French New Wave Films - Header

The French New Wave of cinema, or La Nouvelle Vague, was one of the most important film movements of all time. In this article, we’re going to rank the best French New Wave Films based on four criteria: Acting, Story, Directing and Style. But before we jump into the ranking, it’s important to know what the French New Wave is.

This is our list of the best French New Wave films, including work from the critics of Cahiers du Cinema and the directors of the Left Bank.

Best French New Wave Films 1960’s

15. Band of Outsiders (Bande a Part) (1964)

Band of Outsiders - Trailer

Band of Outsiders is Jean-Luc Godard’s least intimidating picture from this era. The film follows a group of three young people who plan a heist together. Of course, things don’t go as planned and chaos ensues. 

Few films from the French New Wave translate to modern audiences better than Band of Outsiders. That isn’t to say that it’s better than its contemporaries by any means, it’s just safer.
85%
Acting
80%
Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Main Cast
  • Visual Style
  • Fun Story
  • Not Bold
  • Unoriginal
  • N/A

French Films 1960s

Conclusion

Band of Outsiders is a fun heist movie that’s markedly less bold than the majority of Godard’s filmography.

Godard’s Best French New Wave Films

14. Pierrot the Madman (Pierrot Le Fou) (1965)

Pierrot le Fou - Trailer

Jean-Luc Godard is at his most audacious directing the surrealist escape film Pierrot Le Fou which stars French New Wave icons Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

The film doesn’t quite hold up to the best of Godard’s works but it is an absolutely stunning work to look at because of excellent cinematography.

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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Visuals
  • Karina and Belmondo
  • Surrealist
  • Mostly Looked Past
  • Story Inconsistency
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Pierrot Le Fou is an unabashed vision of sex and romance that sprouted from the early works of the French New Wave.

Truffaut’s Best New Wave French Films

13. Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste) (1960)

Observations on Film Art - Shoot the Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player is perhaps most noteworthy for its use of cinemascope photography, but it’s also a great and daring story.

Francois Truffaut had a near impossible task of following up his first film The 400 Blows, but he mostly succeeded with the technically innovative Shoot the Piano Player.
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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Cinematography
  • Strong Story Arc
  • Built on New Wave
  • Lacks Clarity
  • Oft Forgotten
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Shoot the Piano Player is one of many French New Wave films that comment on a popular Hollywood film genre; this time it’s the hard-boiled and American gangster genres.

Chabrol’s Best French New Wave Films

12. The Cousins (Les Cousins)  (1959)

Les Cousins - Original Trailer

Les Cousins is a thrilling, psychological drama that pits two opposites against one another. Charles is an innocent hard working man while Paul is an extroverted performer with naturally endowed talent.

The only thing that these characters have in common is that they’re cousins. But when Charles falls in love with a woman with a promiscuous past, he threatens to destroy the thinly tied relationship he has with his cousin.

90%
Acting
85%
Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Loose Plot
  • Overshadowed
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Les Cousins is renowned director Claude Chabrol’s best film of the French New Wave.

Demy’s Best New Wave French Films

11. Lola (1961)

Lola - Trailer

Jacques Demy’s feature directorial debut Lola is a winding story of love on the French coast. The film stars Anouk Aimee as a cabaret dancer who longs for the man that abandoned her seventeen years before. 

Lola has been largely overshadowed by Demy’s later works The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort which is a shame because it’s one of the absolute essential French New Wave films.
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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Anouk Aimee
  • Strong Direction
  • Tragic Ending
  • Forgotten
  • Sometimes Plodding
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

For fans of Demy’s more popular musical works, Lola is a must watch. Go and watch it now!

Best French New Wave Films

10. Farewell, Philippine (Adieu Philippine) (1962)

Promenade Scene in Adieu Philippine

Adieu Philippine, perhaps better than any other film of the movement, imparts the feeling of wayward youthfulness that the French New Wave has become so synonymous with.

The film revolves around the impact of the Algerian conflict on French domestic life, which is something that was pervasive in many films of the French New Wave.

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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Story
  • Pertinence to New Wave
  • Sweeping Scenery
  • Lost to Time
  • N/A
  • N/A

Top French New Wave Films

Conclusion

Adieu Philippine is director Jacques Rozier masterpiece on the trials and travails of becoming an adult, and one of the very best French New Wave films.

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Best New Wave French Films

9. Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim) (1962)

Jules et Jim - NYT Critics Pick

Francois Truffaut’s stirring wartime love story Jules et Jim is an essential film of the French New Wave. Jules et Jim follows the love triangle of two young men, (Jules and Jim) and their infatuation with a beautiful young woman named Catherine. 

Jules et Jim is very much a film about everything and nothing; by this I mean that there’s so much going on in the ways of war, sex and romance that it overshadows the simplicity at the picture’s core. In the end, Jules et Jim is a window into Truffaut’s singular vision of the past.
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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Ending
  • Performances
  • Nuanced
  • Rampant Editing
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

For fans of Demy’s more popular musical works, Lola is a must watch. Go and watch it now!

Best French New Wave Films 1960’s

8. Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année dernière à Marienbad)  (1961)

Watch the trailer

Alain Resnais’ surrealist picture Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most visually haunting of all the films during this period. Last Year at Marienbad follows three unnamed individuals, two men and one women as they fight to make themselves known to another at a swanky party.

But nothing is as it seems in Last Year at Marienbad; time and space contort on a dime, objectivity sinks into oblivion, and relationships morph with each passing second.
85%
Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Visual Splendor
  • Interpretable Story
  • Surrealist Visuals
  • Inconsistent Acting
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Author and film critic Mark Polizzotti argues in his article titled “Last Year at Marienbad: Which Year at Where”? that the film was a foundational piece of cinema that inspired stylistic decisions in The Shining and Memento.

