It’s nearly time for British film magazine Sight and Sound to publish their once-every-decade critic’s poll of all-time greatest films. Ten years ago, I presented my own hypothetical ballot; for this latest edition, here’s another one with ten different films. My only criteria was to not repeat anything from my 24 Frames project—a relatively easy task because there is an almost overwhelming amount of movies to pick from for a list like this.
In chronological order:
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Director: Carl Dreyer, France, 1928)
My silent-era pick. Wholly radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film that utilizes faces and close-ups with such candor. As with SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, I remain uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this film’s rare achievement makes me wonder.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1940)
This is the oft-described “Lubitsch Touch” at its most graceful and lithe. The epiphanous, empathetic last twenty minutes or so is what all romances, comedies and rom-coms should aspire to; Stewart (in arguably his most complex performance until VERTIGO) puts it best: “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)
I could’ve gone with any one of this duo’s efforts from this period; this has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color (even more so than THE WIZARD OF OZ). Still, as with the best of Powell and Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance.
THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, USA, 1960)
I didn’t appreciate this when I first tried watching it in my twenties, but I fully get it now (being a major influence on MAD MEN helps.) No other filmmaker besides Billy Wilder ever achieved such a tricky balance of humor and melancholia as he did here. Also, how in the world did a rarely-better Shirley MacLaine lose the Academy Award for Lead Actress to Liz Taylor???
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, Mexico/USA, 1974)
I first saw this neglected classic five years ago at a screening in conjunction with Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU and fell for it instantly: Peckinpah’s scabrous take on the human condition feels entirely undiluted and yet so… humane. Warren Oates very well may also be the original anti-hero (or at least the template for those of modern prestige-TV.)
LOVE STREAMS (John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
Cassavetes’ final film is almost a beautiful mess, and one by design. Knowing he had not much longer left to live, he made something people might’ve deemed elegiac if his philosophy would’ve allowed for such sentimentality (it mostly did not.) To put so much of oneself onscreen warts and all was his specialty whether in the guise of his ensemble players (including wife Gena Rowlands) or, in this case, himself; arguably, no one did so with more blistering honesty.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies, UK, 1992)
Davies’ personal, idiosyncratic style refashions memories as a stream-of-consciousness rush, although perhaps rush is the wrong word for a film that lovingly takes its time. The rare period piece to revel in nostalgia without letting it obscure the mundaneness of everyday life, it’s also pure poetry in how it orchestrates all of its cinematic elements, especially its bold use of light and darkness.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
Last year, I rewatched all of Wong’s films included in the new Criterion Collection box set and this one’s still his best. A deceptively simple tale of a romance that’s never acted upon, it sounds like the stuff of a prime Douglas Sirk melodrama. Instead, it plays out with such nuance and restraint that it achieves an almost unbearable intimacy, leaving the viewer both swooned and devastated.
35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis, France, 2008)
I included another Denis film on my 2012 ballot; here’s one nearly its equal. Less formally adventurous, this account of a single father and his adult daughter communicates less through words than glances and evocative stylistic choices such as hypnotic point-of-view shots taken from commuter trains in motion. Also, what a sublime soundtrack, not only for the Tindersticks score but also its unexpected use of a certain Commodores song.
PARASITE (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)
Haven’t rewatched this since right before the pandemic, but I imagine it holds up brilliantly—so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control. As usual with Bong, it’s tough to classify or define: is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror film? Bong seems to be asking, “Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that?”