The History of Cinema as Told Through Films

Read the notes for the information behind each title! :)

(Description of the list, short version)
This is an extremely incomplete list. While doing tons of research on the history of cinema, I figured it'd be much more convenient for anybody out there to have a list of titles that represents a certain innovation, movement, anything of historical importance since the history of cinema has virtually always been represented by "landmark" films. All the research got too much for me however and I realized it might be a good experiment to have the good userbase here to contribute anything they may know! :)

(The boring long version)
While working on a paper, I realized that in writing about the history…

  • Roundhay Garden Scene

    Roundhay Garden Scene

    Currently the oldest surviving film.

  • Poor Pierrot

    Poor Pierrot

    One of the very first animated films ever made along with Le Clown et ses chiens and Un bon bock (all three were exhibited by director Charles-Émile Reynaud in his moving picture show Théâtre Optique at the Musée Grévin in Paris).

  • Dickson Experimental Sound Film

    Dickson Experimental Sound Film

    There has always been synchronized sound as demonstrated in this clip. It just wasn't popular. (Or very easy to use.)

  • Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph

    Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph

    World's first feature-length film.

  • Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze

    Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze

    Thomas Edison was a notorious megalomaniac. While he did much good for cinema, through the invention of the Kinetoscope and in commissioning many films (such as this one), he had the firm belief that every film ever made had an obligation to pay him a royalty because of his copyright on the invention. On movie sets he would have threatening men (the threats were mostly bluff I presume but I wouldn't be surprised such men were armed) stationed to collect his royalties. This is one of the reasons why Hollywood moved out of Fort Lee, NJ and to California- in order to avoid Edison's presence.

  • The Sprinkler Sprinkled

    The Sprinkler Sprinkled

    Features the first planned comedic gag in film.

  • A Trip to the Moon

    A Trip to the Moon


    With the film Hugo, Scorsese was determined to inflate the history of cinema with the name George Méliès. And he was right, as Méliès was one of cinema's more noteworthy experimenters in storytelling. His films were morely magician acts meant to dazzle audiences with innovative usages of stop tricks, transitions, and impositions among other early techniques.

  • The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ

    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ

    The first film to use the Pathécolor process, an early means of tinting achieved through using stencils. Kind of a form of colorization but not quite.

  • The Great Train Robbery

    The Great Train Robbery


    Introduced cross-cutting/parallel action (two events in two different locations are cut together to look like they're occurring simultaneously) among the many techniques it used. The definitive early Western and helped kick off the genre.

  • Defence of Sevastopol

    Defence of Sevastopol

    First film shot with two cameras and the first feature-length film to have been made in Imperial Russia.

  • The Student of Prague

    The Student of Prague

    One of the earliest German Expressionist films.

  • The Birth of a Nation

    The Birth of a Nation


    Film's potential of telling its current feature length narratives were solidified by D.W. Griffith's epic. This is also representative of how silent films, and cinema's entertainment as recognized early-on, were used for spectacle.

    The film also revitalized the Ku Klux Klan and, to the intentions of Griffith or not, perhaps marked the beginning for historical revisionism and the manipulation of public thought in film.

  • Nanook of the North

    Nanook of the North


    Considered the first feature-length documentary and representative of ethnography and salvage ethnography (trying to capture and conserve whatever elements of cultures in order to preserve them) in cinema.

  • Rosita


    Lubitsch's first effort in Hollywood; it represents one of the many films made by foreign directors that flooded to Hollywood to be further involved in the industry, demonstrating how globally important Hollywood was for cinema as the thriving film industry. Other directors included (silent era) Victor Sjöström from Sweden, Herbert Brenon from Ireland, and many more while in the sound era there were names such as Alfred Hitchcock (from England) and Fritz Lang (from Germany).

  • The Last Laugh

    The Last Laugh

    First use of the entfesselte Kamera, or the unchained camera technique, an innovation by Murnau where the camera was strapped to the cinematographer's body instead of being put on a tripod. Formulative for "freeing" the camera and allowing for moving shots.

  • The Phantom of the Opera

    The Phantom of the Opera


    Color has always been present in films, its taking over cinema to the point of today has been a gradual process as opposed to the revolutionary one that The Jazz Singer caused. Even in 1925 was Technicolor used to film certain scenes. The earliest known film to use color, The Gulf Between, is not in the tmdb database.

  • Battleship Potemkin

    Battleship Potemkin

    Representative of the history of the montage, then strictly Soviet montage theory (metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, intellectual) as demonstrated by Sergei Eisenstein in this film. Representative of Soviet propaganda films vouching for collectivism.

  • The Lost World

    The Lost World

    First film to feature giant monsters.

  • The Adventures of Prince Achmed

    The Adventures of Prince Achmed

    The oldest surviving animated feature film.

  • The General

    The General


    Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd seem to be the three biggest names in the wildly popular slapstick comedy of the silent era.

  • Nothing But Time

    Nothing But Time

    The first/precursor to Latin American experimental film; Brazil would especially be famous for experimental films in the 60's and 70's.

  • Metropolis



    Defining influence on cyberpunk sci-fi dystopian imagery.

  • Napoleon



    First (and only) film to have used Polyvision, which created a triptych effect, where three images are projected at once on an exceptionally wide screen to create one seamless image (the difficulties both in shooting and screening this can spell out why it never caught on). Whether Polyvision influenced/is a precursor to widescreen or split screen is debatable. However, it can be considered a precursor to Cinerama.

  • The Jazz Singer

    The Jazz Singer


    In 1927, the film's usage of synchronized sound was massively popular and swayed audiences, thus changing the demand to studios completely, towards sound films and talkies. Pity that this isn't a very good movie.

  • The Passion of Joan of Arc

    The Passion of Joan of Arc


    Maria/Renée Falconetti's performance is regarded, more than any other, as the greatest in cinema

  • The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra

    The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra


    The costs and equipment of all stages of production during the silent era (and onwards, really), as well as the concern of being able to screen films in a way to generate enough to break even, made it difficult for independent films to thrive. This 11-minute short is one of the few to exist. Its budget was less than $100 and its director, Robert Florey, was already an established director in Hollywood.

  • Steamboat Willie

    Steamboat Willie


    Indoctrination of cultural icon and Disney mascot Mickey Mouse.

  • Un Chien Andalou

    Un Chien Andalou


    Widely credited as the film that popularized surrealism in cinema.

  • Mädchen in Uniform

    Mädchen in Uniform


    Allegedly the first pro-lesbian film. Also directed by one of cinema's few female directors.

  • Flowers and Trees

    Flowers and Trees


    First film that used the 3-strip Technicolor process (as opposed to 2-strip).

  • Triumph of the Will

    Triumph of the Will


    If anything, a document of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Defining Nazi Germany propaganda film directed by one of cinema's few female directors.

    Ignited a propaganda war with the US, which responded with Frank Capra's Why We Fight series.

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

    The first traditionally animated feature film (it used cels, where each component in the image had separate layers/frames, ie the static background had its own frame with the characters having their own, layered onto each other).

  • Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations

    Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations

    (Along with Part Two) Allegedly crucial in the development of filming techniques for athletic events.

  • Jud Süß

    Jud Süß


    Representative of one of the many antisemitic propaganda films commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. Other popular ones include Der ewige Jude and Die Rothschilds, the latter of which wasn't commissioned or insisted by Goebbels but was favored by him and helped him realize film's propagandist potential.

  • The Thief of Bagdad

    The Thief of Bagdad

    First film to use the modern greenscreen/bluescreen (known as the chroma key process).

  • Citizen Kane

    Citizen Kane


    Popularized deep focus cinematography, which was borrowed from The Rules of the Game. Generally regarded as the best film ever made due to its encyclopedic mishmash of innovations ranging from narrative to cinematography that succeeded in raising the bar of cinematic storytelling altogether.


  • Rome, Open City

    Rome, Open City


    Internationally popularized and defined Italian neorealism (among others).

  • The Naked City

    The Naked City


    An early example of the police procedural and consequently was shot as a semidocumentary.

  • Stray Dog

    Stray Dog

    An early precursor to the police procedural as well as the buddy cop genre.

  • Rashomon



    Introduced Japanese cinema to international audiences; along with Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) and Federico Fellini (La dolce vita) comprise the three big-name directors that brought about a world/international cinema craze.

  • A Streetcar Named Desire

    A Streetcar Named Desire


    Representative of Marlon Brando's popularity and stardom, which helped method acting take over classical acting.

  • Bwana Devil

    Bwana Devil

    Popularized the usage of 3-D and is the first 3-D film in color and sound; in the "golden age" of 3-D during the 50's, the most famous example may be 1953's House of Wax.

  • The Robe

    The Robe

    The first film to be released with CinemaScope, the initial iteration of today's modern widescreen and what helped widescreen cinema take off. (However, the first film to have been shot and completed, but not released, in CinemaScope would be 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire; the first animated film in CinemaScope was 1955's Lady and the Tramp.) A precursor to CinemaScope goes back to 1929 with 70mm Grandeur Film, or Grandeur 70.

  • A Generation

    A Generation


    First documented film to use squibs.

  • Rebel Without a Cause

    Rebel Without a Cause


    Representative of James Dean's popularity and stardom.

  • A Movie

    A Movie


    Allegedly invented "MTV"-styled editing.

  • The 400 Blows

    The 400 Blows


    Ignited the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague).

  • Breathless



    Ignited the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) and popularized Godard jump cuts, which were cuts that jumped chronologically from one point in a single shot to the other. They can be seen today fairly prominently, particularly in action films.

