Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the top film in our 2012 Greatest Films of All Time poll

1. Vertigo

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958

A former detective with a fear of heights is hired to follow a woman apparently possessed by the past in Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless thriller about obsession.

“The accession of Vertigo to the top spot in this poll is hardly in the nature of a coup d’état. Tying for 11th place in 1972, Hitchcock’s masterpiece steadily inched up the poll over the next three decades, and by 2002 was clearly the heir apparent to the long-ruling Citizen Kane. Still, even ardent Wellesians should feel gratified at the modest revolution – if only for the proof that film canons (and the versions of history they legitimate) are not completely fossilised.

“There may be no larger significance in the bare fact that a couple of films made in California 17 years apart have traded numerical rankings on a whimsically impressionistic list. Yet the human urge to interpret chance phenomena will not be denied, and Vertigo is a crafty, duplicitous machine for spinning meaning…”

— Peter Matthews’s opening to his commemorative poll essay Vertigo rises: the greatest film of all time?

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2. Citizen Kane

Orson Welles, USA 1941

Citizen Kane (1941)

Given extraordinary freedom by Hollywood studio RKO for his debut film, boy wonder Welles created a modernist masterpiece that is regularly voted the best film ever made.

“Kane and Vertigo don’t top the chart by divine right. But those two films are just still the best at doing what great cinema ought to do: extending the everyday into the visionary.”

— Nigel Andrews

“All celluloid life is present in Citizen Kane; seeing it for the first or umpteenth time remains a revelation.”

— Trevor Johnston

3. Tokyo Story

Ozu Yasujiro, Japan 1953

Tokyo Story (1953)

The final part of Ozu Yasujiro’s loosely connected ‘Noriko’ trilogy is a devastating story of elderly grandparents brushed aside by their self-involved family.

“Ozu used to liken himself to a “tofu-maker”, in reference to the way his films – at least the post-war ones – were all variations on a small number of themes. So why is it Tokyo Story that is acclaimed by most as his masterpiece? DVD releases have made available such prewar films as I Was Born, But…, and yet the Ozu vote has not been split, and Tokyo Story has actually climbed two places since 2002. It may simply be that in Tokyo Story this most Japanese tofu-maker refined his art to the point of perfection, and crafted a truly universal film about family, time and loss.”

— James Bell

4. La Règle du jeu

Jean Renoir, France 1939

Made on the cusp of WWII, Jean Renoir’s satire of the upper-middle classes was banned as demoralising by the French government for two decades after its release

“Only Renoir has managed to express on film the most elevated notion of naturalism, examining this world from a perspective that is dark, cruel but objective, before going on to achieve the serenity of the work of his old age. With him, one has no qualms about using superlatives: La Règle du jeu is quite simply the greatest French film by the greatest of French directors.”

— Olivier Père

5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

F.W. Murnau, USA 1927

Sunrise (1927)

Lured to Hollywood by producer William Fox, German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau created one of the silent cinema’s last and most luminous masterpieces.

“When F.W. Murnau left Germany for America in 1926, did cinema foresee what was coming? Did it sense that change was around the corner – that now was the time to fill up on fantasy, delirium and spectacle before talking actors wrenched the artform closer to reality? Many things make this film more than just a morality tale about temptation and lust, a fable about a young husband so crazy with desire for a city girl that he contemplates drowning his wife, an elemental but sweet story of a husband and wife rediscovering their love for each other. Sunrise was an example – perhaps never again repeated on the same scale – of unfettered imagination and the clout of the studio system working together rather than at cross purposes.”

— Isabel Stevens

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick took science fiction cinema in a grandly intelligent new direction with this epic story of man’s quest for knowledge.

“2001: A Space Odyssey is a stand-along monument, a great visionary leap, unsurpassed in its vision of man and the universe. It was a statement that came at a time which now looks something like the peak of humanity’s technological optimism.”

— Roger Ebert

7. The Searchers

John Ford, USA 1956

The Searchers (1956)

John Ford created perhaps the greatest of all westerns with this tale of a Civil War veteran doggedly hunting the Comanche who have kidnapped his niece.

“Do the fluctuations in popularity of John Ford’s intimate revenge epic – no appearance in either critics’ or directors’ top tens in 2002, but fifth in the 1992 critics’ poll – reflect the shifts in popularity of the western? It could be a case of this being a western for people who don’t much care for them, but I suspect it’s more to do with John Ford’s stock having risen higher than ever this past decade and the citing of his influence in the unlikeliest of places in recent cinema.”

— Kieron Corless

8. Man with a Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov, Soviet Union 1929

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

An impression of city life in the Soviet Union, The Man with a Movie Camera is the best-known film of experimental documentary pioneer Dziga Vertov.

“Is Dziga Vertov’s cine-city symphony a film whose time has finally come? Ranked only no. 27 in our last critics’ poll, it now displaces Eisenstein’s erstwhile perennial Battleship Potemkin as the Constructivist Soviet silent of choice. Like Eisenstein’s warhorse, it’s an agit-experiment that sees montage as the means to a revolutionary consciousness; but rather than proceeding through fable and illusion, it’s explicitly engaged both with recording the modern urban everyday (which makes it the top documentary in our poll) and with its representation back to its participant-subjects (thus the top meta-movie).”

— Nick Bradshaw

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc

Carl Dreyer, France 1927

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Silent cinema at its most sublimely expressive, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece is an austere but hugely affecting dramatisation of the trial of St Joan.

