We’re baaaack. (A reference to the 1982 horror film Poltergeist, which is not on the list.) Or, rather, I’m back. Seven years ago, the editors of TIME.com asked the magazine’s two movie critics, Richard Schickel and me, to compile and annotate the All-TIME 100 Movies list: our informed judgment of the best, most influential or simply most beloved films released since TIME began on March 3, 1923. The endeavor, posted May 23, 2005, scored 3.5 million page views that day, a record for a TIME.com package, and 7.8 million in its first week. The reader success of that project led to other All-TIME 100 roundups — TV shows, English-language fiction, pop songs — and, indirectly, to the nearly daily proliferation of Top 10 lists (Tasteless Ads, Famous Toilets, Models Falling Down) that ornament your favorite website.
Now I have been summoned to update our effort — the new All-TIME 100 Movies — and add a selection of 10 Millennium Movies: the finest films released in the dozen years since 2000. Friend Schickel has moved his critical perch from TIME to the exemplary Truthdig Web magazine, where, I note with pleasure, some of his choices for the best films of 2011 (Hugo, War Horse) coincided with mine. This time I’m on my own. Instead of a months-long collaboration on the original list, with its attendant, amiable disputes and compromises, I debated myself; I listened to the rival noises in my head.
Some room had to be cleared for films made since 2005. There are four (Avatar, The Hurt Locker, A Separation and WALL•E) in the updated 100, with a few others (The Artist, The White Ribbon and Synecdoche, New York) in the Millennium 10. But the ultimate aim of the new All-TIME 100 Movies is the same: to compile a curriculum of movie pleasures and achievements, a five-foot shelf of cinematic glories.
As I wrote in “Secrets of the All-TIME 100,” an article that accompanied the original list, Schickel and I approached our compilations from different angles. He worked from a list of his favorite directors and chose what he thought were their best works. (The editors of Cahiers du Cinéma used a similar rule to choose their all-time top 10 films 50 years ago.) For me, the films were the thing, not their makers. Yet even in the updated list, nine directors have two films each: Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (who both began as Cahiers critics) from France, Ingmar Bergman from Sweden, Akira Kurosawa from Japan and — in a mythical backlot land that embraces Hollywood and London — Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Billy Wilder. (Also, Stanley Donen, if you count Singin’ in the Rain, which he co-directed, as his film. I’d say Donen gets 1 1/2.) All these gents had, or are still enjoying, long, productive careers worth charting with two films. Nobody gets three.
(MORE: Secrets of the All-TIME 100)
Looking at the global picture, I thought every continent deserved at least one movie — except for Australia, which also must endure its tinier neighbor New Zealand’s getting a slot for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (The Aussies are represented on the Millennium list by Moulin Rouge.) You may suspect that I wanted the list to have the priorities of a Benetton ad. Yet I maintain that the Egyptian Alexandria … Why? and the Brazilian City of God are less affirmative-action choices than vital cinematic statements that reflect the roiling passions of their countries and, by extension, their continents. An older Brazilian film, Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Vidas Secas, might have been a deserving entry, as would have Ceddo, by the sub-Saharan director Ousmane Sembène. That would have allowed me to include a film in the Wolof language. But, you know.
In all, I find 11 films from France, six from Germany, four each from India, Italy and Japan, two from Hong Kong, two from Sweden (thanks, Ingmar) and solitary entries from Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iran, Poland, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan and the U.S.S.R. The American films dominate, as they do at the box offices of virtually every country in the world. About half of the 100 could be called Hollywood product, but that town is its own United Nations, a magnet for refugees from Hitler and strivers of every stripe. Deciding which films are British is tough: it’s a production center as well as a national cinema, and some of the 100 movies that the Brits might claim (Brazil, A Hard Day’s Night, 2001: A Space Odyssey) were directed by Americans.
We, and now I, tried being synoptic in our recognition of movie genres. I count eight musicals (including three Indian films), nine out-and-out comedies, a dozen or so romances, six horror or science-fiction movies, three westerns, two animated features and six pictures that might be classified as film noir, whether primal (the 1945 Detour) or nouveau (the 1974 Chinatown). The list has plenty of intellectual seriousness — what Woody Allen called “heaviosity” — but, I think, classical fun and heart too.
ALEXANDRIA — WHY???
Here’s the rationale behind each choice:
Alexandria … Why?: Egypt’s Youssef Chahine was for a half-century a near great filmmaker. This first episode in his Alexandria quartet bears influences from European and Hollywood films and pulses with its own cinematic vitality.
