Tag Archives: top ten

One of the most popular — but meaningless — excrescences in current culture is the explosion of Top 10 and Top 5 lists. They are everywhere, on the internet, in magazines and newspapers, and on TV. 

When I took an early buyout from my newspaper a decade ago, it was largely because, as a feature writer, I was increasingly asked to provide what are artlessly called “listicles,” that is, newspaper articles in the form of lists: “Five things to do in Sedona,” “Five best pancake toppings,” “Top five wines from Indiana.” 

The direction the newspaper was going was to avoid any actual writing of prose and substitute a quick list — easy to put together, popular with readers, and completely and utterly devoid of substance. I could see the handwriting on the wall, and decided it must be time to leave the profession. 

Of course, I am guilty of making such lists, too. We all are. For this blog I have written several lists, including the ultimate lists of the 50 greatest lists of all times (link here). My list of the Top 10 films of all time has at least 40 movies on it. Heck, my list of best foreign films counts 100 of them (link here). But I am now doing penance for my sins. 

Top 10 lists, such as the year-end lists by movie critics, are only just a record of the taste and opportunity of the critic in question: No critic has actually seen all the movies released in a given year, and the final choices depend entirely on the likes and dislikes of the reviewer. There is usually some overlap, but no two critics will offer quite the same list. Such lists are fun to read, and may be a vague guide to what films might be worth seeing, but as an ultimate judgment of quality and ranking, the lists are just smoke to blow away with time. 

There is no actual, objective, outside omniscient and divine judge to parse differences between, say The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Above a certain level, it is all cream. 

Many of the artists who show up on such lists, whether actors or directors or costume designers, know full well that art is not a competition, and that comparing a great tragedy and a great comedy is worse than apples and oranges. Hilary Swank was voted best actress in 2000 for her role in Boys Don’t Cry, and it was a powerful and moving performance, no doubt. But was she quantifiably better than Annette Bening, Janet McTeer, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep? They were all good — as were a passel of actors who had films out that year who weren’t even nominated. Should Moore consider herself a failure because Swank came out on top? Silly, of course. 

People working at that high a level of accomplishment are all beyond mere ranking. 

This came flooding back on me because lately, I’ve been immersing myself in recordings of Beethoven symphonies. When I first began listening to them, more than 50 years ago, I had the Toscanini set on LP, which I played on one of those ancient drop-front Sears Silvertone record players, and as a mere youth, thought Toscanini was the greatest conductor ever in the history of the universe anywhere. When you are young, you are prone to rash and categorical judgments. (I have always owned a set of Toscaninis, in its various release permutations and remasterings. I’m not ready to toss him overboard just because I have found others who also do well.) 

Since then, I have heard the music uncounted times in concert and even more often on recordings. For many years, in the middle of my time on earth, I foreswore them, having — as I believed — worn out my ability to hear them as anything but background music. I knew them too well; they were too often programmed at concerts. Another Beethoven Fifth? God help us.

But after taking a 30-year break (outside of the concerts I attended or reviewed), I have come back to them and can hear them all again with fresh ears. And they are a marvel. There is always something fresh to hear. 

I currently possess  26 full sets of the Beethoven symphonies, ranging from the historical (Mengelberg) to the historically informed (Gardiner) and when I listen to them, yes, I have my favorites, and could (if paid) produce a list ranking the top 10. But they would merely be the ones I, personally, like the best. If I am fair, I have to say that pretty much all of them deliver the goods. 

(The only two exceptions are a set I no longer own — the Roger Norrington set — which is pure ordure in a garden of blooms. I threw it away; and the recordings of Sergiu Celibidache, which are perverse, and which I keep, mostly as a party record, to play for friends as a joke). 

But I can put on a Pastoral by Josef Krips, or an Eroica by George Szell, and I am hearing Beethoven. The wayward rubatos of Furtwangler or the strict disco beat of John Eliot Gardiner both bring me worthy Beethovens. 

The fact is, while you may absolutely detest the oozy legato strings of Herbert von Karajan, or the granitic tempos of Otto Klemperer, they are all excellent performances, and if you only owned one set (heaven forfend) you could be completely satisfied. Monteux, Chailly, Zinman, Bernstein, Leinsdorf, MTT, Harnoncourt — any of them — all give excellent, if different performances of the symphonies. You can have your favorite, but you have to admit, none of them is negligible, and all have something to say. 

It is like having to choose between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Is one of the better? Stupid question. Is Titian a better painter than Monet? What is the greatest novel? War and Peace? Don Quixote? Madame Bovary? Ulysses? Á la recherche du temps perdu? C’mon, man, rankings are idiotic. 

As an art critic for 25 years, I got to visit hundreds of art shows, from major international exhibits in New York, Chicago or LA, down to children’s art in grade school, and it is not that I am saying it was all wonderful — some art is certainly more accomplished than other art — but that universal approbation is no indicator of value. 

Yes, Jeff Koons or Kara Walker may be the names on trendy lips, and we may think of them as among the leading artists of our times, but I saw work by local artists that, given the right breaks, could be just as famous and lauded. There are tons of artists — painters, actors, musicians — just as good as some of our most praised, but who either lacked the vaulting ambition for publicity, or never had the dumb luck to have been discovered by some influential critic. 

Is there any reason that David Hockney is ubiquitous and that Jim Waid is not? Waid is clearly as good a painter, and his canvases as original and distinctive, yet Hockney jet sets, and Waid paints in his studio in Tucson, Ariz. (I don’t mean to imply that Waid has no reputation — he does nationally — but nothing like the magazine-cover familiarity of Hockney). And I could find a dozen artists from any of the United States whose work would be as worthy. 

Sports may seem easier to listify, as we can always quantify the ten highest batting averages for any season or for career, although any real baseball fan knows that batting average doesn’t tell the whole story. And while we might compile a list of the greatest pitchers of all time, and there might be some agreement on the names, ranking them from the best on down will depend on one’s team allegiance or the era in which you most closely watched the game. Walter Johnson on top? Nolan Ryan? Bob Gibson? Sandy Koufax? Mad Dog Greg Maddux? Again, at that level, it’s all just opinion. 

Top 10 presidents? Again, there is cream at the top, and some sludge sinking to the bottom — and a fair consensus for top and bottom, even if the vast middle ground is murky, but how do we rank them all? Was Polk a better president than Hayes? Does Grover Cleveland get two spots on the list? Or just one, combined? 

List making is addicting, perhaps, but it is also empty calories. When I go scrounging through YouTube offerings, I am besieged by lists. They are click-bait and I have long ago learned to ignore them. Who was the worst mass-murdering tyrant in history? Who was the best defensive player in basketball? What are the Harry Potter books listed from best to worst? I don’t care. If you have something substantive to say about Hitler or Genghis Khan, about Bill Russell, or about the philosopher’s stone, then write something meaningful. Lists are an easy way to avoid engaging with actual thought. 

And I’ve made a list of them… 

I have seen a boatload of movies over the span of my life, some more significant than others. Those few important ones are outweighed by those that are completely unmemorable, even when perfectly enjoyable while sitting through them. That describes most movies and that’s fine. Not every film needs to be Citizen Kane

This is my list of significant films, listed decade by decade. It is a personal catalog and limited first by including only movies I have actually seen. There are significant films I have not yet been able to view. Further,  the list tends to reflect my own tastes, although it is not a list of my favorite films or of the “best” films, but of those that I believe have some significance in the history of cinema. You should make your own list. It would undoubtedly be different from mine. 


