Faculty Weigh In On The Best Films Of All TimeNow that the Oscars have been awarded for excellence in cinema over the past year, it feels like a good time to ponder a larger question. Which films are the best of all time?
We asked faculty members to make three picks, which is a tall order for people who love film and can easily tick off dozens of favorites. One professor confided that the effort reminded him of when his parents got divorced and he was asked to choose whether to live with his mother or father.
For some, the selections were based on the importance of films in establishing transitional points in the history of cinema and their role as catalysts for the art form to grow. Others chose films based on the sheer beauty of the visual impact or storytelling.
Here are their picks:
Senior Lecturer in Film, Video, Digital
2001: A Space Odyssey
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) makes it on my list for its pure cinematic quality. Not since Charlie Chaplin has a filmmaker employed every cinematic element—set design, cinematography, editing and sound—to such a full degree.
The story, if there even is one, is secondary to the way Kubrick uses these cinematic elements. Although it might be fun to debate what the film means, it is better yet to take in the images and sounds as an experience. There are numerous lengthy scenes in 2001—such as the opening 20 minutes—that contain no dialogue. The camera lingers on wide spaces, forcing the viewer to think through the images. When people in the film speak, they do so with the same flat affect in which they’re acting: there are no emotions in the whole film.
If you’re looking for a compelling space, sci-fi movie, there are “better” films. If you’re looking for a meditative film that takes you on a trip, you can’t go wrong with 2001.
In The Mood For Love
“In The Mood For Love” (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000), as the title suggests, is a love story. As with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” however, the triumph of this film comes through the way it is told rather than the events that transpire. Shot in splendid colors, the film tells the story of a Chinese man and woman who have an obvious attraction to each other but who never act on their passions. Rather, married to other people—who are involved in an affair together—the main couple acts out scenarios they imagine their spouses are having.
The film is subtle in telling this story, relying on the camera, colors, editing and sound (muted background noise and wonderfully romantic music) to slowly uncover the illicit affair and the growing affinity of the main couple. Promoted in the U.S. by Quentin Tarantino upon the release of “Chungking Express” (1994), Wong Kar-Wai’s films could not be further from Tarantino’s in terms of content or action. What Tarantino must have seen in “Chungking Express” is the director’s expressive use of cinematic elements. If you’re looking for a romantic film that replays familiar stereotypes about love and human attraction, you might want to look elsewhere. “In the Mood for Love” doesn’t rely on cliché and is more reserved than is typical of Hollywood films. I end with a quote from Roger Ebert: “When you’re holding back and speaking in code, no conversation is boring because the empty spaces are filled by your desires.”
The 400 Blows
I have a banner-sized print of the last shot on Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) given to me by a former student. It is my prized office possession, which reveals a bit about how I think of this film. The image is a freeze-frame of the main character as he stands on a beach after having run away from a “home for delinquent boys.” He was sent there by a court system that failed to understand this adolescent and incarcerated him after his parents demand the court “do something with him.” Ineffective parents, they fail to talk to or to show genuine concern for the boy. Rather, they talk at him and view him as a nuisance. Neither does his school seem a particularly inviting place, the teachers framing Antoine as a troublemaker in the film’s first scene.
Unlike the other two films on my list, there is a full story here, and Truffaut uses a distinctly personal way of telling it, employing camera movements and long shots in painting this portrait of a boy at war with the world around him.
Associate Professor of African-American Studies and maker of documentaries
Nothing But a Man
This 1964 film beautifully captures the nuances of Black masculinity. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, we watch as Duff (Dixon) struggles with traditional notions of masculinity within the boundaries of a nation that denies him the opportunity to fulfill these notions. Duff’s relationship with his father and Duff’s own son evolves as his affection for Josie (Lincoln) grows.
In truth, it is Josie’s affirming love that transforms Duff and challenges our acceptance of traditional masculine performances.
