Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Playing the Top Ten Game

The British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine Top Ten Poll is for your serious cineastes only. Every ten years, since 1952, film professionals around the world have been polled for their top ten lists of the greatest films of all time. The results are compiled and printed in Sight & Sound magazine to coincide with the anniversary of their first publication in 1932. The Sight & Sound poll has given us an interesting look at which films have been considered the absolute essentials of cinema over the years, which titles have been passing fads and which titles have some up again and again. There have been six polls to date, and 2012 will see the addition of a seventh.

There has been some quiet buzz going around as various critics speculate as to what might make this year's poll results. Roger Ebert has weighed in on his choices. There have been a scattering of the usual articles bemoaning "Citizen Kane's" stranglehold on the top spot, which it has occupied since the second poll in 1962. There's a great piece over at Criticwire, which asked various critics to replace only a single entry from the 2002 poll, and explain which title they would drop and which they would add. At first, the exercise looks a little daunting, but then, reading the responses, I knew exactly what my answer would be.

I've quietly avoided creating serious Top Ten lists, qualifying choices as personal favorites or being non-committal as to their importance. Declaring some films the best of the best seems like such an act of snobbery. And there's always been that lurking fear in the back of my head that I don't really know what I'm talking about, that I haven't seen enough films and I don't know enough about the individual works and their significance. Or, that I don't know enough about filmmaking and film theory to adequately measure their merits against each other. I have no formal film education, and the only studying I've done has been self directed, strictly as a hobby. However, looking over the past Sight & Sound polls, there is only one film on any of the lists, Marcel Carnè's "Le Jour Se Lève," that I haven't seen. And I do have some pretty strong opinions about most of the others.

So, let's make a list.

Eisienstein and D.W. Griffiths were important innovators, but my vote for the greatest silent era filmmaker would go to Charlie Chaplin, who told the most humanist, most universal stories that have lost none of their impact over the years. If I had to pick one of his films, after making my sincere apologies to "The Gold Rush" and "Modern Times," I'd choose the eternally endearing "City Lights."

The greatest of all silents, however, is "The Passion of Joan of Arc," still one of the most intense cinema experiences I've ever had. It broke filmmaking rules left and right, and was a complete outlier from the established schools and styles of the day. And after all this time, there's still nothing else quite like it, even from Carl Dreyer, who went on to make more deeply spiritual, but far more sedate films.

I never understood all the fuss over "Metropolis," as it is perfectly clear to me that the best film Fritz Lang was ever responsible for was the psychological thriller "M," his first sound film, one of the vital links between German expressionism and film noir. It remains a crime film of rare delights, offering thrills, suspense, a little social satire, and some occasional, startlingly modern black humor too.

The advent of sound was really the last major technical leap of any importance to cinema. After that, it was various film movements that had the most influence, and the most important of them all was Italian neo-realism, which was about making films of substance above all else. Visconti's "La Terra Trema" and Fellini's "La Strada" are unforgettable, but Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" remains the most iconic and emblematic of them all. It topped the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952, and it still belongs there.

This would not be an honest list from me without the inclusion of an animated film, and in many ways they never got better than Walt Disney's second feature, "Pinocchio," a visual tour-de-force that was the culmination of so many different disciplines and techniques and ideas. Along with "Fantasia," this was Disney at its most ambitious and daring, pushing the medium to new places it would rarely venture to again.

Now after Neo-realism, we come to the New Wave, which began in France and traveled around the globe ushering in a new filmmaking era. I've tried, but the New Wave films confound me. But on their periphery, comic filmmaker Jacques Tati was making movies around the same time, and from a totally different, unique perspective. "Playtime" is his most popular film among critics, but I prefer the gentler, more organic "Mon Oncle."

It would be very easy to go down a list of the most influential directors and pick the best films of each, but that would be a cheat. However, there are a few directors that must make appearances. One is Stanley Kubrick, a genre and a movement in and of himself. My favorite of his films is "The Shining," a childhood favorite, but I think, deep down, his greatest directorial feat remains "2001: A Space Odyssey."

From the New Wave came New Hollywood, but also New German Cinema, and a slew of strange young German directors. Perhaps none of them was stranger or more talented than Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had a tremendous output over his short and troubled life. The best of his films was "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul," an unusual and striking romance. The 70s yielded many classics, but I've never found another film of that era to match "Ali."

I have said before that I sometimes wish that Akira Kurosawa's bleak epic "Ran" was not my favorite of his films, but it remains unparalleled among his works, and though I dearly love the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi and Kon, Kurosawa is unparalleled among the Japanese directors. "Ran" is a beautiful film, operatic in its scope, and devastating to behold in its carnage and destruction.

And because I think it really did change my life a little bit, "Synecdoche, New York."

My Top Ten:

City Lights, Charles Chaplin, 1931
The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928
M, Fritz Lang, 1931
Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica, 1948
Pinocchio, Ben Sharpseen, et al., 1940
Mon Oncle, Jacques Tati, 1958
2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Ranier Werner Fassbinder, 1974
Ran, Akira Kurosawa, 1985
Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman, 2008

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