Perhaps you've heard about the Sight and Sound Top Films List?
It keeps on cycling back into my life over this past month. It got an awful lot of attention this year (they actually only compile it every ten years) as for the first time since 1952, Citizen Kane was not the number one film. This year the number one was Vertigo.
Naturally this kind of list gets me thinking about my own experience with film. What are my favourite films? What films have had the biggest impact upon me? What movies have I watched over and over again and felt like the well was endless?
So I decided to make my own list. Mine isn't 100 films. I limited myself to 11. I tried to do 10, but I simply couldn't leave one of the 11 I whittled it down to off the final list. My list is not numerated. There is not a number one. The most important - the "most essential" - films in my life.
Only one of my films is on the Sight and Sound list.
Six of the eight directors who I have declared I will watch (but not necessarily enjoy) anything they do are represented - one of them twice.
Only one silent film. Only one foreign language film.
I am reasonably certain that there isn't a film on my list that I have seen less than 20 times (which is probably why there isn't a film newer than a decade old the list - indeed only one since the turn of the century.)
These aren't necessarily my favourite films (see next note), they are the films that I have found to be the ones I felt compelled to watch the most (Beast of Bottomless Lake excluded for obvious reasons).
For years I have named five specific films as my favourites of all time. They are on the list, but only because as I considered the films that should be on the list those five kept coming up for all the reasons that the other six films did. So they got there honestly. If I were to name my favourite 10 or 11 films probably three or four of the films on this list would fall off. Perhaps I'll make that list some day, but I think by having a pretty solid top 5, I've kind of already done that.
Lastly, before I move on to my top 11 most essential films.... Citizen Kane v. Vertigo? For me it's Vertigo all the way. Spoiler alert - it doesn't make my list. I think it's a fantastic film. But if I were picking a Hitchcock film it would be Rear Window. I've never managed to get through Citizen Kane in a single sitting without falling asleep. I think that speaks volumes.
So, without any further futzing... The Truth & Signal Top (11) Films of All Time for 2012:
(In chronological order of release.)
The General - 1926
I went through a BIG Buster Keaton phase in my late 20s. While a few people would call Sherlock Jr. their favourite Keaton film, there are virtually none who know what they are talking about who would deny that The General is a masterpiece. I hardly know where to start. It is a whopping adventure, and Keaton is spectacular in his stunt-work. Watch any of the action sequences and they actually challenge action sequences of today for their excitement, largely because most of them are single un-cut takes. It features the most expensive shot in film history (for its day) and it manages to tell it's tale with less than fifty title cards. (Trust me. I've watched a lot of silent film. For a feature, that is amazing.) Keaton's most famous single stunt (and shot) may be in Steamboat Bill Jr. but for prolonged sequences, The General is the show to see. Of all the films on this list it is the one it has been the longest since I've watched it... that will probably be rectified soon.
FUN FACT: The General (which is the one film on my list that is also on the Sight & Sound list) was a box office failure when it came out. Keaton was known for comedies. The General is an adventure. He may have made his best film, but it wasn't what audiences were used to seeing from him. It took decades for people to respond favourably to that disconnect. Those who still haven't still think Sherlock Jr. is the superior film.
The Great Escape - 1963
This is probably the hardest film to defend on this list. Jodie has never made it past the introduction to the camp - which is too bad, because the best is yet to come... however, I don't think that much of the rest would change her mind. Admittedly, it is a film that is populated about 99.6% by men, and it takes a lot of criticism for that. But a lot of that would be a result of the fact that it was men who were on the ground in the 2nd World War.
FUN FACT: If you listen to the commentary of the collector's edition of the film, there is a point where they address this fact and mention that the producers wanted to shoehorn some women into the movie in the most cynical of ways and that the director, John Sturges, put his foot down.
Why do I love this film? Because it's clever and fun and tragic. I suspect that a lot of my aesthetic came from that juxtoposition. "Hey this is all jaunty, but a lot of despair can come from it... and that despair might actually be a victory in its own right."
And sure Steve McQueen's motorcycle stunts are lame by modern standards as well as being historically inaccurate, but I've never found them to be any less cool (and, hey - its a movie, not a history lesson).
