If we were to pick the greatest films of all time… (part three)

(Editor’s note: Sight & Sound magazine recently published the newest edition of their esteemed poll of the “greatest films of all time” and we thought it will be interesting to ask our own writers about which ten films they consider as the greatest. Personal favorites? Most Influential? There is no criterion for their choices. This is the list by me, Francisco Lo, writer/editor of this publication.)

Inevitably, a lot of equally deserving films will be excluded when one has to narrow down a list of greatest films to ten. I was not able to fit in the movies by some of my favorite filmmakers, including Yasujiro Ozu, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Robert Bresson, Edward Yang, Rainer Wener Fassbinder… among many others. It’s safe to say half of my list will be different on any given day. Also, I’m on “Team Citizen Kane” (as opposed to “Team Vertigo”).

1. Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati, France)

Jacques Tati virtually went bankrupt for his magnum opus, in which he went to the great lengths of building an enormous set in the outskirts of Paris called Tativille for its production. Free from the conventions of narrative filmmaking, Tati’s world is connected by his endless series of Rube-Goldberg-machine-like gags that highlight the paradoxical beauty of life in the technological era. Tati finds humor and amusement in the most mundane daily routines in a cinematic kaleidoscope that truly rewards repeated viewings. Playtime is the Chaplin movie of the space age and the Koyaanisqatsi of comedy.

2. Winter Light (1962, dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)

In a career defined by existential and spiritual crises, Winter Light is Bergman’s most direct and brutal film. Stripped of any symbolisms and metaphors, the story follows a day in the life of a tormented priest whose faith is further shaken by the suffering he could not heal and the pain he has caused others. Sven Nykvist’s black-and-white cinematography is exquisite and the small ensemble takes the audience to Bergman’s most gripping hour. The characters’ unflinching spiritual despair shakes me to the core.

3. Modern Times (1936, dir. Charles Chaplin, USA)

Few legends of the silent era had the many talents that Chaplin possessed.  He was the lead actor, director, screenwriter and music composer to many of his films, not to mention his relatively successful transition to talkies. Modern Times was a topical film in the midst of The Great Depression, but it has remained timeless. Chaplin’s greatness lays in his film’s universality— its appeal transcends language and cultural boundaries. Perhaps the same can be said about City Lights. But I choose Modern Times over the equally great 1931 film because of lead actress Paulette Goddard, whose infectious charm raises her above the standard love interest.

4. My Little Loves (1974, dir. Jean Eustache, France)

Best known for his 1971 film The Mother and the Whore—a seminal work which marked the end of the French New Wave, Jean Eustache’s films has faded into relative obscurity (in comparison to his contemporaries) after his death at the age of 43 in 1981. I had the fortune of watching his work in a retrospect at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston a few years ago and I was struck by the unassuming tenderness in his movies. The one that struck me the most was the 1974 coming-of-age story My Little Loves, in which a young boy in provincial France has to drop out of school to become a mechanic apprentice. Unlike the typical fare of the genre, Eustache’s film does not depict any life-changing events but instead focusing on the day-to-day routine of the unremarkable life of the protagonist, who seems to have accepted his fate at a very young age. Actor Martin Loeb plays lead role sans the defiance expected from a silver screen teenager, but fills the screen with an air of resignation to life of the common people. Eustache’s matter-of-fact approach evokes nostalgia without dipping into sentimentality and exhibits the rare sensitivity of a poet.

5. High and Low (1963, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan)

Rashomon is the film that cemented Kurosawa’s name in cinema history; Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have made him an international icon; and Ikiru is his humanist triumph. But I stand by High and Low as the Japanese director’s perfect film. Perfect, as in a perfectly executed major studio picture. In the first hour, which is set in the living room of the lead character’s hilltop mansion, Kurosawa’s mise en scene is flawless—the framing, the editing, the lighting, the acting and the narrative flow all come together in the most stunning indoor sequences ever committed to the anamorphic widescreen. The second half of the film ventures out and evolves into an absorbing police procedural film and the tonal shift does not miss a beat. While Kurosawa can come across as too moralistic in his earlier films, High and Low is morally ambiguous with an ending that sends chills to my spine.

