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Essential Films for Filmmakers: Spike Lee Shares the List He Hands out on the First Day of Class

07.27.13 @ 10:41PM Tags : , , , , ,

Spike LeeSpike Lee has been the talk of the town recently after  the launch of his Kickstarter campaign. However, I thought we should take a moment to look into the mind of the great filmmaker and find out what films he considers to be essential viewing. What movies and directors moved and shaped him into the filmmaker that told some of the greatest stories and created many imaginative filmmaking techniques. Hit the jump to view the list.

Apart from making films, Lee has been a professor at NYU graduate film school for the last 15 years. (Successful writer/director/film professor? Spike has my dream career.) He says that on the first day of class he hands out a list – his list of what he considers the greatest films ever made — films that are must-sees if you want to become a filmmaker. And now, you don’t have to be an NYU grad student to see it, because Lee has shared it with everyone.

Check out the video below to hear the list of films from Lee himself:

The list looks like a history of my Netflix Instant Queue from the past 4 years, meaning that a lot of what you’ll see are standard required films for film school students. You’ve got your Kurosawa, Fellini, Hitchcock, De Sica, Kubrick, Truffaut, Coppola, and Scorsese films in there, as well as classics like CasablancaSome Like It Hot, Breathless, The Red Shoesand Badlands

But Lee also throws a few curve balls in there as well. For instance, his inclusion of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto was at first really surprising to me (maybe just my knee jerk reaction?) But he also includes District 9 and Kung Fu Hustle – District 9 I’m only surprised by because it’s so contemporary, but Kung Fu Hustle? I’m not one to judge a movie by its cover art, but if I hadn’t looked up the film’s fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I would’ve thought that Spike was starting to get dull.

Spike Lee's List

Spike Lee's List_02

What do you think does/doesn’t deserve to be on Spike Lee’s list? Which films would you add? Let us know in the comments, and if you have some to add to Spike’s list, you can do it here.

Link: Essential List of Films for Filmmakers — Spike Lee’s Kickstarter

[via Indiewire]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 70 COMMENTS

  • I haven’t seen 5 or 6 of those films. FAT CITY is an interesting choice. It’s a great film. Conrad Hall I think was the cinematographer on that.

  • I think that sometimes people rate older movies better based on the fact that their older and were good for their time. Such as Rear View Window. It’s a good movie, but not the best. I don’t really like the feel of older movies. They waste lots of time in slow pacing (sometimes can be good but not in all circumstances). Cinematography has come a quite a way since even the 80s or 90s. I guess that’s just my opinion.

    • Takashi Miik recently stated, and i am paraphrasing, that “every generation builds off of the knowledge and mistakes of the generations before them.” This makes many of those old films even more incredible despite being limited in the context of someone viewing them today, considering they had much less inspiration to draw from then our generations filmmakers today.

    • thadon calico on 07.28.13 @ 12:26AM

      Zach, thank you for your comment. Finally someone with the balls to sound like an artist. Lots of film makers act and sound like an immature corporate workers than an artist who is supposed to have an individual voice. Instead, they go with the crowd and echo the sentiments of the in-group or in the case of filmmaking, artsy muthafuckers. I personally refer to them as the grown up version of the atypical tight-panted Brooklyn hipster. Lots of filmmakers act like there weren’t lots of b, c and d movies made back in the day. Look at some of the famed directors filmography from back in the day and see that there’s only like 4 out of 30-something movies that people really talk about. If that doesn’t speak volumes, then I don’t know what else to tell you…District 9 is one of the most gorgeous mainstream movies with social relevance, something that most classics lack and most filmmakers today are scared and too pussy to handle. If you deconstruct classical art eg paintings from time immemorial, u can tell the geo-socio-political stand from that era…”artists“ today just make “art“

      • And seriously, a lot of the movies on Lee’s list are classics that have tons to say about various social, political, and moral issues. And most of them do that better than DISTRICT 9, which abandons its Apartheid allegory within about 20 minutes for a well-made but politically hollow sci fi action adventure.

