Britain Declares War on Germany

UK National Archives

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 137th installment in the series.

August 4, 1914: Britain Declares War on Germany

After the fateful decision by Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II to order general mobilization on July 30, the peace of Europe unraveled with stunning speed. On the afternoon of July 31, Germany declared “imminent danger of war” and delivered an ultimatum to Russia to halt mobilization within twelve hours. When no response was received by the afternoon of August 1, Germany and France both mobilized within minutes of each other, and Germany declared war on Russia at 7pm. That night German troops began occupying tiny, neutral Luxembourg as a preamble to the invasion on Belgium and northern France.

Now the focus of the drama shifted to London, where the French implored their reluctant British allies to fulfill their informal commitment to help defend France, and the Germans frantically tried to persuade them not to by every means at their disposal—including outright lies.

Crowds Cheer War

To this day, one of the defining motifs of World War I is the huge crowds that gathered to cheer the outbreak of the war. These (supposedly) spontaneous patriotic demonstrations were cited as proof that ordinary Europeans were eager for war, and while government propagandists may have later exaggerated the size and enthusiasm of these crowds, there’s no question that many people seemed to welcome the war as a long-awaited release after years of gradually mounting tension.

During the first week of August, hundreds of thousands of Germans—perhaps millions—filled public squares in cities and towns to hear officials read the proclamation of war. On August 1, 50,000 gathered in front of the Imperial Palace to hear Kaiser Wilhelm II’s speech:

This is a dark day and a sombre hour for Germany. Envious people on every side have forced us to a just defense. The sword is placed in our hands by force. I hope that, if at the last moment my efforts to bring about an understanding between ourselves and our adversaries and to maintain the peace do not succeed, we may, by the help of God, so use our swords that when all is ended we can replace them in their scabbards with honor. A war will ask from us enormous sacrifices of men and of money, but we shall show our enemies what it means to provoke Germany. And now I recommend you all to God. Go to church, kneel before Him and pray that He may sustain our brave army.

Historyplace.com

The following day in Munich, a young Adolf Hitler joined thousands of other people in the Bavarian capital’s Odeonsplatz to hear war proclaimed from the balcony of the Feldherrnhalle, a memorial to war dead; the moment was captured by a photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, who later located Hitler in the photo (below; some historians allege Hitler’s appearance in the photo was faked). Hitler recalled his reaction to the news of war: “Even today I am not ashamed to say that, overpowered by stormy enthusiasm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.” According to his own account, he volunteered for the Bavarian Army the next day.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

That same afternoon of August 2, a quarter of a million Russians filled Palace Square in St. Petersburg (below) to hear the Tsar’s official proclamation of war against Germany and solemn vow that he would “never make peace so long as one of the enemy is on the soil of the fatherland,” repeating a phrase first used by Tsar Alexander I during the war against Napoleon. Russian scouting expeditions were already skirmishing with German patrols in East Prussia.

Englishrussia.com

The flip side of patriotic fervor was nationalist hatred, as angry mobs attacked “foreigners” (not always from an enemy nation), vandalizing, looting and burning their homes and businesses. Charles Inman Barnard, the Paris correspondent of The New York Tribune, described anti-German riots on the evening of August 2: “A German shoemaker who attempted to charge exaggerated prices for boots had his windows smashed and his stock looted by an infuriated crowd. The news that the German shops were being attacked soon spread, and youths gathered in bands, going from one shop to the other and wrecking them in the course of a few moments.” The following day Barnard witnessed the looting of the Maggi milk shops, which were in fact Swiss-owned, and Neil Hopkins, another American living in Paris, recalled: “The news of the wrecking of German and Austrian shops spread like wild-fire over Paris and it was amusing to see the following day, scores of shops closed which did not bear very pure French names, labeled ‘Maison Francais’ to protect them from mob violence.”

The war also gave rise to a mania for linguistic “purity,” which meant purging enemy words from everyday language. Piete Kuhr, a 12-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, recorded in her diary entry for August 3, 1914: “At school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign words. I didn’t know what that meant at first, but now I see it – you must no longer say ‘Adieu’ because that is French. I must now call Mama ‘Mutter.’”