I love documentary film and use documentaries in my teaching. “Hoop Dreams” is an ambitious film with incredible depth. It is also a difficult film to watch as the “hoop dreams” of Arthur Agee and William Gates do not bear fruit.
But this 1994 documentary is about much more than basketball. The dynamic and intersecting pressures of family stresses, drug addiction, teenaged pregnancy, class stratification, gender and race provide a complicated context for the viewer.
This 1993 film tells a compelling story about the mutuality of love and suffering. I think my mother recommended this film to me. The relationship between the two central characters, C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and Joy Gresham (Debra Winger) gradually pulled me into the story. I became invested. It is this investment that the film commands that deepens the sorrow the plot invokes. While this film made me weep, I was reminded that the absence of sorrow is not love and love is not the absence of sorrow.
Assistant Professor Moving Image Studies and Film, Video, Digital
“Sunrise” (1927 F.W. Murnau) came at the pinnacle of silent cinema and at the height of German Expressionism, just as movies were on the cusp of transitioning to sound. The formal strategies, particularly what Murnau and his cinematographers Charles Rosher and Karl Strauss do with the camera to express ideas and emotions, is unparalleled in silent cinema. But the formal brilliance was not for spectacle alone, rather it created mood and atmosphere in a film rife with humanity. Watch Max Olphus’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “The Earrings of Madame de…” or consider the opening scene from Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” the visual audacity of “I Am Cuba,” and of course the contemporary films of Guy Maddin, and you’ll see the influence and inspiration from this masterpiece.
The Bicycle Thieves
Twenty years after “Sunrise” was made, the Italian Neo Realism movement rose out of the ashes of a decimated Italian film industry, and several of these Neo-Realism films are arguably some of the most emotionally honest movies ever made. Shooting almost exclusively in real locations and employing a very minimal visual and sound design aesthetic these films continue to influence and inspire filmmakers today. “The Bicycle Thieves” (1948 Vittorio de Sica), a masterpiece of Neo Realism resonates deeply on an emotional level, and like “Sunrise” is storytelling entrenched in humanity.
The formal approach (using non-professional actors engaging with the world around them) pre-dates, by decades, the growing trend of fiction/documentary hybridity we see in some of the great films being made today, particularly the Dardenne brothers’ “La Promise,” “Rosetta,” “The Kid with a Bike.” You can also see similarities of Neo-Realism’s minimal aesthetic in Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” “Pickpocket,” “Au Hasard Balthazar,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” or the realism found in John Casavettes’ “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Husbands,” and Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”
Twelve years after “The Bicycle Thieves,” another movement (The French New Wave) arose at a key transitional moment in cinema. And perhaps the most audacious, if not revolutionary, filmmaker to emerge from the French New Wave was the enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard who arguably reinvented cinema with “Breathless” (1960), a masterpiece of bold formal and tonal innovation that truly liberated narrative filmmaking.
Godard’s inventive use of jump cuts and clever homage to American gangster films were groundbreaking reflexive devices, at once playful and provocative, urging the viewer to participate with cinema rather then consume it passively. Filmmakers, both independents and studio hired guns, had to seriously reconsider what cinema could be, and understand that everything had changed now, radically. This is not to suggest popular culture shifted away from studio movies, far from it actually, but “Breathless” did create a space for innovative, challenging cinema in the theatrical marketplace. The reach of “Breathless” was felt immediately: Richard Lester’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds,” and then later in Woody Allen and Mel Brooks’ early reflexive antics, respectively, “Love and Death,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” The profound departure of “Breathless”’ from convention continues to be relevant.
It seems that the cultural space for film movements have passed but the creative space to innovate is very much alive, even in this year’s Oscar’s race. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is wonderfully inventive in the spirit of the camera work of “Sunrise,” the austerity and rigor of “The Bicycle Thieves,” and the innovative brashness of “Breathless.” There’s hope.
What do you think of these picks? Which three films would you say are the best of all time? Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #BestFilmGSU