What makes them significant? Here are my criteria: In order to make my list a movie must hit one or more of these markers: 1. Be of historical importance; 2. Advance film grammar or technique; 3. Be influential on other films and filmmakers; 4. Have something profound to say about existence and humanity; or 5. Simply be so memorable as to be missed if not included. That’s a pretty wide and pretty loose range of qualities. Most films on this list hit more than one of them. And for my esthetic, No. 4 counts above all the others. 

Most movies, whether from Hollywood, Bollywood or Cinecittà, seek only to tell a good story and keep our attention. Many of these are truly enjoyable, but their making is merely efficient, using the tried-and-true techniques which remain invisible to the average moviegoer. The vast majority of films created never attempt to do more — nor should we ask them to. The old Hollywood studios were brilliant at this: perfect camera work, lighting, editing, sound recording, etc., but with never a thought to making us see these techniques. If we had noticed them, they would have felt that they had failed at their job. Others, like Citizen Kane, dance and sing their innovations. The significant filmmakers, for me, are those that do something above and beyond the call of duty. 

I make this apology: My taste tends toward the more arty. That’s why you should consider making your own list. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand. The way some readers read not books, but authors, so some filmgoers watch not individual films, but filmmakers: all of Bergman or all of Almodovar. I could not include all of their films in this list without it becoming more cumbersome than it already is, and so have whittled their works down to a few exemplars. So, for each of the big names, I have included mostly just the first important film they’ve made (a film that defined their style or themes), or when including more than one, when subsequent films meaningfully expanded their work. 

Some of these films might lead you to scratch your head. But I can justify any one of them. Or try to. 

Among the earliest films are the shorts made by the Lumière brothers in France in the 1890s. They are each under a minute long and show everyday scenes. They astonished their original audiences, but are of mostly historical interest now. The first filmmaker to create something we might still want to see and enjoy was the P.T. Barnum of early filmmakers, Georges Méliès, who used trick photography and surreal plots to draw his ticket-buyers in. 

When we get to 1915, we have to take a deep breath and watch Birth of a Nation, which is so blatantly and obscenely racist, I feel dirty even listing it. But it is, apart from its story and acting, so important in the development of cinema and film language, you kinda have to hold your nose and see it. 

Film really took off in the 1920s — the first “golden age” of cinema. A language and grammar of filmmaking developed that could tell a story with a minimum of words in intertitles. So many films are lost now, but many of those that remain are classics, including the amazing five-hour Napoleon by French director Abel Gance. It has been difficult to find commercially for years (blame Francis Coppola), but now is available on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray from the British Film Institute in a magnificent restoration by Kevin Brownlow. It’s worth it to buy a region-free player just to see this film. (You can also find things on Amazon UK that are otherwise not available in the U.S., and Region 2 versions of some films that are cheaper than their American counterparts. A region-free player is a treasure.)


The 1930s were another “golden age,” when the studios ran things and did it right. Even the lowliest of studio B pictures was made with a professionalism that is hard to credit. Everyone was on top of his game. 

But Hollywood was interested more in melodrama and comedy than in searching explorations of the human condition. They were really, really good at it. But in Europe, the darker tides of history were leading to more textured work, as in the work of Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol. In the U.S., we had Ernst Lubitsch, who could be more sophisticated than the Hollywood norm, but then, he was born in Berlin. 

The one thing America had that no one else seemed able to copy was the “screwball comedy.” I have only one on my list, but there could be dozens. I have My Man Godfrey because I think it is the most perfect one. But I love ’em all. By the war, they couldn’t make them anymore without seeming to be too self-conscious about it. A genre no longer possible. 

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film I have never cared for, but it is on my list for its score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as exemplifying the great movie music by European emigres. 

I have to apologize for Leni Riefenstahl being on this list. Like Birth of a Nation, there is a moral stink to her films, but one should see them anyway for their influential filmmaking. Yell at the screen while you watch if you want — I do — but see them at least once before washing your eyes with lye.   

Even the worst eras of filmmaking have their gems. After 1939, the high-water mark for Hollywood films, we hit a lull. The war is certainly one cause — so many actors, technicians and filmmakers joined up and spent the war in Europe or the Pacific. But John Wayne stayed home to fight the enemy on the screen. I watched tons of those films on TV when I was a kid. I can’t say how many times I watched Guadalcanal Diary on the Million Dollar Movie. 

I include Maltese Falcon as the closest a film has ever adhered to the book. If you read Hammett’s book, you will think you’re reading a novelization of the film. John Huston did a great job with it. Casablanca is there as proof that a committee can make a masterpiece. Grapes of Wrath is here for its cinematography, which so perfectly catches the tone of the FSA photographs of the Great Depression. 

Still, the majority of movies on my list are European. They deal with real things; they had to. 

The 1950s were the great age of European art film. When we think of an art film, we are likely to picture The Seventh Seal, Rashomon or Orphée. Hollywood could squeeze out an occasional great film, but mostly it was sinking into the doldrums with flat TV-style lighting, uninspired editing, and a dependence on big-name stars, often miscast. Yet, it managed to make On the Waterfront, Anatomy of a Murder and Some Like It Hot — the closest thing Hollywood ever made to a post-1930s screwball comedy. I wish I had room on the list for more Billy Wilder. 

Oh, and Godzilla is here, not as the kiddie monster movie that it was turned into with Raymond Burr added on, but as its original Japanese parable of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. If properly seen, Godzilla is a heartbreaking film.

The French New Wave hits full force in the Sixties, taking up the slack  from Hollywood, which, in the first two-thirds of the decade was practically moribund, making dreck like Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Cleopatra. Oy veyzmir. 

Things brightened up in the last years of the decade as the studios threw up their hands and let the young turks in to update the artform. (Don’t feel sorry for the studios, they have come back with a vengeance with superheroes and CGI, but for the time being, they were playing dead. Never count out Capitalism, while there is still money to be made.)

The one great studio film of the era is Lawrence of Arabia. I had not counted it much until I saw it on the giant screen (the 70-foot screen of the old Cine Capri in Phoenix, Ariz., in a 70mm print in 1989.) It was a wonder. I weep for the kids watching movies on their iPhones.  

What started in the Sixties continued for the next decade, but the warnings were there to be seen. Young turks grew in style and technique, but the worm in the apple had jaws, then it had Star Wars. Filmmaking mega-corporations saw where the big bucks could be had. 


Before le déluge, though, a cadre of brilliant auteurs were given money to make Chinatown, Nashville and Taxi Driver. And the crazed, driven Werner Herzog broke through consciousness with Aguirre. And who else, really, was der Zorn gottes

Filmmakers who first popped their heads above ground in the 1970s went on to be the grandmasters of the next several decades. 

A new generation of auteurs arose in the 1980s to again refresh the cinematic cosmos. Some had made earlier films, but they all hit their stride in the Reagan years: Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Errol Morris. 

There was coming problem, though: film schools. In the old days, directors learned their craft on the job. Increasingly, they learned it all in school and became ever so glib at the three-act script and the POV, the Final Cut Pro. They knew their B roll and their axial cut, their Dutch angle, their key light and post production color timing. Result: filmmakers more interested in technique than in content. But the full misery of all that happens after the ’80s, when these well-trained technicians were given the reins of a $200 million CGI and green-screen superhero epic, where they functioned more as field generals than as artists. 

The film-school esthetic was also the natural result of the rising Postmodernism: the knowingness that made the process of filmmaking its own subject, along with the expectation that the audience knew what you were doing and could nod their heads knowingly. The story became its own MacGuffin. 

For me, the ’90s is the Kieslowski decade. The Polish filmmaker had been working since the ’60s, but didn’t break out into international note until The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, following that with his masterpiece trilogy, Colors (Blue, White, and Red). His 10 shorter TV films, Dekalog, had come out at the end of the previous decade, but together, all his later work makes a case for film as art in the same manner as the films of Bergman and Fellini in the 1950s. They are one of the high-water marks of film as literature. 

New names appeared and stuck: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Richard Linklater, Baz Luhrmann, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Wachowskis. They all continued to make interesting films of lasting power. Pedro Almodovar finally won international fame after decades of making idiosyncratic films in Spain. And Martin Scorsese continued to up his game, becoming the de facto “greatest living film director.” (Not that there is such a thing, but if there has to be someone named, most agree Scorsese wears the badge.) 

 It’s hard to believe, but Peter Jackson made the first Lord of the Rings movie 20 years ago. With those films, and with King Kong, Jackson became the field general commanding the largest forces and a budget rivaling that of the invasion of Normandy. That the films were as good as they were proves Jackson could overcome the disadvantage of so much money. Not everyone given such a purse could. The major movies of the decade were also blockbusters, a form that took over the studios, leaving behind small budget indie films to the do-it-yourself crowd. Lucky for all, digital cameras and editing made it possible to make meaningful films with almost no budget at all. The bifurcation of the film industry was nearly complete. 

Outside Hollywood, however, worthwhile films continued to be made by directors who actually had something to say. Increasingly, they said it in Spanish. Since the shift in the millennium, four of the putative top 10 movie auteurs are either Mexican or Spanish (Cuarón, del Torro, Iñarritu and Almodovar). We’ve come a long way from those cheesy old El Santo movies. 

Among the others are two very peculiar directors: Lars von Trier and Guy Maddin, both acquired tastes that I have acquired. I had to narrow it down to a film apiece for this list, but I would love to have included Maddin’s My Winnipeg

I’m afraid that when I retired in 2012, my moviegoing dropped precipitously. So, my list for the past decade is incomplete. I leave it to younger eyes to see the future. 

So, that’s my list. If I had made it tomorrow or next week, it would likely be entirely different. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some I wish I had included, and I might change my mind about some of those I listed. If I had made the list when I was 20, or 30, or 40, it would have reflected a very different — and unfinished — sensibility. Now, at 73, I’ve pretty well rounded off my sense of taste and esthetic. 

The list is mine and no one else should be blamed for it. And your list would undoubtedly head off in some other direction. Vaya con los dioses.

bachtrack page
The website Bachtrack has just released its poll of (mostly) European classical music critics, choosing the top ten orchestras and top ten conductors in the world. It is a list designed to be argued with — as most such lists are — and a list with some very odd missing persons.

First, the primary news, which is hardly news at all: The top three bands in the world are Berlin, Vienna and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. These three orchestras top almost everyone’s list. If they hadn’t been in win-place-and-show, we would all have known the contest was rigged.worlds best_orchestra_2015_bachtrackz

The rest of the list includes, in order, No. 4 through No. 10: The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; The London Symphony Orchestra; the Berlin Staatskapelle; the Dresden Staatskapelle; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. All perfectly deserving bands, although some people in Cleveland might be squawking.

Only two American orchestras made the cut, but then, the ranking was made by Europeans (with only a handful of American critics included), so the bias is natural — they haven’t had a chance to hear the American groups. And of course, it goes without saying (except I’m saying it here) that all such rankings are essentially meaningless and serve only to start bar fights.

I can’t have any real opinion on orchestra rankings, because I only know most of them them through recordings. I haven’t heard all of them live.

The top conductor of the day, according to Bachtrack, is Riccardo Chailly, currently head of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Also on the list: Simon Rattle; Mariss Jansons; Andris Nelsons; Riccardo Muti; Daniel Barenboim; Kiril Petrenko; Esa-Pekka Salonen; Yannick Nezet-Seguin; and Christian Thielemann. What? You say, no Bernard Haitink? No Pierre Boulez? There are several heavy hitters that are Missing in Action.

Such lists are inevitably subjective, and also political: Most of the critics gauged were German, so perhaps it is Valery Gergiev’s friendship with Vladimir Putin that has kept him off the list.

And I can say, from personal experience, that if you have only heard Haitink conduct on recordings, you may very well think of him as a timid kapellmeister. He is one of those musicians who seems to tone down his personality on recordings. I have heard him live with the London Symphony at the Salle Pleyel in Paris doing Beethoven’s Eroica, and it was one of the most exciting, and deeply moving performances I have ever heard. Live Haitink can be electric.

Still, for most of the baton-wavers, most of our experience of them comes on disc, and for most of them, the discs give us a very decent idea of their abilities. Chailly on disc is riveting. His Mahler Third is my personal favorite, and his recent Matthew Passion — swift enough to fit on two discs instead of the usual three — is a revelation.

So, I have an opinion on the top conductors, and it differs from Bachtrack’s list. My top conductors are not time-beaters, but have distinct personalities, so that you might hear a recording cold and think, that must be Gergiev, or that must be Pletnev. Many critics value the impersonal in performance: “Just the facts, ma’am,” and look for each performance to embody a Platonic ideal mystically assumed to be embedded in the score, with no “interpretation.” I don’t buy it. I want my music brought alive by someone who sees something in the music beyond the bar lines and semiquavers.

If I had a mission as a music critic for all those years, it was to make the case that music — particularly what is called classical music — is about more than entertainment, and that it has meaning beyond the mere patterns of notes on the page, and that musicians, no less than actors, must interpret the music, and bring their individuality to the game. No one wants a Hamlet where the best thing you can say is, “He stuck to the words on the page and didn’t try to interpret them.”

So, here is my list of the top conductors of the day, based both on live experience and on recordings: These are the conductors who give me exciting performances, show me something new, bring out the hidden, find the humanity behind the Pythagorean mathematics, and rattle my cage.

I can’t place them in order, like a horse race. So, as a group they are, in alphabetical order:barenboim

Daniel Barenboim — There is no doubt that Barenboim has ambitions of becoming the grand old man of classical music, and he has largely succeeded, taking up the mantle of a Furtwangler or Casals. There are times when his imitation of those giants of the past has been a kind of pastiche, an aping of idiosyncracies. But he has grown into a musician of considerable maturity and depth. The wishing-to-be has been overtaken by the has-become. His recordings of the Beethoven symphonies joins a few others as definitive, and his Bruckner recordings with the Chicago Symphony match brilliant engineering with perfect performances. boulez

Pierre Boulez — There is no one who does quite what Boulez does on the podium. His sense of color and balance is supernatural, and the crispness and cleanness of his performances are signature. He first became known to me through his recording of the Chereau Ring Cycle, where he managed to make Richard Wagner’s din sound like chamber music. His Mahler may be more “objective” and less manic than others, but no one makes the score more brilliantly etched. And he has a lock on the Second Vienna School. chailly

