Director of Theatrical Insights
|The Third Man
|A Matter of Life and Death
|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
|The Wizard of Oz
|The Passion of Joan of Arc
|Carl Th. Dreyer
Scorsese has made many great films but, for me, this is his masterpiece. So much more than De Niro's (astonishing) transformation, this is a deep look into the soul of a truly unsympathetic character that finds his underlying humanity and provides understanding of how a flawed and tragic person can still deserve empathy. The performances are flawless from the leads to every minor player (as is casting); Michael Chapman's cinematography is sublime; Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is as balletic as the expertly staged fight scenes. It is brutal, tragic, mesmerizing, unforgettable.
The Third Man
Iconography abounds in this quite simply perfect thriller. From Orson Welles "from the shadows" doorstep introduction, to the cuckoo-clock speech, to Anton Karas' zither music, to the Vienna sewer chase, to that long long final shot of Valli that speaks volumes without dialogue (the best ending in British cinema IMO). But holding it all together is a (typically) understated and captivating performance from cinematic everyman Joseph Cotten. Welles is the scene-stealer, Valli brings the glamour, Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee add a wonderful touch of beleaguered, weary sympathy and humour, but this is Cotten's picture and it wouldn't work if his pulp writer Holly Martins wasn't so sincere in his naivety and his genuine desire to understand what is going on and help. He may be the best audience substitute in movies!
A Matter of Life and Death
The Archers (aka Powell and Pressburger) have many great films in their filmography but the combination of artistry and entertainment is never better than in this World War II romantic fantasy. David Niven's casting as Squadron Leader Peter Carter is inspired. It is the role he was born to play. I would defy anyone not to instantly fall in love with Kim Hunter. Marius Goring is having a blast. Roger Livesay provides heroic support. Raymond Massey is a formidable adversary. The script is poignant, philosophical, post-modern "We are starved for Technicolor up there", hilarious, and smart. The direction is playful and joyous. Jack Cardiff's cinematography is equal parts clever, compelling and beautiful. The film never puts a foot (or frame) wrong. Timeless!
You can love Chaplin and Keaton but, unless you're lying to yourself, you have a favourite. Sorry Charlie, it's Buster for me and The General is his masterpiece. There's the genius, the extraordinary comic-timing, the crazy stunts, the wonderful visual gags in others of his films (Sherlock Jr, Steamboat Bill Jr, The Cameraman) but few silent comedies ever got everything as right as Bruckman and Keaton do here. Buster's desperate attempts to sign up; dodging the cannon thanks to a fortuitous bend; straddling the cowcatcher on the front of the train to clear the track with a precision that speaks to both physical and comic timing; Buster rising and falling with the coupling rod he's sitting on as the train pulls away; the bridge scene! Iconic isn't a sufficient word!
It has the best script of any Keaton film. Each visual concept they come up with is unique and ingenious. This is not silent comedy reliant on slapstick or cheap gags, this is artistry of the highest level, but it's also hilarious! Incredibly influential and feeling as fresh today nearly 100 years after release. How did he do it? Damfino!
Billy Wilder is my favourite director; Jack Lemmon my favourite actor. They made many films together, including, probably, the funniest comedy of all-time (Some Like It Hot) but The Apartment is so much more. Wilder superbly combines tragedy and comedy in, what for me is, his most satisfying movie. Lemmon injects such pathos into his role as the put-upon CC Baxter, a role that could so easily be objectionable in lesser hands. Likewise Shirley MacLaine's Fran Kubelik could have been a mere object of desire, or purely a victim, but MacLaine instils such vibrant life into the character. You root for these two characters from the get-go but Wilder's genius here is he won't quite let you get ending you so desire and the movie is all the better for it! Supporting characters from Fred MacMurray to Jack Kruschen all deliver.
It's laugh-out-loud funny one moment and heart-breaking the next. Add to this eye-wateringly beautiful design and cinematography. Only Wilder could watch Lean's Brief Encounter and come away with this movie!
