Saturday, November 12, 2022

If I Had a Sight and Sound Ballot – My Picks for the 10 (And 100) Greatest Films of All Time


Every ten years, the British film magazine Sight and Sound conducts a poll of prominent critics and academics to determine what are the ‘Greatest Films of All Time.’ It is the most notable and prestigious version of this list, the place where Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane cemented its reputation over the decades as the most commonly cited ‘greatest film,’ and where its dethroning by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the 2012 edition became big news (that was a ridiculous result – Citizen Kane is emphatically the better movie). With ten years having passed since the last edition, we’re on the cusp of getting the 2022 version of the list, with results expected in late November. 


I haven’t been asked to participate this time – maybe in 2032, with this whole doctorate thing wrapped up, I’ll be in the running! – but I’ve always wanted to take a stab at the intellectual exercise of naming what I think are the ‘greatest films of all time.’ It’s a tough task – very different, I think, from saying what one’s ‘favorite’ films are. That’s relatively easy; everybody has favorite movies, and you only need to justify them by saying how they’ve spoken to you, personally. Identifying the greatest movies ever, in a critical and historical sense, is a different exercise altogether. I don’t think I would have felt remotely qualified to even attempt an answer until relatively recently; but having crossed into my 30s and nearing completion on my PhD in film studies, I think I can provide an answer with a reasonable degree of experience and authority, using the knowledge gathered from a decade as a film academic and two decades as a film critic to try putting my finger on what I would call the ‘best’ movies ever made.


Of course, taste and personal preference is still involved – that’s a given. There is no escaping subjectivity in an exercise like this, and one shouldn’t shy away from admitting that. My list is heavy on Japanese and other East Asian films because that’s where my scholarly experience lies (just as the actual Sight & Sound poll is perennially Euro-centric, because that’s where most of the critics and scholars they invite have done the most work). And of course, there are films I can intellectually admit are quite accomplished – like Godard’s Contempt – that I can’t bring myself to include because I personally have no enthusiasm for them. 

Still, I want to stress that this is a different list, with a different intent, than my ‘favorite films of all time,’ which I most recently compiled in 2020. I still like that list and would make only small changes (it needs a Wong Kar-wai film in the ranks), but as you’ll see, the Top 10 I’ve selected here is very different. There’s some overlap, but I’ve also gone in a different direction in some places, choosing different films by the same directors or highlighting parts of the world I didn’t on my ‘favorites’ list. The question and guiding principle for me in compiling this list wasn’t “what films do I enjoy the most” or “what films mean the most to me,” but “what films, in a critical and academic sense, do I think are the most accomplished – formally, narratively, in terms of historical import, etc.?” And that results in a list with a very different flavor. 


To this end, I’ve compiled both an unranked, alphabetically ordered Top 100 list, and a ranked Top 10, the latter being what I would submit if I had a Sight and Sound ballot. I like both of these lists, though I find the scope and variety of the Top 100 more exciting. The Top 10 is narrower, obviously, and involved plenty of difficult cuts, but I’m surprisingly happy with it. I look at it, and I think I can honestly say this is a good representation of my critical tastes and experience, distilled into the 10 films I’ve encountered that I would call the ‘greatest.’ 


A few ground rules: I’ve chosen to limit this list to only feature-length films, not because there aren’t plenty of shorts that deserve to be here, but because comparing a 3-hour epic like The Godfather to a 60-second rapture like Stan Brakhage’s Night Music is too much of a headache. More importantly, I’ve limited my choices to one film per director. This is not a rule Sight & Sound follows, but is a limitation I’ve set to encourage variety – otherwise I’d be including huge chunks of the filmographies of directors like David Lynch, Hayao Miyazaki, Terence Malick, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and other favorites, and missing out on the broader scope of cinema. That means there’s some absolutely brutal cuts here – you won’t find Seven Samurai or The Tree of Life, for instance, even though they’re innermost-circle favorites for me, because I’ve chosen other films by those directors for this exercise – but in the end I think it’s for the best. In that sense, you can also treat this list as a compilation of the 100 greatest directors, though the results might look different if I specifically constructed things from that vantage.


All right then. First things first – let’s take a look at the Top 10:  


1. Ran (Japan, 1985; Dir. Akira Kurosawa)

2. Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953; Dir. Yasujiro Ozu)

3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (France, 1928; Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer)

4. Sansho the Bailiff (Japan, 1954; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)

5. The Godfather Part II (United States, 1974: Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

6. Spirited Away (Japan, 2001; Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

7. A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971; Dir. King Hu)

8. The Magnificent Ambersons (United States, 1942; Dir. Orson Welles)

9. The New World (United States, 2005; Dir. Terrence Malick)

10. Pather Panchali (India, 1955; Dir. Satyajit Ray)

Some thoughts on this list: 


There are three cases here where I’ve chosen a different from a director I also had on my ‘favorite films’ list –Ran (instead of Seven Samurai), Tokyo Story (instead of Late Spring) and The New World (instead of The Tree of Life). 


