I’ve always found the Sight and Sound decennial Top Ten list somewhere between silly and dull. On the one hand, the inherently fraught nature of any definitive “best ever” list makes this particularly bold attempt seem even more ridiculous. Even asking individuals for their personal “best” is problematic. It creates a distinction between “best” and “favorite” that ends up convincing critics to leave off works they truly love in favor of the Kubrick or Hitchcock film they know is expected of them. The grandiose pretention to the objective best, which is of course impossible, just makes me giggle.
Unfortunately, the whole thing would be truly hilarious if it weren’t also terribly boring. Don’t get me wrong, I think Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. But is it the greatest film ever made? Of course not. There isn’t a greatest film ever made, so a little variety at the top would be nice. The same goes for Vertigo among Hitchcock films, or other greats like Eisenstein and Fellini. It’s as if the list itself has ossified – the best incarnation, for my money, was the quirky collection in the poll’s inaugural year. Le jour se lève and Brief Encounter¸ both personal favorites, haven’t appeared since 1952. The problem, I think, is that our definition of “great film” has almost become a genre. We only include already highly regarded films on our “best” lists, if not out of fear of judgment then at least out of habit. And that’s irritating.
It’s also why there aren’t any shorts on the list, not even on 2002’s extended 50. Admittedly, when I submitted my top 10 for Cole Abaius’s Film School Rejects poll, I also only used features. A week later, I regret some of my choices. Abaius, to his credit, included A Trip to the Moon at #10. Landon Palmer has La jetée, and Christopher Campbell has Un chien andalou at #1 on his “personal” list. There is no reason at all why the masterpieces of short filmmaking shouldn’t count as masterpieces of filmmaking in general. So, with some fine examples laced through the discussion, let’s figure out why there are no short films on the Sight and Sound list.
Un chien andalou, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí
I think the biggest problem is that “genre” issue. We have a pretty set idea as to what a “greatest film” looks like. It’s formally bold, has big ideas to go with its grand cinematography, and probably doesn’t have very many well-developed female characters. It’s also long. The average length of the films on the 2002 list is 129 minutes. Cinematic ambition doesn’t need to also be temporal ambition, but that seems lost on many of the critics polled. Frankly, I think La jetée is a much better example of the artistic potential of futuristic cinema than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its vision is more compact and its style much more rigorous. I don’t entirely see why we can only celebrate sci-fi if it’s well over two hours and willfully obtuse.
La jetée, by Chris Marker
Science fiction leads into another element of the genre problem, which I think is at the core of these lists’ dullness. The masterworks of most genres and smaller movements in cinema history don’t get to be part of this conversation. If a film is labeled one of the greatest works of feminist cinema, or queer cinema, it’s usually effectively excused. It has its niche to rule, but it might not be quite as serious as Kane or Vertigo. It’s not that there’s some sort of insidious or directly prejudicial intent going on, but rather that other emerging voices of the 20th century don’t seem to be taken quite as seriously. Don’t get me started on how frustrated I am with Terrence Malick’s success last year versus the lack of acclaim for Lynne Ramsay. Now that The Tree of Life is hitting Ebert’s Top Ten, it seems as good a time as any to have this discussion.
Fireworks, by Kenneth Anger
Wasp, by Andrea Arnold
I could go on about underground cinema, New Queer Cinema, and the neglected new waves from Czechoslovakia, Romania and elsewhere. So many areas of film history end up excluded from Sight and Sound’s poll simply due to the way we conceive of greatness, and the conversation is weakened as a result. The same is true for other forms of cinema, either in broad genre (comedy, for example) or form (animation). In 2001, The Guardian posted Terry Gilliam’s top ten animated films, a list I keep coming back to. He includes Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood, one of the better comedy cartoons of the 1940s. Yet he also makes room for Street of Crocodiles, the experimental Quay Brothers short that Gilliam considers hypnotic and enigmatic. This kind of creative openness is admirable, to say the least.
Red Hot Riding Hood, Tex Avery
Street of Crocodiles, by The Brothers Quay
As it stands, the classics of early cinema are probably the shorts with the best shot, not least because many were made before the feature-length film became the standard. Un Chien Andalou is a good example, as is Abaius’s pick A Trip to the Moon. These are founding masterpieces of the medium, groundbreaking experiments in imagery that continue to amaze us today. And maybe, if we’re lucky, one of them will turn up in this year’s poll.
A Trip to the Moon, by Georges Méliès
With that, we’ve got seven short candidates for “Best Film of All Time.” It might be an indulgence, but I think I’ll round it out to an even ten. In chronological order:
A Trip to the Moon, by Georges Méliès (1906)
Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929)
The Old Mill, by Wilfred Jackson and Walt Disney (1937)
Red Hot Riding Hood, by Tex Avery (1943)
Fireworks, by Kenneth Anger (1947)
Neighbours, by Norman McLaren (1952)
The Red Balloon, by Albert Lamorisse (1956)
La jetée, by Chris Marker (1962)
Street of Crocodiles, by The Brothers Quay (1986)
Wasp, by Andrea Arnold (2003)