“Joan was and remains an unassailable giant of early cinema, a transcendental film comprising tears, fire and madness that relies on extreme close-ups of the human face. Over the years it has often been a difficult film to see, but even during its lost years Joan has remained embedded in the critical consciousness, thanks to the strength of its early reception, the striking stills that appeared in film books, its presence in Godard’s Vivre sa vie and recently a series of unforgettable live screenings. In 2010 it was designated the most influential film of all time in the Toronto International Film Festival’s ‘Essential 100’ list, where Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as ‘the pinnacle of silent cinema – and perhaps of the cinema itself.’”

— Jane Giles

10.

Federico Fellini, Italy 1963

8½ (1963)

Federico Fellini triumphantly conjured himself out of a bad case of creative block with this autobiographical magnum opus about a film director experiencing creative block.

“Arguably the film that most accurately captures the agonies of creativity and the circus that surrounds filmmaking, equal parts narcissistic, self-deprecating, bitter, nostalgic, warm, critical and funny. Dreams, nightmares, reality and memories coexist within the same time-frame; the viewer sees Guido’s world not as it is, but more ‘realistically’ as he experiences it, inserting the film in a lineage that stretches from the Surrealists to David Lynch.”

— Mar Diestro-Dópido

11. Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union 1925

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

A fixture in the critical canon almost since its premiere, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about a 1905 naval mutiny was revolutionary in both form and content.

“Finally, Battleship Potemkin. There is little need to say anything about this film. It is on my list because it is one of the first films to show the power of cinema and what it could achieve. Everyone talks about its use of montage, and is fantastically done. But it is also Brechtian in form, ie it is didactic. It wants to move viewers to feel differently and to act differently as a result of what they experience. As a result, it has been banned in many places. This film will always move people.”

— Alby James

“Battleship Potemkin because of the imagination of the revolution and its filmic invention.”

— Sheila Schwartzman

“In my opinion, Battleship Potemkin is the greatest film ever made. All of the future search of experimentalism is contained within it. The story moves ahead in a permanent tension between novelty (in terms of style and the changes in Russian life at the time) and the big frame of history in which the action takes place.”

— Victor Fowler Calzada

12. L’Atalante

Jean Vigo, France 1934

L'Atalante

Newly-weds begin their life together on a working barge in this luminous and poetic romance, the only feature film by director Jean Vigo.

“L’Atalante is cinema as a diaphanous waft of half-dreamed desire; the most beautiful erotic dream ever put on film.”

— Michal Oleszczyk

13. Breathless

Jean-Luc Godard, France 1960

Breathless (1960)

Jean-Luc Godard’s precocious feature debut was this hugely influential jazzy, Noir-inflected crime drama.

“Few works have gathered so many elements that would come to transform film narration as Breathless. Even today, we feel that Godard reinvented the art of the cinema, pushing it to the boundaries of risk and experimentation.”

— Victor Fowler Calzada

“Breathless has an excellent mise en scène and explores how narration merges with meta-film reflections.”

— Long Tin Shum

“Effortless modernity retains its shock value in Breathless. You wonder what there was to discover after 1959. Most of all, it shows us what time just passing might feel like between humming, naming passing cars, rubbing our thumbs across our lips and making faces at the mirror – and immediately convinces us that it’s something the cinema was always supposed to describe.”

— Ben Gibson

“Breathless redefined and reimagined the possibilities of the medium.”

— Jason Wood

14. Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1979

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Transplanting the story of Joseph Conrad’s colonial-era novel Heart of Darkness to Vietnam, Francis Ford Coppola created a visually mesmerising fantasia on the spectacle of war.

“Apocalypse Now is complex, random and visionary. Everything about it is miraculous. It’s also a brilliant film to project. I’ve seen projectionists ride the fantastic sound like an engineer would ride levels of a live band.”

— Richard Sowada

“Apocalypse Now is a compelling, groundbreaking film about the journey into the heart of darkness and the insanity of war.”

— Maura McHugh

“From the opening shot to the bad trip climax, Apocalypse Now is the war film for people who hate war films, and a fitting cinematic end to a decade when the rulebook was torn up and wild excess encouraged. Everything else seems a little flat after you see this.”

— David Flint

15. Late Spring

Ozu Yasujiro, Japan 1949

Late Spring (1949)

Ozu Yasujiro’s exploration of the relationship between a widower and his unmarried adult daughter is often described as the perfect distillation of his style. Ryu Chishu and Hara Setsuko star.

“The transience of time, the inevitability of separation and the pain of loss inform Ozu’s most compassionate, most disarmingly tender picture Late Spring.”

— Joseph Fahim

“It’s especially painful to have to choose one film to represent Ozu’s endlessly rich body of work, but Late Spring, a sublimely beautiful meditation on family, marriage and loneliness, is his most profoundly moving film.”

— Joseph McBride

16. Au hasard Balthazar

Robert Bresson, France/Sweden 1966

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Robert Bresson’s distinctive pared-down style elicits extraordinary pathos from this devastating tale of an abused donkey passing from owner to owner.

“Au hasard Balthazar is a film that will continue to exist outside the conventional limitations of time and space.”

— Marco Mueller

“Au Hasard is an overpowering experience, but nothing to do with sentiment, more a troubling recognition of the fathomless suffering in the world.”

— Trevor Johnston

17=. Seven Samurai

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1954

Seven Samurai (1954)
© Toho Co., Ltd

Rice farmers hire a band of samurai to defend them against marauding bandits in Kurosawa Akira’s influential epic, a touchstone for action movies ever since.

“Kurosawa Akira’s majestic account of a village that hires a motley crew of samurai to defend it from bandit raids is so fluent and visually powerful that the subtitles become incidental.”

— Paul Whitington

“Seven Samurai’s dynamism! It’s the pinnacle of Kurosawa’s filmography and the best bridge between western and Asian cinema.”

