Alex and Andrew Debate the Sight & Sound List: Part Two

Picking up where we left off two days ago, Alex and Andrew continue to debate Sight & Sound’s list of the “Greatest Films of All Time.” Be sure to check out Part One if you missed it.

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Alex, I grant you every single point about Citizen Kane…I find the story as compelling as you do, and the idea that it takes an entire cast of characters to make an individual life is a profound one which may never have been as fully realized as Welles and Mankiewicz realized it. This being said, your description of Kane could just as easily be applied to Jay Gatsby, Julian English, even Michael Corleone in his way…and I have felt much more emotionally overwhelmed by The Great Gatsby, Appointment in Samarra, and even the two Godfathers (even though I’m not a giant fan of part one) than by Kane. Maybe my problem is I always come at film more from the writing/story perspective than the pictorial/mise-en-scene perspective. I hold both as the two equal standards of judgment, but the story takes precedence only because of my turn of mind. (And I’m not saying you discount story…I know you and your love of movies too well to make such a horrid and untrue claim…but you and I see movies from slightly different angles, just slightly, but still.)

Anyway, my point: with Gatsby, English, Corleone, Scottie, I see them as Shakespearean tragic heroes, good men brought to death, be it actual or spiritual, by a flaw. Kane is never presented that way, which makes empathy for him harder to obtain…and on the one hand, this may part of the brilliance of Citizen Kane, that the protagonist is so down-to-earth and recognizable and presented without either endearing or purely villainous qualities…Kane is neutral, is Everyman despite being the MAN among men, is recognizable. But at the same time, Welles’s refusal to give the adult Kane, his Kane, any character trait I can relate to beyond his very human ambition, anything which makes me feel involved with him, means that I only appreciate the film for that intricate and dense plotting. Don’t get me wrong, I love a film, a novel, anything with a whirling story like Kane which is so well-told. And I will never deny Kane’s greatness for an instant. You will see it appear on my own top ten list at the end of this reply because I know how much we all owe Welles. I am simply trying to understand why people are now disinclined to rank it as number one, and I think it is because it lacks the pull on the heart, even though it may be the darkest corners of our heart, which is found in Vertigo.

Your points regarding Vertigo are dead on…and I appreciate your generosity in agreeing with me after how much I disagreed with you. Your analysis of Judy only serves my point. Not only is she an idealized object of worship and obsession, she is too perfect an object…beyond letting Scottie strip her, she always swallows her resistance to all his actions which transform her into Madeleine. She is acquiescent, willing, ultimately loving…everything we who worship or obsess dream of. Her death at the end, then, is representative of how she may be the most unreal aspect in the entire film, and it throws a massive shadow over both rewatchings of the movie and our lives, making us ponder how the people we know may be playing parts of their own for some agenda of theirs or another’s, and how much of OUR own lives are works of acting.

We’re never going to agree on La Dolce Vita. Fellini was a genius, he had something important to say about humanity in this film, and the big set pieces are indeed memorable, but I react to it in a less extreme manner of how my father reacts to 2001: it just goes on and on and on with so little happening. 8 ½ takes a different but just as important theme (actually two: the creative process and the relationship of the sexes, both of which are inextricably linked…an idea I now realize Fellini helped shape in me) and uses cinematic technique and poetic sensibility just as accomplished, but does it all with more story, more deeply felt and recognizable and relatable characters, and more hope mixed in with an unflinching look at our foibles as a species.

And as a last response to your last response…David Lean is the most underrated director in film history in my book. He helmed at least six masterpieces of the art, but he had the misfortune to produce his biggest work during the final and most bloated days of the old studio system, and I would argue (without a lot of evidence, but this is purely from emotion) that the critics and historians turned on him for that. He understood cinema and how many different things could be accomplished within its parameters: that the same man could give us Brief Encounter and Lawrence of Arabia is beyond comprehension, and so few people realize this. (I will also agree with the general opinion that Ryan’s Daughter is shit, but everyone’s entitled to a piece or two of that in their oeuvre.)

So I would have liked to see how many people voted for Lean’s films, if he was picked at all. Brief Encounter was on the very first poll in 1952.

