Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Greatest Films of All Time: 21-50

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (ranked #45) features the director of Metropolis (ranked #26), Fritz Lang, in the role of a famous film director named . . . Fritz Lang. And, yes, it also stars Brigitte Bardot.

"A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it."
Alfred Hitchcock

This is the second in a series of posts on my exploration of the world's Greatest Films of All Time. The initial post included an Introduction and Films 1-20.

Briefly, I researched and compiled 30 lists of Greatest Films from various sources around the globe, including critics such as Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum; popular magazines like Time and Time Out (UK); films journals such as Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinema, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski (Russia); and a range of Film Archives from countries like China, India, Ecuador, Israel, Greece, and Finland.

The 30 polls produced a total of 580 films. When films weren't ranked in the polls, I assigned a numeric value depending on the total number of films included (eg. 100 films = 20 points). What follows are the movies that ranked 21-50 after all of the points from the 30 polls were tabulated. So, this list is not a ranking of films I personally think are the greatest of all time. It's simply a reflection of results from across 30 polls voted on by hundreds of other people.

My quest was twofold: To see which works were considered the masterpieces of cinema from a variety of international sources, and to see if and how the perception of great films and great directors varied from one region of the world to another.

Films 21-50

Les enfants du paradis [Children of Paradise] - It ranked #21 overall. Bob Dylan once called it his favorite film.

To be honest, I don't place much importance on the exact ranking of the films on this list. If I adjusted the numeric value I assigned to unranked polls, for example, the specific rankings might change quite a bit. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (#26) and Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (#27) were only separated by 1.5 points after 30 polls (606.5 and 605 points respectively.) The former was mentioned 13 times, the latter, 11 times. So it would be ridiculous to suggest that Lang's masterpiece is better than Bergman's.

On the other hand, I think the difference between these two films and, say, Renoir's Rules of the Game, which wound up with 1,350 points and was mentioned in 24 polls, is significant enough to be of interest. Or between these two films and the 200-plus titles that scored few points and were only mentioned once.

Also notable is that while Metropolis and Wild Strawberries fell around the same place in the pack, their support came from different regions of the world. Lang's futuristic silent film from 1927 showed up on four out of six US/UK lists, while Bergman's movie didn't show up at all. Instead, it was Bergman's The Seventh Seal which showed up in four out of six US/UK polls. Meanwhile, Wild Strawberries did better than Metropolis in Europe, a surprising fact to me, as the European polls included a number of film archives, which I thought would naturally favor Lang's film. And, of course, Lang, was from Vienna and both started and ended his career making films in Germany.

My surprise also originates in my American cinematic education. A discussion in the U.S of the masterpieces of cinema, in my experience, would certainly include Metropolis and Bergman's The Seventh Seal. I assumed, then, that the two films were regarded more or less the same way throughout the world, especially since they're both what we usually call "foreign" films. If they're "foreign," wouldn't "foreigners" regard them as highly as we do?

But Metropolis only showed up in one European poll - a film archive in Belgium - and The Seventh Seal didn't show up in any. It seems, then, that a European discussion of the film canon would be more likely to include Wild Strawberries than the other two films.

And Ingmar Bergman, who has been one of the cinematic titans in my film education, barely registers at all in the Asian films lists. Only one of his films showed up in their polls. (I'll discuss Directors more in a future post.) Metropolis, on the other hand, was ranked #13 overall in the Asian polls.

So, take the exact numbers with a big grain of salt. Think in broader terms. Which films get mentioned five times and which ones get mentioned 20? Which ones are mentioned more in the U.S. or Asia?

Here's the list, followed by some of my discoveries.

