Turkish cinema has a rich, storied history that is as diverse as the country itself. From its humble beginnings in the early twentieth century with the short, silent film The Weavers (1905), Turkish cinema has expanded into European markets and Arab countries as well. The road for the blooming industry has often been complicated. Post World War II, there was a drastic increase in the amount of films produced in Turkey annually. It even became the fifth largest producer of films in the world in the early 1970s. The glory days of the 1950s-1970s gave Turkish cinema some of its most unforgettable artists and films, along with a metonym. Yesilcam, or Green Pine, as the industry is commonly referred to, got its name from Yeşilçam Street in Istanbul, where many studios and artists were based.
On its journey to recognition, Turkish cinema has overcome economic hardships, legal issues as well as the threat of censorships. It is often said that cinema is a mirror for its time and place — this is certainly true of the Turkish film industry. Filmmakers have focused on making films that showcase all aspects of Turkish culture and everyday life. Since the 2000s, there has been a rise in experimental films, and filmmakers have since then ventured into genres like comedies and science fiction. Powerful stories focused on exile, diaspora and expatriate citizens, the plight of women and modernism are some of the mainstays of the industry.
Without much ado, here’s our ranking of the best Turkish movies of all time.
30. The Hunting Season (2010)
Veteran actor Şener Şen and one of Turkish cinema’s finest filmmakers, Yavuz Turgul have been frequent collaborators, working together on five films previously. When they decided to come together again for this 2010 effort, it sent lovers of Turkish cinema into a frenzy. Fortunately, the film managed to live up to its hype. A box office success, the film revolves around Ferman (Şener Şen) and his partner Idris (Cem Yılmaz) who team up with rookie cop, Hasan (Okan Yalabik) to investigate the murder of a young woman. Each suspect is shady in their own way, and the film weaves a tight web of suspense and mystery. It is, at its core, a social commentary on our culture where the strong prey on the weak and the less fortunate are exploited by the rich.
29. Motherland Hotel (1987)
Adapted from Yusuf Atılgan’s novel of the same name, Motherland Hotel is a tale of obsession, existential crisis and madness. Zebercet (Macit Koper), like his hotel, is far removed from everybody and seems to have realized how he has frittered away his life in passive inactivity after the arrival of the woman from Ankara. The film is an uneasy representation of our own fears and anxieties. It forces the viewer to examine whether they have built a Motherland Hotel around themselves or not. A multi-layered and thematically rich film, Motherland Hotel will leave you with more questions than answers.
28. A Tale of Three Sisters (2019)
The most recent film on this list, A Tale of Three Sisters follows three sisters in the stunning and breath-taking uplands of Central Anatolia. It follows the story of three sisters who had been taken from their families and placed in foster care. A change in circumstances causes them to return to their father’s house. The film focuses upon the ramifications this causes to their limited lives in their village. It emphasises their uncertain fate and hopeless lives by juxtaposing the story against the barren and rocky terrain of Central Anatolia. The slow pace of the film might take some getting used to. Watch for a beautifully understated story and an engrossing portrait of suffering and dignity.
27. Ivy (2015)
Tolga Karaçelik’s psychological thriller quickly became a critical darling upon its release. After having garnered a name for himself with his previous feature The Toll Booth (2010), Karaçelik’s next effort also deals with the mundanity that comes with doing the same task over and over. This time around, the narrative unfolds on a sea vessel. The film expertly creates an atmosphere to stir mystery and suspense. For his work on the film, Karacelik received the award for Best Director at the Anatalya International Film Festival. He was also one of the youngest directors to win the Golden Orange Prize.
26. Climates (2006)
Full of long and static takes, minimal sound and sparse dialogue, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates follows the typical themes the director is associated with — existential crises and the nature of human life. Starring Ceylan himself alongside his wife Ebru Ceylan, the film follows their characters Bahar and Isa on holiday, as they attempt to deal with their crumbling marriage. It deals with the estrangement of individuals and is filled with deafening silences with poetic landscapes in the background. Cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki’s rich visuals poignantly aid Ceylan’s storytelling. The film is a compelling experience in using minimalistic mediums to tell an enriching story.
