César Ballester

Independent film scholar

Voted for

Persona1966Ingmar Bergman
L'avventura1960Michelangelo Antonioni
Ma nuit chez Maud1969Eric Rohmer
The Spirit of the Beehive1973Víctor Erice
The Last Laugh1924F.W. Murnau
The Conversation1974Francis Ford Coppola
Ninotchka1939Ernst Lubitsch
Mirror1975Andrei Tarkovsky
The Searchers1956John Ford



1966 Sweden

As I wrote back in 2012, and my opinion has not changed, "Persona is the best example of what Béla Balázs termed as the ‘dimension of physiognomy’. Together with Sven Nykvist, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, Bergman explores the soul behind the mask." Bergman's use of close-ups and extreme close-ups is mesmerising, at times disturbing, and thought-provoking.


1960 Italy, France

In L'avventura, with its sparse use of dialogue, Antonioni reclaims, or rather adapts, the spirit of silent cinema to the sound period. He transformed the way stories were told by relying mainly on the images and their sound landscape.

Ma nuit chez Maud

1969 France

Eric Rohmer's best 'conte moral'. Nestor Almendros's cinematography is stunning. Françoise Fabian and Jean-Louis Trintignant are, I believe, at their best. The synthesis of these three collaborations makes Rohmer's 'heavy' philosophical dialogues and moral choices simply a delight.

The Spirit of the Beehive

1973 Spain

The Spirit of the Beehive displays Erice’s mastery when it comes to developing a dialogue between the spectator and the filmmaker. He makes the spectator a participant in the creative process or, to paraphrase his words, he encourages the spectator to experience the same path down which the director has previously walked. This film is a masterclass in editing techniques, reinforced by Luis Cuadrado’s gorgeous cinematography and Fernando Fernán Gómez's superb portrayal of the disillusioned, defeated intellectual.

The Last Laugh

1924 Germany

No captions, no dialogues (except for the final explanatory coda added later), The Last Laugh is the pinnacle of the silent period in terms of developing a purely visual language. A pure visual narrative shot a few years before the talkies would change the art of cinema for ever.


1965 Czechoslovakia

Two old friends meet up after not seeing each other since they graduated from the conservatoire. They open a bottle of home made slivovice and catch up on how their lives have been so far. Not much else happens in this film. Another different way of approaching film narrative. Shot by one of the best directors of photography ever, Miroslav Ondríček.

The Conversation

1974 USA

A landmark film in terms of the complexity of the sound landscape developed by Walter Murch.


1939 USA

Ninotchka is an epitome of the classical Hollywood romantic comedy, with a political spin. Masterfully directed by Ernst Lubitsch, his famous "touch" abounds here. The cast, lead by Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and supported by the trio of character actors, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach (not to forget the character played by Ina Claire and a small part by Béla Lugosi), give outstanding performances. Most of the responsibility for all this lies on the script, written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Billy Wilder. The result is a controlled pace, great narrative structure, fantastic characters, and brilliant dialogues ("Your cornea is terrific"!!!) which are near perfection. Classical Hollywood at its best. Brackett and Wilder would go on to co-write Ball of Fire (1941), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Billy Wilder… oh, well, 'but that's another story.' The film delivers a proper humorous go at Communism (and at the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie too!). Three years later Lubitsch was having a go at the other main totalitarian system of the Twentieth Century with To Be or Not to Be. Ah, these Central Europeans, they knew what they were talking about.


1975 USSR

In this film Tarkovsky explores the boundaries of film narrative as such, departing from Aristotelian action and entering the realm of memory, dreams and associative thoughts. He strives to convey a more poetical (in a non-Aristotelian sense) narrative. It is a mesmerising experience in which, by means of the beautiful images (all credit to cinematographer Georgi Rerberg), each composed as if it were a painting, and a suggestive or even sensual sound landscape, the spectator is invited to reflect upon his/her own inner life. One could argue that it is Andrei Tarkovsky's most autobiographical film (even his own mother appears in the film playing the narrator/protagonist's mother in the film's present time; and his own father, Arseny Tarkovsky, reads his own poems throughout the film), but Tarkovsky never shows the narrator/protagonist's face as an adult – that is, he has no specific identity and thus he invites each spectator to fill that void. In watching the film, one identifies oneself as the protagonist. It is an act of contemplation of the self, hence the mirror. One should not forget Margarita Terekhova's outstanding performance, doubling as the protagonist's mother and ex-wife.

The Searchers

1956 USA

John Ford, together with Frank S. Nugent, turn the western, one of Classical Hollywood's genres par excellence, with all its tropes, conventions and types (some of these have aged better than others), into epic worthy of Homer or Virgil. At one level it is the journey of the lonesome hero, Ethan, in search of a home to rest. At another, it is the Biblical search of a sinner (the Reverend/Texas Ranger Captain, played by the great supporting actor Ward Bond, addresses him as the 'prodigal brother') to exorcise his demons by means of redemption. John Wayne, as Ethan, delivers one of his best performances, aided by Winton C. Hoch's cinematography, which not only captures the beauty of the landscape (Monument Valley), but above all, conveys by means of close-ups, the anger, the violence, the racism present in Ethan's gaze and soul. This introspection into the dark side of the western protagonist also reminds one of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart, among others. The film's last shot, without any shadow of a doubt one of the best shots ever filmed in the history of cinema, confirms Ethan's redemption, but also his damnation to wander on, to 'ride away'.

Further remarks

After ten years I must say I do still find it terribly difficult to choose only ten films. Why not let us choose 20? Or perhaps for 2032, the editors of Sight and Sound might be gracious enough to let us choose 30! In any case my list has not changed much during this time, only three 'discards', three new entries. Again, so many films, directors, DoPs have been left out of my list. Silent Masters: Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, the Soviets, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko; Hollywood Classics: Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock (the only reason I have not voted for Vertigo, masterpiece as it is indeed, is I have never forgiven him for killing Kim Novak at the end of the film. You do not kill Kim Novak!), Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Kubrick, Nicholas Ray… European masterpieces: Bresson, Dassin’s Rififi, Truffaut, Raoul Coutard, De Sica, Fellini, Rossellini, Buñuel, Melville, Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, and the Brits, Carol Reed, David Lean… without forgetting “all those bright young men and women” from the former Eastern Europe: Wajda, Munk, Kieslowski, Holland, Forman, Menzel, Chytilová, Szabo, Mészáros, Dušan Hanák's 322… and further East, the Soviets, Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying, Askoldov's The Commissar, Kira Muratova… 1970s USA: Woody Allen's Annie Hall, among others, Scorsese, Altman, Peckinpah… the Japanese: Ozu, Kurosawa… In India Satyajit Ray. I have not forgotten about Wong Kar Wai… More recently, worthy to be included in the poll would be Hirokazu Koreeda, or Pawel Pawlikowski's Polish films, Ida and Cold War. And the list could go on and on and on…