The once-in-a-decade Sight and Sound poll has come and gone, leaving battlefields of ‘greatest film’ debates in its wake. Turns out, I couldn’t resist the impulse to add my two cents and revisit my own favourite films.
Every critic and filmmaker in the poll gave their ten – this is my little counter-ballot. I stuck to ten films, as painful as it was (I like to think Tarantino, Malick and Lynch will forgive me). These are the films that I love – films that I can watch over and over, films that still surprise and stun me, films that feel intensely personal. Perhaps they mean something to you too.
1. The Godfather (1972) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
“That’s my family Kay. It’s not me.”
For me, The Godfather is as close as cinema gets to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s brilliance is in his words, words, words, and while Puzo and Coppola’s script can’t quite top him for lines (though by god, they gave us some stunners), the poetry bursts equally from Gordon Willis’ shadow-drenched cinematography, Nino Rota’s sparse, elegiac score and Pacino’s imperceptible but undeniable transformation from wayward son to king. It’s an old story – a father, his throne, and his three sons – told with bursts of machine gun fire instead of blunted swords. Every time, its beauty and operatic power wash over me. So damn majestic; family, fate and America. The sequel is equally masterful, but I feel it is more an appendix than its own beast; the story, and Michael’s fate, is complete as soon as the door slams shut on Kay’s face.
2. Seven Samurai (1954) Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
“I’ve had plenty of experience in battles; losing battles, all of them. In short, that’s all I am.”
No other action film has as perfect and deliberate a build up. Kurosawa’s masterpiece takes its damn time. Over two hours pass before the battles begin, but by then you know the plan, you know the village, you know the characters, you know the stakes. You know the beat of the watermill and the itch on Kambei’s shaved scalp. And when the storm hits, he’s put us right alongside the samurai. It unleashes in waves, reaching their crescendo in the spectacular battle in the rain. A quietly noble story; seven men willing to give up their lives for three bowls of rice, and the class divide that keeps them apart from the peasants they have sworn to protect. Kurosawa’s scope would expand, but here is his best marriage of character and spectacle.
3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1968) Directed by Sergio Leone, Written by Sergio Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli and Luciano Vincenzoni
“There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”
Leone’s film isn’t all style – there’s an unexpectedly poignant ‘horrors of war’ strain, a dying soldier’s last smoke and Tuco’s confrontation with his brother in between all the extreme close-ups – but it is style that makes it unforgettable. No one used cinematic space like Leone does, and few composers can dreams of the heights Ennio Morricone’s concoction of horns, whistles and voices reaches. For pure, visceral cinema, the graveyard climax stands alone, untouched; sublime and insane and just perfect. I can’t watch it without shaking. And Clint has really mastered the art of the threatening squint.
4. Sunset Boulevard (1950) Directed by Billy Wilder, Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.
“Last one I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You’d never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat.”
A noir peopled by dead monkeys, decaying mansions and the ghosts of old movie stars rather than pistols and dames. Gloria Swanson makes Norma Desmond the avatar of a lost people and a forgotten art, the silent movie star whose every sentence is another vain performance projected to an empty theatre. It wouldn’t work if she was purely a monster, but when Norma impersonates Chaplin or wraps her arms around Joe, hints of a lovely girl ravaged by a thousand press agents and million dollar contracts spill out. It’s a nasty film (I love it when Billy Wilder goes misanthropic), not only about Hollywood but about us. Because Wilder knows damn well that if we saw a deranged Norma descend that stairwell into the sea of cameras below, we wouldn’t stop it. We would stare. And possibly buy some popcorn for the show.
5. The Red Shoes (1948) Written & Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
“Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”
I’ve never been a fan of the ballet, but I love the Red Shoes. It taps into a more universal desire – to create something beautiful, something perfect. It asks how much we would be willing to sacrifice for that dream. Ballet makes the pain and the desire something physical, something visual. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is jaw-dropping – his reds alone! Every time, the Red Shoes sneaks up on me. I’m tricked into believing it’s film about a musician fighting the theft of his score, or a young hopeful trying to make it as a star, or a grizzled director learning to open his heart. But despite having the broad strokes of a few more conventional films inside it, the plot pivots away from them every time. Then a foot quivers, eyes widen, the music erupts and, too late, we understand.
