AFI FEST’s American Independents Filmmakers Pick Their Top Five Films From the Last 50 Years – American Film Institute


AFI FEST’s American Independents Filmmakers Pick Their Top Five Films From the Last 50 Years

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the American Film Institute, AFI FEST filmmakers in the American Independents section shared with us their five favorite films from the past 50 years — from 1967 and onwards. Below, their responses.


Jared Moshé
Jared Moshé

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (DIR Wong Kar-wai, 2001) — Romance, love and yearning in cinematic form. The use of sound and score in this film is breathtaking; emotionally evocative, subtle and confident.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (DIR Sergio Leone, 1966) — A perfect, cinematic distillation of the mythology of the Old West. The introduction of the villainous Henry Fonda ranks as one of the best in film history.

RAGING BULL (DIR Martin Scorsese, 1980) — I love the intimacy of this film. While developing our shooting style for THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN, I often found myself coming back to it, learning from how Scorsese used the cinematography to dig into the psychology of his protagonist.

UNFORGIVEN (DIR Clint Eastwood, 1992) — So much of filmmaking is casting; knowing what your actors bring to the table and sculpting your vision around that. Yes, Clint Eastwood directed and starred, but I don’t think there is a more perfect alignment of star and character.

THE WILD BUNCH (DIR Sam Peckinpah, 1969) — Although the film is renowned for its violence, I’ve always been inspired by the juxtaposition of the lyrical and the visceral. Especially while cutting THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN.

J.P. Sniadecki (EL MAR LA MAR)

J.P. Sniadecki
J.P. Sniadecki

VAGABOND (DIR Agnès Varda, 1985) — The ultimate road movie, the ultimate loner flick, an arresting yet elusive wanderer unmoored and unmoved, marching to her tragic end in the winter months of France’s wine country.

THE PICKPOCKET (1997) & PLATFORM (2000), DIR Jia Zhangke — No one has captured either the sensorial texture or the psychic energy — the bursting ambition and crushing desperation — of provincial China like Jia has and, what’s more, he masterfully connects it not only with larger global events that penetrate the “little lives” he portrays, but also with the greats of cinema history.

QUIXOTE (DIR Bruce Baillie, 1965) — The greatest blend of affection and admonishment ever offered to modern America on celluloid, an audiovisual tapestry of far-ranging and epic proportions.

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (DIR Edward Yang, 1991) — I never wanted this masterpiece to end, even after its final 237th minute.

THERE’S A STRONG WIND IN BEIJING (DIR Ju Anqi, 1999) —  No real words to describe this film, shot with inexhaustible energy on the streets of Beijing in 1999 with expired 16mm stock, other than the ending transformation always blows me away. A pity it is so hard to get a good copy of it. 

Justin Benson (co-director, THE ENDLESS)

Justin Benson

My list of best movies since 1967 will be somewhat dishonest, as I’m going to exclude the obvious best of the best (THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II, APOCALYPSE NOW, almost anything by Scorsese or Spielberg, etc). What I am going to do is choose movies by my favorite directors working today that demonstrate the high points of what they do, in no particular order.

TRAINSPOTTING (DIR Danny Boyle, 1996) — In terms of choosing from Danny Boyle’s body of work, this one really is pretty arbitrary. I would argue that 127 HOURS, 28 DAYS LATER, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, SHALLOW GRAVE, MILLIONS and TRAINSPOTTING 2 all show him working at the same level of mastery. He seems to understand humanity and kinetic, innovative filmmaking in equal measure, which is so, so rare. The way he balances dark humor, sometimes actually scary horror, and human heart, with a signature, ambitious visual style is why I never miss a Danny Boyle film.

