Saturday, August 4, 2012

IS “VERTIGO” THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME?


According to the latest Sight and Sound magazine poll, it is. (http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time) Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller has just been voted the greatest film in the history of cinema. The balloting is done for the British film magazine every ten years, as it has since 1962, and this is the first time in the poll’s history that Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE is not atop the list. The thriller about one man’s obsession with a mysterious blonde starring James Stewart and Kim Novak is.
The full list of the Top 10 films picked this year, as judged by the international panel of 846 film critics and scholars, were as follows (title, director, year):

1.) VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock 1958)
2.) CITIZEN KANE (Orson Welles 1941)
3.) TOKYO STORY (Yasujiro Ozu 1953)
4.) THE RULES OF THE GAME (Jean Renoir 1939)
5.) SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (F.W. Murnau 1927)
6.) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Stanley Kubrick 1968)
7.) THE SEARCHERS (John Ford 1956)
8.) MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (Dziga Vertov 1929)
9.) THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Carl Dreyer 1928)
         10.) 8 ½ (Federico Fellini 1963)

Amazingly, three silent films make the list - THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA and SUNRISE. To put three films from the 1920’s on the list of only ten seems somewhat absurd to me, especially when you consider there have been over 70 years of movies since. Equally confounding is many by rote choices that never seem to budge. Is THE RULES OF THE GAME really that great? Greater than say, THE GODFATHER? I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong; the list is strong, but too many of these choices feel old school to me. The list certainly fails to reflect any sense of modernity or shifting understandings. Heavens, the most current movie is from over 40 years ago! 
The directors’ choices (http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/sight-sound-2012-directors-top-ten) have many of the same picks but at least their list is more modern and recognizable. It’s also much more American. That’s not surprising considering that more directors hail from the United States than any other country. Here is their list, in order:

1.) TOKYO STORY
2.) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
3.) CITIZEN KANE
4.) 8 ½
5.) TAXI DRIVER (Martin Scorsese 1976)
6.) APOCALYPSE NOW (Coppola 1979)
7.) THE GODFATHER (Coppola 1972)
8.) VERTIGO
9.) MIRROR (Andrey Tarkovskiy 1975)
         10.) BICYCLE THIEVES (Vittorio De Sica 1948)

I like that list a lot more. So, what would I pick if I had a vote? Well, first let me say that I like the films that were picked on both lists and have seen them all. But for me, the lists are too obvious, almost clichéd, certainly expected in many regards. Therefore I’d like to offer an alternative list here at The Establishing Shot, one that counters, film by film, that critics’ list of ten. Here goes:

Their Hitchcock classic: VERTIGO
The Hitchcock classic I’d choose: PSYCHO
PSYCHO (Alfred Hitchcock 1961)
This black & white thriller is one of the most influential, important and continually debated films for 50 years now. It is a meditation on the dark soul of man and it’s filled with so many scenes that have become iconic they’ve not only been imitated over and over again, they’ve been parodied too. It’s a film that still influences every horror movie and thriller that comes out. The reason PSYCHO resonates so powerfully is due to its spooky surprises and its portrayal of evil dressed in the veneer of the banal and everyday. As Norman Bates says so famously in the movie, all of us can go a little crazy now and then. One only has to look at what happened two weeks ago in Aurora to realize that many Normans walk among us. Critics love VERTIGO because it’s so biographical about Hitchcock, but PSYCHO is about us.

Their ‘American Dream’ movie: CITIZEN KANE
My ‘American Dream’ movie: THE GODFATHER
THE GODFATHER (Francis Ford Coppola 1972)
I believe it’s the greatest American film of all time, as well as the greatest film of all time. It’s a harrowing masterpiece about the corruption of power, just like CITIZEN KANE, but here the victim is a nation, not just one individual. Michael Corleone spirals downward morally as he rises to prominence in business. And he’s enabled by everyone around him, family, colleagues, and a nation hungry to succeed at any cost. It’s about America losing its very humanity in the 20th century when we lost our moral compass and became our own worst enemy.

Their Japanese pick: TOKYO STORY
My Japanese pick: SEVEN SAMURAI
SEVEN SAMURAI (Akira Kurosawa 1954)
I cannot believe that Kurosawa did not make it to the top ten. Especially when you consider his greatest film, the Eastern Western SEVEN SAMURAI, is still influencing moviemakers today from Scorsese to Tarantino. It’s a brilliant riff on men, machismo and violence as a means of order, all told with some of the most amazing visual ideas that have ever been put on celluloid. Kurosawa comes as close as anyone in the history of film has to putting dreams on film. And his innovative work should have been acknowledged instead of three movies made during the infancy of film.

