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.

  • 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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