Top Ten Films: A Mission Impossible

top ten movie listsMany film blogs and websites are keen on ‘Top Lists’. They will ask readers to name their ten best, twenty best, even fifty best. This, of course, provokes a lot of debate and discussion, and hopefully increases traffic to their site. On rare occasions, these lists will reveal a Pandora’s Box of diversity. They will remind you of forgotten classics, little-known masterpieces, or of films that deliberately challenge the viewer, but are of great artistic merit. Unfortunately, as a rule they will contain the same titles of all the usual blockbusters, Hollywood stalwarts, and nerve-jangling horror movies.

I was once in a house in France, rented with friends for a holiday. After a long dinner, and flushed with wine, I was challenged to name my favourite film; to defend my standing as a film buff, or more likely to cement my real reputation, as a film bore. I asked if I could have my choice divided into categories. I wanted to choose by top war film, top Russian film, best gangster film, and so on. Under the rules imposed, I had to choose only one, to sum up a life at the cinema, and the collection of a house full of DVD titles. I came up with La Bonne Annee, a 1973 film from French director Claude Lelouch. This lightweight film starred one of my favourite actors, Lino Ventura, and was a simple love story, set around the planned heist of a jewellery shop. Nobody else had seen it, so my selection fell flat.

top ten movie listIt goes without saying, that this would hardly be my favourite film of all time. It was high on my list that night though. I was in France, and thinking of French films. If I had been playing this ‘game’ in Germany, I might have come up with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), or possibly Fear Eats The Soul, from the same year. If we had been on a Tuscan hillside, I would almost certainly have picked The Conformist (1970), backed up by Cinema Paradiso (1988). And if we had been dining in Barcelona, I would have offered Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), or perhaps All About My Mother (1999).

I could go on like this all day, circling the planet, selecting films from various countries, and still never be able to compile that list, or choose a real favourite. I was once asked what I thought was the best war film ever made. I immediately wanted to know if they meant a film set during a war, or one featuring actual combat. Would it be a modern war, an ancient war, a civil war, or one of the world wars? Did they want me to suggest a film in english, or offer other selections from world cinema? After a few minutes, the questioner lost interest, and probably the will to live.

How does anyone who is really interested in film and cinema genuinely come up with such lists? They have to change, surely. A list of favourite films made before the year 2000, would miss out on so many of the wonderful productions since that date. If I had decided on, and published a list around that time, it could not have included The Lives Of Others (2006), in my opinion, one of the finest films ever made. There would be no place for The Secret In Their Eyes (2009), or Bombon: El Perro (2004). Luckily, The Straight Story (1999) would just have made the cut, but I could not have even known about I’ve Loved You So Long, as it wasn’t made until 2008.

top ten movie listI know, I am hammering home the point. Top lists are impossible, unless you revisit them, and include more recent releases. A list that might seem fresh and important in 2010, cries out for the addition of later films, with talent and style that supersede those original ‘definitive’ choices. On a site like CURNBLOG, we are constantly reminded of, or introduced to many films that we have forgotten about, or never seen. If I had made such a list, I would have had to re-think it completely, during the last two years. Sure, we can all have a favourite western, and perhaps a cherished musical, or drama. It will have relevance on a personal level, remind us of a time or place in our lives. It might recall our youth, or that moment in time when we decided that we were more than just a cinema-goer. But I would argue that there is no place for these lists, at least in a film-oriented community that is open to change, and to new experiences.

Another film site that I frequent, and where I have had one review published, recently asked its readers to compile just such a top ten. I replied immediately that I didn’t offer such things, so regrettably would not be contributing. But it did get me thinking, and I started to jot down some titles in a notebook. I gave up after writing down thirty films. It was just not going to happen, and was in the ‘too difficult’ box. One thing that later interested me about my list though, was the gradual realisation that only three of the thirty films I had jotted down were in English. Twenty-seven of my potential favourite films of all time, were in a foreign language.

 

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

39 thoughts on “Top Ten Films: A Mission Impossible

  1. I have kept thousand-best and hundred-worst lists for about five years. (I kept a hundred-best list for fifteen before that.) While the full thousand-best list changes monthly as I incorporate new stuff I have seen that belongs on such a list, etc. the actual top ten have changed very little in the past decade.

    1 Before Night Falls Schnabel, Julian 2000
    2 Hotaru no Haka Grave of the Fireflies Takahata, Isao 1988
    3 Closetland Bharadwaj, Radha 1991
    4 Night of the Living Dead Romero, George A. 1968
    5 Ikiru Kurosawa, Akira 1952
    6 Begotten Merhige, Edmund Elias 1991
    7 Werckmeister Harmóniák Werckmeister Harmonies Tarr, Bela, and Agnes Hranitzky 2000
    8 Jeux Interdits Forbidden Games Clement, Rene 1952
    9 Persona Bergman, Ingmar 1966
    10 Manchurian Candidate, The Frankenheimer, John 1962

    The only change so far this decade is the inclusion of Jeux Interdits, which I somehow had missed seeing until 2012.

    • Thanks for your contribution Robert. You have some worthy titles in your list, and it is interesting that little has changed for you, during ten years.
      I was interested to get lists in response to this article, and I suspected that I might. However, I am pleased to see that the subject attracted a lot of comment and ideas, as this was my intention.
      Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

  2. To my surprise, I ended up enjoying this article! You make a good point, and I’m sure that after decades of watching superb films, the thought of only choosing 10 of them must seem daunting and impossible. I suppose it’s easier for us “young folks”—fewer years means less time to explore the cinema. As for me, I did compile one of these lists on my blog, but titled it “12 OF my favorite films,” instead of “My 12 favorite films” because I will always have more favorites, and those favorites will, rightfully, change over time. But who says you have to limit it to 10 films anyway? Why not just keep a running list of your favorites—whether it be 10, 50, 100, or 1,000 movies long. And then when someone asks that (rather stupid) question: “What’s you’re favorite film?” you can just pity the fool who limits his enjoyment to arbitrary numerical cutoffs.

    • Indeed Alina, age does bring issues, when it comes to ‘choosing’. I agree that there should be no numerical limitations on a good list, but the length of articles usually limits such lists to ten. I think your addition of the word ‘of’ makes it easier. It implies that there are many others worthy of consideration.
      I am very happy to have been able to surprise you!
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

  3. Pete, I do have some favorites that have held up quite well over the years. My list would include at least 100 films, but a few select ones (including guilty pleasures) that come to mind are: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), The Vikings (1985), My Fair Lady (1964), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Barbarella (1968), Patton (1970), Young Frankenstein (1974), Silver Streak (1976), Midnight Express (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Aliens (1986), Death Becomes Her (1992), Basic Instinct (1992), Falling Down (1993), Wild Things (1998), Red Planet (2000), and Chicago (2002). I’m sure I’m overlooking other favorites. You’re right. It really is a mission impossible!

  4. My list of favorite films has remained surprisingly unchanged for the last decade or so. The only recent inclusion was a film I watched earlier this year (the Russian 1957 masterpiece by Kalatozov, The Cranes are Flying). The other 9 are, in chronological order 1) Murnau’s Sunrise, 2) Riefenstahl’s Olympia, 3) Curtiz’s Casablanca, 4) Powell-Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, 5) Kurosawa’s Rashomon, 6) Minnelli’s Band Wagon, 7) Scott’s Blade Runner, 8) Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons and 9) Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. I had to remove Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life to fit Kalatozov in though…They are on the list because of their superlative technique, profound emotional impact, or both. Lists are inevitably subjective, but I for one find it difficult to resist the temptation to compile one.

    • Thanks Nandia. An impressive list indeed! ‘Blade Runner’ was one of the three films in English included in my attempt at a ‘top thirty’. ‘Rashomon’ was in there too, somewhere.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      • I had to wonder though whether the fact that my list hasn’t changed (or as you say, nothing will displace the Children of Paradise movie for you) does not reflect badly on today’s cinema. I loved (I mean, loved loved) La Grande Bellezza this year, but I don’t know how it’ll hold up. On the other hand, both Blade Runner and Dangerous Liaisons were not movies I instantly fell in love with. It happened over repeated viewings. Anyway, your article made me think!

  5. Pingback: Top Tens: My view | beetleypete

  6. As one prone to making lists, I have generally dropped the superlative, so that my lists tend to be “ten great hockey players” and not the ten “greatest.” The thing I really like about your lists, Pete, is that they generally look beyond the obvious choices, which you can do more readily when you remove the superlative suffix.

    • I never really see them as lists Jon, just suggestions in an article. However, I see your dropping of superlatives, and raise you considered opinion! (Which I know you express…)
      Regards as always, Pete.

  7. I think you have to make yearly lists. Ten films you enjoyed that year. That leaves the years before you started in a sort of void that has to eventually be sorted, but we’ve always got time to sit down and rewatch a few movies, right? And make more lists.

    I agree, though. It’s impossible to choose one or even ten. Sometimes it simply depends on your mood, or what you’ve watched most recently.

    • Kelley, thanks very much for your comment. I was hoping to start some debate with this article, and it seems to have worked. I still won’t be making any lists, but I do not intend to deride anybody that wishes to do so. For me, that list would go on so long, it wouldn’t be a list anymore.
      The Internet generally is obsessed with lists, whether it is the ten best cat videos, or the twenty most attractive holiday destinations. I like to think outside lists, and in genres, Of course, I have some favourites, but like others here, I am not necessarily claiming that they are good films.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

  8. Well expressed, as usual, Pete. This is definitely a difficult issue, and naming top films may well be affected by environment, feelings at the time, etc. I have some odd favorite films, too–including Time Bandits, which I must have seen more than 100 times by now–that I recognize are not masterpieces but that still fit the mold of what I’m seeking cinematically. Nice article.

  9. My first film book was a list. Bosley Crowther’s 50 Greatest Films. Love him or hate him, Crowther had the resume to produce such a list. But thinking back on it, if I attempted such a list, even restricting myself to pre 1967 movies (when his book was written), there would probably be very little overlap. Some of the movies, like The Covered Wagon and Gosta Berling, are obscured by time. Others, like Paisa and Ivan the Terrible, have become very divisive titles for fans and critics alike. His final selection, Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, would hardly appear on any lists today because so few have seen it. That book got me seeking out and thinking about movies that I otherwise wouldn’t have, which is the reason we share lists. They can be conversation starters. But it’s pointless to think they can ever be definitive. One of the nice things about a venue like this is that it inspires someone like me to think about old titles differently. In the past several weeks, at least three movies mentioned figure into pieces I am writing or would like to write, and each mention has caused me to understand the title in a more nuanced way. This is fine context, Pete. As I’m sure you know, you’re not alone in your struggles and efforts to rank and categorise.

    • Thanks Jon. I was interested in that book, as it kind of sums up what I was on about. These lists can only ever be of their time, and to call a book 50 Greatest Films, necessitates a lot of justification of that claim.
      I wrote this because I was a bit ‘listed out’ by other sites, but if it has got everyone talking, I am glad that James published it.
      Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

  10. How about you Top 10 Favourite English language films not genre specific? Could you manage a list of films memorable enough that you’d happily see them again.
    I remember being asked that and including. Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Pat & Mike. I’d have trouble leaving anything out with Spencer Tracy and Katie Hepburn in it, or Katie on her own like The African Queen.

    • Hi David. I can probably think of over a hundred films that I would happily watch again; I have seen ‘Jackie Brown’ at least five times, for one. I was mainly writing about those many ‘definitive’ lists that you see everywhere, and wondering how anyone can make such choices, with comparative ease.
      Your list contained some real classics David, but mine would have to keep changing, I’m afraid.
      Regards from Norfolk as usual, Pete.

  11. It’s easy to conflate “best” with “favourite” when making such lists. I stick with “favourite” and confess that it’s all a matter of personal taste and my tastes are always evolving and being shaped by experience. That said, I made up a list of my ten favourite movies about twelve years ago and when I just went over it recently I hadn’t changed my mind about any of them and hadn’t added any new titles to the list. I’m still not sure if this is a good thing or not. I think it does reflect the fact that I don’t see a lot of new movies.

        • yes , there are three cuts..the original theatrical version, the so-called directors cut, which contained material never meant by peckinpah to be in the release print,including material that lengthened and ruined the rhythm of many scenes, and a third cut that kept the original cut relatively intact while adding the scenes that were cut against peckinpah’s wishes. i prefer the third version, which i think is closest to peckinpah’s intentions.

    • Thanks Alex. You are correct to make the distinction between ‘favourite’ and ‘best’, though surely those boundaries would blur with preference? I am very pleased to hear that your list made twelve years ago, has remained constant for you. I also don’t see (or have that much regard for) many new films that come out these days. However, I am still catching up on many films from the past twenty years or so, and this means that I still feel unable to commit to any lists.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  12. Before i retired from my job as a film critic, I was compelled to make up a top ten list every year for the Village Voice. Few of the films that made those lists were memorable. They were simply better than the other films I reviewed in each year. But there is one movie I will name as my favorite picture of all time, and with good reason. I have seen it at least 35 times over the last 42 years, and it is new every time. At different points in my life identified, I have identified with one of the five major characters, seeing the story through his viewpoint. Each year that character is a different one, so the film is never static. There are so many perspectives from which the film can be experienced, and not all of them pleasant. It is a film made under impossible circumstances at a time and place in history that may well have brought down the curtain on civilization, the nazi occupation of Paris, and this movie would survive to show the people of the future what human life could be when nourished on love and art. The movie is, of course, Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece, Children of Paradise,and written by the poet Jacques Prevert. There are hundreds of other sublime films that are equal in part to this one. but only in part. Children of paradise has it all. and towers among the rest. For me, there is no question about what the greatest film of all time is, and I have no difficulty in naming it. And although it was made nearly 70 years ago, there is still nothing to compare to it, and I seriously doubt that there ever will be.

    • I mentioned Crowther’s book in a previous comment, and he does include Children of Paradise. I can’t be as definite about it as you are, but I would agree with its placement in the top 50. Along with Welles and Bogdanovich, I think you could make the case that no other director had as good a run of movies at the beginning of his career as Carne. Coming from a screenwriting background, I always wonder how much Prevert had to do with that. M. Lange, which I believe is the only script Prevert wrote for Renoir, is among my favorite movies of the ’30s. But then I recall the opening shots of Port of Shadows, a truck driving through the fog, a lone figure appearing in the distance, and I have to conclude Carne was a very serious talent in his own right. It’s just a wonderful fact of circumstance that he found the perfect collaborator in Prevert.

    • Bill, you have a unmistakable pedigree as a film critic, and I am not about to even think about arguing with any of your excellent choices. It is just the culture of lists that I am on about, and the fact that anyone, even those who can name their favourite films of all time, must surely find it difficult to come up with a definitive top ten. I would struggle to pick my personal all-time film, or to name what I think is the ‘best’ film ever made, even if it was not necessarily to my taste.
      Your input is always appreciated Bill, as you know.
      Best wishes from England, Pete.

      • You are right, Pete. it is relatively easy to have a favorite film, or one which towers above the others to such a degree that you can call it the greatest film, but a list of the ten best is absolutely impossible. A few years ago, i compiled a list of 1,000 Essential Films, but when I look at it today, there are about 100 changes i would make to it. For those of us prone to making lists, please indulge us. It is a fun, harmless pastime, and should not be taken too seriously by the maker of the list or those who disagree with it.

        • I don’t remotely wish to spoil anyone’s fun Bill. It was a purely personal view. If you can compile a list of 1000 essential films, then all I can say is ‘well done’. Oh, and also that I would like to see that list, if it is still around. Perhaps you can e mail it to me? (petejohnson50@yahoo.com)
          Consider yourself indulged my friend!
          Best wishes as always, Pete.

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