But the “spirit of August 1914” was hardly universal, whatever some post-war memoirists might claim. Working class Europeans, surmising that they would bear the brunt of the fighting, were much less enthusiastic about the war than their middle class counterparts. In fact around 750,000 Germans had participated in anti-war demonstrations across the country in the week before war was declared. On the other side, on August 2 the British Labour Party organized anti-war protests in London’s Trafalgar Square, and the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès was assassinated on July 31 for giving voice to anti-war views shared by many of his constituents.

However pacifist sentiments were soon pushed aside by the irresistible march of events, and in every belligerent nation the socialists voted to support the war (usually to their lasting regret).

French Press British to Act

Following their refusal to remain neutral in a war between Germany and Russia, French leaders knew it was only a matter of time before Germany declared war on France too. Now it was all-important to get Britain to take their side, as promised (informally) in military staff talks and slightly less ambiguous Anglo-French Naval Convention. But many members of the British cabinet were unaware of these secret agreements and understandably reluctant to embroil Britain in a cataclysmic continental war.

On hearing word of the German invasion of neutral Luxembourg, whose neutrality was agreed in the Treaty of London of 1867, the French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, asked Foreign Secretary Edward Grey whether Britain would fight. However Grey pointed out that, unlike the 1838 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, the 1867 treaty didn’t technically oblige Britain to take military action to protect to Luxembourg’s neutrality, if the other Great Powers weren’t also intervening. Cambon could barely contain his anger at this slippery reasoning, according to H. Wickham Steed, the foreign editor of The Times, who recalled, “he pointed to a copy of the Luxemburg Treaty… and exclaimed bitterly: ‘There is the signature of England… I do not know whether this evening the word “honor” will not have to be struck out of the British vocabulary.’”

But Grey was merely representing the views of the British cabinet; personally, he had staked everything on British intervention, threatening to resign if the cabinet insisted on neutrality and working with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to drum up support from the opposition Unionists. Unionist support gave Grey and Prime Minister Asquith crucial political leverage, as they might be able to form a new coalition government without the anti-interventionists.

On August 2, Asquith went into the 11am cabinet meeting with a letter pledging Unionist support, and now the tide began to turn: although a handful of ministers resigned in protest, the rest of the cabinet agreed to at least protect the French coastline from German naval attacks, as promised in the naval convention of 1912. However, the deciding factor would be Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality.

Germany’s Ultimatum to Belgium

On August 2, as German troops occupied Luxembourg, the German ambassador to Belgium, Below-Saleske, presented a note to the Belgian Foreign Minister, Davignon, containing a flagrant, hypocritical lie followed by an insulting, dishonorable request:            

Reliable information has been received by the German Government… [which]… leaves no doubt as to the intention of France to march through Belgian territory against Germany. It is essential for the self-defense of Germany that she should anticipate any such hostile attack.  The German Government would, however, feel the deepest regret if Belgium regarded as an act of hostility against herself the fact that the measures of Germany’s opponents force Germany, for her own protection, to enter Belgian territory… Germany has in view no act of hostility against Belgium. In the event of Belgium being prepared in the coming war to maintain an attitude of friendly neutrality towards Germany, the German Government bind themselves, at the conclusion of peace, to guarantee the possessions and independence of the Belgian Kingdom in full.

In other words, the Germans fabricated a fictitious French invasion (which they also peddled to the British, without success) in order to justify their own breach of Belgian neutrality—then asked the Belgians to break their longstanding promise to the other Great Powers and forfeit their neutrality by giving German forces free passage to attack France. If Belgium didn’t knuckle under, they warned of dire consequences, including a not-so-veiled threat against Belgian independence (echoing chief of the general staff Moltke’s menacing warning to King Albert in November 1913):

Should Belgium oppose the German troops, and in particular should she throw difficulties in the way of their march by a resistance of the fortresses on the Meuse, or by destroying railways, roads, tunnels, or other similar works, Germany will, to her regret, be compelled to consider Belgium as an enemy. In this event, Germany can undertake no obligations towards Belgium, but the eventual adjustment of the relations between the two States must be left to the decision of arms.

