The trouble with a list is that not everyone is going to agree. What’s often offered as a personal selection of favorites can often be taken by a reader as a personal affront, a sign of snobbery or boorishness, even if a list is a compilation from multiple contributors. And as the fuss over the Sight & Sound Greatest Films Of All Time poll reminds us, that’ll likely always be the case. After all, we know that it’s all just a fun exercise, and yet looking over the full list (published today on the magazine’s website along with the 800-odd submissions from critics all of the world), we still feel the pang of the absence of some of our own favorites.
So with the publication of the full poll today, we thought we’d politely offer our own suggestions of films missing from the list altogether, as well as another selection that got into the 250, but haven’t yet cracked the top 100 (but could do in future years, given a film only needs a few dozen votes to make it in). This isn’t necessarily to say that these films are more deserving of inclusion than those that did make it. It’s more a list of some of our own favorites, because ultimately, the great pleasure of these lists is the chance to discuss, be introduced to, and catch up on the films you’ve missed. So if you’ve already loaded up some 50-odd films in your Netflix queue because of Sight & Sound’s “Greatest of All Time” list, consider this another 30 must-see films that you should do the same with. And feel free to add your own personal top 10s in the comments section.
So with no further ado, and in no particular order…
18 Essential Films Not On The Sight & Sound Top 250 Greatest Films Of All Time
1. “All That Heaven Allows” (1955)
Douglas Sirk just cracks the 2012 top 100 with the sublime “Imitation of Life,” but there’s always room for another of his glorious Technicolor melodramas, and “All That Heaven Allows” would certainly be our choice to join it, given its direct influence on films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” and Todd Haynes‘ “Far From Heaven.” Detailing the May-December romance between widow Jane Wyman and gardener Rock Hudson, a cross-class affair which causes shock in both Wyman’s family and society in general, it’s both lavish and emotionally raw, the director once more setting his aim on the hypocrisy and rotten core at the heart of picture-perfect 1950s American suburbia. An entirely compelling watch that belies its soapy premise right up to the incredibly complex, bittersweet conclusion.
2. “Le Samourai” (1967)
“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… Perhaps…” So goes the on-screen text that introduces Alain Delon as the hero of Jean-Pierre Melville‘s crime-classic “Le Samourai” (in one of the all-time great character introductions) and it’s something that reflects the picture as a whole. Delon’s Jef is a professional killer, and a man with few connections, or even signs of humanity. His minimalist lifestyle (mirrored by Melville’s directorial technique) starts to fall apart when he’s watched leaving the scene of a hit — turning himself into a target by his employers. It’s a familiar plot, but that’s probably because it’s the seminal hitman movie; everything from “The Killer” to “The American” owes a giant debt to Mellville’s film. The director had dipped into the underworld well many times before, but never as completely or perfectly he does here — it’s his austere masterpiece of the genre, and as such, feels like the best candidate from his work for inclusion.
3. “Cria Cuervos” (1976)
A young Anna Torrent moved thousand of audiences in the 1970s, and those performances have lived on (see Victor Erice‘s “Spirit of the Beehive” which is #66 on the S&S list, in which she also stars). Charming, sweet, heartbreaking and eerie, Torrent stars in Carlos Saura‘s film as a young girl living in Spain who loses her mother of cancer and then is visited by her later as a spectral ghost that only she can see. Possessing a prenaturally understanding of childlike behavior, or simply just capturing the essence of this endearing and precocious performer, Saura weaves a complex tale of lost innocence that is opaque and yet funny, moving and life-affirming. One for the ages.
4. “Ninotchka” (1939)
Choosing a single Ernst Lubitsch film feels like a somewhat impossible task, but as the director was entirely absent from the Top 100, it felt particularly important to find one. And so we stumped for “Ninotchka,” the director’s delightful 1939 comedy (written by Walter Reisch, with Lubitsch’s protégés Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), about the title character (Greta Garbo, cast beautifully against type, so much so that the film’s poster touted ‘Garbo Laughs!’), a Soviet envoy who comes to Paris to sell jewellery confiscated from the aristocracy, only to fall in love both the West and Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), who’s out to take the jewellery back from the Grand Duchess to whom it used to belong. It’s unashamed propaganda, but propaganda with razor-sharp jokes and a feather-light touch, and one of the most purely enjoyable romantic comedies ever made.
