Godard’s 12 Best Films: A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Filmmaker’s Work

The late director not only helped kick off the New Wave, he changed the language of cinema forever.
Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's "Pierrot le fou"
Anna Karina in "Pierrot le fou"

The greatest filmmaker in the world has died. And that’s a title Jean-Luc Godard has held for a very long time. His influence on cinematic form and language of the past 60 years has been foundational, but Godard’s best movies are not museum pieces to be studied: They are vibrant, energetic, sexy, full of color and smoke and crepuscular shadows that envelop you. They are alive. And they will continue to be though their maker is not.

The Swiss-born filmmaker stripped cinema down to its essence — all you need to tell a story on film is “a girl and a gun” he famously said — with a run-and-gun guerrilla style that eventually flowered into a finely wrought formalism. Besotted with movies, particularly Hollywood genre efforts (even if he hated U.S. politics), he didn’t just know movies either: painting appears all throughout “Pierrot le fou,” written text in “Vivre Sa Vie,” the music of Marianne Faithfull and The Rolling Stones in other places. The eye-popping colors and flat, telephoto cinematography of “Made in U.S.A.” make that movie come alive as a comic book better than any actual comic book movie. His interests were manifold. And language was a particular preoccupation of his, why we label things the way we do, why everything must have a word to describe it.

Finding the words to describe Godard’s movies can be difficult. When you watch one of his movies you’ll almost certainly need to watch it again to extrapolate its full meaning — and immerse yourself in its pleasures. IndieWire has put together a viewing guide to not just the 12 Best Godard Movies, but movies that also serve as an introduction to his entire aesthetic. Deeper cuts should then follow: “Nouvelle Vague,” “Le Petit Soldat,” “Passion,” “Histoire(s) du Cinema,” “In Praise of Love.” But these movies that follow are the introduction to his work you need.

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