BEFORE SUNRISE (DIR Richard Linklater, 1995) — I wanted to list the whole BEFORE trilogy here but Aaron already did it and said something really cool [that] I couldn’t top. Richard Linklater is among the best we’ve got, and he’s done so much brilliant work it’s hard to choose one. I think the reason I chose BEFORE SUNRISE, despite the redundancy, is that there’s some magic in it. Many have tried chatty 20-something love stories, but none have reached the universal humanity of this film. Even being pre-internet culture, it’s timeless, and every time I watch it it’s like watching beautiful, realistically interesting ghosts fall in love over and over. Learning that this film is not improvisation is one of the reasons why I’m so committed to rehearsal and making sure we’re always truly collaborating with performers.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (DIR Quentin Tarantino, 2009) — I think this might be the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in a movie theater in my adult life. It’s been sort of passé to praise Tarantino films for a while now, and not because cinephiles think they’re bad. I suspect it’s because it’s too easy a go-to for a list (for example), and he inspired an onslaught of films that tried to do what he does and have mostly failed. I know most people would have chosen PULP FICTION or RESERVOIR DOGS, but I think INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is one of his best. The dialogue is some of the best he’s ever written, and every vignette builds to a spectacular payoff. There’s a lot of violent revenge in this movie, but even to someone who doesn’t find that to be compelling or romantic on its own as it highlights the worst in human beings, the tone is so carefully constructed that I simultaneously felt tense and could embrace the violence as not quite real. Suspenseful, uncomfortable, extremely funny, visceral… And that opening scene.

ALMOST FAMOUS (DIR Cameron Crowe, 2000) — I saw this movie with my mom when I was in high school. I remember when I got home she said to my dad, “I just had the best day.” I think almost everyone feels that way after watching this movie. I think it’s Billy Crudup and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s best performances, and Cameron Crowe’s best script. While I hear it does sanitize that era of rock ‘n’ roll a bit, it is shockingly honest about the ridiculousness of pop culture and how shallow young love usually is. People get treated really horrible in this movie, yet you still feel for even the people inflicting the emotional damage. It’s something about how every understated joke lands so perfectly, exactly where the scene needed it to achieve humanity in melodrama via levity. And in the end, there is no romantic love achieved, but something much more profound and honest, and possibly its greatest achievement — it’s actually more satisfying this way.

PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006) & THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), DIR Guillermo Del Toro — I’m grouping these two together not because Guillermo del Toro repeated himself (he never has), and I do prefer PAN’S LABYRINTH, but more people need to see the THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE because it’s also great. Both deal with the Spanish Civil War in wildly different ways, which is something I’ve always been fascinated by because they both feel so personal, yet to my knowledge del Toro is not from Spain at all. Someday at a Q&A I’ll have a really good question for him about this ready to go. Del Toro said some nice stuff about our last movie SPRING on Twitter, and it was cool to see someone who has influenced my writing so much growing up get a thrill out of one of our films.

Aaron Moorhead (co-director, THE ENDLESS)

Aaron Moorhead

THE ACT OF KILLING (DIR Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012) — How this lost the Oscar is one of the great mysteries of life. It’s the strangest, most savage look at the darkness of humanity that has ever existed. If you don’t already know, it is about men who committed genocide in Indonesia who have never seen justice and are living not just free, but like kings. They have absolutely no remorse, even laugh and joke about it, and you’ll watch them do a lo-fi dramatic recreation of their mass murders (complete with them also pretending to be their victims, begging for their lives). Haunting and a bit paralyzing.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (DIR Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) — When I first saw this film in the only indie theatre in Tallahassee, Florida (now closed), I left underwhelmed. The thought that went through my head was something like, “Well, that was just a normal ol’ story. I give it a B.” I wish I could time-travel back to that night, meet myself outside the theatre, and beat the hell out of myself for being so short-sighted and inattentive. You can’t boil what this film is about, and why it’s important, into a cross-stitch-able moral phrase. The depth of its complexity is its beauty. And while the film, like THE ACT OF KILLING, is a bit of a mean one that doesn’t say wonderful things about humanity, the next three will.

