1. Citizen Kane (1941)

IMDb rating: 8.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 100%

Storyline: The compelling narrative of Citizen Kane is unwrapped through flashbacks and investigative narratives. It primarily follows the story of a newspaper tycoon named Charles Foster Kane, depicted from various focal points of his life. The intriguing piece of the puzzle is the utterance of his last word, ‘Rosebud’, which triggers a posthumous scrutiny of his life.

Why it’s a major movie: Citizen Kane is Orson Welles’ first and most revered film. He co-wrote, directed, and starred in this film, making an indelible mark in the history of cinema. It is largely considered one of the greatest films ever made due to its pioneering narrative structure, deep focus cinematography, and its multifaceted interpretation of the life of a powerful man.

In the second place, Citizen Kane is hailed as a major movie for its impeccable storytelling and technical innovations. The film uses non-linear storytelling cut across various timelines to piece together Kane’s life. Moreover, Welles’s audacious filmmaking technique, usage of deep shadows and low angle shots, has inspired legions of filmmakers worldwide.

2. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

IMDb rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 88%

Storyline: The Magnificent Ambersons traces the tragic downfall of a prestigious midwestern family at the turn of the 20th century. As progress and industrialization sweep across the landscape, the wealthy Ambersons lose their social stature and wealth, seen particularly through the ill-fated romance of the Amberson heiress and a self-made automobile tycoon.

Why it’s a major movie: Though this film didn’t reap the commercial success of Citizen Kane, its artistic merits were undeniable. Despite the tumultuous editing process, which resulted in a drastic cut-down of Welles’ original vision, the film is still hailed as a masterpiece for its poignant depiction of the destructive pride and the changing socio-economic landscape.

Further strengthening its standing, The Magnificent Ambersons encapsulates Welles’s talent for stark lighting effects and long-take sequences, elevating the drama with its atmospheric quality. In retroactive acclaim, the film’s legacy has proven its worth with its emotional resonance and its place in the narration of America’s evolution.

3. Touch of Evil (1958)

IMDb rating: 8.0/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 96%

Storyline: Touch of Evil is a gritty noir film revolving around police corruption and border conflicts. The plot is set in motion with a car bombing incident, pushing a Mexican narcotics officer into a clash with a corrupt and overweight local Sheriff as he investigates the crime in the desolate US-Mexico border town.

Why it’s a major movie: This film is another testament of Welles’s directorial brilliance, showcasing a sensational blend of murder, intrigue, and corruption. As one of the final examples of film noir in the classic era, Touch of Evil employs techniques like low-key black and white visuals, skewed camera angles, distorted shadows, and unbroken long shots.

Moreover, this film stands out for capturing the battle against corruption and abuse of power, intertwined with racial tensions. Despite its initial lukewarm reception, it has come to be appreciated for its dramatic intensity, thematic complexity, and Welles’s power-packed performance as the cruel and corrupt Sheriff.

4. Othello (1951)

IMDb rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 93%

Storyline: Othello is Welles’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic play, portraying Othello, a Moor general in the Venetian army, his beautiful wife Desdemona, and his treacherous ensign, Iago. Iago’s lies and manipulation coerces Othello into the morose belief of Desdemona’s infidelity, leading to tragic consequences.

Why it’s a major movie: Othello marks Welles’s endeavour into adapting Shakespeare and manifests his mastery over conveying deep emotional trajectories. While the film presents an abridged version of the original play, Welles is known for using distinct cinematic devices to unfold the tragedy in a visually striking manner.

Secondly, despite its tumultuous and financially constrained production, Othello still managed to showcase Welles’s ability to craft a compelling narrative and powerful imagery. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival, affirming its artistic merit and standing as one of Welles’s most acclaimed films.

5. The Trial (1962)

IMDb rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 85%

Storyline: The Trial is an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel, led by Joseph K., who wakes up on his birthday to find himself accused of a crime that is never revealed. The remainder of the film shows his increasingly desperate efforts to navigate the obscure, dystopian legal system to clear his name.

Why it’s a major movie: The Trial stands as a surreal, nightmarish depiction of bureaucracy, reflecting Kafka’s signature themes of existential dread and absurdity. Welles managed to translate this anxiety-inducing environment onto the screen with his use of unsettling visuals, long shots, and distorted architecture.

Further, The Trial gives insight into Welles’s critique of oppressive political systems, highlighting his continued relevance as a filmmaker. Welles’s expert adaptation of Kafka’s unsettling narrative, combined with a powerful performance from Anthony Perkins as Joseph K., makes this movie a significant piece in his oeuvre.

6. Chimes at Midnight (1965)

IMDb rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 93%

Storyline: Chimes at Midnight brings together various plays of Shakespeare to recast the story of Sir John Falstaff, a roguish, jovial character who shares a close bond with Prince Hal. The film delves into the dynamics of this friendship and the inevitable shift when Prince Hal ascends the throne as Henry V.

Why it’s a major movie: Welles felt a deep personal connection with Falstaff, and this film can be seen as one of Welles’s most personal works. It is noted for its blend of humor, camaraderie, and melancholy, centralizing the grand character of Falstaff who was often a peripheral character in Shakespeare’s plays.

Moreover, Chimes at Midnight is recognized for its climactic Battle of Shrewsbury, which is hailed as one of cinema’s greatest war scenes. It stands as a proof of Welles’s ability to enmesh Shakespeare’s language with riveting visual composition and effectively translate the Bard’s characters for a cinematic landscape.

7. F for Fake (1973)

IMDb rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 88%

Storyline: F for Fake is Orson Welles’s final completed film, a ground-breaking documentary that deals with theme of fakery in art. This cinema-essay spins around the figures of Elmyr de Hory, a notorious art forger, and Clifford Irving, who wrote a fraudulent biography of Howard Hughes.

Why it’s a major movie: F for Fake marks a departure from Welles’s previous narrative features, showcasing his eclectic abilities as a filmmaker. The film blends a furious collage of interviews, reenactments, and images, challenging the boundaries between truth and deception in the world of art.

This pseudo-documentary is pioneering for its stylistic experimentations, combining dry humor with intellectual stimulation. F for Fake isn’t just a film; it’s a magic trick, an essay on the essence of trickery, displaying Welles’s showmanship, storytelling skills, and his relentless inventiveness right till the end of his career.

8. The Stranger (1946)

IMDb rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 97%

Storyline: The Stranger follows an investigator from the War Crimes Commission who travels to Connecticut to track an infamous Nazi war criminal. The target, Franz Kindler, has embedded himself into American society under a new identity and is on the brink of erasing his sinister past.

Why it’s a major movie: The Stranger, though commercially successful, might not have reached the heights of Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil, but it is a fascinating showcase of Welles’s dramatic intensity and command over suspense. Moreover, this was the first Hollywood film to feature real footage from the Holocaust, adding historical significance to its narrative.

Further, The Stranger exhibits Welles’s skill in utilizing the film noir style to imbue the domestic space with an undercurrent of unease and tension. It might lack his trademark creative control and experimentations, but this narrative-driven suspense thriller showed that Welles could also play by Hollywood’s rules and still captive audiences.