My Sight and Sound 2022 Ballot (It’s Not Real, I’m Just Jealous and Want to Participate)

The Sight and Sound poll invites more than a thousand real critics (i.e., not me) to submit their top ten films to be compiled as part of their decennial results. There will be a new Sight and Sound poll this year, which I’ve been indecently excited about for the past three or four years now, and I assume their qualifications for those they invite will be as vague as those from 2012:

As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”

Nick James, then-editor of Sight and Sound

In the spirit of that vague answer, I decided to go in a slightly different direction. When I am really profoundly moved by a movie, not simply touched or delighted or excited or thrilled, but shaken, I react physically. My eyes get wider, my skin prickles, my pulse quickens, my breathing becomes shallow. In that grayer border between body and spirit, my mind races. Occasionally I will joke about watching some important movie or seeing something by an important director and laugh a comment about “going to church.” It’s not an unserious statement. To sense God, people will go to church, or into nature, or into their own heads. If I want to indulge that numinous itch, I’d go back to one of these ten movies.

They are listed alphabetically, with year of release, director, and national origin.


2001: A Space Odyssey
1968 / Stanley Kubrick / UK-USA

In the Arthurian legend, Galahad attains the Holy Grail, the only man worthy of such a prize. Not long after, he experiences a religious vision and accepts the chance to ascend to Heaven. Dave Bowman is of dubious holiness compared to Galahad, let alone Enoch or Elijah, yet the second half of 2001 is the story of how Dave becomes the first man since Galahad to touch an object as holy as the cup which held Christ’s blood, and how Dave exceeded those righteous three. They may sit not so far from the right hand of the Father, but Dave has transcended humanity itself. He will supplant his own race. Even Moonwatcher was still an ape when he threw that bone in the air.

2001 has a reputation as a longish movie, which is a popular way of saying that it has a deliberate pace. For a film that has Moonwatcher’s story, the Clavius mystery, and Dave’s escape and exaltation, 140 minutes or so is practically pacey. Using the Blue Danube Waltz as his metronome, Kubrick speeds through a flight from Earth to the Moon, capturing the celerity of travel for a basically nonplussed Heywood Floyd and his equally cavalier stewardesses. Ancient humans looked at the stars and told stories about their origins, creating narrative from fuzzy shapes, puzzling out retrograde motion with that charmingly fallacious way people have. All of it brought Dr. Floyd to a trip where we can see how thoroughly his wonder has been sapped from him; even before he left, the sight of his little girl on a call is about as engaging for him as a trip to see an accountant or a dentist. That awe and discovery and change can reenter a world like Heywood Floyd’s, in the figure of a glowing fetus in an amniotic sac filled with stardust, is hope itself. When I first saw this movie as a high school sophomore, I liked it because it made me think, which was not an experience with movies I’d ever given myself over to before. As an older person, I find myself drawn to the warmth in this movie as much more than I find myself drawn to the visual mastery or the allegorical content.


Battleship Potemkin
1925 / Sergei Eisenstein / USSR

Sometimes I wonder if Battleship Potemkin must have the least remembered final reel in the history of movies. Even compared to the rest of the film, which is as efficient as they come, that last reel is pure excitement. The men of the Potemkin are preparing for battle, fearing the assault from the still-loyal elements of the fleet. Eisenstein paints the coming conflict as inevitable, no matter how quickly the Potemkin glides through the water, and the film ends as rapidly as the battle does. The sailors of the pursuing ship have mutinied as well, refusing to fire on the men of the Potemkin, refusing to blow them out of the water and sending them to join much-honored Vakulinchuk. Vakulinchuk, who died for a bowl of borscht, was the dynamo, and now thanks to his heroic example of sacrifice, more men are rising up against an unjust system. I love the way that this movie manages this idea of injustice, a concept which you’d think would be easy to foment audience dissatisfaction with but which turns out to be rather more difficult to do well than to do fully. It’s not just that the regular men of the Navy are treated with complete contempt by their officers, including the ship’s doctor, or that the people of greater Russia sit under the bootheel of an uncaring government. It’s that the indignation the men feel is so genuine, and the camera finds every single worm crawling on that big hunk of meat to signify all those injustices. Would you eat what the men are being told to eat? Eisenstein asks. And then: Would you execute your friends even if they were mutineers? And then: Would you risk your safety to protest for a better life? In making the film with the grammatical you understood, Eisenstein has crafted what everyone who’s ever written about this knows to be the greatest propaganda film of all time.

