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

I’ll sidestep the usual throat-clearing about the thought process behind my all-time 10-best-movies list.




Once Upon a Time in the West
Photo: Paramount Pictures

I’ll sidestep the usual throat-clearing about the thought process behind my all-time 10-best-movies list (the agonizing, the second-guessing, the hair-splitting between “bests” and “favorites,” the last-minute changes—yes, it was quite a ride), and cut to the chase. My picks deceptively cover six decades of film history, albeit hopscotching over three of them. Nine of my 10 choices hail from the 1960s and 1970s, making the one remaining look like a token acknowledgment of the silent era when it’s anything but. Nevertheless, six of my films were released between 1967 and 1970, which suggests what I’ve often suspected: that that era of cinema is my favorite. I hasten to add, however, that none of my selections are Easy Riders; and my timeframe stops short of any Raging Bulls. In alphabetical order, my Top 10 movies are:

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

Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Among the least nostalgic of all World War II films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s clear-eyed view of a grim, dark struggle depicts a prison camp devoid of Great Escape shenanigans, rescue missions with slim chances of success, or assassinations of compatriots ordered by self-preserving French resistance leaders doomed to die anyway. Interior monologues are distributed among a handful of characters, but Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is the man in the middle, carrying himself like he’s seen it all, yet occasionally letting fear and uncertainty slip out of his rock-solid center. We see it before a parachute drop, when he’s executing a young, terrified traitor (“We haven’t [done this before] either, isn’t it obvious?”), and while he’s running for his life from German soldiers shooting at captives for sport. Melville scoffed at the comparisons of Army of Shadows to his gangster movies from the same period, and while filmmakers are normally among the least reliable interpreters of their own work, the analogy does feel trite. This is the movie that bears the deepest imprint of Melville’s life and worldview, one that divulges the defeats en route to victory.

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

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

In a lecture on the history of film via technology, Paul Schrader divided movie history into “pre-Conformist production design and post-Conformist production design.” Indeed, the extraordinary look of Bernardo Bertolucci’s moody political thriller (by his frequent collaborator Ferdinando Scarfiotti) neither overwhelms the characters nor externalizes their mental states. In the case of Marcello, an assassin employed by pre-World War II fascist Italy (and played superbly by Jean-Louis Trintignant), his failings and torments all feel heightened, part of a grand opera. Rather than making a didactic political statement, Bertolucci crafts, scene by scene, a kind of political poetry told through indelible images. If at times The Conformist resembles the starkness of Army of Shadows (a harrowing execution in snowy woods), other scenes are more variedly vibrant (a joyous dance that sweeps up Marcello against his will, like everything else). This is one of the beauts of cinema.

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

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

The most reluctant of my picks, the one where I can hear Piper Laurie from Carrie screeching, “They’re all going to laugh at you!” Mike Nichols’s landmark comedy has become the scapegoat for self-flagellants from the 1960s, eager to prove how they’re all older and wiser now. Even Nichols has never missed a chance to have the last word on The Graduate’s meaning (“I was saying that Ben and Elaine would end up just like their parents,” he’s said, despite making that certainty anything but certain, what with the dismantling of church and family in one fell swoop). I’ve seen this “dated” movie with three different sets of college-age audiences over the years, and it casts the same spell over the audience every time. The ending, for me, is less concrete than Nichols claims; rather, it’s the open-ended, oh-shit cultural equivalent of the political question raised a couple of years later at the end of The Candidate: What do we do now? What we can do still is marvel at Dustin Hoffman’s star-making, game-changing performance, laugh and cringe at Buck Henry’s trenchant dialogue and elaborate bedroom-farce scenarios, and absorb ourselves completely in some of the most innovative subjective camerawork ever put on screen. David Denby once quoted Pauline Kael’s complaint about the protagonist: “There’s nothing in his head.” Sure there is, Pauline: we are.

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

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Akira Kurosawa’s urban epic is one of his lesser-known great films, and I’m not being deliberately contrarian when I state that it’s my favorite of all his works. Through a serviceable pulp genre—the kidnapping thriller—Kurosawa channels all of his obsessions. The most important is the clash and collusion between individuals (represented by a pair of polar opposites, Toshirô Mifune’s wealthy shoe magnate and Tsutomu Yamazaki’s resentful medical intern, who abducts the son of Mifune’s chauffeur) and the collective (the nearly personality-devoid ensemble of detectives, who pursue the case and take over the movie from its international star). Critics have pointed out the samurai elements in High and Low as eagerly as they did the gangster touches in Melville’s Army of Shadows, but here they feel more pertinent, deriving from the contemporary culture the movie is depicting (early 1960s Yokohama, in all its social stratification and Western encroachment) rather than exclusively the director’s head.

