The greatest films of all time?

Commenting on the recent Sight and Sound list

Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, recently released their annual poll of “100 best films of all time”, as voted by a group of film critics, as they’ve been doing since 1952.

For many years they used to put “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) or “La Regle du Jeu” (Jean Renoir, 1939) alternating in the first place. This year, surprisingly, both were replaced, and by a film that few people even heard about: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (Chantal Akerman, 1975). Even I, who studied film and have seen more than half of the films on this list, have never watched it. Judging by its description, I’m not very tempted: “The film examines a widowed mother’s regimented schedule of cooking, cleaning, mothering, and running errands over three days.” It lasts three hours and twenty minutes.

As I haven’t seen it, I cannot judge it, but suppose its position at the top has more to do with the politically correct and with trying to increase the number of female directors than with the exceptional quality of the film. This seems to be confirmed with the inclusion in the list (at position 95) of “Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017). Its only claim to fame is having been directed by a black film-maker. I’ve seen it, and, while competently directed, whatever else it is, it’s not that great. I don’t think it would even make a list of best 100 horror movies. It’s just not that good. 

Besides those concessions to the politically correct, the list is reasonably good, and it is a good start for cinephiles. Sure, it focuses more on older stuff than on more recent fare, but it’s a good source for people wanting to delve into film classics. In any case, as film tastes are in any case very subjective, I don’t think it is possible to really determine what are “the best films of all time”.

My own personal list, or really a smaller selection based only on the 100 movies chosen by Sight and Sound, would be as follows (but not necessarily in that order):

Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir) – A charming, quintessential French movie that has not lost its appeal after several decades. Renoir’s masterpiece, for sure.

The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky) – My favourite movie by Tarkovsky, with beautiful images, music by Bach and a wonderful actress playing the mother. If I could choose two by Tarkovsky, then I would also add Andrei Rublev.

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) – Perhaps “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is more fun to watch, but it’s not on the list. This one is Leone’s second best. Worth it if just for the initial scene and Morricone’s music.

Late Spring (Yasuiru Ozu) – Ozu has many great movies, all of them talking about basically the same things (marriage, family, fathers, daughters, sons). This one and “An Autumn Afternoon” are among my favourites; but this one has Setsuko Hara, and so goes first.

Mullholland Drive (David Lynch). Probably Lynch’s masterpiece. The director sometimes gets too weird or too silly, but here he finds a perfect balance at being mysterious without completely losing the plot (such as it is).

Spirited Away (Hazao Miyazaki) – Miyazaki’s masterpiece, with many iconic characters, in particular the fascinating “No-Face” creature.

Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese) – A classic of gangster movies. I have watched this film several times and never got tired. Casino is good too, but this one is better.

The Godfather, Part I (Francis Coppola) – The first one is still the best one. The second is good, but not as good, and the third one is pretty bad, almost a caricature.

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni) – I’m not the greatest fan of Antonioni’s slow movies, but this one is among his best.

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini) – Although I probably like more his early movies like Notti di Cabiria or I Vittelloni (and I also like the usually less appreciated Giulietta degli Spiriti), this and 8 1/2 are the films that defined Fellini’s style, so they should be on any similar list.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang) – It is amazing that this movie is still relevant and mesmerizing after a 100 years. Competing with Murnau’s Sunrise for best silent film ever.

Sunrise (F. W. Murnau) – A lovely black and white film, also about the black and white depths of the soul. Among the best silent films ever.

Playtime (Jacques Tati) – I personally prefer Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which is a lovely nostalgic piece of film, but that one is not on the list. This one is very good too, although it feels a bit colder.

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa) – Again, from Kurosawa I prefer Yojimbo, which also has a wonderful Toshiro Mifune, but it’s not on the list. But Rashomon is also very good and has great cinematography and one of the best non-linear structure ideas in movies.

That’s about it. I suppose I should also choose something by Chaplin and Hitchcock, but it’s difficult to choose just one (perhaps City Lights and Vertigo, respectively). Kubrick is difficult too… I would choose 2001, Paths of Glory, and the first part of Full Metal Jacket, but, in the end, he’s not my favourite director. The recently deceased Jean Luc Godard is one of the directors with more films in this list (four), but, besides Bande à Parte, which I like but is not on the list, I’m not a particular fan of his style.

Besides that, I haven’t seen many of the other films on the list, so perhaps it’s a good excuse to use a bit more my Criterion Channel subscription. Maybe I’ll even watch the three-hour film about the bored housewife, and let you know if it really deserves the first place…

5 comments on “The greatest films of all time?”

  1. Billy Thistle says:

    I’ve many times encountered the contention that Once Upon a Time in the West is Leone’s best. I’d have to watch it again to really comment on why that’s wrong. The GB&U is my favorite Western and in my Top 10 fave films. There’s a docu made by and about fans of the movie shot at the site in Spain. People love GBU. Critics Love Once Upon.

    Don’t waste your time w/ Dielman film. You know it’s pc crap. I started watching and had to leave, intentionally boring.

    I think of great directors, Hall of fame directors, as having at least 3 great films. They could be trilogies, but not necessarily. Trilogies often peter out. If you come back to film reviewing, you might tackle this concept.

    1. Tom says:

      “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has one great thing, which is Tuco, “Blondie” and “Angel Eyes”, three great characters with great chemistry. Fonda, Bronson and the Cheyenne guy in Once Upon are good, but without the humour of the other film. On the other hand, Once Upon has a beautiful Claudia Cardinale…
      Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America”, which was once upon a time also championed by critics, I find less good than either. I like the first part, with them as kids, the best part for me. Once they become adults, the film becomes less interesting, for me anyway.

      1. Billy Thistle says:

        You were right to mention the humor factor, the Spaghetti factor. Plus GB&U has the most thrilling 1-2-3 punch knockout in Westerns’ history – the music and camera movement in Tuco’s gold delirium, followed by the tense shoot out in the graveyard and then the Ugly’s stay of execution from the rifle of the Good taking us back to the beginning of the film.

        Oh yeah, I forgot about Claudia, more reason to try and watch again.

        I also liked Once Upon in America. But the 3 early Westerns were Leone’s example of a successful trilogy at least for me.

      2. Billy Thistle says:

        Pursuant to our chat I re-watched Once West. Certainly it’s deeper and darker than GBU. But it simply lacks the iconic punch of the simpler, more straight forward story. And Claudia’s character is all over the place: part feminist, part capitalist whore yet ultimately subservient to Cheyenne’s redemptive vision for her. Oh yeah, the music was cliched not quirky and inventive. Did like Henry Fonda a lot, but Harmonica came off as second rate because Clint turned down the role that was written for him.

        1. Tom says:

          Yeah, I always wonder how it would be with Clint. Bronson is good, but somehow he gives a more serious/tragic/unidimensional tone to the character. And Once Upon doesn’t have a funny secondary character like Tuco, although I really like Cheyenne.

Comments are closed.