What Films Should We Teach?: A conversation about the Canon

What are the most-assigned films in college classrooms? Three film studies professors talk about the rankings and what they mean.

The 20th-century film canon had some well-known features. It had a privileged persona: the director whose films realized personal artistic visions. It celebrated various international “waves”—the German, the Italian, the Japanese, the French—but remained heavily American, male, and white. Its main ideas were developed by French directors and critics in the 1950s and 1960s before passing into American criticism and later into textbooks that guided the emergence of film and media studies in the 1970s and 1980s. And it was contested almost from the beginning for being too much of all of those things. Too auteur focused, too male, too white, too American.

Some 40 or 50 years later, how much has changed? And how can we tell? The Open Syllabus Movie Lab provides a window on this question by ranking the 1,201 most-assigned films from millions of college and university classes held between 2015 and 2021. The class data is mostly American but includes significant coverage from Canada, the UK, and Australia; it draws from all fields—not just film studies; and it uses methods that have a variety of technical and human limitations, which, if you like, you can learn more about here. It’s not a perfect window, but it’s the best available.

Because this top-down view of teaching is unusual, and because people like movie lists, we brought together three film studies professors to talk about the rankings and what they mean. Jane Gaines teaches film at Columbia University; Jon Lewis at Oregon State University; and Daisuke Miyao at University of California San Diego. Their conversation ranges from the pros and cons of teaching auteur theory, to the ways in which the canon is shaped by material issues such as faculty time and film availability, to efforts to diversify and reinvent film studies.

Jane Gaines (JG): As we’ve looked at the data together, we all agree that we need to look at the history of film and media studies for the relevant context. In the United States, film and media studies grew out of literary studies and, at many schools, remains either within it or closely tied to it. The Open Syllabus rankings strongly suggest the continued relevance of literary approaches to teaching film history, which tend to bring the criteria of personal authorship to bear on film.

Auteur theory received its major formulations by French New Wave directors and critics in the 1950s and 1960s, who argued that directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock “transcended” Hollywood industrial production and impressed a personal “worldview” on their material. The persistence of Hitchcock and Welles at the top of the Open Syllabus director rankings suggests how strongly this tradition is still with us. Teaching these two directors carries on a tradition of exposing college students to “great authors” because of assumptions about the depth of their personal insight and vision. And much of the critical tradition around these directors is still fundamentally tied to frameworks and vocabularies used to evaluate literary works.

Some of this surely has a generational component: over 50 percent of film and media studies founders (in the 1960s) took their first degree in literary studies. All three of us have spent large parts of our careers in literary studies departments—either English or comparative literature. Daisuke additionally represents a tradition of teaching film in language departments and in area studies. These institutional contexts are durable and certainly contribute to the longevity of auteur-based approaches.


Jon Lewis (JL): When I arrived at Oregon State in 1983, there were only two movie classes: Film Comedy and Film Tragedy. Both were taught in the English Department. My colleagues were surprised to hear that I found the titles overbroad. But as a practical matter, they had to be. Only a fraction of schools in the United States have film programs: some sources put the number at over 300, depending on the definition; others say around 150 out of nearly 4,000 schools in the United States. This means that in most places the teaching canon is effectively whatever makes it into the Intro to Film class or its equivalent.

Moreover, teaching time is scarce and presents zero-sum choices. In a semester-long class, adding one title to the syllabus often means removing another. The relevant question for me in teaching is: What do students need to know if—as is often the case at Oregon State—their film education consists of one class from me? My answer is almost always “history.” Are there certain films students need to see in order to better understand contemporary cinema? Are there films that allow me to condense the discussion of a period or set of themes into one or two classes? This process of cropping is, for better and for worse, well suited to the auteur framework.

So even as over the years I have been researching and writing about films that challenged the canon or offered new ways of looking at it, the traditional approach has remained useful.


