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(Credit: Athena LeTrelle)


Spike Lee picks 95 essential films for every filmmaker


Spike Lee, the American film director, producer, writer, and actor who finally won his first Academy Award in 2019, has offered some advice to all budding filmmakers trying to find their way into Hollywood.

Having made his directorial debut back in 1986 with his film She’s Gotta Have It, Lee has since built his cinematic reputation by challenging issues such as urban crime, poverty, race relations and discrimination against the Black community in running themes through his work.

Lee’s films, typically referred to as ‘Spike Lee Joints’, range from the critically acclaimed comedy-drama Do The Right Thing – which earned Lee mainstream success in 1989 – to his most recent feature film BlacKkKlansman which secured victory at the Oscars in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

In an interview, Lee once said: “I consider myself a storyteller. I feel that is what good directors do, they are really just following criteria: is this a good story? Is this the story I want to tell? All we’re trying to do is the hard task of making interesting, thought-provoking films. I don’t choose stories based on how controversial they are… I’ve never wanted to make mindless entertainment.”

He added, “There have been more occasions than not where critics review what they feel is the persona of Spike Lee, what their personal views are about me, as opposed to reviewing the film. Therefore they neglect the people who work behind the camera and those who work in front of the camera and focus on Spike Lee — to the detriment of the film.”

For Lee, studying the history of cinema and those that pioneered specific genres is an essential part of finding your own identity. In the early 1990s, Lee began teaching a course about filmmaking at Harvard and, in 1993, he started teaching at New York University’s acclaimed Tisch School of the Arts in the Graduate Film Program.

Lee’s desire to continually teach film led to him receiving his master of fine arts from Tisch and, subsequently, to his appointment to artistic director in 2002. Even now, Lee is a tenured professor at NYU. Lee, being the forward-thinking man he is, opted against the idea of providing his students with a mountain of reading material and, instead, handed them a list of films that he considers essential for all students of cinema.

The list, which includes names such as Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Jarmusch, Francois Truffaut and Roman Polanski, also cooks up a few surprises which, most notably, includes Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus instead of his pioneering sci-fi effort 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The list though, which is made up of 95 films in total, was initially just 87 names upon its first release. However, after the internet pointed out that Lee had failed to include a single female filmmaker Lee adjusted his list.

Spike Lee’s 95 favourite films:

  • The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008
  • Sugar Cane Alley by Euzhan Palcy, 1983
  • Swept Away by Lina Wertmuller, 1974
  • Seven Beauties by Lina Wertmuller, 1975
  • The Piano by Jane Campion, 1993
  • Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, 1991
  • The Seduction of Mimi by Lina Wertmuller, 1972
  • Love and Anarchy by Lina Wertmuller, 1973
  • Bad Lieutenant by Abel Ferrara, 1992
  • Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, 1950
  • Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa, 1961
  • Ran by Akira Kurosawa, 1985
  • Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
  • Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958
  • North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcok, 1959
  • Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn, 1967
  • The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970
  • Last Tango in Paris by Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972
  • Ace in the Hole by Billy Wilder, 1951
  • Some Like It Hot by Billy Wilder, 1959
  • Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett, 1977
  • Night of the Hunter by Charles Laughton, 1955
  • Raising Arizona by Coen Brothers, 1987
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai by David Lean, 1957
  • Lawrence of Arabia by David Lean, 1962
  • On the Waterfront by Elia Kazan, 1954
  • A Face in the Crowd by Elia Kazan, 1957
  • La Strada by Federico Fellini, 1954
  • La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini, 1960
  • 8 ½ by Federico Fellini, 1963
  • City of Gods by Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund, 2002
  • The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972
  • The Godfather: Part II by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
  • 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut, 1959
  • Day for Night by Francois Truffaut, 1973
  • Patton by Franklin J. Schnaffner, 1970
  • Mad Max by George Miller, 1979
  • The Road Warrior by George Miller, 1981
  • Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966
  • The Last Detail by Hal Ashby, 1973
  • Breathless by Jean-Luc Goddard, 1960
  • West Side Story by Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961
  • Stranger than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch, 1984
  • The Train by John Frankenheimer, 1964
  • The Maltese Falcon by John Huston, 1941
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by John Huston, 1948
  • Fat City by John Huston, 1972
  • Midnight Cowboy by John Schlesinger, 1969 
  • Marathon Man by John Schlesinger, 1969
  • Boyz n the Hood by John Singleton, 1991
  • Los Olvidados by Luis Bunuel, 1950
  • Black Orpheus by Marcel Camus, 1959
  • Home of the Brave by Mark Robson, 1949
  • Mean Streets by Martin Scorcese, 1973
  • Raging Bull by Martin Scorsese, 1980
  • Apocalypto by Mel Gibson, 2006
  • Casablanca by Michael Curtiz, 1942
  • Thief by Michael Mann, 1981
  • The Red Shoes by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948
  • Coolie High by Michael Schultz, 1975
  • I Am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
  • One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Milos Forman, 1975
  • District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, 2009
  • In the Heat of the Night by Norman Jewison, 1967
  • Touch of Evil by Orson Welles, 1958
  • Blue Collar by Paul Schrader, 1978
  • White Heat by Raoul Walsh, 1949
  • Is Paris Burning? By Rene Clement, 1966
  • Mash by Robert Altman, 1970
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Robert Mulligan, 1962
  • Rome Open City by Roberto Rossellini, 1945
  • Paisan by Roberto Rossellini, 1946 
  • Chinatown by Roman Polanski, 1974
  • Black Rain by Shohei Imamura, 1989
  • Dog Day Afternoon by Sidney Lumet, 1975
  • Singin’ in the Rain by Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952
  • Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick, 1957
  • Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick, 1960
  • Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick, 1964
  • Kung Fu Hustle by Stephen Chow, 2004
  • Dirty Pretty Things by Stephen Frears, 2002
  • Hoop Dreams by Steve James, 1984
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg, 1977
  • Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg, 1987
  • Cool Hand Luke by Stuart Rosenberg, 1967
  • Badlands by Terrence Malick, 1973
  • Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick, 1978
  • The Wizard of Oz by Victor Fleming, 1939
  • An American in Paris by Vincente Minnelli, 1951
  • Lust for Life by Vincente Minnelli, 1956
  • The Bicycle Thief by Vittorio de Sica, 1948
  • Miracle in Milan by Vittorio de Sica, 1951
  • Dead End by William Wyler, 1937
  • Zelig by Woody Allen, 1983