The reason that last reel is forgotten is because the reel before it is the Odessa Steps sequence, which even deserves its place as the most referenced and perhaps the most revered scene in the history of the medium. Contrast this scene of horrifying violence with a scene from Intolerance, which preceded it by less than a decade and which is still staggering more than a century after its release. As the Babylonian temple falls to force of arms, flaming arrows fly and swords slice and people fall to their deaths from great heights. It is a bloody scene which looks real, in part because people were in fact just getting shot with arrows for a bonus, but that reality is still epidermal. We know somehow that these are extras, that the battle is too far away, too historical and distant, to really affect us. D.W. Griffith’s Babylon is magnificent, but it’s just showbiz, baby. There’s nothing showbiz about the disabled moving away from the Cossacks as fast as their arms will take them, the screaming bloodied face of a woman with broken glasses, the baby carriage dropping step by step. Eisenstein’s voice again: Would you let the tsarists dash your baby across the stones?


Brief Encounter
1945 / David Lean / UK

I’m not a Hemingway disciple and I love me a good adverb.

Alec: Can I see you again?

Laura: Yes, of course. Perhaps you’ll come out to Ketchworth one Sunday. It’s rather far, but we should be delighted—

Alec: Please. Please.

Laura: What is it?

Alec: Next Thursday. The same time.

Laura: No, I couldn’t possibly.

Alec: Please…I ask you most humbly.

Trevor Howard got older, as so many of us are forced to do, and when he did he frequently took on earthier roles; I’m partial to Father Collins of Ryan’s Daughter. But as a younger man, Howard was so good at playing blandly handsome yet personally charming characters, none more irresistible than Alec Harvey. But Celia Johnson’s Laura is not Simon Peter; she has two denials in her, but not three. Alec asks a question which is plainly loaded with meaning, and she breezily ignores that meaning. It’s almost too strong a denial; the fact that she not only “misses” the meaning but throws in a comment about her family is pointed. Too pointed. Alec asks again, saying please. Please, Laura, understand me, please, Laura, don’t ignore what I’m trying to tell you, please, Laura, know that I am in your hands. She denies him again, this time unable to brush off what he obviously wants. And then the third time, she gets as far as telling him no before changing her mind and telling him yes. It’s not just that he asks, or that he’s handsome and funny and easy to talk to.

The thing that sticks with me, and which I’m sure we are meant to know sticks with her, is that adverb. The way Howard phrases the question, he does it by putting space between “Please” and “I,” and then again after “you” and “most.” With one word, his intentions are made clear. He doesn’t want to see Laura again because he wants to clean out her smokestack (is that enough of a train euphemism) or because he’s bored. By proffering his humility, he is offering her his vulnerability, for the unstated part of his question is that she has every right—every duty—to tell him no. Vulnerability and affection belong together in the same way that titanium and iron make a sapphire blue. Replace vulnerability with same haughtier element, like pride or self-elevation, and it’s as if that sapphire has been flooded with chromium instead.


Koyaanisqatsi
1982 / Godfrey Reggio / USA

Godfrey Reggio was in his early forties when Koyaanisqatsi was released, which is often the time when filmmakers peak. That he should have made a film as penetrating as Koyaanisqatsi when he was that young, though, defies the reasoning of another great environmental thinker, Aldo Leopold. Leopold wrote, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” Say that the newest peaks of the Rockies only formed 55 million years ago; how did a man who had just turned forty-two develop this ability to think so much like a mountain? This film recognizes patterns in movement and shape and color with what seems like effortlessness, almost like recall. When Reggio shows something mechanical leaking into something human, or when Reggio shows something natural leaking into something manmade, he does it with the immediacy of recall that a mountain might have.

