If I must make a list of the Ten Greatest Films of All Time, my first vow is to make the list for myself, not for anybody else. I am sure than Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" is a great film, but it's not going on my list simply so I can impress people. Nor will I avoid "Casablanca" simply because it's so popular: I love it all the same.
If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it's an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That's what it does best. (If you argue instead for dance or music, drama or painting, I will reply that the cinema incorporates all of these arts).
Cinema is not very good, on the other hand, at intellectual, philosophical or political argument. That's where the Marxists were wrong. If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason. And so my greatest films must be films that had me sitting transfixed before the screen, involved, committed, and feeling. Therefore, they are:
After seeing this film many times, I think I finally understand why I love it so much. It's not because of the romance, or the humor, or the intrigue, although those elements are masterful. It's because it makes me proud of the characters. These are not heroes - not except for Paul Heinreid's resistance fighter, who in some ways is the most predictable character in the film. These are realists, pragmatists, survivors: Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, who sticks his neck out for nobody, and Claude Rains' police inspector, who follows rules and tries to stay out of trouble. At the end of the film, when they rise to heroism, it is so moving because heroism is not in their makeup. Their better nature simply informs them what they must do.
The sheer beauty of the film is also compelling. The black-and-white closeups of Ingrid Bergman, the most bravely vulnerable woman in movie history. Bogart with his cigarette and his bottle. Greenstreet and Lorre. Dooley Wilson at the piano, looking up with pain when he sees Bergman enter the room. The shadows. "As Time Goes By." If there is ever a time when they decide that some movies should be spelled with an upper-case M, "Casablanca" should be voted first on the list of Movies.
I have just seen it again, a shot at a time, analyzing it frame-by-frame out at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We took 10 hours and really looked at this film, which is routinely named the best film of all time, almost by default, in list after list. Maybe it is. It's some movie. It tells of all the seasons of a man's life, shows his weaknesses and hurts, surrounds him with witnesses who remember him but do not know how to explain him. It ends its search for "Rosebud," his dying word, with a final image that explains everything and nothing, and although some critics say the image is superficial, I say it is very deep indeed, because it illustrates the way that human happiness and pain is not found in big ideas but in the little victories or defeats of childhood.
Few films are more complex, or show more breathtaking skill at moving from one level to another. Orson Welles, with his radio background, was able to segue from one scene to another using sound as his connecting link. In one sustained stretch, he covers 20 years between "Merry Christmas" and "A very happy New Year." The piano playing of Kane's young friend Susan leads into their relationship, his applause leads into his campaign, where applause is the bridge again to a political rally that leads to his downfall, when his relationship with Susan is unmasked. We get a three-part miniseries in five minutes.
I do not expect many readers to have heard of this film, or of Yasujiro Ozu, who directed it, but this Japanese master, who lived from 1903 to 1963 and whose prolific career bridged the silent and sound eras, saw things through his films in a way that no one else saw. Audiences never stop to think, when they go to the movies, how they understand what a close-up is, or a reaction shot. They learned that language in childhood, and it was codified and popularized by D. W. Griffith, whose films were studied everywhere in the world -- except in Japan, where for a time a distinctively different visual style seemed to be developing. Ozu fashioned his style by himself, and never changed it, and to see his films is to be inside a completely alternative cinematic language.
"Floating Weeds," like many of his films, is deceptively simple. It tells of a troupe of traveling actors who return to an isolated village where their leader left a woman behind many years ago -- and, we discover, he also left a son. Ozu weaves an atmosphere of peaceful tranquility, of music and processions and leisurely conversations, and then explodes his emotional secrets, which cause people to discover their true natures. It is all done with hypnotic visual beauty. After years of being available only in a shabby, beaten-up version usually known as "Drifting Weeds," this film has now been re-released in superb videotape and laser disc editions.
"Gates of Heaven"
This film, not to be confused in any way with "Heaven's Gate" (or with "Gates of Hell," for that matter) is a bottomless mystery to me, infinitely fascinating. Made in the late 1970s by Errol Morris, it would appear to be a documentary about some people involved in a couple of pet cemeteries in Northern California. Oh, it's factual enough: The people in this film really exist, and so does the pet cemetery. But Morris is not concerned with his apparent subject. He has made a film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.
He points his camera at his subjects and lets them talk. But he points it for hours on end, patiently until finally they use the language in ways that reveal their most hidden parts. I am moved by the son who speaks of success but cannot grasp it, the old man whose childhood pet was killed, the cocky guy who runs the tallow plant, the woman who speaks of her dead pet and says, "There's your dog, and your dog's dead. But there has to be something that made it move. Isn't there?" In those words is the central question of every religion. And then, in the extraordinary centerpiece of the film, there is the old woman Florence Rasmussen, sitting in the doorway of her home, delivering a spontaneous monologue that Faulkner would have killed to have written.
"La Dolce Vita"
Fellini's 1960 film has grown pasé in some circles, I'm afraid, but I love it more than ever. Forget about its message, about the "sweet life" along Rome's Via Veneto, or about the contrasts between the sacred and the profane. Simply look at Fellini's ballet of movement and sound, the graceful way he choreographs the camera, the way the actors move. He never made a more "Felliniesque" film, or a better one.
Then sneak up on the subject from inside. Forget what made this film trendy and scandalous more than 50 years ago. Ask what it really says. It is about a man Marcello Mastroianni in his definitive performance, driven to distraction by his hunger for love, and driven to despair by his complete inability to be able to love. He seeks love from the neurosis of his fiancée, through the fleshy carnality of a movie goddess, from prostitutes and princesses. He seeks it in miracles and drunkenness, at night and at dawn. He thinks he can glimpse it in the life of his friend Steiner, who has a wife and children and a home where music is played and poetry read. But Steiner is as despairing as he is. And finally Marcello gives up and sells out and at dawn sees a pale young girl who wants to remind him of the novel he meant to write someday, but he is hung over and cannot hear her shouting across the waves, and so the message is lost.
