The 100 Best French Films of All Time

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The 100 Best French Films of All Time

French language cinema covers vast swathes of history, geography and genre. The best French movies aren’t simply the product of a French person working strictly with a French team, they represent film as entelechy—a century of directors rooting around within the source code of this particular form of storytelling, pushing it into realms equally transcendent and horrifying. For its own sake. Because it is right to do so.

If there is anything unifying the films in the following list—besides the French language—it might be that there exists a current of fundamental innovation throughout the many years surveyed. Auteurist visions care of Belgium, Greece, Poland, Denmark, Taiwan, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Senegal course through and inform the prelapsarian innards of French cinema, transforming the country into a hub for international film. This is foundational stuff.

With the following we’re trying to provide a primer on French language film from an English-speaking perspective, exploring the schools of thought and exotic taxonomies that have defined what French filmmaking has been since George Méliès first set a moon cackling like a creep in 1902, and what it can be, skin-flaying, cannibalistic Grand Guignol nightmares and all. The Nouvelle Vague—both those of the Left Bank (Agnès Varda, her husband Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker) and the Cahiers du cinéma crew (Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol)—the erotic French thriller, the mind-bending (and bowel-emptying) horror of the New French Extremity, the colorful musical, the social farce, the sprawling crime film, the experimental vérité, the personal and unflinching documentaries: Even as so many films on this list have irrevocably altered our ideas of what filmmaking can mean, what it can do, so do they exist on the fringes, at the limits, willing to test the boundaries of taste, logic and (in the case of Chantal Akerman) time in order to question and then pull apart the systems and expectations that stagnate art and oppress artists.

Pauline Kael’s favorite film, apparently, was French, but made by an Estonian native (see #64), while many of Roger Ebert’s so-called “Great” movies seem obvious French choices, they’re so indelible to our collective conception of what constitutes a valuable motion picture. Criticism is important to French film, often fostered by movie critics (Godard, Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette) whose love pushed them into creating their own groundbreaking works, marrying high-minded academic evaluation with populist acceptance. As outre as these films can get, we never stray too far from a basic necessity to appeal to audiences, even when directors sometimes appear to be working against an audience’s best interests. Leave it to the French to tell us what we need.

The 100 films that make up this list represent the best of French language film; the more we flail in describing what brings these films together, the more we lose track of the breadth of what “French language film” even means. As Cléo tells herself in Varda’s masterpiece, “Everything suits me. Trying things on intoxicates me!” May you find enough to suit you, to intoxicate you, in the following.

100. La Cage aux Folles (1978)
Director: Édouard Molinaro

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Hardly as progressive today as it was 40 years ago, La Cage aux Folles still rings with good intentions and confrontational truths, a subversive testament to family and love wrapped in the tropes and expectations of traditional, studio farce. Which may be thanks to director Édouard Molinaro, who towed the populist line throughout the ’60s and early ’70s while his French peers were writhing within, defining and then redefining the Nouvelle Vague, separating into banks rather than studios. A straightforward adaptation of Jean Poiret’s blockbuster play, which premiered in 1973, Molinaro’s version (which he wrote along with Poiret, Francis Veber and producer Marcello Danon) excels in intimacy, stripping stereotype and prejudice away bit by bit, turning upside down each presumptuous or bigoted or just-plain-incorrect idea about the ways in which homosexual relationships function—about the ways in which people who are homosexuals live—by simply getting to know the characters through their responses to such a morally charged, high-stress situation. Renato Baldi (Ugo Tognazzi) owns the titular Saint-Tropez drag nightclub with his ostentatious partner, Albin (Michel Serrault), who also happens to be the nightclub’s most prominent star. When Renato’s son Laurent (Rémi Laurent), whom Renato conceived in a one-off tryst with Laurent’s estranged mother, visits with the news that not only is he engaged, but that his fiance’s father is an ultra-conservative politician, Renato makes plans to pretend that he and Albin are similarly god-fearing, wholesome brothers—which of course doesn’t quite go as planned, especially in his attempts to pass off Albin as a straight man. The story is most likely familiar for most of us care of Mike Nichol’s American The Birdcage (written by Elaine May), but what’s so beautifully subtle about this film that’s often overlooked amidst all of its big characters and bigger satire is that Molinaro’s film normalizes gay relationships and gay families without bending them to fit the status quo. Albin is more of a mother to Laurent that his biological mother ever could be; the supportive, loving staff of La Cage aux Folles are more of a family, close-knit and affectionate, than the nuclear one Laurent’s trying to fool. All of this Molinaro presents plainly and warmly, with the kind of broad humor and endless charm that helped the film become a cult hit in the U.S. (and a contender for both the Golden Globes and Oscars) at the end of the ’70s. —Dom Sinacola


99. Breathe (2014)
Director: Mélanie Laurent

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Nothing’s more effective at shaking a teen out of their monotonous high school routine than the arrival of a new student. That’s the stuff actress/director Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore film, Breathe, is made of: mystery and allure, with generous dollops of adolescent rivalry, sexual awakening and verbal abuse spooned on top. Think of Breathe as a distant European cousin to the fraught teen movies of Larry Clark, as well as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen: stories of imperiled youth, loneliness and volatile sentiment. Breathe anchors its perspective to young Charlie (Joséphine Japy), the very picture of ordinary teenhood by anyone’s standards. Charlie lives with her folks in a sleepy French suburb that’s as quiet and nondescript as she is. Her mother (Isabelle Carré) argues with her father over matters of marital fidelity; she can only escape their skirmishes at school, where she keeps a low profile while enjoying minor but stable popularity among her circle of friends. They’re good kids, mostly, lovably raucous and totally safe, keeping in stride with the prevailing normalcy of Charlie’s life. But that normalcy turns out to be remarkably delicate: No sooner does out-of-towner Sarah (Lou de Laâge) join Charlie’s class than her mundane existence starts to splinter. Laurent’s so good at picking through the diplomatic tensions of female friendships that when Charlie’s bubble bursts and the movie takes a turn for the macabre, we don’t mind the change in tenor. (And besides, stories like this rarely end any other way than in tears.) Breathe is a film about unrequited love—not necessarily romantic love, but confused, ambiguous love, the kind of love that closely resembles a roller coaster ride and leaves people who feel it wrecked. —Andy Crump


98. La Ceremonie (1995)
Director: Claude Chabrol

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Director Claude Chabrol is often referred to as the French Hitchcock, but a film like the unsettling La Ceremonie reveals the distinct difference between the two filmmakers. Though Chabrol, like many French New Wave directors, is an admitted devotee of the suspense master (having authored a study of Hitchcock’s work with Eric Rohmer), he went on to develop his own, more understated style. While La Ceremonie is a tale of suspense and psychological drama, it also functions as a portrait of class warfare and a subtle character study. Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as a maid to her family’s estate outside a small French village. The family is initially pleased with Sophie’s hard work until her increasing isolation and clandestine illiteracy create a widening gap with her employers. When a nosy postal worker (Isabelle Huppert) befriends her, the tension begins to slowly rise, leading to a shocking climax. However, anyone seeking Hitchcockian thrills will likely be disappointed. Where Hitchcock built his suspense through mounting stakes in an inherently suspenseful situation (mistaken identity, the early introduction of a sociopath, etc.), Chabrol lets a languid pace and socially awkward interactions establish an unsettling tone. It’s the offhanded nature of the final violence that makes the film so effective. —Tim Sheridan


97. Nocturama (2016)
Director: Bertrand Bonello

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Nocturama trusts its audience—more, even, than its audience may want to be trusted. Throughout, director Betrand Bonello folds timelines, indulges in flashbacks and replays moments from different perspectives, rarely with any warning but hardly without precision or consistency, investigating the comparatively small world of his film from every angle while implying that a much bigger, much more complicated world exists outside of its admittedly limited view. Bonello’s tact offers no explanations; his story follows a gaggle of beautiful Parisian teens, seemingly representing a broad swath of life, participating in a terrorist act, from planning through meticulous execution, and then, in the aftermath of the explosions, to the high-end department store where the teens hide out to watch the City respond. Bonello never allows these kids a monologue or conversation or anecdote to explain why they’ve gone to such extremes—their political understanding is about as sophisticated as that of a college student who’s only recently discovered Noam Chomsky, and even these beliefs they mumble to one another without much dedication. Instead, Nocturama is all surface, all watching: the faces of these innocents as they silently go about their terror, the tension that arises from knowing there is so much obscured behind those faces but also seeing so much so clearly in those faces, and then knowing that we will never know. Because these teens seem fine, even existentially so. They seem middle class, comfortable, unburdened by the wiles of puberty, free to do what they want, be with whom they want, say what they want—and only in the department store, amongst designer clothes and expensive, pointless home goods, do they yearn for more, potentially blowing up Paris not to protest anything, but to beg to be a part of the elite who define it. This is terrorism not against capitalism, but for it. Bonello trusts his audience to know the difference. —Dom Sinacola


96. Martyrs (2008)
Director: Pascal Laugier

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French horror, at least the French horror produced since 2003’s High Tension, has a reputation for shedding blood in quantities and through methods that might make even devoted gorehounds hoark. (France was churning out horror flicks long before Alexandre Aja began pushing the boundaries of human constitution with his movies, but let’s not pretend that French horror didn’t experience a shift in graphic intent after his third feature made him internationally recognizable.) And among that post-Tension crop of movies, you can take your pick as to which is the grossest, the most distasteful, the most agonizing to watch: Frontier(s), for instance, or maybe Inside. For our money, though, you simply can’t beat Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, a movie about transcendence that manages to achieve a form of transcendence itself; just as the film is about a malevolent bourgeois cult peering into the world beyond our own, so too does Laugier envision choreographed torment more explicitly than most horror dares to. Describe Martyrs as disturbing, and you’ll sell it short. Movies like it, movies that sear their images on our brains forevermore after watching them, are rare in cinema, and in most cases that sear is gratifying. Here, it’s nightmarish, which is likely what Laugier was going for. But Martyrs is unrequired-required viewing, a horror effort that you probably ought to watch for sake of edification and completion, but you also might not want to, assuming you’re the type who enjoys keeping down food. —Andy Crump


95. Maldone (1928)
Director: Jean Grémillon

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There’s an extended folk-dance scene in Maldone in which Jean Grémillon seems to find every angle imaginable. Grémillon’s dazzling direction throughout the film juxtaposes a simple life with wealthy privilege via the tragic story of a canal worker (Charles Dullin) who abandons life in the country to manage his family’s estate. Genica Athanasiou shines as the gypsy woman he left, and whose memory won’t stop haunting him. —Jeremy Mathews


94. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Director: George Méliès

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While A Trip to the Moon only lasts 15 minutes, it still feels epic (and that runtime wasn’t considered so short in 1902). In turn, this light, colorful (make sure you watch the hand-painted, restored version, linked above) collage of whimsy follows a premise that would go on to serve sci-fi adventure films for more than a century: People embark on a journey and crazy shit goes down. With its long, stagy takes and flat compositions, the primitive nature of the film is apparent, but Méliès makes up for it with charm. Modern viewers instinctively know how to spot basic camera trickery, especially when perspective and scale aren’t quite right. Méliès, however, understood his limitations, embraced the artifice and, with that moon face taking a rocket to the eye, created something iconic. —Jeremy Mathews


93. Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974)
Director: Barbet Schroeder

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Roger Ebert  once criticized this film for not being “a very good documentary.” And it’s absolutely true that this isn’t, at least on the subject of Idi Amin’s three-year rule of Uganda (at the time of filming), or of Uganda itself, or of Amin as a mass murderer. Still, Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait is a fascinating portrait of how Amin saw himself in 1974, and how Amin was a precocious self-mythmaker. Amin’s sense of self is incredible—only three years after the military coup that brought him into power, he displays a level of self-aggrandizement here that simply doesn’t seem possible. That conceit remains consistent throughout, in spite of the fact that most of the scenes in the film that are meant to show off Amin’s power were clearly staged for the benefit of the cameras. So while I do wish director Barbet Schroeder had done more with the film’s offhanded suggestion that Amin is not just the result of colonialism but also a reflection of Western colonial ideology—in context, it comes off more like a half-assed way to address the fact that this film is kind of exploitative than it does an actual argument—in the sense that this is a look at how a mass murderer might present himself to the world, Autoportrait is a compelling study of (in)humanity. —Mark Abraham


92. Mon Oncle (1958)
Director: Jacques Tati

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Jacques Tati’s are films of methodical, meticulously staged bumbling blended with acute disdain for modernity in every imaginable manner—as an aesthetic, as an ideology, as a philosophy, as a signifier of changing times. Call Tati a nostalgist or call him a barmy old codger barking at the world from the safety of his porch, commanding all within earshot to get off of his damn lawn, but be sure to call him a comic genius while you’re at it, too. He deserves that much: He did us all the favor of making the M. Hulot films, starting with Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot in 1953, and continuing with Mon Oncle in 1958, Playtime in 1967 and Trafic in 1971. Of these, Mon Oncle feels most distressed—down in the dumps even—serving as a bridge between the sentimentality of Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and the undisguised social critique of Playtime, his greatest film. Mon Oncle is playful, jovial, good fun from start to close, a film built to show off Tati’s incredible gift for visual humor and also to serve as a melancholic send-off for the Belle Époque. He contrasts the beauty of old Paris with the austerity of new Paris, bereft of anything resembling character or style. We laugh fondly at Hulot’s graceless ineptitude, but we want to weep for the loss of those characteristics that make the city what it is—er, what it was. —Andy Crump


91. Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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Roger Ebert   described Luis Buñuel’s first film as a shadow of logic, a facsimile of reality: “We know that the car at the auto show does not belong to (and was not designed or built by) the model in the bathing suit who points to it.” Ebert offers this conception as a way of approaching Un Chien Andalou, a film which defies approach. Conceived when Buñuel, then working in France under director Jean Epstein, described to fellow Spanish expatriate Salvador Dali a dream he had—visceral but untethered from narrative bounds—Un Chien Andalou became a back-and-forth between two men struggling with their subconsciouses, attempting to recreate the upsetting images burped up by the deepest nethers of their brain stems. The iconic eyeball-slicing; a man dressed as a nun getting into a ridiculous bike accident; a dead hand crawling with ants seemingly borne from a Christ-like palm wound; two dead donkeys, tangled within the innards of two grand pianos, dragged alongside two befuddled priests by a man trying to feel up the woman whose eye he may or may not have sliced eight years, two weeks, the night before—sense must be countered with contrarianism, and all narrative conventions must be shat upon. With his car show metaphor, Ebert was talking about causation, about the 20-minute film’s resistance to the way traditional stories (and our four-dimensional conception of reality, for that matter) feature characters who do things that all follow a chronological line of action and reaction. But what makes Un Chien Andalou truly terrifying is understanding that Ebert’s approach, thinking of these images as “models” of a recognizable world, points to a greater force at play. A hand that reaches down and manipulates our lives without our knowledge, without our consent. We are ultimately at the mercy of powers far beyond our control. There’s little else scarier than that, and with his still stomach-churning debut, Buñuel bored right into the heart of it. —Dom Sinacola


90. Amélie (2001)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

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Delicate and delicious, Amélie is an easily, exceedingly lovable little French trifle. With the face of an angel, the heart of a child and the haircut of a Parisian pixie, Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) sweeps us clean off our feet while Tautou launches herself into the American consciousness as the do-gooding waitress who sends her secret crush photos and riddles, masking her identity in order to make their first encounter—and first kiss—the most romantic moment of her life. Her fantastical adventures—in the name of idealized, even cinematic, coupling—unfold in flights of magical realism, Jean-Pierre Jeunet holding up love itself as both realistically magical and magically realistic. —Nick Marino


89. Persepolis (2007)
Directors: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

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Finding black humor in totalitarianism’s contradictions, Marjane Satrapi’s animated adaptation of her smash graphic memoir, Persepolis, is as canonically effective as her book. Detailing the Iran of her childhood (through revolution, repression and expatriation), Satrapi and co-director Vincent Paronnaud transform the stark lines of her illustrations into rich black and white. Filled with exotic curlicues, crosshatched shadows and iconic characters, the hand-drawn film’s vocabulary is a tender, resonant extension of Satrapi’s eye. A full-on anti-authoritarian, Satrapi’s character—voiced by Chiara Mastroianni—fills the screen. Though Satrapi mostly observes her country’s turbulence rather than participating in it, she does so charismatically. “When you run, your behind makes indecent moves,” an Iranian policeman tells her. “Then stop looking at my ass!” she retorts, and keeps running. Equal parts contrarian and humanist, Persepolis—regardless of how it was inked—refuses to see anything in black and white. —Jesse Jarnow


88. Summer Hours (2008)
Director: Olivier Assayas

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After making several films about cat women who jet across the globe and slink through buildings of glass and steel, Olivier Assayas returns to the lower-key interests of his earlier films with Summer Hours. When Hélène (Edith Scob) reunites with her grown, far-flung children at their old home in rural France, the siblings remember growing up on the estate. And when she dies shortly thereafter, they must decide what to do with the house and its contents now that they’ve all moved on. Films about families often depict melancholy souls who reach under old beds for shoeboxes of curled photos and yellowing mash notes. Assayas has made an entire film around that moment—it’s a meditation on how objects carry history, how they reflect our decaying bones, how they sometimes outlive us. The film ends beautifully with a rockin’ party thrown by Hélène’s granddaughter on the sprawling estate: It’s a last gasp for the family home but also a poignant glimpse of a new generation claiming old spaces. —Robert Davis


87. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Director: Louis Malle

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Prior to reinventing filmic language with their playful genre experiments, the members of France’s New Wave movement got their start as film critics. In fact, it was through their writings and discussions that the term “film noir” was first christened as a means of describing a certain breed of brooding postwar films. It’s not surprising then that Louis Malle—though not an official New Wave member—would settle on a noir-influenced project as his first feature film. Acting both as an homage to and a subversion of the genre structure, Elevator to the Gallows stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as a pair of criminals whose plan to kill Florence Carala’s (Moreau) husband quickly falls apart when the Ronet character gets stuck in an elevator. This already absurd concept becomes all the more confounding when paired with the Malle’s unorthodox, experimental editing and the film’s somber jazz score, performed by none other than Miles Davis. —Mark Rozeman


86. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Director: Sylvain Chomet

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Hearkening back to the wickedly funny glory days of silent cinema, The Triplets of Belleville is an inventive and enchanting animated film, capturing the spirit of Jacques Tati (embodied by the jokes that spring up out of the simplest of modern devices) and conveying the lived-in wonder of a beloved children’s picture book (exaggerated characters and striking colors), complete with a pitch-perfect sense of timing—finding that elusive pause that precipitates the release of a fantastic belly laugh—with the few bits of the film’s dialogue in French, so unimportant they’re not even subtitled. Of course, the movie pokes fun at Americans’ obsession with bigness (and big food), but it taunts the French in equal measure, the overall effect—of so many influences finding such well-tuned representation—not so much nostalgic as absolutely captivating. —J. Robert Parks


85. The City of Lost Children (1998)
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro

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Ron Perlman plays the reluctant hero as a circus strongman named One looking for his adopted little brother Denree (Joseph Lucien), as Marc Caro (Delicatessen) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, also Delicatessen) team up to create a wildly imaginative dystopian universe. Krank (Daniel Emilfort), the evil creation of a mad scientist, is harvesting children’s dreams in order to keep himself young, so One must enlist the help of an orphaned street thief (Judith Vittet) to retrieve the kidnapped Denree. Populated with clones, Siamese twins, trained circus fleas and a Cyborg cult called the Cyclops, this steampunk fever dream has plenty for fans of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry. —Josh Jackson


84. Stranger By the Lake (2014)
Director: Alain Guiraudie

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Thrillers and horror movies have long benefited from their ability to juxtapose sex and death, the mixture of ecstasy and terror creating a bewitching combination. (It’s no coincidence that all those slasher films were populated with buxom beauties.) But the moody French thriller Stranger by the Lake is an especially chilly brew. And borrowing a tenet of horror movies, it’s set in an idyllic spot in the middle of nowhere. Writer-director Alain Guiraudie takes us to the French countryside, to a lovely beach overlooking a quiet, clear lake that’s a favored summer spot for gay men looking for random, no-strings-attached hookups. The newest visitor is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a handsome young man who immediately responds to the locale’s natural beauty and available conquests—which of course hides darker impulses and secrets. Guiraudie gives the proceedings an almost clinical detachment, and consequently Stranger by the Lake has an air of Hitchcock to it: Instead of the icy blonde seducing the leading man, it’s a buff, shirtless man doing the wooing. Cannily, even the sex is given a blasé, matter-of-fact treatment. Repeatedly, Guiraudie shows how as Franck enters the beach he’s coldly surveyed by the other men—a piece of meat to be quickly evaluated and then either pursued or rejected as a possible hookup. The film is juiced by its inherent juxtaposition: The beach is so inviting, and yet everyone there is quietly judging everyone else, sex stripped down to its animalistic, biological essence. —Tim Grierson


83. Finis terræ (1929)
Director: Jean Epstein

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Each Jean Epstein film has its own unique feel, separate from the director’s other work as well as anyone else’s. Finis terræ is at once documentary and dreamlike as it tells a story of seaweed harvesters on the coast of Brittany. Epstein shot on location with non-actors using handheld cameras to capture their way of life, yet he also gives his the impression that his subjects’ way of life could soon vanish, becoming nothing but a distant memory. —Jeremy Mathews


82. The Blood of a Poet (1932)
Directors: Jean Cocteau

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Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde masterpiece about the burden of artistic creativity uses in-camera effects to create a fantastical sense of dream logic, like a hand that gains a mouth or a mirror that works as a portal to an artist’s subconscious mind, offering up a treasure trove of surreal, upsetting imagery for fans of David Lynch’s work. Cocteau lays out, with dizzying glimpses of grace and terror, the bitter honesty of our creations—mainly, that they might be more in control of us than we are of them, and that, if we’re lucky, they will outlast us, to live again. —Oktay Ege Kozak


81. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Director: Jacques Demy

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Why walk on streets and through town squares when you can caper across them? Being in a Jacques Demy film means being free to amble about in whatever manner you please; his work is nominally set in the real world, but in truth it’s Demy’s real world, a mirror of our own washed in pastels, anchored by traces of melancholy, best explored by dancing. The Young Girls of Rochefort, much like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is a film in love with film, in which reality is suffused with the unreality of cinema. For two hours, Demy invites us to see France not only through his lens but through his greatest dream: That we should all get to live our lives in a movie. Demy shot The Young Girls of Rochefort on location instead of a studio backlot. This is Rochefort, but Rochefort given the Demy treatment.

Unlike contemporary pretenders to Demy’s throne (à la La La Land), The Young Girls of Rochefort doesn’t need to work hard to create the illusory, boundary-bending effect Demy effortlessly achieves here. Caught in front of the camera, not everyone suddenly becomes a top notch dancer; wrapped up in the plot’s romantic entanglements, not everyone finds the happy ending we expect them to. Maybe that’s the one thing Demy can’t change about the real world. Heartache and euphoria are two sides of the same bittersweet coin. —Andy Crump


80. Chocolat (1988)
Director: Claire Denis

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Praising Chocolat, Claire Denis’ first film and a semi-autobiographical story about a white French family living in colonial Africa, Roger Ebert wrote, “It is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story, and it assumes an audience that can understand what a strong flow of sex can exist between two people who barely even touch each other.” Such a statement might surprise those who’ve seen the movie, since it neither shows nor overtly discusses sex, but he’s right: The unsaid words in Chocolat could fill volumes. The movie compares that part of the world’s racial divide with the horizon, a steady line separating the sky from the earth. You walk toward it, and it continually moves back. Of all the characters in the movie, the family’s African servant Protée (Isaach De Bankole) best understands the social rules under which everyone lives, but the movie conveys his enormously complex outlook with very little dialogue. He’s a nearly silent presence in a house full of chatter. Chocolat is a movie for adults, in the very best sense. Such maturity might be expected from someone who made her first film at the age of 40, and then after she’d worked as an assistant director for such legendary filmmakers as Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Denis is the co-writer of all her films, and a wide variety of resources provide inspiration—from Melville and Faulkner to her own experiences growing up in Africa and France. She combines all this in films that are both incredibly cohesive and truly cinematic. Where a novelist might describe what a character is thinking, Denis will convey something similar in a fleeting shot with a nuanced perspective. —Robert Davis


79. Zero for Conduct (1933)
Director: Jean Vigo

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Sometimes called the Patron Saint of French Cinema, Jean Vigo died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis, having directed just one feature and three shorts. Despite his minuscule output, Vigo went on to inspire many directors, from Francois Truffaut to Lindsay Anderson, and his masterpiece was Zero for Conduct. It tells the story of a boarding school revolt, beginning with an explanation of why the students feel rejected, leading up to an extraordinary series of scenes in which they take control. All the while, Vigo seems to form a narrative around jokes, resulting in something as freewheeling and whimsical as it is tightly plotted and purposeful. With a penchant for directing children, Vigo never lets Zero for Conduct’s absurdist tendencies get the better of its underlying points. Its spectacular end, in particular, is both stylistically bold and confounding, a suitable conclusion to a film absolutely brimming with life. —Sean Edgar


78. Faces Places (2016)
Directors: Agnès Varda and JR

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The best road movie of 2016 was this delightful film from New Wave pioneer Agnès Varda and photographer JR. The odd-couple contrast between co-directors is physically striking—she’s a woman, he’s a man; he’s much taller and younger than she—but they’re aligned in their desire to document the lives of everyday French citizens, taking oversized photos of the people they meet and plastering them on the sides of buildings to commemorate their specialness. Faces Places is very much in the style of Varda’s documentaries from the past two decades, such as The Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnès, which chart how art and life weave inextricably together, but at 89, she doesn’t have the same stamina she once did. That fact lends added poignancy to a movie that, in part, is about the fragility of everything: small towns, photographs, loved ones, long friendships fading into disrepair. With JR as her co-conspirator, the Varda we see in Faces Places stands as a model for how to carry oneself through the world: with humor, humility and grace. —Tim Grierson


