Yesterday, the BFI made available an interactive list of every film tallied in its most recent poll of critics of the greatest films ever made. One of the most common complaints about this list (and every other like it) is the stuff that gets left off. When you’re looking at a list built from consensus, it’s not so much that stuff has been completely ignored so much as that the final result cannot possibly reflect the diversity of the selections — which is why I always look forward to the individual ballots so much. They probably more accurately reflect the diversity of taste and aesthetic priorities of those polled than the official top ten. Yet even creating an individual ballot is a challenge in itself. How does one decide on the best ten films one’s ever seen, let alone the best ten films ever made?
Every participant has a unique mix of values and criteria s/he brings to the table. When the inestimable list guru Adam Kuntavanish created his hypothetical Sight & Sound ballot, he described it as the “wholly polemical listing for ten of my favorite movies that I’m feeling right now and need to be recognized.” I think most participants recognize that there is a polemical tinge to the process even as they realize that the films they pick are the priorities of this moment, which is why the lists of people who have participated in multiple polls frequently evolve.
This is all a preface to saying that even the most rigorous selection process is subject to a great deal of arbitrariness (above and beyond the arbitrariness of the format itself). Adam challenged me to post my own hypothetical ballot, and instead of simply whipping out my standard ten favorites, I’m going to experiment a little bit. I’ve drafted seven different ballots, each with a different set of criteria, in order to highlight how the selection process varies according to mood, values, whim, and other priorities. In other words, I intend to show how polemical this most polemical of listmaking processes can be.
Out from the Hats
By far the most egalitarian winnowing process I’ve seen so far was Ignatiy Vishnavetsky’s (by way of Kevin B. Lee), in which he dumped 90 of his favorite titles into a salad bowl and extracted ten. I was intrigued to see what would happen if I did essentially the same thing. For the master list of titles, I used the obligatory top 100 I posted on MUBI last year. My initial list was a bit disappointing. Since I’d organized my MUBI list chronologically, the random grouping near the center didn’t seem quite so random, not to mention that Kieslowski’s Dekalog wound up in there, and the rules in this year’s list prohibit multiple films occupying the same slot.
My compromise was this: I modified the Vishnavetsky Method slightly. Instead of randomly picking ten titles from the entire 100, I took a random title from each chunk of ten. Here’s what I got, in order from oldest to newest.
- Nanook of the North | Robert J. Flaherty, 1922
- Shall We Dance | Mark Sandrich, 1937
- Sunset Boulevard | Billy Wilder, 1950
- Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) | Max Ophuls, 1953
- La Jetee | Chris Marker, 1962
- Jui Kuen (Drunken Master) | Yuen Woo-ping, 1978
- Ghostbusters | Ivan Reitman, 1984
- Fong Sai Yuk | Corey Yuen, 1993
- Yi Yi | Edward Yang, 2000
- Children of Men | Alfonso Cuaron, 2006
The Anxiety of Influence
I’d venture to guess that, somewhere in the back of their minds, a lot of the S&S participants have an eye toward selecting films that have been “significant” in some respect — either directly influencing the evolution of cinematic language or major conversations in film culture (which means anything from critically divisive masterpieces/films maudit to trendsetting popular hits). The following ten titles are my attempt to drawn upon my (admittedly modest) knowledge of film history to highlight those films that have had a big impact on how cinema got to where it is now. The nature of the list (a mere ten titles) precludes complete coherence, but hopefully the rationale for each choice will be self-evident by its inclusion. (Hopefully.) In chronological order:
- La sortie des usines Lumiere (Employees Leaving the Lumiere Factory) | Louis Lumiere, 1895
- Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) | Georges Melies, 1902
- The Birth of a Nation | D. W. Griffith, 1915
- Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin) | Sergei Eisenstein, 1925
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs | William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen, 1937
- Citizen Kane | Orson Welles, 1941
- Rashomon | Kurosawa Akira, 1950
- A Bout de souffle (Breathless) | Jean-Luc Godard, 1960
- 2001: A Space Odyssey | Stanley Kubrick, 1968
- Xia nu (A Touch of Zen) | Hu King, 1971
The Ark in Space
Let’s say that humanity must abandon Earth for a new home in the stars. Generations of our children’s children must be provided for, but there is only so much we can take with us. Enough space has been reserved on the ship’s computer for each traveler to bring with him/her ten films. What part of humanity’s cultural legacy should live on in cinematic form? The previous list was an (woefully inadequate) attempt to encapsulate trends in world cinema, but it does not contain the films that I believe would most edify or benefit my progeny. When you think about it, Earth is little more than an ark in space itself, and while we aren’t really forced to choose what will survive and what will not (at least, not so dramatically), the question of what would best nourish the human soul remains relevant.
