Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Every decade since 1952, the British magazine, Sight & Sound, has conducted an “official” poll of film critics, historians, and, for the past twenty years, filmmakers from around the world in order to compile what many see as a “definitive” list of the ten greatest films of all-time. No, Roger Ebert is not wrong when he calls such lists patently ridiculous (I mean, after all, who’s to say that top 10 won’t change tomorrow?), but even he admits that when it comes to Sight & Sound, which is a global poll, not many people can really question its validity.

Or can they? Just skimming down the top 10 lists from 2002, and there is a clear bias towards what many critics call “established classics,” which is to say, movies appreciated by reputation more than actually being seen. Most jarring is the fact that no film later than 1980 made that list, although at least ONE legitimate masterpiece, Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” had been released since that time. Still, anyone who doubts the authenticity of the lists need just read down the lists, as published by Sight & Sound, that were submitted by critics and directors from all over the world. The director’s lists, in particular, are quite revealing when taken in conjunction with their body of work.

Today, Sight & Sound unveiled this year’s lists, and I have to say…wow. I don’t know that many people saw the results coming. For one thing, for the first time since the first polling in 1952, a movie BESIDES “Citizen Kane” sits atop the critic’s list, and since it’s the film that also sits at the top of my own list, you won’t get any argument out of me. Here are the critic’s top 10:

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
4. La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939)
5. Sunrise: a Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927)
10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)

On first glance, the surprises start, of course, at the changing of the guard at the top, but looking down the list, there is more in store. For one thing, this is, very much, a return to cinema’s past, with the most recent film on the list being Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” from 1968; on the 2002 list, it was Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” And with three silent films on the list, it would appear that critics got back in touch with the early days of filmmaking in the past 10 years. In addition, we see the return of “The Searchers” to the top 10 after being absent in 2002. Of course, in reality, it makes sense that this long-considered “definitive” list of 10 would change dramatically over 10 years; more movies come out, more movies get discovered, and individual lists change. I can’t wait to see what the individual lists look like.

And now, for the director’s 10:

Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
=2 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
=2 Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
8 ½ (Fellini, 1963)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1980)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979)
=7 The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
=7 Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1974)
Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)

Once again, a lot of changes. For one thing, in ’02 the director’s voted Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” into their top 10, and this year, it was replaced by “2001.” “Taxi Driver” took the place of “Raging Bull” among directors, while “Apocalypse Now” lept over “The Godfather” in a battle of great, Coppola masterpieces. In addition, “Kane” lost it’s hold on the top spot here as well, being replaced by Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.” (Is there finally a backlash growing towards “Kane?” My bet would be no, that simply people are familiarizing themselves with his other works. The individual lists will tell the story.) And I cannot tell you how excited I was to find a Tarkovsky film in the director’s 10; even though it’s not my own top choice, his 1974 tone poem, “The Mirror,” is an equally profound selection, and a more logical one for the filmmakers themselves.

So, in conjunction with the unveiling of Sight & Sound‘s lists for this year, I will present my own list of 10 movies. Now, these aren’t necessarily the 10 “Best” films I’ve ever seen, nor are they my 10 “Favorite” films of all-time, although anyone familiar with either list will see some overlap. The 10 below are what I would call, the “The 10 Movies That Are Most Important To Me.” Because of the personal importance each film carries in my life, for one reason or another, that seemed to be a good way of going about it. This list had been solidified for a while, actually (since 2006-2007 almost), but because of a new rule Sight & Sound established for this year’s voting (if one votes for multiple films in a series, as happened in 2002 when “The Godfather” & “The Godfather Part II” caused a stir by being including together, even if they had been voted for separately, each film must have its own slot on the list of 10), I had to replace my original selection of “Fantasia” & “Fantasia/2000” together. True, it would have been easy to just remove “F2K” and leave “Fantasia” by itself, but flaws and all, I consider the 60-years-removed follow-up to Disney’s wonderful experiment just as worthy of mention as the original masterpiece. Thankfully, one of the all-time greatest directors made it very easy for me to make the decision with his latest film, which fits the title of this list to a “t”. I hope you enjoy!

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

The 10 Movies That Are Most Important To Me:
1. “Vertigo” (1958; Alfred Hitchcock)- The Master of Suspense’s most ambitious and emotionally complex film is actually the middle part of an unofficial trilogy he made about obsessive men and the emotional (and sometimes physical) violence they perpetrate against the women they “love.” The first was his 1940 Oscar-winner “Rebecca,” and in 1964 he concluded it with the underrated “Marnie.” But “Vertigo” is the flawless centerpiece, where Hitchcock’s intent as an artist is hidden in plain sight as Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” falls in love with an unstable married woman (who will take her own life), only to remake the real woman he claims to later love in the dead woman’s image. Both women are played by Kim Novak (in one of the great performances of all-time) in a film that showcases the Master at his most macabre… and most romantic.

2. “Sherlock Jr.” (1924; Buster Keaton)- It took me a few years, and a little bit of outside influence, to finally get into Keaton and the silent era. Since watching this and his 1927 classic “The General” in 1998, however, I haven’t been able to get away from that first formidable era of cinema. The experimentation and feeling through the medium by masters like Keaton helped define the possibilities early on. His 1924 masterpiece, where his plucky little projectionist dreams himself into the on-screen action, made a vivid impression on me in that first viewing that has only grown more profound as the years have gone by.

3. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968; Stanley Kubrick)- The Dawn of Man. The turn of the century (and millennium). Beyond the infinite. These are just three of the places Kubrick takes us in this intellectual epic about man’s evolution in the cosmos, from his first discovery of tools (not surprisingly from the cynical Kubrick, it’s a tool of destruction) to his unearthing of an artifact on the Moon to an artificial intelligence so sophisticated it will do anything to protect its mission. Douglas Trumbell’s visual effects haven’t aged a day in the four decades since this first hit screens, and the music has been ingested and digested through the bowels of pop culture so much it’s a cliché to even point it out.

4. “Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope” (1977; George Lucas)- Yes, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of Lucas’s space opera saga, but my favorite remains the 1977 phenomenon that started it all. It’s pretty cheesy now (not unlike the matinee serials that inspired Lucas in making it), but the hero’s quest of Luke Skywalker as he is thrust into the middle of a classic good-versus-evil struggle between the Rebels and the Empire is as entertaining (and imaginative) as it was back in the day.

5. “Andrei Rublev” (1966; Andrei Tarkovsky)- The second film of Tarkovsky’s too-brief career (he only made seven over 24 years) fills two personal needs for me. In telling the (fictionalized) account of the life of the Russian icon painter Rublev, Tarkovsky has told one of the most personal and emotional stories ever on film about artistic creation, and the responsibility of an artist not just to himself but the world as a whole. He has also told a story of genuine spiritual thought as Rublev must decide whether his sins are so important to prevent him from creating for the joy of the outside world. The final sequence, where a bold young man recasts a bell on faith and audacity, is as great a look at the ambition that is needed for artistic expression as anyone has ever put forth on film.

6. “The Crow” (1994; Alex Proyas)- This dark adaptation of James O’Barr’s graphic novel made a vivid impression on me from the first, rain-drenched scenes as the police investigate the murder of a rock guitarist and his fiancée the evening before Halloween. A year later, a crow brings the guitarist back to avenge the past. Proyas’s first American-produced feature film is a visual and aural marvel as he follows Eric Draven (Brandon Lee, who died during the production) on his mission with a great eye for sets and special effects that is enhanced by the percussive score and hard rock soundtrack. His background may be music videos, but from this film forward, the Australian director established himself as a visionary to rival Kubrick and Tarkovsky in telling emotional stories within bold visual worlds.

7. “Hugo” (2011; Martin Scorsese)- For many, the most profound statements Scorsese has made on film have involved violence, guilt, and spiritual dilemmas, but for me, it’s the director’s passion for cinema itself that reveals the most about the man. The most informative efforts are his four-hour documentaries on American and Italian cinema, but the most emotional is his 2011 adaptation of Brian Selznick’s magical children’s book about a young orphan in 1930s Paris. Alone after the deaths of his father and uncle, young Hugo (the wonderful Asa Butterfield) hides within the walls of a train station, where he spends his days maintaining the clocks, and repairing a mechanical man he and his father were fixing. However, when he steals parts from an old man’s toy shop, the mystery of the man’s sad demure lead him on an adventure that will change both of their lives. Scorsese delves into the early days of cinema in ways that most people won’t see coming as he uses the modern illusions of moviemaking– including the best use of digital 3D to date –to bring a deeply moving story of broken people to vibrant life. If that isn’t great art, I don’t know what is.

8. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001; Steven Spielberg)- He’s made more important films, and he’s certainly made less-flawed films, but this hybrid between his sensibilities and those of the late Stanley Kubrick is my unquestioned favorite film of Spielberg’s career. It’s as if the younger Spielberg who made “E.T.” and the older one who would make “Schindler’s List” and “Munich” are both on display in this heartfelt tribute to a mentor and friend about a robot boy (played by a never-better Haley Joel Osment) who yearns to feel the love of his human “mother” in a journey that will take him to the ends of the Earth, and possibly to the end of human existence.

9. “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” (1966; Sergio Leone)- On first glance, this gloriously absurd Western from Italian director Leone is probably the “least” personal selection I’ve made in this top 10. But whether it was the truncated version I first watched on DVD or the “uncut” version I’ve watched several times since, this epic classic with Clint Eastwood in his third turn as his “Man With No Name” has made an indelible impression on me, be it the wild trio of Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach trying to find gold hidden among the graves of Civil War dead to the Ennio Morricone score that has proven invaluably influential to me over the years as an artist.

10. “Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie” (1996; Jim Mallon)- This big-screen offering from the makers of the cult TV show wasn’t the first time I saw a man and two ‘bots riff away on cinematic dreck, but their witty banter on the “classic” ’50s sci-fi film “This Island Earth” is indicative of the show at its best, whether it’s Mike’s befuddlement; Crow’s loud-mouthed crassness; Servo’s suave obsession with underwear; or Dr. Forrester’s spanking of himself. It was that kind of show, and it’s that kind of movie; it’s best to just run with it.

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