Poll position: one more film

If we insist on playing a preposterous game of choosing top tens, I have to ask: why not eleven?

27 June 2022

By David Thomson

The Underground Railroad (2021)
Sight and Sound

Can’t we agree, ten is too prim and safe for our adventure – such a bland round number, the smug lever in higher counting. Isn’t 11 – prime, awkward but magical – more worthy of us? Or 111 maybe, the dread Nelson at cricket? Of course, as all our voting knows, the whole damn show will come down to some helpless No. 1, the forlorn best film ever made, as any interested news services will post the verdict around the world. And a No. 1 can be shaming. Hasn’t it stretched patience in the last decade to think that the dank, self-pitying and mournfully beautiful Vertigo (1958) is the best we can do? As well as a picture that is already 64 years old.

I think the game’s up. The Sight and Sound poll is a comedy, an elaborate, solemn leg-pulling in which cinephiles dreamed they might be growing taller because of their gravity. Can’t the voters admit that their theoretical duty to the history of cinema has been compromised all along by the wish to seem earnest, judicious and impressive? In making this broad, good-natured accusation of pomp and pretension, I will direct it at myself.

I had to ask the magazine and its managing editor, Isabel Stevens, to remind me of my ten commandments in 2012 because I had forgotten them. She had the list in moments, in alphabetical order: Blue Velvet, Céline and Julie Go Boating, Citizen Kane, The Conformist, Hiroshima mon amour, His Girl Friday, Pierrot le Fou, La Règle du jeu, The Shop Around the Corner, Ugetsu Monogatari.

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

What a well-behaved little film critic I was, with room for Japan, France and Italy as well as old Hollywood and new America. I had gently suggested that Mizoguchi was a street ahead of Kurosawa and Ozu – I still think that. I had given one more nudge about Rivette’s Céline and Julie (1974) as a discreet movie house where admission can be managed. And there was my belated recognition that The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is one of the immortal barbed love stories, the barb being that we don’t always make the best decisions on falling in love – a warning somewhat at odds with the mainstream of cinematic encouragement. Even so, I am horrified now that my list had no Persona (1966), no That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), no A Man Escaped (1956) and no Hitchcock. I might have picked Rear Window (1954) because it gets at our wish to step into the screen (when Grace Kelly enters the Thorwald apartment) with excruciating suspense and sardonic humour. But without that edge, Hitch was so likely to sink into depression.

I still admire the films I picked ten years ago, but I must be rueful over the many constituencies I left out then. I’m not sure what I’ll vote for this time around, but I would be tempted to go for Belle de jour (1967) as my Buñuel, even though I know the disgrace that could lead me into – as if fantasies can be legislated. But I’m tired of the pressure to be respectable, or tenure-worthy, while still picking films that are user-friendly because most of us just about know what they are, or were. Of course, there should be women filmmakers and directors of colour, people from every spectrum… though I can imagine that a few of us may now feel the urge to exclude Russian filmmakers, just as we will purge all those white directors who behaved like male supremacist jerks, off and on their screens. I suppose this could be farewell to Howard Hawks, and some need to apply a morality clause test to our candidates. In which case, we may have no  one left to vote for, and so the game has to be retired, and Sight and Sound can go back to its business of thoughtful essays on what the movies are about and what they have done to us, instead of relentless opportunities for self-serving filmmakers to say what they meant to do.

But I have an electoral reform to propose, one that seems closer to the way we actually behave. I’ll put you on a desert island with moderate climate, spring water and adequate cheese: you’re all alone with perfect projection, so what are the ten pictures you want there simply in the name of pleasure? Don’t be shy of that hedonism, but think about your viewing habits day by day, year by year, especially during Covid. Under that shadow, what did you want to see again, and then again?

