Essential Cinema

Must-see films from across the world that are essential viewing for any self-respecting cineaste.

Clemency (15)

“★★★★★ – Alfre Woodard quietly dazzles in this superb death row drama” – Observer. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s award winning and devastating prison drama stars Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) in a career-best performance as Bernadine Williams, the warden of a maximum security prison. After years of carrying out death row executions, Bernadine begins to question the morality of capital punishment.

FREE on BBC iPlayer
An image of a woman and a man on a railway platform from the film Phoenix

Phoenix (15)

“★★★★ – masterful” – Guardian. Christian Petzold’s (Barbara) suspenseful study of identity, betrayal and survival is an outright masterpiece. Former cabaret singer and Auschwitz survivor Nelly (Nina Hoss) – her face disfigured and reconstructed – returns to Berlin. When her estranged husband fails to recognise her, she becomes embroiled in his plot to claim his wife’s inheritance. Could he be the one who betrayed her to the Nazis?

Available to rent on BFI Player
Cold War film

Cold War (15)

“★★★★★ – a sweeping tale of passion and politics” – Guardian. Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous monochrome, jazz infused romantic tragedy is set against the crumbling urban backdrop of post-war Europe, as a music director falls in love with a singer and tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France.

Streaming now on Curzon Home Cinema
Toto’ looks at a reel of film in Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso (12A)

★★★★★ – Telegraph. One of the most loved films in modern world cinema, Giuseppe Tornatore’s ode to movie-going tells the story of young Toto’s fascination with his local cinema which, thanks to encouragement from Alfredo the projectionist, turns into a deep love for filmmaking decades later.

Available now on MUBI

Moonlight (15)

★★★★★ – Guardian. Gorgeous and heart-breaking, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight scooped the Oscar for Best Picture against the odds, and should be regarded for its beauty and power rather than that La La Land blunder. Split into three chapters, the film follows the life of Chiron – a young black man growing up in Miami – through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as he struggles with his sexuality.

FREE now on BBC iPlayer

Apocalypse Now: Final Cut (15)

“★★★★★ – triumph in restating the inhumanity of empire” – Guardian. 1970, and Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent on a secret mission to Cambodia via war-torn South Vietnam, to assassinate a decorated American colonel who has gone rogue. Francis Ford Coppola’s Palme D’Or-winning 1979 masterpiece is considered one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video
Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter.

The Deer Hunter (18)

Winner of no less than five Oscars in 1978, including Best Director and Best Picture, and featuring acting heavyweights Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, and Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter is a must-see. Michael Cimino’s gentle direction steers this three-act saga through difficult subject matter to create a beautiful piece of film.

Watch via Phoenix at Home: On Demand

Mulholland Drive (15)

★★★★ – A haunting, selfish masterpiece” – Slant Magazine. Along Mulholland Drive, nothing is what it seems. We shift from dreams to nightmares in this neo-noir psychological thriller from director David Lynch. After a car crash leaves “Rita” with amnesia, she ends up at an apartment with aspiring actress Betty Elms. Together, they attempt to piece together Rita’s history.

Available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema
Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman

A Fantastic Woman (15)

★★★★★ – Guardian. Marina (Daniela Vega), a young trans woman in Santiago, has her life thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of her boyfriend, who is twenty years her senior. Grieving for her lover, she finds herself shunned by his family and under intense scrutiny from those with no regard for her privacy. Sebastián Lelio’s Oscar-winning drama is a sublime study of love and loss.

Available to rent on BFI Player
An image of 3 women sitting on a beach under a large but ragged umbrella

Daughters of the Dust (12A)

★★★★★ – Guardian. South Carolina, 1902. Three generations of women from the same family grapple with the decision to migrate north, leaving behind the Gullah culture they inherited from their West African slave ancestors. An avowed influence on Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’, Julie Dash’s masterpiece broke new ground in its representation of black women on screen, and is a luminous, vital portrait of black life.

Available now on BFI Player

Pain and Glory (15)

★★★★ – Empire. Antonio Banderas delivers a career-best performance as an ageing film director, wrestling with his mortality and confronting the ghosts of his life. Pedro Almodóvar’s deeply personal, semi-autobiographical drama is “bittersweet perfection” (Guardian).

Available to rent on BFI Player

Breathless (12A)

“★★★★ – An enervating intro to the French New Wave” – Empire. With the death of director Jean-Luc Godard announced last week, we revisit his ground-breaking crime drama starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Petty crook Michel and his American girlfriend go on the run after he kills a policeman.

Available to rent on BFI Player
John Hurt as The Elephant Man John Merrick

The Elephant Man (12A)

“One of the most moving screen dramas of the 20th century” – Mark Kermode. 40 years since its original release, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man remains one of the director’s most beautiful and haunting works, with stunning black and white photography from Oscar winner Freddie Francis and an incredible central performance from John Hurt as John Merrick.

Available to rent on BFI Player
still from Korean film Parasite, woman walking up stairs with hand over mouth

Parasite (15)

“★★★★★ – A riotous social satire that’s as gloriously entertaining as it is deeply sardonic” – Empire. The first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, Bong Joon-ho’s delicious twisted thriller follows the symbiotic relationship between two families as Ki-taek, his wife and their children slowly infiltrate the wealthy Park family’s home.

FREE now on All4

Ida (12A)

“★★★★★ – compelling” – Guardian. Winner of the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama is essential viewing. Poland, 1962, and Ida – a novice nun about to take her vows – learns of her last living relative and her Jewish heritage. Reunited with her previously unknown aunt, the pair begin to uncover their past, leaving Ida with a choice between her heritage and the religion that saved her from the Holocaust.

Available to rent on BFI Player
An image from the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (15)

★★★★★ – Independent. Not just one of 2019’s best films, but one of the best films you’re ever likely to see, period. This masterfully told story of forbidden love between a painter and her subject – the betrothed daughter of a countess – is utterly compelling, with what is sure to be considered one of the greatest final shots in the history of cinema.

Available now on Curzon Home Cinema
Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (18)

“★★★★★ – a masterpiece of dramatic naturalism” – Empire. Scooping the ‘big five’ awards at the 1976 Oscars – including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Leading Actor – Miloš Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel features an electrifying performance from Jack Nicholson. Set in a 1960s mental institution, the film is a powerful and moving study of the moral battle between the ‘system’ and the individual.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime

The Third Man (PG)

Carol Reed’s seminal masterpiece sees pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrive in Vienna as the guest of childhood friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that he has died. So begins a labyrinthine quest to unravel the mystery of Harry’s death, centring on an unknown “third man” who has vanished into the underworld.

Available to rent on Amazon Prime