        • thadon calico on 07.28.13 @ 9:34PM

          Well let my response serve as a lesson to others like Joe Filipas who are not conversant with international happenings other than what is fed them through mainstream American news. NEWS FLASH: there is a current endemic called Xenophobia which is and always will be plaguing the African continent. That’s what District 9 is about. I guess the reason you threw out apartheid us cos like all other wannabe Hollywood liberal schmucks u have no scope of the political happenings in that part of the globe other than the famed Mandela dealings with apartheid..God bless your heart, the mainstream feel-good movie trailer about Mandela’s life is out with Idris Elba being brilliant as always. But there is xenophobia due to other black African migration from other countries…incase u only knew of the director due to district 9, check out the short on which it was based on and see the uncanny resemblance to Zimbabweans living in south Africa

          • I actually quite like ALIVE IN JOBURG, Thadon, because it does more directly addresses the issues you reference. Similarly, DISTRICT 9 takes a good look at those same issues in the first 20 minutes – then the chasing and explosions start, and to this viewer, those issues took a back seat to the action. I’m not so naive to think that South Africa isn’t still dealing with its deep-seated issues, as are most parts of the world and their regional xenophobic difficulties, but you are correct in that international viewers may not think about the issues suggested in DISTRICT 9 beyond the film itself.

            To your earlier assertion, though, that “social relevance, something that most classics lack” – I hope you take an honest look at some of the films on the list that prompted this blog post and re-evaluate that statement.

    • wow Zach, generalise much?
      also: I happen to like slow pacing films, I guess it’s a question of taste.

      but to get back on topic: ‘the Graduate’ seems to be missing from this list.

  • Mad Max.

  • Hitchcock’s black and white movies like “Spellbound”, “Notorious”, “Psycho” and “Strangers on the Train” are far superior to Lee’s choices (Vertigo has the zolly move and is rated highly by the critics but I could never buy the Kim Novak imposter character). I would take Bertolucci’s “Last Emperor” over his “Conformist”, whose ending is largely nonsensical. Huston’s “Prizzi’s Honor” trumps his “Maltese Falcon”. (love Bogie but it’s just a stylish whodunit). “The Right Stuff”, “Apocalypse Now” and “Stalingrad” (1993) over “Patton”. Kalatozov’s “Soy Cuba” just might have the best camera work of them all.

    Lee is missing comedies/romcoms and the old style Hollywood musicals here, as he prefers the great visual directors (yet omits Scorsese and Spielberg!) over the dialog based films. Fred and Ginger are mightily mad.

    • DLD, he didn’t omit Scorsese and Spielberg. The image here isn’t the whole list. Click through on the link to see the entire list.

      • Ah, thanks. Well, he did have Kalatozov’s “I am Cuba” in there. That’s a plus. However, “The Empire of the Sun” was one of Spielberg’s weakest efforts. “Jaws”, “ET”, “Raiders 1″, even the “Duel” were superior. “Zelig” was a one trick pony (albeit very good trick). Early Woody Allen comedies “Take the Money and Run”, “Sleeper”, “Play it again, Sam” and the “Bananas” were both funnier and wittier. Then there are comedies like the “Airplane”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “The Animal House”, “Borat”, “Dumb and Dumber”, “There’s Something about Mary”, “Blazing Saddles”, “The Young Frankenstein””, “The Producers”, “the original “Pink Panther” series with Peter Sellers, “Tootsie”, “Bull Durham” had added a lot to the genre.

    • RE: Vertigo – he invented a camera shot that is still effective today. Doesn’t that warrant being on the list? How many directors create a new word in the language of film?

  • Scarface! Drive!

  • Missing a few Spike Lee films.

