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.
SEVEN SAMURAI (Kurosawa, 1954)
Well, this is a film that I would count among my absolute favourites of all-time, if not possibly my number one. Anyone who finds themselves reading a blog post of this type has probably either seen Seven Samurai (#17) or knows they should see it, so I don’t even know what I can say.
At a basic level, almost all action cinema in the past 60 years, in particular team-based action films such as this years Avengers, owe a tremendous debt to Seven Samurai. It’s a template setting film, as Kurosawa flawlessly structures the film into three distinct acts, beginning with the introduction of plot and characters, followed by a perfectly paced set-up towards the electrifying final showdown. Few movies in history have had this kind of lasting influence, and it’s an undeniable game-changer for action cinema all across the globe.
Yet, for me at least, the real beauty of Seven Samurai lies with Kurosawa’s treatment of his characters. Similarly to his genius with plot structure, the characters of the samurai themselves again created a mould still used to this day. Each brings their own spark to the team, whether the nobility and leadership of Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the pure calculating skill of Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), or the buffoonish antics of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) which somehow hold the team together. Nowadays they might seem like well played-out character tropes, but having an understanding of where these things started is crucial for any cinema lover, and for these reasons (and so many more), the first port of call needs to be Seven Samurai.
THE GODFATHER (Coppola, 1972)
Yet another film that I don’t even know where to begin with. It’s The Godfather (#23) for heaven’s sake!
I think what always stuck out for me with The Godfather was, while this is unquestionably a key film in the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s, it stands apart in terms of style. When so many of his peers were experimenting with form and storytelling technique, Coppola boldly chose to treat the film in a very classical manner, pulling influence from German expressionist films of the 20s and 30s for some of the most fantastic lighting ever committed to celluloid. Few films are this visually and thematically rich, from the stunning chiaroscuro in the opening scene to the terrifying climactic confrontation between Michael (Al Pacino) and Kay (Diane Keaton).
The performances are electrifying across the board, but for me this is absolutely Pacino’s film, and maybe his strongest ever work. It’s a bit of a shame that nowadays most of his acting is so predictable and over the top, but in his younger years he had such impressive range, all of which is on show in The Godfather. His journey from timid outsider to ice-cold puppet master is a wonder to behold every single time, and while Marlon Brando’s role perhaps gained a more iconic status from the film, It’s Pacino who holds the whole thing together.
There’s really no surprise that The Godfather is one of the most beloved classics of all time. It’s like a textbook on how to craft a successful film, with every masterful element coming together into a flawless, awe-inspiring whole.
PSYCHO (Hitchcock, 1960)
I really need to start breaking up my viewing of this list and scatter more of the lesser known films in with the widely seen and discussed classics. Oh well, here’s my thoughts on Psycho (#36).
The second Hitchcock film on the list, and probably his most famous work, Psycho is a smaller scale picture than many of his masterpieces, but is no less powerful. Personally speaking, the real draws here are Bernard Herrmann’s fantastically evocative score (maybe my favourite of all time) and Anthony Perkins’ dynamite performance of Norman Bates. He blends timid innocence with a deeply unsettling creepiness, and his famous “People always mean well…” dialogue still chills me after several repeat viewings.
Almost as interesting as the film itself however is the story behind its production and release (which bodes well for the upcoming film based around the making of Psycho). Hitchcock’s decision to make the film was seen as an odd choice by most at the time, and the plea he made to audiences to keep the film’s twist a secret showed a degree of interaction unheard of at the time. Sadly, the story goes that Perkins’ homosexuality led to him being shunned at awards time, and in Hollywood in general, yet for my money it’s one of the most riveting performances I can remember.
THE GENERAL (Bruckman & Keaton, 1926)
The work of Buster Keaton is something of a shameful unknown quantity for me. I’m pretty sure I saw Sherlock Jr. (or at least parts of it) many years ago, but other than that I’ve just never caught up with anything else. So I was quite excited as I sat down to watch The General (#34), which is available on YouTube in its entirety.
The General is a charming and sweet little story about Johnnie (Keaton), a timid railway engineer who embarks on a mission to rescue his beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack), who is taken hostage by a gang of Northern soldiers during the Civil War. The potential for excitement in a relatively slow-paced train chase is somewhat limited, but Keaton finds inventive ways to disrupt the chase, keeping the film surprising and clever, and allowing him to display some of the fearlessness he’s remembered for.
That said, I didn’t exactly love The General. Keaton himself is fascinating to watch, and his ability to express so much with a largely expressionless face is mind-boggling. I think the film is perhaps a little longer than it needs to be though, and, possibly because of my hazy memories about Sherlock Jr., I expected it to showcase more madcap action than it actually has. It is a lovely story though, and Keaton manages to use the limiting locations to their fullest potential, and the titular locomotive becomes an important character in itself.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Dreyer, 1928)
Wow, this film knocked me for a loop. As I’ve mentioned before, there are certain commonalities between many of the films on the Sight and Sound list, and what seems to be considered valuable in some of the very old films is what I can only assume is revolutionary (for the time) formal technique, such as with The Passion of Joan of Arc (#9).
Dreyer’s film is a marvel of minimalism, as the director eschews any flash and crafts a relatively by the book retelling of the trial of Joan of Arc leading to her execution as a heretic, and the idea of martyrdom. The sets Dreyer works with are sparsely decorated, with simple white backgrounds, geometric lines, and little in the way of expressive lighting. The technique fits perfectly however, and allows Dreyer to place total focus on his star, Maria Falconetti as Joan. Completely exposed by masterful close-ups, Falconetti delivers a performance for the ages, conveying the fragility of a terrified 19 year-old girl, but also the bravery and faith in her purpose bubbling just below the surface. Watching Falconetti, you really feel that this young woman could inspire defiance and revolution in the oppressed masses, and makes the tragedy of her martyrdom all the more affecting.
For me, The Passion of Joan of Arc is the most eye-opening film on the list thus far. It’s heart-wrenching, but also inspiring, and just amazing to see how a gifted film-maker can do with so much with so little.