French cinema has long been my favourite. Many critics place the French film industry behind only Hollywood as the greatest in terms of quality, as well as international recognition. France, a country long known for its revolutionary history has been behind some of the most important movements in post-World War Two films, Film Noir and French New Wave.
1. Breathless (1960) Jean-Luc Godard
Perhaps the most famous French film of all. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless is widely acknowledged to be the most iconic of the French New Wave movement. The story is simple enough, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character Michel kills a police officer in the opening scene. His attempts to lay low lead him to a beautiful American girl in Paris named Patricia played by Jean Seberg. It is the famous jump cuts, and other legendary scenes such as Michel and Patricia’s stroll down the Champs Elysees in the first half that land this film at number one.
2. Amelie (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet
One of the most thoroughly enjoyable films I have ever seen. The title character is played by the ever-mesmerizing Audrey Tautou. After finding some old childhood toys belonging to a previous resident of her apartment, Amelie makes it her goal to make everyone in her life happy. Funny, charming and full of great shots of Paris, Amelie remains one of my favourite films of all-time.
3. Jules and Jim (1962) Francois Truffaut
Another film belonging to the New Wave movement, it is probably the best film auteur Francois Truffaut made, along with The 400 Blows. Jules and Jim follows two friends who fall for an eccentric socialite named Catherine played by the always terrific Jeanne Moreau. It is a testament to the tempestuousness of love, a theme very prominent in French cinema.
4. Wages of Fear (1953) Henri-Georges Clouzot
Made by one of the great masters of French post-war cinema, Wages of Fear follows a band of desperate workers in South America who are hired to transport nitroglycerine across a long distance. It stands as one of the most brilliant metaphors on the corrupt nature of our society. It stars one of the most famous French singers of the period, Yves Montand. A film that resonates well even today.
5. The 400 Blows (1959) Francois Truffaut
A semi-biographical film by auteur Francois Truffaut. The 400 Blows is about the slow descent of a young man into a life of petty crime. It is one of the very few movies that really captures the hopelessness of adolescence. Wes Anderson`s most recent Moonrise Kingdom is the only other one I can think of. Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the young Antoine. The basic premise being that the institutions of society, i.e. religion, marriage and education all too often fail the young.
6. My Night at Maud’s (1969) Eric Rohmer
Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a devout Catholic who has just vowed to marry someone from his parish, but is suddenly tempted by an older divorcee named Maud. The best of Rohmer`s `Moral Tales` trilogy, it is full of interesting philosophical musings and great performances. Rohmer`s best film.
7. Belle de Jour (1967) Luis Bunuel
One of the most iconic films of French Cinema, Belle de Jour was directed by Spanish visionary Luis Bunuel during his unofficial exile in France. The lovely Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, a bourgeois housewife whose boredom and sexual frustration leads her into an exotic underworld. Hugely controversial at the time, as you can imagine, it probably stands as the most famous film for both director and star.
8. My Life to Live (1962) Jean-Luc Godard
Another of Godard early classics, Vivre Sa Vie is sombre and engaging at the same time. Like The 400 Blows, it follows the moral degradation of society`s vulnerable. The beautiful Anna Karina plays Nana, a Parisian woman who follows a life into prostitution. Its 12-scene structure was revolutionary at the time and influenced Quinton Tarantino immensely. One of the sadder films of the list, but a must-see for fans of the French New Wave.
9. Band of Outsiders (1964) Jean-Luc Godard
The most thoroughly enjoyable of Godard`s 60s classics, Band of Outsiders is about two petty crooks who convince a language student named Odile (Anna Karina) to help rob her wealthy employer. The heist proves to be more than the three could handle. The famous café dance sequence was a great influence for Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction as well.
10. Z (1969) Costa-Gavras
Wickedly fast-paced thriller about the death of a left-wing politician played by Yves Montand. Costa-Gavras made this film about the political situation in his native Greece which was about to shed its right-wing dictatorship. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays an investigator who uncovers a vast conspiracy to silence the political opposition. A hugely inspirational film.
