Rob: Top 10 Films of All Time
Okay, I’ll bite. Sight & Sound’s critics poll is in full sway, and notable film scholars—like Roger Ebert (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2012/04/the_greatest_films_of_all_time.html)—have consequently been compiling their current lists of the greatest films of all time. Several online critics, like Incontention’s Kris Tapley (http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/in-contention/posts/the-10-greatest-films-of-all-time), have been doing the same for a Film School Rejects feature, which you can find here: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/the-10-best-movies-of-all-time-according-to-the-internet.php. As with many things list-related, I initially relish the prospect of joining in the “fun” (as Tapley calls it), only to then enter into a stage of arbitrary ordering, painstaking head-scratching, and an ultimate incredulity at my having began the process in the first place. With lists of any kind—whether they be top 10 of the year, the decade, or all time—writers have a predictable way of working themselves into a state bordering on delirium, but it’s important to remember that no one is curing cancer here. Lists might be meaningless, but I don’t think the experience of composing one is, exactly. It allows you to reflect on what you respond to and why, and often, you learn as much about yourself as you do about the films you’ve chosen. A degree of levity is key in a situation like this. No one’s list is any more “right” than another’s, and no one’s list is ever “complete.” I might see a film tomorrow that could change everything.
Another thing to keep in mind is the intense subjectivity of this process. So many factors come into play, including when you saw a given film and where you were at that time in your life. Some things speak to me, while others don’t. And I can’t always explain why (though I don’t think it’s entirely futile to attempt to do so). One inevitable issue with regard to list-making is that of “best” vs. “favorite.” Do you cast your lot with the titles that have ambitiously expanded the language of cinema? Or do you give into modest trifles that nevertheless make your heart just a bit warmer every time you see them? Do you relent to works that show you something about life as you live it, even though they shatter you emotionally and you never want to watch them again? Or do you tip your hat to things that feel less like “texts” and more like funny conversations with friends? Do you side with admiration toward a film’s historical significance or affection for a film’s shaggy refusal to pretend to reinvent the wheel? Are “admiration” and “affection” mutually exclusive, anyway? And are “best” and “favorite” always different? If you hadn’t already guessed, I don’t have the answers to these questions. My solution was to sort of bridge between the ambitious, undeniably significant titles and the ones that I just flat-out love for reasons I’ll never fully know. Extremes on either side, then, got left out in the cold. Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane (1941) might be a consensus pick among critics as “the greatest film ever made,” but I’ve never crossed the border from objective respect to personal adoration. On the other end of the spectrum, something like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) has put me in stitches time and time again over the last few years, but it’s so dutifully silly that I can’t quite place it next to things that make me reexamine how I experience the world. This might sound strange, but I often begin to love certain movies precisely because I admire them so much (is that a paradox?). Some might say they too closely resemble homework, but I truly enjoy tackling complex material, whether it be thematically or formally. So, for me, I can’t separate admiration and affection, as the two seem to continually feed off one another. Standard-issue rambling out of the way, here’s my assuredly contingent top ten films of all time. Some might be boring and/or depressing to some. Others might be pedestrian and middle-brow to others. But that’s okay with me. You can always make your own list.
Honorable Mentions: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).
Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000)
A brother-sister relationship that feels achingly real. Two pitch-perfect performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. A sharp screenplay that respects its characters but doesn’t cower from showing them at their supremely stupid. If I want something generously open-hearted, curtly funny, and unassumingly intelligent, I’ll pick this title every time. And a smile will roll across my face every time.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
A rowdy, rambunctious road-movie that floors you with its emotional acuity and stuns you with its thematic density. Adolescent revelry, Mexican politics, and subversive feminism have formed an unlikely marriage in a work that feels affirming of live even as it often undercuts how we live it. If I want something both colorfully original and basely age-old (love triangle, anyone?), I’ll pick this one.
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944)
I can’t deny that nostalgia plays an important role here. This was one of the first movies I can remember being wowed by. But even if this title were not inescapably linked with my cinematic development, I would still likely fall hard for Wilder’s quintessential film-noir. From the foreboding voice-over to the verbal gymnastics to the steamy claustrophobia, this film plunges you into a world that you wouldn’t want to live in but somehow don’t want to leave. I’ve seen it many times, and the boiling tension still gets my heart racing. If you can still get nervous when you already know the outcome, you know you have a winner on your hands.