Jaws - 1975
Jaws was already over two decades old by the time I saw it (oh yeah, I saw it later than all but three movies on this list) because I had been the perfect age to get the message (when it came out) that it was the most terrifying thing a person could see on screen. Yet despite all that build up, it survived. It was my friend Keith's favourite film and I finally gave in in 1997 and watched the damned thing. And it is a masterwork of storytelling. All other aspects aside, whenever I go back and rewatch it, it is the parcelling out of information that stands out to me as being the most fantastic element of the film. Each sub-element of stakes and character is revealed at exactly the right moment until action has to happen - and all of that occurs with the weight of the set up on top of it. Face it, the film doesn't even need the shark until 82 minutes into the film. It is that well crafted. Spielberg was the first director who I ever knew the name of. He is probably the most important director of my life, even if I'm generally less fond of his work these days.
Star Wars - 1977
There is simply no way this film cannot be on my list. It is flawed. The sequels are flawed. (Though Empire Strikes Back is the superior film of the bunch.) But there is no film I have watched more times and there is no film which directed the course of my life so much, nor from such a young age. It is still a lot of fun. Most of what I get out of it now is nostalgic, sure I have mostly contempt for what George Lucas did to the second/first three films, but it had to be on this list.
Alien - 1979
I doubt that this was the first film that ever scared me, but it absolutely is the first one that left an indelible mark. I first saw it at a birthday sleep over when I was about 12 and it scared the bejesus out of me. We ended up watching it again the next morning too. I've never really quit. The first sequel would probably make it's way onto my top 20 list. The 3rd installment has some terrible early CGI, but isn't that bad a film - and importantly was the first feature of the only director to appear twice on this list. And unlike Ridley Scott's other big early masterpiece, Blade Runner, it doesn't feel dated. (Yes, I did just say that.) Scott is one of the six directors on this list whose work I will give a chance to at any turn. His latest, Prometheus - the prequel to Alien - was rough, but ultimately it was gorgeous and it passed the "Did it entertain me?" test, despite its faults. (Which I can't say about the fourth Alien film - which I rarely acknowledge the existence of, so bookmark this page - or the AVP spin off.)
Das Boot - 1981
I first saw Das Boot when it was still called The Boat on these shores and only ran around 2 hours in length. I had snuck out of my bedroom in the wee-hours of a pay-TV free movie weekend to see what was on. I didn't actually know what it was I was watching because I had missed the beginning. (It would be some years before I would discover that I had only missed a few minutes, though I did figure out what it was I was watching that very night.) Nonetheless I was enthralled pretty much right from the start. It was likely the first subtitled film I ever watched through to the end. I saw it once or twice between then and the mid 90s when I really sunk my teeth into the Director's Cut and since then have watched it nearly annually (though parenthood is putting a dent in that average.) I even bought the full 5 hour version. I've only watched it at full length twice, and probably never will again (well maybe once more in many years time) as it doesn't really add much to the superior 3+ hours cut. To this day I still find the tension of certain sequences to be such that I feel like I can't afford to blink. Wolfgang Peterson is another director whose work I will always give a chance to.
Goodfellas - 1991
Much like with Das Boot I started unwittingly watching Goodfellas in the opening few minutes and was instantly hooked. The film is a clinic. It is outrageous that Martin Scorsese took another 15 years (and several worthy contenders) to finally win the Best Picture Oscar. Goodfellas (and to a lesser degree Casino) are the films that put the lie to the rule that voice-over makes for a bad screenplay. That is a pretty good hueristic, but it simply isn't a universal truth. There isn't really anything that hasn't been said about this film that I can add. It's fantastic. The four leads each give some of the most important performances of their careers, the pacing is spot-on, the music could not do a better job of both moving the film forward and placing it in time (after time after time), and the camera work is as close to flawless as any film gets. (Insert ubiquitous reference to Karen's introduction to the Copa here.) And yes, I'll watch any Scorsese film once.
Seven - 1995
Another film that breaks the voice-over rule, albeit only for one line. I'm not sure it needed to, and it's probably the only weak choice in the movie. I first saw Seven (or "Se7en" if you insist on being a wanker) on a last moment whim. I was on my way to see The Shawshank Redemption when the poster for Seven caught my eye. The friend I was with, Todd, suggested we take a chance and see this film we'd never heard of instead. BEST MOVIE GOING CHOICE EVER. (It took me nearly a decade to get around to seeing Shawshank. A great film, but I've only felt the need to watch it once.) When the film was over, Todd and I sat for about two minutes in silence after the credits were over before either one of us spoke. I can count the number of times on one hand that a movie has made me feel like I've never seen anything like it before, and the only film that ever made me feel that way that isn't on this list is The Matrix. The fact that two of those films were directed by David Fincher is pretty much why he is my favourite director of all time.
