With the notion of film canonization once again at issue, we thought it might be an appropriate occasion to check in on our staff’s collective opinion of the greatest films of all time. We had no idea what to expect; our contributors come from all over the world and come from vastly different backgrounds and occupations. The results were, appropriately, eclectic, ranging from acknowledged cornerstones to contemporary classics.
A few facts worth throwing in: with five films appearing, Orson Welles is the most frequently-cited director, followed by Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa; the newest film to merit an appearance was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds; animated films made a dent, particularly Toy Story and Snow White; several shorts managed to find their way in, as well.
The list, along with some individual writers’ thoughts on the entries that make up the Top 10, follow including special mention of three short films that appeared on quite a few lists.
Directed by Peter Tscherkassky
Written by Peter Tscherkassky
Outer Space has gained a reputation over the years as being a key experimental film alongside the works of such legends as Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow. Horror buffs will recognise the actress in the short as Barbara Hershey from veteran Canadian-born filmmaker Sidney J. Furie’s film The Entity. Director Peter Tscherkassky (an Austrian filmmaker at the forefront of avant-garde film practice) essentially samples a sequence from that 1981 Hollywood flick, reducing the original work with heavy photo-manipulation and editing to astonishing effects and unimaginable beauty. Tscherkassky strips the colour and reworks the frames with superimposing images, fragmented through a rapid montage, and adds a new, highly aggressive soundtrack. The result is magnificent. Though only ten minutes in length Outer Space is a lush cinematic production and a relentless assault on our senses.
– Ricky D
Un chien andalou
Directed by Luis Buñuel
In 1929 Luis Bunuel joined forces with Salvador Dali to create Un chien andalou, an experimental and unforgettable seventeen-minute surrealist masterpiece. Buñuel famously said that he and Dalí wrote the film by telling one another their dreams. The film went on to influence the horror genre indefinitely. After all, even as manipulative as the “dream” device is, it’s still a proven way to jolt an audience. David Lynch is contemporary cinema’s most devoted student of Un chien andalou – the severed ear at the beginning of Blue Velvet is a direct allusion to Buñuel’s blood curdling famous closeup on the slashing of an eyeball with a razor. Technically, that scene alone could classify Un chien andalou as the first splatter film. Though it is not a horror film per se, the film does contain a number of disturbing images: an army of ants crawling through a hole in a man’s hand, dead animals strung on top of a piano and children playing with dismembered hands. Buñuel and Dalí compile images and scenes that will make you cringe and in the case of the splitting eyeball – look away. Buñuel exploits the viewer, through these horrific images understanding fully well that people enjoy seeing something macabre. The film has lived up to its aim to shock, as viewed in modern times it’s still shocking.
– Ricky D
Directed by Chris Marker
Written by Chris Marker
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, Chris Marker’s La Jetée is worthy of a novel. His 28-minute featurette, composed almost entirely of stark black and white photos, tells a haunting, forlorn romance in an arresting tableau of images. Avant garde in almost every way imaginable, La Jetée was an experimental picture that has since become a landmark and blue print for future science fiction films, including Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and James Cameron’s The Terminator.
The most crucial 28 minutes in the history of cinema, La Jetée is powerful, poignant, and picturesque, in every sense of the word.
– Justin Li
10- Modern Times
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Written by Charles Chaplin
A great movie can capture the mood and essence of its time and place perfectly, acting as a time capsule for future generations to get a glimpse of what life was like at that particular point. A true classic, however, can effectively break free of the shackles of time, and resonate with almost everyone in some manner, and Modern Times manages to do just that. Irrefutable proof that true cinematic art can overcome perceived limitations such as a lack of colour or dialogue, Chaplin elevates a seemingly innocuous story about the misfortunes of two individuals into something that continues to be relevant even today, with no signs of becoming a relic anytime soon.
