Eons ago, while still in high school, I composed a list of my all-time favorite films for the first time. The inspiration to undertake such an endeavor was prompted by the 1982 Sight & Sound poll that Roger Ebert wrote about in a mid-’80s edition of his Movie Home Companion (the 1982 Sight & Sound list can be found here). I haven’t followed Sight & Sound’s pattern and revised my own list every 10 years, but I did institute a personal rule that I’ve always adhered to since that initial teenage list: A film has to be at least 10 years old to be eligible for inclusion. Too often, people get swept up in ecstasy over a film they’ve seen for the first time and can’t fight the tendency to overrate it. Then, years later, they see that film again and wonder what the hell they were thinking. That’s why I think all films need time to age, like a fine bottle of wine, to test their taste over time. As for the distinction between “best” and “favorite,” as far I’m concerned, it’s a pointless one. Each submitted list represents someone’s subjective opinion. I hardly can claim my 10 films represent the “best” movies ever made as no one appointed me the arbiter to rule on such absolutes where none can exist.
As always, the trickiest part comes with rankings. For a long time, I simply rattled off my 10 favorite films in alphabetical order, but people tend to insist that if you’re going to share your opinion on movies, you had better settle on the very best. Deciding my number one came easily, but I’ve frequently shuffled and re-shuffled the rankings of numbers two through 10. If I had my druthers, they’d all be ranked at number two. My 2007 list went all the way to 100, and I’ve done that again this year, with the films landing after about number 20 tending to be arbitrary, and a lot of great films not making the cut at all. Here at The House though, you’re only getting my 2012 Top 10.
10. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Billy Wilder’s screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. proves surprisingly malleable, never fitting easily into one genre and playing differently in each viewing. It can be the darkest of Hollywood satires or the tragedy of a woman driven insane by a world that’s passed her by. Gloria Swanson’s brilliant performance as Norma Desmond can come off as a vulnerable madwoman or a master manipulator. Similarly, William Holden’s down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis looks like a shallow opportunist in some scenes, an in-over-his-head dupe in others. The layers make Sunset Boulevard fresh and endlessly watchable. Wilder and his co-writers always produced great dialogue, but I believe the film stands as Wilder’s greatest work as a director as well.
9. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Alfred Hitchcock blessed us with so many classics, it’s hard to pick the best. My list of 100 contains seven Hitchcocks, but Rear Window stands tallest to me. I’ll allow two great directors to state my case. First, François Truffaut from The Films in My Life: “Rear Window is…a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams.” From David Lynch, as he wrote in Catching the Big Fish: “It’s magical and everybody who sees it feels that. It’s so nice to go back and visit that place.” David, I couldn’t agree more.
8. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Goodfellas rarely gets selected as the premier example of Martin Scorsese’s brilliance as a filmmaker, and that’s a damn shame because, within its 140-minute running time, Goodfellas not only encapsulates Scorsese and filmmaking at their best, but might be the director’s most personal film. If you wanted to demonstrate practically any aspect of moviemaking to a novice—editing, tracking shots, reverse pans, effective use of popular music—you could turn to this feature about low-level gangsters, which Scorsese disguised as a film school. Goodfellas also happens to be the director’s most re-watchable film and, in a career stocked with masterpieces, it remains my favorite.
7. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Every time I return to Paddy Chayefsky’s prescient screenplay, something new leaps out that I didn’t catch before. Most recently, it’s from one of Howard Beale’s monologues once he’s become the UBS network’s star. As part of the speech, delivered by the late, great Peter Finch, Beale tells his viewers, “Because you people, and 62 million other Americans, are listening to me right now. Because less than three percent of you people read books! Because less than 15 percent of you read newspapers!” Chayefsky died long before the Internet took off, so remember that the next time someone blames the death of the newspaper industry on the web. Better yet, watch Network and revel in the delicious monologues, magnificent ensemble and Sidney Lumet’s fine direction.
6. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Many prefer the Stanley Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or later works such as A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon, but I’ve always found him best when satirical, especially when that sharp humor took aim at the futility of war as in the underrated Full Metal Jacket, the great Paths of Glory and the best of the bunch, the incomparable Dr. Strangelove. To take the prospect of nuclear apocalypse instigated by a general driven mad by his impotence and produce one of the wall-to-wall funniest films ever made was no small achievement, but it sure helped to have Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers in his multiple roles, and, most of all, George C. Scott’s hyperbolic, acrobatic work as General Buck Turgidson.
5. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
So rarely does the Best Picture Oscar go to the best film, it always amazes me that the Academy recognized Casablanca (though, since it didn’t open in L.A. until a few months after its New York premiere, the film’s win counted for 1943). Claude Rains’s irreplaceable Captain Renault may say, “The Germans have outlawed miracles,” but the most miraculous thing of all was that a screenplay without an ending and based on an unproduced play managed to coalesce into the finest movie the Hollywood studio system ever produced. With a superb ensemble of stars and character actors delivering dialogue with more memorable lines than nearly any other film (courtesy of screenwriters Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), play it forever, Sam.
4. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
It does worry me that we seem to lack a filmmaker as ballsy as Robert Altman was (first person to suggest Paul Thomas Anderson gets punched in the face). Thankfully, he left us his body of work (some dogs to be certain, but the ecstasies we receive from his great ones allow us to forgive). For me, Nashville never wavers from its spot at the top of the Altman charts. It’s a musical, but not really. It’s about politics, but not really. We get to watch 24 characters intersect (or not) as Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewksbury design a tapestry displaying a picture of America on the eve of its bicentennial. It also presents ideas that, in their own ways, prove as prescient as those in Network.
3. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)
Many of the greatest films turn out to be examples of triumph over adversity, and that certainly proved to be the case with Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné’s two-part masterpiece made during the Nazi occupation of France. When I wrote at length about this deceptively simple tale of mimes and actors, criminals and the aristocracy, I said that if I revised my 2007 list, the film would likely rise higher than its 18th rank. As you see, it most definitely has. Better to experience its beauty and magic than attempt to briefly describe it.
2. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
One wonders what the total would be if we calculated the number of words written extolling the brilliance and significance of Orson Welles’s filmmaking debut. Granted, the curmudgeons and contrarians exist, and while not a day goes by that I don’t remind someone that all opinions are subjective by definition, Citizen Kane looms as the behemoth that practically defies that statement. Its status as a cinematic masterpiece comes close to being an objective truth. I have nothing new to add about this wonder. The film speaks for itself.
1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
After what I wrote about Citizen Kane, you’d think it would rest in my top spot, but Jean Renoir’s exquisite tragicomedy grabbed a foothold in my Top 10 as soon as I saw it in college, and it took only one or two more viewings for it to clinch the number-one perch, where it’s remained for more than two decades. Something personal within the film (too much identification with Renoir’s character of Octave; the character of Christine, who seems to cast a spell over all men who cross her path) hooks me in above and beyond the film’s artistry. If that explanation seems skimpy, I defer to what Octave says: “The awful thing about life is this, everybody has their reasons.”
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