For Ranit’s simple: This is the most recent case where I’ve sat down with a movie and come away thinking, in my gut, ‘yes, that is the greatest film I’ve ever seen.’ The Top 5 all share that quality – it’s a thought I’ve had watching each of them. With Ran, on my latest revisitation, that sense was overwhelming, Kurosawa’s decades of accumulated mastery brought to bear on one of the bleakest and most profound exultations to the cycle of human suffering in the history of the visual arts. I think I would still call Seven Samurai my ‘favorite’ Kurosawa, the one I would happily watch any day of the week, but Ran is his greatest. When I look at its overwhelmingly rich, painterly cinematography, at the towering images it continually conjures into being, as the monumental performances by Tatsuya Nakadai and the rest of the ensemble, at the bold and brutal emotions of Toru Takemitsu’s landmark score, I see in the aggregate the greatest accomplishment in the history of film. For now, at least; there is, of course, always more to discover. 


Yasujiro Ozu is the director I personally cite as the greatest filmmaker of all time; the consistency of his filmography and its thematic and aesthetic project means no one film rises distinct from his oeuvre quite to the degree Ran does for Kurosawa. For me, it comes down to Late Spring and Tokyo Story – Late Spring having always been my favorite. Tokyo Story is the one that’s always landed near the top in Sight and Sound polls, though, and here, I think I have to admit there’s something to the conventional wisdom. There is a scope toTokyo Story, in the big and complicated family dynamics it traces, and in the emotional space it charts – that is both deeply rooted in the specifics of Japanese history and culture, and utterly transcendent of all national or chronological borders. It is universal. Everyone on earth has family, everyone experiences varying distance and changing dynamics within that family, and everyone experiences loss – Tokyo Story expresses these things better and more powerfully than any film in the history of the cinema. It deserves to be here. It is truly that magnificent. 


And as for Malick, this one is fairly simple: The Tree of Life has long been my ‘favorite’ of his films, as a movie that speaks to me in a particular way based on my particular life experience. And I do indeed regard it as a masterpiece for the ages. But I don’t think its his ‘best’ film – that distinction goes, in my estimation, either to Days of Heaven or to The New Worldand I give the edge to the latter as perhaps the fullest expression of Malick’s study of the intersection of humans and the natural world, his dreamy evocation of America’s dawn an endlessly rich tone poem about both the individual and society, and the individual in society, the violent conflict between nature and civilization played out on the body of Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocohantas through the glow of love, then the gauntlet of transformation, and finally through a wholesale destruction. Kilcher’s performance is one of the great debuts in the history of the movies, and Colin Farrel has never and probably will never be better than he is here. Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, perhaps our greatest living cinematographer, made his masterwork with these images, and has yet to surpass them. Malick, for his part, waffled on the edit of this movie, releasing first a 150-minute cut to theaters, then recalling it and issuing a 136-minute edit, before moving in the other direction with a 172-minute cut on home video a few years later. All are magnificent, and this film in any form would be in contention for my list, but the 172-minute cut is, to me, definitive, the one that breathes the most and feels most natural and intoxicating. 


The Passion of Joan of Arc is another film I’ve called the ‘greatest’ ever made in the past, and I obviously still think it’s in that innermost circle. Never has history felt more vividly, powerfully alive on celluloid, and rarely has film itself been put to more emotionally confrontational use. It has been said that the close-up is the soul of cinema, the ultimate mark of what distinguished film from prior dramatic forms like theater; if so, then Dreyer’s Joan is cinema’s soul come to life, a film constructed upon stark, penetrating close-ups, often from striking and unusual angles, that make the extremity of Joan’s anguish – and the depth of her spiritual belief – feel unrelentingly palpable to the viewer. This would not be possible, of course, without the legendary work of Renée Falconetti in the title role, given what might well be the best dramatic performance in the history of the cinematic medium. Falconetti’s work feels less like acting and more like spiritual possession, and every unique and innovative stylistic choice Dreyer makes feels like it stems outward from her revelatory effort at the film’s center. And as one of the undisputed pinnacles of cinema’s pre-sound days, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a beautiful example of why the great silent films weren’t great in spite of their absence of synchronized sound, but because of it; an account of Joan’s martyrdom this emotionally and spiritually rich could not be produced with dialogue or sound effects fighting for supremacy over the visual element (many attempts have, of course, been made).