I love Koyaanisqatsi for its wisdom, a quality that, in this new medium, often seems lacking. There are a great many intelligent or cutting or sparky documentaries, and I don’t mean to denigrate any number of great movies because they lack what Koyaanisqatsi has. Great movies from The Act of Killing to Dont Look Back to Stories We Tell are about understanding, comprehending, even feeling. Yet that’s not quite the same as wisdom, at least not as Koyaanisqatsi channels it, for that wisdom is ensconced in a prophetic mindset. Prophecy in the Biblical sense—and for Reggio, who spent years of his life intending to become a member of the Christian Brothers, that’s almost certainly the intention—is not about vague predictions or even scientific hypotheses. It’s about what a people have done wrong, how they have erred, and what is required of them to change for the better. Prophecy, of course, so often falls on deaf ears in the Bible, and our lives continue to be horrifically out of balance forty years after this movie was first released. I watched this for the first time in April 2020; it felt like the truest thing I’d ever seen.


Late Spring
1948 / Yasujiro Ozu / Japan

Form ever follows function. It was true when Louis Sullivan coined the phrase in service of his approach to architecture, and it’s true in movies as well. Architecturally speaking, Late Spring may be as perfect a film as has ever been made, for its form follows its function to the smallest detail in the blueprints. The function of the film is to rive. Living in a country broken immeasurably by war which is now being remade in a very new image, Shukichi and Noriko are the final coherent elements in each other’s lives. Late Spring is the story of how those two are broken apart from one another, of how two people cleaved together are cleaved apart. And so they are broken from one another, with different ingredients sprinkled into the dissolving agent that will split them apart. There is Noriko’s advanced age (27!) for an unmarried woman, the threat of a suitor for her widower father, the expectations from Shukichi’s sister that Noriko will marry and Shukichi will remarry, the pile-driving belief that the closeness of father and daughter is unnatural in the scope of human traditions. So they’re riven.

This is not a tragedy. It’s much too personal, too introspective and near to have the epic scope required for something really tragic. It’s a story which is told calmly and quietly, using visual metaphors to present an outcome that neither one of our protagonists desire but that both accede to. The world around them—the streets paved by American occupiers, the Noh theater, the local bars—is what Ozu uses as form. There are the meditative, artful establishing shots, the low angles that make Ozu more instantly distinctive than any director ever, the always full but never crowded sets. In the end, the riving is accomplished with little fanfare. A vase, an apple, a wedding dress, a quiet conversation. There is such greatness in Shukichi and Noriko, both of whom are able to go against their deepest and best instincts in order to do what is responsible. Both of them will go to their graves aching for the person they loved the most, and that they could let each other go for an ideal is both inspiring and baffling.


A Man Escaped
1956 / Robert Bresson / France

I said earlier that there are not many movies which can be said to profess wisdom. Koyaanisqatsi is certainly one of them, and as tempted as I am to say that the work of Robert Bresson often strikes me as wise, I’m not sure that’s really the right word. The movies of Robert Bresson are about holiness more than they are about wisdom, and that is not at all the same thing. A Man Escaped, perhaps Bresson’s most accessible film this side of L’argent, is a film which strikes at an old concept. In an extreme situation, what extreme actions are allowed someone who is trying to live in the right? There are two moments, both late in the film, where Fontaine is given a choice: kill a man or spare his life. In both cases, Fontaine thinks hard about the decision, and Bresson lingers on him as he puzzles it out. In the first case, Fontaine gets a young cellmate named Jost on the night that he is going to try to escape Montluc Prison; he cannot delay, for he knows that he is up for execution and to wait a day longer is to commit a passive kind of suicide. He does not trust Jost, who is not much more than a boy but certainly old enough to be able to know what favors he might gain from the German guards if he were to foil an escape attempt. Yet he does not want to kill him, and so takes Jost along with him when there was only ever one person who was supposed to take his painstakingly made rope over the walls.

