Spike Lee Shares His NYU Teaching List of 87 Essential Films Every Aspiring Director Should See

I’m sure you’ve heard by now: wealthy, successful film director Spike Lee hopes to fund his next film via a Kickstarter campaign. Yes, that’s right, he wants you to pay for his art. His campaign, perhaps needless to say, is hardly popular with the average film fan, many of whom find it hard enough to scrounge up the skyrocketing prices of tickets these days. Lee has responded to his critics, but somehow I doubt his reasoning will go over well.

But we’re not here to talk about alleged crowdfunding abuses (have at it in the comments if you must). Instead, today we have for you—in the tradition of our many posts on famous teachers’ syllabi—one of Lee’s teaching tools in his role as an NYU professor. Where all of our previous posts have featured reading lists, Lee’s is a list of films, which he hands out to all of the students who take his graduate class–not required viewing, but recommended as “essential” for every aspiring director.

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In the video at the top of the post, see Lee introduce the list of what he considers, “the greatest films ever made.” “If you want to be a filmmaker,” he says, “you should see these films.” The list, above and continued below, includes some of the usual critical favorites—Rashomon, Vertigo, On the Waterfront—and some pretty left field choices, like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

Slate, which first published the list, notes the omission of usually revered directors like Howard Hawks, John Ford, Fritz Lang, and Yasujirō Ozu as well as the paucity—or near non-existence—of female directors (only one makes the list, the co-director of City of God). In addition to possibly ranting about, or defending, Lee’s use of Kickstarter, many of you may find yourselves quibbling over, or defending, his definition of “essential.” And so, I say again, have at it, readers!

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Related Content:

How Spike Lee Got His First Big Break: From She’s Gotta Have It to That Iconic Air Jordan Ad

David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Literature Syllabus Asks Students to Read 32 Great Works, Covering 6000 Pages

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celestial Homework”: A Reading List for His Class “Literary History of the Beats”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness



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  1. George Rossi says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 9:32 am

    No Kane?

    Putz.

  2. Seth Derrick says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 9:37 am

    As lists go, a pretty good one. I just want to ask Mr. Lee to expound on what, for him, makes Kung Fu Hustle “essential”.

  3. Ross Gilbert says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 9:50 am

    Anyone could have come up with this list….minus Apocalypto and Kung Fu Hustle. He only missed hundreds of worthier, more instructive films. These lists of “essential” are stupid in any case. That Spike Lee should make one and call it definitive is the saddest part.

  4. Javitxu K.Dick says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:00 am

    No Fuller, no Peckinpah, no Tarkovsky, no Lang, no Eisenstein…
    Spike are you kidding me?
    I think that there are many better lists

  5. Manuel Martínez-Maldonado says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:01 am

    Except for a few omissions (Kane, Wild Bunch, Blade Runner), I agree. Thanks, Spike.

  6. ash says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:08 am

    city of god

  7. Leonora says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:19 am

    The list is Spike’s list. Not my list, not your list. Whining that it’s not the same as your list is pretty ridiculous.

  8. Benjamin Brown says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:19 am

    No Dreyer? No Bresson? No Hawks?-A pretty good list though none the less-there will always be plenty of possible alternatives

  9. Bucky Wunderlick says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:52 am

    I’ve seen about 75% of this list and for the most part, other than the absence of films by women (Jane Campion, Leni Riefenstahl, Agnes Varda, Kathryn Bigelow, Elaine May, Claire Denis, Agnieszka Holland, Penelope Spheeris, Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Sofia Coppola, Ida Lupino, Amy Heckerling, Nancy Savoca, Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and Gillian Armstrong for starters), Spike is in the ballpark for the most part.

    My biggest quibble (again, outside of the huge gender imbalance) are the multiple films by the same director that aren’t that different. Why take up valuable space on a list by including Godfathers I AND II, for instance (fwiw, I would have chosen Apocalypse Now! and The Conversation). Mad Max AND The Road Warrior? Badlands AND Days of Heaven? THREE films by John Huston? Both Lean’s Kwai AND Lawrence? That kind of redundancy doesn’t make sense to me. For Fellini, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Scorsese and some of the others the case can better be made, I think.

    Some of the inclusions ARE head-scratchers: Mel Gibson? Marathon Man? I thought Empire of the Sun was Spielberg’s worst film after The Color Purple. I would have chosen some other films by the same directors but that’s more a matter of opinion.