Kenji Mizoguchi could be on here for any number of films, but it always comes back to Sansho the Bailiff for me. It was the first film I fell in love with in film school, where it left me a shaking, emotionally scarred puddle in my Freshman Intro to Film class. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. A parable about mercy, suffering, loss, and morality built on the bones of an ancient folktale, Sansho the Bailiff tells the story of a noble family torn apart in feudal Japan, with the mother sold in prostitution and the children into slavery under the cruel eye of the title character. It is a story about doing what is right and living with compassion no matter the severity and challenges of one’s circumstances, and it is, perhaps, the most effective piece of emotional devastation I have yet encountered on film. It’s all there in that jaw-dropping final scene, when mother and son are finally reunited, and the weight of the film’s carefully constructed emotional house of cards comes crashing down upon the viewer. It destroyed me as a 19-year-old Freshman, and I frankly only find it more affecting as the years go by. 


The Top 5 is rounded out by Coppola’s The Godfather Part IIthe greatest sequel in the history of the cinema, and perhaps the most towering achievement in film structure and editing an American filmmaker has ever accomplished, intertwining two stories to tell a bigger and more profound narrative than either could alone. Many have tried to recreate its success in this regard; none have surpassed it. The centerpiece sequence of Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone tailing Fanucci through the neighborhood festa to assassinate him is in contention for the most electric sequence in American film history. 

Elsewhere, you’ll find I’m one of those iconoclasts who’s given the Orson Welles spot to The Magnificent Ambersonsnot Citizen Kane. Ambersons is a famously mangled film, of course, cut from over 2 hours to under 90 minutes by the studio without Welles’ involvement, with an entirely discordant ‘happy ending’ tacked on haphazardly. But as has been said by countless critics and scholars before me, Ambersons remains, even in its diminished state, one of the most overwhelming achievements in the history of the cinema. I have little doubt that if we had access to Welles original cut, it would be in serious contention for the #1 spot. Its narrative and emotive breadth and depth, its deliriously bold and innovative cinematography, its stupendous performances, its deft use of narration (performed by Welles himself, in perhaps the greatest employment of the device in cinematic history), and, if one discounts the last 90-seconds of tacked on studio treacle, its brutally precise gut punch of an ending, all add up to a work that is, at any length, no matter how abused, an enduring masterwork for the ages. It has to be here. 


Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali“Song of the Little Road,” is here, after I previously included the entire Apu Trilogy to which it belongs on my 12 Favorite Films list. This is the first of those three films, and certainly the most historically significant as an inception point of India’s ‘parallel cinema’ and an international arthouse hit that did for Indian Cinema what Bicycle Thieves did for Italian. Ray is one of the great filmmakers, and this movie – willed into being through sheer effort and artistry, with very little in budget or resources to work with – is one of the most vivid human portraits ever committed to celluloid. Like all three films in the Apu trilogy, what we have here is beautifully observed character work, deeply empathetic storytelling, and a poetic visual lyricism reminiscent of Ozu and the Italian Neorealists, but with a painter’s eye that was all Ray’s own. It’s one of the loveliest films ever made, one of the most powerful, one of the most poignant – and maybe the movie that most fulsomely extols cinema’s ability to let us walk in the shoes of another, of film as an engine for empathy. 


King Hu’s A Touch of Zen is an easy call for me – it’s one of my favorites, and that’s because it’s just flat-out one of the most muscular, accomplished feats of film I’ve ever witnessed. Every time I watch one of Hu’s films I find myself thinking, “is this the most preternaturally gifted filmmaker I have ever had the privilege to watch work?” A pioneer of the Wuxia film – a term which comes from the Chinese literary genre about martial artists in ancient times – Hu was a huge influence on later Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Chinese filmmakers, from Tsui Hark to Ang Lee, and while his innovations have been widely borrowed and built upon, none of his successors are a substitute for the genuine article. In films like Come Drink With Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1967), and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), Hu combined vivid, archetypal characters – including a number of strong female leads, a Wuxia literary tradition that hasn’t always been mirrored on film – wry humor, a rigorous development of space and never-ending masterclass in blocking, outstanding action choreography, and the boldest, most perception-altering use of editing in narrative filmmaking since the days of Soviet montage masters like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Legend of the Mountain (1979), a nearly uncategorizable three-plus-hour mind trip that can best be described as Chinese gothic horror, contains a sequence that I would count as the greatest, most creative, and most arresting piece of narrative film editing since Man With a Movie CameraA Touch of Zen is Hu’s masterpiece, and it contains all these qualities and more. So singularly ambitious that it was originally released in two parts, the three-hour compiled version that survives today is a winding, unpredictable martial arts epic of uncommon patience – it takes over an hour for anyone to draw swords – and even more striking spiritual depth. It begins as the story of a small-town scholar and the mysterious, disguised noblewoman who seeks refuge in his seemingly haunted village, and ends as a Buddhist parable about enlightenment. Along the way, Hu sketches incredible characters and delivers sequence after sequence of virtuoso masterwork, from the scholar’s initial, frightening journey through a haunted estate, to a mid-film set-piece in a bamboo forest so electric every Wuxia filmmaker since – including Hark, Lee, and Zhang Yimou – has paid homage to it. 