In the second case, Fontaine sees a guard who stands between himself and freedom, or, to reiterate, between life and death. I struggle to think of a better scene in the history of cinema than this one, one which is riveting without being tawdry, one which is challenging without being overly complicated. Fontaine has a decision to make, a calculation about what is the most moral course of action. Should he turn back and accept his death at the hands of the Nazis, and probably doom Jost to death as well? Should he strangle this guard to death, give him a truly nasty way to die when the man in front of him, presumably, would not have wanted to kill him either? I like Raiders of the Lost Ark as much as the next guy, and I take no small amount of enjoyment from watching a bunch of Nazis get eaten by the long dormant ghosts of God’s treasure chest. But A Man Escaped is beautiful and terrible in ways that Raiders has no intention of ever knowing, and that terrible beauty is in one of the most difficult moral choices imaginable. Kill, with bare hands, eye to eye with an enemy by circumstance, or die willingly because you refused to kill. Fontaine could not be blamed for choosing in either direction, surely, but the choice he makes is still one that makes me shiver.


Nashville
1975 / Robert Altman / USA

I don’t know that there’s any movie I’ve made the case for quite as often or quite as loudly as Nashville. I’ve done it in text and I’ve done it in words, and after so many viewings over many years where I expect to be less astounded by the film, I still think this is both the greatest movie about Americans and by Americans. In an attempt to not repeat myself too much, I decided to put the names of all twenty-four named individuals in the cast into one of those spinners and whichever two I landed on first would get more detail. Big shoutout to wheelofnames.com.

And then after two spins…

According to one of my favorite sites, Screen Time Central, both Arkin and Brown are in a special group in this film: they are two of the five actors in this film who don’t crack 5% of the movie’s runtime. Arkin is nineteenth, on screen for just a shade more than seven minutes; Brown is twenty-third, with barely six minutes of time. While this lacks the hard data of Screen Time Central, hopefully this messy chart I’ve put together clarifies why that’s interesting:

In the circle #1 lie people who have no connection at all to the stars of Nashville and who generally exist on the periphery of the film. In circle #2 lies a tricky group of people who manage to be everywhere with celebrities all the time without really having any connection to them. Arkin belongs in this group, as does Geraldine Chaplin (we’ll talk about both in a second), but so does Barbara Harris, who of course brings the house down in the final moments of the picture. In the crowded next circle, #3, lie people who are either management (Garfield, Beatty, Baxley) or mid- to low-level stars (Raines, Black, Timothy Brown). In circle #4 are the four people who can move the world when they press down their levers. One is a political operative, while the other three are stars who do what they want to do much more often than not. The crisis of the movie is that everyone believes that there’s a circle #5, which has some person or leader who can wield their authority to implement sanity. For the Gwen Welles character, that’s Blakley’s Barbara Jean; for the Murphy character, perhaps it’s Hal Phillip Walker. That there is no one in circle #5 means that there is a profound void in Nashville, and it’s no wonder that everyone circles the drain.

In any event, Arkin’s Norman is about as cool as anyone named “Norman” can be, a driver who spends just enough time around some of the big names as their driver and who spends just enough time with them in bars and who spends just enough time in their hotel rooms to think that he’s a step away from being one of them. I love that little exchange between Tom, perhaps the only music star in the movie who’s on his way up instead of down, and Norman. Tom offhandedly gives Norman his acoustic guitar for a moment and says even more offhandedly, “Write yourself a hit song.” Norman starts strumming on the guitar, grooving up and down: he really think there might be a hit song in there. There’s a little brother quality to Norman, both in the way that everyone else treats him and the way that he cluelessly tags along. There’s a hilarious moment where he’s at the same table as Bill, Mary, and Opal, the totally legitimate journalist who’s definitely employed by the BBC. (In one of those pleasingly Dickensian coincidences, it’s the same bar where Tom, Linnea, Wade, and “L.A. Joan” are all hanging out at the same time.) Norman is in the middle of some comment about his weekend employers, and Opal cuts him off: “I make a point to never gossip with servants.” On the other hand, Brown is relatively in as far as the elite of Nashville go. Granted, as a Black man in the field of country music, there’s going to be a hard line that always treats him as a mascot of some kind or another. Of all the performers who get a song to themselves, Brown probably has the most forgettable one. His song about the bluebird lacks the pure comedy of what Henry Gibson is working from or the pristine mournfulness of Ronee Blakley’s songs. They’re merely competent, parodic in their blandness and a darn sight below the musicians who fill the music halls and roadhouses and never sniff the Opry.


