These Are The Best Films Ever Made

14 September 2015

History's hundred greatest films...

But what if these are the best films ever made? Whether a top ten or a top ton, a personal list of favourites can only ever be that: a private sum of preferences. But it must also, inevitably, stand in as one’s own argument for What’s Best, because criteria such as aesthetic influence, historical significance, and commercial success have no inherent relation to great artistry. (This is not, of course, to say one cannot be sufficiently moved by a film that also happens to have had a notable impact in these fields.)

Best films don’t exist outside the canon: those polls that survey the same old names, people who graduated through the same old ranks of cinephilia, encountering the same old books and records that taught them what was worth falling in love with and what wasn’t. Consensus is never meaningless, nor is it without cultural value, but which truly honest critical thinker could ever seriously propose that one’s favourite film is somehow different from, or somehow inferior to, the best? Such a concession, favouring as it does some vaguely defined, externally informed system by which to grade films, is self-annihilating and of little help to anyone.

Even so, time and again, one encounters colleagues who create different systems to evaluate arbitrarily separate lists of ‘favourites’ and ‘bests’: the former might consist of films that speak to the list-maker, perhaps from childhood or adolescence, while the latter is composed of films that contain a certain ‘universality’, ‘timelessness’, ‘historical magnitude’, ‘technical profundity’ and so on. In that component of our shapeshifting profession that demands advocacy, we critics drift toward the reinforcement of what we already know: how does a film like Vertigo top the Sight & Sound poll without certain poseurs’ proclivity for the predictable prevailing?

Nevertheless, many titles on the following list (Vertigo included) will echo the canon. This is a reflection of how I, too, have come through the same old cinephilic ranks previously mentioned—though I remain criminally under-watched, in the same way that as a Literature undergraduate I was woefully under-read. Still, no room in Pattison’s canon for Fellini, Godard, Bergman, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Scorsese, Herzog, and many other lifelong members of that over-referenced racket. There’s no objective reason in my eyes as to why any of this lot should be more highly regarded than, or perceived as innately superior to, a one-hit wonder like Dave Robinson, whose Take It or Leave It has as much life and energy as, say, La Dolce Vita, Breathless or Mean Streets. It’s also as vital a snapshot of London as those films are, respectively, of Rome, Paris and New York.

More radically, paraphrasing this site’s co-founder, Bobby Lowe, there’s no objective reason as to why a Michael Bay picture should be innately lesser than a film like Citizen Kane. I mention the latter film here only because it often tops consensical nonsense and because I consciously made it my first casualty when revising the following Top 100 from its previous form. I have never felt anything less than love, excitement and admiration for Welles’ giant since first viewing it in the mid-2000s, but I’m not particularly interested in including it again. Perhaps it will return with some renewed vengeance in two years, following an overdue rewatch that floors me as if I were seeing it for the first time (I last viewed it, on 35mm, at the Berlinale in February, 2014).

Other films ditched include two Roy Andersson titles (Songs From the Second Floor and You, the Living) and three Béla Tarrs (Damnation, Werckmeister Harmonies and Sátántangó). Both directors are victims of retroactive scepticism on my part. In the case of Andersson, I contracted a gradual case of the willies from his latest film, the ostentatiously named A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which exposes its director as a lazy intellectual at best and a fraudulent polemicist at worst. As for Tarr, a 35mm screening of the once unconquerable Sátántangó (it made the Top Ten in 2011) in Ljubljana in November last year wasn’t quite the stuff of magic that I—a staunch fan since first watching it on DVD one rainy Sunday in 2006—had anticipated.

Tarr was present in Ljubljana and answered reverent questions from local fans with a tellingly grouchy demeanour. Concluding an assessment of the soviet collapse with nothing but despair was never helpful, but Tarr’s promotion of his own aesthetic traits amounts to little, these days, other than ‘Hollywood bad, arthouse good,’ a binary that was always uneasy to begin with, and which has now for a decade or so been obviously untrue (really thinking about it, Werckmeister Harmonies only persists in my brain due to Mihály Víg’s music, which might be reason enough to love a work).

Only the falsest radicalism can survive with Tarr’s outlook, and his exile from the current crop is telling of overall shifts, on my part, away from what for the sake of argument we’ll call ‘slow cinema’: Tsai’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, reviewed in this site’s inaugural post, has fallen from the Top Five in 2011 and Top Ten in 2013 to somewhere in the low 90s here. Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective and Apichatpong’s Syndromes and a Century—exactly the kind of films I wanted to see when I first saw them—have disappeared altogether. Not that I suddenly dislike these films. Top tons are easier to compile once you note that you’re allowed to like more than a hundred films. And lists are only ever a starting point.

