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Film History 101 (via Netflix Watch Instantly)

Robin is absolutely right: I like lists, I remember everything I’ve ever seen or read, and I’ve been making course syllabi for over a decade, so I’m often finding myself saying “If you really want to understand [topic], these are the [number of objects] you need to check out.” Half the fun is the constraint of it, especially since we all now know (or should know) that constraints = creativity.

So when Frank Chimero asked:

Looking to do some sort of survey on film history. Any sort of open curriculum out there like this that runs in tandem with Netflix Instant?

I quickly said, “I got this,” and got to work.

See, trying to choose over the set of every film ever made is ridiculously hard. Choosing over a well-defined subset is both easier and more useful.

Also, I knew I didn’t want to pick the best movies ever made, or my favorites, or even the most important. Again, that pressure, it’ll cripple you. I wanted to pick a smattering of films that if you watched any given, sufficiently large subset of them, you’d know a lot more about movies than when you started.

This is actually a lot like trying to design a good class. You’re not always picking the very best examples of whatever it is you’re talking about, or even the things that you most want your students to know, although obviously both of those factor into it. It’s much more pragmatic. You’re trying to pick the elements that the class is most likely to learn something from, that will catalyze the most chemistry. It’s a difficult thing to sort, but after you’ve done it for a while, it’s like driving a car, playing a video game, or driving a sport — you just start to see the possibilities opening up.

Then I decided to add my own constraints. First, I decided that I wasn’t going to include any movies after the early 1970s. You can quibble about the dates, but basically, once you get to the Spielberg-Scorsese-Coppola-Woody Allen generation of filmmakers — guys who are older but still active and supremely influential today — movies are basically recognizable to us. Jaws or Goodfellas or Paris, Texas are fantastic, classic, crucial movies, but you don’t really have to put on your historical glasses to figure them out and enjoy them, even if they came out before you were of movie-going age. The special effects are crummier, but really, movie-making just hasn’t changed that much.

Also, I wasn’t going to spend more than a half-hour putting it together. I knew film history and Netflix’s catalog well enough to do it fast, fast, fast.

And so, this was the list I came up with. As it happened, it came to a nice round 33.

I made exactly one change between making up the list and posting it here, swapping out David Lynch’s Eraserhead for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. I cheated a little with Eraserhead — it’s a late movie that was shot over a really, really long period of time in the 70s and came out towards the end of that decade. And Breathless isn’t Godard’s best movie, but it’s probably the most iconic, so it was an easy choice.

There are huge limitations to this list, mostly driven by the limitations of the catalog. Netflix’s selection of Asian and African movies, beyond a handful of auteurs like Akira Kurosawa, isn’t very good. There’s no classic-period Hitchcock. There’s no Citizen Kane. There aren’t any documentaries or animated films. And you could argue until you’re blue in the face about picking film X over film Y with certain directors or movements or national cinemas.

But you know what? You wouldn’t just learn something from watching these movies, or just picking five you haven’t seen before — you would actually have fun. Except maybe Birth of a Nation. Besides its famous pro-Ku Klux Klan POV, that sucker is a haul. Happy watching.


Wonderful list and write up. Requiring historical glasses is a great way of drawing a line.

When I was making suggestions for additions on Twitter, I was concentrating on that 70’s gap. I would say that if you’re looking for a Hitchcock movie, 39 Steps is available on Instant and one of his best, early or no.

Wow, what a great list! Since this is meant to be a film history survey, does anyone have any recommendations on where to find insightful criticism and discussion of these films?

Good stuff! The Lady Vanishes is also on watch instantly. It’s a pretty kooky one, but quite watchable and I think iconic Hitchcock in its own right.

As a side note, does anyone have a good bead on what determines when things come into/outof watch instantly? It seems like things on my list disappear pretty regularly.

Matt P says…

Might I suggest the addition of Metropolis? Netflix has the newly-remastered version, so there’s even more historical juiciness than usual.

