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

There are simply too many amazing films—thousands, really—that could occupy every slot on this list just as confidently as the ones that are here.

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Steven Boone's Top 10 Films of All Time
Photo: IFC 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.

There are simply too many amazing films—thousands, really—that could occupy every slot on this list just as confidently as the ones that are here. So I chose great ones that, whether or not it was the authors’ intent, protest the way systems, traditions and institutions threaten to break or trap individuals. Some celebrate how people manage to hold onto themselves or each other during the assault. Others dramatize defeat (see numbers five, six, nine, and 10). This quality in movies is more desperately needed right now and more enduring over time than such film critic checklist items as technical virtuosity and screenplay structure. The vast majority of people who watch movies are the ones who bear the yoke, and last century’s problem was too many films made to satisfy those who wield the whip. We, the people, are still stuck in that false reality of virtual freedom, every time we turn on the TV, click through a corporate banner ad, or look up and see more billboard than sky.


The good Shepherd

10. The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro, 2006). The Good Shepherd, Robert De Niro’s film about the early days of the C.I.A., bored many who were expecting a jaunty spy movie, but they missed how masterfully it lays out a horrifying secret of American history—and what that history implies for all of us who call ourselves American. It’s not surprising that this film arrived in the middle of a decade Ho’wood spent turning domestic spying, duplicity, torture and targeted killings into the onscreen equivalent of a theme park attraction. Antsy Americans, primed by shallow TV politics and movies that piped War-on-Terror imagery into frivolous James Bond-y material (the Bourne films, The Dark Knight), yawned at De Niro’s audacity. This quiet epic is more serious and dangerous than the film that critics often unfavorably compare it to, The Godfather.


Hunger

9. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). Director Steve McQueen might claim to have just been reproducing his research into bloody IRA prison strikes in Margaret Thatcher’s England, but the rhythmic sound design and rock-solid camera movement create a direct reproach to Thatcher’s iron voice on the radio. Her cold refusal to regard the IRA members as political prisoners meets its match in McQueen’s cool-hand audiovisual assault. This film never flinches or blinks. Steven Spielberg said his Arab-Israeli conflict thriller Munich was about the human cost of intransigence; Hunger is about the same phenomenon, but never from a prayerful distance, always in the center of the maelstrom. And yet, this movie is some kind of gorgeous prayer, in the end.


The Host

8. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006). In The Host, a South Korean family fends for itself during a disaster of Godzilla proportions and Hurricane Katrina ramifications. Korean bureaucracies and American polluters with imperialist callousness are the real terror here. Tuning out their disinformation and banding together is the only way to survive with your humanity intact. Bong Joon-ho’s lyrical, questing camera is a cousin of Steven Spielberg’s and Roman Polanski’s, always poised for a devastating/hilarious/thrilling reveal.


E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

7. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982). This silly kids’ movie’s entire reason for being is the vow made to the main character’s corpse: “I’ll believe in you all my life, every day.” The way the kid says it, it’s as if he knows that adulthood will eventually do its best to convince him that this creature he befriended wasn’t real, or at least not important. E.T.’s death is the death of imagination and sensitivity and promise. Elliot’s vow is to never let this world steal those things from him. It’s like that scene in My Neighbor Totoro (which could just as easily have held this spot) where the little girls realize the forest creature Totoro is no delusion and shout, “It was a dream, but it wasn’t a dream!”


Los Olvidados

6. Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950). Children thrown away like garbage. Luis Buñuel’s disdain for pieties and murderous good intentions was never sharper than in Los Olvidados.


Mulholland Drive

5. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). The kind of dreams and nightmares you have when half asleep while your TV plays a midnight movie. On top of that, Mulholland Drive is the most damning evidence of what corporate Ho’wood does to people.


In Vanda’s Room

4. In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000). Pedro Costa films a “docufiction” story of a heroin addict going about her daily routine in a crumbling Portugese shanty. In Vanda’s Room is the birth of 21st century cinema, a shedding of all 20th century pretense and folly, thanks to modest little cameras that can live with you rather than induce the need to perform or sell.


Fallen Angels

3. Import/Export (Ulrich Seidl, 2007). Two poor young people trying to make their way in the world. They never meet or even know each other exists, but they share the same doggedly moral soul, across borders, across sublime film edits. Tyrannical economies and individuals try to coerce them into giving up that soul at bargain basement prices. Import/Export was made out in the real world, in harsh climates and bad neighborhoods, with art direction by God.


The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

2. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939). Everybody wants to become good at something and have value in this life; nobody wants to end up a laughing stock or a wretch. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, Kenji Mizoguchi’s second masterpiece (made a few years after Sisters of the Gion), is about a bad young actor who yearns to be great. The trouble is, his adoptive father, a legendary thespian, casts a long shadow, and no one has the guts to tell Great Actor Jr. that he sucks—except one woman. Her truthful coaching and encouragement give him reasons to go on. The other trouble is that she’s a mere wet nurse in the great actor’s household, which makes her relationship with the son scandalous. Mizoguchi records the whole tale in elegant, side-scrolling master shots that blend the dynamism of a Kurosawa with the restraint of an Ozu.


Love Streams

1. Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984). John Cassavetes believed that love is what gives shape and meaning to our existence. It comes through in every shot of Love Streams, a loopy, heartbroken tapdance of a film.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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