JG: Even if we agree that a canon is sometimes a useful teaching tool as a point of reference, how stable is it? For me it’s clear that the Open Syllabus (OS) rankings still point back to the foundational texts of American film studies, and in particular to Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema (1968). Eight of his 14 “pantheon directors” (Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick, Chaplin, Lang, Griffith, Ford, and Hawks) are in the OS top 25. Another six are mentioned, but ranked lower (Eisenstein, Antonioni, Buñuel, Wilder, Kubrick, Coppola). This is to say that 14 of the top 26 directors in the current film curriculum belong to a canon that is over 50 years old.

But if we dig deeper in the OS data, we do find change or, at least, turnover. Older male auteurs are joined in the top ranks by newer male auteurs—Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino, for instance. The range of material assigned in contemporary film classes has also expanded in absolute numbers and, with respect to gender balance and arguably other criteria, has moderately improved.

To take the growth of African American studies, for example: Spike Lee is by far the highest-ranked Black director at #7, due almost entirely to the continued popularity of Do the Right Thing (his 2006 New Orleans documentary When the Levees Broke is a distant second and assigned predominantly in history and political science classes). Older but still contemporary directors—Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) or Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1978)—are represented by single titles much further down the list. Among younger Black directors, only Barry Jenkins has a strong showing—for Moonlight (2016). But teaching is a lagging indicator of reputation, and we may be too close to Moonlight’s release and Oscar notoriety to judge its long-term teaching trajectory. The same may be true of the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite effort to diversify the Academy Awards.

So we can say there has been progress compared to what this would have looked like in the 1980s or 1990s, but the data still does not indicate a very broad commitment to teaching the work of African American directors. For instance, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) remains high in the rankings (partly due to its role in history rather than film classes), but the African American “answer” to Griffith, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919), which was discovered in the 1990s and featured in the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Hollywood, doesn’t appear at all. (Micheaux isn’t totally absent: his 1925 Body and Soul appears toward the bottom of the rankings.) There could be several reasons for this: data issues or uneven coverage in the collection are always a possibility. But another could be that we don’t have a good picture of the linkages between different kinds of industry or critical recognition and the “mainstream” curriculum. We assume that there’s a process of diffusion from major retrospectives or festival awards into teaching, but it may not be that straight or simple a path. William Goldman’s admonition about box-office predictions, that “nobody knows anything,” may be relevant here. A deeper look at Open Syllabus data could probably tell us more.


JL: The place of the various “new waves” in teaching might be useful to think about in this context. It’s easy to see how the assignments cluster around German expressionism in the 1920s and ’30s, Italian neorealism in the 1940s, the French New Wave of the 1950s, and so on. These waves are, of course, well accounted for in the major film textbooks but we shouldn’t forget that it took years—and in some cases decades—to consolidate teaching interest in them—and even today only specialized electives will be able to treat them with any depth. Most intro classes will, at most, pick a representative title or two from the major waves. Among other things, this could account for the top ranking of Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera. There are lots of ways to teach Soviet film in the 1920s, but Vertov allows for a very compact presentation of key developments around documentary and camera technique. One shouldn’t underestimate the value of a shortcut.

JG: Film and media studies was, to a large extent, founded on the question of conformity with and deviation from the “style” of Hollywood mainstream films, and so has traditionally leaned heavily on the non-US waves—sometimes for the diversity of subject matter that they introduced, but more centrally as sources of the technical and stylistic innovation that fuels concepts of artistic progress within the medium. The OS top ranks feature a lot of these films: Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950); Buñuel’s 1920s classic Un Chien Andalou—both titles that typically survive the culling into Film 101. We’ve already mentioned Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Not coincidentally, these three titles are featured in the most widely taught film textbook: David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s Film Art: An Introduction, now in the 12th edition (McGraw Hill, 2020)—as is, significantly, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).


