Spike Lee’s Favorite Films: 10 Movies the Director Wants You to See

"On the Waterfront," "Lawrence of Arabia," and Sean Connery's James Bond films are some of the "Do the Right Thing" director's favorite movies.
Spike Lee's Favorite Movies
(Clockwise from bottom left): "Ganja & Hess," "Mean Streets," Spike Lee, "A Face in the Crowd," and "Thunderball"
Courtesy Everett Collection/Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

There’s no joint like a Spike Lee Joint, but what other movies does the director love?

Over four decades and 30 films, Brooklyn-raised Lee has established himself as the type of director whose work can’t be replicated. The traits that make a Spike Lee Joint a Spike Lee Joint are easy to spot: the fiery and often political subject matter, the mix of humor with drama, those iconic floaty dolly shots, and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to stylistic experimentation.

Lee’s fearlessness as a director makes for a fascinating mixed-bag of a filmography. The auteur has at least three undeniable masterpieces under his belt: 1989’s “Do the Right Thing,” a searing drama about police violence and racism; 1992’s “Malcolm X,” an epic starring Denzel Washington as the titular Civil Rights leader; and 2002’s “25th Hour,” the greatest portrait of life in New York after 9/11 put to film. Depending on who you ask, plenty of his other movies — “She’s Gotta Have It,” “4 Little Girls,” “Inside Man,” “BlacKKKlansman,” and “Da 5 Bloods” — also qualify as greats, and negatively received films like “Bamboozeled” and “School Daze” have since been reevaluated and vindicated by critics.

Even Lee’s misses (and it’s hard to deny that he does have misses) are usually worth a watch, give or take his “Oldboy” remake. “She Hate Me” and “Girl 6” are indisputably rough, but they’re clearly personal works only Lee could have made, and minor titles like “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Chi-raq” have their strengths worth championing.

It’s unclear when Lee is making his return to movie theaters, after his last film “Da Five Bloods” hit Netflix in 2020. He has three projects lined up — hip-hop “Romeo & Juliet” retelling “Prince of Cats,” Viagra creation musical “Boner,” and Broadway satire “Da Understudy” — but none have started filming, and the fate of “Da Understudy” seems up in the air after star Jonathan Majors’ arrest for domestic violence. All that’s guaranteed is when Lee makes his next movie, it’ll definitely be an event.

Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, Lee isn’t the type of filmmaker that speaks freely or often about his favorite films; he’s one of the more acclaimed American directors to not submit a ballot for 2022’s Sight and Sound greatest films poll. One of the most notable times he did speak publicly about what he considers all-time excellent cinema, it landed him into hot water. In 2013, Lee released a list of 87 “essential” films that he provides his students at New York University’s film school every year; as many noted, exactly one movie, “City of God,” was the work of a female director (Kátia Lund). Lee eventually apologized and amended the list to add eight films from female filmmakers, including “The Piano” by Jane Campion and “Daughters of the Dust” by Julie Dash.

Still, the films Lee has discussed as his influences are truly great, and they provide a window into how the master approaches his craft. It’s not shocking, for example, that a director as politically-minded as Lee gravitates to the movies of Elia Kazan, whose “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd” impacted how he approached the form. Other cinematic faves include widely respected staples like “Rashomon” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” cult classics like “Ganja & Hess,” and Sean Connery’s run as James Bond.

Here’s a list of just nine of Lee’s favorite films, plus one fantastic TV show, compiled from interviews the director has given over the years. Entries are listed in no particular order.

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