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Brief Encounter (1945)

1. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

“A film of such unity of atmosphere that it is no service to it to differentiate the contribution of individuals. The poetry of its conception includes the imagery without which the poet cannot work. The imagery here is of trains, corridors and platforms, the rush and roar of passion, the loneliness of half-lit stretches, the illicit secrecy of damp stone passages. The shunting slowness of the local trains is the vision of long years of placid living in a domesticity of unawakened passion. This is a poet’s film, harsh, cruel and lovely. There have been few better British films than Brief Encounter even at a time when our studios are taking their place in the vanguard of this great contemporary art.”

R.M. (Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1945)

The Third Man (1949)

2. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

“By the very nature of its settings and story, there are occasional reminiscences of Lang and Hitchcock, but there is nothing borrowed or imitated. Stylistically, The Third Man is Reed’s most impressive film. If you dislike unremitting objectivity, if you insist that films should make a more personal statement, you will be dissatisfied with it and admire only its controlled perfection of technique. But as an analyst of mood and situation, Reed is practically unequalled today, and it is unjust, I think, to label him simply a technician without emotion since his style is so clearly adapted to serve this acute, deliberately impassive attitude.”

G.L. (Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1949)

The Wages of Fear (1953)

3. The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

“It is a big and ambitious effort – but in what direction, really, beyond the simple ambition to be big? Essentially a melodrama, its central and extended episode chronicles the suicidal drive over rough country of two lorries loaded with high-explosives which they are not properly equipped to carry. From his painful concentration on it, one presumes that Clouzot wished to give the drive an epic, or at least a symbolic importance (though he has played every breath-taking trick with slogging persistence). But its beat rings hollow. There is no identification possible, and no attachment of sympathy, nor on the other hand is the character-play penetrating or startling enough to sustain interest on its own. One is left with the impression of a work supremely voulu, all to no end.”

— Lindsay Anderson (Sight and Sound, July-September 1953)

La dolce vita (1960)

4. La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

“Fellini night drew a packed house, waiting to be scandalised. Unhappily, after about half an hour, it became apparent that La dolce vita was not going to be the masterpiece that had been promised. La dolce vita is an angry film and a sad film, but only occasionally does it hint at the sources of the corruption it displays in such detail. The use of interrelated episodes may partially explain why the film often appears to be saying the same thing over and over again. And the script does not quite manage to bring into focus the moral problem of its protagonist, a cheap-jack Roman journalist played with a degree of inflexible glumness by the otherwise excellent Marcello Mastroianni.”

— John Gillett (Sight and Sound, Summer 1960)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

“Charm, tact, sensibility: this new French cinema seems to be coming perilously close to the traditional virtues of old French cinema. Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, winner of the Grand Prix, has all these qualities, along with some of the most carefully elegant colour design ever put on the screen. Even the petrol pumps of an Esso station are sparklingly assimilated into the decor of a film that turns everything to prettiness. Yet within this elegant French bandbox of a movie, there are moments when the lustier ghost of an American musical seems to be struggling to get out: moments when one would give a lot to see Judy Garland striding down the street, or Gene Kelly dancing in the Cherbourg rain.”

— Penelope Houston (Sight and Sound, Summer 1964)

Taxi Driver (1976)

6. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

“Taxi Driver is an unsettling film, certainly, with its fatalistic view of a mind slipping out of gear (we have the feeling that we are watching De Niro and that he is also watching us), its exceptionally bloodstained denouement, and its odd final scene, which amounts to a kind of acceptance of the violence. But the film actually comes across as rather less of a portent than advance reports had suggested; I’m not sure that there isn’t too much natural exuberance in Scorsese for him quite to come to terms with sustained, introverted mania, however Bressonian his intentions – and those of his scriptwriter, Paul Schrader – may have been. There’s a slight suggestion of thesis about the film, as though events were being willed in the scriptwriter’s mind, antitheses thought out in terms of what might shockingly be made of them.”

— Penelope Houston (Sight and Sound, Summer 1976)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

7. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

“The first half of the film is the more satisfying: it is loud and flashy, with plenty of cinematic effects. There is much entertaining satire of the American military in Vietnam, but no attempt to come to grips with what the Americans were doing there in the first place. Coppola is right when he insists that this is not a film just about Vietnam. But if it is not about Vietnam, then what is it about? Coppola is not the person to ask, I think, since he has still not decided how to end his film. He showed one version in the Palais, but the next day on the Rue d’Antibes the audience got a different last scene.”

