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Spike Lee’s Essential List Of Films For Filmmakers (What’s Missing? How Many Have You Seen?)

Spike Lee's Essential List Of Films For Filmmakers (What's Missing? How Many Have You Seen?)

The one thing that immediately jumped out at me in looking over this list from Spike Lee, is the near-absence of films by black filmmakers. I counted 3 total: Charles Burnett’s Killer Of SheepJohn Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, and Michael Schultz’s Coolie High.

Although there are a few films listed that tell stories about black people, but weren’t directed by black filmmakers, like Black Orpheus, for example, which was directed by Frenchman Marcel Camus.

And when I say black filmmakers, I’m not referring solely to black American filmmakers. I’m talking about the entire African Diaspora.

I’d love to have seen mentions of films by iconic and notable names of filmmakers who contributed to, or helped shift the conversation, with some very important work, like Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambety, William Greaves, Med Hondo, Souleymane Cissé, Euzhan Palcy, Isaac Julien, and others.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking his list. It contains many seminal, important and influential films that also happen to be some of my favorite films (and filmmakers) of all time, and that I also recommend anyone serious about film, should see. And this is, after all, a subjective list. I’m sure if I sat in a room with 10 other movie lovers, we’d endlessly debate the merits of each. But I can’t really argue with his list. I just believe that there are more of *us* who have contributed to cinema, films that are also just as important and influential, and necessary for filmmakers everywhere to see – certainly not as widely-known as the names and titles on this list (which are primarily white American and European). 

I could even think of other white filmmakers whose names/films I’d put on a list like this. Peter Greenaway, for example. And for a list that’s so standard, sticking primarily to the masters, I’m surprised he didn’t mention a single BergmanTarkovsky or Ozu film.

And then there’s Cassavetes

But, like I said, we can all argue who/what should be on the list, to infinity. It’s all in good fun. Plus Spike does say (as you’ll see in the video below) that if we feel there are other titles that belong on the list, to let him know.

On his list below, you’ll find the usual names that I’m sure many of you are familiar with. Godard, Fellini, Kubrick, Truffaut, Huston, Hitchcock, De Sica, Wyler, Welles, etc, etc, etc… Although interestingly, not the Orson Welles film that you’d probably immediately think would be on a list like this. But it’s still a great Orson Welles film in A Touch Of Evil that I’ve seen many times (sometimes just for the opening sequence alone).

Surprises? I didn’t at all expect to see Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 on this list. That one got an eyebrow raise out of me.

An even bigger surprise is Kung Fu Hustle. Interesting. That’s actually one of the few films on this list that I haven’t seen. I’ll have to check it out then.

I’ve seen all but 11 films on this list. So I’ll add those 11 to my to-watch list for the weekend.

Clearly, looking at Spike’s list, cinema has long-been, and still continues to be a playground for those who are both white and male. The rest of us are catching up though. I wonder what a list like this will look in another 50 to 100 years of filmmaking history.

By the way, of the 86 films on Spike’s list of essential films, just 6 of them are currently streaming on Netflix. Six!

That’s it! Like I said, a ridiculously tiny number of the 86 films on Spike’s list. About 7%.

And those 6 films are:

– Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

– John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy

– Roman Polański’s Chinatown

– Steve James’ Hoop Dreams

– Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven

– Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief

So, if you haven’t seen any of these 6 films, and you’re a Netflix streaming subscriber, you should check them out before they disappear, because there is an expiration date on Netflix’s rights to each title – meaning, they won’t be available indefinitely. So take advantage while you can! 

Take a look at the list and feel free to discuss.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,



NO surprises. And, as time passes, and the REAL
aims of Hollywood's elaborate, and endlessly promoted
resurrection of the mafia vision –MINUS– that great
old Warner's morality —-we're afraid 'The Godfather',
as well made and acted as it is, FAILS to satisfy the heart
—-FAILS to deliver the deeper TRUTH. Likewise with
Scorsess's masterpieces. For ALLLL the brilliance, and
incredible ensemble —for ALLLLL the groundbreaking
PSYCHOPATHY —-they FALL short.

Further, ODD that Lee, while nominating 3 Kurosawa
films —OMITS—- his enduring masterpiece 'IKIRU'

That film dealt courageously with EUGENICS,
CAP-stone sleaze, and the scuzziness of 'secret brotherhoods'.

It also sends your very heart thru the threshold.

AGAIN —-in 2013, Cappola, Scorsese and Stone —-are NOWHERE!


great list! and i'm proud to say i've seen 95% of them plus some of the writer/directors mentioned in your text. the great thing some of us tend to forget about spike lee is this: if not for him, many people today would never have heard of the brilliant black film makers he names. charles burnett for example. whether they made the list or not, lee's career opened big doors for indie auteurs across the board and especially, black filmmakers. the list needs to be about 100 and it needs to include a lot more african, brasilian and women filmmakers especially, especially ousmane sembene and julie dash.


