The alleged Top Ten best films of all time

There are things that run through my mind when I see Kim Novak. "Great actress" isn't one of them.

Roger Ebert brings my attention to this report by Alexander Hull on this decade’s Sight & Sound Top 10 Greatest Movies of all Time. Hull starts out:

The recent unveiling of Sight & Sound‘s 2012 list of the Top 10 Greatest Movies of all Time brings with it the inevitable chatter that accompanies most lists taking authoritative stabs at qualifying the best of, well, anything. Cinephiles scan for snubs, ranking quirks, and whatever consistencies and trends they can glean from the list. Released every ten years since 1952 and voted upon by hundreds of critics and industry professionals, Sight & Sound has long been seen as a definitive voice in cinema-culture consensus. This time around, though, there’s one gleaming omission from the Sight & Sound list: modern films. The top 10 doesn’t include any movie made in the last 44 years, and the Top 50 only features 13 films since the 1970s (only six since the 1980s)….

To be sure, there’s something obviously preposterous about saying that the decades after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 have produced no films worthy of inclusion in the top 10. If a movie is a masterpiece, it should be ranked as a classic, regardless of how old or young it is—right? Since 1968 (or the 1970s if you’re looking at the Top-50 list) cinema has offered countless great, widely acclaimed films. The critical question, as voiced by New Statesman‘s Ryan Gilbey: “Are those who voted paralysed by history or are the finest films really located in the distant past?”

But I’d argue that the voters are not as paralyzed as some might suspect. The new Sight & Sound list actually does represent a move—a small move—towards the modern. Citizen Kane lost its top spot to Vertigo, a movie 17 years its junior. And compared to the 2002 version, this year’s top-50 breakdown features fewer works from the years between 1920 and 1950 and more from the years between 1960 and today. These incremental shifts towards the new (well, newer) certainly suggest change is happening and that modern films are becoming canonized. It just also suggests that the canonization process is very, very slow.

Personally, I’d suggest that the methodology of this survey is lacking. This comes across like the consensus opinions, reflecting a discernment process lasting centuries, of the Old Ones in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. (And by the way, why hasn’t that been made into a movie yet?)

Other reports have noted the fact that “Citizen Kane” has been toppled from the No. 1 spot. Which would be fine with me — I find the constant ranking of that admittedly excellent film on the tops of such lists rather monotonous — if only it were replaced by something awesome.

But instead, it’s replaced by Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” — a film that, to be honest, I can’t remember whether I’ve seen. Film buffs aren’t supposed to admit things like this, but frankly, some of Hitchcock’s films run together in my mind. Of course, if it’s the best movie of all time, certainly I haven’t seen it, or I’d remember, right?

But then, my tastes are seldom those of the kinds of people who assemble these lists. For instance, there’s the overabundance of foreign films, which too few Americans are regularly exposed to. Yes, there’s Netflix now, and I do order foreign DVDs (how else could I have been exposed to the wonderful “The Lives of Others?” But it’s not like I’ve seen it 10 times in theaters, starting when I was young — which I suspect is the case with New York or Los Angeles-based critics. Because those are the kinds of movies they seem to be into — ones that prove themselves over and over. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well. But I’ve often thought that maybe if I were exposed to “Citizen Kane” more often, I’d realize how awesome it is. But I haven’t been, and I don’t.

Here’s what I think of the films in this new list:

  1. Vertigo” — OK, so I’ll put it on my Netflix list to make sure I’ve seen it. I’ll only pass on something my wife said last night. “Pal Joey” was on the tube while we were getting ready to have dinner, and she said something like, “What made anyone put ‘Kim Novak’ and ‘acting’ together?” I couldn’t answer her.
  2. Citizen Kane” — Again, maybe if I watch it over and over I’ll get hypnotized into thinking it’s awesome, but it might be too late. It’s been the butt of too many jokes playing on elements of the film that have become cliches. But it did produce some awesome b/w stills, I’ll say that.
  3. Tokyo Story” — Since the article doesn’t tell me, I don’t even know what it is about.
  4. La Règle du jeu” — Ditto. Another one for the Netflix queue, I guess.
  5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” — Same deal. This is getting monotonous.
  6. “2001: A Space Odyssey” — A masterpiece, all right, although not one of my faves. I do happen to own it on Blu-Ray — it’s one of the first I went out and got when I first got a Blu-Ray player — and watched it again recently. The cinematography in the early scenes of the Pan-Am flight to the moon are great — the ballet of the spheres, and so forth — as are the scenes between Dave and Hal, as the quiet tension builds. But something struck me, as happens sometimes with pre-MTV films — I’m struck at how slow the pace is, and while I’m impressed with all the majesty, I get a little antsy.
  7. The Searchers” — Another I’ll have to see again, and try, try to understand why so many critics rate it above “Stagecoach” or “My Darling Clementine,” or “High Noon.” Probably something esoteric.
  8. Man with a Movie Camera” — As Soviet films go, I’ve at least heard of “Battleship Potemkin.” This, no.
  9. The Passion of Joan of Arc” — Yeahhh… that’s one of those I kind of knew I should probably see sometime, but haven’t quite gotten around to…
  10. 8 1/2” — OK, now this one I think I started to watch once, out of a sense of duty, but I didn’t finish it. Guess I should try again.

