Empire has revealed its readers’ 100 greatest films and, as expected, they got it wrong. Top of the list is The Godfather, which is fine, I suppose; but is Die Hard really better than 2001: A Space Odyssey? And what in the name of Batman is Interstellar doing there? In an effort to restore some semblance of order to the universe, I have compiled my own list of the top 10 greatest films.
Note: Joking aside, any list of the greatest films is a very subjective, personal thing. If the readers of Empire want to rank Captain America: Civil War as one of the best films ever, then that’s their right, I respect that, and good luck to them. As for my list, I had a somewhat nebulous set of criteria. These are films which have had some kind of lasting cinematic and/or cultural influence. They are showcases for the marvellous things that can be done on film. They are films which have created a profound emotional connection, whether that emotion be joy, sorrow, excitement, or even just amusement. But mostly, each film is here because of the fundamental, indefinable sense that its presence on this list just feels right.
And so, without further ado, I present That Film Site’s 10 greatest films of all time.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s stentorian resurrection of his punk-apocalyptic series roared onto our screens a mere two years ago, yet has already gained a reputation as one of the – if not the – best action films ever made. Fury Road is tenacious, riotous, and just plain bonkers. There are warriors sat atop pendulous poles. The weapon of choice appears to be what can only be described as grenade spears. There’s a guy with a guitar that is also a flamethrower. Miller edits this madness together as only a master can, slowing things down when we might lose our grasp on the action, then speeding them up to prevent us getting too firm a hold on it. Everything was done for real, too. The cars were all fully functional, and the stunts done by real performers. This is old school filmmaking on a scale rarely seen in the 21st century. The story, a surprisingly feminist tale of gender politics and reproductive rights, unfurls as the action accelerates, only stopping for exposition when absolutely necessary. A recent reissue, black and white and entitled Black & Chrome, cranks up the almost mythic primalism to eleven. What a film! What a lovely film!
- This is Spinal Tap
It might not have invented the term, but Marti DiBergi Rob Reiner’s “mockumentary” certainly popularised the idea of the fake documentary (or, if you will, rockumentary). Reiner’s film is so convincing a portrayal of fictitious rock band Spinal Tap (known for their exuberance, raw power, and punctuality) that on its release many were tricked into believing that Tap were real. But that’s not why This is Spinal Tap is on this list. No, it’s here because, even after more than thirty years, it is still fantastically, absurdly, stupidly hilarious. I could spend the rest of this paragraph running through dozens of brilliantly funny lines, giggling to myself the whole time. Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer put on flawless English accents as they talk about their childish brand of innuendo infused rock as if it were the highest of high art. None of this would matter, however, if the songs themselves weren’t spot on. The music is a pitch perfect pastiche of the era’s hard-driving hair metal, and the lyrics are something else: not too different from what real bands were writing at the time, but taken to such a puerile extreme that, well: “My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo/I like to sink her with my pink torpedo.” The question is, how much funnier could This is Spinal Tap be? And the answer is none. None more funny.
The greatest love story ever told, and they don’t even get to gether in the end. Casablanca is the loftiest, cloud-shrouded peak of the classic Hollywood studio system. Like its namesake city, it is a heady confluence of styles: Michael Curtiz’ focus on human drama; Arthur Edeson’s shadow-soaked cinematography; Humphrey Bogart’s taciturn integrity; Ingrid Bergman’s soft-hued beauty. What stands out the most, though, is the moral ambiguity, unusual for the era, that runs through Casablanca. Bogart’s Rick is defiantly neutral, and yet fought for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War – for which he was handsomely paid. Meanwhile, Claude Rains’ acerbic Captain Renault often helps refugees gain their exit visas, but for a price (which, it is implied, can involve sexual favours). As one character puts it, “in Casablanca, human life is cheap.” Which reminds me, Casablanca is chock full of memorable lines. The American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes” list includes a total of six lines from Casablanca, from, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,” to, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Some of the dialogue (“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”) reads corny as all hell on paper, but when Humphrey Bogart’s saying it – perfection. As writer Julius Epstein said, “…when corn works, there’s nothing better.”
- Citizen Kane
There’s a reason why Citizen Kane topped Sight & Sound’s Critic’s Top Ten poll for fifty years (before being displaced by Vertigo in 2012). Orson Welles’ feature debut is a veritable toybox of cinematic techniques. To watch Citizen Kane is to watch Welles’ delight in the myriad of things he can do with a camera, some lighting, and an editing suite. Welles’ camera swoops through a nightclub’s neon sign and down through the skylight. The lighting, designed by Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, is gorgeously moody, with the early chiaroscuro-infused projection room scene a highlight. Deep focus photography pervades Kane, allowing Welles to explore the foreground and background in a single shot, and indulge in long, unedited takes. Welles’ background was in theatre, a medium shackled by a stage and the march of time, and so when he does cut in Kane, he revels in the freedom it allows him. He splices together vignettes of Kane and his first wife’s breakfasts, showing us in a series of snapshots their deteriorating marriage. But Citizen Kane’s reputation as a dry showcase for cinematic techniques only of interest to film students is sorely unwarranted. Kane’s story, told in pseudo-Rashomon flashbacks, is a universal tale of loss, nostalgia and regret, performed to perfection by Welles himself and his Mercury Theatre troupe. Charles Foster Kane, a media mogul with political aspirations, may be somewhat unsympathetic in today’s political and financial climate, but his blind, tireless search for what he can never reclaim is surely something we can sympathise with.
