So, you’re an actor looking to watch some movies for inspiration. Or, maybe you need a little primer for a certain aspect of the film-making process, or an idea for how to approach a specific sort of scene or moment or character. Well, good thing we’ve watched every movie in the history of cinema (questionable) and have concocted this perfect list that can cover every single one of your needs (100% factual).
In making this list, we’ve tried to avoid just trotting out yet another list of ‘The Greatest Most Classic Most Bestest Films of All Time,’ because those lists exist already and you’re probably tired of having the same titles thrown at you with phrases like: “oh my GOD how have you NEVER seen KINDERGARTEN COP??” So don’t worry, this is a safe space. We just want to help you expand your horizons, or have a different look at popular films that could help you in your acting journey. Here goes!
#1 A Streetcar Named Desire
Not just an adaptation of one of the great American plays, Elia Kazan’s film is the perfect example of different acting styles somehow working in fascinating disharmony – and perfectly so. Choose your fighter between Vivien Leigh’s Old Hollywood psychological breakdown and Marlon Brando’s Method-based (and terrifyingly hot) rage monster. Either way, you’re backing a winner.
Arguably one of the most hauntingly, devastatingly beautiful films of recent years, Moonlight also offers one of the greatest ensemble performances in film history. Every performer is perfectly attuned not only to the emotional wavelength of the story, not only to the core of their characters, but also to the visual and textural landscape of Barry Jenkins’ cinema. Gesture, posture, composure: these actors each know how to surrender themselves as almost painterly tools within the frame.
#3 Mistress America
You want to see how to pull off complex ensemble blocking within single takes? How to crisply and savagely deliver speedy dialogue without sacrificing clarity or character? Check out Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig’s underrated, acidic little gem, and honestly any work from either half of this modern cinematic power couple.
#4 Black Narcissus
How big can a villain go? How do I track different kinds of psychological cracks and breakdowns across the course of a film? Most importantly, how do I play ‘scarily horny’? All the answers lie in this classic 1940s melodrama about nuns going mad on a mountain (seriously), and the two towering performances from Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron – who no doubt would each watch Natalie Portman in Black Swan and say ‘that’s cute, beat you to it tho’.
#5 Before Sunset
Let’s talk about listening. Each entry in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy is absolutely worth watching, but it’s this middle entry, charting the reunion of lovers Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke), that gives a master class in how to further character and relationship through listening. Watch how each of them shows us where anything being said to them is registering on their own emotional Richter scales, and in turn how much of that they will or won’t let the other see. It’s really just stupidly good, swooningly romantic stuff.
Speaking of reacting, let’s go to one of the most iconic yet underseen instances of filmic reaction (yes that’s a phrase that makes sense) – Nicole Kidman in the opera scene in Birth. Asked to sell a wild premise, a litany of emotional states, and an entire conflicted, grief-stricken thought process without any dialogue, Kidman delivers. It’s a film and a premise that should not work at all, and yet because of her work in this single scene, it soars.
#7 You Were Never Really Here
Please, for the sake of my sanity, if you’re going to watch a movie where Joaquin Phoenix plays a brutal murderer with mental health issues, make it this one and not the atrocious clown movie. Here, he’s all brute force and bruised soul, yet perfectly surrenders himself to director Lynn Ramsey’s impressionistic take on the Taken-style revenge-thriller. Burn your Joker DVD, I beg you.
#8 Toni Erdmann
A German father-daughter comedy that is both the strangest, saddest sitcom you never knew you wanted and the funniest meditation on geo-political trends of the 21st century you never knew you needed… it sounds bonkers, but trust me, this one is worth it. If for nothing else, watch it for the single most hilarious and heartbreaking karaoke scene in cinema history. You’ll never hear Whitney Houston the same way again.
Let’s stick to Germany, but go all the way back to the silent era. Because who doesn’t love some German Expressionism, am I right kids? F.W. Murnau’s take on the Dracula story is one of the most widely known and lauded silent films, and there isn’t a single movie monster or villain performance that isn’t in some way indebted to Max Schreck’s still disturbing turn as Orlock, the OG cinematic vampire.
