What makes a film good? Is it the acting? The action? Maybe the lead character is portrayed by your favourite star, and no matter what s/he plays in, it's bound to be good!

Perhaps a good movie is best defined as one that sucks its audience in, holds them in a thrall and releases them, with a great whoosh of emotion, some two hours later.

The average movie critic tends to dissect each film s/he reviews by its technical as well as artistic elements.

We, the audience, prefer turning our untrained eyes to the silver screen – not to rate and judge but absorb the story and, hopefully, identify with the protagonist or the idea s/he espouses, don't we?

Having just established the idea that defining anything as best is a matter of  personal preference, let us advance these ten titles, in the hopes that you agree with our assessment: that they are a perfect expression of French cinema at its best.

No need to fret over the rumour that cinema goers in France are turning their backs on French film; the industry is as prolific as ever, turning out some 300 titles each year!

We'll discuss some from each era.

Le Petit Soldat was another big hit from the New Wave era
Anna Karina, of the New Wave generation of stars, bitterly regretted turning down a role in Breathless Source: Wikipedia Credit: Joost Evers

The French New Wave

This is a term coined to describe French film makers during the late 1950's through the '60's.

Prominent faces in that movement were: Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Alain Delon, among others.

They were most often directed by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette.

These New Wave film makers consciously rejected the idea of churning out the literary period pieces that were so popular at the time. Instead they turned their focus on the thriller style; a gritty realism that reflected the evolution of society at that time.

A few titles from that era include:

  • Breathless
  • Hiroshima mon Amour
  • Vivre sa vie
  • Jules et Jim
  • 400 Blows
  • La Grande Vadrouille

You may discover an expanded list of titles and learn more about how the French Nouvelle Vague – New Wave impacted the art of filmmaking.

The Post-New Wave Era

From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, French film makers continued to experiment with cinema verité, incorporating elements of Noir and amour – in the sense of romance, to turn out cinematic marvels.

The film Diva, released in 1981, was instrumental in the French film industry turning away from the realism that had gripped it for over a decade, and brought about a return to lightheartedness.

Directors Luc Besson and Leo Carax came into their own at that time, offering up such treasures as The Big Blue and Lovers on the Bridge.

Daniel Auteuil came into prominence at this time for his role in Jean de Florettes, which he reprised in the sequel Manon des Sources.

His co stars Yves Montand and Emmanuelle Béart were already quite well-known at that time; it is a testament to Mr. Auteil's acting ability to share equal billing with such luminaries.

Incidentally: Mr. Auteuil enjoyed a brief marriage to the eternally beautiful Emmanuelle!

Elsewhere during this period, film making in France took slightly different directions.

Animated stories were coming into vogue, thanks to The Angel.

“The masks erase all human personality in the characters” - film critic Raphael Bassan

This pivot, away from stark reality, exaggerated expressions and overt emotion, put the story ahead of the performers' ability to inject themselves into their character.

It also gave the director total, autonomous control to realise his vision, and ultimately became one of the most discussed submissions at Cannes in 1982.

NOTE: The Palme D'or winner that year was jointly awarded to Missing and Yol – neither one a French language film, but exquisite pictures nonetheless.

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The Cannes international film festival attendees hope for this coveted award
The Cannes judges have traditionally been very stingy in awarding French films the Golden Palm Source: Wikipedia Credit: Karel Leermans

French Movies in the 1990s

For this decade, Cyrano de Bergerac tops the list, not only earning several Cesar awards in France, but also the American Academy Award nomination for best foreign picture.

The well-established actor Gérard Depardieu won a best actor award for his role as the title character.

It might seem, due to the repetition of big names in the French film industry, that it must in fact be very small. Rest assured that that is not the case!

As we see in The City of Lost Children, another standout of that decade of French films, young talent is constantly defining itself, claiming more and more screen time.

This science fantasy film, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, is billed as an international project, featuring American actor Ron Pearlman and assisted by French costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

If you haven't yet seen it, you might see if your movie streaming service has stocked it in its library; it is well worth the watch!

Elsewhere in the decade, film makers hastened to not lose the momentum that animated film generated at Cannes with The Angel.

