One of the greatest things about cinema is that it is both, at the same time, a communal and deeply personal experience. We go to the movies with our friends and family; we sit in a room full of strangers to watch the same sights and hear the same sounds for the next ninety or so minutes. We all see the same film – the external experience is exactly the same – but there is no scientific formula to predict our individual reactions. Cinema, at its best, will stay with you for years to come. It gives us the chance to see the world from a different perspective and it connects us like all great art does. Throughout my young life, my perception of this magical medium has changed almost completely. From first watching films as a very young child and simply being blown away by the spectacle and seemingly endless potential of it all to now having reached a point where a great film can change the way I think. I have truly evolved as a movie lover.
There are movies that you watch, get entertained, and then forget as soon as you come out of the theater. Then, there are movies that just linger on your mind days after you have watched the film. You can’t stop thinking either about the characters or the moments in the film. Sometimes, even the concept of the film itself blows your mind away and you keep going back to what you saw on-screen. Personally, I enjoy the “thinking” movies the most. When I get a lingering feeling that I can’t brush off my mind is when I know I have watched a great film. And this list comprises of top films that I think will make you think about life. You can also watch some of these best movies that make you think on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu.
20. The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Perhaps it is best to start from the very beginning and one of the first films I can remember falling in love with. There were, of course, others: I was young enough to grow up with Sam Raimi’s take on Spider-Man; I loved Disney’s The Lion King; and I wasn’t quite sure yet exactly why I liked Kate Winslet in Titanic so much… None of these films, however, can match my earliest memories of The Mark of Zorro. I was so obsessed with it that I became the one kid at school who could amaze my teachers simply by knowing who Basil Rathbone was.
The film itself opened me up to a world of adventure I hadn’t experienced before. It contained swashbuckling adventure (which later prepared me for Victor Fleming’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), wonderful lines that have stayed with me my entire life and a fantastic duel between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone that still puts me on the edge of my seat today. It’s strange how certain details came back to me as I rediscovered the film more recently: costumes, forgotten banter between the hero and villain – even swords hung on the walls of sets. It goes to show the power that cinema has to burn images into our minds. It was no overly complex film – it’s a good old fashioned, black and white tale of good versus evil and action and adventure – but it introduced me to a world that I haven’t left since.
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19. King Kong (1933)
This is another film from my childhood which has burrowed its way into my memories: it was the first time I ever truly felt afraid of a movie. I remember my grandfather showing me this one Saturday afternoon. There was a beautiful woman used as a sacrifice by a savage tribe on a prehistoric island. As Fay Wray stood there, hands bound and left out beyond the wall to be taken by Kong, I felt a sense of dread that still echoes with me every time I go back to Skull Island. Kong atop the Empire State Building is perhaps the most famous image from the Merian C. Cooper/ Ernest B. Schoedsack monster masterpiece, but I’ve always thought first of Kong tearing his way through the trees and first laying eyes on his blonde sacrifice. I can’t ultimately hold it against my late grandfather for mildly traumatising me in this way, since this experience, like The Mark of Zorro, laid the foundation for my continuing love for Classical Hollywood. Kong himself became an enigma: how could something so enormous and utterly terrifying also be so love-sick and sympathetic?
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18. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
I also feel a great deal of respect for a little director (perhaps you’ve heard of him) called Steven Spielberg. I still class him as working in a continuation of the style of Classical Hollywood and several of his films (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park…) I watched and re-watched countless times as a child. However, the one that sticks out with me the most is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This was another experience I have to thank my grandfather for and I remember watching it on VHS with him every time I had the chance. This film almost single-handedly propelled me into that stage of a young boy’s life where all he cares about are action movies and how many Nazis yell out the Wilhelm scream as they fall to their deaths (sometimes on fire) in great big action set-pieces. Running around the playground at school, I was Indiana Jones pretending to take on the tank from what was the best set-piece my little eyes had ever seen (the link is down below, I couldn’t resist). Now, it means a little more to me. Yes, the action makes me feel like a kid again and I look forward to watching Indy fight the bad guys, solve the puzzles and ride off into the sunset, but the heart of the film now is the relationship between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.
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17. Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation made me cry only because I felt for Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). I could see all the emotions of her character and felt all of them because she portrayed it so well. Loneliness is raw and most deeply felt. When one feels left out, even when people are around, it sucks out all the life in them. It is so consuming that when they find someone else with the same affliction, they reach out to them and form deep bonds with them. This loneliness and heartfelt passiveness is articulated beautifully by the friendship between Theodore and Amy in Her and Charlotte and Bob Harris in Lost in Translation. Scarlett Johansson is wonderfully beautiful and it shows really well even if only her Voice acted in Her. If you liked Her then you would love her Lost in Translation.