5. “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)
Not so much a comedy as a statement of intent (although it’s also a brilliant comedy, as it happens), Preston Sturges‘ masterpiece involves a Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) who decides he wants to break away from the slight comedies he’s made his name on (such as “Ants In Your Plants 1939”) and adapt socially-conscious, Steinbeckian novel “O Brother Where Art Thou,” going method and pretending to be a hobo for research. Finding a companion (The Girl, played by Veronica Lake), believed dead, and sentenced to six years on a chain gang, he eventually comes to realize that his comedies do more to brighten up the lives of the disenfranchised than a worthy drama ever could. It feels like Sturges speaking out on behalf of his own work, but never feels defensive or indulgent; it’s simply a wonderful comedy, with both satiric edge and genuine feeling.
6. “Murmur of the Heart” (1971)
Charming, sweet, funny and fondly told, ultimately, Louis Malle’s ninth drama is perhaps one of the most loving and yet controversial and fucked up family values/sexual awakening films on record. An endearing coming-of-age drama, the picture centers on a precocious teenage boy growing up in bourgeois surroundings in post-World War II France, and chronicles his relationship with his paterfamilias as the youngest in a family of five. A heart murmur lands Laurent in a sanatorium away from his family and eventually into a sexual encounter with his far-too-loving mother. That the tone is so sweet and jovial — right up until it takes this turn — is theoretically one of the most uncomfortable elements of the film. Yet even then, the easy-going picture pulls it off, managing not to alienate or repulse the audience, but instead leaving them maybe just a little puzzled. As shocking and controversial as much of it sounds, ‘Murmur’ is a tender, graceful and effortless picture that wonderfully captures the nostalgia and innocence of an adolescence most of us can relate to — minus those awkward hook-up years with the parents, of course.
7. “Empire of Passion” (1978)
Perhaps the most famous of the Japanese New Wave in the late ‘50s through the ’70s, due to his preeminent taboo-busting ways, Nagisa Oshima is still largely unknown outside of hardcore cinephile circles (though that’s slowly changing). While his best known work is “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” starring David Bowie, and the controversial, pretty much soft-core porn “In the Realm of the Senses,” it’s the erotic and haunting “Empire of Passion” that is perhaps his most unrelenting and potent experience. Nightmare-ish in tone, blending horror and the sensual, “Empire of Passion” is essentially a chilling ghost story that leans heavily on the themes of guilt, murder and retribution, not unlike Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (a play one could argue the film is loosely based on). Centering on the aftermath of passions and the haunting sins of crimes, the plot of “Empire of Passion” (also known as “Phantom Love”) focuses on a an adulterous couple — a peasant woman and her younger concubine — who conspire to murder her husband and dump the body down a well. The act is simple. The consequences: gossip, which turns to suspicion and culminates in the husband’s apparition returning to stalk her as the law investigates ratches up in a frenzied pitch of anxiety and unease is anything but. And swirling mists and tenebrous cinematography make for a sinister patina of dread that is unparalleled.