Their 1939 classic: RULES OF THE GAME
My 1939 classic: THE WIZARD OF OZ
THE WIZARD OF OZ (Victor Fleming 1939)
How is this film not anywhere close to the top 10? Do the critics feel it’s too childish or light? Perhaps they’ve forgotten lines like Mrs. Gulch promising to take Toto to the sheriff and make sure he’s destroyed. Or the witch’s various attempts to burn the scarecrow alive! And yet, this dark tale about rebelling against tyranny and fraud is one of the most positive, joyous, and loving adventures ever made. I still want to be somewhere over the rainbow with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Add a brilliant song score to the mix, along with stunning art direction, sumptuous costumes and the heart-wrenching Judy Garland and you have more than a movie, you have a marvel.

Their Kubrick: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
My Kubrick: DR. STRANGELOVE
DR. STRANGELOVE or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (Stanley Kubrick 1964)
I admire 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY more than I like it. Yes, it’s impeccably shot and brilliantly elevated sci-fi from the cheesy B-movie world, but it’s also very, very slow and often murky. I like Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY and SPARTACUS a lot better. As the horror critic for the Chicago Examiner, I could make the case for THE SHINING too. But ultimately I would have cast my vote for DR. STRANGELOVE. It is the blackest of black comedies, a powerful anti-war film, and a hoot from the first appearance of George C. Scott trysting with a bikinied bombshell to the atomic bomb blowing up the world to the strains of “We’ll Meet Again”. This movie dares us to laugh at political leaders so idiotic that they start fighting in the war room. And yet we do.

Their Western: THE SEARCHERS
My Western: UNFORGIVEN
UNFORGIVEN (Clint Eastwood 1992)
Sight & Sound was right. THE SEARCHERS is the best western. But a worthy second is Clint Eastwood’s final contribution to the genre. Both are anti-western westerns, ridiculing the stubborn men whose pride and arrogance brings murder and death to all they touch. There are no glorious gunfights or heroic cowboys riding off into the sunset in Clint’s dissertation on the limits of violence. His work always shows that killing is the result of men who have run out of reason. UNFORGIVEN is a haunting portrayal of a man who is the greatest victim of all his gunslinging. 

Their voyeur film: MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
My voyeur film: REAR WINDOW
REAR WINDOW (Alfred Hitchcock 1954)
Indeed, Hitchcock makes my list twice. Who but Hitchcock would have been so cheeky to film a suspense story where the lead character is confined to a wheelchair and never leaves his one-bedroom apartment? Hitchcock knew that he had more than enough to keep us on the edge of our seats simply by watching James Stewart spy on his neighbors and end up witnessing a murder. And miraculously he did this thriller with only ambient sound, and his camera seeing only what Stewart could see from his chair. It is leaps and bounds ahead of most thrillers simply by staying put.

One of their silent classics: SUNRISE
My silent classic: CITY LIGHTS
CITY LIGHTS (Charlie Chaplin 1931)
Three silent films on the Sight & Sound list, but none of them a comedy? No Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin? How is that possible? Chaplin’s greatest deserves one of those slots. Easily. And for any critic who might think that a silent movie comedy is too light or fluffy to be taken so seriously, I say watch the last minute where the flower girl realizes the little tramp was the one that helped her regain her sight and tell me you’re not in tears. Chaplin knew how to make us laugh and cry, and those at Sight & Sound should acknowledge his artistry much more prominently than they did.

Their dissertation on God’s will: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC
My dissertation on God’s will: CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS 
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (Woody Allen 1989)
Woody Allen is not only an equally great dramatist and farceur; he’s also a moralist of the highest order in his movies. His films are always filled with questions about how man and his sins square with God. In THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Saint Joan is burned at the stake for listening to her God who told her to rebel against England when they invaded her native land of France. She is unshakable in her beliefs of what God told her to do and she dies for her faith. In CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, Martin Landau has his mistress killed after she threatens to expose their affair to his family and friends. A devout Jew, he knowingly defies God’s teachings, yet skates away from his sins with barely a scratch. The world is not just, Allen’s film argues, and perhaps God is indifferent despite what we’d like our deity to be. It’s a daring narrative, one that few other filmmakers would have had the balls to make. Allen bends the rules and it’s funny. And tragic. It’s also one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

Their show biz movie: 8 ½
My show biz movie: SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN 
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly 1952)
The best musical comedy of all-time has often been in the top 10 but not this year. That’s a major oversight in 2012, the year of THE ARTIST, another movie about Hollywood moving from the silents into talkies. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is the quintessential Hollywood story, as fun as it is knowing, as melodic as it is acidic. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen play the silent film stars here struggling to adapt to sound pictures. And with the congenial Kelly bounding everywhere, an 18year-old Debbie Reynolds as the ingénue, the rubber-limbed Donald O’Connor dancing off the walls, and Hagen giving what may be the funniest supporting performance ever in movies, you've got one of film's greatest gifts. Oh, and did I mention the extended dance number with Cyd Charisse’s endless legs on dazzling display? Stunning.
There, that’s my alternate list. I could also make quite a case for the inclusion of CHINATOWN, TALK TO HER, JAWS, THREE COLORS, CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, SUNSET BOULEVARD, PULP FICTION, SCHINDLER’S LIST, SNOW WHITE & THE SEVEN DWARFS, LA CONFIDENTIAL, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, BEN-HUR, and about a dozen others that don’t even show up on the top 50 of that Sight & Sound list.

