Cinema can change lives. People may try to convince you otherwise; that film is just an entertainment bandwagon that needs to be used and thrown; that it has no “greater purpose”, so to speak. Well, with all due respect to all the detractors and cynics: they are wrong. Cinema can affect lives, they can awaken a nation’s conscience, they can spawn social change and in rare instances, they change the nature of your reality. The great Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘Short Film About Killing’ awakened Poland to the horrors of judicial murder and was instrumental in the abolishment of the death penalty. Michael Haneke’s ‘Caché’ uncovered the wounds of the 1961 Siene River Massacre and the French government’s decades long denial of the tragedy. So, when someone tells me cinema has no intrinsic value – I look at them…. and smile.
Now, I’m sure that as cinephiles, we all have movies that have affected our lives; movies that we consider our favorites because of how it moved us. The relationship between cinema and its audience is a very personal one, and not based on critical or objective opinions. And today, I have decided to share the movies that I consider my favorites; movies that changed my life. This is not a list for everyone; this is my list of movies and another person would most definitely have a different list. That said, I do believe that all these movies are essential viewing for anybody who loves cinema, and they are true testaments to the power and influence of this great art. (Numerals don’t indicate any kind of ranking.)
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
For all those rolling your eyes on this textbook cinephile mention, let me make this clear once and for all – its not just the critics and intellectuals, ‘Citizen Kane’ is also one of the greatest movies I have ever seen, and my journey towards discovering this masterpiece was a long, albeit satisfying one. Written and directed by the great Orson Welles, ‘Citizen Kane’ has Welles’ himself playing the titular role of Charles Foster Kane, a megalomaniac media mogul, whose life is retraced by a journalist after his death. The movie is said to be quasi autobiographical, based on Welles’ own life and that of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. While the movie’s technical finesse and innovation is ground-breaking, it is the sheer emotional depth and thematic richness that makes it one of the greatest movies ever made.
I couldn’t initially relate to a tragic tale of loneliness and depression of one of the most powerful and richest men in the planet – a man who had everything, so to speak. But, it is only with time and perspective on my hands that I related to the tragic existence of a man who had everything and yet had nothing. Unlovable and intolerable even for close friends and family, Kane scaled all the peaks there is for a man, but as time made him realize, the ride to the top is often a lonely one. And that’s why his dying words “Rosebud”, is so profoundly poignant.
We all have our Rosebuds, in the sense that there always a part of us, something deep inside us that is empty, an emptiness that we constantly try to fill. Perhaps only when confronted with the idea of mortality, do we realize the futility of what we have achieved and whether it really made us happy. Rosebud is a memory of happier times, before things got awry; a time when you were filled with innocence and hope. And ‘Citizen Kane’ gives arguably the most tragic character in cinema history, a man whose miserable existence will move you to tears. With its damning repudiation of the American Dream and its glossy ideals, ‘Citizen Kane’ made me re-evaluate my own life choices and how it has shaped my life. Read more
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2. L’Avventura (1960)
Connoisseurs of cinema will never forget the heart-breaking image of Michelangelo Antonioni and his star Monicca Vitti bursting into tears as his experimental feature ‘L’Avventura’ was relentlessly booed and jeered by the audience during its premiere at Cannes in 1960. They couldn’t bear the humiliation and fled the screening. The deafening booing continued into the next week, when the movie was awarded the Jury Prize.
Apparently, the critics and film historians could do nothing but hate what they couldn’t understand. Redemption came soon for Antonioni as the movie went on to become a huge commercial success and only two years later, was ranked as the 2nd greatest movie of all time in the prestigious Sight and Sound Poll. ‘L’Avventura’ pushed the boundaries of cinematic art like no film had ever before (or arguably, ever since), with Antonioni crafting a mystery of a disappeared woman where the disappearance itself becomes inconsequential. Probably the greatest movie ever made about nothingness, or “Antonionennui”; the movie set the benchmark for the genius of Antonioni, who reveled in the mysteries of silence more than anybody else.
While themes of loneliness and emptiness have been explored in cinema quite a few times, nothing has ever hit me the way ‘L’Avventura’ did, as Antonioni crawls under our skin and tears apart the façade of happiness and joy we cover ourselves with. He raises uncomfortable questions as to the nature of our existence and the meaning of life as we glide through these fleeting moments of existential limbo, where everything from love to money are just props we use to make ourselves feel something, before the moment passes and we are back where we began. ‘L’Avventura’ explores the cold vacuum within the darkest corners of our psyche, and left me feeling the same void that had enveloped its characters.
