|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|La dolce vita
|Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
|Wong Kar Wai
|Paul Thomas Anderson
|The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
|Trouble Every Day
|Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
|The Wizard of Oz
Any of the exquisite fantasies of the Archers could've occupied this spot, and The Red Shoes very nearly did, but I'm partial to the feverish register this film barrels into with its final act. That stare from undone nun Kathleen Byron, her eyes ringed with expressionistic makeup gesturing to the erotic mania that's overtaken her, can bore a hole through the screen and into the soul. The early scenes of literally buttoned-up primness among the sisters worshipping atop a stunning Himalayan mountain range (embellished by astonishing matte painting courtesy of W. Percy Day) belie the wave of crazy-making lust that will soon overtake them, shockingly carnal for its time or ours. The arrival of a strapping emissary drives these mortal women into a bizarre love triangle with the sacred and profane, their adoration of Jesus Christ put in sacrilegiously material terms in its equation to the nuns' fleshly infatuation with their khaki-shorted visitor. This would not have been an honest list if it did not include at least one film about being so horny you lose your entire mind.
La dolce vita
Judging purely from osmosis of vibes via social mediums, I get the sense that Fellini's stock has fallen amongst the listmakerati, relative to the other heavyweights of the postwar Euro-arthouse. (Calling my broker and screaming at him to buy, buy, buy in neorealism futures.) And so it is as a brave iconoclast that I continue to stand by the indulgence and maximalism and solipsism that define the master's masterpiece, an acrid romp through a demimonde choking to death on its own ennui-fueled excess. Though Fellini has been existentially sickened by a constant diet of pleasure, he's not here to chide, as aware as anyone of its seductive power; just because having sex with a parade of gorgeous women only seems to make Marcello (Mastroianni, a burnt-out god) unhappy, that obviously doesn't mean he's going to stop. We're all still being deadened by the same cultural hollowness depicted here, just without any of the glamour, our present as garish and frightful as that fish on the beach. If you're gonna overdose on beauty, you might as well have Anita Ekberg around.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
It's to Kubrick's great vindication that we now know for a fact that the nuclear apocalypse will be just as boneheaded, just as testosterone-driven, and just as hysterical (in both the funny and mentally infirm senses) as he imagined it. The checks to overworld state power don't work, their supposed built-in failsafes instead guaranteeing the success of those rogue operators seeking to usurp them. The people meant to attend to these calamities have their heads elsewhere, usually between someone else's legs or up their own ass. We're all gonna go kablooey, and so of course what else is there to do but laugh? Unfortunate, surreal prescience notwithstanding, it's Kubrick's deadpan direction that makes this an all-timer, littered with bawdy sight gags and darkly ironic mise en scène facilitated by production designer Ken Adam. It's a film of infinite self-contained delights — the Coca-Cola facial, the warhead phallus, triple threat Peter Sellers' introductory reveal from behind a paper readout sheet, the euphemistic credit sequence with Pablo Ferro's typography. Say it with me now: fluids.
When a film has to withstand several rounds of culling until a final ten has been decided, never hurts to have two of the most excruciating, tender, vulnerable performances ever committed to the screen in its favour. As a pair of turbulent off-and-on boyfriends stranded in the lush purgatory of Buenos Aires, they do all the things that lovers do, just with more piercing emotional intensity than the majority of actors could hope to muster. And yet the cruelty of their fights and the intimacy of their reconciliations come from the minuscule subtleties of Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung's faces and body language, telegraphing apprehension or invitation with little more than a twitch of the eye or a lithe reclining pose. Of Wong's great romances, this one offers all of the doomed yearning and swooning lonerism he made his trademark, with a just-right minimal dash of that whimsical-adjacent happenstance he can't resist. Strangers in a strange land, the leads clash like the cultures of Hong Kong and Argentina, unexpected and inspired and compatible even in their incongruity.
Some may say that Paul Thomas Anderson's lattice-shaped melodrama doesn't even belong in the GOAT conversation (PTA himself, for one, though artists are allowed to be wrong about their own work), but they'd surely agree that few films exist which so badly want to be one of the greatest ever made. The Atlantean ambition evident in his skyscraping third feature – produced under the auspices of cocaine and twentysomething hubris – perfectly matches the subject matter, which aspires to the modest task of proving that life has meaning. And by god, he does it, or at least it sure feels that way when the absurdly stacked ensemble taps into the collective spiritual unity binding all things via cross-cut Aimee Mann karaoke. Though religion doesn't take such a foregrounded position in the film, confined to a quick shot of John C. Reilly's cop praying and a blink-and-you-miss-it Bible verse, the climactic amphibious rain reminds us that this is a film about God as concept. I find it immensely comforting to imagine that there's an immense, unknowable thing we can submit to that will take care of us; I can only believe this while watching this film.
