Wheeler Winston Dixon
James Ryan Emeritus Professor of Film Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
|The Chelsea Girls||1966||Andy Warhol|
|Citizen Kane||1941||Orson Welles|
|La dolce vita||1960||Federico Fellini|
|Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb||1963||Stanley Kubrick|
|Taxi Driver||1976||Martin Scorsese|
|The Passion of Joan of Arc||1927||Carl Th. Dreyer|
|Meek's Cutoff||2010||Kelly Reichardt|
|Malcolm X||1992||Spike Lee|
The Chelsea Girls
As raw as anything ever presented to the public, Warhol's 3 1/2 hour split screen look at life in New York City's demi monde of the 60s is one of the truest documents ever committed to celluloid.
Welles' first feature, and his best and most ambitious work, rivaled only by his vandalized The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), recut and partially reshot by editor Robert Wise and others - we'll never get to see the complete film, it seems. Kane is an obvious choice, but all these years later, it still impresses with its youthful brio and energy.
La dolce vita
The beginnings of celebrity culture, and the best film about the 60s as a whole, examining life, friendship, mortality, betrayal, religious fanaticism, journalism, publicity, from the highest reaches of society to the lowest. A stunning, kaleidoscopic work that repays repeated viewings.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Kubrick's best work, one of the greatest nightmare comedies of all time, with Peter Sellers in peak form in three roles. Superb black and white cinematography, particularly in the newsreel-like sequence when paratroopers attack a renegade missile base, shot handheld with 35mm Arriflex cameras, one of which was handled by Kubrick himself.
Scorsese's finest film, with superb performances from Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd and many others, shot on location in New City's lower East Side when the city was seemingly collapsing in the midst of a huge garbage strike. Seen today, the violence seems appropriately minimal; what really works is De Niro's gradual disintegration as a human being, toppling over a television in his apartment as he loses even a minimal hold on sanity.
The culmination of Bergman's career, a tour de force shot with minimal resources and only two principal actors on Fårö island, in Bergman's actual summer house. Persona is the film in which Bergman, while retaining his theatrical skills, first fully explored the plasticity and flexibility of the film medium, resulting in a dazzling display of performative and cinematic skill that reaches deep into the furthest regions of the human psyche.
When Paramount wouldn't support Psycho as Hitchcock's next project, the director financed it with his own money and shot it at Universal Studios, where his weekly television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was being churned out by other directors. Hitchcock shot the film with a fast paced, television crew - the same crew that shot his weekly series - and thus retained total creative control of the project. Tony Perkins, of course, was typed for life as Norman Bates, and the Bates Motel and the Psycho House still stand at Universal Studios as tourist attractions, but the film itself is a superbly crafted genre masterpiece with a surprise ending that still brings the uninitiated up short.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Falconetti's luminous performance as Joan anchors the film, shot on minimalist sets with Dreyer's signature fidelity to detail. As the one truly sympathetic priest during Joan's inquisition, Antonin Artaud delivers a sensitive, nuanced performance. Dreyer's direction is highlighted by a series of extreme closeups of both Joan and her accusers, and the cinematography by Rudolph Maté showcases the pain of Joan's martyrdom in clinical detail.
Reichardt's brilliant film is an effective antidote to the John Wayne vision of Manifest Destiny, as a group of pioneers become lost in the desert with an incompetent, yet endlessly "mansplaining" guide, who has no idea where he's going. One of the few Western films to truly highlight the role of women pioneers, as well as Native Americans, the true inhabitants of the Great Plains, Meek's Cutoff presents a completely revisionist view of Westward Expansionism, as a dangerous, difficult, and deeply problematic quest.
Spike's sprawling, wildly ambitious epic succeeds on every level, from Denzel Washington's lead performance as Malcolm to Al Freeman Jr.'s enigmatic portrayal of Elijah Muhammad. Ernest Dickerson's detailed cinematography and Lee's sensitive direction brings the story of Malcolm X to screen with indelible intensity, and Lee had a high degree of final control over the finished film, which clocks in at a mammoth 201 minutes. Yet one is never restless; the viewer is continually mesmerized by the depth and intensity of Lee's recreation of actual events, Washington's stellar performance, as well as Angela Bassett's excellent work as Betty Shabazz, who eventually marries Malcolm. A movie made without compromises, Malcolm X is one of Lee's finest films.
Any list of the greatest films of all time is wildly subjective, and there are so many other films that I could have listed. Where's Jean Renoir's Rules of The Game (1939) for example? It's a superb film, but there were only ten slots available, so something had to give. Women have finally gotten something of a foothold as feature film directors in mainstream cinema, and such films as Chloé Zhao's Nomadland (2018) and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2008) could easily be added here. And of course, where's Howard Hawks, a personal favorite (The Big Sleep, 1946, for example) or Robert Bresson (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, 1945) or Agnès Varda (The Gleaners and I, 2000) or John Carpenter (The Thing, 1982) or Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers,1966) or Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953) or Sarah Maldoror (Sambizanga, (1972) - the list goes on and on. I always say that I have about 250 films in my top ten list, and this exercise certainly proves it. Better to say that the films I chose are the ones that jumped first to mind, and that having created the list, I can see much more clearly all the omissions. As more and more films are made each passing year, these lists will become harder to compile - and perhaps a relic of the past.