The new ’50 Greatest Films’ list mistakes confusion for profundity
– BY DANIEL NEMAN –
The venerable Sight & Sound poll of the 50 best films of all time comes out just once every 10 years and represents the combined wisdom of hundreds of serious film scholars, critics and cinematic thinkers.
For each of the last five decades, the film perched proudly at the top of the list has been Citizen Kane. But in the latest iteration, which was recently released, Citizen Kane was a shocking No. 2. The movie that the scholars, critics and thinkers now list as the very best that the history of cinema has to offer is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo.
EXALTING THE VERY GOOD OVER THE GREAT
Don’t get me wrong. I love Vertigo. It’s a masterpiece. I still remember gasping audibly at the ending the first time I saw it.
But to my way of thinking, Vertigo doesn’t even rank in the top five movies made by Hitchcock (those would be Notorious, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Rebecca and Psycho).
I do see the problem with Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ scathing attack on the fictionalized person and character of powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst: The film is not actually fun to watch. Brilliant, yes. Innovative beyond measure. Technically unsurpassed. But unless you are a student of the cinema, you probably don’t light a fire in the fireplace, make a big batch of popcorn and snuggle under the covers to watch it.
Obviously, a list such as this is designed to have its detractors, and no one would agree with everything on it. But this time out, I agree with less than usual.
As you might expect with such voters as these, the chosen pictures lean heavily toward the ponderous, slow and even pretentious – hence the preponderance of selections by Andrei Tarkovsky. But although his movies can get boring, they are at least undeniably provocative and well made.
DAVID LYNCH’S MESS-TERPIECE SNEAKS IN
That is not the case with all of the films on the list, and here I am thinking specifically of No. 28, Mulholland Dr., the 2001 mess of a movie by David Lynch. The voters thought so highly of this film that they nestled it between two pictures by Tarkovsky and listed it just two movies below the seminal Rashomon.
Lynch originally made it as a television pilot to follow the success of his Twin Peaks, and it was so unimpressive that the network turned it down. So he tried to recoup some of his expense by tacking on an extra half-hour at the end and turning it into a movie that begins as a sunshiny hallucination of a woman who turns out to be crazy and ends as her dreary, depressing reality. A lot of people did not understand it, so they decided it had to be pretty good, though to think that they had to look past the, at best, indifferent acting, the sometimes overwrought dialogue and the obviously pasted-together structure.
WAR IS TRAGIC … AND SO IS THE APOCALYPSE ENDING
And this is the movie they say is three places better than The Godfather, Part II.
Both The Godfather, Part II (1974, No. 31) and The Godfather (1972, No. 21) are, to my mind, perfect, flawless films. I would rank them higher, but at least they are well represented. It is the inclusion of another film by the same director, Francis Ford Coppola, that floors me.
Apocalypse Now, his 1979 look at the Vietnam War, comes in at No. 14, above either of the Godfather films. And for most of its length, the film deserves the honor, though perhaps not quite as high as No. 14. The dialogue is crisp, the acting is superior and the vision and execution are spectacular.
But the last 20 minutes or so are utterly stupefying; Coppola famously could not figure out how to end the thing, and the scenes that precede it largely feature the once-great Marlon Brando muttering insensible things incomprehensibly. When you can actually hear what he is saying, you wish you couldn’t. His character is supposed to be brilliant and supremely charismatic; you are supposed to be swept up in his evil dreams. Instead, you just feel sorry for the actors, filmmakers and everyone involved.
I would like to see more silent films on the list, at least something by D.W. Griffith, more comedies (don’t these people ever laugh?) and more movies that are, you know, fun to watch. But this time out, the poll, which has always been heavy on navel-gazing, almost drowns in its own self-impIortance.
It’s enough to give you vertigo.
Daniel Neman, food editor of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, is a former movie reviewer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a regular BOOMER contributor.