— Jean Chanil

“Seven Samurai is consummate Kurosawa and perhaps the greatest action picture ever made, as emotionally as it is physically exhausting.”

— Patrick McGilligan

17=. Persona

Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966

Persona (1966)

A nurse (Bibi Andersson) and an actress who refuses to speak (Liv Ullmann) seem to fuse identities in Ingmar Bergman’s disturbing, formally experimental psychological drama.

“Bergman’s Persona is uncanny. It is like a conundrum that changes every time you watch it. Hence it stands outside of time (yes, it is vampiric, if you like).”

— Vigen Galstyan

“Persona is the best example of what Béla Balázs termed as the ‘dimension of physiognomy’. Together with Nykvist, Andersson and Ullman, Bergman explores the soul behind the mask.”

— Cesar Ballester

19. Mirror

Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union 1974

Mirror (1975)

Andrei Tarkovsky drew on memories of a rural childhood before WWII for this personal, impressionistic and unconventional film poem.

“The most personal of Andrey Tarkovsky’s movies, in The Mirror he found a poetic equivalent for the verses of his father Arseny Tarkovsky and convinced the world of the immortality of the great Russian artistic tradition.”

— Peter Shepotinnik

“Mirror, an attempt at a cinematic autobiography, ends up as a story about the main character’s relationship with himself. If – following the usual method of film watching – we identify with the protagonist, then the film becomes a meditation on our own relationship with ourselves: narrative cinema brought full circle to its point zero.”

— Vlastimir Sudar

20. Singin’ in the Rain

Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, USA 1951

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Hollywood’s troubled transition from silent to talking pictures at the end of the 1920s provided the inspiration for perhaps the greatest of movie musicals.

“Through the faked-up DIY of Singin’ in the Rain, seemingly a mad throwing together of stuff that somehow just gels, we’re allowed to feel the joy of creativity and to glimpse the very human face of genius. It’s the least improvised film providing the most thrillingly spontaneous feeling to be had in a cinema.”

— Ben Gibson

“Singin’ in the Rain is an all-singing all-dancing course on the dawn of talking pictures, bursting with Roaring Twenties-inspired gags.”

— Martin Tudor Caranfil

21=. L’avventura

Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy 1960

L'Avventura (1960)

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking and controversial arthouse milestone, the mystery of a woman’s disappearance from a Mediterranean island is left unresolved.

“I choose L’avventura not just for the landmark open narrative, but for Antonioni’s amazing architectural sense that composition is expression.”

— Trevor Johnston

“Antonioni’s L’avventura has the kind of plotline that gives arthouse cinema a bad name, but somehow a lacklustre search for a young woman who’s gone missing on a small volcanic island becomes an existential investigation of the human condition. Every time you watch it, you notice something new.”

— Paul Whitington

“Postmodernism found a voice in Antonioni’s revolutionary cinematic language and changed the face of arthouse cinema. The post-God world the visionary chronicler of the alienated and the disaffected valiantly confronts in L’avventura speaks of truths filmmakers have tended to ignore ever since.”

— Joseph Fahim

21=. Le Mépris

Jean-Luc Godard, France/Italy 1963

Le Mépris (1963)

Working with his biggest budget to date, Jean-Luc Godard created a sublime widescreen drama about marital breakdown, set during pre-production on a film shoot.

“Contempt is a beautiful opus to Nouvelle Vague cinema, and one of Godard’s most experimental movies. I love his troubled and troubling narration, his obsession with breaking the codes of popular cinema using some typical Godardian tropes: minimal dialogues with strange gestures, stares and situations. It’s intellectual as usual but also aesthetically different and courageous.”

— Mustapha Benfoldi

“One of the finest films ever made about both coupledom and the cinema, Le Mépris is also – with good reason – Godard’s most mythical film, in which he allows himself a degree of lyricism that was only to resurface again in much later work.”

— Olivier Pėre

“Le Mépris has always been my favorite Godard. It is the pinnacle of something, and is so beautifully inspired by classical Greco-German-Roman culture. It is even dedicated to Fritz Lang as a master.”

— Sylvia Pierre

21=. The Godfather

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972

The Godfather (1972)

The first of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy about the Corleone crime family is the disturbing story of a son drawn inexorably into his father’s Mafia affairs.

“The Godfather Part I works as a masterful portrait of modern societies. Coppola does not analyse his characters, nor seeks to moralise, but instead constructs these characters with all those ingredients that constitute the human condition. The visual and narrative elements are simply fascinating.”

— Juan Antonio Garcia Borrero

24=. Ordet

Carl Dreyer, Denmark 1955

Ordet (1955)

The penultimate film by the Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer is a parable on the power of faith, set in a remote religious community.

“Dreyer was the first filmmaker to ask the big questions about life, God and the mysteries of the human soul, and in Ordet he delivered his most impassioned address on the elusive concept of faith.”

— Joseph Fahim

24=. In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar Wai, China 2000

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Wong Kar Wai’s ravishing romance stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as two wronged spouses in 1960s Hong Kong who find comfort in each other’s company.

“In the Mood for Love is built on rapture, ecstasy, and the suffering it entails – on wheels. Blasting away all the conventions of melodrama, Wong comes up with a fiction of emotions powered by music (melos) that leaves everyone else in the dust. For fluidity, color, editing, music and unforgettable romance, this is it.”

— Martha P. Nochimson

26=. Rashomon

Kurosawa Akira, Japan 1950

Rashomon (1950)

Credited with bringing Japanese cinema to worldwide audiences, Kurosawa Akira’s breakthrough tells the story of a murder in the woods from four differing perspectives.