77. A Prophet (2010)
Director: Jacques Audiard

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A Prophet is a modern gangster movie about prison drug syndicates in France, using a cold, documentarian’s focus on an underground ringleader without resorting to backhanded glamorization, all the while packing a brass-knuckled punch. Still, the most alluring aspects of A Prophet look beyond crime, just as Godfather scribe Mario Puzo said that his canonized epic was more a reflection on American immigration than a Tommy gun demonstration. The story begins with ascendant thug Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a bewildered, illiterate 19-year-old tossed into a prison that bears an uncanny resemblance to an American university dorm. Charged with assaulting a police officer, the teenage offender is soon introduced to a prison yard built around racial battle lines. France is certainly no stranger to ethno-religious strife, and this continual undercurrent gives the film much of its subliminal weight. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen ran for president with xenophobic hyperbole and finished second with 18 percent of the vote. Le Pen was later fined in 2005 by a Parisian Court for “inciting racial hatred,” and in 2007 Le Mondek, quoted him saying, “You can’t dispute the inequality of races.” That same year saw riots erupt in the Southern city of Perpignan, spurred by clashes between the Romas and North African Arabs. Half Arab and half Corsican (from the French Mediterranean island populated by Catholics), Malik is left in a precarious position defined by this extreme sociological backdrop. Simultaneously maligned and embraced by his dual heritage, he uses his genealogy and bilingualism to maneuver around Arabs, Corsicans and Italians in the prison until each warring faction is either neutralized or in his debt. Herein lies the film’s ironic morality. Its “hero” manipulates racism as a tool to control the intolerant, uniting the color-blind and downtrodden into a triumphant force—to deal drugs. —Sean Edgar


76. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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In actuality motivated by a falling out with one of the actresses, Luis Buñuel’s decision to cast two women (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) in the role of tempestuous young Cochina who inevitably becomes a point of obsession for old and stuffy bourgeois Mathieu (Fernando Rey) delivers a genius bit of thematic poignancy throughout That Obscure Object of Desire, the final film he’d direct before passing in 1983. The actresses who play Conchita switch sometimes even within the same scene, but it matters not to the man, who’s only after an ideal of carefree, feminine youth, not anyone in particular. For his sins, Mathieu gets exactly what he craves, as a wild and contemptuous relationship drives them both to the edge of insanity. Setting his film in Spain and France amidst a terrorist uprising, Buñuel deliberately peppers its background with acts of terrorism, drawing a clear line between two toxic relationships, one political and one sexual—never clarifying which is which. —Oktay Ege Kozak


75. Fat Girl (2001)
Director: Catherine Breillat

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Lately—within the context of Hollywood’s #TimesUp movement and the backlash mostly led by French actresses and filmmakers—Catherine Breillat has not endeared herself to audiences and industry progressives as an icon of enlightened feminist discourse. Not that she ever really did anyway. Her films almost exclusively probe female sexual coming-of-age within the context of societal (and therefore male) oppression—chipping away at the male gaze through long shots and anti-erotic, unflinching sex scenes—but rarely does Breillat offer any outcome apart from one of abject misery and the dissolution of a young woman’s agency. Relationships between men and women, in Breillat’s films, are always fraught with disaster. Yet, Fat Girl may be the closest the director has ever approached a sense of hope, even if “hope” for Breillat is just defiance.

Twelve-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and her 15-year-old sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida), on vacation with their parents, meet college student Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), with whom Elena begins a fling mediated, of course, by her naivete and Fernando’s lecherous aims. Elena, too, is a physical foil to her younger sister: Beautiful, she looks much older than 15, while Anaïs represents the subject of the film’s title, stocky and cherubic, the words “fat” and girl” two of Breillat’s provocations meant to interrogate the person, too young and too overweight, we imagine when resorting to such base modifiers and constructed images of beauty. While Anaïs literally watches as Fernando connives his way into taking Elena’s virginity, convincing her he’s in love and treating her to contrived romantic declarations, the younger sister comes to understand her own sexuality by default. She, according to her repeated claims, wants to lose her virginity to someone who doesn’t love her. Inevitably, Elena’s dalliance drives the family toward a shocking and pointlessly tragic conclusion—not without an insanely gripping sequence set around a very mundane car ride—but rather than leave the audience with a sense of nihilism, Breillat steals a shot from Truffaut and freezes on Anais’s face. How audacious, Breillat seems to be saying, for a girl to embrace the destruction of everything she knows. I guess this is growing up. —Dom Sinacola


74. Weekend (1967)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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Here we find Godard at the very end of his New Wave period, just before he falls off the precipice into the Marxist phase of his career, when his movies became more political and, frankly, quite tedious. Here, you can see the director close to the revolution that would end the so-called “narrative” part of his filmmaking ambitions, but he hasn’t yet come totally unhinged—Weekend bears a cohesive story about a married couple who hate each other and are conspiring to commit murder on one another or the wife’s father over an inheritance. There’s both elegance and frustration here, with iconic shots—like an eight-minute continuous scene in traffic—competing with an irrepressible urge to devolve into absurdity. There are car crashes, trips back in time and, yes, murder, but Godard the genius can still be felt behind the camera. This film deserves to be seen on its own merits, and also as a bookend to one of the greatest directorial periods in a great artistic career. —Shane Ryan


73. Girlhood (2014)
Director: Céline Sciamma

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The closeness of girl friendships are oft-remarked on, and they are beautifully articulated in this impressionistic French film. Kajida Toure stars as a teen coming of age in the Parisian banlieue, where feminine but hyper-tough girls rule the roost—and know there’s strength in numbers. They shoplift their bodycon dresses and have street scraps with other girl gangs, but are still slut-shamed and dominated by the local boys. Celine Sciamma lenses her unknown actors with gorgeously diffused blue filters, and captures the way they dance, revel in their physical intimacy, and fiercely defend one another. It’s a truthful and compelling portrait of female solidarity. —Christina Newland


72. Amour (2012)
Director: Michael Haneke

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Amour opens jarringly, as the police break down the door to a well-heeled Parisian apartment. They follow a sickening odor to the decomposing body of an elderly woman peacefully lying in bed in her Sunday best. From here, the film flashes back: Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), former musicians and teachers, have settled into a comfortable retirement in their eighties, when Anne suffers a stroke. Eventually, she undergoes an unsuccessful surgery and proceeds to become further debilitated. The couple’s daughter, Eva, played by the still beautiful and engaging Isabelle Huppert, shows up to check in on her parents during a break from her busy musician’s life. But she seems to be more of a burden than a comfort to her parents. Georges tends to Anne dutifully and without resentment as her condition worsens. It is both touching and heartbreaking to watch him care for her as she reverts to an infant-like state, and, after an operation, Anne makes it clear that she does not want to go back to the hospital under any condition. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly evident that she does not wish to continue to live in her current state. Georges cannot acknowledge her wishes, until finally he can, and does—a revelation that has life-altering consequences. Amour simultaneously illuminates the horrors and beauty of aging. Who would not wish to live until their twilight years like Georges and Anne, comfortably enjoying their last decade of life? On the flip side, who would not be ruined by seeing one’s spouse reduced to incoherent babbling and incontinence? Austrian filmmaker and sometime provocateur Michael Haneke lets it play out gently and without exploitation: Amour leaves the viewer feeling unsettled, but also pondering what it means to truly love and care for someone. —Jonah Flicker


71. Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Director: François Truffaut

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François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player feels like the tragicomic reverse of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos. Instead of adapting French literature through an American lens, Truffaut turns David Goodis’ crime yarn Down There into an altogether unpredictable, altogether French story about commercialism, artistic purity and the ways our pasts catch up with us. Shoot the Piano Player keeps its tongue firmly in cheek as Truffaut oscillates between absurd slapstick and heartbreak. A man swears to his honesty on his mother’s soul, and the camera cuts away to dear old mom as she falls down dead in her kitchen; Truffaut’s protagonist, Charlie (Charles Aznavour), plays a ditty in the dive bar where he works, haunted by the death of his wife as well as his rising career as a concert pianist. The film is a romp—until it’s a downer. —Andy Crump


70. L’Age D’Or (1930)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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As it is with Un Chien Andalou, drawing any cohesive narrative structure out of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s L’Age D’Or, their feverish nightmare of a takedown of respected social norms, is futile. From skewering the moral emptiness of the bourgeoisie (Buñuel’s favorite subject), to giddily ridiculing the Catholic church, the point of the film, which the filmmakers largely admitted, is to extract strong, visceral reactions out of the oppressively controversial images that Dali and Buñuel throws at us. Uncut cinematic surrealism like this may be better consumed in shorter bursts—Un Chien Andalou’s 16-minute runtime a perfect specimen—so L’Age D’Or’s one-hour runtime deliberately tests one’s patience at points. Yet, as the final collaboration between two of the most formidable surrealist artists of the early 20th century, its importance and influence is, however broad, indisputable. —Oktay Ege Kozak


69. Things to Come (2016)
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

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In French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s films, nothing lasts. Life’s irritating fleetingness dominates the proceedings, and Things to Come takes this theme to its logical conclusion, looking at the travails of an older woman (Isabelle Huppert) who watches one element of her life after another get stripped away. The film’s power is its recognition that, no matter how hard life gets, though, it just keeps going. (In fact, that’s what makes existence oddly beautiful.) Huppert is marvelous in the role: Between this performance and the one in the far spikier Elle in the same year, she continues to make one compelling case after another for ranking as one of the best actresses of her generation, blending vulnerability and defiance in inspiring ways. —Tim Grierson


68. Pickpocket (1959)
Director: Robert Bresson

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The Crime and Punishment-inspired Pickpocket is of a piece with Bresson’s previous masterpiece, 1956’s A Man Escaped. Both hold a single-minded focus on the richly detailed world of the lead character, in this case an aspiring criminal who thinks he’s extraordinary enough to take money from others without any concern for morality or the law. That titular pickpocket, Michel (intentionally played with no emotion by first time actor Martin LaSalle), elevates his love of theft above any of his personal relationships, turning it into an almost euphoric act despite his stone-faced exterior, and one that ultimately leaves him alone. Driven primarily by LaSalle’s narration, Pickpocket is a hermetically sealed glimpse into one criminal’s life, and a dispassionate treatise on morality and responsibility. —Garrett Martin


67. A Christmas Tale (2008)
Director: Arnaud Desplechin

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A Christmas Tale is a lively, capricious, mischievous ensemble delight—the kind of movie Noah Baumbach would make if he were French and a little more hopeful about humanity. Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and Junon (Catherine Deneuve) have three grown children, two of whom have long been estranged. Now, as Junon needs a dangerous transfusion to survive cancer, everyone convenes in the family home to celebrate Christmas together. Though the film deals with many exceptionally depressing topics (mental illness, hatred, life-threatening disease, lost love, betrayal) director Arnaud Desplechin never veers into maudlin territory. Instead, with a lightly stylized touch, A Christmas Tale avoids taking itself or its characters’ foibles too seriously. Family members might hate each other, but something like love is underneath it all. On top of his story about a hilariously contentious family reunion, Desplechin has heaped cinema itself, spinning up a maelstrom of irises and dissolves, Vertigos and Tenenbaums, Minguses and Herrmanns, to end up with something that feels almost, maybe, strangely, ever so slightly touching. —Alissa Wilkinson


66. The Marseille Trilogy: Marius (1931); Fanny (1932); César (1936)
Directors: Alexander Korda; Marc Allégret; Marcel Pagnol

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Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy can seem a bit tame in comparison with all the influential iconoclasts and film auteurs on this list, but starting with Marius, an adaptation of Pagnol’s stage play, the Marseille Trilogy should be viewed as a trailblazing trio of films in their own rights—films that would provide some of the very standards against which later directors would so gleefully rebel. Immensely evocative in settings both physical (Marseille harbor) and emotional (the relationships between the main characters, requited and not), Marius, Fanny and César take the viewer on a journey that, while a bit melodramatic at times (and of the times, cinematically), both soothes and delights in its capturing of quirks, fancies and flaws that are all too human. —Michael Burgin


65. Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
Director: Marcel Carné

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This is the movie Francois Truffaut said he’d revoke his entire oeuvre to have directed. The very fact of its existence seems to contribute to its rather magical quality. (it was filmed in 1945 during the Nazi occupation of France, which of course created significant obstacles for director Marcel Carné.) A historical piece set in the 1820s Paris theater world, it centers on an enigmatic performer named Garence (Arletty) and four men who are drawn to her, each for slightly different reasons. Only one, a mime named Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), has pure intentions: Naturally, he’s the one who gets hurt. Les Enfants du Paradis is a tale of grand passion between men and women, between actors and audiences and between actors and the stages they inhabit—epic, lavish, tragic, enchanting, a film with enormous style. —Amy Glynn


64. Menilmontant (1926)
Director: Dimitri Kirsanoff

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Watching Menilmontant is a deeply felt experience. In only his second film, impressionist filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff takes the dreamlike qualities of silent cinema to their natural conclusion, letting the story float by alongside haunting imagery without any intertitles directing how one should interpret this bold work. It starts abruptly, brutally with a man murdering a couple, then follows a love triangle involving the dead parents’ two daughters once they’ve grown. Yet, for all his cinematic innovations, Kirsanoff is not too hoity-toity to tug the heartstrings; a scene with a kind old man on a park bench is one of the most touching scenes with a kind old man on a park bench you’ll ever see. —Jeremy Mathews