Riccardo Chailly — Over a long career, Chailly has found a corner all his own, bringing clarity and energy to familiar scores. His tempi tend to the speed-demon edge — he cuts an hour off the normal performance time for Bach’s Matthew Passion — but through some kind of maestro-magic, he makes those tempi expressive. Any performance by Chailly — especially with his house band, the Leipzig Gewandhaus — is worth hearing for what will be revealed. dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel — Yes, he’s the wunderkind and all that, and yes, there has been a kind of backlash against his celebrity status, but I heard him lead the Israel Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall playing the Tchaikovsky Fifth and that group of old pros — the kind of musicians who have played the music so many times, they don’t even need a conductor and who can be a little jaded — they looked like little boys being given a pony. Their eyes burned and they played like demons. I also heard him with his own LA Phil playing the Mahler First, and it was gangbusters. He’s for real. gergiev

Valery Gergiev — You have to see this guy on the podium; he’s all fingers. When he conducts, with both hands waving about spastically and each finger on each hand giving different cues, you have to wonder that his players can follow him at all. He has a very personal sound he draws from them: darker than other conductors, richer in the bass regions. I heard him twice in New York with his Mariinsky musicians dong Prokofiev and I feel I was given special insight into that composer. His recordings of Shostakovich’s “War Symphonies” are the best I know of that group of works. haitink

Bernard Haitink — There are unfortunately some musicians who just don’t record well. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance — his recordings are letter perfect and you could hardly ask for better, but they seem weak and pale compared to hearing him live, when you realize that you are, in fact, hearing God on the cello. Haitink can sound strait-laced on disc, but live, he can blow the roof off the dump. harnoncourt

Nikolaus Harnoncourt — This is a man who can be so perverse that you want to strangle him, yet, at times, that waywardness means you understand something you never did before. He brought “original instruments” out of the dark ages, but even with modern orchestras, he is likely to shake things up. And even when he’s not playing bad boy, as in his recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, he makes a personal mark on the music. The world will be a lesser planet when he leaves it. pletnev

Mikhail Pletnev — Pianists don’t always make great conductors. Barenboim and Ashkenazy are two of the few, and Pletnev, who is as wild a pianist as he is a conductor, makes my case that music needs to be interpreted. His Eroica is my personal favorite, played as I have never heard it before, with different accents and rhythms that bring the old chestnut back to its rightful place as being revolutionary.Berliner Philharmonie Gruppenbild Dez Berliner Philharmonie Gruppenbild Dez 2011 253

Simon Rattle — From the beginning, when he was the upstart at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Rattle showed a talent for both new music, new angles on old music, and a general awakeness to the world and its music. When he moved on the Berlin, he was a race car driver given the fastest machine in the world. The recordings he has made with them are nearly perfect. There is a depth behind the sheen. He finds the wit in Haydn and the neuroses in Mahler, the Weltschmerz in Brahms and the impishness in Stravinsky. His range is spectacular.

That is my list. It has nine conductors. You get to choose the tenth.

Goldsmith whales 1horizontal
“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.”

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. goldsmith fish 1What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

“You mean like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” I said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”goldsmith fish 2

“Of course, that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”goldsmith fish 3

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about carbon dioxide or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about. They had a peculiar relation to their language. They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”goldsmith fish 4

“Yes, I remember: Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.”

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” I said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is rife with such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or trickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”goldsmith fish 5

“My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

“Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water.”

“We still have the language problem,” I said. “We cannot always separate the language from the experience.”

“Certainly. But what do you mean?”goldsmith whales 2 horizontal

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”goldsmith crustaceous fish

“God, yes. I have a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, and he divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’ A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ goldsmith shells 1But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

Stuart got up and left the room, looking for his copy of the book. He came back with it and opened up to the chapter on fish.goldsmith fish 6

“This is one of my favorite passages,” he said. “ ‘Our philosophers hitherto, instead of studying their nature, have been employed in increasing their catalogues; and the reader, instead of observations of facts, is presented with a long list of names, that disgust him with their barren superfluity. It must displease him to see the language of a science increasing, while the science itself has nothing to repay the increasing tax laid upon his memory.’ ”

I took up the book and leafed through it. The illustrations were exceptional. I thought they might be worth showing off in borders of this discussion.

“I have another good example,” I said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those we kill by drones in the Middle East. So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”goldsmith fish 7

“It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century. Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”goldsmith fish 9

Stuart considered this a moment and then brought up his own.

“I would offer the belief in opposites and pairs. We think opposites exist, but it is really just a trick of language, enforced by habit. There is the lit end of the cigar and the end we draw smoke from, but there is really only one cigar. Hot and cold are thought of as opposites, but they are really only sliding marks on a single thermometer: Sunspots are ‘cold spots’ on the sun, but they are hotter than anything normally found on earth. Hot and cold, rather than being opposites, are relative.

“The corollary is that we think of many things that are not really opposites at all as fitting into the brain-slot we save for opposites.”

“Like salt and pepper,” I said. “Like chocolate and vanilla.”

“Exactamente. It is habit alone that gives us these pairs. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.”

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”goldsmith fish 8 horizonntal

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, we still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“And the internet is stuffed with ‘top 10’ lists. As if one movie were provably better than the number two choice. ‘Ten worst dressed politicians.’ ‘5 most influential bloggers.’ The scalar nature of these is another mental figment, a meme, that gets reproduced like DNA.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn. goldsmith shark horizontal

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

Genevieve called from the other room. “Dinner is ready, if I can cut through the chatter.”

What awaited us was a pork roast, crispy with a rind of fat across the top, Brussels sprouts in butter and a rice pilaf and salad.

“This is the real stuff,” she said. “It’s not words.”

Buster Keaton "The General"

Buster Keaton “The General”

When it comes to movies, everyone has a Top Ten list, or a top 100, or top 500. Tastes differ, of course, and no two persons’ lists should be the same. But when you gaze through so many of these lists online, it is appalling to see just how many of these not only include so many mediocre films, but how many of them fail to include anything older than a decade or so, or anything from anywhere but Hollywood.

Here’s one such online list:



1. Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi
2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Movie
3. Avengers (2012), just so no one thinks of that god-awful film with Sean Connery, Ralph Fiennes, and Uma Thurman
4. Courageous
5. Rudy
6. Dumb and Dumber
7. Independence Day
8. We Were Soldiers
9. Tomorrow Never Dies (Brosnan is my 3rd favorite Bond but this is my favorite Bond film)
10. Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark

If someone thinks Avengers is one of the greatest films ever created, someone doesn’t get out much.

Another, responding on the same website complains:

“These lists have a hole in them without Blade Runner on them. Also, R Scott’s original Alien.

“And no Peter Jackson LOTR (Lord of the Rings) flicks? That’s surprising. I felt they were a bit too long and I prefer the Tolkien books but Jackson’s The Two Towers is epic and on my list ( despite my ambivalence to hobbits lol.)

“And what about Donner’s first Superman?”

It’s easy to think Superman is a great movie if you have never been out of the house, but Sonny, there is a great big world out there, and in it, Superman isn’t even a blip.

This isn’t just about “movies I like,” in which it’s fine to enjoy anything. There are bad or indifferent films I love to watch, too. No, it’s about movies that, if you care about film, you should have seen. At least, should have seen if you want to express an opinion that has some authority to it, and not just the mewlings of an esthetic infant.

Just as there are books you should have read, if you want to consider yourself literate, and music you should be familiar with, and art that should be part of your inner life, there are movies you should have seen.

No one can have seen them all, of course. It is a lifetime’s work to expand one’s horizons and learning never ends.

