Over 100 years after the birth of cinema, it is easy to forget about those ground-breaking films that helped develop the medium into what we recognise today. Before anybody with a simple smartphone was able to record and publish video, filming moving pictures was an expensive, time consuming and complicated endeavour. As sound, colour and CGI were gradually introduced, the film industry became bigger, better and more successful. It is now a global endeavour that generates billions of dollars every year, and one which almost everybody in the world has an opinion on.
So, if we want to take it back to the beginning of what we would recognise as ‘modern cinema’, where is a good place to start? The best place to look is online. Just as the internet has brought classic musical pieces to a modern audience via Spotify and traditional table games to contemporary gamers through Pokercasino, so it offers up the back catalogue of the movie industry to the eager cinephile. Services like the Criterion Channel and Fandor exist to bring classic and forgotten films to a new audience in a sustainably accessible way.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at which of these classic titles should go straight to the top of your to-watch list.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
If you are any kind of film fan, then you’re sure to have heard of innovative director, Alfred Hitchcock. Whilst some of his better known productions, such as The Birds and Psycho, are still well worth a watch, The Lady Vanishes is a lesser-known masterpiece that makes for equally rewarding viewing. The claustrophobic location of a moving train and the masterfully shot black and white cinematography make for a tense early foray into the genre of the thriller. The plot is based on a book written by author Ethel Lina White, and centres on the horrifying experience of a young woman as she desperately tries to discover what has happened to the elderly lady who has disappeared from her train compartment.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Moving into the era of colour cinema, The Red Shoes is a beautiful, dreamlike depiction of the tragic life of a young ballerina. Caught between opposing forces in the form of a composer and a director who are each vying for her devotion, she is forced to choose between love and her art. In the end, she chooses death – or does she? The ambiguity around the supernatural element in the storyline draws the viewer in and leaves them wondering what has happened at the end of the film. Were the red ballet shoes exerting a magical influence over the dancer, Vicky? Or was she driven mad by the pressure put upon her by the two men warring for her affections? Whichever it is, the film itself is a heart-breaking but incredible watch.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Next up, another legendary director: Ingmar Bergman. This Swedish visionary is considered to be one of the most important filmmakers of all time, known for his incredibly stylised work and use of improvisation on set. The Seventh Seal is one of his best known works internationally, and was the inspiration for well-loved spoof movie, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Bergman’s film is based on a play that he wrote several years beforehand. Perhaps the most iconic scene is the chess game that takes place between a medieval knight and the character of Death. The film addresses some pretty big questions about life, the universe and everything, alongside showcasing Bergman’s superior directing skills and the talent of his chosen actors.
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Rather than love vs. art, this film showcases the equally heart wrenching choice between pursuing true knowledge and surrendering to the allure of fame. Journalist Marcello must decide whether he wants to leave the glamour and flashing lights of celebrity behind to work as a novelist, or whether he would rather succumb to the vapidity and decadence of the world of superstardom. The movie itself is beautifully shot in tonal black and white, and has been hailed by many people as the greatest film of all time. Director and co-writer Federico Fellini was nominated for the Best Director Oscar when the film was released, and won the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for his masterpiece. It still stands as a testament to what can be achieved in cinema.
Naturally, this is just a snapshot of the types of classic movies that made modern cinema and Hollywood what it is today, in the 21st century. However, they are good starting points from which to either move back even further in time to the dawn of the industry, or further forward, through the many reincarnations cinema has been through to arrive at the present day.