Now my turn to respond to your three points. The Searchers is not my favorite John Ford movie, but everything you said about it is true…a grand-scaled look at the most inner and fearful and great and terrible ideas we possess as a species, and very few movies have used the screen to such effect. For all the emotional grandeur of the story, Ford continually makes his characters look small against nature (Monument Valley, the snow) and the enclosed spaces we try to construct for ourselves (that gorgeous final minute). Here’s my question: which film was more influential, The Searchers or Stagecoach, which also pushed the boundaries of genre and art alike and displayed advanced sensibility as has rarely been seen?

(My favorite Ford, FYI, is The Quiet Man.)

There is an enduring power to the silent, which was most recently brought back to mind by The Artist, and I think that power comes from how the silent in a way represents the medium in its purest form, doing only what it  can do. You can see a story also play out on the stage with costumes and scenes and music, but there people will talk. The silent film omits talking and plays up the mechanics, the editing and transition and grander scope. I wonder if this may be a reaction to the digital revolution, a reach back for what film was when it was invented. This being said, when the most recent movie on your list is an American film from 1968, the ignorance of how much has been accomplished since then is startling. I would like to see at least one film from my lifetime or the decade prior to it on the list for 2022.

Third, here is my top ten. It includes only films I’ve seen and goes by the criteria of what makes the BEST film and not what my FAVORITE films are. Because I don’t think I can rank them, I’m going to go in chronological order.

City Lights (1931, Charlie Chaplin)

Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

A bout de souffle (1959, Jean-Luc Godard)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)

8 ½ (1963, Federico Fellini)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman)

Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)

Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)

Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

(When I was making this list, the film which surprised me the most was Reds…it leaped out at me as a technically brilliant film, both epic and intimate, which blends realism, impressionism, and documentary into one seamless whole…a feat similar to Citizen Kane. Just short of the mark: Jules and Jim, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and City of God.)

– Andrew

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Two things from your talk about Kane and Vertigo jumped out at me. First, I think you are dead-on in saying that we likely come into films looking for different things. I am generally more impressed by films that have a strong visual streak. A film which can wow me with frame composition and mise-en-scene will always rank higher than one that has an impressive story or good acting. I remember you and I were on different sides of the Best Picture race between The Social Network and The King’s speech for essentially this very reason. You thought that the quality of the acting and writing in the latter film made it the better, whereas I thought that Tom Hooper’s prosaic visual style put it far behind David Fincher’s work on The Social Network. Good acting and writing are essential to a good film, no doubt, but I am drawn to film as a visual medium first and foremost. Hence, my preference for Welles over Hitchcock in this debate. Not that Hitch wasn’t a master of the visual side of cinema, in Vertigo alone the use of color and subtle emphasis of height differentiations in the mise-en-scene would put him with the all-time greats. But Welles work with Toland in Kane redefined how films are thought of, so it wins out for me.

Your thoughts about Vertigo‘s emotions running deeper than Kane‘s also brought out a distinction between our tastes. A few months back I was debating the all-time great TV dramas with some folks online, and there was a contingent that was vociferously defending Buffy. They argued that Buffy‘s emotional acumen had secured its place at the top of the pantheon, while I argued passionately that shows like Deadwood and Mad Men were far more worthy of such a position because they had more on their minds. Those series have all the emotion and understanding of human nature that Buffy displays. What sets them apart for me, is that they also tackle issues of culture and history that are much grander than human psychodrama to me. Their scope is made larger and thus their achievement is more impressive, even if it lessens the emotional impact for some. It’s much the same for Kane and Vertigo in my eyes. The latter might dig deeper into the well of darkness inside the soul, but it doesn’t expand beyond that for me. Kane doing much the same, while also exploring ideas about American culture that resonate in larger ways for me.

I’ll make my responses to the rest of your points brief, since we have become quite long-winded in your enthusiasm. I’ll admit that Lean may be undervalued right now, but I think that’s because a lot of his films can seem rather airless. He was a master of the restrained epic, and that style was blown away by the French New Wave. I need to revisit much of his work, for sure, but I recall his work having a certain stodgy Victorian-ness that remains out of favor.