    But the exclusions are usually where the heat is. Stephen Chow but no Wong Kar-Wai, Zhang Yimou, Tsui Hark or John Woo? French film is underrepresented as is the silent era (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd) in my opinion. I can only assume Spike has left out contemporaries like Tarantino and Ang Lee because he assumes that they are already being studied. Others will see holes I don’t see.

    I should add that it is nice to see recognition for sterling docs (Hoop Dreams) and little known classics (Coolie High, I Am Cuba, Killer of Sheep, Blue Collar).

  10. GMc says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 10:56 am

    No Spork? No Famjamulous? No Gypsumstein? Preposterous! This man’s opinion is obviously different from my opinion and is worth no critical examination for the sake of what it says about his preferences as a filmmaker. This could only be useful as a definitive, authoritative list, of which there are many others that are less opinionated, arbitrary, and which are much more inclusive, which means they are less opinionated and arbitrary. Obviously! Oh, Spike! You glorious mess!

  11. sifr4 says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 11:02 am

    THIS JUST IN: There are more than 100 essential films, depending on how you contextualize film within culture, depending on what you want to teach your students, depending on your own experiences, etc, etc, etc.

  12. cucumatz says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 11:09 am

    …’Zelig’?? seriously?

  13. Warren says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 11:24 am

    Can’t argue, but that’s a lot of movies, and any movie-oriented person could come up with that list. Where’s The Wild Bunch?

  14. Steve Hamlet says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 4:03 pm

    No Cassavetes. Very surprising. No Shadows.

  15. Steve Hamlet says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 4:22 pm

    Actually, there’s a lot of rubbish in Lee’s list and a lot of omissions, which indicates he has mediocre taste. I feel sorry for his students. They deserve a better film education. Famous, yes; knowledgeable, no. Better for students to watch Martin Scorsese’s Journey Through American Movies for introduction, to US movies at least.

  16. Rainys Andrew Blekaitis says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 6:49 pm

    I agree with much of Spike Lee’s recommendations, but I would’ve shoehorned in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “12 Angry Men,” and “Citizen Kane.” I think “Seven Beauties” deserves more respect than it gets. Since Spike Lee includes some action films, why not “The Magnificent Seven”? What everyone overlooks is Paul Brickman’s “Risky Business;” that’s an overlooked gem.

  17. Mr. Beer N. Hockey says . . . | July 29, 2013 / 7:30 pm

    No “Easy Rider.”

  18. Arta says . . . | July 30, 2013 / 2:39 pm

    Poor taste, 2001 odyssey? clockwork orange? bergman only 1 ?!?!…
    oh,I’m so confident now…if he is a teacher then i can teach the teacher!

  19. the nugget says . . . | July 30, 2013 / 4:02 pm

    Any list of films that doesn’t include Bubba Ho-Tep can pack its bags and fuck right off outta here.

  20. Waymond says . . . | July 30, 2013 / 4:47 pm

    Well at least he didn’t include any of his OWN films – guess he gets a point for that. I’d imagine anyone teaching a film course selects an “essential” based on some pretty specific criteria/goals. How Citizen Kane, It’s A Wonderful Life, well etc. etc….yeah, it’s subjective, yeah it’s Spike, yeah – like his films – there are a few holes and redundancies..

  21. Cynthia Hind Karkhanechi says . . . | August 4, 2013 / 12:45 pm

    If Hollywood is going to be fair to women especially (Ha!) women of color, what would Mr.Lee say to giving a “positive comment” to Ms.Lonette McKee’s film efforts as director. She has some of the sharpest eyes in directorial format that deserves recognition. At least for women of color it would be a first.

  22. Mman says . . . | October 26, 2013 / 3:23 pm

    you sound like you made some great movies yourself ;) oh no maybe better then spike.nplease share…

  23. Mman says . . . | October 26, 2013 / 3:29 pm

    maybe you should watch it again … seriously! and dont laugh!

  24. George Collings says . . . | October 27, 2013 / 6:22 am

    While I appreciate lists such as this are subjective to individual tastes and I agree many of these films deserve to be on here one glaring ommision for me is A Matter of Life and Death (think it was stairway to heaven in the U.S.) directed by Powell & Pressburger at a time when colour film was coming to the fore they decided to differentiate using both colour and black/white sequences the subjectivity of the film while not being exactly subtle was very relevant to the times and still has a lot of resonance today (in my opinion)

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