtime collaborator, Kim Min-hee), runs into an old friend, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-Byuk). During their increasingly heartfelt conversation, Woo-jin, who married Gam-hee’s one-time partner, now a successful writer, confides her doubts about her marriage. Resentful of her spouse’s fame, Woo-jin disparages his public appearances, and perhaps his books: “If he just repeats himself, how can that be sincere?”

The good news is that repetition may not be all bad: like the waves in the movie that Gam-hee ends up watching, ensconced alone in the cinema’s dark room, there’s a certain soothing effect, a respite, in life’s redundancy.

— Ela Bittencourt, Sight & Sound online