10 Films That Changed Filmmaking

Louis and Auguste Lumière made the first motion picture ever screened. © Sygma/Corbis
Louis and Auguste Lumière made the first motion picture ever screened. © Sygma/Corbis

"Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory" was the first motion-picture film ever to be screened. Shot by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895, the movie is just what its title suggests: 47 seconds of black-and-white footage capturing factory employees leaving work for the day.

At that time, films were so new that seeing anything on the screen was a thrill. But as time passed, viewers and directors both wanted more from the medium. Today, advances in technology have allowed filmmakers to do things that would have seemed impossible earlier. For instance, in the 2013 movie "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuarón used continuously moving camera shots to give moviegoers the sense of being right there in outer space with stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The actors were strapped into harnesses for hours while enormous LED panels surrounded them, transmitting swirling light. This gave a very realistic depiction of astronauts hurtling weightlessly in space [sources: Hill, Von Baldegg].

To get from workers leaving a factory to astronauts spinning in space took the vision and creativity of a whole slew of engineers, inventors, cinematographers, directors, screenwriters and actors. This chronological list of 10 films that changed filmmaking illustrates the journey.

10
'Battleship Potemkin' (1925)
Ironically, the film 'Battleship Potemkin' that celebrated Russian revolutionaries was later banned by Joseph Stalin. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Ironically, the film 'Battleship Potemkin' that celebrated Russian revolutionaries was later banned by Joseph Stalin. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Who says propaganda is bad thing? This little piece of cinema history was created to pay tribute to early Russian revolutionaries, but it wound up overthrowing the way dramatic films were made. The silent movie tells the tale of a 1905 uprising in which Russian sailors thwart tyranny aboard a ship, only to be laid to waste when heavy-handed bad guys – Cossacks, in this case – come looking for retribution.

The story unfolds in five acts. "The Odessa Steps" is the most notable of the five, hailed by filmmakers, scholars and movie buffs as an important breakthrough in the art of editing. Sergey Eisenstein was one of the first directors to use montage – editing a series of shots into one sequence – as he captured the climactic destruction that occurs when the Cossack forces invade the town, weaving together the fates of various townspeople and one very unlucky baby in a carriage. (The scene was reprised in 1987's "The Untouchables.") [sources: Ebert, Encyclopedia Britannica].

"Battleship Potemkin" was banned in several countries, including ironically, the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. Joseph Stalin feared it might incite a riot against his repressive regime [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].

9
'The General' (1926)
Buster Keaton peers inside what appears to be a cannon in 'The General.' Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Buster Keaton peers inside what appears to be a cannon in 'The General.' Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Before there was Jason Bourne and Detective John McClane there was Buster Keaton. The godfather of physical acting set the bar for scores of leading men to come. This silent movie star did all of his own stunts, starting with an inadvertent tumble down a flight of stairs at the age of 6 months. Somehow, Joseph Francis Keaton emerged unscathed and Harry Houdini, who was on hand, picked him up and said the boy could really take a "buster," or a fall [source: PBS].

Unlike today's action stars, most of Keaton's battering and bruising was done for laughs. He was one of the original deadpan actors, never showing a sign of emotion, despite the angry crowds, train car hooligans or other hijinks following closely behind him. He set the stage for a wide range of actors to follow, from Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin to Michael Cera and Zach Galifinakis [source: Barnes].

"The General," is Keaton at his best: a train chase caper set in the Civil War era that the actor starred in, wrote and directed. Two extended chase scenes showcase his full range of talent, as he bounds over boxcars, leaps over a flaming bridge and narrowly dodges a cannonball, all without breaking that stone face [source: Dirks].

8
'The Jazz Singer' (1927)
'The Jazz Singer' was the first talking motion picture or 'talkie' ever made. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
'The Jazz Singer' was the first talking motion picture or 'talkie' ever made. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"The Jazz Singer" was the first film to break cinema's sound barrier, charting new ground by adding spoken dialogue to a movie production. That breakthrough was good enough to earn the movie the first honorary Academy Award for technical achievement.

Warner Bros. Studios used what was then a spanking-new technology called Vitaphone. The sound-on-disc system required a projectionist to sync film reels to a phonograph record to play recorded dialogue and tunes. It was an unsteady, but very important, first step [source: Hart].

"The Vitaphoned songs and some dialogue have been introduced most adroitly," A New York Times reporter said in a 1927 review of the film. "This in itself is an ambitious move, for in the expression of song the Vitaphone vitalizes the production enormously."