I do not have the secret of Alfred Hitchcock and neither, I am convinced, does anyone else. He made movies that do not date, that fascinate and amuse, that everybody enjoys and that shout out in every frame that they are by Hitchcock. In the world of film he was known simply as The Master. But what was he the Master of? What was his philosophy, his belief, his message? It appears that he had none. His purpose was simply to pluck the strings of human emotion -- to play the audience, he said, like a piano. Hitchcock was always hidden behind the genre of the suspense film, but as you see his movies again and again, the greatness stays after the suspense becomes familiar. He made pure movies.
"Notorious" is my favorite Hitchcock, a pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains the tragic third corner of the triangle. Because she loves Grant, she agrees to seduce Rains, a Nazi spy. Grant takes her act of pure love as a tawdry thing, proving she is a notorious woman. And when Bergman is being poisoned, he misreads her confusion as drunkenness. While the hero plays a rat, however, the villain (Rains) becomes an object of sympathy. He does love this woman. He would throw over all of Nazi Germany for her, probably -- if he were not under the spell of his domineering mother, who pulls his strings until they choke him.
Ten years ago, Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" was on my list of the ten best films. I think "Raging Bull" addresses some of the same obsessions, and is a deeper and more confident film. Scorsese used the same actor, Robert De Niro, and the same screenwriter, Paul Schrader, for both films, and they have the same buried themes: A man's jealousy about a woman, made painful by his own impotence, and expressed through violence.
Some day if you want to see movie acting as good as any ever put on the screen, look at a scene two-thirds of the way through "Raging Bull." It takes place in the living room of Jake LaMotta, the boxing champion played by De Niro. He is fiddling with a TV set. His wife comes in, says hello, kisses his brother, and goes upstairs. This begins to bother LaMotta. He begins to quiz his brother (Joe Pesci). The brother says he don't know nothing'. De Niro says maybe he doesn't know what he knows. The way the dialog expresses the inner twisting logic of his jealousy is insidious. De Niro keeps talking, and Pesci tries to run but can't hide. And step by step, word by word, we witness a man helpless to stop himself from destroying everyone who loves him.
"The Third Man"
This movie is on the altar of my love for the cinema. I saw it for the first time in a little theater on the Left Bank in Paris, in 1962. It was so sad, so beautiful, so romantic, that it became at once a part of my own memories -- as if it had happened to me. There is infinite poignancy in the love that the failed writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) feels for the woman (Alida Valli) who loves the "dead" Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry treats her horribly, but she loves her idea of him, he neither he nor Holly can ever change that. Apart from the story, look at the visuals! The tense conversation on the giant ferris wheel. The giant, looming shadows at night. The carnivorous faces of people seen in the bombed-out streets of postwar Vienna, where the movie was shot on location. The chase through the sewers. And of course the moment when the cat rubs against a shoe in a doorway, and Orson Welles makes the most dramatic entrance in the history of the cinema. All done to the music of a single zither.
I have very particular reasons for including this film, which is the least familiar title on my list but one which I defy anyone to watch without fascination. No other film I have ever seen does a better job of illustrating the mysterious and haunting way in which the cinema bridges time. While working on the BBC television documentary series The World in Action in 1963, director Michael Apted, in collaboration with Paul Almond, produced a feature-length study of 14 seven-year-old Britons. Titled 7 Up, the film drew its on-camera personnel from every part of the social strata. Apted and Almond invited the kids to expound extemporaneously upon their feelings, desires, and aspirations. Seven years later, the same 14 people were rounded up for Seven Times Seven, which brought their individual histories up to date. And so it went until 1991, with Apted, now working solo, updating his original 1963 documentary every seven years. In 1984, all existing chapters were bundled together into the British miniseries 28 Up. By far, the best of the updates, as well as the most optimistic, 28 Up was later boiled down to a 113-minute feature film. In both its series and featured form, 28 Up is a fascinating social document; those who like cushioning themselves against disillusionment, however, are advised to bypass 35 Up (1991), wherein the 14 middle-aged subjects are a lot more fearful about their future than they'd even been before
The Emigrants (Swedish: Utvandrarna) is a 1971 Swedish film directed by Jan Troell. It tells the story of a Swedish group who emigrate from Småland, Sweden to Minnesota, United States in the 19th century. The film follows the hardship of the group in Sweden and on the trip.
The film is based on the first two novels of The Emigrants suite by Vilhelm Moberg, novels I have included in the best books I ever read: The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land. It was adapted to the screen by Bengt Forslund and Jan Troell. The Emigrants stars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in the lead, along with Eddie Axberg, Sven-Olof Bern, Aina Alfredsson, Allan Edwall, Monica Zetterlund and Pierre Lindstedt. The Emigrants was followed by a 1972 sequel, The New Land (Nybyggarna), with the same cast.
Richard Schickel wrote in Life that "Jan Troell has made the masterpiece about the dream that shaped America - a dream, and an America, fast disappearing from our views." Vincent Canby of The New York Times hailed the acting performances, especially from Sydow and Ullmann, which he found to hold "a kind of spontaneous truth, in look and gesture, that does a lot to relieve the otherwise programed nobility, truth and beauty."
At the 30th Golden Globe Awards it won the awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actress (Liv Ullmann). In Sweden it won the Guldbaggen Awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Eddie Axberg).