The following ten films ambitiously attempt to provide a template from which humanity might grapple with its spiritual, moral, and ethical struggles more effectively as it continues to grow and mature. It assumes the persistence of existing classical and religious texts and systems of philosophy. These titles are a intended to complement a liberal, Western education. They are films that I feel provide insights and lessons that ought not be ignored. In no particular order, with brief explanations:
- Le fils (The Son) | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, 2002. The essence of forgiveness encapsulated in one astonishing film.
- Dharmaga tongjoguro kan kkadalgun (Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?) | Bae Yong-Kyun. The mystery of life and death accepted and represented.
- Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) | Takahata Isao, 1988. War, horrifying and unforgivable.
- A Serious Man | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 2009. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, you find out that God really does have a sense of humor.
- Halloween | John Carpenter, 1978. Evil as inexorable and unvanquished.
- 4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) | Cristian Mungiu, 2007. Society’s moral degradation as a pervasive force.
- The Conversation | Francis Ford Coppola, 1974. The individual’s conscience, with its attendant terrors and vulnerabilities.
- Andrey Rublyov (Andrei Rublev) | Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966. Transforming the immanent divine into art.
- Magnolia | Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999. The desperate search for love in its various forms, connected by rare moments of grace.
- It’s a Wonderful Life | Frank Capra, 1946. Even one who lives a good life can feel bitterness and despair; it’s part of being human. Sometimes the greatest blessing is to recognize how many blessings one has.
Some movies are inseparable from the life experiences that surround them, to the point that they are as much of a person’s psychology or biography as they are his/her personal taste or aesthetic judgment. The following ten movies are important to my development as a person, for better or worse. Either they have shaped my tastes or they call forth memories that are overwhelmingly potent. I’ve arranged them roughly in the order in which they had an impact on me and provided brief explanations. This is my autobiography, a la High Fidelity.
- Song of the South | Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson, 1946. The first film I remember seeing in the theater. The fact that Disney refuses to make it available on DVD is criminal.
- The Black Hole | Gary Nelson, 1979. For extended thoughts, read this.
- Star Wars | George Lucas, 1977. What The Black Hole started, Star Wars consecrated. I’m one of those hopeless dorks who, for a long time, could quote the entire film from beginning to end. You better believe that left a mark.
- Pulp Fiction | Quentin Tarantino, 1994. This is the film that made me want to pursue both writing and cinema as a passion and occupation, opening my eyes to possibilities I’d never dreamed of.
- Annie Hall | Woody Allen, 1977. For a long time, Allen was my favorite director, and to me, Annie Hall remains the ur-text for dramatizing idiosyncratic personal hangups in cinematic form. Not to mention just being great dramedy.
- The Exorcist | William Friedkin, 1973. I was raised as a Christian fundamentalist, believing in the literal existence of Satan and demonic possession. I was forbidden to watch this film while under my parents’ roof, for fear that its mere presence would invite evil in. Naturally, one of the first things I did when I got to college was rent it. It still terrifies me.
- Pink Floyd — The Wall | Alan Parker, 1982. Getting into classic rock (and music in general) was a time of exploration and consciousness-expansion for me in my college years. (I’m proud to have lived the stereotype.) One of my best friends forced me to watch this, and my subsequent embrace of Floyd was one of the foundations for our friendship.