Although Vitaphone and similar technologies were soon replaced by sound-on-film processes, it continued to be used for Looney Tunes and other cartoon pictures throughout the 1940s [source: Hart].

7
'Citizen Kane' (1941)
Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in 'Citizen Kane' -- and pioneered a time-distorted narrative as well as the use of lighting to capture mood. RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images
Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in 'Citizen Kane' -- and pioneered a time-distorted narrative as well as the use of lighting to capture mood. RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images

If you haven't seen the Baz Luhrmann's flashy interpretation of "The Great Gatsby," don't. Instead, spend a couple of hours with "Citizen Kane," a more gratifying story of the perils of the American Dream that was loosely based on the "Gatsby"book.

Often at the top of lists for the best movies ever made, "Citizen Kane" tells the tale of a publishing tycoon's ill-fated quest for glory. Also, something about a rosebud ... Written by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, the movie's central figure is an approximation of real-life media giant William Randolph Hearst.

Welles also directed and starred in this cinematic masterpiece that set the bar for movies a couple notches higher. It embraced a time-distorted narrative, used lighting to capture mood and relied on deep focus shots – in which the entire frame of each shot remains in focus at all times – to let viewers search the screen for the answer to the "rosebud" riddle [sources: Perez, Brown].

6
'Breathless' (1960)
Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 drama 'Breathless' was titled 'Sin Aliento' in Spanish and 'À Bout de Souffle' in its original French. The titles all mean the same thing. Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images
Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 drama 'Breathless' was titled 'Sin Aliento' in Spanish and 'À Bout de Souffle' in its original French. The titles all mean the same thing. Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

Disciples of film auteurs like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino might want to spend some time paying their respects to Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. These titans of the French New Wave set the course for their American offspring with a smattering of self-aware films that used new techniques to tell old stories.

"The French New Wave has influenced all film-makers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not," Martin Scorseseonce said. "It submerged cinema like a tidal wave."

A centerpiece of the New Wave movement, "Breathless" is best known among cinephiles for its extensive use of jump cut editing. Director Godard used multiple shots of the same subject from slightly different angles to express the passage of time. The technique also gives the film an edgy, jagged feel as Godard tells the story of an outlaw (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his love interest (Jean Seberg) on the move.

Jump cuts have since become a regularly used way to build tension in cinema. Gangster movie fans might recall that Scorsese employed the technique in the closing scenes of "Goodfellas," as a cocaine-addled Henry Hill drives around Brooklyn and the cops close in [sources: Kohn, Casey].

5
'8 ½' (1963)
Frederico Fellini directs Claudia Cardinale on the set of '8 1/2.' © Claude Schwartz/CORBIS
Frederico Fellini directs Claudia Cardinale on the set of '8 1/2.' © Claude Schwartz/CORBIS

Italian film icon Federico Fellini weaves the (autobiographical?) story of a harried director who's having some trouble getting his latest project on course through a surreal series of dream, fantasy and present-day scenes that blend one into another and leave for the viewers that task of sorting out which is which.

"8 ½" opens with a dream sequence that includes director Guido stuck in impenetrable traffic -- struggling to even get out of his car -- and then floating toward the clouds before being pulled back down to earth by a rope tied to his ankle. Guido is going everywhere in his mind, while his film project chases its own tail [source: Sesonski]. The title, by the way, refers to the fact that this film was the eighth-and-a-half film Fellini had directed or co-directed.

The movie's free form helped unleash future filmmakers from the bonds of traditional, linear storytelling. It opened the door for generations of surrealist movie makers, including David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Michel Gondry. Try following "8 ½" with Aronofsky's "Black Swan" or Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and the influence is palatable [source: Sesonski].

4
'2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968)
Keir Dullea starred as astronaut Dr. David Bowman in '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Keir Dullea starred as astronaut Dr. David Bowman in '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

One small step for man, one giant leap for man-made special effects. Stanley Kubrick forced the film industry to rethink what was possible with his mind-bending portrayal of evolution, two doomed astronauts and a talking computer named HAL. The aftershocks from what Steven Spielberg calls his film generation's "big bang" are still being felt in modern sci-fi flicks like "Inception" [source: Kazan].

With just 40 minutes of dialogue over nearly two-and-a-half hours of film. Kubrick relied on images, music and various audio effects -- most notably, a penetrating silence -- to guide viewers on their journey through outer space. Like "8 ½" before it, the film once again showed that a compelling narrative doesn't have to unfold in linear fashion [source: Suber].