8. “Straw Dogs” (1971)
Ugly and vile, exploring some of the darkest corners of man’s id, Sam Peckinpah‘s “Straw Dogs” is often hard to stomach. An arresting examination of violence, masculinity and lack thereof, the noxious potency of the picture lies in what the picture dispassionately suggests yet never quite states. Famously dubbed a “fascist work of art” by Pauline Kael in a rare positive review of the largely excoriated film, “Straw Dogs” holds very little quarter in its Darwin-ian and Nietzsche-esque look at the survival of the fittest. Dustin Hoffman plays a nebbish American math scholar who provokes the envy and ire of the local working class English by settling down with one of their own (Susan George) in their rural countryside town. Masculine, class and nationality politics are chaffed from the start. Hoffman is a rich American deeply out of his element and in marrying the gorgeous (and provocatively dressed) Amy, and hiring the local underclass to fix up his posh cottage, the picture falls just short of saying that he has earned their envy and deserve what’s coming to him. A controversial rape in the picture does little to quell the queasy air of disgust one gets from these rancid circumstances and offensive people, but further demonstrates Peckinpah’s masterful way of staying mostly detached, while provoking his audience and refracting back the notion that all humans are capable of wretched acts of violence. In forcing Hoffman’s character to defend himself in a bloodthirsty rage, the director throws a molotov cocktail at the screen making the viewer complicit in these harrowing and base acts of vengeance. There is no morality in “Straw Dogs,” the picture stripping down all elements to their most primal and raw. It’s deeply unsettling and unforgiving, which makes Peckinpah’s missive on man, passiveness and aggression still shocking and haunting til this day. Directors often talk about pictures’ controversial taboos reflecting back the ugliness of life back at them with a mirror, but rarely follow-through. “Straw Dogs” is the real deal that takes a hammer to the reflection and then stuffs the shards down your throat.
9. “The Last Picture Show” (1971)
The break-out film — and still the best — from Peter Bogdanovich, “The Last Picture Show” (an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel) remains both one of cinema’s most indelible coming-of-age tales and one of its most unforgettable love letters to itself. Duane (Jeff Brdges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) are two small-town Texas teens caught between a girl (Cybil Shepherd) and mourning the death of their mentor, movie-theater owner Sam The Lion (an Oscar-winning Ben Johnson). Deeply felt, heartbreakingly elegaic and perfectly performed by all, it stands head and shoulders above the rest of Bogdanovich’s work to an almost alarming degree.
10. “Wings of Desire” (1987)
We pretty much had to flip a coin to choose between this and 1984’s “Paris, Texas” in terms of Wim Wenders‘ filmography. But ultimately, it was the magic-realism beauty of “Wings of Desire” that won out for us. Set in West Berlin, it follows a pair of angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander), the former of whom falls in love with a trapeze artist after he chooses to become mortal. A deeply weird, of-the-moment tone poem (featuring an appearance from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Peter Falk — playing a version of himself as a former angel), it’s gloriously shot by “La Belle et La Bete” DoP Henri Alekan, and dedicated to the then-recently deceased Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu and Francois Truffaut (three of Wenders cinematic idols). One senses they would have been delighted by the pure cinema on display in Wenders’ picture.
11. “La belle et la bête” (1946)
Opening with a chalkboard scrawl that asks viewers of filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film “La belle et la bête” (“Beauty and the Beast”) to give up their ideas of what is real, and give into the imagination and ridiculous nature of fantasy, and it’s a take that continued to define the cinematic fairy tale right up to the present day. Cocteau’s film still resonates today; even if the sweet 1994 Disney musical version of the tale is worth a watch as well, it’s Cocteau’s that balances the fantasy with the parable; never losing site of either for long. It’s also a visual wonder, with many flourishes that are still breathtaking today — the hallway with human arms holding candelabras is a standout — and it’s easy to see the seeds of Cocteau’s film in dozens of baroque fantasies that have followed since.
12. “Repulsion” (1965)
What many critics frame as “the inverse of ‘Psycho,’ ” Roman Polanski’s elegant horror thriller is every bit as powerful and shocking as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Catherine Deneuve, radiant and owl-eyed, plays a Belgian manicurist living in London who slowly goes mad. The movie, an early gem from Polanski, whose obsession with madness and closed spaces would continue with two later films to form his “apartment trilogy” (with 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and 1976’s “The Tenant”), has a wonderful sense of perspective – since we see everything through Deneuve’s eyes, we can’t be sure of what’s really happening and what’s just a side-effect from her tortured psychological state. The movie eventually drifts into the surreal, and you can’t help but feel helpless for her – she seems a victim of circumstance that just happened to bite back. The film’s moody black-and-white photography by Gilbert Taylor only adds to the sense of claustrophobia, and it’s a testament to the movie’s raw power that it works as an arty character study and a splashy bit of genre shock. Deneuve, too, gives the performance of a lifetime — and she’s even adorable as she decays.
