Wednesday, 1 August 2012

My Top 10 Films


By my reckoning, it’s a week until Sight and Sound, the British Film Institute’s magazine, releases the results of its ten yearly poll.  For those not in the know – every ten years, beginning in 1952, Sight and Sound has surveyed the world’s directors and critics and asked them what they think the 10 best films of all time are.  Every decade but the first has seen Citizen Kane come in at number 1.   I suspect this year will see Kane lose that top spot for the first time since ’52 – Tokyo Story might rise above it, as might Sunrise (a film more viewed and accessible now and in a quality blu-ray print).  As is usual, I suspect no film more recent than 1979 will make the list. 

In 1961, Penelope Houston, then editor of the magazine, asked people to play this “impossible but intriguing game again” and nominate 10 films.  Nick James, the current editor, has been doing the same again over the last twelve months.  Because I’m not a famous director or film critic (at least not yet!), I’ll just have to suffice with you, the readers of my lovely blog. 

There a number of ways of approaching this question: do you go for films that have had the biggest influence upon the medium?  Or do you go for films that have had the biggest impact on you, the viewer?  Each question would, I am certain, provoke a very different top 10.  Do you select a film because you know it is important, but isn’t actually one you would watch more than once?  For instance, I adored Battleship Potemkin, but I have no inclination to watch it again.  But I’ll happily sit through El Dorado every Christmas (it’s my Great Escape equivalent).  El Dorado, no matter how brilliant it is, wouldn’t make my top 10, but Potemkin might.

So I’ve given it some thought, and I think it’s best to mix a bit of the two different views: important works and personal favourites.  A blend of everything that makes cinema what it is for me.

It is also very tough to choose just 10 films.  I wrote a long list, and whittled it down.  The final push from 12 to 10 was toughest.

Here then are my top 10 films, in alphabetical order, according to English title:

The Apartment (1960)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Badlands (1973)
City Lights (1931)
The General (1926)
Il vangelo secondo Matteo [The Gospel According to Matthew] (1964)
Irréversible (2002)
Die Büchse der Pandora [Pandora’s Box] (1929)
Pather Panchali (1955)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

It’ll be an odd list to some.  Surely Irreversible isn’t great art?  It’s surely not as good as Kane?!  And where is Kane anyway?  I love Kane, adore it, but it’s not in my top 10.

The Apartment (1960) 

I think Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script is one of the sharpest ever.  Wilder’s direction is superb.  It is the sweetest, and yet bitterest, romance on screen. 
 
Apocalypse Now (1979)

The opening minutes of this, when I was 11 years old, up late on a school night when everybody else in the house was fast asleep, watched through sleepy eyes, became the moment I fell in love with cinema.  It remains as powerful to me now, over 20 years later.

Badlands (1973)

Cinema for me, between the ages of 13-20, was dictated by my parents’ choice.  We saw Steven Seagal films galore.  We saw James Bond, again and again.  If there was a gun on the front cover, we watched it.  No, they didn’t mistake this for an action movie.  I saw it independently, but I’d forgotten cinema could be this.  I never knew it could do such lyricism.  Like Apocalypse Now, Badlands changed my world.  I still think it the finest American film of its generation.
 
City Lights (1931)

I’d never cried in a cinema.  I did as Chaplin bought a flower.  Magic

The General (1926)

Is this the funniest film ever made?  No.  But it’s the funniest film I return to the most often.  There is craft and genius here that is missing from other comedies of the era.  The General casts a bewitching spell on me.  It’s more than a comedy, that’s why.  It’s bigger than its parts would have you believe. It's utter genius.
 
Il vangelo secondo Matteo [The Gospel According to Matthew] (1964)

The finest religious film, and one of such simple elegance and beauty, it holds me utterly transfixed.  I’m not religious at all – though I once was - and I think it is because it speaks to the soul in a way that other cinema fails to, that Passolini’s finest film retains its power.

