Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Top Ten Films of All-Time

With cinema's taste-making class again in the process of participating in its once-every-decade ritual of selecting "the top ten films of all-time" for Sight & Sound, long-time consumers and students of the list eagerly await not only the latest rankings, which have remained relatively stable (and one might argue conservative) since the lone epochal shift in the survey's history - the rise of the Cahiers-auteurist critics in the 1962 poll - but also, and to a much greater extent (at least for this writer), the individual choices of those made familiar through their scholarship and criticism, in classrooms and most recently on Twitter. In that spirit, I will offer my own, unsolicited picks below, though I must add that I have not yet earned my invitation from the British Film Institute; in other words, my picks will not be reflected in the poll and in no sense represent the tastes of this year's respondents. I offer them instead for those of you who have come to know me similarly, in person or through this site.

However, before I get to my own picks, choices which I should add may change by the time I have finished authoring this piece - such is or should be the nature of participating in this fool's game - let me consider first where the 2012 poll may witness some change from those that have preceded it. For starters, 2012 may just be the first survey to see a new number one since the aforementioned 1962 survey, with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) surging to a close number two in 2002 behind perennial number one Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). No other film, save perhaps for the similarly fast rising and seemingly of the moment 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), would seem to have any chance of unseating the Welles. What would appear to play in Vertigo's favor in particular is the feeling that a change on top is finally possible, while that film's greater prominence in 2002, given its then still recent restoration, may work against it (as might the comparative, at least to Welles, lack of agreement as to the director's finest). In any case, count on the Welles, the Hitchcock and Kubrick to all occupy positions in the top five, and perhaps even the top three, with the Hitchcock the best bet in forty years to defeat the incumbent.

Beyond these, the safest picks to remain in the top ten are perennial selections The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) and Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953). Both have long since emerged as not only the consensus greatest works of the directors but also of the national cinemas in which they were produced. Be shocked if either finish outside the top ten. If history is any predictor, that leaves one spot for one of the remaining five incumbents: The Godfather, parts I & II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 & 1974), The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927), 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963) and Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952). If I had to guess, I suspect The Godfather's will experience a small backlash (and greater competition from other New Hollywood sources) that will drop the diptych from contention; The Battleship Potemkin will lose enough votes to the rising Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) - though not enough to put that pinnacle of the silent screen in the top ten - to place it outside the list for the first time in the poll's history; 8 1/2 just seems to me to be out of fashion, leaving it and the Italian cinema entirely off the list; and Singin' in the Rain will suffer enough classical Hollywood competition to drop it off once again. That leaves Sunrise as the lone holdover among these five - and very plausibly, the lone representative of the pre-talking cinema. Then again, if any film can live up to this pressure it is certainly Murnau's first Hollywood feature.

What films then will take the remaining four places? The surest bet, it seems to me, would be previous selection The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), representing the consensus choice of a director who has been celebrated in the past decade with Fox's monumental box set. Do not be surprised if Ford finds his way back into the top five after sliding out of the top ten in 2002. I would also anticipate a second former favorite in Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) to squeeze back into the bottom of the poll on nothing more than a hunch - and a general contemporary taste for an intensified continuity that the Kurosawa seems to prefigure. As for the aforesaid 'New Hollywood' replacement for The Godfather, Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) seems like a safe pick - though only if it tops Raging Bull (1980) among Scorsese's films. Lastly I would anticipate a post-1960 French film to replace the Fellini with Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) both possibilities for the first time - given the former's exceedingly belated commercial release in 2003 (in the United States), the latter's 70mm restoration one year later and the Criterion treatment that both subsequently received. To cheat let me predict a tenth place tie for these two personal favorites.

Which leads me to my own selections for the 'top ten films of all-time.' As I said above, this list is ever changing, and most certainly will be different moments after I publish this post. (I will resist updating it as best I can.) I offer these picks with no additional commentary - the way the poll should be, in my estimation - and with no runners up (though if you really are interested, I have listed more than eight hundred films that I highly admire on Tativille's affiliate site, Ten Best Films, on a year-by-year basis). With no further delay, here they are, in alphabetical order:

Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)
Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972)
Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)
Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

Update (6/4/2012): In an effort to make this post obsolete, I have post my top one hundred of all-time here.