The Greatest Films of All Time?

With the arrival of the Sight & Sound poll of the top 10 films, I began to think about the culture of top ten lists and what they actually mean. The Sight & Sound poll covers critics, writers and directors leading to its perceived status as the quintessential list of best films. But what does that really mean? In my experience, asking people to choose their favourite films is not only a decidedly personal task but ultimately a fruitless one. Ask someone to name their favourite films today and it could be a completely different answer next week.

Our engagement with films is often on an emotional level. This manifests itself in the striking of a chord, in view of a situation you have never otherwise examined. When considering my experience with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, I remember how the film devastated me. Forming a connection with a film may in fact be the key to unlocking further understanding. To delve into the deep meaning or unveil subtext requires a genuine interest and a desire to revisit a film, it is perfectly reasonable to think that the films that develop strong emotional ties will be evaluated in more detail. There can be a line drawn between the best films and ‘favourite’ films, but I would say that this division should not be made so readily.

Favourite films could also contain something as capricious as a favourite actor, someone with charm or charisma that you enjoy watching on screen. Such people can have a powerful impact on the enjoyment gained from even a moderately good film. Something as simple as the mood in which you take in a film, could weigh heavily on how it is judged. Being depressed, on a high or even hung over could impact whether or not any connection is formed.

Of course it is true that technical aspects are important, but how important?  The history, achievement and innovation of a film can crowd out favourite films or ‘guilty pleasures’ but why should it be this way? Is it too difficult to admit to loving a film you know is not technically proficient? Especially in the world of professionals, exploring an appreciation for the history and ingenuity of films is paramount, films without these should not subsequently be relegated to ‘guilty’ territory. Are these ‘guilty pleasures’ more interesting and personal best films? Coincidentally, a furore has erupted in the book world over the inclusion of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch in the Penguin Classics list, the literary cognoscenti also facing a debate on their own canon formation.

This thought first came to me when I first tried to pin down a top five and found the only way to do it was to think of individual developmental reasons for including a film. It feels almost too easy to include films that are widely considered to be significant moments in cinema. It all started with Star Wars. Watching it with my family, it was my first cinematic occasion. Lord of the Rings was another first for me. Being a fan of the books, and subsequently enamoured with the films, I had a sense of ownership. I have become so familiar with the material that is now akin to sliding into a favourite pair of slippers. Comfortable, never disappointing.

Two others, Alien and The Fountain, are films that mark my first horror experience and my first brush with an imaginative and metaphorical engagement with touching subject matter. 12 Angry Men finished the top five and it marked the first time I realised how effective a very simple film could be. All of these films were personal landmarks, some were also cinematic landmarks but that was a by the way. Needless to say the list might be different this week.

These thoughts developed after hearing people discuss their hope for the dethroning of Citizen Kane in the Sight & Sound poll. When did it become unpopular to like Citizen Kane? Has it become a guilty pleasure? It is true that technically Citizen Kane may not quite be the quintessential film it once was but to wish it of the list seems to be against the values of film criticism. Often intangible qualities draw people to films and if Citizen Kane is still forming connections with cinephiles then why not let it reign? Films are personal. This should be celebrated, not shunned.

About The Author

Jonathan went back to university to study Film Journalism in Glasgow in 2012 and hasn't looked back since. Writing for the Edinburgh Internation Film Festival, The Birmingham Review, The Electrolyte Magazine as well as Front Row Reviews he enjoys working across media and if not lambasting folk about politics it's film on his agenda. Working in The Electric Cinema in Birmingham has allowed him to come closer to the medium he loves, his favourite filmmaker is Wong Kar-Wai.

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