On a side note, only one other time have I changed my choice of viewing at last moment based on a poster. I ended up seeing Hardware instead of Miller's Crossing. WORST MOVIE GOING CHOICE EVER.
LA Confidential - 1997
For my money, the best crime drama ever told. I can't even recall at which turn in the plot I spontaneously cried out in the theatre "what the fuck is going on?!" The woman beside me whispered "Yeah. Isn't it fantastic?" Damned rights it was. The plot-lines which spin-around each other towards the abyss; the cast that is populated by a host of characters (mostly police officers) who are each in their own way terrible people (and variously bad cops) but all thoroughly compelling; the fact that most audience members were seeing both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce for the first time and not having the slightest clue they were Aussies; the pitch perfect scenic design and matching camera-work; and a plot which seems so insanely convoluted, yet comes out being perfectly clear and seemingly inevitable.... sigh; it is so frikkin' good. If it hadn't come out the same year as Titanic it would have cleaned up at the Oscars.
I went on to read the book, which is now one of my favourite books of all time, and discovered that the screenplay is even more brilliant than it at first seems. James Elroy - the novel's author - declared the book un-adaptable. It is a miracle he was wrong. The book and film could not be much more different, yet satisfyingly still be the same story. I could not concisely sum up how without giving far too much of either one away.
Fight Club - 1999
David Fincher is of course one of the directors whose work is on this list whose movies I will always see. Fight Club is probably the best example of a film which spoke directly to who I was when I saw it when it came out, and on top of that, it's a ripping great yarn. This was the first time we really got to see Fincher put his technical savvy front and centre... and the fact that the script and his cast manage to not get upstaged by it is why this is such a fantastic film. Again, this is a film which can't be talked about much and really just needs to be experienced. If forced to make a Sophie's choice and pick one of my top five films of all time as my number one, I could make the choice a different way on any different day, but I think the smart money would be on Fight Club.
Memento - 2000
Memento backs its way onto this list, but I don't mean that in any way which lessens the film that it is. When I was considering my criteria - the "most essential" films" I watched over and over again and felt like the well was endless," Memento fit the bill at least as well as two or three others on this list that popped to mind immediately as contenders without considering the criteria as the determining factor. I have analysed the living shit out of Memento. I watched it in the edited order (of course) and even before I had a DVD copy with the option to watch the events in chronological order I did so - on VHS, which took some doing. Christopher Nolan is the most recent director to work his way onto the list of directors who work I will always see. Memento probably isn't even his best film. But it is the one that worked it's fingers deepest inside of me.
Some clean up:
So, for the record, who are those eight directors whose work I will always see?
Spielberg, Fincher, Scorsese, Peterson, Scott (the Elder), and Nolan - all on this list. As well as, the Coen Brothers (Who I am counting as one as they do not work without one another, and for me have the widest range of hits and misses of directors on this list, erring towards misses, but damned interesting ones.) and Steven Soderberg (Whose work I probably have the worst record of actually seeing - largely due to the manner of release of his lesser known work.)
What came close?
Its a long list, but three films stand out as movies that I really have rewatched at length:
Brazil (Though I suspect that if I was going to add it, I would have by now.)
Primer (Though in the grand scheme of things I watched it a LOT to try to untangle its compellingly fascinating and complex plot, not to re-appreciate the quality of the film itself. It's kind of a false positive. I figure this is the most obscure film on the list.)
Children of Men (I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the main reason it didn't make the list is that it hasn't been out long enough for me to watch it enough times to really earn it a place. Given some more time for consideration, I think there is a real chance that it will either un-seat a film on the list, or earn it's own place on a list of 12. Perhaps I shall do it all again when the Sight and Sound 2022 list is published.)
Of course there are many many films that I LOVE and with different parameters, many of them could have made the list instead of these, but I believe there is a need in this realm of discussion to ask how important these films are in my life and that is different than how beloved they are to me (though there is some overlap).