13. “La Terra Trema” (1948)
A director of Italian theater and opera, Luchino Visconti’s cinematic oeuvre is naturally marked by its lush, lavish milieu in pictures like “The Leopard” (which made the S&S top 100), “The Damned” and “Death in Venice.” However, it’s his earlier Italian neo-realism that arguably resonates at a higher emotional frequency. “Rocco and his Brothers” wonderfully bridges both periods, but “La Terra Trema” is arguably his most austere, emotionally raw and striking film. Featuring non-credited, non-professional actors in lead roles, this 1948 Italian drama was called a “docufiction” during its day, because of Visconti’s desire to be as realistic as possible, but there’s no denying this stark and depressing exploitation of working-class fishermen is no documentary. Chronicling harsh economic realities in a small Sicilian village, the eldest son of a local fishing family convinces his family to mortgage their house in order to wrestle more control (and money) away from the wholesalers that are dominating the local fishing market. It’s a risky move, and most of the timid, under-the-boot-heel townsfolk are afraid to rock the boat (no pun intended). Everything goes prosperously until a storm ruins their boat, plummeting the the family into deeper poverty and triggers one tragedy after another that essentially destroys the entire dynasty. In the end, the consequences of their gamble force them to come back crawling to the monopolizers with their tails between their legs, and more importantly are left spiritually broken. Sparsely shot and using little music, “La Terra Trema” is unnervingly quiet outside of the hollow and cold sounds of wind. It’s a bleak effort for sure, but a powerful snap-shot of neo-realism from a filmmaker generally known for his affinities toward the extravagant.
14. “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)
A wicked, devilish and surrealist look at the ravenousness of longing, lust and passion, Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire” is perhaps the most perfectly suited film for its subject on this list. Told in flashback and set against the backdrop of a terrorist insurgency in Spain, ‘Obscure Object’ centers on an aging Spanish man (Fernando Rey) who falls in love with and obsessively attempts to win the affections of an aloof, unattainable 19-year-old chambermaid. Played by two different women (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina), this unattainable paramour repeatedly frustrates this man’s romantic and sexual desires with a teasing back and forth that might drive any lover mad. Ostensibly a representation of the girl’s two disparate personalities (both Bouquet and Molina demonstrate two different types of behavior), it’s perhaps simply too facile to box in Buñuel like this, as the picture has its sly satirical elements and indictments of bourgeois society as is per his usual. Buñuel’s 30th and final picture, the director died five years later, but the picture did earn him two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay).
15. “Veronika Voss” (1982)
Loosely based on the true story of Sybille Schmitz, a former Nazi starlet, whose star faded after the Third Reich crumbled — she committed suicide as a lonely old relic the nation would rather soon forget — the captivating and lush “Veronika Voss” is German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the height of his powers. On a dark, rain-soaked evening, the unbalanced and melodramatic Voss (Rosel Zech) meets and befriends an empathetic sports writer (Hilmar Thate) who takes a curious interest in her faded-glory story. The well-meaning writer soon discovers the erratic and often desperate former star is propped up by an unscrupulous “Dr. Feelgood”-like physician (Annemarie Düringer) who lords over her — fueling her insecurities with a controlling dose of opiates, but only if she can pony up the exorbitant costs. Meanwhile, the self-sacrificing writer risks his own relationship to rescue the aging ingenue, but to no avail. Having long sought recognition within Germany — the provincial media generally despised his always quotable “enfante terrible” mien — Fassbinder finally received homegrown love when this picture rightfully won the Golden Bear at the 32nd Berlin International Film Festival. And while many Fassbinder pictures could have made the list, this seems like the one to go for.
16. “La Notte” (1961)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s heralded alienation tetralogy about modernity and its discontents is well recognized among cinephiles as a towering achievement in cinema (and yes, it should include “Red Desert” even if it’s in color and therefore slightly different in aesthetic, but absolutely the same in theme). The haunting “L’Avventura” rightly made the Sight & Sound top 50, “Red Desert” and “Eclipse” both have cemented their position as classics thanks to the Criterion Collection. But 1961’s “La Notte” is somewhat of an overlooked child, and this is a shame considering that it’s possibly the most emotional and accessible of them all. Featuring the amazing trio of Antonioni regular Monica Vitti, plus Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, “La Notte” plays out as a the day in the life of an unfaithful and unhappy couple that are experiencing their relationship in the death knell of decay. Giovanni Pontano (Mastroianni) and Lidia (Moreau) — a married couple already experiencing the slow crush of indifference and deterioration in their relationship — begin their day visiting a dying friend. Shaken by the incident, Giovanni fails to comfort his wife and the woman then departs, wandering the streets of Milan in search of some kind of existential fleeting answers. They meet later in the evening at a party where Giovanni is already trying to strike up an affair with the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Vitti). Perhaps most devastating is its climax. As the couple acknowledges the failure of their marriage in the breaking hours of dawn long after this party has run its course, Lidia reads aloud from a profoundly poetic moving love letter. Giovanni asks, who wrote it? Lidia tells him that he wrote it years ago to her. They make love on the grass unable to accept the end, but clearly their relationship is in irreparable disrepair and this last act is a grueling and piercing sequence for anyone who has done their best to keep a dying light alive.
17. “Umberto D.” (1952)
Vittorio De Sica topped the first ever Sight & Sound poll with “Bicycle Thieves,” which was only released four years earlier. These days, it’s dropped all the way down to number 37, and it’s the filmmaker’s only movie in the Top 100. His particular brand of Italian neo-realism is somewhat out of fashion now, but unfairly so, given the brilliance of that film, and in particular of 1952’s “Umberto D.” Involving the day-to-day struggles to survive of an elderly man (Carlo Battisti) and his faithful dog Flike, it sits with “Tokyo Story” as one of the great screen portraits of aging, as well as a firmly political look at the little man overpowered in society. It’s a little manipulative, of course, but what is filmmaking if not manipulation, and only someone with a heart of stone would fail to be moved by the film by its end. It mostly disappeared on release, but it was the favorite film of both its own director and of Ingmar Bergman, and has since deservedly had its reputation restored.
18. “Day for Night” (1973)
For this writer at least, who worships the filmmaker, François Truffaut is somewhat underrepresented in the S&S Top 100: the great filmmaker only makes the list with one picture, “The 400 Blows.” Were we to add another, though, it might not be the one you’d expect. Because since our teens, we’ve loved “Day for Night,” the director’s rich, playful tribute to filmmaking, with Truffaut himself playing the helmer of a drama named “Meet Pamela” with Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Leaud as his tempestuous stars. Funny, warm and pretty much manna from heaven for any would-be-filmmaker, or indeed cinephile in general, it feels more universal and profound than most behind-the-scenes dramas and deserves a place alongside “8 1/2” and “Singin’ in the Rain” as one of the great movies about movies.
And 12 That Made The Top 250, But Could Be Higher
And yes, note, we wrote this original list when only the top 100 was out in the U.K. While these films are in the top 250 list, we would definitely consider them contenders for the top 100 of all time.
1. “Céline and Julie Go Boating” (1974)
Called the Ulysses of movies, and while challenging yet rewarding with riches, Jacques Rivette’s magically fanciful and wantonly elliptical 3 1/2 hour 1974 classic, “Céline and Julie Go Boating” is many different things to many different people and often all at once. Part Alice In Wonderland-like fantasy, part absurdist comedy, part feminist manifesto and part post-psychedelic escapade, ‘Boating’ is bizarre, nonsensical and masterfully oblique; a hypnotically surreal experience to be sure. Subtitled, “Phantom Ladies Over Paris,” the film is a long-winding and circuitous loop (or “story”); one half about accidental friendship and intertwined identity and a second section that somehow evolves into a madcap murder mystery via psychedelic candy with a ghost story in it to boot. While lopsided, inexplicably light-hearted and long, Rivette’s opus and its circular oddness is exhilarating and essential.
2. “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961)
A mercurially oblique and unnerving surrealist classic, it’s a bit of a shock to see Alain Resnais‘ 1961 inscrutable classic missing from the S&S 100 list. Glacially paced, chilly, and hypnotically equivocal — not to mention lavishly stylish — its provocative abstraction is not for the impatient at heart. Resnais’ film exists in a dream-like state with no real stated context to what is outside the walls of Marienbad, leaving a good deal of space for the viewer to decide on the meaning and where in reality the story takes place. Set in an elegant chateau, a well-to-do socialite stranger tries to persuade a married woman to run away with him, but it seems she hardly remembers the affair they may have had the year previously. She entreats him to surrender this notion, and yet he persists and the film ambiguously continues with this narrative like a slow-moving puzzle box game with no solution. A fascinating exploration of the formal possibilities of film with an eerily arresting command of mood and tone, “Last Year at Marienbad” is a haunting and enduring examination of seduction.
3. “Three Colors: Red” (1994)
For the final film in his Three Colors Trilogy — which explored the themes of the three colors represented in the French Flag, liberty, equality, and fraternity — Polish auteur Krysztof Kieslowski once again tapped into the everlasting ideas of personal history, identity and ultimately, possibly the notion of rewriting time. Starring muse Irene Jacob and French icon Jean Trintignant, the film examines the lives of two strangers that meet by chance and how their lives become prophetically intertwined the more they get to know one another. Moving, enigmatic and gorgeously loaded with motifs, symbols and clues by Piotr Sobociński while rapturously scored by his longtime composer Zbigniew Preisner, “Red” is Kieslowski’s magnum opus. The director declared it his final film, retired and then died one year later suddenly at the early age of 55. Another classic and a must-see pick if you haven’t already is Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique,” which just made the top 250 S&S cut and once again stars his beautiful muse, Irene Jacobs.
4. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964)
If “Singin’ in the Rain” is arguably the world’s greatest musical, then perhaps “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is Europe’s finest entry into the canon of the genre (“The Red Shoes” being more of a filmed ballet, rather than true musical). Though while the technical artistry of Stanley Donen’s film is unparalleled, arguably it does not hold a candle to Jacques Demy‘s picture emotionally. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as star-crossed lovers who fatefully fail to find themselves in each other arms, ‘Cherbourg’ is breathtaking to look at it with its pop-soaked colors, but it is also devastatingly heartbreaking both through its story, performances and songs (written by the great Michel Legrand) that evoke an aching longing that quivers with a deeply felt melancholy. An indelibly moving picture. An equally good alternate pick is Demy’s “Lola.”
5. “The Conformist” (1970)
While Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci arguably has at least “The Last Emperor” up for consideration on any greatest of all time list, if forced, we would choose his searing, beautiful and deeply sinister 1970 political drama “The Conformist.” Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Bertolluci’s moody and gripping psychological case study on fascism centers on a weak-willed coward, desperate to “belong,” who becomes a political lackey and goes abroad to arrange the assassination of his old teacher, now a political dissident. The director’s always-controversial take on things identifies childhood guilt and sexual (and homosexual) shame as the roots of fascism, which gives the film yet another level of shocking emotional grotesquery. The co-star of the picture is arguably Vittorio Storaro’s visually stunning cinematography, which has been rightfully heralded the world over. With its masterful use of angles, shadows and light, Storaro practically redefines the word chiaroscuro in cinema, and adds plenty of atmospheric psychological texture to this desperate man willing to acquiesce to whatever ideological fashion of the day. This is a film that begs to be seen on the big screen in 35MM. It’s a bold, stunning masterpiece like they don’t make anymore.
