Aug 1, 2012

The 50 Greatest Films of All Time

Sight and Sound Magazine just released its list of 50 greatest films of all time. The big surprise is that Hitchcock's Vertigo dethroned Citizen Kane for the first time in 50 years. Now, is Vertigo the greatest film of all time? It is a great film, but the greatest of all time? Will it be able to last 50 years on top like Kane did? That is the problem with best film lists. They are by definition myopic.
Every time someone asks me to name my favorite film of all time, or even my 10 best, I groan. I find it impossible to say. I can tell you 25, 50, but to narrow it down to less than 25 is a futile exercise.
The Sight and Sound list is a venerable canon, a solid, sensible list. It's a great primer on the history of cinema. It includes films that changed other films forever. I'm thrilled it puts Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 6th place. I'm relieved it does not include Star Wars. It does not overtly celebrate greatly influential movies, for better or for worse, like Spielberg's Jaws, nor does it celebrate insufferable pains in the ass like R.W. Fassbinder. It is an august list. It includes most of the usual suspects (Dreyer, Godard, Tarkovksy, Ozu, Kurosawa). A great many movies in the list hail from the distant past. We need that much hindsight to select great films, that we can't think of anything newer than David Lynch's Mullholland Drive and Wong War Kai's In The Mood For Love, which are more than 10 years old.
But then half the fun of these canonic lists is you get to quibble with them.  This one includes a few essential comedies, Keaton, Chaplin, Wilder, Singing in The Rain, but in general it skews towards the solemn. It includes some stuff that I find unbearably pretentious, even if it might be essential viewing. I loathe mid and late Godard, and so while I agree with the inclusion of Breathless, and have no choice but grump at the inclusion of Contempt, I can't abide Pierrot Le Fou, which is like watching a French brat throw a tantrum for two interminable hours. I sat through eight hours of Bela Tarr's long, mesmerizing and sometimes soporific Satantango. It is a great work of art, but is it one of the 50 best films of all time? If sheer arty length is a criterion, then I think The Clock by Christian Marclay should be a worthy contender, even if he did not shoot one foot of film himself. Do we really need three Tarkovsky movies in the mix? (Not in my book. I find him very tough going). Why not three Billy Wilder's? Or Chaplin? Polanski's Knife in The Water? Why not The Shining? Fargo? Dog Day Afternoon? Still, if you want to explore the essentials of world cinema, this list is a great place to start arguing.


  1. What, no Leone? Who are these schmucks?

  2. I think Satantango should be even higher on the list... What more recent films would you have chosen?