Plotting Serbia’s Demise

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 192nd installment in the series. 

July 17, 1915: Plotting Serbia’s Demise, Second Battle of the Isonzo 

After switching alliances in the prewar diplomatic chess game, Bulgaria remained neutral when war broke out, playing the two sides off each other to see which could offer more in return for its continued neutrality or active cooperation – just as Greece, Italy, and Romania were doing. But whichever side Bulgaria ended up on, its main goal was always the same: recovering the territory lost in the Second Balkan War, and especially the areas of Macedonia lost to Serbia and Greece. After the disasters of 1913 revenge against Serbia in particular became a national obsession, with Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand declaring in July 1913 that, “The aim of his life was the annihilation of Serbia.” 

The result was another bidding war between the Allies and Central Powers, as both sides made offers and counteroffers promising cash, arms, and above all territory to win Bulgaria’s allegiance. However the Allies were always working at a disadvantage, because they could only persuade Serbia to give up so much in order to placate Bulgaria, while the Central Powers were free to dismember Serbia completely (since that was the whole point of the war). The Allies could offer Bulgaria Turkish territory in Thrace including Adrianople, also lost by Bulgaria during the Second Balkan War, as well as Dobruja, lost to Romania, but these were lower priorities for the Bulgarians than Macedonia; they also knew that the main prize in the east, Constantinople, was already promised to the Russians. 

In fact Austria-Hungary had already offered Serbian territory to Bulgaria during the buildup to war in July 1914, while Germany wooed Sofia with a big loan on easy terms, and Turkey concluded a defensive agreement with Bulgaria the following month, signaling warmer relations. But Bulgaria was exhausted from the Balkan Wars, and its domestic politics remained bitterly divided between pro-Allied and pro-Central Powers factions (despite the prewar moves towards Austria-Hungary, many Bulgarians remained attached to Russia, which had helped win the country’s independence in 1877, and the country’s elites feared German and Austrian economic domination). The Bulgarians agreed to consider limited covert operations, including support for the longstanding guerrilla movement in Serbian Macedonia, but that was it.

A number of developments prompted the Central Powers to redouble their efforts in the first half of 1915. Serbia’s unexpected victories in the early part of the war, Russia’s advance in Galicia, and Italy’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, all underlined the Central Powers’ urgent need to find new allies themselves. Meanwhile one crucial strategic fact dominated all other considerations: by allying with Bulgaria and conquering Serbia, the Central Powers would open communications via land with the Ottoman Empire, allowing them to send the beleaguered Turks much-needed weapons, ammunition, food, medicine, and other supplies, not to mention German and Habsburg troops to reinforce the hard-pressed Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, the Caucasus, and Mesopotamia


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Of course these setbacks served to make the Bulgarians even more leery of commitment to the Central Powers: indeed the stalemate on all fronts meant Bulgaria could afford to take its time and extract maximum concessions, as its potential contribution became more valuable. At the same time, on the other side Britain and France were still unable to force Serbia to cede territory in Macedonia in return for Bosnia (the Serbs were justly skeptical about these promises, in light of the Western Allies’ conflicting promises to Italy and Serbia in the Adriatic) and also feared alienating Romania by asking Bucharest to cede Dobruja. Sir William Robertson, the British chief of the general staff, frankly admitted, “since the war began, diplomacy had seriously failed to assist us with regard to Bulgaria.” 

The situation began to change in June and July 1915, as Italy’s bloody defeat at the First Battle of the Isonzo made it clear Austria-Hungary wasn’t about to collapse, while the situation at Gallipoli stabilized and the momentous Austro-German breakthrough on the Eastern Front made Russia look more vulnerable than ever. Where the Central Powers had looked close to defeat in spring 1915, by that summer the tables had turned. Berlin and Vienna also informed the Bulgarians they were planning an attack on Serbia for sometime in fall 1915 – with the strong hint that the Bulgarians should commit now or risk losing the spoils in Macedonia.

After complex, protracted negotiations with both sides, in a secret meeting with the German diplomat Prince von Hohenlohe-Langenburg on July 17, 1915, Bulgarian Prime Minister Vasil Radovslav tentatively agreed to an alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary against Serbia, in return for all of Serbian Macedonia, territory in Greece and Romania if they declared war against Bulgaria, and part of Turkish Thrace (the Turks, desperate to open a route for supplies from their European allies, were willing to make these concessions voluntarily). 

Subsequently, on August 3, 1915 Radovslav dispatched a military emissary, Colonel Peter Ganchev, to Germany to negotiate the final treaty of alliance and a military pact, which were finalized on September 6, 1915 – the same day Bulgaria concluded a separate alliance with Turkey. This military pact committed Bulgaria to join a general offensive against Serbia, alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary, within 35 days of its signing. The outcome was never in doubt: Serbia, faced with overwhelming force on all sides, would be completely annihilated (top, detail from a German postcard celebrating Serbia’s fall; full postcard below). 

Second Battle of the Isonzo 

The day after Bulgaria agreed to join the Central Powers, Italian chief of the general staff Cadorna launched his second major offensive against the Austrians in the Isonzo River Valley to Italy’s northeast. Unsurprisingly, using the same tactics on the same ground produced the same result as the First Battle of the Isonzo – small advances at an astronomical cost in human lives lost. However this time the Italians moved forward a few kilometers and inflicted more casualties than they suffered, so it was counted a “victory.”

The Italian Army’s mobilization continued slowly throughout June and July 1915, increasing its total active numbers from around 900,000 men to 1.2 million men, although there were only enough supplies for about 750,000 of these. This enabled Cadorna to move up 290,000 fresh troops to bolster the strength of the four Italian armies (which numbered around 385,000 men following the First Isonzo) strung out along the nearly 400-mile-long front, twisting in an “S” shape from the Alps in the west to the valley of the Isonzo in the east.