Yes, that’s right, hear me out: if you want a crash course in comic timing, look to animation. Every move, gesture, edit, you name it, is exactingly crafted for maximum effect – and that goes doubly so when it comes to comedy. So, that being said, why not turn to Pixar’s best (hot take), which can serve as both an inspiring tale of creative expression and also good research for when you get cast in the adaptation of that TikTok musical version.
#11 The Apartment
Any Billy Wilder film is a solid investment, but this melancholy little dose of hilarity is my favourite, so here it is. I don’t know if there’s anyone better at balancing multiple forms of comedy alongside genuinely affecting drama than the great Jack Lemmon, and here his performance is all goofy charm and aching loneliness – plus he’s opposite an equally great Shirley MacLaine, forming the depressed holiday power couple of your dreams.
#12 Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s masterpiece is yet another must-watch for ensemble purposes, particularly because the batting average here is simply insane (am I using that sports-ball term properly? I’m gay!) A sprawling cast of characters brought vividly and iconically to life, each of them with their own flavours of rage and joy and exhaustion – it’s both quantity and quality, and it’s ridiculous.
#13 The Devil Wears Prada
Somehow I’ve contained myself to just the one Meryl Streep entry on this list, which feels like both a betrayal and a radical act of character development on my part. Anyway, yes much has been made of her perfect comedic creation Miranda Priestley, but not enough attention has been paid to truly how little she does here – her stillness, her smallness, her precision of gesture and inflection and murderous focus – you count her out and consider her overrated at your own peril (also I’ll contact your sleep paralysis demon and ruin your life).
#14 High and Low
Let’s get practical again – if you want to understand blocking and how it can reveal character, theme and plot all within a frame, you’ve gotta get around Akira Kurosawa. The great Japanese director knew movement of all kinds better than possibly anyone, and here in his taut, potent little kidnapping thriller it’s on full display in maybe his most domestic, recognisable setting. The first half is essentially a chamber drama, as he, his actors, and his camera orchestrate a sublime dance of cinema all within the confines of a single living room.
#15 When Harry Met Sally
I’m not going to lie to you – I’ve watched the 1989 major motion picture When Harry Met Sally almost ten times in the past year, because it is perfect cinematic comfort food that sustained my will to live through the year that was 2020. Hyperbole, sure, but you try watching the genuine romantic chemistry, the precise vaudevillian comic timing, the sense of play that comes from an entire creative team collaborating perfectly in sync at the height of their powers, and you try not to have a bit more of a spring in your step.
#16 Phantom Thread
As I always say: it’s time to get kinky. Psychosexual romantic tension is in short supply on screen these days, so thank the lord for Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps, serving up a perverse little take on Old Hollywood melodrama. PTA is a consummate actor’s director, and though all of his films should really be on this list, it’s this one that features my favourite of his duets thanks to Krieps and Day-Lewis – cinematic power plays don’t get more artful and alluring than this.
#17 The Silence of the Lambs
Is it a film, or is it a masterclass in how to be Scared As Shit On Screen? Trick question, it’s both. It’s also stupidly entertaining, and, thanks to director Jonathan Demme’s patented looking-down-the-barrel-of-the-camera approach to close-ups, shockingly empathetic and involving. But seriously, back to the Scared As Shit thing – if you can explain to me how Jodie Foster filmed the night-vision climax of this movie I’ll have nothing but respect for you, because I sure as hell don’t know how she did it.
#18 Portrait of a Lady on Fire
One word: lesbians! Any queers who still haven’t seen the best film from last year that wasn’t called Parasite need to take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. That sort of redress of gaze is fitting here, since it’ll be for a film that weaponises looks and eroticises looking, all while delivering one of the great modern romances and answering the age old question… what if there was a portrait of a lady on fire?
