It has been in the news this past week that Vertigo supplanted Citizen Kane as the #1 film on the once-in-ten-years Sight & Sound critics poll. The list, which can be found here, is a technical one, with all kinds of academic choices mostly meaningful to critics and other film analysts. What it ultimately means is up for grabs, although without a doubt we’ll soon be seeing Vertigo re-issues boldly bearing the “Best Film of All Time” label. And, also inevitably, it has inspired pretty much every critic I’ve come across to compile a list of their own.
List-making in film criticism is a fun activity, a bit silly, and usually a way of saying “I really liked these movies!” Some have academic reasons for their choices. Citizen Kane, a great film yet absent from my own list, has often been declaimed supreme for its stylistic and narrative innovations which have become mainstays of filmmaking ever since. Personally, I don’t write or think in the style of the rigorous film academic; I tend to go with my gut. Criticism for me is a way to examine that gut reaction, to understand how a film is put together and how it effectively (or ineffectively) engages me as a watcher. I therefore don’t present the following as a serious engagement with all of film history, but as a reflection of my haphazardly cultivated taste in film and my watching habits (you’ll find nothing made before 1958 on this list).
List-making, for someone who love movies with some degree of seriousness, is hard–especially anything bearing the “all-time” label. Sometimes this is done in consensus, which is an easier process but one that yields less satisfying results. The consensus of the critical community has kept Citizen Kane at the top of the list because everyone can recognize its greatness, but it may have kept films intensely loved by individuals out of the running. The conspicuous position of Vertigo on my list may to some seem like a cheap ploy for cred, but I really can’t place it any differently for the sake of avoiding that impression. This is a list of films I love: love to watch, to think about, to rewatch, to defend, to show to other people, to enjoy in all their vivid cinematic richness. I had to eliminate films I really wanted to include and directors I wanted to forefront–there’s no Minority Report, no Coen brothers, no Tarantino. No Pixar or Wes Anderson, no Star Wars, no Raiders of the Lost Ark. I have had to forego my desire to honor the films that have been influential and memorable, and think about which ones are most so, or are the deeper cinematic wells which contemporary directors have drawn on to craft their masterpieces.
10. Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language fairy tale isn’t for kids, though adult viewers will be reminded of what it was like to learn about the darkness in this world. It’s a film set in two worlds that exist right on top of each other, where it’s clear even the things of nightmares are no more hellish than what humans are capable of ourselves. The fantastic and mythical have a vibrant weirdness here, and a danger that undermines typical Marxist reductions of religiosity to “opiate”. The film’s most “religious” character–Olivia, the protagonist girl who frequents the fairy world–is a somewhat naughty child, an independent at heart, and a sharp contrast to the pseudo-Catholicism of her Fascist stepfather.
9. Dr. Strangelove
I struggled with how to place this movie, which began my love of “art” movies in college through its darkly absurd comic approach to nuclear annihilation. It’s a stunningly potent work of satire from just before the social upheaval of the late 60’s, whose sharp focus on the foolishness of American warhawks would no doubt have drawn the ire of McCarthy’s witchhunts just a decade before. In black and white, long after that era had past, its color scheme mirrors the for-us/against-us duality of the Cold War while clearly lambasting both sides of the nuclear arms race as arrogant idiots who almost seem eager to send humanity to hell in a handbasket.
8. Blade Runner
As far as I can tell, the noir twist to Blade Runner is innovation of the filmmakers and not inherent to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Director Ridley Scott engineered a lavish production for this brooding genre-crossover. It has wondrously intricate sets, special effects that still look pretty good, considering, and a vibrant color palette that especially pops on the “Final Cut” released a few years ago. The images here have clearly been labored over to produce and stylize, not just examples of technical proficiency but intentional artistic composition. Perhaps more than any other science fiction film, it presents a lived-in world which yet clearly belongs to the movies. Ever since Scott has been able to excise studio-imposed elements like Harrison Ford’s atrocious Bogart-style voiceovers, the film has taken on a meditative quality. The scenery-conscious pace, the vivid colors and Vangelis’s synth score all come together to suggest a dreary future of intersecting flesh and circuitry.