“It’s for me.”
I’ve seen the ending of this film dozens of times. It played for months in a small cinema I used to work in, and every session I would get to the door a minute or so early just so I could glimpse that final shot. It’s a quiet, character moment – just a man’s face, and a single line. But it tore me up every time. Lives is a thriller, and a great one, but it stays with me because beneath the portrait of a cancerous surveillance society is an unflinching belief that people can grow and change just as surely as they can be broken down and corrupted.
7. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Directed by David Lean, Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
“Do you think I’m just anybody, Ali? Do you?”
My favourite single performance in a film. Even David Lean’s staggering canvas cannot contain Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence. He’s a hero for a people that will never be entirely his, a legend consumed by his festering ego. I never finish Lawrence with the sense that I completely understood the man – but I always feel like playing all 3 1/2 hours again for another chance at it. And then there’s the scale (the vast single wide shot of the assault on Aqaba is still mind-blowing, even in the era of CGI) and the cinematography (The mirage! How can the camera capture a trick of the human eye?). I can’t wait to someday see this projected on 70mm (or 8K, I’m not picky).
8. Before Sunrise (1995) Directed by Richard Linklater, Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan
“Would you be in Paris by now, if you hadn’t gotten off the train with me?”
One night with two twenty-somethings wandering around Vienna. It’s a simple movie, and it shouldn’t work this well. Or at all. But I completely understand Jesse and Celine (aimless art students in Europe for the win!), and adored every minute spent in their company as much as they did one another. One meeting, one interaction can be powerful enough to capture a lifetime. The script and the actors make the duo immediate, unique and alive, even as their concerns and personal struggles seem universal. And it inevitably reminds you of a road not taken; a girl you met on a train you wish you had asked to jump off with you. Perhaps she’d have said yes.
9. Casablanca (1942) Directed by Michael Curtiz, Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
“I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you, it’s poor salesmanship.”
Casablanca is a lot like its lead character, Bogart’s Rick Blaine. Beneath the witty deprecation and winking sexuality, it is at heart a sentimentalist. It is a hopeful film that believes in romance and sacrifice for a noble cause which manages gets away with it because its characters are cynical, desperate people. Every time I watch Casablanca, the experience is different; sometimes I am caught up in the taut, bantering friendship between a brilliant Claude Rains’ Captain Renault and Rick; others, I’m drawn to the cast of well-sketched European refugees who fill every margin of the frame. And just as often, I am arrested by Ingrid Bergman’s face in close-up and, just like Rick, am unable to forget her.
10. Vertigo (1958) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor
“Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.”
This one I will happily share with the Sight & Sound poll. It’s hard to choose a favourite Hitchcock – Rear Window, Psycho, Notorious and Shadow of A Doubt are all in the same league. But it’s Vertigo that leaves me with a sense of awe. Something catches in my throat every time I see Madeline silhouetted against San Fransisco Bay, or a gloved hand tracing the lines of a dead tree, or Judy emerging from the bathroom bathed in neon. It’s a tragedy masked as a thriller, psychological horror masked as romance. Hitchcock is at his most personal here, exposing his (and perhaps our) cinematic obsession with voyeurism for all its ugliness. With every viewing it becomes a littler creepier, and a little more haunting. And all the better for it.
And my runners up; Inglourious Basterds (2009), The Conversation (1974), Army of Shadows (1969), Gattaca (1997), Out of the Past (1947), Jaws (1975), Psycho (1960), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Amadeus (1986), Alien (1979), The Terminator (1984), The Lion in the Winter (1968), Hot Fuzz (2007), Days of Heaven (1978) – Damn, I’d be happy to put any of these films in my top ten…
So, that my ballot. What do you think? Like them, loathe them, seen them? And what would be your ten?