The opening segment of the movie is an eerily accurate re-enactment of working life, whether one was a factory worker in the 30s, or a retail worker in modern day, and acts as a fantastic showcase of Chaplin’s physical capabilities. But the movie loses nothing once it exits the factory; rather, the visual gags, such as Chaplin unwittingly finding himself at the head of a protest march, or accidentally foiling a prison breakout, continue to be hilarious. The nonsense song plays wonderfully despite being gibberish, and the optimistic ending still brings out a smile.
Which is not to say Chaplin carries the movie on his own. Paulette Goddard does her fair share of heavy lifting a well, with an ethereal beauty that no amount of grime or tattered clothing can conceal. She plays extremely well off Chaplin, and more than holds her own even when she doesn’t share the screen with him, conveying both heartbreaking sadness and intoxicating joy equally capably. Overall, the movie is a superb piece of filmmaking, with ideas that resonate even today, and a script that doesn’t betray its age in the slightest. It deserves every amount of praise it has gotten to date and more, and every film fan owes it to themselves to see this masterpiece atleast once.
9- 12 Angry Men
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Reginald Rose
For most people, the appearance of a jury duty summons in the mailbox is considered a burden, something that distracts them from their normal lives and something they hope will go away quickly. 12 Angry Men forcefully reminds us to respect the awesome power of the state, as the sole legitimate force to deprive us of life, liberty and property, and our role in the system of justice through which it acts.
What is remarkable about 12 Angry Men is how cinematic 12 men in a room talking can be. With a great ensemble cast, most notably Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, there are great moments of tension as a young defendant’s life hangs in the balance and the viewer wonders whether he will be found guilty and whether he should be found guilty. In the process, director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Reginald Rose delve into the various psychological faults that can cloud one’s judgement. It is a perfect exercise in enlightened drama and pacing.
– Erik Bondurant
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Nicholas Pileggi
As great as the Godfather films are, there’s at least one score on which they’re no match for Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic Goodfellas: where Coppola’s films treat the mob as a kind of holy order (albeit a violent, corrupt, incestuous one), Goodfellas recognizes that, ultimately, it’s just a criminal organization made up of, well, criminals. This blessing we can attribute solely to Henry Hill, the unabashedly opportunistic ex-mobster whose desire to cash in on his criminal glory days infects the movie with a kind of cynical glee. As filtered through author and journalist Nicholas Pileggi’s spectacular script, Hill’s wild tales are given just the right injections of subjective insight (largely provided by the sharp narration), drug-fueled mania (the entire, remarkable, helicopter-graced climax), and, of course, sneering menace, most memorably in the form of Joe Pesci’s mercurial creep. The Godfather movies might be able to claim the mystique, but Goodfellas is both more fun and more naggingly human.
– Simon Howell
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Joseph Stefano
After more than fifty years since first shocking the film industry and audience’s psychological inadequacies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is still marveled as being the archetypical foundation for modern day horror films, as well as the driving force behind today’s censorship standards. Since its release in 1960, Psycho’s mass appeal for over five decades undoubtedly comes from its atypical iconic elements. From drawing sympathy toward evil, creating violence with the lack of imagery and using the camera to manipulate the audience’s point of view, Psycho has unquestionably marked itself as an influential timeless classic in the eyes of both filmmakers and fans alike.
Perhaps noted as the most famous scene in cinematic history, the 45-second shower scene encapsulates all the brilliant elements that make this film a masterpiece. After spending a third of the film with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, in a short electrifyingly brutal scene, the film switches to Bates’ point of view and the audience is invited to sympathize with his psychotic dilemma over confronting his mother’s fatal crime. The effect to play with the audience’s sympathy was never vastly dealt with in mainstream filmmaking before. Not only was it pioneering, but it was the foundation to what was to become the “slasher” sub-genre. As many horror films during its time were in the third person, Hitchcock’s use of first person shooting between victim and killer, maneuvers the audience to exactly where the suspense occurs. Thus the audience identifies with the crisis, intensifying the horror more so than actually displayed on screen. If it wasn’t for this quintessential scene, we wouldn’t have the slow-motion violence of Bonnie and Clyde in the later part of the 1960s, nor would we have the evolved slasher films like Halloween in the 1970s and the Saw films of today.