“Rashomon shows us impossibility of understanding the world and the inability of discovering the truth – those are, at first sight, European existential values, but they were brought to cinema by its Eastern film director.”

— Gulnara Abikeyeva

26=. Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966

Andrei Rublev (1966)

The life of a 15th-century icon painter takes centre stage in Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic meditation on the place of art in turbulent times.

“Andrei Rublev is a strong story about the artist – the suffering of the creator and creation. Tarkovsky made the individual story of Rublev much bigger then it was in reality until finally it is like a symbol, an archetype of the artist and his relationships with power and absolutist authority. I also like the visual language of the film. The scene with bells is one of the greatest in history of the cinema.”

— Tiina Lok

“I do find Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to be a film that still enchants and intrigues. There is something about the warp and weft of his film, and its attempt to understand the nature of the votive and the creative, that seems to me cinematic poetry of the highest order.”

— Roger Clark

28. Mulholland Dr.

David Lynch, USA 2001

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

In David Lynch’s labyrinthine neo-noir, Naomi Watts plays an aspiring ingénue who moves in with an amnesiac woman on her arrival in Hollywood. The famously open-ended plot reflects the film’s origin as a TV pilot.

“Non-linear narratives had already been explored in film, but Lynch took the form to a different and unique level in Mulholland Dr.”

— Fernanda Solórzano

“Mulholland Dr. thrives effortlessly on the idea that films can reverse time and turn interpretations upside down, while its filmmaker character is a lost, self-obsessed arse.”

— Vlastimir Sudar

29=. Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union 1979

Stalker (1979)

The Stalker guides illegal visitors through the overgrown labyrinth of the Zone, an area of alien traps and treasures, containing a room where wishes may come true…

“Stalker is a genius melancholy utopist’s filmic fever-dream come true.”

— Michel Lipkes

“Stalker is about searching for the truth inside us. Not one of its main protagonists is able to cross the border of the miraculous room: they are afraid of their real inner desires. It is also a film about victimising oneself for others; and about human modesty and humbleness.”

— Zuzana Gindl-Tatarova

29=. Shoah

Claude Lanzmann, France 1985

Shoah (1985)

An epic eyewitness account of the Holocaust told by those who lived through it.

“Shoah seems to me the most important film ever made…”

— Graham Fuller

31=. The Godfather Part II

Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974

The Godfather Part II

Both prequel and sequel to the original, The Godfather Part II follows two generations of the Corleone family as they fight for supremecy in the treacherous world of organised crime.

“‘That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.‘ When Michael Corleone utters these words to his WASP girlfriend at his sister’s wedding in The Godfather he is setting up the sequel as certainly as if it had all been pre-planned. The second movie is an answer to this line of dialogue, an operatic crime melodrama that seems to cover all the great themes of classical drama.“

— Philip Molloy

“With The Godfather Part II, Coppola may be the only director who surpassed his own masterpiece. Even without Marlon Brando.“

— Balint Szaloky

“The Godfather Part II because it is the best family film, a Greek tragedy set in a 20th-century Mafia clan. That’s why it wins over Martin Scorsese’s Mafia films: it balances organised crime against the Corleone family tragedy, which enables us to identify that much more with the characters – and wonder at our own morals.”

— Sabine Niewalda

31=. Taxi Driver

Martin Scorsese, USA 1976

Taxi Driver (1976)

In this searing portrait of urban paranoia one man’s search for redemption ends in a violent showdown.

“Taxi Driver is a ferociously raw exploration of isolation and a modern classic with which many people feel a deep and personal connection.”

— Trevor Johnston

33. Bicycle Thieves

Vittoria De Sica, Italy 1948

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

The theft of a bicycle becomes the catalyst for a father and son’s odyssey through the poverty-stricken streets of post-war Rome. One of the defining classics of Italian neorealism.

“It’s a touching story that engages the audience’s emotions and has them rooting for the protagonists all the time. And it is told in the neorealist style that makes it very affecting. Such a film will always remain a great example for new filmmakers without large funds. It proves that a simple premise and characters that we can care about are all you need to make a story work.”

— Alby James

“Bicycle Thieves’s mix of traditional dramatic structures with an unprecedented representation of city, characters and social condition is still effective and enormously touching in its depiction of contradictory ethical and political issues.”

— Francesco Pitassio

“Bicycle Thieves is neo-social realist melodrama that verges on tragedy, a document of devastated post-war Italy. Its delicate treatment of the (cinematic) space is recognised both in Bazin’s and Deleuze’s writings.”

— Nevena Dakovic

34. The General

Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, USA 1926

The General (1926)

Set during the American civil war, Buster Keaton’s most ambitious film combines spectacular action sequences and hilarious comedy aboard the runaway locomotive of the title.

“From the golden age of silent comedy, The General is as funny as it gets, with ingenious storytelling and filmmaking.”

— Patrick McGilligan

“Orson Welles described The General as “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made”, and he wasn’t wrong. The vision, clarity and economy with which Keaton tells his story are remarkable.”

— Paul Whitington

35=. Metropolis

Fritz Lang, Germany 1927

Metropolis (1927)

Lang’s pioneering work of science-fiction depicts a dystopian future in which a privileged elite rule over the futuristic city of Metropolis until one day the workers rise up from underground to rebel against their masters.

“I’ve recently (re)saw Metropolis (the restored version, at the Transylvania International Film Festival in 2010) with live and very modern, industrial-sounding music performed by Antonio Bras – the effect was astonishing: everything that cinema means was there: editing, tension, (melo)drama, acting, music… everything! Simply remarkable.”