Yes, the shark still looks fake. The technical problems with that shark, however, forced young upstart director Steven Spielberg to keep it from full view for most of the movie, half-inadvertently yielding a masterpiece of tension and the fear of the unseen. The film has a primal power in its three-men-and-the-sea, man versus nature dynamic, the ludicrousness of the serial killer shark notwithstanding. Spielberg’s excellent compositions and staging elevate the material, as well as his pointed human touches like the scene where Brody’s son mimics him or the famous scar-comparison sequence that leads into old salt Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis. It’s a tightly-constructed film with no unnecessary moments and lots of stunning ones, not least the sequence where Chief Brody witnesses a shark attack from the beach. In Spielberg’s subsequent career he has gone on to revisit thrilling adventure and primal terror in one way or another, but never so succinctly and effectively as in Jaws.
6. Singin’ in the Rain
The first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain was only a day or so after a viewing of Moulin Rouge. Whereas the latter film contains song and dance sequences which might have been edited in a wood-chipper, Singin‘ celebrates the unmistakable talent it’s showcasing while following a plot about the artifice at the heart of the movies and the vanity of stardom. The song and dance numbers of stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds have been captured in long takes which showcase the amazing legwork of its stars even though, as acknowledged in the plot, there’s no way to prove any of them are singing their own lines. Kelly’s ode to full body music crescendos in an extended sequence that takes place entirely in his character’s head as he imagines what the most spectacular and stunning song and dance movie would look and sound like. It’s an abstracted flight of fancy allowing for long-form performances unfettered by the pedantic constraints of plot and dialogue.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001 is often remembered for its second act plot about an A.I. gone rogue, but did you know that the film is an epoch-spanning conjecture about unseen extra-terrestrials guiding human evolution? Stanley Kubrick went to renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke to see about making the definitive science fiction film. Simultaneously developed as both a novel and screenplay, the film does its best to grapple with human existence vis-a-vis the vast unknown of the universe with special attention to the role technology has played in human development. The dialogue-free twenty minutes which begin the film involve a herd of missing link man-apes who learn to use tools after encountering a mysterious black slab (named by Clarke as “the monolith”) and gain the upper hand over the tribe with whom they’ve been fighting over the local water hole. In an edit encompassing the ancient past and unknown future of technology, the bone-as-weapon employed by the man-apes is tossed into the air only to segue directly to a roughly bone-shaped spaceship. Such is the film’s scope and ambition.
Kubrick approaches the events with a curious anthropology in view. Future humans (of the fictive year “2001”) are no more able to comprehend what the monolith is when they find one on the moon than their evolutionary forebears. And when astronaut Dave Bowman encounters the third monolith in the outer reaches of the solar system, viewers are treated to a psychedelic sequence of color and light which they’re no more able to understand than the man on the screen. In sharp contrast to the bold claims of the “new” atheists, Kubrick shaped a film which approaches questions of human existence as an ineffable mystery rather than one easily teased out by the scientific method.
4. Spirited Away
Speaking of ineffable, try feasting your eyes on the fanciful grotesqueries of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 twist on Alice in Wonderland. Like Singin’ in the Rain, Spirited Away is all about the sheer artistry of what’s on the screen. Such an overwhelming amount of color, motion and detail has been used to conjure this spirit world that Disney productions compare more favorably to still life paintings. Director Miyazaki employs these wild and wonderful images for the story of a whiny preteen girl introduced to a world of danger when her parents anger the spirits inhabiting a run down bath house. The pleasure of the film is as much the budding of her steely resolve as it is Studio Ghibli’s artwork, the two potently coinciding in a wacked out climax that pits the young girl against a greedy hunger demon. Miyazaki deftly weaves together a coming of age story with themes of love, selfishness and hard work, suggesting visually through so many images of contorting fluids the dynamic nature of human personality and development.
