My thoughts on the “Sight & Sound” Top 10 Movies Poll

Movies have been the predominant art form of the past century, and like any form of expression you got some good stuff, a bit of great stuff, and a WHOLE lotta garbage (in strict accordance with Sturgeon’s epic pontification). Still, most people can easily make the distinction between the movies for which they feel deep connection or affection, and the ones that they might not particularly enjoy watching but still feel heartfelt admiration of or respect towards the craftsmanship and technique that went into its creation.

And then there’s just the crap they don’t like.

Example: I am well on record with my deep and utter loathing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I think it is an overlong, viciously self-indulgent, and brutally sadistic exercise in punishing the audience in the guise of “rewarding” them for playing “spot-the-clues” in a masturbatory treatise on coinkydinks. It is also one of the most critically heralded movies of the last 15 years, lauded by movie buffs and film reviewers everywhere despite the fact there isn’t a single frame of that film that wasn’t done by Robert Altman before, and done better.

On the other hand, I freakin’ loved Ghost Rider: Spirit of VengeanceSo what the heck do I know?

I bring all this up because the esteemed “Sight & Sound” magazine has published their Top 10 Movies list. This publication of the British Film Institute has a wicked ton of street cred and is taken extremely seriously by both critics and filmmakers worldwide. They’ve published their Critics’ Top 10 List every ten years starting in 1952, and in 1992 added a separate Directors’ List to complement the aggregation.

This is a fairly big deal for those who care about such nonsense. I tend to acknowledge lists with a bit of respectful distance. They tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies of sorts. It is in my esteemed opinion that people tend to vote for anything behind which they feel they are SUPPOSED to lend their support. I mean, The Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds is often heralded as the greatest rock album of all time in polls everywhere, and has been so for YEARS now, but is it really better than Prince’s Sign of the Times or Television’s Marquee Moon? Not on my watch…

Yeah, it’s all subjective. Arbitrarily “ranking” art doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense anyhow. You could make a list of your favorite movies just because they’re personal favorites, but grabbing a subset and say “HERE! These are the best movies of all time!!” just seems like an exercise in frustration and futility. Tokyo Olympiad might be a more impressive cinematic achievement than Robocop, but guess which one I’d rather watch on any given moment?

So let’s get to those lists, shall we?

The Critics’ Top 10

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
4. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: a Song for Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Response: Vertigo is one of those movies that took me awhile to really warm up to, as it wasn’t your typical Hitchcock. When you’re expecting another North By NorthwestRope, or The Lady Vanishes… Vertigo might seem a little boring… except that it’s not. Vertigo is an entirely different beast, like nothing Hitchcock made before or after. It’s a dark, DARK character piece, a gripping noir thriller, and one of those movies that just keeps getting better with each viewing. Greatest film ever made? Who knows. But it’s worthy of the accolades. Citizen Kane needs no defending from me. I think more people appreciate it’s marvels of storytelling than truly love it on a connective, emotional level, but either way it has earned its laurels and then some. (And yes, completely needs to be seen on a big screen.) Tokyo Story is a magnificent movie as well, but from Ozu I prefer An Autumn Afternoon or Floating Weeds. I reviewed Tokyo Story back in 2003 over at DVD Talk, I think it’s definitely worthy of revisiting.

Renoir’s The Rules of the Game I’ve seen once or twice, and while I liked it it didn’t resonate all that much with me. Renoir was a masterful filmmaker but I’ve seen more compelling takes on the whole upstairs/downstairs dynamic. Now 2001: A Space Odyssey is holy… HOLY to me. I loved it when I first saw it as a kid, even if I couldn’t understand a lick of it. After reading Clarke’s book when I was a teenager, I watched it again and was absolutely floored. It is the epitome of filmmaking as visual poetry, transcending the traditional narrative with contemplation and grandeur, wonderment, haunting loneliness, and cosmic beauty. The elation that accompanies the arrival of the Starchild to the accompaniment of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” makes all arguments that Kubrick was a cold, detached, unemotional director a whole lot of bull pucky.

