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

List-making is an exercise in futility, but as futile exercises go, it’s one of the best.

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

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.

List-making is an exercise in futility, but as futile exercises go, it’s one of the best. Over 10 brief bullet points, one maps out a condensed history of personal taste, a cartography of the canon made one’s own. I found it taxing and, by the end, exhausting, struck at every moment with crippling self-doubt. I wondered: Is my list exhaustive? Am I a victim of my own myopia? My confidence in these choices—which, truly, I love with all my heart—began to crumble under the pressure of a (I think universal) desire to not only be, but to seem worldly and omnivorous, to appear to have taken in everything and to conclude, finally, that these 10 films are definitively the best of all time. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I felt compelled to trade out canonical classics for idiosyncratic curveballs (though in the end I included a couple of both), but that while thinking through my favorites I couldn’t help but criticize myself for what was surely missing. Doubt gnaws away at you always, often like so: How much did I know about African cinema? Why are none of these 10 films directed by women? (Vagabond was a late and regrettable cut.) Why are there no silent films on my list? Are these films generally too recent? Should I feel guilty—and I mean this seriously—that each of these 10 films is an English-language narrative feature directed by a white male? What does that say about me as a person? Should I trade one of these films out for, say, Close-up, Paris Is Burning, or A Brighter Summer Day, each of which came extremely close to making the final cut but, alas, did not? The truth is that I don’t know. Maybe it makes me a shitty white critic with blinders on. But what I do know is this: I love these 10 films more than any other films in the world. I hope that’s enough.

Hoop Dreams

10. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994). Hoop Dreams is a four-hour documentary about the modest rise and fall of two teenaged basketball prodigies in inner-city Chicago. It’s also more classically well composed than 99% of conventional narrative fiction—in fact, a common (and correct) observation is that the story couldn’t have been any more interesting or dynamic had it been fabricated from nothing. Its pleasures seem nearly impossible to describe without resorting to simplistic declarations of awe: Indeed, Hoop Dreams really is riveting, arresting, thrilling, and unforgettable (all convenient pull quotes slathered across the film’s theatrical poster), which makes it sound like the explosive summer blockbuster it most assuredly isn’t. How often are issues like class, race, and (sometimes inadvertently) institutional oppression—all of them fundamental to the largely undiscussed operational mechanics of this country—engaged with deeply without being bogged down by finger-wagging didacticism?

Kiss Me Deadly

9. Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955). When people speak of film noir, they talk mostly about a tone or feeling—a moody, melancholic something awash in black and gray. That’s certainly not the world of Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s defiant neo-noir: Rather than the dour or downcast romanticism of someone like Raymond Chandler, Aldrich’s noir world is razor-sharp and violent, a sobering vision of Cold War America overcome with fear and barreling straight toward total annihilation. There are no sultry dames or coolly detached heroes; instead, there’s a woman on the run from a mental asylum who’s very nearly been tortured to death and a raging private eye as ruthless as the criminals around him. The Maltese Falcon ended with “the stuff dreams are made of”; Kiss Me Deadly ends with a glowing suitcase that sets its opener alight and may or may not be a harbinger of nuclear annihilation. Clearly this isn’t your father’s noir.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

8. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003). Intellectually rigorous but enormously entertaining, Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself is, more than anything else, one of the most essential works of film criticism ever made. An amalgamation of footage culled from hundreds of obscure and mainstream sources and set to a voiceover narration of both wit and critical authority, the experience is less like watching a film than it is like taking in a lecture—albeit an unusually insightful and compelling one delivered by an unusually smart and charismatic speaker (think of it like a protracted TED Talk for people who appreciate nuance). The best thing I can say about the film might sound strange, but it’s completely true: Watching Los Angeles Plays Itself actually made me love movies more. There is no higher praise.

Will Success Spoil Hunter Hunter?

7. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1957). A Technicolor satire of the highest order, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Frank Tashlin’s comic masterpiece about a hapless advertising agent on a fast-track up the corporate ladder, is as relevant and biting today as it was the day it was released (over 50 years ago now, incredibly). Like Tashlin’s smarmy ode to the music biz, The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is as light and frothy (and funny) as it is smartly self-aware, delving headlong into cartoonish postmodernism decades before it was cool. Tashlin was clearly a gifted satirist and comic, but it was the talent he fostered during his time as an animator and story writer at Warner Bros. and Disney that really sets the film apart. Even now the pop-art frenzy of every frame looks radical, unless you’re six years old and know better—as this had been well-worn Looney Tunes territory for years.