  • I’m really surprised Stanley Kubrick isn’t on there.
    I’d add

    The Shining
    A Clockwork Orange
    Resivoir Dogs
    Pulp Fiction
    Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom
    Oh Brother Where Art Thou
    Blade Runner
    Texas Chainsaw Massacre
    Star Wars (first three)
    Requiem for a dream
    Fight Club
    Apocalypse Now
    Good Fellas
    Taxi Driver
    The Ice Storm
    Oh crap, I could keep in going. I guess the list has to stop somewhere.

    • Peter Kelly on 07.28.13 @ 1:32AM

      Keep going. I like your list better

    • Spike hates Tarantino and his films. So there’s no reason why he would add him to the list.

    • Is Pie a sequel?

    • radio rollins on 07.28.13 @ 1:35PM

      3 films of kubricks IS on the list, maybe you didn’t look hard enough, or thought they were not the ones you would have chosen. Remember not everyone will like what is on someone’s list. I haven’t seen like half of these cause they don’t interest me, but this list isn’t about what is good or bad, it’s about the kind of shots and how they used the camera to tell the story.

    • This is supposed to be a list of important films every aspiring artist should see, not an inventory of the stereotypical college student’s average DVD collection. Your entries are great films, I’ll grant you that, but this is a very safe, vanilla, IMDB-style compilation of obviousness.

      Lee’s is controversial, for sure, but at least it’s aimed at education, as opposed to a circlejerk.

  • Sorry guys, the list was incomplete. The full list is up now, though.

  • Casablanca – episodic
    Maltese Falcon – spare
    Thin Red Line instead of Days of Heaven
    Spartacus has the greatest script IMO – Dalton Trumbo,
    Maestro Kubrick thought he hadn’t written a story?!
    The Graduate – the perfect Hollywood comedy
    Intolerance – script structure
    Inception – 5 yrs. getting a script + 5 more yrs. dreaming it
    Dogma – wonderful script
    2 greatest WWII films: Fire on the Plains, Burmese Harp
    The Makioka Sisters, watch actors directed beautifully by Kon Ichigawa, give yourself a treat @ Netflix, Hulu.

  • I would add Star Wars: A New Hope, and Jaws to the list. Both changed the landscape of cinema.

  • Nothing is essential except creativity. I think it’s also fun and exciting for a film maker to discover things on his/her own rather than just to be told to stick to this format or that format.

  • In 1993 Michael Ovitz (google him, it will be worth your while) circulated a letter at his talent agency that no agent trainee should be allowed to write coverage on incoming scripts until they had seen the following movies. It has been 20 years since Ovitz sent the message but I think the list is still very valuable. Maybe someone else will find it as useful as I have.

    A Place in the Sun, A Star is Born (1954), A Streetcar Named Desire, Adam’s Rib, All About Eve, All Quiet on the Western Front, An American in Paris, Bicycle Thief, Bringing Up Baby, Casablanca, Children of Paradise, Citizen Kane, City Lights, Double Indemnity, Fantasia, Frankenstein (1931), Gone with the Wind, Grand Illusion, Gunga Din, It Happened One Night, King Kong, Lawrence of Arabia, M, Meet Me in Saint Louis, Metropolis, My Darling Clementine, Ninotchka, Oklahoma, Paths of Glory, Rear Window, Shane, Singin’ in the Rain, Stagecoach, Strangers on a Train, Sunrise, Sunset Boulevard, Sweet Smell of Success,
    The Apartment, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Sleep, The Birth of a Nation, The Blue Angel, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The General, The Kid, The Lady Eve, The Searchers, The Third Man, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Window, To Catch a Thief, Touch of Evil, White Heat, Wuthering Heights

  • Spike gave an interview to cNet on a number of subjects, many of which had been pontificated on here on NFS.

  • Lists from an American viewpoint, limited by mindset, language and cultural barriers, will barely scratch the surface of the truly epic, monumental body of work available throughout the world, and in many cases, in languages that never get translated to English. To dismissed the appreciation of those fortunate to have been exposed to something not created in the ‘Hood” , it is just like the old toad from the pond disregarding the tales of the young frog that have seen the ocean.

