Martin Rubin

Lecturer, University of Illinois at Chicago

Voted for

His Girl Friday1939Howard Hawks
Le Mépris1963Jean-Luc Godard
Paisan1946Roberto Rossellini
The Passion of Joan of Arc1927Carl Th. Dreyer
Psycho1960Alfred Hitchcock
Rear Window1954Alfred Hitchcock
The Searchers1956John Ford
Touch of Evil1958Orson Welles
Vertigo1958Alfred Hitchcock


His Girl Friday

1939 USA

Lists like this one tend to underrepresent comedy. Although some of the films on my list include substantial doses of that element, I want to include at least one pure example, and I can think of none better than Hawks’s exhilarating screwball-on-steroids juggernaut, whose legendary velocity blurs moral and representational boundaries with existential aplomb.


1952 Japan

It was a toss-up between this film and Mizoguchi’s comparably sublime Sansho Dayu. I opted for Oharu because of its greater emotional range (including one of Mizoguchi’s rare excursions into comedy) and its more adventurous formal elements.

Le Mépris

1963 France, Italy

To represent cinema’s most influential modernist, I counterintuitively chose his most traditionally entertaining film (although it was still untraditional enough to exasperate producer Joseph E. Levine). The best movie about making a movie, Godard’s radiant romantic tragedy walks a dialectical tightrope between elemental pleasures (gorgeous settings, gorgeous music, gorgeous Brigitte, etc.) and a modernist problematization of love, cinema, and classicism.

Note to copy editor: Please retain the repeated uses of “gorgeous.”


1946 Italy

Italian neorealism was (and continues to be) the most influential movement in film history; Rossellini’s artfully jagged exploration of wartime Italy is the most important neorealist film by the most important neorealist director.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

1927 France

I regret not having room for additional silent films (e.g., Battleship Potemkin, The Crowd, Sunrise), but I settled for Dreyer’s soul-shaking masterpiece, a film that combines revolutionary content and revolutionary style.


1960 USA

Hitchcock made a daring, career-redefining leap with Psycho, and, sixty years later, it seems like the cinema (especially the psychological horror sector) is still trying to catch up to it. I find it mind-boggling that Hitchcock could produce such a bleak, radical vision within the Hollywood system, and that he could make it so entertaining, so funny, and so commercially successful.

Note to copy editor: Please retain the repeated uses of “so.”

Rear Window

1954 USA

One important aspect of Hitchcock’s eminence is the pervasive self-reflexive dimension of his work. No film more definitively embodies that aspect than this hugely entertaining, brilliantly conceived commentary on spectatorship and story-making.

The Searchers

1956 USA

Its red-face casting and other representational archaisms may rankle contemporary sensibilities, but this stirring, stunningly visualized western saga remains a profoundly ambivalent exploration of both the noblest and darkest impulses that lie at the heart of American history and consciousness.

Touch of Evil

1958 USA

Sure, I love Citizen Kane, but Welles continued to mature as an artist. Unfortunately, he never again had the optimal production conditions (Hollywood studio resources, adequate budget, lack of studio interference) that he enjoyed on Kane. Though somewhat compromised, this baroque border-town noir represents Welles’s best balance of mature artistry and conducive production conditions.


1958 USA

Though less overt than in Rear Window, the self-reflexivity of Hitchcock’s most personal film is deeper, more complex, and more unsettling. It reflects upon, among other things, the representation of women in cinema, the nature of the cinematic image, the fetishistic and necrophiliac aspects of film spectatorship, and its director’s own implication and vulnerability. It does all this not didactically, but in affective ways that can get under one’s skin like few other films I have experienced. If I were ranking the films on this list, Vertigo would be at the top.

Note to copy editor: Please retain “affective.” Do not change to “effective.”

Note to copy editor: Please retain “like few other films.” Do not change to “like a few other films.”

Further remarks

Because my list is the same as it was ten years ago, I am grateful that the comments on individual films enable me to amplify my previous submission. I realise that my inclusion of three Hitchcock films goes against the unofficial convention of one-per-director, but that restriction seems arbitrary, and it does not reflect my belief that Hitchcock is indeed the greatest filmmaker, in a class by himself. Based on my experience as a teacher, writer, and spectator, no other director’s films more richly reward close attention – they are bottomless wells.

I was tempted to include here the titles of beloved films regretfully left off my ten-greatest list, especially films made after the 1963 endpoint of the list, but that seemed self-indulgent. One value of a list like this one is that it forces you to choose, without equivocations or addenda, and, by doing so, to confront the question: “What do I really consider most important in determining a film’s greatness?” I’ve already compromised that resolve a little in my above remarks, and I don’t want to dilute it further.