- Fight Club | David Fincher, 1999. One night in fall, I convinced another of my best friends to walk down to the local cinema for a one-night-only showing. After walking for half an hour through the evening chill, we found that the theater had canceled the show, on account of potentially disturbing imagery. It was the week after 9/11. I still disdain that brand of oversensitivity, but I cannot watch the film now without deeply considering the resonance of its themes in real world events, something that had never happened when I first saw the film during my last year in high school.
- The Graduate | Mike Nichols, 1967. My wife and I got together following a screening of this film. I’m really glad she decided to watch it with me, even if I turned out to be a bit of a Benjamin.
- A Farewell to Arms | Frank Borzage, 1932. I’ve only seen this within the past few years. After more than a decade of consuming thousands of films, the last thing I expected was for this one to leave me bawling uncontrollably for the better part of ten minutes. It’s a powerful reminder of cinema’s miraculous potential, its ability to tap into a side of myself I rarely glimpse and its propensity to catch me by surprise in the most profound, unexpected way.
Haven’t I Seen you Before?
What do people mean when they call a movie their “favorite”? The easiest definition is something that they hold in special regard. Quantifying that often means thinking how many times they have watched it, and how many more they think they will. For me, it’s also a matter of how often I have to make an effort not to watch something for the umpteenth time, for fear of the film wearing out its welcome. Thankfully, none of these movies have worn out their welcome with me, and I don’t expect that they ever will. In no particular order:
- Casablanca | Michael Curtiz, 1942. “I came here for the waters.”
- Hudson Hawk | Michael Lehmann, 1991. “It had the perfect amount of foam.”
- Silverado | Lawrence Kasdan, 1985. “Mister, you got a lot to learn about people.”
- Metropolitan | Whit Stillman, 1990. “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.”
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade | Steven Spielberg, 1989. “Junior? Is that you, Junior?”
- Miller’s Crossing | Joel Coen, 1990. “ ‘Lo, Tom. What’s the rumpus?”
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail | Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975. “Very small rocks!”
- Network | Sidney Lumet, 1976. “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale. And you. Will. Atone!”
- Total Recall | Paul Verhoeven, 1990. “Ha ha ha! You think this is the real Quaid? It is.”
- Rio Bravo | Howard Hawks, 1959. “Hey, sheriff. You forgot your pants.”
We don’t like to admit it, but there’s a huge element of image management in the composition and publication of lists. What do my selections say about me? Do they demonstrate the breadth of my knowledge? My good taste? My eclecticism? Any question related to one’s image, if considered, means that, as balanced and honest as a list can be, it’s still a bit of a pose.
Taking this to its extreme conclusion, I’ve drawn up a ballot that reflects the taste and aesthetic priorities of Matt Schneider, Hypothetical Hipster, to whom adopting the correct posture is everything. As such, the primary criterion for any title on this list is that I haven’t yet seen it. The secondary criterion is that the choice be f#@&ing cool, edgy, daring, bold, fresh, and whatever other B.S. adjective that hipsters might consider to be important to their hipness. Presented in order of calculated-to-impress-with-my-bad-self-ness, with elucidatory remarks that further demonstrate my perspicacious grasp of each film’s ineffable greatness. (Translation: I’m full of crap, and don’t I know it.)
- Confidential Report | Orson Welles, 1955. Even interference by the producers and multiple re-edits by nosy scholars can’t dim the vision of what might have been Welles’ greatest masterpiece (forget the hackneyed Ambersons), had he had a chance to finish it properly.
- Brewster McCloud | Robert Altman, 1970. Flush off the success of MASH, but boldly experimental, this represents Altman at the height of his powers, but far more visionary than his more conventional, overpraised follow-ups.
- Soldat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange) | Paul Verhoeven, 1977. Still the greatest anti-war movie ever made, with a career-defining performance by Jeroen Krabbe.
- Tikhiye stranitsky (Whispering Pages) | Aleksandr Sokurov, 1994. Sokurov is the most sensual contemporary filmmaker, and he applies his poetry to this trenchant feast of image and sound that empathizes with those trapped in modernity and critiques the culture that produced it.