It isn’t that the movies on these online lists are not good movies, even great movies. They mostly were all worth seeing. It is that the scope of the lists was so narrow, and most of the films mentioned were made in the past 10 or 15 years. One wonders what a modern moviegoer thinks constitutes a great film. It would seem: lots of action, clever dialog, color film, and a whipped cream topping of CGI. Car chases, things blowing up and wizards or werewolves.

Kill Bill

Kill Bill

If you think having seen Kill Bill parts 1 and 2 on a double bill has taught you anything about the potential of film, you are greatly mistaken. And this is not a slight on Tarantino, who is a wonderful filmmaker: It is a slight on your supposed erudition.

The films you should have seen are not necessarily the best films, either (although most are). They are the films that created the course of film development, and changed that course. They are the films that opened up the possibilities.

Some have done so through discovering new potential in the medium itself, like D.W. Griffith or Jean Cocteau. But others have discovered ways of giving the popular medium the depth of the greatest literature. If you think Batman Begins has depth, you are still wading in the shallow end of the swimming pool.

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

I am not talking simply about Postmodern referencing: that Martin Scorsese references The Great Train Robbery when Joe Pesci points his gun straight into the camera and fires. Such cleverness permeates current cinema, where you can hardly make a film without some witty reference to a famous film of the past. That’s nothing more than an in-joke.

Rather, I’m talking about the larger film culture that has grown and continues to grow as a living tradition — cinema as a single body of work, seen as a single, long-growing vine with thousands of leaves, stems, flowers and fruit, grown from the seeds planted by the Lumiere brothers, raised through silence, sound and Cinemascope and Technicolor.

I’m talking about movies as a humanistic art: One that can tell us about the experience of being alive. The lists I came across mostly concern film as a theme-park ride — fun, but of little consequence. As if a list of great novels were proposed starting with John Grisham, passing through Jackie Collins and ending with Dan Brown. Again, no slight on any of them: Their books can be fun to read, but they ain’t Proust.

So, Mr. Big-Shot Critic, what would your list be? What movies should anyone have seen before they can consider themselves cinematically literate?

Well, there isn’t anything so simple as a list. Rather, there is a constellation of films you should have sampled from. In other words, you can’t really say you know anything if you haven’t seen a film by Robert Bresson. Can I list Mouchette, or Diary of a Country Priest, or Au Hasard Balthasar as the one film you need to have seen? Not really, but you should have seen at least one Bresson film, and if you do, you will almost certainly then want to go on and see more of them, maybe all of them.

Au Hasard Balthasar

Au Hasard Balthasar

You will find a deeply moral core to all of them, and told in an odd, quiet, straightforward manner, usually with no professional actors, to keep the films from seeming too “theatrical.”

Or, you need to see a few screwball comedies from the 1930s. Is there one to put on a list? My Man Godfrey? It Happened One Night? Bringing Up Baby? If You Could Only Cook? Again, no, but if you watch a couple of them, you’ll want to see more of them, and you’ll never again think of American Pie as a witty movie.

My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey

You need to see great silent films, too. Not just old Charlie Chaplin shorts, but the movies that created the great lexicon of cinematic grammar and vocabulary. Murnau’s Sunrise or Stroheim’s Greed. Again, your interest will likely be piqued and you may become a convert to silent movies.

How can you be cinematically literate unless you’ve seen films by Godard, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, Ozu, Bunuel or Satyajit Ray? You can’t. Or German Expressionist films? Or American underground films? Or Busby Berkeley musicals? Ernst Lubitsch? Or The Big Trail — the first American widescreen film? Or Abel Gance’s Napoleon? Max Ophuls’ liquid camera?

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

Becoming literate doesn’t happen casually: You have to seek out and study. You have to pay attention. Some of these films, such as Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, make serious demands on viewers; they don’t make it easy — it’s like doing homework. But you will feel exhilarated by the time you have ingested them.

So, I’m giving you homework: Here’s my list of a dozen films you need to have seen. Are they all of them? No. You need to see hundreds of them before you can have a meaningful opinion, but these are a good start. None is recent, and only two are American, because most of you have already seen Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction and The Godfather, to say nothing of Apocalypse Now, which would be on my list of Top Ten (which, of course, has at least 40 films on it).

Let’s take a few chronologically:

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

There is hardly a more influential film in history than Serge Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which the Russian director inventoried the power and magic of film editing to create meaning. It remains a powerful film, even when you recognize it for Soviet propaganda.



If Sunrise is too much to take at first, you could try Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) to see how silent film can tell a compelling story. It has several “special effects” in it, too. And as for special effects, you can only be amazed at the oneiric surrealism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) — now available in something like its original version.

The studio system in Hollywood produced some of the most perfect craftsmanship during the 1930s. They had pros, who really knew how to light, edit, write dialog, and record sound. They produced many genre films, such as Westerns, gangster films, melodramas and musicals, but one thing they did that has never been matched is comedy, the so-called “screwball comedies.” If you have not seen My Man Godfrey (1936), then you don’t really know how sophisticated comedy can be. Or sexy: Try Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and see how frank they could be about sex before the Production Code was enforced.

Rules of the Game

Rules of the Game

But this is still American film. The Thirties also gave us Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made. It is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving while at the same time satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.

The Fifties and early Sixties gave us the Golden Age of foreign films, the age of the “art film,” and exposed Americans for the first time in any meaningful degree with movies from around the world.

Sweden gave us Ingmar Bergman, whose Seventh Seal (1957) is still the prototype of the Foreign Film, with its Medieval knight returning from the Crusades and playing chess with Death.

Seventh Seal

Seventh Seal

Italian Michelangelo Antonioni compressed angst, dissociation and anomie into a single intensely beautiful film in L’Avventura (1960), about a woman who disappears on a Mediterranean island and the vague search to find her. It is the apotheosis of existentialism in cinema.

Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

The French gave us the New Wave, which rethought old American films with a fresh spontaneity. A whole busload of directors came to the fore in the Sixties. The warmest and most engaging is probably Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) about the Parisian demimonde just before and after World War I. It is the kind of movie that makes you not merely enjoy it, but fall headfirst in love with film.

Two gritty films present two poles of movie realism. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers is so realistic that you swear you are watching newsreel footage from the front. It shows an anti-colonialist uprising that doesn’t demonize either side, but shows the miseries and sins of both. In contrast, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is so stylized you might as well be looking at a motion-picture version of a Russian religious ikon. And many of its fans feel as though they have had something like a cinematic religious experience after the “meditation” of seeing the slow-moving film.

The missing element of too many Hollywood films is any sense that they mirror real life, that they consider the moral and ethical questions of existence in favor of pumping adrenaline and presenting a black-and-white, good-and-evil, superhero and archenemy vision of existence. Great films, however, look at the complexities in ways that can be profoundly moving. Fantasy is fine for adolescents, but grown-ups demand something more.



Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1984) follows a damaged, lost young woman as she wanders aimlessly toward a solitary death. We cannot just watch her decline as observers, but feel we share it, so deeply does Varda make us care about this woman.

A Short Film about Killing

A Short Film about Killing

And Polish director, Krzysztof Kieślowski, takes an unsparing look at a murder and its punishment in A Short Film about Killing (1988), an acrid look at Communist-era Poland and a young man’s pointless beating death of an unpleasant cab driver, and and equally cold-eyed look at the brutal and legal hanging of the young man after he is caught and convicted. Kieslowski expanded this film from an hour-long segment he made for Polish television for a 10-episode series called The Decalogue, in which each episode illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, although never in a simple or obvious way.