Hitchcock’s films set in America often played off a contrast between the “normal” surfaces of middle class life and the dangers lurking around the corner or underneath the squeaky-clean surface. Every Wall Street power executive was a potential secret agent, every secretary a potential grand larcenist. Psycho begins with the latter, continuing to turn over pristine appearances for their seedy underbellies through the first murder and on to the film’s final reveal. It all hinges on Anthony Perkins’ complex performance as a good natured American boy with all kinds of psycho stuff lurking just beneath the surface. What’s terrifying about the movie is the charmingly awkward way he has with Marion when she first arrives at the Bates Motel, only gradually doling out hints of underlying malice. Norman Bates could be anyone–the boy next door, so to speak–and therefore anyone could be psycho.
Psycho begins with an impulsive moment of theft which spirals Marion Crane’s life–and those who care about her–out of control. Not only does Norman’s apparent normalness suggest the tenuous reliability of appearances, but the rippling consequences of Crane’s actions suggest the fragility of the social contract in the way that it leads to death and danger for herself and others. Hitchcock, as in the gradual reveal of Norman’s dangerous nature, carefully doles out these consequences to the other characters in wondrously suspenseful sequences of innocents walking into a trap.
If Psycho tried to show the dark things lurking just beneath the surface and the “normal” people who might turn on a dime, Goodfellas says the surface is for schnooks and paints the lurker’s life a colorful joyride of easy cash and taking what you want. Scorsese has no interest in the buttoned down secret-bearers of Eisenhower’s America–his world is powered by big personalities, big emotions and the blood spilled between them. His protagonist isn’t a white collar conservative from middle America but a blue collar kid from the Bronx who “always wanted to be gangster”. Goodfellas gives us three decades in the life of Henry Hill, a real-life Irish-Italian kid who started doing small jobs for the local mafia and ascended through the ranks alongside of bigger than life personalities who pulled ambitious heists like the multi-million dollar Lufthnasa job depicted in the second part of the film.
It’s hard for me to put into words why I love this movie, but I can say that it works like a drug. It’s an addictive, thrilling story that gets you caught up in this alternate world that exists or once existed alongside our own. The performances are sharp, compelling, giving us a voyeur’s look at violent and confident characters who seem to act on instinct and craft their own little animal kingdom where murder and wealth go hand and hand. Goodfellas makes it easy to understand why someone would get into that life and why they would want to get out, simultaneously teasing us with the glamour while turning us away with the gore. It’s an electric movie, epic in scope, revolting in detail, aggressively rewatchable. Organized crime has never looked so good looking so bad.
If you haven’t seen Vertigo and at all have an appetite for moviewatching, go see this right now. Films lauded as this one have been are often open to charges of inaccessibility and sluggish pacing, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a psychological thriller you’ll like Vertigo. Alive with color and skillful images, Hitchcock’s definitive film chronicles the budding obsession of cop-on-leave Scotty Ferguson with the woman he’s been paid to tail by a concerned husband. Bernard Herrmann’s evocative score reflects the mesmerizing effect she has on him, the way he is drawn into events he has no understanding of through his basic compulsion. The film has nothing to do with buttoned-down secrets and everything to do with something mysterious and uncontrollable about the impulses that drive us to be who we are and do the things we do. In retrospect, even when Scotty seemed at most in control of his obsessions it is clear how they steered him to his fate; even if one can’t quite sympathize for the man the film does everything in the medium’s power to communicate the power this woman inadvertently comes to wield over him, makes his actions plausible (if never defensible) with respect to him as a character.
Whew. That list was both hard to whittle down and hard to write. Distilling the essence of a movie such that it reads as a compelling “best ever” candidate is a chore and I’m not sure I was up to the task in every case. In the end, my choices were based on the je nais se quois of my moviewatching, that compelling spark that some movies have which draws me to them over and over again.
Do you know what I mean? Do you have a top ten? What movies should be higher/lower? Which ones do you think are terrible? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments.