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.
For many years, I maintained a Top 10 list. It was changing all the time, but by the mid-1980s, I had pretty well nailed it down. Only by then was it a Top 12, not a Top 10, and anyone who asked me my Top 10 films got an unexpected bonus. And that was how it was until a couple of years ago, when I allowed myself the latitude of increasing my all-time favorites to a list of 15. But as a devoted game player, I respect rules and try to play by them, so for this personal Top 10 list project, I’ve forced myself to pick just 10. These are not necessarily the same 10 I would pick if my criteria were cinematic greatness, beauty, and far-reaching influence—though they easily could be. No, these are favorite films, the films that mean the most to me, the ones that give me the most and best chills. There are lots more where these came from, but for now, these are the ones. I present them in chronological order to avoid any suggestion of preference.
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
People tend to forget that King Kong was a sensation, and a huge success, in its day. Perhaps the first horror film that tried to humanize and empathize with its monster, it did so without making any of the mistakes of the two remakes, always keeping the monster scary. It’s easy to sympathize with a teddy bear. King Kong wrote the book on movie monsters for decades to come, and no monster movie ever did it better, or told us more about the beasts inside ourselves.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Nope, it wasn’t the first film to use deep-focus photography, to piece together a narrative from flashbacks, or to combine German expressionism with the parochial Americanism of Hollywood. But it did all of those things as well as they have ever been done, and with a timelessness that defies the ages. Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane set the bar, and did it with a profoundly moving story about a little boy lost in search of the American Dream.
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Akira Kurosawa learned from, and improved on, John Ford. Seven Samurai perfected and defined the action film. The makers of today’s action films should be required to memorize it, shot for shot. Kurosawa understood that action sequences are not a break in the story; they are the story, and if they don’t advance the story, they don’t belong in the film. He understood the importance of establishing spatial relationships, characters, and ground rules, the better to invest the action scenes with beauty, importance, narrative impact, and an epic tone that no other director ever achieved.
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
John Ford assayed the American national disease—racism—more than once, but never so searingly and provocatively as he did with The Searchers. In 1956, using (and apotheosizing) the iconography of the western as a vehicle for self-examination of characters as well as audiences, Ford was light years ahead of critics who, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, took what haunted Ethan Edwards as a policy agenda rather than a devastatingly honest look at American culture. We still have a long way to go.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Always a consummate entertainer, Alfred Hitchcock seemed barely half-cognizant of how personal Vertigo was, for those who made it and for those who saw it. If any film can be called “haunting” (and many can), this is the one that most deserves that distinction. This twisty tale of a detective so impressed with his own cleverness that he fails to see the most important things, even when given a second chance, looks painfully, unflinchingly head-on at how men manipulate women—and how movies manipulate, well, everything.
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1959)
Using the look and feel of Italian neorealism, even while turning it on its head, La Dolce Vita challenged traditional narrative form even more than Citizen Kane had, and created an almost hermetic world out of the emblematic excesses of an increasingly Americanized European culture. Pauline Kael famously railed against the French and Italian films of the ‘50s and ‘60s about bored Continentals and their lost values—and she was mostly right. But La Dolce Vita is the real thing, not vaguely world-weary but cuttingly intimate, personal in a way no film had been before.
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1963)
Rarely have so many quotable lines and shots come out of a single film. Arguably the greatest of all spectaculars (and certainly the most well written and memorably directed), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is another film that was ahead of its time. Widely mocked in its day for being slow, self-indulgent, and inconclusive, the film has patiently aged and waited for audiences to grow into it. It gets better, more relevant, more perceptive, and more hauntingly beautiful with every viewing.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
When American critics and audiences finally stopped mocking the so-called “spaghetti westerns,” Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West was the reason. Rightly cited as evidence that something really important was coming out of Italy’s (and Europe’s) simultaneous send-up and celebration of the most American of film genres, Once Upon a Time in the West was nevertheless nearly killed forever by Paramount’s messy cutting-down of Leone’s goofy-reverent epic masterpiece. All is forgiven, though. We have this film forever, and everyone who cares about the western, America, or the movies is better for it.
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
Sam Peckinpah dared to suggest that we are not born innocent and corrupted by society, but rather born beastly to struggle to learn from our mistakes and misdeeds, and hope for one last chance to do it right. Filled with the poetry of landscape, gesture, physics, brutality, and beauty, and the bitterness, wisdom, and acceptance of men and a country grown old, The Wild Bunch embodies the apocalyptic tendency and irrevocable sense of loss that haunt all westerns—the mourning of the the passing of a time and place that only ever truly existed in dreams.
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
Stanley Kubrick’s second masterpiece advanced film art and film technology in ways still urgently relevant in this era marked by the general decline of both. If that were all, it would still be enough. But Barry Lyndon crystallizes, with wit, poignancy, cynicism, and despair, profound and persistent truths about human nature, natural beauty, and the eternal indifference of art.