Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In honor of Sight & Sound's 2012 list of the "Top 10 Films of All Time"...

...a list which, as of this writing, hasn't been released yet, although here is Roger Ebert musing about his nomination of Malick's The Tree of Life. That was the momentary inspiration for me to read more about Sight & Sound's ever-acclaimed lists and get to ruminating on the preposterous difficulty of reducing all of cinema to ten titles.

In the case of Sight & Sound, several titles reappear over multiple decades: Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, L'Avventura, The Godfather, Vertigo. All told there are 28 films represented over the course of the five decades of 10-film lists, which means the turnover rate is roughly half. (Some years the list has eleven titles due to ties.) The countries represented are the USA, Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan, France, India, and Sweden.

A smattering of my random thoughts on these films and the list as cultural touchstone:
  • Citizen Kane. Obviously, it belongs on any list of great films. It's on my foolhardy list of nominees for the 50ish Greatest Films of All Time I posted last year. But somehow when you get down to just ten, I start to think of the list as more like a time capsule, a list of films you would put in a crate and send into space for aliens to discover, a list of the films that best illuminate who we are as human beings. What exactly does Citizen Kane say about us? That some of us become powerful men who die alone? That investigative journalists sometimes fail? That we can create virtuoso symphonies of imagery, movement, and sound? Somehow, Citizen Kane has always felt too cold and impersonal to be at the very top of lists like this. I wonder if it's because it lacks a memorable love story.
  • I like that Singin' in the Rain is included, not because I think it is one of the ten greatest of all time, but because I like the notion of including a film that doesn't speak volumes or probe the depths of humanity — I like the idea of reserving a slot for pure joy, the kind of unabashed enthusiasm for movement and being alive that only cinema can create. This entry actually inspired me to include Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (a better, more joyous, and more magical film in my opinion) on my own list below. 
  •  Vertigo. I have never understood the stature of this film. Like much of Hitchcock's work, it is technically brilliant and atmospherically striking. Jimmy Stewart is fascinating and there are moments of great suspense. But what, ultimately, is the story about? In a word, it's obsession — which is really what all of Hitchcock's movies are about. Which raises the question: why include a film about "obsession" on a list of the most important movies of all time? Is "obsession" one of humanity's most vital, universal drives? 
  • How did The Bicycle Thief ever fall off the list? It was voted THE greatest film of all time in 1952, dropped to 7th place in 1962, and hasn't been seen since. A travesty, say I.   
  •  In 1992 two Kurosawa films tied for 10th place. Interesting.
  •  The BFI site also lets us in on something incalculably wonderful: a full list of every film nominated for the 2002 Top 10 List. Forget every "100 Best" list ever put out by the likes of AFI, Entertainment Weekly, Time, and so on — surely this must be the most dynamic, pregnant, exciting list of so-called great films ever assembled. I think my homework is cut out for the next 2 years. (There are also a number of curiosities on this list; I note with dismay that someone actually nominated The Usual Suspects, and with fascination that someone nominated Deep Throat.)
So, of course, the inevitable end to this burp of thought is that I decided to throw myself into the deep end, with my clothes on, drunk, with my phone in my pocket, and submit my own anthologized rendition of the Ten  Greatest Films of All Time. Below are my picks.

2001: A Space Odyssey
1968 • 141 minutes • Stanley Kubrick • U.S.A.

Visionary directors from Griffith to Lang have tried to explode conventional notions of what movies can do, but none have done it with such philosophical aplomb and eye-popping grandeur as Kubrick, one of the only directors who believed that film was a vehicle for ideas more than emotions. 2001 rises like a floating spaceship over trivial things like plot and characters, and invites us to revel in the sheer awesomeness of human evolution, from our ape ancestors to an imagined, enlightened superbeing. Its stark, almost scientific approach leaves many viewers cold (Pauline Kael called it "monumentally unimaginative"), but see it on the big screen and you will experience one of the most transcendentally optimistic visions of our future ever argued.

Aguirre, der Zorne Gottes / There Will Be Blood
1973 • 100 minutes • Werner Herzog • Germany / Peru
2007 • 158 minutes • Paul Thomas Anderson • U.S.A.

I submit as a joint offering these two towering entries in the "humanity is ruled by evil and mania" school of thought, with Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview and Klaus Kinski as Aguirre both channeling versions of the burning, power-starved demon that lurks in the hearts of all men who quest for greatness. Herzog's misty, visceral journey ends in a sort of spiritual transcendence that rises above the madness; while Blood is like the surpassingly optimistic 2001 run backwards: instead of enlightened superbeings, we are all equally likely to end up as shrieking, murderous madmen wielding bowling pins like apes.

The Apartment
1960 • 125 minutes • Billy Wilder • U.S.A.

Classically speaking, a tragedy will always end in death, and a comedy will always end in marriage. The singular brilliance of Wilder's greatest film is that for all of its wry, trenchant 125 minutes, indeed up until its final seconds, when a terrified Shirley Maclaine rushes up to Jack Lemmon's door to find... it is unclear whether we are watching a comedy or a tragedy. Maclaine as the coy Fran Kubelik and Lemmon as the flu-stricken C.C. Baxter have their feet planted so firmly in reality that they make the sort of coldly practical decisions unheard of in most Hollywood romances; so when they both finally rise above the cynical trappings of their world——Lemmon with the light clunk of a key and Maclaine with a rapturous run through the streets——their liberation brings vicarious tears to our eyes. If only life were like this.

