Since I was kid, I was obsessed with lists. I know deep down they are meaningless, everything is subjective yada yada yada. But if it weren’t for lists I wouldn’t know where to begin. They serve the purpose to show off our tastes, and what we think is important. They can open up a discussion about what we left out and what was put in. Every list contains a bias, and that’s why it’s so easy to argue them.
With the latest edition of Sight and Sound’s list of the Greatest Movies of all time about to drop, this almost feels like an early Christmas for the cinephile. I’m less excited to see what made the final cut, and more curious to see what all the critics and filmakers alike have included to their list. So in the spirit of sharing our love of movies, I have decided to include my own list. Here is my top ten films I would include to the Sight and Sound List if anyone asked me.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): This is the film I just can’t quit. It entranced me as a kid with its dark, twisted, yet heartwarming storytelling. It’s the one film I watch every year . Growing older, I see it with different eyes . I’ve now reached the same age range as George Bailey, and relate more to his struggles and disappointments than I did when I was a younger man. In this way the character of George has become only a richer character in my mind. The finale is a transcendent experience of pure joyful emotion in the face of despair. It’s this dichotomy of hope and anguish that It’s a Wonderful Life hinges on at all times that remains fascinating to me. It is a life altering film that continues to work its magic on me.
2. Late Spring (1949): When the last Sight and Sound list was released 10 years ago, “Tokyo Story” was #3 on the Critic’s list, so instead of boosting that film, I figured I would focus on my other favorite film from Yasujiro Ozu. While “It’s a Wonderful Life” is meant to lift us up from sadness by the end, “Late Spring” wallows in it. The wonderous thing about Ozu’s cinema is his simplicity of story and emotions. He is able to tap into universal truths of loss, and regret that is shared across the spectrum of humanity. “Late Spring” shows a relationship torn apart by outside influences, but it’s done in such a way that is a forgone conclusion. That doesn’t diminish the tragedy, rather it brings about a quiet reflection, one that is brought home in an aching finale of an aged man sitting alone in his home peeling an apple. In context this is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in any movie I’ve seen.
3. Rear Window (1954): My favorite Hitchcock, and my choice for perhaps the most entertaining film ever made. This is Hitchcock at the height of his powers commenting on our own desires to watch and be voyeurs as we relate to Jimmy Stewart spying on his neighbours. This is all happening among a local murder mystery and a light romantic subplot between Stewart and Grace Kelly. The sound and production design is ambitious as any epic, yet is done in miniature showing us a Greenwich Village neighbourhood as realized by Hollywood golden age standards. It is all heightened to great effect and still dazzles these eyes after each viewing.
4. The Shop Around the Corner (1940): Many films are admired for different reasons, and “The Shop Around the Corner” is one I am enchanted by with its effortless charm and wit. I often think if there is a type of film I would ever want to set out to make it would be this one. This is a romance that involves ordinary people, yet done with the sophistication of bubbling champaign. Money troubles, infidelity, and simple arguments come into the conflict of this film, yet they are resolved with the ease of a pleasant musical waltz. There is always the spectre of lonliness and heartache in the lives of these characters, but we are always aware everything will work out alright. Much like the best sitcoms, we come to love these people and we want them to be happy, and wouldn’t mine revisiting them again like an old friend.
5. Nashville (1975): Not being an American, I’m reluctant to call this the great American film, however it sure feels like it. Robert Altman always had his own unique way of creating films, and this is his kaliedescope of America in miniature. Focusing on the Nashville music industry, we see the success, failures, and struggles of so many different people who enter and exit the film either suddenly, or casually, but always memorably. It culminates in a shocking ending that works as tragedy, yet serves as jumping off point for a defiant stance as exemplified by Barbara Harris’s closing number. The soundscape Altman includes to his background and foreground ensemble just adds to the overall lived in feel and texture of the film. It’s as if he is saying we are all in this together and we only have eachother to lean on. There is so much to look at and hear it remains rich in a tapestry of Altmanesque tales, you could keep it on all day.
6. Horse Feathers (1932): The funniest film ever made,done in the most anarchic tone and a fast paced zaniness that has never been matched. The Marx Brothers came from Vaudeville, and it feels like the movies couldn’t hold them in. They are always playing to the edges of the frame, as if they are trying to escape and invade your living room. You welcome it, yet the movie screen is able to keep them at bay and perhaps its for the best, for if they ever entered the real world, all order would go out the window. The Marx Brothers didn’t make a lot of movies, and by the time they came to MGM, they were tamed down in favor of pleasant romantic leads. But in the time of their pre-code days, they’re was a dangerous delight to them that was never matched by their contemporaries. To me “Horse Feathers” exemplifes them in all their glory, and comedians are still trying to catch up to them.
7. Playtime (1967): Much like “Nashville”, Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” could only be made by one mind. A comedy of imagery with every frame providing comical touches and observations. The film is just as textured, nuanced and ambitious as something like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, yet delights in its playfulness and fun. At the heart is a longing for the past as beauty, and compassion are given to the wayside by technological complications. It carries its sentiment on its sleeve, but doesn’t drown in it. It’s still a wonder to behold, and there isn’t another film like it.
8. Bringing Up Baby (1938): A bizarrly constructed film of insanity as told through a love story. If films are a sandbox to play in, then “Bringing up Baby” is for those who love to dig deeper and deeper till you get to the bottom of whatever is there. Maybe it’s a dinosaur bone, which is the key to all the happiness in this film. Who ever delivers Cary Grant’s bone to him has his heart, and that’s all he needs. This is the height of the screwball comedy genre, the pinnacle of excellence in tales of nonsense that end where the two lovers live happily ever after. There is something Shakespearean in the madcap insanity of it all. At the centre are two of the best stars who ever did this type of thing and they have never been better. While director Howard Hawks goes for broke in pure lunacy and mayhem.
9. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): The most recent film on my list is the one that has grown more in my eyes each chance I see it. The Coen Brothers have since gone their separate ways, and perhaps they will come together again to create their unique brand of Americana. “Inside Llewyn Davies” almost feels like a crossroads for them as a team as it is about a folk singer mourning the loss of his own partner. The film shows the coldness of the world that the brothers are known for, yet it is warmed by the gentleness of its traditional music. Llewyn Davis is a hero for the losers and a rememberance that things don’t always work out for everyone. Yet the film shows bravery in such futility, and our heart goes out to him. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a reminder that most people live their life on the fringe of success and finding our purpose can sometimes feel as repetitive as a broken record.
10. A New Leaf (1971): A film to leave you laughing. Elaine May’s dark comedy of a man who constantly attempts to kill his wife is a thing of comical elegance. Whether it’s May trying to get on a nightgown for what feels like an eternity, or her teetering off a cliff while her conniving husband Walter Matthau is reading “A Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology”, this is one of the most refined comedies of the modern age. It is unpredictable in its execution and therefore contains so much tension, you don’t really know how it will end till the finale. That to me is the mark of great drama, but also great comedy. May guides us through a sometimes grave, but sometimes sweet scenarios, that she could move the pendulum anywhere she likes and still keep you invensted. It’s a magic act of comic bravado.