Typically of Wilder (and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond) it also has one of the greatest last lines in movie history: "Shut up and deal!"
The Wizard of Oz
The true magic of cinema is captured in The Wizard Of Oz which despite a troubled production and a box office loss on original release has endured as a family favourite for over 80 years. Wizard Of Oz has all the hallmarks of a "great" film. It is immensely entertaining but also displays incredible artistry - in performance, song, design, cinematography. The moment when Dorothy steps from black-and-white into the technicolor of Oz remains as breath-taking and astonishing today as it ever did (a moment of movie magic perhaps only rivalled by the moon-pass in Spielberg's E.T.). The magic of the film also continues to enrapture audiences that come to it new despite having none of the technical FX wizardry available to modern filmmakers. The cast is flawless from Garland's innocent Dorothy to her trio of pals to Morgan's "wizard" and a never-better Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch (you can hear her theme as you read this can't you!) It is iconic, sure, but it's not a "pedestal" movie, it's pure entertainment made up of frame after frame of great art delivered by a company of artists all at their best.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
If you want an (probably The) example of the raw power of cinema you need look no further than Dreyer's extraordinary silent masterpiece. I was guided to first see it having watched Mark Cousins' The Story Of Film and had opportunity to view it in the main auditorium at Barbican with a live orchestral accompaniment. The stage was set for something special but what unrolled on screen over the next couple of hours was transcendent. An utterly captivating film from first frame to last. The expressiveness of Maria Falconetti is devastating; you feel everything with her. Pauline Kael said Falconetti's might be "the finest performance ever recorded on film" and that truly is no over-statement. Rudolf Mate's cinematography captures every nuance of her subtle performance perfectly. The stark design is both simple and bold. It wasn't the first time Joan Of Arc's story would be put onto film (Melies had done a 10 minute version in 1900 and even he wasn't the first!) and it wouldn't be the last but no one ever portrayed the horror and glory, the pain and belief as honestly as Dreyer and Falconetti.
My self-imposed rule to only choose a single film from any director met its hardest challenge with Ozu. A list of the greatest films of all-time without Ozu's presence is unthinkable. A personal favourite is the more overtly comic Good Morning (Ohayo) (1959), but his greatest film for me is a tight-race between renowned classic Tokyo Story and the film that immediately preceded it The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke no aji) (1952).
The great humanist of cinema, Ozu's everyday settings and characters tell simple and affecting stories that, at their best, are never less than completely captivating. The gentle charm of his films belies their emotional power and Tokyo Story exemplifies this. The majestic ordinariness of the family dynamic (led by Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu as the grandfather and the quietly magnificent Setsuko Hara as the widowed daughter-in-law) create the majestic extraordinariness of the film. Wryly amusing and tragic it offers a window into a reality that speaks volumes about Japan at the time while also being completely relatable to other cultures and other times.
Ginger Rogers at her comic best. Fred Astaire at his most elegant. A supporting cast of unforgettable players (Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore) stealing scenes like master criminals. A songbook by Irving Berlin that is unrivalled in film. The most magical dance numbers in the Astaire-Rogers canon (not to mention the divine costuming of Ginger by Bernard Newman) - "Isn't it a lovely day" in the bandstand; the sandy-floored reprise of "No strings"; the iconic, feathered "cheek to cheek". Top Hat has everything.
It is Astaire and Rogers at the height of their magic and retains a timeless charm (as well as being laugh-out-loud funny). Any frame could be hung on a wall. It is a stunning artistic achievement (in design, in dance, in song) that is also hugely entertaining and immensely, enduringly popular - qualities to be prised.
It also best demonstrates (to those less familiar with her non-Astaire collaborations) the talent of the underrated Rogers. It is her comic timing and dramatic skill (watch her face in the bandstand sequence as she assesses Fred) that makes this so much more than a series of great song-and-dance numbers. Perfection!
