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Friday, 3 August 2012

The List is Life

Yes its that time of the decade once again: Sight and Sound magazine has released its Top Ten Films of All Time list, the once-every-ten-years list of great films as voted and ranked by almost a thousand filmmakers, journalists, critics, and general cineastes. Cinematically-inclined folks like myself salivate with speculation every time the S&S list gets updated: what's going to be on the Top 10? Will Citizen Kane be unseated for the first time in fifty years? Who the hell votes for this anyways?

Well, speculate no more my fellow film-snobs, for the list has been unleashed! Alright, I admit I'm a bit of a list junkie, and I'm inordinately excited for this particular one, seeing as I was crafting my filmgoing taste ten years ago, and had no idea what the hell Sight and Sound was in 1992 (and in '82 I suppose I had other things going on, like crawling). So this is the first list where I can actually look at the trends, zeitgeists, and choices of critics and really understand what is going on. Sure, I've examined the past lists with zeal, but to be awaiting the release, awash with blogger buzz and speculation, is a new experience. Needless to say, I was excited.

The first S&S list was released in 1952, with Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thieves taking the top spot. Every decade since, Citizen Kane has been perched at the top, glowering over lesser masterpieces and generally wallowing in its own crapulence. Until now. Vertigo has knocked Kane down to the number two spot, which itself was seated it in 2002. Some people saw this coming. I didn't. I assumed that Kane would stay on top forever. Really. It was one of those sure bets, like paper beating rock. Citizen Kane just feels important, from the incredibly inventive cinematography, the playful score, the believable performances (many first time actors from Welles' radio troupe), and the puzzling, non-linear structure many assume was birthed by Tarantino. Kane has been on the list so long that it has been galvanized into a diamond-hard capital M masterpiece that can withstand any critical backlash. In fact, so many words have been written about Citizen Kane by better people than me that I feel like I'm treading water just typing out the title, let alone why it's so great. So just take my word for it. If you haven't seen it, do so. The tagline for the movie is It's Terrific, for God's sake.

So how does Vertigo stack up as the greatest film of all time? Well I haven't seen it nearly as many times as I have Citizen Kane, but I did revisit it last night, and before that it has been in my rearview mirror for about five years, maybe more. It's certainly got the cred: master director, engaging cast, initial critical drubbing, countless essays from film theorists (not just film critics, natch) like Laura Mulvey, and an aura of mystery surrounding it. But where Kane's back entrances opened into tycoon William Randolph Hearst's private life and public empire, Vertigo's open into something far more interesting: Hitchcock's own psyche. Vertigo is often cited as the most Hitchcockian of all Hitchcocks, and for good reason. It was, by 1958, a summation of everything that made Hitchcock who he was and what he was capable of. Scotty is not only our entrance into the story but Hitch's own stand-in, an alter-ego who demands and obsesses over every detail of Judy's appearance. He demands perfection to satiate his own inner desires and lusts, no matter her opinion. From Eva Marie Saint to Kim Novak to Tippi Hedren, Hitch has always made his icy blondes exactly into what he wants.

Vertigo is just the right mix of subversive, obsessive, campy, melodramatic, and downright kinky, but never superficially. The viewer gets just as much out of the picture as they put in. On the surface, there's a cracking good mystery with a twist near the end and a shocking denouement. Dig deeper, and you may as well dig up Hitch's corpse, lay him on a couch, and ask him what he thought of his mother. So, short answer yes, Vertigo is a worthy successor to the crown. It's placement on the top of the heap will no doubt attract even more critical attention, more shot for shot analyses, and hopefully shine a light on Hitchcock's ouvre that budding film enthusiasts may not have known existed had it not been for the Sight and Sound poll.

So besides Vertigo, what else is on the list? Here you go...

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)

3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)

4. La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939)

5. Sunrise: a Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)

7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)

8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)

10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)

Pretty solid list, I'd say. Each entry may seem pretty "film school" (read: safe, obvious, too academic, embarrassingly antiquated, etc. etc.) at first blush, but upon closer inspection and armed with a little bit of knowledge, that is hardly approaching the truth. We've discussed Citizen Kane and Vertigo. Tokyo Story and The Passion of Joan of Arc turn visual storytelling on its head (and the latter eschews it altogether for something far more urgent and sinister). The Searchers is a Western that embraces a full-blown movie star as a racist bastard on a selfish quest. Man With a Movie Camera is silent and has no narrative to speak of. 2001 still confounds and confuses to this day, and was so well executed that some believe tha Kubrick was the man who 'directed' the moon landing on a sound stage a year after his film was released. Sunrise is a silent film (one of three <!> on the list) about a slatternly woman who wants a farmer to kill his wife. La Règle du jeu was so incendiary upon it's first screening in France that the a moviegoer tried to burn down the theatre! And if there's one film that approaches the fetishism, kink, and obsession that Vertigo has in spades, it's 8 1/2.

But of course, the Sight and Sound, as scientifically ranked and painstakingly curated as it is, is still someone else's list. Wha truly matters, since taste and opinion are so wonderfully subjective, is what you think. If I had a ballot for the 2012 list, this is what it would look like:

10. Synecdoche, New York

9. City Lights

8. The Passion of Joan of Arc

7. Aguirre: The Wrath of God

6. Dr. Strangelove

5. Do the Right Thing

4. Persona

3. Raging Bull

2. Citizen Kane

1. Nights of Cabiria

Unlike the S&S poll, I can change my list more often than once per decade, so this is a snapshot of how I'm presently feeling. In two years, two months, or two minutes, my tastes may change, but for right now all of these films work for me. The films listed here represent all the best parts of the cinematic experience and the transformative effect that great movies can offer. Each takes me to an entirely new world I would not be able to inhabit without them, which serves as good a definition of great movie as any I can conjure.

I am curious as to how the list will change in 2022 and beyond. The newest entry on the 2012 S&S list is 2001, made in 1968. This begs the question of when will movies from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00's be included. And more intriguingly, which ones will they be? The first two Godfather films made the list in 2002, only to be excluded this go around from one changed rule and a presumably split vote. One day perhaps Raging Bull, made in 1980, will make the list, and maybe even 90s films like Fargo or Pulp Fiction. Dare I say Mulholland Drive would show up on the 2042 list? Perhaps, although I'm not holding my breath. It took Vertigo decades to unseat Kane, as it should. A quick ascension through the ranks wold discount the S&S poll, opening it to fads and flashes in the pan that may not age as well as we may think initially.

For now, in 2012, the list represents filmmaking par excellence, and a terrific springboard for film buffs new and old to discover new movies, different directors, and open their world up to what exists beyond the multiplexes and box office reports.

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