    • pacificbeachca on 07.28.13 @ 3:03PM

      @Agni, I was waiting for a comment like yours. “An American viewpoint”. The world loves to use America as its punching bag, doesn’t it? Please educate us idiot American’s on your list of cinematic works of art. And the stupid “hood” comment makes you a fucking jerk at the very least.

      • I don´t think agni called north americans stupids. But all list will be filtered by the list author reality tunnel. For example, Spike Lee just added one Bunuel and no Kubrick after 2001. After 2001, Kubrick went against the usual narrative structure based on written narrative/novels/stage plays.

        In this more cinematic, visual kind of cinema, there are gigantic authors around the globe, like Luis Bunuel, Alejandro Jodorowski, Raul Ruiz, Carlos Saura,
        Jan Svankmajer, etc…

        BUT it´s Spike Lee taste for movies. HE focus more into north american and french and italian cinema (but missed Antonioni, Rosselini, Leone in his list), and this is the world cinema that made more success in USA historicaly. So it´s a very american list indeed.

        From japanese cinema he focus on the most north american film director of the east: the great Kurosawa.

        a more open and, I think, better list from another american filmmaker is this:

        And Pacificbeach, It´s sad in a global environment as the internet when we get too touch, both side, thinking every critic is against our ilusion of nationality (nations are just conceptual limits into maps and cultural constructs in the end serving to use people to sustain itself and the corporations it gives support).

        “The world loves to use America as its punching bag, doesn’t it? ”

        I´m very critic to your country foreign polices, as I´m about my country affairs too, as I am about all countries, because as Kubrick once said, “The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.”

        In a global community it is normal to hear good things and bad things about what our countries are making inside and outside borders these days. :)

        I do love Unite State of America´s pop culture, I love the friends I´ve made while living there too, I can´t live without underground comics (can´t stand superhero stuff, except for the Jack Kirby´s gnostic weird comics) from Crumb to Clowes, as I love independent cinema from your country too, from Kenneth Anger to Hal Hartley to Jim Jarmuch to Shane Carruth, as I love the golden age of Hollywood movies too, while I dislike mainstream american films from the last 20 years

        But it is a fact, as an american filmmaker immersed in american culture, what else could Spike Lee do except to write a list of “the best” from an american point of view?

        Is it that wrong to point that out? that there is lots of great filmmakers out from his list that deserve be remembered?
        some filmmakers (north americans or not) that made movies that should be among the 100 to 200 best movies ever:
        Jean Pierre Melville (a lover of noir movies), Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrei Tarkovski, Sergei Parajanov, Dusan Makavejev, INGMAR BERGMAN!!!, rainer werner fassbinder, win wenders, Taviani brothers, HOWARD HAWKS!, John Ford!!, robert Bresson, ALAIN RESNAIS, KENJI MIZOGUCHI, Yasujiro Ozu, Shohei Imamura, Alessandro Blasetti, Glauber Rocha, Andrea Tonacci, Rogério Sganzerla, Fernando Arrabal, Jan Nemec, Wojciech Has, Satyajit Ray!, Abbas Kiarostami, etc, etc…

        Russian cinema is out of his list too, as chinese and other Europeans amazing directors and films too.

        But it´s his list from his education, etc, and it´s very very “american” indeed. :) And the good thing about lists is that it end up making us expressing the ones we felt that should be there too! :P That´s why I like lists, even when I don´t agree with them! :)

      • The fact that not even one Tarkovsky film made the list just about sums it up for me…but that’s just me being pedantic I suppose.

  • Oh look another list.

    The only essential film list is the one that inspires you after having devoured countless films by your own curiosity and motivation. These lists are nothing if not subjective.

    If you have no curiosity or motivation to research and explore the vast range of the world of film (everything you can possibly watch) you shouldn’t be in filmmaking.

