Top 10 Movies EVERYONE Watches in Film School

Written by Q.V. Hough

The best movies that will be shown to budding directors, filmmakers, and cinephiles who find themselves studying in film school as examples of outstanding cinema. WatchMojo presents the Top 10 Movies You Will Most Likely watch in film school! But what will take the top spot? Breathless, Seven Samurai, or Citizen Kane? Watch to find out!

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Narratively and visually, these films are the essentials for any self-respecting cinephile. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 movies shown in film school.

For this list, we’re focusing on the influential motion pictures that are most often shown by film or media professors when discussing the craft of filmmaking.

#10: “City Lights” (1931)

Aside from being lauded for its technical precision, Charlie Chaplin’s beloved silent film, “City Lights” not only brings plenty of heart, but also essentially changed the moviemaking industry. Chaplin’s mastery of movement demonstrated that he had a keen understanding of the visual aesthetic necessary to incite laughs and engage the audience in his antics – and as the director, producer, and star he was in a prime position to articulate that vision. With its central love story featuring the iconic “Tramp” character seeking the affection of a blind woman, the film more than delivers on romance and clever gags. And by the finale of “City Lights”, Chaplin’s proficiency as a filmmaker sets the stage for his magical moment as a performer, highlighting the importance of character development.

#9: “The Graduate” (1967)

While this Mike Nichols classic has lost some of its luster since the late sixties, it remains a definitive satire of its time. Starring Dustin Hoffman in his breakout role, and Anne Bancroft as the alluring Mrs. Robinson, “The Graduate” mixes brilliant storytelling with refined direction. On paper, the inherent conflict jumps off the page, as Benjamin Braddock falls for Elaine, the daughter of Mrs. Robinson. But given the overall character study and sly humor of the film, it stands up as a conversation starter on character motivation and viewer identification– especially when analyzing the introspective ending of the film. In other words, do you sympathize more with Benjamin or Mrs. Robinson?

#8: “Mulholland Drive” (2001)

David Lynch’s 1986 classic “Blue Velvet” is another film school essential, as his recurring themes pervade the unorthodox narrative, opening the viewer’s mind to cinema’s possibilities. But in terms of 21st century filmmaking, “Mulholland Drive” strays heavily from the usual narratives of commercial films. Set in Los Angeles, “Mulholland Drive” offers a surreal take on the big city experience. Lynch relies less on rigid structuring and captures his audiences through mood and dream-like imagery. Touching on a mix of genres, particularly the film noir of Hollywood’s past, “Mulholland Drive” requires patient viewing and doesn’t provide easy answers for audiences.

#7: “The Godfather” (1972)

By the early 70s, the gangster genre had undergone various alterations, but no film had investigated a mob family quite like Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” For a first-time viewer, the names Al Pacino and Marlon Brando have a certain effect, as most film students understand their pop culture relevance. But in terms of craft and the technique of constructing a film, “The Godfather” masterfully delivers throughout, in dialogue, performance and increasing tension. And at three hours long, it’s a perfect example of how cinema may transcend length if the storytelling is tight.

#6: “Psycho” (1960)

Known as “The Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t necessarily praised throughout the majority of his career. But as filmmaking auteurs paid closer attention to his work, the more admired he became. And so, a film like “Psycho” received increased attention for its collective brilliance beyond the infamous shower scene. In terms of plot, “Psycho” reveals a director fully aware of what buttons to push, with its leading lady getting killed in the first act. And the visuals and editing techniques manipulate the viewer even more. It takes brilliant performers to sell each particular scene by building tension and mystery, showing that a proper understanding of directorial technique goes a long way.

#5: “Raging Bull” (1980)

Based on the life story of boxer Jake LaMotta, this film transcends preconceived notions about “likable” characters and masculinity, and earned Robert De Niro his second Oscar for his method acting approach to the titular character. A deeply layered character study, one doesn’t have to identify with the lead to understand his influences on those around him. Director Martin Scorsese enlists a variety of visual techniques, inspired by his cinematic influences while executing his own unique vision. For some, “Raging Bull” may not be as affecting as 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” yet it’s a film that can be studied scene-by-scene and frame-by-frame.

#4: “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)

As Hollywood genres evolved and World War II came to a close, the Italians stripped cinema down to its core. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, “Bicycle Thieves” is arguably the most popular work of the Neorealist movement, focusing heavily on modest, human struggles. As a whole, the film was shot on location in Rome and used local actors, which lent weight to the simple yet heavily dramatic moments. The plot is humble: a man loses his bike and thereby loses his means to provide for his family. There’s no visual trickery, there’s no overt melodrama. It’s a snapshot of life in late 1940s Italy translated to the screen.

#3: “Seven Samurai” (1954)

Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded as one of the best directors of all time. And his 1954 classic essentially portrayed the reluctant hero in a way that hadn’t been done before. Kurosawa didn’t just film the legendary actor Toshiro Mifune and the supporting cast on a single camera; he innovated by using several cameras to create a more chaotic feel. The script itself deserves respect, given the natural drama of seven samurai rising up against village bandits, but it’s a film that zeroes in on all aspects of filmmaking. And so, “Seven Samurai” features a masterful director elevating his craft further, and a filmmaker brilliantly aware of how to portray character motivation, Japanese history and his own vision of filmmaking.

#2: “Breathless” (1960)

Francois Truffaut may have kicked off the French New Wave with 1959’s “The 400 Blows,” but Jean-Luc Godard legitimized the movement with “Breathless.” Originally conceptualized by Truffaut, the film thrives off of a rebellious spirit, a contrast to the existing French movie culture of the time. As a filmmaker, writer and director Godard threw accepted norms out the window, constructing a narrative according to his own personal ideals. Godard’s cinematic philosophy, evidenced by his jump cuts and unconventional storytelling, inspired filmmakers for years to come. There’s a natural “cool” to the characters in “Breathless,” and the directorial techniques fully shook up the system in 1960, ultimately changing how directors approached their craft.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

- “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)
- “Metropolis” (1927)
- “Casablanca” (1942)

#1: “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Decades after its original release, this Orson Welles production is widely regarded as the best film ever made. But like so many great films, “Citizen Kane” was dismissed early on, at least until a French critic shed new light on the innovative style and structure. Chronicling the life of a secluded business tycoon following his death - played by the then 25-year-old Welles - the film influenced much of the film noir movement of the late 1940s and 50s, as well as countless other films and genres. Given the specificity of the lighting and cinematography, story-telling motifs, and certainly the structural brilliance of the screenplay, “Citizen Kane” lives on as a master class on the art of filmmaking.

Do you agree with our list? Which movie do you think film schools show the most? For more cinematic Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to

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