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

The list of “obstructions” ought to be familiar to anyone with any exposure to this parlor game.

Night of the Living Dead
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.

I approached this project the exact same way I expect I would’ve handled being given a ballot in the actual Sight & Sound poll: by procrastinating until the very last second and making a lot of spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment rules to dictate how I could possibly whittle down dozens of films into a list of 10. (I know, everyone else probably would’ve said “hundreds of films,” but I’ve always been a little cine-anorexic.)

The list of “obstructions” ought to be familiar to anyone with any exposure to this parlor game: one per decade, one per country, one per genre, one per boyfriend. But having willfully backed myself into the corner of having no more time on hand, I am forced to use a list I’ve already built elsewhere: the list of films I previously designated as favorites on MUBI. I like using that as a starting point because my choices there seem neither too conservative nor too outré (or at least both simultaneously), and I first started ticking them off as an exercise toward building a list of my 50 favorite movies. Plus, I limited myself to one film per director.

The number of “nominees” there now stands at a slightly lower sum than that original goal (how have I still not picked a Bresson?!), but it still seems the best middle ground between favoring my, well, favorites and giving movies I consider to be among “the greatest” their due. The only major wrench in this plan is that, of the 46 movies shortlisted, all but about a dozen of them are from the U.S. And nearly half are from the span between 1966 and 1976.

Well, no point dancing around statistics. A strategy is a strategy, so onward and upward, in chronological order:



Electrocuting an Elephant

Electrocuting an Elephant (Thomas Edison, 1903

Already it feels as though I’m headed down the wrong way of a one-way street. Ten slots and I give one to this minute-minus animal snuff film? Am I just trying to sidestep my misguided temptation to throw a vote Cannibal Holocaust’s way? Well, maybe, but this is one of the only movies on the whole list whose function as part of a canon makes sense to me. It’s one of the earliest examples of a medium being established capable of cataloging mankind’s abject and carnivalesque sense of cruelty.


The Scarlet Empress

The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934

Stuffed to the point of breaking, Josef von Sternberg’s movies with Marlene Dietrich make 3D hopelessly irrelevant, shame the modern concept of camp with their earnest flair for the theatrical, throw into question the accepted balance of power between directors and stars, terrify the senses with their brazen ripeness. Basically every movie on my list could at least loosely be classified as a horror movie. The look on Dietrich’s face as she assumes power in this film’s coda might top them all.


Rear Window

Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954

There are three movies I always say feel, when I’m watching them, like they are clearly the most perfect example of popular, American, narrative filmmaking. If Rear Window just barely makes the cut over The Night of the Hunter and Do the Right Thing, it’s probably because the nascent auteurist in me knows Alfred Hitchcock deserves it over the man who made one masterpiece and nothing else and the man who spent the rest of his (underrated and interesting) career trying to top his one clear masterpiece.


La Jetée

La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962

My one cheat is to retroactively swap out the Chris Marker film I cited as a favorite on MUBI—Sans Soleil—with his ethereal sci-fi short La Jetée. Watch the Traveller’s paramour awaken from her era-less slumber through a magical series of lap dissolves and try to blame me.


Gertrud

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s perfectionism aside, this is a selection made for autobiographical resonance. Nina Pens Rode, playing the title character, volleys violently inside of herself between the impossibility of reaching total romantic refinement and the insatiable, carnal appetite to indulge in everything that fails to meet that lofty standard. The cock-nitive dissonance leaves her all but incapacitated, a doomed non-starter. Dreyer’s Scandinavian love story hits, quite simply, too close to home. Gertrud wants “amor omnia” inscribed into her solitary headstone. I want the final scene of Gertrud projected in a loveless loop onto mine.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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