Irréversible (2002)

To me, Gaspar Noé’s film challenged everything we had begun to take for granted.  It is structurally a most fascinating film – it owes debts to Memento, to L'année dernière à Marienbad (which almost made my top 10) – but it is bigger than all them.  It seemed, by the turn of the twenty-first century, that all of cinemas taboos had been broken.  Cinema was no longer transgressive.  Then Irréversible came along, and kicked you hard in the face.  Its blended philosophy and extreme violence. It attacked the logic of cinema.  It implicated the viewer in its action.  It made cinema an event again.  It is a moral film – it forces the viewer to consider the acts of vengeance they have seen.  Whereas cinema until this moment had gloried in violence (we cheer when the hero gets vengeance in cinema), Irréversible makes us feel sick with the image of violence.  If this film had been played the right way round, we would have been cheering Vincent Cassell by the end.  Noé was brave enough to show us how wrong this attitude is.   French shock cinema is often seen as nothing more than ribaldry, a cheap nasty entertainment at the end of some dead-end alley.  It’s not.  I think they’ll be evaluating the importance of this film in decades to come. 
 
Die Büchse der Pandora [Pandora’s Box] (1929)

Lulu.  No, not the singer.  Lulu Brooks – Louise Brooks – has there ever been a sexier woman on the screen?   An icon that defined a generation, a style much imitated but never bettered.  It’s not a perfect film – its shaggy, too long, over ambitious – but it retains an elusive quality that brings you back time and again.  It is beautiful in its horror.

Pather Panchali (1955)

The best film about childhood.  Ray’s film contains more heart, beauty and soul than a dozen other films.  Its simple elegance I think belies its great intelligence, and so people often mistake it for a lesser film than it truly is.  The Apu trilogy, of which this is the first piece, remains India’s greatest cinematic masterpiece. 

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

When people ask me: what’s your favourite movie?  I tell them this.  They’ve never heard of it usually, and when I tell them it’s a silent movie from the 1920s, they look at me as if I’m mad.  Unless they’re cineastes themselves, and then they nod, and go yes, it is the finest film of its era.  Some even say the finest film ever made.  There is not a duff note here, not a wasted image.  Murnau’s masterpiece remains the pinnacle of cinematic achievement for me.

And now I’ve justified each of my choices, I’m aching with pain that I couldn’t include: Don’t Look Now, The Third Man, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Winter, The Ladykillers, Last Year in Marienbad, The Lavender Hill Mob, Metropolis, Vertigo, Nosferatu, The Woman in the Dunes, Piccadilly and more, so much more.  Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu, de Sica, Mizoguchi, Tati…

Still, I've 10 films.  5 American, 5 International (I'm counting Sunrise as European, even though it was made by Fox, as everything but it's money and its stars scream Germany and expressionism), from the 1920s to the 2000s.  Even if you don't agree, there are ten films worth your time here. 

UPDATE: Sight & Sound have released their lists.  Here is my reaction:


I predicted Citizen Kane would lose its position at #1 in the Sight & Sound 10 year poll and indeed it has.  Kane is down 1, to #2.  Vertigo has ousted Welles's classic.  Not a surprise, as Vertigo remains a powerful and pertinent piece of cinema, even today, while Welles' film, though still powerful, is more a historic document now.  Also, no films made later than 1980 made the lists, and two films from the 1920s appeared in the top 10 for the first time.  Proof that DVD accessibility has revealed the quality and power of these early films to a wider audience.  I’ve still not seen Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, and until DVD and blu-ray it would have been impossible for me to see it.  Now I can.  I wonder, as DVD companies release more of the forgotten and misplaced films of yesteryear, whether in another 10 years’ time, this poll will look very different indeed.

In my top 20, there would have been La Regle de Jeu, Vertigo, Tokyo Story.  Of John Wayne's films, though, I much prefer Red River to The Searchers.  And the inclusion of Man With A Movie Camera is interesting... I find it a fascinating historical document but it's not a film I would rush to watch again.  I'd much rather take Potemkin over it.

Go on, hit me with your top 10 in the comments below…

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