Modern acting heavyweights don’t come much more powerful than Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, and here they each give some of their most dynamic screen performances. Washington, who also directs, is all righteous bombast and indignation, and Davis matches him with brute emotional force at every turn. But most importantly, it’s the way each of them wrestle and play with August Wilson’s language, riding along its theatricality and poetry while never losing sight of the reality underpinning it, that makes the film an indispensible acting class.
#20 Cleo from 5 to 7
Ding ding, token French New Wave alert! However, director-wise we’re ignoring the overbearing men for the mother of the movement and queen of my heart: Agnès Varda. All of her films are worth watching (particularly her later self-reflexive documentaries), but why not start here and delight in the textured, beguiling performance from Corinne Marchand in the titular role. As a singer awaiting what she expects to be terrible news, Marchand expertly shows how to perform a shifting performance of self in such a psychologically real and empathetically layered way.
#21 All About Eve
Much like how shocking it is to only include single performances from Meryl Streep or Viola Davis in this list, it feels almost criminal to only highlight one Bette Davis masterclass. Yet, here we are. Margo Channing might just be her most delicious creation though, and not just for her way with a withering one-liner – well, mostly for her way with a withering one-liner. Attacking one of the greatest screenplays ever written, Bette is acerbic and vicious, yes, but also vulnerable and scared and instinctively alive in every moment she plays. “Fasten your seatbelts” is goddamn right.
Just in case you’re a cis actor thinking of Danish Girl-ing yourself towards an award or two – don’t! Trans roles should be played by trans performers! What a concept! Particularly when there are actors as wildly and wickedly talented as Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor out there, each bringing such natural charisma, propulsive energy and devastating soulfulness to their roles in Sean Baker’s iPhone-shot masterpiece. It’s the Christmas movie you don’t know you need, so let them teach you a thing or two about effortlessly riding the line between naturalism and screwball insanity, all while gently ripping your heart out.
Let’s keep this indie cinema thread going with Andrew Haigh’s achingly beautiful little slice of queer life. Chronicling the growing connection between two gay men over the course of, yes, a weekend, Haigh’s film is a lesson in how to portray intimacy on screen – and I don’t just mean in the stunningly well-directed and performed sex scenes (although, I mean, yes, those too), but especially in the extended, authentic, exquisitely romantic conversations between actors Tom Cullen and Chris New.
#24 Force Majeure
Diving into “are the straights okay?” cinema, watch this treatise on fragile gender roles and the barren landscapes of modern relationships because it might just be the funniest, most uncomfortable, least predictable version of whatever film you’re currently conjuring in your head after that description. That director Ruben Östlund and the performers are able to derive such hysterically dark laughs out of shockingly, embarrassingly realistic emotional breakdowns is wildly impressive – and squirmingly entertaining.
#25 Out of Sight
If ever you need a primer on movie star charisma, turn to Steven Soderbergh. He’s an expert at establishing and innovating star personas on screen, never moreso than when he essentially made George Clooney a movie star and Jennifer Lopez an icon in the same film. Rife with sexual tension, smooth film noir banter, and just ridiculously goddamn cool, this film is like a how-to guide for channelling Old Hollywood style in modern genre trappings. And it’s a stupidly good time to boot.
#26 In the Mood for Love
Need more movie star charisma/crazy hot sexual tension? Done. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is ready and waiting for you, cigarette in hand, and it doesn’t disappoint. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are wronged spouses falling in love with each other in the most impeccably stylish way, yet the true feat is how each of them are able to convey such subtle humanity and desperate longing while barely moving a muscle.
#27 Singin’ in the Rain
I debated what the last entry should be on this list, and it could’ve been a litany of different impressively tragic, devastatingly traumatising options of acting greatness, but why not go with the purest distillation of gosh-darn joy to ever grace the silver screen? The athleticism, exuberance, comic genius, dedication to style, and thrilling earnestness on display from Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen (queen) is probably a necessary balm after you’ve made it through this list (and the past 12 months). Bloody enjoy it.