Cole Abaius over at Film School Rejects invited me and a number of other writers, critics, and filmmakers to contribute our picks for the greatest films of all time. He did this as a response to the latest iteration of Sight & Sound's list of the 10 greatest films ever made, a list that's already prompted responses in the critical sphere.
It's worth noting that, for me, "greatest films" and "personal favorites" do not necessarily line up. This has nothing to do with bias, fear of going against the current, or anything as nebulous and poorly defined as "guilty pleasures." Rather, I think it's entirely possible to love and respect a film as one of the best ever made without holding it dear to your heart the way you do those films that have a more personal meaning. Writing on the subject of good bad books, George Orwell said: "The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as celebration." In other words, I can believe Rashomon to be one of the greatest films ever made without ranking it as a personal favorite, and I can love Rushmore like nothing else without considering it to be the best film of all time. This is an area of critical and personal study I find endlessly fascinating: what we love, what we value, and how those two diverge.
Anyway, all that to say that, for the purposes of this list, I ranked what I consider to be 10 worthy candidates for the title of "best films ever made." It was tough but fun to do, and I think the individual lists make for great reading. I also think the final list is a smart representation of moviemaking at its best, and I was happy to contribute. Read on: The 10 Greatest Movies of All Time (According to The Internet)
Also, here's the Top 10 list I submitted, along with accompanying blurbs. (Through crossed wires on my end, I'd thought blurbs were required for every film, not just our No. 1 pick. Lucky you.)
1. The Godfather: Film’s great power is to reflect the difference between who we want to be and who we actually are. No film better captures that emotional schism than The Godfather, a gorgeous, sweeping story of ruin and damnation that charts a family’s very American rise and fall. The crime story, thrilling though it is, takes second place to the heartbreaking tale of power, greed, and self-destruction. You always want Michael to make it out, but you know he never will.
2. Singin’ in the Rain: The best musical ever made, hands down, it’s also one of Hollywood’s favorite things: a story about itself. What could’ve been just another jukebox musical is instead a sweet, spellbinding love story set against the moment when pictures started to grow up (just a little). It’s a love letter to movies, and it’s impossible not to have a good time watching it.
3. Sullivan’s Travels: There’s an intriguing bit of darkness shot through Preston Sturges’ satire of screenwriters that makes it more relevant and gripping than just another workplace comedy. The laughing faces that make up the film’s final moment seem like they’re howling at the moon. A witty, fantastic road comedy.
4. Sunset Boulevard: For my own Top 10 list, I was tempted to simply submit the name “Billy Wilder” and be done with it. He’s one of the best directors of all time, and Sunset Boulevardis a masterpiece in every way. Dark, sad, funny, weird, and possessed of the kind of bittersweet nostalgia for days that never happened that always seems to show up in movies in/about Hollywood’s golden age.5. Citizen Kane: The film’s place as an American classic makes it feel like a textbook answer instead of a movie, which is a shame, because it’s still a wonderful drama about excess, power, and the other ways we drive ourselves to destruction. It also deserves every ounce of praise it’s been given for the technical breakthroughs with which it ushered in a new type of moviemaking.
6. Casablanca: The unbeatable heartbreaker. Doomed romance doesn’t automatically make for good storytelling, either. It takes great characters, situations, writing, drama, pathos; Casablanca has it all in spades.
7. Do the Right Thing: Spike Lee is another great American filmmaker, and his 1989 exploration of racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood remains his crowning achievement. It’s staggeringly raw, an exposed nerve that Lee refuses to cover or let heal. Required viewing for all humans.
8. Rashomon: Akira Kurosawa’s output was prodigious, and he made a number of classics, but Rashomon deserves special attention for telling a story so well that we’re still remaking it decades later. The “narrative with shifting perspectives” feels like an old trick now, and it’s rarely done well, but Rashomon showed the power of playing with audience perception and how the truth is never what we think it’s going to be.
9. The Apartment: The Apartment might not get as many mentions today as Some Like It Hot, the film Billy Wilder made before it, but it holds up just as well. The story is simple — nebbish underling loans his apartment to corporate execs who need a place to have affairs — but it quickly evolves into something much more complex, mature, and dark. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are fantastic.
10. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back: Borrowing basic structure and sensibility from Westerns, The Empire Strikes Back is one of the best sci-fi movies ever made thanks to its attention to character above all else. It’s a chase movie that doubles as a meditation on sacrifice and growing up, and the small number of locations means we get to spend time feeling out the fantasy world before us. It’s also damn nice to look at, employing the kind of color temperatures and painterly compositions sadly foreign to the genre. There have been six movies and host of spin-off stories set in George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, but this outshines them all.