Michel Ocelot kept that particular fire stoked with Kirikou and the Sorceress, a full length animated film.

Other important movies of the decade include Nikita, and The Fifth Element which, besides launching the career of one Milla Jovovich, maintains the dubious distinction of having polarised film critics.

Love it or hate it, it was considered a box office success at the time – it earned back nearly three times its production budget!, and is still a cult favourite today.

Sadly, Claude Sautet would make his last film in this decade: A Heart in Winter is considered to be the defining film of his career; a genuine masterpiece.

We wonder what he could have done with digital cinema technology...

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French Movies of the New Millennium

The obvious kickoff for outstanding French films of this new era must be Amelie, starring the irrepressible, fresh-faced Audrey Tautou as its eponymous character.

While Hollywood seems to have a formula for their Rom-Com – romantic comedy genre, Amelie goes much deeper than the attraction-rejection-inevitable conclusion matrix by exploring the lead character's isolation, fostered on her by her unusual upbringing.

This gem of a story, and the darling Audrey who brings it to life is, by some accounts, France's best known film.

Eight years later, another star captured the international film-going community by her performance in La Vie en Rose.

Marion Cotillard's true to life portrayal of chanteuse Edith Piaf's tragic life and premature death surely must stand at the top of any music aficionado's – and film fan's collection of must see movies.

Oddly enough, while Cannes is located in one of the most fabled regions of Mediterranean France, on the Riviera, The Film Festival academy had been very stingy in bestowing its highest honour on films originating in her own country.

Perhaps that could be a testament to those judges being completely unbiased in seeking the epitome of quality film making.

That changed in this era of French film, with eye-opening entries such as Entre les Murs – which won the coveted Palme D'or in 2008, and the unforgettable performance of Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, in 2001.

The only French film to rival James Cameron's Titanic, as far as audience size and box office return goes, is the comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis.

This farce was unintentionally overlooked on the international stage due to several action thrillers, directed by French visionaries, with all-star casts from several different nations.

Some of those titles include:

  • Riders
  • Catwoman
  • Assault on Precinct 13
  • Silent Hill
  • Mirrors
  • the Transporter trilogy

Did you know that up to 40% of movies made in France today are headed by first-time directors?

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Which French actress would you prefer to watch in this decade?
Which French movie would you have nominated as best for this decade? Source: Pixabay Credit: Steinchen

What This Decade has to Offer

Looking at French cinema today, we see a unique blending of so-called arthouse films; what Americans would consider Indie, and deliberately commercial products – illustrated by the emphasis on action and animation films.

Would you consider Untouchable of the former or latter category?

This 2011 tragi-comedy release, while not quite a record breaker, was a huge box office draw as well as a critical success, telling the story of a paraplegic and his carer.

That doesn't sound very awe-inspiring, does it?

When you throw a bit of action in, a bit of drama and a few laughs, you get a blended story that, remarkably, resembles real life.

Quite possibly, that is the very aspect of this film that is the draw.

What else from this millennium would be worth watching?

That question takes us back to our opening gambit: what constitutes a great film?

Do you like to watch Jean Dujardin, or do you enjoy stories by Claire Denis more?

Would something like Auberge Espagnole grip you? How about Blue is the Warmest Color?

We can find out what the general consensus is, but out of all of these great titles over 60 years of French filmmaking, the table below reflects our selection of best French movies.

New WaveHiroshima my LoveEmmanuelle Riva
Eiji Okada
New WaveLa Grande VadrouilleBourvil
Louis de Funes
New WaveLes 400 CoupsJean-Pierre Leaud
Albert Remy
Post New WaveJean de FlorettesYves Montand
Gerard Depardieu
1990sCyrano de BergeracGerard Depardieu
Anne Brochet
1990sLa Cite des Enfants PerdusRon Pearlman
Judith Vittet
2000sLe Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie PoulainAudrey Tautou
Matthieu Kassovitz
2000sLa Vie en RoseMarion Cotillard
Gerard Depardieu
2010sIntouchablesFrançois Cluzet
Omar Sy
2010sLa Vie d'Adele - Chapitres 1&2Léa Seydoux
Adèle Exarchopoulos

If you like this article, why not check out our post on France's love for cinema?

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