25. Kader (2006)
A prequel to Innocence, Kader is a tale of obsessive and unrequited love and the consequences of this unrequited love which have practically led the characters to eternal ruin. The film follows Ugur, Zagor and Cevat, whose lives are tied together. Ugur is obsessed with Zagor, a criminal, while her young mother is in love with Cevat.The film brings to light the toxicity of machismo culture and the fine line between obsession and love. It may chronologically precede Innocence, but it is a thematic continuation that represents life in its rawest forms. Literally translated as Destiny, the film is a moving watch with well-developed characters who make the mistake of falling in love with people who are bad for them.
24. Times and Winds (2006)
Reha Erdem’s Times and Winds (Bes Vakit) is not your typical coming-of-age drama. It provides a peep into the darker chambers of a kid’s psyche leaving you with a feeling of uneasiness. The film marks the exploration of the innocent understanding of both Turkish culture and the world in general through Ömer and Yakup whose very first exposure to life has been anything but pleasant. Ömer has been rejected by his father. The pain is hard to bear and leaves his taste for the world bitter and cold. The film contrasts the difficulties of growing up with the harsh nature of life in the mountains. For its nuanced exploration of a child’s mindscape, the film won the Best Turkish Film of the Year award at the Istanbul Film Festival.
23. Innocence (1997)
The film that brought Zeki Demirkubuz success, Innocence or Masumiyet, as it is originally called, is a dark melodrama that captures the ‘grey’ nature of human existence. The film follows the story of Yusuf, who has trouble adjusting to life outside the prison when he is released. Highly influenced by the genius of Dostoevsky, Demirkubuz draws his themes from areas of guilt, morality and desire and expertly explores the dark side of the human psyche. A 7-minute long monologue in the film by Bekir (Haluk Belinger) became the basis for another great film by Demirkubuz, Kader, which we just spoke of.
22. The Girl with the Red Scarf (1977)
If one wants to understand and examine the history of Turkish cinema, Atıf Yılmaz’s work is an excellent place to start. With a career spanning five decades, Yilmaz has focused on social issues and exploration of love, sexuality and themes deemed too taboo. The Girl with The Red Scarf is no exception. It depicts the story of a girl, Asya who falls in love with a truck driver from Istanbul. However, circumstances change and she finds herself estranged from her beloved. A simple, tender, sweet and charming story of two kindred spirits falling in love, The Girl with a Red Scarf is a true classic in the romantic genre. It follows the conventions, classical themes and motifs that define the genre. For its touching story, it was awarded the second best Turkish Film Prize at the Anatalya Film Festival.
21. Time to Love (1965)
Metik Erksan’s Time to Love is a commentary on reality and the semblance of reality. Somewhat similar to Martin Scorsese’s What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This, A Time to Love takes the obsession for a painting to a whole new level. A poor painter is infatuated with a painting of a woman that he sees at a prince’s island.The beautiful black-and-white cinematography and thought-provoking themes make it a one-of-a-kind film and among the best that Turkish cinema has to offer. Erksan’s themes on love are ahead of their time and it is a big shame that the world has been sleeping on this true masterpiece. Rich symbolism and themes of art, obsession and narrative threads that are reminiscent of the story of Pygmalion turn this film into a visual feast.
20. The Small Town (1997)
The Small Town marks the debut of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and even though the film was shot on a small budget, his mastery as a filmmaker shines through. Told from the perspectives of two children, the story runs parallel to the change of seasons. The children grow up with summertime picnics and their grandparent’s memories of World War I. The film deals with the complications of the adult world and the mystique and magic that is attached to nature and the world at large. The cinematic language of the film is fiercely enchanting, and Ceylan expertly blends past and present to weave a spell over the audience.
