By Alan Mattli
About two months ago, the British Film Institute’s monthly magazine Sight & Sound published its decadal list of the “best films of all time” (Top 50), which has been a fixed event ever since 1952. Hundreds of critics, industry experts and directors were asked, this is what they came up with:
Not too much has changed since 2002, apart from Citizen Kane losing its peak position after a 50-year reign; Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, perennial favourite of critics and historians alike, losing its place in the top 10; and the western’s return to glory thanks to The Searchers. But it wasn’t these minor changes that vexed cinema lovers all over the world, it was a mere formality: of the ten “best” films, only two are less than 50 years old. “Critics are cowards”, people said and wrote. They were called “overaged”, “conservative”, and “snobby”.
But what exactly is the problem? First of all, these kinds of lists are nothing more than games, an amusing pastime taking place every ten years, whose most interesting feature are the individual directors’ rankings, finding out what’s Jim Jarmusch’s (L’Atalante), Steven Spielberg’s (Lawrence of Arabia), or Quentin Tarantino’s (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) favourite films.
Furthermore, it takes a movie many years, if not decades, to become a classic; it has to stand the test of time. Despite being undeniably brilliant, you’d be hard pressed to already align works like The Social Network, No Country for Old Men, or A Separation with the masterstrokes of directors like Eisenstein, Renoir, Hitchcock, or Welles.
No, the real dubiousness of the list is to be found elsewhere. Why, I ask, does the Top 50 sport three of Francis Ford Coppola’s films (Apocalypse Now, #14, The Godfather, #21, The Godfather Part II, #31), four even by Jean-Luc Godard (À Bout de souffle, #13, Le Mépris, #21, Pierrot le fou, #42, Histoire(s) du cinéma, #48), while masters like Ingmar Bergman (Persona, #17), John Ford (The Searchers, #7), or Charlie Chaplin (City Lights, #50) only managed to get in one film apiece? And that is not to mention the complete omission of Luis Buñuel, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and D. W. Griffith (!). At the end of the day, however, the BFI’s list is just a ranking – emphasis on the article –, and at the very least one that shows how much of movie history is still left to discover.
And exactly because this is just a game for movie lovers I wouldn’t want to refrain from publishing my own hypothetical list. I admit that there are still countless great films I haven’t seen yet, which are essential viewing for everyone aspiring to draw up such a list – The Birth of a Nation, The Grapes of Wrath, and Tokyo Story to name but three –, but I won’t miss out on the fun of the venture.
To me, the following ten movies, are, as of now, the best of all time – they are not necessarily among my personal favourites, though –, determined as objectively as possible. If I had the honour of handing in my list to the BFI, these – not qualitatively but alphabetically ranked – would be the ones I would go for. And what do we find? The most recent of my choices is 44 years of age. Quod erat demonstrandum, obviously.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Just as Western cinema was at a crossroads, when the death of the classic studio system proved permanent, when the independent stylings of European schools like British New Wave and French Nouvelle Vague started to enter mainstream filmmaking, when New Hollywood hesitantly made its first steps, this film came out and radically broke with most of the tradition the industry had retained. Consequently, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released to extremely polarised reviews and had to wait another ten years to be widely accepted as the masterpiece it is – and even today, it continues to split newcomers into fervent devotees and harsh critics. Kubrick’s film is, if antyhing, unforgettable, both a science fiction epic of staggering technical finesse and a profound meditation on the human condition and man’s role in the infinity of time and space. Not many works of cinema are capable of reflecting on millions of years of human evolution in a single match cut.
There is something to say in favour of propaganda films, regardless of their ideological content. Quite often, they are at the forefront of cinematic innovation and, as uncomfortable a thought as this is, help shape their contemporaries’ understanding of filmmaking – just think of Leni Riefenstahl’s role in the Third Reich’s cultural machinery. So it’s not surprising that one of the most important, certainly one of the most accomplished, developments in cinematic technique stems from a film that was originally intended to be a historical propaganda film but eventually turned out to be, thanks to its director’s vision, a pillar of modern montage. In Sergei Eisenstein’s retelling of 1905’s famous Odessa mutiny, when Russian navy men rebelled against their Tsarist officers, impressive filmmaking and compelling storytelling merge together – the famous stair sequence is a perfect example – to form an astonishing and engaging piece of cinema. Of course, it helps that the protagonists’ plea is one that even non-Communists can whole-heartedly relate to.
Un chien andalou
Many people would argue that this 16-minute short by Luis Buñuel and his friend Salvador Dalí is both the apex and the annihilation of classic surrealism – and they wouldn’t be wrong. The morbidly funny movie starts out with one of cinema history’s best known shots, namely a young woman’s eye being sliced open by a razor. After that, Buñuel and Dalí go on to depict a man dressed as a nun riding a bike, bewildered priests manacled to two pianos carrying dead donkeys, and ants coming out of a man’s hand. The project’s goal was simple: to create a series of images only loosley connected to each other that cannot be rationally explained or interpretetd. Insofar, Un chien andalou really was the apotheosis of the surrealist idea, which made any attempt at surmounting it impossible. And, almost as an afterthought, the film, alongside with its companion piece L’Âge d’or, effectively buried the notion of intertitles as a means of conveying information in a silent feature by making its own utterly pointless.
This may not be Charlie Chaplin’s funniest movie but it stands tall as his most self-contained and perhaps even most accomplished. In City Lights, all the elements that made him such an iconic figure, such a giant of cinema, come together and perfectly connect with each other. Tellingly, the film, which was released four years after the introduction of the “talkie”, starts with an interesting mixture of satire and clever incorporation of sound, but then goes on in prime silent movie fashion. Chaplin grants slapstick its due place, but his development of the tramp’s relationship with a blind girl is one of the most moving love stories ever told, full of its director’s trademark romantic pathos.