At first glance Belgium had every reason to submit to the German demand. Given the size of the Belgian Army—which mustered 117,000 field troops in 1914, versus a German invasion force of 750,000 – there was no hope of mounting a successful long-term resistance. Early capitulation would also have spared the lives and property of thousands of civilians, not to mention the country’s cultural heritage. But King Albert felt honor-bound to fulfill Belgium’s historical promise of neutrality—and, as a realist, was not just a little skeptical about German promises to restore Belgian independence.

In any event there was no debate in the Belgian cabinet about how to respond, according to the King’s military adjutant, Lieutenant-General Émile Galet, who recounted: “Opinion was unanimous. The answer must be no.” Working late into the night, the Belgian ministers drew up the official reply to the German ultimatum:

This note has made a deep and painful impression upon the Belgian Government… Belgium has always been faithful to her international obligations, she has carried out her duties in a spirit of loyal impartiality, and she has left nothing undone to maintain and enforce respect for her neutrality. The attack upon her independence with which the German Government threaten her constitutes a flagrant violation of international law. No strategic interest justifies such a violation of law. The Belgian Government, if they were to accept the proposals submitted to them, would sacrifice the honor of the nation and betray their duty towards Europe.

Putting his hopes in a speedy rescue by French and British forces, Albert gave the order to prepare the defenses at Liège, the fortress complex guarding Belgium’s border with Germany, and left to assume personal command of the Belgian Army – the only head of state to do so during the war—in the face of overwhelming odds.

Britain’s Ultimatum to Germany

The German ultimatum to Belgium galvanized British public opinion and swung the cabinet decisively towards the war party; needless to say, no one was convinced by German claims that France had violated Belgian neutrality first. On the morning of August 3, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith met with two leaders of the opposition Unionists, Bonar Law and Lord Lansdowne, who agreed that the violation of Belgian neutrality would force Britain to go to war. At the cabinet meeting that followed, several ministers withdrew their resignations of the previous day, indicating a decisive shift in the political landscape.

At 3pm in the afternoon the House of Commons assembled to hear a dramatic speech by Grey, who appeared pale and exhausted after several days of frantic meetings and negotiations. Grey told the members of Parliament:

It now appears from the news I have received to-day—which has come quite recently, and I am not yet quite sure how far it has reached me in an accurate form – that an ultimatum has been given to Belgium by Germany, the object of which was to offer Belgium friendly relations with Germany on condition that she would facilitate the passage of German troops through Belgium… If Belgium is compelled to submit to allow her neutrality to be violated, of course the situation is clear… The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent… if we were to say that all those things matter nothing, were as nothing, and to say we would stand aside, we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world, and should not escape the most serious and grave economic consequences.

Another chorus of cheers signaled broad agreement across party lines, with most Liberals, Conservatives, and Labour members now supporting British intervention (a pacifist wing of the Labour Party, led by Ramsay MacDonald, still objected). Although there was no formal vote on war, this voice poll cleared the way for Grey’s next step: an ultimatum to Germany, demanding that she stop the invasion of Belgium immediately. That night, as crowds filled the streets around Buckingham Palace and the foreign office at Whitehall, Grey gazed out his window at a worker lighting the street lamps and famously said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” 

At 8am on the morning of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the Belgian frontier at Gemmenich, and that evening the British ambassador to Berlin, Goschen, delivered the ultimatum to Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow, informing him that the German government had until midnight to make a satisfactory response. Goschen next asked to meet with Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who was about to utter one of the most famous (and infamous) phrases associated with the Great War:

I found the Chancellor very agitated. His Excellency at once began a harangue that lasted about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty’s Government was terrible to a degree, just for the word “neutrality,” a word which in war-time has so often been disregarded – just for a scrap of paper, Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation which desired nothing better to be friends with her.