Most of the movies he picked are some of my faves , too. Its about the art of film, which I get. I am not really concerned with why women are not on the list, a lot of ppl seem to have a problem with that. I like Sidney Poitier, Melvin Van Peeples, Spike Lee, Quentin T.

j s

Why are only male directors listed here???? what year is this – or rather, what year is spike lee living in??? 1943??? RIDICULOUS that only male directors are named here.


it's cooley high, not coolie high!


The Asian influence is well represented. I can only think that there is something about the production values of each film that guided his choices. I've seen all but 11, too, but I refuse to watch anything having to do with Woody Allen on principle.

what about key largo ?

the scene at the end of the movie where canada lees little boy is left at the dock not knowing whether is father is alive or dead is classic the little white girl on the other hand is assured that her old man is all right quite typical of america then and know .


I hope you don't mind if I jump in here with you CC. There are many things you can learn from the films on this list. Techniques, skills, different directors who used different kinds of camera placement, different kinds of lens patterns, different kinds of ways to tell a story. It may not even be his favorite films. I remember watching TOKYO STORY by OZU, not really my kind of film, but the family which the film highlights was shot in an amazing way. The old couple comes to visit their family who are supposedly modern city folks with little time for the OLD WAYS. Not to deep, but the way OZU achieves this is by having the old couple sit in the middle of the screen for pretty much the whole movie and having their children moving around them. The effect is amazing. Likewise, I learned a lot about visual poetry from Malick. I learned about the power of long takes from Tarkovsky. This list has many films I have seen and without question contains many films which demonstrate unique storytelling and visual filmmaking strategies. Developing an eye for understanding the multitudes of ways you can manipulate the perspective of the audience is one of the hallmarks of the director's craft (and this opinion is shared by almost all of the world's greatest filmmakers throughout the history of cinema). I am a person who has been critical of SPIKE in more recent years, but there is no doubt that this is a teaching list folks.


I love the list! I'm very surprised by District 9 and Kung Fu Hustle(which I thought was absolutely amazing).


Not a bad list, I've seen 95 percent of the films on the list. I would have to include films of filmmakers Sergio Leone, Tarantino, Sidney Poitier, Melvan Van Pebbles, Hughes Brothers, Bergman,Jean Peirre Melville, Agnes Varde , Jane Champion, Dario Argento, George Romero, Ivan Dixon, Robert Adldrich, Howard Hawks, Lina Wertmuller, Park chan Wook, Bon Joon Ho, Zhang Yimou, Hudlin Brothers. Tarkovsky, Warner Herzog, Samuel Fuller , RobertRodriguez, Gasper Nore, Monte Hellman, Larry Clark, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Luc Besson on my list.


No Jackie Brown, Diary of a Mad Black Woman or Flags of Our Fathers? Shocked.


No silents; earliest is Dead End (1937)

Bklyn Negress

Anyone expecting to see a female filmmaker on that list has never seen a Spike Lee film.


My adds: Brazil, Fail Safe, Annie Hall, 2001 a space odyssey, Network, Murmur of the Heart, Cinema Paradiso, The Seduction of Mimi, Pelham 123 (orig), She's Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Help, Woodstock, Taking Off, Monty Python's Holy Grail, Manhattan, Phone Booth, Amacord, Woman On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, Inception, The Dark Knight, The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover

Tristan Robin Blakeman

omg. I didn't expect that – I've seen them all except 1. There are two different movies titled "Is Paris Burning?" – one about WWII and one about NYC Drag Queens – but I've seen them both so I'm covered.

I'm also surprised how much I agree with him about these being the best of the best! I think this list is the first I've really been so closely aligned with.


We're talking about this Spike Lee right?


Spike Lee isn't obligated to list Black filmmakers or female filmmakers. He's giving you his list not making you feel good about yourself and Black film and women in film. If you appreciate his work and insight into the films that influenced it, you'll respect and appreciate this list as a truthful authentic admission from this Auteur, otherwise you get the list of usual suspects most celebs toss back to you that was well-strategized to be politically correct and push all the right feel-good buttons and was probably created by the celeb's publicist.

Thanks for 'And that's the the Truth Ruth' Spike Lee.

Lisa Craig

Um… and how about a single film directed by a WOMAN?!? Sheesh.


Not sure why some people are tripping, as Tambay noted Spike does invite other suggestions for this list for his class which is a great idea. Yeah most of this list looks like a Criterion Collection playlist, (always glad to see Black Orpheus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on any faves list) but I find it interesting there are only 3 films after 2000. I wonder if he has a seperate list for more contemporary films.

But to answer the question a few of my suggestions are Run Lola Run (the film that motivated me to become an editor), Woman in the Dunes (depressing as hell but the story is an allegory for the lives of many people, and gorgeous cinematography best seen in a theater), and Shaft as someone below noted.


