Learning how to make movies is not as simple as watching enough movies, but it is a good start. I’ve therefore compiled ten movies that, although they’re not necessarily my top ten favorites, they are definitely full of vital lessons.
1. Watch “Little Miss Sunshine” to learn how to write great characters.
It might be an odd choice to begin with such a lighthearted movie, but I can think of no other flick with such a wide yet elegant ensemble. Every one of the six main characters has a distinct relevance, and they compliment each other in ways that many other films fail to do. It is a great lesson in how to give every character a strong personality and, most importantly, a strong purpose.
2. Watch “Sideways” to learn how to write great dialogue.
One of Alexander Payne’s greatest works, Sideways has a spectacular variety of high quality dialogue, ranging from comedy to drama. Furthermore, every piece of dialogue is backed by a character motivation and a fate in the plot. In concrete, I’d highlight the scene where Miles describes his fascination with wine.
3. Watch “El Mariachi” to learn how to produce a movie with a limited budget.
This movie must be watched twice. Once on its own, and the second with director Robert Rodriguez’s commentary. It’s a charming example of what can be accomplished with very little resources, but with the help of a lot of persistence and creativity. Every producer needs to behave like a young and naive Robert Rodriguez at some point in their career.
4. Watch “A Dog Day Afternoon” to learn how to make the most use of a single location.
It’s hard to choose a one-location picture, but my pick goes to Al Pacino’s best lifetime performance in this heist-gone-wrong. It is a amazing how much you can connect with the most unlikely people when you are forced to share the same four walls. Drama, thrills, tension, comedy… A Dog Day Afternoon has it all.
5. Watch “Bicycle Thieves” to learn how to keep it simple.
Sometimes we get caught up with the pizzazz and glamour of special effects and grand set design, when in reality we fail to remember that the driving force of a story is… well, it’s story. This humble Italian classic is a lesson in how simple character in a simple setting can have as much of an impact (if not more) as an action blockbuster.
6. Watch “A Guide to Recognizing your Saints” to learn how to direct a great first film.
This little known indie flick is flawed, and that’s why it is also perfect. Maybe it was the close connection the director had with the story, or maybe it was pure luck, but whatever the case may be, this ode to Queens NY is beautifully executed. It is bewildering how a novel director could make the right choice in almost every aspect of this opera prima.
7. Watch “Bridges of Madison County” to learn how to trust your actors.
It may sound easy to ‘trust your actors’ when those actors are Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, however, many Hollywood directors still fail to properly make use of their actor’s natural talent. The performances in this film are among the most memorable in the history of the seventh art.
8. Watch “Hero” to learn how to shoot beautiful cinematography.
Arguably, it is also a lesson in stunning art direction. Hero will leave you breathless, and will dangerously make you feel like you’ll never be good enough… but you’ll still keep trying to beat it. From the moment you watch the first few minutes, it will become a goal in your career. A distant goal you will continuously aim for.
9. Watch “City of God” to learn how to edit a master piece.
Editing is nowhere near the only thing outstanding about this Brazilian classic, but it is one of the things that made it stand out from the rest of the movies of its time. The fast-paced yet carefully selected editing makes the journey of watching this film a roller coaster ride.
10. Watch “Before Sunrise” to forget everything you learned.
Finally, after having watched all the others, confident to get started on your carefully planned endeavor, having spent sleepless nights analyzing every technique and method, it is time to let go of everything and tear down all your assumptions. Richard Linklater greatest feat here was making an impossible movie work – when according to every rule in the book, it simply shouldn’t.