10 Films that Should be on your Movie Night Watch List

said by: Alican Yildiz, (M.CP '17 Ph.D. '21) 


"There are several ways of making films. Like Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson, who make music. Like Sergei Eisenstein, who paints. Like Stroheim, who wrote novels spoken in the days of silent film. Like Alain Resnais, who sculpts. And like Socrates - I mean Rossellini, who creates philosophy. Cinema, in other words can be everything at the same time, judge and litigant "- Jean-Luc Godard [1]


As human consciousness - life - may not be realized without capturing time and space. It is unthinkable to make movies without a space, digital or real. Movie-makers are charged with expressing life and they transform our consciousness from the human reality to the world to an alternate world when they imagine, design and produce the scene: a space that holds the storyline. Filming "real space" was the goal of many directors like Roberto Rossellini - Rome, Open City (1945), and Vittorio De Sica -The Bicycle Thief (1949). Their movie making method, Italian neorealism, eventually became a revolutionary style which turned urban space into both the site and vehicle to enhance a cinematic expression of human life, and its social critique. [2]

The following is a list of movies you (as someone reading a design school online website) NEED TO SEE. These are movies that not only film space but portray streets, open spaces, buildings, and their interiors as characters themselves. They should be on your "to watch" list. 

(In Chronological Order)

Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang



Early German expressionist Lang, instead of using existing spaces as Italian neo-realists, made his own “real space” to depict the future as a dystopia. Metropolis portrays the modernity through symbolizing a city as a workplace, in which the inherent use of over scaled architecture oppresses workers to reduce them into the “monotonous” and “repetitively moving” parts of the industrial machinery: the gears of Fordism. [3] 

Double Indemnity (1944), by Billy Wilder

Photo: Wikimedia

Photo: Wikimedia

“Film Noir” was the America movie-maker’s response to the European expressionists, and the cityscape of Los Angeles was the favorite setting of these directors who wanted to create an “alienating effect” by describing urban spaces in their real form.  Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity uses the expressionist style of film-noir to demonstrate “the play of light and shadow” throughout the Los Angeles streets and the interior spaces of the buildings. [3]

Bicycle Thieves (1949), by Vittorio De Sica

Photo: Wikimedia

Photo: Wikimedia

Vittorio De Sica follows the story of a poor father looking his stolen bicycle in the post-World War II Rome. The search of bicycle becomes a symbolism for a struggle to save his family from the entrenched poverty. The film itself was the powerful example of Italian neorealism. It criticizes the structural conditions of poverty, oppression, and injustice in the post-WWII Italy.

The Rear Window (1954), by Alfred Hitchcock

Photo: Flashbak

Photo: Flashbak

The creating spaces of mystery, tension and horror was the expertise of a great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.  To shoot the Rear Window, he produced the entire form of typical New York courtyard in his Hollywood studio [2]. This film was among the best mystery thrillers in not only Hitchcock’s career, but also in the cinema history.

Breathless (1960), by Jean-Luc Godard

Photo: leffest

Photo: leffest

In Breathless, Godard portrays a love affair between Patricia Franchini, an American student in Paris who works for the New York Herald Tribune, and Michel Poiccard, a French small-time gangster. The cityscape of Paris was the principal component of Godard’s storytelling that uses urban images and real locations to “establish his filmic city as a real geographical space” [3].

Playtime (1967), by Jacques Tati (1967)

Playtime is another French-American love, but in a comedy style.  Jacques Tati tells the ironic story of Barbara, a young American tourist visiting Paris, and Monsieur Hulot, a distracted Frenchman who loses himself in the new modernity of Paris. If you have an allergy for the modernist urbanism of Le Corbusier, be cautious!

A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was one of the most successful movie-makers who used architectural form and structures to enrich his cinematic storytelling. Architecture itself was often becoming a main character of his movies. A Clockwork Orange uses Brutalism to portray, and somehow discuss the controversial and subversive social and political issues in a dystopian near-future Britain.

Killer of Sheep, (1978), by Charles Burnett

The history of American Cinema has a bad reputation to stereotype Black Poverty in United States through a one-dimensional depiction of violence, deprivation, and limitation. But Charles Burnett (influenced by Italian neorealists) chose to tell the story of Black lives in the urban space of south-central Los Angeles from a different angle. We simply watch an ordinary family man (a butcher in meatpacking plant) from 20th working-class, who increasingly feels” trapped” in his society [3]. “Killer of Sheep” should be acclaimed as one of the milestone films of America.

Blade Runner (1982), by Ridley Scott

There was something different in 80s. Reaganomics and Thatcherism has started to decompose the world as we know, and the postmodernism has been winking. So, there were enough reason for Ridley Scott to realistically constructs a “fictional city” (San Angeles), in which the techno-urban spaces and high-rise architectural structures turn into the subliminal, somehow dystopian articulations of our beloved (!) postmodernism achieved by “the capitalist supremacy of the postindustrial era" [2].

Paris, Texas (1984), Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders is a successful representative of the movie-makers who are not shy to reflect their love and hate relationship with the postmodern United States: a richness of human stories and a creeping integration within consumerism, capitalism and culture. In short, When Wenders travelled to the United States in early 80s, he wished to make a film “to tell a story about America". There was no other choice but using a theme of road movie describing the U.S. as "a fantasyland, a place of striking images, a mise-en-scène of desert and city"[4].

Brazil (1985), by Terry Gilliam

Photo: tor.com

Photo: tor.com

Still in the decade of a social critique both in real-space and fictional dystopias, Terry Gillam's quirky style uses the story of a low-rank bureaucrat who shuttles between a normality and insanity in the totalitarian future. Film-noir, German expressionism and Architectural determinism were principal themes in Brazil.

Pulp Fiction (1994), by Quentin Tarantino

In this well-known cult movie, Tarantino uses a background of a standard American city to describe “the series of banal stories”: unemployed people, murderers, waitresses, and roadside hotels. Built environment itself also becomes a banal reflection of his "dirty realism" [2] that can be exist anywhere in the world.

La Haine (1995), by Mathieu Kassovitz

In 2018, France is experiencing the uncertain urban condition constructed on the economic inequality, the cultural pressure of migration, and the rise of nationalist parties. 23 years ago, La Haine was mirroring the current condition throughout the story of immigrant youth who struggles to find a purpose of their life during the Paris Banlieue riots. All components of urban environment - buildings, open spaces, streets-transit lines- facilitates a three-dimensional question: do social ills manifest over urban spaces, or urban spaces cause social ills? Mathieu Kassovitz argues both.

In the Mood for Love (2000), by Wong Kar-wai

Indeed, this film is about a love through the moods of humanity’s most common sentiment: betrayal, loss, missed opportunities, loneliness, memory, and unpreventable reality of time. A use of contemporary urban settings is the acclaimed feature of the movie-maker Wong Kar-wai, but this time, he sets the film’s character in 60s Hong Kong, in where the shapes and surfaces of the streets, building interiors, and even furniture details become a physical reflection of these moods.

Synecdoche, New York (2008), Charlie Kaufman

Kaufman’s film tells the story of a theatre director who tries to finish the stage production of his latest play. The distinction between fiction and reality increasingly becomes obscure because of the director’s pledge, in other words obsession with realism. The film also reveals our intertwined relationships between the life and death, personas and professions.

Her (2013), by Spike Jonze

In a quite near future Los Angeles, Spike Jonze films a lonely, introverted, and depressed life of Theodore Twombly who founds his soulmate, Samantha, in a computer operating system. A female voice of personal assistant is enough to help Theodore fall in love, but something is wrong with this digital-relationship which symbolizes itself within the film’s uber techno-urban world.  There is no object in the film without a chique touch of design, but Spike Jonze ultimately asks: is it the life we will want to buy from the Silicon Valley plutocrats? 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), by Jim Jarmusch

Only Lovers Left Alive is about the immortality and power of art, but this theme is forming through the portrayal of conceptually immortal (vampires!), and relatively powerful life of two artsy characters - Eva and Adam -  who have “parallel” lives in the different parts - Tangiers, Morocco and Detroit, US - of the world.  Eva and Adam’s love story eventually connects their parallel lives by dissolving the stress of death and weakness, but also the differences of the world: the culture of the East and West, from traditional Middle-Eastern music to rock in Detroit, from American to Eastern architecture merges into a whole one.

I temporarily finish here...(plus there is a merit to stop with a love story since we haven’t presented many “happy” movies.) Now its your turn! 

[1] Godard, Jean-Luc.1986. Godard on Godard. New York: Da Capo Press.

[2].Baratto, Ramallo.2017. “How Architecture Speaks Through Cinema” ArchDaily. Accessed from https://www.archdaily.com/872754/how-architecture-speaks-through-cinema

[3] Mennel, Barbara. (2008) Cities and cinema. New York: Routledge.

[4] "Paris, Texas (film)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Paris,_Texas_(film)&oldid=830058484

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