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Classic films that shaped cinema history

May 14, 2024

Classic films are works of art that have not only stood the test of time but also shaped cinema history. Whether it’s starting a new style in filmmaking, employing innovative techniques or making changes to films as we all know them, the six classic films in this article helped shape cinema history and left an indelible mark on the art of filmmaking.

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1. Citizen Kane

Directed and produced by Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is an American drama film released on September 5th 1941. Considered the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane held the number 1 position for four decades in the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Sight and Sound decennial poll of critics.

The film also received nine Oscars nominations and was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Since Mankiewicz and Welles wrote the screenplay, they shared the award.

This quasi-biographical film explores the life and legacy of the publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles). Following his death, a reporter interviews those who knew him to uncover the meaning of his last word – Rosebud.

Kane transformed the way movies are made, establishing new filmmaking patterns for years to come. The film was groundbreaking in the following ways:

  • It rejected the traditional linear, chronological narrative since it tells Kane’s story in flashbacks using various points of view.
  • In the film, Wells dispenses with the concept of a single storyteller and instead uses numerous narrators to recount different parts of Kane’s life.
  • It used singing with symbolism.
  • The film had exciting, bold and varied images.

2. Breathless

Breathless is the definitive manifesto of La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave). The film also marked the arrival of Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most influential directors in cinema history. This 1960 crime thriller influenced a generation of cinephiles and filmmakers, ultimately changing the way movies are created. Godard won the Jean Vigo Prize in January 1960 before the film’s release and the Silver Bear for Best Director award at the 10th Berlin International Film Festival.

Breathless and its French New Wave brethren helped films become reflexive and full of allusions to the history, structure, and conventions of cinema. The film is reflexive since it replicates, borrows, and parodies elements of different genres, particularly American gangster pictures, but it openly acknowledges that it is doing so, a departure from past filmmakers who used to conceal this, pretending the movies they created were independent of what came before them.

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Breathless attracted over 2 million viewers upon its release in France and appeared multiple times in Sight and Sound’s filmmakers and critics’ decennial polls on the same subject. This blend of homage and innovation resonates strongly in the world of online gaming, where casino games often incorporate classic cinema themes to create a rich, engaging user experience.

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3. Jaws 

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a thriller film based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel. The film was key in establishing the advantages of a wide national release reinforced by heavy television advertising. It’s now common to see massive media buys and saturation booking, whereby a film opens in one fell swoop at tons of theatres.

Jaws‘ release helped end Hollywood’s 5-year recession and ushered in the era of big-budget, high-tech, fast-paced thrillers. The film also ushered in the era of high-cost movies with big stars landing in the summer. Before the release of Jaws, most hoped-for hits were distributed in winter.

Jaws set the template for numerous subsequent horror films. Many movies based on man-eating aquatic creatures were released through the Seventies and Eighties, including:

  • Barracuda
  • Mako: The Jaws of Death
  • Ocra
  • Eaten Alive
  • Tintorera

Psycho Shark, a Japanese horror film, was released in the US in 2009 as Jaws in Japan. Takashi Yamazaki, the filmmaker, cited Spielberg and the 1975 Jaws as influences for his Godzilla Minus One, a 2023 Japanese kaiju film.

4. Avatar

Avatar, a 2009 epic science fiction adventure film, is a modern classic. The film is marketed as James Cameron’s Avatar and was written, co-produced, directed and co-edited by Cameron.

Avatar is set in the 22nd century when Earth is suffering severe ecocide after humans have depleted its natural resources. They then decide to colonise Pandora to mine a valuable mineral called unobtanium.

It’s a technological masterpiece and the pioneer of the Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) era. The film revolutionised three-dimensional (3D) technology, making it accessible to everyone.

Avatar‘s success increased the popularity of 3D films and led to the release of 3D televisions. It also led to the birth of the Avatar sci-fi franchise, which includes four sequels shown in the table below.

Sequel Release Date
Avatar: The Way of Water December 6th 2022
Avatar 3 Scheduled for December 19th 2025
Avatar 4 Scheduled for December 21st 2029
Avatar 5 Scheduled for December 19th 2031

5. The Godfather

The Godfather is a 1972 epic crime film based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel of the same title. Francis Ford Coppola directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Puzo. The film follows the story of the Corleone family as they navigate the world of organised crime.

Although numerous films focusing on gangsters preceded The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola steeped this movie in Italian immigrant culture. His depiction of mobsters as individuals of considerable psychological depth and intricacy was unprecedented.

Ford took it further with the 1974 film The Godfather Part II. The success of these two films (financially, artistically and critically) acted as a catalyst for the production of many other portrayals of Italian Americans as mobsters. This includes television series like David Chase’s The Sopranos and various crime drama films, including Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

This film was released during an era when the cinema industry was quiet since films were not so popular. Its sophisticated story touched on greed and loyalty within a family. The Godfather allowed other gangster and mobster movies to become box-office successes.

In 1990, The Godfather was picked for preservation in the National Film Registry (NFR) of the Library of Congress (LOC). This happened after the film was deemed aesthetically, historically and culturally significant. What’s more? The American Film Institute ranked it the second-greatest film.

6. Psycho

Based on Robert Albert Bloch’s novel of the same name, Psycho is a 1960 horror film considered by many to be the first-ever slasher movie. Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay, and Alfred Hitchcock produced and directed the film. The film tells the story of the on-the-run Marion Crane, who has stolen money from her employer.

The success of Psycho spurred a series of slasher movies. In turn, this opened the doors for the golden era of this film subgenre. Psycho revolutionised the horror film genre in ways that still influence modern horror. Before Psycho came out, horror films of that era focused on monsters and science fiction. Its success also opened the way for a daring exploration of previously prohibited topics in horror movies.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are a dedicated cinephile who enjoys spending hours upon hours watching classic films or a newbie who would like to get a taste of cinema history and the films that shaped it, make time to see these timeless movies.

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