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16. Synecdoche, New York
‘Synecdoche, New York’ is a difficult movie to watch, and even stomach. It is not something which needs to be understood; movies like this need to be observed, felt and reflected upon. Intensely cerebral, often-times shocking, ‘Synecdoche, New York’ would not appeal to everyone; it is a celebration of everything an artist aspires to be, and yet it is ultimately a tragedy, showing the flip-side of artistic ambition, where the real meets the unreal, plunging the artistic mind into the dark depths of uncertainty and depression.
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15. The Mirror
Roughly autobiographical in nature, ‘The Mirror’ is a moving tale of the various emotions punctuating the consciousness of a forty-something dying poet. The film, arguably Tarkovsky’s best work, makes a sublime effort at redrawing the memories of a person. The movie is also considered to be an excellent commentary on the then existing Soviet society and politics. Known for its non-linear structure and unique cinematography, ‘The Mirror’ still remains one of the most intriguing pieces of cinematic art.
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14. 2001: Space Odyssey
Undoubtedly the most complete piece of work from the stables of the maverick filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ could aptly be described as a tryst with mayhem. With themes ranging from existentialism to evolution, the movie has acquired a cult status over the years. Loosely inspired by a short story named ‘The Sentinel’ penned by Arthur C. Clarke; who co-scripted the screenplay along with Kubrick; the movie chronicles the journey of a crew of scientists to Jupiter along with the sentient computer HAL 9000. The film has inspired numerous interpretations over the years and only seems to go up in terms of popularity.
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13. Before Sunset
What makes Before films so great is that each of the three films apart from being romantic, funny, enlightening and heart wrenching, are about us and who we are: love seeking and insecure, figuring out all our lives whether what we did, the choices we made, the paths we relinquished, were they right or not. ‘Before Sunset’ is an emotional, thought-provoking take on love, longing and missed opportunities in life. It is such a masterful work that it, ultimately, becomes a mirror, by looking into which, you can judge your own past and present.
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12. The Tree of Life
‘The Tree of Life’ is a cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition. It doesn’t just ask its audience to observe, but also, reflect and feel. At its simplest, ‘The Tree of Life’ is a story of the journey of finding oneself. At its most complex, it is a meditation on human life and our place in the grand scheme of things. In the end, ‘The Tree of Life’ might change the way you look at life (It changed me). How many films have the power to do that?
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‘8½’ is a film about filmmaking itself and more specifically about the much dreaded ‘director’s block’. Known for its uniquely creative title and autobiographical references, it represents Fellini’s 8½th directorial venture. As simple as it sounds; the movie is a masterful juxtaposition of reality, imagination, memories and dreams. It marked a distinct departure from Fellini’s neorealist roots and is deeply contemplative in nature.
Call it allegorical, call it enigmatic or call it deeply contemplative; when you delve into the dark and sinister world created by Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979), you can’t help getting enamoured by it! The film is nothing short of a journey into the dark alleys of uncertainty; one that is marked by hope, despair, narcissism, nihilism and above all a quest for what is ultimately humane. Let us all face it. The world demands a constant vindication of one’s existence. Tarkovsky, through this film, makes a subtle attempt at proving the futility of these vindications.
9. Mulholland Drive
A first watch of Mulholland Dr. results into the following: A head scratch, confusion, brainstorming, realization, acceptance. This lasts for days. Only after you accept that what you have watched is nothing short of a miracle, you go for second, third, fourth… watch, to appreciate the nuances, to laud at the filmmaking, the editing, the performances and to glean some sense out of the cerebral and haunting piece of cinema. A film that is discussed even today, around 15 years after its release and yet, not every question about the film has been answered. ‘Mulholland Dr.’, quite simply, offers the greatest cinematic mystery of all time.
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8. In the Mood For Love
‘In The Mood For Love’ is not just a film; it is a poetry in motion. With beautiful, captivating images and equally exquisite, soul-piercing music, ‘In The Mood For Love’ tells the complex story of two simple and intrinsically beautiful individuals who are caught together in circumstances that ever-so-unpredictable life can pose. Two individuals who go through the simultaneous fear and lure of falling in love, and once in love, the sheer pain of leaving it incomplete. ‘In the Mood for Love’ has so much of love and longing simmering underneath the surface, that it will linger on your mind for days after you have watched the film.
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7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The dizzying, surreal epiphany of love and heartbreak has never been explored in the manner and to the degree of success with which this film does. Penning a compelling spin on an unconventional love story with a stroke of ingenious madness and an emotional payoff, the real star of the show is the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. He and director Michel Gondry have created a film that is not only unique in its own way but also endlessly re-watchable with something new to be found within every viewing. After watching ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ you might have bouts of nostalgia strike you time and again.
