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.
20. PIERROT LE FOU (GODARD, 1965)
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 ("...in a word, emotion"), oh, and the fox on the table, and lovely Anna Karina.
19. STORY OF THE LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS (MIZOGUCHI, 1939)
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.
17. CASABLANCA (CURTIZ, 1942)
We'll always have Paris.
16. SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (DONEN, KELLY, 1952)
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.