If you watch only one film … the greatest movies by the greatest directors | Movies

If you watch only one film … the greatest movies by the greatest directors | Movies


Where once our movie choices were limited by physical availability, now we have apparently limitless uncurated digital content; the mind reels at its vastness. So sometimes we need a “gateway” film for directors, an entry point which might not necessarily be that film-maker’s most famous work – being, as it may be, unhelpfully commercial or atypical. For Nagisa Oshima, you might not want to start with the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses or the David Bowie vehicle Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence: it could be more fruitful to begin with his more indirectly disturbing Max Mon Amour. For Howard Hawks … where to begin? Red River is the classic western but perhaps the gorgeous comedy His Girl Friday will better smooth the path to the rest of his work. And yet often the most famous is the most direct path: for Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali is the most seductive way in. We need the keynote films to bring in all the rest. Peter Bradshaw

Mike Leigh

Nuts in May, 1976

Pitch perfect … Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman and Anthony O’Donnell in Mike Leigh’s Play for Today, Nuts in May
Pitch perfect … Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman and Anthony O’Donnell in Mike Leigh’s Play for Today, Nuts in May. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The most reliably doleful voice in British cinema rings loud and clear through the misadventures of Keith and Candice Marie, innocents on a Dorset camping holiday. The comedy is flawlessly sharp, the easy laughs of drenched cagoules whittled to a point by the eye for detail. If the couple’s organic piety feels ahead of its time, a lot of the laughs echoed into the future. It was only a short step from Keith’s eventual meltdown to Alan Partridge assaulting a BBC exec with a wheel of blue cheese. But something darker ticks away too, Leigh’s world filled with the thwarted and put-upon. And here, damp campsites become a battleground of tribal identities, the kind of civil war we have all been living in lately. The best of Mike Leigh always peers into places no one else has thought to look. In Nuts in May, that place is England, the small patch of scenery where none of us can stand one other. Danny Leigh

Agnès Varda

Vagabond, 1985

Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond.
Mutinous, uncaring, inscrutable … Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

Varda’s classic Vagabond, or Sans Toit Ni Loi (No Shelter No Law), is a film with the authentic spirit of the French New Wave: complex, questioning, demanding, passionate. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Mona, a young homeless woman whom we see dead in a freezing ditch in the film’s opening and whose life is opened up through a series of flashback episodes and interviews with the people who encountered her on the road. It is a testimony narrative that bears comparison to Welles’s Citizen Kane. Mona rejects her life as a wage-slave secretary and takes off with her tent on her back, sleeping in fields or on roadsides, getting cash-in-hand jobs where she can – and facing brutal misogyny and assault. She is mutinous, uncaring, inscrutable. As she says: “Je m’en fous – je bouge” (“I don’t care – I just move on”). Wherever she goes, Mona spreads unease. Some people are sympathetic; some even admire and envy her freedom and defiance. Some are resentful of her lack of gratitude when they help her. Mona is a parodic version of the workings of divine grace; a mysterious force in the lives of those she crosses. PB

Spike Lee

Do the Right Thing, 1989

Spike Lee, Robin Harris and Frankie Faison in Do the Right Thing Year
Street life … Spike Lee, Robin Harris and Frankie Faison in Do the Right Thing Year. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

Spike Lee’s classic is not so much prophetic as enduringly, tactlessly relevant – beginning with a warning about climate change and ending with a Black man killed in a police chokehold. It is an unbearably hot day in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn, New York – then in the first stages of gentrification – and racial tension is rising on the streets. “If this hot weather continues, it’s going to melt the polar ice caps and the whole wide world,” says someone outside Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, which employs Mookie (played by Lee himself) as a delivery guy. Rosie Perez plays Mookie’s girlfriend Tina, who rules the film by virtue of her explosive dance sequence over the opening credits to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. Sal himself is thinking of quitting and turning the restaurant into a condo called Trump’s Plaza. His two sons are variously depressed and racist, and things come to a head when a friend of Mookie’s looks at the displayed black-and-white photos of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and demands to know why there aren’t any “brothers on the wall” – a culture war statement, made decades before the discourse caught up. The zing, energy and passion of Spike Lee’s early masterpiece are as fierce as ever. PB

Jane Campion

The Piano, 1993

Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter in The Piano.
Key of life … Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter in The Piano. Photograph: Jan Chapman Productions/Allstar