21. Les enfants du paradis [Children of Paradise] (1945) - Marcel Carné - 661.5 points - 11 mentions

22. Greed (1924) - Erich von Stroheim - 649.5 - 14

23. M (1931) - Fritz Lang - 646.5 - 12

24. L'avventura (1960) - Michelangelo Antonioni - 645 - 13

25. Les quatre cents coups [The 400 Blows] (1959) - François Truffaut - 617.5 - 13

26. Metropolis (1927) - Fritz Lang - 606.5 - 13

27. Smultronstället [Wild Strawberries] (1957) - Ingmar Bergman - 605 - 11

28. The Gold Rush (1925) Charlie Chaplin - 591 - 13

29. La dolce vita (1960) - Federico Fellini - 588.5 - 11

30. City Lights (1931) - Charlie Chaplin - 584 - 12

31. Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz - 582 - 13

32. The General (1927) - Buster Keaton - 548 - 9

33. La grande illusion (1937) - Jean Renoir - 531 - 10

34. The Godfather Part II (1974) - Francis Ford Coppola - 520 - 9

35. Psycho (1960) - Alfred Hitchcock - 515 - 10

36. Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles - 495 - 8

37. Kabinett des Doktor Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari] (1920) - Robert Wiene - 487 - 10

38. Gone with the Wind (1939) Victor Fleming - 480.5 - 11

39. Andrei Roublev (1969) Andrei Tarkovsky - 472.5 - 8

40. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) David Lean - 466.5 - 8

41. Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton - 447 - 7

42. Zerkalo [The Mirror] (1975) - Andrei Tarkovsky - 440.5 - 8

43. Some Like It Hot (1959) Billy Wilder - 437 - 9

44. Chelovek s kino-apparatom [Man with a Movie Camera] (1929) - Dziga Vertov - 433 - 7

45. Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963) Jean-Luc Godard - 426 - 8

46. Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski - 425.5 - 8

47. Ordet [The Word] (1955) Carl Theodor Dreyer - 418.5 - 9

48. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra - 418 - 8

49. Taxi Driver (1976) Martin Scorsese - 416 - 9

50. Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] (1957) Ingmar Bergman - 415.5 - 9

One of the issues I wanted to explore in my quixotic quest was the influence of language in determining our concepts of Greatest Films. As an American, my relationship with cinema developed in an English-language environment, watching English-language films. I wouldn't encounter a film in another language until I was 16 years-old, when, out of boredom and curiosity, I slipped into the University of Texas Student Union Cinema to watch the last hour of one of the films in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy. (One of the most transformative experiences of my life.) I took film classes in English and was surrounded by a English-language film culture, discussing mostly English-language films in English. It wasn't until I moved to Spain in 1995 that my English-language film life would really undergo a change.

So, when I started on this exploration, I was curious to see how some of the classics of English-language cinema, the movies we love and hold dear in the U.S., would do in other parts of the world. Do people outside of our country revere Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and It's a Wonderful Life? They seem like such quintessentially American films.

Well, as it turned out, all three showed up in polls from other parts of the world. This may be due in part to the vast power and reach of Hollywood, especially in the 1940s, when American global cultural dominance established itself in the ashes of World War II. Take the case of France, for example. The birthplace of cinema, which once had a film industry rivaling that of Hollywood, had to turn to the United States for economic assistance in the aftermath of the war. According to Richard Brody, in his excellent new biography of Jean-Luc Godard, one of the stipulations of the Blum-Byrnes Accords, the debt relief package from the U.S., was that "for nine out of every thirteen weeks, each screen would show American movies." The directors of what we now call the French New Wave - Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette - grew up in this environment and were so closely identified with Hollywood and its cinema when they first gained attention as young film critics, that the French originally deemed them the Hitchcocko-Hawksians, after Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

The silent films from early American cinema in the list - Greed, Gold Rush, City Lights, and The General - also did well across all regions. Charlie Chaplin has accurately been called the first Hollywood "star" to achieve worldwide fame. But, then, silent films obviously don't have to deal with the language barrier. Also, as I mentioned in the previous post, it seems that comedies often have difficulty moving from one culture to another, so it's interesting to see how well silent comedians Chaplin and Keaton did internationally.

As it turns out, though, there were several English-language films that ranked highly in the Anglo-American lists but didn't even show up in the rest of the world. Three such films in the 21-50 rankings were: Chinatown, which actually ranked #7 overall in US/UK polls; David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. (All three did show up on the "international" lists, which are five polls impossible to classify as being from a specific region.)

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, a French favorite.

Charles Laughton's disturbing Night of the Hunter, which wound up #13 overall in the US/UK polls, was ranked an astonishing #2 by the French journal Cahiers du cinema - but it wasn't mentioned in any other poll in the rest of the world. Almost the same thing occurred with Orson Welles' film noir Touch of Evil, which wound up #22 overall in the US/UK polls. It was also selected by Cahiers du cinema but didn't show up anywhere else.

All four French films in the 21-50 list - Les enfants du paradis (#21), Les quatre cents coups (#25), La grande illusion (#33), and Le Mépris (#45) - showed up in the French Cahiers du cinema poll, but they only appeared in one other European poll each. All four also showed up in at least one US/UK poll, with Truffaut's film (#25) appearing in five out of six. And, with the exception of La grande illusion, they all showed up in at least one Asian poll.

Both Russian polls chose Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, despite the fact that the film was withheld from release by the Soviet Union for a number of years. The Moscow Film Archive, however, did not list Tarkovsky's later film, Zerkalo [The Mirror]. Time Out (UK) did choose Zerkalo, but that was the only mention in US/UK polls for either of these Tarkvosky films, which, quite frankly, surprised me. Andrei Rublev did appear on all five international lists, including the IMDB Classic Film Board Top 200, where Tarkvosky is worshiped with great devotion. Meanwhile, Zerkalo was the only film by Tarkovsky to appear in any of the four Asian polls.