19. My Father and My Son (2005)
Known for his tear-jerking dramas, Çağan Irmak’s 2005 film is a tale of a family torn apart in the midst of a political coup. A fitting drama that wonderfully portrays the relationship dynamics of a family, it is easily one of Irmak’s most memorable films. The story revolves around Sadik, who is arrested due to his political views. Upon learning that he does not have much time left, he takes his son to meet his estranged family. With civil unrest and political turmoil in the background, the film is a touching and complex exploration of family dynamics. As one of the highest grossing films in the history of Turkish cinema, the film deserves every bit of its reputation.
18. Tosun Pasa (1977)
A comedy film directed by Kartal Tibet and written by Yavuz Turgul, Tosun Pasa revolves around a servant impersonating a governor in the 19th century to make sure his owner gets a plot of land. While the premise might sound convoluted, the performances are anything but. Saban, the servant, is sent by Lutfu to pretend to be Tosun Pasa and convince the landlord to give his land, and his daughter Leyla to Lutfu. However, chaos ensues when the real Tosun Pasa arrives.
With an iconic score and hilarious performances, Tosun Pasa is a wonderful classic from the golden years of Turkish cinema.
17. Mustang (2015)
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang is an honest and sincere depiction of the life of women in rural Turkey. The film revolves around five orphaned sisters and the challenges they face in a conservative society. The film is told through Lale’s point of view, as she narrates the lives of her sisters Sonay, Selma, Ece and Nur in the repressive community of a small coastal town. The drama is a commentary on gender dynamics, innocence and evokes righteous anger. Packed with stellar performances from its young cast, the film laments the loss of childhood and the evils and prejudices about gender roles and female sexuality that lurk in Turkish society.
16. The Chaos Class (1975)
A comedy classic starring Kemal Sunal, Tarık Akan and Münir Özkul, The Chaos Class is a tale of a group of private school students who wreak havoc on their headmaster and fellow students. The antics of the students are complemented by the loving, if occasionally strict, nature of their caretaker Mother Hafize, and their new vice principal who endures their pranks and tries to instill a sense of responsibility. The film is wildly popular in Turkey, spawning five direct sequels. The widespread adoration of this film also resulted in the series being revived for three more films. Zany, charming and heartwarming, this film is a formidable comedy of errors in its own right.
15. Sivas (2014)
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 71st Venice Film festival, Sivas tells the story of a boy and his bond with his fighting dog. Aslan finds a wounded dog, Sivas and brings him home to care for him, against the wishes of his family. In between school plays and dog fights, the film presents a wonderfully drawn portrayal of loyalty and growth. The film was selected to be Turkey’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, although it wasn’t nominated. With a moving performance by child actor Dogan Izci, the film is a veritable storm of emotions, and will probably leave you feeling teary.
14. Hope (1970)
Hope marked the beginning of a new era for legendary director Yılmaz Güney’s career. Similar to Italian neo realist classics, Hope is a social realist drama without any melodramatic elements. Güney’s films often focus on the plight and struggle of the working class and Hope is no different. The film chronicles the story of a poor carriage driver whose horse is hit by a car. With breathtaking cinematography and exquisite narration techniques, the film single-handedly changed the landscape of Turkish cinema.
13. Head On (2004)
A provocative and alluring drama, Head On revolves around the complexities that come with love. An interesting take on the lives of immigrants, Head On takes its viewers on a journey and has an ending that is anything but conventional. The story revolves around a young alcoholic, Cahit, who marries a woman named Sibel. However, they are both eager to escape from forces in their past — Cahit’s addiction and Sibel’s abusive home. The film won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at the 54th Berlinale. The realistic depiction of substance abuse and the dark underbelly of Turkish society, especially its treatment of women, are among the reasons that the film has left its indelible mark on Turkish cinema.
