As one of the world’s most influential directors Quentin Tarantino returns with his latest movie, Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood, Writer at Large Neil Mackay explores the films which rewrote cinema’s rulebook and altered society.

TARANTINO is back. The single name says it all. Artists like Tarantino don’t need Christian names – their influence is so big, their talent so admired, their reputation so well-known that like Hitchcock, Spielberg, Kubrick and Scorsese, their surname alone is their calling card, recognisable around the world.

It is clear that women still don’t get the credit they deserve in cinema. Few women directors have surname brand recognition, while many should – like Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay and Greta Gerwig.

Plenty of women are making films just as good as Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood – set against the backdrop of the Manson murders – but no men or women directors get close to Tarantino when it comes to his influence on modern cinema, or his legacy of films that changed movies and how we watch them.

His films have inspired an endless parade of copycats and homages – Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, In Bruges, Breaking Bad. His style is imitated to death – the “slow motion group walk” ripped off everywhere from Bridesmaids to The Inbetweeners; balletic violence set to a hip, often vintage, soundtrack. His tone is mimicked with characters parroting pop-culture references and swearing like sailors. Little wonder, then, that he’s the most studied auteur in film schools.

But Tarantino isn’t the only great influencer. In fact, Tarantino is also a master magpie, picking up his own influences from French cinema, Japanese cinema, karate films, B movies, old gangster flicks.

A few films, like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, change cinema forever – their influence leaving a lasting mark on the art of cinema, and affecting how we think about many of the biggest issues facing society.

Here are 14 movies considered by many to be among the most influential films ever made:


Without Walt Disney’s slightly creepy classic from 1938, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animation feature – there’s little likelihood that you’d have had the childhood you did. Whichever decade you were born into, between the ages of four and 11 you were sculpted by Disney studios. Babyboomers had Peter Pan and Cinderella, Generation X had The Aristocats and Robin Hood, and millennials had Mulan and The Lion King.

Disney doubled down on Charles Dickens, who almost single-handedly created modern childhood in the Victorian era, sentimentalising and romanticising the life of children. Childhood under the influence of Disney became a place of magic, wonderment, self-belief and success – that was a big deal for parents and children in the 1930s, a time of economic hardship and threats of war.

Later, Disney fed straight into the American Dream that infected the Western world in the post-war era – a dream that told us the world was a place of optimism, hope, good triumphing over evil, and a rainbow on the horizon.

Today, how you raise your own children is influenced by Disney. If you’re a parent of young children you probably took them to see Toy Story 4 this summer. And like the grown-ups back when Snow White came out, the message of friendship, hope and family in the movie probably spoke to you too. Snow White found a way of forging bonds between parents and children – and helped adults rediscover the child inside themselves.

In terms of the art of cinema, Snow White also carved out the genre of children’s animation: there will be songs, beautiful heroines, slapstick and jokes, an evil nemesis, a dashing young man, some strange and comic friends (dwarfs, talking candlesticks, singing mice), and a few near-death experiences, but it will all end happily ever after.

In the unreal reality of cartoons, virtue will always overcome wickedness …. but then you grow up and discover otherwise. That’s why we love cartoons – they remind us of our lost innocence.


Musicals always run the risk of being mere ephemera – good tunes wrapped in a slim story, like 2017’s The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. But when the songs and the story meld, musicals can become great works of art. Fiddler On The Roof – the 1971 musical starring Topol as the poor Jewish milkman Tevye struggling to keep his family together amid pogroms in Tsarist Russia – set the standard for what musicals could do. Without Fiddler, there’s no Les Miserables, no Cabaret.

Characters in Fiddler feel real – not vehicles for a show tune. The world is believable, not a day-glow soundstage to perform on. Yet, the songs are great – joyful, poignant, melancholy and uplifting. Fiddler killed off the tension between story and song – eliminating that cringe the audience invariably feels at the breaking of the fourth wall, and the lack of authenticity when a character begins to sing.

And it didn’t have a happy ending. Fiddler broke the mould by bringing pain and suffering into the musical. Without the grim ending of Tevye castle, as director Tod Browning created the concept of gothic cinema.

It was the supernatural which scared people back then – something beyond human beings and not easy to understand. Horror jogged along pretty much unchanging until the 1960s, when Alfred Hitchcock made human beings the monster, not some vampire or werewolf. With the release of Psycho in 1960, audiences were exposed to the reality of violent and sexual crime – a legacy which continues all the way through The Silence Of The Lambs to the torture porn of Hostel.

The Blair Witch Project changed the game again in 1999 – establishing the genre of found footage, where the film on screen is a recording made by the characters you’re watching. It creates a sense of claustrophobia and menace that can be overwhelming. Found footage also puts the viewer in the shoes of the victim, bringing the horror as close as possible to the audience.

An earlier horror film, Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, was probably the first to use the found footage trope – but it was so extreme that the genre needed to wait for the more commercial Blair Witch to give it an almost ubiquitous legacy seen today in movies like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Troll Hunter, and Creep.


