Having disagreed with the Sight and Sound poll of film directors that Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” is the greatest film ever made, I wanted to revive my own list of the ten best (also see the longer list of my favorites here). Here it is:
I tend to interpret “great” in the sense of sweeping and epic; even the most narrowly focused film on the list(#4) involves an epic struggle against evil).
Romance is central in four (3,6,7, 10a), but one of the lovers is dead by the end of three. The films were made between 1927 and 1985. Two of the three American-financed films were made partly on location away from Hollywood by British-born directors, as were the two films directed by American-born directors. I did not attempt geographical balance, but of the other seven directors, two are French, two German, one Indian, one Russian, and one Japanese. (Apologies to Italy, the cinema from which I much admire and the source of many of my favorite movies, including four on my list of favorites. And apologies to John Ford, who is certainly in my pantheon of great directors.)
I would not claim that all my favorite films are great, and there are some moments in the films on this list that I’d question, but “great” does not mean 100% good. Though necessarily subjective, my list does not include any of the idiosyncratic picks of my list of favorites. Most are recognized by the film-lovers who have seen them as great films, though there always a few dissenters (most likely about my American choices!), and my list is not markedly different from one I made around 1986. (Since posting this, I’ve been smitten by Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy.)
(10b) David Lean’s (1962) Lawrence of Arabia probably belongs on my list of favorites, but is definitely great in the sense of a wide canvas (of people and events, it was also shot in wide-screen format). It has some stupendous parts, starting with a dot in the distant sand growing into Omar Sharif riding into film stardom, one of the most memorable musical motifs of any film, great performances from Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, and Alec Guiness, et al. The parts do not entirely cohere, nor does its title character (not that it did in reality either…). Besides being a great film, it is of particular current relevance in showing the European powers’ connivance in establishing the House of Saud as rulers of Arabia and the general lack of understanding of the lifeways and conceptions of the Middle East on the part of western policy-makers. Al-Quaeda’s worldview and mission to destroy the modern world grows directly from the “fundamentalist” wahabbism the Saudi lineage has sponsored and proselytized from Mecca to the ends of the Islamic world. Continued cynical support from western regimes (and two Bush presidents) has maintained what are portrayed in the movie as the “freedom fighter” Arabs in power, and, if I recall, 18 of the 19 9/11 hijackers originated in Saudi Arabia.
(10a) Satrayjit Ray’s (1954-59) Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu) shows a Bengali boy growing up, the triumphs and tragedy of “ordinary” people. The world is filled with what seems picturesque to me, but shows the truth of John Ford’s claim that the most interesting thing to photograph is the human face. Some find the camera placement too static, but the framing is never less than perfect. Ray prefigured the French New Wave in using natural light (if not in jump-cutting!). This trilogy has moments of exhilaration and of despair that would make it sound manic depressive if I tried to recount what happens.
(9) This slot was occupied by Leni Riefenstah’s documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Olympia.” Having re-viewed and reviewed it (Part One and Part Two), I still think it is a great film and that it is not a part of the particularly Nazi cult of “Aryan” features, because its biggest star is the African American track gold medalist Jesse Owens and it also fetishizes some Japanese athletes (yeah, I know Japan was an ally, but it is bodies and athletic skills Riefenstahl shows and seems to worship, not Hitler or “Aryans” like herself. “Body fascism,” if there is such a thing, perhaps…). I’m tempted to substitute my favorite sports documentary “Hoop Dreams,” but am instead replacing it with the greatest of Olympic documentaries, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (showing parts of the 1964 Olympics). The special drama of Jesse Owens winning races against the “master race” on its home turf (in Berlin 1936 with chancellor Hitler in attendance) is more than “sports history.” Ichikawa includes some images as striking as Riefenstahl’s and many human dramas (“Olympiad” has some longeurs; “Tokyo Olympiad” none IMO.)
Insofar as there is a star of the show, it is the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila winning his second gold medal (at the age of 35 and only a month after an appendectomy). If there is a theme I could induct from the five Ichikawa movies I’ve seen, it would be perseverance.
