This year marks the 75th anniversary of one of cinema's most enduring and influential classics: "The Wizard of Oz."
Known not only as a staple of childhood wonder, the 1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum's book is also in the history books for being the film that popularized the use of Technicolor in film. Even today, long after the normalization of color in film, critics such as Leonard Maltin marvel at the film's innovative use of the color palette. "The old-fashioned, old-school wizardry of MGM still looks impressive to me today," he said.
Here, we've compiled a list of 20 other innovative and influential films that will likely be remembered for their contributions to the ever-changing shape of modern cinema. Because many of the films are relatively recent, the long tail of their influence may not yet be fully realized, but the legacy of innovation, exemplified by "The Wizard of Oz" shines through them all the same.
"The worst thing about 'Birth of a Nation' is how good it is," writes The New Yorker's Richard Brody. Although the legacy of "Birth of a Nation" is now tainted by the film's clearly racist themes, the film remains in the history books as one of the most successful early epic films, often cited as the greatest silent film of all time.
The grandiose nature of the film has lingered on in American epics such as the film adaptation of "Gone With the Wind" and even "Titanic." Director D.W. Griffith used his camera to tell a story that captured audiences with sweeping cinematography and grandiose storytelling. It was, essentially, the first great American epic.
Fritz Lang's "Metropolis was, at the time of its release, the most expensive film ever made. But that's not what made the film so special.
Filmed in Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic, Metropolis helped set the standard for big-budget sci-fi with an overt political message (think "Avatar" but in a more silent and black and white form).
"Metropolis remains the benchmark of agenda-driven extravaganzas," Philadelphia Weekly's Matt Prigge wrote in a retrospective of the film. But beyond the film's heavy nature, Prigge also notes that it was "stirring and fun in the right spots."
The first incarnation of "King Kong," released in 1933 is credited as the catalyst for the modern American horror film. It was a pop culture sensation upon its original release and has since spawned numerous remakes, sequels and imitators. In fact, the Godzilla films were largely inspired by King Kong's success in Japan, according to film historian Cynthia Erb.
Peter Jackson, the director most famous for helming the Lord of the Rings films, has said on multiple occasions that the original "King Kong" is what got him interested in filmmaking.
Released in 1937, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was the first feature-length animated film. It was the crowning achievement of Walt Disney and his relatively young animation studio.
It not only proved that it was possible to keep an audience entertained for more than an hour with animation, but that it could be done with the art and drama of the best live-action films.
"The Maltese Falcon" is considered by many critics and film historians to be the first entry in the heyday of American film noir, one of the most influential genres in American cinema. “It put down the foundations for that native American genre of mean streets, knife-edged heroes, dark shadows and tough dames,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his “Great Movies” review.
“It's all style,” he continued, and that style has lingered on in subsequent masterpieces such as "Casablanca" and "Double Indemnity." Even this summer's ultra-violent comic book adaptation "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" owes much of its visual style and story ethos to "The Maltese Falcon."
Everything from "Citizen Kane's" cinematography (it was the first film to actually show ceilings) to its non-linear narrative structure has led this film to be ing crowned "most innovative film of all time" by many film critics and historians.
According to The New Yorker's Richard Brody, "Kane" was "an ecstasy of light and shadow, of clashing textures and graphic forms, such as hadn't been seen since the silent era."
These days, the title of "a modern day 'Citizen Kane'" is bestowed rather liberally on films critics wish to praise to the highest degree.
"2001: A Space Odyssey" is widely considered by critics and film historians to be the alpha and omega of science fiction.
Howard Suber, of the film preservation project Criterion Collection, called "2001" "one of the most influential films ever made," most notable for constructing "a haunting metaphor for the modern era, dealing with the metamorphosis of man into a higher form of existence."
Beyond being a film that filmmakers and enthusiasts love to discuss, "2001" utilized some of the most innovative and influential special effects of the era. The realism of director Stanley Kubrick's vision even led George Lucas to hire most of the effects crew for his Star Wars films, which would lead to a vastly different era of science fiction.
"Jaws" is often labeled by film historians as the first modern blockbuster, and for good reason. Prior to the film's release, summer was typically viewed as a time for throw-away films, according to What Culture, but the massive success of "Jaws" showed studios that no school plus hot weather plus parents' money could mean big business for the industry. Thus the summer explosion-fest that we've all become used to was born.
"It remains an influence on the modern blockbuster," What Culture's Shaun Munro wrote in a retrospective of the film, "and is one of its best examples."
"Annie Hall" is considered a landmark film for many reasons: It was a comedy that took home the Oscar for best picture (not a common feat), it was the film that solidified Woody Allen as the neurotic voice of a generation (he has now made more than 40 feature films) and, more to the point, many critics and film historians consider the film's mix of comedic romance and dramatic relational insights to be the groundwork for the modern romantic comedy.
"Annie Hall ... virtually invented the relationship comedy in both movies and literature," The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw wrote in a retrospective of the film. "It made possible the now degraded romcom genre," he wrote.
"On TV it spawned 'Seinfeld,' 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'Sex and the City,' and 'Entourage' – though none of these have anything like Annie Hall's passionate romantic pain."
George Lucas' epic space opera "Star Wars" created a new standard for special effects in cinema.
"Since the release of the first film in 1977, Star Wars has been an unavoidable part of American film culture, not only directly for millions of fans, but more indirectly through its influence as the undisputed godfather of all big-budget special-effects spectacles in the modern cinema," Wired's Jason Michelitch wrote.
According to Michelitch, innovations in special effects — beyond just the editing tricks and in-camera pyrotechnics of the original trilogy — have largely defined the series.
"Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" introduced "a more fully realized world of digital effects than had ever been seen before," according to Michelitch. And this included the first all CGI character in the form of Jar Jar Binks.
Another game-changing innovation by Lucas was recording all of "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" digitally, a practice that has already taken over most major studios. Interestingly, the next installment in the franchise, which is being directed by J.J. Abrams, will be shot on film, a medium near extinct due to "Attack of the Clones'" influence.
Not only did "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" contain the longest credit roll in any film up to that time (due to the manpower required for the innovative special effects) but it is also often considered the successful testing ground for reviving interest in animation.
The success of "Roger Rabbit" "made the public crave animation like never before — and proved to be the best springboard Disney could ask for," Flavorwire's Julia Pugachevsky wrote in a retrospective of the film. According to Pugachevsky, if you love "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," you have "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" to thank.
Hot off the heels of the success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," Disney Animation began to explore a creative potential not seen since the Golden Era of Disney in the 1930s and '40s.
" 'The Little Mermaid' was the movie that brought Disney back," Den of Geek's David Crow wrote in a retrospective. "Prior to that film, Disney executives were patiently explaining to reporters how animation was a nonprofit business venture for them, done more out of obligation than passion."
Tim Burton's dark and brooding vision of the Caped Crusader wasn't the first film to depict a comic book hero on the silver screen (that honor belongs to Richard Donner's "Superman") but it revolutionized the nature of the summer blockbuster.
According to IGN's Lucy O'Brien, Warner Bros. utilized pre-release hype in ways never seen before for a summer film, and it has been the publicity model ever since.
"Merchandising for the film reached unprecedented extremes," she wrote in a retrospective of the film. "To the point where Batman cereal reigned on the supermarket shelf and one could purchase a presumably hideous, albeit officially licensed, $500 jacket with the Bat logo studded in rhinestones."
"Toy Story" marked many firsts, but two in particular stand out: It was the first feature film of Pixar Animation Studios, which has gone on to become one of the most successful animation studios in history, and it was the first film to be created using only computer generated imagery.
Now, the animation industry is almost entirely overtaken with "Toy Story" inspired CGI, and Disney has even incorporated the animation method to revive the musical fairy tale genre. Without "Toy Story" it's likely we never would have seen films such as "Shreck" and "How to Train Your Dragon" come to screen. The lifelike animation incorporated in films such as the recent Planet of the Apes films and "Guardians of the Galaxy" also owe much to "Toy Story."
In more way than one, "Toy Story" is the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" of modern animation.
Released in the year 2000, Bryan Singer's "X-Men" is largely considered to be the beginning of the modern era of comic book mania in Hollywood. Its serious tone and cutting-edge special effects impressed audiences and critics alike.
"X-Men" also introduced megastar Hugh Jackman to the world and unleashed an interest in comics not seen since the 1980s. While some continue to argue that the dark and violent "Blade" was the true father of modern comic cinema, the audience for that film was decidedly niche. "X-Men" convinced studios that comics were truly the franchises of the future.
Peter Jackson's massive adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien's epic book series is influential primarily for its heavy and effective use of special effects as well as the trilogy's filming schedule. Much of the "Fellowship of the Ring" and its sequels were filmed on location and done simultaneously.
Group-filming a planned trilogy, in that sense (which has become prevalent in tent-pole blockbusters, from "The Hunger Games" to two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films) was proven possible and effective with Jackson's films, and is quickly becoming an industry standard.
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" did more than restore an interest in reading, it taught movie studios that kids were where the money was. The success of the Harry Potter series spawned innumerable attempts to recapture the same interest generated by The Boy With the Scar.
Harry Potter spurred a brief but important revival in the once lost genre of children's fantasy.
Comic book films aside, "Batman Begins" made its mark by establishing a new model for how film studios should manage damaged franchises. By rebooting the Batman franchise after the disastrous flop that was "Batman & Robin," Warner Bros. opted to hire a buzz-worthy young talent, then known primarily to close followers of independent cinema, named Christopher Nolan. The rest is history.
The success of "Batman Begins" spawned similarly gritty approaches to the James Bond franchise, the Star Trek films, "Planet of the Apes" and even Sony's Spider-Man property. Other films that have cited "Begins" as inspiration for how to save a drowning franchise are an upcoming Terminator franchise and another attempt at a Fantastic Four film.
Not only is James Cameron's "Avatar" the most financially successful film of all time, but it also known for advancing the use of photo-realistic CGI and 3D technology. "Avatar" started a wave of studios requesting post-production conversion into 3D for their summer blockbusters, most of which failed to reach anywhere near the levels of "Avatar's" technical or critical success.
"It is a dazzling spectacle that makes virtually all other special-effects blockbusters seem like awkward toddlers," Detroit News' Tom Long said in his review. "In imagination, vision and execution, suddenly every other action film looks like it was drawn with crayons."
Suzanne Collins' young adult fiction series may not have been the first of its kind, but it certainly holds a place as the beginning of a new era for young adult literature. The Hunger Games films are no different.
Not only have the films (there are still two more on the way) proven to studios that female protagonists are bankable at the box office, but studios have also sought to emulate the hype and discussion that have surrounded the films. Since the release and success of "The Hunger Games" other YA dystopian novels have quickly been produced to cash in on the trend. Even older YA novels, such as "Ender's Game" and "The Giver," that struggled to make it to the screen were quickly produced in the wake of the massive success of The Hunger Games.
While it may be true that the Jennifer Lawrence films rode the wave of a Harry Potter-less world, it is arguable that Collins' films not only filled the void, but changed the game. No longer are studios yearning for magic and wizardry, a politically bleak future will do just fine.
In fact, in true Harry Potter fashion, it has been recently announced that a theme park based on the books and films is currently in the works.