— Florin Barbu

35=. Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1960

Psycho (1960)

Often imitated but never bettered, Hitchcock’s low budget “shocker” paved the way for the modern horror film.

“There has never been a more influential horror film than Psycho and everything since has referenced it somehow.”

— Alan Jones

“Psycho takes the Hitchcock slot just like City Lights takes the Chaplin one, because every great Hitchcock movie testifies to his masterful blending of entertainment and psychological depth.”

— Eric Kohn

35=. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France 1975

Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

In precise detail Akerman observes the daily routines of a single mother in her apartment and the consequences that transpire when things begin to unravel.

“Jeanne Dielman, first seen at college, shocked me with a new language and showed me the power of a form that could make me literally shout out just because someone hadn’t flicked a light switch.”

— Briony Hanson

“An essential inclusion for its aesthetically and politically groundbreaking qualities.”

— Annette Kuhn

“Akerman filmed Jeanne Dielmann, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at a lower camera height than one is used to – her own height (she is quite short) – and a feeling of claustrophobia seems to follow from that, pervading the film and, despite its dramatic ending, never fully abating.”

— Melissa Gronlund

35=. Sátántangó

Béla Tarr, Switzerland/Germany/Hungary 1994

Sátántangó (1994)

An epic seven-hour evocation of life in an isolated Hungarian village told in Tarr’s slow-moving meditative style.

“Sátántangó is an artistically unforgettable experience by the Hungarian master that deals with a part of his country’s history in a very unconventional way.”

— Ludmila Cvikova

“Sátántangó is the most ambitious film of the greatest of contemporary classics.”

— Jurica Pavicic

39=. The 400 Blows

François Truffaut, France 1959

The 400 Blows (1959)

Truffaut drew inspiration from his own troubled childhood for this classic account of a troubled adolescent looking for an escape route from an unhappy life.

“My favourite Truffaut film and my favourite coming-of-age movie, Les Quatre cent coups is comparable to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in its insightful depiction of the awakening of an artistic sensibility.”

— Paul Whitington

“The Four Hundred Blows is the epitome of a personal film, the kind of film I found, to my chagrin, that Hollywood doesn’t want.”

— Joseph McBride

39=. La dolce vita

Federico Fellini, France/Italy 1960

La dolce vita (1960)

Marcello Mastroianni is the paparazzi journalist whose life is an endless round of hedonistic parties and superficial liaisons as he searches for meaning amidst the crumbling grandeur of Rome’s once imperial city.

“The superbly thorough study that Fellini makes of a world characterised by the loss of moral values remains intact. But La dolce vita is not only about moral denunciation; it’s a film that has managed to leave for posterity sequences that work in the collective imaginary in an autonomous way.”

— Juan Antonio Garcia Borrero

“La dolce vita captures (in tabloid snapshot) the ambivalence of the modern age by exulting in the very decadence and excess that it also decries…”

— Anton Bitel

“A wonderful snapshot of Roman society at the time, a sneering look at hedonism and at the same time an exploration of human emptiness.”

— Naman Ramachandran

41. Journey to Italy

Roberto Rossellini, France/Italy 1954

Journey To Italy (1954)

Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a middle-aged English couple whose marriage falls apart during a journey through Italy. A pioneering work of modernism that links Italian neo-realism with the French new wave.

42=. Pather Panchali

Satyajit Ray, India 1955

Pather Panchali (1955)

The first part of Satyajit Ray’s acclaimed Apu Trilogy is a lyrical, closely observed story of a peasant family in 1920s rural India.

“Made for half-nothing, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is among the most seamless and graceful movies ever made, the best of the Apu Trilogy and a stunning achievement.”

— Paul Whitington

42=. Some Like It Hot

Billy Wilder, USA 1959

Some Like It Hot (1959)

On the run from Chicago mobsters, two musicians don drag to join an all-girl jazz band fronted by Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) in Billy Wilder’s hugely popular comedy.

Some Like It Hot is quite simply the funniest film ever made. Wilder’s farce educated me and my generation about the strange nuances of adult sexuality and provided the sex craze of my youth, Marilyn Monroe, with her most iconic role.

— Joseph McBride

42=. Gertrud

Carl Dreyer, Denmark 1964

Gertrud (1964)

The conflict of a woman between her husband, her lover and the lover of her youth, and her failure to find happiness with any of them.

Gertrud is a stream of poetic hypnosis, and includes one of the best performances in the history of cinema by Nina Pens Rode.

— David Lipkes

Dreyer’s Gertrud, in my opinion, makes a persuasive case of how magnificent an art form cinema can be. Jonathan Rosenbaum once confessed he had been writing an article about it for over a year, so granted, I don’t believe my tiny blurb would do the film justice.

— Boris Nelepo

42=. Pierrot le fou

Jean-Luc Godard, France/Italy 1965

Pierrot le fou (1965)

Riffing on the classic couple-on-the run movie, enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard took the narrative innovations of the French New Wave close to breaking point.

For me Pierrot le fou was the first really postmodern movie. The colourful story (a couple on the run) is covered by pure cinematic invention and references to all kinds of arts and culture.

— Zuzana Gindl-Tatarova

42=. Play Time

Jacques Tati, France 1967

Playtime (1967)
© Les Films de Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati directs and stars in this fun account of the bumbling M. Hulot’s day in Paris.

Play Time shows the beauty and power of subtlety in both cinema and comedy. The nuances of performance and craft create a world that feels like no other but whose effect is universal to audiences.

— Charlotte Cook

Radical in every facet, Tati’s anarchic magnum opus Play Time breaks every narrative rule, and is built on a stunning mise en scène that remains unmatched nearly half a century later. Most imperative of all, Play Time is a wondrous film that compels you to observe the world in a way you never have before.

