10 Films After 10 Years

The once-in-a-decade Sight and Sound poll of critics and filmmakers to determine the "greatest films of all time" is on the horizon — the 2012 one was published in the September issue of Sight and Sound, and people I know who have been invited to contribute their lists have done so in recent days.

Since I am somewhat obsessed with the Sight and Sound poll, particularly how it has changed through the decades (the first poll occurred in 1952), I was surprised to find that I did not note here at The Mumpsimus the 2012 poll when it was released. I prepared for it by pointing to some lists I liked and making my own using Ignatiy Vishnavetsky's technique of making a big list of favorites and then randomly choosing 10. Looking at that post now, I see it also includes a link to what was Roger Ebert's final Sight & Sound list. 2012 does not feel like a long time ago to me. If you were to tell me that 2012 was three years ago, I would believe it. And yet, when I stop to think, I realize 2012 was an entire world ago.

The value of the Sight and Sound list is not in what the title of the poll says. I doubt anybody involved actually believes there is such a thing as The Greatest Film of All Time, nor does anybody believe, for instance, that Vertigo is in some absolute sense "greater" than Citizen Kane or that both are "greater" than Tokyo Story or Rules of the Game. Such ranking is ridiculous. I would not want the poll to be unranked, however, because it is useful in aggregating degrees of enthusiasm. The poll has been conducted for more than 50 years, making it a fascinating chronicle of the ebb and flow of a particular cultural stream. (See, for instance, this discussion at the BFI itself of the 2012 results.) 

Having made a list of my own in 2012 (using Vishnavetsky's randomizing method), I am now in the interesting position of looking back on 10 years and seeing how my own tastes have changed. My 2012 list, drawn at random from a large list of over 100 titles, was: Manhunter (dir. Mann) Rules of the Game (Renoir), Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks), Happy Together (Wong), The Lodger (Hitchcock), Children of Men (Cuarón), The Third Generation (Fassbinder), Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki), Night of the Living Dead (Romero), After Life (Kore-eda). A perfectly good list, all films I still enjoy and respect, all films I would be happy to watch right now. What has changed for me, though, is my relative enthusiasm for those films in comparison to others. That list fits quite well my aesthetic affections in 2012. In 2012, I was still pretty obsessed with Michael Mann's movies, and Manhunter was one I had watched over and over. I still enjoy Mann's work, but it does not hold quite as central a place in my aesthetic life as it did. Same with Children of Men, a movie I watched many times, used in classes, was deeply moved by. It is no longer, though, where my aesthetic desires lead me and I haven't revisited it for years. (For what Children of Men offered, I might now turn to my favorite science fiction movie of recent years, Aniara. Which makes Children of Men look like, well, a children's movie.) Of course, the randomized creation of that first list means that it is not representative of my absolute favorites of the time, but I do know that Manhunter and Children of Men in particular were more important films for me in 2012 than they are today.

With all this in mind, I want to make a list, as much for myself as anyone, for 2022. Perhaps I will still be alive in 2032 and this site with still exist and I can look back and see the journey from now to then in the same way we can for 2012 to 2022. 

Here, then, is a list that is not randomized. It does have criteria, however, and they are these: 1.) the choices are based on a sense of affection, films I currently feel emotionally drawn toward; 2.) these are films I have visited and revisited within the last few years, so I am not working from nostalgia, and 3.) none of them were produced within the last decade, because the older I get the more I think we need to let time do its work to help us separate brief enthusiasm from lasting sustenance. 

My 10 films, arranged alphabetically by director:

The Dante Quartet (dir. Brakhage): Pure visual poetry. Abstract, awe-striking. Cinema as art in every sense.

Vampyr (Dreyer): I could argue that other Carl Theodore Dreyer movies are greater accomplishments artistically, but it is Vampyr to which I perpetually return. A unique horror movie, a movie of deeper horrors than any jump scare or gross out, a dream-nightmare that is something more than surrealism, more than dream, more than anything to which we might put words. 

Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder): Here we have a story so schematic it is almost allegorical, and yet Fassbinder's genius also makes it gritty realism and psychic purge. It is a scream against the status quo, a cry from the heart of the abyss, a ghastly tearing off of the masks we glue to our faces.

His Girl Friday (Hawks): 92 minutes of pure velocity. Howard Hawks liked race cars, and this is a cinematic Indy 500, truly a movie. It takes a good script and makes it great, with perfect casting, constant energy, and a crackerjack crew of filmmakers who knew how to get out of the way while working with precision. With a simple change of gender (Hildy Johnson via Rosalind Russell) it adds an extra level of meaning and purpose and fun to The Front Page. Magic.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper): The greatest horror movie ever made, because the purest. Or perhaps I should not be so absolutist and should say, instead, that Texas Chainsaw Massacre has everything I want in a horror movie and none of what I don't want. It unsettles in every sense of the word, it unmoors us from any comfort or complacency, it sticks images in our minds and lets those images fester and metastisize, it wrenches our sympathies, it expresses the spirit of its age but does not reduce itself to its era, it redefines beauty through grime and grotesquerie and dread — without embarrassment, without apology.

Seven Samurai (Kurosawa): Among epics and action movies, much that had come before Seven Samurai ends with it, and much that was to come later begins with it. Like Hamlet, it is a difficult work for us to fully appreciate now because so many of its innovations have been adopted into conventions and clichés. Still, there's nothing like the original recipe, and watching it remains a transfixing, invigorating experience.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner/Keaton): Choosing one Keaton film is a bit of a fool's errand. The General is more coherent, unified as a narrative, and artistically impressive (despite its weird, superficial, thoughtless sympathy for the Confederacy), but Steamboat Bill is the movie I come back to most, the movie that fills my soul, because in addition to all its wondrous gags, it was the last independent Keaton movie. It is difficult not to see in it a glimpse of what might have been, had Keaton not made what he himself later said was the worst decision of his life and sold himself to the studios. The challenges, desperations, and tensions of his life at the time ache across this movie, and I know no other film that so poignantly seeks the solace of cinematic magic against the slings and arrows of offscreen existence.

Domino (Tony Scott): Would anyone else ever put this on their top 10? Perhaps not, but to me it is their loss. Domino is the brash, loud, obnoxious sibling of The Dante Quartet and Vampyr: where Brakhage's film is silent, Tony Scott's is deafeningly loud; where Vampyr is gentle in its dreamworld, Domino is the vision you get when you plunge your face into a mound of heroin and take a deep breath. It is cinematic art, art that could only ever be cinema. It is a bull in a china shop of artistic complacency, a middle finger stuck in the face of preciousness, the apotheosis of big-budget blockbuster. It smears itself across our sensibilities, but it does so with astonishing craft, cunning, and more complexity than one viewing will reveal. Richard Kelly's tricksy writing plus Tony Scott's 'roid-rage impressionism jolts 21st century cinema into life. 

Stalker (Tarkovsky): As with other titles on this list, I think its director made greater artistic achievements in other films — for Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, certainly — but this is the movie I return to most often, the film that haunts my waking dreams. It is a movie that those of us who are susceptible to its magic become addicted to. The final shot never fails to pull from me enraptured tears.

A Brighter Summer Day (Yang)
: For years, Yi Yi was the only movie by Edward Yang easily available in the U.S., and I loved it when I first saw it in a little art theatre in Newton, Massachusetts during its first run in the U.S. and I love it still, as all good humans do. However, its hold on me is not as great as that of A Bright Summer Day, which I got a bootleg copy of around 2010, with terrible video quality and almost incomprehensible subtitles — and it was still a glorious experience to watch because the power of the film shone through, even if only as a kind of ghost of itself. Then the restored version came out in 2016. I watched all four hours twice in one week. Then again six months later. Recently, I put it on, intending to watch only 30 minutes or so ... and some hours later, had made it to the end again. I used to say Truffaut's 400 Blows was my favorite movie, when people asked that impossible, ridiculous question. It's not even on this list (sadly!) because I think the time I was going to rewatch 400 Blows over the last decade got taken up by the time I spent watching and rewatching A Brighter Summer Day. I'm okay with that. I suppose now, when asked, I should say this is my favorite film.


