EDITOR’S NOTE: I made this list in 2010. I updated the list in 2011. The updated list is more complete and puts far less emphasis on personal preference. The new and improved version can be found here.
On the cusp of Bastille Day, and with such a rich history of French cinema, I felt that it was only fitting to create a list of the 50 best French films. Initially, I’d planned on simply listing them in no particular order. However, mon ami, I eventually determined that it wouldn’t be fair to not put forth the extra effort. They’re now listed at least in order of personal preference, with some weight given to overall quality. In other words, there are likely more influential films or higher quality films further down the list. But their higher quality doesn’t overcome my overall enjoyment of the other films higher up on the list.
A few notes before we get started:
a) I am not an authority on this. I’m just a Francophile schmuck with a DVD player and a Netflix subscription, and I love to watch movies.
b) I am not a completist. There are a lot of films I simply haven’t seen. They’re listed in the Honorable Mention section following the list. I did my best to make it as comprehensive as I could. But please understand that I couldn’t hit all of the high points.
c) If there’s something you see that’s not on the list or even in the honorable mention, feel free to bring it up in the comments section. Maybe next year on Bastille Day, I’ll be able to offer a more complete list. As it is, I plan on tackling the honorable mentions in the next year.
And now, without further ado, I present to you the top 50 French Films of All-Time. Vive la France! Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité and such!
1. The Fire Within
Louis Malle’s deeply personal film about alcoholism, depression, suicide, and the totality of despair hints quietly at the French New Wave without being bogged down by it. It’s a masterpiece.
2. The Phantom of Liberty
The first, but not the last, of a string of Luis Buñuel’s absurdist films on this list
3. Last Year at Marienbad
Speaking of absurdity, Alain Resnais’ film gripped me in a way that few have, particularly given that none of the characters had real names and that the majority of dialogue is looped, appearing again and again throughout the film.
4. Le Corbeau
Clouzot’s film is a shining example of art as protest. The fact that he took Nazi money to make an anti-Nazi (and anti-Vichy) film… well, that takes guts.
5. The Passion of Joan of Arc
This HAD to be on this list. There was no way I could exclude it because of the subject matter. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the film that turned me on to silent cinema; the images in it are breathtaking. I didn’t realize it was possible to radiate so much emotion without uttering a single audible word.
I have at least one friend that will mercilessly harass me about this choice. For me, it has a place because of the deep symbolism, the use of nature, and the general skillful filmmaking of Robert Bresson.
7. Night and Fog
Resnais appears for a second time already. When people refer to cinema as “important”, it’s in reference to this type of film. It’s only 30 minutes long but the absolute horrors contained within are heart-wrenching.
8. Un Chien Andalou
Buñuel and Dali’s collaboration changed the way movies were made, and brought surrealism to life.
9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
In classic French fashion (even though he’s a Spaniard), Buñuel feasts on the bourgeois class.
10. Les Enfants du Paradis/Children of Paradise
One of the more stark examples of sexual frustration put to film, as well as the movie that spurred me on to watch several other Marcel Carné films that are on this list
11. The Orphic Trilogy
Jean Cocteau’s trio of films are visually stunning, literarily intriguing, and (like Buñuel) influential in terms of special effects.
12. Murmur of the Heart
Perhaps where Louis Malle separates himself from other directors, for me, is his ability to take taboo topics and combine them with his cinematography style to draw you into the individuals who are swept up in their taboo storms. This is a perfect example.
13. The Sorrow and the Pity
A tremendously thorough and brutally honest look at the French role during World War II. Pity indeed.
One of the very first Nouvelle Vague films that I saw holds a special place in my heart.
It belongs here on the strength of its surrealism and later influence on the vampire mythos in film.
16. Hiroshima Mon Amour
Resnais hits the list for the third time in the top 16, this time with a treatise on the distortion of memory.
17. Port of Shadows
Marcel Carné strikes again by showing that the French know noir, even going back to 1938.
18. Forbidden Games
A heart-breaking tale about children and the emotionally crippling effects of war.
19. L’Age D’Or
A film that caused as much outrage as this is destined for my list.
20. Elevator to the Gallows
Malle takes the noir to new heights, this time employing a Miles Davis soundtrack. Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet (who both appear in The Fire Within as well) perform brilliantly.
21. Le Jour Se Leve
Jean Gabin wills this one all the way up to #21.
22. A Woman is A Woman
The second Nouvelle Vague film that I saw, Godard’s use of color is incredible, as is the uncomfortably long sequences throughout the film.
23. M. Hulot’s Holiday
Jacques Tati proves that the silent antics of Keaton and Chaplin and Lloyd didn’t have to stay in America nor did it have to die with the advent of sound.
How could I exclude a film that involves a woman cracking an egg in her butt cheeks?
25. Diary of a Country Priest
If this list was comprised of my favorite movies of all-time, #1 would be Bergman’s Winter Light, which wouldn’t exist if not for Diary of a Country Priest.
26. 400 Blows
Admittedly not my favorite, there’s no denying the artistic value and its role in the global counter-culture movement in the 60’s.
Godard takes on noir, giving it a Nouvelle Vague imprint.
28. Au Revoir les Enfants
Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale about a young boy bearing witness to pure evil
29. Jules et Jim
Sexual frustration and a love triangle for the ages
30. La Haine
Probably the most “American” of the films on this list, La Haine fits the 1990’s indies vibe and felt like it could have been directed by Spike Lee.
Poverty, alcoholism, oppressed women… what’s not to like?
32. The Piano Teacher
Haneke’s perversions run amok and Isabelle Huppert dominates the film. The image of her face as she stabs herself in the shoulder is burnt into my memory.
33. Le Samourai
Melville adds an Eastern flavor to the Western crime drama.
34. The Battle of Algiers
Every political thriller ever made owes a debt to this film. And it provides a very revolutionary take on the counter-culture, as well as an in-depth look at the complicated situation between France and Algeria.
35. Wages of Fear
A film so tense at times you could sharpen a pencil in your asshole when you watch it.
36. Les Diaboliques
Not surprisingly, Les Diaboliques bears a heavy influence from Alfred Hitchcock, who I believe wrote the screenplay.
37. Eyes Without a Face
That mask is just downright creepy.
The jewelry store break-in is impossibly long (in a good way) and stunningly impressive.
39. Mon Oncle
Tati Strikes Back, this time by juxtaposing M. Hulot against technology. Chicanery and laughs ensue.
40. Army of Shadows
Probably the best representation of the French Resistance that you’ll ever find.
41. Drole de Drame
Carné tackles comedy.
42. Belle de Jour
I’m not as high on this film as a lot of critics- you’ll note that I’ve got it behind a whole host of other Buñuel films- but this list would be worthless without Catherine Deneuve.
43. Lacombe Lucien
The older, less talented brother of Au Revoir les Enfants, both films serve the same ultimate function- working as illustrations of French guilt post-World War II.
44. A Man Escaped
A prison escape film like no other, made only the way that Robert Bresson could make it.
45. Play Time
Tati’s most experimental film represents a diminished role for the humorous M. Hulot.
46. Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources
By including this pair of films, I avoided incurring the wrath of anyone who’s ever had a Jr. High or High School French course.
47. Bob le Flambeur
Melville makes yet another noir, this one apparently serving as a tremor in the coming Nouvelle Vague earthquake.
Both a French history lesson and an allegory for Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement.
It’s not exactly my thing but it earns points for imagination, sort of a Tim Burton film for French people.
50. Place de la République
Mostly a guilty pleasure here, I know it likely doesn’t belong. But the way that Louis Malle procures real humanity out of everyday people on the street impresses me tremendously.
So that’s that- fifty films for Bastille Day. As I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few I have yet to see, and they’ll go into the Honorable Mention category. There are also some that I flat-out refused to put on there because I didn’t like them, and still others that I liked but weren’t quite good enough for the list. They’re also in the Honorable Mention category.
Masculin, Feminin • Indochine • Umbrellas of Cherbourg • La Roue • Napoléon • L’Atlante • Zéro de Conduit • La Belle et la Bete • Caché • Les Dames du Bois Boulogne • Alphaville • Grand Illusion • Claire’s Knee • Le Trou • Double Life of Véronique • Rules of the Game • A Nous la Liberté • Le Million • Touchez Pas au Grisbi • The Milky Way • Au Hasard Balthazar • Shoot the Piano Player • Boudu Saved from Drowning • Trafic • The Last Metro • Le Plaisir • Hotel du Nord • Pépé le Moke • L’Argent • Irreversible • Diary of a Chambermaid • Amélie • The Red Balloon • Les Amants • Le Cercle Rouge • Les Carabiniers • Band of Outsiders • Zombie Lake • The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (technically Italian, but still worthy of consideration) • La Grande Bouffe