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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: R. Kurt Osenlund’s Top 10 Films of All Time

The highly subjective task of compiling a list of the 10 best films of all time is nearly as daunting as the thought that plagues every film completist.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: R. Kurt Osenlund's Top 10 Films of All Time
Photo: USA Films
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.

The highly subjective task of compiling a list of the 10 best films of all time is nearly as daunting as the thought that plagues every film completist: How on earth will I ever catch up with more than a century’s worth of cinema? The answer, of course, is that nobody really can, and in a sense, surrendering to that truth offers a kind of liberation. We all want to devour as many great movies as possible, but there comes a time when we have to accept a certain morsel of defeat. Which is basically my disclaiming way of saying that I came at this project with a highly personal and minimally authoritative approach, selecting a group of favorites instead of stamping my feet and declaring history’s 10 best films. Contributors were encouraged to tackle their lists however they saw fit, and some have certainly delivered what they regard as the definitive cream of the crop. More power to those folks, and to those whose picks are far less populist and more Sight & Sound-friendly than mine. Ultimately, while I gave much consideration to artistic influence and chronological diversity (and winced at the snubbing of films like The Red Shoes, Pulp Fiction, My Own Private Idaho, and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), there were really only 10 titles I ever could have chosen. Quite simply, these movies changed my life.

Aliens

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986). Ridley Scott’s Alien appeals to my cinephile instincts, as it’s unquestionably the most artful entry in a sci-fi saga I can’t live without. But ever since a childhood fraught with Ellen Ripley impersonations, my heart has belonged to James Cameron’s heavy-artillery sequel, the breathless actioner to Scott’s claustrophobic horror film. It is my favorite of all action movies, and its pacing has the looming, omnipresent rhythm of an elevated heart rate, which is all the more evoked by settings filled with arterial tunnels and air shafts. Though surely a chunk of easily swallowable, wannabe-feminist genre fare, Aliens is one of cinema’s great displays of maternal ferocity, which thrillingly crosses species lines. And while baddies come and go, it’s hard to think of a better nemesis unveiling than that of the regal Alien Queen, who’s introduced on an absurdly complex, reproductive Gigerian throne, tripling her already towering size. It’s a slow and shocking money shot, and what follows is a jam-packed final act that rockets by in a blink.

All About Eve

All About Eve (Joseph L. Manciewicz, 1932). To my mind, there’s no better backstage drama than All About Eve, whose riveting account of diva catfights and the balance of showbiz power is fiercely immune to the passage of time. With the tale of cunning stage starlet Eve Harrington (a perfect Anne Baxter), whose world could be swapped out for that of any seductive trade, Joseph L. Manciewicz seems to have known wit in a way Hollywood hadn’t yet grasped, and that’s to say nothing of his keenness to cast a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe as an actress on the brink. The many things his movie gave the world? A model of deliciously acerbic dialogue, an unapologetic meta critique, Bette Davis’s most iconic performance, and George Sanders’s blessed Addison DeWitt—my favorite film character of all time.

Bad Education

Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004). There’s no painter of the screen I cherish more than Pedro Almodóvar, a master frame-filler whose obsessive attention to color is, above all, intoxicating. His way with outsized sexual melodrama is as formidable as his palette, and the two have arguably never meshed better than in Bad Education, a hot-blooded bit of twisty gay noir with a strata of realities. Gael García Bernal may never top his unbound turn as Angel/Ignacio, which offered the quandary of whether the sleepy-eyed, cushy-lipped Mexican looked more enticing in or out of drag. Allegedly spun from its director’s own childhood demons and filmic dreams, the movie springboards from Catholic-school trauma to a gonzo moviemaking mystery, and it boasts Almodóvar’s most ambitious narrative structure. For me, it’s the peak work of an artist who’s singularly expert in communicating the drug-like power of cinema.

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948). Post-recession, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves has often seemed like the classic of the moment, its themes especially potent and even directly reflected in topical works like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. But there’s never been a moment when this heartbreaking drama wasn’t relevant, as it stands as the ultimate, plainspoken depiction of man’s dependence on finance and employment. Though everyman Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is desperate for lira and not dollars, his pitiful plight historically resonates stateside, easily translating as the disintegration of the American dream. For me, the film’s most magical sequence is that which first sees the Roman workers depart on their bikes at the break of dawn. On second viewing, there’s tragedy in its conveyance of a buoyant hope that’s doomed to deflate, but it fleetingly presents the great synergy of man and machine, which can apply to director and camera just as well as laborer and bike.

