This is heavily biased toward rendering, but here are what I consider the most useful papers at present. Many great papers have of course been obviated by improvements so this list is far from a "best paper" list. These are papers worth reading now.
Recursively generated B-spline surfaces on arbitrary topological meshes, Catmull and Clark, 1978. No sign of fading away!
An improved illumination model for shaded display Whitted, 1980. Beware the 1/r^2 mistake but otherwise about as perfect a paper as there is!
Distributed Ray Tracing Cook, 1984. There are some sampling details you can find elsewhere, but all the basic ideas are here.
Ray Casting for Modeling Solids, Roth, 1982. A sweet CSG algorithm.
An Image Synthesizer, Perlin 1985. See his later paper and his webpage for more info on noise.
(more coming later-- suggestions welcome)