As to your question about Ford (who remains vibrant to me despite his work bearing much of the same Victorian sensibility I said foils Lean…maybe I’m biased), I think the quick answer for many would be Stagecoach. It is an exemplary model of the classical Hollywood narrative and style, with every shot and every line perfectly calibrated to advance the story and increase our understanding of the characters. If Welles said that he learned how to direct films by watching Stagecoach every day, then that must be the answer, right? I’m not so sure I agree. Stagecoach may have set the bar for classical Hollywood, but that system has been dead for 50 years now. In The Searchers I think we find the genesis for the darkness that has so frequently marked the best American cinema since the studio system declined. With The Searchers Ford is turning the Hollywood style, and its most famous genre, in on themselves. It’s a story of unspoken lust and unspeakable savagery that lays bare the lie at the heart of the myth of American progress. Without that rebuke from the most celebrated Hollywood filmmaker of his day I don’t know that we get the New Hollywood or American Indie movements as we know them. I can’t imagine The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde existing without The Searchers, to say nothing of the careers of the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, or Oliver Stone. It’s a dark pedigree, to be sure, but an essential one.

As to your paragraph about silent and “newer” films making the list: yes. That’s all that needs saying there.

So, without further ado, I present my own top ten. I’m making my list alphabetical, since I cannot honestly distinguish between my love for many of these. However, I do know my clear #1 and #2 and will indicate them in the list.

Citizen Kane (#1)(1941, Orson Welles)

Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)

No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)

Play Time (1967, Jacques Tati)

Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)

The Searchers (#2)(1956, John Ford)

Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu Yasujiro)

Terrence Malick is a very notable absence from this list, though I think that’s mainly because I want give The Tree of Life a bit more time before I canonize it. Other runners-up include The Last Picture Show, Sullivan’s Travels, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Wild Bunch, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, The Apartment, The Sweet Hereafter, and of course, Vertigo.

Any final thoughts?

– Alex

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To kick off my final thoughts, I hate correcting people but in this case I have to point out you may have misunderstood one remark of mine. I think The Social Network was the best film of 2010 bar none…it immediately leapt onto my all-time top 100…and in a perfect world should have been Best Picture. It is one of the most technically immaculate and emotional films one could imagine, and the first eight minutes consist of one of the most perfect scenes ever put in a movie. The King’s Speech IS a beautifully-acted and superbly-written film (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are equally fantastic) but it doesn’t come close to The Social Network. Indeed, I could accept it winning Best Picture because it is the sort of film which appeals to the Academy voters, but as I have written on this site, Tom Hooper taking Best Director over David Fincher at his peak was a crime. Fincher gave me a completely new experience. Hooper’s work was more tentative, and while his movie was sterling, it also didn’t break any new ground.

To build on this thought, that principle was used in making my top-ten list…a principle you articulated very well in your analysis of Stagecoach v. The Searchers. Annie Hall is my favorite movie of all time, but when I think about it in the context of every film I have ever seen, it didn’t redefine anything…it didn’t show me something new, something else which was possible for the medium…it’s Citizen Kane married to a 1970s-edged romantic comedy plot. Yes, it tells some profound truths and makes me sob like a baby after laughing for ninety minutes, but it did nothing which left me thunderstruck. The ten movies on my list were movies which altered my definition of what was possible for cinema to accomplish, of how the vocabulary of movies works, and, I think inspired others to take similar chances aesthetically or philosophically. And each one is different from the nine others. A bout de souffle, for example, set the standard for both the revolutions of the New Wave and wildly inventive reimagining of genres: my Truffaut and Leone runners-up follow in its proud wake. They are no less works of genius, but I don’t know how they would have been made or received in the wake of Godard.

A last matter to think about: I understand and agree with your argument in picking the greatest TV show of all time, but I think there’s one side to the issue which you are overlooking just a touch.  The danger some works of art fall into…a danger which Mad Men and Deadwood, not to mention Citizen Kane, successfully avoid…is that they become inextricably linked to their time and place in a way which makes their ideas difficult to be received by future audiences. The Graduate, for instance, is becoming increasingly dated. For this reason, I tend to favor and seek out films and works of art which can be separated from the atmosphere of their creator’s existence to a degree. Denying the influence of the world around an artist is a foolish step to take under any circumstances, and never a recommended one. But in great works of art, I focus less on the parts of the form and minor attitudes which fit its time and more on the portions of the content which were built to last. William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, the music of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, Citizen Kane and Vertigo, all of these works of art transcend their circumstances. (For this reason, Buffy is in some ways such a product of 1997-2003 that despite Whedon’s unarguable genius, it falls a little short.)