There's no use denying that some of us have included a silent pick out of obligation to well-roundedness, and as well we should, breadth and diligence being a significant part of the point to this poll. And so if the idea is to isolate something formative for the form, I'd accordingly want to single out the Rosetta Stone that corresponds to my preferred cinema of delirium and sensation, which would be this proto-avant-garde hallucination made in cooperation with the experimental trailblazers of the Shinkankakuha "School of New Perceptions." While his contemporaries were busy codifying the foundational cinematic vocabulary that would remain in use over the following century, Kinugasa was hard at work trying to explode it by any stylistic means necessary, packing a loose narrative about a mental asylum janitor with appropriately unhinged camera games. As his oneiric finale blazes through dissolves, double-exposures and every other trick in the book, modern audiences come to realise that he's the guy who wrote it. Every genre freak with dreams of creating a truly alienating outsider object is following his example, even if they don't realise it.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
I don't find movies very scary; they're just light on a wall, and even though they evoke fears that correspond to very real phenomena either explicitly or through metaphor, the type of things I'm afraid of (getting audited, losing my loved ones, going back to working in retail) don't really have the flavour of horror. So I have spent a good while wondering why this film alone wields the ability to make my blood run cold, and can reach no other conclusion than that it possesses dark, primordial powers. There's something singularly unholy about Hooper's grisly nightmare, and I suspect its dreamy qualities in specific give it the edge that places it in a class of its own. In the childlike Freudian tang to the taboo-busting incest, the queasy illogic of the elliptical edits through which one scene drifts into the next, and the defiant senselessness of its final shot, elemental influences buried deep in the subconscious claw their way to the surface, starved to feed. If this is enough to convert the staunchest skeptics, it's for how Hooper proves that the worst of the worst already lies dormant in our heads, waiting to be freed.
Trouble Every Day
The 21st century begins here, with a film that anticipates the millennial-era culture industry's widespread cannibalisation of earlier cinematic traditions as blood-soaked, ravenous text. From the weathered blueprints of creature features and sexploitation, Denis crafts an enigma with bearings in the existential, a truly malevolent work of horror that towers over those with the temerity to call themselves 'elevated'. She reduces vampirism down to its component parts and treats them with a theorist's sense of intellectual abstraction; eternal life, insatiable hunger, and hypnotic erotic persuasion all become ways of expressing the inner incompleteness that Vincent Gallo's obsessive doctor wants to solve. (Vincent Gallo, a doctor! And we buy it! Such is the transformative power of cinema.) Béatrice Dalle's feral yet innocent performance conflates femininity and rawness, and provides the map legend tracing the connections between Denis' seemingly far-flung interests. She broke up a string of earthbound dramas with a hard left into genre, as if aware that these divisions were bound to crumble over the next 20 years, leaving an international art circuit fixated on marrying shock to profundity, filtered through its own past.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
Rivette says every film is a documentary of its own making; Greaves does him one better by seizing that aphorism as literal instruction, constructing a nesting doll of metatext organized under the principle that only by constantly exposing cinema's artifice can we hope to locate some kernel of truth. A crew shoots a crew shooting a crew shooting a handful of actors as they 'audition' in Central Park for a movie that doesn't exist, the phoniness getting peeled away with each layer that comes into view as the aperture expands. The shards of authenticity that Greaves unearths can sometimes come from felicitously catching the world around him unguarded, as in an AD's exchange with an idiot cop sussing out whether the peace is being disturbed by their shoot. But more often, the crews themselves model the unmediated behavior as Greaves slyly pushes their buttons, turning the overall creative project inside out to reveal the squishy stuff within. Funny and inspired, it should've permanently laid to rest the still-persistent misconception that documentary cinema somehow isn't cinema.