63. The Lower Depths (1936)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Set in a filthy flophouse, Maxim Gorky’s harrowing 1902 drama, The Lower Depths follows the interactions of a group of forgotten and utterly desperate Russians who have sunken into the dark night of the soul. While Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 version is a fairly faithful adaptation reset in Japan’s Edo period, Jean Renoir took a very different approach when crafting the screenplay for his 1936 adaptation. Renoir’s tweaks to Gorky’s work belie a downright socialist agenda, subtly poking fun at bourgeois society. His thief (played with debonair charm by Jean Gabin) has the air of a Robin Hood about him, as he befriends a down-on-his-luck aristocrat (the great Louis Jouet), who later serves as a wry observer to the self-delusion practiced by denizens of the almost cozy-looking flophouse. Renoir also adds a fat, lecherous bureaucrat in the person of a building inspector and has his landlord frequently point out that he’s “the boss,” a title that is most interesting considering his fate. Where Kurosawa undercuts a moment of happiness with shocking cynicism, Renoir tempers his darkest moment with romantic optimism. It speaks volumes about the two artists and makes for fascinating viewing. —Tim Sheridan


62. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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Buñuel’s most commercially successful film (it even bested Belle de Jour), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie took the 1973 Oscar for Best Foreign Film and top honors from the National Society of Film Critics. Like many of his films, this surrealist comedy revels in Buñuel’s preoccupations with ideas of social status, ego and human veneer, structured as a thematically linked succession of thwarted dinner parties and four characters’ dreams, wherein violence and banality coexist seemingly unaware of one another, facades and fears engage in complex interplay, and Buñuel deploys his obsession with bondage in some magnificently weird ways. The grotesque and the flat-out ridiculous collide again and again throughout the virtually plotless The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which uses the cynical juxtaposition of opulent and horrific images to give us a classic surrealist commentary on social charades. —Amy Glynn


61. Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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By the standards of his New Wave years, this was a “lesser” Godard film—more absurd, more confusing and perhaps a sign of the disjointed Marxist period to come. As Roger Ebert wrote back in 1966, ”...the parts don’t fit together—but they add up to an attitude.” Precisely: This is a film to watch after you’ve become familiar with Godard, after you’ve given yourself over to his rhythms and eccentricities, and after, perhaps, your fourth or fifth Godardian epiphany. (Don’t go straight from Breathless to Pierrot, in other words.) But once you cross that threshold, you’ll find ample reward in this road movie starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, loosely tied together by a gangster-heavy plot (Pierrot is saturated with violence) and the theme of lost love. To experience it purely as metaphor, too, is to find a way in to Godard’s earlier, more accessible films. —Shane Ryan


60. Raw (2017)
Director: Julia Ducournou

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If you’re the proud owner of a twisted sense of humor, you might sell your friends on Julia Ducournau’s Raw as a coming-of-age movie in a bid to trick them into seeing it. Yes, the film’s protagonist, naive new college student Justine (Garance Marillier), comes of age over the course of its running time: She parties, she breaks out of her shell and she learns about who she really is on the verge of adulthood. But most kids who discover themselves in the movies don’t realize that they’ve spent their lives unwittingly suppressing an innate, nigh-insatiable need to consume raw meat. Allow Ducournau her cheekiness: More than a wink and nod to the picture’s visceral particulars, her film’s title is an open concession to the harrowing quality of Justine’s grim blossoming. Nasty as the film gets, and it does indeed get nasty, the harshest sensations Ducournau articulates here tend to be the ones we can’t detect by merely looking. Fear of feminine sexuality, family legacies, popularity politics and the uncertainty of self govern Raw’s horrors as much as exposed and bloody flesh. It’s a gorefest that offers no apologies and plenty more to chew on than its effects. —Andy Crump


59. Flight of the Red Balloon (2008)
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

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It’s tempting to put this French-language film by Hou Hsiao-hsien into a neat little box. Although it’s not aimed at kids, it’s an homage to Albert Lamorisse’s endearing children’s short “The Red Balloon,” and at times it seems as buoyant and aimless as a helium-filled toy. Hou worked in France instead of his usual Taiwan, and with Academy Award-winning actress Juliette Binoche instead of his cast of regulars, which makes the entire project feel like a detour for an artist best known for complex, austere films about Taiwan’s pulsing present and tumultuous history. Even when he’s working with simple ingredients, he brings along his masterful sense of space, timing and everyday observation, which gives an actress like Binoche ample room to shine. In Flight of the Red Balloon, she’s a busy single mother, vibrant and wonderful, glowing from beginning to end. Of course, she glows within Hou’s framework, his layers of light. He carves her tiny Parisian apartment into sections: the sliver of a kitchen, the front door that leads to chaos, the corner for video games and the table that sits front-and-center, anchoring the patient, slowly panning camera. Lamorisse’s short is about a loner of a boy who has the best of all possible friends, an amazingly reactive balloon, but Hou’s film is a realistic look at the inside of this fantasy, at the modern-day stresses on close-knit families. He slips behind Lamorisse’s facade like the Taiwanese amateur filmmaker who takes a job as Binoche’s nanny, an echo of Hou within his own story; the nanny even tells us how special effects make the balloon move. Since Flight falls at the simple-but-elegant end of Hou’s spectrum, the mysterious and lyrical finale in the Musée D’Orsay comes as a surprise; this balloon is anchored by some heft. —Robert Davis


58. Le Corbeau (1943)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

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As is the case with many films of the 1940s, especially those foreign selections made or released in the shadow of World War II occupation—by whomever (see also: Kurosawa’s navigation of American censors during the U.S.’s squatting in Japan)—Le Corbeau is a morally thorny tale, infatuated more with the darkness within all of us than in exploring any sense of hope that the world’s not a shitty place. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot treats as a given that the world is a shitty place, through and through, detailing how the denizens of a small French town (“anywhere”) are pitted against one another through a series of poison pen letters sent by the titular Raven. Everyone, it seems, has something devastating to hide, not the least of whom is Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a man known for his lusty dalliances, which feels ironic given that he also conducts illegal abortions in the area. As the letters pile up and one cancer patient (Roger Blin) commits suicide (due to a letter from the Raven informing him that his cancer is terminal), the town grows increasingly desperate to find the culprit, sparking a witch hunt that catches Dr. Germain in the midst of his many lies. While his plot is the stuff of soap opera pulp, Clouzot masterfully mounts paranoia on top of tension on top of existential guilt, winding his players so tightly that when the film inevitably erupts into violence, the viewer is left with nothing but a bleak sense that nobody got what they deserved—and that maybe no one ever really gets what we deserve anyway. —Dom Sinacola


57. The Last Metro (1980)
Director: Francois Truffaut

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Perhaps Francois Truffaut should have released The Last Metro using a pseudonym—maybe then it would be regarded as a minor masterpiece. As it is, one can’t help compare this brilliant but largely conventional film to his earlier, more radical work, like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. More’s the pity, for as an unabashed ode to the power of art and the spirit of resistance, The Last Metro has few equals. It helps to have two of the French screen’s greatest legends, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, front and center, but the story of a theater in Nazi-occupied Paris run in secret by a Jewish director living/hiding in the basement has the power to thrill and inspire, if only you can forget who directed it. —Michael Dunaway


56. Monsieur Hire (1989)
Director: Patrice Leconte

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Basing his film on a novel by Belgian writer George Simenon, director Patrice Leconte blends cold, cool visuals, superb performances and a haunting score by composer Michael Nyman (The Piano, Gattaca, pretty much every Peter Greenaway film) in this too-often-overlooked French thriller/love story. Whether you get caught up in the whodunnit, the off-kilter romance or just the fascinating portrait of the title character, Monsieur Hire will leave a lasting impression. —Michael Burgin


55. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
Director: Marcel Ophüls

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With tragedy still stinging, and wounds still fresh across Europe, Marcel Ophüls crafted something of a four-hour harangue about the Vichy government’s collaboration with Nazi Germany during the bulk of World War II. Assembled from interviews with officers, sympathizers, resistance fighters and bystanders—perspectives originating from every angle—The Sorrow and the Pity reveals many excruciating truths about France during the occupation, but none more plangent than the idea that war has no sides, no good guys, no winners. There’s only the sorrow, and then the pity—and everything else is just a series of long, heartsick discussions about right and wrong and how there’s very little difference when both are so up for debate. —Dom Sinacola


54. The Kid with a Bike (2012)
Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

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The Kid with a Bike continues the Belgian writing-directing brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ extraordinary run of films charting the lives of European down-and-outers navigating difficult moral and spiritual terrain. That time and again they’ve managed to do so incisively, yet with an emotionally detached tone, speaks to their ability to elicit complex audience reactions with a sure, minimalist style. The Kid with a Bike is no exception. The film follows 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) as he struggles to reconcile with the fact that his father, Guy (Jérémie Renier), has abandoned him. In shock and denial, with the aid of Samantha (Cécile de France), a neighborhood hairdresser, Cyril tracks down his bicycle, which Guy had secretly sold for much-needed cash before his departure. The two also locate Guy himself, leading to a wrenching reunion that ends with the father literally shutting the door in his son’s face. Full of confusion and self-loathing after his father’s rejection, Cyril’s inevitable mix-up with a local hood, Wes (Egon Di Mateo), initiates a downward spiral into crime and retaliation that threatens any prospect for better days ahead for the wounded Cyril and the devoted Samantha. As with all of the Dardennes’ films, events proceed naturally as a chain of causes and effects. Theirs is a cinema of keenly observed sociology, always interested in one’s capacity to prevail despite terrible socioeconomic odds and psychological trauma. As portrait of a young boy’s resilience and of compassion shown by one human being towards another, The Kid with a Bike is part of a grand tradition of humanist realism. —Jay Antani


53. The Grand Illusion (1937)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Made in the build-up to an even greater war, Jean Renoir’s WWI POW drama is a sincere call for unity between nations. The call would go unheeded of course, but 80 years filled with clashes and violent disagreements later, Renoir’s message prevails: Class, nationality and creed are meaningless before our shared humanity. Just a decade on from the first talkie, Renoir made what today appears a strikingly modern film, replete with naturalistic performances and dialogue, smooth camera movements and, most importantly, complex character dynamics. Every character in the film, through desperate circumstance, becomes allied with another from a walk of life they otherwise would never traverse. Most interesting is the relationship between the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim): They are French and German, prisoner and warden, but, as if two rare creatures forced to occupy the same cage, a friendship forms through mutual recognition that they may be among the last of their kind. Renoir’s depiction of an entire society through allegory is genius, his empathy almost superhuman. The Grand Illusion kills with kindness—it fulfills its duty as an anti-war flick not by showing battlefield horrors, but simply by asking: How can we be enemies when we have so much in common? —Brogan Morris


52. Rouge (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

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Red would turn out to be Krzysztof Kieslowski’s final film—whether the Polish director knew he was near death’s door while he was filming the final portion of his Three Colors trilogy will most likely never come to light. In any case, it’s hard to picture a better film with which to bow out. For his Three Colors, the idea was to make three films, each based around one of the political ideals represented in the French flag—blue (liberty), white (equality) and red (fraternity)—Kieslowski often structuring the films around undermining the very notions the colors represent, characters from adjacent films making a random, happenstance occurrence in each other’s stories. Typically dubbed the “anti-romance” segment of the trilogy, and for good reason, Red centers around the relationship between a naïve young model (Irène Jacob) and a reclusive middle-aged man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends his day listening in to his neighbor’s telephone conversations. Simultaneously, we follow the story of a young law student (Jean-Pierre Lorit) who comes to believe his girlfriend is cheating on him. Hardly the passionate romantic romp the film’s title implies—that’s not to say the film is hard to watch. On the contrary, it’s mesmerizing. Like Kie?lowski’s best work—The Double Life of Veronique or The Decalogue—the beauty of the story comes not necessarily in what happens but how Kie?lowski deftly structures the execution. While watching the previous entries in the trilogy, Blue and White, are not necessary to understanding Red, taken as a whole, the final minutes of the director’s canon packs a powerful kicker. —Amy Glynn


51. Elle (2016)
Director: Paul Verhoeven

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Considering its touchy subject matter—a woman’s unconventional, to say the least, response to her rape—it’s a bit surprising that Paul Verhoeven’s latest provocation hasn’t really caused the same kind of firestorm of controversy that, say, Showgirls did. This could be explained by Verhoeven’s art-house-friendly aesthetic this time around—but it most likely has more to do with just how much imagination and empathy Isabelle Huppert puts into connecting the dots of her character’s difficult-to-pin-down psyche. As always, Huppert has no interest in begging you to like her, which seems appropriate for a character like Michèle Leblanc, hellbent on refusing to be seen as a victim after her brutal rape by a masked stranger in its opening scene. But Huppert, working from David Birke’s screenplay (adapted from a novel by Philippe Djinn), digs deeper and comes up with some even more astonishing psychological links. Her occasionally manipulative way with people, her alternating attraction/repulsion toward violence and domination—all can be glimpsed in Huppert’s brilliantly dense and utterly fearless characterization, offering yet another remarkable example of why she’s celebrated as one of the finest actresses in the world. —Kenji Fujishima


50. La Haine (1995)
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

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Writer/director Mathieu Kassovitz’s urgent, hypnotically raw drama, about a day in the lives of three downtrodden young men from immigrant backgrounds (Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Saïd Taghmaoui) surviving their low income French suburb, begins with a famous joke: “A man falls from a tall building. With every passing floor, he says, ‘So far, so good.’” Whether or not the final shot of La Haine is tragic or inevitable is left to the viewer, but Kassovitz stays nevertheless determined to convey all the details of the harsh reality these kids face every day. The film’s brilliant mix of modern sensibilities with old-school techniques—like its use of split diopter shots to show, at once, both brutality and the intimate reactions to the same—creates in La Haine a sense of the timeless, of an expression of youthful anger and aimless dissent that knows no particular era. —Oktay Ege Kozak