The other Russian film, Dziga Vertov's influential Man with a Movie Camera, showed up in the Kinovedcheskie Zapiski poll but not in the list from the Moscow Film Archive. It wasn't selected by any of the European or Asian polls, but it did do well in the US/UK and international polls and was included in the list from Venezuela.

Curiously, there were no Asian films ranked 21-50, after an impressive five titles in the 1-20 list.

Films ranked 21-50 that show up in my own list of Favorite 100 Films: Les enfants du paradis [Children of Paradise] (#21); La dolce vita (#29); Casablanca (#31); La grande illusion (#33); The Godfather Part II (#34); Le mépris (#45) and The Seventh Seal (#50).

I'll be investigating Films 51-100 in a future post, but the next installment in the series will be on the men and women who directed the Greatest Films of All Time. I encountered numerous surprises while taking a look at the directors who showed up in the 30 polls. In fact, I would go as far to say that the results changed my thinking about some of our masters of cinema. The cultural variations were also fascinating.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear about some of your own experiences with the films ranked 21-50. Any favorites make the list? Ones you absolutely hate? Are you surprised by any of the cultural differences?

Until the next reel. . . .


Liam said...

I'm surprised that American directors from the golden age of Hollywood that seemed to be worshiped by Spanish cinefilos (John Ford, Howard Hawks) don't seem to be showing up.

The Night of the Hunter is an awesome, awesome movie.

cowboyangel said...

Well, there have only been 50 films listed so far. Ford already has one, The Searchers at #16. As you will see in the Directors post, they both end up doing very well - though not necessarily everywhere.

I need to see Night of the Hunter again. I've only seen it once - a long time ago.

Garpu said...

I've tried watching Taxi Driver several times. Don't know why, but I just can't get into it. I'm wondering what your list will be like in another 100 years. Are the films that were made in our lifetimes just not that good, or are they not on lists because there isn't enough space to judge their worth?

cowboyangel said...

Funny, I just tried watching Taxi Driver for the first time a few weeks ago. I got about 20 minutes into it and just wasn't in the mood and found it too slow.

Well, actually, there are a number of films made in my lifetime, so I may be older than you. But, as I will talk about in a post on Years/Time Frames, it's obvious that it takes time for many films to be considered among the greatest. But I think that's true in most arts. What I discovered is that there are more recent films in the latter half of the 580 mentioned. You kind of get a glimpse of which might be the "great ones" in the future.

On the other hand, there are numerous examples in film history of works that weren't well-regarded for a long time but now are considered classics: Bringing Up Baby and Vertigo immediately come to mind.

I've broken down the films by decade, which I'll talk about later. It's hard to say if we're living in a Golden Age of Cinema right now. In some ways, I think it's a rich time. In other ways, it seems pretty rank. Hard for me to tell.

John Schertzer said...

And all of these films are supposedly better than anything by Truffaut?

John Schertzer said...

Okay, missed 400 Blows at pos 25.

cowboyangel said...


25. Les quatre cents coups [The 400 Blows] (1959) - François Truffaut - 617.5 - 13

That seems about right to me. If not even a little high. If it were my own personal rankings, several of the films below it would be ranked higher.

I didn't realize you were such a Truffaut fan!

crystal said...

I saw both Metropolis, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal when I was in college, thanks to a boyfirend who liked old movies. Also the silent version of The Three Musketeers and City Lights and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, plus The Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevski by Eisenstein.

I've never seen the 400 Blows, but heard it's really good.

Saw Gone With The Wind in high school and liked it so much I read the book.

Lawrence of Arabia - an outstanding movie.

Chinatown ..... she's my sister, no, she's my daughter, no she's my sister :)

Some Like It Hot .... women move like jello on springs (or something like that) - heh.

Another great list, William.

cowboyangel said...

Thanks, Crystal. I've been wanting to hear about other peoples' experiences.

I'm impressed with your knowledge of the silent films. I hadn't seen City Lights or Dr. Caligari until the last month or so. And still haven't seen Metropolis! Or Alexandre Nevsky.

Caligari was pretty wild.

400 blows is very good, though I haven't seen it in a while. Jules et Jim also.

Love the Chinatown summary.

crystal said...

Most of those I hardley remember anymore, except I think I thought Wild Strawberries was boring :) I did write a blog post about Alexander Nevsky once, though - neat battle scene on a frozen lake.

crystal said...

Link to my Nevsky post in case you're interested :)

cowboyangel said...

Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

Jeff said...