A hundred movies I adore are not on that list, dozens of filmmakers whose work is important and vital to me are not on it (Mizoguchi! Hitchcock! Almodóvar! Lynch! Welles! Herzog! Leigh! Kubrick! Lang! Malick! Dardennes!), and I made no attempt to be representative of any era, geography, or identity — thus, the list is inadequate in every way it is possible to be inadequate ... except that these are movies I have watched numerous times and which do something to me every time I watch them. They are works of art that use my brain and nervous system as instruments for their work, and that work is rich and unpredictable.

Deliberately, I excluded documentaries, simply because I was grasping for any criterion for exclusion I could come up with. I think that may have been a mistake, though, as Shoah really does belong on this list. I don't know what I would move off the list to add Shoah, but still, it really is a film of great importance to me and to the world — indeed, if any movie has a right to be considered among the greatest of all time, I think Shoah does.

I should note here that if I allowed myself anything first produced during the last 10 years, I would likely have gravitated toward Burning (Lee Chang-dong), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma), Pain and Glory (Alodóvar), or maybe Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller). Or even Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie). (I am chastened to realize two of my other favorite Rob Zombie movies, The Devil's Rejects and Halloween II are more than 10 years old, thus eligible. Sigh. Texas Chainsaw Massacre will have to stand in for them, as it stands in for many other wonderfully coruscating horror movies.)

I spent some time trying to figure out how to get one of Satyajit Ray's films from the Apu trilogy on the list, but ultimately gave up because the power for me of those films is in their cumulative effect. One week in the mid-1990s in New York, I saw all three together over a period of days, my first experience of any of Ray's movies. Later, when Criterion released their beautiful restorations, I watched the films again one after the other. Those viewings were among the highlights of my life as a filmgoer, and I return to the individual movies with some regularity. But it is the totality that affects me, and for this list I decided to stick only to individual titles.

(Similarly, a list that includes more than individual items would certainly have Twin Peaks: The Return on it. David Lynch is a giant omission from the list, and Mulholland Drive was the last title I erased as I whittled an initial list down to 10.)

There is no overlap in titles with my 2012 list, and the only repeat directors are Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Howard Hawks. No big surprise there: the lack of overlap is at least partly the result of the different methods of creating the lists. The two director overlaps are also easily explained. Fassbinder is my favorite filmmaker and he created a huge number of excellent films; Hawks had a long and consistent career that includes at least four or five movies I would put in my top 100. Both thus had a lot of titles on the long list I drew from in 2012. I chose Fox and His Friends this year because it is the Fassbinder I find myself referencing most frequently; I chose His Girl Friday because it is the Hawks movie I most quickly return to for pleasure (but it was hugely difficult for me to choose between it and Rio Bravo).

Does such a list have any value beyond demonstrating the films that play my feelings best? Not really. It has zero meaning in terms of the hyperbolic title of Sight & Sound's poll, "The Greatest Films of All Time". But what makes the Sight & Sound list more valuable than many is that it is an aggregate. If there can be a determination of "greatest films" (I am skeptical), then the list will not be made by one person. 

Nobody, no matter how committed, can know enough, see enough, think enough, feel enough to be able to speak for an entire art form. It is the height of hubris to pretend to such knowledge. However, popular opinion is also not to be trusted, nor is box office — by such metrics, Avatar is the greatest film of all time. (And if you really want to despair for humanity, just look to something like the People's Choice Awards.) Major awards are hardly better, with voters and judges often stunningly ignorant (when they aren't corrupted by logrolling, sycophancy, bribes...); and even the most conscientious awards are skewed by presentism, fads, and haste. Thus the value of Sight & Sound's approach. Poll a wide range of people whose lives and jobs force them to watch and think about a wide range of movies, and see what commonalities can be pulled from their idiosyncratic tastes. The top films are, then, not any person's idea of the greatest (it's unlikely any one list had the same top films), but rather are a set of films that a bunch of pretty well-informed people agree are pretty darn great. The 2012 list certainly was a wonderful collection of movies, even if on my own list from this year the highest scoring film was Seven Samurai at 17. (My 2012 list included Renoir's Rules of the Game, which was number 4 on Sight & Sound's final list. It could easily be on my list this year were I in a different mood, as it's a movie I am in awe of.)

And so another decade passes, and the Sight & Sound list presents a brief and pleasant diversion from the burning of the world...