Daisuke Miyao (DM): Area studies introduces a somewhat different relationship to film canons—one that relies less on a “global” account of technical and aesthetic development than on the content and aesthetics of film as a means of understanding history and culture. Japanese cinema provides a good example: the films of Ozu and Kurosawa especially have been widely used to teach Japanese history and culture. The same zero-sum dynamics often apply in these contexts. Most students don’t stray beyond the core classes and so acquire their knowledge disproportionately from a few key titles, which are treated as exemplars of the national cinema (and by extension national culture).

When the discipline of film studies was formed in the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese cinema was a primary focus—treated in many respects as the main non-Western contribution to an international aesthetic and technical avant-garde. Scholars such as Stephen Heath, David Bordwell, Dudley Andrew, and Noël Burch all relied heavily on Japanese films as objects of study. By the mid-1990s, however, the number of Asian film industries had expanded, and critical attention had moved on to other places experiencing significant film renaissances, notably Hong Kong, India, and later China. Japanese film became comparatively marginalized in film studies. But the underlying tension is still with us: How can we talk about Japanese films without marginalizing “Japanese” in film studies and “films” in Japanese studies?

JG: Let’s circle back to another dimension of auteur theory. In my 2022 Intro to Film class, my teaching assistant assumed that the excellence of Chinatown (1974), #44 in the Open Syllabus rankings, could be explained by decisions made by Roman Polanski, who is credited as director. But as Virginia Wexman’s research has shown, Chinatown is anything but a film unified by the singular vision of the director. The writer, producer, and cinematographer, among others, contributed heavily to the aesthetic decisions and thematic coherence of the film. And this collaborative, collective dimension is built into film production. We could point to African American screenwriter Lisa Jones’s contribution to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Or Bernard Herrmann’s scoring of some major films of the 1940s and ’50s, including Citizen Kane, Vertigo (1958), and the majority of Hitchcock titles. There are currents in film and media studies that privilege these other dimensions of film production, such as the emergence of sound studies as a distinct subfield. But the recognition of motion picture films and television programs as unlike literary forms doesn’t appear to have significantly changed academic publication standards. Even our citation practices—which, incidentally, Open Syllabus uses to identify and count assignments—follow the literary norm of Title, Author, Year.


DM: Cinema is a collective industrial and cultural form, but there is very little work that considers films as the product of collaboration beyond the auteur-director’s authority. Much is lost through this narrow focus. The international impact of Rashomon, to take a major example, is inseparable from the contributions of its cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, who experimented with film stock and lighting in ways that profoundly influenced a generation of artists in other countries, such as cinematographer Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane.

What would film history look like if, as a thought experiment, we privileged cinematographers or editors or writers?

JG: We should note that there is one overriding constraint that determines what is taught—the commercial availability of some titles as opposed to others. It’s as though the educational market makes decisions for instructors, but then again that market takes its cues from lists such as this, so the “popularity” of Citizen Kane becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


DM: This is especially true for Japanese film. Scholars and critics with limited access to Japanese films tend to recapitulate the well-known titles that are available via international distribution with English subtitles. Language and distribution regions are the deciding factor. International film festivals have also had significant impact on distribution decisions, and so provided a pathway into critical and teaching canons. The golden age of Japanese cinema in the post–World War II period began with the accumulation of prizes in international film festivals, including Rashomon (1950; Venice Golden Lion Prize), Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953; Venice Silver Lion Prize), and Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho dayu, 1954; Venice Silver Lion Prize). Now the new streaming platforms of companies like Criterion, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon, among others, have the global rights.


JG: You’re especially right about the Criterion collection, but although a high percentage of titles on the OS list are available through that company, like other educational market companies such as Swank, they are slow to secure educational rights from global rights holders. College and university libraries, currently changing from DVD collections to streaming services, now offer fewer titles. Film and media studies scholars have been quick to write about Korean Bong Joon Ho after Parasite (2019) won the Academy Award for Best Director, and that directed attention to what some have called his critically acclaimed “masterpiece” Mother (2009), yet neither of these titles make the OS list. Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) is relatively low on the Open Syllabus most-taught list, with around the same number of assignments as War of the Worlds (Spielberg, 2005).