- Inju Gakuen (The Blue Girl) | Kitakawa Raizo, 1992. Brashly unorthodox and transgressive, the way that the titular ninja harnesses the power of her own sexuality to absorb, subvert, and ultimately defeat the misogynistic violence of her culture is nothing short of revolutionary.
- Napoleon | Abel Gance, 1927. Though hard to find, Gance’s version of the monarch’s life remains definitive and enduring in its masterful marriage of technique and content, transforming a single man’s life into a diorama of transcendent political ambition, strife, and upheaval.
- Hi, Mom! | Brian De Palma, 1970. Now universally recognized as a shill, the De Palma who earlier forayed into social satire was never more compact and focused than in this gleefully irreverent deconstruction of the bourgeoisie’s soullessness and the progressive movement’s frustration with its own failure to meet the challenges of breaking through to them. Ironically, De Palma is perhaps the embodiment of this failure, presaged by his own masterpiece.
- Glen or Glenda | Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1953. One of the greatest of films maudit, in which the most misunderstood filmmaker of the age perfectly translates sexual confusion into a deliberate surfeit of camp. A mold-breaker.
- L’Age d’Or | Luis Bunuel, 1930. Bunuel peaked with this surrealistic symphony of glorious jabs at bourgeoisie excess. A bold vision from a once-bold master.
- The Lord of the Rings | Ralph Bakshi, 1978. The truest and most fully-realized adaptation of Tolkein, compared to which Peter Jackson floundered embarrassingly. Magical, innovative, and delightful, an adventure of the senses.
Noble, but Doomed to Failure
And so we arrive, at last, with my earnest, feeble attempt to create a wide-ranging list that represents everything great about cinema. I’d like to say that each of these titles is here for a specific set of reasons, but that’s not really the case. Mostly, it’s a combination of gut feeling, intellectual appreciation, and sense for how each title fits in with the others. As I’ve made each of these lists, I have tried to avoid duplication. That’s why I started with the random Vishnavetsky method. This meant that the film I commonly cite as my favorite — Casablanca — was proscribed, as it appeared in a previous ballot. Apart from that imposition, I imposed no rules on myself for this final list. All of these films induce that sense of wonder and possibility that is unique to cinema, and I hope I do no violence to the medium by humbly suggesting that these ten films are truly among the greats. In descending order, with explanatory comments, including tally and ranking from the real critics poll:
- Playtime | Jaques Tati, 1967. Tati sends up the quirks and frustrations of modern life without every losing sight of the humanity within it. (31 votes, 43rd.)
- Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes) | Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1964. A tragedy that can be an allegory about virtually anything, it resonates all the more strongly the more it is considered in context of everything you’ve ever learned about human nature. (2 votes, 588th.)
- Mary Poppins | Robert Stevenson, 1964. Practically perfect in every way. (2 votes, 588th.)
- Ji ji (Miracles) | Jackie Chan, 1989. For my money, Chan’s most finely-tuned balancing act of slapstick set pieces, narrative demand, and unabashed sentimentality. (No votes.)
- Dip huet seung hung (The Killer) | John Woo, 1989. Stunning action leveraged first into a pulse-quickening rush, then a morally-charged tragedy. (2 votes, 588th.)
- Sherlock Jr. | Buster Keaton, 1924. 25 votes, 59th. As funny and sweet as anything he’s ever done, plus a deft, loving homage to cinema itself. Win-win. (25 votes, 59th.)
- Fantasia | James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, 1940. Simply overpowering in its scope and grandeur. Disney’s finest moment. (2 votes, 588th.)
- Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) | Ingmar Bergman, 1982. Imagination, love, and survival, with a requisite dose of moral introspection, handled with the lightest touch of an already legendary career. (19 votes, 84th.)
- Sennen joyu (Millennium Actress) | Kon Satoshi, 2001. How do memories, love, and art comprise the human experience? This film wonders, with abundant awe. (No votes.)
- L’annee demiere a Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) | Alain Resnais, 1961. As pure an exercise of mesermization as I can recall, conveying the weight and emotional distortion of a deeply-felt drama by revealing nothing (and everything) about it. (16 votes, 102nd.)