— Joseph Fahim

42=. Close-Up

Abbas Kiarostami, Iran 1990

Close-Up (1990)

Drama-documentary, based on the true story of an unemployed movie buff who passes himself off as the celebrated movie director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to a woman he meets on a bus. He leads her cinephile family to believe that they will appear in his next film. Eventually he ends up in jail where his trial is filmed by Kiarostami…

In Tehran some years ago it was reported, perhaps apocryphally, that Jean-Luc Godard had said, “Cinema is Griffith to Kiarostami.” My list certainly reflects that idea, and I’m particularly glad to include Kiarostami’s Close-up as a way of extending the purview of the poll beyond the 1970s and Europe/America.

— Godfrey Cheshire

Close-Up completely obliterates the boundary between fiction and documentary in order to turn the most seductive aspect of cinema upside down. And it also shows how solemn and painful it can be (to want) to be a filmmaker.

— Vlastimir Sudar

48=. The Battle of Algiers

Gillo Pontecorvo, Algeria/Italy 1966

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece about the turbulent last years of French colonial rule in Algeria, seen from the perspective of both the guerrilla revolutionaries and the French authorities.

A seminal political film of the 1960s and 1970s, and banned in France as well! Although directed by an Italian director, the film was made in collaboration with the Algerian government and presents an African perspective on events, marking it an important work in the naissance of African cinema. Its neutral perspective and documentary-style vérité cinematography allegedly made it a manual for armed insurrection, as well as a guide for counter-insurgency. Morricone’s driving score combine with the film’s sly visual style and Pontecorvo’s passion for the cause to produce a lasting impression.

— Michael Koller

48=. Histoire(s) du cinéma

Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland 1998

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98)

Godard’s dense, sprawling essay meditation on cinema and its relationship to the political history of the twentieth century.

As for Godard’s Histoire(s), while ostensibly about cinema’s past it is also, in its extraordinary collage of forms, very much about its future.

— Chris Darke

50=. City Lights

Charlie Chaplin, USA 1931

City Lights (1931)

The Tramp wins the affections of a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) in this hilarious but heartbreaking comedy – one of Charlie Chaplin’s uncontested masterpieces.

No one merged emotional mush with slapstick brilliance in quite the same way at Chaplin in City Lights – you can be angry at the movie for tugging at your heartstrings, but you stand no chance of resisting its pull.

— Michal Oleszczyk

City Lights is one of the highlights of film history, where lofty classical melodrama happily coexists with brilliant humour.

— Peter Shepotinnik

50=. Ugetsu monogatari

Mizoguchi Kenji, Japan 1953

Ugetsu monogatari (1953)

In war-torn 16th-century Japan, two men leave their wives to seek wealth and glory in Mizoguchi Kenji’s tragic supernatural classic.

Via several dramatic and fantastic stories set in 16th century feudal Japan, Ugetsu monogatari is a film of extraordinary power and accuracy about the human condition. The greatest of Japanese filmmakers, in his films Mizoguchi expresses perfectly the universality of an art that is however rooted in Japanese culture and history. It is the apogee of film classicism.

— Olivier Pere

50=. La Jetée

Chris Marker, France 1962

La Jetée (1962)

This science-fiction short directed by Chris Marker is composed almost complete of still images. Its story, about time travel following a nuclear apocalypse, inspired Terry Gilliam’s 1995 feature 12 Monkeys.

La Jetée is still the short film that best embodies what short film can do better than feature-length films: it tells a complex story in a condensed way that leaves much to our imagination, uses a visual style that you could never uphold over feature length (at least not without getting boring) but which is perfectly employed here, and at 28 minutes it is exactly the right length.

— Sabine Niewalda

53=. North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1959

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant’s ad exec falls foul of a mysterious crime plot and a low-flying cropduster in Hitchcock’s witty, cross-country thriller co-starring Eva-Marie Saint.

53=. Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954

Rear Window (1954)

Hitchcock’s fascination with voyeurism reached its apotheosis in this mystery thriller, in which James Stewart suspects he has witnessed a murder in a neighbouring apartment.

53=. Raging Bull

Martin Scorsese, USA 1980

Raging Bull (1980)

Starring Robert De Niro as the middleweight boxer Jake La Motta, Scorsese’s biopic is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the 1980s.

56. M

Fritz Lang, Germany 1931

M (1931)

For his first sound film Fritz Lang turned to the story of a child killer (Peter Lorre), who is hunted down by police and underworld alike.

57=. The Leopard

Luchino Visconti, France/Italy 1963

The Leopard (1963)

Sumptous adaptation by Luchino Visconti of Lampedusa’s classic novel, set in Sicily during the Risorgimento of the 19th century. Burt Lancaster plays the Prince of Salina, Alain Delon his nephew, and Claudia Cardinale the beautiful woman they both fall for.

57=. Touch of Evil

Orson Welles, USA 1958

Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles’s return to Hollywood after ten years working in Europe is a sleazy border tale in which he takes centre stage as gargantuan detective Hank Quinlan.

59=. Sherlock Jr.

Buster Keaton, USA 1924

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Keaton’s third feature is a breathtakingly virtuosic display of every silent comedy technique imaginable, from his own formidable physical skills to some then-groundbreaking camera trickery.

59=. Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1975

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick’s exquisitely detailed adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel about the picaresque exploits of an 18th century Irish adventurer.

59=. La Maman et la putain

Jean Eustache, France 1973

La maman et la putain (1973)

Deals with the relations, largely sexual, between an anarchic young man and his two mistresses, one seemingly permanent, who keeps him, the other seemingly casual.

