|Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” in which young people watch the films they must watch.|
Jean-Luc Godard said that you have ten fingers and there are ten films — ten films that define the cinema for you. For practice, at the halfway post on the way to the next decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time (which takes place in 2022), I really tried, but I’m not yet deft enough a commentator nor submerged enough a cinephile to be able to distil all my moviegoing experiences into ten titles. Here are twenty-two: a number chosen in the grim remembrance of my advancing age, and more than double the desired end result. I began with a list of forty-nine films and edited it down; the last few cuts were a little painful, until I remembered that nobody cares as much about this list as I do, and I can watch each of those redacted titles as many times as I’d like, whether or not I or anyone else recognises them as among the twenty-two best in history. Lists are only snapshots of tastes, and what gets left off can tell as much about our lives and loves as what we put on.
I note, when surveying the full list of movies I admire, miserable shortcomings and immense gaps in my film-watching experience. There were no documentaries from which to pick, for example, and woefully few films released before this decade. The fact that I can’t speak for a single African film that I love means I’ve not begun to see anywhere near an adequate proportion of African films; in fact, I’ve seen far too few films from any country other than the United States, and not enough from the United States, either. Of the top hundred films on the Sight & Sound poll, I’ve only seen seven, and the highest up are at the 20th (Singin’ in the Rain) and 21st (The Godfather) positions.
Behold the education I’ve given myself, and understand why I still struggle to seem as if I know anything at all: only two films by Howard Hawks, only one by Hitchcock, one by Nicholas Ray, one by Fritz Lang, and none by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir, François Truffaut, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, Buster Keaton, Ozu Yasujirô, Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Anthony Mann, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Raoul Walsh, Erich von Stroheim, Frank Tashlin, Federico Fellini, Jean Vigo, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Jacques Tati, Mizoguchi Kenji, Luchino Visconti, John Cassavetes, King Vidor, Robert Aldrich, Terence Davies, Max Ophuls, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, or Luis Buñuel. (I know part of what I’m missing because of the repeat readings I’ve done of Truffaut’s collection of writings, The Films In My Life.) At least I’ve seen four by Charlie Chaplin, to whose work I’m newly addicted, but neither of the two evidently considered the greatest by a moviegoing majority (which, judging from the Sight and Sound list, are City Lights and Modern Times).
Bear in mind these omissions from my experience, as well as the too-often repeated fact that people’s value judgments of films are based not merely on disparate circumstances of viewing and awareness of context, but also on cosmologically vast differences in individual experience. To say our viewings are subjective is not only to say that we may differ on a number of a film’s aspects, but that what you see may be radically different from what I see. Harold Bloom says that, as we step into a stream and our feet never touch the same waters twice, so we never step into the same text twice; the movies don’t change, but we do, and neither do we ever step into the same movie twice, nor do we ever see the same movie as someone else.
The best (and, possibly, only) reaction to this list is to respond vehemently with your own, pointing out what I’ve included erroneously and egregiously excluded. To gain an idea of what real film-knowers settle on, have look at the votes cast by each of the voters (critics, directors, festival curators, and more among them) in the last Sight & Sound poll, voted for and published in late 2012.
These films are listed in random order, and I’ve set myself a rule — which Howard Hawks alone had the strength to break — of one film per director. Note the number of films of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Clint Eastwood, Wes Anderson, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz among my favourites, from which I had to select only one each. These twenty-two films constitute the frame on which I have erected my structures of knowledge in and love for movies; take it as a suggestion, or take it as a gauntlet thrown at your feet; if nothing else, it’d make for a handy psychiatric profile.
“The Social Network,” David Fincher (2010)
“Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins (2016)
“Black Swan,” Darren Aronofsky (2010)
“You Only Live Once,” Fritz Lang (1937)
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Howard Hawks (1953)
“All About Eve,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1950)
“Some Like it Hot,” Billy Wilder (1959)
“Rebel Without a Cause,” Nicholas Ray (1955)
“Moonrise Kingdom,” Wes Anderson (2012)
“The Gold Rush,” Charlie Chaplin (1925)
“Marie Antoinette,” Sofia Coppola (2006)
“Bringing Up Baby,” Howard Hawks (1938)
“We Have a Pope,” Nanni Moretti (2011)
“Macbeth,” Orson Welles (1948)
“Nosferatu,” F.W. Murnau (1922)
“The Break-Up,” Peyton Reed (2006)
“Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
“This is 40,” Judd Apatow (2012)
“To Rome With Love,” Woody Allen (2012)
“Gran Torino,” Clint Eastwood (2008)
“To the Wonder,” Terrence Malick (2012)
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese (2013)
I await your responses eagerly.