WWI Centennial: Gas Attack at Ypres

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 179th installment in the series.

April 22, 1915: Gas Attack at Ypres

At 5pm on April 22, 1915, following a German artillery bombardment, French soldiers holding the northern face of the Ypres salient saw a greenish-yellow cloud drifting towards them from the enemy trenches along a roughly four-mile-long stretch of the front.

 As the cloud reached their positions the soldiers  — mostly middle-aged militia volunteers in the 87th Territorial Division and North African colonial troops in the Algerian 45th Division  — began coughing violently and gasping for air, tears and mucus streaming down their faces, their lungs burning, accompanied by retching and dry heaving. Tearing at their own throats and coughing up blood, some sought refuge at the bottom of their trenches but merely hurried to their doom, as chlorine gas is heavier than air.

 

Unsurprisingly, after a few minutes of this the French soldiers fled their trenches in terror. Harold Peat, a Canadian private in reserve in the eastern part of the salient, witnessed the first moments of this new horror in war:

In the far distance we saw a cloud rise as though from the earth. It was a greeny-red color, and increased in volume as it rolled forward. It was like a mist rising, and yet it hugged the ground, rose five or six feet, and penetrated to every crevice and dip in the ground. We could not tell what it was. Suddenly from out the mist we men in reserves saw movement. Coming towards us, running as though Hell as it really was had been let loose behind them, were the black troops from Northern Africa. Poor devils, I do not blame them. It was enough to make any man run. 

Another Canadian soldier in the front line, Reginald Grant, painted a similar picture:

The line trembled from one end to the other, as the Algerian troops immediately on our left, jumped out of their trenches, falling as they ran. The whole thing seemed absolutely incomprehensible until I got a whiff of the gas. They ran like men possessed, gasping, choking, blinded and dropping with suffocation. They could hardly be blamed... The buttons on our uniforms were tinged yellow and green from the gas, so virulent was the poison.

The gas attack marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, which would last until May 25, 1915, and like the First Battle of Ypres include several distinct phases, each a battle in its own right: the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge from April 22-23; the Battle of St. Julien from April 24-May 4; the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge from May 8-13; and the Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge from May 24-25. Over this period the Allies suffered around 70,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action, while the Germans lost about half that number.

Gravenstafel Ridge 

Ypres is located at the bottom of a shallow basin, surrounded by plains gently rising to a semicircle of low hills to the north, east, and south, dotted with forests, lakes, and villages. As the names of the individual battles indicate, the Second Battle of Ypres was largely a struggle for control of some of these hills, as well as the village of St. Julien a few miles northeast of Ypres. 

Short on shells and looking for a new way to soften up enemy defenses, on the advice of the chemist Fritz Haber the Germans brought up thousands of cylinders of chlorine gas, which was released over the top of the trenches by long tubes (image below), relying on the wind to carry it over the enemy lines. The Allies had received reports about these plans in early April but dismissed them as psychological warfare or rumors.

By the end of the first day the chlorine gas had killed around 6,000 French soldiers and sent the rest fleeing for safety, leaving a four-mile-wide gap in the Allied line, with no defenders standing between the Germans and Ypres. From here a concerted German push might have unraveled the whole Western Front, clearing the way to the French ports on the English Channel and thus cutting off British supplies the elusive goal of the First Battle of Ypres.

Unsure how effective the new weapon really was, as dusk approached the German 46th Reserve, 51st Reserve, and 52nd Reserve Divisions emerged from their trenches and cautiously advanced behind the deadly cloud  then were stunned to find the French trenches completely abandoned, or filled with dead and dying soldiers, the latter incapacitated by the gas. By nightfall the Germans had pushed forward about three miles, reaching the village of Gravenstafel and taking a nearby ridge. To the south they advanced within two miles of Ypres now transformed into an inferno by their bombardment. 

Ypres in Flames

The burning city lit up the night sky for miles around, providing a spectacular backdrop to the brutal battle unfolding on its outskirts. William Robinson, an American volunteer driver with the British Expeditionary Force, described Ypres under shellfire: "It seemed as though the whole city was being torn from its very foundations, so terrible was the din. Wagons, horses, autos, bicycles, were piled up everywhere. Men, women, and children, soldiers and civilians, were lying dead and dying in every street." Peat recalled the scene as viewed from outside the city:

The night of April twenty-second is one that I can never forget. It was frightful, yes. Yet there was a grandeur in the appalling intensity of living, and the appalling intensity of death as it surrounded us. The German shells rose and burst behind us. They made the Yser Canal a stream of molten glory. Shells fell in the city, and split the darkness of the heavens in the early night hours. Later the moon rose in a splendor of spring-time. Straight behind the tower of the great cathedral it rose and shone down on a bloody earth. Suddenly the grand old Cloth Hall burst into flames. The spikes of fire rose and fell and rose again. Showers of sparks went upward. A pall of smoke would form and cloud the moon, waver, break and pass. There was the mutter and rumble and roar of great guns. There was the groan of wounded and the gasp of dying. It was glorious. It was terrible. It was inspiring. Through an inferno of destruction and death, of murder and horror, we lived because we must.