59=. Sansho Dayu

Mizoguchi Kenji, Japan 1954

Sansho Dayu (1954)

This sweeping historical tragedy about two children separated from their parents and sold into slavery continued a run of late masterpieces from Mizoguchi Kenji.

63=. Wild Strawberries

Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1957

Wild Strawberries (1957)

On a road trip to receive an honorary degree, an elderly academic (Victor Sjöstrom) looks back over his life in Ingmar Bergman’s art-cinema classic.

63=. Modern Times

Charles Chaplin, USA 1936

Modern Times (1936)

The final outing for Charlie Chaplin’s beloved Tramp character finds him enduring the pratfalls and humiliations of work in an increasingly mechanised society.

63=. Sunset Blvd.

Billy Wilder, USA 1950

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The most caustic of European émigré directors, Wilder explored the movie industry and the delusions of stardom in Hollywood’s great poison pen letter to itself.

63=. The Night of the Hunter

Charles Laughton, USA 1955

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Actor Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is a complete one-off, a terrifying parable of the corruption of innocence featuring a career-best performance from Robert Mitchum.

63=. Pickpocket

Robert Bresson, France 1959

Pickpocket (1959)

Robert Bresson chronicles the life of a petty thief in this philosophical film, with a screenplay inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and a cast featuring several non-professional actors.

63=. Rio Bravo

Howard Hawks, USA 1958

Rio Bravo (1958)

A decade after Red River (1947), Howard Hawks reteamed with John Wayne for this rambling western riffing on the director’s usual themes of friendship and professionalism.

69=. Blade Runner

Ridley Scott, Hong Kong/USA 1982

Blade Runner (1982)

Loosely adapted from a novel by Phillip K. Dick, Ridley Scott’s dark, saturated vision of 2019 Los Angeles is a classic of popular science-fiction cinema.

69=. Blue Velvet

David Lynch, USA 1986

Blue Velvet (1986)

In David Lynch’s idiosyncratic drama, a young man’s curiosity draws him into the twisted criminal sub-culture operating beneath the placid surface of his cosy hometown.

69=. Sans Soleil

Chris Marker, France 1982

A veteran cameraman who has travelled throughout the world relays his impressions on the different countries and life in general to a female commentator.

69=. A Man Escaped

Robert Bresson, France 1956

A Man Escaped (1956)

True story of the hazardous and daring wartime escape of a French officer from the condemned cell of a Nazi prison, with action set to Mozart’s Great C-Minor Mass.

73=. The Third Man

Carol Reed, UK/USA 1949

The Third Man (1949)

An American abroad in post-war Vienna pursues his missing friend down a rabbit hole of intrigue and moral corruption in Carol Reed’s masterpiece of European noir.

73=. L’eclisse

Michelangelo Antonioni, France/Italy 1962

L'eclisse (1962)

Antonioni’s film charts the hot and cold relationship of a young couple in bustling Rome.

73=. Les enfants du paradis

Marcel Carné, France 1945

Les enfants du paradis (1945)

Made during the Nazi occupation of France, Marcel Carne’s romantic epic of the 19th-century theatre world is a life-affirming tribute to love, Paris and the stage.

73=. La grande illusion

Jean Renoir, France 1937

La grande illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir’s pacifist classic is set in a German prisoner-of-war camp during WWI, where class kinship is felt across national boundaries.

73=. Nashville

Robert Altman, USA 1975

Nashville (1975)

Made to celebrate the bicentennial of American Independence, Robert Altman’s footloose epic blends the lives of 24 characters in the capital of country music.

78=. Chinatown

Roman Polanski, USA 1974

Chinatown (1974)

Roman Polanski’s brilliant thriller stars Jack Nicholson as a private eye uncovering corruption in 1930s Los Angeles, a desert town where water equals power.

78=. Beau Travail

Claire Denis, France 1998

Beau Travail (1999)

Loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd but with the action transferred to contemporary Djibouti, and the French Foreign legion, Claire Denis’s film is balletic, oblique and photographically stunning.

78=. Once Upon a Time in the West

Sergio Leone, Italy/USA 1968

Once upon a Time in the West (1968)

The railroad rushes westward, bringing power and progress with it, in Sergio Leone’s grandest spaghetti western, an operatic homage to Hollywood’s mythology of the Old West.

81=. The Magnificent Ambersons

Orson Welles, USA 1942

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Among the most famous of broken films, Orson Welles’s masterful follow-up to Citizen Kane was taken out of his control and re-edited by the studio.

81=. Lawrence of Arabia

David Lean, UK 1962

An eccentric English officer inspires the Arabs to unite against the Turks during WWI in David Lean’s seven Oscar-winner, an epic in every sense.

81=. The Spirit of the Beehive

Víctor Erice, Spain 1973

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, two small sisters live in a remote village in Castille. A mobile cinema screening of Frankenstein captures Ana’s imagination vividly, and is still in her mind when she finds a wounded soldier in the barn.

84=. Fanny and Alexander

Ingmar Bergman, France/Sweden 1984

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

The grand summation of Ingmar Bergman’s career, this epic family drama drew on the director’s own childhood experiences in early 20th century Sweden.

84=. Casablanca

Michael Curtiz, USA 1942

Casablanca (1942)

Everybody comes to Rick’s bar, including expat Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), in one of Hollywood’s most-loved romantic melodramas.

84=. The Colour of Pomegranates

Sergei Parajanov, USSR 1968

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

Parajanov’s lyrical evocation of the life of the 18th century Armenian poet Harutyan Sayatyan uses symbolic imagery patterned after Armenian icons and the folk theatre traditions of masque and mime, and is told through a series of titled episodes.

84=. Greed

Erich von Stroheim, USA 1925

Greed (1925)

Silent cinema’s most famous ‘lost’ film, von Stroheim’s monumental study of three ordinary lives destroyed by avarice was ruinously edited down by the studio.

84=. A Brighter Summer Day

Edward Yang, Taiwan 1991

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Through a focus on one central male protagonist, an idealistic student who refuses to compromise his moral standards, Edward Yang’s historical memoir looks at growing up in Taiwan during the 1960s and the problems of military dictatorship, unemployment and immigration from mainland China.

84=. The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah, USA 1969

The Wild Bunch (1969)

A gang of outlaws goes out in a blaze of violence and glory in Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac film about the dying days of the wild west.

90=. Partie de campagne

Jean Renoir, France 1936

Partie de campagne (1936)

This featherlight, 40-minute romance directed by Jean Renoir and based on a Guy de Maupassant story follows a love affair over the course of a summer afternoon in the countryside outside Paris.

90=. Aguirre, Wrath of God

Werner Herzog, Federal Republic of Germany 1972

 

Klaus Kinski stars as a megalomaniacal soldier leading a group of conquistadores down river in search of El Dorado on Werner Herzog’s oblique study of madness.

90=. A Matter of Life and Death

Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, UK 1946

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s audacious Technicolor fantasy, WWII airman David Niven finds himself summoned to heaven after surviving a plane crash that should have killed him.

93=. The Seventh Seal

Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1957

The Seventh Seal (1957)

During the plague-ravaged middle ages, a knight buys time for himself by playing chess with Death in Bergman’s much-imitated arthouse classic.

93=. Un chien andalou

Luis Buñuel, France 1928

Un chien andalou (1929)

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali collaborated in this surrealist silent short, notorious for its eye-slashing opening scene, its perplexing Freudian imagery and dream-logic narrative flow.

93=. Intolerance

D.W. Griffith, USA 1916

Intolerance (1916)

Responding to criticisms of racism for his record-breaking The Birth of a Nation, filmmaking pioneer D.W. Griffith made this epic drama depicting intolerance through the ages.

93=. A One and a Two

Edward Yang, Japan/Taiwan 1999

Edward Yang’s second film in our top 100 films offers a lucid, novelistic tapestry of contemporary Taiwanese anomie through the layers of multiple generations of a Taipei family.

93=. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, UK 1943

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey star in this wondrous British Technicolor classic – one of cinema’s greatest studies of ‘Englishness’.

93=. Touki Bouki

Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal 1973

Touki-Bouki (1973)

A young boy and a girl decide to emigrate from Senegal to France in search of a better life. They travel around the country on a motorbike trying various schemes to raise the money for the trip.

93=. Fear Eats the Soul

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federal Republic of Germany 1974

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Fassbinder’s international breakthrough is an unconventional love story with devastating emotional power.

93=. Imitation of Life

Douglas Sirk, USA 1959

Imitation of Life (1959)

Lana Turner shines in Douglas Sirk’s moving rags-to-riches tale.

93=. Madame de…

Max Ophüls, France/Italy 1953

Madame de… (1953)

Tragic consequences ensue when a society woman pawns the earrings her husband gave her, in Max Ophüls’s graceful and opulent period drama.

Credits and acknowledgement

Our Greatest Films of All Time poll was the work of many hands over many months, and could not have been compiled without the following…

S&S staff

Isabel Stevens, James Bell, Nick Bradshaw, Kieron Corless, Nick James and all at Sight & Sound.

Wrangler-in-chief

Mar Diestro-Dópido.

Intern assistants

Owen Van Spall, Bethany Rutter, Alisha Patel.

Web development

Iain Duncan, Paul McManus and all at BFI Digital; James, Colin and Ben at Endless; Stephen McConnachie and the BFI’s Collections Information department.

Our BFI colleagues

Laura Adams, Geoff Andrew, Upekha Bandaranayake, Andrea Bigger, Shona Collins, Margaret Deriaz, Bryony Dixon, Sam Dunn, Will Fowler, Sonia Mullett, Clare Stewart, Jill Reading, Judy Wells, Roxanne Hunt and the press office, and most of all Deleepa De Silva.

International advisers

Álvaro Arroba, Manuel Asín, Robert Beeson, Birgit Beumers, Neil Bhatt, Lizelle Bischoff, Stig Bjorkman, Hans-Michael Bock, Bianca Boege, Carmen Brieva García, Renata Clark, Stéphane Delorme, Andre Dias, Leslie Felperin, Simon Field, Raisa Fomina, Diego Galán, Rosa García, Jake Garriock, Suzy Gillett, Ed Guiney, Carlos F Heredero, Annemarie Horsman, Kent Jones, Gabe Klinger, Kevin Lee, Pierre Leon, Diego Lerer, Basia Lewandowska Cummings, Miguel Marías, Dominique Martinez, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Daniela Michel, Ramona Mitrica, Mehelli Modi, Olaf Möller, Nashen Moodley, Suzanne Murray, Jaime Pena, Mark Peranson, Vladan Petkovic, Andrei Plakhov, José María Prado, Tony Rayns, Rasha Salti, Adania Shibli, Keith Shiri, Gavin Smith, Eloísa Solaás, Alin Tasciyan, Gregory Valens, Koen Van Daele, Jay Weissberg, Nick Wrigley, Sergio Wolf, Neil Young (and anyone else we’ve missed).

Social media advisers

Eleni Stefanou and Joanna Mills.

Artwork

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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Originally published: 26 March 2021