Every ten years, “Sight and Sound” magazine conducts a poll asking critics and directors to rank the best films of all time. It’s more Rorschach test than lab experiment, an impossible task that invariably goads people into calling you an idiot. But I’m a glutton for punishment, so in honor of this year’s voting, I offer my (unsolicited) ballot:
1. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
Without bombast or fanfare — just the placid camera, waiting patiently for the action to drift into the frame — Ozu’s masterly drama about multiple generations of a Japanese family registers depths of emotion that few films even approach. But don’t be fooled by the simple interiors, the clean lines. It’s a film ragged with regret, shot through with tenderness, kindness, and love. From the exchange of a small gift to a moment of reflection by the sea, “Tokyo Story” fashions a recognizably troubled world that translates into any language. It’s the best film I know because it remains, sixty years later and in a far, far country, the most indelibly human.
2. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 — trailer here)
Rife with the paranoia, conspiracy theories, and sharp, useless violence of the age of Watergate, “The Conversation” is Coppola’s most taut film. More than “The Godfather” trilogy or “Apocalypse Now,” it exemplifies the unfettered control Coppola could achieve at his best, wrung out for two full hours. Surveillance man Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), aided by what might be the cinema’s most ingenious use of sound, is punch-drunk with doubt, anxiety, and fear: a timely and timeless protagonist for the tenuous knowledge of his era and ours.
3. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
Shot with a telephoto lens that captures both the fine detail and the seething mass of revolutionary Algeria, Gillo Pontecorvo’s portrait of insurgents and colonizers battling for the casbah is that rare thing, a balanced film about the pity of war. The film’s sober documentary realism depicts atrocities on both sides, cognizant above all else that what seems imperative is often relative. It’s a lesson that still holds water.
4. The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin, 1925)
In every romantic comedy’s “meet cute,” in every loopy glory of screwball or slapstick, there’s a little bit of The Tramp’s Yukon antics. The scene in the cabin, a roundelay of belly laughs that also manages an astonishing, balletic physicality, sees Chaplin poised atop a comic high wire, and he never falters. Put simply, “The Gold Rush” remains film humor’s subject, object, and verb.
5. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Constrained to a single room, a quartet of characters, and what may not even be a crime, “Rear Window” lacks the ghostly expanse of “Vertigo,” the innovative plotting of “Psycho,” or the apocalyptic terror of “The Birds,” but more than any of these it sets the line early and waits to reel us in. From the other end of a camera, Hitchcock builds an entire world. It opens with the flick of a switch and a breathlessly romantic kiss — “Lisa Carol Freemont” are my three favorite words in movies — and ends with the crack of a flashbulb. In between? A reminder of why we fell in love with the silver screen in the first place.
6. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
“M” frays the nerves from its first frames. With expressionistic black-and-white cinematography, it conjures dangers around every corner, bolstered by Peter Lorre’s brilliantly repugnant performance as serial killer Hans Beckert, and by a musical motif (“In the Hall of the Mountain King”) so creepy it still sets my teeth on edge. As it proceeds, though, “M” darkens and descends, plumbing the ominous dilemma between mob rule and the rule of law until it takes on the chill of a premonition.
7. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Whatever the epic proportions of Scorsese’s more recent efforts, his defining style will always be the glistening, marquee-lit mean streets of a down-and-out New York. That festering city was reflected in every surface of “Taxi Driver,” from darkened windows to bedroom mirrors, much like Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) himself — who became American film’s most memorable antihero because the villain he was staring down turned out to be the one within.
8. Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
It may be impossible not to fall in love with Jeanne Moreau in “Jules et Jim,” and the same holds true for Truffaut’s New Wave salvo, an effervescent, turbulent, and unendingly inventive story of a Bohemian love triangle. The material is perfectly suited to the director’s cacophony of freeze frames, found footage, and fluid tracking shots, with the characters’ lives poised between rebellion on behalf of a new age and nostalgia for an old one.
9. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
For much of its running time, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a bright bauble of a Hollywood musical, a pinnacle of the form that combines foot-tapping numbers (“The Trolley Song”), lush production values (colors that would make Douglas Sirk blush), and romantic drama (swoon!). But darkness looms, in the shadows of a Halloween prank or, for three transcendent minutes, in Judy Garland’s brave, sorrowful rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s a musical unafraid to strike a minor key in the fading light, a potent reminder that song can be as much about pain as it is happiness.
10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Controversial, perhaps. Flawed, certainly. But Anderson’s great American epic runs headlong into the abyss of genres, histories, and troubled strivers that have defined more than a century of cinema. Visually and aurally stunning, politically relevant and historically sound, its reserve of eccentric energy is devoted to the story of two men battling for the soul of the country. In the words of the Byron poem from which it takes its name, I may not live to see it, but I foresee it: someday, “There Will Be Blood” will rightly be called a classic.