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

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

My choice for the greatest of all cinematic “spectacles” is also, not coincidentally, the most intelligent, searching and intimate. David Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson structure their sprawling tale—from Cairo to Aqaba to Damascus, amid vast stretches of desert— almost like a Kipling critique. His every triumph offset by a tragedy, Peter O’Toole’s Anglo hero gives in to savagery, while Omar Sharif’s “barbarous and cruel” Bedouin prince emerges as the film’s troubled conscience. “Who are you?” is the question shouted to the protagonist across the Suez (by the director himself, in a cameo as a British soldier on a motorcycle), and Lean earns a nearly four-hour running time by offering an array of tantalizing answers. With all due respect to Travis Bickle, it’s T.E. Lawrence I think of when I hear the words: “He’s a prophet and a pusher; partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”

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

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Metropolis is a selection worthy enough on its own, but the clincher was seeing Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterwork last year at the IU Cinema, with “new” sheet music performed live by the Jacobs School of Music student orchestra (the music was based on a lost score by Gottfried Huppertz). Another vivid depiction of urbanization and class friction, Metropolis depicts, with spellbinding detail, a “futuristic” and allegorical city—a world run by machines that need nonetheless the human touch to function. Gustav Frolich’s Freder is the naïve liaison between high society and the lower depths, while Brigitte Helm plays multiple roles that range from saint-like virtue (Maria) to overheated sensuality (the Machine-Man in Maria’s guise). An indestructible classic—neither the ravages of time nor Giorgio Moroder could kill it.

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

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

Some filmmakers go deep; Robert Altman, at his best, went wide, and he never went wider, with greater force and clarity, than with this teeming, sprawling vision of a distinctive American city during the fallout of an era aptly described by Ray Sawhill as “a country trying to pull itself together from a nervous breakdown.” Following more than 20 characters over a few days, and climaxing at a presidential candidate’s rally (at the Parthenon, a couple blocks down the street from where I went to high school a decade later), Altman’s oft-misunderstood penchant for encouraging “improvisation” among his talented ensembles is, here, the greatest showcase of his ability to make the schematics of plot structure feel exhilaratingly spontaneous, captured on the fly. Nashville is expansive enough to contain all of the director’s recurring themes (performance, celebrity, gender relations, the relationship between art and politics, the strain of violence in American culture), and then, when you don’t expect it, he goes deep after all, as when the camera lingers on Lily Tomlin’s face while Keith Carradine sings “I’m Easy,” a slow zoom that reveals the intensity of fear and longing.

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

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

In his introduction at an IU Cinema screening this past January, Barry Allen, retired executive director of film preservation at Paramount, characterized Sergio Leone’s magnificent epic Once Upon a Time in the West as “a labyrinth…a series of concentric circles revolving around Claudia Cardinale at the center.” That’s an unusual description of a western, yet there’s a tremendous sense of joy and fascination—along with a palpable sorrow for the world they’re replacing—in the film’s mechanistic elements: trains, clocks, telegraphs, guns (naturally), harnesses for the physically infirmed, and, of course, the overall urban development of the Old West. At the same time, Leone’s characterizations have never been stronger. It’s probably no coincidence that his only movie with a three-dimensional female lead was co-written by Bertolucci and Dante Argento, yet the main trio of male performers—Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda, exploiting brilliantly his do-gooder baggage—are among the most memorable in Leone’s body of work. By not merely referencing classic American westerns (High Noon, Shane, Johnny Guitar, and The Searchers figure prominently), but reimagining and challenging their most famous scenes and archetypes, Leone illustrates the difference between artist and fanboy.

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

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Or, The Americanization of Amelie. Another city, another example of cultural incursion, Jacques Tati’s Paris (an elaborate soundstage) is where a pack of American day-trippers collide with that indefatigable klutz Monsieur Hulot (once again, Tati himself). Between Hulot’s and Inspector Clouseau’s overlapping paths of destruction, it’s a wonder the Eiffel Tower is still standing. And yet, among Tati’s inexhaustible supply of jokes is that the tourists in Playtime never see the sights, wowed instead by modern skyscrapers in the municipal area. Hulot’s struggles with new technology are shared by the entire cast, culminating in a famously sustained set-piece in a fancy restaurant’s opening night. The evening is a debacle (with too many sight-gags for the eye to catch in one viewing), but everyone has a good time anyway. From the uncouth American businessman who keeps the party going to the final fleeting declaration of love offered by Hulot to a plain, yet pretty, female tourista (the green-dressed Barbara Dennek), I can’t recall a biting satire with a more generous and tolerant worldview.

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

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

One of two movies on my list I disliked, or just didn’t get, the first time I saw it (Nashville is the other), Stanley Kubrick’s classic eventually overcame my distaste for science-fiction and my early impatience with slow, static storytelling when I finally noticed how completely the film transcended its trappings. (That’s not a criticism of the genre, just an admission of personal taste.) Jonathan Rosenbaum has perceptively noted the similarities between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Playtime, namely, that they’re “wide-screen project(s) to reeducate us by disrupting some of our basic habits in organizing visual and spatial data.” I think that means Kubrick absorbs us into the rules of his world, and in so doing reshapes our understanding of the real world around us. Like Tati’s tour de force, Kubrick’s relies on scant dialogue (although what we hear from the calm and polite, yet insinuating and determined, HAL 9000 has an unsettling thrust). It’s no revelation to call 2001: A Space Odyssey a film of great images. I can only tell you what those images mean to me: the beauty, fearsomeness and wonder of our lives, and our potential on the Earth, in the universe, and in making movies too.

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.

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