  • How the West Was Won

    How the West Was Won

    One of the many films composed with the large 3-panel Cinerama fad. Today I guess we just have Imax.

  • Blood Feast

    Blood Feast

    Considered the first splatter film and popularized extreme violence in mainstream cinema.

  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

    Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


    The trailer for Dr. Strangelove was one of many by Pablo Ferro, a trailers pioneer whose usage of techniques such as quick cuts, graphic designs, and film titles would strongly influence how modern trailers are made today.

  • See How They Run

    See How They Run

    Allegedly the first made-for-TV movie.

  • Bonnie and Clyde

    Bonnie and Clyde


    Along with The Graduate, one of the films that helped launch New Hollywood with new artistic liberties taken and capitalizing on taboo subjects such as sex appeal and violence.

    Helped launched Pauline Kael's career as her positive review was favored by The New Yorker as opposed to the previous critic's negative review of it, ending with Kael getting his job as the magazine's film critic.

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey

    2001: A Space Odyssey


    First film to use slit-scan photography in addition to being a benchmark film in sci-fi and special effects, where Kubrick assembled his own effects team (as led by Douglas Trumbull); I'm unsure, however, if the film was the first to have its own effects team.

  • Night of the Living Dead

    Night of the Living Dead


    Besides from igniting the global zombie apocalypse craze (along with the set rules; shoot them in the head, don't let them bite you, etc), in 1968 this is one of the many black and white films that achieved success alongside color films. It was in the early 60's where black and white was still very prominently featured; by the latter part of the decade, color would take over in its very gradual process whereas in the 70's color would clearly reign.

  • Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

    Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

    A Revolutionary Opera representative of one of the few films allowed to be made and seen (and repeatedly screened to audiences again and again lest they want to be seen as political dissenters) in China during the Cultural Revolution.

  • Straw Dogs

    Straw Dogs


    Along with A Clockwork Orange, a New Hollywood film that (controversially) helped raise the bar of violence in mainstream commercial films.

  • F for Fake

    F for Fake


    Allegedly invented, or at least popularized/influenced, "MTV"-styled editing.

  • Enter the Dragon

    Enter the Dragon


    The film to bring martial arts films into mainstream consciousness.

  • Black Christmas

    Black Christmas


    Widely considered as the first slasher film (or at least the most famous early slasher).

  • Jaws



    Helped usher in the summer blockbuster as we know it today, which prompted studios to generate high concept films with mass commercial appeal and replacing the esoteric artistry of New Hollywood.

  • Nashville



    Said (by Alissa Quart) to have popularized "hyperlink cinema" (also coined by her), which involves a story that brings together various interconnected stories/characters.

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show


    Defining of the midnight movie circuit, complete with a cult audience and an interactive film.

  • Barry Lyndon

    Barry Lyndon


    Shot with the lowest aperture so far in film history, with an f-stop of 0.7 (the lens were Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens developed by NASA in their only use for a film).

  • The Shining

    The Shining


    Popularized Steadicam cinematography.

  • Heaven's Gate

    Heaven's Gate

    Widely attributed as the poster child film that represented New Hollywood auteurs going over budget with an unpopular film that didn't come close to breaking even, bankrupting the studio, which disrupted the studio systems' trust in auteurs and effectively ending New Hollywood.

  • Tron


    Helped spread the popularity of CGI FX.

  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

    E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


    First instance of product placement, namely Reese's Pieces, whose sales skyrocketed afterwards as well as earning entry as a permanent force in the candy market.

  • Showgirls



    The first NC-17 rated film to be given a wide theatrical mainstream release.

  • Toy Story

    Toy Story


    First animated CGI feature film.

  • The Celebration

    The Celebration


    The first film in the Danish Dogme 95 movement.

  • The Blair Witch Project

    The Blair Witch Project


    Representative of microfilmmaking reaching wild mainstream success (one of the other films being Paranormal Activity). Also ignited the "found footage" craze.

  • Timecode


    An unusual but remarkable film experiment; shot on videotape, the film is comprised of four long takes played simultaneously on four split screens.

  • Russian Ark

    Russian Ark

    Unique to the abilities of digital filmmaking by being a film that's one single take.

  • Avatar



    A defining film of 3D's place in cinema today and raising the question of whether it would experience a vital integration into the artform.

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

    The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

    Experimented with 48 fps; it seems that new generations are more and more becoming accustomed to a faster frame rate (there's a term for when frames are artificially added to films, thus creating an artificially faster frame rate, that I forgot).

  • The Battery

    The Battery


    One of the many many films today that epitomize contemporary microfilmmaking through shoestring budgets and being shot on affordable yet high definition digital cameras such as DSLR's (a much more popular film would be Upstream Color, shot on a Panasonic GH2).

    (If anybody can find a better film that represents today's affordable independent filmmaking culture of DSLR's and crowdfunding I'd be happy to use that film instead.)