I've discussed a couple of great endings in my selection. Heat has one of the all-time great, driving, dynamic, exhausting (in a thrilling way) openings in movie history. The heist sequence has a visceral power almost unrivalled in cinema. The sound design on first viewing in 1995 was a revelation - I'd never experienced anything like it and rarely have since (Saving Private Ryan and the Heat-influenced opening of The Dark Knight come closest). The technical skill (both in script and production) of this sequence are admirable.
The weight of history sat on this film even before release, bringing two of the greatest actors of the preceding 25 years together on screen for the first time. Add to that the astonishing opening and the full film had a lot to live up to. That it delivers on those promises makes it deserving of a place in this list. Pacino, reined in, is magnificent. De Niro is cool, ruthless, but relatable. Both actors well served by smart characters (the scene at the container facility!). That you root for both demonstrates the brilliance of Mann's script as it guides you toward a tragic inevitability that is earned.
How do you decide on just 10 films as the greatest in film history? 125+ years of cinema. Choosing from over 10,000 features personally seen (over 11,500 including shorts). This is a mammoth undertaking.
For me the first step was to figure out my criteria for what qualified as "great". For some it might be a simple matter of favourites. For some it might be films seen as high art. For others it might be about influence or place in history. All of these seem totally justified approaches. Should you consider commercial success?
Personally I settled on a combination of attributes I felt a film needed to have for me in order to be considered. A clear artistry; an undeniable ability to engage or entertain (not necessarily the same thing); a timelessness/ability to endure, passing to new generations (this was my measure of success); and personal connection (there are films I appreciate and like a lot that others will nominate but only films I love ultimately made the cut), this is, after all, a personal selection. If a film had all four of these attributes for me it had potential to be considered. This is not a pure duplication of what I would consider my top 10 "favourite" films, though there is inevitable crossover.
I didn't feel the need for a film to demonstrate influence to be considered although I would argue all of the films in my final 10 choices do just that (as do many of those I short-listed). Many also exhibit the potential power or pure magic of cinema, though that has come organically rather than by design.
Happy with my criteria I set about creating a short-list of "must haves" for my top 10. There were 44!
I decided I would limit myself to a single film for a director. This came at the immediate expense of Yasuhiro Ozu, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Renoir, and Steven Spielberg (the final four of these ended up cut completely!)
Likewise my criteria for a quality of generation-to-generation timelessness ultimately eliminated 21st century films I short-listed - Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away (2001), Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). I felt they needed additional time to prove their place (although Spirited Away may already be there).
The difficulty in creating such a list lies, ultimately, more in the cutting than the selecting. The top 10 select themselves as they are those, for me, that prove impossible to cut. They are the survivors! Inevitably that means the final few to miss out are those that hurt! For me not including Spielberg's magical E.T. (1982), Carlos Saura's wonderful Cria Cuervos (1976), Francis Ford Coppola's timeless The Godfather (1972), and Roberto Rossellini's devastating Rome, Open City (1945), proved almost impossible (I went back over the list multiple times searching for space, questioning my arguments and choices).
Once I'd decided on my list I started to notice the losses more. If you'd told me I'd have a top 10 list without Renoir, Hitchcock, or Clouzot I'd have thought you mad! No space for Kurosawa! No Citizen Kane, no Cinema Paradiso, no Philadelphia Story, or Butch Cassidy! I would have loved to champion the comedy of Young Frankenstein, the whimsical charm of Amelie, the epic glory of Once Upon A Time In The West. But I don't have that luxury. Sight & Sound affords its contributors 10 titles. It's a challenge as well as an honour.
These are my selection. Another moment in time perhaps some of those I've mentioned above would have usurped others, but I am happy with my criteria, my choices, and my justification. Ultimately it was a joy to reflect on the films I've seen, I've loved, been charmed by, devastated by, shocked by, entertained by, and swept away by.
I am excited to read other contributors' lists, as well as the compiled top 100, and look forward to finding unseen discoveries therein.
The awesome magic of cinema has never dulled for me since first sitting in the, long-shuttered, Ewell ABC as a 5-year-old watching as a boy and a funny-looking alien cycled through the night sky in-front of a full-moon. Long may it endure!