Sight & Sound Greatest Movies Poll 2012 – Beyond the Top Fifty in the realm of Gut Reaction

As I was one of the four hundred directors asked to vote in the above poll it might be of interest to others to see how subjective and eclectic one person’s choices (and rationale for those choices) can be and how notions of ‘top’ and ‘greatest’ are hard to define at the personal level. I briefly attended the ‘revealing’ ceremony on the South bank on Wednesday night (1st August) and, though not surprised by the choices, I was struck by the conservatism and predictability of the result – a sense that many of the choices were films that people felt they ‘ought’ to vote for (I had felt I ‘ought’ to vote for at least five of them, but hadn’t) rather than choices that people had voted for with their gut. Some ‘gut reaction’ entries in the directors’ top ten revealed later, but still more of an ‘in awe’ than ‘en-joy’ list – at least that was my perception.

Yes, it was great to have Vertigo up there – it had almost been in my own top ten, as had Battleship Potemkin, which made number eleven with the critics – but, as I say, there seemed too large an element of film history and studies orthodoxy in the final critics’ list and only a start to wing-spreading in the director’s list. Both lists also seemed to take a narrow view of what ‘film’ and ‘greatest’ mean in the context of an individual’s reception and the enormous range of work produced since films began. I accept that this was the democratic choice of those polled and I agree that all films included in both lists are indeed great films, but I wonder when there will be a real sea change in the top ten or whether these really are the greats for ever and ever amen.

Anyway, for better, or for worse, here, in no particular order of preference, are the choices I made and why – personal and eclectic, I accept, but from the gut as well as the more rarefied arenas of the mind and received aesthetic opinion, and certainly, it seems, left field as, of my choices, only ‘Some Like It Hot’ made it into the top fifty!

1.Titanic – James Cameron
My top ‘commercial’ choice: The ultimate proof that cinema can manipulate your emotions whether you want it to or not  – music, story, montage, camera and acting leave you powerless to resist. All that I strived to undermine in the 70s – now in 3D!

2. Petra von Kant – Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The exact opposite to above: minimal, staged almost alienating cinema set in confined space with small cast. What makes it a masterpiece is the framing, the precise positioning of protagonists in frame, the controlled and distanced performances and the static or very slowly moving camera. Hypnotic, sensuous, surreal and sadistic

3. Les parapluies de Cherbourg – Jacques Demy
A cinematic/ musical tour de force unequaled before or since in its particular category – no word is spoken, the simple semi-tragic love story works and the camera floats and flows effortlessly in time to the LeGrand music. Another plus point: not the predictable happy ending you might expect.

4.The Piano – Jane Cameron
Like (2) above, minimalist in approach,  but this time played in the 19th century Waitakere rainforest of New Zealand rather than a Berlin boudoir. Precise framing ( as you may have noted, a key criteria for greatness in my book), very focused performances and a great final shot

5. Amelie – Jean-pierre Jeunet

So much joie de vivre and originality of approach – it still makes me feel good and that makes it one of the greatest of all time

6. The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman

Simply the one from adolescence that cannot be forgotten and therefore remains ‘great’. Black and white masterpiece with stunning photography that mixes angst with anguish and a strong sense that ‘all things must pass’ – with or without the Grim Reaper at your shoulder  and playing chess with your life.

7. Napoleon – Abel Gance

As film-making is such an exhausting and time-consuming art, ‘Greatest’ in film terms must also mean this extraordinary film which in terms of scale and input (and aesthetic border-breaking) tops all others.

8. Raise the Red Lantern – Zhang Yimou

Simply the best Chinese film I have seen – by a director who combines artistic brilliance with audience accessibility and rejects the way ‘dissident’ filmmakers are fetishised whether their work is good or not. His is neither dissident nor propagandist but a cinematic magician, and this gem shows him to be a master of mise en scene and decoupage second to none.

9. Some like it Hot – Billy Wilder

Still the best film comedy (despite its dark and very brutal opening) around. Its effortless montage and storytelling through image and flawless performance make it a film I can watch endless times.

10. All about Eve –  Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Similar to 9 above, but then greatest in the melodrama category. Flawless framing, spot-on acting for screen, excellent razor-sharp dialogue and a plot that reminds us why opera and film are so closely related.

See Full Poll Results and BFI Comment.