My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

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My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Fri Dec 26, 2003 9:53 am

This selection (it's not of my 20 favourites) has an element of objectivity but also a strong degree of personal taste. So for every nod of agreement along the way, i'm expecting much wailing and gnashing of teeth by the time the full list is revealed- over the next few days. I could have devised some scientific formula involving the countless international polls of public and critics i've gathered, commercial success, major awards, historical significance, average scores in film guides and on imdb, etc.. but in the end i thought it best, while bearing such things in mind, to keep faith with my own judgment.

Between my postings, feel free to comment, surmise and select. Here goes.


A delight for intellectuals, hedonists and videostore filmgeeks-turned-director alike, here's the quintessential Godard; less famous than the groundbreaking Breathless, less masterfully controlled than Contempt, it's a road movie with a tiger in its tank, a romantic gangster film about film, the most joyfully liberated and playful tale of death, despair and betrayal you could imagine.

Dive in! What's to enjoy? The sense of escapist adventure, the sun and sea of the South of France, Coutard's gorgeous cinematography, the primary colours (the blood isn't blood, it's red), the jump cuts, the freewheeling mix of references- Velasquez, comics, pulp fiction, US imperialism, Vietnam, consumer advertising- the audience inclusions (far too warm to call "Brechtian distancing devices"), Sam Fuller's definition of cinema (" a word, emotion"), oh, and the fox on the table, and lovely Anna Karina.


Rightly voted in the top 25 in Sight and Sound's latest major international critics' poll, it's taken over 60 years for this rarely seen and no doubt surprising selection to get its deserved recognition. It transcends its involving tale- of a young actor whose developing relationship with the family wet nurse causes her to be banished from the household- with perhaps the most astonishingly brilliant intimate spatial exploration in cinema.

The fluid camera moves, lighting and compositions are quietly astounding. As a drama on Mizoguchi's favourite subject, female suffering and self-sacrifice, it's serenely beautiful and moving. As a work of formal experimentation, it's pure genius.

18. 8 1/2 (FELLINI, 1963)

Now Fellini's a director i often find irritatingly flashy and flamboyant, with an increasingly tiresome penchant for big breasts, grotesques and an egotistical circus master routine. But 8 1 /2 overrides my reservations by its sheer panache and the gloriously baroque and dazzling array of black and white images with which it addresses the subject of "director's block", dreams and memories. Along with skilful choreography and imaginative use of music, the lighting effects and overall cinematography (homage to Gianni di Venanzo) are superlative.

In the film, the director's plans and ego come crashing down, like his spaceship, amid public ridicule, but 8 1/2 had a rapturous reception, winning the Foreign Film Oscar and earning an enormous and enduring critical reputation. Cresting a period of tremendous innovation and optimism in cinema as an art form, it's had a major influence on a huge number of directors, including Scorsese, Woody Allen and Peter Greenaway. Whatever your views on Fellini, it surely belongs in any top 20 list.

We'll always have Paris.


Pipped by Astaire's indebted The Band Wagon as my favourite in the genre, this is still unarguably the peak of screen musicals. It's exuberant, exhilarating, comical, soaring, filled with sparkling wit and memorable numbers (Good Mornin', Singin' in the Rain, Make 'em Laugh..). Green and Comden's screenplay parody of the early talkies and Hollywood glamour's a gem, the set design a triumph, Kelly -in the eponymous sequence especially- a knockout, Jean Hagen hilarious and splendid as the archetypal dumb blonde (she actually dubbed Reynolds dubbing her), Cyd Charisse the most elegantly erotic entrancer, while Donald O'Connor nips in to almost steal the show.


Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Fri Dec 26, 2003 2:14 pm


This was the first video i bought, for my birthday in 91, the receipt i've kept confirms. Of course it's the most inspired, irrepressible, scintillating and resoundingly popular comedy, even voted best ever film by Time Out readers last Year. I was once horrified to realise i'd accidentally left it out of a 101 selection for MovieMail, but nobody's perfect. Full of wonderful scenes- the train party with Lemmon gasping "Sugar!" as Marilyn clambers into his bunk, before he's squashed by a bevy of beauties; his maracca- shaking engagement announcement; the riotous escapades; Curtis kissing Hitler, and last but not least Joe. E. Brown's punch-line. Familiarity breeds content.


Simply the most thoroughly entertaining Hitch movie, and the thrilling summation of certain favourite themes; the innocent man on the run, enticing blonde, suave and sinister spies, disguise and false identity, dangers from a height.

I first saw this aged 15 and was bowled over by oh-so-seductive Eva Marie-Saint in her red dress, her smouldering smooching with Grant, the way the train glides into the evening round the corner of a bay, the sparring with Mason, the architecture (the baddies' hillside hide-out!), Robert Burk's photography, Herrmann's score, Grant's set-up wait by the roadside in the middle of nowhere, the famous crop-spraying and Mount Rushmore set-pieces, and the consummate finale. It's still as deliciously satisfying as ever.

13. TOKYO STORY (OZU, 1953)

Tokyo Story's plot and cinematic effects are simple. An elderly provincial couple go to stay with their adult children in the capital but find only their widowed daughter-in-law, the lovely Setsuko Hara, has time and genuine concern for them. With his trademark restrained technique- still, low camera placed at shoulder height to characters seated on the floor-, subtle sense of events and space off-screen, and quiet observations that invest the locality and everyday objects with a range of meanings, Ozu fashions one of the world's most profoundly wise, humane and poignant masterpieces.


Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Sat Dec 27, 2003 1:04 am

I hope i'm not posting into a void.


Mad, mesmerising, ambitious, ambiguous, giddily glamorous, operatic, hallucinatory, drug-enhanced journey deep into Vietnam's, and warfare's, heart of darkness. Little wonder Coppola's monumental "folly" was recently voted by critics the finest film of the last 25 years.


So here is the seminal Antonioni classic that for many is virtually the definition of intellectual "arthouse", and that brought a torrent of jeers and boos at Cannes, for its length, slow pacing, sense of alienation and disdain for conventional plot. "A Nightmarish masterpiece of tedium" Time called it.

The main apparent storyline, and potentially fascinating mystery- of a woman who goes missing from a small island off the coast of Sicily while on a small group's yachting trip- is left to drift off, while a tentative and hardly joyous relationship develops between her fiancé and best friend who travel together in search of her.

Far from boring, cold, pretentious, self-indulgent, hollow nihilism, L'Avventura is a milestone that deserves a place at the very forefront of film achievement. Aldo Scavarda's cinematography is quite outstanding, Eraldo da Roma's editing (though many complain the film should have been clipped) nigh on flawless, and the use of buildings and environment to suggest a range of enigmatic feelings is masterful. Throw in a languorous elegance, enhanced by Monica Vitti, and even a lingering sense of further mystery- this despite the neglect of the original puzzle.

It's wholly cinematic yet feels like a great novel. After 2 hours 25 I wanted it to go on and on. From a time of seismic international change, excitement and vitality (Les 400 Coups, Hiroshima mon Amour, Breathless, La Dolce Vita, Last Year at Marienbad, 8 1/2...) it towers over the mass of today's shallow, juvenile, derivative, overblown and overrated efforts like a colossus.


This revolutionary red fire-snorting dragon was probably the most important and influential film since the birth of the medium. Much more than mere Soviet propaganda, its acute sense of rhythm, symphonic pacing and structure, eye for composition, and magnificent choreography alone make for a memorable experience. Following on from Kuleshov's theories and the director's own radical experiments in Strike (itself a work of unadulterated genius), Potemkin was propelled to lasting international recognition by the landmark dynamic montage editing, which peaks in the celebrated and still mightily impressive Odessa Steps sequence. Although Eisenstein's reputation seems to have undeservedly slipped a little, it's hard to imagine Psycho's shower scene or today's pyro-technics without it.


Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby Gaz » Sat Dec 27, 2003 11:35 am

You're not - I'm enjoying it very much, though as a person who - despite constant film-watching - remains relatively ignorant of cinema, I don't feel I have very much to contribute so far. That said, I was lucky enough to be able to see Some Like It Hot at a cinema a couple of months ago. It has lost nothing over the years.

Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Sat Dec 27, 2003 12:15 pm

Ah, good to know someone's following it. I thought it was about time i tried to go well beyond simple lists. I was pulled up somewhere for not saying enough about the films. It would have been demoralising to get no reply.


Fifty years on, Kurosawa's famous epic about the bunch of warriors hired to defend a village from marauding bandits, is probably still the most widely loved and admired "foreign language" film; terrific, compelling entertainment and a cinema masterclass in one. The pacing- extended sequences of breath-takingly edited dynamic action interspersed with quieter, lyrical and playful moments- is superb; the characterisations, with Shimura's wise leader and Kitano's swaggering, impulsive clown to the fore, vivid and memorable; the choreography and lighting exceptional. Even Kurosawa's command of weather befits his title of "emperor".

Influenced by Ford's westerns, it was in turn not only the basis for The Magnificent Seven but has had a huge impact on numerous inferior Hollywood imitators.


Unloved and misunderstood on its release, Vertigo's reputation has rocketed to astronomic heights- now challenging Kane's crown, and even leading in (the excellent online magazine) Senses of Cinema's ongoing poll. It's undoubtedly Hitch's most daring, disturbing, complex and richest film. Its macabre, sensual, dreamlike, voyeuristic mystery, beautifully shot in a hazy soft-focus, has Stewart's phobic private dick following Novak's icy, ethereal, elusive Madeleine through a range of evocative San Francisco locations, before it audaciously changes tack to probe deeper psycho-sexual recesses, issues of identity and gender, and a veritable vortex of intense emotions.

Revisited by French admirer Chris Marker in Sans Soleil, it's a fascinating treasure trove for modern film-makers- Brian de Palma, Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct), Terry Gilliam (Twelve Monkeys..) and David Lynch (the marvellous Mulholland Drive), among many others. It rewards countless viewings.


This most cherishable of silent films reminds me of Sei Shonagon's "In Spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful". Shamefully missing from The AFI 100 (what do they know?), this millenium alone it's been voted in the all-time Top 10 in at least 4 major international polls- Village Voice, Sight and Sound Critics, Spain's Editorial Jaguar and Senses of Cinema.

Combining the director's European artistic sensitivity with Hollywood narrative drive, its story of a married man encouraged by a seductive city vamp to kill his innocent faithful wife balances a wholesome Germanic village with the bright exciting lights of a modern very American metropolis across the water. A film of opposites that delights in various means of transport, it's everything one could wish; inventive in its use of models, its set designs and smoothly roving camera, it's stormy, scary, touching, tender, exhilarating, intoxicating, radiant, romantic, lyrical and .. lovely.


Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Sat Dec 27, 2003 12:22 pm


Encompassing dreams, childhood memories, levitation, his father's poetry, Renaissance art, documentary and newsreel footage, 20th century Russian history, as well as events in the lives of his family, Tarkovsky's complex and obscure autobiographical film is one of cinema's great personal statements.

Through a succession of images of breath-taking luminosity (rendered all the more astonishing by heightened sound effects and desaturated colour), mundane elements and objects- rooms, corridors and buildings, wind, water, meadows, rivers, woods and Brueghelesque snowscapes- are made miraculous. Sweeping in scope yet intimate, delving fathomless depths yet soaring, Mirror is a unique poetic and spiritual masterpiece.


Considered the world's finest director by Orson Welles and later lionised by the French New Wave, Jean Renoir was an international humanist who dominated France's cinematic golden age, the 1930's, with classics such as La Grande Illusion, Boudu Saved from Drowning and A Day in the Country. La Regle du Jeu is surely his pinnacle.

For decades second only to Kane in numerous international polls, it concerns an aviation hero in love with the wife of an aristocrat who invites him with his friend (Renoir himself) to a weekend gathering at their chateau. A terrific mix of drama, comedy and romantic farce, its social satire and observations of upstairs/ downstairs moral codes proved too rapier-sharp for French audiences on its release at the outbreak of war, and it was promptly banned.

Its magnificent cast of characters, ingenious wit, innovative use of deep focus, liberated camera movement and assured marshalling of the actors are still all too often overlooked by audiences due to the director's undemonstrative modesty. La Regle du Jeu is to be admired, revelled in and trumpeted from the rooftops.

Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Sat Dec 27, 2003 6:01 pm


After his precocious theatre triumphs and (in)famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds- that had America scurrying for the hills-, Welles was ready to make his mark on cinema. Exploiting every conceivable aspect of his new magic toybox, his legendary screen debut, long rated the "world's greatest film", simply demands superlatives.

Kane depicts the rise, then moral and emotional decline to alienated solitude, of a politically ambitious and once idealistic newspaper magnate, whose dying word "Rosebud" is investigated through a complex and subjective jigsaw puzzle narrative. Taken as a thinly veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst (who tried to destroy the film and Welles' career), its baroque grandeur, ceilinged sets, overlapping dialogue, skilful editing, expressionist lighting and the overall brilliance of Gregg Toland's cinematography are as dazzling as ever.

More than merely a stupendous cinematic exercise, Kane reveals in its final Rosebud revelation and in a passing remark about a (once seen, never forgotten) lady crossing a lake, that it also has a beating heart.

Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby Mik » Sat Dec 27, 2003 6:34 pm

Thanks a lot, john-5!
Your list with comments is very interesting. I haven't seen some of these films (PIERROT LE FOU, STORY OF THE LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS, TOKYO STORY), and it will be like a recommendation for me. Please, go on!

Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby wpqx1 » Sat Dec 27, 2003 7:53 pm

I know I say it too often, but what is so great about Vertigo. The story is silly and irrelevant. The acting is bad and overdone, the ending makes no sense, and there are about twenty Hitchcock films better. If you want to praise one of his films that no one liked when it was released, then watch Family Plot.

Re: My "20 Greatest Films" countdown.

Postby john-5 » Sat Dec 27, 2003 8:04 pm

The well-known British critic Barry Norman would probably agree with you. It's the one in Sight and Sound's top 10 he considers most overrated. Of course Hitch changed the original story to do away with the element of surprise, altered the type of suspense to allow concentration on other themes and ideas; gender, identity, manipulation, mental turmoil, sexuality, obsession, mirrors, duality. Though i prefer North by Northwest, i love the richness of Vertigo's mystery (brilliant use of filter, as well as technical tricks), and have taken into account a little its current phenomenal ranking. It makes for a very interesting comparison with his most underrated film Marnie.


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