The purest place to start with New Zealand film-maker Campion is with her third film, The Piano. A period drama set in the 1850s, it stars Holly Hunter as Ada, a mute pianist who travels from Scotland to New Zealand to fulfil an arranged marriage to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). When her new husband sells her beloved piano to Harvey Keitel’s scary-sexy George Baines, she is forced to strike a deal with her instrument’s new owner. She can earn it back, key by key, through a series of Victorian sexual favours. All the things I love about Campion’s films are present here: her eye for lush natural landscapes; the way her work is often hazy around the edges, like wading through a dream; her fascination with creativity (An Angel at My Table and Bright Star also feature artists). She is highly attuned to the brutality of patriarchal violence, the frisson of danger and even the slightest erotic charge. Simran Hans

Steve McQueen

Lovers Rock (part of the Small Axe anthology), 2020

Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward in Lovers Rock
Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward in Lovers Rock. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC/McQueen Limited

Steve McQueen is obsessed with the human body. He lingers on Bobby Sands’s wasting frame in Hunger, prison cell smeared with human faeces; on sex addict Brandon, full frontal in Shame; on the graphic humiliations suffered by cotton picker Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. In Lovers Rock, the second instalment of his Small Axe anthology, a series of stories that centre on London’s West Indian community, bodies are important, too. The film takes place in Ladbroke Grove in 1980, during a house party, and builds to a transcendent 10-minute set piece soundtracked by Janet Kay’s Silly Games. Hands grope waists, hips sway, lips lock, sweat drips and the crowd sings in unison. For better or worse, his camera refuses to look away. McQueen’s cinema is associated with duration and pain, but he pays unhurried attention to tender moments, too. It is hardly his most conventional film – plot-wise, almost nothing happens – but start here anyway, working backwards through his filmography to properly appreciate his range. SH

Hayao Miyazaki

Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989

Kiki’s Delivery Service
Room on the broom … Kiki’s Delivery Service. Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy

My introduction to the gentle wisdom and beautiful hand-drawn animation of Hayao Miyazaki was a girl in a big red bow, soaring through the sky. I loved Kiki’s Delivery Service as a child, and still connect with it as an adult. Kiki is a 13-year-old witch in training who flies the nest and learns how to look after herself. She sets up in a new town with her black cat Jiji, gets a job at a bakery, and starts her own business, delivering packages via broom. Kiki’s newfound independence is its own magical adventure but the stakes are low-key. Her biggest challenge is to ensure she doesn’t burn out. Exhausted from overpromising herself, her confidence and her powers begin to fade. The women in her life encourage her to spend time in nature, to paint, to rest and to heal. People pleasers will identify, and be comforted as Miyazaki privileges a child’s point of view with the utmost empathy and seriousness. SH

Michael Bay

Armageddon, 1998

Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck in Armageddon
Bay watch … Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck in Armageddon. Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Michael Bay’s cinema is the cinema of the vulgar, and that’s what makes him so compulsively watchable. We all need a little vulgarity in our lives now and then; to strive ceaselessly after good taste is, after all, a thoroughly tasteless endeavour. Armageddon is the naffest, funniest and most delicious of the hollow but addictive treats that comprise the Bayhem canon. It is the simultaneous zenith and nadir of all-American cheese as a cinematic aesthetic. It has it all. That Aerosmith song. Ben Affleck romancing Liv Tyler with Animal Crackers. Bruce Willis as a sort of straight-talking, beer-drinking, world-saving Jesus figure, drafted in by Nasa to save humankind from being wiped out by a giant asteroid. If I had to pick a single sequence that encapsulates Armageddon’s worldview, it would be Bay’s cynical climactic montage of humble folks from different nations rising to their feet in slow motion against a backdrop of famous international landmarks, to praise their saviour, the simple American blue-collar oil driller. Just in case you missed the point, an American flag then fills the screen. This is America. And it’s breathtaking. Catherine Bray

Pedro Almodóvar

Bad Education, 2004

Gael García Bernal and Javier Camara in Bad Education.
Gael García Bernal and Javier Camara in Bad Education. Photograph: Everett Collection /Alamy

It’s hard to go too wrong when popping your Pedro Almodóvar cherry. The Spanish director’s modus operandi is to bring telenovela plots to life through vivacious image-making that owes as much to Fauvism as anything in cinema. Weaving together the homoerotic identity games of The Talented Mr Ripley and the honeysuckle-scented seductions of Double Indemnity, this is one slippery fox. All noir requires a magnetic femme fatale, and Bad Education submits a never-better Gael García Bernal as Ignacio, AKA Ángel, AKA Zahara, AKA trouble with a capital T. But Bad Education thrums with its own power, most keenly expressed in the motif of the written word as an active agent, cutting to the core of characters who get off on their dual roles as author and character. CB

Claire Denis

Trouble Every Day, 2001

Trouble Every Day
Eaten mess … Trouble Every Day.

