1. "Mr. Edison At Work In His Chemical Laboratory" (1897)
This early "actuality" runs 30 seconds, showing Thomas Alva Edison fussing with Bunsen burners and beakers by himself in a lab. Except that it isn't a lab—it's a set, constructed outdoors because no one had yet invented lights powerful enough to illuminate an indoor scene. And Edison likely wouldn't have been tinkering alone like this, since by this point in his career, he was more of a manager, supervising his employees rather than doing much inventing himself. Even the movie cameras capturing this staged event—the patents for which were tightly held by Edison—were conceived and constructed by somebody else. So here, at the dawn of cinema, we have one of the first object lessons in how an image can be carefully and even deceitfully built, as Edison offers an illusion of truth to a public fascinated by this new age of technological wonder.
2. "The Man With The Rubber Head" (1901)
Primed to captivate a public weary of actualities, Georges Méliès became one of the first filmmakers to treat the camera like a toy, playing with time-lapse photography, multiple exposures, fade-ins, and fade-outs. In "The Man With The Rubber Head," a mad scientist copies his own head, puts it on a table, attaches a bellows to it, expands it like a balloon, and then deflates it. Then his assistant comes in, grabs the bellows, and takes the experiment too far. The whole film is over and done in three minutes, just long enough to baffle viewers, tease them with impending disaster, let them off the hook, then bring the disaster to fruition. And all this during an era of innovation and experimentation where real science was so arcane as to almost seem like magic.
3. Intolerance (1916)
"It was like writing history with lightning," Woodrow Wilson was famously quoted as saying about The Birth Of A Nation, D.W. Griffith's incendiary masterpiece about the Civil War and its aftermath. Though the film changed cinema forever, baring the racial and regional divides that still fractured the country, Griffith's epic follow-up Intolerance was even more wide-ranging. Upset by the controversy over Birth Of A Nation's racist content, Griffith embarked on one of the great follies in film history—a three-hour opus that spanned four time periods (each marked by a different tint), stretching back to Babylon in 539 B.C. and jumping ahead to Christ's persecution and crucifixion, the Renaissance period in France, and a modern-day tale of labor unrest and injustice in California. By far the most expensive film ever made in its day, Intolerance attempted to show man's inhumanity to man throughout the ages, and love's power to intercede and transcend. In doing so, it took the pulse of a nation in transition, one that was still finding itself while bracing for a new conflict overseas.
4. Greed (1924)
In Erich von Stroheim's Greed, fatalism and opportunity clash at every possible turn. Though adapted from Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague, it's perfectly suited for the boisterous '20s, a decade that promised to cast off the mistakes of the past, but could never quite escape the shadow of a recent World War, or the inevitable sense that it wouldn't be the last. The hulking Gibson Gowland plays the slow-witted son of struggling miners; improbably, he falls into the trade of dentistry through less-than-conventional means. He's happy for a while, but he soon learns that the American dream has its limits, as he bungles toward an ending that defines hell on earth. Shooting on location in a San Francisco that's more Victorian than modern, von Stroheim captures an era flowering into its own even as it falls prey to the faults that have haunted humanity since Adam. Originally shown in a nine-hour cut, the film boasts a production history that is itself a case study in ambition and its boundaries.
5. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
The Great Depression, Marxist critique, and the flat griminess of the Warner Brothers "social problem film" collide in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, a fleet, tense prison drama in which the metaphorical leg-irons weighing down "forgotten man" Paul Muni get strapped on long before he gets arrested, and long after. Guilty only of being poor, Muni is accused of a murder he didn't commit, and he lands at an inhumane Georgia prison farm, from which he escapes, only to get trapped by blackmail into a lousy job and a crummy marriage. Like a lot of early sound films, Chain Gang has a spare look and a crackly soundtrack, but it also burns with intense rage at how people can screw over other people in service of an outmoded social order.
6. The Third Man (1949)
The '40s began with Citizen Kane, an ahead-of-its-time stylistic wonder contemplating the neuroses of a great man; Orson Welles made the film shortly before America entered World War II and had to confront the soul-staining cost of doing right. And the decade ended with Welles playing a devilishly practical opportunist in Carol Reed's The Third Man, a sophisticated thriller about the moral compromises of post-war Europe, shot in a style that owed an equal debt to Citizen Kane's cockeyed expressionism and the then-spreading shadows of film noir. In one of the film's most deliciously metaphorical moments, do-gooder American writer Joseph Cotten gets knocked dizzy and grabs a wooden railing for support, only to find that the top of the railing is loose. After 10 years of concentration camps, atomic bombs, and increasingly complicated Hollywood heroes, there were apparently no places for a traditional good guy to find his bearings.
7. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
Ace gag-man Frank Tashlin pioneered live-action techniques as a standout animation director for Looney Tunes, but found his greatest fame as a live-action satirist whose personal obsessions—television, advertising, the gaucheness of youth culture, the cult of eternal upward mobility, the Barnum-esque nature of capitalism, sensual curves—adroitly reflected popular preoccupations of the '50s. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is Tashlin's simultaneously loving and scathing send-up of advertising, television, pop stardom at its most Warholian, and the all-American mania for success, '50s-style. As a loveable ad-man duped into pretending to be the boyfriend of movie star Jayne Mansfield, Tony Randall brings an infectious sense of joy and innocence to the part of a fundamentally good, sane man driven a little batty by the ridiculousness of the dizzy pop world around him.
8. Weekend (1967)
In the late '60s, a free-floating sense of revolution energized the radical Left, especially in France following the tumult and turmoil of 1968. No film reflected the simultaneous horror and hope of revolts to come more powerfully or directly than Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend, a scabrous black road comedy about a hideous upper-class couple stuck in a bloody Marxist revolution. Godard's early masterpiece Breathless and Weekend serve as perfect bookends for the decade Godard loomed over as a trickster-god. For all its darkness and nihilism, Breathless conveys the excitement and electricity of the early '60s, while Weekend indelibly captures the mounting despair of a decade whose good vibes and dreamy idealism darkened gradually but dramatically into a state of apocalyptic paranoia.
9. Nashville (1975)
The mounting Vietnam- and Watergate-fueled despair that characterized the early '70s finds assured expression in the crazy-quilt Americana of Robert Altman's masterpiece. Veterans, drifters, political wonks, stars, would-be stars, burn-outs, and enigmas all drift through a town in which entertainment has been confused with politics, and vice versa. Altman slides the tone from comedy to tragedy as the film makes its tuneful progress toward an apocalyptic vision of the world at mid-decade. As usual, he leans on his cast members, who, though they're mostly non-singers and non-songwriters, generally supplied their own perfectly suited songs. It's like there was something in the air.
10. Back To The Future (1985)
Like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, another quintessential '80s film, Back To The Future suggests that behind the white picket fences and carefully manicured lawns of Ronald Reagan's "Morning In America" lies all manner of Oedipal weirdness. Lynch turned that thesis into art. Robert Zemeckis transformed it into crackerjack entertainment with a deceptively dark subtext. In Back To The Future, underachieving teen Michael J. Fox—who embodied the '80s on television as yuppie-in-training Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties—lives out the fantasies of Reagan and his backward-looking acolytes by literally returning to the Eisenhower era, where he must ward off the sexual advances of disconcertingly hot mom Lea Thompson in order to avoid disintegrating. It doesn't seem at all coincidental that one of the film's sharpest gags finds mad scientist Christopher Lloyd snorting with disbelief upon being told that the hammy B-list actor from Bedtime For Bonzo would eventually become president of the United States.
11. Pulp Fiction (1994)
For better or worse, Quentin Tarantino's postmodern gangland smash dominated the '90s. Like Nirvana's Nevermind, Pulp Fiction proved the retail clout of an emerging generation, showing how a punk ethos—or its cinematic equivalent, irony—could sell to ex-latchkey-kids raised on TV, Saturday matinees, '70s chic, and hard-rock records spun in dank, wood-paneled basements. Just as the radio was soon filled with lacking Nirvana wannabes, post-Tarantino multiplexes were flooded with twisty little crime capers awash in clever pop-culture references, almost none of which matched Pulp Fiction's wit, style, or informed homage to art and trash. The twentysomethings who watched Pulp Fiction dozens of times over weren't just looking for cool movie characters who talked like them but snazzier, they were returning repeatedly to a cinematic universe that imbued the detritus of their youth—the theme restaurants, the movie quotes—with iconic meaning.
12. 25th Hour (2002)
Many movies were at various stages of production in New York around 9/11, but while everyone else rushed to digitally airbrush out the Twin Towers and pretend that nothing happened, Spike Lee seized the moment. Lee's best films have always tried to capture the tenor of the times, and 25th Hour beautifully incorporates 9/11 into a story about the loss and regret of a condemned man (Edward Norton) who realizes that while he's serving the prison sentence he's heading for, New York as he knows it will evaporate just as surely as it did on that day. The moving opening credits sequence—an artful acknowledgment of the "Tribute In Light," which temporarily filled the two gaps in the skyline—establishes a mournful tone that's sustained throughout, and a montage near the end unexpectedly celebrates the resilience, diversity, and humanity that the tragedy couldn't extinguish. By sheer chance, the right artist was there at the right time to capture the defining event of the young century.