The BEFORE Trilogy (DIR Richard Linklater, 1995, 2004, 2013) — Not technically a single movie, but I’m not gonna give it to just one. They’re all perfect films. I had never seen the films before my co-director Justin and I made our second film SPRING, which is often compared to the BEFORE trilogy. In fact, Linklater saw it and called it “a beautiful, unique love story. An accomplishment of genre and tone”. So I decided to rectify not having seen these films with a girl I was dating, right when BEFORE MIDNIGHT went into theatres. One night, we watched BEFORE SUNRISE. The next, BEFORE SUNSET. That weekend, BEFORE MIDNIGHT. And the next night, she became my girlfriend, and still is four years later. There’s some powerful magic in these films.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy (DIR Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) — I’m cheating again here, but let’s just say this trilogy is an 11-hour movie. This trilogy has its heart on its sleeve — they’re so utterly joyous and unapologetically sentimental, but they do so somehow without being dishonest. That’s so damn hard to do. The only person who can do honest sentimentality without getting hokey better, perhaps, is.

JURASSIC PARK (DIR Steven Spielberg, 1993) — Yeah, I did it. I was asked by a prestigious film festival to talk about the best films in the world and instead of talking about Russian Black Wave films or Kieślowski, I just say Steven Spielberg’s most popular movie. But let me make a point. Horror films are the redheaded stepchild of the industry (well, until this year apparently). They have always been looked down on as “lesser than” other genres. Except — everyone’s favorite movie is literally a monster movie where people get chased around by reincarnated dinosaurs. Or a giant shark. All you snobs that look down on horror are total hypocrites if you like JURASSIC PARK, which you DO. So, you know what? I’m proud to put an ultra-popular popcorn monster movie about reincarnated dinosaurs on my list of the best films ever.

Laura Terruso (FITS AND STARTS)

Laura Terruso

I realized that all of my favorites are comedies or dramedies about relationships which speaks to my own taste, sensibility and priorities as a filmmaker.

THE GRADUATE (DIR Mike Nichols, 1967) — Mike Nichols’ comedy classic is as close to cinematic perfection as it gets — the soundtrack, the cast, the montages, the ending. This is personal filmmaking made universally accessible.

ANNIE HALL (DIR Woody Allen, 1977) — My favorite Woody Allen film. It’s funny as hell, with a heartfelt ending that is a universal ode to relationships and their meaning.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (DIR Michel Gondry, 2004) — I love Charlie Kaufman’s writing. Universal themes, absurdist plot, perfectly executed by director Michel Gondry and DP Ellen Kuras.

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (DIR Rob Reiner, 1989) — Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner’s masterwork that set the bar for all romantic comedies to come.

HAROLD AND MAUDE (DIR Hal Ashby, 1971) — Hal Ashby is hands down my favorite director of all time. This film is so beautiful and poetic, while also being hilariously funny and heartfelt.  

Aaron Katz (GEMINI)

Aaron Katz
Aaron Katz

CLUELESS (DIR Amy Hecklering, 1995) — It’s hard to think of a movie that has brought me so much joy over such an extended period of time. I saw it originally when I was 14, one afternoon by myself at the local mall multiplex in Portland. Despite never having been to California, much less Beverly Hills, it instinctively felt like the perfect movie for me at exactly the right moment. Though at the time I didn’t generally buy tapes or frequently revisit movies, I bought it as soon as it came out and proceeded to watch it dozens of times, finding new ways to appreciate it with each viewing. Seeing it again now, I can recite nearly every line, anticipate nearly every moment, yet somehow it feels as fresh and fun and appealing as it was during that first matinée over twenty years ago.

TONI ERDMANN (DIR Maren Ade, 2016) — I hesitate to include such a recent movie, but over the last year it has grown to monumental proportions in my mind. It’s a tender expression of what it means to be related to someone and to love them, it’s an uproarious comedy about the trail of destruction wrought by the Western patriarchy, it’s a sobering reminder that the sands of time never stop slipping from our fingers. It’s what it feels like to be alive, not yesterday or tomorrow, but right now.

FANNY AND ALEXANDER (DIR Ingmar Bergman, 1982) — I include this on my list, though I specifically love the television version and all of the space it allows for spending time with the characters. It has the texture of a life really lived. Unlike some other Bergman films, the tragedy of loss and ill-considered turns in the road are overpowered by a sense that the people who love us are what really matters.