49. Rififi (1955)
Director: Jules Dassin

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Blacklisted and in exile, director Jules Dassin (American, despite the Gallic disguise his name could take on) made Rififi in Paris after more than a decade struggling under the House Un-American Activities Committee’s stranglehold over Hollywood. Reared in noir and similar wise-guy-inhabiting genres, Dassin seemed finally free with Rififi, a tightly wound testament to the weird and alluring dreamscape of criminal enterprise. In it, Jean Servais is a coughing, sagging pile of skin grafted to the frame of a formerly revered gangster, Tony “le Stéphanois,” a man who recently out of jail wants to play it safe until his pride gets the best of him. Assembling a team of European outlaws (including Dassin using the pseudonym “Perlo Vita” to portray Italian safecracker César), Tony masterminds the jewel heist to end all jewel heists, and, in turn, Dassin practically defined his own genre. The “heist film” is now a matter of cultural intuition—everything from Ocean’s 11 to Inception owes its intricacy and style to Dassin’s swagger—but in 1955, there was simply no other film like Rififi. Yet, even today, Dassin’s film is an astounding machine of filmmaking precision: In structure, dialogue, acting, cinematography and overall design, the film feels as if it’s working off of ineffable instincts, hiding nothing but implying everything. And working is perhaps the best way to describe what the film does best: Look only to the now-iconic, 33-minute heist sequence which serves as the film’s second act, totally without dialogue and careful to show, in bouts of unbelievable tension, just how much effort is required of putting together a seamless criminal act. It’s bravura filmmaking without one sweat-infused drop of ostentation, and rather than rest on melodrama to prove a point, Dassin sucks all romance out of the gangster equation, leaving the audience with nothing but the thankless toil of skirting the law. —Dom Sinacola


48. Holy Motors (2012)
Director: Leos Carax

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Who knew it would be Kylie Minogue to remind us exactly why we go to the movies at all? Delicately singing (“Who are we?”), Minogue walks around in what looks like an abandoned garage, mannequin bodies strewn on the floor, late into Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, his bizarre French morsel about cinema, and acting, and the worlds to which we are transported, and the realities from which we cannot necessarily escape. Denis Lavant plays an actor (or does he?), shapeshifting from one part to the next with rigor, ambling from scene to scene—one of which features Minogue as someone who may have been a lover of his—as the film takes on an anthological shape. Carax and Denis stuff nearly every genre into their entrancing film while keeping it cohesive cohesive, all the while gamely tearing down the walls between film and audience, suggesting that who we are is only a matter of what we see. —Kyle Turner


47. La Ronde (1950)
Director: Max Ophüls

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La Ronde, Max Ophüls’ first film back in France after a postwar stint in Hollywood—where he directed Joan Fontaine in the classic Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)—inaugurated the most fruitful (and, sadly, final) stage of his career. Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play of the same name, La Ronde links together ten romantic vignettes set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, featuring characters from all walks of life (a prostitute played by Simone Signoret, for instance, or a society wife played by Danielle Darrieux). Though he’d elaborate on the complex structure to finer effect in Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame De… (1953) and his last completed film, Lola Montès (1955), La Ronde presages Ophüls’ almost Balzacian interest in peeling the onion of the European social order, coupled with the formal grace notes—a man’s cockeyed glance at a woman’s back, a couple separated in the frame by a pendulum clock, a segment divided by the courses of a menu de dégustation—that made him a favorite of the French New Wave. Indeed, Anton Walbrook’s “Master of Ceremonies” might even call to mind la politique des auteurs, albeit avant la lettre. Pacing before a proscenium arch in the opening sequence, he is part author, part accomplice, part passerby, but most of all he is part audience, or perhaps critic: “I’m the personification,” he says, “of your desire to know everything.” —Matt Brennan


46. Band of Outsiders (1964)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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Band of Outsiders features the ephemeral Anna Karina as one of a trio of novice outlaws (a common theme with Godard) which makes plans to rob a villa outside Paris, resulting in a sepia-toned, melancholic drama punctuated by bouts of comedy. As in the seminal Breathless, Godard shows remarkable deftness in juggling the casually absurd aspects of his film with dead-serious social commentary, capturing it all in the framework of an compelling story with severe stakes for its protagonists. (Aside: Has any director been better at showing the humanity of criminals?) This is an almost impossible balance to strike, as Godard himself proved in his Marxist period to follow, but here it all meshes effortlessly in what stands as an unlikely stalwart of the French New Wave. —Shane Ryan


45. Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Director: Jean Cocteau

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Before there were Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing animated animate household items, there was Jean Cocteau. This story’s been with us since the 18th century and rendered in countless iterations, so I’ll forego the plot summary and just say: From the fourth-wall-breaking preamble, in which the director entreats the audience to approach the film with inner-child-forward faith in the magic of fairy tales, to the end, Beauty and the Beast remains a treasure of subtle imagery, mesmerizing music, baroque opulence, sexual intensity and total indulgence in fantasy, aided by Jean Marais (Beast) and Josette Day (Belle) delivering enchanting performances. The themes explored here are traditional fairy tale tropes: innocence and greed, the transformative power of love, the fear of the unknown, magic. Cocteau was a celebrated poet as well as a filmmaker, and this is a strong example of how the two crafts inform one another, in the way it harnesses imagery to create metaphorical connections. Weird and powerful filmmaking. —Amy Glynn


44. Breathless (1960)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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Godard is arguably the most prolific, impactful French director of all time, and Breathless is his first New Wave film: To some, it spawned a revolution, and even if you object to that narrative, its influence on his home country and the New Hollywood period in 1970s America is undeniable. Breathless stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as an incompetent criminal in love with an American student named Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Paris. When he murders a cop, the film turns from a light Parisian affair to a tense love story, and the question that hangs in the balance is whether Patricia will betray her criminal beau. —Shane Ryan


43. Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Director: Jacques Tati

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Like the director’s masterwork, Playtime, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday orbits around Jacques Tati, dropping him feet first into situations and settings he can only react to with profound befuddlement. Also like Playtime, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday speaks not in French or in English, but in the universal language of comedy—you don’t need to know how to pronounce words in French, or where to put your accent marks when writing in the language of love, to find slapstick funny. Where Playtime contains underpinnings of mourning for a bygone Paris, though, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is much more introspective in focus, an inward-facing movie about human nature, about ourselves, about how damn hard it is for people to go on vacation and actually enjoy themselves. Tati made Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday in 1954. In 2018, we’re joined at the wrist to gadgetry that rewards us for staying linked into a greater digital consciousness. The man may have been one of the great comic talents of his day, but years after his death we can pretty safely say he was something of a seer as well. —Andy Crump


42. Beau Travail (2000)
Director: Claire Denis

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Where most iconic actors have faces akin to national parks and vast landscapes, French actor Denis Lavant’s is a booming metro, its spaces and cracks like the carefully sculpted facade of a city block. He’s gargoyle-like, and so when he plays the lead in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, he wears all his implicit machismo right there on his mug. As Chief Adjutant Galoup remembering his time in Djibouti, he snarls, lips twisting into a spiral staircase leading into his fractured psyche. His obsession with Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) manifests as competition, and underneath the heat of the beating sun, Galoup lets this fixation eat away at him until there is almost nothing left. The film moves back and forth between Galoup’s time in the army and his present, writing of his experiences, trying to grasp at what made him so hungry for Sentain, but the scars of queer repression are only one note that informs the hypnotic lyricism of Denis’ film. With blasting critiques of colonialism and masculinity, Denis plunges us into the rhythm of the night, however lonely it ultimately is. —Kyle Turner


41. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Directors: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde

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An undeniable forebear to Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Man Bites Dog won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, only to receive an NC-17 rating upon its U.S. release and be banned in Sweden altogether. One can understand the squeamishness: Man Bites Dog unflinchingly portrays serial murder in its graphic banality, victims ranging from children to the elderly to a gang-raped woman whose corpse is later photographed with her entrails spilling all over the table on which she was violated, the perpetrators lying in drunken post-revelry, heaped on the floor. Filmed as a mockumentary, Man Bites Dog goes to distressing lengths to detail the exigencies of murder as basely as possible, incorporating the reluctance of the crew filming such horrors to offer the audience a reflection of the ways one feels watching. The fascinated sorrow expressed by the documentary film’s director (Rémy Belvaux) as he realizes what making a documentary film about a serial killer actually means, becoming more and more complicit with the killings as the film goes on, explicitly points to our willingness as bystanders to stomach the horrors displayed. Still, we react viscerally while the film explores conceptual themes of true crime as pop culture commodity and reality TV as detrimental mitigation of truth, ultimately indicting viewers apt to enjoy this movie while simultaneously catering to them. Benoit (Benoît Poelvoorde), the subject of the faux film, is of course an incredibly intelligent societal outcast beset by xenophobia and misogyny, offering up countless neuroses to explore behind his psychopathy and serial murder, which he treats as a legitimate job. But Man Bites Dog is more about the ways in which we consume a movie like Man Bites Dog, concerned less about the flagrant killing it indulges for laughs than it is the laughs themselves, implying that the real blame for such well-known horror falls at our feet, in which each day we take big, basic steps to normalize the violence and hate that constantly surrounds us. —Dom Sinacola


40. The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

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Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film actually merits the type of praise that’s too often lavished by unimaginative critics or overreaching marketing departments on any movie that has dreamy music and a touch of fable. “Magical,” “luminous,” “haunting”—The Double Life of Veronique reminds the viewer what it takes to deserve such praise. Irène Jacob plays two women identical save for some location-based (one in France, one in Poland) variations of name and circumstances. Despite being strangers (albeit identical ones), both share a bond that the Polish director refuses both to explain or mitigate. In a century where so many great works (and artists) have been fixated upon the chasms that divide us, Kieslowski instead insists there’s more connecting us than we can possibly know. —Michael Burgin


39. Trouble Every Day (2001)
Director: Claire Denis

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Messing with genre is more a means to an end for Claire Denis than it is a celebration of the Fulci phantasmagoria and giallo sensibility and European art house erotic thrillers she so clearly loves, and Trouble Every Day is her ultimately harvesting the miasma emanating from the ways in which she bends these kinds of movies to her will. The film stinks of sex and death, rolls around in it, characters licking it dripping from the corners of the screen. It follows newlyweds Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo, both hypnotized and hypnotic, as if a therapist permanently put him under) and June (Tricia Vessey) on their honeymoon in Paris, which gives Shane the perfect excuse to look up old friends Léo Sémeneau (Alex Descas) and his wife, Coré (Béatrice Dalle), with whom he appears to harbor an obsession secreted from his new spouse. With no fanfare, Denis draws us deeper into the nature of Shane’s obsession, gradually revealing that the predatory hunger Coré has for young men is so strong she begs her husband, who locks her in their house daily, to kill her, lest she kill again. Shane seems to share Coré’s affliction, contracted while working together in South America, ruining his marriage before it’s even begun, generally avoiding June throughout their time in Paris—that is until, in a hyper-violent revelation, he figures out exactly what he must do to preserve his matrimonial vows. A cannibalistic nightmare of an exploitation film; an absurdist fairy tale; the bleakest rom-com you’ve ever seen—whatever angle one wants to pursure with Trouble Every Day, the path toward any semblance of meaning splits, refracts and multiplies, a precise understanding of what Denis intends obscured by mounds of flesh and torn viscera, by the ever-present knowledge that Denis is going to show you something you probably don’t want to see. Which must be the point: Human sexuality is an inscrutable thing, and monogamy strains against that inscrutability. Perhaps, Denis shrugs, we were never meant for one person; perhaps we were only meant to tear each other apart. —Dom Sinacola


38. Evolution (2016)
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic

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Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —Dom Sinacola


37. Black Girl (1966)
Director: Ousmane Sembène

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Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène grew up a French citizen in the final throes of his country’s centuries-long period of colonialism, almost 40 when Senegal joined French Sudan to gain independence. Made six years after France transferred power, Black Girl, Sembène’s first feature-length film as writer and director (based off of his own short story), aches with wounds still lifetimes away from healing, with the shallowness of a people (French) who just want to move on and with the humiliation and resentment of a lot more people (Africans) who physically live everyday, in their language and social structures and economic lots, surrounded by the reminders that they, for so long, were not their own. Sembène makes this divide dreadfully clear, telling the story of quiet Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), hired by a French family to serve as their nanny in Dakar, until they move back to the Riviera and encourage (expect) Diouana to go and live with them. Of course, once she arrives, the bitter, malicious Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) expects her to cook and clean, callously stretching the bounds of Diouana’s duties as nanny into a kind of indentured servitude, exacerbated by Diouana’s inability to read and lack of money. She is, literally, stuck in France. Meanwhile, Sembène cuts to memories of Diouana’s life before she left Senegal, in which she lived in relative poverty but had family and boyfriend (Momar Nar Sene) to support her, telling her not to leave but still needing the money she could potentially earn. Juxtaposing these two realities, Sembène slowly crafts a vision of post-colonial slavery in a post-war world, building a tension that gives Diouana no choice but to tragically get out the only way she knows how. Despite whatever the Madame and her family had in mind, Diouana’s story could have ended no other way. —Dom Sinacola


