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My All-Time Top 10 (or 11) Movies

May 1, 2012

Every ten years, Sight & Sound magazine polls critics around the world (though mostly dominated by Britain and the U.S., of course) to pick the 10 best movies of all time (Roger Ebert, who has professed his dislike of top 10 lists, says this is the only one he likes participating in). The hard part about making such a list, of course, is how self-reflexive they can get. As Richard Corliss wrote in Philip Nobile’s compilation Favorite Movies: Critic’s Choice, critics start worrying more about how their list will appear to others than making it a personal choice. Also, when you start making the list, you also start automatically thinking, “Oh my God, how could I possibly leave that film off?” This, of course, also applies when you make a top 10 list at the end of the year; multiply that by 100 and you’ve got the feeling you have when trying to do a top 10 movies of all time list.  Still, I think it can be a good barometer of where you stand as far as movies go. Curiously enough, figuring out what the first five films on my list would be was a breeze; it was the bottom five that gave me no end of trouble – in fact, I chickened out, and had to go with 11 (in my defense, so did the last S&S poll in 2002). Still, I managed, and here, now, are my top 10 (11) movies of all time, with a brief (I promise) explanation of each choice, in ascending order from 10 to 1:

(10) (tie) Breathless (1960) (Jean-Luc Godard), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) (Jean-Pierre Melville): Godard was, and still is, the rule-breaker, the one who tried to change cinema, while Melville, whom Godard admired as a critic, was the great classicist. Both of them managed to make crime films that both transcend and fulfill their genre. Breathless was Godard’s first, and thanks to its innovative technique, manages to feel both light on its feet and yet still pierce you at the end with the fate of its characters. Melville’s movie, on the other hand, feels like a summing up of his career to that point (he only made one more movie after this before he died), yet Le Cercle Rouge feels timeless as ever, and you can see the line from this (and other Melville films, to be sure) to such filmmakers as Scorsese, Woo, To, Mann and Jarmusch today.

(9) Stage Door (1937) (Gregory La Cava): Cinematically, this may not measure up to the other films on this list, but this adaptation of the Ferber/Kaufman play is one I return to time and again for its exquisite combination of humor and drama, for the characters you just want to hang out with, and for being a terrific showcase for actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Eve Arden, among others.

(8) The Tree of Life (2011) (Terrence Malick): I’ve written extensively about this film elsewhere, so I’ll just say this; to paraphrase Sports Night, whenever I forget movies are capable of something like Malick’s masterpiece, something usually comes along to remind me.

(7) Persona (1966) (Ingmar Bergman): Bergman’s movies are about a lot of things – characters struggling against (or with) God and fate, or against their own foibles, family relationships of all kinds – but to me, above all, they’re about faces, and what they express and hide. This film, divisive when it came out but highly influential since, depends almost entirely on Liv Ullmann’s face, since her character mysteriously stops speaking (also, to be sure, on Bibi Andersson as Ullmann’s nurse), and even without the dreamlike and mysterious plot, that’s quite a daring move on Bergman’s part. Fortunately, it pays off, thanks in no small part to Ullmann’s performance, still the best I’ve ever seen by an actress in a leading role.

(6) Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (Stanley Kubrick): Most Kubrick fans I think would have put 2001 on this list instead, but while I like that film quite a bit, Strangelove remains, for me, his top masterpiece. Many have tried to make comic hay out of a serious subject, but while some have come close, none have topped Kubrick here.

(5) Intolerance (1916) (D.W. Griffith): Considered a folly upon release, Griffith’s epic shows the depth and breadth of his talent and passion, and it’s hard to imagine how movies would have evolved without it. Word of warning, though; make sure you watch the Kino DVD edition, which is the most complete.

(4) Seven Samurai (1954) (Akira Kurosawa): Four of my top 5 films are epic films, both in length and in scope, yet retain an intimate feel. And even though Kurosawa, in this film, is working with archetypal figures (both from Japanese and American movies), he retains that intimacy. One of the mark’s of this film’s greatness is no matter how many imitators it’s spawned, Kurosawa’s film remains fresh and vital.

(3) The Godfather (1972) (Francis Ford Coppola): It’s the American story for me (even more so than Citizen Kane), and the best example of the risk-taking American movies of the 70’s.

(2) Casablanca (1942) (Michael Curtiz): Not much to say about this one either, except to say, for me, this is the best example of the classic Hollywood studio system working at its best.

(1) The Godfather Part II (1974) (Francis Ford Coppola): I separated this from the first Godfather movie because as good as that one was, this is better. The rare sequel that’s better than the original, this takes the story of the first movie (and Mario Puzo’s book) and goes deeper and is even more risk-taking and tragic. Plus, Al Pacino gives the performance of a lifetime; his character doesn’t really change throughout the movie, he cuts himself off from everyone, he rarely yells (I have liked Pacino when he’s over-the-top, but this is better), but he still commands our attention throughout, even though we fear him.

There are others that would make my top 20, such as All Quiet on the Western FrontThe Searchers2001Leaving Las Vegas, and Children of Men, and in another 10 years, I may feel differently, but for now, that’s my list. So; let the arguments begin!


From → Movies

  1. Jo Bellomo permalink

    Hi Sean: I miss the opportunity of speaking with you whenever I visited The World of Video. I am glad to be able to say hello via your blog and to look at your list of 10 all time favorites. What are you recommending these days. I will take out Le Circle Rouge. Haven’t seen that one. I hope you are doing well. With love, Jo Bellomo

  2. Great list of some amazing movies.

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  1. “The Seven Samurai” and Toshiro Mifune: 2012 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #2 « The Joy and Agony of Movies

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