ALIEN (DIR Ridley Scott, 1979) — A thrilling feeling of terror and suspense creeps over me just thinking about ALIEN. I remember I didn’t really get it the first time I saw it when I was 12 or 13. It didn’t have as much action as ALIENS, which I saw first. I returned to it a few years later to discover deep, cold horror that I couldn’t look away from or get out of my imagination. With its visceral effects, its supernaturally elegant camera direction, its perfect cast, its bone-chilling score and sound mix, I now look to it as the most impeccably crafted pop movie ever made.

35 SHOTS OF RUM (DIR Claire Denis, 2008) — I was tempted to put both US GO HOME and CHOCOLAT on this list, but ultimately 35 SHOTS OF RUM haunts me the most. It feels like what it’s like to live in and move through the layers of a big city, doing your best in an imperfect world. Like many of my favorite films, it captures a time and place outside of my experience, connecting me to its characters with a quietly determined commitment to empathy and emotional truth.

Antonio Méndez Esparza  (LIFE AND NOTHING MORE)

Antonio Méndez Esparza
Antonio Méndez Esparza

Far from making it an academic list, I have decided to include five films that have been key for my understanding of cinema, inspiring, groundbreaking for me.

MOUCHETTE (DIR Robert Bresson, 1967) — A film of otherworldly presence, a spiritual radiography. A lesson in concision. An ending that will haunt you from then on, the fragility of existence, the beauty and pain, all encompassed in 78 minutes.

FIVE EASY PIECES (DIR Bruce Beresford, 1970) — The wonderful depiction of a drifter, and an analysis of class, domesticity and the horizons in the U.S. Nicholson playing piano on a highway is as astonishing as it is revealing.

THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (DIR Victor Erice, 1973) — A masterful tale of the power of cinema, imagination and childhood, and a political statement of great power.

THE MIRROR – (DIR Jafar Panahi, 1995) — A wonderful journey of a girl lost, trying to reach home, and of a filmmaker trying to finish a film, and embracing what this is transforming into. A radiography of humanity and society.

YI-YI (A ONE AND A TWO) (DIR Edward Yang, 2000) — Chronicles of a Taiwanese family, as moving and touching as anything I have ever seen. Every scene is a brick of what becomes a monumental film.

Noël Wells (MR. ROOSEVELT)

Noël Wells

HUSBANDS AND WIVES (DIR Woody Allen, 1992) — This is my all-time favorite film that I discovered late in life. I find it deeply funny, I think the performances are the best in any Woody Allen movie, and I love this style of cinematography and direction, where the camera is a part of the film and it all works as a raw, seemingly unrehearsed concert.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (DIR Noah Baumbach, 2005) — Stellar performances, rich, funny and heartbreaking writing, and the relationship dynamics are precisely drawn. And again, I love this style of cinematography where it lives in the space, and keeps up the pace while riding the emotional undertones.

RUSHMORE (DIR Wes Anderson, 1998)  — This film should be considered an epic. Max Fischer stands as a hero in cinema to me, and while the film is highly stylized and the relationships larger than life, this is my favorite Wes Anderson film because everything still feels grounded, heartfelt and completely relatable.

MARGARET (DIR Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) — A film that changed my life and how I see everything about filmmaking. I’m not sure how it worked its alchemy, but the unfolding of this film is so engrossing, multifaceted, and heart-wrenching, every time I see it, it seems relevant all over again and makes me view my life in a whole new light.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (DIR Bobby Farrelly, 1998) — Ultimate classic comedy. Works on every single level, well shot, great performances, hilarious, and at the heart, it’s a great story. I probably think about this film once a day. 

Matt Porterfield (SOLLERS POINT)

Matthew Porterfield

L’ARGENT (DIR Robert Bresson, 1983) — Bresson’s last film is a pitch-perfect meditation on capitalism, alarmingly resonant in our current political climate. A forged bank note, pawned by a bourgeois teen, changes hands and ruins the life of a blue-collar delivery worker, who is sent to prison, abandoned by his wife and child, and finally released to murder two elderly innkeepers with an axe.

BORN IN FLAMES (DIR Lizzie Borden, 1983) — In a prescient vision of our present, Lizzie Borden imagines a United States run by a “socialist democratic” patriarchy, and the revolutionary women who use pirate radio, direct action, and any means necessary to combat this reductive, dominant political and cultural ideology.