36. Belle de Jour (1967)
Director: Luis Buñuel

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In one of Luis Buñuel’s most acclaimed and popular films, Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) has a loving but sexless marriage, and so becomes a high-end call-girl while her husband is at work. Instead of a “Belle de Nuit” or “Lady of the Night,” Séverine takes the alias “Belle de Jour” (which is also the French name for the daylily, a flower that only opens during daylight), and for a while she seems to come to life in a whole new way (even finally being able to have sex with her husband), until things inevitably get … complicated. Always a filmmaker preoccupied with the intersections of the opulent and the grotesque, the elegant and the surreally nasty, Buñuel found a pretty perfect muse in the icily beautiful Deneuve, whose turn as a bored and un-turn-on-able housewife with BDSM fantasies is stunning in its contrasts of calculation and sentiment, seducer and seduced, humanity and commodity. At times it’s unclear what’s happening in Séverine’s mind and what’s happening in real life—Belle de Jour is a brilliant piece of erotica, a richly detailed treatise on the power of fantasy, a radically ambiguous and artistically masterful film that hasn’t lost an ounce of allure or relevance since it was released. —Amy Glynn


35. Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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“I … is someone else,” confesses Nana (Anna Karina) during a police inquiry, echoing the century-old sentiment of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In the next scene, she transforms from a meek record-store clerk with suffocating debt and a child that she (and the audience) never sees, to a prostitute with a new set of problems. The 1961 film is classic Godard in its exploration of the economics of pleasure, a topic he’d investigate again in 1967’s more agitprop 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. After A Woman is a Woman, his previous kaleidoscopic musical with Karina, this is a more downbeat flick: moody, sparse, noir-ish. The camera feels withdrawn, relying on back-of-the-head shots and mirrored surfaces to capture Nana’s conflicted state. With his insouciant and jarring pop-and-pinball films still to come, this resonant picture remains a singular entry in Godard’s oeuvre. —Andy Beta


34. Fantastic Planet (1973)
Director: René Laloux

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It doesn’t matter if you’re watching René Laloux’s excellent, eccentric Fantastic Planet for the first time or the fortieth, under the influence or stone sober: The film is such a one-of-a-kind oddity in cinema that each viewing feels like its own wholly unique experience. Put simply, there’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve yet to see this masterwork of 1970s psychedelia-meets-social-commentary, you’re missing out. If you have seen it, chances are you haven’t seen anything quite like it since, because there isn’t much in animated cinema to match it. The closest you’ll get is Terry Gilliam’s paper strip animation stylings in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or maybe the still painting approach of Eiji Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness. Neither of these equate with Fantastic Planet’s visual scheme, though, which just underscores its individuality. Where does a movie like Fantastic Planet come from? How does it even get made? Laloux has offered few answers over the years, though the documentary Laloux Sauvage holds some insight into how his mind works. Maybe the answers aren’t worth pursuing in the first place, and maybe the best way to understand Fantastic Planet is just to watch it, and then watch it again. —Andy Crump


33. Blanc (1994)
Director: Krzysztof Kie?lowski

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The second of Krzysztof Kielsowski’s “Trois Couleurs” trilogy centers on the theme of equality, represented by the middle white stripe of France’s flag. Polish-born Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) has his life in France turned upside down when his wife (Julie Delpy) divorces him for impotence. No job, no passport, he ends up smuggling himself back into newly capitalist Poland in a trunk (from which he emerges bloodied and lost in the snow, declaring happily, “Home at last!”). Once there, he begins amassing wealth and plotting to get Dominique back, from which a murder scheme unexpectedly develops. And, as is the case in most of the director’s films, an element of the completely random provides dramatic tension that operates independently of the plot. The most comedic (or anti-comedic) film of the trilogy, Blanc is notable for its fleet-footed pacing, deadpan direction and strong sense of irony, with Zamachowski and Delpy both fully invested in Kieslowski’s tone. —Amy Glynn


32. Out 1 (1971)
Director: Jacques Rivette

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In this sprawling narrative, two different Parisian theater groups rehearse plays by Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound), while one young deaf-mute man panhandles, a bewitching young women swindles and some kind of conspiratorial group modeled on the “Thirteen” of Balzac’s novels. Most of the film’s first installment consists of the Prometheus group engaging in a big, loud, moaning-and-mud-slinging acting exercise that begins with pairs mirroring one another’s actions and ends (a lot later) in a pantomime of a pagan ritual. There’s other stuff going on, too, but this sets the tone: We’re not here to engage with an epic plot so much as settle down into the slow rhythm of real time, to live with characters over a long period. Most of the characters are actors, conscious always of being watched (and trying not to be), and those characters are played by real actors who know they’re in a film. So we’re several layers deep, as audience members. The film wants us to remember that real life is just as much of an improvisation—in fact, more so—as anything that happens in the theater. People repeat lines and interact with one another in ways we realize are drawn from previous interactions. In real life, Rivette seems to be saying, we are all engaged in creating some kind of spectacle, each of us at the center of our own story. The theater exercises in which characters engage are designed to break down barriers between their fellows (barriers that keep getting thrown up through arguments or conflicts of artistic vision) and to bust any wall between emotion and reality. But all falls apart. Connection fails. The troupes split up. Language begins to run backwards or loop, underlining the difficulty of any of this happening at all. —Alissa Wilkinson


31. Orphee (1950)
Director: Jean Cocteau

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In Jean Cocteau’s lyical and symbolism-heavy take on the myth of Orpheus—well, one of his takes; it was a trope to which he returned in two other films—Jean Marais plays the title role in 1950s Paris, where a plot rife with love-and-death triangles unfolds in Cocteau’s otherworldly, beautiful-but-cryptic style. This film is clearly the work of a poet (the Orpheus myth has preoccupied poets for centuries but Cocteau’s directorial style is also “poetic,” allusive and pensively paced) as well as an opium addict, definitely informing the dreamlike quality of the film and preoccupation with slipping between the worlds of the living and the dead. Were you to call Orphee pretentious you probably wouldn’t find anyone arguing with you, but it is also a relic of a cinematic era that is simply gone, and it’s one of that era’s more beautiful and intriguing artifacts. Whether his style delights or annoys you, Cocteau was indisputably a genius, and this expressive, magical, rather haunting film probably approaches poetry as closely as the medium of film can. —Amy Glynn


30. Army of Shadows (1969)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

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A story of those French citizens who for five long years resisted Nazi occupation, Army of Shadows is a black-and-white film made in color, Jean-Pierre Melville’s predominantly gray-blue color palette lending a chilly air to a decidedly bleak and minimalist saga less about the heroism of defiance and more about surviving the consequences of resistance. The film is as subdued as the phantom-like men and women fighting for reclamation of their land, visually as murky as the actions perpetrated by either side of the fight. Melville’s tenth feature was virtually unknown until 2006, when Army of Shadows—widely derided at home in a divided France upon initial release—finally opened in the United States to critical acclaim. In the wake of its relatively recent re-evaluation, it stands, along with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien, as one of the defining films about the French resistance. —Brogan Morris


29. Jean de Florette (1986)
Director: Claude Berri

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Starring two of France’s most famous actors at the time, Gerard Depardieu and Yves Montand, this rural epic begins around a property dispute among farmers right after World War I, in which two conspirators (Montand and Daniel Auteuil) try to buy land from a hunchback novice, but after he refuses to sell, it’s a long road to ruin. This film and its sequel, Manon Des Sources—shot together and at the time the most expensive French production ever assembled—are gorgeous tributes to human cruelty and frailty. Such big sagas have to be incredibly compelling in order to avoid dullness, and this one manages the task with ease. —Shane Ryan


28. Claire’s Knee (1970)
Director: Eric Rohmer

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Eric Rohmer’s 1970 Claire’s Knee—part New Wave, part standalone curiosity—has a bit of a strange plot: A diplomat vacationing in the French Alps (Jean-Claude Brialy) becomes obsessed with touching the knee of a local teenage girl (Laurence De Monaghan). I wish that description sounded less uncomfortable and borderline perverse, but I’d hasten to add that this desire does not represent the substance of the film. Instead, Rohmer’s produced an aching look at the passage of time, and the melancholy produced by the interplay between love and obsession. Though the protagonist here is not a monster of Humbert Humbert’s ilk, the way Rohner evokes these emotions is reminiscent of Lolita, in the sense that sexuality is only a subtext for something deeper. I’ve never seen a film with more beautiful pacing, that accomplishes such a modest plot turn with such patient, inexorable rhythm—it’s no surprise that the New York Times’ Vincent Canby called this “something close to a perfect film.” —Shane Ryan


27. The 400 Blows (1959)
Director: François Truffaut

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Sometimes a movie can be boiled down to its final shot. The Long Goodbye has Philip Marlowe, unhurriedly strolling down a road in Mexico, playing his harmonica after killing his best friend. 8 & ½ has young Guido, bringing down the lights as he marches along with his flute, sending the audience out of the theater wondering whether his presence affirms life or nods to death. The 400 Blows has Antoine Doinel gamboling about on the coast before François Truffaut’s camera zooms in on the boy’s face, freezing the frame just as his eyes meet with the lens. For anyone who saw Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, that description probably sounds familiar, but this shot has been long-copied since The 400 Blows became a part of the cinematic canon after its 1959 release. (For example: Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, or even George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which both use a similar effect to achieve altogether different ends.) In Truffaut’s film, the shot is meant as a capstone, or, if you prefer, the closing of a book: It’s the climax of one chapter in Doinel’s life, though Truffaut probably didn’t have any thought of making sequels to the film to begin with. Questions linger as the credits roll, and of course they should. When one comes of age, their next age begins, and so The 400 Blows leaves itself open at the last, leaving us to consider what fate may befall Antoine from here. —Andy Crump


26. Caché (2005)
Director: Michael Haneke

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The American title of Michael Haneke’s Caché is “Hidden,” which is a little bit of a joke. What’s “hidden” isn’t anything secretive or mysterious, but rather the racism, colonialism history and trauma that lurks beneath French national identity. The film’s razor sharp focus on a bourgeois French family, led by patriarch Georges (Daniel Auteuil), and the random, sinister surveillance videos they receive anonymously goads the viewer into looking closer—closer. (The film begins and ends with static shots of exteriors, replicating the voyeurism of the surveillance videos.) As Haneke excavates the complicated relationship between France and Algiers through exploring Georges’ past, he exacts his critique of French apathy and classicism in confronting what they’ve so long tried to hide. —Kyle Turner


25. Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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Rather than making a “proper” or “good” film, Godard has always tried to create something that isn’t what we’ve seen before. With Histoire(s) du cinema, he sought nothing less than to tie the history of movies to the history of the 20th century. At four-and-a-half hours long, divided into eight parts, and composed wholly of visual and audio “quotes” from seemingly countless other films, the documentary essay is considered, at the very least, Godard’s densest work, let alone that it represents Godard’s willingness to see the incomprehensible manifest at that impulse’s most obsessive. Some mainstream filmmakers will attempt a change-of-pace movie by shooting with a low budget or no stars. This is seen as “brave” and “risky.” That’s where Godard has always resided. This makes him a hero, even if it doesn’t make him particularly beloved. The combative, didactic quality of this film, of all of his films, gets him labeled a pretentious misanthrope. Even his most ardent supporters can become exasperated with him. Speaking generally about Godard’s oeuvre, David Thompson observed, “He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being.” —Tim Grierson


24. Lola Montès (1955)
Director: Max Ophuls

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Cut against the director’s wishes in 1955 and restored in 2008, Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes is now finally available as intended: a progressive technicolor fantasia. Lola (Martine Carol), a 19th-century professional celebrity, is the star of a grand circus show in which Peter Ustinov’s ringmaster regales an audience with tales of a “femme fatale” countess scandalously defying the social norms of her time. Essentially, the act reinforces the Lola Montes myth; meanwhile, Ophuls gives us the messy reality. Flashbacks reveal the younger Montes as the gradually declining toast of Europe’s dance halls and palaces, often at the mercy of powerful men. In middle age, tortured thoughts of glories past and being paraded nightly for a physically demanding act are steadily killing Montes off. But, in an early example of soul-selling in order to retain some semblance of cultural relevance, Lola holds her health and private life cheap in order to sustain her celebrity. In that sense, Lola Montes belongs more to our times than it did over a half century ago. Visually, though, it remains very much a product of a bygone period, when serious cinema could reap all the lavish benefits of big studio funding. —Brogan Morris


23. Les Diaboliques (1955)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

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Watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills: The tightly wound tale of two women, a fragile wife (Véra Clouzot) and severe mistress (Simone Signoret) to the same abusive man (Paul Meurisse), who conspire to kill him in order to both reel in the money rightfully owed the wife, and to rid the world of another asshole, Diaboliques may not end with a surprise outcome for those of us long inured to every modern thriller’s perfunctory twist, but it’s still a heart-squeezing two hours, a murder mystery executed flawlessly. That Clouzot preceded this film with The Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau seems as surprising as the film’s outcome: By the time he’d gotten to Les Diaboliques, the director’s grasp over pulpy crime stories and hard-nosed drama had become pretty much his brand. That the film ends with a warning to audiences to not give away the ending for others—perhaps Clouzot also helped invent the spoiler alert?—seems to make it clear that even the director knew he had something devilishly special on his hands. —Dom Sinacola


22. Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

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John Woo wrote about Jean-Pierre Melville’s way with actors: “He made them stars; he made them crystal.” In Le Cercle Rouge, Melville’s obsession with gangsters—with the timeless, dirty struggle between good guys and bad guys—culminates at the swift, crimson end of a remarkably precise piece of work. Though it moves on rails, its characters restless and always running from someone, the movie seems to exist solely within beautifully reticulated tableaus, handsome bad boy Alain Delon encased flawlessly inside each sexy chrysalis. Woo was right: Melville’s tragic anti-heroes, disciplined and effortlessly dapper, traversed the dark side of the law with half a mind they were doomed—but at least guaranteed a glorious death. If played right, that is. Throughout his tale of a small criminal brotherhood planning one last dignified jewel heist, Melville’s criminals always seem to get what they have coming. Whether or not that means anything doesn’t seem to matter when they’re gunned down running from the cops, fleeing from one defeat to another. —Dom Sinacola


21. Bleu (1993)
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

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Using the colors blue, white and red as the focus of his “Trois Couleurs” trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski manifests the ideals of the French Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity—through zealous accuracy. The atmospheres presented in each film are highlighted by the scores written by Zbigniew Preisner, Blue probably being the most important of all, musically. In this first entry, the viewer is introduced to Julie de Courcy (Juliette Binoche), the sole survivor of a car crash in which her husband and daughter were killed. Her husband was the famous composer Oliver Benôit (Benoít Régent), who had been working on a score to celebrate the European unity at the end of the Cold War, and Oliver’s music accompanies Julie’s daily struggles, taking on different tones depending on the circumstances surrounding her. Following her family’s death, as an act of defiance, Julie destroys the score, rids herself of all her possessions and moves to Paris, avoiding all memories of the past—taking only her daughter’s blue chandelier. In each film of the trilogy, one object links them to the past: the blue chandelier, the bust of the protagonist’s lost love in White, and in Red a fountain pen which plays an important role. A recurring image seen throughout Blue is that of people falling, suggesting that of all of the films, Julie’s process of letting go, of finding the “freedom” of the trilogy’s three ideals, may be the most emotionally obliterating. —Roxanne Sancto


20. Sans Soleil (1983)
Director: Chris Marker

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Unfortunately—or perhaps saliently—the best documentaries are those that revel in their medium, that roll around in and burrow into and laugh at the flagrant manipulation of truth that lies at the heart of even the basest cinéma vérité. Leave it to Chris Marker, who’d already trolled his synapses with the sci-fi masterpiece La Jetée, to craft an unparalleled film about the imperfections of filmmaking—and about cats. So many cats. Compiled of disparate images from Marker’s colleagues, his own travels and filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock, focused prominently on Japan and Guinea-Bissau out of many locales, Sans Soleil is, above all, a meditation on the imperfection of memory. Which is why its most striking images will forever stay with you: the poaching of a giraffe, the vultures that eat the giraffe’s softest remains, the shrine to cats, the JFK robot, the petrified desert animals, the art exhibit of taxidermied creatures posed in erotic gestures, the seemingly primeval digital manipulations of celebrity vignettes, the teenagers dancing, and the many visions of extreme emotion forever lost to time. Seemingly about everything just as it is about one person’s awe-struck experiences trotting across the globe, Sans Soleil touches on the ineffable with the wit and grandeur of someone remarkably in sync with some sort of subconscious matrix that binds us all, with Jungian fervor, inextricably together. —Dom Sinacola


19. Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Director: Chantal Akerman

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Belgian director Chantal Akerman built a formidable edifice of domesticity in order to pull it down piece by piece, habit by habit, hourly ritual by daily routine. The title of her second film, a name and a location, reflects a submission to a time and to a place, and over the course of nearly three and a half hours, Akerman defines that name, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), through the ways in which Dielman—mother, single homemaker, occasional prostitute—fills that location, a small Brussels apartment of modest means, with the cooking and cleaning and mothering and fornication of a person trapped within the order and regiment of a society that doesn’t so much care for her as expect her to continue to uphold that order, all for the benefit of the men in her life, who make no attempt to understand the intricacies of what she’s accomplished. On the first day, Akerman establishes Jeanne Dielman’s quotidian, an architecture of perfectly calibrated chores, meals, joyless sex, vigorous bathing and thankless evenings spent with her aloof wad of a son (Jan Decorte), all of which she assembles seamlessly seemingly for him, and for no one else. On the second day, a few items go awry, Jeanne overcooks the potatoes and remainders begin to appear in the facade of her daily algorithm. On the third day, chasms open in the midst of her everyday pattern, Jeanne unable to fill that space with anything at all, because she has nothing save for that structure, no passion or personality besides the ways in which she coddles her progeny and basely satisfies her clients. In the midst of literal minutes worth of Jeanne sitting, staring, silent, Akerman introduces tension by default: When Jeanne Dielman can no longer be manifest through her methodical fulfilling of the mundane, does she even exist anymore? Akerman responds with violence, pointless and fatal—followed by more sitting, more staring and the bleak notion that the life lived within the walls of this film may not be anything more than a name, a place and a single act of humanity. —Dom Sinacola


18. Contempt (1963)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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When I think of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Contempt, my mind immediately goes in two directions. First, to the lovely, melancholy theme by George Delerue (which I often seek out like a favorite memory), and second, to the images of the startlingly blue Mediterranean and the sheer cliffs on the Italian coast. On some level this is a superficial recollection, because there is so much more to this subtly structured film-within-a-film, and the “contempt” of the title is what the (agonizingly beautiful) Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot) feels for her screenwriter husband (Michel Piccoli) when he seemingly offers her companionship to a gauche producer (played with terrific sleaze by Jack Palance) in order to improve his position. But like the best Godard movies of the New Wave period, the emotion of loss pervades, and in that sense the persistence of the music and the Capri coastline makes sense: When the details fade, the poetry remains, and in his prime Godard could capture the intangible, fleeting sense of lost time like nobody else. —Shane Ryan


17. Day for Night (1973)
Director: François Truffaut

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Day for Night follows the production of a film and co-stars the director himself, but Truffaut never allows his meta-commentary on moviemaking and the corresponding industry to become egregiously philosophical or cloying. Instead, Truffaut crafts it as an intimate character study, which, as is always the case with the director, exists as a love story that evolves into an ode to film. Focusing on the cast and crew, Truffaut gives special attention to the romances and drama between them, exploring how such dynamics invariably influence and inform their final product, how the director can’t help but translate his passion into something that ultimately transcends that passion. —Shane Ryan


16. Playtime (1967)
Director: Jacques Tati

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Excepting people with rural dispositions, we’ve all visited unfamiliar cities at one time or another, puttering about their streets in discombobulated states. That experience is the core of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, his fourth venture as his most famous character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, here taking a jaunt to Paris and finding it unrecognizable on his arrival. He understands Paris as an abstract idea and as a place in his memories, but he can’t get his head around the Paris of the film’s present tense. In Playtime, any metropolitan city in Europe could stand in for Paris. Only fleeting glimpses of La Ville-Lumière reminds us of Tati’s chosen backdrop, and in those instances we feel, as Hulot does, a deep melancholy, a wistfulness for a locus of culture and romanticism long sentimentalized by the movies, and utter despondency at the implications of its cold modernization in Playtime’s frames. If this can happen to Paris, it can happen to any city we hold dear in our hearts. Make no mistake, this is an uproarious comedy and a towering work of cinema, but it’s Tati’s embedded sense of loss that echoes the loudest. —Andy Crump


15. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)
Director: Alain Resnais

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Alain Resnais’s 1959 masterpiece begins like a documentary, one reminiscent of his harrowing 1955 nonfiction short Night and Fog, except focused on the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Instead of an omniscient voiceover narrator, however, we hear what we eventually discover are two lovers: a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who, in the present day, have met in Hiroshima are both carrying on extramarital affairs with each other, even as they realize it can’t last. It sounds like pure Casablanca-like forbidden romance, but under Resnais and screenwriter Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour touches on broader ideas: chiefly, the potential impossibility of art to measure up to personal experience and memory. The man’s repeated incantations to the woman that “You saw nothing in Hiroshima” suggests a level of perspective on the horrific event that even she, starring in a well-meaning “movie about peace,” can’t possibly access. She can only try to identify through her own experience as a tormented outsider in the village in which she grew up—but really, how can even that possibly measure up to the devastation of such a horrific event? Even Hiroshima itself, as captured in black-and-white by cinematographers Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi, seems to want to try to forget its past, by covering it up in a preponderance of neon lights. Resnais aids Duras’s reflections on history and memory with a then-groundbreaking editing style that fluidly goes back and forth between past and present. The enduring miracle of Hiroshima Mon Amour, though, is that all its formal and philosophical ambition doesn’t obscure the poignance of its central romance, especially with Emmanuelle Riva’s indelible expressions of passion, anguish, and regret. —Kenji Fujishima


14. The Gleaners & I (2000)
Director: Agnès Varda

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There’s an argument that the explicit subject of The Gleaners & I—gleaners, their habits and practices—isn’t nearly as important as the woman at the center of it, director Agnès Varda. Her place in the film is deliberate—in telling the story of French gleaners, rural and urban scavengers protected by a series of hilariously specific but often debated French laws, Varda frames herself as a gleaner, a fellow traveller in a world of thrift-minded men and women who survive on what others throw away. As Varda follows gleaners who comb farmer’s fields for leftover produce and urban landscapes for food and other curiosities, the story mutates into a semi-autobiographical narrative about Varda herself, and the simple pleasures of finding. I love the film because it pings several intellectual currents in the late 1990s and early 2000s related to the sharing of information and memory thanks to the Internet. The Gleaners & I becomes a lo-fi take on memory, curating, nostalgia and the reframing of discarded cultural detritus, which itself becomes a metaphor for the film’s argument: that the world of poverty might also be reframed, because Varda’s exhaustive studies show the spirit of gleaning is strong among people of all walks of life. Her wonderful presence at the center of these discussions makes the film deeply personal and brimming with optimism, but also far more profound than its subject matter might suggest. —Mark Abraham


13. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Director: Robert Bresson

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Robert Bresson may have a rep for being one of the most forbidding French arthouse auteurs, but the idea that the filmmaker is somehow cold or inaccessible is far from the truth. Even if the worlds he depicts are cloistered and sometimes cruel, there’s always at least a hint of warmth and grace. In Au Hasard Balthasar, a Catholic allegory of shocking, pure visual power, Bresson records the travails of a lowly donkey, passed from owner to owner in the French countryside and living a life of humiliation and abuse at the hands of mankind. With his detailed close-ups of hands, eyes and the donkey’s mournful snout, Bresson implies movement and feeling rather than explicitly showing them. Following that allusive and time-generous approach, the result is absorbing and a little bit overwhelming: Au Hasard Balthasar gives plenty of time for its audience to meditate on man’s cruelty to this beast of burden. The donkey Balthasar is silent witness to malicious goings-on between humans, until he is ultimately transformed by the love of a young woman (Anne Wiazemsky) and sacrificed in a Christ-like conception of suffering and martyrdom. A masterpiece packed with spare imagery and dense ideas about doubt and faith, infused with as much religiosity as a medieval painting, Au Hasard Balthasar must be seen on its own terms, with an open mind. It almost single-handedly proves cinema is an enduring, world-shaking art-form—and might even be able to convert some atheists. —Christina Newland


12. Z (1969)
Director: Costa-Gavras

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Fifty years before political trolling became a day-to-day activity, Greek-French director Costa-Gavras, patron saint of political thrillers, perfected the art with his timeless French-language masterpiece, Z. Just how timeless? By opening with a twist on the usual disclaimer found at the front of most movies, stating with undeniable fury that the events within are based on real people and real actions, Gavras shows the audience that he’s not fucking around from frame one, especially considering that Z is about how an authoritarian right-wing party bullied and killed its way to power as it destroyed his native country of Greece, leading to an oppressive military coup. Throughout, Gavras showcases a deviously methodical control over what appears on the surface to be fly-on-the-wall camerawork, complete with handheld footage, jump cuts and grainy photography, until we gradually realize that his anger about the political atrocities committed in his home country has permeated Z with a satirical tone mercilessly mocking those in power as petulant children. Based on Grigoris Lambrakis’s novel, the film begins as a left-wing leader, also Grigoris Lambrakis (Yves Montand), tries to protect himself from the violent attacks of right-wing thugs secretly on the payroll of right-wing politicians. He doesn’t succeed. By casting the instantly likable Montand in the part, Gavras encourages us to sympathize with the protagonist’s motivations, only to abruptly rip him from us. This, in turn, has the audience feel the pain of the loss the way Lambrakis’s supporters do, creating an intractable connection to the narrative. The rest of the film focuses on the ensuing investigation of Lambrakis’s murder, with a solid performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant as the chief examiner in charge of the case, until it results in an epilogue that’s equal parts morbidly satirical, tragic and inevitable. —Oktay Ege Kozak


