For more than 100 years, motion pictures have not just survived, they’ve thrived, both as a storytelling device and an art form. The titles have changed with the fashions of the times, of course, but more importantly, the medium has adapted, embracing new technologies and forms of presentation to remain vital. Here, listed in chronological order, are 10 movies that gave Hollywood new life.
10. Birth of a Nation (1915)
The fashionable, perhaps even proper, approach to this film today is to dismiss it as abhorrent. D.W. Griffith’s picture is not just racist, but deliberately so. It was even by the standards of its own day, although it’s hard to imagine how any movie taking a sympathetic view of the Ku Klux Klan’s formation could not be racist. But it’s simply astonishing how many cinematic innovations this hugely ambitious film — it clocks in at nearly three hours — introduced. Gone were the days of shooting a movie as if it were a stage play. Griffith became the first director to use long tracking shots, shots from different angles, fade-outs and dissolves. He utilized landscapes for his picture, and even filmed scenes at night. He experimented with parallel narratives. With Birth of a Nation, Griffith revealed the true potential of this new art form, both for good and ill.
9. The Jazz Singer (1927)
It’s difficult today to imagine the excitement this picture generated when it first arrived on the scene. Technically, The Jazz Singer was not the first talkie, not by a long shot. Its featured musical numbers were still new enough to feel like a novelty, but what generated the real excitement, particularly on the night of the film’s premiere, was a quick bit of synchronized speech. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” star Al Jolson is heard and seen saying at the same time. This was a first, and moviegoers as well as critics were quick to understand what it meant. Silent movies would be finished within the next two years, along with the careers of many silent-era actors who audiences for whatever reason didn’t want to hear. The Jazz Singer is notorious today because Jolson’s character performs in blackface, although this was little remarked on at the time, even by African-American writers.
8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The Disney film studio became what it is today because one man — its founder, Walt Disney — was a visionary. Nobody in the 1930s except Walt thought a feature-length animated film for children was a good idea. Animation was for shorts, like Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series. This project did indeed seem to have folly written all over it. Mr. Disney had to mortgage his house to fund the film. His animators, who had experience drawing cartoons for newspapers, had to learn a lot very quickly. And everyone involved got sidetracked by focusing on the dwarfs too much in early drafts; the final seven were chosen from a pool of 50 names (imagine Wheezy, Burpy, Sniffy, etc.). But Snow White, the first animated feature, the first film made primarily for children, the first to include a soundtrack, became a huge success, and has since been re-released seven times.
7. The Robe (1953)
Of all the threats faced by Hollywood through the years, none tops that posed by the growing popularity of television in the middle of the 20th century. Movie studios tried many things to differentiate their product from small-screen programming, most notably CinemaScope, “the modern miracle you see without glasses” (a dig at 3D, another perceived threat). That was the tagline for this rather well-made Biblical epic starring Richard Burton and Victor Mature, even though many movie houses at the time were unable to accommodate wide-screen pictures and showed it in standard format. The way Hollywood saw it, CinemaScope and epics went hand in hand, which gave rise to several years of some of the grandest spectacles, many of them with Biblical storylines, film audiences have ever seen. But they weren’t cheap, and once TV was no longer deemed a danger, studios moved on, although the wide-screen lens technique introduced in The Robe is still used in the industry.
6. The Godfather Part II (1974)
The first Godfather film, released two years earlier, was a disaster in the making. The film’s struggling studio, Paramount, desperately needed a hit, and the director, Francis Ford Coppola, was unproven. The two fought over everything. But enormous commercial success, and even greater critical acclaim, meant Coppola could basically do whatever he wanted with the follow-up film. Sequels had been around for decades in Hollywood — the first sequel was The Fall of A Nation (1916), director D.W. Griffith’s follow-up to the aforementioned Birth of a Nation on this list. But the idea of a sequel with “Part II” in the title seemed absolutely radical. Some critics predicted audiences wouldn’t see a movie titled “Part II,” thinking they had already seen it. But that was precisely why they went. And so the numbered sequel was born, and the concept of the sequel itself proliferated as studios viewed them as an easy way to capitalize on a film’s success. More sequels fail than succeed, ironically including The Godfather Part III (1990), and very few sequels have met with the success this one did. Only one other sequel has won the Oscar for Best Picture — 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
5. Star Wars (1977)
It can be argued that without Jaws paving the way two years earlier as Hollywood’s first blockbuster, showing the industry just how big a movie could be, Star Wars would not have been the phenomenon it ultimately became. Its creator, George Lucas, hasn’t shed much light on the issue. He has spoken about a highly elaborate literature behind the film, as suggested by an early working title for Star Wars — “Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars.” Lucas added a father-son conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader to give the story some legs, but the filmmaker has said he didn’t know what he had until after the movie became a runaway success. In any event, Star Wars would give rise to the most successful film series in movie history, at least until Harry Potter came along.
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
The 1990s were a transformative time for motion pictures, beginning with this sci-fi film about a theme park where dinosaurs run amok. Director Steven Spielberg had intended to use stop-motion animation for the dinosaurs until he saw what a new technology called computer-generated imagery could do. What resulted was truly a case of something that had never been seen before, and it heralded the start of something profound. Filmmaker Peter Jackson now saw the possibility of making his Lord of the Rings trilogy, George Lucas began work on the Star Wars prequels, and other filmmakers pursued grand ideas. CGI is not without its downside, however. A filmmaker needing some tall buildings in a shot, for instance, can simply insert them later rather than scout for the right location. A certain unreality has crept into motion pictures, and moviegoers are right to question whether anything they’re seeing is real.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction resurrected the big-screen career of John Travolta and announced the arrival of auteur filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. It was a huge critical and commercial success. But Pulp Fiction’s lasting legacy has been what it meant for independent cinema. Failing to understand it, Columbia TriStar passed on making the picture, giving Miramax, a recently acquired unit of Disney, its first chance to fully finance a movie. Later every major studio had a so-called indie division, although most have since been shut down. The founders of Miramax moved on as well. The future of indie film remains as fragile as it has always been. But Pulp Fiction made it a vital force, something everyone in the industry noticed, especially those who wished to appear in films like it. Thanks to this picture, it’s now become accepted practice for the biggest movie stars in the world to mix blockbusters with the tiniest indie titles.
2. Toy Story (1995)
The effect of the digital revolution on movies wasn’t restricted to live action. Animation would be forever changed as well. It certainly didn’t make what was already an incredibly meticulous process any easier. Toy Story, the first film to feature computer animation, included 114,240 frames, with each frame requiring two to 15 hours of work. A lot of people, putting in a lot of long days, built Toy Story, at great expense. But the look was fresh and astounding, and the reward was huge. The movie became a huge hit, and many more movies like it would follow. Pixar, Toy Story’s production company, has remained relevant by making pictures that don’t just look great, but have compelling characters and stories as well. The same cannot be said of all the Pixar wannabes. Successful computer animation is about more than attention to detail, and this mantra is sometimes forgotten.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The faux documentary method of filmmaking was nothing new to audiences of this spooky picture about a group of young people terrorized in the woods, but rarely have moviegoers, as well as critics, been so convincingly fooled into believing what they were watching was real. A mysterious, largely fan-driven Internet marketing campaign created that aura. The Blair Witch Project was the first movie to rely on the Web for promotion, a strategy that proved to be remarkably successful. The movie grossed $248 million, after costing perhaps as little as $20,000 to make. The Blair Witch marketing model has been mimicked by many motion pictures since, particularly in the horror genre. With marketing costs sometimes amounting to as much as half that of a film’s production, the Internet promises a lot of bang for the buck.