6. “The Conversation” (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola‘s already got three films in the top 50, thanks to the first two “Godfather” films and “Apocalypse Now.” But we’d argue his very best is the film he made in between mob movies: taut, experimental thriller “The Conversation.” Starring a career-best Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who loses his sanity after recording a conversation between a couple that suggests a young couple is about to be murdered. Heavily influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni‘s “Blow Up“, it’s a fascinating and surprising character study as much as a thriller, it’s also as much editor and sound designer Walter Murch‘s film as Coppola’s: creating a puzzling, immersive world that rattles around your head for days afterwards.
7. “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984)
The troubled history of “Once Upon a Time in America” might be one of the reasons the film has failed to break through to the list. Sergio Leone‘s epic four-and-a-half hour cut of his epic, 40-year spanning gangster tale lost over two hours on U.S. release, and Leone was too heartbroken to ever direct again. But as tremendous as his Westerns are, the film (even in the slightly abridged 229-minute version) might be the Italian director’s masterpiece, with outstanding performances from Robert De Niro, James Woods and William Forsythe, among others; a poetic, novelistic beast that’s one of the most extraordinary films ever made. A 245-minute restoration premiered at Cannes this year, but there’s still another 25 minutes of deleted scenes caught up in legal tangles. Hopefully, by the time the next poll takes place, the film will be back to Leone’s original length and ready to get the credit it deserves.
8. “Mouchette” (1967)
A concentrated portrait of human suffering, Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” is often held in high regard next to its sorrow and hardship cousin-picture “Au Hasard Balthazar” (which did make the S&S list, along with two others in the top 100). Grim and bleak, yet extraordinarily moving in Bresson’s famously detached and minimalized manner, “Mouchette” centers on the titular 14-year-old heroine, an already impoverished outcast who is forced to grow up far too fast. Berated in school and forced to care for her ailing mother and baby sibling at home, even a moment of potential legitimate human connection at a carnival is quickly squashed by her drunkard father. An unfortunate encounter with an epileptic poacher finds her pegged as his murderous alibi, and raped just for good measure. Through the director’s inquisitive camera, we watch as poor Mouchette learns to find the burden of living this existence altogether unbearable. As ascetic as it is, the picture is also filled with consistently striking imagery, such as final moment of Mouchette giving herself to the lake. And as searing and bleak as the picture can be, it’s suffused with an almost excruciating humanity, as empathetic and tragic as anything you’ll ever see on screen.
9. “Badlands” (1973)
It says something when your debut feature premieres at the New York Film Festival at the same time as Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”… and then completely overshadow it. Such is the case with Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” his smallest, most intimate, and most powerful film (still) about a pair of lovesick teens who embark on a murderous crime spree. (The tale was based on real-life killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.) Filled with what would become Malick hallmarks – a contemplative Texas setting, elegiac cinematography (mostly handled by future Jonathan Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto), and wistful narration – “Badlands” is shocking, bold, and dreamlike, anchored by a pair of career-best performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Sheen is menacing but totally charming, and Spacek is elusive in all the right ways — while the brilliant poster claimed that “She watched while he killed a lot of people” (amazing in its own right), you’re never sure how much she wants to be there or whether her presence is egging him on. It’s an incredible relationship, always shifting and scary. In the years since “Badlands” we’ve watched as Malick has expanded his scope and intensified his experimentalism, which, for film fans, is something to behold. But his debut is a tiny masterpiece, one as perfectly cut as any jewel, and still might be the director’s finest work.