- Princess Mononoke
In the realm of film criticism, the word “breathtaking” has been so overused as to almost lose all meaning. But if one film deserves the epithet, it is Princess Mononoke. Hayao Miyazaki’s film truly is breathtaking. The forests, mountains and lakes of medieval Japan have a painterly beauty that far surpasses anything Disney has cranked out. You could take a single frame of Miyazaki’s mist-shrouded vistas, hang it up, and it wouldn’t seem out of place among the great landscapes in any art gallery. That’s not to say that Princess Mononoke is a quiet film to be contemplatively gazed at. This is a true epic, a grand and often violent tale of the war between the gods of the forest and the encroaching humans. The score, by Joe Hisaishi (surely to be counted among the great film composers), backs this up: sweeping and swelling with mythic majesty. What sets Princess Mononoke apart, though, even from Miyazaki’s other films, is its complexity. The characters, who could so easily have been mere cyphers for their ideologies, have a depth that even the Great and Powerful Pixar can’t rival. Take Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown. She has been cutting down the forest to get at the iron-rich soil beneath, thereby instigating the war with the forest gods. But she is kind to her workers, provides a safe haven for the women she employs, and has taken in a group of lepers whom she treats with the respect denied them elsewhere. Meanwhile, the gods of the forest fight to protect their home, but do so with a ferocious, single-minded determination that can only perpetuate the cycle of violence. Miyazaki’s films have always had an environmentalist cast to them, but in Princess Mononoke he explores the theme with a pragmatic, even-handed subtlety that is – wait for it – breathtaking.
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Jaws may have made Steven Spielberg. Schindler’s List might be his most important work. But E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is his best, most personal film. Spielberg’s paean to childlike wonder threatens to burst with the cavalcade of emotions it contains. Or rather, we feel fit to burst with all those we feel watching the film. Humour. Sorrow. Joy. Horror. E.T. has it all. E.T. himself is a wonderful creation, fabricated by Carlo Rambaldi long before the advent of CGI. (A 25th Anniversary edition of the film, as well as removing the firearms from later scenes, inserted a computer generated E.T. which was nothing but an affront to childhood memories everywhere.) With has waddling gait and puppy dog eyes, E.T. is delightfully expressive, and heartbreakingly sympathetic. When he dies, his death is treated, not with the trite imitation of emotion that some films affect just before a “miraculous” resurrection, but with genuine sorrow and horror. When E.T. does come back to life, the joy that erupts is palpable. Then there’s the breathless bicycle chase, with John Williams’ score carrying us with the fleeing kids as they soar over the forest. Despite its whimsy, Spielberg treats his subject with the kind of seriousness that only a child can muster. I’d say that E.T. is for the child in us all, but I’ve the sneaking suspicion that the adult in us loves it just as much.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, science fiction cinema was wallowing in a quagmire of what Stanley Kubrick called “monsters and sex”. Then Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey and turned science fiction on its head, proving that the genre was just as artistically fertile as any other. 2001 is a cosmic epic, an awe-inspiring and awe-inspired journey from our past into our hypothetical future. What other film can claim to span the entirety of human civilisation? And in one edit, no less. A primitive ape throws his bone-cum-tool into the air, and as it soars Kubrick cuts to a spaceship leaving Earth’s orbit. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in one match cut. What follows is the hardest of hard sci-fi – realistic depictions of near future space travel, for 1968 at least – that gradually segues into something more enigmatic. We meet HAL, the eerily sinister artificial intelligence whose (surprisingly pitiful) demise represents mankind outgrowing our reliance on machines and evolving into something greater. At least, I think that’s what’s going on. 2001’s lasting appeal lies in its impenetrability. Kubrick cut most of the dialogue from the script he wrote with eminent science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, desiring to create a mostly visual narrative that the audience could interpret for themselves. The final trippy trip through the Stargate has just as many interpretations as there are people who have witnessed its surreal cosmological landscapes. We’re not really supposed to know what happens in 2001. Instead, we are invited to bask in its mystery, feel awed by its scope, and perhaps even cower at its cosmic terror. Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” 2001: A Space Odyssey is the quantum mechanics of cinema.
- Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is but a prelude, a three-film run up before the giant, epic leap that is Once Upon a Time in the West. In A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone gleefully dismantled the Western, all the while creating his own ironically hip visual language (endlessly imitated but never bettered). Then, for Once Upon a Time in the West, he put the pieces back together again and rebuilt the Western in his own image. West is a more sombre piece of work than Leone’s previous films. Like all the best Westerns, it is about the end of the Old West; its gunslinging heroes eventually must step aside or be crushed under the inevitable march of progress. There is a little of the genre’s usual myth-making in West, with much inspiration taken from the classic American Westerns. But this is still a Spaghetti Western, and the myth West makes is darker and more bitter than any made by Ford or Hawks. Leone peppers the film with subtle – and not so subtle – reversals. The masterstroke, of course, is Henry Fonda, perennial Hollywood good guy, cast as the child-killing villain Frank. We also get that rarest of rarities in a Western: a female protagonist, in the form of Claudia Cardinale’s Jill. And of course, of course, of course, mention must be made of Ennio Morricone’s music. Jill’s theme is beautifully hopeful, and Cheyenne’s plods merrily along much like the man himself. It is Frank and Harmonica’s theme, though, that sticks in your head, beginning with sinister electric guitar before building to an orchestral climax that, in the third act’s mesmerising flashback, adds more grandeur and majesty to the buttes of Monument Valley than you ever thought possible. Once Upon a Time in the West is an ode to the classic Westerns, but it is also stands alone as a dark, majestic classic in its own right. It is Leone’s masterpiece, and the greatest Western ever made.
- Blade Runner
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” says the Blade Runner fan to the uninitiated. Actually, anyone who has never seen Ridley Scott’s sci-fi opus, upon first watching it, probably would believe, so influential is the film. The steamy, neon-lit, multi-cultural urban sprawl, presided over by gargantuan advertisements, has become standard issue in the sci-fi setting starter kit. But the visuals are only one aspect of the trinity that makes Blade Runner the greatest science fiction film, the other two being narrative and theme. The narrative is a merging of sci-fi and hardboiled detective fiction which allows Scott to explore the seedy underbelly of his future Los Angeles. The themes are the biggest imaginable: life, death, and what it is to be human. It is how these aspects work together and augment each other that elevates Blade Runner to the pantheon of cinematic godhood. The visuals ground the narrative in a believable future; the sci-fi noir story allows Deckard, and us, to explore our own human nature; the themes shine an almost religious light on the characters and settings. It would be easy to see these elements as constituting nothing but a cold exercise in filmmaking (many critics on Blade Runner’s initial release certainly did), but there is a fourth aspect to the film: emotion. Philip K. Dick’s original novel presents its androids as emotionless robots, warning us as to where humanity may be headed. Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples’ screenplay reverses this: humans are the emotionless ones, while the replicants are what we should be striving to be, so full of feelings. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Batty is a prowling predator, but he is also essentially a child (“Six, seven, go to hell or go to heaven”) and, in his final moments, a philosopher poet who has indeed seen things we people wouldn’t believe. 2007’s Final Cut restores Blade Runner to Scott’s original vision, ensuring that none of these moments will be lost in the rain.
- Seven Samurai
Where do I start? How do I even begin to describe the peerless masterpiece that is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Well, let’s start with the premise. A village employs a group of ronin (masterless samurai) to defend themselves against bandits. Sound familiar? It should. Seven Samurai has been straight up remade at least twice, and informed countless action films. But Seven Samurai’s boundless reach doesn’t stop at its premise. How many films and television shows have you seen in which a group of people, all with their own specialised skills, is assembled? Truckloads, that’s how many. Then there’s Kurosawa’s pioneering use of multiple cameras to capture his action scenes, a technique which has become standard procedure for the modern action film. Kurosawa’s use of slow motion has become commonplace as well, copied in everything from The Wild Bunch to The Matrix, and from there to pretty much every action film made in the last two decades. The action, though, is just one part of Seven Samurai’s greatness. Kurosawa used the film to explore his recurring themes of humanity and the sacrificial nobility of heroism. Kurosawa was descended from a samurai family, and Seven Samurai is, in part, an apology for the samurai’s abuse of the peasants they were supposedly protecting. The scene in which Kikuchiyo – the peasant masquerading as a samurai and played brilliantly by Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune – rails against his fellows for their discrimination is an acting tour de force; Mifune’s face, contorted with rage, fills the screen. When the battle is won and the villagers joyously reap their harvest, the samurai stand by the graves of their four dead compatriots. Kambei, the samurai’s leader, remarks that it is the villagers who are victorious, not the samurai who fought for them. Throughout all of this, the film is constantly in motion. Movement occupies every scene, so that when events quiet down and stillness enters the film, it is all the more disquieting and tense. Seven Samurai is a kinetic film, a gestalt of vision and sound that could only be achieved in film. Akira Kurosawa, eternally modest, once said that he had made perhaps only ten minutes of pure cinema in his career. I hate to disagree with the greatest director who ever lived, but actually, Kurosawa-san, you made three hours of pure cinema. It was called Seven Samurai.
And there you have it: That Film Site’s 10 greatest films of all time. Feel free to loudly disagree in the comments.