Resnais Best French New Wave Films

7. Hiroshima My Love (Hiroshima mon amour) (1959)

The Art of Film Editing - Hiroshima mon amour

In many ways, Hiroshima mon amour started the French New Wave despite being made by Alain Resnais, a member of the Left Bank, a still radical but more establishment focused film group.

Hiroshima mon amour marked a giant leap forward for visual storytelling and film editing. It also established that French cinema was moving in a new direction both technically and narratively. 

Hiroshima mon amour took the restraints off the stagnant French film industry with overt sexuality, unabashed creativity and filmmaking techniques that were new and fresh.

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Acting
85%
Story
90%
Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Foundational
  • Strong Acting
  • Brilliant Direction
  • Confusing at Times
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Resnais is largely credited for establishing the French New Wave’s defining characteristics with Hiroshima mon amour.

Rivette’s Best New Wave French Films

6. Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient) (1961)

Paris Belongs to Us - Trailer

Paris Belongs to Us is a stunning nightmare of the world at a moral and existential crossroads. The film follows a young woman named Anna who finds herself enraptured in a series of absurdist situations, all linked by death.

After nearly sixty years of debate, the meaning of Paris Belongs to Us is still open to interpretation. Some suggest that the film is an allegory for Cold-War tensions, while others liken it to a visual representation of a Kantian thought experiment.
90%
Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Philosophical
  • Daring
  • Visual Labyrinth
  • Dense
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Paris Belongs to Us is an unsettling piece of French New Wave cinema from Cahiers du Cinema director Jacques Rivette.

Varda’s Best French New Wave Films

5. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7) (1962)

Agnes Varda and the Makings of a Film Movement

Agnes Varda is one of the most important figures in French cinema and Cleo from 5 to 7 is her most iconic work. The film follows two hours in the life of a beautiful and successful singer named Cleo. But despite having the world at her fingertips, Cleo is more miserable than ever and fears that she’ll receive bad news from a cancer test.

Cleo from 5 to 7 utilizes a lot of the defining techniques from the French New Wave, such as jump cuts, a montage format and long takes.
95%
Acting
90%
Story
90%
Directing
90%
Style
91%
OVERALL SCORE
  • Corinne Marchand
  • Varda's Direction
  • Feminist Message
  • Scattered Plot
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Cleo from 5 to 7  is a moving, ultimately optimistic picture about life, love and empowerment.

Best French New Wave Films

4. My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie) (1962)

Vivre Sa Vie - Trailer

It’s awfully hard for a movie to be more depressing than Vivre Sa Vie is. Director Jean-Luc Godard’s portrait of a young woman who becomes a prostitute is about as bleak as narrative cinema comes, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a great film. 

Quite the contrary actually, Vivre Sa Vie is one of the director’s greatest works and was a bold step forward for the French New Wave.
100%
Acting
95%
Story
85%
Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Anna Karina
  • Bold Style
  • Existentialism
  • Final Act Pacing
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

​​Anna Karina steals the show in Vivre Sa Vie as a well intentioned woman who’s caught in the crossfire of a brutal, changing society.

Godard’s Best New Wave French Films

3. Contempt (Le Mepris) (1959)

Le Mepris - Restored Trailer

French New Wave filmmakers were massively inspired by the film movements that came before, including: German Expressionism, Italian Neorealism and the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

Le Mepris combines the best aspects of these three movements by including Fritz Lang, a famed successor to the German Expressionist movement, by shooting at Italy’s famed production studio Cinecitta, and by using a Hollywood archetype in the story.
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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • World Cinema
  • Great Performances
  • Stunning Visuals
  • Muddled Message
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Le Mepris is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most personal works and a symbol for a liberal and sexualized cinema scene.

Best French New Wave Films 1960’s

2. Breathless (A bout de souffle) (1960)

Breathless - How World War II Changed Cinema

Breathless is largely regarded as the most defining film of the French New Wave, but why? Well it starts at the core of the picture and where it drew its inspiration from. 

In its most metaphorical form, Breathless is about an infatuation with Hollywood in the 40’s and 50’s. Ironically, many of the directors of this era, like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, weren’t largely appreciated in America until the 70’s with the introduction of the film school generation, the Hollywood New Wave.
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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Pioneering
  • Authentic
  • Expressive
  • Mosaic Story
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

Breathless is the film responsible for popularizing jump cuts, long takes and cheap productions in French cinema.

Best French New Wave Films of All Time

1. The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) (1959)

Essential Films - The 400 Blows

What is there to say about The 400 Blows that hasn’t already been said? It’s stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking, despairing, hopeful and liberating all at once. The 400 Blows is the film that changed the landscape of French cinema and its popularity ushered in the New Wave.

In the end, Francois Truffaut’s story about a rebellious boy at odds with a changing society is as relevant today as it was in 1959. The 400 Blows is not only the best film of the French New Wave but quite possibly the greatest French language film ever made.
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Acting
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Story
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Directing
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Style
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OVERALL SCORE
  • Massive Influence
  • Pioneering Direction
  • Rebellious
  • N/A
  • N/A
  • N/A

French New Wave Movies

Conclusion

The 400 Blows is the first of four feature films that follow the fictional character Antoine Doinel, an autobiographical recreation of Truffaut himself.

Up Next

What is French New Wave Cinema?

We’ve ranked some of the best films of the French New Wave of cinema, but there’s a lot more to the movement than what we’ve gone over here. In this next article, we break down the French New Wave by looking at the movement’s defining characteristics and techniques.

Up Next: What is French New Wave? →
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