One theory is that Snowpiercer, like Mother, has a challenging structure and is satirical in a disturbing way. It could be that instructors don’t yet know what to say about such challenging films.


JL: It’s certainly possible that Man with a Movie Camera’s top spot owes something to the fact that it’s freely available on YouTube. Ease of availability will be a factor on any syllabus.


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JG: Then there is the difference between popular culture and art cinema, which often breaks down to a question of who headlines the film: the auteur-director or the star? French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu maintained that ordinary people make choices about what to see based on stars. But although genre is a common basis for film classes and one that often veers off in interesting ways from mainline film history, the star is not. While there are blockbusters in the OS top ranks—The Matrix (1999) at #27, The Godfather (1972) at #35, Star Wars (1977) at #45, and so on—almost all fit into auteur frameworks. The blockbuster itself may not yet be solidly established as a teaching category, although it should be, and I’d note that we have a course in the blockbuster at Columbia. Despite decades of cultural studies rehabilitation of popular genres, the wider university still applies the stigma of “only entertainment” to most contemporary film.

I’d argue that understanding contemporary film is basic to modern cultural literacy. That—to go further—an educated person needs basic film history, which begins with acquiring a vocabulary to describe lighting, camerawork, sound and image relationships, editing, and narrative structure. Shouldn’t a student grounded in the humanities be able to explain why the New York Times declared Mission: Impossible—Fallout (2018) an “unqualified masterpiece” in comparison with the other five Mission: Impossible titles? Or why Get Out (2017) (writer-director Jordan Peele) “worked” when Peele’s later film Us (2019) was neither a popular nor a critical “success”?

A persistent problem in raising this issue is that while the study of film has suffered from the reputation that it is too “easy,” the opposite is true. The student of the evolution of the form, 1895 to the present, needs knowledge of a range of artistic conventions, from the disciplines of music, art history, and literature (and here, genre and narrative structure more than thematics), as well as the technologies and techniques that shape film and television fictions.


JL: This is what Andrew Sarris does—he rates directors and films. We all have preferences, of course, which we ground in different ways, but in trying to circumscribe the auteur model perhaps we shouldn’t follow that practice.


JG: Unfortunately, students interested in film usually acquire their critical frameworks and vocabularies first from popular film reviews, which rely heavily on ideas about artistic achievement and make value judgments without clear criteria. It can be very difficult to break students of the habit of evaluating in these terms and to get them to describe and analyze what they see and hear.

It can also be challenging to reconcile aesthetic or technical criteria of judgment with the different registers of social significance that connect films to students’ personal and social lives. These introduce other sets of values and selection criteria into teaching. Many of the films on the OS list are taught not because of their place in film history, however defined, but because they illuminate subject-based study. Documentaries figure prominently in these contexts but also dramatizations of events and literature—Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) at #98, for example, or Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) at #168. Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) at #8 is arguably a special case given her controversial history in both film studies and women’s studies (perhaps most famously through protests at the Chicago Women’s Film Festival in 1974, to which she had been invited). The film is nonetheless still widely assigned in both film classes and in classes studying Nazism and World War II—and this combination of teaching contexts explains its high ranking.

It could be that for many of us the decision about what we teach depends on which titles can be approached from the most angles.


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JL: I don’t think it’s impossible to reconcile the different angles. I tend to focus on “artistic signature” as a key to US auteurist aspirations in the ’70s and beyond, in part because of my film school experience. I went to UCLA in 1979 with two possible directions in mind: one academic, the other industrial—an eye on getting a job in Hollywood—so I experienced firsthand the auteur catechism. That approach still informs how I teach history even if I am not exactly an acolyte of Andrew Sarris. And I am not sure that this approach is so limiting by class, gender, or race, as is sometimes claimed. Do the Right Thing is part of my regular teaching, and, as we’ve noted, that’s hardly a token gesture. It’s the second most assigned film overall.

I’m also very conscious of the marginalization of women in older auteur-based accounts of film history and often teach against that. I keep Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1992) in heavy rotation. Lois Weber, Alice Guy Blaché, Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation is #99 on the list), and Kathryn Bigelow figure regularly in my film classes. Organizing things by periods and chronology and/or new waves doesn’t preclude substantial inclusion of women and people of color. I would argue that in fact it invites it.


JG: I have also taught The Hurt Locker (2008) many times, although not as a Kathryn Bigelow film but as an anti-war male melodrama—a genre approach. Its exclusion from the rankings is a small mystery. Perhaps data or collection related? Other Bigelow films do show up. To be honest, the “artistic signature” approach is still difficult for students because they need to have analyzed so many examples of what we call the author’s oeuvre or body of work in order to see patterns. Popular genre patterns are easier for them to find because they have seen so many sci-fi, thriller, and horror films.

The role of women in older film history still requires some reckoning. Obviously, we have a wealth of options for contemporary film—and the OS data point that women directors represent 13 percent of assigned titles released since 1990 shows some welcome, if still very modest, improvement. The 4 percent figure for older films, however, is an area where scholarship appears to be ahead of teaching. Since the 1990s, film and media studies scholars have (re)discovered a very substantial body of work written, directed, and produced by women in the silent era (1895–1931). Lotte Reiniger and Germaine Dulac feature briefly in the OS rankings but not—to cite one example—Alice Guy Blaché, who produced and directed over 1,000 shorts and features in her French and American careers. She was finally honored by Martin Scorsese at the Directors Guild, her career chronicled in Be Natural (2018), the recent documentary directed by Pamela Green. For whatever reason, she is absent from the OS rankings.


DM: Japanese film history is undergoing a similar process of rediscovery and re-evaluation. One example is the recent retrospective on Kinuyo Tanaka, one of the most celebrated stars in the history of Japanese cinema. She appeared in over 250 films and collaborated with such directors as Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse. In the post-WWII period, Tanaka herself became a film director, the second woman in Japan after wartime filmmaker Tazuko Sakane. Between 1953 and 1962, Tanaka directed six feature films at major Japanese studios. Japanese cinema gets a fraction of the attention of other traditions in the United States, but for the record, she also doesn’t show up in the OS data.

JG: Readers curious about the new scholarship on the history of women in the first decades of cinema worldwide to which Daisuke and I refer should check out the Japanese Women Directors Project and the Women Film Pioneers Project.

How shall we sum it up this wide-ranging discussion? All three of us were surprised by the continued strength of the auteur-based approach to film history, which as a teaching framework dates back to the origins of the field in literary studies in the late 1960s. This tradition continues to have value in a variety of contexts, including the need to condense film history into the single-course doses available to most undergraduates. And it can be flexible enough to accommodate the contemporary demands for recognizing the contributions of women, African American, and other communities that have been traditionally excluded—though there is only limited evidence of this inclusion in the OS data. The main downside of the auteur framework is that it neglects the industrial and collaborative realities of filmmaking, which are not simply a constraint on individual artistic genius but the condition under which contributions from different technical and artistic traditions are brought to bear. This multidisciplinary approach is native to film production programs and common in film scholarship, but not yet very visible in the classroom data assembled by Open Syllabus. (For a jaw-dropping view of the major divisions of the field, see Open Syllabus’s Co-Assignment Galaxy.)

It is also sometimes hard to reconcile with other ways of valuing film traditions, from various politics of inclusion to genre and other cultural studies approaches. But film and media studies is still a relatively new field and, like the media that form its subject, continues to evolve. The Open Syllabus data helps to assess our subject relative to the larger university and hopefully helps to speed up the process of curricular change.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon