Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cahiers Du Cinema's Top 100, or How I Learned To Stop Making Lists & Just Love Movies

The long-running French film journal Cahiers Du Cinema (I can never pronounce it right) recently released their latest list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, as voted by French critics, directors, industry poobahs. I've never cared for such lists. I suppose this one provides as good an opportunity as any to demonstrate why. First, here's how they rank 'em:

Citizen Kane - Orson Welles
The Night of the Hunter - Charles Laughton
The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) - Jean Renoir
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (L'Aurore) - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
L'Atalante - Jean Vigo
M - Fritz Lang
Singin' in the Rain - Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock
Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) - Marcel Carné
The Searchers - John Ford
Greed - Erich von Stroheim
Rio Bravo - Howard Hawkes
To Be or Not to Be - Ernst Lubitsch
Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu
Contempt (Le Mépris) - Jean-Luc Godard
Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) - Kenji Mizoguchi
City Lights - Charlie Chaplin
The General - Buster Keaton
Nosferatu the Vampire - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
The Music Room - Satyajit Ray
Freaks - Tod Browning
Johnny Guitar - Nicholas Ray
The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) - Jean Eustache
The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin
The Leopard (Le Guépard) - Luchino Visconti
Hiroshima, My Love - Alain Resnais
The Box of Pandora (Loulou) - Georg Wilhelm Pabst
North by Northwest - Alfred Hitchcock
Pickpocket - Robert Bresson
Golden Helmet (Casque d'or) - Jacques Becker
The Barefoot Contessa - Joseph Mankiewitz
Moonfleet - Fritz Lang
Diamond Earrings (Madame de…) - Max Ophüls
Pleasure - Max Ophüls
The Deer Hunter - Michael Cimino
The Adventure - Michelangelo Antonioni
Battleship Potemkin - Sergei M. Eisenstein
Notorious - Alfred Hitchcock
Ivan the Terrible - Sergei M. Eisenstein
The Godfather - Francis Ford Coppola
Touch of Evil - Orson Welles
The Wind - Victor Sjöström
2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick
Fanny and Alexander - Ingmar Bergman
The Crowd - King Vidor
8 1/2 - Federico Fellini
La Jetée - Chris Marker
Pierrot le Fou - Jean-Luc Godard
Confessions of a Cheat (Le Roman d'un tricheur) - Sacha Guitry
Amarcord - Federico Fellini
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) - Jean Cocteau
Some Like It Hot - Billy Wilder
Some Came Running - Vincente Minnelli
Gertrud - Carl Theodor Dreyer
King Kong - Ernst Shoedsack & Merian J. Cooper
Laura - Otto Preminger
The Seven Samurai - Akira Kurosawa
The 400 Blows - François Truffaut
La Dolce Vita - Federico Fellini
The Dead - John Huston
Trouble in Paradise - Ernst Lubitsch
It's a Wonderful Life - Frank Capra
Monsieur Verdoux - Charlie Chaplin
The Passion of Joan of Arc - Carl Theodor Dreyer
À bout de souffle - Jean-Luc Godard
Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola
Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick
La Grande Illusion - Jean Renoir
Intolerance - David Wark Griffith
A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) - Jean Renoir
Playtime - Jacques Tati
Rome, Open City - Roberto Rossellini
Livia (Senso) - Luchino Visconti
Modern Times - Charlie Chaplin
Van Gogh - Maurice Pialat
An Affair to Remember - Leo McCarey
Andrei Rublev - Andrei Tarkovsky
The Scarlet Empress - Joseph von Sternberg
Sansho the Bailiff - Kenji Mizoguchi
Talk to Her - Pedro Almodóvar
The Party - Blake Edwards
Tabu - Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
The Bandwagon - Vincente Minnelli
A Star Is Born - George Cukor
Mr. Hulot's Holiday - Jacques Tati
America, America - Elia Kazan
El - Luis Buñuel
Kiss Me Deadly - Robert Aldrich
Once Upon a Time in America - Sergio Leone
Daybreak (Le Jour se lève) - Marcel Carné
Letter from an Unknown Woman - Max Ophüls
Lola - Jacques Demy
Manhattan - Woody Allen
Mulholland Dr. - David Lynch
My Night at Maud's (Ma nuit chez Maud) - Eric Rohmer
Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) - Alain Resnais
The Gold Rush - Charlie Chaplin
Scarface - Howard Hawks
Bicycle Thieves - Vittorio de Sica
Napoléon - Abel Gance

I tend to see such lists as a waste of time. The reason I've never been fond of them is that they can never work--the cinema is simply too vast a realm to be done justice by such an instrument. No matter how good any such list is, it still has more holes than a Swiss cheese, and it's just as easy to effectively pick apart. This one is no different. To wit:

Sergio Leone gets the nod for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, but not for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which is a better movie. OAUTIA is also great, to be sure, and probably belongs on this list, as well, but if one is going to pick only one Leone, it has to be WEST.

I've never seen EL, so I don't know where I'd put it myself, but that's the only Luis Bunuel film on the list, which seems very wrong. I'd certainly place him among the best the medium has ever produced, and would rate several of his films higher than any number that appear on the list. My personal favorite is also one of his most obscure: SIMON OF THE DESERT.

Like Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa is also criminally underrepresented here--only SEVEN SAMURAI. It certainly belongs there, but Kurosawa is arguably the greatest overall filmmaker who ever lived. There are more than half a dozen of his features that should be there. It's particularly surprising that RASHOMON is absent. It usually scores even better than SEVEN SAMURAI in these lists.

Ingmar Bergman has only FANNY & ALEXANDER, which isn't even his best work. That honor goes to THE SEVENTH SEAL, and it's rather remarkable to me that it's a film that doesn't even rate. For whatever reason, Bergman--once considered a god among filmmakers--was downgraded in critical opinion in the last few decades. I'm not sure why; he's still one of the best. Personally, I'd have also put HOUR OF THE WOLF and maybe even THE VIRGIN SPRING ahead of F&A.

Dreyer gets two nods, including one for THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC--probably his best film--but his DAY OF WRATH doesn't make the cut. Surprising, considering many of the films that do.

Hitchcock has the opposite problem; as usual, he's overrepresented. VERTIGO belongs on the list. The other two are gratuitous.

Stanley Kubrick is misrepresented, here; BARRY LYNDON and 2001. DR. STRANGELOVE is easily his best film, but doesn't even rate, and any number of his other movies belong ahead of BARRY LYNDON.

John Huston rates only with THE DEAD. No TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. No MISFITS. No ASPHALT JUNGLE. THE MALTESE FALCON isn't there, either, but, as great as it is, I've never thought of it as top 100 material.

Speaking of asphalt jungles, noir in general is grossly underrepresented, here. Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY rates, and, in fact, always ranks high in these sorts of projects, but it has never been worthy of its reputation. Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL is the only other noir picture of the classical era included on the list, and the only one that actually deserves to be there. In film noir, Orson Welles, alone, made MR. ARKADIN, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and starred in THE THIRD MAN, all of which leave KISS ME DEADLY in the dust. Nick Ray, who only gets the nod for JOHNNY GUITAR, made, within noir alone, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT,ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and, in particular, IN A LONELY PLACE. Jacques Tourneur gets no notice for any of his films, which is, in itself, a crime, but it's a particularly aggravated crime for the exclusion of OUT OF THE PAST, one of the absolute best noir pictures. Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD is nowhere to be seen. Robert Wise gets no notice for THE SET-UP. Kubrick's THE KILLING is AWOL. I could list these all day long. Noir was an astonishing genre. It produced a string of genuine classics, and KISS ME DEADLY wouldn't even rank in the top 20. Maybe not the top 50. Frenchies named film noir; come on, fellas--get with it!

There are several other glaring omissions. There isn't a single Martin Scorsese film. Not one. CASABLANCA (the absolute apex of the assembly-line Hollywood studio system, and one of the finest films ever made) doesn't rate. Werner Herzog is entirely unrepresented (No AGUIRRE, no FITZCARRALDO). Hawks gets the nod for RIO BRAVO (a programmer Western), but not for THE BIG SLEEP.

