Preferential classification in the arts, based on arbitrary choice or empirical study, has a tendency to beget among the chattering classes some sort of mass hysteria. Cinephiles are no exception: Just look at the almost two-month-long back-and-forth fostered by year-end lists. But the pandemonium that starts every December doesn’t even compare with the brouhaha surrounding a “best films of all time” poll. Since the Sight & Sound list is the most venerable one of them all, I expect the conversation to be exceptionally bombastic.
All lists such as the one below are arbitrary (I am taking part in three separate polls this year, and there are differences on all of them based on the mood I was in when I collated the fuckers), but a form of catharsis is available especially when such a generalized survey is conducted among a rather large group of critics. It tends to shut people up, at least after the first few months of finger wagging, soap-box climbing, and pitchfork carrying. Even if one agrees with the eventual outcome or not, the result is what it is. It’s final. It won’t be disputed. And there’s nothing a critic—or a vocal group of them—could do about it. No amount of #TeamTokyoStory-ing will carry your beloved Ozu to the top of the list, matey. The results are in. It’s done. Tough titties if you don’t like it.
A sense of juvenile iconoclasm, especially among critics, seems to be the second side effect of any all-time top 10 poll, and, in the words of Lt. Aldo Raine, that I can’t abide. Among a number of people I talked to about the Sight & Sound poll, a key question was whether Citizen Kane would top the list again. Nick James, the editor of Sight & Sound, and who’s never placed Citizen Kane on his own lists, was recently quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying, “I do think it will be great for younger critics if they didn’t have to do due obeisance to Welles, who’s been at the center of an industry of admiration for a long time,” adding “If Citizen Kane doesn’t win, part of me will want to leap for joy—and the other part of me will be slightly sad for Orson.” Well, isn’t that majestically gracious and benevolent of James? I remember when I read The Brothers Karamazov in high school and detested it, shedding a sad, lonely tear for old Fyodor.
Maybe I’m just a spoon after a nightshift, but I believe that an approach like this is puerile and senseless. When we reconsider the Western canon, we don’t supplant older works just because of their age. We don’t paint over Dante, Homer, and Vigil in Raphael’s Parnassus and replace them with Eliot, Faulkner, and Nabokov. Disregarding older classics just so that we can keep the art form relevant is foolish. And it’s no different than cultural philistines taking issue with critical choices based on their own lack of judgment. Second guessing the nature of a poll does the complete opposite than cause its universal validation.
Still, these things are important, and the Sight & Sound poll matters the most among them. At least it’s garnered discussion. Because, lord knows, we critic types never discuss things enough.
10. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Nicolas Roeg elegantly weaves themes of loss, inadequacy, and despair in a tender study of agony and depression masquerading as a psychic mystery. Venice, beautifully shot by Anthony B. Richmond, becomes a character of its own, and Pino Donaggio’s haunting score lends an element of impending doom. Something’s amiss, but we just don’t know what. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are perfect as the grieving couple, whose fate seems to be predetermined. Don’t Look Now is just a terribly depressing film. But beautifully so.
9. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
Because Singin’ in the Rain is joyful and masterful and just plain lovely.
8. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
Episodic yet thematically coherent, Luis Buñuel’s 1972 masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, is reminiscent of the master’s older works, but it contains an even more vibrant streak of social commentary—more so than in, say, Tristana. The director is in complete command of the surreal form here, fully conversant with the lessons he must have learnt from André Breton. In a film that is itself like a fever dream, the true meaning emerges during the actual dream sequences where the indelible links between the bourgeoisie, the clergy, the army, and the government are laid bare. There’s a reason these European types were always so damn angry.
7. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)
My ultimate lieblingsfilm’s message is that things end. Yes, endings are sad. But they can hold promise. Once the rot sets in, it’s impossible to revert back to a purer form. As such, Withnail and I’s most improbably touching line comes from the affable dealer Danny: “They’re selling hippie wigs at Woolworth’s. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” Even though it’s set at the tail end of the ’60s, even though it ostensibly laments the passing of an era, the Bruce Robinson film’s true greatness is that it has a wider scope. It’s a reflection of a universal: giving up, going straight, getting your hair cut, letting go of a childish dream, and becoming a proper human being. And also an elegy for those of us who never quite manage it, I suppose.
6. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
During his famous 1968 interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock remarked: “I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.” That’s why the film’s as potent today as it was 50 years ago. Regardless of the richness of its themes, or its finely textured nature, it essentially works as sick spectacle. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
5. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Well, Casablanca is just a terribly romantic film, isn’t it? Free-associating now. You have people singing “La Marseillaise” and pissing off Conrad Veidt. There’s also Sydney Greenstreet, like a North African Jabba the Hutt, king of all he surveys and eats. Humphrey Bogart’s little nod to the band. Sam (Dooley Wilson) doing his best to lie, and failing. Ingrid Bergman’s eyes, both when she remembers Paris and when she adores her new lover, facing the Nazi menace with courage. Also Claude Rains in one of the finest performances in the history of film. Michael Curtiz’s assured direction. Max Steiner’s assured score. Ingrid Bergman’s eyes. Oh, I’ve said that before, haven’t I? Well, fuck it…Ingrid Bergman’s eyes.