All along the front, Italian troops faced grueling journeys through rough terrain just to get into position, with marches often conducted at night to avoid enemy artillery fire. Of course this presented its own perils, as one Italian soldier, Virgilio Bonamore, wrote in his diary entry on July 5, 1915, which mentioned a chilling order soldiers had to obey even as they plunged to their deaths: 

If God preserves me, I shall never forget this long night-time march at an altitude of 1,800 metres. There is something epic about our cautious approach in the dark, in total silence. Now and then, in the more difficult passes, someone falls off the edge. They fall without making a sound, as we have been ordered. All we hear is this pitiful sound of a body with a rifle hitting the ground.

With the reinforcements in place, the Second Battle of the Isonzo opened at 4 am on July 18, 1915 with a furious artillery bombardment targeting a 20-mile stretch of Austrian defensive positions on the other side of the Isonzo River, followed that afternoon by a charge of 250,000 Italian infantry against 78,000 Habsburg defenders. The barrage succeeded in destroying the Austrian frontline trenches in many places, and at 1 pm infantry from the Italian Third Army under the Duke of Aosta managed to capture enemy positions on the strategic heights at Mount San Michele, on the western edge of the Carso Plateau. However a desperate Austrian counterattack pushed the Italians out of the trenches on July 21, and after changing hands several more times on July 26 the mountaintop remained under enemy control. 

Meanwhile the neighboring Italian Second Army made scant progress in multiple attacks north of Gorizia on Mount Sabotino and surrounding hills, although they did seize control of Mount Batognica at steep cost. Bonamore, occupying a captured enemy trench near the town of Caporetto, described the scene a few days later: 

On the 29th I spent 24 hours in the trench, squatting among the corpses of men from both sides. The stench was unbearable. On top of that we had to endure a ferocious enemy assault, which we have repelled. Many of our men fell, hit in the head as they poked out of the trenches to fire. I haven’t eaten or drunk anything for two days. The stench from the corpses, the cold, the incessant rain, the lack of sleep – which is rendered impossible by the continual alarms – have reduced me to a pitiful state. 

The Second Battle of the Isonzo would continue until August 3, 1915, with scarcely any significant changes in strategic situation. This meager victory cost the Italians 41,800 casualties, versus 46,600 for the Habsburg forces. 

Despite the incredible bloodshed, men on both sides could still appreciate the aesthetics of their environment, although this was tempered by the privations of the elements and war itself. Of course few soldiers actually wanted to be there, and the natural beauty of the landscape was small consolation for their suffering. Michael Maximilian Reiter, an Austrian lieutenant stationed above the Isonzo, wrote in July 1915: 

We are all waiting, waiting. What is it that every soldier at the front is really waiting for? Is it for the Italians to come swarming suddenly across the hillside? No. The thought uppermost in every mind is, when can we return home? At midnight, I do my rounds for the second time: my company is perched awkwardly on the lofty rocks above the valley, and I frequently have to crawl on all fours to reach the furthest outposts. Other times I slide down on the seat of my trousers: every now and again I stop for a rest. Far below stretches the shining blue strip of the Isonzo: above my head, tens of thousands of stars: around me, a great stillness, broken only by the clicking of crickets. The overall peace is only broken from time to time by the bursting of a shell, near or far, bringing me suddenly back from my reveries to the war… Now above the far peak of the mountain there appears a dim glow of light, gradually increasing in size and intensity and lighting up the whole valley: the moon is rising at last… I begin to dream again, to feel the soft summer night all round me, to study the Milky Way with its shining path of tiny stars across the heavens. Pictures of home drift across my consciousness, my family, my dog, my horses… Suddenly a barrage of shots breaks out without warning, wrenching me back to the battlefield. 

British Set Off Giant Mine 

Elsewhere minor skirmishes continued along many portions of the Western Front, producing thousands of casualties on both sides even during relatively quiet periods. However “quiet” was not the word to describe what transpired in the wrecked village of Hooge, southeast of Ypres, on July 19, 1915: frustrated by a German strongpoint built near the ruins of the Hooge chateau (an aristocrat’s manor house), the British blew the whole thing out of existence with the biggest mine used in the war so far.

After five and a half weeks spent digging two tunnels about 60 meters long under no-man’s-land, using pumps to clear the waterlogged clay, the 175th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers packed the ends beneath the German lines with 5,000 pounds of ammonal, a high explosive, as well as gunpowder and guncotton. A German shell severed the detonating wire at the last second, but the gap was repaired and the mines detonated at 7 pm on July 19 (below, the mine crater).

William Robinson, an American dispatch rider volunteering with the British Army, described the explosion: 

When the mines were set off we saw a sight such as one observes only once in a lifetime. The earth trembled, a low, growling rumble ensued, then a mighty crash, and the air was filled with smoke, flame, bricks, dust, flying bodies, heads, legs, and arms. Our fellows let out a mighty cheer and charged across the crater formed by the explosion. The Germans seemed stunned by the awful sight they had witnessed, and we took several lines of trenches from them with very little trouble. 

Alexander Johnston, a British supply officer, recalled:

… the explosion was certainly an extraordinary sight, an enormous cloud of debris and smoke went hundreds of feet into the air, and though we ourselves were about 800 yards away the whole ground shook under us. The assaulting company were told to wait for 40 seconds to enable bricks and debris to come down, and they rushed forward. 

Despite this caution, ten of the advancing British soldiers were accidentally killed by falling debris. The explosion left a crater about 120 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with displaced earth forming a lip adding another seven feet above the ground. Ironically, later in the war the crater was used as a sheltered position for dugouts (above). Today the crater has filled with water and the resulting pond is a tourist attraction (below).

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]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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