On the Difficulty of Film Canons

Features, FILM
The challenges and merits of the film canon; plus, 100 personal favourites.

First off: the following is not a counterargument to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, a persuasive collection of criticism assembled around the importance of canon building in terms of our understanding of film as art. Nor is it an attempt to extend the discourse on film canons, bearing in mind that existing writing on the subject by Rosenbaum, Paul Schrader, and others, is far more informed than what I can offer. Rather, this piece is motivated by an urge to explain the thinking behind the formation of my own personal film canon, itself precipitated by an invitation to contribute to Sight and Sound’s “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll. Conducted every decade since 1952, the poll canvases a select number of critics, programmers, academics, and curators worldwide. As returning participants reevaluate the films they previously submitted with an eye towards cinema made or rediscovered in the past ten years, first-time voters like myself must draw up an inventory of ‘great’ films from scratch. Not that any self-respecting cinephile doesn’t already maintain a mental checklist of favourite films; however, any self-respecting cinephile will also insist that to single out one of those films, or even ten, is a trying task at the best of times. Or as Schrader writes of his aborted book project to recanonize cinema in his 2006 Film Comment essay entitled “Canon Fodder”: “Compiling was the easy part—then came the first dilemma: why was I selecting these films? What were my criteria?”

Though a comparatively modest undertaking, the challenges generated by this assignment make for an equally stimulating deliberation process. Through closer inspection, the apparent flaws and inadequacies of the Sight and Sound poll are also interesting problems worth contemplating. Indeed, while Sight and Sound’s decennial roll call of the “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” is regarded as the preeminent poll of its kind, and has inspired a flurry of blog posts in anticipation of its publication in August, it invariably orbits among countless other film lists of varying credibility and scope. Given the ubiquity of list making, it’s hard not to approach the results of any ‘definitive’ poll or ranking exercise with a degree of skepticism. The practice has become all but institutionalized in print and online media—a ‘best of’ feature representing a failsafe option for delivering reader-friendly content and guaranteed debate, predictably centred on omissions from the list or the arrangement of its chosen few. This website has indulged in list making too, though strictly from the personal vantage point of its writers, and certainly in opposition to the obsequiousness of a generalist poll like Flicks.co.nz’s “Top 100 Films of All Time”—a useless popularity contest that only serves to reiterate the box office records of movies as profitable as Avatar and The Lord of the Rings. (Worse still, foreign language features polled a pitiful 3%, Amelie the highest placed at #48.)

As Rosenbaum opines in Essential Cinema, a market-driven list such as the one above is the kind of ‘film canon’ that is acknowledged far too often, hence the necessity for alternative canons devised with the expansion of personal film appreciation in mind. In fact, he cites the 1962 Sight and Sight poll as an early influence on his film taste; a kick start to his self-education in cinema at a time when access to critical guidance was relatively limited. (Out of the ten ranked from that year, Citizen Kane and Bicycle Thieves were the only films present with Oscar credentials—something of a revelation when you consider how the Academy Awards have erroneously set the standard for greatness for so long.) Today, with even the most elusive films a mouse click away, and information on every aspect of cinema not so much readily available as inescapable (especially if you’re on the drip-feed of Twitter), the impact of the Sight and Sound poll has arguably diminished. However, I hasten to add that the concept is not in question here, and in an overwhelming digital landscape where vastness of choice can have a paralyzing effect, the function of film curation and canonization seems more vital than ever. Strictly speaking, the most recent results of the poll have prompted this view, and while the ten films presented in the 2002 edition are all ‘classics’ in the broadest sense, and are infinitely more practical as a list than the Flicks.co.nz example (an extreme contrast, for sure), there’s still evidence to suggest that a hegemony is being maintained through the enshrinement of long-standing critical favourites.