There were so many posts on the other one, I decided to post here.

I'm impressed by your methodology. How do you find the time to do all of this cross-referencing and compilation??

So, it' still Orson's "Rosebud" after all of these years, eh? I don't know... There were some amazing technical aspects to that film. Some pretty cool angles and tricks with lighting, but I think Citizen Kane gets too much of a pass for the technical aspects alone. To me, the story was a real snoozer. Doesn't the script or the social commentary matter much with regard to these lists? It seems to me, they are director's lists, based solely upon technique. There was some great lighting in Citizen Kane, sure, but there was a lot of film noir like the Big Sleep, and other black and whites like Sunset Boulevard and To Kill a Mockingbird which were better films in my view.

The rest of my quibbles:

It was interesting to see Hichcock's Vertigo near the top. I always thought that Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest were more highly regarded.

And if they want to list a Jack Lemmon comedy, you have to go with The Apartment over Some Like it Hot any old day.

I love Singin' in the Rain, but I don't think it deserves to go in the Top 20. If any film with music in it goes in the top 20, it's The Wizard of Oz.

Kudos for Kurosawa for being in there twice, although my favorite film of his is Yojimbo. Ugestsu was great, but my favorite Japanese film ever was Fires On the Plain.

No Bergman is a travesty, and I may have missed it, but no Francois Truffaut other than the 400 Blows?? No Day for Night? The Wild Child? Jules & Jim? The Woman Next Door?

I know a lot of people like The Searchers as the best western film. Nah, Shane takes that, hands-down.

Some other thoughts.. Where are...

The Graduate
The Passenger
Midnight Cowboy
Carnal Knowledge
A Clockwork Orange
Guess who's Coming to Dinner
The Philadelphia Story
Death In Venice
Schindler's List
Ben Hur
The Letter
Hannah and Her Sisters
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Captains Courageous
San Francisco
Petrified Forest
The Unforgiven
Dirty Harry
My Dinner with Andre
Harold & Maude
Raging Bull

cowboyangel said...


Good to hear from you on these posts.

As I said to Crystal, I've been working on this off and on since March, so that made it easier.

Personally, I think Kane gets a bad reputation as just being a good movie. Maybe because it has such a huge reputation, people are disappointed when they see it. To me, the story is a powerful one, in addition to any of its technical innovations. I was skeptical of how good it was until I re-watched about a year ago, and then I realized it was a pretty damn good flick, any way you look at it. I guess I'm in the middle - It wouldn't be my personal choice for greatest film of all time, but I like it more than others.

I might pick The Best Years of our Lives. Which, interestingly, also features Greg Toland's incredible cinematography.

>Doesn't the script or the social commentary matter much with regard to these lists? It seems to me, they are director's lists, based solely upon technique.

Yeah? Only one poll was solely chosen by directors - the Sight & Sound Directors list. A few others had some directors among the judges. If anything, there are too many lists by critics and archivists. But they're probably the only people who've actually seen most of these films and bother thinking about them enough to make a list. That's the reason I would never attempt my own list. I haven't seen so many important movies or movies from other countries.

The IMDB Classic Film Board list is done by film lovers, but it has problems, too. An obsession with Tarkovsky, for one thing. But I see a lot of films with great scripts here, and many with social commentary. In the end, I think it's just that lists of greatest films don't necessarily coincide with lists of Favorite Films. I know most of my 100 Favorite aren't going to show up in these polls. Although someone did choose The Band Wagon - that made me happy.

After 50 films, Bergman has two listed. No director has 3 at this point, so he's up there with the other biggies.

Another Truffaut fan, eh? Interesting. I might argue that Jules et Jim should be on the list at this point. But I don't know if Truffaut really merits two films in the Top 50.

I finally saw the Searchers a few weeks ago. Talk about disappointing. But there was a mental block for me right off the bat. They were supposed to be in West Texas, but the movie took place amidst the most well-known landscapes from Monument Valley, Arizona. Drove me crazy. It's like saying a movie is set in Paris and then showing the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Statue of Liberty, etc. And while I thought the film was good, I guess I'll have to watch it again, because it's greatness eluded me. If we're talking westerns, I'd go with The Wild Bunch. But The Searchers is definitely a mythic film, especially for Europeans. (An audience that has no idea they're looking at Arizona instead of Texas.) John Ford is so well loved by cinephiles.

So, what movies are you going to remove from the Top 50 to put all those other ones in there?! I'm afraid there's only one that I have in my 100 Favorite - The Philadelphia Story. Though I like many of the others.

Some of the ones you mention will eventually show up in the list.

cowboyangel said...

I haven't seen Shane. Or Fires on the Plain. Will have to add those to my ever-expanding list of films to see.