Ordet
1955 / Carl Theodor Dreyer / Denmark

We go to Bresson, as previously discussed, for the sanctity of God. We go to Malick for the majesty of God, Bergman for the doubt of him, Tarkovsky for the mystery of him, Rossellini for the accessibility of him, Scorsese for the slipperiness of him, Kieslowski for the recognition of him. But we go to Dreyer for something much more old-fashioned, something which is, frankly, missing from much of contemporary religion. We go to Dreyer for the fear of God. If he really is God, the creator of the universe, a being outside of time and space, one whose will is the last word of reality, then that ought to put any sensible person in the same kind of quivering state as a bowl of Jell-O during an earthquake. When people cry out against religious hypocrisy, what I like to imagine they’re upset about has more to do with Christians (and others, but let’s keep it simple) who don’t act like God is everything they say he is. For Dreyer, who previously made The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, fearing God is the first step of faith.

Carl Theodor Dreyer made movies about people who believed in such a God, and who reacted accordingly. What’s funny about Ordet, and it’s a goofy quality that the movie is perfectly willing to accept, is that God is present in the lives of these extremely pious people and they have no clue. Johannes is not really Jesus Christ, clearly, either in the literal sense or in some sense of having been reborn. That he believes he’s Jesus is the kind of thing which the uninitiated to him find slightly alarming and those used to him find annoying. (His agnostic brother, Mikkel, thinks Johannes’ situation is so absurd that it’s kind of funny.) There’s another twist in Ordet, which is that one certainly does not need to be Jesus in order to do the greatest miracles. When his beloved sister-in-law Inger dies and is laid out for the wake in a curtained room, Johannes is confused as to why everyone else is so tearful. Don’t you have the faith to wake her? he asks. No one does except him; only Johannes believes in God enough to believe that Inger, the family’s much-needed adhesive, can be brought back to life. The way it’s done in the film remains the most powerful scene I’ve ever watched, and after seeing thousands of other movies in the past few years, I’m starting to think I may never come across its like again.


The Searchers
1956 / John Ford / USA

In 1924, John Ford reinvented the western. The Iron Horse, an epic in the wake of D.W. Griffith rather than a cowboy or outlaw film in the model of Tom Mix and Harry Carey, Sr. In 1939, John Ford reinvented the western. Stagecoach, shot with an unapologetically active camera, also put the character tropes of the genre in bold letters that have never quite been erased. In 1946, John Ford reinvented the western. My Darling Clementine, a film which depicted a nascent West while its audiences lived in the smoking ash of World War II, replaced the myths of the OK Corral and other such legendary stories with the Myth of the OK Corral as a fight for the soul of anyone left of the Mississippi. In 1956, John Ford reinvented the western. (He did it in 1962 as well, but we’re not really going to get that far, just thought I’d throw that out there.) The Searchers, which reunited him yet again with good friend/favored whipping boy John Wayne but also with Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Hank Worden, and John Qualen, put Ford’s past reinventions in doubt. There was heroism in every one of those reinventions, whether that heroism came from George O’Brien, Wayne, or Henry Fonda. And for those heroes, there were villains, frequently Native Americans but also tightwad bankers and lowlifes like the Clanton clan. The Searchers makes its villain its protagonist, Ethan Edwards. John Wayne had played some pieces of work before—no less a Wayne expert than Ford was impressed with him in Red River—but there is no comparison between a mean guy with a midlife crisis and the racist who is itching to get his knife in an Indian’s scalp.