Tim Carmody says…

There are dozens of iconic films on Netflix Watch Instantly that are not on this list, including The Thirty-Nine Steps (great Hitchcock, but I think I left it off out of frustration that Rebecca or Vertigo weren’t available, just to pick two periods), Metropolis (I already had M, Pandora’s Box, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari repping interwar Germany), The Third Man (god, this is a genius film), The Seven Samurai, La Dolce Vita, WAY more Hollywood classics, a ton of great comedies…

I mean, seriously. The shit is off the hook.

I’m sticking with my original parameters: 33 films, good historical/stylistic/linguistic mix, all of them offering something a little new in film, all of them fun to watch. Pick any five, watch one a night and you’ll learn something each time and have a great week.

Kyle says…

The most telling part of your post is the stuff Netflix Instant doesn’t offer as an entire category.

No early animation. No Disney. Essentially no musicals. No Rogers and Astaire. Virtually no silent American films. No silent British films. No silent French films. No documentaries. Extremely light on noir. No early science fiction.

Or to answer the original query more clearly: Netflix Instant only has 13 films available that were made before 1920, and only 41 made between 1921 and 1930.

So, no, there’s really no good way to do film history with just Netflix Instant.

@Kyle: But I think the crazy limitation is the fun of it! It’s a MacGyver problem: using this cardboard tube & this paperclip & this chewing gum, make a working submarine.

The availability of silent-era movies ebbs and flows. A couple of years ago, there were a ton of silent comedies, early documentaries, and compilations of shorts. (Seriously, they’re still in my instant queue as “saved” movies.)

Now, there aren’t nearly as many. Crap, a month ago, The Godfather was on Watch Instantly. Now, it’s gone, after like six weeks.

BTW, If I’d known Dziga Vertov’s 1929 avant-garde doc Man With A Movie Camera were available on Watch Instantly, it would have totally bumped off one of the Griffith movies. That shiz is required. And it might take the top of your head off.

Another thing that’s kind of fun? Picking out themed subsets. Like, just looking at this list, I want to say “pick any two of the following films and compare and contrast their approach to history”:

The Birth of A Nation
The General
The Battleship Potemkin
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Grand Illusion
The Battle of Algiers

Matt P says…

I like this game a lot. How about the following subset for law and justice?

The Big Sleep
The Searchers
The 400 Blows
The Passion of Joan of Arc

I second, third and fourth the recommendation of MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA.
It was required viewing for the grad course i took called film history & theory, and it did, in fact, come close to taking off the top of my head. I own the dvd with the Alloy Orchestra score/accompaniment (which is worth the price of admission alone). The movie itself is…it’s just WOW.
It’s just incredible and wonderful and brilliant and fabulous and gorgeous and fascinating.


Really, can’t thank you enough for doing this, Tim, no matter how long it took.

I’ve seen a bulk of these, but I’m glad to have the addition of the others, and more importantly, to have this set as a meaningful lens to see things through.

Robin, I agree. This is totally MacGyvering a list based on availability. That is totally the fun of it. Film criticism and history isn’t my core competency, but if we were talking about design history or typefaces, I’d have a lot of fun with maneuvering inside of some sort of random set of limitations like availability.

And that last bit, about “Pick any two” ? I love that. Meaningful mini-frameworks like that seem so powerful. “Here’s a set of films that attempt to represent history in different ways.” Totally great to chunk things like that.

I feel like I’ve been given a Christmas gift!

i think there’s a bit of curriculum missing here; there’s the what but not the why.

this is a great blog (that i wish it were more frequently updated):
i like that it’s called “picks of the moment” because things come and go so frequently on instant. i streamed Vertigo a couple months ago, for instance.

maybe, similar to a book club, there could be a netflix instant film club. each week or month a movie is picked, everyone watches it, discuss (on twitter or wherever). a moderator could have guiding questions. people could follow on a hashtag. hmm maybe i’ll start doing that.

finding something good on instant is always a bit of a needle/haystack situation, but that’s part of the fun.

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