For film critics, Top 10 lists are a fact of life. Yet, despite frequent complaints that Top 10s are a bore to compose at the end of each year, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll is one of those rare lists to which most critics would love to be asked to contribute. It’s the Top 10. The lists themselves tend to represent each critic’s best effort to express the knowledge and creativity that the invitation supposes. You can imagine the arduousness, then, of limiting one’s selections of the greatest movies of all time to just 10 entries.
Given that my role in the larger critical dialogue is minute as compared to those participating in this year’s Sight & Sound poll, I took to the challenge of a personal Top 10 more in the spirit of fun than soul-searching. Indeed, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about all of the films below in various capacities and stages of my life. Some meant more to me years ago than they do now, while others have lingered in my thoughts and memories beyond what seemed like an ordinary experience of watching them. Some are predictable, others perhaps naïve. But they each played an important part in my own development as a film lover, a writer, and a person.
So while individual Top 10 lists represent an opportunity for all of us to showcase our film knowledge, I see them more as a reflection of who we are as people. They are all unique, interesting, and flawed, both in concept and execution, which also makes them less significant than their epic design would suggest. That’s why I have opted for simplicity in deciding on the films for my list. While a certain amount of self-reflection is essential, some things are better felt than pondered. The following list is no doubt an expression of my personal tastes and knowledge about film, and perhaps even a statement about how I approach life. Then again, it is also a fairly arbitrary ordering of 10 films that mean a great deal to me.
Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Werner Herzog’s chronicle of Spanish conquistadors into the implacable folds of nature is cinema at its most expressive and elusive. Aguirre, The Wrath of God is a fluid experience of ambiance and atmosphere, perhaps best exemplified by its opening shot. Underscored with sustained, echoing music, a line of soldiers emerge from a shroud of mist and climb down a steep mountain. Their mission to bring Western culture to a new land descends into madness, however, as they are slowly engulfed and swallowed by their surroundings. Aguirres approach to story and character can best be described as minimalist, which Herzog also reveals to be conducive with his hypnotic portrait of the specter of nature.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a fiercely divisive work of conflicting sensibilities and reflexive manipulation. The negative response Steven Spielberg’s Pinocchio-esque fairly tale received upon release is understandable, even relatable (some critics have changed their minds about the film, notably Roger Ebert and the House’s own Keith Uhlich), given how it oscillates between intoxicating feelings of childlike wish fulfillment and disturbing sights of societal glut and isolation. The narrative, too, is fractured between the wooded suburbs of New Jersey and the glistening purple haze of Rouge City. In whole, aside from posing hard questions about the cultural and ideological implications of technological innovation, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is more so a profundity for its potent blend of an ornate emotional spectrum with a simulated sense of detachment.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
A conventional choice for any Top 10, to be sure, but Vertigo deserves every accolade that it now so routinely receives. It is the most layered film in Alfred Hitchcock’s staggering oeuvre, cogently exploring an array of feelings and ideas buried within our collective and individual psyches. The pain and suffering Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) puts himself through in trying to reconstruct the perfect woman becomes a proxy for cinema and the images, sounds, and feelings it stirs in us. As I grow older and fonder of Vertigo, my obsession with it ever more resembles Scottie’s infatuation with Madeline, and I find myself swimming in memories I never had.
The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
Perhaps cinema’s greatest parable for the folly of 20th century progress, The Third Man is also one of its most beautiful-looking (and sounding) entries. Visions of endless alleyways and cities in ruin augment Orson Welles’s chilly characterization of human disdain and Joseph Cotten’s shattered idealism. The film’s nuanced thematic core is realized by a host of stirring images and contrasts—such as a breathless sewer chase and repeated juxtapositions of light and shadow—and, of course, by those famous zither chords. But perhaps the most memorable aspect of The Third Man is the sight it offers from atop a Ferris wheel, causing you to look down and imagine if “one of those dots stopped moving forever.”
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Forgive me for delving into more personal details regarding this film, but it is fitting that I take note of the first movie to challenge me to think in a new way. I may have been too young to grasp the breadth and complexity of ideas that 2001: A Space Odyssey evokes, but the images made a lasting impression on me, even if I wasn’t mature enough to really process them. To this day, aside from its historical achievement in effects and storytelling, Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film remains the most ambitious and challenging film I have seen. Moreover, 2001: A Space Odyssey stretched what was possible for this medium and ushered in new planes of aesthetic and thematic depth that we continue to see the fruits of today.