11. A Christmas Tale (2008) Arnaud Desplechin
One of the most underrated films of the last decade. Un Conte de Noel is a immensely poignant film about a family that reconvenes for the Christmas season after the matriarch (Catherine Deneuve) announces that she needs a transplant to prolong her life. It is full of great performances, especially by Mathieu Amalric who plays the troublesome middle child Henri.
12. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) Luis Bunuel
The second Bunuel film on the list and the last film he ever directed. Fernando Rey (the French Connection) plays Mathieu, a wealthy businessman who is repeatedly taken advantage of by a young Spanish girl named Conchita. Conchita is played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, who appear in separate scenes. The character’s temperament differs according to which actress is currently on screen. It is a testament to the obsessive nature of romantic desire and probably the most enjoyable of all of Bunuel`s films.
13. Elevator to the Gallows (1958) Louis Malle
Elevator to the Gallows has the most dramatic plot twists of any film I have seen. Maurice Ronet plays Julian, a Algerian war veteran who murders his employer in a seemingly perfect crime. Soon a chain of events puts Julian`s plans in danger. Jeanne Moreau plays the wife of the murdered man, who also happens to be Julian`s lover. It includes a famous score by Miles Davis.
14. Les Diaboliques (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot
The wife of a school headmaster and his mistress (Simone Signoret) devise a plan to kill him but they encounter more than they bargain for. Alfred Hitchcock was an admirer of this film and Clouzot in general. It includes a clever twist that has been copied in many films since, making it somewhat predictable for audiences today. But it is worth seeing for its pure suspense.
15. Man Bites Dog (1992) Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde
Made by three Belgian film students, Man Bites Dog is one of the most unconventional films on the list. Filmed as a fake documentary, it follows a serial killer named Ben (Poelvoorde) during his daily routine. Filmed in black and white, most of the violence is done off-screen and believe it or not in a light-hearted way. It is a dark satire of our media’s obsession with violence. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games touches on many of the same themes.
16. Persepolis (2007) Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Based on the real-life story of Marjane Satrapi, who came of age during the tense early years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It is a heartfelt story told through the eyes of a free-thinking young girl who grows up embracing left-wing politics and American pop music. Chiara Mastroianni voices ‘Marji’ in the original French version. Her real life mother Catherine Deneuve voices her mother. An emotional coming-of-age film and perhaps my favourite animated movie of all-time.
17. Army of Shadow (1969) Jean-Pierre Melville
Set in 1942, Army of Shadows is based on real events of the French resistance during the Vichy regime. Jean-Pierre Melville, who was primarily known for gangster films like Le Samourai and The Red Circle, shows tremendous compassion for the bravest of Frenchmen during one of their darkest periods. Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel (Father of Vincent Cassel) are the two most recognizable actors. It has one of the most heart-wrenching finales I have ever seen.
18. Les Biches (1968) Claude Chabrol
Claude Chabrol’s gem stars his then wife Stephane Audran. Two bi-sexual women (Audran and Jacqueline Sassard) both fall for a successful architect named Paul (Played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). Largely overlooked, even by fans of Chabrol, this engaging film includes some beautiful shots of Saint Tropez and great performances by its entire cast. A little difficult to find but well worth it.
19. La Collectionneuse (1967) Eric Rohmer
The second film on the list from Eric Rohmer’s ‘Moral Tales’ trilogy, La Collectionneuse follows the story of Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), a sophisticated art dealer who goes to spend his vacation in a villa on the Mediterranean. Though in a serious relationship, Adrien is suddenly tempted by a promiscuous girl he meets named Haydee (Haydee Politoff). Subtle, beautifully shot and engaging, it is another underappreciated classic.
