What are the top 10 novels of all time? What are the top 10 plays or 10 greatest paintings? These aren’t questions often asked, even on BuzzFeed.
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Cinema, though, has always encouraged the list makers. It’s a bastard medium, the result of what director Anthony Asquith once called “an unholy liaison between the magic lantern and the novelette.”
Even after more than 100 years, the form isn’t regarded with the same reverence as other arts. By trying to suggest a “canon” of the “greatest” films, curators and film historians are making a bid for cinema to be taken more seriously.
That's why there is always huge fanfare round the once-a-decade list drawn up by Sight and Sound Magazine - and little thought as to how reductive such a list really is.
The 10 best films of all time
The 10 best films of all time
1/10 Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles is trying so hard to make a “great” film. He is using every technique at his disposal - deep focus cinematography, flashbacks, tricks with sound borrowed from his radio work. In spite of all the formal trickery, it’s still a film with huge pathos
2/10 Taxi Driver (1976)
This is an adolescent film, full of shock tactics and posturing on behalf of both director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader but it possesses extraordinary, miasmatic power
3/10 The Searchers (1956)
John Ford’s vicious revenge western ends in ambiguous but very affecting fashion - like John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards, it’s not a film that makes any attempt to ingratiate itself, and is all the moving as a result
4/10 Vertigo (1958)
Hitchcock’s endlessly fascinating, wildly overdetermined film works both as a psychological thriller and as a study of love, loss and self-deception
5/10 Persona (1966)
Ingmar Bergman’s boldest and most experimental film boasts extraordinary performances from its two female leads, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson
6/10 La Regle Du Jeu (1939)
“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons,” runs the most famous line from Jean Renoir’s country house drama made on the eve of the Second World War. Not the most flashy piece of filmmaking from a formal point of view but few other movies have the richness of characterisation found here
7/10 Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick’s most emotional film. It’s exquisitely crafted and makes extraordinary use of natural light. Kubrick combines Hogarth-style bawdiness and satire with a very dark drama about ambition dashed, bereavement and heartbreak
8/10 Tokyo Story (1953)
Ozu’s deceptively simple but profound drama about family ties. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never neglect your mum and dad again
9/10 Rome, Open City (1945)
A neo-realist classic that benefits from the extraordinarily straitened circumstances in which it was made
10/10 The Gold Rush (1925)
The one in which Chaplin eats his boots...
To be included, films tend to have to be at least 40 years old. The most recently made film in Sight and Sound’s 2012 Critics’ Top 10 was 2001: A Space Odyssey...from 1968.
There is often a sense of false consensus - new generations of critics vote for exactly the same titles as their predecessors did. Last time round, it was considered major news that Citizen Kane slipped one place in the poll having topped the chart for half a century.
The list above is very much like the ones drawn up by Sight and Sound critics. Its titles are all over 30 years old.
That might seem dull but at a time when around 800 new movies are released in British cinemas every year, you need the distance of time to make meaningful judgments about which films will last.