A lot of people don’t see the point of best-of lists. I’ve had many a conversation with people where they argue that lists like Sight and Sound’s best-ever films poll tend toward mediocrity, that the same films will always rise to the top, and more interesting, but underseen and underappreciated, films will never get a look in. The argument is quite valid – the problem with these kind of polls, especially when they’re as large as Sight and Sound’s, is that though each individual ballot may be an interesting, challenging selection, the mean of the lot is always going to be a little blah. Film is a unique medium in that it’s both relatively new and vastly overpopulated, and great films are often overlooked for films with broader appeal.
Still, though, I can’t help poring over lists. The Sight and Sound one may be the largest and most definitive, but I also love Slant’s alternative “100 Essential Films” list, best-of-the-decade lists large and small, and every December I get a little crazy contrasting and comparing critics’ year-end lists. It’s not that I think that there’s some kind of objective, quantifiable “best film”, but seeing people jostle toward defining a canon is really interesting to me, however unnecessary it may be. It’s like seeing the dialogue of film laid out on the page, with all its history and its ebbs and flows, and while the Sight and Sound poll’s final top 100 only tracks the medium’s sharpest peaks, when you dig down into each individual ballot you can see something that resembles the full spectrum.
And with that in mind, I’ve endeavored to create my own top ten. It’s hard for me, because I feel like there’s so much I have yet to see that I can’t honestly say that I feel like enough of an authority on the subject, but I can but try. And while these films are in no particular order, I can tell you that the first two choices here are constantly wrestle for my personal favourite film, at least for now.
Nashville (Altman, 1975)
I’ve tried to write a longer piece about Nashville countless times and have always failed, because it’s so hard to express what makes it so great in words. Each moment of Altman’s masterpiece is perfect in its ease and simplicity, and they all add up to a glorious cacophony and that feels to me like the closest that film has ever come to capturing the giddy variousness of life.
Ordet (Dreyer, 1955)
I wrote about Ordet in detail here, but I’ll say it again – with a tiny cast and a tiny set Dreyer achieves one of the most emotionally powerful experience cinema has to offer.
Yi Yi (Yang, 2000)
A Brighter Summer Day may be Edward Yang’s most dense and novelistic effort, but this intricate portrait is surely his most graceful. Charting one year in the life of a Taiwanese family as they go through life’s most primal experiences – birth, death, love, loss – the themes and motifs he explored from the start of his career have never been so clear or elegant as here.
Cléo de 5 à 7 (Varda, 1962)
My personal favourite film of the French New Wave. Cléo de 5 à 7 isn’t quite a musical, but it might as well be, considering how tied up Varda’s editing rhythms are with Michel Legrand’s beautiful score. It’s not as experimental or groundbreaking as her peers, but in Cléo we have one of French cinema’s great female protagonists.
Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954)
Truffaut called it “The Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream” and to me it feels a lot more like a weird dream I had than any traditional Western. Reversing the gender roles, Johnny Guitar features two towering performances from Joan Crawford and Mercedes McNab as two women battling for dominance, as well as one of the most beautiful colour palettes I’ve ever seen.
Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979)
To me, Stalker is Tarkovsky’s best film because The Zone is such a vivid setting. Sinister and innocuous, familiar and alien, one constantly feels the threat just off-screen, even if it never materialises. Some people grumble about the film’s coda after the characters return home, but to me it’s the film’s crowning sequence – after science and art have been duking it out for two and a half hours, the honest, frank expression of love the Stalker’s wife gives to the camera is like a salve on an open wound.
Safe (Haynes, 1995)
It seems like a cheat to me that my favourite film of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 80s and 90s is the least explicitly queer of the lot, but if Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore’s clinical horror film has a monster, what is it but heteronormativity? Haynes shoots the cold, hard interiors of the film’s San Fernando Valley setting with a detached, clinical contempt, but it’s Julianne Moore’s broken, bird-like performance that makes the film so memorable.
Possession (Zulawski, 1981)
One of the most intense cinematic experiences I’ve ever encountered, Possession is as pure and disorienting an expression of hatred as they come. Sam Neil and Isabel Adjani astonish with their uncompromising, raw performances, as their crumbling marriage births demons far more monstrous than the tentacled creature in the apartment across town.
Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul, 2003)
More than any other director working today, I get the sense that Apitchatpong Weerasethakul is creating a new cinematic language entirely his own – at once an expression of his native Thailand’s spiritual beliefs and his own modern sensibilities. Syndromes and a Century is the purest expression of that language, a film that isn’t so much about the events depicted as it is the effect they have on you. Its bifurcated structure is full of parallels and repetitions, the cumulative effective of which meant I left the cinema feeling shaky, alive, blissed out, and oddly cleansed.
Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
Tokyo Story was a defining moment for me. As I was watching it for the first time, I remember thinking to myself “literally nothing is happening”, but by the end of it, I felt like I understood cinema in a way I hadn’t before. Tokyo Story makes the smallest emotions surge like a tidal wave, Ozu’s trademark, downbeat style enhancing the genuine, everyday tragedies that make up the film’s core. Tokyo Story isn’t just a great film – watching it, you feel as though you understand the world a little better.