All About My Mother: This 1999 Pedro Almodóvar delight replaces his next, also remarkable film, Talk to Her. To me it’s his finest blend of tragedy, comedy and humanity, with an amazing all-female cast.
Avatar: James Cameron’s Pandoran fantasy is here not for its box-office supremacy (otherwise, where’s Titanic?) but for its envisioning of a whole new world through technology its director helped spur — the future of movies.
Awaara: The list’s third Indian pop-musical drama earns its spot for its convulsive family conflict, as performed by Raj Kapoor, India’s all-time top actor-director-showman, and his own father Prithviraj.
Blowup: The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni brought an intellectual voluptuousness to Europe’s postwar anomie; his English-language debut film also defined Swinging London’s new generation of cool kids who have it all and still feel empty.
Les bonnes femmes: In the late ’50s, Claude Chabrol formed a triumvirate (with Godard and Truffaut) of French film critics who became idiosyncratic, world-class moviemakers. This is his funny-poignant, sour-sympathetic masterpiece.
Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick is not in the Sundance school of indie movies, but he is the very definition of an independent filmmaker. I chose a strong example from Malick’s early, rapturous prime.
Gone with the Wind: The movie’s omission from the original All-TIME 100 provoked the highest reader dudgeon. (I originally, sheepishly, included it in a subsidiary category called Guilty Pleasures.) GWTW gets promoted for its enduring, indelible performance by Vivien Leigh and for the narrative drive and heft of its first two hours. Superlong epic films almost always sag in the second half.
Histoire(s) du Cinéma: Shown on French TV in the 1980s and ’90s and finally made available on American DVD last year, this is Godard’s grand, cranky summation of film history: a clip show that is both a personal testament and its own great movie.
The Hurt Locker: A pounding war film that reveals a superb soldier’s psychological turmoil but heroically refrains from judging him. The movie’s inclusion also, purely incidentally, doubles the number of female directors on the list. Leni Riefenstahl, meet Kathryn Bigelow.
Killer of Sheep: Charles Burnett’s portrait of a black family in the Watts section of Los Angeles circa 1973 finally got a proper theatrical and DVD release in 2007. That’s when I saw the movie and was awed by it.
Letter from an Unknown Woman: Max Ophüls directed his early films in Germany, his last in France. I chose the best of the four he made in Hollywood: a fateful romance filmed with a glistening intelligence.
Napoleon: Abel Gance’s 1927 French bio-epic, running in various modern reconstructions from 4 to 5 1/2 hrs., boasts a cinematic grandeur to match its outsize ambition.
A Separation: Asghar Farhadi’s complex domestic drama, the most recent movie on the list, is from the fertile film industry of Iran.
The Seventh Seal: As I plaintively wrote in “Secrets of the All-TIME 100,” “That movie changed my life, man!” (As in: made me see film as an art, made me want to be a critic.)
They Live by Night: The leads, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, are among my favorite icons of doomed young love.
The Third Man: One of those movies I’ve seen every few years since my teens, and one of the few that looks as rich or richer each time.
2001: A Space Odyssey: I can’t say I’ve ever warmed to the film’s antiprophetic vision of the future (now the past). Over the decades, though, I realized that one of 2001’s perverse strengths is its demonstration that not every movie needs to snuggle up to viewers or kick them in the gut. Later directors built on the technology of 2001, not on its structural and cinematic daring.
Vertigo: Few directors have portrayed a man’s obsession with a woman with such technical mastery and confessional purity.
WALL•E: The best Pixar ravishment directed by Andrew Stanton. I somehow resisted adding Stanton’s latest effort, John Carter.
I’ve had a few. Now that I’m in charge here, why didn’t I add Heathers, my forever favorite killer-teen comedy (and an acute commentary on the dictatorship of coolness)? This would have been my chance to immortalize the works of Elia Suleiman, who is not just the finest (as in: nearly only) Palestinian director but, in the films Divine Intervention and The Time That Remains, a political poet of dry, elevating wit.
For my Jean Renoir film, I might have chosen Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game over The Crime of Monsieur Lange, but Schickel’s précis of M. Lange was so lovely I left it in. And for might-have-been 100 movies, Wizard of Oz, I think I’ll miss you most of all. The golden glow of your musical wit, especially in the first hour, warms me every time I see you. But we already have a Judy Garland musical, Meet Me in St. Louis. So goodbye, yellow brick road.
As for all TIME stories, we encourage backtalk from readers on this list. Feel free to compliment or carp; I can take it. And you never know: we may be revising the All-TIME Movies again in 2023, when the magazine reaches its centenary. A hundred movies for 100 years: That has a lovely ring to it.