Basically, I think those who contributed to this list have achieved their goal: They’ve made me feel like an uncultured boob.

Now, for a regular ol’ unpretentious, red-blooded, All-American, pure vanilla Top Ten list. I’ll give my reasons for the my picks some other day:

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. The Godfather
  3. Casablanca
  4. The Graduate
  5. High Noon
  6. Saving Private Ryan
  7. The Natural
  8. “Hoosiers”
  9. His Girl Friday
  10. Mean Streets

And as a bonus, here are five more to chew on:

  1. The Year of Living Dangerously
  2. Gran Torino
  3. In the Line of Fire
  4. Young Frankenstein
  5. Goodfellas

Alla you foreign film buffs, get offa my lawn!

43 thoughts on “The alleged Top Ten best films of all time

  1. bud

    These lists are by definition subjective. I can make a top 10 list one day then a month later make a new and they’ll be different. I’m sure I did that here years back. Four on Brad’s list are ones I’d pick as well: (Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Graduate and High Noon) I’d replace the others with with Vertigo, Psycho, Across the Universe, 2001, The Wizard of Oz and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Tomorrow, perhaps something else.

    Reply
  2. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Film critics have more detailed objective criteria (that they apply subjectively) than “I liked it.” This is an amalgam of a whole lot of critics’ opinions.

    It’s like comparing rock criticism with American Bandstand, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

    There used to be a great feature on NPR about classical music called “What Makes It Great”–wherein a critic demonstrated what made a piece of music “great.”

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  3. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    and Miz Dubs is right about Kim Novak. She’s in that category of actresses that includes January Jones and most of the Hitchcock blondes: cold, reserved beauties whose characters are supposed to be cold reserved beauties, and upon whom we can project a lot.

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  4. Brad

    Everything on there is something I like. But I also think they are the best films I’ve seen. There are some things I like a lot (“Trading Places”) that I don’t think are great films.

    These are great. Sometimes it’s the writing or the cinematography or the acting. But probably the biggest factors are, does it tell a story that pulls you along, and does it touch on a human level?

    For instance, “The Godfather” is respected for technical brilliance, but it makes my list both for that and the powerful resonance of the story.

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  5. Brad

    I can watch, and get into, and really appreciate an “art” film like Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” But I don’t especially want to see it again.

    I’d rather watch von Sydow in “Three Days of the Condor.” That wonderful scene in the elevator when he smiles indulgently at the kids who hit all the buttons, and Redford knows he’s there to kill him… Wow.

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  6. Brad

    I think I might want to swap “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas.” I keep going back and forth on that.

    The thing is, they represent Scorcese at such different stages. The first is so gritty and innovative and natural. The second is so slickly perfect, showing a director who’s completely mastered his craft…

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  7. Brad Warthen

    Yeah. Easy on the eyes, but for acting, give me Linda Hunt playing a man in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Astounding.

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  8. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    There are films that are universally critically acclaimed that I cannot get through, like Kurosawa’s oeuvre, and films that did something technically fresh, but that are not gripping stories. I like the “powerful resonance of the story” more than the revolutionary camerawork, say.

    Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films are overlooked gems that work on so many levels. Spirited Away, Nausicäa…

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  9. Brad

    Just for fun, here’s a list of Barack Obama’s Top Five, from 2008:

    1. Casablanca
    2. Godfather I
    3. Godfather II
    4. Lawrence of Arabia
    5. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

    I commented on this back at the time. I gave him props for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but felt like “Lawrence of Arabia” was a pretentious pick. Probably because that’s another one of those flicks that’s supposed to be so amazing, but mainly impresses me with its length.

    I haven’t found a Top Five for Romney. But I found a site that claimed he recently said his fave was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Which is such a hip and edgy pick that it makes me suspicious, especially since the same report (not from a known news source) says that several years ago, he said his fave was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

    I know what you’re thinking: Wow, this guy flip-flops on EVERYTHING. But as I said, I’m not sure about my source on this. At least I’ve heard of “Entertainment Weekly,” my source on the Obama list.

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  10. Brad

    You ever see “Rashomon”?