Speaking of which, I noted recently that, unlike the last Top 100, in making this one I wouldn’t consult its immediate predecessor. The previous two lists were compiled from a shortlist of films that I rated 9/10 or above (I keep meticulous record of such grades, though often have difficulty recalling them from heart). For this edition, I firstly opened the doors to all films rated 8/10 or above, and then denied myself access to such ratings altogether, selecting from an alphabetised pool rather than a pre-loaded hierarchy. It means it’s more than just a shuffle of the same hundred titles: there are 39 new entries here.

Put another way, rather than allowing the final elite to be entirely determined by static scores, where space is limited to those with full marks, I now get to update some films’ individual grades (as seen here and here, for instance) depending on whether they make the cut, allowing their place on or absence from a more instinctive top ton to determine how I rate them. The hope is that I find time for those flawed greats that, for whatever reason, I previously felt weren’t deserving of my higher numerical approbation. One cannot impose mathematical rigidity onto something as complex as taste like one does a grid upon a map: whatever its flaws, sometimes a film can pursue one’s thoughts, prompting positive memories and excitements in unexpected ways.

Such is the case with Krish’s H.M.P., Pakula’s The Parallax View, Emigholz’s Parabeton, Martin and Roberts’ Launch, Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, and several others. In the case of the latter work—an adaptation of Howard Zinn’s 1980 book, A People’s History of the United States, that consists of gravestones, monuments, epitaphs, and plaques memorialising those activists and revolutionaries who have fought for better human and working rights throughout American history—its odd, rather distracting animated interludes may be demerits, but if I see another film this year that executes a simple premise in such an energising and enthralling manner I’ll consider myself extremely lucky indeed. Same for Greenaway’s Vertical Features Remake, which I don’t think I’ve ever fully seen more than once—and the only viewing way back in 2005—but it has, on more than one occasion, slipped cheekily into mind when conversing with friends and colleagues about great films of its ilk.

Landscape films are of the moment. Four titles in my top ten belong to this vaguely defined genre, and another eight feature in the bottom 90—not including charming, government-sponsored documentaries like Thirty Million Letters, Men of Consett and Steel, whose inclusion here speak of my current and lasting preference for rich evocations of industry, community and the particularities of rural, urban and subterranean Britain. Some titles feature merely due to my strong desire in the past couple of years to see them again—sign enough of my fondness for them.

I think landscape films might also prevail here due to my renewed interest in making one. It’s been three years since I made Play History, my most recent film. Last month, on an 18-mile walk along the Lee Navigation section of the River Lea—from Waltham Cross on London’s M25 to Limehouse Basin at the River Thames—I decided to plan my next project, tentatively called Lea River Bridges. I have always liked to watch films I would like to make, and have always liked to make films I would like to watch. This list is a partial encapsulation of that dialectic. Which films, for an age either side of this fragmented moment, would I like to watch—and make—the most?

__1. The French Connection
William Friedkin. 1971 USA

__2. Singin' in the Rain
Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. 1952 USA

__3. Take It Or Leave It
Dave Robinson. 1981 UK

__4. Southern Comfort
Walter Hill. 1981 USA

__5. Deseret
James Benning. 1995 USA

__6. Robinson in Ruins
Patrick Keiller. 2010 UK

__7. Rope
Alfred Hitchcock. 1948 USA

__8. Robinson in Space
Patrick Keiller. 1997 UK

__9. North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock. 1959 USA

_10. London
Patrick Keiller. 1994 UK

_11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry. 2004 USA 

_12. The New World
Terrence Malick. 2005 USA

_13. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón. 2006 Japan / UK / USA

_14. Chinatown
Roman Polanski. 1974 USA

_15. The Insider
Michael Mann. 1999 USA

_16. The Fly
David Cronenberg. 1986 UK / Canada / USA

_17. Heat
Michael Mann. 1995 USA

_18. Home Alone
Chris Columbus. 1990 USA

_19. Rear Window
Alfred Hitchcock. 1954 USA

_20. Zodiac
David Fincher. 2007 USA

_21. The Godfather Part II
Francis Ford Coppola. 1974 USA

_22. RR
James Benning. 2007 USA

_23. The Conversation
Francis Ford Coppola. 1974 USA

_24. The Reckoning
Jack Gold. 1969 UK

_25. Woodstock
Michael Wadleigh. 1970 USA

_26. Days of Hope
Ken Loach. 1975 UK

_27. Videodrome
David Cronenberg. 1983 Canada / USA

_28. Los
James Benning. 2001 USA

_29. Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock. 1958 USA

_30. Proof of Life
Taylor Hackford. 2000 USA

_31. The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil
John Mackenzie. 1974 UK