Trouble Every Day isn’t necessarily a typical Claire Denis, but it’s a great place to start. Set mainly in Paris, the minimalist plot unfurls slowly, though we understand from the off that horrific, compulsive violence is the engine throbbing beneath the hood. The film’s intense sex scenes tend to go south pretty quickly, in every sense, with meat very much back on the menu, boys. Blending sex and cannibalism in cinema is not new, but Denis goes all-in with an unyielding combination of moody arthouse languors and explicit gore. The roving, casually precise camera changes the framing of bodies, offering us new angles from which to view the familiar, the mise-en-scène strategically dissecting the human form, presenting a slice of thigh, an ambiguous tuft of hair, a navel close-up. It’s not a film that cares whether you warm to it, which chimes entirely with its splendidly self-assured author. CB

Kathryn Bigelow

Point Break, 1991

Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break.
Chuting stars … Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Point Break. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

Bigelow had already messed with genre movies three times before her strange and brilliant heist thriller, Point Break. There were riffs on vampires (Near Dark), cop procedurals (Blue Steel) and biker gangs in The Loveless. They were the work of a woman unafraid to bend old tropes into new shapes. But with the tale of surfer dudes turned bank robbers, her brand of cool delirium snapped fully into place. The film was slick Hollywood entertainment and still clearly the vision of a woman sprung from the downtown Manhattan art scene. So with Point Break, you get a popcorn movie as silly as the premise implies, made more so by the yin-yang double act of Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. You also get weirdly chewy ideas about the road from adrenaline to Zen, a needy hero and spiritually enlightened bad guy. And the glue for these inner tensions were God-level action scenes: another Bigelow trademark, her female gaze focused on a mayhem of male bodies. DL

Martin Scorsese

Goodfellas , 1990

Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.
Gangster paradise … Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Photograph: Warner Bros./Barry Wetcher/Allstar

The richness, delicious dark humour, jukebox slams and rocket-fuelled storytelling of Goodfellas make it one of Scorsese’s classics. It hooks you from the very first, with Ray Liotta’s gravelly voiceover: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster …” It is the true story of the rise and fall of Irish-Italian mobster Henry Hill, gloriously played by Liotta, holding his own against Scorsese’s A-team: Robert De Niro as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, the Oscar-winning Joe Pesci as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito and Paul Sorvino as the slow-moving capo Paulie Cicero. Lorraine Bracco (later to gain a second legendary status as Tony’s analyst in the HBO show The Sopranos) plays Henry’s wife. Pesci’s iconic “Funny how?” scene, in which he pretends to be offended by Henry calling him “funny” is a superb demonstration of Scorsese’s gift for black comedy: all the mobsters think of themselves as comedians (hence, “wiseguys”), whose aggressive humour is a prelude to violence. A compelling, epic drama. PB

Andrei Tarkovsky

Stalker, 1979

Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy and Anatoliy Solonitsyn in Stalker.
Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy and Anatoliy Solonitsyn in Stalker. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

By now, the forbidding aura that once surrounded Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker has all but dissolved. The backstory to the Soviet director’s post-industrial sci-fi is oft retold these days: how a first version was shot on film ruined back in Moscow, demanding it be started again from scratch; the locations downriver of a chemical plant said to have caused Tarkovsky’s death. Then there was the omen of Chornobyl in the story. A whole subculture has bloomed out of the film’s strange soil: the Stalker game series, writer Geoff Dyer’s cine-memoir, Zona. I bet Etsy has all kinds of stuff. Which is great. Because Stalker should be celebrated, not feared. For all the mystique, it has a strange accessibility: a quest movie even if the quest is unknowable, carried out by three vivid characters. If the liminal spaces of the “Zone” they travel through are easy to get lost in, they also orient you to the rhythm of Tarkovsky. So see it for its own sake, or as a gateway drug. Either way, the Zone awaits. DL

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