6. Chungking Express (1994, dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)

The ‘90s was one hell of a decade for Wong Kar-wai. Bookended by two of his most acclaimed pictures—Days of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love, the Hong Kong auteur made six great movies in that span of time. While Chungking Express may not be as flawless as In The Mood For Love, as some might claim, I find myself going back to that movie over and over again, with unremitting enthusiasm, since my first viewing. Frustrated by the laborious process of shooting and editing his martial arts epic Ashes of Time, Wong took a two-month break to make Chungking Express. He wrote the script at coffee shops during the day and shot in the asphalt jungle in Kowloon at night. In the most light-hearted film of his career, Wong’s free-flowing approach to filmmaking flourishes under the unconstrained conditions. Two unrelated stories in one movie? Why the hell not. But what stays with me the most is the way Chungking Express captured the frantic energy of multicultural Hong Kong in 1994. As the canned pineapples expire and the promise of a California trip awaits, the city itself nervously counts down to the end of British colonial rule. Wong’s generation-defining time capsule will always bring me back to a time and place that I once knew.

7. Close-Up (1990, dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami once said, “The difference between a fiction and non-fiction film is less important than the distinction between a good and a bad film.” Based on a true story about a working class man who was arrested for impersonating filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf and promising to give a Kurdish upper-middle class family acting roles in his next project, Close-up is a mind-opening inquisition on the nature of cinema and our perception of reality. Kiarostami employed the real-life parties involved to reenact the ordeal while he got permission to tape the court proceedings. There is no way to tell which part of the film is real and which part is staged because every image and narrative is simultaneously fictional and non-fictional. Close-up is brilliantly complex as questions regarding art and social issues are included all in one film. After a hundred years of cinema, Kiarostami has managed to find new doors to open, which leads to more unknown and exciting territory to explore.

8. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971, dir. Werner Herzog, USA)

German cinema’s mad genius Werner Herzog has dedicated much of his career to depict outsiders who are unable to fit in with the rest of society. It all started with this 1971 documentary, in which he follows Fini, a middle-aged woman who has been blind and deaf since she was a child, in her journey to make contact with others who share her predicament. The film does not aim to inspire or celebrate the triumphant of the human spirit, as some may interpret it that way, though it certainly leaves any viewer a lasting impression in its uncompromising portrayal of those who are literally shut off from the rest of the world. In lieu of his trademark deadpan voiceover in his later American-made documentaries, Herzog handles his subject with a soft touch and one can sense that there is a certain kinship he feels with these ultimate outsiders. Herzog distinguishes himself as the master of the medium with his natural instincts as a filmmaker. A good filmmaker exacts a well thought-out plan in preparation for a shoot. A great filmmaker improvises and adapts at the instant he/she senses greatness is here and now. Herzog is certainly the latter. In the film’s last sequence, Fini visits a blind and deaf man who has spent years living with cows in a stable after he was rejected by human society. The man no longer gestures or makes any attempt to communicate with anyone. As Fini says goodbye to the man’s mother, he is oblivious to all that’s happening around him and wanders off in the garden by himself. Instead of continuing to film the conversation, Herzog’s camera follows the man, who has come in front of a tree and begins to touch its branches, trunk and leaves. This most beautiful moment, which captures the human condition of loneliness and longing to connect—even with an incommunicable entity, may seem like a lucky happenstance but is actually a stroke of genius that can only be realized by the most gifted of all filmmakers.

9. To Be or Not To Be (1942, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, USA)

Comedies always get short-changed in the critics’ circle. I was mildly surprised to learn that Ernst Lubistch, whose namesake “Lubistch’s Touch” is the touchstone of Hollywood’s Golden Age, did not have one film in Sight & Sound’s top 100. With an ingenious blend of screwball comedy and political satire, To Be or Not to Be is perhaps Lubistch’s most audacious picture. Shot at the height of the war (and released three months after the Pearl Harbor Atttack), the German-born Jewish-American director caused quite a stir and uproar as he put Hitler and Nazi Germany in the crosshair of his farce. The script, written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin J. Mayer, is not only filled with zingers, but also a creative plot that surprises from start to finish. It is anybody’s guess what the Polish Shakespearean troupe will do to distract the Nazis. The ensemble, led by the irresistible Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, has perfect comedic timing and I never thought “Heil Hitler!” could be this outrageously funny.

10. 35 Shots of Rum (2008, dir. Claire Denis, France)

Maybe it is too early to pick a film that is less than 10 years old. But as I look back at the greatest in history, I can’t help but look forward to the exciting possibilities the future entails. Claire Denis is one of the most enticing filmmakers working right now and 35 Shots of Rum is especially dear to me among her never-disappointing oeuvre. The father-and-daughter drama is true to Denis’ style while paying homage to the great Yasujiro Ozu, who is my favorite director (yet I find it too difficult to pick one of his films to include in this list). It blows my mind that a French woman in the 21st century and a Japanese man who died in 1963 have made movies that bear little aesthetic similarities yet the delicate sentiments they portrayed beautifully resonate with each other. The last shot of the film—a mere shot of two inanimate objects—gently imparts the pathos that sums up this gem of a film.


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