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980)
Ebert describes it this way: “It is the greatest cinematic expression of the torture of jealousy–his ‘Othello.’” I think this is spot-on, because you wouldn’t readily call either Raging Bull or “Othello” enjoyable, but they’re undeniably compelling. I’ve always found the film so, well, intense that I can’t help but be drawn to it even as I’m aware of the utter lack of joy inside my heart. Robert De Niro’s performance is for the ages, and the technical proficiency on display is simply breathtaking.
Sure, this American classic is a staple of “best” lists, but it sits comfortably as a “favorite” for me. The sequel is also wonderful, but I prefer the introduction to this world as opposed to the deepening of it. I remember watching this for the first time and being stunned. It’s a feeling I still get each time. The images are now iconic and the lines are now quoted, but the sheer, masterful storytelling never needed pop culture for validation. You made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, Mr. Coppola.
I feel like this movie knows me. I can’t say that I’ve gone through comparable experiences, exactly, but something about it seems to communicate directly to who I am. High-minded as it might sound, I think about it often and it has grown to influence how I live my life. Perhaps I was Joel once upon a time, and perhaps I don’t remember because Lacuna really does exist. Wildly funny and devastatingly melancholy, this title reminds me why I bother with movies anyway. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet have never been better.
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994)
Can I just say that Pulp Fiction is a blast and call it a day? I don’t think I could ever quite articulate the thrill of a Tarantino sequence, the way that dialogue turns musical and music turns visual and visuals turn instantly iconic. If I could, some of the magic might be lost. There’s just nothing quite like that diner or that accidental gunshot or those bullet holes in the wall or that briefcase or that needle. The violently criminal mixes gloriously with the comically absurd, and the cinematic landscape has never been the same since.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999)
Would I love film as much as I do if I had never seen Magnolia? Probably not. It hit me at just the right time and made a lasting impact. Anderson makes playthings out of rules, bending and breaking them at will, and my young mind found that profoundly liberating. I could praise the endlessly inspiring ensemble. I could praise the hyper-realistic dialogue and the fluid cutting. I could praise the cathartic climax that furrows brows but opens hearts. I could praise so many things, but for me, it’s all about that final moment, when a song begins and a potential love interest speaks and you see in a damaged girl’s face that she believes redemption might actually be possible. I wouldn’t call Magnolia an easy movie to watch, but every time I do, I’m glad that I did. Anderson has made both more joyous films and more formalistic films, but this is the one that’s ineffably linked to me.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990)
At any given time, the film I would most readily sit down and watch is Goodfellas, hands down. Every time it visits my DVD player, I feel what the young Henry Hill does as he watches gangsters through his window across the street: wide-eyed wonderment and inscrutable giddiness. I feel like I’m going on the journey once more anew, aware that the good times can’t last but hoping they do anyway. The film is able to achieve voyeuristic glamour and also the completely mundane, day-to-day business of people who use guns to get what they want. It’s a life you wouldn’t choose, but given the chance to experience it all over again through Henry’s eyes, I’ll choose it in a heartbeat.
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Do feel free to break my heart again, Mr. Kaufman. One of our greatest screenwriters turns into one of our greatest directors with this single offering. Kaufman’s directorial debut has driven many spectators to the nearest bar, and it’s not difficult to see why. The plays-within-a-play-within-a-movie devices do somersaults to the point where you’re not sure if the characters are on sets or in the “real world.” Are they in the warehouse? Wait, which warehouse? Is that the surrogate or the surrogate’s surrogate? Synecdoche, New York can make your head hurt (even the title doesn’t let you off very easily). But it can hurt you in other ways too. It lays bare what it means to live life to the bitter end and what it means to creatively pursue something to the point of corrosive solipsism. So why is something so painful currently my top film of all time? Because it doesn’t just offer introspection; it requires it. I don’t go to the movies to escape. I go to engage with worldviews, my own and others. And Synecdoche, New York has about as much to say about art, life, and love as anything I’ve seen. It’s so personal I feel I could have written it myself (if I were that good, that is).