All lists of the "greatest" movies are propaganda. They have no deeper significance. It is useless to debate them. Even more useless to quarrel with their ordering of titles: Why is this film #11 and that one only #31? The most interesting lists are those by one person: What are Scorsese's favorites, or Herzog's? The least interesting are those by large-scale voting, for example by IMDb or movie magazines. The most respected poll, the only one I participate in, is the vote taken every 10 years by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, which asks a large number of filmmakers, writers, critics, scholars, archivists and film festival directors.
1. "The Night of the Hunter" (1955)
That one at least has taken on a canonical aspect. The list evolves slowly. Keaton rises, Chaplin falls. It is eventually decided that "Vertigo" is Hitchcock's finest film. Ozu cracks the top ten. Every ten years the net is thrown out again. The Sight & Sound list at least reflects widespread thinking in what could be called the film establishment, and reflects awareness of the full span of more than a century of cinema.
The IMDb list of "250 Top Movies of All Time" is the best-known and most-quoted of all "best movie" lists. It looks to be weighted toward more recent films, although Keith Simonton, who is in charge over there, tells me they have a mathematical model that somewhat corrects for that. Specifically, it guards against this week's overnight sensation shooting to the top of the list on a wave of fanboy enthusiasm. Still, the IMDb voters are probably much younger on average than the Sight & Sound crowd. To the degree the list merely reflects their own tastes back at them, it tells them what they already know.
2. "Apocalypse Now" (1979)
To be useful to me, a list should contain titles I'm not familiar with, suggest directors I should be looking at, and inspire me to give some films another look. That's what I mean by its function as "propaganda." When any of us makes a list, aren't we really telling other people what they should like? A title that has frequently appeared in my S&S voting has been Errol Morris's "Gates of Heaven." Is it really one of the ten greatest films ever made? I have no idea, because such a list is so limited and arbitrary anyway. That it is a great film I have no doubt. It fascinates me on every viewing, and I've seen it at least 20 times. When I put on my S&S list, it wasn't available on home video in any form, and I wanted to call attention to it.
You can look over the individual lists of the S&S voters and find a lot of titles that are flares sent up on behalf of a personal passion. Other voting might be strategic. I am convinced, for example, that Yasujiro Ozu should be on the list. His films have a remarkable uniformity of excellence. Which should I select? My personal favorite is the sound version of "Floating Weeds," but I voted for "Tokyo Story" because it is also fully deserving, and I sensed it would find wider support. I guessed correctly, and "Tokyo Story" is now on the list.
That brings us to a new list of fifty films, compiled in late June by the Spectator, a weekly London magazine that has been published continuously since 1711. Conservative for nearly 300 years, it is my favorite magazine because of its writing, which is superb, and because its conservative writers are intelligent and witty, and not bloody-minded and angry like so many of their American counterparts. But enough about politics. The Spectator's list has been compiled by two men: Its editor Matthew d'Anacona, and Peter Hoskin, its web editor. They aren't particularly famed for their opinions on film, but on the basis of their list they know their movies, and aren't trapped in the present.
3. "Sunrise" (1927)
Their selection passes my most important test: It is interesting. It contains ten titles that aren't included in my ever-growing Great Movies Collection, and I am now inspired to consider them. In fact, my recent inclusion of Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo," which would have become a Great Movie anyway, was given a nudge when my Spectator arrived in the mail.
The most interesting title on the list is the first one, simply because it is the first. Is Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" (1955) really the Greatest Movie of All Time? There's a title that probably hadn't occurred to you, eh? I know it hadn't occurred to Brian Dobrin, a reader from Los Angeles who by coincidence recently e-mailed me complaining that because it was in my Great Movies Collection he rented it and found it "it was terribly directed, horribly written, and badly edited." He closed by assuring me: "You must have been drunk when you saw it or something." I hope he will find other titles in the Collection to interest him.
The quasi-official best movie of all time on many lists for many years has been Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941). It is named for many reasons, only one of them that it is a masterpiece. Cineastes embrace it because for once a director had the freedom to make a movie entirely on his own terms, and as his punishment was never treated decently by Hollywood again. "Citizen Kane" at the top of a list is a thumb in the eye to the kinds of people lathering to make "Transformers 3."
4. "Black Narcissus" (1947)
That said, "The Night of the Hunter" is not an absurd title for the top of the list, with the caveat that all lists are meaningless. It is a haunting, magical masterpiece, a union of sight and sound, of acting, direction and cinematography all in step. It was the only film ever directed by Laughton, who might have made others had it not been rejected by the box office; perhaps moviegoers didn't know what to make of it, although today it seems to possess a rare clarity. (It's #158 of the IMDb top 250.)
The film stars Mitchum as Preacher, a convict with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, who after prison comes looking for a widow (Shelley Winters) who he's heard has a secret hoard of cash. After her murder, his search leads him to a gothic frame house occupied by two children and their foster mother (Lillian Gish) and he terrorizes them in scenes that are often seen through the eyes of the children.
Hoskin and d'Anacona are pleased with their choice. Hoskin: "It's an oddly beguiling mix of noir thriller, fairytale and folk drama that I just don't think any other film has ever matched, or even thought to try." d'Anacona: "Mitchum and Gish brought their own cinematic baggage--Gish as the typical heroine of Griffith's epics, and Mitchum as the defining face of film noir. To some extent, Laughton's got them playing their own archetypes."
Miss Gish, was a living icon who made her first film in 1912 and her last in 1987, and was top-billed to the end of her career. Its famous river journey sequence, with the riverbank creatures seeming to eye the progress of the children, is visual poetry. The direct influence of German expressionism can be seen; the film is stylistically alive. And it knows what so few suspense films know: Suspense grows from context and style working over time, and has nothing to do things popping out of the screen.
So, yes, I can live with "The Night of the Hunter." Also with Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," which is second on their list. In fact, 19 of their top 20 films are Great Movies, and I'll have to take another look at #19, "Point Blank." So if this list inspired you to look at "The Night of the Hunter" or "The Scarlet Empress" or "The Earrings of Madame de..." it will have done you a favor.
5. "L'Avventura" (1960)
What is interesting is that the most recent films are Wong Kar-Wei's "In the Mood for Love" (2000) and Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Three by Coppola, two by Hitchcock, Welles and Powell-Pressburger. Only three silent films. The list contains contains puzzlements. Nothing by Buster Keaton or Kurosawa. and "Barry Lyndon" instead of "2001." No "The Third Man." But to quibble with specific titles, as I said, is a waste of time. We look at these lists for what we find on them, not what we don't find. That's why my Great Movies have never been a ranking, but a Collection, assembled in no particular order.
Any list of great films helps breaks the hammer-lock of box office performance that grips too many American moviegoers. I can't tell you how many people responded to my attack on "Transformers" by telling me how much money the movie was grossing, as if that had the slightest relevance. A great movie acts like a window in our box of space and time, opening us to other times and other lands. The more windows we open, the better.
Here's the complete Spectator list:
13. "Grand Illusion," Renoir
14. "Citizen Kane," Welles
15. "The Scarlet Empress," von Sternberg
16. "Tokyo Story," Ozu
18. "Rear Window," Hitchcock
19. "Point Blank," Boorman
20. "The Red Shoes," Powell & Pressburger
21. "The Earrings of Madame de...," Ophuls
22. "Shadows," Cassavetes
23. "Pickpocket," Bresson
24. "Viridiana," Bunuel
25. "Barry Lyndon," Kubrick
26. "City Lights," Chaplin
27. "Pierrot le Fou," Godard
28. "Sunset Boulevard," Wilder
29. "Notorious," Hitchcock
30. "M," Lang
31. "The Roaring Twenties," Walsh
32. "Singin' in the Rain," Donen and Kelly
33. "The Long Day Closes," Davies
34. "Killer of Sheep," Burnett
35. "Gun Crazy," Lewis
36. "Andrei Rublev," Tarkovsky
37. "Taxi Driver," Scorsese
38. "The 400 Blows," Truffaut
39. "Pulp Fiction," Tarantino
40. "Kind Hearts and Coronets," Hamer
42. "Sullivan's Travels," Sturges
43. "8 1/2," Fellini
44. "Pinocchio," Disney
45. "Great Expectations," Lean
46. "Rome, Open City," Rossellini
47. "Duck Soup," McCarey
48. "Jaws," Spielberg
49. "Manhattan," Allen
50. "Out of the Past," Tourneur
The Sight and Sound poll from 2002, broken down by critics and directors .
The top ten films in the poll from 1952 to 1992.
"The River Journey" in "The Night of the Hunter"
"The Ride Of The Valkyries" from "Apocalypse Now"
A sequence from "Sunrise"
Deborah Kerr in "Black Narcissus"
Wandering on the island, from "L'Avventura"