25 Films All Beginning Filmmakers Should Analyze

Part of being a filmmaker is learning from those who came before you. While film school can provide you with a more structured exploration, and analysis, of films and their importance, you can certainly do this homework on your own.

If you are a beginning filmmaker, and you seriously want to explore this medium, I highly recommend you watch, and study, the following twenty-five films.


25. A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN | NR | 13 MIN.

Photo by A7A09064_035.JPG - © Archives du 7e Art/DR - Image courtesy photo12.com

Photo by A7A09064_035.JPG - © Archives du 7e Art/DR - Image courtesy photo12.com

A Trip to the Moon is one of the most famous short films of all time, and is often shown in film classes due to its incredibly innovative effects, and ambitious story. It is also one of the earliest science-fiction films ever made.

There's a lot one can learn from this short film. Effects are front and center, as there are some clever usages of editing and perspective at play here. However, one can also learn short story structure from this. Most importantly, though, A Trip to the Moon offers a valuable insight into film's infancy, and the creativity that is possible even when restricted by equipment and budgetary parameters.


24. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 103 MIN.

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Documentaries are often not what most film students aspire to create. There's such an allure around narrative, fictional filmmaking that documentaries and other 'real' forms of artistry in this medium are rarely pursued. However, learning how to tell a story (whether fictional or truthful) is always important. Enter Werner Herzog, and his highly praised 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man. Depicting the life, and unfortunate demise, of Timothy Treadwell, this documentary is full of things to analyze and understand.

In particular, character development is on display. While Treadwell was a real person, Herzog still unfolds his story in a precise manner. In doing so, and controlling which images and scenes we see first, it's almost as though we can see a progression of personality in Treadwell that follows a typical narrative arc.

Furthermore, Grizzly Man is excellent for those who may be interested in documentary filmmaking. It shows that documentaries can have an overt directorial presence without taking eyes, or thought, away from the subject material.


23. Suspira (Dario Argento, 1977)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 92 MIN

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Suspiria is among a select few films I would deem 'artistic' -- not just good horror films, and not just good stories, but true art in every sense of the term. This is accomplished through its use of lighting and cinematography; both elements help enhance the horror on screen, and consistently set the tone and atmosphere.

If you are going to learn how to do horror from any film, Suspiria is an excellent place to start. No jump scares or forced horror here -- just pure fear, excellent escalation of tension, and precise filmmaking.


22. Intolerance: Love's Struggles Through the Ages (D. W. Griffith, 1916)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

AVAILABLE IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN | NR | 197 MIN

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D. W. Griffith is one of the most important directors in cinematic history. He was one of the first directors who managed to create huge, expansive experiences that pushed the medium into new directions. He was the first director to use a close up, and his narratives often spanned many years, characters, and themes.

After the intense revulsion to his incredibly racist 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, he set out to create a film that negated that claim, and pushed his career to new heights. That film was Intolerance, a three-hour epic that spanned three different time periods, all interconnected by the singular theme of 'intolerance'.

This film is not as successful in its execution as others in this list; however, it is important to analyze due to its production, and its innovative usage of narrative storytelling. While interconnected stories across different time periods isn't exactly 'new' nowadays, knowing how to accomplish it affectively can enhance your stories, and help you view your narratives in new, fresh ways.


21. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 108 MIN

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In all honesty, Charlie Kaufman's writing is something all film students should analyze. He is one of the most inventive, and sharp, writers currently working. However, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is perhaps the best example of how Kaufman manages to make a rather tired, overdone story (AKA the break-up story) into something unique, enjoyable, and profound.

Michel Gondry's direction also perfectly complements Kaufman's writing, making this film both visually and literarily incredible. New filmmakers can learn a lot from this film in every respect, and so it is an important entry on this list.


20. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON PRIME | NR | 62 MIN

© Don Hertzfeldt

© Don Hertzfeldt

Often times, aspiring filmmakers will focus too much on the visual imagery of their story, and not the narrative substance. This can be detrimental for a few reasons -- as numerous films prove, pretty imagery doesn't make up for a poor story. Don Hertzfeldt, with his trilogy of short films (which were eventually cut into this feature film) prove that, even with simple, stick figure animation, you can tell an incredible, heartfelt story.

It's Such a Beautiful Day is a testament to good, heartfelt, and profound writing. 


19. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 90 MIN

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Breathless is important from a couple of different perspectives. Firstly, it is an incredibly interesting discussion (some may even go so far as to call it a parody) of American crime films. With our main protagonist dressing up, and acting, as though he is Humphrey Bogart, it's hard not to draw parallels.

However, it is also important from a post-production perspective, as there is an interesting usage of voiceover and editing to enhance mood, tone, and atmosphere. Furthermore, from a visual perspective, Breathless is a gorgeous film, and offers plenty of analytical material for those who wish to find it.


18. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON AMAZON PRIME | R | 101 MIN

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Before Sunrise, and the following two films in the Before trilogy, are testaments to incredible writing, fantastic acting, and pitch-perfect chemistry on set. Sunrise all takes place over one day, involving different, provocative conversations about a variety of topics. What's incredible is how riveting this film is -- we're only following two people getting to know each other, and yet it's a wholly engrossing experience.

Before Sunrise is a great example of how to write great dialogue, and how to trust your talent. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke both added a lot to the script, as they got to know their characters. This, in turn, helped enhance the quality of the script, and the quality of the film.

The cinematography itself is very minimalist, and allows the viewer to focus on the characters, and the dialogue.


17. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez; 1999)

MY RATING: ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

AVAILABLE TO WATCH ON AMAZON (WITH HBO SUBSCRIPTION) | R | 81 MIN

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I really dislike The Blair Witch Project. I think it is an incredibly manipulative film, with horribly written characters, and an extremely anti-climatic ending. However, I cannot deny that it was a box office smash, and an audience sensation. It caused a proliferation of found-footage films (another reason I'm not fond of it).

When it comes to the film 'business', this is an important film to analyze. With a budget of roughly $60,000, and eight days of principal photography, they made this film. It has now grossed over $140 million (meaning it made back over 6,000% of its budget).

So while I may dislike this film from an artistic perspective, I can't deny that it is worth analyzing from a business mindset.


16. This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2006)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

AVAILABLE ON DVD | NR | 98 MIN

This documentary is hard to dig up, however I highly recommend you do so. This Film Is Not Yet Rated offers rare insight into the MPAA and its rating system. More importantly, though, it offers insight into the corruption that exists in the MPAA, and the film industry, and the ridiculous standards this private business has for films.

While it may frustrate most filmmakers, it is also important to understand how this side of the business works. Filmmakers are held to certain standards, and held within certain parameters, that make artistic exploration difficult (especially in the context of what some may consider offensive).


15. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 145 MIN

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There are a huge slew of World War II films that have been made, mostly from the perspective of the US (Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, The Thin Red Line). However, Army of Shadows explores the struggles, and the moral difficulties, inherent in the French underground resistance. In many ways it is the best film made about the war, and it is much more profound, and intellectually provocative, than many other films about the war.

If you are a filmmaker interested in historical fiction, then Army of Shadows is an excellent film to analyze, and pick apart.


14. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich; 2003)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | G | 100 MIN

© 2003 - Pixar/Disney

© 2003 - Pixar/Disney

Finding Nemo may seem like an odd addition to this list, but it is important for a variety of reasons. From a storytelling perspective, this film manages to transcend age groups, being entertaining for children, and profound for adults. It's visually inventive, with cutting-edge animation, and it has an excellent story at its heart.

In essence, Finding Nemo is the epitome of what animator have always tried to do. Even with films like Toy Story, or Monster's Inc., animation has the ability to push boundaries in new, inventive ways while still delivering powerful narratives, and great characters.

For animators and filmmakers alike, Finding Nemo is an important film to analyze.


13. Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 137 MIN

© 1968 Paramount Pictures

© 1968 Paramount Pictures

We don't talk enough about methodical plotting in filmmaking, and we should -- especially when it comes to horror. Polanski is a master of perfectionist plotting, making sure each, individual element is delicately placed so it can all come together in the third act. Rosemary's Baby is the best example of this perfectionism on display. Tension is slowly, deliberately ramped up to the terrifying, and stunning, climax.

Too many films rush their plot, or sloppily integrate their story elements. Studying a film like Rosemary's Baby can help you avoid such pitfalls.


12. Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 116 MIN

Photo by Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani - © 2010 Fish Head Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo by Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani - © 2010 Fish Head Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

For a while now, but especially since 2005, the US film market has been obsessed with remaking foreign films for an English-speaking audience. We've seen this in the numerous remakes of Japanese horror films, like Ringu, Ju-On: The Grudge, and One Missed Call. Most of these remakes are bad, poorly translating the elements that make the original so frightening. However, every now and then, we get a remake that both honors the spirit of the original, and creates something new with the narrative.

Let Me In is one such film. Adapting the original film, Let the Right One In, it manages to strike the appropriate balance between horror and drama. With an incredible cast, solid direction from Reeves, and gorgeous cinematography, Let Me In is an excellent example of how to do a remake.


11. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, 2014)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON AMAZON PRIME | R | 91 MIN

© Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

© Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Back to more inventive filmmaking! The One I Love also takes on the romance genre, portraying a couple on the brink of separation. However, how McDowell explores these characters, and how he portrays their struggles, is innovative and fresh.

This is also a funny film, with plenty of levity to balance the more dramatic moments. It is a great example of how to write a tired narrative in a fresh, exciting way.


10. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1960)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 28 MIN

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Marker's La Jetée is important for a number of reasons. First of all, its science-fiction narrative is incredibly interesting, and well written. Secondly, its usage of still images can be seen as a deconstruction of the film medium, and an extremely unique storytelling tactic. Thirdly, its usage of voiceover adds an ominous atmosphere to the entire film, making it more suspenseful, and more interesting.

