Lost in the Mail: Dan’s 2022 Sight And Sound Ballot

Coming up with a Sight and Sound ballot, even one that didn’t get submitted to the actual magazine, presents unique challenges. The only criteria put forth by the venerable magazine is to vote for the greatest films of all time, leaving voters free to interpret that. It opens things up to a wide set of criteria to determine “the greatest films ever made”. Do you try to vote objectively and select films for their perceived importance and influence? Do you select based on personal importance? Do you go based on personal aesthetic? Or do you just think of what films other people will pick and hope yours line up?

Admittedly, I’ve thought about this list for a very long time. I went back and forth between basing my choices on objective importance or personal subjectivity. I’ve made about eight or nine versions of this list. In some versions I leaned harder on objectivity; in others, I leaned harder on aesthetic. In either instance this would be a vastly different list. A list based on perceived importance might seem too stale and too impersonal. A list going on purely subjective criteria potentially looks insane or like I’m trolling people.

Ultimately, I went with the films that if I made a movie, I’d try to emulate or that contributed to my understanding of cinema as an art form. Unfortunately, this meant movies (sorry Robocop!) and filmmakers (sorry Wong Kar-wai, Jim Jarmusch, and David Lynch!) got left off. Additionally, I did make some rules for myself such as including a silent film and an animated film. I hate that there are no films from this century on the list, but in ten years there’s a few I suspect will be. The films that did make it though are ones I love dearly and think about on a daily basis.

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922, Germany)

I wrote about F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu for Cinema Dual as part of Hooptober. It’s a film that even when I hadn’t come to appreciate it, stood in my mind as singular. Subtitled “A Symphony of Horror”, it lives up to that billing. Nosferatu is a film where death walks among us. The film can only end in death because of that. Max Schreck’s Count Orlock wanders like a ghostly wraith bringing plague and death with him everywhere. There’s images in here that just burn themselves into your retinas like the shadow ascending the stairs or Orlock rising out of his coffin. One truly witnesses the birth of the horror film watching this.

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950 USA)

Cinema is a temple to gods and goddesses whose followers quickly abandon them. Few directors understood Hollywood as both a player in the studio system and as a cinephile as Billy Wilder did. By the time of Sunset Boulevard’s release, the silent era of film seemed almost destined to be forgotten. Part of this film is Wilder the cinephile trying to preserve it, packing it with the greats of that era (Buster Keaton! Erich Von Stroheim!) and getting a phenomenal performance from Gloria Swanson as doomed Norma Desmond. But this is also Wilder the satirist, making a film that’s as much gothic fiction as it is a scathing critique of Hollywood using its creatives up and leaving them to fend for themselves.

Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worryinging and Love The Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, USA, 1963)

When I began my journey through film, no director defined cinema for me as much as Kubrick’s  calculating eye. The safer answer here would be 2001: A Space Odyssey but few films make me laugh like Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick truly understood of military power and the idea of mutually assured destruction. A slapstick black comedy that also functions as explicit political comedy. The “Peace Is Our Profession!” signs, Sterling Hayden’s Jack D. Ripper and George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson, and yes even the name Col. Bat Guano still make me laugh.

Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967 Japan)

Every hip and quirky crime film owes a debt to the work of Seijun Sukizki. Except Suzuki made crime and gangster films more surreal and wild than anyone before or since. Frequent collaborator Joe Shishido, the guy famously known for his chipmunk cheeks, plays a hitman who kills and gets off on the smell of cooked rice as he evades death from the mysterious Number One. His love interest is obsessed with death. Meanwhile, animated birds and frequent butterfly imagery only heightens the weirdness. Branded to Kill might be a standard story about a hitman on the run from his employers but only Suzuki turns it into a surreal psychological drama with funny, inventive set pieces.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977, Italy)

Nobody makes horror movies like Dario Argento did at his peak and Suspiria is his greatest work.The opening sequence might be the greatest opening scene to a horror film ever. His use of color and staging are unparalleled. It’s part dream and part fairytale about a young woman who goes to a dance academy run by witches. Argento takes the best bits of Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava to craft a violent modern fairytale. Regardless if the plot lacks cohesion (I’ve seen the movie multiple times and I have no idea of the motivations for murder in it), the skill Argento displays in constructing set pieces turns horror cinema into something operatic.

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Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979 USSR)

I always argue with myself about whether I should put 2001 or this on these lists. I saw 2001 first but since watching it, I can’t shake the hold Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker has on me. It’s a science fiction film that is also deeply spiritual. A friend jokes this is the greatest movie where nothing happens. On the surface, the film is simply about three men going through the mysterious “Zone”  in search of a room where anything can happen. Even though it’s a joke, a great deal happens in it on a philosophical level. What happens in the movie depends on your personal point of view; it’s a screed of personal freedom against the state, a test of faith, or men simply testing themselves. These men are tested and for better or worse, become transformed by their experience in this place.

Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983, Canada)

Not since Murnau has any director changed both the thematic and visual language of horror films like David Cronenberg. Few other horror director feels like they speak in their own unique language like Cronenberg does. Videodrome is possibly the purest expression of that language. The film is weird, funny, political, and of course, hallucinatory. It remains a singular vision in both how we consume media (you could sub YouTube for the underground TV stations here) and it’s potential for radicalization.

Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991, USA)

Few modern American directors hold as much esteem for me as Joel and Ethan Coen. Honestly, there were four or five Coen films I considered for this list. Ultimately though, something always draws me back to the story of poor Barton Fink, a celebrated playwright invited to write a B-Movie wrestling picture in Hollywood. Written during in reaction to frustrations making Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink is the Coen Brothers at their most surreal and nightmarish. This is the creative process as a descent into hell.

Ghost in The Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995 Japan)

Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell is the rare film better than its source material. Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga mostly consists of action with occasional satire of government bureaucracy. Oshii’s film becomes a story of people commenting on how lost they are in various kinds of machinery of their lives. There’s phenomenal action sequences in it, the fight with the tank is an all timer, but so much of this film feels like a dream. Memories can be rewritten and people that might mostly be machine wonder if they even qualify as human anymore. If your very core can be rewritten, how do remain yourself or leave a lasting legacy? The future may be a technological marvel but for the soul, it’s a spiritual wasteland.

Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999, France)

Claire Denis is the director on here whose work with whom I’m most recently acquainted. Her work just resonates with you. Beau Travail is a masterpiece of pure mood and image making. Every image in here flows like water from the rippling backdrop of Djibouti to the hypnotic movements of the French Legionnaires stationed there. Even memory becomes an ocean, ebbing and flowing from the past to the present. 

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