This disdain for a “scrap of paper” would be cited as proof of the German government’s disregard for all international norms, making it in modern terms a “rogue state,” beyond the pale of civilization. Bethmann-Hollweg didn’t help the German cause with his own frank admission in a speech to the Reichstag on August 4 that the invasion of Belgium was “a breach of international law,” which was however unavoidable: “The wrong—I speak openly—the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.”

At midnight on August 4, no German response had been received in London, and Britain was at war with Germany (top, crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace to cheer the king and queen). The British declaration of war surprised and infuriated the Germans, who expected conflict with France and Russia, their historic enemies, but not their “racial cousins” across the North Sea. In what was becoming a common scene across Europe, on August 4 an angry mob attacked the British embassy in Berlin, witnessed by Frederic William Wile, an American newspaper correspondent:

The Embassy was besieged by a shouting throng… I saw things hurtling towards the windows. From the crash of glass that ensued, I knew they were hitting their mark. The fusillade increased in violence. When there would be a particularly loud crash, it would be followed by a fiendish roar of glee. Many women were among the demonstrators. A mounted policeman or two could be seen making no very vigorous effort to interfere with the riot.

Later that night, Wile was mistaken for a British “spy” and roughed up by a mob before the police arrested him – for his own safety, they explained, although they also strip-searched him. Americans in Europe were often mistaken for British citizens during these days, which could be dangerous in more ways than one: an elated French crowd carried Nevil Monroe Hopkins around on their shoulders “with a free carelessness, that nearly frightened me to death…”

A World Turned Upside Down

Across Europe, and indeed the world, massive changes were already sweeping government and society. In belligerent and neutral countries alike, emergency decrees or legislation suspended or limited bank withdrawals and conversion of paper currency to  gold in order to avert financial panic, including Denmark on August 2, the Netherlands on August 3, Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 4, and Britain on August 6. Across the Atlantic the U.S. Congress voted to increase the emergency funds available to banks to $1.1 billion—a mind-boggling sum—while the New York Stock Exchange remained closed.

Elsewhere in the New World, Canada, a loyal Dominion of the British Empire, prepared to contribute to the British war effort. The Canadian Royal Naval Reserve and militia were called up, military authorities took control of Montreal and Quebec, both key transportation hubs for troops embarking for Britain, and young men flocked to recruiting offices. One volunteer, Reginald Grant, described the scene: “It was as if a baseball championship series were on; the crowd good-naturedly swayed and jammed as each man struggled to get to the door and signed up before the quota was full… In two hours I was in khaki and in another hour I had bade the folks farewell…”

In Asia, Japan prepared to join the war in support of her British ally—but the real reason was closer to home, as the Japanese eyed German possessions in the Far East including Jiazhou Bay (called Kiaochow Bay by the Germans) in China and island possessions scattered across the Pacific. Meanwhile the German Far East Fleet under Admiral von Spee sailed to raid Allied shipping in the Pacific, while in the western Mediterranean Admiral Souchon, commanding the German battleships Goeben and Breslau, prepared to make a daring dash past British and French fleets for Constantinople. In Africa, the cruiser Konigsberg left Dar es Salaam, the capital of the German colony of Tanganyika (today Tanzania) to raid Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean.

ITV.com

Back in Europe, on August 4, German forces crossed the French border at Mars-La-Tour, and the following day laid siege to Liege, Belgium. One of the bloodiest phases of the Great War, the Battle of the Frontiers, was about to begin.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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The 45 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Ryan Gosling stars in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011).
Ryan Gosling stars in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011).
FilmDistrict

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 45 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Uncut Gems (2019)

Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a gambling addict who sees opportunity in every game and in every customer who walks into his Diamond District jewelry store. When NBA player Kevin Garnett insists on taking a rare opal out on loan and giving his championship ring as collateral, Howard can't resist the urge to use it as fuel for his vice. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the film has been called among the best of Sandler's career. —Jake Rossen