Les enfants du paradis
France’s poetic realism of the 1930s and 1940s was indubitably ruled by the great Jean Renoir (La grande illusion, La bête humaine, La règle du jeu) but my heart will always belong to his contemporary Marcel Carné, whose dramas rank among the saddest, at times even most depressing movies ever made, but whose incomparable touch makes them so arresting to watch. All of his three best known films – Le quai des brumes, Le jour se lève, and Les enfants du paradis – are masterpieces worthy of being placed on a list of the best of all time. What makes the latter one stand out is, for one, its sheer scale. Les enfants du paradis runs for 190 minutes in which it tells the captivating story of a love triangle in a Paris theatre, set in the 1830s. The film, which was voted as the “Best Film Ever Made” by French critics in 1995, never feels its length, though, and is driven by impeccable staging, splendid dramaturgy, and some of the finest acting, especially on Jean-Louis Barrault’s part, that has ever graced the screens. It truly deserves the staple of being the best French film of all time.
A mere 20 years after the film medium’s inception, David Wark Griffith, one of its first masters, took its storytelling potential to the maximum. In 197 minutes, he tells a complex story split into four subordinate stories set in four different time periods up to two and a half millennia apart. A towering pillar of cinema, Intolerance features one of the most impressive sets ever built, touching, at times even whimsically romantic miniatures, and a filmmaking technique that has only very rarely been matched ever since. The movie not only emancipates itself from the “tableaux style” of early cinema, it practically perfects the notion of the “unleashed camera” – perhaps its only contender in this respect being F. W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann from 1924 – and offers some breathtakingly photographed tracking and establishing shots the medium’s early pioneers could only have dreamed of. Intolerance is, in short, a rousing celebration of what cinema is able to do, whose influence is still palpable in modern times.
Many superlatives are attributed to John Ford and his movies. As probably the quintessential as well as one of the most influential American directors – Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Frank Capra all cite him as a prime influence –, the opinions on what exactly his greatest masterpiece is diverge. But 1956’s The Searchers makes a strong case, not least because it combines many of his best films’ (Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man) strongest elements, including Ford’s flair for funny yet heartwarming side characters. Moreover, it might just be the definitive swan song on the classic western as it cleverly meshes key features with serious contemplation of the genre’s psychological basis. The film chronicles the search of a Civil War veteran, played by a career-best John Wayne, who spends years looking for his niece who has been kidnapped by Native Americans. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) may be the more emotionally resounding swan song but what works in The Searchers‘ favour is a more pronounced focus on racism and moral corruption and one of the best uses of colour in the history of cinema. This is what Technicolor was invented for.
The Seventh Seal
Among directors and critics alike, it is an established fact that the Swedish master Ingmar Bergman deserves a place among the best filmmakers that ever lived. And despite his rich canon of excellent movies, one does not need to look further than The Seventh Seal to realise that his reputation is wholly justified. Set in the plague-ridden Middle Ages, Bergman stages, in classic Protestant Scandinavian tradition, a philosophical drama revolving around life and death. Its centre is a knight returning home from the crusades striking up a game of chess against personified Death – the most influential and undeniably best of his kind. Bergman goes on to depict various episodes from medieval life pondering the meaning of life and how man can best deal with the impossibility of flight from death. What The Seventh Seal manages so splendidly is to capture both the weight of human existence as well as the implied beauty of all living things with a fantastic, aesthetically refined cinematic vision, owing much to medieval art. Over the years, the film has become the stereotype for heavy, brooding, “foreign” – i.e. non English-speaking – cinema, a stereotype whose accuracy is, at the very least, highly dubious.
For many people, there are two Billy Wilders: there is the writer and director of film noir or noirish dramas like Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, or Ace in the Hole, but there is also the man who wrote and directed comedies and satires like The Seven-Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Irma la Douce. And although I will always love The Apartment, my favourite film, in terms of the best films of all time, I will have to choose Sunset Boulevard for perhaps being the exact median between the two Wilders. On the one hand, the film is in its very own way a wryly funny sendup of Hollywood as an entity with all the scheming and the ignoring of artistic vision that goes with it. On the other hand, it chronicles the tragedy of silent cinema’s death, personified by Gloria Swanson, basically playing herself, as Norma Desmond, a star of the silent era who vanished into obscurity after the introduction of sound – two years before Singin’ in the Rain (#20 on the BFI list) comedically picked up the subject matter, 60 years before The Artist tried to replicate both movies. Wilder finds the perfect balance between satirising her boundless self-delusion and sensitively revealing the tragic dimension of her fate. Moreover, Sunset Boulevard is an extremely multi-leveled film that doesn’t shy away from crossing the line into meta territory. The numerous guest appearances (Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and the countless in-jokes ensure that the movie is fondly remembered by cinema lovers as probably the best film about filmmaking.
Throne of Blood
Pieces of Japanese cinema can always count on being included in rankings of the “best of the best”, names like Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Akira Kurosawa are practically sacred. And yet, almost no-one ever gives a thought to what might just be the latter one’s strongest film. Kurosawa, also reverently known as “Tenno”, made many great movies throughout his career – Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha, Ran, Dreams – but Throne of Blood almost seems like an afterthought to his regal filmography at times. For me, however, it’s about as good as it gets. Not only is it the best cinematic Shakespeare adaptation – it transposes Macbeth to feudal Japan –, it is a perfect hybrid between Western literary tradition and Eastern artisanship. In it, Kurosawa confidently combines the lyrical qualities you are most likely to find in Ozu’s works and adds his own flair for historical epics and artistically refined elements of action.