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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Aaron Aradillas’s Top 10 Films of All Time

How do you distinguish a movie that’s one of the greatest of all time from one of your all-time favorites?

Manhunter
Photo: Warner Bros.
Editor’s Note: In light of Sight & Sound’s film poll, which, every decade, queries critics and directors the world over before arriving at a communal Top 10 list, we polled our own writers, who didn’t partake in the project, but have bold, discerning, and provocative lists to share.

How do you distinguish a movie that’s one of the greatest of all time from one of your all-time favorites? Is there a distinction? Making a top 10 list of the greatest movies of all time made me realize that there is and there isn’t. For example: John McTiernan’s Die Hard is one of my favorite movies, but it didn’t make this list. On the other hand, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it didn’t make this list either. Maybe it would’ve been easier to choose movies in specific genres and categories. For example: Most people would argue that Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all time. It certainly is one of them but I’d make the case that Saturday Night Fever is just as monumental an achievement in the musical genre.

But the task at hand is to make a list of the 10 movies I consider to be the greatest ever made. Following the model of the Sight & Sound critics’ poll, I consider this list to be fluid and not set in stone. Surprisingly, I didn’t agonize over this list that much (I agonize more when I make my year-end list). My choices are movies that continue to speak to me long after I can anticipate every line of dialogue, every edit, or plot point. I feel I will never fully understand why I consider these movies to be the greatest ever made. So, if some of my choices baffle you, take comfort in knowing they baffle me, too.


Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Just because it’s an obvious choice doesn’t make it any less of a deserving one. Making the greatest directorial debut in movie history, Orson Welles turned the story of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane into a bracing self-portrait of talent and ego. Citizen Kane is a character study, a cautionary tale of early success, and a toy-train set of an entertainment. You can focus on a single aspect of the movie (the cinematography, the sound design, Joseph Cotton’s heartbreaking performance as Kane’s only friend) and still discover something new about Welles’s genius as a storyteller. And, in “Rosebud,” that elusive final word uttered by Kane on his deathbed, we get nothing less than the key to unlocking the meaning of one man’s life. When we find out the identity of “Rosebud” we discover that a person’s life can never be fully explained. For Welles, Citizen Kane would become his “rosebud,” a movie that would forever define him yet never fully tell his story.


City Lights

City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

I’ve only seen it once and yet not a week goes by that I don’t think about it. Charlie Chaplin’s greatest movie has his lovable Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakes him for a rich suitor. The Tramp, not wanting to let her know he’s poor and homeless, does everything in his power to keep up appearances, and desperately tries to raise money for the flower girl to have an operation to restore her sight. The pair’s scenes together are a series of beautifully sustained courtship dances, which lead to the most moving final scene in movie history. In 1931, City Lights was hailed as a lovely fable by the world’s first true movie star. Seen today, it looks as if it could’ve come from another world—a world where an act of kindness toward someone less fortunate can lead to the restoration of life.


Goodfellas

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Martin Scorsese’s fact-based gangster movie is more than the greatest gangster movie ever made—it’s a portrait of ambition and falling short of that ambition. Henry Hill’s desire to become a gangster is turned into a cracked tale of American success, as his early promise, rise through the organization, and making a living to support his family stand in for our dreams and fears. Scorsese makes Goodfellas into an amoral comedy of manners, with Henry and his crew slugging it out to get a taste of the American dream. The beauty of the climatic day-in-the-life sequence is that we are completely wired into Henry’s need to please everyone. The day Henry’s life comes crashing down upon him is a funhouse reflection of a really bad day at the office. Henry Hill had it all and would lose it all. The thing is, how many of us can even say we had it?


Manhunter

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

Michael Mann’s haunting serial-killer thriller is all about perception and the act of seeing. F.B.I. profiler Will Graham (William Peterson) is tormented by his ability to see the evil that surrounds us (he nearly went insane because of his inability to filter out the suffering that occurs on a daily basis). When Graham starts to track a killer who wants to destroy the world because of the way it sees him, Manhunter forces us to become aware of our shifting perspectives like no other movie since Psycho. Mann orchestrates every aspect of the movie, from its running imagery of mirrors and reflective surfaces to the dread-laden synth-pop score and ironic twist of having the killer fall in love with a blind woman (Joan Allen), who only sees the goodness in the world and makes us aware of how we process what’s in front of us. And when Graham comes face to face with evil (and sees that he’s all too human), Mann stages one of the greatest action climaxes in history. Manhunter is a profoundly moving movie about the burden of having perfect vision.


Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

Oliver Stone’s multi-channel media satire is the most cathartic act of transgressive moviemaking ever made. A fever dream of how our brains are continually colonized by gossip, chaos, fame, and banality, Natural Born Killers is more than just a satire of fame culture; it’s a cackling howl of rage and a gloriously romantic celebration of excess. It presents a world where “reality” is shaped and edited for mass consumption. Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) aren’t heroic because they’re killers, but because they realize that they must tune out the noise of a parasitic culture in order to locate their humanity. If Mickey and Mallory can wake up to the sickness of a society that puts a premium on celebrity above everything else, then maybe there’s hope for all of us.


Pyscho

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho toys with an audience’s expectations like no other movie ever made. Before its arrival, movies played by an unspoken set of rules. Not this black-and-white nightmare. When Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh at the 40-minute mark, he forever assured the audience that the rules of the real world don’t apply to the movies, and that anything can happen inside a movie theater. Psycho can be seen as a movie about guilt, fear of femininity, and the suffocating repression of 1950s values, but it’s really about how we experience films. When you watch Psycho, you see it as a movie, but you experience it as a story of a human monster named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in one of the greatest performances in history), who can’t get out from under the thumb of his domineering mother. Psycho presents a world where God has abandoned it. The sick joke is that Hitchcock reveals himself as the one pulling all the strings.


Short Cuts

Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993)

Short Cuts was the second Robert Altman movie I saw in a theater. I had seen The Player the year before, and was beginning to realize that movies were more than shoot-outs and chases (even though I still love shoot-outs and chases). I was 15, and seeing Short Cuts opened my eyes to how movies, more than any other art form, could illuminate the invisible connections that we have with one another, and which dot our daily existence. Using the writings of Raymond Carver as his inspiration, Altman creates a kaleidoscopic view of middle-class struggle that vibrates with weakness, passion, humor, and humanity. We follow 22 characters (a doctor and his cheating wife, a waitress and her drunken husband, a phone-sex operator, a pair of frightened parents holding vigil over their comatose son) as they deal with the daily grind of getting by. There’s no single unifying story in Short Cuts, just Altman’s compassion for the way people are forced to lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation. On some days, these characters fulfill their greatest potential. On others, they succumb to temptation and cruelty. That’s life.


Stop Making Sense

Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)

Jonathan Demme’s document of Talking Heads’ exuberant live performance isn’t just the greatest rock concert movie ever made; it’s a life-affirming experience. Talking Heads, those art-school punks who specialized in deconstructing pop music as if trying to crack a mathematical code, wrote songs that found vitality in the mundane. They didn’t write songs about love; they wrote songs about buildings, food, and love. Lead singer David Byrne, that agnostic-savant master of ceremony, gives a once in a lifetime performance as he goes from sociopathic punk to embracer of the cleansing, secularist power of the Rev. Al Green. From the opening, stripped-down anti-performance of “Psycho Killer” to the futuristic nihilism of “What a Day That Was” and the unifying power of “This Must Be the Place” (one of the greatest live performances in pop music), Stop Making Sense takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride as you go from emotional detachment to being transformed into a believer.


The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a meditation on nature, love, and parental disappointment, is nothing short of a transcendent religious experience. Malick dares to pull all the way back to show us the full perspective of just where we stand in this world. He shows us just how small we really are in the evolution of the universe, and just how big we are to those we love. Of course the suggestion that humans aren’t the dominant species in the universe meant the movie was going to be scoffed at by mass audiences. The it-doesn’t-have-a-story charge against the film revealed that viewers might be on the verge of being unable to see beyond their immediate line of sight. Is it possible that one of the greatest movies ever made was made just last year? Ask me that question in another 10 years.


Zodiac

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

David Fincher’s serial-killer epic has been described as a procedural, a “process” movie, a newspaper movie, a thinking-man’s serial-killer thriller, and a metaphor for post-9/11 anxiety. Zodiac is all of those things, but, for me, it’s a movie about the passage of time and missed opportunities. For newspapermen Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery, and San Francisco homicide detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong, the need to identify the Zodiac killer consumes their lives, and they realize that it will only be so long before time permanently closes their window of opportunity to get things right. This is dramatized in a brief dialogue exchange, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. The date is October 11, 1969, and Toschi has just picked up Armstrong as they’re responding to a shooting of a cabbie on the corner of Washington and Cherry Streets.

Armstrong: You ever try Japanese food?
Toschi: What do you mean? Like Teriyaki?
Armstrong: No, like the urchin, raw fish.
Toschi: I’m eating here, Bill.
Armstrong: I always wanted to try it.
Toschi: So why don’t you?
Armstrong: Haven’t gotten around to it.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Aaron Aradillas

Aaron is a San Antonio-based film critic and journalist, and a writer-producer of video essays.

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