11. The Rules of the Game (1939)
Director: Jean Renoir

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When Rules of the Game—Jean Renoir’s angry satire against the contempt the bourgeoisie displays for the working class—was first shown to an audience, a man who heard of the film’s supposed communist message tried to start a fire. In an interview that can be found on the film’s Criterion release, Renoir tells this story, adding that if someone is willing to burn down a theater to destroy your work, you must have done something right. Rules of the Game operates as an ensemble melodrama about the various secret and not-so-secret love affairs between a group of upper-crust stereotypes, but underneath this straight genre veneer lies a brutally honest takedown of ruling class apathy. Renoir meticulously and gradually exposes his characters’ narcissism, until the film’s climax presents us with a sociopathic choice made between supposed best friends. Yet, as much as he obviously sympathizes with the plight of the working class serving the rich, Renoir doesn’t let them off the hook either, portraying their impulsive and brutish behavior as potentially one of the reasons behind their station in life. Despite all of that, Rules of the Game is not a joyless experience, but a refreshingly honest take on romance between classes—as well as an early cinematic exploration and exposing of the intractable human nature behind income inequality and class warfare. —Oktay Ege Kozak


10. Night and Fog (1955)
Director: Alain Resnais

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Released 10 years after the liberation of prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps, Night and Fog was almost never made. Any number of reasons contributed to its tenuous birth: that noted documentary director Resnais refused repeated attempts to helm the movie, insisting that a survivor of the camps be intimately involved, until screenwriter Jean Cayrol came on board, himself a survivor of the Mauthausen-Gusen camp; that Resnais and collaborators battled both French and German censors upon potential Cannes release; or that both Resnais and Cayrol themselves struggled with especially graphic footage, unsure of how to properly and comprehensively depict the unmitigated horror of what they were undertaking. Regardless, the film found release and is today, even at only 31 minutes, an eviscerating account of life in the camps: their origins, their architecture and their inner-workings. Yet, most of all, Night and Fog is a paean to the power of art to shake history down to its foundational precedents. Look only to its final moments, in which, over images of the dead, emaciated and piled endlessly in mass graves, narrator Michel Bouquet simply asks to know who is responsible. Who did this? Who allowed this to happen? Which is so subtly subversive—especially given the film’s quiet filming of Auschwitz and Majdanek, overgrown and abandoned, accompanied by lyrical musings and a strangely buoyant score—because rarely do documentaries demand such answers. Rarely do documentaries ask such questions. Rarely is truth taken to task, bled of all subjectivity, and placed naked before the audience. Here is evil, undeniably—what will you do about this? —Dom Sinacola


9. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Director: Georges Franju

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I remember seeing my first Édith Scob performance back in 2012, when Leos Carax’s Holy Motors made its way to U.S. shores, in which she donned a seafoam mask, every bit as blank and lacking in expression as Michael Myers’, in the film’s ending. I thought to myself, “Gee, that’d play like gangbusters in a horror movie.” What an idiot I was: Scob had already appeared in that movie, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, an icy, poetic and yet lovingly made film about a woman and her mad scientist dad, who just wants to kidnap young ladies that share her facial features in hopes of grafting their skin onto her own disfigured mug. (That’s father of the year material right there.) Of course, nothing goes smoothly in the film’s narrative, and the whole thing ends in tears—plus a frenzy of canine bloodlust. Director Franju plays Eyes Without a Face in just the right register, balancing the unnerving, the perverse and the intimate, as the most enduring pulpy horror tales tend to do. If Franju gets to claim most of the credit for that, at least save a portion for Scob, whose eyes are the single best special effect in the film’s repertoire. Hers is a performance that stems right from the soul. —Andy Crump


8. The Wages of Fear (1953)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

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About an hour has passed before Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film reaches its real plot—a whole hour before our four impoverished expatriates take on the death-defying gig of driving two trucks filled with nitroglycerine across 300 treacherous miles, from the South American oil town of Las Piedras to the site of an oil field explosion overseen by an American corporation. Clouzot sets his stakes simply: Because nitroglycerine is so volatile, and because the corporation does not have the proper transportation equipment available, volunteers must, with exquisite care, drive trucks full of the chemical across mountainous terrain to be used to damper the oil fire with a huge controlled explosion. But that journey doesn’t begin until after Clouzot has waded through the stagnant world of our drivers, introducing us to the kind of men who rarely deal in the currency of hope: Corsican lothario Mario (Yves Montand), warm-hearted Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli), slippery ex-gangster Jo (Charles Vanel) and stoic German cool guy Bimba (Peter van Eyck) are each trapped in the town, wasting away their interminable time there with odd jobs, liquor and local women. With almost effortless allegorical control, Clouzot strands the men at the mercy of American capitalism, giving them the choice to continue to die slowly in Las Piedras, or risk their lives for enough money to finally get out (which is really no choice at all). Rather than cast them as heroes and future martyrs, Clouzot’s wallowing with them in Las Piedras exposes their ne’er-do-well natures, such as Mario’s womanizing, Bimba’s near-sociopathic aloofness and Jo’s latent cowardice. Even with such unpleasantness, we grit our teeth and hold our breath as these anti-heroes teeter over the maw of their own inevitable obliteration, Clouzot knowing full well he’s got us by our throats. In its unbelievable tension, The Wages of Fear can be a harrowing watch, but it’s shot with such a total dearth of sentimentality that the bleakness of the landscape Clouzot’s created forces us to care about those who don’t deserve it. We have affection not because Clouzot’s manipulated us, but simply because these broken men are as much at the mercy of an indifferent universe as we are, ruled by fate and classism and whatever else we’ll never control, whether we know it or not. —Dom Sinacola


7. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Director: Agnès Varda

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Halfway through Agnès Varda’s sophomore film, the titular Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a pop singer awaiting the potentially devastating results of some sort of medical test, looks directly into the camera, weeping as she sings a song during an otherwise typical practice session. It’s a revelatory moment: Varda addresses her audience directly through her character addressing her audience directly, all while on the precipice of total dissolution. Cléo, a beautiful, burgeoning celebrity, seems to understand that she may be empty without her looks, just as she rails against the forces that put her in such an untenable position. In other words, realizing in that moment of melodrama, of the heightened emotion she knows all too well is the stuff of pop music at its most marketably patronizing, that her attractiveness may be soon over, she’s driven to tears, unable to reconcile her talent with her face, or her fragility with her livelihood, leaving it to the audience to decide whether she deserves our sympathy or not. If not, Varda wonders, then why not? Shot practically in real time, Cléo from 5 to 7 waits along with our character as she waits for life-changing news, floating from coffee shop to home to park to wherever, not doing much of anything with the life she has, the life she may find out she’s losing soon enough. She watches a silent film featuring cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, meets a soldier on leave from the Algerian front (Antoine Bourseiller) who confesses he believes people are dying for nothing, drives past a murder scene and senses that the universe maybe has misdirected her bad luck towards another soul. One of the defining films of the Left Bank branch of the French New Wave (as opposed to those of the “Right Bank,” the more famous films of Truffaut and Godard, the movement’s more commercial, cosmopolitan cinephiles), Cléo from 5 to 7 is a fever dream of the ordinary, a meditation on the nothingness of everyday living, as existential as it is blissfully bereft of purpose. —Dom Sinacola


6. Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Director: Louis Malle

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Au revoir les enfants portrays one French schoolboy’s (very limited) view of the Holocaust in a manner both reserved yet devastating. Set in a Catholic boarding school in France, Louis Malle’s Golden Lion-winning film follows a pampered rich boy (Gaspard Manesse) as he befriends a new classmate who is secretly a Jew (Raphaël Fejtö) harbored by the boarding school’s benevolent priest (Philippe Morier-Genoud). Malle based the film on his own childhood, effortlessly imbuing it with a quiet simplicity that allows its saddest, potentially melodramatic moments to be gut-wrenchingly real. Along with cinematographer Renato Berta, Malle merely lets the camera linger; in one scene, in particular, he films an empty passageway, beautifully emphasizing a terrible moment that his main character—and his audience—will never forget. —Jeremy Mathews


5. Shoah (1985)
Director: Claude Lanzmann

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Describing this 10-hour landmark of documentary filmmaking—of filmmaking in general, is ostensibly an easy task: Director Claude Lanzmann foregoes using any archival or historical footage to allow only the testimonials of survivors and historians to tell, in breathtaking detail that is both sweeping and deeply intimate, the story of the Holocaust. We are given hours to reflect as we join these beleaguered people: They walk us through Treblinka, through Auschwitz, through the Warsaw ghettos, through Chelmno, where the first mobile gas chambers were used—through the night and fog of memory. And though the film has been greeted with controversy, especially by Poles who feel that it in many ways indicts them in the atrocities committed, there is no other cinematic experience like it. —Dom Sinacola


4. La Jetée (1962)
Director: Chris Marker

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At only 28 minutes, La Jetée is somewhere between a film and art piece. Its concept—black and white photos pieced together while an omniscient narrator explains what’s happening—quickly announces its symbolic purpose: a man (Davos Hanich), whose story we’re told as plainly as possible we are now a part of, can travel relatively painlessly through time because of a few stark images he’s carried with him since childhood. World War III has decimated Paris, reducing most citizens to desperate “guinea pig” status, used by Scientists to concoct time travel experiments “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” Most of the helpless jerks launched through time end up going mad, unable to mentally “hold” themselves to a time their minds aren’t conditioned to endure. But the aforementioned man is stronger than them: He is “glued to an image of his past.” So how better can a filmmaker believably reproduce memory than obsess over the stillness of it? Rarely do we fixate on a whole detailed sequence, instead dwelling on one detail, one image branded into our brain tissue. The man’s is that of a pier (“la jetée”), someone dying in epic silhouette and a woman’s face. It’s that image that allows him to travel (without machine) through time, to visit our “present” in order to prevent his “future.” Like in Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s upsetting re-imagining of Marker’s film, redirecting fate is easier said than done. As the man confronts his destiny, no other film since La Jetée has made the concept of time travel so personal, and the concept of time so sad. —Dom Sinacola


3. Jules et Jim (1962)
Director: François Truffaut

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Widely regarded as a French touchstone, François Truffaut’s classic WWI-era love triangle is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same title by Henri-Pierre Roche, which Truffaut stumbled across in a Paris bookstore in the 1950s. The adaptation tells the tragic story of Jim (Henri Serre), a French Bohemian, Jules (Oskar Werner), his Austrian friend, and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), Jules’ girlfriend/wife. The two men are besotted with Catherine, who bears an eerie resemblance to a statue they both love. She marries Jules. The war breaks out, and the two men, on opposing sides of the conflict, struggle with the fear that one might unwittingly kill the other in battle. (What actually happens is arguably worse.) Both survive, and later, Jim visits Jules and Catherine in their Black Forest cottage. Jules confides he’s miserable, that Catherine has constant affairs, has left him and their baby, Sabine, for months at a time, and that he lives in terror of losing her. Catherine tries to seduce Jim. The three try an experimental situation where Catherine is with both men, but tragedy only ensues from there. Perhaps a definitive example of the French New Wave, the film incorporates a vast lexicon of cinematic techniques—newsreel footage, stills, wipes, panning shots, freeze-frames, voiceover narration (by Michel Subor)—though shades of its towering influence in subsequent films, television and music are almost innumerable. —Amy Glynn


2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Director: Jacques Demy

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Jacques Demy’s masterpiece is a soaring, vibrant, innately bittersweet story of love lost, found and forever disbanded, another wartime casualty in a country scarred by military conflict. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is lived-in, a story derived from Demy’s life experience, and that keyword—“experience”—is essential to making the film click. Take away its musical cues, and you’re left with a narrative about a young man (Nino Castelnuovo) and a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) who fall deeply in love with one another, only to be torn apart when he’s drafted to fight overseas. The story remains rooted in Demy’s pathos, and pathos gives Umbrellas’ gravity. The music, of course, is a critical part of its character, a dose of magic Demy uses to buttress the rigors of life in wartime with grandeur and meaning. It’s a film about people in love falling out of love, and then falling in love all over again with new partners and altered sentiments, a beautiful picture as likely to make you swoon as to crush your heart. —Andy Crump


1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

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Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s face is in your brain, whether you’re aware of it there or not. Its contours and stipples, topped by hair shorn of substance or style—her head centered by two wide eyes rimmed with tears, always in some sort of superposition between ecstasy and misery—consumes boundless space in Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, seemingly suspended over the long course of history between now (whenever now happens to be) and when Dreyer first envisioned this immersive, expressionist experience. Dreyer wrote of his film, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past,” and then explained further, “A thorough study of the documents from the rehabilitation process was necessary; I did not study the clothes of the time, and things like that. The year of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present.” Though The Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer based on the 1491 transcripts of its titular saint’s trial for heresy (the director welcomed by the Société Générale des Films to make a film in France, his choice of subject bolstered by France’s canonization of Joan of Arc after World War I), he provides little visual detail or historical context. Instead he submerges the viewer in Joan’s perspective, keeps his hand on our heads as we drown in the torment of what she’s subjected to, rarely releasing his weight except for in the film’s final moments, when Joan’s brutal execution at the stake unleashes violence throughout the citizenry. But mostly: that face, awestruck throughout time. Most notably, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, the director watches as his protagonist, Nana (Anna Karina), watches Joan of Arc, lighting her tear-streaked face in close-up as she experiences something of the same images before her. Godard reflects Falconetti’s face in Karina’s, spanning more than three decades as if they’re nothing. There is perhaps no better ode to the power of what Dreyer achieved: Timelessness borne by the tragedy of our all too weak, all too human, flesh. —Dom Sinacola

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