Cinema verities

From our print archive: What makes a great film?

“I absolutely do believe that there are films that every educated person should know,” says U of C early-cinema scholar Tom Gunning. “Problem is, my list of those films might change tomorrow.” What makes a great film? Mastery of the language of film, he says, plus innovation and great visual moments that offer a viewer an experience that no other art form can match.

“I like films that try to do things differently, that try to make a difference in the way we see the world,” offers Film Studies Center director Miriam Hansen. She chose not to pick favorite titles but admired works by Renoir, Welles, and Godard.

Here are Gunning’s dozen, presented in chronological order.

Intolerance, D. W. Griffith, 1916.

American silent-film masterpiece that attempts to portray the history of the world as a struggle between love and intolerance by intercutting stories from four different historical periods.

Sunrise, F. W. Murnau, 1927.

This American film by a German director is a high point of the silent cinema. A love story expressed through consummate control of composition and camera movement.

Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir, 1939.

The son of painter Pierre Renoir uses elaborate camera movements to give a portrait of French culture on the eve of World War II.

Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941.

A complex system of flashback storytelling combined with deep-focus photography to present the ultimate portrait of an American tycoon and egotist.

How Green Was My Valley, John Ford, 1941.

The only great film ever to win a "Best Picture" Oscar. Presents an image of Welsh culture destroyed by industrialism.

Day of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943.

This Danish film's tale of witch trials in Europe captures a tragedy of sexual frustration and hypocrisy.

Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren, 1943.

A short, experimental film which weaves dream imagery toward an inevitable suicide.

Ivan the Terrible, Sergei Eisenstein, two parts, 1944 and 1946.

The staging, editing, and extraordinary sets of this Russian masterpiece provide an image of power and corruption.

Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953.

Combines cinematic techniques with traditional Japanese imagery to tell a ghost story involving the illusion of passion and ambition. The title itself is a mini-lesson in Japanese aesthetics. Ugetsu means "the pale and silvery moon after the rain."

Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958.

A high point of the Hollywood studio system, in which control of color, editing, and narrative structure creates an unforgettable image of erotic obsession.

Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965.

The masterpiece of the French New Wave, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as a businessman who leaves his family in search of adventure.

La Region Centrale, Michael Snow, 1970–71.

A three-hour, French-Canadian avant-garde film without actors or story in which swooping camera movements through a Canadian Rockies landscape provide endless visual delight.