When The House Next Door invited its writers to submit their Top 10 films of all time, I was faced with the usual conundrum: What does “Top 10” signify – best or favorite? After much consideration, I’m happy to say that the list I came up with could easily represent either. These are definitely personal favorites, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, they are also unassailable in their perfection, and could easily fall at the top of any all-time best list arrived at by consensus.
10. Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955)
The gilded beauty of Lola Montès is as lustrous as that of other titles on this list, but whereas the cinematic worlds of those films are warm and inviting, Lola Montès’s is icy cold. This is by design. Max Ophüls always keeps the viewer at arm’s length from the heroine, a courtesan who is as much a cipher as The Conformist’s Marcello Clerici. But unlike with Clerici, Ophüls never allows us to get inside his protagonist’s head. Instead, he creates an unnerving effect by placing us in the midst of the film’s action, yet separating us from Montès (Martine Carol), constantly placing foreground objects like architectural grating and stained glass in front of the camera. As if to remind us that we are as much spectators as the audience for which the unknowable Montès performs in her circus act, Ophüls ends the film by dropping a curtain over the proscenium that constitutes the final shot.
9. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Like most of the other directors whose films appear on this list, David Lynch derives great power from the abutment of two contrasting qualities. In Blue Velvet, it’s the basest sexual horror and the sunniest, even corny, hometown setting. Dennis Hopper creates a marvelously debased villain in foul-mouthed Frank Booth, and Lynch’s frequent alter ego, Kyle Maclachlan, plays Jeffrey Beaumont as a perverse kind of Hardy Boy. Where both men overlap is in their mutual, voyeuristic—and perhaps even sadomasochistic—fascination with torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a battered beauty whose family is being held hostage by Frank in return for sexual favors. Surreal and sharp, Blue Velvet is the twisted offspring of Buñuel and Capra.
8. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
In The Leopard, Prince Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) is resigned to the death of the aristocracy, but finds much to be optimistic about in Italy’s Risorgimento, as symbolized in the unlikely joining between his penniless, noble-born nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), and the wealthy, bourgeois Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). Luchino Visconti, himself a communist with mixed feelings toward his aristocratic heritage, knows the value of having three of cinema’s most beautiful stars in his cast. At a climactic ball (characterized by a frayed sort of opulence), the three actors get one highly charged scene alone together. Here, the dignified prince laments his mortality in the face of the sexual and socio-political vibrancy of Tancredi and Angelica’s union.
7. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)
Some might argue that Citizen Kane is the Orson Welles film that merits a spot on this list, and I do think it’s worthy. But perhaps repeated film-school viewings have left me feeling a bit cold and detached towards Citizen Kane. The Magnificent Ambersons showcases much of the same virtuosity Welles and his company display in the more precise Citizen Kane, and it has more heart. An integral aspect of the film is the performance of Tim Holt as the haughty George Amberson Minafer. Despite some substantial studio retooling of the ending, Holt’s arc from spoiled heir to sympathetic, down-on-his-luck prole moves me. It’s a testament to Welles and his picture that even the sizable edits made to his original cut don’t minimize the pure joy one feels when wrapped up in the cozy elegance of the fading Ambersons.
6. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Set against the deceptively bleak backdrop of plague-infested Sweden, The Seventh Seal provides a viewing experience that yields a healthy dose of life-affirming sentimentality. In this consideration of existence, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight returning from the Crusades, literally plays a chess game with Death (Bengt Ekerot) hoping to stall his own demise. But Ingmar Bergman never fails to put the spotlight on the small instances of hope and humor found throughout the ravaged landscape, particularly in a young family of actors (Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson). Only Bergman is capable of finding the lightness present in a movie with such heavy philosophical themes.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Form dictates function in Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. Laid out in three distinct parts, each chapter of 2001 contemplates the need for violence as a necessary catalyst for evolution. The most fascinating of these segments features the most emotional of the film’s characters, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rains), a supercomputer whose overriding impulse for self-preservation indicates that it has achieved sentience. His subsequent termination of one astronaut and pleading to another create a heightened tension that serves as a smokescreen for the enlightening/bewildering finale to come.
4. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
A psychosexual precursor to the modern musical (Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, to name one), The Red Shoes pits art, in the form of ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), against love, in the form of composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), with star ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) caught in the middle. The titular 15-minute ballet is a Technicolor dream as lensed by Jack Cardiff. But it is also instrumental in laying out the fundamental struggle Page endures as a lovelorn artiste. At the time of its release, most would have sided with Craster. Now, I’m not so sure.
3. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
A pronounced type of racism fuels John Ford’s surprisingly dark Western. For nearly a decade, ex-Confederate Indian fighter Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) obsessively searches for his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who was kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party. Edwards isn’t out to save her, but to execute her for presumably being “tainted” by the tribe and its leader, Scar (Henry Brandon). Wayne is at the top of his game, not merely playing up his usual onscreen persona but giving a fully fleshed-out performance that’s among the greatest in cinema. Winston C. Hoch’s deep-focus, VistaVision framing of ruddy Monument Valley may be the finest depiction of Ford’s preferred shooting location ever put on film. As a filmic example of a genre uniquely indigenous to America, The Searchers can’t be beat.
2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
In some notable ways, The Godfather Part II is strongly influenced by my top pick on this list, which also utilizes a non-linear structure to depict protagonists obsessed with fitting in. In addition, Francis Ford Coppola duplicates a prominent shot from my number-one choice, and even hired one of its principal actors to play Vito Corleone’s neighborhood mafia collector, Don Fanucci. Revisiting this film without first watching the popular first installment highlights different concerns, though. One is now attuned to how Coppola’s own experiences, both as a first-generation American and an artistic megalomaniac, inform the character of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Unlike his father Vito (Robert De Niro), Michael will stop at nothing to preserve his empire at the expense of his family, even though, ostensibly, it is the survival and assimilation of his family into American life that motivates his power plays.
1. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
Repression of childhood sexual molestation compels Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to conform to the prevailing political status quo—in this case, fascism in Mussolini’s Italy. But is this pathology sufficient to push him to set up his former college professor (Enzo Tarascio), now an expatriate dissident, for assassination? A straightforward plot is complicated by the jumbling of the film’s chronology, using free association as its structure. But Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography becomes more and more complex in linear fashion, evoking the cinema of Josef von Sternberg at the start of The Conformist, before arriving at contemporary techniques such as hand-held camera at the film’s climax.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.