I’m happy to say that I’ve seen every film on your top ten except Tokyo Story, and even happier to say that I understand why you picked the nine you did. Perhaps the most delightful surprise on your list was Play Time, which may have been the last film to, albeit with well-chosen color, sound, and dialogue, recreate the aesthetics and ambiance of the silent era. And incidentally, Fanny and Alexander is a glorious film…but when it comes to Bergman, I always have to go with Cries and Whispers. Both are perfectly constructed and the result of a very carefully planned vision, but Fanny and Alexander is a little safe…it’s Bergman being warm and nostalgic, which are wonderful feelings and ones I am so happy he indulged in once before he died, but Cries and Whispers is still the one movie which makes my body physically react every time I see it, through the combination of design, photography, and powerhouse writing. I never know how I sit through it every time, but I do.

I’d actually like you to close out the discussion, if you don’t mind. It will make seven segments…and seven, as we know, is the best number there is as numbers and movie titles go.

– Andrew

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I can’t claim to have any special affinity for the number seven, but I am happy to take us to the end. I apologize if I mis-characterized your thoughts in regards to that Best Picture race. My relative antipathy towards The King’s Speech was greater than yours, which probably got exaggerated into the idea that you preferred Hooper’s film to Fincher’s. But, bad memory aside, it made for a good example case with which to illustrate the (minor) differences in our tastes.

I think you hit the nail on the head in regards to what makes a film truly eternal and revolutionary, and not a mere reflection of its time. In that regard your list is probably a bit more pure than mine. We each have sentimental favorites to be sure, but I think fewer people will squint at Lawrence of Arabia on such a list than they will at the relatively puny Rushmore. I have explained my love of Anderson before, and I know you know my reasoning, so c’est le vie.

In looking at our lists side by side, I was amused that we made had some interesting pairs. We both picked a Fellini, we both picked a late-career Bergman, we both picked a comedy that celebrates the silent form, and we both picked a relatively contemporary crime drama from indie auteurs. We have gone over the Fellini choice, but I haven’t yet had a chance to defend my Bergman pick. Admittedly, it has been about six years since I have seen either of Cries and Whispers or Fanny and Alexander so my memories are somewhat fuzzy, but they are both riveting masterpieces that deserve to be mentioned in any list of the best films of all time. For a long time, I felt the same as you, that Cries and Whispers was the best Bergman, a harrowing descent into the darkest corners or grief and silence that is redeemed by true and pure love. What compelled me to list Fanny and Alexander was that I felt it contained all those same elements, but added shades of life that ring very true to me. The first hour of the theatrical cut that I am familiar with, when the titular children run around their family’s house in Uppsala, felt like one of the truest representations of childhood I have ever seen. The sense of warmth and camaraderie that those scenes conveyed, full of secrets shared between cousins, spirited discussions of politics at the dinner table, and falling asleep to fairy tales, is unlike anything else in Bergman’s oeuvre. Its addition makes the rest of Fanny and Alexander’s story all the more involving, hence their film getting the nod.

As to the rest, I think the most notable difference between our lists is that you seem have a greater affinity for the epic than I do. Films like 2001, Lawrence, and Reds are sweeping films of human endeavor on a massive scale, the type that Hollywood just never makes anymore. I’m a fan of all those films, and have shown 2001 to most of my film students. However, nothing on my list reaches that sort of ambition of production. The Searchers probably comes closest, but John Ford made that with his regular crew in his regular spot. That certainly cannot be said of Lean or Beatty’s globe-hopping productions. I don’t know quite know what that distinction says about our tastes, though? It’s odd that I spent much of our writing defending historical sweep, while you argued for emotional and artistic intimacy, and yet our lists seem to betray us. Maybe our tastes are just that mysterious, even unto ourselves.

One last note and we will call this endeavor complete. I noticed that your list contained Citizen Kane, but not Vertigo. A Freudian slip? You’ll just have to weigh in on the comments page and let us all know.

– Alex

Alex Bean

Alex Bean

A life-long Midwesterner, currently living and working in Chicago. Primarily writes here about television and film (which is what he accrued crushing debt to study in school), but will write about books, sports, video games, or whatever else strikes his fancy. He's the one who thinks baseball is really boring.

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