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3. 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968)
About six months ago, in my take on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, for The Cinemaholic, I had proclaimed that the science-fiction philosophical masterpiece was the most important piece of cinematic art ever made. Stanley Kubrick, with his magnum-opus, transformed cinema for a generation while conceiving a work of art that encompasses the entirety of the human experience. Portraying two major turning points of human evolution over millions of years, the movie has no tangible plot, no characters, and no emotional arc, but is rather a psychedelic exploration of the universe and its endless possibilities.
What Kubrick managed to craft with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is pure, unbridled visual poetry. Sure, it isn’t easy to understand, and for that same reason I never tried to understand it. I let it wash over me, and was surprisingly moved. I was moved by the spectacle I was witnessing: a spectacle spanning millions of years, something which showed how small we are in the grand scheme of things. Life is all about finding answers, and while ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ doesn’t answer any, it makes us want to ask questions. And that is exactly what the movie made me do; it forced me to revisit my notions of science, philosophy and religion. That is what science is about; it asks us to never to be satisfied; never to stop asking questions.
Of course, you will never have all the answers, but that does mean you should ever stop questioning. That is what the universe teaches us. That is what ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ teaches us. Cinema is probably the most manipulative art form ever — it uses basic human emotions to evoke a response from the viewer; but Stanley Kubrick, through his non-verbal style in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, manages to break any barrier there is in art as the movie connects directly with your subconscious, both metaphysically and philosophically. There is no pretense, no artistic flourishes; everything is stripped down, displaying art at its purest. Read more
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4. The Mirror (1975)
Andrei Tarkovsky is, to me, is one of the greatest auteurs in the history of cinema; a man who made four seminal pieces of art that revolutionized the cinematic language. It is hard for me to express my love and admiration for the man, for his cinema has made an indelible mark on my life; emotionally resonating with me in ways I believed were impossible. And let’s just get it out of the way once and for all – ‘The Mirror’ is his magnum opus, a movie which will touch your soul with its melancholy as Tarkovsky, in his trademark warmth and humility, examines the human condition.
A loosely autobiographical tale of a man reminiscing his childhood growing up in 1930s Russia, ‘The Mirror’ is a movie that literally (and figuratively) wove poetry on film and changed the language of cinema forever. A challenging yet ultimately rewarding experience, ‘The Mirror’ effortlessly subverts all narrative structure in favor of a more visceral and transcendental experience as we flow into the memories of a man whose existence is slowly slipping away. It is also one of the most beautiful movies ever made; each frame is exquisitely crafted and is tinged with an aura of melancholy that hits you emotionally.
Using the fragmented memories of a dying man, ‘The Mirror’ recaptures the life and times of a period in history with unflinching honesty and empathy. It is immeasurably sad and somber, while painting a bleak portrait of humanity and life. It is a movie demands a lot from us as Tarkovsky invites us to surrender ourselves to him, as he holds our hands and shows us the fragments of our own lives. Arguably the most intimate work from Tarkovsky’s distinguished oeuvre, ‘The Mirror’ is ultimately about every one of us – our frailties, our regrets and our place in the world. Read more
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5. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Young Chantel Akerman, all of 15, watched the great French auteur Jean Luc-Godard’s ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ one night at the movies. Such was the movie’s influence on her that she decided the same night that she wanted to make movies. This was in 1965. A decade later, armed with nothing but a minuscule government grant and an all-woman crew, this 25-year-old took a huge plunge into a man’s world, thereby conceiving one of the most compelling pieces of cinema ever made – a movie that has changed my perspective of the world and imprinted itself into my cinematic journey. ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is the kind of movie that will make you re-evaluate your own life and existence.
In fact, such is the universality of Akerman’s narrative that it is eerily relatable to your own lives. With over 200 minutes of run-time and blatantly disregarding all rules of conventional cinema, ‘Jeanne Dielman’ portrays the boring, mundane life of the widowed mother of a teenage son over three days, when a minute aberration in her perfectly constructed routine results in her unraveling over the last day.
An immaculate portrayal of the nondescript and inconsequential lives that we all lead, the atmosphere of existential dread that runs throughout the movie is palpable. Much like the characters of the Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’, Jeanne is a woman who is bound by the curse of existence, nonchalantly trudging along each day of her life without any verve or excitement. This bleak view of humanity is something that I personally relate to and when it translates on-screen with such uncharacteristic realism, it is hard not to be swept away by it. Arguably one of the most experimental and experiential works ever conceived, ‘Jeanne Dielman’ is an unabashedly feminist film and will always be remembered for having the most complex, layered and nuanced portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema.
