Earlier this week, Sight & Sound released their once-a-decade list of the ‘Greatest Movies Of All Time’. After 60 years of reigning supreme, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was ousted from the top spot, with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo replacing it as the MacDaddy, the Grand Poobah, the crème de la crème of cinematic achievement.
Switching off the part of the brain that screams “I like Psycho more” or “Seven Samurai wuz robbed” the list is not about personal preference but rather a collection picked by 846 professional critics who had been instructed to choose with the following criteria in mind; which films are the “most important to film history”, which represent “the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement” and which “have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.” With that in mind, the list, which I’ve included below, is a pretty bang up job.
1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
4. La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
8. Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
But – and there’s always a pretty big but when any sample of opinion is taken proclaiming to anoint something ‘The Greatest’ – one thing about the fifty films listed was particularly striking; namely the dates affixed to the sides of the chosen. In the top 10 the most recent picture was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s Sci-Fi opus turns 44 this year. In the fifty, only two of the films picked were made since the year 2000, three were from the 90s and just one single, solitary pick from the 80s. Surely a few more films from the past three decades deserve a spot? Here’s a few suggestions based on the poll criteria.
Back To The Future (1985)
“Ugh! Philistine out with you! How dare you sully our list with such low-brow nonsense? Did we not adequately explain that this is not about popularity?” Allow me to retort, butthead. You proposed inclusion for any film that had an impact on “your view of cinema” and the torch carriers of modern day film criticism (the ones that love both Bresson and Besson) were inspired to seek out and explore disparate avenues of cinema solely because of a childhood introduction to Robert Zemeckis’ time travel classic. And it has some cracking Oedipal issues and questions about the nature of existence to get all “essayist” on. So make like a tree, and add it to the list.
Withnail And I (1987)
Aside from the disputes arising from the chronology of the list there was also a distinct lack of the British end being held up, with The Third Man placing highest at a hugely disappointing 73. No Powell and Pressburger, no Ken Loach, no Shane Meadows. Now it might be hard to proclaim the story of two eternally pissed Thespians as the “pinnacle of achievement” when it comes to aesthetics – although the film does have a deliciously grubby quality to its look – in terms of “impact on a view of cinema” Bruce Robinson’s tragic comedy can lay claim to a host of ardent enthusiasts that picked up a camera and became filmmakers simply because they stumbled across this films charms. Expect it to keep growing in stature over the years. Like, perhaps, a fine wine.
Is Cinema Paradiso simply too entertaining to hold a high ranking in the S&S list? Like Chinatown and Casablanca (both offensively omitted from the fiddy), Giuseppe Tornatore’s ode to cinema is more concerned with emotion than pontification. But seeing as how film history is one of the criteria required, a film that expresses the joy and sorrow of the medium as well as Cinema Paradiso does surely deserves a little more love of its own. Especially when you consider the film is clearly as devoted to the subject matter as those compiling the list.
While the majority of cinephiles were happy enough with the crux of the Top Ten one new entry, John Ford’s The Searchers, ruffled a few feathers. The love it/hate it Western may contain images as iconic as John Wayne’s drawl but the jury is still out on how God-damn cold it is. So how about the inclusion of the another famous horseman, Mr. Clint Eastwood, and his revisionist take on the Old West. With a hat trick of the finest American actors (Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Clint himself) to have ever heard the call of “Action” giving some of their finest performances this is the medium at it’s contemporary best. Nodding to the past while simultaneously laying the ground for the future.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Films released after the moon landing, films from Blighty and animated features (we’ll get to that later) all received limited or no attention in the upper echelons of the list. But one solitary documentary, Man With A Movie Camera, did, placing 8th. Would we displace it with Hoop Dreams in terms of importance? Probably not. But there’s certainly a case to be made for a top 50 spot for Steve James exhaustive delve into the lives of two black kids and their aspirations for the NBA. Because, ultimately, Hoop Dreams was about much, much more than basketball. Put simply, “It’s America, man”.
When a film is so resoundingly affixed to, and about, a definite time and a place its difficult to transcend to those unfamiliar with said time or place. La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, has no such problem. The deprived and disaffected banlieues of Paris in the mid-90s could be substituted for the projects of America or the council estates of England, places abandoned and forgotten about until riots bring them to the public consciousness. But La Haine was never concerned solely with making a political statement – although as statements go “hatred breeds hatred” is one hard to ignore – it was about making a film that was breathtakingly thrilling.
From the Palme D’or winning Barton Fink to the Oscar winning No Country For Old Men, the Brothers Coen have been atop the cinema heap for almost three decades. Yet a place on the ‘Greatest’ list proves as hard to get as a Brainerd suntan. Our personal preference would be for the not so little Lebowski but again, this list is based not on preference but “importance” and the Coen’s snow-drenched murder mystery cemented their status as masters of missing money in the same way Hitchcock was the master of mistaken identity. A place on the list by 2022? Jeez I hope so. Oh ya.
Subscribing to the same publication of ‘Nature Fanciers Monthly’ as Terrence Malick, (who surprisingly didn’t get a spot for Badlands or Tree of Life) director Ki-duk Kim’s meditation on human existence as seen through the various stages of life reflected in the title is as aesthetically pleasing as any film on the list. Transcending any boundary you’re care to mention, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is a film about life. Simple and pure.
“Animation”, as Brad Bird correctly asserted, “is a technique, not a genre.” But it’s a technique that the 846 critics polled didn’t have any time for, with not a single film in the top 50 coming from the stable of Disney, Ghibli, Pixar or for that matter, any lesser known or independent animation studio. Perhaps the omission was down to the arguments professing a preference for just one would cause, but we’ll be brave (geddit) and pick Pixar and WALL-E for the extraordinary things it achieves, including a dialogue free first act, stunning leaps forward in the scale and scope of computer animation and for captivating all, and we do mean ALL, ages. Bonus points too for the chutzpah of getting a company like Disney to help release a crushing comment on rampant consumerism.
The Social Network (2010)
The greatest American movie of 2010, David Fincher’s tale of ‘The Geek Who Changed The World’ was dubbed “the Citizen Kane of our generation”. And it’s tough to argue against such a claim with both films dealing with rebellious young men taking on the establishment, both films sharing the downfall of a friendship and both films playing gleefully with narrative conventions. Like the former, the film’s greatest strength might just lie in not letting the truth get in the way of a great story, with Jesse Eisenburg’s Facebook inventor as inspired by the real Mark Zuckerberg as Charles Foster Kane was newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst. The Social Network has found its timelessness after only two short years. Give it another decade and we might yet see it deemed one of the greatest.