12. Three Monkeys (2008)
Turkey’s official submission for the 81st Academy Awards, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys is a crime drama that almost runs like a poem, filled with angst, muddled morality and misdeeds. When family servant Eyup takes the fall for his boss, who has hit a pedestrian while driving, it sets off a chain of events. Their lives are tied together due to Eyup’s wife and son, Ismail. The characters look for a way out but to no avail and the viewer sympathizes with their dismal condition and state of being. Like all of Ceylan’s films, Three Monkeys received high praise from critics and audiences alike. It was Turkey’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards, although it wasn’t nominated.
11. The Wall (1983)
The final film of the revolutionary and visionary Yılmaz Güney, The Wall is a prison movie that acts as a metaphor for the deterioration of Turkey both spiritually and culturally. Yılmaz Güney was very critical of his nation’s ‘fascistic’ government and did not engage in melodrama or any gore depictions of violence in this classic.By telling the story of the mistreatment of teens in Turkish prisons, he simply aims to bring to light the tyranny of the people in power. Based on true events, the film aims to convey what happens when all hope is lost and idealism runs out.
10. The Edge of Heaven (2007)
Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven narrates an evocative story of a man who travels from Germany to Turkey in order to find the daughter of a prostitute. However, the story is not quite that straightforward — fathers, sons, lovers and families are tied together in a tragedy that spans decades. Similar to his other feature, Head On, in portraying the plight of immigrants in Germany, the characters that inhabit the world of The Edge of Heaven are quite nuanced. They do not spend too much time explaining themselves and their actions and make for an interesting and invigorating viewing. The film itself is reminiscent of a Greek tragedy in its scope and narrative. The sensitive handling of issues like political prisoners and immigration reform add to the film’s cultural impact.
9. The Bandit (1996)
The Bandits sees Şener Şen in his most famous role and follows the story of a legendary gangster upon his release from prison after 35 years. It is yet another collaboration between Yavuz Turgul and Şen, after films like Tosun Pasa, Banker Bilo and Muhsin Bey. The film covers the themes of honour, corruption and betrayal over a span of two hours. The Bandit is often credited to have rescued and saved Turkish cinema from going into an abyss and an artistic oblivion. A turning point for Turkish cinema, it was extremely influential in attracting domestic audiences to cinema again.
8. The Road (1982)
Written by Yılmaz Güney and directed by his assistant Şerif Gören while Guney served time in prison, The Road tells the story of prisoners who return to their town on furlough and as they move across the country. Throughout their own troubles, they witness the ruin and devastation caused by the Turkish coup d’état of 1980. The focus on narrating a political catastrophe through the lives of ordinary citizens grounds the film in its history and ideology. This extraordinary work is a sobering portrayal of Turkish society after the coup and is a brave look at the messy reality of the country. Despite much controversy, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
7. The Herd (1979)
Another Yılmaz Guney film on this list, The Herd is a story of a peasant who is forced to sell his sheep due to a blood feud. Full of serene landscapes from the countryside, The Herd is a story of journey which ends on an existential note. Known for making strong political statements in his films, The Herd may be considered Guney’s definitive statement on issues of class divide and social realism. This is one of the few films by Yılmaz Guney which focuses on individual characters as well, considering Guney’s films often tend to prioritize social issues. With a well-rounded portrayal of the good and the bad, the film accurately reflects the world we live in. The story of the film’s production is rather interesting. It was directed by Zeki Oten during Guney’s second stint in prison.
6. Distant (2002)
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant is a tale of existential crisis, isolation and loneliness. Thematically similar to Taxi Driver, the film tells the story of two young men, Yusuf and Mahmut. They are opposites in almost every aspect — Mahmut is wealthy, sophisticated and educated and Yusuf illiterate and unpolished in the ways of the world. The film employs Ceylan’s signature sparse dialogue and minimalist imagery to communicate what his characters cannot seem to say out loud. A moving tale of isolation, aimlessness and solitude, Distant will leave you spellbound with its harsh beauty. It won a whopping 31 awards on the international film circuit, including the Best Actor at Cannes.