Canadians Save the Day

The poison gas had punched a huge hole in the Allied line but it wasn't totally abandoned: to the east the neighboring trenches were still held by the Canadian First Division, who saw the Germans advancing virtually unopposed on their left flank and sprang into action. Indeed these mostly untried soldiers made one of the most desperate and gallant defenses of the whole war, extending their line west to fill the gap and holding off an enemy force many times larger than themselves through sheer stubbornness and endurance.

The Canadians were aided by the quick thinking of a chemist, Lieutenant Colonel George Nasmith, and a medical officer, Captain Francis Alexander Scrimger, who deduced that the Germans were using chlorine gas and improvised a simple, if disgusting, countermeasure: they advised the men to hold handkerchiefs soaked in urine over their noses and mouths, because the ammonia in the urine would help neutralize the chlorine. On the other hand they also had to contend with the defective Ross rifle, notorious for jamming when it heated up from repeat firing. 

Armed with these makeshift gasmasks and faulty rifles, the Canadians on the left end of the line hurled themselves at the advancing Germans at Gravenstafel. Because the phone lines had been cut by the German bombardment the officers on the scene had no idea where their French allies were or how many enemy troops they were facing, which may explain their decision to attack an enemy force of over 10,000 men with just 1,500 men supported by field artillery. Incredibly, it worked: at 11:45pm the battalion of Canadian Highlanders stormed the Germans hastily dug trenches in nearby Kitchener's Wood, a forest about two miles northeast of Ypres, and sent the surprised enemy reeling back. Predictably the Highlanders suffered huge numbers of casualties in this savage combat. One soldier recalled:

Pressing on in the wood the struggle became a dreadful hand-to-hand conflict; we fought in clumps and batches, and the living struggled over the bodies of the dead and dying. At the height of the conflict, while we were steadily driving the Germans before us, the moon burst out The clashing bayonets flashed like quicksilver, and faces were lit up as by limelight.

 The Canadian Highlanders had lost about two thirds of their original force, but they halted the German advance long enough for more troops from the First Canadian Division to join the fight. At 5:45am the Canadian 1st and 4th Battalions attacked the German defenses on Mauser's Ridge west of Kitchener's Wood, once again crossing mostly open ground in front of vigilant enemy troops, now well entrenched. The result was a bloodbath, as the Germans opened up on the advancing Canadians with field artillery, machine guns and massed rifle fire. But the Canadians dug in and more British troops were arriving as the Allied commanders scrambled to close the gap in their lines. One Canadian officer, Frederic Curry, described the surreal scene as the reserves raced to take up their positions:

As we continued northward the throbbing of distant gunfire became plainer, and a strange flickering could be seen in the morning sky. This strange light, caused by the flash of the guns and the flares or illuminating fuzees shot up by the infantry, resembled nothing so much as our own Aurora Borealis, and we were not surprised to find, a little later, that our men had already nicknamed them the "Northern Lights." 

The Canadians had succeeded in blunting the enemy offensive by sheer bluff, as their audacious counterattacks deceived the Germans into thinking they faced more Allied troops than they really did. By noon on April 23 the Allied defensive line was reforming but there were a mere ten Canadian battalions facing over 50 German battalions. 

Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French now ordered another attack on Mauser's Ridge north of Ypres on the afternoon of April 23. This turned out to be completely futile, as the British artillery bombardment alerted the Germans to the coming assault (before running out of ammunition at the critical moment), while promised support from neighboring French units failed to materialize. Once again the casualty list was huge. Peat recalled the huge losses inflicted by German machine guns and rifles as the Canadians advanced over open ground: "Out of the seven hundred and fifty of us who advanced, a little over two hundred and fifty gained the German trench; and of that number twenty-five or more fell dead as soon as they reached the enemy." After this attack failed, the exhausted British troops dug in, scrounged for food, and tried to get some sleep. But the battle was only beginning.

St. Julien

The British were about to get their own taste of gas. On April 24 around 4am the Germans unleashed another cloud of chlorine gas against the First Canadian Division and British 28th Division holding the line around the village of St. Julien. The Canadians and British tried to use handkerchiefs soaked in urine as before, but the chlorine gas was too concentrated this time. 

Now Canadian and British soldiers could witness the effects of chlorine gas up close. Even before the gas reached their trenches its impact was all too clear, according to a Canadian officer, J.A. Currie, who observed "the deadly wall of chlorine gas which rolled slowly over the ground turning the budding leaves of the trees, the spring flowers and the grass a sickly white." When it hit the trenches it could drive men mad, according to a Scottish officer, Patrick McCoy, who left a vivid description of a gas attack around this time: 

I saw one man near me turn a sickly greenish-yellow... His eyes began to bulge from his head; froth filled his mouth and hung from his lips. He began tearing at his throat. The air wouldn't go into his lungs. He fell and rolled over and over, gasping and crying out while with his nails he tore open his throat, even wrenched out his windpipe. Then his chest heaved a time or two, and he lay still. Death had brought its blessed relief.

Death wasn't always instantaneous, however. Curry later saw gas casualties slowly dying at a field hospital, beyond any medical care: "Reeking with chlorine, their faces a livid purple or an even ghastlier green, they lay there on the stretchers, each with a little bowl beside him, coughing his life away." Many observers remarked on the strange colors of gas victims skin. A British officer, Bruce Bairnsfather, remembered: "Poor fellows, their features were distorted and their faces livid. Blood-tainted froth clung to their lips. Their skins were mottled blue and white. They were a heartbreaking sight to behold." However some soldiers who received a mild dose of gas were able to recover (below, British troops who were gassed at Ypres).

 

The Allies were already learning strategies to deal with poison gas. At St. Julien, for example, some men managed to avoid the worst effects by standing up on top of the trench parapet, correctly assuming the Germans would hang back far behind the gas cloud, the distance making it harder to hit their targets; they then returned to the trench once the cloud had passed. So the gas failed to force the Canadians to retreat, and this time around the advancing Germans were surprised to encounter a hail of bullets from machine guns and rifles as they approached the enemy trenches (the Canadian troops had to form teams to load their maddeningly uncooperative Ross rifles). Currie described the carnage: "The men waited till the Germans emerged from their trenches three or four deep to charge. Then our whistles blew, and hundreds of them were cut down and piled on top of each other before they broke and ran back to their trenches. One machine gun got about 200 of them." However the Germans now resorted to huge artillery bombardments followed by a massive infantry attack and eventually forced the Canadians to withdraw, giving up St. Julien shortly after noon on April 24. With some Canadian brigades in danger of being surrounded, the German bombardment continued into the night, according to Currie:

As the night closed down the heavens were lit with the German flares and the lurid flashes from their guns. The German flares crossed each other in the heavens behind us. In our left rear, and all around to the right rear, I could see the angry red flashes of the thousands of guns they were directing against our devoted defenders. Almost every calibre of gun was being used against us, from the great seventeen inch Austrian siege mortars they were firing at Ypres and Poperinghe behind us, to the nine, seven, six, five, four and three-inch high explosive shells that were filling the air with their fiendish notes.

Over the next two days the Canadians formed a new defensive line and mounted a series of counterattacks aiming to drive the Germans out of St. Julien, briefly succeeding in capturing some German trenches, but suffered so many casualties that they were unable to hold the positions. A gap remained on the Canadian left, where the Germans had pushed past St. Julien, threatening a breakthrough. On April 24-25 massive German assaults around the village again forced the Canadians make strategic withdrawals while waiting for desperately needed British reinforcements. Bairnsfather, one of the reinforcements, remembered marching to their relief in miserable weather:

We were marching in pouring rain and darkness down a muddy, mangled road, shattered poplar trees sticking up in black streaks on either side. Crash after crash, shells were falling and exploding all around us, and behind the burning city. The road took a turn. We marched for a short time parallel to now distant Ypres. Through the charred skeleton wrecks of houses one caught glimpses of the yellow flames mounting to the sky. We passed over the Yser Canal, dirty, dark and stagnant, reflecting the yellow glow of the flames. On our left was a church and graveyard, both blown to a thousand pieces. Tombstones lying about and sticking up at odd angles all over the torn-up ground. I guided my section a little to one side to avoid a dead horse lying across the road. The noise of shrapnel bursting about us only ceased occasionally, making way for ghastly, ominous silences. And the rain kept pouring down.

When they arrived Bairnsfather's unit was plunged directly into battle:

Bullets were flying through the air in all directions. Ahead, in the semi-darkness, I could just see the forms of men running out into the fields on either side of the road in extended order, and beyond them a continuous heavy crackling of rifle-fire showed me the main direction of the attack. The German machine guns were now busy, and sent sprays of bullets flicking up the ground all round us. Lying behind a slight fold in the ground we saw them whisking through the grass, three or four inches over our heads. 