    I once acted in a stage production of that, back in Tennessee. I was the disillusioned priest. I had my head almost, but not quite, shaved for the part — about half an inch all around. The idea was that I had left the monastery and was letting it grow. We put a little silver in it to make me look older. Wouldn’t need that now, would I?

    My method for playing the part was simple, but it worked: I played it like “Kung Fu.” All of the lines — such as the only one I still remember, “Is truth… a luxury… for the rich?” (said in response to the woodcutter who cries out that he’s only a poor man) — read like something David Carradine would have said on the telly.

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  11. Steven Davis II

    No Dumb and Dumber, no Blazing Saddles, no American Graffiti, no The Shining… what kind of list is this.

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  12. Steven Davis II

    “There are films that are universally critically acclaimed that I cannot get through, like Kurosawa’s oeuvre”

    I don’t think I could either. I hate movies with subtitles, unless it’s a war movie.

    Reply
  13. Steven Davis II

    Obama’s picks are so Uncle Tom. Not one Barbershop or Boys in the Hood or Meet the Klumps, etc… in the list.

    Reply
  14. Doug Ross

    In no order:

    Sideways
    Boogie Nights
    Warrior (better than Rocky)
    Into The Wild
    Almost Famous
    Raging Bull
    Zelig
    Syriana
    Shawshank Redemption
    Coming Home

    Reply
  15. Brad Warthen

    Doug, I love “Almost Famous” too! I almost put it in my 11-15 addendum, but it didn’t quite make it.

    Another one I nearly included: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” That truly is one of my faves, even if it is sort of lacking in meaningful substance…

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  16. Kathy

    I like your list. “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are tied for top billing with me. I really like “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and all the movies based on Tom Clancy novels. I could happily watch “The Hunt for Red October” many more times.

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  17. Kathy

    I love “Hoosiers” also. What a great story. When I taught special education, we would spend the last few minutes of class reading a book together. If there was a movie to go with the book, then once each nine-weeks we would watch the movie for a treat. In addition to trying to get my students interested in reading, I wanted to show them that there are really good movies—that they don’t have to watch the disgusting garbage that passes for so many movies these days.

    For one of the books that didn’t have a corresponding movie, I showed the class “Hoosiers.” (It was a version that edited out any curse words,etc.) One of my friends told me that he didn’t think my students would like “Hoosiers.” They loved it! One of my “bad boys” wanted me to bring it back so they could see it again.

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  18. Steven Davis II

    Holy cow Doug, don’t invite me to your house for movie night with that list unless you’re watching Almost Famous or Shawshank Redemption.

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  19. Steven Davis II

    Since I criticized Doug’s list:

    The Men of the Fighting Lady
    The Bridges of Toko Ri
    The Caine Mutiny
    Strategic Air Command
    American Graffiti
    Dumb and Dumber
    Blazing Saddles
    Almost Famous
    The Graduate
    Saving Private Ryan

    Reply
  20. Mark Stewart

    The Usual Suspects
    Mona Lisa
    The God’s Must Be Crazy
    Memento
    Blue Velvet
    Reservoir Dogs
    The Road Warrior (Mad Max II)
    Chinatown
    Pulp Fiction
    Das Boot

    A weird list worth seeing. Probably.

    Reply
  21. Baker Maultsby

    Would be hard for me not to include:

    Last Picture Show
    Cuckoo’s Nest
    Graduate
    Taxi Driver
    Cool Hand Luke
    Chinatown

    I like that late 60s/70s era.

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  22. Phillip

    Impossible to come up with these lists, but always interesting to see who likes what. I think Vertigo is overrated even among Hitchcock films, but it does have the greatest film score of all time (Bernard Herrmann). As for a film like 2001 (I’d still vote it close to or at #1) even watching it on your big-screen TV at home on Blu-Ray is so far from the original intent of its creator, so far removed from seeing it on the truly big screen, that it’s hard to really evaluate it on its own merits. You have to really have no escape, no sense of any other “world” other than the world of the film, which I don’t think you can achieve watching at home, maybe only if you have one of those big theater-type screening rooms in your house.

    Which is why I hope the new Nick will indeed screen “repertory films” on at least one of their two screens on a regular basis. There is no substitute for seeing a great movie in a movie theater.

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  23. Burl Burlingame

    I was one of the critics who contributed to the S&S survey. No “Casablanca”? Come on! But I also nominated “The Big Lebowski.”

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  24. bud

    Here’s my list of overated movies:

    The Godfather (Godfather II was better)
    Caddy Shack (Not even slightly funny)
    Gone with the Wind (Long, drawn out and doesn’t hold up well over time)
    Lord of the Rings 3 (The movie that never ends. I got bored about half way through and started daydreaming)
    Westside Story (Seriously, a singing movie with guys waving switchblades? Pleez.)
    Goodfellas (What people see in these mobster movies I’ll never know)
    Mamma Mia (Saw the play at the Koger Center and it was great. Why did they use actors than cannot sing in a musical)

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  25. Brad

    Makes me want to go bowling.