While the likes of Citizen Kane, La Règle du Jeu, and Vertigo will continue to enjoy a support base, some commentators have lobbied for strategic voting as a way of sufficiently refreshing the top ten, as to endure a repeat of the status quo would be uninspiring to say the least—a drastic, if valid course of action when the poll’s criteria for selection distinctly lack focus. “As for what we mean by ‘Greatest’, we leave that open to your interpretation,” reads the invitational email. “You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.” For better or for worse, the specifications for voting are left largely undefined—on the one hand, a testament to the poll’s robust foundation in criticism, where the intuition of its voters has been to unselfishly favour film history over personal taste; and on the other, a firm reminder of the arbitrariness of such undertakings. Whatever the outcome of the 2012 poll, the lists of individuals as opposed to those editorialised by organisations or tallied through vote (either publically, or within elitist circles) have always been a more fruitful indicator of what’s great or potentially great in cinema to me, and most of all, I look forward to browsing the hundreds of voter lists compiled by the magazine in addendum to the resulting top ten.

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For continued discussion on the Sight and Sound poll, a quick Google search is all that’s required—a telling sign of what to expect (or what not to expect) of the final verdict. And while it remains to be seen whether the groundswell of conversation online makes a difference to the configuration of the top ten, it’s important to note that this current version of the poll will for the first time be truly representative of film criticism in the age of the Internet. One can only assume that the number of critics previously polled will substantially increase from 145 to reflect the upsurge in writers who have been able to find a voice and a readership exclusively on the web. (Whether this is a positive or negative development in film criticism is another essay entirely.) Furthermore, the major role the Internet now plays in film consumption cannot be underestimated, and it will be fascinating to see how this paradigm shift affects, if at all, the composition of the poll. With that said, the ten films I’ve settled on are detailed below, followed by an attempt to qualify the decision making process:

  1. Late Spring (Yasujirô Ozu, Japan, 1949)
  2. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1944)
  3. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, USA, 1952)
  4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, USA, 2001)
  5. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941)
  6. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1989)
  7. Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, Norway/Sweden, 1974)
  8. Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage, USA, 1927)
  9. The Intruder (Claire Denis, France, 2004)
  10. Flowing (Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1956)

First and foremost, the above is a strictly personal, open-ended top ten, with preference given to works (particularly those within a significant oeuvre) that have shaped my perspective on cinema, over those traditionally set under the banner of objective greatness. That is not to say that I’ve allowed myself to be contrarian as a means of producing a list (almost) free of perennial masterworks; it just so happens that I value a film such as Late Spring more than the widely accepted Ozu masterpiece, Tokyo Story. (The same could be said of A Canterbury Tale over The Red Shoes, or the general feeling that Citizen Kane could be usurped by several other worthy Welles replacements.) In principle, my choices reflect two ultimate states of mind: private, ineffable pleasure; and critical ecstasy from the experience (and re-experience) of a film. I have tried not to deviate from those principles, even when the weight of historical context is an overbearing force. Conscious of, though not deliberately engaged in, overhauling the poll’s results, my ballot also coincidentally satisfies the need for unorthodox voting—Singin’ in the Rain, and perhaps The Lady Eve, the two exceptions.

A few notes on individual film selection. There are critics who contend that a film should only be considered if it has stood the test of time, however as I’ve been watching movies seriously for a mere 13 years (beginning in my late teens), it makes little sense to apply a maturation date. For me, a trustworthy measure of a film’s greatness is its resilience to repeat viewings, and that is certainly true of the films I’ve culled. What’s more, it seems impractical to make a distinction based on artistic excellence between a film made five years ago, and another made fifty years ago, when I’ve rapidly condensed a century of cinema into the past decade, thus confining my relationship to any film within the briefest of time periods. (As an aside, while DVD has been a godsend, it’s regrettable that I’ve only been able to see five out of the ten films chosen in an actual cinema.) I have not hesitated to include The Intruder and Mulholland Drive ahead of others, as both represent formative experiences in my appreciation of film. (Incidentally, Mulholland Drive appears the most likely ‘noughties’ film to break into the top ten, judging by its placing on numerous best-of-decade lists. Also an outside chance: Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.) Finally, I have made a special case of two films by two directors whose profile has clearly benefited from cinephilia and critical studies in the digital age. Passionate reappraisals of Frank Borzage’s archaic melodramas have steadily emerged, while the forgotten man of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse, has been rediscovered as a major auteur. Crucially, both filmmakers’ oeuvres have been resurrected through 21st century technology—namely, file sharing and the concerted effort of online communities to leave no film behind. (Take, for example, the retrofitting of untranslated films with ‘fan-made’ subtitles, or the digitization of rare films only in existence on VHS, or more obscure still, as television broadcasts.)

