12 Movies Every Filmmaker Must See - Raindance

By Erin Kelly

Watching movies has turned into a fun necessity since I decided to pursue a life in the film industry a year ago. Being well versed with film industry lingo, and the names of famous actors and directors from Christopher Nolan to Daniel Day-Lewis to (one of my favourites) John Lithgow, will help make you seem like the smartest person in the room, well, at least the most pop-culture smart. But, in the film industry, this is gold. It makes you someone that other filmmakers deem worth talking to once they get past your oozing charisma. So do your homework!

When it comes down to it, It is really just as simple as understanding what you are getting into as a potential filmmaker. To do this, it would be beneficial to watch every movie that’s ever made a name for itself, but since there are so many, I’ve narrowed it down to just a few that you should watch in order to make it seem like you didn’t grow up under a rock.

memento1. Memento (2000)

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Rating: 8.5

Memento IMDB

Why is Memento so special?

Basically, it is Christopher Nolan’s first acclaimed film. Nolan didn’t start out as the film industry giant that he is today, he was only 30 years old when his film Memento was released. Amazingly, Nolan also was able to raise his own budget of $9 million for the feature, and he didn’t even have crowdfunding websites to support him in those days like we do. Memento earned a global gross revenue of $39,723,096. He didn’t go immediately for A-list actors, but instead pursued actors that he saw real talent in, and that he could get cheaply. Guy Pearce, who played the protagonist Leonard, went on to become an Emmy award winning actor.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • Memento was a remake of Nolan’s earlier film Following (1998). Watch that movie as well and you can compare Nolan’s growth as a filmmaker moving from one to the next.
  • The story was told in reverse and this unique script gave audiences a mystery to solve. So? Write a unique script that audiences can understand, but that also gives them something unique to consider.
  • I will be saying this constantly throughout this article: It’s all about the script.

following2. Following (1998)

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Rating: 7.6

Following IMDB

Why is Following so special?

Well now that I’ve talked about Memento, I have to talk about Following. This film is Christopher Nolan’s debut film, and Memento was a remake of it. All of Christopher Nolan’s films have been financially successful. His movies have all been generally appealing to most demographics, and there does not seem to be much political agenda in any of them. Following is special because it was filmed on a very low budget, when Nolan was very young, and with Raindance equipment supplied by our own Elliot Grove. He always likes to brag about this at events.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • Nolan’s stories speak for themselves. He does not need to create controversy in the film industry in order to get his movies noticed.
  • He is a dedicated filmmaker. When he was very young he took on the challenge of shooting a feature on his evenings and weekends.
  • It’s all about the script.

dogs3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Rating: 8.4

Reservoir Dogs IMDB

Why is Reservoir Dogs so special?

This was the acclaimed director and writer, Quentin Tarantino’s, debut movie.Through this movie, he proved that he could utilize a more organic method of storytelling rather than stick solely to the three act structure. The movie is compelling and understandable for the audience even with this more abstract method of storytelling. Although they both used variations on the typical structure of script, unlike Christopher Nolan, Tarantino is known for being a lover of guts, gore, and being politically incorrect. He uses this to his advantage, and has still been fairly successful with box office revenue. He also believes in the idea of faking it until you make it; he claimed to have a part in King Lear and Dawn of the Dead. Even though he had nothing to do with these movies. But they still looked great on his resume to the producers who were too lazy to look into it.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • Tarantino proved that one does not need to be conventional or politically correct in order to be a success as a filmmaker.
  • Don’t be ashamed to be inspired by other films that have already been made, and been successful. Draw from those. Learn from the storytelling techniques. After all, there are only seven different types of stories.
  • Fake it until you make it.

kane4. Citizen Kane (1941)

Dir. Orson Welles

Rating: 8.4

Citizen Kane IMDB

Why is Citizen Kane so special?

Not only is Citizen Kane a great movie, it relied on a great director who mastered the art of storytelling in general, and was able to apply it to many mediums. Orson Welles is also well known for the 1938 radio show The War of the Worlds, which put the radio show’s audience in a panic when they misinterpreted the sci-fi drama as a nonfiction news story. Despite the movie’s genius, it was not until the 2000’s that it was actually accepted by the film industry at large as an influential piece. In fact, it was a commercial failure when it first hit cinemas because William Randolph Hearst, the person the protagonist of the film was based off of, did his very best to prevent the movie from being widely publicised. Welles was never again given the commercial freedom that he was given with Citizen Kane because of the lack of funds that the movie was able to raise.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • It goes to show that a movie can be brilliant, and not accepted or realized by the public simply because of bad public relations; a valuable lesson for all filmmakers.
  • Citizen Kane was a huge risk for Orson Welles to take, but if you are passionate about your movie, then it might work out in the end to be a classic. 
  • Be knowledgeable in marketing and business.

pulp5. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Rating: 8.9

Pulp Fiction IMDB

Why is Pulp Fiction so special?

Even with Reservoir Dogs added to Quentin Tarantino’s CV, it was still difficult for him to pitch this movie to producers at first because of its complexity and ridiculously low concept. Now it is a cult classic because of Tarantino’s ultimate vision. It is interesting to note that the role of Vincent Vega was the only role that Day-Lewis has actively pursued, but Tarantino wanted John Travolta for the part. The movie has obtained a whopping 28 awards, and gave Tarantino an immense amount of popularity and influence in the film community.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • Entertain the audience with one-liners that they can take home. This is also a great publicity strategy from a marketing perspective.
  • Casting is important. Choosing the right people to play the part, and considering their reputation in the film industry at the time of production and release, makes a significant impact on whether or not the film is to be successful.
  • It’s all about the script.

darth-vader6. Star Wars Episodes 1 – 6 (1977 – 2005)

Dir. George Lucas and Irvin Kershner (directed Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back).

Avg. Rating: 7.8

Star Wars IMDB

Why is Star Wars so special?

For the first Star Wars movie, George Lucas was able to attract funding on his own from 20th Century Fox because of his film American Graffiti (1973). Lucas’s company went on to revolutionize special effects in in the industry through his skilled use of them in all the Star Wars episodes. Now the series is a cult classic that all ages can enjoy.

What can new filmmakers learn from this series?

  • Lucas popularized the sci-fi genre, as well as revolutionized special effects in Hollywood. This was refreshing for audiences of the time.
  • Think you can improve the film industry? Do it (if you have the means). Lucas revolutionized special effects.
  • One basic idea can go a long way. Set your film up so that it can stand alone, or be part of a series.

shawshank7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Dir. Frank Darabont

Rating: 9.3

The Shawshank IMDB

Why is The Shawshank Redemption so special?

Originally it did not do well in the box office, but gained popularity as the message of the movie sunk in for audiences. There are also unique character relations in the movie; some call it a “guy-cry” movie. The characters are very well developed and used. Writer-director Frank Darabont had no career as a director before Shawshank. He worked on the set of low-budget films in order to pay rent.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • Darabont did not start off as a prominent person in the industry, and the movie was not taken as a classic immediately. It takes patience and perseverance to succeed in the industry.
  • Darabont wrote his first draft for The Shawshank Redemption in 1987 (7 years before it was released to the public). He spent ample time perfecting the script and getting advice from prominent people in the realm of storytelling, such as Stephen King.
  • Tim Robbins, the actor that played Andy Dufresne, said that it was “The best script [he’s] ever read. Ever”.
  • Darabont’s journey teaches how perseverance with a story pays off in the end if the story is what you’re passionate about.
  • It’s all about the script.

Terminator2_18. Terminator 2: Judgment Day  (1991)

Dir. James Cameron

Rating: 8.5

Terminator 2 IMDB

Why is Terminator 2 so special?

The movie was independently funded by James Cameron’s resources. It Reinvented the action series genre, so he was able to fill a gap in the film industry. Cameron initially got the idea for Terminator from a nightmare he had and then he ran with it. Cameron also started in the industry from the bottom of the ladder, he paid rent by working as a set assistant on various low budget productions.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film and from James Cameron as a director and writer?

  • He is very driven. In his personal life, he is very  athletically fit and dedicated to the work that he’s doing. He notes in various interviews that he has a hard time sitting and doing nothing, and that he wants to respond to movies and anything in general that inspires him.
  • Cameron exemplifies the filmmaker’s need to, at one point, stop writing and get down to putting a film into action and producing it.

psycho9. Psycho (1960)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Rating: 8.6

Psycho IMDB

Why is Psycho so special?

Psycho is widely considered the “mother” of modern suspense thrillers.  It broke basic film conventions at the time of release by including a scene with a toilet bowl flush, and a half-naked woman in the opening scene. Think about the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey for audiences today. For the time, the meticulous editing that this film required was done beautifully. Hitchcock accepted that he needed intricate scenes in order to keep the audience’s attention, and he was willing to put in the resources to achieve this.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • Unpredictable characters heighten suspense in your film. Cast well.
  • It is possible to make films on a restricted budget, and still have them become classics. Hitchcock knew what his spending priorities were for the film.
  • He also filled a gap in the industry by instigating the era of modern suspense thrillers.

apple10 . Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Dirs (6). David Hand, William Cottrell, WIlfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen.

Rating: 7.7

Snow White IMDB

Why is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so special?

Although this isn’t an independent production, it is produced under Walt Disney and if anyone has demonstrated an amazing entrepreneurial spirit, he has. His company and legacy, Disney Co., is still huge internationally and every new filmmaker could learn something from the strategies that Disney implemented when starting his production company. Snow White is the first full-length cel-animated feature film. In other words, every frame had to be drawn by hand. Disney was innovative and creative enough to recognize the place that animation could have in feature films, and he inspired other companies to follow his lead in developing the technology. Pixar was inspired by Disney’s animated movies and focused on developing the animation medium further; they created an easier animation method for film companies to use.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • A film does not have to be shot in live action. The medium is the message.
  • It will help to minimize production budget if filmmakers learn the technical skills accessible to them at this modern time (which is a lot more than Disney had in the 30’s).
  • It will also make a filmmaker a valuable commodity if they know how to use a technical program that few people in the industry know how to use.

life11. Life of Brian (1979)

Dir. Terry Jones

Rating: 8.2

Life of Brian IMDB

Why is Life of Brian so special?

Like Tarantino, they used controversy, and they used it well. In doing so, they popularized a new form of comedy. They also had an intelligent answer prepared for interviewers when they were asked about controversial topics that they included in their films. The Pythons pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content by discarding rules of television comedy, and making fun of the conventional. The Pythons agreed not to directly criticise christianity in the film Life of Brian, and also agreed that there was nothing that they could make fun of Jesus for because he was just “such a good guy”. They decided to focus on the slightly less controversial theme of the hypocrisy of his followers; who were willing to follow the Messiah like sheep, but did not come to his rescue in the end.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • The Pythons saw the need for controversy in comedy, and filled the gap.
  • Comedy is a skill that one can practice and master, just as the Pythons have.
  • The Pythons work well as a team. That is why their productions are so widely loved and cherished: they were made with love (not to be cheesy or anything).
  • Raindance has even done an additional article on Monty Python’s 3 Lessons for Filmmakers.

spencerx12. Eraserhead (1977)

Dir. David Lynch

Rating: 7.4

Eraserhead IMDB

Why is Eraserhead so special?

First off, the film is noted for being unclassified within any specific genre and It was filmed over several years with practically no budget. Lynch constructed a work for the audience that each individual viewer could interpret in their own, personal, way. But it still maintained a story. The movie found its audience on the Midnight Movie Circuit, and so it was able to make a name for itself at that time through people who were interested in underground films that were not marketed to a larger audience. Lynch knew what audience would be interested in his film, and he chose this niche audience to market his film to.

What can new filmmakers learn from this film?

  • It is important to be extremely literate with lighting and camera techniques in order to minimize the budget.
  • Limit costs by learning how to make DIY props.
  • Know what audience your film might appeal to before production, and then market it to that audience. Even if your film might not be a blockbuster hit, it could be huge in some circles.

The main take away here is to decide what your strengths are as a filmmaker and then use, and exploit them, in the industry. If they are not fully developed yet; fake it until you make it! In order to choose this, it is important to understand the film industry and be able to recognize what the audience is craving; think about how you can add your own personal touch to that conversation. It is also important to note that many of the filmmakers featured in this list are not just exceptional storytellers, but also resourceful business people that know how to market their films, get money for their production, and minimize the costs involved. And don’t forget, one of the best ways to save money and earn money is to have a good script. It costs the least money to continually revise, and it will also ultimately be what makes the audience love your film. Here at Raindance, we have many film courses and panel sessions that you can attend and learn about these skills. Now go watch some movies.