1. Chinatown (1974)

IMDB Rating: 8.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%

Storyline: Chinatown follows private investigator J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) who is hired to expose an adulterer, but finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption, and murder. Set in the 1930s, the film explores a complex plot involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a millionaire (John Huston), his estranged daughter (Faye Dunaway), and a looming water shortage.

Why it’s a major movie: Chinatown, whilst initially a commercial disappointment, rose steadily in critical esteem and is now hailed as a timeless classic. This neo-noir mystery film marked the height of Roman Polanski’s career, renowned for its complex plot, gritty performances, and the atmospheric cinematography by John A. Alonzo. It emerges as a grim exploration of power and corruption in the backdrop of a bleak, dried-up Southern California.

Why it’s a major movie: The film is entrenched in technical mastery, from Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score to Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script. The film’s ending, invoking a nihilistic undertone, bucks the trend of conventional happy endings and marks it as distinctly Polanski. It has since influenced numerous films, cementing its place as a cornerstone in film noir canon.

2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

IMDB Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

Storyline: Rosemary’s Baby narrates the story of a young couple, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), who move into a fancy New York apartment with an ominous reputation and odd neighbours. When Rosemary gets pregnant, she becomes increasingly paranoid about the safety of her unborn child.

Why it’s a major movie: The seminal film of Polanski, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ propels the genre of horror-psychological thriller into new heights. The director’s knack for creating a creeping sense of unease and despair is well demonstrated in the movie where ordinary surroundings drip with an undercurrent of dread. The powerhouse performance by Mia Farrow is ingeniously combined with Krzysztof Komeda’s eerie lullaby score, setting the foundation for modern horror cinema.

Why it’s a major movie: Rosemary’s Baby is a tour de force in tension-building through subtle hints and implication rather than overt horror. Its influence can be seen in a generation of horror movies that followed, from The Exorcist to Hereditary. Additionally, the film’s exploration of themes of paranoia and maternal fears further underscores its timeless relevance, making it a cultural milestone.

3. The Pianist (2002)

IMDB Rating: 8.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%

Storyline: The Pianist is an adaptation of the autobiography ‘The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945’. The film depicts the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), a Polish-Jewish piano player, who fights for his survival in the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

Why it’s a major movie: This biographical war drama provides a raw and harrowing depiction of the reality of World War II. It stands out as a piece of cinema devoted to the Holocaust without sensationalizing or romanticizing the horrific events of the time. Polanski, a Holocaust survivor himself, channels his personal experiences of survival, making this an intensely personal project and a haunting masterpiece.

Why it’s a major movie: The film’s core strength lies in Adrien Brody’s riveting performance, arguably one of the most stirring performances in cinematic history. His transformation from a successful musician to a desperate man fighting for survival is portrayed with unflinching realism. Emotionally powerful and artistically significant, ‘The Pianist’ rightfully holds its place among the best movies directed by Roman Polanski.

4. Repulsion (1965)

IMDB Rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%

Storyline: This psychological horror tale follows Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a beautiful but distressed woman who is terrified of sexual contact. Left alone in her sister’s apartment, she begins to unravel mentally and suffers hallucinations that spiral into violence.

Why it’s a major movie: Repulsion is Polanski’s first English-language film and marks a departure from his previous work. The film is a chilling exploration of a disturbed mind, where he employs innovative visual and sound techniques to mirror the protagonist’s slipping sanity. It remains one of the most effective psychological thrillers ever made, allowing the viewers to share Carol’s phobias through its subtly horrifying imagery.

Why it’s a major movie: Catherine Deneuve’s mesmerizing performance in the eerie setting forms the backbone of the movie. Her descent into madness is portrayed with a frightful intensity, bringing a horrifying realism to her character’s fear and paranoia. It systematically breaks away from conventional horror stereotypes and has been a significant influence in the genre, particularly in movies dealing with psychological horror.

5. Knife in the Water (1962)

IMDB Rating: 7.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Storyline: Knife in the Water chronicles the story of a married couple who invites a hitchhiker to join them on a boating trip. The situation escalates into a deadly power game filled with sexual tension, rivalry, and distrust.

Why it’s a major movie: Knife in the Water is Polanski’s debut feature film and Poland’s first to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The film is packed with intense dialogues and suspenseful moments, signifying Polanski’s early leaning towards psychological dramas. Its minimalist approach: three characters, a boat, and a vast expanse of water, reaffirms Polanski’s ability to create tension within constrained settings.

Why it’s a major movie: Beautifully shot in black-and-white, the film’s visual composition is as striking as the narrative. It establishes Polanski’s thematic obsessions with claustrophobia, sexual tension, and sinister violence that later permeate his filmography. Celebrated for its atmospheric soundtrack and character studies, ‘Knife in the Water’ announces Polanski as a filmmaker of international stature.

6. Cul-de-sac (1966)

IMDB Rating: 7.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Storyline: Set on an isolated island castle, this absurdist dark comedy revolves around the strange happenings in the lives of a married couple when two wounded criminals on the run invade their home.

Why it’s a major movie: Cul-de-sac is a unique blend of black comedy, psychological horror, and surrealism. Widely regarded as one of Polanski’s most underrated films, it indicates his knack for depicting claustrophobic scenarios and edgy characters. The film’s darkly comic exploration of male insecurity and sexual impotence stands as a shift from the usual crime drama genre.

Why it’s a major movie: Despite its oddball quirks, the film is testament to Polanski’s range as a director. Showcasing an ensemble cast led by Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac, the film exhibits a daring experimental style both thematically and stylistically. Its innovative narrative structure and sharply observed character studies make ‘Cul-de-sac’ a groundbreaking film in Polanski’s directorial canon.

7. The Tenant (1976)

IMDB Rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

Storyline: The Tenant follows a quiet individual, Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski), who rents an apartment in Paris where the previous tenant had attempted suicide. As he settles in, he becomes obsessed with the life of the former tenant and gradually loses his identity.

Why it’s a major movie: Besides directing, Polanski essays the lead role in The Tenant, effectively bringing out the growing paranoia and fear of the character. The film’s painstaking attention to minute details and its eerie slow-burn narrative radiates a relentlessly unsettling ambience. Over the years, it has garnered a cult following for its potent blend of intense psychological drama and pervasive dread.

Why it’s a major movie: The Tenant showcases Polanski’s signature style of storytelling – narrating the descent into madness with an obsessive attention to detail. Its disorienting visuals, moody score, and inspired set design contribute to the overall disquieting atmospherics of the film. Furthermore, its exploration of themes such as identity, isolation, and paranoia reaffirms Polanski’s mastery in depicting psychological terror.

8. Macbeth (1971)

IMDB Rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

Storyline: Macbeth is Polanski’s visceral interpretation of Wilhelm Shakespeare’s classic tale of ambitious Scottish general Macbeth (Jon Finch), who is urged by the witches and his manipulative wife (Francesca Annis) to usurp the throne by murdering the reigning king Duncan (Nicholas Selby).

Why it’s a major movie: This adaptation of Macbeth is lauded for its bleak and unflinching portrayal of the raw violence and moral erosion central to Shakespeare’s play. Polanski’s Macbeth undeniably reflects his own personal turmoil in the aftermath of his wife’s brutal murder, making it a haunting and somber interpretation of the Bard’s tale.

Why it’s a major movie: Polanski’s version is not just ambiguous but also disturbing, thus offering a fresh and challenging interpretation of the play. Its vivid depiction of medieval Scotland, the masterful performances of the cast, and the unyielding depiction of human ambition and the resultant destruction make it a must-watch. Notably, it carries Polanski’s signature touches, of looming dread and stark representations of human nature’s dark side.