OK, so the story here is I’m going to try and work my way through the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine critics poll, conducted once a decade, in which they ask hundreds of film critics to submit their selections for the greatest films of all time. I’m limiting myself to the top 50, around half of which I have seen before, the rest I’ll (hopefully) be enjoying for the first time. A lot of these films are well known, and as such shouldn’t be too hard to track down, but some are potentially harder to acquire so getting through the list might take some time. As I work through the list (in no particular order), I’m going to write up some thoughts, most likely at five film intervals.
And so, without further ado, here are my thoughts on the first five films I’ve been through so far…
I figured I’d start this journey through the Sight & Sound list at the top, so I’m beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (#1). Almost everyone I know has a different opinion of what Hitchcock’s best film is, but for me Vertigo actually does hold the top spot.
The film, like so many of my favourites, is one which I’m not sure I fully understand. Having seen it perhaps half a dozen times over the years, the puzzle pieces have started to fall into place a little easier on each revisit, but there’s still much that confounds me. But it’s the quest for understanding that makes me love a film like Vertigo.
Hitchcock’s direction in Vertigo is obviously right amongst his best work. His use of colour in the film is so wonderfully expressive and evocative, and his love of using architecture thematically is fully in play. James Stewart gives a great, confused performance as John ‘Scotty’ Ferguson, and Kim Novak is, in my opinion, underrated in the dual role of Madeleine/Judy. There are so many masterful strokes in Vertigo, from the bizarre dream sequence or the chilling Bernard Herrman score (one of his best), to the famous dolly zoom shots, and it absolutely deserves its #1 spot on the poll.
TOKYO STORY (Ozu, 1953)
Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (#3) is a film I was introduced to in my first year of university, and made a massive impact early in my film analysis studies. It’s rather unlike any other film I’ve seen, and rewatching it again, more so than the enjoyment it gives, only reminded me that I have to seek out more of Ozu’s work.
Tokyo Story is such a minimalist film, being a very simple family story told through Ozu’s very steady and composed style. There’s almost no visual flair, the director choosing to simply place his camera at low angles (eye level as the characters kneel on the floor, which they do for almost the entire film), and lets the events unfold at a leisurely pace. There’s a very melancholic tone to Tokyo Story, but it’s not exactly a sad film, rather a basic catalogue of events involving the central, somewhat estranged, family.
Perhaps my favourite thing about Tokyo Story however is that no other film I can think of has the ability to make me feel as calm as this one. Ozu was known for his Zen-Buddhist beliefs, and it may be the infusion of his personal philosophies into the film that achieve the effect for me. This is a film that would be a hard sell for most viewers these days, but it manages to surprise with its simplicity and uniqueness.
THE SEARCHERS (Ford, 1956)
John Ford’s The Searchers (#7) is a difficult film to love. I have two conflicting feelings every time I see it, and as such it’s a film I can certainly appreciate, but have a hard time enjoying.
On the positive side, there is much about The Searchers that earns it such a high place on the Sight & Sound list, and indeed its reputation as the high water mark for the classical western genre. The film is visually breathtaking, owing to not only Ford’s remarkable gift for framing and how he stages the action, but also the iconic, majestic Monument Valley locations. Seeing this projected on the big screen would be a real treat, but even seeing it on blu-ray, it’s hard not to be massively impressed. John Wayne also delivers without question his best performance, famously surprising even Ford himself with his portrayal of Ethan Edwards. It’s a complex role that Wayne brings much more honesty to than his other iconic parts, but herein lies my problem with the film.
Edwards is far from a typical western hero. Looking at the film with 2012 eyes, it’s almost impossible to see past the shocking racism in how the native Americans are depicted, with Edwards in particular hellbent on dehumanising them to a despicable degree. Wayne’s excellent performance makes it even harder to swallow, as his vicious, vengeful motives become increasingly clear. As such, the eleventh hour change in his attitude rings a little untrue, a ham-fisted way of preserving Wayne’s heroic status. The Searchers is a much darker film than other Ford westerns I’ve seen, yet despite some of its more uncomfortable aspects, is essential viewing for its strengths.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Kelly & Donen, 1952)
Singin’ in the Rain (#20) might be about as close as you can get to a perfect movie. It’s arguably the best example of the classical musical, a genre where, for a time, Hollywood was untouchable. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s exuberant masterpiece is so packed with charm, romance and hilarious moments that it manages to keep me grinning like a fool right the way through, a feat which very few films can achieve.
The film moves at an incredible pace, but never feels rushed. Kelly really is the whole package; a performer who is perhaps more watchable than any other in history. The titular song-and-dance number is one of those magical Hollywood moments that nothing else can replicate, as Kelly sweeps down the street in such joyous fashion that you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved. Yet even such an iconic scene is almost overshadowed by so many other wonderfully choreographed and shot musical numbers. Ranging from the somewhat intimate to the impressively elaborate, Singin’ in the Rain delivers scene after scene of pure entertainment.
Not enough good things can be said about this movie. There’s so much energy and heart, an unbridled love of the cinema, and Kelly pushes every moment to its zenith, crafting the type of film that brings into harsh focus the glitzy but soul-less nature of so much that comes out of Hollywood nowadays. It’s a cliché I know, but they really don’t make them like this any more.
LA JETÉE (Marker, 1962)
Chris Marker’s La Jetée (#50=) is the first film on the Sight and Sound list that I’ve gotten to thus far that I hadn’t seen previously, and is a film I knew little about other than it was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, and was an experimental film told entirely with still images. So, what did I take from seeing it?
It certainly is an experimental film, one which I perhaps wasn’t entirely prepared for. It’s an odd little post-apocalyptic time travel story, something akin to a photo essay with voice-over narration, but on reflection I almost wish I had watched it first without any sound, just to see how I might have interpreted the imagery for myself. As it stands, the brief film (around 27 minutes) is a tight, complex story, a kind of doomed romance with some deeper existential themes which just hovered a little out of my grasp. However, although it’s a difficult film to completely understand, when the narrative circles back on itself the conclusion delivers one hell of an impact, and left me gasping.
Trying to get a sense of this top 50 list as a whole, it’s already becoming clear that a lot of these films are going to be valued for their uniqueness, something which La Jetée has in spades. It’s a different way to craft narrative, and as I sit considering it, I like the film more and more. I still wish I’d watched it without the narration however, and would recommend this approach to anyone who might like an interpretive challenge.
So, that’s the first five films down. It’s likely that I’ll be able to breeze through the first 20 or so quite quickly given their easy availability, so look for the next five soon!