20. The Artist (2011) Michel Hazanavicius
The most recent (and only) winner of Best Picture at the Oscars on the list. The Artist is an entertaining homage to the silent film era in the 1920s. Our hero George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the most popular actor of the silent era. He inadvertently gives Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) her big break. Peppy embraces the ‘talkies’ that will soon bring the silent era to an abrupt end and as a result her star begins to rise as Valentin’s dims. Emotional, well-acted, and beautiful, I do not know how people will look at this film in a decade but for now it remains a must-see.
21. A Prophet (2009) Jacques Audiard
Young Malik (Tahar Rahim), an illiterate Franco-Arab is sent to jail at the age of 19 and forced to act as a mafia hitman in order to survive. It is a beautifully acted, heart-wrenching allegory of race relations in contemporary France. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
22. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) Julian Schnabel
Based on the real-life story of former Elle magazine editor Dean-Dominique Bauby, whose sudden stroke at age forty-three leaves him almost completely paralyzed, except for the use of his left-eye. Mathieu Amalric plays Jean-Do who uses the movement in his eye and with the help of two beautiful assistants to write his memoirs. Julian Schnabel takes several liberties with the story, but this one will make you feel great about life. I highly recommend the book as well.
23. Three Colours: Blue, White and Red Trilogy (1993-4) Krzysztof Kieslowski
A three-part trilogy loosely based on the French national motto of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity by a Polish director. These films include such French icons as Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and of course Jean-Louis Trintignant with another appearance on the list. The film’s stories are not directly connected until the end, but it is meant more as a study of contemporary French society.
24. The Red Circle (1970) Jean-Pierre Melville
The best of the French gangster films that were heavily influenced by Hollywood in the post-war period. Corey (Alain Delon), master thief, recently released from jail assembles a group of criminals to help pull off one of the greatest jewel heists in history. The heist scene lasts about 25 minutes where not a single word is spoken. An older Yves Montand also stars.
25. The Rules of The Game (1939) Jean Renoir
Consistently ranks very high on the list of greatest films of all time. It has influenced many costume dramas about the decline of the aristocracy most notably Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. On the onset of World War II, people of varying social circles attend an invitation at a French Chateau. Jean Renoir directs and stars in a fascinating look at French society.
26. Contempt (1963) Jean-Luc Godard
Godard’s most visually-stunning film ever. A screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) is hired to rescue a failing adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife Camille (Bridget Bardot) begins to fall apart. Fritz Lang plays himself in this film as well. Contempt is Godard’s look at the commercialization of film.
27. La Vie En Rose (2007) Olivier Dahan
Best remembered for the star-making performance by Marion Cotillard. La Vie En Rose is an ambitious look at the life of the French singer Edith Piaf. The film bounces back and forward through the life of Piaf so people not familiar with the French singer might find themselves a bit frustrated. But Cotillard’s performance was well deserving of the Oscar for Best Actress and that alone makes this one well worth it. No list is complete without it.
28. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Alain Resnais
Made by Alain Resnais, one of the great masters of French cinema, Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most inventive films on the list. In a luxorious Chateau setting, a man tries to persuade a married woman to run away with him. What makes this story compelling is that the two might have had an affair a year ago at Marienbad, but the woman insists she does not remember. An unforgettable experience.
29. Pierrot Le Fou (1965) Jean-Luc Godard
Pierrot (Jean-Paul Belmondo) travels to Paris looking for excitement, which he encounters immediately in Marianne (Anna Karina). What he does not know is that Marianne is being chased by hit-men. They soon run away from their lives to the Mediterranean where Marianne’s troubles are not far behind.
30. The Class (2008) Laurent Cantet
François Bégaudeau co-wrote and stars in this semi-biographical film about a teacher’s experiences in a racially-mixed school near Paris. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and won the top prize at Cannes in 2008.
Honorable Mention: Masculin Feminin (1966), Swimming Pool (2003), Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Delicatessen (1991), Carlos (2010 Mini-Series)