The true impact of the film is not its story, but the visual and special effects used to tell it. Those techniques have since been picked up by a whole host of sci-fi filmmakers, from George Lucas in "Star Wars" to Ridley Scott in "Alien" [source: Kazan].

"After '2001: A Space Odyssey,' science fiction is dead," Scott famously said of the film's legacy, meaning that everyone imitated it. "There's nothing original. We've seen it all before. Been there. Done it" [source: Kazan].

3
'Toy Story' (1995)
'Toy Story' director John Lasseter is shown with two of his characters from the film, Woody (left) and Buzz Lightyear in 1996. © Eric Robert/Sygma/Corbis
'Toy Story' director John Lasseter is shown with two of his characters from the film, Woody (left) and Buzz Lightyear in 1996. © Eric Robert/Sygma/Corbis

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This film represented the dawn of the Pixar revolution. Without it, there would be no "Monsters, Inc.," no "Finding Nemo," and no "Up," not to mention no "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3." When "Toy Story" debuted in 1995, it would have been blasphemous to predict that two later Pixar-animated films -- "Up" and "Toy Story 3"-- would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and that "Up" would be selected to open the venerable Cannes Film Festival in 2009. In fact, "Toy Story" probably had a whole lot to do with the notoriously tradition-laden Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences creating a new Oscar award for Best Animated Feature in 2001 [source: Lane].

This little film explored new territory on a lot of fronts. It was the first film created entirely by computer-generated imagery (CGI). CGI is now ubiquitous in the movie industry, for good or ill. It was also one of the rare kids' movies whose witty dialogue appealed to both children and adults. The combination became a roadmap for Pixar, which has brought in more than $6 billion in revenue on "Toy Story" and the 10 films that followed as of 2014 [source: Lane].

2
'Avatar' (2009)
Director James Cameron displays a pair of 3-D glasses prior to a showing of his movie 'Avatar' at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2010. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Director James Cameron displays a pair of 3-D glasses prior to a showing of his movie 'Avatar' at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2010. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

With "Avatar," director James Cameron set a new standard for sci-fi, mixing live action with computer-generated special effects. CG actors do their thing in virtual 3-D worlds whose vibrant settings nearly jump out from the screen. The alternative reality that results is like nothing ever before seen on film. Among the innovations created for this film were motion-capture CG that could record an actor's facial expressions and a camera that would allow the director to see in real time how the CG characters (based on real actors) interacted with the virtual worlds [sources: Hiscock, Masand].

Sure, the story -- evolving around a futuristic U.S. military mission to the planet Pandora -- might not be gripping drama among the likes of "Citizen Kane," but it's a worthy vehicle for stunning visual effects. And it took 3-D to a whole new level. It's too early to measure the film's long-term impact on the sci-fi genre and future of summer blockbusters. It's safe to say, however, that neither will ever be the same.

1
'Shame' (2011)
Actor Michael Fassbender is shown on location in one of the less-racy scenes from 'Shame,' the first NC-17 film to get wide release. Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images
Actor Michael Fassbender is shown on location in one of the less-racy scenes from 'Shame,' the first NC-17 film to get wide release. Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

"Shame" is unlike any film on this list. It's an NC-17 movie about sex addiction. Viewers will be forgiven if they choose to check this one out with the lights off and the doors locked, slowly curling into the fetal position as Michael Fassbender goes further and further down the rabbit hole of meaningless physical intimacy [source: Lack].

Yes, it's a compelling and disturbing film, thanks largely to Fassbender. But the lasting impact of "Shame" is sure to be that it was the first NC-17 film to see a broad release in theaters around the globe. In that sense, the film picks up the torch of sorts from "The French Connection," the 1971 hard-boiled detective thriller starring Gene Hackman and the first R-rated film to win Best Picture. But that's where the similarities stop. Hackman's Detective Popeye Doyle saw some things in his day, but probably nothing like what's going on in "Shame" [source: Lack].

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Author's Note: 10 Films That Changed Filmmaking

The "Battleship Potemkin" might be responsible for the birth of the montage, but -- for my money -- the best use of the technique was by Menaham Golan in the 1987 arm wrestling action flick "Over the Top." Sylvester Stallone as truck driver Lincoln Hawk vanquishes his foes, saves his relationship with his estranged son and wins a new big rig, all while Robin Zander's "In This Country" plays in the background. If that doesn't make you want to go out and wrestle some arms, get behind the wheel of a truck and be American, nothing will.

Related Articles

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