One can surely go and on about the vast influence of Psycho and the ingeniousness of Alfred Hitchcock, but to do so would only make the point sound repetitive. Psycho was and is so ahead of its time, so detailed, so risqué in more ways than one, that by not including it in the pantheon of greatest films ever made would make any other choice irreverent and irrelevant.
– Chris Clemente
#6- Apocalypse Now
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Seeing Francis Ford Coppola’s revered 1979 Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now on Sound on Sight’s collective 10 best films of all time list will have readers safely assume that as a team, we believe it to be one of the greatest films ever and, more pertinently, the greatest was theme picture since the birth of film. That seems obvious enough, but the real question is ‘Why?’. There re several other legitimate contenders to the throne, each boasting enough compelling qualities to have some argue as to why they could usurp Coppola’s opus. Saving Private Ryan, All Quiet on the Western Front, Stalingrad, The Thin Red Line and the list could easily go on.
Apocalypse Now, in addition to being of the the all time great war pictures, is without question the most unique, a characteristic due in large part to its peculiarly subtle genre bending capabilities. Granted, there have been comedy, science-fiction and horror films which utilized a large scale war as a backdrop, but director Coppola goes about turning the war film on its head in much more unobtrusive fashion. The movie features a fascinating story for its foundation, tremendous cinematography, judicious editing and legendary acting, but each of those aspects, when moulded by a storyteller of Coppola’s calibre, produces so much more than just a war film. It is about what he is doing with the tools at his disposal without, ironically, ever being explicit about what it is he is doing with them. Apocalypse Now is a war film first, but a horror film second. It follows the familiar structure of a horror film with a remarkably keen eye, presenting the primary plot and protagonist in a blanket of relative normalcy (considering that the hero is not in the best mental condition at the start of the picture), even throwing in some oddball humour with the famous beach surf scene, only for the story’s far eerier, more unsettling tone to creep in as Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) boat slowly yet unmistakably makes its way into the proverbial heart of darkness. The new and the peculiar become the all out strange, the strange becomes uncomfortably oblique, concluding in a horrific encounter with a clearly delusional man, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who, having found his nesting ground deep in the Vietnamese jungle, believes himself to be a god of some sort, and not a very nice one either. So many war movies want to depict how war is hell. Apocalypse Now does so by forgoing traditional war film narratives, opting for a discomforting journey on a haunting river from which there may be no return. Even seeing the film again for the umpteenth time, knowing full well what lies ahead, a sense of malaise takes over us yet again…
– Edgar Chaput
#5- 2001: A Space Odyssey
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Losing none of its visual or visceral splendor since its introduction to the world in 1968, one year before mankind would actually step foot on the cratered surface of the moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains an unparalleled cinematic representation of what it must have been like to stand in awe of that moment when the vastness of the universe and indeed space travel itself had become an indelible part of the human experience. 2001 is a heady and sublime tour de force of widescreen visual compositions, elegant and fluid camera work, exquisite production design and enduring mind-blowing and bending special effects. In an almost docudrama style, the film’s operatic narrative chronicles mankind’s dealings with an alien super intelligence in our prehistory, a (then) future present, leading into a surrealist third act of light and color that suggests the next leap in human evolution.