For a short film, La Jetée is incredibly influential and important. It is well worth your time.


9. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 162 MIN

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Stalker may not be Tarkovsky's best film (that is left up to debate), but it is certainly his most accessible. With an incredibly interesting story at its root, and profound philosophical themes of hope, loss, and exploration, Stalker is a beautiful blend of poetry and filmmaking.

With this film, you can gain an understanding as to how film can transcend its own medium and become something more important, and more powerful.


8. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO VIEW ON NETFLIX (US) | R | 154 MIN

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One of a few pretty stereotypical choices, Pulp Fiction is, nonetheless, an extremely important film. It's non-linear narrative was extremely innovative at the time, and the dialogue is incredible. Tarantino's direction is also incredibly solid (which is impressive, considering this is his second feature), and the cast is perfectly chosen.

Pulp Fiction defies a lot of typical filmmaking conventions, and for that reason it is vital to understand on a deeper level. From its simple cinematography, to its great sound design, to its pitch-perfect writing, this is a film well worth your time.


7. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 96 MIN

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images - © 2013 Silver Screen Collection

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images - © 2013 Silver Screen Collection

One-location films are really hard to accomplish. Unless you have a really interesting story, and some well-defined characters, a viewer may get bored with the story, and the setting. One-location films have often proven to be some of the most tense, and powerful, though. It is all dependent on the execution.

With 12 Angry Men, the set-up is very straightforward: a man is being tried for murder. The twelve jury members have to decide unanimously whether or not he is guilty. Eleven of them say he is; one says he isn't.

What ensues is a powerful exploration of morality and the judicial system. Filled with an incredible cast of characters, and extremely taut direction, 12 Angry Men is an incredible film, and one you should watch over and over again.


6. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 109 MIN

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Children of Men excels in a number of capacities, but it really does well at injecting subtext and character into each moment. The story at its core is exciting, and there are a number of action scenes in the film, and yet the most tense moments are the calms between the storms. You feel uncomfortable even when the characters seem safe. That is powerful writing and direction at work.

Furthermore, Children of Men shows how the single-take shot (something every cinematographer seems to be obsessed with right now) can be used effectively to add realism to the scene, and to create suspense.

Children of Men is just a very well rounded film with a lot underneath the surface. You can learn a lot from it.


5. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 175 MIN

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Another pretty stereotypical entry on this list, but there is a reason why The Godfather is consistently hailed as one of the best (if not the best) films ever made. Every component works beautifully -- the visuals are memorable and gorgeously crafted, the cast is impeccable, the story is well adapted and tautly written, and Coppola's direction is stellar.

In other words, The Godfather is a gold mine for beginning filmmakers. Not only is it easily accessible, and fun to watch, it also has tons to offer.


4. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | PG | 128 MIN

© Universal Studios - All Rights Reserved

© Universal Studios - All Rights Reserved

As the 'master of suspense', there is a lot one can learn from Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is the perfect example of taut plotting, well-developed characters, and inventive imagery -- all of which works together to create a compelling, and suspenseful, story.

While Vertigo may not be as well known as Psycho or North By Northwest, it presents a level of maturity that the others don't, which makes it more helpful to beginning filmmakers.


3. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 113 MIN

© 1976 - Columbia/TriStar

© 1976 - Columbia/TriStar

The main difficulty many writers and directors deal with is the desire to push artistry and experimentation in a business that wants convention and marketability. In other words, if you are interested in making more experimental, ethereal, or contemplative cinema you have some difficulties ahead. It's not impossible, as these final three films will demonstrate, but it is a challenge.

Scorsese's Taxi Driver shows that art can be blended with convention, though. While the story of a cab driver taking revenge against the evil in his city may not seem like an incredibly original story, the artistry comes from Scorsese's direction, the cinematography, and De Niro's performance. All of these elements come together to create something unique, and -- in some ways -- profound.


2. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | R | 147 MIN

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David Lynch is a beacon of hope for those filmmakers who aspire to make films that challenge their audiences. Whether you want to make completely experimental films, or if you just want to write challenging narratives, David Lynch is proof that it can be done.

Mulholland Dr. is not his most experimental film, but it is his best. Combining an engrossing narrative with his trademark dialogue, dreamy imagery, and deliberate editing, this film is full of things to learn from, and understand.

If anything, Lynch's continuous subversion of expectations, and his ability to control the story with a taut grip, are things to understand so you can use those lessons in your own projects.


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | G | 149 MIN

© 1968 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

© 1968 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

There is no film like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Equal parts profound and engaging, this film is full of things to analyze. Its narrative is notoriously ambiguous; its visuals are beautifully crafted, and precisely framed; its sound design is legendary; its philosophy is profound; and Kubrick's direction is masterful.

In every way, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an incredible film. it singlehandedly redefined science-fiction filmmaking, and has inspired tons of filmmakers to begin their own career (I challenge you to find a filmmaker that started post-1968 who doesn't have something to say about this film). In every way, this film will help you understand the medium more, and, in turn, assist you with your own film.