Among the many critics who simultaneously partake in, and rise skeptical eyebrows toward, “best of” polls, the notion of the “list as snapshot” becomes a helpful negotiating metaphor. Viewing any top 10 ballot as a historically contingent event—as opposed an authoritative act of canon formation—allows critics to both enthusiastically make the case for our favorite films, while acknowledging that any act of “objectively” ranking works of art quickly bumps up against the limits of one’s own knowledge, biases, and experience.
It’s a useful image, but perhaps an incomplete one. If a photograph captures a given instant, it cannot account for all the previous moments that collectively created what was placed before the lens. Whittling down this list, for me, became as much about contending with my relationship to different periods in my life as it did with clarifying my feelings on the films themselves—as if the two could ever be wholly disentangled. Should I go with more classical Hollywood titles, whose early presence in my life profoundly shaped both my cinephilic tastes and childhood memories? Is it better to take a gamble on those movies that I’ve had less time to sit with, but whose initial seismic impact most likely ensures their permanent place in my head and heart?
Creating this fantasy Sight & Sound ballot, then, felt as much like excavation as photography, sifting through the layers of past experience, arranging the found artifacts in an attempt to convey my range of cinematic passions up to this point. It’s been an inevitably frustrating, completely rewarding task—and, if it means you add a couple of these titles to your Netflix queue as a result, all the better.
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). Jean-Luc Godard’s screw-the-rulebook masterpiece remains one of the great, joyful paeans to the endless flexibility and playfulness of the cinematic medium. Several viewing later, I remain floored by its devil-may-care freshness, its nimble shifts in tone and pace, the simultaneity of its cooler-than-cool chic and almost guileless enthusiasm. Godard would go on to make works that perhaps eclipse Breathless in their formal density and political knottiness. It’s all the more reason to savor Godard’s initial shot across the bow—both a perfect time capsule for a moment in film history and a portal that plugs us right back into the initial, heady thrill of that moment.