(8) Tabu (1931), cowritten and codirected by the great master of German expressionist cinema F. W. Murnau (Last Laugh, Nosferatu, Sunrise) and the great early master of documentaries Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Louisiana Story) is an amazing, beautifully photographed film about forbidden love (involving a Polynesian sacred virgin and a fisherman) that was filmed in Bora Bora with nonactors who had probably never seen a movie. It has its kitschy moments, but the dancing is superlative, as is the photography of Floyd Crosby, particularly in the final sailing away scene. Flaherty quit and sold his share, so ultimately this is a Murnau film (and Murnau was dead before it was released) and it seems to me that the boat sailing away at the end is headed for Valhalla (with Matahi a stand-in for Murnau). Remembering it makes me shiver!
(7) I am a major Alfred Hitchcock fan. “Notorious” is my favorite, but I also adore (in chronological order) “The Lady Vanishes”, “39 Steps”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Spellbound”, “Strangers on a Train”, and Vertigo (1958). Alfred Hitchcock became very widely recognized as a tv personality, but until being loudly championed by François Truffaut and other Cahiers critics, was considered a genre (thriller) journeyman rather than as the creator of cinematic masterpieces. “Vertigo” in particular was poorly received by American audiences and critics on its release, though it is obvious now to many that it is a great portrait of obsession and role-making (far more effective than any of the films made of Pirandello’s plays), a superlative exercise in color photography (credit Robert Burke, as well as Hitchcock’s schema), a model of music (Bernard Hermann’s) enhancing the visual moods, and contains one of the greatest performances of screen icon James Stewart.
(6) Orson Welles’s (1940) “Citizen Kane” often tops best film lists. I don’t question that it is a great film, though it is a rather frosty one except for the obvious enjoyment of playing with the possibilities of the medium of film. I think that part of the tribute to it derives from sympathy for Welles never again having the resources and control he had in making “Kane.” Even cut by others, I prefer “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Despite his legendary difficulties with financing his ambitious visions, I think he managed a genuine masterpiece in which he played the role well-suited to the appearance of the “boy wonder” bloated and seemingly dissipated, Falstaff (aka, “Chimes at Midnight“, 1965,findally on DVD). Welles is a not particularly jovial, bonhomie Falstaff, but excels both in bluster and in heartbreak when Prince Hal is crowned Henry V and spurns him. John Gielgud’s Henry IV is nearly out of this world, near death and intoning the famous “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech in the famed Gielgud voice that the audience literally can see. Margaret Rutherford is memorable as Mistress Quickly; Jeanne Moreau is forgettable as Doll Tearsheet, but the film’s greatness depends on the battle scene (shot in the turmoil, like the great battle scenes in Kurosawa tragedies) and on the extraordinary performance of Keith Baxter as Prince Hal. The primary sources of “Falstaff” are the two plays titled “Henry V” and Baxter restores his part’s centrality, upstaging the master upstager. Also, the work of French cinematographer Edmond Richard, who also lensed Welles’s version of Kafka’s “The Trial” is outstanding in “Falstaff” (and was the best aspect of “The Trial”).
(5) Sanshô Dayû (Sansho, the Bailiff, 1954) has the knock-out emotional force and the visual riches that I thought I remembered from when I first saw it decades go. Although less an epitome of Mizoguchi Kenji’s concern with female sacrifices for male family members than the 1952 “The Life of Oharu” (in comparison to which the suffering and grief of “Sanshô” is mitigated), it has affecting performances (my favorite of which is that of Kato Masahiko as the ten-year-old falling from privilege into slavery). Both the famed visual compositions and the famed pans (the two starting and ending the final scene are particularly famous)were the responsibility–and inspiration of Miyagawa Kazuo (who shot “Rashomon” and “Yojimbo” for Kurosawa along with some of the visually dazzling Kagemusha and some of Tokyo Olympiad and other Japanese masterpieces.
