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Recommended viewing list for filmmakers

(and other people, too!)


If you're interested in a career in film in any capacity (filmmaker, writer, director, actor, etc.) you need to be watching films... all films. Watch stuff you'd never watch. Watch good films. Watch bad films. Watch old films (and by "old" I don't just mean films from the 70s and 80s. I mean films from the early days of film). Watch the film that your friends tell you is "unwatchable". Watch everything you can with a critical eye.

As hard as it can be to sit through a bad film, the viewer will always learn more from the bad films and the bad performances than from the good ones. The good films hide the seams. The bad films broadcast what’s bad about them. Watch, pay attention and become wonderful at what you do.

I recommend watching a film first just for enjoyment and then watching it a second time and really studying the craft. To help you get started, here is a list of films I recommend.

Check back often as I am always updating this list. Oh, and be sure to watch the DVD extras to see exactly how the filmmakers work. 

This is a list of films that I believe need to be seen by those serious about this business. You may agree or you may disagree but I still think these need to be seen and studied. They are, in no particular order...

One of the best movies of the last twenty years. Brilliant script, acting and direction in addition to a haunting soundtrack and images that truly chill the viewer. Excellent all around.

The Sixth Sense
Watch this film for brilliant performances by Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment. Also watch it for the style of the shoot and the flawless crafting of this simple story. This, by the way, is the only film by this director worth the time (my opinion).

All About Eve
An older film with Bette Davis. This is full of great performances and great lines. This film was made at a time before special effects became all the buzz. This was made back when story was king. And this script is brilliant. It is a great look inside the world of performance but also just a great, fun ride.

Sunset Boulevard
Ditto the above minus Bette Davis.

Fly Away Home
This is a nice story about a family teaching a goose to migrate. A simple story. What makes this a noteworthy film is the cinematography (beautiful) and the score by Mark Isham. This is a film to watch and then to watch again with the director’s commentary and then to watch again with the composer’s commentary. And then to watch again just because it is such a well made film.

Big Night
If you’re a fan of TV’s MONK (or now, CBS' summer series, Braindead, you will see Tony Shalhoub in a completely different light. But the real reason to watch this film is for great performances, great music and a great appetite enhancer (the preparation of the food is a treat to watch). Finally, watch it for the wonderful last scene, shot in a single take with one camera and no dialogue.

Twist of Faith
A very well made (and Academy Award nominated) documentary by Kirby Dick that looks at priest pedophilia in Toledo, Ohio through the eyes of a firefighter who, as a teenager, was abused by a priest at his high school. A very good example of a completely detached filmmaker telling a story while leaving out his personal bias. It's disturbing, riveting and expertly made. I also recommend this film because I worked on it as a location producer and camera operator.

The Hunting Ground

While we're on the subject of Kirby Dick films, let's not forget this film about rape on college campuses or 

The Invisible War

...about rape in the military. Kirby Dick is not afraid to take on tough issues and expose the nasty underbelly of things that we might otherwise never hear about. Excellent work all around, as is his entire catalog of remarkable work. If you're a documentary filmmaker, do yourself a favor and watch this guy's work.

Fahrenheit 911
Like him or hate him, Michael Moore is an effective filmmaker. My personal opinion is that he is not so much a documentarian as he is a commentator on the current human condition but he still makes wonderful films. Check this one out for the grace and restraint with which he handles the retelling of the airplane attacks on the World Trade Center. We had seen this footage so many times in the weeks and months following 911 and Moore not only understood this fact but utilized this understanding in a very effective manner in this film.

Thirteen Days
This film, an account of the Cuban missile crisis, does a great job of recreating those tense days in 1962. The filmmakers do an excellent job of taking the facts of an actual historical event and making them into a riveting look at a piece of American history.

United 93
Another excellent account of a real life event. Disturbing to watch, this film is also compelling at the same time. A good example of “fictionalized” retelling of an important historical event.

3:10 to Yuma
This is a remake of an excellent western. Pay particular attention to the careful recreation of the west in the magnificent sets and design.

This HBO series, sadly canceled prematurely, captures the grit of a silver mining town expertly. This is tough stuff to watch. It’s profane and rough and dirty and certainly gives the audience a feeling of what life in Deadwood was actually like. Watch this for the sets, the costumes and the Shakespearean-like writing. Oh, and the acting is pretty terrific, too.

While we’re talking HBO, remember that this company really hits it out of the park in so many instances. For quality in storytelling, filmmaking, acting, writing and directing check out Entourage, Empire Boardwalk, Temple Grandin, You Don’t Know Jack, Curb Your Enthusiasm, VEEP, Silicone Valley... (more to come)

Shakespeare in Love
A great period film, beautifully shot and scored, and an engaging twist on Romeo and Juliette.

When Harry Met Sally
Just plain good writing. Clever and not cloying.

John Adams
This is another HBO miniseries that is worth the cost of the box set. The acting is marvelous and the story is compelling. Watch this series and then watch the DVD extras. It is amazing to see how the filmmakers were able to recreate life in revolutionary times. The CGI effects are incredible.

I love this film. Pay particular attention to the color palette of this film. It is a very well thought out scheme. Watch how well it works with the time period, the costumes, the set design. My favorite part of this DVD is an extra in which the director talks about his approach to filmmaking. He breaks down a scene and explains why he shot it the way he did. For filmmakers, this is an inspiration and a great example of the importance of attention to detail.

Mildred Pierce
This is another film from the bygone days of Hollywood when story was of critical importance. The performances are amazing and the story is, once again, compelling. Actors show watch it for the great performance by Joan Crawford. This has also been remade and, from what I have heard, is also quite well done as series.

Saving Private Ryan
Spielberg is a great American contemporary filmmaker. This film, although flawed, is well made. I recommend this particularly for the first 20 minutes. You feel like you are on the beaches at Normandy. Spielberg’s handheld approach to the beach shots really captures the feel of the invasion - the terror, the claustrophobia, the intensity.
Other noteworthy Spielberg films worth the rental: ET, Schindler’s List, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws

Compiled by Tom Hofbauer