That's the sad reality when it comes to Afro-Centric Specialty and Foreign Language films there's a very small of people who remembers anything in that category. The African Diaspora International Film Festival has exposed people to thousands of those title but the resistance is very strong at many different levels.

Isabella Lange

Born In Flames. feminist classic. Lots of black women in it. But they're lesbian….

Isabella Lange

Born In Flames. feminist classic. Lots of black women in it. But they're lesbian….

Isabella Lange

Born In Flames. feminist classic. Lots of black women in it. But they're lesbian….

Isabella Lange

Born In Flames. feminist classic. Lots of black women in it. But they're lesbian….

Isabella Lange

Born In Flames. feminist classic. Lots of black women in it. But they're lesbian….

Isabella Lange

Born In Flames. feminist classic. Lots of black women in it. But they're lesbian….


Wait a minute, what am I missing, I am a little confused. Who moved my cheese and who changed the definition of "essential" to "the best" and "without racism" and "superior to others in same genre" and "the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice"? **BIG SMILE**

Well, I believe our astute filmmaker, DANKWA BROOKS, caught the fly in the ointment… "a lot of people came to whine or complain". That whining and crying and hater's disposition forced them to read or see what was not there.

Now, for those in the cheap seats and those who may have a reading compression problem, I present the definition of "essential", and then we'll see how it pertains to Spike's list. Oh, that reminds me, the emphasis should be on the words "SPIKE'S LIST". The movies on his list where essential to him.

ESSENTIAL: noun. 1. Something fundamental. 2. Something necessary or indispensable.
adj. Constituting or being part of the essence of something.

My my my, it's obvious to me that Spike believes the films on his list (from HIS perspective) were noteworthy, regardless of their ability to be classified as the "best" in their respective genres or whether or not they moved a message that all could agree with, or if they were black enough for YOU.

So stop the madness folks. This post was not presented as a precursor to "BEAT UP SPIKE WEEK". Remember, the author is Tambay Obenson, not our resident pot stirrer and gossip hound, Sergio Mims. :-)


It's not even that there aren't black films on here, there could just be better white films! My response is that Spike only watches Turner Classic Movies. Anyone who thinks that Oldboy warrants a remake should not be paid attention to.


Everyone stop jocking Spike Lee's list, it's his list not yours so stop saying vacuous shit like "I would take off this", "I'd add this", and "where's this?" The title of this is in fact "Spike Lee's Essential List Of Films For Filmmakers".

And to author the TAMBAY A. OBENSON, well written article but you are a little clueless, out of touch, and a bit uneducated if you had to say "I didn't at all expect to see Neill Blomkamp's District 9 on this list. That one got an eyebrow raise out of me." And obviously if you don't know what's going on with that it'd be wrong for me not to tell you. That's a thoughtful, intelligable, and very entertaining sci-fi/action film that subliminally shows about racism and xenophobia that's so apparent in today's world. And coming from a South African filmmaker, shot in South Africa, taking place in South Africa isn't it obvious that it's a story about apartheid and the segregation that took place in South Africa? Come on man, show us you know a little something about something.


You negroes got nerve telling Spike (or anyone else) what films should be on THEIR favorite film list! Tender toe, cry baby muthf#ckas.

Spike, your list is YOURS. Fuck those who feel they need to dictate.


Nice list. It's all subjective and a matter of taste. I like many of the films listed and I agree with some of the comments below. I suggest that you check out many of the films listed by Spike Lee, along with the "favorite" films of others, such as Roger Ebert. Make your own list.


This list reeks of Misogyny and affirmation of White Male privilege by a Black man.
Get a life LOSER LEE and watch more cinema from the world and other places. Perhaps you may inform yourself of your own stupidity.


I do not see one woman on this list.


My list would include a couple of remakes, both versions of which should be viewed:
Cape Fear — Scorcese directed. DeNiro as the crazed killer is riveting. Mitchum is good in earlier one.
The Man Who Knew too Much —Hitchcock and filmmaking technique evolve over 22 years.
Gaslight — George Cukor. Ingrid Bergman emotionally deep. Also teenager Angela Lansbury appears in one of her first films.

Surprised Spke Lee lists no Oscar Micheaux.


'Clearly, looking at Spike's list, cinema has long-been, and still continues to be a playground for those who are both white and male – Perhaps white/males are the more experienced filmmakers at the forefront currently? holy shit you just had to capitalize on the racial sensitivity, this website has been reverted to some political filter, grow up. And in actuality, Lee has a compelling list, the MAJORITY of them are acclaimed masterpieces, he just felt the necessity to include some lesser known titles.


Speaking of black filmmakers…where is Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle.

Gary Anderson

Spike has never seen a great film by a woman, obviously.