John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the great all-time Westerns (although it’s no The Wild Bunch) and a classic through and through, but is it simply THAT much better than Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine? Maybe. I’ll make a strong argument for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance though. It’s got The Duke, James Stewart, AND Lee Marvin! Print the legend, indeed.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, I saw once. It was fine. I never need to see it again. Haunting visuals and powerful acting (emoting, whatever, it is a silent movie), if you want to see a really powerful and moving Carl Dreyer film check out Ordet or Day of Wrath. Finally 8 1/2 is Fellini being Fellini in the absolute strictest sense of the word, and God knows it’s a great film, a rewarding movie, and it has the inimitable Claudia Cardinale as the Ideal Woman. I stand by the assertion though that if you’ve never spent any time in Italy, you can never truly get Fellini. Especially if you just came off two weeks in cold Central Europe, and the first sight you behold when getting off a plane in Rome is a warm, curvaceous dark-skinned woman selling coffee with hair black as midnight and eyes wide as saucers and just radiating salacious beauty and Mediterranean sensuality from head to toe. Where was I again?

OK that was the Critics List. I haven’t seen Sunrise or Man With A Movie Camera yet. I’ll get there at some point. But let’s see what the actual film makers themselves had to say:

The Directors’ Top 10

1. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
2 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
2 Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
4. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
5. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
6. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
7. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
7. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
9. Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1974)
10. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

Of that list, I’ve yet to see Mirror or Bicycle ThievesTokyo Story, 2001, Citizen Kane, 8 1/2, and Vertigo have already been covered.

Which leaves us Taxi DriverThe Godfather, and Apocalypse Now. Three of the greatest, most monumentally awesome movies of all time. Massive cinematic achievements. Taxi Driver is a Top 10 movie for me, easily. It’s arguably the finest collaboration between Scorsese and DeNiro… and possibly the best work of either on their own. This movie disturbs more than any so-called slasher flick could even dream of achieving. Could there be any more grotesque, chilling milieu than the urban decay of Manhattan in the mid 1970s? Doubtful… especially in Scorsese’s hands.

The Godfather, much like Citizen Kane, does NOT need my endorsement or rationalizations. As Coppola himself put it, it’s an epic fable of a King with three Sons — four, really — beautiful shot, exquisitely acted, brilliantly directed, and a cinematic opiate of the highest order. Gritty, harsh, unforgiving, and altogether too real and immediate. Apocalypse Now, on the other hand, is pure Nibelung. An easy allegory to make, given the Wagnerian strains that accompany the helicopter assault scene,  but Coppola’s take on Heart of Darkness goes entirely meta as it tells more about the filmmaker’s journey than the characters’. It’s loud, huge, punishing, exhilarating, intimate, and at times almost a Lovecraftian tale of terror from eons past that just happened to take place during the Vietnam War. Does the film seem to fall apart when we find Major Kurtz? Of course it does. It’s supposed to.

So in the end, these are just lists, and lists are arbitrary and meaningless. But they inspire thought, reflection, and discussion, and that in and of itself is a worthwhile aspiration. If nothing else, it respects and celebrates the legacy of cinema as something more than simple entertainment, but as something wholly transformative, revolutionary, even evolutionary — even while still entertaining you.

And since everybody else seems to be doing lists lately, I present to you, completely unsolicited and subject to change at a moment’s whim:

Hokeyboy’s Top 10 Favorite Movies That Might Not Be The “Best” Ever Made…Or Are They?

1. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
2. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
4. The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
5. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
6. Fantasia (Disney, 1940)
7. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976)
8. Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
9.  Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
10. The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
11. The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger, 1948)

Yes, my list went to 11. I gave it that extra push over the cliff. I couldn’t leave off my love for The Red Shoes. If you’ve never seen that movie, for the love of all things holy, rent it immediately…

2 thoughts on “My thoughts on the “Sight & Sound” Top 10 Movies Poll

  1. BLADE RUNNER I freakin’ love. On an another day it would be in my Top 10 easily. That’s why these lists and rankings seem so pointless. I’d rather see them break it down by genre. Speaking of which, the only time comedies get represented is if they’re highbrow, satirical, “important”, or feature cross-dressing men. Film critics can’t get enough of “Tootsie” or “Some Like It Hot”. At least the latter is, you know, actually funny. But “Blazing Saddles” and “Holy Grail” mops the floor with 99.999% of anything ever committed to celluloid.

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