Comedy, like horror, is ever changing. What makes us laugh one year, won’t the next – just like what scared us in the 1930s seems absurd in 2019. But as with horror, a few comedies over the years have influenced everything else in the genre that followed – and remain funny to this day.

In 1934, Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert single-handedly invented the screwball comedy in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, where a spoiled rich girl falls in love with a wisecracking Jack the lad. Some 55 years later, we’d be basically watching the same movie with When Harry Met Sally.

In 1959, Billy Wilder set his seal on the caper comedy – where a bunch of misfits and clowns usually find themselves unwittingly up to their necks in some criminal shenanigans. Wilder’s Some Like It Hot – with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis cross-dressing and slap-sticking amid the Mafia – still echoes today in everything from The Hangover to The Change-Up.

Both Capra’s and Wilder’s movies were low on contemporary jokes, and high on jokes that are either plain silly or based on eternal themes, usually the battle of the sexes. That’s what keeps them fresh. A joke today about Brexit will be flat in a few years, but tripping over your shoelaces, or laughing about sex – that will always last.


Every gangster movie owes a debt to Raoul Walsh’s White Heat made in 1949, starring James Cagney as the swivel-eyed psychopath Cody Jarrett who dies in an orgy of fire and violence screaming the words “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”

Cody lives on, though. From Warren Beatty gunning down civilians in cold blood in Bonnie And Clyde, to Al Pacino in full maniac mode in Scarface, through to Robert De Niro as Jimmy the Gent in Goodfellas, the demented criminal forever had an archetype in the great James Cagney.

TV series like The Wire are full of Cody Jarretts. The feral kids in Harry Brown who torment Michael Caine are Cody Jarretts. The template of the screen criminal which Cagney created – both glamorous and attractive, terrifying and repulsive – is as inescapable a movie trope as the cavalry riding to the rescue when the hero’s back is to the wall.


Doomed love. Love denied. That’s the thing that gets us all, isn’t it? When Humphrey Bogart sacrifices his love for Ingrid Bergman for the greater good in Casablanca, audiences in 1942 cried in their millions. The trick with Casablanca that placed it above all its imitators was setting a story of doomed love against the backdrop of real and seismic events – in Casablanca’s case the Second World War – amplifying the emotion. Thematically, Titanic was a complete lift of Casablanca with two unlikely lovers finding each other and then losing each other as terror and chaos reign around them – Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, in the middle of the most infamous maritime disaster in history.

Casablanca’s theme of the deepest of loves torn apart is endlessly repeated. Think of Beaches, The Notebook, Brief Encounter, The End Of The Affair, Love Story.

In every case, lovers are brought together and then ripped asunder, usually by death.


Apocalypse Now is more a state of mind than a movie. It’s a fever dream, capturing the nightmarishness, the unreality, the sickly sensory overload of war and violence. In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie, war has twisted minds and souls, humans no longer behave like humans. It’s brutal and beautiful at the same moment.

No other film changed how we tell stories of war like Apocalypse did. Before, with a few exceptions, war was mostly glamourised. Shots would be fired but no blood would flow. Grenades would explode but limbs wouldn’t fly. After Apocalypse Now it was hard to make a film that wasn’t obviously anti-war.

Oliver Stone tried to capture the jarring ugliness of combat in Platoon. Spielberg tried to invoke bloodsoaked pathos in Saving Private Ryan. Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker were obviously influenced.

But nothing could quite emulate the otherworldliness of war, the surreal horror, which Apocalypse Now captured at the height of Vietnam.

Indie cool

With Slacker in 1990, Richard Linklater effectively created the genre of the indie movie – along with Steven Soderbergh and his Sex, Lies And Videotape. Slacker captured the spirit of a generation the way Easy Rider did before it. The film tells the story of a group of Gen Xers bumbling around Austin, Texas, in a single day. It’s about anxiety, social awkwardness, trying to find your place in a world that seems pointless and stupid. Indie films tell stories of outsiders.

Without Slacker there would be no Kevin Smith and Clerks. Napoleon Dynamite would never have been made. Friends would never have been made. And all those millennial movies on Netflix about angsty kids not feeling quite right about the world wouldn’t be streaming out of your laptop.

It is rare for film to influence music, but Slacker did just that – shaping the aesthetics and attitude of grunge and bands like Nirvana and REM. The only other film to have such an effect was Rock Around The Clock in 1956.

The future

Sci-fi goes one of two ways – towards either dystopia or utopia. Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers painted a dark world being surreptitiously taken over by aliens. It was inspired by Cold War panic, and you can still see its influence today. Stranger Things is perhaps the great inheritor, set in a town where just below the surface lies an otherworldly and dangerous secret.

Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters Of The Third Kind gave us the positive take on alien arrival. It and Star Wars led to the re-emergence of sci-fi as a commercial genre, and Spielberg created the now standard look of the “good alien visiting Earth” – vaguely human, spindly, long-armed, spindly, big-headed.

Spielberg even influenced himself with Close Encounters – revisiting it from a child’s perspective in ET in 1982.