(4) Robert Bresson Un Condamné à mort échappé (A Condemned Man Escapes, 1956) is one of the most intensely concentrated movies ever made. I think that I like Bresson’s (1958) “Pickpocket” (which also involves lots of closeups of the title character’s hands) more, but as a small-in-scale entry, the story of a WWII French resistance fighter clawing his way out of his prison cell is the ne plus ultra. Without overt symbolism, Bresson’s film exalts resistance to seemingly omnipotent oppressors.
(3) Buster Keaton’s (1927) The General is a fixture on greatest film listings. There is very little comedy and, of course, no facial expression from The Great Stone Face, here playing a determined southern engineer whose beloved locomotive is seized by the Union army. As in other (all?) great Keaton movies, Keaton is maniacally determined to prove himself, this time to Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who believes he has not joined the army out of cowardice (when his job has been judged indispensable and his volunteering was rejected by Confederate authorities). I wouldn’t be the first person to observe that parts of the movie seem like a documentary (though it was filmed in Oregon!), or at least to bring the still photography of Matthew Brady et al. to life. It is brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, with one of the greatest chase sequences ever. Between 1924 and 1927 Keaton made a series of masterpieces. I’m not sure which is my favorite, probably “Our Hospitality”, which is far funnier than “The General.”
(2) Kurosawa Akira ‘s Ran (Chaos, 1985). “King Lear” is the traditional climax of Anglophone actor’s mature artistry. Kurosawa’s adaptation, set in feudal Japan, with an aging father splitting his kingdom between three son-in-laws. As with Kurosawa’s adaptation of “Macbeth”(Throne of Blood), the grandeur of Shakespeare’s language is jettisoned, but the wordless climaxes of each are pure cinema (not to mention pure cataclysm for the protagonists fully realizing their folly). It is long (2:40), bloody, beautiful, and a towering work of genius culminating a series of Kurosawa films that are among the greatest films ever made anywhere. It also has the best helmets of any film on my list, since I chose “Ivan the Terrible” rather than “Alexander Nevsky” for my Eisenstein masterpiece, and a haunting musical score by Takemitsu Tori . (Kurosawa thought that “Ran” would be his last film, and had difficulty getting it financed. He made some minor movies after it—just as actors who triumph as Lear may keep working… with nothing left to prove. Also, I like Kurosawa’s preceding anti-epic Kagemusha more, along with Sanjuro. Nakadai Tatsuya is in all three, and in some other amazing Japanese masterpieces including Okamoto’s Kill!, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”/”Seppuku” and The Human Condition trilogy.
(1) Sergei Eisenstein more or less invented cinema as an art form, or at least as an art form of montage. “The Battleship Potemkin” (1925) is the conventional pick for best film lists and certainly his most influential film, but with my predilection for understanding “best” in the epic sense, my choice is the two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) about the first czar. For me, it is the culmination of expressionism (a mostly German idiom) with shadows as ominous as in the darkest night of cinema noir. (The first part exalts power and fervent leadership to an unsettling sense. Ivan’s loneliness and increasing derangement are the central features of part two).
Its musical score by Sergei Prokofiev is almost as great as the one he supplied Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and the composition of the pointed-beard Ivan at a window as lines of supplicants sing the czarist anthem trudging through the snow is the most indelible composition in cinema history for me (as the montage on the Odessa steps from “Potemkin” is the textbook exemplar). The antagonists in part one are somewhere beyond operatic: Nikloai Cherkassov’s young Grand Duke of Moscow and the scheming Boyar princess Euphrosinia, played by Serafima Berman. The real dialectic (a Hegaeian rather than Marxist one) is between the human and the despot. Part One pleased Stalin as his henchmen (as “Alexander Nevsky”) had; Part Two was almost destroyed, and plans for a third part were cancelled, so that “Ivan the Terrible” is as important in the political history of film-making as it is in the history of representing political conflicts in films.
(The runner-ups: Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy, sepecially the harrowing finale, Jean Renoir’s “La grande illusion” (1937) ,and Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) in which Falconetti is Jeanne going up in flames.)
©2005, 2016, Stephen O. Murray