Freelance film critic
|Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
|Man with a Movie Camera
|Throne of Blood
|2001: A Space Odyssey
|Once upon a Time in the West
|Aguirre, Wrath of God
|The Big Lebowski
|Hat Wolff von Amerongen Konkursdelikte begangen?
|Gerhard Benedikt Friedl
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
More than 100 years on, the uncanny spirit of Robert Wiene's horror masterpiece continues to haunt every nook and cranny of the genre it helped inaugurate – its impossible architecture the definitive cinematic expression of the logic of nightmares, Conrad Veidt's unreadable visage somehow the blueprint of every slasher, final girl, and ambiguous horrific antihero all at once, the rug-pulling ending the perfect encapsulation of the medium's capacity for sensationalist spectacle.
Man with a Movie Camera
Seen through the eye of the camera, the hustle and bustle of the everyday becomes a poetic symphony of humanity itself. Not just the crowning jewel of its short-lived subgenre, Man with a Movie Camera remains the defining aspirational work of documentary cinema, because it understands, acknowledges and celebrates the power of cinematic manipulation and its potential to uncover profound artistic, emotional and existential truths.
A perfect marriage of film noir, metafiction, and the darkly comedic genius of Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd. is both the most loving and the most scathing look Hollywood ever took at itself. To die is a terrible thing – but to be forgotten, that is the true tragedy.
Throne of Blood
Kurosawa hollows out Shakespeare's Macbeth, which ostensibly believes in the restorative power of a good ruler, and adapts it for a post-war Japan still reeling from the destruction wrought by the very desire to rule. Every throne is soaked in blood, every act of succession accompanied by the screeching, cackling spirits who have watched a thousand kingdoms culminate in murder and chaos – and Throne of Blood projects it all on to the towering figures of Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada, who violently embody the madness inherent in an empire that's crumbling into dust.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Human evolution, both physical and spiritual, translated into confoundingly hypnotic imagery. Apemen huddling together, in fear of a world they cannot yet control, are succeeded by astronauts and businessmen who have subjugated the Earth and the cosmos and are drifting through an unending void in abject loneliness. Yet they themselves are also merely waiting to be succeeded by the existential horror that is HAL – humanity stripped bare of everything that makes it human, save for its consciousness; and once that goes, has to go, they are truly lost.
Once upon a Time in the West
It may not be the definitive western, but it might just be the most western: part parody, part eulogy, part apotheosis, Once Upon a Time in the West is every narrative and formal cliché, every grandiose gesture, every ambiguous, every subversive, every troubling commentary on American history that its parent genre deals in condensed into a sumptuously operatic western melodrama that stands tall as one of the most purely cinematic spectacles ever put to film.
Aguirre, Wrath of God
Herzog's near-documentary chronicle of doomed conquistadors (and his own crew) renders colonialism as a hubristic death cult maniacally trudging on in search of gold, glory and power, even as the bodies start piling up all around it. A sublime nightmare, as eerie, feverish, haggard and haunted as befits the history it so immersively recreates.
The Big Lebowski
The sheer comedic heft of The Big Lebowski alone would make it a strong contender for consideration for a list of the best films ever made – but what truly makes it worthy of inclusion is the Coens' canny deconstruction, satirising and eulogising of 70-odd years of scuzzy Los Angeles culture, from Busby Berkeley and Philip Marlowe to the rise of the porn industry and New Age freakdom: what their Gulf War period piece posits is that the brave new postmodern world of Operation Desert Storm, brought about by capitalists, reactionaries, cops and other winners of the 60s culture wars, is quickly paving over the city's already suspect legacy and replacing it with something even more unseemly. The Dude abides, but for how much longer?
There may be no scene in all of cinema that is more magical than ten-year-old Chihiro taking a train ride through the flooded expanse of the world she has lost herself (and swiftly found a job) in: between Joe Hisaishi's enchanting score, the watercolour-like tableaux, and Hayao Miyazaki's trademark trust in his audience to grasp the essence of a moment without any dialogue, it is, quite simply, aesthetic, tonal and emotional perfection. And it is indicative of Spirited Away as a whole, which is one of the best, most illustrative examples of the unique qualities possessed by the medium of animation, creating an impossible, magnificently lived-in fantasy realm that plays host to one of Miyazaki's most poignant coming-of-age tales.
Hat Wolff von Amerongen Konkursdelikte begangen?
Consisting exclusively of matter-of-fact voiceover narration, detailing trade deals, lawsuits and trivia concerning post-war Germany's financial and political elite, and tenuously related shots of everyday life in European cities, Wolff von Amerongen is a suggestive, evocative, almost unbearably implicit tract about the absurdity of modern capitalism. As if trying to 'follow the money', Gerhard Benedikt Friedl doggedly retraces its steps across the Möbius strip of the political-industrial complex and, in the process, lays bare the bizarre human comedy the system's maddening circularity breeds – until he ultimately seems to give up, because there is no centre, no hidden meaning, no rhyme or reason, and certainly no accountability. There are only capital and entrenched power, none of which are real, tangible things. Did Wolff von Amerongen commit bankruptcy offences? The film doesn't say. It doesn't even ask. He probably did. Either way, capitalism isn't designed for the answer to matter.
Any best-of list is an impossible game of exclusion and prioritisation, and a top ten of the 'greatest films of all time' is the most impossible one of all.
Reviewing my own picks – themselves the result of a painstaking massacre of darlings – I am dismayed to see that I have omitted directors like Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, Marcel Carné, John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Agnès Varda, Spike Lee, Kelly Reichardt and so many others. I am also reminded once more of the significant gaps that remain in my own cinematic education: I am almost as underinformed about the works of the nouvelle vague as I was ten years ago; I only have the most tenuous grasp of the varied strands, schools and national specificities of African and Latin American cinema; I have still only seen a paltry few films, if any, by Claude Chabrol, Jean Vigo, Chantal Akerman, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Jane Campion, Djibril Diop Mambéty and Robert Altman, to name just a few.
So for what it's worth, this top ten is but a placeholder – a collection of films that I both adore and consider, beyond any reasonable doubt, deserving of being named among the 'greatest of all time'.
Ultimately, however, I think it is less about what one puts into such a list and more about what one gets out of it: the omissions and blind spots I have encountered here are just as instructive as the eventual Sight and Sound list will no doubt be. Both will serve as a roadmap for what films, directors, genres, and countries I will tackle in the ten years between now and the next Sight and Sound poll.
Here's hoping, then, that in ten years' time, this decision-making process will prove less arduous and will leave me feeling less under-educated in terms of my own viewing habits. Fat chance, I know, but one can always dream.