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6. Upstream Color
Thematically rich and layered, ‘Upstream Color’ is a twisted examination of love and relationships – how do we function in it, what our love does to one another, and eventually how that’s connected to the nature and bigger schemes of things. Lyrical, mystifying and at the same time, deeply philosophical, ‘Upstream Color’ is as much a technical wizardry as it is a meditative and contemplative piece of art. If ever the art of cinema required a reason or a proof to corroborate that its purpose of existence is much more than mere entertainment, then you don’t have to look any further than this film.
5. Alien (1979)
Fast-forward several years to when I was fourteen (we can skip my awkward Transformers phase) and the real birth of my obsession with cinema. After delving into the excesses of modern blockbusters, I discovered that Ridley Scott offered something more to do with mood and tension. To me this film is about empty corridors, dark vents, water slowly dripping from the ceiling and a real, adult form of terror. I think it is the best thing Ridley Scott has ever done: I love the tone and suspense, the documentary-like characters, the gorgeous sets, the Jerry Goldsmith score and the way Scott holds it all together. More importantly though, it represents a change in the way I watched movies – or what I wanted to watch. Just like the crew of the Nostromo landing on LV 426, I now wanted to explore cinema and find out if it could frighten me, make me laugh, make me cry, thrill me and make me think.
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4. The Night of the Hunter
In 2005, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter was featured on the BFI’s list of films you should see before the age of fourteen. However, I never saw this movie as a child. When I did see The Night of the Hunter, though, I found it had the power to remind me of what it was like to be a child – not in the same way as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or other Spielberg films, but instead it reminded me of childhood terrors. To me, this film is a child’s nightmare filmed in the style of German expressionist horror. Robert Mitchum’s performance as the Reverend Harry Powell creates an utterly terrifying creature who manages to keep up with you, no matter how fast or how far you run, at his own steady pace. He’ll find you and when he does you can’t rely on adults to save you – not even your own family. That is the greatest achievement of Charles Laughton’s sole directorial feature: it shows how easily cinema can take you back in time.
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3. Taxi Driver
Travis Bickle is a veteran suffering from insomnia and living in self-imposed isolation who wanders through the streets of New York like it’s a nightmarish vision of hell. Scorsese’s camera glides through the streets at night, never settling, just like Travis. The trio of Scorsese, Paul Schrader and, of course, Robert De Niro, gave us the opportunity to look at the world through Travis’ eyes. When I first saw the film, this point of view was alien to me. When I came back and saw it again, I felt like it was made just for me. At some point in our lives, we all feel like Travis Bickle. Scorsese knew it, Schrader knew it and De Niro knew it, which is why we have an uncompromising, raw and feverish look at hell by way of New York City.
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2. The Third Man
Bombed-out Vienna streets, shadowy figures lurking in the darkness, light glistening off wet cobblestones, footsteps echoing through the sewers and the sound of Anton Karas playing that iconic zither score – throw in the most beautiful and haunting film noir cinematography of all time, a top notch cast and a brilliant Graham Greene screenplay and you have Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece The Third Man, the greatest British film of all time and, perhaps, my very favourite movie.
To not include this on a list of films that changed my perception of cinema would be a crime. This is the gold standard of every aspect of filmmaking coming together perfectly. It’s funny and smart, haunting and dark, heart-warming and bittersweet. We can analyse and break films down all we want to find out why they work so well, but there is a rare, inexplicable magic to cinema that can be found deep in the heart of The Third Man. No matter how hard I try to put that experience in words, it cannot match the sheer joy of sitting in the dark and watching the illusion from beginning to end.
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After Mulholland Drive, the only film to really shake me up has been Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. For the first half an hour or so of its run-time, I thought it was just a lot of talking with some provocative images thrown in there: tarantulas, a crucifixion and the suicide of Thich Quang Duc by self-immolation in Vietnam. I didn’t think there was anything of substance holding it together until I came to the scene where Alma (played magnificently by Bibi Andersson) discusses an orgy she had on the beach. It was then when I realised that the film had snuck up on me. I was completely blown away and caught off guard. It was erotic and disturbing and haunting and utterly, utterly engaging with imagery so powerful I felt I had seen it myself.
My experience of the film after that was completely different – I have never so sharply changed my mind about a film half-way through before or since. I do not know what it means – I doubt I will ever fully make any rational sense out of it, but I don’t think I need to. It provoked a real, guttural response on a level that few films have managed to reach. It solidified the idea in my mind that cinema can be more than just light entertainment – it can be a full, emotional and human experience.
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