Film critics love, just love, to talk about "the good old days". It is as if they think art, like cheese and wine, mature with age, so that you can only truly appreciate their greatness after they have gathered dust on the shelf for a few decades. This certainly seemed to be the case when Sight & Sound announced the results of their Top 10 Greatest Films Of All Time, in which no film from the last 40 years featured.
Now, I'm not saying that the 10 films chosen aren't all excellent, because they are. Sunrise: A Song For Two Humans, coming in at number 5, is a particularly great choice, a gorgeous silent film straight out of German expressionism . Fellini's 8 1/2 too is a real groundbreaking work, one of those films that is by the same score impossible to follow and yet equally impossible to take your eyes from. And yes, the top two, Citizen Kane and Vertigo, in that order for the first time in 50 years, are undoubtedly enviable feats (though, I'd still put Citizen Kane over Vertigo...in fact, I'd probably put North By Northwest over Vertigo, but they didn't ask me...whatever, I'm not bitter).
However, film as a medium is barely 100 years old. Cinema is constantly evolving, both in modes of production and modes of distribution. New technologies aren't only changing the way we consume film, but they're changing the way films are made, on both a technical and creative level. Quite simply, we should be celebrating the here and now, not looking to 40 years ago whenever one of these polls comes along. These five films, all from the last 20 years, show that film is still a thriving, exciting, boundary pushing artform. Each one deserves its place in that top 10.
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
An incredible feat of choreography and staging, Russian Ark is unique in that it's the only feature film comprised of one single take, meaning that it was shot live, with one camera moving through 33 rooms of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Essentially, the film is a concise history of Russia, with one unnamed narrator wandering ghostlike through the museum encountering various historical figures along the way. In fairness, Russian history is bloody interesting, so Sokurov really doesn't have to mess about with it too much, although cloaking it as a science-fiction film almost is an inspired touch. The pacing is maybe a tad slow at times, and you do have to buy into the conceit from the off, but the payoff, the film's subtly clever climax, is more than worth it.
La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
Mathieu Kassovitz' hip-hop infused story of the Parisien banlieue was hailed as so important in its homeland that it was shown to the entirety of the French government soon after its release. Not only is La Haine a technically brilliant accomplishment, it is also a ferocious, fast paced, rough edged thriller with superb performances from its three leads, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé and a young Vincent Cassel. Many films response to social crises, or tap into the zeitgeist, but very few are powerful enough to be able to affect social change. La Haine falls into the latter category.
Quite simply, we should be celebrating the here and now, not looking to 40 years ago whenever one of these polls comes along
Belleville Rendezvous (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
The lack of animated films in Sight & Sound's top 10 still points in my eyes to a snobbery towards the medium, bizarre considering how painfully intricate and artistic a great animated film can be. I remember watching a 35mm print of Aristocats at the BFI last year and being amazed at the way the animators had created rain, simply by scratching out tiny fragments of the film so the illusion is created when the reel rolls along. That's pure magic. 3D technology and the brilliant consistency of Pixar have seen that animated films are a staple of multiplexes up and down the country, but in terms of originality, ingenuity and uniqueness, Belleville Rendezvous has to be seen as the best animated film of recent years. Also, to everyone who creamed themselves over The Artist last year, Belleville Rendezvous has two lines of dialogue in the entire film. If you want to watch classic silent cinema, watch Buster Keaton or F.W. Murnau. If you want to watch contemporary silent cinema, watch Belleville Rendezvous.
Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
Steve McQueen's visually arresting, painfully unflinching and thought provoking biopic of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands will test the stomach of even the hardest individual. The genius of the film is rather than focusing purely on Sands and his cause, it allows us to empathise with everyone involved in the troubles, from the prison warden, whom we are introduced to first, to Bobby's own priest in a phenomenal one-take scene lasting somewhere around the 20 minute mark (Not quite Russian Ark, but still...). Michael Fassbender is mesmerizing too, not only suffering for his art by undergoing a weight loss that would make Christian Bale feel ashamed, but imbuing Sands with a dignity and stoicism that cuts right through the politics and gets right down to the human side of the story. An absolute must watch.
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Werner Herzog, 2010)
And finally, just to show that 3D isn't all Avatar and annoying ticket surcharges, a film that uses the technology to its full effect to create something new and immersive. Herzog has always pushed the boundaries of cinema, whether that be by dragging a boat over a mountain in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, or travelling to an island on the eve of an impending volcanic eruption to make a short. Here, given exclusive access to the Chauvet Caves in Southern France, home to the oldest cave paintings and, therefore, paintings known to man, he uses 3D not to jump out at us, but rather to draw us in, to allow us to experience the depth and the contours of the space. A stunning documentary that ranks right up there in Herzog's formidable personal canon.
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