by Roger Ebert (1942-2013)
If I must make a list of the ten greatest films of all time, my first vow is to make the list for myself, not for anybody else. I am sure that Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is a great film, but it’s not going on my list simply so I can impress people. Nor will I avoid Casablanca simply because it’s so popular: I love it all the same.
If I have a criteria for choosing the greatest films, it’s an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best. (If you argue instead for dance or music, drama or painting, I will reply that the cinema incorporates all of these arts.)
Cinema is not very good, on the other hand, at intellectual, philosophical, or political argument. That’s where the Marxists were wrong. If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason. And so my greatest films must be films that had me sitting transfixed before the screen, involved, committed, and feeling.
After seeing this film many times, I think I finally understand why I love it so much. It’s not because of the romance, or the humor, or the intrigue, although those elements are masterful. It’s because it makes me proud of the characters. These are not heroes—not except for Paul Heinreid’s resistance fighter, who in some ways is the most predictable character in the film. These are realists, pragmatists, survivors: Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, who sticks his neck out for nobody, and Claude Rain’s police inspector, who follows rules and tries to stay out of trouble. At the end of the film, when they rise to heroism, it is so moving because heroism is not in their makeup. Their better nature simply informs them what they must do.
The sheer beauty of the film is also compelling. The black-and-white close-ups of Ingrid Bergman, the most bravely vulnerable woman in movie history. Bogart with his cigarette and his bottle. Greenstreet and Lorre. Dooley Wilson at the piano, looking up with pain when he sees Bergman enter the room. The shadows. “As Time Goes By.” If there is ever a time when they decide that some movies should be spelled with an upper-case M, Casablanca should be voted first on the list of Movies.
2. CITIZEN KANE
I have just seen it again, a shot at a time, analyzing it frame-by-frame out at the University of Colorado at Boulder. We took ten hours and really looked at this film, which is routinely named the best film of all time, almost by default, in list after list. Maybe it is. It’s some movie. It tells of all the seasons of a man’s life, shows his weaknesses and hurts, surrounds him with witnesses who remember him but do not know how to explain him. It ends its search for “Rosebud,” his dying word, with a final image that explains everything and nothing, and although some critics say the image is superficial, I say it is very deep indeed, because it illustrates the way that human happiness and pain are not found in big ideas but in the little victories or defeats of childhood.
Few films are more complex, or show more breathtaking skill at moving from one level to another. Orson Welles, with his radio background, was able to segue from one scene to another using sound as his connecting link. In one sustained stretch, he covers twenty years between “Merry Christmas” and “A very happy New Year.” The piano playing of Kane’s young friend Susan leads into their relationship, his applause leads into his campaign, where applause is the bridge again to a political rally that leads to his downfall, when his relationship with Susan is unmasked. We get a three-part miniseries in five minutes.
3. FLOATING WEEDS
I do not expect many readers to have heard of this film, or of Yasujiro Ozu, who directed it, but this Japanese master, who lived from 1903 to 1963 and whose prolific career bridged the silent and sound eras, saw things through his films in a way that no one else saw. Audiences never stop to think, when they go to the movies, how they understand what a close-up is, or a reaction shot. They learned that language in childhood, and it was codified and popularized by D.W. Griffith, whose films were studied everywhere in the world—except in Japan, where for a time a distinctively different visual style seemed to be developing. Ozu fashioned his style by himself, and never changed it, and to see his films is to be inside a completely alternative cinematic language.
Floating Weeds, like many of his films, is deceptively simple. It tells of a troupe of traveling actors who return to an isolated village where their leader left a woman behind many years ago—and, we discover, he also left a son. Ozu weaves an atmosphere of peaceful tranquility, of music and processions and leisurely conversations, and then explodes his emotional secrets, which cause people to discover their true natures. It is all done with hypnotic visual beauty. After years of being available only in a shabby, beaten-up version usually known as Drifting Weeds, this film has now been re-released in superb videotape and Laserdisc editions.
4. GATES OF HEAVEN
This film, not to be confused in any way with Heaven’s Gate (or with Gates of Hell, for that matter) is a bottomless mystery to me, infinitely fascinating. Made in the late 1970s by Errol Morris, it would appear to be a documentary about some people involved in a couple of pet cemeteries in northern California. Oh, it’s factual enough: The people in this film really exist, and so does the pet cemetery. But Morris is not concerned with his apparent subject. He has made a film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.
He points his camera at his subjects and lets them talk. But he points it for hours on end, patiently until finally they use the language in ways that reveal their most hidden parts. I am moved by the son who speaks of success but cannot grasp it, the old man whose childhood pet was killed, the cocky guy who runs the tallow plant, the woman who speaks of her dead pet and says, ”There’s your dog, and your dog’s dead. But there has to be something that made it move. Isn’t there?” In those words is the central question of every religion. And then, in the extraordinary centerpiece of the film, there is the old woman, Florence Rasmussen, sitting in the doorway of her home, delivering a spontaneous monolog that Faulkner would have killed to have written.
5. LA DOLCE VITA
Fellini’s 1960 film has grown passe in some circles, I’m afraid, but I love it more than ever. Forget about its message, about the ”sweet life” along Rome’s Via Veneto, or about the contrasts between the sacred and the profane. Simply look at Fellini’s ballet of movement and sound, the graceful way he choreographs the camera, the way the actors move. He never made a more ”Felliniesque” film, or a better one.
