I'm watching The Third Man this week, and this morning I went sniffing around the internet to see what I could see. Found my way, in that circuitous web-wandering way, to Roger Ebert's list of his personal ten favourite films, c. 1991. Compiled as he prepared to vote in the 1992 Sight & Sound critics poll. (Which reminds me - the next S&S poll comes out next year! Much listing fun.)
Ebert's list is a lovely little introduction to great film, but compiled for personal rather than other reasons. What I like best is that he's the first person I've found to make a convincing case for the inclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the Arts & Faith 100. Alphabetically, then...
Roger Ebert, April 1991
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 criteria 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.
It's because it makes me proud of the characters. These are not heroes: 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.
Routinely named the best film of all time, almost by default, in list after list. Maybe it is.
Audiences never stop to think how they understand what a closeup 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. Ozu fashioned his style by himself, and never changed it, and to see his films is to be inside a completely alternative cinematic language.
A documentary about some people involved in a couple of pet cemeteries in Northern California. A film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.
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.
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.
Ten years ago, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was on my list of the ten best films. Raging Bull addresses some of the same obsessions, and is a deeper and more confident film. Movie acting as good as any ever put on the screen.
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.
The movies themselves play with time, condensing days or years into minutes or hours. Then going to old movies defies time, because we see and hear people who are now dead, sounding and looking exactly the same. Then the movies toy with our personal time, when we revisit them, by recreating for us precisely the same experience we had before. No other film I have ever seen does a better job of illustrating the mysterious and haunting way in which the cinema bridges time.
a landmark of non-narrative, poetic filmmaking, in which the connections were made by images, not dialog or plot. The debates about the "meaning" of this film still go on. Surely the whole point of the film is that it is beyond meaning, that it takes its character to a place he is incapable of understanding. The movie lyrically and brutally challenges us to break out of the illusion that everyday mundane concerns are what must preoccupy us. It argues that surely man did not learn to think and dream, only to deaden himself with provincialism and selfishness. 2001 is a spiritual experience. But then all good movies are.
Read more on each of Roger Ebert's selections, and more about the Sight & Sound poll (1952-1992), here. And you can click on any of the poster images for a closer look.