What’s the best movie ever made? Would the person sitting next to you agree? Does the title really matter, or is the search a happy distraction meant to let the cream of the crop rise to the top? What happens when you watch a bunch of that cream? And why has “cream” become a metaphor for quality?
The Sight & Sound Top 50 is a great place to start with all of those questions.
For almost two years, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs have been watching the best movies of all time and discussing them with the aim of discovering and re-discovering important cinematic experiences.
Now that their quest is over, here are their thoughts and conclusions on what it’s like to see that many treasured movies, followed with links to all 50 conversations for your perusal.
Take a deep breath, grab a bowl of cream and dive in.
Landon’s All-Time Experience
Even as working through the Top 10 of the Sight & Sound list proved to be a challenging, if rewarding, test of finding things to say about beloved films that have been endlessly discussed and debated, numbers 11 through 50 on the list showed considerably greater diversity in terms of what constitutes a great film — from a 9-hour Holocaust documentary to a Technicolor Hollywood musical about show business.
There are clearly several notable preferences on display here, particularly 1) European art cinema, and 2) narrative cinema. It’s telling in terms of the inherited politics and critical assumptions about “Great Filmmaking” that Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema appears on this list before or in absence of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, works of Third Cinema, or any part of the New Queer Cinema canon.
To go through this list title by title is to understand, in part, the legacy of certain prejudices within established film criticism that make other approaches to the medium inaccessible or even impossible, most notably the list’s privileging of high modernist, mostly Eurocentric traditions. One can’t help but be bothered by the lack of imagination informing a list that should, by design, evince constant change and push for critical reconsideration.
That being said, I can’t deny the joy of revisiting or discovering so many interesting films. Regardless of whatever order they are put in, every film on this list is truly worth watching, discussing, and even toiling over for the curious film fan – and my discussions with Scott forced me to take a stand on a given film for which there is, more often than not, a great deal to say.
While much of this list may seem a bit homogeneous and redundant on the surface, when viewed together, each and every title offers something rich and unique to the history of the medium, from Jacques Tati’s grand vision of globalized bureaucracy in Playtime to Yashujiro Ozu’s touching portrait of generational tension in Late Spring to Gillo Pontecorvo’s breathtaking portrayal of anti-colonial struggle in The Battle of Algiers.
Personally, I have to credit this list for two things: 1) giving me new appreciation for Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose work I knew little of outside The Passion of Joan of Arc, and 2) helping me realize how many lauded films are about filmmaking itself; between Singin’ in the Rain, 8 ½ and Contempt, cinema proves time and again to be cinema’s primary area of concern.
Whether you’re an intrepid would-be cinephile or a veteran of the church of celluloid, the Sight & Sound list presents a thorough, useful, challenging, and entertaining canon well worth diving into and contending with.
Scott’s All-Time Experience
Taking on the task of watching the 50 greatest movies of all time, even over the span of two years, is a bit like asking an avalanche to crawl over you for a hundred hours. Even though Landon suggested we find different angles and contexts with which to view these classics, there was always a kid glove feel to everything — as if these movies were fragile and sacrosanct. Like they’d crack or chip if breathed on the wrong way. Such is the canonizing effect of a democratically chosen list of The Best anything, but if the last million thinkpieces on Citizen Kane are any proof, it’s an apotheosis that people don’t mind spitting on.
After the glorious slog of this project, I have three major takeaways.
First of all, I’m glad we took the movies at our own pace instead of vowing to do one per week. Many of the films on this list required a settling period, an honest bit of reflection that had to last longer than it takes to rewind a tape. What was most striking? The sheer amount of movies whose primary skill was getting hooks into you. Some of them nested and took up residency while others failed to get a grip and ultimately fell away, but almost all of them were potent.
Second of all, when I absolutely hated a movie (Satantango, L’Atalante), the stature of the listing itself did a lot to exacerbate that crazy-making feeling of isolation. Like screaming about Soylent Green being people (it is!), you start to question why you’re not liking (or LOVING) something so many others love. Something that’s been stamped and approved. You start to question whether the movie has somehow tricked a large number of people into seeing something they don’t. Then you calm down and recognize the beauty of the phenomenon.