The Shop around the Corner (1940)

In no special order, I’d keep Shop Around the Corner (I want to work at Matuschek’s); The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (in 1964, Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand were a paradise – and I am doing without their opening shot in 1963’s La Baie des anges!); The Big Sleep (1946) (the first film I saw three times in a day – an American pinnacle of screwball noir and a fond tribute to bookstores); The Long Goodbye (1973) (reformed Chandler, and because Elliott Gould is so cool while forever fading away – it’s a calm lesson in how we might be decent and not dull); The Piano (1993) (you see how I’m getting Jane Campion aboard for this awesome adult fairytale – but In the Cut (2003) was a close contender); Phantom Thread (2017) – this might be my No. 1 if it came down to that, with the best breakfast scene in movies; Casino (1995) (my favourite Scorsese – with the arrogant boys pushed aside by Sharon Stone’s Ginger); the ‘Begin the Beguine’ number from Norman Taurog’s Broadway Melody of 1940, with Fred and Eleanor Powell in white on a black floor – how can we go forward without Astaire? – but I only want the beguine, please, not the rest of the picture; and here’s cunning, I have to have two immense long-form TV series (of course they are movies, do they look like grapefruit?), so I’m going for Babylon Berlin (2017-), which exults in the serial incident of directors like Fritz Lang while giving us a clear lesson in the nearness of fascism and how it arrives. Also, Liv Lisa Fries is among the best cheeky heroines we have had.

My other long-form series is The Underground Railroad (2021). And if your eyebrows go up at the thought of the Barry Jenkins’ epic being a pleasure, just look again at its serpentine structure and the searching nature of the railroad as metaphor. It is so original in its design that some viewers have not caught up yet.

I cheated – you guessed I would, just as the frog knew he was daft to pay attention to the scorpion – because I’ve given myself so many hours more to look at. You may tell me that the desert island exercise is childish or disappointingly playful, and you’re right, though I could remind you that more of our domiciles will feel like diminishing islands by the time we have another poll in 2032. Hear the lapping water.

I hope voters will attest to their allegiances more than make a list of pictures for their résumé. But that leads to one more modest proposal. Thinking about my life with movies, and talking to others who have trod the same path, I find this common feeling: that the films we saw between the ages of four and about 16 are vital and embedded. We grow up to understand that some of those films are mediocre, fantasies that caught us at the right immature moment. But I’m not sure the screen ever meant more or gave us the secret about what a sensational and impermanent medium it is that we now try to make Ozymandian.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

So here is a treasure garden as cultivated in south London: Olivier’s Henry V (1944), where the obscurity of the language for a four-year-old gave way to knights in armour on plush green fields and the terror of page boys burning alive; Courage of Lassie (1946), with the florid collie pursued by Nazis in the snow (or is that Son of Lassie?); Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) (full of longing for sisters and America, and still the most remarkable enactment of the warmth and the captivity in ‘home’); Red River (1948) (the unyielding battle of a father and a son – how many more times can you see it?); The Flame and the Arrow (1950) (with Burt Lancaster doing it all himself as a guy named Dardo and the Middle Ages as a comic book); Samson and Delilah (1949) at the thick-carpeted Granada Tooting (where the sickly, carnal stealth of Hedy Lamarr gave a sense of femmes fatales that probably unhinged me – isn’t ‘Mature meets Lamarr’ one of the poems from the movies?); From Here to Eternity (1953) (the first time I realised I was watching a grown-up picture, and deepening proof of what Montgomery Clift meant); A Town Like Alice (1956) (where the wartime sob story let me see Virginia McKenna as a link between my mother and my first girlfriend); and East of Eden (1955) (in which James Dean’s Cal behaved so badly but took over the picture).

That’s nine from childhood, plus one more: Citizen Kane (1941) seen at last at age 15 in the empty Classic Tooting, when my life was trapped because I’d never be that good, but never stopped trying. And because for all I had read in advance about the creative innovations in the film – deep focus, overlapping sound, ceilings and dissolves – I had never been so moved as by the way a yearning life could go up in smoke, with a last word hanging in the air like the 11 of spades in a card trick. So I’ll smile if Kane is restored. As Orson always knew, it was going to be the best. But if it comes back again must we conclude that the cinema is ancient?

So that’s ten. Why not 11? I’m going to slip one more into this child category just because that age range doesn’t always count reliably. My bonus choice is Renoir’s The River (1951), maybe the last film about childhood I think I inhabited, and a threshold to India all the more arresting because I have never been there, while treasuring it on the screen.

The 100 Greatest Films of All Time 2012

In our biggest ever film critics’ poll, the list of best movies ever made has a new top film, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.

The 100 Greatest Films of All Time 2012

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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