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6. Apocalypse Now (1979)
“My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam” — Francis Ford Coppola
With ‘Apocalypse Now’, Francis Ford Coppola journeyed into the jungles of Philippines and crafted a searing, gut-wrenching masterpiece. Arguably the greatest war-film ever, ‘Apocalypse Now’ was a movie which tore me apart with its unflinching honesty and brutality. An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola sets his narrative amidst the Vietnam War where a troubled Army Captain Benjamin Williard is sent on a covert mission to locate and neutralize a rogue Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz.
There are a lot of pre-conceived expectations that come along with watching a war film, but ‘Apocalypse Now’ steers clear of these clichés, as we are driven deep into the heart of a pointless war with no end in sight. Coppola dismantles the conventional American myth surrounding the war, as he bravely paints a gritty and often uncomfortable portrait of the needless conflict. A man disillusioned with war himself, Williard is not only looking for the renegade Colonel, he is also a man in search of answers; trying to understand the nature of the conflict which has all but consumed his existence. He is perhaps fascinated by the Colonel, and on a deeper level, identifies with his disenchantment.
Coppola makes him the passive observer, like us, and that lends him a humanity that I’ve struggled to find in a lot of Coppola’s earlier masterpieces. ‘Apocalypse Now’ hit me in a way I had never expected it to, because ultimately, this film isn’t just about the war, it is about what war brings out in people; about what it does to them. It forces us to delve deeper into our own souls to try to make sense out of the senselessness as it brilliantly portrays the war we all wage within ourselves and how the victors end up deciding who we are. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is cinema without pretense; without inhibitions and I will never forget it till the day I die. Read more
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7. Close Up (1990)
“For me, art is the experience of what you feel inside”
By the time Hossain Sabzian quietly utters these words in an open court, where is he is standing trial for attempted fraud, I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed because the words hit me a little too close for comfort. Here was a man, a miserable man struggling through his life, whose only respite was the movies. ‘Close Up’ is a reflection of that inimitable bond between cinema and cinephiles; Abbas Kiarostami, with his trademark signature of honesty, humility and empathy, crafts one of the finest works of art cinema has ever seen.
A docu-fiction drama, the premise of ‘Close Up’ is as simple as it gets – a poor, married man (Sabzian) meets an old lady in a bus and announces himself as the famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He invites himself over to her house, where he goes on to con her and her family into believing that they will be cast in his next movie and makes an attempt to extort money from them; and the movie follows the arrest of the man and his subsequent trial. As the movie unfolds, it is hard not to feel connected to this poor nobody for whom cinema meant everything. As cinephiles, we understand the magic of the movies and how important it is to us. And the same goes for Sabzian; he is one of us, a lonely man being slowly devoured by the calamity of circumstance, whose only respite is cinema.
Hussain Sabzian loved movies and he loved Makhmalbaf, and when met with the opportunity to actually become his idol, he jumped at it, as any of us might have done. For the first time in life, this perennial nobody became something of worth, and commanded respect that he had never experienced before. And above all, he got as close to the craft of cinema as a cinephile could ever get – isn’t that the ultimate dream for all of us! And ultimately, this is what Kiarostami mirrors, the angst of a cinephile living in a repressed social and cultural milieu. And it is hard not to be affected by this poignant and profound evocation of cinematic passion. Read more
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8. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Perhaps the fact that he was a painter long before he forayed into film-making helped David Lynch steer clear of the conventional film milieu. And while most of his films tread the fine line between real and surreal, ‘Mulholland Drive’ is film-making taken to a whole new level. The movie has played an important role in my life; it made me realize the power of cinema and what it is capable of as an artistic expression. A psychological mystery thriller, ‘Mulholland Drive’ was released in 2001 at the Cannes Film Festival, opening to one of the most polarizing receptions in the history of the festival; people either loved it or hated it. And much of it has to do with Lynch’s trademark cinematic style, which are replete with weird, surreal imagery, dark complex themes and numerous visual motifs, which makes it nearly impossible to decipher on first watch.