 — Richard Roud (Sight and Sound, Summer 1979)

Paris, Texas (1984)

8. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)

“For me, as for many others, the best film in competition was Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. This is a Road Movie film (the name of Wenders’ production company), but it is much more than that; and the final half-hour, which it would be criminal to describe, had me as close to tears as I can ever get. (They were, too, the kind of tears one doesn’t feel ashamed of afterwards.) The film was described by Wenders as his way “of saying goodbye to America”. If this is indeed so, it is the greatest bread and butter letter ever written. And it was particularly satisfying that, for once, the best film in competition actually won the Palme d’Or.”

— Richard Roud (Sight and Sound, Summer 1984)

Wild at Heart (1990)

9. Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

“Wild at Heart virtually describes itself, through the mouth of one of its protagonists, as ‘wild at heart and very weird on top’. It is indeed a very strange affair, half joking and half in earnest about the wellsprings of American violence. Nothing is spared us, from exploding heads to dogs running off with the severed hands of the injured. The first hour is astonishing, if you can take this sort of thing at all. But the second betrays a good many hesitations, as if there is really nowhere to go but downhill. And the final reel is jokey enough to seem as if Lynch is patting us on the head after delivering a series of hammer blows to the cranium which he didn’t really mean to cause concussion after all.”

— Derek Malcolm (Sight and Sound, Summer 1990)

The Piano (1993)

10. The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

“For a while I could not think, let alone write, about The Piano without shaking. Precipitating a flood of feelings, The Piano demands as much a physical and emotional response as an intellectual one. Not since the early days of cinema, when audiences trampled over each other towards the exit to avoid the train emerging from the screen, could I imagine the medium of film to be so powerful. Like Ada’s piano music, which is described as “a mood that passes through you… a sound that creeps into you”, this is cinema that fills every sense.”

— Lizzie Francke (Sight and Sound, November 1993)

Rosetta (1999)

11. Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 1999)

“The Liege-based brothers have been making documentaries for years, largely unheralded, and when their new feature sneaked in at the end of the competition no one expected much of it, let alone a Palme d’Or. But in a year of stumbling self-indulgence, Rosetta’s triumph was a vote of confidence for hard realism of the Alan Clarke school. This is a portrait of a young girl living on a trailer site with her drunken mother, trying to find a decent job and fighting her own internal battles. The Dardennes have us rooting for Rosetta’s indomitable spirit, then pull the carpet from under us as she betrays the only friend she has. The film boasts an astonishing performance – at once raw and undemonstrative – by young discovery Emilie Dequenne, who shared the Best Actress prize.”

— Jonathan Romney (Sight and Sound, July 1999)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

12. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was a winner to set critics humming. In Communist Romania of the early 1980s two female students share a grim-looking room in an all-women dorm. It transpires that Gabita is pregnant and has made arrangements with a man to have an illegal abortion, but when her roommate Otilia checks on the details she discovers that the hotel isn’t properly booked, Gabita has lied about how long she’s been pregnant and the money they’ve collected is insufficient. Thus begins a long night of haggling and gruelling self-sacrifice for Otilia as well as for Gabita. A typical critics’ choice, 4 Months describes a hell-on-earth through ironic twists of fate, a poetic-realist camera style, terrific attention to detail and a piercing performance from Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, one of many female star turns at this festival.”

— Nick James (Sight and Sound, July 2007)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

13. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

“There was consternation in some quarters that Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or, but for me his delicate and beguilingly otherworldly Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a thoroughly deserving choice. The film’s tour de force is its astonishing depiction of a fairytale about a princess who visits a magical pool where she discards her jewels and is made love to by a catfish. This charmingly absurd vision is shot partly as a tribute to the magic of silent cinema, lit so gorgeously in pallid, near-transparent hues that you fear for its fate at the hands of negligent projectionists.”

— Nick James (Sight and Sound, July 2010)

Parasite

14. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

“Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite was the favourite film [at Cannes] of nearly all my colleagues and it is the sophisticate’s choice, a multi-layered anarchic black comedy with political punch; a bravura treat liable to make an audience squeal with delight. Like last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Koreeda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters, it introduces us to a family living under dire circumstances, but thereafter all resemblance to the Japanese film ends. It epitomises the best of Cannes’ 2019 genre jamboree.”

— Nick James (Sight and Sound, July 2019)

Titane (2021)

15. Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)

“Ducournau’s Cronenbergian tale follows a serial killer (a menacing, sad-eyed Agathe Rousselle) who is impregnated by a car but then, as she goes on the run, disguises her pregnancy and gender to masquerade as the long lost son of a lonely fireman (a wonderfully vulnerable Vincent Lindon). Amid the body-horror and lurid cinematography, Ducournau also added humour, queerness and dance sequences, and although it was a thoroughly enjoyable wild ride which demands to be seen on the big screen – who wants to be alone when watching a character use the edge of a public bathroom sink to conduct a transfiguring nose job? – I did wonder how much was going on underneath the metallic sheen.”

— Isabel Stevens (Sight and Sound, September 2021)

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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