The Top Ten Films of the 1950s

10.) The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) - Russia has a prestigious heritage when it comes to cinema, namely Sergei Eisentstein’s game changing use of (intellectual) montage. For him, great art was the brainchild of carefully constructed opposition. About thirty years later, Kalatozov arrived on the scene with the same bug for innovation. His films were a dazzling display of defiance in both form and content, jolting audiences with hyper-speed camera movements, editing that expanded on Eisenstein’s work, and an affection for expressionism borrowod from Germany. The Cranes are Flying won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958, and it’s just as spellbinding today. 


9.) Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) - After making what is oft-seen as the definitive film noir Double Indemnity, Wilder set out to subvert the genre (here come the haters: “is noir really a genre?”, they ask) he helped define. Following a hack screenwriter as he becomes the exploited muse of an aging actress that’s also a shut-in, it bears little resemblance to The Big Sleep or The Naked City. But Wilder’s up to something, and as the film continues, he turns Hollywood itself into the ultimate noir puzzle box, one he leaves for the audience to decode. It works, making it one of the greatest films about Hollywood ever made, if not the best. 


8.) The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, (1959) - The 400 Blows is considered the magnificent start of the French New Wave, a movement that put a powerful semicolon between classic cinema and new cinema. New meaning new wave. New meaning new Hollywood. I say semicolon, since the French New Wave doesn’t put a period on what came before. It’s an expansion, a dialogue, a new way of seeing what is or isn’t possible in moviemaking. Truffaut began breaking the rules by making a stylishly simple debut– the plot is unfettered by over plotting, and all that remains is the persevering beat of a heart. His influence can be most directly felt today through Wes Anderson, who has more homages to Truffaut (and Godard) in his films than I have Blu-rays. And I have a lot. The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographical account of Truffaut’s childhood as a delinquent-to-be, and few films have shown better what it means to be a child misunderstood. 


7.) Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) - If The Odyssey and A Christmas Carol got drunk together, went all the way, and had a child that was forced to question its existence after such an absurd display, it would look something like Wild Strawberries. The film is half a wandering journey that’s purposefully full of symbolically important tangents and half a surreal plunge into dream and memory. It has some of the most famous dream sequences of all time. The plot, if it has one, follows an aging retiree on his last minute decision to drive to an awards ceremony, his awards ceremony, instead of flying. In Bergman style, Wild Strawberries has a lot on its mind, and once you realize the line between reality and unreality may not be so clear after all, the film becomes flush with existential possibility. It’s a masterpiece. 


6.) Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1957) - Based on a twisting short story by Agatha Christie, the plot centers on a man suspected of murder and a sick lawyer who mustn’t over exert himself with the dramatics of a murder trial but takes the case anyway. Tyrone Power gives one of the all time most entertaining performances as the joyously grumpy judge. He craves cigars so badly he conceals them in his cane, hoping to thwart the advances of doctors and nurses to keep him healthy. The trial is a fascinating case and turns a single set into a stage of relentless excitement. This is the best courtroom drama ever made. 

5.) 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) - Except, of course, if 12 Angry Men counts as a courtroom drama. After a trial in which the accused is almost certainly guilty, the jurors gather in a boiling hot room to reach a consensus for their verdict. They each submit a piece of paper, and they read, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, not guilty. The dissenting juror? None other than Henry Fonda in one of his best roles where he at once plays lawyer, philosopher, and all around good guy. He looks at the case from all angles and asks the other 11 jurors to do the same. A film of profound depth and technical mastery, Lumet transforms a cramped and isolated space into a picture of tremendous achievement and cinematic power. 


4.) Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952) - This isn’t an adaptation, but it was made in the spirit of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy or even Bergman. Ikiru finds Kurosawa at his most existential and anguished, telling a present day story about an aged low-level bureaucrat who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, sets out on a dejecting quest for meaning. Deeply affecting and philosophically powerful, Ikiru, which is translated as To Liveis Kurosawa’s sermon on life and death delivered through two hours of stunning cinema. It’s undoubtedly one of his best and annoyingly unseen by some film fans. 


3.) Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) - Steven Spielberg once said this might be Kubrick’s most personal film. So much so, in fact, that at a dinner soon after his death, Spielberg showed his guests the ending to Paths of Glory- his guests fell to tears. Kubrick’s often called a cold filmmaker, emotionally alienating despite his brilliance. Whoever made the accusation clearly hasn’t seen Paths of Glory, which is so consumed with humanism it could almost be called sentimental. Taking place during World War I, the film is half in-the-trenches war picture and half courtroom drama, but the heart of the piece is in its startling depiction of war’s consequences that are personal, systemic, and global. It’s the film Kubrick found his voice, and it’s his first masterpiece. 


2.) Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) - It’s Hitchcock’s best, not only because of its experimental model, but because it personifies the confounding nature of cinema. Rear Window bases its premise and its ultimate thesis on one central assertion: You like to watch. Paraphrased from IMDB, the story follows a wheelchair-bound photographer, played by Jimmy Stewart, a voyeur. He spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. Rear Window is a treatise on why we watch movies by using voyeurism to unlock the symbols and psychology behind cinema, but it’s also a synthesis of all he mastered as a director. 



1.) Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) - The plot is simple: A small village enlists seven samurai as protection from bandits, but the film is anything but. It’s deeply concerned with social class and patriarchal psychology, and it doesn’t take long before the brilliantly framed compositions become symbolic of civilization itself. I put it well on my top 10 favorite films list, saying: “Arguably as influential as the popular number one pick for the best film of all time, Citizen Kane, Akira Kurosawa singlehandedly wrote the rulebook on action/adventure film in this acclaimed classic. The rhythm, pacing, and sustained excitement over the three and a half hour running time is nothing short of extraordinary, making it one of the rare films you can dare to call perfect without rolling eyes.”  


The next 10: 


11.) Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957) 

12.) Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) 

13.) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) 

14.) Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) 

15.) Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) 

16.) Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) 

17.) The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) 

18.) The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) 

19.) Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) 

20.) Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)