What’s in a list, anyway?
It’s something I’ve struggled with throughout my time as an online writer. But when you’re considering a set list of, as the BFI so brazenly puts it, the greatest films of all time, it becomes apparent that a list – any list – must encompass both a sense of inflexibility as well as transience. That’s what makes the Sight and Sound list so important, both in its cadence (the poll is only held once a decade) and its content. Our first episode of the new year has Jon and I catching up on our blind spots based on the most recent results, and it raised an important point about the nature of the list. Moreso than a canon of the greatest films ever made, it’s a sign o’ the times, to quote another legend who had their pulse on the shape of an art form over multiple decades. The changes in this year’s list reflects a broadening of critics who bring a level of diversity that reveals shifting viewpoints in cinema, and acts to push against the walls of an establishment that has held them back for decades. It’s a welcome shakeup to my mind, and it’s helped me to reconsider my own personal canon and question the biases that informed its creation.
But making my own list? How do you even approach it? I don’t have the hubris or ego to think my favorite films of all time are the greatest films of all time. But I also don’t want to add a film I don’t unabashedly love, either. More than music, film has shaped every part of my being. “Getting lost in the movies” is more than just a saying (and a play on Pauline Kael’s first collection) it’s what I’ve done from the time I could turn on the television: lose myself from whatever was pressing too hard on my soul. Films mark my entire life, from watching the ’76 King Kong upstairs to drown out the sounds of my father leaving for the last time to hyper focusing on The Fisher King to not give away how desperately I was hoping the date I was on was going to work out (32 years later I can say it worked out quite well).
So a compromise, and a caveat: I love all of these 10 films, even though they wouldn’t come up if you approached me on the street and asked what my favorite movie is (it’s Casablanca for reasons that would take a novel). But I also wanted to make sure these films told a story, a story about the development of film and how the language of images scrolling through at 24 frames per second informed my own affair with the movies. And because that story continues to evolve, it has the right to change the next time I consider it.
Because every new film is an education. To refuse to acknowledge that is to keep the very walls up a list like the Sight and Sound poll is supposed to help knock down.
With that said, let’s do this.
It starts with the image. Words are superfluous; the silhouette of, say…a little man with too-big shoes and a bent cane tells me all I need to know about the character. So many of Chaplin’s Little Tramp films could kick this off, but there is something so pure about City Lights, a film made in the sound era but still working to expand the language of silent film. Chaplin wrote, directed, starred, and even composed the score and in the process put his indelible stamp on the story of an earnest underdog and the beautiful blind girl he falls in love with. The physical comedy is plentiful, our introduction to the Little Tramp masterful, but Chaplin always puts story and character first. It’s a 90 year old movie that beautifully distills everything about love and the fear of rejection in one simple moment…and when that moment ends in a fragile reciprocation it’s an explosion, and one of the most incredible endings in film history…created in its nascent stages.
We move up a decade to the film that illustrated to me Ebert’s Law of a movie’s worth being not so much what it’s about, but rather how it’s about it. My first exposure to Citizen Kane was on the big screen for a film studies class. Projected on the big screen I began to see the mechanics of how a film can elicit emotional response in technique as much as in story. But oh, that story: told in flashback as a mystery to discover meaning in a reclusive tycoon’s last words. That’s the plot on paper, but in execution Welles, working with an incredible cast and crew really just used that as window dressing to explore man’s meaning in the world, and how that we can lose ourselves in the pursuit of our ideals. And he does it in a way that’s visually dazzling, from the much talked about use of deep focus to his incredible push-ins and close-up, to the use of shadow and light, reflections, and even the phenomenal makeup transformations taking Charles Foster Kane through decades of life. Rosebud may be his sled, but the reality is Citizen Kane is a reflection on life and the smallest moments that make it matter.
We move up another decade and traverse the globe. The West has set the standard with big scale action cinema thanks to people like John Ford, but here comes Akira Kurosawa to take the “western” and filter it through his country’s history, crafting perhaps the finest action film of all time. Film as spectacle, but without sacrificing character, nuance, or social commentary. Kurosawa has come to dominate my movie life as I’ve gotten older, and Seven Samurai continues to yield new insights, its incredible set pieces refusing to dim after 70 years and multiple viewings. Is there a more perfect pairing than Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune? Giving off completely different energies, both actors leap off the screen in ways the best 3D can’t top. As a starter course to understand how other countries and cultures digest and reflect the art of American/Hollywood cinema, Seven Samurai may be the perfect appetizer. As an example of action cinema at its finest, it’s the main course.