2. The Irishman (2019)

Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-making epic brings together three of the mob genre’s heaviest hitters in Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. But the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who alleged he befriended and then betrayed union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), isn’t your typical organized crime movie. It takes its time to examine the toll of a criminal life, from the alienation of Sheeran’s family to the fate that awaits old men no longer capable of resolving their problems with violence. The de-aging effects aren’t always convincing, but Scorsese’s ability to weave a captivating gangster tale remains timeless. —JR

3. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family. —JR

4. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators. —JR

5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Fans of the Coen brothers get a trail mix of stories in this anthology set in the Old West. A gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson) proves to be a little too arrogant when it comes to his skills; an armless and legless man (Harry Melling) who recites Shakespeare for awed onlookers begins to grow suspicious of his caretaker’s motives; a dog causes unexpected grief while following a wagon train. Knitted together, the six stories total are probably the closest we’ll get to a Coen serialized television series that this feature was once rumored to be. —JR

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may have been in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town. —JR

7. Roma (2018)

Alfonso Cuarón’s tribute to his upbringing in 1970s Mexico City tells the story of a housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio) watching over the children of her employers after their father runs off with his mistress. Cuarón’s film is a living photograph, an intensely personal story that holds no major surprises aside from the sheer craft it took to make it a reality. —JR

8. Shot Caller (2017)

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) stars as a man who undergoes a startling transformation from meek inmate to violent and hardened criminal in this hard-boiled crime tale. —JR

9. Lady Bird (2017)

Greta Gerwig received acclaim—and two Oscar nominations—for her directorial debut about a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who struggles with family commitments and a desire to head to college across the country. —JR

10. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) turns in a reserved performance in this quiet character drama about a broken-down rodeo rider who manages a motel in Alaska. When a killer (Christopher Abbott) comes to town, Bernthal will have to find the courage to protect the life he's built for himself. —JR

11. Molly's Game (2017)

Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) adapted the book by Molly Bloom, a former Olympic skier who shifted her focus to high-stakes card games for Hollywood's elite. Jessica Chastain is a force as Bloom, who orchestrates a thriving underground business before she's forced to orchestrate a way out of the legal consequences. Idris Elba co-stars as the lawyer who assists her. —JR

12. Okja (2017)

If you didn’t think the adventure of a young girl and her super pig could make you pump your fist in the air, it’s time to check out this quirky firecracker from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho. Thought-provoking and breathtaking? That’ll do, super pig. —Scott Beggs

13. Green Room (2016)

Here's a film that starts with an uncomfortable arrangement (a young punk band has booked a gig for a den of Nazi skinheads) and descends from there into expertly crafted cold-sweat terror. Though it's primarily a siege scenario, the band barricading themselves in the dressing room after witnessing a skinhead-on-skinhead murder, the story goes in more directions (figuratively and geographically) than you'd expect. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier never lets it get stagnant. He barely lets you catch your breath. —Eric D. Snider

14. Moonlight (2016)

Barry Jenkins’s trailblazing film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, chronicles the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes each play the character at different ages) as he grows up under the burden of his own and others’ responses to his homosexuality. It’s a stirring portrait anchored by phenomenal performances (including an Oscar-earning turn from Mahershala Ali). —SB

15. Swiss Army Man (2016)

Vibrant, effervescent, and deeply weird, Paul Dano stars in this musical collage as a depressed loner stranded on an island until he finds a talking, farting corpse played by a very post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. They save one another and, together, attempt to get back to civilization while singing the praises of Jurassic Park. —SB

16. The Witch (2015)

Delicately crafted with an eye toward historical accuracy, this existential horror film focuses on a New England farming family in the wilds of 1630 who believe a witch has cursed them. Anya Taylor-Joy’s standout performance acts as a guide through the possessed-goat-filled insanity. —SB

17. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks. —JR

18. Snowpiercer (2013)

Years before Bong Joon-ho made Oscar history in 2020 with Parasite, he adapted French graphic novel Le Transperceneige into Snowpiercer (which was recently turned into a television series with Jennifer Connelly). In a dystopian future—in sci-fi, there may not be any other kind—a train carrying cars separated by social class circles the globe. Soon, the have-nots (led by Chris Evans) decide to defy authority and get answers from those in charge. —JR