This being a product of the French, Charlie Chaplin has to be insanely overrepresented, but five films--more than any other director--is taking the absurd to new levels (for my part, I probably wouldn't include any Chaplin).

Then, there are those selections that just leave me scratching my head in befuddlement. FREAKS? THE DEER HUNTER? THE SEARCHERS? What the hell...? THE SEARCHERS always polls above its merits (Hawks' RED RIVER does, as well), so maybe that isn't such a surprise, but I keep expecting history to finally catch up with it. Looks like history hasn't done it yet. That doesn't make THE SEARCHERS any better, though. FREAKS is essentially a novelty film by a minor director that someone in France must have overhyped to an insane degree--it certainly doesn't belong anywhere near any such list of this sort (particularly when not a one of the genuinely excellent horror films of its era are included). Neither does Truffaut's THE 400 BLOWS, which seems forever held in a high esteem it does practically nothing to earn.

Even a genuinely great movie like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is greately overrated by appearing here, particularly as high on the list as it appears. I say this as a sincere, committed fan of that film for much of my life. I love it. The movie is just incredible for most of its running time, but unfortunately, when it gets to the final act, it progressively disintegrates. The crash is hard, and it is jarring, a brutal shift in tone that takes us to a trite ending that looks and feels like nothing so much as one of those inane studio imposition on an already-finished picture we've seen so often over the years (shades of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS). That's enough of a flaw to drop its ranking well out of a top 100.

There are some pleasant surprises, as well. KING KONG and APOCALYPSE NOW certainly belong in that category, and it's good to see David Lynch and Pedro Almodovar get a little respect. Far more of the picks, however, are befuddling. A stray misfire or two would be somewhat forgivable, but, in this case, there are a lot of them, and their presence requires totally excluding too many obvious, deserving picks.

But, as I said before, any list like this can be torn to pieces with a little thought. It's why I don't like 'em. If I made a list of my own 100 personal favorites, I could then rip it to shreds in exactly the same way I've been ripping up this one. Pitting against one another films as different as CHILDREN OF PARADISE, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and APOCALYPSE NOW doesn't serve any useful end. The cinema is vast and has something for everyone. It should be enjoyed, not listed.



  1. 100 is a very small number to fully represent cinema. I can see someone listing 100 American films, 100 films from a certain decade, even 100 films from a certain genre... but 100 films ever? Impossible.

    Still, I guess it makes a for a nice "shopping list" of sorts, in the sense that one can check the ones one have not seen yet, and get started. But I see your point.

    Happy holidays J!

  2. I don't even think great cinema could be properly represented by a list of any size. No matter how big it is, you can always effectively challenge the results, and on a collaborative project like the Cahiers du Cinema list, you could probably challenge it in such an effective way that many of the participants would agree with most of your criticisms.

    I also think the inherently competitive nature of any such list makes it an exercise in missing the point. We can agree or disagree about CITIZEN KANE being a better film than, say, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but both are really good, and well worth checking out on their own merits. As different as they are, it seems ridiculous to compare them.

    I can definitely see the project's value as a shopping list. No matter how we may rate the wisdom of the individual decisions or of the list overall, most of the movies it includes are genuinely great.

    Hope your holidays are better than mine have been, Luis.


  3. Dear J,
    You've chosen a beautiful name for your article; but your critiques seem to be absurd when you don't believe in rankings in the first place.
    I believe in these rankings as far as they're based on objective measures such as quality of camera works, plays, screenplays, scene design, ... and the influence such films have had on the cinema industry. Hitchcock is always ranked high in such lists because of his outstanding visual achievements and the great influence he had on prominent directors after him (such as Truffaut and Scorsese). Rashomon is wonderful in any respect, but its last minutes comprise low-quality dialogues (when compared to the rest of the film); when you take screenplays into account, Seven Samurai is unarguably far richer in content.
    Chaplin, like Hitchcock, had his own cinema, his own era; not Kurosawa, nor Bergman has had such weight in the motion picture as they had.
    On some other points, too, I disagree with you; but such disagreements are what makes artistic perceptions uniquely beautiful, and despite our disagreements, I wish you very joyful cinematic experiences ahead.