I don’t know if 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first film I loved even though I wasn’t sure why, but it’s close. Kubrick has always been a master of pacing and framing, and taking his first foray into science fiction he accomplishes special effects no one was was even considering at the time. All in service to…what? On its surface 2001 could be about the perils of evolving past our capacity to understand, and the implications of that drive. It could be a human drama about man matching wits with an artificial intelligence, or simply an attempt to convey into images the feeling of awe that comes with exploring beyond the confines of our known world. Kubrick, working in tandem with Arthur C. Clarke, gives just enough to feed your imagination without ever giving away the answer, and that dream logic mystery would go to haunt the dreams of future filmmakers (Lynch comes to mind) for decades to come. Beguilement has never been so beautiful.
There was horror before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and there was horror after. But it was never the same. We knew about zombies and vampires and werewolves, and we even knew about psycho killers (Psycho was on this list until the very last minute). Visionaries like Val Lewton were masters as invoking terror behind a door that never opens (see the incredible sequence in The Leopard Man) But Tobe Hooper ripped the door open. For the first time the horror we saw was more terrifying than anything we could imagine. Shot independently on a modest budget, every moment of the film feels somehow wrong, from the opening narration that frames the film as a true story to the gritty 16mm camerawork lending an air of verisimilitude to even the most craven moments. In the end Sally manages to escape the clutches of the twisted family, but the dawn shows Leatherface swinging their chain saw in a ritualistic dance, reminding us that just because we may have escaped the evil, the evil still lives and breathes…sometimes right in the light of the sun.
People may bemoan the state of cinema due to our infatuation with “blockbuster” culture, but that doesn’t stop Jaws from being the pinnacle of the form, even as it sets the tone for what was to come. Ignoring the madness of its gigantic box office performance and the oneupmanship it created between the 70s director club (including Lucas, Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola), the film boasts incredible set pieces, an ever ratcheting tension, bravura camera work, and a trio of unforgettable performances. The more colorful work done by Dreyfuss and Shaw are rightfully heralded, but don’t let the sly, at times unassuming work of Roy Scheider pass you by. I am trapped forever in the small sequence between Chief Brody and his young son at the dinner table, imitating each other. “Give us a kiss.” Why?” “Because I need it.” Spielberg is the master of spectacle, but that’s only because he’s also a master of giving us these small moments that tether us emotionally to the larger thrills. Every modern day “tentpole” for better or for worse looks back to this movie.
Filmmaking as confrontation, although that doesn’t begin to do justice to the mastery of visual language Spike Lee displays in what is perhaps his greatest film. A portrait of Brooklyn and the way the black community is both perceived and represented, the entire film is a powder keg waiting to blow, as hot as the summer day it takes place on. Everything on display is vibrant, from the colors to the violence, the whipsmart editing and fourth wall breaking. As tensions mount and racial justice is trampled the movie escalates its rage and righteous anger until everything burns, leaving us to contemplate why Mookie makes the decision he does, and how implicit we are as we watch and judge. Do The Right Thing has lost absolutely none of its power, and sadly none of its relevance. Fight the Power, and know your role in it.
Who explores the human heart like Wong Kar-wai? Who crafts yearning and unspoken words, hushes hanging in the air with the exquisite eye for color and form like Wong Kar-wai? In The Mood For Love features two of the most beautiful people on the planet, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, and luxuriates in their longing and sorrow as the two discover their significant others are having an affair, fall in love themselves, then never act upon it. Sumptuously photographed by his regular collaborator Christopher Doyle along with Mark Lee Ping-bing, there’s not a moment that isn’t breathtakingly gorgeous. Embracing a classic style that radiates coolness, it’s nonetheless smoldering with romantic passion, burning brighter through its lack of consummation. Wong Kar-wai has a way of evoking the classic Technicolor melodramas of the past while keeping everything thoroughly modern. I find myself falling harder and harder for his work the more of it I see, but nothing compares to what lingers in the air after In The Mood For Love.
Few filmmakers can balance humanity and nature, perfectly capture the wonder of childhood, and juggle the fragile balance between the magic and mundane. How Hayao Miyazaki is able to do it time and time again is a trick for the ages. His ability to transport you out of the everyday and believe in flying delivery girls, cat buses, and fighter pilot pigs are simply par for the course. Spirited Away was the first time an animated film that utterly transported me, taking me to unfamiliar terrain. Because everything is hand drawn, everything in the world is connected and seamless in a way even the best, most expensive digital effects can’t replicate in live action. So when young Chihiro leaves her world behind for an adventure across the entire realm of Japanese folklore and spirits in the bathhouse of the gods, it takes your breath away. The level of detail is astonishing, as is the gentle messages around lost heritage, family, and growing up.
I spend so much of my time with film as a means for escape, taking narrative and losing myself. If I find something of my self along the way, all the better. Documentaries are not something I consume with any regularity, and yet here I am with my last entry, and it’s probably the most personal, the most beautiful and fragile and emotionally devastating of the bunch. You can read about Varda’s incredible document to capture art as she loses her ability to see from Jon here, and you can also listen to my very visceral reaction to the film when we covered it for the podcast. A true artistic spirit until the very end, one who embraced so many forms and styles, and never shrank into the background.
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