I would remove the films of Mel Gibson, Stephen Chow, Neil Blomkamp, Stephen Frears, and both George Miller movies. Instead, I would add Citizen Kane, John Ford's The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep and Front Page.

F. Black

Kung Fu Hustle is a classic. Chinese film making is a different type of art.

F. Black

Kung Fu Hustle is a classic. Chinese film making is a different type of art.

F. Black

Kung Fu Hustle is a classic. Chinese film making is a different type of art.


He's missing quite a few good ones like The Fifth Element, Alice In Wonderland, Carmen Jones, Sparkle, The Last Dragon, after earth, etc.

Judge movies for yourself and the things you like.

Mark & Darla

Duel, Black Girl, The Panic In Needle Park, Shaft and Conversations


I've seen every film except for Fat City, Apocalypto, Dead End, Hoop Dreams, and Zelig. Interesting no Citizen Kane or Nothing But A Man.


I've seen all of these with the exception of Dirty Pretty Things.

Frankly, most of these films are hardly essential, and a handful of them are just dreadful. There are a few masterpieces mentioned, but , really, who considers "West Side Story" or "Bad Lieutenant" or "Raising Arizona" or "Patton" or "Apocalypto" or "The Road Warrior" or "Empire of the Sun" … etc "essential." Nobody really thinks this. This list is more like some personal favorites than any list of essential films. Also, even if we submit some of these directors are "essential" (many of which aren't), often their inferior films are picked. "Brief Encounter" or his Dicken's adaptions are far superior to Lean's overwrought epics – hell, even his problematic Katharine Hepburn vehicle "Summertime" is superior. Milos Forman's Czech work is infinitely superior to his American work. Does "Lust for Life" really hold up against "Meet Me in St. Louis" ? Does "Dead End" stand up to "The Best Years of Our Lives" ? Does "Miracle in Milan" stand up against "Umberto D"? Or "Is Paris Burning?" compared to "Forbidden Games" and "Gervaise" ? "Home of the Brave" versus "Seventh Victim" ? Etc.

Also, stop calling these lists "subjective." Art is subjective in the sense it's not empirical, but we can make reasonably objective statements. I can reasonably say Edward Hopper is superior to Thomas Kinkade, and similarly, we should be able to say a lot of stuff on this list is garbage without resorting to "it's all subjective" nonsense.


It's like he sat there and said I will do my list, my own list but I hate women I just hate them!


I agree. What No Wild Bunch????

But he has Battle of Algiers, The Train, Is Paris Burning, Blue Collar, White Heat and Marathon Man which would have been overlooked on most lists like this so I forgive him


Unfortunately no Tyler Perry films listed…

Dankwa Brooks

Since a lot of people came to whine or complain I'll do just as Spike/Tambay asked and post my list.

These films deserve to be there too
•Jaws (1975)
•Se7en (1995)
•The Red Balloon (1956)
and absolutely
• The Wild Bunch (1969)


If I considered Spike Lee to be a film-maker of any real importance I would spend some time considering what his list means by "essential viewing".


Adam Scott Thompson

I've got "Paths of Glory" scheduled on my DVR. Just finished watching "The 400 Blows." TCM is catching me up!


The list is pretty average. It reads like a "film school for Dummies" list. District 9 is the most racist film, almost of all time. Not sure why that is on there except as a "don't do this" kinda thing.


I see nothing wrong with the list and why does it have to be all black because he is black. He is an film auteur so it is natural that his taste would appeal to cinema and not movies. He is an artist and it does not matter where he draws his inspiration from. Alot of yall have hang ups and assume everyone should be like you to be accepted or call we black and you should do black shit too. booooooo to y'all folks. Keep doing you Spike..thats why you still here.


The only problem I have with these type of "lists" is no one can give their list w/out someone saying "well i would have like to seen this, or I don't understand why you didn't put that, BUT it's your list, I'm just saying." It's like the "Name your top 5 rappers of all time" scenario, people for whatever reason will not let you say what you want, in that case don't call the title SPIKE LEE'S list, call it "Spike Lee's list that I wish I had saw more black people on, but it's ok because it's his list" No one is ever to just accept someone's answer and letting it be just that, THEIR answer.

Steven Sanders

Totally agree with you Anthony, Spike's list is so academic it's appalling, more than half of the films can be found on a lot of director's list. Nothing unique or different.


yeah, that District 9… no bueno.

but to each his own.


There are a lot of great films on this list but it would have been nice if he'd included one female director.

Anthony E.

I dig his list, it doesn't have to be ALL black. He is after all a film professor at NYU (not a historically black college). It sort of plays like a whose who of Criterion Collection which does feature Do The Right Thing. This list plays out like a film professor's condensed film program for the year. Not surprised but I would have had a Tarantino film featured… a sort of debut list. Citizen Kane, Clerks, or Reservoir Dogs.

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