The Wizard of Oz
I am thankful that these ten movies don't have to be ordered by preference, as I have no idea how I could possibly rank them, with the sole exception that this would obviously hold the number one spot. Every time I return to the crown jewel of MGM's musical era (a distinction generally bestowed elsewhere, I'm guessing due to dance numbers more rudimentary than Donen and Kelly's fleet-footed extravaganzas), I'm convinced there's no way it can be as perfect as I remember from the last viewing, a cycle dating back to earliest childhood. Miraculously, it always is, and not just because it transports me to a time when my not-yet-developed brain was most susceptible to the menace of the flying monkeys, the lovable bluster of the Cowardly Lion, and the sad-eyed homesickness of Dorothy Gale. Over the years, I've done what I can to look past my profound sentimental attachment to this movie, and I've come to appreciate it as the all-text – the movie that bottles the transcendent energy of cinema itself. In Dorothy's dreamed flight from sepia-toned Kansas to a Technicolor wonderland, we find a moving analogue for the medium's prestidigitation, a trick that works every time.
I went into something of a spiral while compiling this list, a task that unfortunately fell into my lap during a period of increased intellectual insecurity. Every title tacked onto my unwieldy longlist of potential picks seemed to expose me as a fraud; anything too on-the-radar felt obvious and indicative of my middlebrow orientation on the grand spectrum of taste, while anything too obscure felt like a clear tell that I'm straining for cinephile street cred. It actually took a good long while for me to realise that I was acting insane and should not allow an assignment for which none of us even get paid to command such a sizable parcel of mental real estate, at which point then I remembered no one cares about this (or at least my place in it), really, and decided to follow my heart. This is a good, liberating epiphany. David Foster Wallace talked about this.
Which is a circuitous way of saying that to whatever extent there exists a divide between detached, clinical standards of greatness and expressions of individual preference, I fall to the side of the latter. Apologies to Welles and Hitchcock, both of whom I hold in nothing but the highest esteem, but they'll have plenty of supporters representing their interests within a critical corps I've heard will number in the thousands. (Though I have wondered if everyone is thinking the same as me and using their tiny platform to stump for their pet causes, an inclination I see especially in my fellow young people, which could quite likely result in a fracturing of the preexisting consensus and create room for god knows what to rush in.) And so the attached list represents an effort to split the difference between my personal vision of greatness and everyone else's, movies that I stand by as unimpeachable ten-out-of-tens that cover the breadth of all cinema can do and be, while more specifically speaking to my passions and philosophies w/r/t cinema.
I held myself to some loose standards of variety across nations and eras and demographics, but with lots of room for variation within those parameters, and that's where I'm able to express my beliefs about art and excellence. For instance: I resolved to limit myself to a single silent film in the interest of spreading the wealth, and eventually narrowed matters down to a choice between Murnau's Sunrise and A Page of Madness. Both major, both hugely influential for the following century of filmmaking, but in entirely different spheres. Murnau's command of mise en scéne and editing techniques gave shape to innumerable human-scaled dramas, by anyone's count an essential plank of the common cinematic vocabulary. But Kinugasa and his cronies in the Japanese avant-garde specifically conceived their methods as a rejoinder to the accepted techniques, and paved the way for genre and experimental cinema to venture into wilder, stranger, and more outré territory.
That's where I'm most at home, taste-wise, and I did what I could to articulate that through my choices. For my money, horror was criminally underserved in the 2012 poll, with Psycho as the lone representative for a rich cinematic tradition dating back to the origins of the form yet still ghettoised in institutional states-of-the-union like this. I kept that in mind as I made my choices, though the maddened, ravenous spirit of the genre can be found in trace amounts in my other selections as well; the fever pitch Black Narcissus works its way up to the rabid carnality of Dr. Strangelove, the hallucinatory soundstage artifice of Oz. The stubbornly unfashionable Magnolia is the only one I really have to wear, and I'm perfectly willing to, because a big part of Magnolia is learning to forgive others their failures and in doing so, free yourself from their harm. People who think Magnolia is terrible can't hurt me. They may not even be real!
When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, my parents would often bring me and my sister to our grandparents' house down the south shore of Massachusetts, where we received an informal yet indelible crash course on the MGM musicals. At their house, I also repeatedly read a book published by Entertainment Weekly, enumerating their picks for the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. (I believe it was overseen by good old Ty Burr. I find it jarring that I can now call him a colleague.) This effectively set me on the path leading to where I am today, and I have no doubt that Sight and Sound's latest undertaking will serve a similarly crucial purpose to some young losers out there. Within that faction of losers, there will be mini-weirdos enraptured with the kind of oddball thing I once was, hopefully something that makes it onto the final hundred. Maybe they'll use the site's handy function to see which respondents voted for that thing that struck a chord with them – can you imagine if a silent majority of Texas Chain Saw Massacre voters staged an upset? – and check on their individual lists. And if that does happen, I just wanted to give those little freaks and perverts something good to find. In olden days, we just left porn mags in the woods.