REBELS OF THE NEON GOD (DIR Tsai Ming-liang, 1992) — Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature depicts two sets of disenfranchised youth in Taipai. The original Mandarin title refers to Nezha, a rebellious Chinese God born into a human family, and appropriately, through a beautifully crafted ode to melancholy and despair, he ultimately achieves a hopeful and mythic vision of our need for connection in the alienating modern city.

IN VANDA’S ROOM (DIR Pedro Costa, 2000) — Perhaps the most intimate and ambitious doc-fiction hybrid ever made, Pedro Costa’s IN VANDA’S ROOM follows OSSOS (and anticipates COLOSSAL YOUTH) to connect with Cape Verdean immigrants as they bide the time till the destruction of their neighborhood, Fountainhas, a favela in the outskirts of Lisbon. Though the production crew consisted mainly of Costa (with a DV camera) and one sound recordist, the subject, edit, color and sound design elevate the picture to a level beyond Caravagio.

STREETWISE (DIR Mary-Ellen Mark and Martin Bell, 1984) — In this documentary about street kids in Seattle, photographer Mary Ellen Mark and filmmaker Martin Bell look at the daily life of runaway teens with an empathy that leaves an audience with nothing but admiration and respect for these children and the situations they endure. We all know we’re going to die, and much sooner than we hope, but if I had a portrait of me to last beyond my years, I’d want it to be made by these filmmakers (RIP Mary Ellen Mark).


Corey Finley

THE SHINING (DIR Stanley Kubrick, 1980) — The first horror movie I ever got up the courage to watch, through slitted fingers on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t make you jump. It doesn’t get you fun-giggly-frightened. It doesn’t disgust you or numb you with gore. It makes you scared in the way I imagine people used to be scared of their gods. It’s fear as a form of awe: a realization that the world is bigger and stranger than you can comprehend.

MULHOLLAND DR. (DIR David Lynch, 2001) — The movie that made me want to make movies. I couldn’t shake it after I watched it. I invited friend after friend to join me and watch it again, with the urgency of a kid telling his parents about a nightmare to make it go away. But each viewing would only strengthen its hold on my imagination. Lynch’s filmmaking is a powerful display of both freedom and control, and the scene at Winkie’s diner might be, for my money, the scariest ever filmed.

SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (DIR Nora Ephron, 1993) — When I’m writing, my goal is always to seek and prolong a state of tension. No jump-scare is as gripping as the slow walk down the dark hallway toward it. No breakdown is as moving as an actor trying not to cry. And no love story is as romantic as one in which the two parties circle one another from afar, never meeting until the end. The movie hinges on a gutsy concept, one which Nora Ephron executes with warmth, efficiency, and virtuosic control over the audience’s emotions.

MOONLIGHT (DIR Barry Jenkins, 2016) — I guess I should give this movie a little time to age before I slot it into a personal pantheon, but I have to be honest with myself about how profoundly it affected me and give it the place it deserves. I share almost zero biographical details with Chiron, but I related to his story deeply and had an almost violent level of investment in his fate — to the point where the movie ended and I was genuinely upset that I didn’t get to know what happened to him next. It’s incredible that Barry Jenkins realized this character with three different actors on a tight shooting schedule, and that he constructed such an emotionally and aesthetically grand statement with a relatively tiny budget.

A PROPHET (DIR Jacques Audiard, 2009) — The most brutal and also most tender crime drama I’ve seen. Tahar Rahim’s charisma and vulnerability anchor the movie, and Jacques Audiard tells the story with a mix of unflinching naturalism and graceful, deeply-earned lyricism. I love films that dance between genres, and the dashes of magical realism here — especially Malik’s scenes with the ghost of the first man he killed — are heartbreaking. It’s a grand epic made up of intimate moments.

Comments (1)


Yes Yes, Loved all of them. Have to get some I have not seen and watch ones I have not seen in many years.
P.S. I am 75 now and have always loved Film from the time my Grandmother took me to see Shane, still the movie that changed me forever.

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