Lamberto Maggiorani, and Enzo Staiola in Bicycle Thieves.
Everett Collection

The problem with the idea of an accepted movie canon—not to mention the abhorrent “1000 movies to see before you die” approach—is that it relegates great films to a checklist of good-for-you vegetables, when the whole point of film watching is to sink into an experience. And there are few greater film-watching experiences than Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Antonio—played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a nonprofessional actor—is a father and husband in postwar Rome struggling to support his family. He has a chance at a good job, but he needs his bicycle to do it; on his first day of work, the bicycle is stolen, and he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola, also a nonprofessional) set out to get it back, a quest of desperation and need that at first strengthens the father-son bond, before nearly tearing it apart. De Sica, a former matinee idol, had already directed the much-loved Shoeshine when he set out to make Bicycle Thieves. Even so, he had to raise the money to make this film himself. In the neorealist mode, he cast real people as actors, and used no studio sets—all of the settings are real-life locations in Rome. The resulting film is so visually beautiful that even a rainstorm seems bathed in muted radiance. And to watch it is to know a feeling that can’t be summed up by any canonical list—that of walking away with your heart broken and full at once.

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The Godfather Part II (1974)
Jaws (1975)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Little Women (2019)