And finally, of course, there’s Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – the movie I like to call my favorite. I could tell you why. Or I could just show you this scene, which is my favorite scene in the history of movies, and gives you a good idea why I also think it’s one of the best ever made:


As noted above, in making this list, I also made a catalogue of what I consider the Top 100 ‘greatest films.’ This was the fun part, and where the ‘one film per director’ logic really pushed me to broaden the scope. I love the breadth of this list. I’ve never attempted a Top 100 before, and I love how many corners this list explores. Again, this is an attempt to catalogue what I think are the ‘best’ films I’ve seen – for whatever that’s worth – and it would look a little different if we shifted the exercise to ‘favorites.’ And there won’t be space to write about all 100 of these. So I’ll leave this here for you to peruse, and hope if nothing else it leads to some cool discoveries. 

Top 100 (Arranged Alphabetically)

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (United States, 1968; Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
  2. All Quiet on the Western Front (United States, 1930; Dir. Lewis Milestone)
  3. All That Jazz (United States, 1979; Dir. Bob Fosse)
  4. Amazing Grace (United States, 2018; Dir. Alan Elliot and Sydney Pollack)
  5. The Battle of Algiers (Italy/Algeria, 1966; Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)
  6. Battle Royale (Japan, 2000; Dir. Kinji Fukusaku)
  7. Beau Travail (France, 1999; Dir. Claire Denis)
  8. A Better Tomorrow (Hong Kong, 1986; Dir. John Woo)
  9. Blade Runner (United States, 1982; Dir. Ridley Scott)
  10. Blue (United Kingdom, 1993; Dir. Derek Jarman)
  11. Body and Soul (United States, 1925; Dir. Oscar Micheaux)
  12. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Germany, 1920; Dir. Robert Weine)
  13. Casablanca (United States, 1942; Dir. Michael Curtiz)
  14. Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994; Dir. Wong Kar-wai)
  15. City Lights (United States, 1931; Dir. Charles Chaplin)
  16. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan, 2000; Dir. Ang Lee)
  17. Do the Right Thing (United States, 1989; Dir. Spike Lee)
  18. Dont Look Back (United States, 1967; Dir. D.A. Pennebaker)
  19. The Double Life of Veronique (Poland/France, 1991; Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski)
  20. Drive My Car (Japan, 2021; Dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  21. Eros + Massacre (Japan, 1969; Dir. Yoshihige Yoshida)
  22. Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time (Japan, 2021; Dir. Hideaki Anno)
  23. Fantasia (United States, 1940; Produced by Walt Disney)
  24. Floating Clouds (Japan, 1955; Dir. Mikio Naruse)
  25. For All Mankind (United States, 1989; Dir. Al Reinert)
  26. The General (United States, 1926; Dir. Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
  27. Ghost in the Shell (Japan, 1995; Dir. Mamoru Oshii)
  28. The Godfather Part II (United States, 1974: Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
  29. Godzilla (Japan, 1954; Dir. Ishiro Honda)
  30. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Taiwan, 2003; Dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
  31. The Graduate (United States, 1967; Dir. Mike Nichols)
  32. The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (Japan, 1968; Dir. Isao Takahata)
  33. Greed (United States, 1924; Dir. Erich von Stroheim)
  34. Groundhog Day (United States, 1993; Dir. Harold Ramis)
  35. Halloween (United States, 1978; Dir. John Carpenter)
  36. Hana-bi (Japan, 1997; Dir. Takeshi Kitano)
  37. Harakiri (Japan, 1962; Dir. Masaki Kobayashi)
  38. Heat (United States, 1995; Dir. Michael Mann)
  39. Hiroshima mon amour (France, 1959; Dir. Alain Resnais)
  40. I Am Not Your Negro (United States, 2016; Dir. Raoul Peck)
  41. The Iron Giant (United States, 1999; Dir. Brad Bird)
  42. It’s a Wonderful Life (United States, 1946; Dir. Frank Capra)
  43. Killer of Sheep (United States, 1978; Dir. Charles Burnett)
  44. King Kong (United States, 1933; Dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  45. Koyaanisqatsi (United States, 1982; Dir. Godfrey Reggio)
  46. L’Argent (France, 1983; Dir. Robert Bresson)
  47. The Last Laugh (Germany, 1924; Dir. F.W. Murnau)
  48. Le Bonheur (France, 1965; Dir. Agnès Varda)
  49. Le Jour se lève (France, 1939; Dir. Marcel Carne)
  50. Lemonade (United States, 2016; Dir. Beyoncé & Kahlil Joseph)

