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!

Note: When Spike orig­i­nal­ly released this list, many not­ed the lack of female film­mak­ers. Lee accept­ed that cri­tique and released an updat­ed list. Find it here.

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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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Comments (49)
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  • Seth Derrick says:

    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”.

  • Ross Gilbert says:

    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.

  • Javitxu K.Dick says:

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

  • Manuel Martínez-Maldonado says:

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

  • ash says:

    city of god

  • Leonora says:

    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.

  • Benjamin Brown says:

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

  • Bucky Wunderlick says:

    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).

  • GMc says:

    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!

  • sifr4 says:

    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.

  • cucumatz says:

    …‘Zelig’?? seri­ous­ly?

  • Warren says:

    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?

  • Steve Hamlet says:

    No Cas­savetes. Very sur­pris­ing. No Shad­ows.

  • Steve Hamlet says:

    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.

  • Rainys Andrew Blekaitis says:

    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.

  • No “Easy Rid­er.”

  • Arta says:

    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!

  • the nugget says:

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

  • Waymond says:

    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..

  • Cynthia Hind Karkhanechi says:

    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.

  • Mman says:

    grown ups 2 !!!

  • George Collings says:

    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)

  • David Cataford says:

    Great list, its always fun to take a look at oth­er film-lovers’ lists. Spike Lee is a true film-buff, I think that is so cool.

    I cre­at­ed my list way back in 1994, its changed a lit­tle to include new films. There are numer­ous dupli­cates on my list. And, there are two Spike Lee joints on there as well.

    Take a look:

  • jouan veronica says:

    I agree with Mr Lee about many movies in his list but he for­got Antonioni,Vidor(the crowd),Vigo…Ok for mid­night cow boy and the night of the hunter and many oth­ers but please, Mel Gib­son?

  • tim says:

    Came look­ing for Taran­ti­no (because I’m an ass­hole).

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Not one silent movie?

  • patrick murphy says:

    The list is sus­pect as it does­n’t show Sev­en Samu­rai by Kuro­sawa

  • Richard Christensen says:

    I believe that the fol­low­ing movies deserve to be in the list:
    2001, Space Odyssey (Stan­ley Kubrick), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme), The Mer­chant of Venice (Michael Rad­ford), Oth­el­lo (Ken­neth Branagh), Cit­i­zen Kane (Orson Wells), All the Pres­i­den­t’s Men (Alan J. Paku­la), Das Boat (Wolf­gang Petersen), Blade Run­ner (Rid­ley Scott), Apol­lo XIII (Ron Howard), among oth­ers.

  • Terry Durst says:

    No Lynch, or did I miss it? No Last Pic­ture Show?

  • Anirban says:

    So no film by Wong Kar Wai or Satya­jit Ray yet Apoc­a­lyp­to finds a place as a must watch? And a wiz­ard of oz? Real­ly?!!

  • Eva Pedersen says:

    What, no Eisen­stein?! You’ve got to be kid­ding!!!

  • AJ says:

    Even Stan­ley Kubrick did­n’t like Spar­ta­cus. 2001 maybe…or The Shin­ing

  • MadJayhawk says:

    I respect Mr Lee’s opin­ion about which movies those aspir­ing to be direc­tors should study. He has been in the busi­ness for some time. Study is the key word here. Direct­ing a movie is a demand­ing craft and by watch­ing oth­er’s work from the point of view of a wannabe direc­tor would be dif­fer­ent from some­one like me look­ing to be enter­tained for a cou­ple of hours.

    That said, the movies he lists are fine in my book. His stu­dents would get a great edu­ca­tion if they stud­ied them all. Study­ing bad movies would be instruc­tive as well.

    It is amus­ing that peo­ple want to dimin­ish what he has come up with by impos­ing the usu­al women quo­tas. No black quo­tas as well? Hope­ful­ly Mr Lee con­sid­ered only the direc­tor’s skill in mak­ing a par­tic­u­lar movie and not whether he or she had a vagi­na.

    My only quib­ble: I would have liked to have seen John Ford’s The Searchers which is an Amer­i­can Mas­ter­piece on the list.

    The God­fa­ther, to me, was the best movie ever made. It would have been inter­est­ing to get Mr Lee’s opin­ion about the best 5 movies ever made and why.

  • Meat Puppet says:

    …have to say, the last com­ment by Mad­jay­hawk is per­haps the wis­est of the bunch… while not being all enclu­sive any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and any crit­i­cism can be found for most any seri­ous list… pre­vi­ous com­ment had rather see his short list for the 5 best, there­in you will find real con­vic­tion and con­tro­very as well as real mean­ing…

  • Karen Petersen says:

    Seen them all except Killer of Sheep. Don’t know that one. But there are so many oth­ers that should be includ­ed…

  • Farz says:

    city of god*

  • therrealspike says:

    A list.

    We can now make deduc­tion on Lee’s film cul­ture and what these select­ed films have that make them wor­thy for Spike.

    There will always be miss­ings from lists but as far as I am going through that list, what is ques­tionnable is some of his choic­es…

  • Christopher Garcia says:

    I was in the audi­ence with Spike (and about 200 oth­ers) when he first saw Dirty Pret­ty Things. We were all blown away.

  • Pleasant Lindsey III says:

    How is “Apoc­olyp­to” con­sid­ered left field? That took some intense out­door direc­tion to get those sequences onscreen, in my not-a-direc­tor-by-any-means opin­ion.

  • John says:

    Excuse me but who do you think cre­at­ed first crowd fund­ing? Spike Lee. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. This is so pet­ty

  • Susan Lopez says:

    What sur­pris­es me is there would be stu­dents in his course who have not seen at least 90% of these films already.

  • Daphne Hayes says:

    I love Spike and thought his list was great. I thought there were a few greats exclud­ed, but this is his rec­om­mend­ed essen­tial list, not mine. I am an aspir­ing direc­tor and will watch every film he sug­gest­ed. Thanks Spike!


  • Peter Keough says:

    Not a lot of women on this list. Like, none.

  • Barton Funk (@Barton_Funk) says:

    Kung Fu Hus­tle is one of the most com­plex films ever made, let alone Kung Fu films. I’m still aston­ished how many peo­ple missed the boat entire­ly with this film. Sure Chow used a lot of over the top scenes and silli­ness to get the point across, but the deep­er mes­sage of the film accom­plished some­thing that no oth­er Kung Fu film ever has. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to a film in any genre that so accu­rate­ly depicts the nature of the uni­verse.

  • VWatkins says:

    Who is Spike Lee and why is he impor­tant? He made a few movies and so what.

  • Bryce Yamamoto says:

    City of God, although a decent film is def­i­nite­ly not a clas­sic exam­ple of auteurism nor would it fit in with Spike Lee’s list of great­est films. It’s not a clas­sic. Are you an idiot?

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