    • pacificbeachca on 07.28.13 @ 3:05PM

      Oh look, another hipster with a scathing critique here on NFS. What else must I do so I can be a film maker?

      • I like how people now always resort to calling anyone they don’t agree with a hipster. It’s nice way to sidestep the content of the argument and prop up the group think.

        If you want to be a filmmaker try actually engaging peoples’ arguments and less attempts at being insulting.

  • Just for fun, does anyone have any film lists that show how NOT to make a movie.

    Plan 9 From Outer Space is usually cited but I don’t think it would be particularly appropriate to put it such a list because the director basically had the nofilmschool mentality without the digital revolution or support to help him out. I was thinking more of big studio clangers.

  • Heaven’s Gate, 1941 (Spielberg doing comedy really is a funny idea), Godfather III, John Carter of Mars, The Last Action Hero, most everything by Shyamalan for awhile and the creator of Jar Jar Binks. All of these guys had previously made pretty decent movies and one I would say has made a some good movies after the screwup. Each has it’s own autopsy.

    I wanted to put in Waterworld but I like that movie. And I didn’t want to put in movies from anyone without a lot of experience because to judge them harshly just seems cold hearted.

  • “Body of Evidence” -but one can probably resort to the Razzies for that. From “Bolero” to the “Postman” to “Battlefield Earth” to “Showgirls” to “Gigli”. It’s not a short list.

  • The irony of your statement is that in reality the world has been the USA’s war training ground for over half a century. Cry me a river, crocodile. Give or take a bit more of swearing and narrow mindset, what I said applies to any country and cultural differences, if you only appreciate what is made in your area of the pond, even within one country. But since you asked, although I was not considering myself among those so fortunate that can appreciate films across the cultural divide, here are the ones that continue to teach me, about film and life: The War of the Worlds (1953 ) fantasma de la libertad (1974) Nazareno Cruz y el lobo (1975) Mean Streets (1973) Alien (1979), A Clockwork Orange (1971) Manhattan (1979) Easy Rider (1969) Kagemusha (1980) Neighbours (1952 by Norman McLaren) Blade Runner (1982) Brazil (1985) Slacker (1991) Boyz n the Hood (1991) American Psycho (2000) Lust, Caution (2007) Zift (2008) , Alone in the Wilderness (Self shot Doc) and Turtles Can Fly (2004). Sorry if it is not all that hip, even after attending private schools, opera functions, and film school in tailor made suits. Perhaps is due that along with the broken noses, guns to the head and mutual harassment we enjoyed in the hood, was forgotten when we shared time in maximum security during a coup d’ tat . So is life. We never know who will be sitting next to us. Keep the divisions up. They conquer.
    “The driving force of the most important changes in this world have been found less in scientific knowledge animating the masses but rather in a fanaticism dominating them and in a hysteria which drives them forward.”
    — Adolph Hitler

  • At which film school did Hitler teach?

  • Wow, well I’ve seen a total of 7 of those films. Guess I better step it up.

  • Sergei Eisenstein’s – STRIKE.
    Lina Wurtmueller – Swept Away
    Richard Brooks – In Cold Blood (Conrad Halls happiest of accidents)
    Cassavetes – The Killing of a Chinese booky
    Richard Linklater – Slackers
    Clerks – Kevin Smith (it was an important turning point in cinema)
    Spike Lee – She has gotta have it and do the right thing.

  • Really? No chick flicks? No female directors? No comedies did anything classified as art?

    • The two best films from female directors are, in my opinion, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (yes, it’s Nazi propaganda, but for Riefenstahl to create such a film in 1933 is quite an amazing acomplishment) and CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (in which Varda creates a fascinating tale about women existing before the male gaze)

    • Outside of Kathryn Bigelow, Nora Ephron, Amy Heckerling, and Jane Campion it’s slim pickings in Hollywood. I’m not sure there should be a quota system on the syllabus. But, rather, the best films given the amount of teaching time. Sure, there are other female directors, but they surely aren’t great. There are quite a few good female television directors like Michelle MacLaren.