Imagine all the voters who didn’t have Vertigo or The Rules of the Game or any of the final top ten on their personal lists. I feel more than comfortable loathing some of the titles labeled “The Best,” partially because I worship others, and partially because there’s no list that will please everyone. Variety is life’s paprika and all that. I’ll echo Landon here to say that what’s amazing about this particular list is its batting average. It’s worth checking out every movie on it because with each entry, there’s a high probability for falling in love. Not every list can make that claim.
The last lesson, and definitely the most important, is that there are always more fantastic movies to discover. I’d seen probably 75% of the list before we started this venture, and rewatching favorites like The General, The 400 Blows and Psycho is the kind of no-brainer joy of spending time with the S&S, but the larger cause for celebration was in the gamble. Yes, there were movies I hated, but their number pales in comparison to finding Sunrise, Tokyo Story, Close-Up and several others hiding in plain sight.
Ultimately, the list of “Best Movies” boils down to a giant pile of suggested viewing, and there are a lot of glorious new shores to discover for yourself here.
Scott: It’s a loose connection, but it reminds me a lot of Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s Phil has to become better in order to win true love. The Tramp isn’t necessarily trying to get better here — he’s fighting hard against pure chance and bad luck in order to prevail — but he’s definitely changing his life because he falls in love.
The basic notes are still there, and City Lights ends with one of the most well-earned, impossibly sweet moments in cinema history. It took brilliance and restraint not to overplay the hand when The Tramp and the Flower Girl finally meet up again, and the result is a scene that let’s us fill in the blanks while cheer-crying.
Merchant Ivory Productions
Landon: I stand by all our praise of The Bicycle Thief. But its realism reads to me differently than it did to audiences at the time. It feels less radical, more calculated, even Hollywood-like in its own specific ways. It’s self-conscious. Like the way that James Dean’s performances can read as over-the-top to contemporary audiences: it doesn’t mean it’s suddenly become less of what it was, but that it demonstrates a particular relationship to the sensibilities of a place and time.
But Pather Panchali maintains this raw quality where it still feels like Ray just went into rural Bengal with a camera. The mechanics of his style feel less apparent to me throughout. It feels timeless, which is not to me a universal virtue, but I think a commendable aspect of this film.
Scott: There’s also a lot to like about Bickle. He served his country and was discharged honorably, he works for a living, and he’s ultimately searching for a connection to another human being. Betsy and Easy combine to make for a weird version of Dulcinea, and he brings a gun to assassinate his windmill.
But the real link is between the farce of both pointing out the possibility that the world is crazy while someone like Bickle or Alonso Quijano or Howard Beale is sane for wanting to return to a state of better civility and communal engagement. With these movies, the craziest person is often making the most sense.
Landon: Yes, and the character study aspect of this film seems to preview what’s going to happen (or rather, what’s not going to happen), as we only get to know these characters better because Antonioni is not interested in using elements that propel the plot forward as the primary justification for what we see. Instead, we get these long, drawn-out conversations between Claudia and Anna that don’t serve “the story,” but do create a palpable sense of the world these characters inhabit.
Then when Anna disappears, you really feel that her presence is gone.
Scott: 8 1/2 gets at the feeling of the creative process. It bottles the impossibility and the absurdity of filmmaking (especially) because of a paradox. How can the most expensive art form also be intimate and personal and broadly popular and emotionally impactful?
This is no fault of Fellini’s, but movies about movies are too common. It’s “Write What You Know” shoved into a vacuum. Granted, there are some amazing movies about process…like Barton Fink, Adaptation, For Your Consideration, A Serbian Film, The Artist…But making your movie directly about a director making a movie is instantly masturbatory, and few filmmakers have climbed out of that hole to create something really great with the subject matter.
Landon: The thing that I find most interesting about this film is the ambivalent position in which the audience is put in regards to Scottie. Take the scene where he first encounters Judy, before her flashback explains everything, where he’s convinced this woman is Madeline but she successfully convinces him otherwise.
You and I know it’s Kim Novak, the same actress in a presumably different role, so we’re in a position where we have to decide whether or not to trust the judgement of the protagonist. Very few Hollywood films of this time did that. The protagonist was unassailable, almost always in the right.
So, you know, what’s your favorite? Is it even on the list? And will you give the “50 Best Movies of All Time” a chance to amaze you?