(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004. I subsequently updated my list here - it hasn't changed much since then)
The Australian website SensesOfCinema.com has a section devoted to lists of top ten films, and I like that kind of thing, so I sent mine in. Here it is:
Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage)
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
Love Streams (John Cassavetes)
Ordet (Carl Dreyer)
Orpheus (Jean Cocteau)
Playtime (Jacques Tati)
The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
I added the following note:
which of course fails to do justice to Hitchcock, Bresson, Pasolini and at least twenty others. If the object were to select ten films for a desert island, I would have to find room somewhere for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Band Wagon.
A day later, at least half that list might have changed. For instance, I regret the omission of That Obscure Object of Desire and Bonnie and Clyde, and although I’m wary of placing too much weight on recent passions, I think it’s likely that Bamboozled is in fact one of my ten favourites. As for what I did include, I haven’t actually seen Celine and Julie go Boating for years, so I’m not completely sure it belongs on there. But the list had to include a Rivette movie, and this somehow seemed like the best one. Similarly, Dog Star Man represents my current passion for Brakhage as a whole. As I get less and less impressed with Scorsese’s current work, it feels on some level as though The King of Comedy should drop off the list, and yet it hangs in there.
Man of Culture
There are no silent films on my list (Metropolis or The General would probably come closest, but that felt a bit too dutiful) and nothing from the 30’s, but otherwise the distribution across the decades isn’t too bad. I wish there was something from there from outside the US or Europe – maybe seeing Ozu’s Tokyo Story again soon will push it up there. It’s a source of great joy to me to own seven of the ten on DVD (in addition to Celine and Julie, I eagerly await the release of Love Steams and The Passenger).
I guess this tells you, in a general sort of way, that my highbrow inclinations are palpable, but not yet overwhelming. Still, I admit that the list is conditioned in part by some abstract sense of what my list ought to look like. Once I was in Italy for a business thing, and the host, who sat next to me at dinner, turned out to be a film enthusiast (to add some colour to the story, he knew Liliana Caviani who made The Night Porter). We exchanged observations on Antonioni and Pasolini and Lindsay Anderson’s If and suchlike, and then he looked at me directly and said, “I must ask you a very important question. Do you like Fellini?”
With no hesitation, I gave the truthful response, which was: “No, I’ve never cared for Fellini.” He beamed – that was the right answer. “You are a true man of culture,” he said. He even agreed with me that Fellini’s Toby Dammit episode from Spirits of the Dead was the director’s best work (partly because it’s shorter than the others). I was as pleased as Punch with this (being called a true man of culture, by an Italian guy!) But since then, I’ve started to reassess Fellini upwards. I watched La Dolce Vita again a few months ago and was completely knocked out by it. But no matter what, I can’t imagine placing a Fellini film on my top ten list. It’ll never fit the image now.
The most conventional presence on my list is Citizen Kane, which has topped the best-established exercise of this kind (a critics' poll carried out every ten years by Sight and Sound) since 1962. Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu seemed to be closing in on Kane, until Vertigo zoomed past it into second place in 2002 (Vertigo might be 11th on my own list). The 2002 Sight and Sound poll had The Godfather/The Godfather II in fourth place – Coppola’s achievement now looks increasingly like the very rare work that will stand as both a popular and a critical classic. The rest of the 2002 top ten looks like this: Tokyo Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battleship Potemkin, Sunrise, 8 1/2 (Fellini!), Singin’ in the Rain.
Sight and Sound also carried out a poll of directors, which Citizen Kane also won, with The Godfather I and II in second. Lawrence of Arabia and Raging Bull are among the alternative choices on that list. Senses of Cinema provides various other polls as well, all but one of them showing Citizen Kane as number one (and the exception had it at second, behind La Regle du Jeu).
Time of Plenty
There’s also a “Best Movies of all time” website based on an amalgamation of various sources, which generates the following top ten: Citizen Kane, La Regle du Jeu. Vertigo, 8 1/2, Battleship Potemkin, Singin in the Rain, The Gold Rush, City Lights, L’Avventura and Schindler’s List . Spielberg’s film scores nowhere in most of these polls, but given the weighting system employed by that website, got in by virtue of winning the Oscar and various other awards (the same list has Ben-Hur as the 24th best film ever made).
Of course, the list-making exercise isn’t limited to highbrow circles. The American Film Institute has recently been drumming up good publicity for itself with various tabulations of best American movies. In its master list, Kane was number one, followed by Casablanca, The Godfather and Gone with the Wind – obviously following a more populist bent. And perhaps the most credible list of them all in a certain way, by virtue of the numbers of people contributing to it (over 100,000 voters for some films), is on the Internet Movie Database at imdb.com. The Godfather is number one there, followed – to me bizarrely, but you can’t ignore it – by The Shawshank Redemption. All three Lord of the Rings movies show up in the top ten, so I guess by this measure we’re living in a time of plenty. The only foreign movie in the top twenty is The Seven Samurai; Kane is 11th (just behind Star Wars).
I think the fleeting nature of watching films encourages this kind of exercise: making lists, scrapbooks, collecting memorabilia – it’s all a way of compensating for the intangibility of the thing itself, of providing some proof that we really invested all that time, that our memories have some basis in reality. I’m not much for collecting memorabilia, but as you can see, I’m into the lists, and for years now I’ve written notes, a few hundred words or so, on every film I see. Where that all gets me, I don’t know. Now, excuse me while I reconsider a few things.