Look, lists like this are always subjective, and any list that gets movie fans talking about what films they love and why is a good thing in my book. I just wish that the esteemed critics voting in such a prominent poll as the Sight & Sound one would show a little more daring and modernity. The best films in the world were made after the first 20 years of cinema and the poll should better reflect that.
One last note of interest, none of the films on either the top 10 from the critics or the directors is an Academy Award-winning Best Picture, other than THE GODFATHER. Take that, Oscar!

So, what would your list look like? I’d love to hear what you think is the best ever. Remember, it’s not your favorites, but rather what you think are the greatest achievements in cinema. Let me know here at The Establishing Shot and let’s keep the debate alive.

9 comments:

  1. Good stuff, Jeff. I'm aligned with you on virtually all of your opinions. I can't tell you how many times I watched The Searchers trying to love it. But, nah. And it's about time we knock Citizen off it's pedestal a notch. Plus, I think over time, Pulp Fiction will keep rising toward the top.
    All the best.
    Geo

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, George. Well said. Some of the choices feel like obligations the critics make because they're supposed to. MAN WITH A CAMERA is a milestone in film technique and pushing the limits of what it could do, but it was made in film's infancy. If technique is so important AVATAR would be in the top 10. Geez.

    And SUNRISE is a brilliant film but I think there have been much more evocative dream films since, including a lot of David Lynch's stellar work. For what it's worth, MULHOLLAND DRIVE was in the critics' top 25, but alas, nothing that modern even comes close to cracking that stoic and stodgy top 10. Yawn.

    Thanks for posting and following, George. And keep coming back and sharing your terrific thoughts here!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Seven Samurai is a great pick (as are most on your list)
    I have not seen all the films on The Sight & Sound list but I don't hold their age against them.
    Rear Window and North By Northwest are my tow favorite Hitchcocks.
    My favorite show biz movie is the wonderfully creepy Sunset Boulevard.
    My 1939 film would be Wizard of Oz but I also like Stagecoach quite a bit.
    As far as westerns go I have to say my all time favorite was not a movie but the mini series Lonesome Dove, I watched recently on Netflix instant and I was totally caught up in it.
    Strangelove is my favorite Kubrick as well, it all came together in that film.
    There are so many other great contenders that it's hard to pare down any list of great films.
    Most of us today haven't seen very many of the foundational films of the silent and black and white era, OR subtitled films.
    I applaud you for having the dedication to dig deep and share your discoveries with us.
    In your debt,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your thoughts here, McDave! Always wonderful to hear your smart thinking. SUNSET BOULEVARD would be in my top 20 for sure. And I like all your other choices too, including LONESOME DOVE, which miraculously didn't win the Emmy for Best Mini-Series! (Their voters were as off as Sight & Sound's apparently.) Glad you are following, friend, and come back and opine with us often!

      Delete
    2. Perhaps miraculously isn't the right word. LONESOME DOVE should have won so I guess I meant to write something more like "It's stupefying that LONESOME DOVE didn't win the Emmy!" My bad if that was unclear.

      Delete
  4. My game-changers in these categories.

    * The Hitchcock classic I’d choose: PSYCHO - agreed
    * My ‘American Dream’ movie: THE GODFATHER - agreed
    * My Japanese pick: YOJIMBO – the predecessor to The Man With No Name
    * My 1939 classic: GONE WITH THE WIND – two words: Scarlett O’Hara
    * My Kubrick: THE SHINING - I can’t escape “RedRum, RedRum”
    * My Western: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY - no Western character is more iconic for me than The Man With No Name, and Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach were incomparable opponents
    * My voyeur film: THE CONVERSATION – a masterpiece of paranoia
    * My silent classic: MODERN TIMES - another great one, and so relevant today... just replace the industrial elements with technology
    * My dissertation on God’s will: BEN-HUR – certainly God had plans in mind for Judah Ben-Hur, including one of the greatest action sequences of all time
    * My show biz movie: SUNSET BOULEVARD – did real life imitate art for Gloria Swanson?
    * My alternate pick: 12 ANGRY MEN – the best film about conflict (and resolution) I’ve ever seen

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great choices, Fan! Can't argue with any of them. As you can see in my penultimate paragraph, I wrote I could make a place on the list for a number of other choices, including many you picked! Thanks for always following and your willingness to share your thoughts. And for being such a movie fan too!

      Delete
  5. Hitchcock's Rear Window is a peach!

    ReplyDelete
  6. It is, Gus! I not only think it's one of the best ever but it's a personal fave as well.

    ReplyDelete