Ford had reinvented the western with panache before, but he’d never done it with the greatest opening shot in the history of narrative film. A black screen, and then a silhouetted woman opens the door onto glorious Monument Valley. Not only is it like being born, it’s birthing the western in a new way. Perhaps one might have assumed in 1956 that Ford’s child would be, at heart, as kind as 3 Godfathers or Wagon Master. Instead he’s given birth to the kind of film that brings balance to a genre that he was instrumental in creating the signifiers for. It’s not that Ford makes Native Americans truly sympathetic. Scar, played by a German, is a bad dude, and we’re still nearly a decade out from Cheyenne Autumn. It’s that he makes white men worse. John Ford isn’t exactly full of surprises as a filmmaker, but I remember my jaw dropping when Ethan raised his gun to shoot down Debbie, the girl he’d presumably been looking for all these years so he could bring her home. Forget the niece stuff. That’s his daughter, and it requires a better man than Ethan to put his body in front of her so he won’t murder his kidnapped daughter for wearing Indian garb. Winston Hoch shot a beautiful Technicolor movie, but no matter how bright the colors are, that’s a darker moment than I’ve seen in any American noir of the ’40s or ’50s.


Shoah
1985 / Claude Lanzmann / France

Shoah is about nine and a half hours long. I watched all of it in one stretch on a Sunday, and I cannot imagine watching it any other way. It’s one of the most gripping films ever made, endlessly fascinating because Lanzmann recognizes that making a documentary about the Holocaust is like trying to drink the ocean. There is so much material that Lanzmann sought out, made, processed, and he just ran out of room to bring it all to the screen. (The Criterion edition includes two other documentaries which didn’t make it into Shoah; I watched those on that Monday.) Literally hundreds of hours of footage, more than a decade of work trying to finance the film and track down interviewees, and there’s only nine and a half hours here. Comparatively speaking, Lanzmann may have begun by drinking from the ocean, but the final result is a merely relative impossibility. He manages to drink from a fire hose like some people sip coffee. The organizational structure of this film is totally remarkable. There are organized interviews with a man who sneaked into the Warsaw ghetto, a Sonderkommando, a former concentration camp bigwig, a train conductor, a barber, rural Poles, and many survivors of the Holocaust. Shoah never drags, never feels halting or aimless despite the flood of individuals and places that Lanzmann features. There are two organizing individuals in the film. Lanzmann appears sometimes, provides some narration here and there. The other is Raul Hilberg, the preeminent historian of the Holocaust who provides secondary analysis to the huge number of primary sources. Together they are a formidable pair. Lanzmann’s occasionally caustic obsession and Hilberg’s well of knowledge suit each other.

I have a number of movie pet peeves at this point which don’t all deserve the same level of seriousness. For example, I don’t like it when a movie shows a clip of a better movie within its runtime; why invite the comparison? It’s hardly the same thing as my expectations for movies about the Holocaust, which is that they have to meet a certain tone. There must be total seriousness, total empathy. For this reason, I’ve never watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Sophie’s Choice strikes me as terribly crass, and I remain one of those people who thinks Schindler’s List is nowhere near sad enough. Life Is Beautiful is arguably the most offensive film I’ve ever seen. There are only a handful of Holocaust movies I’ve seen which meet this standard. There’s Night and Fog, and The Diary of Anne Frank, and a little more controversially, Son of Saul. There’s Au revoir les enfants and Ida and Phoenix. And there’s Shoah, which treats the Holocaust as a historical event and an immensely cruel historical event at that. The film refuses to mythologize or simplify; the Holocaust is too horrifying to mythologize and too vast to simplify. Shoah is never maudlin. Lanzmann sets out to make the most important film of all time, and it’s hard to say he didn’t do just that.

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