_32. Ghostbusters
Ivan Reitman. 1984 USA

_33. The Deer Hunter
Michael Cimino. 1978 USA

_34. casting a glance
James Benning. 2007 USA

_35. The Price of Coal, Part 1: Meet the People
Ken Loach. 1977 UK

_36. Die Hard
John McTiernan. 1988 USA

_37. The Prestige
Christopher Nolan. 2006 USA / UK

_38. Blue Velvet
David Lynch. 1986 USA

_39. Archipelago
Joanna Hogg. 2010 UK

_40. Manhunter
Michael Mann. 1986 USA

_41. True Confessions
Ulu Grosbard. 1981 USA

_42. United Kingdom
Roland Joffé. 1981 UK

_43. Universal Soldier: Regeneration
John Hyams. 2009 USA

_44. The Leopard Il gattopardo
Luchino Visconti. 1963 Italy

_45. Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder. 1944 USA

_46. Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind
John Gianvito. 2007 USA

_47. The Spongers
Roland Joffé. 1978 UK

_48. Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola. 1979 USA

_49. American Dream
Barbara Kopple. 1990 USA

_50. Kes
Ken Loach. 1969 UK

_51. The Victoria Line Report No. 2: Down and Along
Bob Privett. 1965 UK

_52. Vertical Features Remake
Peter Greenaway. 1978 UK

_53. Paradise Alley
Sylvester Stallone. 1978 USA

_54. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Steve Barron. 1990 USA

_55. The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach. 2006 Ireland / UK / Germany / Italy / France / Belgium / Switzerland

_56. Alien
Ridley Scott. 1979 UK

_57. Robin Hood
Wolfgang Reitherman. 1973 USA

_58. Border Warfare
John McGrath. 1989 UK

_59. LA Confidential
Curtis Hanson. 1997 USA

_60. All the President's Men
Alan J. Pakula. 1976 USA

_61. Harlan County USA
Barbara Kopple. 1976 USA

_62. On Reflection: B.S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson
B.S. Johnson. 1971 UK

_63. Men of Consett
Tom Stobart. 1959 UK

_64. The Adventures of Robin Hood
William Keighley and Michael Curtiz. 1938 USA

_65. Jurassic Park
Steven Spielberg. 1993 USA

_66. Cops
Buster Keaton. 1922 USA

_67. Teeth of Steel
Ronald H. Riley. 1942 UK

_68. The Warriors
Walter Hill. 1979 USA

_69. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Tobe Hooper. 1974 USA

_70. Gladiator
Ridley Scott. 2000 USA

_71. Laura
Otto Preminger. 1944 USA

_72. Don't Look Now
Nicolas Roeg. 1973 UK

_73. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
James Cameron. 1991 USA

_74. The Lusty Men
Nicholas Ray. 1952 USA

_75. Eraserhead
David Lynch. 1977 USA

_76. Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock. 1960 USA

_77. The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola. 1972 USA

_78. The Wicker Man
Robin Hardy. 1973 UK

_79. Steel
Ronald H. Riley. 1945 UK

_80. The Firm
Alan Clarke. 1989 UK

_81. Ghostbusters II
Ivan Reitman. 1989 USA

_82. Streets of Fire
Walter Hill. 1984 USA

_83. Way Out West
James W. Horne. 1937 USA

_84. First Blood
Ted Kotcheff. 1982 USA

_85. West Side Story
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. 1961 USA

_86. The Royal Road
Jenni Olson. 2015 USA

_87. Modern Times
Charles Chaplin. 1937 USA

_88. The Parallax View
Alan J. Pakula. 1974 USA

_89. The Gamekeeper
Ken Loach. 1980 UK

_90. Thirty Million Letters
James Ritchie. 1963 UK

_91. Toponymy Toponimia
Jonathan Perel. 2015 Argentina

_92. The Terminator
James Cameron. 1984 USA

_93. Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola. 2003 USA / Japan

_94. The Birds
Alfred Hitchcock. 1963 USA

_95. The Music Box
James Parrott. 1932 USA

_96. H.M.P.
John Krish. 1976 UK

_97. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone Hei yan quan
Tsai Ming-liang. 2006 Malaysia / China / Taiwan / France / Austria

_98. The Driving Force
James Ritchie and Ronald Craigen. 1966 UK

_99. Launch
Murray Martin and Peter Roberts. 1973 UK

100. Parabeton: Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete Parabeton - Piere Luigi Nervi und Römische Beton
Heinz Emigholz. 2012 Germany

See also:
Yearly Top Tens