French cinema doesn't seem to have the stupendous thematic range of Italian film, but American audiences have never received as broad a cross-section of Gallic movies. What we get seems to be intended as the cream of the crop, mostly for the art house rather than the grindhouse. But what the French do, they do well and with something like a national style. Here's an alphabetical list of my current favorites, in order of their most familiar titles, English or French.
Army of Shadows (L'Armee des Ombres, 1969). Why Jean-Pierre Melville's thriller about the Resistance took so long to reach America -- nearly 40 years -- is a mystery to me. Melville brings the cool empathy of his crime pictures to a wartime subject, and I understand the mix annoyed some French critics. But it seems like the perfect way to approach the clandestine desperation of the period, and the harsh necessity it imposed on patriots. It combines suspense in the simplest situations with a sense of imminent tragedy that's finally fulfilled in the fate of Simone Signoret's character.
Au Hazard Baltazar (1966). I borrowed this one from the remarkable Albany Public Library collection not expecting to like it much but curious about Robert Bresson. The only film of his I'd seen before was Lancelot du Lac, which was interesting but also sort of off-putting, but Bresson is highly touted by highly regarded writers. Baltazar impressed me in a way I didn't expect. It's a masterpiece of pathos that really does leave you feeling compassion for that donkey, as well of the people who cross his path.
A Woman is a Woman (Une Femme est Une Femme, 1961). Jean-Luc Godard is a hit-or-miss proposition for me. I couldn't get through Bande a Part on my first try. The difference may have been the widescreen vistas of vintage Paris and Raoul Coutard's lush colors. They make you think you could walk into the living world of the Nouvelle Vague, and Godard's then relatively unambivalent love of moviemaking (and/or of Anna Karina) shows in every frame.
Contempt (Le Mepris, 1963). Godard again, striving to master the imperatives of producer Joseph E. Levine and wild elements like Brigitte Bardot and a authentically impatient Jack Palance. I haven't see that much of Godard, but this looks like the height of his classical form, with Raoul Coutard and composer Georges Delerue at the height of their powers as well.
Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966). Melville's last black & white film with my favorite performance so far (in my still limited experience) from the mighty Lino Ventura. He's a doomed criminal, manipulated and outwitted but ultimately unstoppable in his determination to set things right according to his own sense of justice. His final gunfight is a classic scene with a two-climax that inspired legions of lesser films.
Grand Illusion (1937). Perhaps the most cosmopolitan of "foreign" films, Jean Renoir's multilingual P.O.W. drama was one of the first French films I ever saw and is still one of my favorites. In idle moments I've imagined trying to translate the story into an American Civil War setting, where the tragic friendship of enemy aristocrats might also be possible, but the spirit of Renoir's movie is probably inimitable.
Lacombe Lucien (1974). Louis Malle's film is the antithesis of Army of Shadows -- the story of a collaborator. It's an anti-epic of someone who picks a side for no good reason, yet Malle manages to make his antihero's actions understandable without approving of them. I suppose it's really like the rise and fall of a young criminal, and as with Army of Shadows, the transposition of the crime genre onto a war story, which usually invites different moral expectations, has an eye-opening effect that awakens unexpected empathy. Considering the odious subject, it's a great humanistic film.
Vagabonde ( Sans Toit ni Loi, 1986). I have an odd interest in discovering low life in foreign lands, so I was bound to be a sucker for Agnes Varda's saga of a young woman wandering toward oblivion. But Varda brings what I take to be a characteristic French eschewal of melodrama and moralizing to her subject, allowing you to appraise her heroine as you will. In an often beautiful landscape or in convincing squalor, Varda's naturalistic approach lets you draw your own conclusions.
The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Henri-Georges Clouzot's dynamite trucker drama is one of the grimmest, most hard boiled of thrillers. This is the one where they have to drive a tanker full of nitro through the jungle for not enough money. It says something about man's exploitation of man and man's willingness to be exploited, and it's not pretty, but it is powerfully made.
Wooden Crosses (Les Croix de Bois, 1932). This is the French counterpart of All Quiet on the Western Front in theme and visual force. Raymond Bernard gives the story dynamic direction and righteous indignation at the same time, conveying the chaos and futility of World War I in street fighting as well as in the trenches. There aren't many great Great War movies, but this is one of the few.
I was tempted to swap one of the Godards or one of the Melvilles for Jean Rollin's Fascination, but I'll settle for giving that an honorable mention. I still have a stack of French stuff to work through, so this list is subject to change at any time, for what that's worth.