A lot people love ‘Mulholland Drive’ for the puzzle. But it is Lynch’s brilliant insight into the human psyche that really gives me the chills. We can only watch in absolute shock as identities change and characters overlap as a young, guilt-ridden woman tries to make sense of her life. But above all else, ‘Mulholland Drive’ is an ode to cinema itself. In his own inimitable style, Lynch displays what art and cinema in particular is – it is a manipulative farce; it is make- believe. And that is what an artist does; he manipulates his audience; he taps into our deepest feelings, in an attempt to make us emotionally respond to his work. And Lynch uses that to great effect in ‘Mulholland Drive’; he sets a hollow, almost parodic tone to his film. So, when he finally pulls the rug from under our feet; we are left with our mouths wide open, because we know we were duped.
I can say with conviction that ‘Mulholland Drive’ is arguably the most impactful film of the century; even the ones who hate it can’t get it out of their heads. And more importantly, ‘Mulholland Drive’ is David Lynch’s magnum opus; the cinematic crescendo of an underrated genius at his very best. And while the brilliance of ‘Mulholland Drive’ is by no small means thanks to Naomi Watts, in one of the finest performances in the history of cinema; ultimately the film belongs to David Lynch. With ‘Mulholland Drive’, he has made a movie about movies that best depict what they are, and that is no mean feat. Read more
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9. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Charlie Kaufman knows me; he knows the life I lead; he knows my fears, my passions and my sorrows. I have never felt connected to anybody quite the way I have with the characters in his screenplays, from ‘Being John Malkovich’ to ‘Adaptation’. But, Caden Cotard in ‘Synecdoche New York’ is the man I identify with the most, the man who lives inside my warped, complex psyche. And Kaufman, in his directorial debut, crafts one of the greatest character studies in the history of cinema, as we follow the life of a paranoid, insufferable theater director struggling to come to terms with his own mortality.
Kaufman’s magnum-opus, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ is one of the saddest and most depressing films I ever seen; also, probably the most poignant. It one of the rare cinematic gems that has the ability to encompass the entire humanity under its wings, while telling a story that every person would relate to. The story follows an ailing theater artist struggling with his most ambitious theater piece, as his extreme commitment to realism slowly blurs the lines between what is real and what is not. But along the way, Kaufman manages to throw up philosophical questions about the idea of existence, and how we perceive the reality around us.
A movie which may depress you beyond words, this movie stemmed from Kaufman’s wish to write a real horror story. And a terrifying movie it is, one which explores the horror that confronts every human being; the idea of death, of the lifelong struggle to avert that single unchangeable reality, and how it changes your life as a whole. ‘Synecdoche, New York’ may be Kaufman’s least accessible movie, but it is also his funniest and most emotionally profound. Read more
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10. The Tree of Life (2011)
It is not easy to talk about a movie like ‘The Tree of Life’, and it has little to do with the fact that the movie is not an easy one to understand. More importantly, I do not think my meager words would do justice to the journey that is ‘The Tree of Life’; a journey deep into our own souls. Cinema just has an entertainment value for most people, and then, once in a lifetime, comes something as emotionally powerful and philosophically opulent as ‘The Tree of Life’, which reaffirms cinema’s position amongst the finest artistic expressions.
‘The Tree of Life’ is an experimental philosophical-drama about a middle-aged man reminiscing his childhood with his parents and brothers in 1950s Texas. Pretty straight-forward, huh? Well, that’s not all; these memories are juxtaposed with breath-taking visuals showing the formation of the universe and the inception of life. Hell, it even has dinosaurs; and only a genius like Terrence Malick could bring all these (seemingly) unrelated fragments to create something as pure and profound.
‘The Tree of Life’ evokes the most primitive of human emotions – love, hate, confusion, jealousy, compassion, elation, desperation, pain, guilt and desolation; all the while asking telling questions on our place in the world. I am sure all of us have at one point or other in our lives wondered about our lives and existence; whether it all means something, or are we just a freakish coincidence of the universe, fleeting through life.
Of course, we have all wondered about the idea of “god”; whether that entity actually exists, or is it just an imaginative concept we made up to cover up for our own weaknesses. These are questions that have always racked our brains; some claim to have already found answers, while others (including me) are still searching. Malick taps into all these unanswered existential questions, through the prism of a man who could well be Malick himself, or any of us for that matter. ‘The Tree of Life’ is a spiritual journey that requires you to surrender yourself to it; unhinged and uninhibited. It requires you to be vulnerable, so that it can wash over you. And if you do, it could be an ethereal experience. Read more
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