Every ten years, Sight And Sound magazine polls film critics, asking them to each create a list of the ten greatest films of all-time. Then, the editors take these individual lists and create a ranked list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. The last poll was taken in 2012, which made news when perennial #1 CITIZEN KANE was replaced atop the list by VERTIGO. It’s 2022, and so, critics are busy making their lists again for this incredibly thoughtful, once-in-a-decade exercise in futility. I love it.
Sight And Sound didn’t ask me, but I want to play along anyway. So, here are my personal 10 Greatest Films of all-time.
Before we get there, please know, I did not make this list under the pretext of “objectivity” (which, what does that even mean?) but rather, these are the films that I think are “The Best” which, for me, means films that have had a profound impact on the history of cinema AND mean the world to me personally.
That said, the history of cinema is also the history of misrepresentation, underrepresentation, racism, sexism— all of it. My own life and experience with cinema has also been shaped by these forces, as has everyone’s. Representation remains a fundamental problem in film, in society, in life.
There are an endless number of films that should be on my list that are not. There is a version of this list seeks to address the injustice of cinema’s history by offering a corrective, that seeks to elevate the many films that have had a profound impact on the history of cinema through acts of struggle, resistance, new forms of representation, artistic innovation, fully realized humanity. Not finding a place for films from a list of filmmakers that better represent the full range of human experience is a choice. Isn’t the ability to better know the full experience of being human the ultimate artistic purpose of cinema?
I do think it is.
Which is why, in the end, I decided to be true to my own life, my own experience, and all of my own limitations. Since I was going to make a subjective list of the greatest films of all-time, I made the choice to not only acknowledge these limitations and examine the films through the inevitability of my own subjectivity, but to do so honestly.
There is an absolutely fair way to look at this list and see what it represents as being exclusionary, but I have decided to use this list not to build a portrait of cinema, but a flawed portrait of a small piece of myself, the films that, in the full light of truth, are the ones that have asked the biggest questions of me, that have shaped my love of film, that have connected me, through time, to the ideas that I feel have shaped who I am.
Am I uneasy with this self-portrait? I truly am.
Does the creation of this list force me into new questions about why I value these films more highly than others? Yes.
Is the assignment to pick the 10 Films That Shaped You, Personally? No.
But in the end, any list *is* inherently subjective. This entire project is about asking a certain group of people to each, subjectively, weigh what they believe are the “greatest films”. There are no set of criteria for what makes a film one of the “Greatest.” I assume everyone who is polled is asking themselves these questions, and everyone is arriving at their own answer. And I arrived, troublingly, at my own.
So, take this all for what it is worth, which is objectively zero and subjectively, only a small fraction of the whole truth.
Note: this list is unranked and is presented in chronological order of production.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)
The story of cinema is the story of the human face. Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is the pinnacle of the face as drama, a story of corruption and sacrifice that builds an unforgettable, unbreakable empathetic bond between its star, Maria Falconetti, and the audience. No words can explain the power of this film, it requires seeing, the experience of that searing, visceral wave of feeling that remains unrivaled.
THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)
How to define cinematic humanism? Jean Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME is the greatest example; a story of the easy corruption and incurious self-regard of the upper classes, Renoir nevertheless refuses to deny the complex humanity of his characters. The director’s unwavering generosity, toward his audience and his characters, is remarkable, the film’s satire balanced by its seriocomic handling of its story. And yet, at the margins, existence itself, summarized perfectly by the director himself in the role of Octave— “You see, in this world, the awful thing about life is this; everyone has their reasons.” Oh, yes they do.
The power of film to capture the imagination of children and introduce them to a fuller understanding of life is one of its greatest powers, and Walt Disney’s PINOCCHIO takes the formative experience of childhood as its subject. This confrontation between innocence and knowledge, the core of the human dilemma, allows the film to transcend the newly carved boundaries of what we today call the “family film” and take an unflinching look at the realities of life, a journey through their dangers and joys. PINOCCHIO never recoils or panders or talks down to children, it looks them in the eye holds their hands, and shows them, directly, life itself. An absolute masterpiece and Disney’s greatest film.
The relationship between the gaze and the subject, the psychological core of filmmaking and cinephilia, finds its apex in Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, widely considered to be the greatest film of all time. But for me? It is a dynamic experience without boundaries— there is no discernible line between the film’s plot, performances, direction, and its obsessive, relentlessly beautiful, deeply unsettling images. They are all one thing, unified, refusing to be pulled apart or segmented or dissected, an overwhelming flood, which is why anyone who is obsessed by cinema immediately knows and understands all that is VERTIGO and can find endless fascination in it.
AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (1966)
How can cinema capture our inscrutable, unknowable inner lives? Or perhaps, if you believe in them, our souls? Novels can place us directly inside the mind, but cinema remains outside, externalized, built on a surface of images and sound and dialogue and story and performance, but forever, it was believed, at a remove from our inner lives. Robert Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR takes this problem, accepts it, and transcends it anyway. The story of a donkey as he moves, wordlessly, through the burdens, pains, pleasures, and violence of life, Bresson’s Balthazar becomes the perfect vehicle for us to explore ourselves, our own feelings, our own interiority, our complexity. In doing this, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR uses the limits of cinema to show us, deeply and powerfully, who we are. Which is how, in its final, devastating moments, it brings us closer than any other film to knowing the true meaning of life’s inescapable conclusion.
ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)
ANDREI RUBLEV is an unsurpassed statement about creation— the making of art and the making of the artist. Tarkovsky uses the violence, oppression, and ignorance that plagued 15th Century Russia as the perfect framework to explore how the artist, through compassionate observation, can transcend his time to make images that live forever. At its heart, ANDREI RUBLEV is a statement of belief, made manifest in the film’s incredible bell casting sequence, which unifies the artistic process with the limitless inspiration of human creativity. The painful parallels between Rublev’s time, Tarkovsky’s, and our own only continue to deepen the film’s power; like Rublev’s paintings, Tarkovsky’s film will outlive us all.
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974)
If Falconetti’s performance in Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC represents the pinnacle of the cinematic power of the human face, Gena Rowlands’ all-time great performance in John Cassavetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is everything else, all at once. Rowlands and Cassavetes reject the formalism of every other film on this list, of everything that has come before, in order to show something else entirely— a radical and fully realized understanding of the uncertainty of human behavior, experience, and emotion. Cassavetes’ greatest film, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is the towering achievement of American independent cinema, and all of it– all of it— is because of Rowlands. It is a movie that makes your heart race and break, that allows Rowlands to use the cage of misogynist reality to press against the limits of cinema and forge a fully realized woman— it is absolutely unforgettable and grows in my esteem year after year. If you know, you know, y’know?
Can prescience make a film great? No film from the 20th Century predicted the disasters of the 21st with a greater accuracy than Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK, a searing piece of grim cynicism that taps directly into the power of media, images and, crucially, the way in which ideas move through the world to determine stasis or progress. NETWORK is not a perfect film— it cuts and jitters when it should sit still, reflecting the medium it is examining—but it is still a shocking bolt of electric power, a warning from the past, a mirror reflecting our abject failure to heed its truths. The 70s were among the greatest years in American film history, and while masterpieces like THE GODFATHER and APOCALYPSE NOW drew upon the legacy of Hollywood’s grand tradition to define the era, NETWORK saw something else, the writing on the wall, that images and media were being manipulated to tear us apart for profit, and demanded that we wake up before it was too late. And now? Can we find the line between cinema and television? Truth and lies? Opinion and fact? The film showed us all of it. And so, here we are.
Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH is, for me, the greatest film ever made. A non-fiction recounting of the terror of the Holocaust, filmed in the 1970’s, looking backward to the 1940’s through the veil of modern, physical context, the film uses the greatest strength of cinema— capturing a moment in time— to show its deep limitations. There are no recreations, no dramatizations, and crucially, there is no archival footage– only the act of bearing witness through time itself to the details of a once-secret horror, tucked away in hidden, unscrutinized spaces, a horror whose full reality the decades have begun to erode. Cinema cannot replace the reality of life, the momentary nature of time, the decay of inexperience, and so Lanzmann uses his camera and his justified rage to draw a line in time, before forgetting and lies erase whatever remains of the truth. We are another 37 years removed from SHOAH’s 1985 premiere, and the world, in all of its physical and sociological manifestations, continues to bend away from the fullness of historical reality. In so many ways, as life continues to recede further from the urgency that SHOAH was able to capture, the industrial mass murder it seeks to remember retreats backward in time. But as long as cinema remains, SHOAH will endure as a towering act of defiance, its greatest attempt to stop time and acknowledge the unknowable totality of the truth.
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
How would it be possible for cinema to survive as an art form if we only venerated the distant past? Lists can be used to build monuments, but I am here to show myself and it is incredibly important to me that works that forged me and my generation, Generation X, be given a place on this list. Yes, Spike Lee is a Boomer, but DO THE RIGHT THING is the definitive movie of my time, a masterpiece that continues to build new meaning and relevance. A searing and often hilarious meditation on the pernicious, day to day social complexities of the racist systems and state violence that continue to plague America, DO THE RIGHT THING has shaped an entire generation of filmmakers by showing us the truth about ourselves. It is also profoundly beautiful, using the visual language of cinema to explore community in a way that is at once expansive and troubled, generous and filled with rage. The physical textures of city life, the inescapable heat, humidity, and proximity of other people, only serve to ratchet up the tension, propelling the film toward its inevitable, devastating conclusion, one that continues to challenge the nation’s illusory self-image some thirty three years later.
That’s my list. What’s yours? And, perhaps more importantly, why?