See these films, or their many brothers and sisters, and then talk to me about Avengers.

copter jesus

Film critic Pauline Kael famously called Citizen Kane “more fun than any other great movie.”

Classic film, like classic literature, sometimes has the reputation of being more “good for you” than it is fun.

Well, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita gives Kane a run for his money.

The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us nine days and eight nights in the life of tabloid celebrity journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums.

“Rarely, if ever, has a picture reflected decadence, immorality and sophistication with such depth,” Box Office magazine said when the film was released. La Dolce Vita shows up on most all-time 10-best lists, and Fellini is unquestionably one of the four greatest directors ever.

Take its famous opening scene: A helicopter carries a giant statue of Jesus over the landscape of Rome.

The scene is ambiguous. We don’t know whether Fellini is satirizing religion or if Jesus, with his arms extended, is blessing the city beneath him.

What isn’t in question is that the scene is as memorable as a catchy tune: Once you’ve seen it, you can’t get it out of your head. That’s one of the secrets of Fellini’s greatness. There’s even a word for it: Fellini-esque.

La Dolce Vita is filled with such catchy tunes. trevi fountain

There is the industrially cantilevered Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain. There is the amoral Maddelena (Anouk Aimee) whispering words of love to Marcello, three rooms away in an old castle, while another man makes love to her.

The orgy scene, with Marcello riding a starlet like a donkey. marcello riding

They all stick to the roof of your brain like peanut butter.

Or the final scene with the giant monster fish netted by fishermen, and the closing shot of the young blond girl waving with the innocence of an angel at the lost Marcello.

Fellini structured the film in a series of climactic nights each followed by a dissolving dawn. In each of the nighttime episodes, Marcello faces one of his demons — although he doesn’t recognize them as such.

In the first night, he meets his wealthy lover Maddelena at a night club. anouk

“Your problem is you have too much money,” he tells her.

“Yours is that you don’t have enough,” she responds.

They pick up a streetwalker, take her to her home and proceed to have sex on her bed while the hooker makes coffee in the kitchen.

Each night rises to a crux, a point that might waken Marcello to the aimlessness of his life, and at each sunrise, there comes not a culmination, but a dissipation of the situation — all its air is let out.

Just when Marcello is about to kiss Ekberg, standing in the water, under the spray, the water stops flowing, sunrise arrives, and the dream evaporates.

Considering that it is now one of the immortal classics, its making was less than tidy.

Fellini’s first producer, Dino de Laurentiis, found the story “incoherent, false and pessimistic” and told the director, “The public desires at least a little hope and some entertainment.”

When he was persuaded to put up some money, de Laurentiis demanded that they hire a big star, like Paul Newman, to play Marcello. They also looked at hiring Henry Fonda and Maurice Chevalier.

Fellini stuck to his guns.

The costs soared, as Fellini added and rewrote.

The real Via Veneto, where much of the story takes place, was too busy to film on, so Fellini built a studio replica. That boosted his already huge budget by 50 percent. His new producers (de Laurentiis finally backed out) consented only if Fellini gave up his percentage of the profits — a move he later regretted when La Dolce Vita turned out to be a huge international hit.

To get the performance he wanted for the sex-crazy Maddelena, he made faces and danced behind the camera as Aimee played her most serious scenes, so that her effort to keep from laughing gave him the quality he was seeking in the role.

In addition, there were 800 extras to contend with.

And Fellini added to and changed his script so often that, by the end of shooting, the copy kept by his secretary was said to be larger than Rome’s telephone book.

Fellini claimed he had enough footage filmed to make a 10-hour movie. It’s now just less than three hours.

La Dolce Vita occupies a pivotal point in the career of Fellini, between the early Neo-Realist films, such as I Vitelloni and La Strada, and his later, sometimes visionary films. In La Dolce Vita, there is a balance between the sense of external reality — Italy’s boom economy in the decade after World War II, and its forgotten underclass — and the purely subjective sense of individual psychological crisis. In some of his later films, such as Roma or Fellini Satyricon, the grotesque predominates. But at the midpoint of his career, in his two best films, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, he balances the real and the freakish like a saint balancing heaven and hell.

“I am not a man who dashes off messages,” he told an interviewer when the film opened. “I don’t have a very precise ideology. When you describe your epoch, no matter how impartially, you notice that there are emergencies, events, attitudes that strike you more than certain others and that are more important. … So you unconsciously become a moralist. If La Dolce Vita has a meaning, it came all by itself. I did not go after it.”

The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. striptease

The film ends on an ambiguous note: Marcello has given up any hope of becoming a writer and has become a publicity agent. He has lost all pride and become uncharacteristically vicious. After a night of debauchery and humiliation, a party breaks up at dawn and heads for the beach, where a giant fish has been caught by local fishermen. big fish

It is a symbol of Christianity at the end of the film, like the statue of Jesus was at the beginning. angel girl

Marcello sees, on a far part of the beach, a young girl he had met once when working on his forgotten book, a girl he once said reminded him of “one of those little angels in the churches of Umbria.” She waves to him and tries to yell something to him above the surf. He cannot hear, shrugs his shoulder and walks off. marcello gives up

The film ends with a close up of the girl, waving.

And we never know if Marcello simply cannot hear her, or instead does not want to hear her. The film — and Fellini — are equivocal.

Perhaps that is because, in the end, Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”

children of paradise lede

I used to tell people my top-10 list had 40 movies on it. It’s a common problem. We all like to make lists, but there’s never enough room.

(Of course, the ranking of any artform is a pathetic and meaningless exercise. We are stipulating that at the outset. But lists are not only fun, they are the current American venue for intellectual debate — see below: The 50 Greatest Lists of All Time —

When the American Film Institute decided to list the hundred greatest films, they restricted it to American films — or at least they say they did. Somehow, a few English films made the list. But no foreign language films did.

And that leaves us a whole universe of movies not eligible, including some of the best ever made.

So, in response, we are providing the list of 100 best foreign films.

What constitutes a “foreign” film is always a little iffy. The Oscars have had trouble with that for years: Do you count the language of the dialog? The country where the movie was made? The country where the movie was financed?

Most of these films are established classics, and if you worry that the list has too many of the “usual suspects,” I hope I have included enough eccentric personal choices to give everyone something to talk about. That, after all, is the purpose of such a list.

And you will notice a francophile bias. I cannot disavow that. Most of my favorite films are in French. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of them, and I’ve become acculturated.

The movies on this list were chosen for several reasons. Some are among the greatest artistic creations of our civilization. Others are on the list because of their enormous influence on other film makers. Still others are just such fun to watch.

Which reminds me, if you think all foreign films are dreary and boring, you haven’t been watching the right ones. Admittedly, French or German films are more likely to investigate the outer reaches of alienation and philosophy than Hollywood films, but you will never find better battle scenes than in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You will be hard pressed to find more suspense than in the last half hour of Georges-Henri Clouzot’s Les  Diaboliques. And if it’s blowing things up you are after, check out Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, in which Yves Montand and a bunch of toughs drive a truck full of nitroglycerine 300 miles over unpaved South American roads.


Yet, I don’t want to gloss over the difference between American and foreign films.

I have always made the distinction between what I call “Hollywood films” and “real movies.”

The real movie is about being human, about relationships, character, moral issues and historical and philosophical meaning. Hollywood movies are about blowing things up.

Now, there are foreign-made Hollywood movies by my definition, and Hollywood-made real movies: One thinks of spaghetti Westerns on one hand, and of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or John Ford’s The Searchers on the other.

At least one film manages to play both sides of the field: AFI’s No. 1 film, Citizen Kane manages like nothing else I know, to join seamlessly the slick Hollywood side  with the depth and character development of a “real movie.”

As critic Pauline Kael has said, it is one of the few great movies that is also great fun.

But by and large, foreign filmmakers play out their creativity in a larger world, with more possibilities and fewer hidebound cinematic conventions.

After all, Hollywood earned its reputation as the manufacturer of the shallow happy ending.

My list of the 100-best foreign films is a very personal list, drawn from a lifetime of watching movies. I expect you have your own films to nominate. But these are the ones I came up with.

children of paradise

First on my list is Children of Paradise, which is more like a full-length novel than any other film I know. It has a rich cast of characters and follows them over many years. And as in Brothers Karamazov, each character also embodies a different philosophy. It is a very full movie.

Set in the Paris of the 1840s, it tells the tale of Baptiste Debureau and the theatrical world in which he lived. It is also about love, art and social class.

If Kane manages to mix high and low successfully, so does Children of Paradise, in its own way. It has something of the sweep of Gone with the Wind, the passion of From Here to Eternity and the wit of Ninotchka.

And it is a film you can grow with rather than out of. When I was fresh out of college, I identified with the idealistic Baptiste; after a few marriages, I took the practical Frederick Lemaitre’s attitude toward relationships; nowadays, I uncomfortably find myself more in the cynical Pierre-Francois Lacenaire.

rules of the game

Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game might just as well claim the top spot. No other film is as deft at showing the disjunction between what our impulses are and what society demands of us.

Cocteau’s Orphee is also a great deal of fun, playing with all the tricks of cinema to create visual magic. What you see is likely to remain in your memory forever.

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita may be the saddest film ever put on celluloid. It is long and slow, but every detail is life itself, and it makes me weep for the world.

Potemkin is one of those seminal films that invent the language of cinema. What is all the more astonishing is that this Soviet propaganda film actually plays down the more sensational aspects of the historical affair it is based on. If it had been truer to history, it would have felt more simply propagandistic.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is not the most consistently good film. It has stretches of languors, but when the camera is on the face of Maria Falconetti, in the only film she ever made, the intensity is literally unbearable. It is the face of human suffering.

Kurosawa’s Ran is a Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and shows the director at the absolute peak of his powers, with the best battle sequences ever filmed.

Marlene Dietrich sings Falling in Love Again in The Blue Angel, which makes Cabaret look like “Gidget Goes to the Weimar Republic.” Steamy, smoky, atmospheric, its director, Josef von Sternberg — an American — never did anything so good again.

It takes a serious commitment of time and attention to sit through Andre Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, but you will know you have experienced something worth your effort, as the director takes us through a brutal vision of life and the place in it for both art and faith.

andrei rublev

Admittedly, almost any of the next 25 or 30 could legitimately make it to the top 10, but I’ll stand with the ones I have chosen.

Some, like Jules and Jim or Amarcord are pure pleasure to watch. Others, such as Rashomon or Wild Strawberries have at their core a moral vision. And still others, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis are simply visionary.

You will find intensity, passion, intellect, visuals, acting and directing the equal or better of anything from Hollywood. What you will not find are giant lizards and serial car wrecks. (Although, the original, Japanese version of Godzilla is a horrifying metaphor for the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and a great movie, ruined by Hollywood’s re-edit — see the version in Japanese and weep.)


A few, such as Henry V and The Mahabharata are unabashedly theatrical, using their staginess as a style.

There are few British films on my list: AFI threw me a curve and included several on their list. So, Third Man, Dr. Strangelove and Lawrence of Arabia are not here, although they would have been.

You will discover that a handful of directors made the majority of these films. I cannot apologize for that. I made the list without considering authorship. As it turns out, Ingmar Bergman shows up a dozen times; Kurosawa, 10. Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini follow up with seven and five films.

Prety much anything by them, or by Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Erich Rohmer, Agnes Varda or Krzysztof Kieslowski is worth watching, multiple times.

But, if Bergman is on this list more than others, does this mean Bergman is the greatest director? No. He has made many great films, but he is more prone to self-parody than any other important director and when he is bad — as in the miserable Elliot Gould film, The Touch, he comes close to rivaling Ed Wood.

In art, there is no best. There is only overwhelming.


1. Children of Paradise (1945) Marcel Carne — The French “Gone With the Wind.” Everyone after the same woman.

2. Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir — Infidelity in pre-war France. Everyone after the same woman.


3. Orphee (1949) Jean Cocteau — French surrealist retells myth with magical camera tricks.

4. La Dolce Vita (1960) Fellini — Unforgetable images. We have met the anomie and he is us.

5. Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa — The perfect samurai movie.

6. Battleship Potemkin (1925) Sergei Eisenstein — 1905 Odessa uprising and mutiny in Tsarist Russia.

7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodore Dreyer — The story of the French saint told in intense close-ups.

8. Ran (1985) Kurosawa — Japanese “King Lear.”


9. The Blue Angel (1930) Josef von Sternberg — Obsession, degradation, sex in pre-Hitler Germany.

10. Andrei Rublev (1966) Andre Tarkovsky — Cryptic and beautiful film about art and faith in a brutal world.

11. Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa — He-said, she-said in medieval Japan, looks at nature of truth.

12. Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir — Prison bust in WWI.

13. Amarcord (1974) Fellini — A nostalgic film memoir.

14. La Strada (1954) Fellini — Italian circus strong-man Anthony Quinn takes wife, loses same.

15. Seventh Seal (1957) Ingmar Bergman — Death checkmates the Swedish knight during the Plague Years.

seventh seal

16. Wild Strawberries (1957) Bergman — Old Swedish doctor takes a road trip through the past to examine his life.

17. Jules and Jim (1961) Francois Truffaut — Two guys, one girl. You do the math. The delights of French bohemia.

18. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) Abel Gance — The great film biography, currently unavailable, blame Francis Ford Coppola.

19. Ikiru (1952) Kurosawa — Dying old man finds purpose to his life by beating the bureaucracy.

20. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Robert Wiene — Expressionist ur-horror tale is a silent classic.

21. Blue, White and Red (1993-94) Krzysztof Kieslowski — Three great films, but one overarching theme, that explodes in the denouement that ties them together.

22. The Bicycle Thief (1949) Vittorio de Sica — Neo-Realist classic about bike messenger who loses his wheels.

23. 400 Blows (1959) Truffaut — French borstal boy.


24. Fanny and Alexander (1983) Bergman — Theater family readjusts to life with strict preacher step-father.

25. Breathless (1959) Jean-Luc Godard — New Wave punk on the lam, with Jean Seberg. Godard is one of the true geniuses of cinema, with astounding and inventive scenes, who nevertheless seldom made a completely satisfying movie. A genius of bits and pieces.

26. L’Avventura (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni — Existential mystery about a woman who disappears on an island.


27. Le Doulos (1962) Jean-Pierre Melville’s hardboiled policier full of dark twists and turns. One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films.