5. Dry Summer (1963)
Dry Summer felt like a breath of fresh air when it was first released in 1963. In a period marked by uninspiring romantic dramas, Metin Erksan changed the landscape of Turkish cinema by adding a political subtext to his dramas. The film tells the story of class struggle and uses sharp black-and-white imagery to capture the audience’s attention over this struggle. The story revolves around a tobacco farmer and his endeavours to build a dam to irrigate his crops. It was the first Turkish film to achieve international success and won the Golden Bear in 1964. Erksan’s inspiration from Italian Neorealism is displayed front and centre in this work of art. The deeply humanist focus on storytelling elevates the story to an intimate opera that will undoubtedly move you.
4. Yusuf Trilogy – Egg (2007), Milk (2008) and Honey (2010)
The Yusuf trilogy is arguably the best film series from Turkey and easily among the finest trilogies in world cinema. Over its 3 instalments, the series explores middle age, adolescence and childhood of the central character Yusuf. What separates these films from any other coming-of-age stories like the Apu trilogy is the fact that it is told in reverse chronological order. A journey full of love, hope, disappointment, death and dreams, the trilogy is one of the most beautiful and fulfilling you’ll come across.
3. Winter Sleep (2014)
Loosely based on Anton Chekhov’s The Wife, Winter Sleep marks a slight stylistic change in Ceylan’s direction. Similar to his other works, the film is profoundly observant. But Ceylan’s writing and characters this time are more chatty though moments of eerie silences accompanied by extraordinary images are strewn about. It revolves around the experiences of Aydin, a former actor who now runs a small establishment in the region of Central Anatolia. The narrative gradually charts Aydin‘s self-interests and aristocratic concerns. Starring veteran actor Haluk Bilginer, the film offers a slow meditation on the complexities of social tension and class conflicts.
2. The Wild Pear Tree (2018)
A highly engaging, and beautiful film, The Wild Pear Tree is a film that consists of stunning performances from its cast and sees the director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan in top form. Ceylan, in this masterpiece, poses some important and thoughtful questions about life in modern Turkey. A highly layered narrative, it revolves around the conflict between aspiring writer Sinan, and his gambler father Idris. Ceylan’s films often explore the dynamic of two people who are very different, and The Wild Pear Tree is no different. It is in Sinan’s and Idris’ exploration of masculine anxiety and family strife that the film finds its most beautiful moments. A fantastic study of the bonds of fatherhood, Ceylan described the film as inspired by his own relationship with his father.
1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
The best film from the last decade, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s magnum opus. A story about murder investigation, the film, at its heart, is all about a power struggle between men stuck in a totally corrupt system. Four different groups of people set out to look for a dead body — police officers, grave diggers, a doctor and a prosecutor and a pair of homicide suspects. On their way, they discuss a variety of topics, from food to philosophy. The film’s unconventional form and style, coupled with its sympathetic treatment of morally grey characters set it a class apart. It flows like a great work of literature, with characters who are written with depth and an eye for realism.
Co-winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes 2014, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is based on a true incident. Ceylan came up with the screenplay when one of his writers told him the story of how he saw some men looking for a corpse in the dead of the night on the steppes of Anatolia.
There we are! These are some of the best Turkish movies of all time. If you’re done watching the above and loved them as much as we did, you might want to consider Reha Erdem’s My Only Sunshine and Erden Kıral’s On Fertile Land. Turkish cinema walks that fine line between telling relatable, deeply human stories, and considering the social forces that shape them in that particular direction. The artists and filmmakers at the centre of Turkish cinema have proven, time and again, that artistic integrity in cinematic realism, and attaining popularity are not mutually exclusive. From indie darlings to genuine blockbusters that have reached cult status, the industry is a veritable smorgasbord for budding directors and artists. We can’t wait to see what’s next. How many of these are you excited to watch?
(Additional writing by Prachurya Das)