Nostalgia vs. Greatness in film: Or, 10 favorites and 10 landmarks

Morgan Smith

Certain cinematic moments exist that have the power to really affect us. The floating feather in “Forrest Gump,” the first murder in “Jaws,” the horse head in “The Godfather” or Heath Ledger‘s harrowing portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight are all examples of this.
Some of these moments stay with us, and maybe even shape who we are, and some span generations and affect films forever. Such examples deserve recognition.
Listed below are my 10 favorite films, followed by the 10 that I think have been the most influential.

My favorites (in order):

To make this list, I looked at all of my top-rated movies on IMDb and picked the ones that affected me most in my life, gave the most lasting impression or are films I quote in everyday life more than any other. Nostalgia was a big factor here. Even if some of these movies aren’t the best, they were for me.
1.The Lord of the Rings” trilogy
I packaged together all three films for the top spot. When I think of cinematic perfection, I think of “Lord of the Rings.” There’s nothing I quote more and no movie I’ve watched more. I count them all as one, since the only time I ever saw one individually was when they first came to theaters. Now, I watch the extended editions all in a row several times a year, and the magic never goes away. Peter Jackson perfected the fantasy genre with this series.
2.”Forrest Gump
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “Forrest Gump,” but I can tell you that I laugh and cry every time. For me, no film incites as much love for life and other human beings as “Forrest Gump” does. Tom Hanks created what may very well be the most beloved character in all of cinema. I can hardly go one week without saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates” or, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”
Godzilla is not called the king of the monsters for nothing. He isn’t the father of all creature features, but certainly still the best. And it’s one of the few with drama and a political message: Godzilla represents the threat of nuclear terror the Japanese suffered only nine years prior. My childhood was dominated by Godzilla movies and toys, and definitely shaped who I am today.
4. The “Star Wars” Saga
To be a “Star Wars” geek is the first prerequisite of any nerd. I love all six episodes, though the pre-sequels really do have their flaws (Jar-Jar, Hayden Christensen, excessive CGI … the list goes on). When I hear sci-fi, I think “Star Wars.” There are few examples in the history of movies where a fantasy world has worked so well and captured the minds of audiences so effectively.
5. “Jaws
I’ve watched this movie with my dad and reenacted the dialogue of Captain Quint too many times to count. I might not have ever been afraid of sharks if I didn’t see this movie. Exciting, true and permanent fear in an audience is rare, and Steven Spielberg did it in his second feature.
6. “Alien
This film also gave me nightmares as a kid. The style of the Nostromo and the sound effects of the consoles and alarms, along with spectacular costume and production design make this one of the most effective and most enjoyable of all horror and sci-fi movies.
7. “The Shining
Stanley Kubrick was the absolute master of film, and though “The Shining” is certainly not his best, it’s the one that stood out most to me. Kubrick refined horror with this movie, doing away with clichés like incessant screaming and jump scares, and instead using pure psychological terror. In my mind, this is the creepiest film of all time.
When I saw this last November, I knew it would be among my favorites. I think this film is perfect, and one the greatest works of art in recent times. Michael Keaton gave the performance of his life as Riggan Thompson, and the teamwork of Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki produced some of the most innovative camerawork of the modern age.
9.”Pulp Fiction
The magnum opus of Quentin Tarantino, “Pulp Fiction” to me is the best screenplay ever written, delivered by some of the most talented actors of the decade and directed by one of the modern masters of cinema. I get a good feeling of anticipation every time I start watching this film, knowing how rewarding multiple viewings can be.
10.”Annie Hall
There does not exist in the history of cinema a romantic comedy more funny, more realistic and more creative than Woody Allen‘s “Annie Hall.” Arguably his master work, slightly above “Manhattan,” Allen’s unique storytelling techniques cemented one of the most iconic film relationships in history, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Iconic scenes like the two actors playing with lobsters in their kitchen, or having a conversation about art while subtitles show their actual thoughts, are simply charming and work perfectly.

The most influential:

The next list are what I believe are the most influential films ever made. They were chosen for how their sheer innovation affected the film world after their release. They are as important to cinema as  blood is to our veins.
In chronological order:
More than the birth of a nation, this film is the birth of modern cinema. It is quite racist, glorifying the KKK and portraying black people as dumb brutes, but all the same, it is a milestone in filmmaking. Not only a milestone, but probably the key film in all American history. D.W. Griffith, referred to as the father of modern cinema, unlocked film’s artistic potential and advanced the medium to the point where films in an alternate dimension without “The Birth of a Nation” would be unrecognizable.
Techniques invented for this film were: ornate title cards, original musical score written for an orchestra, night scenes, elaborate costuming, covering of scenes with multiple cameras, the “iris,” or “pinhole” effect, parallel action in a sequence (two simultaneous events edited together), color tinting for dramatic effect, moving camera shots, close ups, fade-out transitions, dissolve transitions, high angle shots, panoramic shots, dramatization of a historical event and large battle scenes with extras.
Griffith didn’t leave much room for more innovation, and it was only 1915. “The Birth of a Nation” was sensational after its release. It was the longest film ever released, at about three hours. It was also the highest grossing movie of the time, not to be topped until “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. The resulting outcry about the film’s mockery towards former slaves made it forgotten in the public mind. In fact, the KKK had a comeback, inspired by this film. This is sad, because it is without a doubt the most important film ever made, by the most important director who ever lived, but will only ever be seen as trash.
Moral intentions were also less than appropriate in this film. Sergei M. Eisenstein‘s “Battleship Potemkin” was a propaganda film for the Soviet Union. It follows the crew of a Soviet battleship, who start a mutiny, and a revolution throughout the country. It was loosely based off of a real event in Odessa 20 years earlier in 1905, and Vladimir Lenin saw an opportunity to reinforce Marxist ideals in his country.
Eisenstein was hired to make a film that would remind Russian audiences of the feelings that started the 1917 revolutions. Eisenstein was an early supporter of montage theory, which states that the juxtapositions of contrasting or conflicting images can incite an emotional response or idea.
For example, in “The Godfather,” a baby’s baptism is intercut with Mafia killings. These two images together cement the idea of Michael Corleone being accepted to the family business. Or in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask,” a shot of a  crowd of people is cut with a shot of a herd of sheep. Without narration, the audience gets the idea that masses of people are as mindless as a herd of a sheep.
Shots like this in “The Battleship Potemkin” were the first of their kind. The Soviets recognized the emotional power of cinema, and unfortunately used it for the wrong purposes. They were effective, as the film was banned all over the world, even in Russia itself after the film inspired revolutionary feelings in some viewers.
One of the most famous scenes ever is the Odessa massacre in this film. Czarist troops open fire on civilians running down stairs. It was extremely violent, even by today’s standards. A baby carriage rolling down the stairs amidst gunfire and blood is one of the strongest and most parodied visuals ever set to film.
Alan Crosland‘s “The Jazz Singer” has only one distinct innovation, and it is probably the most important in this entire article. It was the first feature film with audible dialogue and sound. The first complete talkie wouldn’t come until a year later with the 1928 “Lights of New York,” but “The Jazz Singer” was nonetheless sensational. What silent film stars passed off as a fad soon turned into the biggest technical revolution in film history. The industry changed as well as the art form, and today, the sound, music and dialogue of a film is equally, if not more important, than the images themselves.
In 1929, Dziga Vertov made one of the most influential films of all time, and with with no narrative, dialogue or characters. What it did have was a fast-paced musical score, the scenario of showing a single day in a Russian city and a brand new style of storytelling. Also, it has an average shot length of 2.3 seconds per shot, as opposed to the standard 11.2 in 1929 when the film was released. This is important because the story of this film is told by clashing images, and the free association of ideas that comes with that.
The best way to understand this is to think of film as metaphorical. If we are shown the face of a woman, then a shot of a rose, the filmmaker is creating a comparison between the two. It is a metaphor. But it is fascinating, because it is a completely subconscious comparison. It is still done in film today, and has been ever since this film and “The Battleship Potemkin.” Dziga Vertov simply goes further with the montage concept mentioned before.
An example in the film is a scene of a woman washing her face intercut with a shot outside of water hitting a pole, cutting back to the woman, cutting to another person washing a window, back to the woman, who closes her eyes, and then we cut to the shades of a window elsewhere closing in the same fashion. What do we get from this sequence of seemingly random shots? There was no narrative, no dialogue. If it is taken metaphorically, then it is clear. The filmmaker is comparing the life of the woman to the life of a city, both with their own cycles of sleeping and waking up, becoming dirty and cleaning themselves.
Such mini-narratives happen about every five seconds in “Man With a Movie Camera,” making it one the strangest movie-watching experiences you will ever have. Physical filmmaking techniques were also experimented with or invented in this film, including stop motion, slow motion, dual exposure, jump cuts, freeze frames, split screens and Dutch angles (tilted angles).
If you look at any list of the greatest movies ever made, Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane” is likely at the top. Welles made this masterpiece at a mere 26 years old, and changed the world of film. Countless books have been written about the effects of “Citizen Kane,” but the major ones are these: deep focus (having everything in the frame in focus, rather than just the foreground or just the background), storytelling through flashbacks, not putting the title and actors names at the beginning of the film, the wipe transition and using light and shadow to create an atmosphere with a dark mood (some point to “Citizen Kane” as the birth of film noir). Though controversial, it has proved to be one of the high points in film history.
In my mind, Akira Kurosawa is the greatest director from a foreign country, ever. His infamous dedication to the composition of his films came from his previous experience as a painter. Nearly every film he made was considered gold by critics around the world. But, none was more praised than “Seven Samurai.” “Seven” was the birth of the modern action movie.
This film was the first to incorporate a reluctant hero, slow motion for dramatic flair in fight scenes, an abundance of fight scenes throughout the story, a final showdown and the collection of warriors banding together for a single mission. Name an action movie that doesn’t fulfill one or all of those requirements.
Kurosawa’s beautiful composition in this film is a wonder in itself, and challenged the static and default arrangements made in the 50s.
One of the most influential movements in film history is the French New Wave. Film critics of the French magazine “Cahiers du Cinéma” like François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, André Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard decided to take an avant-garde approach to filmmaking with emphasis on fragmented narratives, long takes and realism. It was guerrilla-style filmmaking with no ties to studios, and thus a lack of money and resources. But physical limits are often creative gateways.
The first New Wave feature is typically credited to “Le Beau Serge,” in 1958 with the first popular ones being Truffaut’s “400 Blows” in 1959 and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” in 1960. I chose “Breathless” for this list because its style seems to better represent the movement in general, and because it is Godard’s directorial debut, and he was arguably the largest figure to come out of French film scene at the time and has proved to be one of the most influential film directors of all time.
The New Wave wasn’t characterized by its technical innovations, but its lack of obsession with technical aspects, and “formula filmmaking.” The purpose of the movement was to focus on realistic stories, gritty stories that were not being told by major French studios, and certainly not American studios. Godard and his peers slapped the film world in the face and reminded them of its artistic qualities, and set the bar unbelievably high.
Regarded as the best sci-fi of all time by more than a few, Stanley Kubrick‘s only film in the genre is a gem. Kubrick was the master of cinema, and his filmography is so fantastic that a single masterpiece cannot be picked. But, “2001” certainly shook the world of film more than any other of his. Humans had not even landed on the moon before Kubrick brilliantly portrayed it in this film.
The late ’60s and ’70s in America were a time for cinematic revolution, and “2001” held the banner in 1968. Kubrick changed how music was used with the film’s classical score. Thanks to him, we associate Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” with evolution and Johann Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” with space travel.
Special effects in “2001,” for which Kubrick won his one and only Oscar, pushed the limits. Models for spaceships had never been used to extensively or effectively. Kubrick’s technique of building these large models against rear-projected backgrounds was used in “Silent Running,” “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Alien,” and just about any sci-fi movie since 1968 uses the same technique.
Huge rotating sets to create the illusion of artificial gravity, front projection and new concepts of artificial intelligence were a few more of the many innovations of “2001.” The HAL 9000 is one of the most famous examples of artificial intelligence in history, demonstrating how hyper-intelligent computers could potentially be a threat to humanity. There was also one of the most famous shots in film, an ape throwing a bone in the air and cutting to a similarly shaped spaceship orbiting the Earth.
Although it’s not the epitome of drama and acting, James Cameron‘s “Terminator 2” was undeniably a milestone in filmmaking. In 1989, the T-1000 became the first CGI main character in a movie. It was also the first use of natural human movements in CGI, the most extensive use of morphing (the T-1000 shifting its limbs into different weapons) and the first film to use one of those “personal computers” for its special effects.
Now you can’t go to a theater without a film playing that is at least partly created by CGI. While some directors are turning away from visual effects, like Lars von Trier with his Dogme 95 code of film technique, computer-generated effects have become a welcome and effective technique in storytelling.
This is the only film to make it on both of my lists, and for good reason. Once upon a time, before the summer of 1975, Hollywood executives treated June through August like the plague. They thought people couldn’t be bothered to go see movies when they were busy playing outside and going on vacations. Spielberg changed all of that when his second feature film, “Jaws,” became the world’s first summer blockbuster.
Today, they are commonplace. The highest grossing films of each year are almost always summer releases (with the exception of last year’s “American Sniper,” which ended up being the top grossing film of 2014). The whole film business revolves around summer releases. None of it would have been possible without the risky release of “Jaws.” It was a hit and became the highest grossing movie of all time (not counting for inflation) until “Star Wars” two years later.
In terms of cinematic achievement, it was the birth of the modern thriller. One could argue for Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho,” but “Jaws” honestly blows it out of the water. The only necessary evidence for this is in the public reaction. No film on this list had as much impact on the world as “Jaws.” Americans didn’t used to be afraid of sharks. After WWII reports from the U.S.S. Indianapolis of crew being eaten alive by great white sharks (referenced in the movie), people became aware of the danger of sharks, but it wasn’t sensationalized. People went to beaches carefree, and shark attacks didn’t appear in popular media.
After “Jaws,” a new phobia had sprung up, and levels of beach tourism across the country went down. Even today, stories of shark attacks still reach news sources across the country. If you ask people what they’re afraid of, sharks will likely be high up on their list. This is the effect cinema has. It is designed to create an emotional response, to make the audience feel what the filmmaker wants them to feel. Sometimes the feeling can be amplified and spread across continents, and that is the beauty of motion pictures.
Collegian A&E Film Beat Writer Morgan Smith can be reached at or on Twitter @MDSfilms.