Then sneak up on the subject from inside. Forget what made this film trendy and scandalous more than thirty years ago. Ask what it really says. It is about a man (Marcello Mastroianni in his definitive performance) driven to distraction by his hunger for love, and driven to despair by his complete inability to be able to love. He seeks love from the neurosis of his fiance, through the fleshy carnality of a movie goddess, from prostitutes and princesses. He seeks it in miracles and drunkenness, at night and at dawn. He thinks he can glimpse it in the life of his friend Steiner, who has a wife and children and a home where music is played and poetry read. But Steiner is as despairing as he is. And finally Marcello gives up and sells out and at dawn sees a pale young girl who wants to remind him of the novel he meant to write someday, but he is hung over and cannot hear her shouting across the waves, and so the message is lost.
I do not have the secret of Alfred Hitchcock and neither, I am convinced, does anyone else. He made movies that do not date, that fascinate and amuse, that everybody enjoys and that shout out in every frame that they are by Hitchcock. In the world of film he was known simply as The Master. But what was he The Master of? What was his philosophy, his belief, his message? It appears that he had none. His purpose was simply to pluck the strings of human emotion—to play the audience, he said, like a piano. Hitchcock was always hidden behind the genre of the suspense film, but as you see his movies again and again, the greatness stays after the suspense becomes familiar. He made pure movies.
Notorious is my favorite Hitchcock, a pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains the tragic third corner of the triangle. Because she loves Grant, she agrees to seduce Rains, a Nazi spy. Grant takes her act of pure love as a tawdry thing, proving she is a notorious woman. And when Bergman is being poisoned, he misreads her confusion as drunkenness. While the hero plays a rat, however, the villain (Rains) becomes an object of sympathy. He does love this woman. He would throw over all of Nazi Germany for her, probably—if he were not under the spell of his domineering mother, who pulls his strings until they choke him.
7. RAGING BULL
Ten years ago, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was on my list of the ten best films. I think Raging Bull addresses some of the same obsessions, and is a deeper and more confident film. Scorsese used the same actor, Robert DeNiro, and the same screenwriter, Paul Schrader, for both films, and they have the same buried themes: a man’s jealousy about a woman, made painful by his own impotence, and expressed through violence.
Some day if you want to see movie acting as good as any ever put on the screen, look at a scene two-thirds of the way through Raging Bull. It takes place in the living room of Jake LaMotta, the boxing champion played by DeNiro. He is fiddling with a TV set. His wife comes in, says hello, kisses his brother, and goes upstairs. This begins to bother LaMotta. He begins to quiz his brother (Joe Pesci). The brother says he don’t know nothin’. DeNiro says maybe he doesn’t know what he knows. The way the dialogue expresses the inner twisting logic of his jealousy is insidious. DeNiro keeps talking, and Pesci tries to run but can’t hide. And step by step, word by word, we witness a man helpless to stop himself from destroying everyone who loves him.
8. THE THIRD MAN
This movie is on the altar of my love for the cinema. I saw it for the first time in a little fleabox of a theater on the Left Bank in Paris, in 1962, during my first $5-a-day trip to Europe. It was so sad, so beautiful, so romantic that it became at once a part of my own memories—as if it had happened to me. There is infinite poignancy in the love that the failed writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) feels for the woman (Alida Valli) who loves the ”dead” Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry treats her horribly, but she loves her idea of him, and neither he nor Holly can ever change that.
Apart from the story, look at the visuals! The tense conversation on the giant Ferris wheel. The giant, looming shadows at night. The carnivorous faces of people seen in the bombed-out streets of postwar Vienna, where the movie was shot on location. The chase through the sewers. And of course the moment when the cat rubs against a shoe in a doorway, and Orson Welles makes the most dramatic entrance in the history of the cinema. All done to the music of a single zither.
9. 28 UP
I have very particular reasons for including this film, which is the least-familiar title on my list but one which I defy anyone to watch without fascination. No other film I have ever seen does a better job of illustrating the mysterious and haunting way in which the cinema bridges time. The movies themselves play with time, condensing days or years into minutes or hours. Then going to old movies defies time, because we see and hear people who are now dead, sounding and looking exactly the same. Then the movies toy with our personal time, when we revisit them, by re-creating for us precisely the same experience we had before.
Then look what Michael Apted does with time in this documentary, which he began more than thirty years ago. He made a movie called 7 Up for British television. It was about a group of British seven-year-olds, their dreams, fears, ambitions, families, prospects. Fair enough. Then, seven years later, he made 14 Up, revisiting them. Then came 21 Up and, in 1985, 28 Up, and next year, just in time for the Sight & Sound list, will come 35 Up. And so the film will continue to grow... 42... 49... 56... 63... until Apted or his subjects are dead.
The miracle of the film is that it shows us that the seeds of the man are indeed in the child. In a sense, the destinies of all of these people can be guessed in their eyes, the first time we see them. Some do better than we expect, some worse, one seems completely bewildered. But the secret and mystery of human personality is there from the first. This ongoing film is an experiment unlike anything else in film history.
10. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Film can take us where we cannot go. It can also take our minds outside their shells, and this film by Stanley Kubrick is one of the great visionary experiences in the cinema. Yes, it was a landmark of special effects, so convincing that years later the astronauts, faced with the reality of outer space, compared it to 2001. But it was also a landmark of non-narrative, poetic filmmaking, in which the connections were made by images, not dialogue or plot.
An ape learns to use a bone as a weapon, and this tool, flung into the air, transforms itself into a space ship—the tool that will free us from the bondage of this planet. And then the spaceship takes man on a voyage into the interior of what may be the mind of another species.
The debates about the ”meaning” of this film still go on. Surely the whole point of the film is that it is beyond meaning, that it takes its character to a place he is so incapable of understanding that a special room—sort of a hotel room—has to be prepared for him there, so that he will not go mad. The movie lyrically and brutally challenges us to break out of the illusion that everyday mundane concerns are what must preoccupy us. It argues that surely man did not learn to think and dream, only to deaden himself with provincialism and selfishness. 2001 is a spiritual experience. But then, all good movies are.