Here's my list:
William Wellman's A Star Is Born (1937)
It is at once an extremely tender and tragic love story. Cukor's version is one of my favorite films of all time, but Wellman's original certainly doesn't disappoint. It's a wonderfully felt film, full of unforgettable moments and sincere connections.
Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But... (1932)
What deep emotions Ozu is able to explore, particularly the idea of young kids having to come to terms with their father's rank in society. Ozu goes deep, takes it slow, but explores characters and themes that are incredibly universal and real.
Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
One of the best depictions of aging I have ever seen and full of many gut-wrenching and poignant moments. I didn't fully connect with the character of the aging woman. But otherwise, I found it to be an utterly bold, unique, and powerful work.
Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952)
Perhaps the film if you want to understand the bond between a dog and its owner. Moving, realistic, wise, and full of heart. A movie with a huge reputation, and rightfully so.
Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring (1949)
Another extraordinarily tender and wise film about life, relationships, and personal growth and evolution. Ozu keeps things minimal and spare, as usual. But whenever he goes outside we're reminded of his strong connection to nature and his tremendous feeling and eye for the outdoors. Soft but packs a punch.
John Ford's Mogambo (1953)
A flawed film, certainly. But a fever dream of a flick with the painfully beautiful Grace Kelly and some of the most suspenseful scenes in the history of cinema involving animals and humans. Nice to see Ford taking a break from the Irish thing and delivering this complex tale.
Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930)
The most poetic von Sternberg I've seen and some incredibly brave and conceptually consistent filmmaking -- those tracking shots and the scene of Dietrich looking for Cooper upon his troop's return. I still probably prefer The Blue Angel, but this one pushes very close.
Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943)
Based on the same James M Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, that led to two American films, this early film from one of Italian cinema's masters is a neorealist marvel. Detailed, beautifully observed, this seems like a key influence on Godard's Breathless, and many of the other French New Wave works.
Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937)
I had seen this one about 15 years ago in a Parisian theater and had a mediocre reaction to it but man was I wrong. This has some of the greatest moments and exchanges of the entire period, particularly the final scene and almost every scene with Mr. Smith, the dog. I still may slightly prefer His Girl Friday, but this is undeniably a great work.
John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940)
I'm still somewhat new to Ford's work. I've probably seen less than ten of his films. But I'm starting to see more and more clearly the reason for his huge reputation. There is a depthfulness and heavy melancholy to some of his work that gives it the kind of heft I've experienced with some Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson, and Dreyer. Toland does some extraordinary things here. There are four or five completely gut-wrenching scenes, and there's a realism to a couple of the action set pieces that is absolutely masterful.
Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1986)
Like Killer of Sheep and Stranger Than Paradise (and many others, of course), Sherman's March is a key work in the history of American independent filmmaking. But somehow it's just now come to my attention. Ross McElwee's film is absolutely not for everyone. It's lo-fi, quirky, slow, long, and even a bit austere in its approach. But it's also very personal, without ever really being abrasive or intimate, in an overly exposed way.
I'm always looking and thinking about ways to make my own work more personal without making it self-absorbed. It's a tough balance to strike. And whenever I find a filmmaker who can consistently entertain me while talking about themselves, I usually embrace their work (Woody Allen, for instance). Obviously, it's easier when the filmmaker has a comic streak; it just lightens the whole venture.
One of my favorite contemporary filmmakers is Andrew Bujalski, and particularly his film Funny Ha Ha. If you like that film, I highly recommend this documentary. Bujalski, like McElwee, really lets you in on his awkwardness, insecurities, anxieties, but he does it with real nuance, grace, and of course, occasional humor. Some would call both of these films mumblecore, I would simply call them very fine works by very patient and bold filmmakers.
Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005)
Some of my reservations with Spielberg are on display -- his questionable sense of humor, his lapses into sentimentality, and his taste in music. But it's also as clear as ever that when he puts his mind to it, his formal skills are up there with any of the masters. The action sequences -- the opening of the film, when Avner first flashes back to "Black Sunday" while asleep on the airplane, the phone bomb, the attempted killing in London, and the first murder in Italy -- are all incredible in their grace, energy, and effectiveness. In fact, they are probably the strongest set of action sequences I've seen since Heat. A film with several flaws -- overly wordy, overlong, and uneven. But when it's great, it's a classic.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008)
Kurosawa's lightest and most accessible work I've seen. It's great to see the director working outside of genre and in territory that's already been masterfully done by Kitano (Fireworks) and Yang (Yi Yi). Restrained but lyrical with the best final scene I've seen all year. A wonderful film.