Children of Men
2006 • 109 minuts • Alfonso Cuáron • United Kingdom

In an age when we have grown weary of colossal battles and starships flying through space, Cuarón's gritty, handheld tour of dystopia is a film to astonish us——one of the most visceral films ever made. "With editing, you manipulate time, Caurón says. "Here, you have just the constant flow of a moment. I believe heartbeats get connected in that moment." More likely your heart will skip in your chest as Emmanuel Lubezki's astonishing camera work follows Clive Owen through a desolate future England in search of the Bogart-like conviction to rise above himself, and hope, at last, for a better world.

Come and See
1985 • 146 minutes • Elim Klimov • Soviet Union
Possibly the most underrated film in history, Come and See towers both morally and cinematically over the war films that usually take its place on lists like these, films by American directors called Spielberg and Stone and Coppola. This is a film about war that rises above every pitfall of the genre. Neither thrilling nor sentimental, both captivating and devastating, it expresses the emotional wound that Hitler wrought on humanity. The story is experienced through the eyes of a young boy, whose deteriorating face, presented in a series of unflinching, squarely-framed portraits, is one of the most indelible images of cinema. This film is a moral act; it employs the greatness of its filmmaking to convey as vivid an account of the human soul under fire as has ever been recorded.

The Decalogue
1989 • 550 minutes • Kryzystof Kieslowski • Poland

In my previous list of great films I chose Kieslowski's Rouge from his Three Colors trilogy, but having been inspired to revisite The Decalogue by Asghar Farhadi's consummately Kieslowski-esque A Separation, I now wonder how this series of films isn't included on every single list of Best CInema made by any publication, anywhere. These ten stories unfold like ingeniously devised story problems, a devastating catalogue of moral conundrums that make us question what it means to be part of a family, a community, a marriage — indeed what it means to be a human being alive on this planet. It's no wonder Kubrick called this "the only masterpiece" he had seen in his lifetime.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
1998 • 179 minutes • Karan Johar • India

Simply put, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is pure joy on film. With all the magic of larger-than-life Bollywood and none of its deplorable excess, Karan Johar's debut film——one of the most impressive in history——is like some sort of emotional stimulant: no matter what mood you are in, within 20 minutes KKHH will extract tears and a beaming smile in equal measure. At times, like little Sana Saeed exhaling "Mother!" in the first of many perfectly timed scenes, the tears flow literally on cue. But all the sweeping camera moves and ebullient songs would be for naught without a radiant Kajol as love-torn Anjali Sharma, bouncing and beaming through the first half and flowing like rain through the second, to give this epic its glowing, infinitely lovable heart.

Ladri di Bicyclette / Mandabi
1949 • 93 minutes • Vittori De Sica • Italy
1968 • 90 minutes • Ousmane Sembene • Senegal

Unfolding with the eerie inevitablity of a closing circle, these two allegories of poverty and desperation make for a double feature of the saddest films ever made. The simplest of events——a day laborer's bicycle is stolen, and a husband receives a gift of money from a relative——lead to humble quests through the city streets, and there are no plot twists or dramatic turns; only the slow peeling back of the layers of society that prevent millions from overcoming their crippling poverty. Sembene meted out his country's history like this through film after film, in understated, angry outcries; while De Sica simply lets the viewer weep as he stoically turns his camera on one of the most heart-rending endings in all of cinema.

Seven Samurai 
1954 • 207 minutes • Akira Kurosawa • Japan

There are great films that are esoteric and difficult to get through——and then there's Seven Samurai. Kurosawa's seminal team-of-warriors epic is a thundering, red-blooded adventure yarn with some of the most awesome battle scenes ever staged, which is all the more remarkable when you consider they were also some of the first battle scenes ever staged. Toshiro Mifune plays the original Jack Sparrow, the wooziest, snarlingest swashbuckler who ever pranced across the silver screen, and his entourage is a collection of stock warrior types who come together to protect a village against raiding bandits. We follow them through methodic strategy sessions and delightful dalliances, until the suspense opens up into an hour-long barrage of masterfully photographed clashes that gave birth to the next 50 years of action adventure filmmaking.

Tôkyô Monogatari / The Way We Are
1953 • 136 minutes • Yasujiro Ozu • Japan
2008 • 90 minutes • Ann Hui • Hong Kong

Hitchcock famously declared that cinema should be "life with the dull bits cut out." The Master's films are thrilling, to be sure, but Ozu understood that the simple living of life, with all of its quiet conflicts and compromises over the years, was really the only subject the movies ever needed. His Tokyo Story is one of the slowest and most gentle films ever made, and one certain to bring the viewer quietly to tears——the kind of deep-welling tears that come from nowhere in particular, and make you think more about your own life than what's on screen. More than half a century later, in East Asia's other great metropolis, Hui zooms in similarly on a soft-spoken lower-class family in the pointedly titled The Way We Are, and simply observes their lives, with sensitivity and grace that would have made Ozu proud.

1 comment:

  1. Personally I'd join together "Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes" and "Apocalypse Now" as I've always considered Coppola's work to be the spiritual successor to Herzog's, and remove "There Will Be Blood" altogether. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the greatest living actors, but the film is very structurally problematic. I'd consider from this generation of films instead, "Synecdoche, New York" (Kaufman) or "Lost in Translation" (Coppola).