    As for “The Right Stuff” — love it; briefly had it on the list, but bumped it. Tell you what — let’s replace “Goodfellas”…

    Reply
  26. David

    I really don’t like to knock other people’s choices when it comes to music and movies and the like, but I have to make an exception for “The Graduate”. I saw it a couple years ago and I just didn’t get it. Maybe it’s a generational thing; I don’t know.

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  27. Bryan Caskey

    The list from Sight and Sound is a pretentious pile of pig-slop.

    Notice that no one’s list here contains any of their picks.

    “The Right Stuff” is a great movie on many different levels.

    “The Hunt for Red October” has one of my favorite Sean Connery scenes ever, when at the end, Jack Ryan [Alec Baldwin] does an impression of Cpt. Ramius’ [Connery’s] warning “Some things in here don’t react too well to bullets”. I think it’s the only time I’ve seen a Connery impression in an actual movie.

    While were on Connery, at least ONE Bond film needs to be on the list. I would go with “Dr. No” or “Thunderball”, as they revolutionized the action genre.

    Also, as usual, I disagree with everything bud just said.

    Reply
  28. Brad

    Now, now Bryan — no need to call it “pig slop.” Remember, our own Burl contributed to it — and he TRIED to get “The Big Lebowski” in. I think he deserves a medal for that.

    “The Right Stuff” is indeed awesome. It’s also — and I’d be interested as to whether y’all agree — unique. I’ve never seen another film that so masterfully told a story that was mostly narration in the book. The brilliance of the book was Wolfe’s inventive use of language — his OWN voice and no one else’s — to describe the sagas of these test pilots and astronauts.

    The filmmakers were quite inventive in getting that language into the film. They invented unnamed characters, such as those played by Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum, to say some of the book’s best lines. In other places, they did a good job of weaving it into the speech of the main characters — such as when John Glenn asks his wife whether she considers him a Harry Hairshirt, or an Eddie Attaboy.

    But the most brilliant stroke of all was making Levon Helm not only a character in the film (playing the real-life flight engineer Jack Ridley), but the main narrator — “There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die…”

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  29. Brad

    Another film on my list is also unique, and that’s “The Graduate.” There’s nothing else like it, and I’m sorry David doesn’t appreciate it.

    How do you characterize it? “Comedy?” “Coming-of-age story?” No. It doesn’t fit into any category. I mean, God forbid that what Ben went through would be in any way emblematic of coming of age in our society.

    It’s about youthful alienation, which was a big 60s theme, but in a way totally independent of hair or drugs or political views or anything else about that period. It was about young love, but with a really twisted twist. At the end, you don’t know what you’re supposed to feel about Ben’s and Elaine’s escape, and the characters don’t know either. Those emotions that flit across their faces at the back of the bus are fantastic. Elation? Yes, but…

    They’ve won, but what have they won? Can they really make a life for themselves, given what’s happened? Is love really that powerful? They’re not sure.

    And maybe that places it deftly within that generation at that time. Americans had won the war — or rather, the young people’s parents had — and had achieved prosperity unparalleled in history, with a fantastically vibrant popular culture to embrace. But was that enough? What DID the future hold?…

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  30. Steve Gordy

    It’s probably more informative (if not more revealing) to ask folks to list their favorite movies by genre. SDII, any list of war or military-themed movies that omits “Battleground” and “Twelve O’Clock High” is missing something.

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  31. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    This Is Spinal Tap
    Annie Hall
    The Sting
    Being There
    Best in Show
    Catch Me If You Can
    The Life of Brian
    The Marriage of Maria Braun
    The Big Lebowski (good call, Burl!)
    Dr. Strangelove

    Comedy is harder than drama!

    Reply
  32. Phillip

    yes, Big Lebowski is my personal favorite, I have to say. and I agree that comedies are often underrated on these lists. Life, for me, would be much more bleak and joyless without the existence for example of Preston Sturges’ great comedies, of which my favorites are Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero.

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  33. john Wilde

    Man with a camera was one of the “city symphony” documentaries made in the 1920s and early 30s (Berlin, symphony of a great city, Vigo’s fiml on Cannes, Oliveira’s study of Oporto and Rene Clair’s movie about a man who lives on top of the Eiffel Tower and wakes up one moring to find Paris deserted are examples.) Man with a camera is a bit zany, but it gives a fascinating glimpse of Moscow in the early days of Soviet rule.

    Reply
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