The most awkward part of this exercise has been filing my choices in order of ‘greatness’—something I elected to do nonetheless (Sight and Sound give participants the option), as thinking in terms of hierarchy proved helpful in reaching a final decision, and was in keeping with the spirit of canonization; that is to say, establishing a high point to work towards (or backwards from). Still, I remain unconvinced about the practice of ranking films on a larger scale, and certainly the deeper the list, the more arbitrary the pecking order becomes. This is also true of a poll, as there’s much less to separate the lower ranked films from one another—and therefore, justify their positioning on a ladder—when the votes begin to disperse. If Sight and Sound cannot warrant publishing the full results of their poll for this reason, one of the more useful workarounds to emerge has been for the editors to expand the top ten to a top twenty—in theory, an opportunity for other canon contenders to share the spotlight.

Of course, the danger of overthinking the selection process is to veer away from instinct, and in turn, the ability to relax about which films make the cut—because let’s face it, no person can possibly sight every prospective cinematic great and be exhaustive in the final analysis. Even so, it’s an agonizing thought to curb one’s enthusiasm for cinema to a portion of ten, which is why I’ve taken the liberty of supplementing my ballot with an annex of personal favourites—in this case, 90 more films, organized alphabetically, though by no means set in stone. Tipping the scales at 100, the canon can be read both as a rough blueprint of my film taste (notice, for instance, the preferential treatment of certain filmmakers), and more constructively, as a marker of where my current experience of cinema lies, as no film canon, large or small, personal or authoritative, can claim to have the last word. Self-centred by design, the canon also brings into sharp relief the films I probably should have seen by now (case in point: I have owned an unviewed copy of Satantango for far too long), along with the bodies of work of key auteurs I’ve yet to introduce myself to, or have barely scratched the surface of (Rivette and Ruiz are two that scandalously come to mind.) Due to an ongoing love affair with movies, the list will undoubtedly require many revisions before the next decade when another Sight and Sound poll rolls around, by which time I may well have a uncovered a better film by Naruse than Flowing, and found the inspiration to write at length about some of the films I’ve included in—and made notably absent from—the canon.

In lieu of elaboration, the following can only function as a starting point, but then isn’t that exactly the role of a list as provisional as this? Without pretending to be conclusive, a film canon should ideally perform the part of a guide to great or near-great cinema, while also opening a door to less obvious, unfairly neglected, or culturally marginalized films of significance. Conversely, it should neither be an affront, like those aggressively titled coffee table books (i.e. “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”), nor a people’s choice award—frankly, we have enough of those already. Ultimately, it should prompt the curious moviegoer to seek out new pathways, or at least nudge them in a different direction with self-discovery the desired outcome—after all, how hard has it become to arrive at an impression of a film independently nowadays, when the element of surprise and chance has virtually been eliminated by aggregated opinion, social media chatter, and pervasive viral marketing? The way I see it, the simple, prescriptive nature of a film canon can overcome some of what’s wrong with criticism today—specifically, a narrow preoccupation with where a movie lands on a scale between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the expense of discussing what’s idiosyncratic about it, regardless of its commercial prospects or surface flaws—by presenting a film as nakedly as possible, with the opportunity to seek out deeper critical insight always there. If readers can take even a few of these things away from the directory of films I’ve put together—admittedly, a self-aggrandizing and pretentious endeavour, whichever way I spin it—then I would encourage local critics and cinephiles to follow suit and share their own version of the personal film canon, either as an addition to mine, in antithetical response to others, or for their own edification.

  • Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, USA, 1951)
  • Actress (aka Centre Stage; Stanley Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)
  • Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1994)
  • Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1975)
  • Beau Travail (Claire Denis, France, 1999)
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1980)
  • Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1957)
  • Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1960)
  • A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1991)
  • Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, USA, 1938)
  • Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japan/Taiwan, 2003)
  • Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, USA, 1940)
  • The Circle (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2000)
  • Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990)
  • Clouds of May (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 1999)
  • Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 1997)
  • Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, USA, 1978)
  • Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terrence Davies, UK, 1988)
  • The Driver (Walter Hill, USA, 1978)
  • Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, USA, 1946)
  • F For Fake (Orson Welles, France/Iran/West Germany, 1973)
  • Fat City (John Huston, USA, 1972)
  • The Fly (David Cronenberg, USA, 1986)
  • Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, Japan, 1969)
  • The Furies (Anthony Mann, USA, 1950)
  • Georgia (Ulu Grosbard, USA, 1990)
  • Good Morning (Yasujirô Ozu, Japan, 1959)
  • Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003)
  • The Green Ray (aka Summer; Eric Rohmer, France, 1986)
  • Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, USA, 1950)
  • The Heart of the World (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2000)
  • The Hired Hand (Peter Fonda, USA, 1971)
  • The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2004)
  • I Was Born, But… (Yasujirô Ozu, Japan, 1932)
  • I, Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1953)
  • Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, Italy, 1961)
  • Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Belgium/France, 2004)
  • Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, France, 1996)
  • Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954)
  • Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 1999)
  • La Cérémonie (aka A Judgment in Stone; Claude Chabrol, France, 1995)
  • La gueule ouverte (aka A Mouth Agape; Maurice Pialat, France, 1974)
  • The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1963)
  • Les rendez-vous d’Anna (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium/West Germany, 1978)
  • Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, USA, 1948)
  • Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan, 2005)
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, USA, 2003)
  • Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, USA, 1957)
  • Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, USA, 1937)
  • A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, France, 1956)
  • Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944)
  • Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, France, 1926)
  • Miami Blues (George Armitage, USA, 1990)
  • The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, Soviet Union, 1975)
  • Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, USA/Japan, 1985)
  • Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, USA, 1981)
  • My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)
  • Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993)
  • Night and the City (Jules Dassin, UK, 1950)
  • Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1958)
  • Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2000)
  • Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, France/West Germany, 1981)
  • Real Life (Albert Brooks, USA, 1979)
  • Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1940)
  • The Red Shoes (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1948)
  • The River (Jean Renoir, France/India/USA, 1951)
  • The Set-Up (Robert Wise, USA, 1949)
  • Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1943)
  • The Shooting (Monte Hellman, USA, 1966)
  • Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian, USA, 1957)
  • Smooth Talk (Joyce Chopra, USA, 1985)
  • Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1950)
  • Stolen Kisses (François Truffaut, France, 1968)
  • Stroszek (Werner Herzog, West Germany, 1976)
  • A Summer at Grandpa’s (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1984)
  • Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1927)
  • Susan Slept Here (Frank Tashlin, USA, 1954)
  • Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2006)
  • They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, USA, 1981)
  • Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, USA, 1974)
  • Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany, 2003)
  • Times Square (Allan Moyle, USA, 1980)
  • Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Norman Mailer, USA, 1987)
  • Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)
  • Vagabond (Agnès Varda, France, 1985)
  • Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Germany, 1932)
  • Vengeance is Mine (Shôhei Imamura, Japan, 1979)
  • When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, Japan, 1960)
  • The World (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2004)
  • The Young Girls of Rocherfort (Jacques Demy, France, 1967)
In addition to narrative features, the above list incorporates short films and made-for-television projects which have received theatrical distribution. Documentaries are conspicuous by their absence not because of any set criteria, but due to the premium for space. A second tier of 100 films may be attached in the near future as an appendix of the many other films considered, agonized over, and finally omitted in the selection process.