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). Were I a braver man, I might have shortlisted Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a movie that, in film school, left me in dumbstruck tears, its closing montage of racist Hollywood imagery compounded by my being the sole white student in a class of nearly 30. But like most, my love for Lee as an auteur chiefly stems from Do the Right Thing, which all but emanates heat thanks to a filmmaking style that palpably augments boiling tension. If there’s a better movie about race relations, I haven’t seen it. With his landmark tale of a scorching, fateful day in a Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Lee gathers his views of the world and crowds them under a microscope, with piercing sunbeams illuminating a mess of bickering voices. Of course, the voice that at last rises over the din is the filmmaker’s own, which has proven indispensable.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003). Lawrence of Arabia will likely, and rightly, land elsewhere within this communal project, cited for grand spectacle that’s often considered peerless. But by the end of 2003, David Lean’s baton had officially been passed to Peter Jackson, who, with three continuously shot chapters, nine ironclad core characters, and a laundry list of dizzying statistics (48,000 pieces of armor forged; 1,600 Hobbit feet created), ultimately achieved the most awe-inspiring Hollywood blockbuster these eyes have ever seen, not to mention one of the most uncompromising. Nothing conceived since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has matched the incredible wonder born of Jackson’s comprehensive aesthetic, which joined top-notch CGI and tactile old-school effects with the untouched landscape of New Zealand, emerging with a visual opus of unprecedented scope. And still, in the end, it’s not the sensory feast that gets you—it’s the simple tale one furry-footed guy and the handful of chums who helped him ditch the worst accessory ever.

M

M (Fritz Lang, 1931). From the chilly shot of a young girl’s lost balloon to the aerial view of Peter Lorre’s child killer as he’s surrounded by accusatory citizens on a Berlin street, Fritz Lang’s M is one of the most arrestingly composed films in all of cinema. Few movies have better appealed to my love of graphic design, as most all of Lang’s shots are static, gorgeously stark, and highly meticulous, staged so as to let the action wander through them. I’ve often thought of M as a kind of disaster movie, wherein all walks, regardless of class or moral code, combine efforts to combat and survive a common malady. Putting cops and criminals on even ground, Lang deftly presents a societal skewering and treatise on justice, but what makes his masterpiece both haunting and ahead of its time is its willingness to try to understand the plight of its monster, a branded sex offender for the Depression era. More haunting still is Lorre’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and the mystery of whether his character uses it to drown out dark voices in his head or turn off his conscience.

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). If dreams could be filmed, they’d look something like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, for me the greatest movie of the new century. Has there ever been a more brazen and brilliant narrative arc than that which takes us through the waking nightmare of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts)? Perhaps what’s most beguiling about this whirlwind of loss, lesbianism, and Nancy Drew-ish Hollywood sleuthing is that it’s markedly linear once all the smoke has cleared. An unflinching chronicle of a battered soul slowly rising to consciousness, it’s only nonsensical if seen with a narrow, literal mind. Lynch sprinkles out all the breadcrumbs to follow, but leaves it to you to discern them from ambiguous nuggets of the subconscious. Its unmatched nightmare filmmaking, hoisted further aloft by unshakably gorgeous imagery and Watts’s astonishing performance.

Network

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). As darkly hilarious as it is famously prophetic, Network elicits laughs while exposing bleak societal dilemmas, and it’s a media-world progenitor of the cheeky, silver-lined nihilism later perfected by the Coen brothers. It’s not Sidney Lumet’s best film, nor, despite the pile of Oscars, is it especially well-acted (Peter Finch is a surefire hoot, and William Holden strives to redeem a scarcity of nuance, but from Beatrice Strait to Ned Beatty, there’s a lot of shrill histrionics here). And yet, Paddy Chayefsky’s script is a work of enduring satirical brilliance, its shrewd accuracy stewing beneath an appropriate crust of sensationalism. Beyond adoring Lumet’s drum-tight dramatic focus, I’ve long been a junkie for films about journalism, and this one, to quote Faye Dunaway’s voracious producer, strikes the mother load, proving more than just brutally cynical as it plumbs the soul of an industry.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928). Roger Ebert has said, “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renée Maria Falconetti.” Point taken; however, the quote is rather limiting. The impact of Falconetti’s face reaches well past silents, its quivering, wide-eyed agony and ecstasy a quintessential visual for all of movie history. For this true believer (in the power of holy cinema, at least), hers remains the greatest female performance ever put to film, with tragic and beatific paragraphs of feeling conveyed without a word. With Falconetti as his centerpiece, Carl Theodor Dreyer delivered the greatest filmic exploration of the human face, and if the movie itself doesn’t inspire consideration of a higher power, the mythic backstory of its restoration—from destructive fires to mental institutions—just might.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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