Love Streams

6. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984). Nobody made movies quite like John Cassavetes—though naturally legions of failed imitators tried. At one his most exceptional and typical film, Love Streams finds Cassavetes channeling his predilection for heartache into the story of a brother and sister set to burst at the seams. The result is a film of immense sadness, but also warmth, humor, and something very close to sublime. As Thom Andersen said, “His comedies face up to tragedy and reject it,” and that seems truer of Love Streams than of any other Cassavetes film.

F for Fake

5. F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1975). A great, flippant fuck you to the cinema (and yet also a celebration of its powers), a sort of prolonged tease (with, to be fair, a whopping pay-off), a sly misdirect from one of the cinema’s most famous magicians (both undermining and confirming his own genius in the process), and the formal polar opposite of what is universally regarded as the man’s greatest artistic achievement (but also, yes, at least that film’s equal), F for Fake is the most challenging, progressive, and ultimately confounding thing Orson Welles ever signed his name to, which is certainly saying something. It’s about everything: art, deception, magic, identity, belief, and authenticity, and about how dubious the whole sweeping gamut of it is. Welles, beset always by the unswerving punctuality of chance, was lucky to even finish this work, particularly given his track record for orphaned projects (by the ‘70s he seemed doomed to be the tireless worker with nothing to show for his labors, a tragedy if there ever was one). But this isn’t just a late-career oddity or minor point of interest; it’s a complete, fully realized opus, an intellectual epic like none other.

Johnny Guitar

4. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954). Jean-Luc Godard had Bitter Victory in mind when he wrote that “Nicholas Ray is cinema,” but those words are every bit as applicable to Johnny Guitar, the unqualified masterpiece of a career littered with era-defining classics. At once a revisionist western, feminist treatise, Trucolor spectacular, subversive anti-blacklist cautionary tale, and an unprecedented work of mainstream postmodernism, Johnny Guitar is a picture of unparalleled depth and complexity. But it’s also, significantly, a formally near-perfect one, a classical Hollywood genre piece par excellence; in fact, it’s so traditionally well calibrated that, at least at the time of its release, few noticed just how much it managed to smuggle in beneath its eye-popping veneer.

Playtime

3. Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967). Jacques Tati doesn’t act within a cardboard slapstick world of his own creation; he calcimines the walls of the real one, preparing a canvas as vast as a city and as alive with activity too. Playtime, after all, is chiefly concerned with the defiance of a populace increasingly restrained, relishing acts of reclamation, which is an overly stuffy and academic way of saying that it’s about making a mess in too-tidy spaces. Destruction is an act of creation, as they say. And so, in Tati’s hands, the gradual deterioration of a trendy restaurant across its jam-packed opening night becomes an occasion for (personal, social, and of course architectural) improvement: Everybody mingles once the walls come down.

Blowup

2. Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). Regrettably remembered more as a snapshot of mod style and music than as the veritable existential inquiry it aspires to be, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup is above all else a movie about what it means to watch movies. When Thomas (David Hemmings), a high-profile fashion photographer, discerns in the margins of a photograph what appears to be accidental evidence of a murder (or perhaps not), his curiosity rapidly descends into fevered obsession, the imperceptible truth ever out of his reach. Thomas, his gaze fixed on uncaring images, does what we do: We strain to see meaning in every frame, so helplessly in thrall to the task that, over time, we begin to find what isn’t there. The genius of the film’s final scene, in which students mime a tennis match, is that it is deeply convincing: It looks like a real game of tennis. Don’t you see the ball? As Thomas learns, whether it’s really there or not doesn’t matter. We author meaning for ourselves.

King Lear

1. King Lear (Jean-Luc Godard, 1987). Interminably dismissed and, when seen, vehemently slandered, Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear has had a pretty rough go of it since its release in 1987. It’s certainly oblique (one could even call it abrasive, in a way), but it’s also joyous, heartfelt, and profoundly rewarding, a cinematic experience, to employ a cliché, quite unlike any other. It diverges from rather than adheres to Shakespeare’s opus, yes, but only because it aspires to something even higher (if that’s even possible): It aims to be an exhaustive taxonomy of human existence as modern as it is timeless, and in doing so is, to my mind, the most important film ever made.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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