By April 25 British troops had relieved the beleaguered Canadians, now down to a fraction of their original strength, and once again established a more or less coherent defensive line. But the Germans still held a huge chunk of formerly Allied territory in the salient, and continued pressing their attacks. On April 26-27 ambitious counterattacks by French troops and fresh troops from the Indian Lahore Division failed utterly because the French didn't commit enough men to the attack; the Indian troops charged bravely but the attack was shattered by German firepower. In a fit of pique, BEF commander Sir John French took out his frustration on General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was in charge of the operation, by relieving him of command but the simple fact was two colonial divisions were practically destroyed, and the BEF had no choice but to withdraw to a new, shorter line outside Ypres.

Outrage   

Needless to say public opinion in Allied countries was outraged by Germanys use of poison gas, banned by the Hague conventions of the previous two decades. After massacres of Belgian civilians, the burning of Louvain and the Cathedral of Reims, the bombardment of British cities from the sea and air, and unrestricted U-boat warfare, the decision to employ poison gas seemed to be the final proof of German barbarism and frightfulness. 

However there was also general recognition that now the Allies would have to employ the shocking new weapon as well, or risk defeat. The British, French, and Russian governments immediately put scientists to work researching chemical weapons of their own. On April 25, an anonymous British nurse wrote a sardonic entry in her diary: "The beasts of Germans laid out a whole trench full of Zouaves with chlorine gas. Of course every one is busy finding out how we can go one better now." A German officer made the same prediction: "Of course, the entire world will rage about it first and then imitate us." 

Shellshock 

By this time military and medical authorities were beginning to notice a troubling phenomenon, as seemingly fit young men without visible injuries were incapacitated by what appeared to be a paralyzing nervous disorder. As more and more cases were observed, it became known as shellshock. At first the general inclination was to brand soldiers suffering from shellshock as cowards and punish them with courts martial followed by prison or even execution. However these attitudes softened somewhat when it became clear the mental illness was profound and involuntary; it would later be clinically described as post-traumatic stress disorder. One German psychiatrist described a soldier who had been buried alive for two hours on May 3, 1915: 

When admitted to hospital, B. was completely disorientated and confused and motorically very restless. B. is terrified by every noise, when brought to this ward, he started whining and screaming. Lying in his bed he was apparently still frightened, he crept under the duvet as if looking for cover against shells. During the night, B. was very restless and nervous, he was screaming and crying, pushing his way out of bed, hiding away and trying to leave the room. According to his wife's statement, B. has always been a quiet, sensible and industrious person without any psychotic attitudes whatsoever. 

Two weeks later the same British nursing sister noted in her diary: "Just admitted a gunner suffering from shock alone  no wound completely knocked out; he can't tell you his name, or stand, or even sit up, but just shivers and shudders." And around this time an Englishwoman, Helen Mackay, volunteering as a nurse in a French hospital, described several of her patients: 

The number 18 is very bad. He does not know any one any more. He lies against a heap of cushions, his knees drawn up almost to his chin, his eyes wide open all the time, his hands picking at the covers... There is a boy who talks about riding over everything. He keeps saying, "We rode right over them, we rode right over them." There is another who keeps crying, "Oh, no, not that! Oh, no, not that!"

The mental illness was perhaps most perplexing and infuriating to the afflicted soldiers themselves. In January 1915 a German soldier, Franz Mller, wrote home from a military hospital: 

Due to the huge exertions of the last three days in particular, when our trench was literally turned upside down by heavy enemy artillery, I have developed a mental disease. I am up for just a few hours a day, for this bloody illness has affected my innocent legs. The pain and paralysis in my legs and in my right arm make it very difficult to move. Just imagine the giant of 92 kg trudging along like a crab between beds, chairs, and tables. It is utter mockery! 

Unfortunately shellshock could be triggered by loud sounds and especially explosions, which were of course inescapable on the Western Front, even at military hospitals miles behind the lines. Edward Casey, an Irish soldier in the British Army, recalled his own bout with shellshock: 

... still the sound of guns firing [could be heard]. Off I went again. I was told that I jumped out of bed and tried to get out of the window, but I felt strong hands around my shoulders [and] I felt a prick in my arm, and [fell into a deep] sleep again. I was told by the Doctor that for some weeks I lay in a state of shock. I had lost my memory, did not know who I was [or] what Regiment I belonged to. I had nightmares, and one night I walked out of the ward door, went to the yard (it was freezing night) [and] I climbed the gutter pipe... I was very worried at the thought of being confined to a mad House. 

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