Drawing inspiration from a short story called The Sentinel by science fiction writing great Arthur C. Clarke- the film represents Kubrick at perhaps the height of his creative powers as a director pushing the art form to new levels by penetrating a deeper layer of the viewer’s subconscious, not only with its phantasmagoric finale but also in it’s sheer scope that serves to drive theme and idea over plot: Spaceships photographed inside and out dwarf their human counterparts, the glacial movement and grace of satellites and heavenly bodies is considered and the dramatic core of the film rests in the minimalist interplay between man and machine. The supercomputer HAL 9000 (as voiced by Douglas Rain) stands as the film’s crowning creation- equal parts iconic and antagonistic, but always imbued with pathos- the character is a startling microcosm of a life form nearing a crucial juncture along in it’s own parallel evolutionary path. 2001 continues to endure not only for the ubiquity of its legacy, but also in its mysteries that film buffs have been trying to unravel for decades. It is also still the ultimate trip a film goer can take in its original 70mm presentation.
– Gregory Ashman
#4- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Directed by F.W. Murnau
Written by Hermann Sudermann and Carl Mayer
Aching with idealism, F.W. Murnau defies all cloying sentimentality in his simple tale of deception and love. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans remains over eighty years after its initial release, one of the most powerful and innovative films to grace the screen. Murnau moves the camera in a way that no one had before and few since have mastered. Still one of the greatest shots of all time, the nameless Man moves through the marches to meet up with the Woman from the City and the camera follows his actions before breaking away and beating him to his destination. Not only a technical feat which continues to impress cinematographers and film theorists, the shift within the scene from a POV shot to an ambiguous omnipotence is still mysterious and evocative for contemporary audiences. Romantic, horrifying and deceptively simple, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is one of the most beautiful and ambitious films ever made.
– Justine Smith
3- Pulp Fiction
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino
The youngest entry in the Sound on Sight Top 10, Pulp Fiction is probably the most influential and critically-acclaimed works of Mr Quentin Tarantino – not bad from a guy who gained his extensive film knowledge while working in a video store.
I honestly can’t remember when I first watched Pulp Fiction – I remember watching Reservoir Dogs first and being utterly mesmerised by it – but it took a couple of viewings of Pulp Fiction for me to take notice of what Tarantino could do behind the camera.
There is so much that can be said about this film that has contributed to its success – from the first bars of the Miserlou, you can tell you are about to watch a classic. With the combined talents of Pulp Fiction’s ensemble cast, we are brought down into the LA’s criminal underworld, where killers talk about burgers and couples hold-up a diner during breakfast. The film’s success subsequently revived the careers of John Travolta and Uma Thurman, as well as threw Samuel L. Jackson into the limelight, from what has become arguably his most iconic role as Jules Winnfield. His intense monologue with Tim Roth shows to be a ‘diamond in the rough’ of some sorts; he knows that he has done wrong and decides to get out due to what he sees as divine intervention. It’s just as well, as the other characters seem destined to a tainted future.
There is something rich and almost grungy about Pulp Fiction’s appearance that makes it so endearing, yet Tarantino brought an element of smarts and class in how the film is put together; he sets his three stories – Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife, The Gold Watch and The Bonnie Situation – at a blistering pace, all unconventionally yet perfectly edited to its equally cool soundtrack.
Imitable, violent yet compulsive viewing, Tarantino brought Hollywood down to its knees with only his second feature film and even after 17 years, nothing captures the significance in retro popular culture like Pulp Fiction.
– Katie Wong
#2- Citizen Kane
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz
As far back as the 5th grade, I was an Orson Welles fan. His War of the Worlds radio broadcast, his narration on the Nostradamus movie and even the parody of him on the cartoon show The Critic all lit up my imagination.
It wasn’t until my college days when I discovered his career as a filmmaker. I popped in a DVD of his most famous feature on a whim, and have been a collector of his other directorial efforts ever since. The Trial and F for Fake are my personal favorites, but Citizen Kane remains a great example of the man’s technical abilities. The photography, the screenplay, the acting, the music – everything that makes a movie great are hit upon, and everything that makes movies great now were done first then.
More than anything though, I love the behind the scenes situation of the film. How Orson challenged William Randolph Hearst – one of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the day – is nothing short of legend. And Hollywood took a huge gamble on this project, by giving Welles an incredible contract with creative control, all for his first film. Such power given to a first time feature film director behind a controversial production – A perfect storm lead to a perfect movie.
Orson would joke that he started at the top and worked his way to the bottom after Kane. That he was practically blacklisted from Hollywood after this production is completely tragic. He died a month before I was born. Had he lived into my generation, I have no doubt he would’ve embraced crowd funding and digital filmmaking techniques. Of course, we’ll never really know, but I can always imagine.
– Bill Arceneaux
1- The Godfather
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
The ballots have been cast, the votes tallied and finally the veil of omertà can be lifted as we’ve been made an offer we couldn’t refuse – The Godfather has been bloodily elected as the greatest movie ever made by the Sound on Sight critical fraternity. This unlikely win is criminally mirrored in Sight & Sounds recent Greatest Films Of All Time poll where the film has occupied a high ranking since its release in 1972, but only this year has it been partitioned from its successful twin The Godfather Part 2 with one vote only counting for only one of the films under the new regime, causing the mafioso’s rankings to fall to 21st and 31st positions in the pantheon, still an admirable achievement as one of a meagre handful films to obtain a ranking that were made in the past forty years.
Director Francis Ford Coppola, Paramount’s third choice of helmsman after the executives were turned down by both Sergio Leone and Peter Bogdanovich, took a schlocky, by all accounts badly written novel and drawing from his own Italian heritage where the family is profoundly important – the film hinges on meals and weddings, funerals and holidays – and elevated the drama to near operatic intensity. The Godfather is the story of one man’s descent into a moral Gehenna through the prism of organised crime in the immediate post World War 2 period, as young veteran Michael Corleone reluctantly takes the reigns of his fathers Cosa Nostra empire, with the Machiavellian maneuvering of the competing criminal dynasties propogating a Shakespearean sense of tragedy which seethes in every scene. Coppola fought for both his desired and controversial casting options, giving Brando’s career a new lease of life as the aging and mumbling Vito Corleone after years in the wilderness and providing a unknown Al Pacino with the role of a lifetime, as the corrupted Michael, with a performance that I personally consider as amongst the best screen readings in history.
So much of the movie has entered the lexicon of cinema making it nigh impossible to dismantle its legendary reputation as the American Dream writ large, the unceasing seduction of more power, the acquisition of vast wealth, the merciless crushing of your enemies with some musings on just how tenuous that position of authority can be – a couple of punks armed with .38′s can bring the temple crashing down. Master cinematographer Gordon ‘The Prince Of Darkness’ Willis submerges the drama into a cloaked world of violence, betrayal and murder. The Nino Rota score has achieved the same cultural cache as the whistling Spaghetti Westerns themes of Ennio Morricone or the ominous submerged acoustics of John Williams for Jaws, and all the performances are pitch perfect, as Kubrick once said it is a strong contender for the best cast movie ever made, from the central roles of the Corleone family and their camarilla kin down to the granite faces of the felonious foot soldiers. Walter Murch’s post production strokes of élan such as the match cuts and sound design are ground breaking in their brilliance, and the impeccable re-creation of the late 1940′s from designer Dean Tavoularis all blend to make this a sumptuous cinematic feast.
So why has it endured? Maybe its the fleeting moments, the masterful opening wedding montage, the horse in the bed, Michael’s and Kay’s marriage of love disintegrating into secret convenience, the electrifying police captain assassination as the subway cars thunder overhead, the pastrol lull in a sepia toned Sciliy, and James Caan’s volcanic Sonny meeting his terrible end, twitching and dancing like a crimson squibbed marionette. The Godfathers dominant themes of corruption and the elites abuses of power with murderous intent remains tangible and contemporary in the 21st century, and whilst the real world mafia has been severley diminished by law enforcement efforts over the past few decades it seems their celluloid counterpart is destined to endure in the hearts of film lovers everywhere.
– John McEntee
Click here to every contributor’s individual picks