19. The Master (2012)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson delivers a steady but absorbing tale of a World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls under the spell of a charismatic philosopher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose teachings soon become the focus of a cult movement. Both Phoenix and Hoffman were nominated for Academy Awards. Of the films he has directed, which include 1997’s Boogie Nights and 2004’s There Will Be Blood, Anderson has said The Master is his favorite. —JR

20. Drive (2011)

On paper (like in the pulp novel it's based on), Nicolas Winding Refn's tale of a taciturn getaway driver whose life spins out of control is familiar. But on the screen, the combination is uniquely intoxicating—a fresh, lurid, melancholy neo-noir with a hint of existential crime thriller and, for some reason, an '80s-ish techno-pop soundtrack. Spinning its uncommonly entertaining yarn out of perilous characters and nightmarish scenarios, it feels dazzlingly original. —EDS

21. The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Matthew McConaughey is Mick Haller, a lawyer who likes doing most of his business from the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car. When he accepts a case involving the son of a wealthy family, Haller discovers some disturbing similarities with an older case. —JR

22. The Town (2010)

Ben Affleck stars in and directs this deftly-constructed heist film about a career criminal who puts his team at risk when he begins a relationship with the employee of a bank he recently robbed. Going straight won't be easy—not with a Fenway Park robbery on deck. —JR

23. The Social Network (2010)

This exhilarating account of how a total jerk started Facebook is even more alarming given what we've learned about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook since then. Jesse Eisenberg's crisp lead performance, Aaron Sorkin's verbose dialogue, and David Fincher's energetic direction combine to make this a cautionary tale of Shakespearean proportions. It might be the best document of how the internet and social media have fundamentally changed us. —EDS

24. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

A rare adaptation for writer/director Edgar Wright brings Bryan Lee O’Malley’s popular graphic novel series to life. Michael Cera is perfectly cast in the title role as an awkward young man who is determined to win the heart of the woman he loves (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) by literally winning video game-style battles against her “Seven Evil Exes.” Wright throws every trick in his book at the screen, and the result is a film you can watch again and again. —Matthew Jackson

25. A Single Man (2009)

Fashion designer Tom Ford turned in an impressive directorial debut about a closeted gay man (Colin Firth) in 1962 California who tries to keep himself together after the death of his longtime companion. Firth is incredible as an aching heart who can't bear to share the truth of his life in a world quick to judge him. —JR

26. A Serious Man (2009)

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man whose faith is being tested at home, at work, and all points in between. A Serious Man is equal parts dark comedy and existential drama, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of why the Coen brothers are masters at their craft. —Jay Serafino

27. An Education (2009)

Romance and regret intertwine in this lush period drama about a young woman (Carey Mulligan) who falls for a man with a murky past (Peter Sarsgaard) in 1960s London. —JR

28. There Will Be Blood (2007)

It was Citizen Kane for the new century: a sprawling epic about a flawed, wealthy man who lets his own power destroy him, directed by a wunderkind already revered by most of Hollywood. Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano all do some of their best work in the story of a duplicitous oilman who meets his match in the fiery son of a preacher. —EDS

29. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Following the end of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl (Ivana Baquero) escapes the turmoil of her militant stepfather and ill mother by exploring a hidden labyrinth that houses a variety of strange creatures. Director Guillermo del Toro was praised for his specialty: weaving a fairy tale with sharp edges. —JR

30. Inside Man (2006)

Director Spike Lee puts a spin on the heist film genre: Clive Owen is a bank robber who has a plan for getting out of a bank surrounded by cops, including hostage negotiator Denzel Washington. —JR

31. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry collaborated on this deeply affecting story of a man (Jim Carrey) who realizes he can cure his heartbreak over a lost love (Kate Winslet) by having the same memory-erasing procedure she had. But affairs of the heart aren't so easily dismissed. Kaufman won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. —JR

32. The Notebook (2004)

Ryan Gosling developed a reputation for charming audiences in this adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel. When Gosling and Rachel McAdams fall in love, class separation keeps them apart. —JR

33. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film about a talented boxer (Hilary Swank) who rises through the ranks to become an accomplished fighter. Both she and her coach (Eastwood) soon find themselves in a different kind of fight. —JR

34. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

The controversially sensual road movie that put Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna on the international map scored an Oscar nomination for writer/director Alfonso Cuarón. It's hard to believe he followed up this drug-and-sex-filled coming-of-age trip with a Harry Potter movie. —SB

35. Being John Malkovich (1999)

Writer Charlie Kaufman reached new dimensions of absurdist humor with this tale of a puppeteer (John Cusack) who finds a portal leading to the mind of celebrated actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). Naturally, Cusack decides to charge admission for the privilege of being Malkovich for 15 minutes at a time. As always, being inside Kaufman's brain is the real attraction. —JR

36. Donnie Brasco (1997)

Johnny Depp and Al Pacino give knockout performances in this film based on the real-life exploits of Joseph Pistone, an FBI agent sent undercover to gain the trust of the mafia. His way in is Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), a floundering criminal who puts his trust in Pistone. Their friendship—always with the undercurrent of Pistone's inevitable betrayal—makes for a movie that transcends its mafia genre trappings. —JR

37. Jurassic Park (1993)

Weird science brings dinosaurs back to life in this classic monster film from Steven Spielberg. Charging through the rain, the rampaging Tyrannosaurus rex is as formidable a natural disaster as the director's infamous shark. —JR

38. Schindler's List (1993)

Steven Spielberg won a long-overdue Academy Award for this harrowing chronicle of the Holocaust told through the eyes of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German who listens to his conscience and rescues Jewish prisoners destined for the gas chambers by redirecting them to his factories. —JR

39. The Firm (1993)

Tom Cruise leads an impressive cast—including Gene Hackman and the late Wilford Brimley—in this adaptation of the John Grisham novel. Fresh out of law school, Mitch McDeere (Cruise) takes a lucrative job with a high-powered legal firm without realizing the partners don't necessarily obey the laws they practice. —JR

40. Howards End (1992)

James Ivory's adaptation of E.M. Forster's 1910 novel tells the story of free-spirited Londoner Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) who befriends a dying woman, Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), who ends up bequeathing Margaret her beloved country home, Howards End. It's a stroke of luck for Margaret, who is about to be ousted from the home she has leased for years, but the Wilcox family feels that something is amiss. As Ruth's widower (Anthony Hopkins) attempts to investigate the situation, he finds himself falling under Margaret's spell. —Jennifer M. Wood

41. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Not only did a gory horror film win Best Picture at the Oscars in 1992, it also won the other four top categories—Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay—a feat achieved only twice before (by It Happened One Night and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Turns out America has a taste for cannibalism when it’s impeccably acted, smartly directed (by Jonathan Demme), and creepy as all hell. It remains one of the best examples of "art-house" horror. —EDS

42. She's Gotta Have It (1986)

Spike Lee’s feature directorial debut also sees him playing one of three men under the thumb of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns). None of them can stand Nola’s gender-reversing approach to casual relationships, and the three hope to goad her into living a monogamous life. Nola, however, wants to pursue happiness on her own terms, not society’s. Lee’s love letter to Brooklyn is still a standout in his filmography, which quickly grew to include 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1992’s Malcom X. —JR

43. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

All four Indiana Jones movies are on Netflix, but the original still stands its ground as the best in the series and one of the finest action movies ever made. Indy (Harrison Ford) pursues the Lost Ark of the Covenant while evading and diverting Nazis chasing the power the Ark is believed to contain. —JR

44. Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro drew justifiable accolades for his portrayal of Travis Bickle, a mentally askew cab driver in the hellscape of 1970s New York City in director Martin Scorsese's gutter noir masterpiece. —JR

45. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The Monty Python team delivers their best-known work, a silly and sharply satirical feature that uses the King Arthur legend as a springboard for sequences that feature brave-but-armless knights and highly aggressive rabbits. Opening to mixed reviews, it has since become a perennial entry in lists of the best comedies ever made. —JR