28. Day for Night (1973) Truffaut — Sweet-natured film about shenanigans on the set of a “B” movie.

29. Cries and Whispers (1972) Bergman — Who loves the dying woman? The sisters or the nurse?

30. Alexander Nevsky (1938) Eisenstein — Medieval battle on the ice.

31. Persona (1966) Bergman — Burning psychological study of mute actress and her nurse.

32. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) Kenji Mizoguchi — Two brothers and ambition in medieval Japan.

33. Wings of Desire (1988) Wim Wenders — Angel hears poetry of life and is seduced.


34. Metropolis (1926) Fritz Lang — The future choreographed as machinery.

35. Nosferatu (1922) F.W. Murnau — The original “Dracula.”

36. Le Jour se Leve (1939) Carne — Jean Gabin as a murderer waiting for the police to come.

37. The Last Laugh (1924) Murnau — Devastating, brilliant silent film with no title cards about age and humiliation.

38. Solaris (1972) Tarkovsky — Russian director’s answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

39. Dr. Mabuse, Gambler (1922) Lang — Two-part allegory of Nazi evil with Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

40. Viridiana (1970) Luis Bunuel — Innocence corrupted, with the beggars’ “Last Supper.”

Silvia Pinal inÊLuis Bu–uel'sÊVIRIDIANA. ÊCredit: Janus Films. Ê

41. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) A pop star waits two hours for results of her biopsy; Agnes Varda’s signature film, but one of only several worth knowing by heart.

42. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) Marcel Ophuls — Are the Nazi collaborators telling the truth? Documentary.

43. La Bete Humaine (1938) Renoir — Jean Gabin is a train engineer who witnesses a murder.

44. Andalusian Dog (1928) Bunuel — Surrealism’s flagship film.

45. Diabolique (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot — Is the murder victim dead? Forget Sharon Stone; rent this.

46. A Nous la Liberte (1931) Rene Clair — “Modern Times” in French.

47. M (1931) Lang — Criminals convict a child molester.

48. Ivan the Terrible Parts 1&2 (1943-1946) Eisenstein — Once-banned pageant, too close to home for Stalin.

49. Le Boucher (1970) Claude Boucher was the most prolific of the New Wave French directors. This is probably his most characteristic film.

le boucher

50. Woman in the Dunes (1964) Hiroshi Teshigahara — Japanese vacationer gets caught in sand trap of life.

51. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati — Comic seaside vacation. Tati’s best film.

52. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)  Alain Resnais — Interracial love and angst in post-war Japan, told stream-of-consciousness.

53. Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog — Klaus Kinski as a Spaniard, leading doomed expedition down Amazon.

54. Last Tango in Paris (1973) Bertolucci — Brando laments dead wife, has nameless affair with young woman.

55. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) Bergman — Drawing-room comedy matches the lovers with correct mates.

smiles of summer night

56. Wild Child (1969) Truffaut — Science vs. Parenthood.

57. Farewell My Concubine (1993)  Chen Kaige — Chinese opera vs. Maoism. A film with broad sweep.

58. Olympia (1936) Leni Riefenstahl — Athletics as heroism. It settles into tedium, but the montage is breathtaking.

59. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966) Pier Paolo Pasolini — Sober replay of Bible story, told absolutely straight.

60. Hara Kiri (1962) Masaki Kobayashi — Harrowing samurai revenge epic.

61. The Mahabharata (1989) Peter Brook — Theatrical film tells history of the world, Vedic-style.

62. Shop on Main Street (1965) Jan Kadar — Subverting Nazis in Czechoslovakia.

63. My Night at Maud’s (1969) Eric Rohmer — One of Erich Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” Is it infidelity if you don’t have sex with her and you aren’t yet married yet?

64. The Wages of Fear (1952) Clouzot — Explosive road movie.

65. Le Roman d’un Tricheur (the Cheat) (1936) Great French comedian Sacha Guitry speaks virtually all the parts in voice-over narration.

sacha guitry

66. Fellini Satyricon (1970) Fellini — If you thought the Classics were dull, you’ve underestimated Fellini.

67. The Virgin Spring (1959) Bergman — Medieval folk tale.

68. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Bunuel — Let’s do lunch, in hell. Recast of Tantalus myth.

69. Scenes from a Marriage (1973) Bergman — Very civilized divorce. Very definition of “internalization.”

70. The Passenger (1975) Antonioni — Jack Nicholson in Italian art film, changes identities, risks life.

71. Beauty and the Beast (1946) Cocteau — Magical retelling of fairy tale. Puts Disney to shame.


72. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Resnais — Classic puzzle picture. Don’t believe anything you see.

73. The Baker’s Wife (1938) Marcel Pagnol — She ran away, but the town still needs bread.

74. Nibelungenlied Parts 1&2: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge. (1924) Lang — German saga brilliantly remounted.

75. Knife in the Water (1962) Roman Polanski — Thriller. Don’t pick up hitchhikers.

76. Small Change (1976) Truffaut — One of the few films about childhood that isn’t sappy.

77. The Hidden Fortress (1958) Kurosawa — C-3PO and R2D2 help princess in Medieval Japan.

78. The Magician (1958) Bergman — Science vs. Religion.

79. The Mystery of Picasso (1956) Clouzot — Documentary of great painter at work. Utter magic.

80. The Earrings of Madame … (1953) The master of the moving camera, Max Ophuls tells an ironic and moving story of the La Belle Epoque.

81. Mouchette (1967) Any Robert Bresson film might — and should — be on this list. Mouchette is a good place to start, the story of a young girl whose life is nasty, brutal and short.


82. Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vision of Paris, in deep greens and blues, miraculous and warm.

83. Stolen Kisses (1968) Truffaut — Antoine Doinel, from “400 Blows,” grows up, sort of.

84. Los Olvidados (1950) Bunuel — Street life in Mexico.

85. Black Orpheus (1959) Marcel Camus — Myth retold in Brazil, with song and samba.

86. Autumn Sonata (1978) Bergman — Quintessential mother-daughter film, complete with icy stares.

87. Decalogue (1989) Ten short films by Kieslowski, each with an idiosyncratic take on one of the Ten Commandments. Harrowing at best.

88. Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa — Japanese “Macbeth.”

89. Yojimbo (1961) Kurosawa — Samurai “Fistful of Dollars.”

90. Sanjuro (1962) Kurosawa — Another “Teriyaki Western.”

91. Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray — Poor family raises son in poverty-stricken Bengal.

Arabian Nights

92. Arabian Nights (1974) Pasolini — Scheherezade in the nude. Simple filmmaking, complex storytelling.

93. The Story of Adele H. (1975) Truffaut — Touching portrait of obsessive love. With Isabelle Adjani.

94. Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955) Jules Dassin’s iconic caper movie, with its long, silent, heart-pumping theft sequence. The granddaddy of them all.

95. The Devil’s Eye (1960) Bergman — Don Juan comes back from hell to seduce preacher’s daughter.

96. Forbidden Quest (1995) Peter Delpeut — Visionary Antarctic pseudo-documentary.

97. Bye-bye Brazil (1980) Carlos Diegues — Roaming Brazil’s back country with traveling magic show.

98. The Passion of Anna (1969) Bergman — Isolation and love on a Swedish island. In color, though hard to tell.

99. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) Kurosawa — Uneven anthology, but the best episodes are visionary.

100. Marat/Sade (1966) Brook — The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum at Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. In English.

Battle of Algiers3

But, how can you make such a list and leave off The Battle of Algiers? Cheez! That’s on my Top 10 List, too.