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.
How do you distinguish a movie that’s one of the greatest of all time from one of your all-time favorites? Is there a distinction? Making a top 10 list of the greatest movies of all time made me realize that there is and there isn’t. For example: John McTiernan’s Die Hard is one of my favorite movies, but it didn’t make this list. On the other hand, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it didn’t make this list either. Maybe it would’ve been easier to choose movies in specific genres and categories. For example: Most people would argue that Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all time. It certainly is one of them but I’d make the case that Saturday Night Fever is just as monumental an achievement in the musical genre.
But the task at hand is to make a list of the 10 movies I consider to be the greatest ever made. Following the model of the Sight & Sound critics’ poll, I consider this list to be fluid and not set in stone. Surprisingly, I didn’t agonize over this list that much (I agonize more when I make my year-end list). My choices are movies that continue to speak to me long after I can anticipate every line of dialogue, every edit, or plot point. I feel I will never fully understand why I consider these movies to be the greatest ever made. So, if some of my choices baffle you, take comfort in knowing they baffle me, too.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). Just because it’s an obvious choice doesn’t make it any less of a deserving one. Making the greatest directorial debut in movie history, Orson Welles turned the story of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane into a bracing self-portrait of talent and ego. Citizen Kane is a character study, a cautionary tale of early success, and a toy-train set of an entertainment. You can focus on a single aspect of the movie (the cinematography, the sound design, Joseph Cotton’s heartbreaking performance as Kane’s only friend) and still discover something new about Welles’s genius as a storyteller. And, in “Rosebud,” that elusive final word uttered by Kane on his deathbed, we get nothing less than the key to unlocking the meaning of one man’s life. When we find out the identity of “Rosebud” we discover that a person’s life can never be fully explained. For Welles, Citizen Kane would become his “rosebud,” a movie that would forever define him yet never fully tell his story.