      • I think it’s important to clarify that what Tomiko (and anyone else commenting on the lack of women on this list) isn’t necessarily that there should be a quota, but that this is just another example of just how male-dominated the industry – and therefore, what we celebrate in the industry – is. The fact that talented female directors are slim pickings in Hollywood isn’t because there are a lot of female directors who “surely aren’t great,” but because the film industry has historically, systematically excluded women (regardless of how talented they are) from leadership in high-budget productions.

  • Artemis Jaen on 08.1.13 @ 6:18PM

    The ones that seem missing to me are Stalker, by Tarkovsky. And no Aranofsky?

    I find his choices from particular directors a bit odd, not their strongest films (e.g. Kubrick, Scorsese). But then, he may be assuming that people will already have seen some of the better known films.

    District 9, I do get. I’ve been a lecturer myself (not at a film school, but the principle is basically the same whatever you’re teaching), so this isn’t necessarily to be seen as a ‘these are the 100 best films evah in the history of the universe.’ Rather, I think he’s going for a list of films that are good reference points for talking about other films, and as a good list of films to discuss in class, so having some flaws and strangeness left in the list is useful. In the case of District 9, it’s a good but not perfect film that pushes a few buttons. I loved it, personally, but hey.

  • Kung Fu Hustle is an amazing film. If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately! :)

  • Why surprised on Kung Fu Hustle? It was quite a spectacular film.

  • Good list, but the exclusion of Ingmar Bergman films altogether shows a big hole in the list.

  • Surprise to see that the following films are missing:
    * Shaw shank redemption
    * Casablanca
    * Pulp Fiction
    * Memento

  • Would be nice to have a bit of Wong Kar Wai in there but pretty cool list; does what all lists should do which is
    serve as a jumping off point for a greater discussion.

  • It’s a good list of films, without a doubt. But my issue with it, as a reading list for students, is that it’s rather limited in scope, and basically reads like a list of “the films that inspired Spike Lee” rather than a list of films that are designed to give students a rounded education about filmmaking. There’s very little before about 1950, meaning the whole of silent cinema is missing (which seems insane for someone attempting to teach visual storytelling). At the other end, other than a few examples, it might as well be a list that was given out in a film school in 1990, because it basically ignores anything after that. It doesn’t just ignore films that you might think deserve to be on the list, but entire cinematic movements that have happened in the last 20 years, such as Dogme 95, post-Franco Spanish cinema, the rise of the Chinese blockbuster, new South Korean cinema and the re-emergence of the American independent films, of which Spike Lee was a part.

  • I did a list on IMDB with all the movies ;)

  • “Lee has been a professor at NYU graduate film school for the last 15 years.”

    That ‘Oldboy’ remake was terrible. And, Red Hook Summer and Da Brick are slightly better than first time film school students.

    That explains how he’s making a buck. That’s a fat cat job. Most of the films listed are a given. I give him props for listing The Road Warrior. It’s still one of the best action movies ever made.

  • I like the list. It looks like he is assuming that if you’re in film school, you’ve probably seen many of the movies people have listed in the comments. His Kubrick choices certainly infer this. Ok, yes you kids love those, but have you seen THESE? It’s a class not an echo chamber.

  • I think its quite humble that he has not included any of his own work.

  • Jack Gattanella on 07.22.14 @ 2:34AM

    Apocalypto sucks. Sorry, but it’s a stupid action movie that killed my brain. I prefer all of Gibson’s other films as a director to that. Hell, put Braveheart if you have to put one of his movies on there.

  • Jack Gattanella on 07.22.14 @ 2:38AM

    Also surprised The Deer Hunter isn’t on here, it’s been called by Lee as his favorite film