Every ten years, the much-respected British film magazine, Sight and Sound, polls critics, filmmakers, professors, etc., for their choice of the ten greatest films ever made. This year Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a long-time winner, was dislodged from first place by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; Kane came in second. The magazine asked me to contribute my choices for the poll, and I tried, but found the exercise impossible to complete. I submitted my reaction and the editor asked if I could elaborate on my point: that the whole thing was not a very good idea in the first place; I believe they’re running my piece in their poll issue. My comments for them follow this brief preamble.
Of course, I didn’t know at the time that Vertigo was going to win. Personally, it has never been my favorite Hitchcock, nor was it a popular success in its initial release. I think Jimmy Stewart’s performance is quite extraordinary, and his final moments are among the finest of movie acting, but I prefer other films by Hitch much more: Notorious, for instance, or Rear Window or North by Northwest are pictures I return to with much more enjoyment than Vertigo, which is profoundly depressing. Maybe that’s why it’s suddenly so popular among tastemakers: it fits our depressing times; happy endings are out, miserable conclusions are in. Citizen Kane is no more cheerful, certainly, though there are at least a few laughs in it, but perhaps things have to be bleak to get on the critical radar these days. Which is not to say that I don’t like Vertigo, but only that there are many better pictures: at least five I can think of by Jean Renoir, for example, including The Rules of the Game (which came in fourth) and Grand Illusion. Anyhow, here’s what I wrote for Sight and Sound:
SIGHT AND SOUND TOP TEN PICTURES POLL 2012
After struggling with a ten best list for quite a while, I have decided that for me it is an impossible task. I could maybe—at gunpoint—narrow down a list of directors to ten absolute ultra-greats, but then to name each of their best works becomes daunting. Take Jean Renoir, for my money the best director of all time in the West: How to choose between Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, La Bete Humaine, or even French CanCan, The River, or Le Crime de M. Lange? I’d have to put at least three Renoir pictures on the ten best list, and then where are we?
Or take John Ford, arguably the best American director: Do we honor his Westerns, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, Stagecoach, or his memorable family sagas, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, or his most personal film, The Quiet Man, or his essential war drama, They Were Expendable?
This dilemma holds true for all the finest filmmakers: Howard Hawks (To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, or Rio Bravo), Alfred Hitchcock (Notorious, Rear Window, or North by Northwest), Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight, Citizen Kane, or Touch of Evil), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, Trouble in Paradise, or The Merry Widow), Buster Keaton (The Navigator, The General, or Steamboat Bill, Jr.).
And what about D. W. Griffith? Probably the most influential and indeed essential director of all time; how to choose between films like Orphans of the Storm, True Heart Susie, or Broken Blossoms, or even Isn’t Life Wonderful?
Or take the finest Eastern director, Kenji Mizoguchi: virtually all his pictures are masterworks, so how to pick between such extraordinary Japanese scrolls come to life as Ugetsu, or Sansho the Bailiff, or The Life of Oharu?
And what to do with individual classics that are certainly among the best of all time: pictures like King Vidor’s The Crowd or The Big Parade, or Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of A Murder? Or Carol Reed’s The Third Man? Or Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running? Or Rossellini’s Open City? Or Fellini’s I Vitelloni? Or John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, or Faces?
This still doesn’t really do more than scratch the surface of the classics. As usual, comedies get short shrift: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, for instance, or Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, or Mr. Hawks’ own His Girl Friday, or George Cukor’s Holiday? And we haven’t yet mentioned Charlie Chaplin. And all the musicals? Or Jo von Sternberg, either, or Erich von Stroheim or Frank Borzage or F.W. Murnau or Fritz Lang or Allan Dwan, or Raoul Walsh, for that matter, or Max Ophuls. In fact, rarely remembered now is most of the amazing silent era (1895-1928), the basic foundation of the moving picture art of telling stories visually. As Chaplin put it at the coming of full sound (1929): “Just when we got it right, it was over.”
No, this is not possible. All these films and so many more should be seen by every civilized person on earth, and the whole rating idea is anti-artistic, anti-film culture, just absurdly reductive: There are so many wonderful pictures to see, that to reduce them down to a Top Ten is a disservice to all the great work that has been done with that haunting 20th century medium of humanity, born just at the end of the 19th century: a now nearly mythical visual history of more than an entire 100 years of life in the world. The first century in history. We currently have a lot to live up to; a lot more than ten.