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From Kubrick to Scorsese: Michael Mann names his 10 favourite films of all time

“A 65-ft.-wide screen and 500 people reacting to the movie, there is nothing like that experience.” – Michael Mann

Known as a master of violence and lyrical tension, Michael Mann is responsible for some of cinema’s best ever crime films, from 1995s Heat to 2004s Collateral. It all stemmed from his early career in documentary filmmaking where Mann demonstrated his commitment to brutal authenticity. Though, as the director states in an interview, “My ambition was always to make dramatic films. I had a strong sense of the value of drama growing up in Chicago, which has long had a thriving theatre scene”. Finding a “tremendous richness” in real-life experience, Mann continues, stating, “Life itself is the proper resource. I’ve never really changed that habit of wanting to bring preparation into the real world of the picture, with a character that actors are going to portray”. 

Though Mann may have sparked his career to life in the documentary field, he would soon switch to narrative feature filmmaking, with his first film Thief, starring James Caan, being released in 1981. The film would precede many more high profile offerings including the Hannibal Lector film Manhunter, as well as the Daniel Day-Lewis war-drama The Last of the Mohicans. Many of his tendencies toward fact and authenticity would carry over, however, with the director determined to write a biography on every character he wrote about. “I like to know everything about a character. Major characters, minor characters, even if a picture’s got nothing to do with what their childhood is, I want to know what their childhood was like,” the director states. It’s all in the interest of the story at hand.

Like all great filmmakers, Michael Mann also turns to film history for inspiration in forming his stories and characters, noting his 10 favourite films that have influenced his creative process throughout the years. His first choice is Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, which Mann calls a “masterpiece” and exclaims that “Coppola evoked the high-voltage, dark identity quest, journeying into overload, the wildness, and nihilism”. It’s one of two war titles on the list, with the second belonging to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which Mann believed to have “laid the theoretical foundation for much of 20th-century cinematic narrative”.

Often cited as one of cinema’s very best offerings, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is Mann’s third choice, a film which the director considers a “watershed” moment in cinema. Noting the “Wellesian brio” and “grand scale” of the story as two reasons he enjoyed the groundbreaking film, Mann clearly becomes inspired by cataclysmic shifts in the material of cinema. This may go to explain his somewhat bizarre choice of James Cameron’s Avatar as his fourth choice, a film which remains the highest-grossing of all time thanks to its innovations in 3D technology. According to Michael Mann, Cameron’s film is a “brilliant synthesis” of mythic tropes which “soars because, simply, it stones and transports you”.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2010 breakthrough Biutiful is Mann’s only other contemporary choice, describing the film simply as “pure poetry”. As the director explains, “Biutiful is resplendent with grace, pathos and love,” a powerful film that digs deep down into the bleak realities of the human experience, the film shares some similarities with Mann’s next choice, The Passion of Joan of Arc. “No one else has composed and realised human beings quite like Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc,” says Mann, naming director Carl Theodor Dreyer as the mastermind behind the biographical silent film. Michael Mann notes just how powerful Dreyer’s film is at conveying the human experience, through the “visualisation of the human face”.

The work of monochrome film extraordinaire Carl Theodor Dreyer joins the modern masters of cinema in Michael Mann’s list, including Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. Mann’s seventh pick is the satirical war comedy Dr. Strangelove from director Stanley Kubrick, starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles around the war room. Described as a “revelation” by Michael Mann, the director went on to say, “Dr. Strangelove is devastatingly more effective through hilarious ridicule than are any number of cautionary fables”. Kubrick’s film joins Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull on Michael Mann’s list, for the way the film “immerses us” into the fall of Jake LaMotta and his need for redemption. Continuing on his love for the film, Mann comments: “The humanity of the picture is extraordinary, as is Marty’s execution.”

Check out the full list of Michael Mann’s favourite films, below.

Michael Mann’s 10 favourite films:

  • Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
  • Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
  • Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2010)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
  • Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
  • Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
  • My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
  • The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

My Darling Clementine is the “finest drama in the western genre,” Mann boldly states, with the film the first of two genre films that bookend this list. A technical triumph, Mann states that the film “achieves near-perfection cinematically in many of its passages via its blocking, shooting and editing”. 

His second western pick, and final overall choice, is Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, a violent wild west romp that is a “milestone’ according to Mann. Bookending not only this list, but also the end of the myth of the west itself, Mann comments “No other picture captures the poignancy of ‘the last of’, a fin de siècle sense of the west, of ageing, of the pathos of twilight”.