  51. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Zealand/United States, 2001; Dir. Peter Jackson)
  52. Los Olvidados (Mexico, 1950; Dir. Luis Buñuel)
  53. Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, 2015; Dir. George Miller)
  54. The Magnificent Ambersons (United States, 1942; Dir. Orson Welles)
  55. Mary Poppins (United States, 1964; Dir. Robert Stevenson)
  56. The Matrix (United States, 1999; Dir. Lana and Lily Wachowski)
  57. Mirror (Soviet Union, 1975; Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
  58. Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack (Japan, 1988; Dir. Yoshiyuki Tomino)
  59. Mr. Thank You (Japan, 1936; Dir. Hiroshi Shimizu)
  60. Mulholland Drive (United States, 2011; Dir. David Lynch)
  61. My Dinner with Andre (United States, 1981; Dir. Louis Malle)
  62. Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (France, 1927; Dir. Abel Gance)
  63. Nashville (United States, 1975; Dir. Robert Altman)
  64. Network (United States, 1976; Dir. Sidney Lumet)
  65. The New World (United States, 2005; Dir. Terrence Malick)
  66. Night of the Hunter (United States, 1955; Dir. Charles Laughton)
  67. No Country for Old Men (United States, 2007; Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
  68. On the Waterfront (United States, 1954; Dir. Elia Kazan)
  69. Parasite (South Korea, 2019; Dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  70. The Passion of Joan of Arc (France, 1928; Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer)
  71. Pather Panchali (India, 1955; Dir. Satyajit Ray)
  72. Persona 3 The Movie: No. 4, Winter of Rebirth (Japan, 2016; Dir. Tomohisa Taguchi)
  73. Personal Shopper (France, 2016; Dir. Olivier Assayas)
  74. The Piano (New Zealand, 1993; Dir. Jane Campion)
  75. Police Story (Hong Kong, 1985; Dir. Jackie Chan)
  76. The Princess Bride (United States, 1987; Dir. Rob Reiner)
  77. Raging Bull (United States, 1980; Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  78. Raiders of the Lost Ark (United States, 1980; Dir. Steven Spielberg)
  79. Ran (Japan, 1985; Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
  80. Revenge (Kazakhstan, 1989; Dir. Ermek Shinarbaev)
  81. The Right Stuff (United States, 1983; Dir. Philip Kaufman)
  82. Rome, Open City (Italy, 1945; Dir. Roberto Rossellini)
  83. Sambizanga (Angola, 1972; Dir. Sarah Maldoror)
  84. Sansho the Bailiff (Japan, 1954; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)
  85. Seconds (United States, 1966; Dir. John Frankenheimer)
  86. Shadow of a Doubt (United States, 1943; Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  87. Singin’ in the Rain (United States, 1952; Dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
  88. Spirited Away (Japan, 2001; Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
  89. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (South Korea, 2003; Dir. Kim Ki-duk)
  90. Summer Wars (Japan, 2009; Dir. Mamoru Hosoda)
  91. Superman: The Movie (United States, 1978; Dir. Richard Donner)
  92. Taipei Story (Taiwan, 1985; Dir. Edward Yang)
  93. There Will Be Blood (United States, 2007; Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
  94. The Third Man (United Kingdom, 1949; Dir. Carol Reed)
  95. Tokyo Story (Japan, 1953; Dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
  96. A Touch of Zen (Taiwan, 1971; Dir. King Hu)
  97. Under the Skin (United States, 2013; Dir. Jonathan Glazer)
  98. The Wizard of Oz (United States, 1939; Dir. Victor Fleming)
  99. Woman in the Dunes (Japan, 1964; Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara)
  100. Young Frankenstein (United States, 1974; Dir. Mel Brooks)

1 comment:

  1. My only surprise on this list is "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". After seeing it a few years ago for the first time, I seem to remember you mentioning on the podcast that you thought it was "overrated". Maybe this would exclude it from your favorites list rather than your greatest list.