10. “Black Narcissus” (1947)/”The Red Shoes” (1948)
Yes, we’re cheating here, but we’re split down the middle as to which of these two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films to include. That “The Red Shoes” is not in the top 100 is a big surprise — it has a very high-profile frequent advocate in Martin Scorsese (it certainly made his top 10), and was reissued in 2009 in a painstaking, sumptuous restoration. And it is a terrific film: a driven ballerina, caught between her svengali and her lover, is brought to the brink of madness by the competing demands of her art and her life, mirroring the tale told in her signature ballet role. But the logline captures none of the film’s true magic: the technicolor photography is almost shockingly delicious, with the titular shoes and Moira Shearer’s red hair singing out lavishly amid exquisite choreography and costuming and stylised set design. So our heads wonder “where is ‘Red Shoes’ ”? But our hearts, on aggregate, might look for its less-celebrated counterpart, “Black Narcissus.” Sharing many of the themes of ‘Shoes,’ (obsession, female psychological disintegration and the clash between vocation and the world outside) what marks ‘Narcissus’ out is its sensuality: a cloying, thwarted eroticism pervades the film like a heavy perfume. A group of nuns is sent to an isolated spot in the Himalayas to ‘civilize’ the local population, but instead an atmosphere of suppressed hysteria, arousal and jealousy brews until one of them goes full-on bonkers through sexual deprivation and envy. The photography, put in service of this lurid agenda is unforgettable — fat raindrops falling on indecently lush vegetation, Sister Ruth lasciviously applying crimson lipstick, virginal white habits billowing from room to room, painted backdrops of mountains, peach skies and cliffs that fall away to clouds beneath — every frame is a masterpiece of deliberate, controlled artistry. Here you’ll find tones and textures that, outside of Daphne du Maurier’s fever dreams, you won’t get anywhere else; watch a Sirkian melodrama on a cocktail of LSD, PCP and Hormone Replacement Therapy, and you might get close. Love them though we do, we couldn’t justify two entries for the Archers on this short list, so we bent our own rules with this either/or. But, list be damned, mostly we recommend you rush out and buy both.
11. “Faces” (1968)
After his breakthrough film, “Shadows,” in 1959, John Cassavetes struck out with his next couple of directorial efforts; “Too Late Blues” and “A Child Is Waiting” were both studio efforts with stars in the lead roles, and neither were especially liked, not least by the filmmaker himself. So nearly a decade after his directorial debut (and with an Oscar nomination for “The Dirty Dozen” under his belt, he returned to the same kind of low-key milieu for this tale of the imploding marriage of Richard and Maria Forst (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) as they seek solace in others (namely Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel). Though stylistically at opposite poles, Cassavetes was in some way the American Bergman, and the brutal, raw honesty of this picture certainly backs that up, even if the jazzy, experimental editing and framing owes more to Godard. Any number of Cassavetes films could make the list, but it’s this one that feels essential.
12. “Come and See” (1985)
Probably the last masterpiece of Soviet cinema (the nation that brought us Eisenstein and Tarkovsky disintegrated six years later), Elem Klimov‘s “Come and See” is one of the most unutterably powerful war films ever made. Showing the Nazi occupation of what is now Belarus through the eyes of a pair of teenagers (Aleksiei Kravchenko and Olga Mironova), it’s war not as it’s normally shown on screen, with heroic soldiers at the forefront, but through the eyes of an innocent, and its depictions of atrocities are all the more horrifying as a result. It’s an unbelievably punishing, bruising watching thanks to the realism of Klimov’s technique; it wouldn’t surprise you if you were told that you were watching documentary footage. Of course, it’s all meticulously planned out by a filmmaker who never made another movie, saying sixteen years later “I lost interest in making films … Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” He died in 2003, but there’s no doubt that he went out on a masterpiece.
So that’s it. 30 picks we feel strongly about. Some in the top 250 (though a few very, very low in the list in our opinion, see the Kieslowski’s) and some not in there at all. It’s by no means definitive, but it’s the 30 films we felt passionate about. You surely have your thoughts, so weigh in below and tell us what you’re missing. Arguably there’s still at least five or six Bergman, Bresson and Kurosawa films that could join that list, to name just a few, no? – Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang