As you may know, the British magazine Sight & Sound recently published the results of its once-a-decade Critics Poll on the best films of all-time. None of us here at Critic Speak were asked to participate (shocker), so we have decided to publish a short piece on the films that we think most deserved to make the list, but didn’t. Lists of this nature are always arbitrary and the Sight & Sound Top 50 is likely as strong a result as “criticism by committee” can yield, but that doesn’t make this any less opportune a time for us to recommend some of our favorite films.
Once again, the Sight & Sound critics mostly picked films that were technically revolutionary or invented new modes of storytelling, resulting in a huge concentration of selections coming from the 1950s through ‘70s (33, to be exact), the period most commonly associated with the birth of modern filmmaking. In doing so, they ignored several foundational titles from earlier in cinema history — most egregiously, Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931). Not only did this German masterpiece set the standard for the noir movement that burgeoned a decade later, with its gorgeous B&W cinematography that mastered shadow and light, but it was also just as influential to the horror genre as any of the monster movies released in the same era. Then there’s the Peter Lorre monologue / eruption at the end, which is the definition of what screen acting is all about.
There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about how few comedies made the Sight & Sound list, but none about an equally important omission: animation. Certainly, the critics could have picked one of the many revolutionary early Disney productions, be it “Fantasia” or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But my pick would have been “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. With its serene storytelling, which perfectly balances dreamlike creatures and real-world problems (a mother’s illness), no other animated film has better used the hand-drawn medium to transcend the limitations of live-action.
Despite almost disappearing at the hands of the Nazis, the 1937 classic “Grand Illusion” remains the quintessential “prisoner of war” movie, often imitated (e.g. “The Great Escape”) but never equalled. A callous director would have portrayed Europe’s waning aristocratic class (played by the unforgettable Erich Von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay) as ruthless and delusional. But not Jean Renoir, who despite firmly being a man of the left and critic of the Great War, possessed enough humanity to pay fitting tribute to the honor culture of old Europe.
Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” (1959) is the western for those who prefer the theater. Sans majestic vistas of the American West (or of the Rio Bravo for that matter), the action takes place entirely within the confines of a dusty Southwestern town. Despite being anchored by John Wayne as the brave sheriff who must hold a scrambled group of deputies together as they await the U.S. Marshals’ pick-up of a dangerous criminal holed up in their jailhouse, the film’s real hero is actually played by Dean Martin as a recovering drunk whose journey to self-respect and sobriety is one of the genre’s most enduring tales of redemption.
“Casablanca” (1942) is the most glaring omission from the endless talks about the Sight & Sound poll’s glaring omissions. Certainly, few films match Michael Curitz’s drama in terms of cinematic iconography, great performances, and ageless dialogue permeating our culture. It’s also the best moment of Humphrey Bogart’s career, with his seemingly corrupt, cynical bastard turning out to be a kind romantic at heart, his final act making the film a peerless statement on the nobility of sacrifice.
The Sight & Sound Top 50 has also been criticized as “old,” almost entirely omitting great filmmakers who came into their own during the past two decades. I posit that there are no contemporary directors more deserving of recognition on a respectable “Greatest Films” list than the Coen Brothers, those ingenious auteurs whose offbeat, heavily ironic sensibilities have produced many flawless pictures across an array of genres. My vote for their best goes to “The Big Lebowski,” but in the interest of acknowledging that these lists are a sort of consensus, I think the S&S list is most missing “Fargo” (1996), their bleak, snowy neo-noir. “Fargo” is a bold synthesis of the Coens’ wicked humor and unsentimentally grotesque violence, standing out as the ideal representation of their body of work.