Empire magazine are currently running a poll on their website, trying to compile a list of the 301 Greatest Films of all Time for their 301 issue. Anyone can go to the page and add their say to the list by picking the 5 films they believe to be the greatest cinema has had to offer, with a brief justification for whichever they choose as number 1.
Now those who’ve read my blog much (and know that High Fidelity by Nick Hornby is one of my favourite novels of all time) will know that I love lists. I love arguing with myself over the relative merits of different films, twisting this way and that, coming up with counter-points to my own decisions.
Choosing 5 films though, from everything ever produced, was unbelievably tough. A challenge highlighted by the fact that I’ve already realised I wish I could make a change to the 5 I nominated online (more on that later). Part of the challenge was that it was asking for the “greatest” rather than personal favourites. I had to try and be a little more objective than I often am about film; I’m generally an advocate for the most important question about any film being, “did you enjoy it?” rather than the more calculated, distant take.
I tried to think about what makes a great film and came up with a 3 questions to help me narrow the list of possible options down (at one point I had 35 films jotted down on a piece of paper). Each question had flaws, but it was a starting point. The questions were:
Could it have, at the time it was made, been done on TV and worked nearly as well? The “greatest” films should, surely, be the ones that make full use of the medium and to some degree couldn’t exist without it. This ruled out a lot of my personal favourites.
Can you quickly think of a technically better example of the genre?
Can I instantly think of a justification for its inclusion? This could be a scene, a performance or a technical element. If I had to think for long I ruled the film out.
Like I said, they’re each flawed questions in their own way and there are an awful lot of films I was reluctant to rule out because of them, but I had to start somewhere and they offered me a way in.
It took me most of Wednesday afternoon to choose the five I did, and I’m still haunted by the feeling that I’ve made terrible mistakes.
My list ended up being entirely films from within my lifetime, which while I stand by my choices, feels almost negligent to what came before. I debated about putting Nosferatu in for its influence on every horror movie since. Rear Window is probably my favourite Hitchcock film (a divisive choice I know), but it is also perhaps his least ‘cinematic’ effort, so that fell short. Alien and Terminator both tempted me, as did their sequels. Airplane and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian had me thinking long and hard, because I could have made a strong argument for either of them being the greatest comedy movie of all time.
They are also all in the English language, which is perhaps unsurprising given the criteria I laid out. The majority of my exposure to foreign cinema has been to the subtle, the complex, the could have been done on TV but I’m just grateful it exists type of film. La Haine and City of God were strong options, while leaving out Pan’s Labyrinth was damn near tortuous.
There is a weighting towards spectacle and, as indicated by the questions, that is deliberate, but spectacle alone does not make great cinema (look at where Gravity ended on my films of 2013 list for proof of that) and all five of these films combine the spectacle with great stories and superb performances.
In the end though I chose five and posted my response on the website. Then about 18 hours later realised I had forgotten one that couldn’t be left out. For now though I’m settling on this slightly amended five. The choice at number one is ranked, I genuinely believe it is the greatest film ever made, but the other four are in no particular order. After narrowing it down to five I didn’t have the mental energy to rank those four, the margins are so slim, the merits so different.
So in no particular order, numbers 2-5 are:
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
There had to be a LOTR film in the top 5. That trilogy is in my opinion the greatest fantasy series ever put on film and the final instalment is fantasy film-making at its absolute most epic level. From the battle of Minas Tirith and the charge of the Rohirrim to Frodo and Sam’s last, desperate climb up Mount Doom, it’s a visual spectacle arguably never matched.
It’s actually not my favourite of the trilogy, Two Towers tips it, for reasons even I have problems articulating. However in the end I decided that Return of the King is the “better” film, for the spectacle, for the pay off of it being the conclusion to the story, for the ambition it showed.
Peter Jackson and Weta studios showed just what could be done with CGI now, without ever forgetting the impact real locations and putting actors in them could achieve. That meeting of new and old technologies is crucial to its place in my top five. A great example if the scenes with Gollum and the hobbits; there you have the first believable, motion capture character ever, performing alongside two actors made to look short by good old forced perspective.
Then there’s Howard Shore’s score, pretty much perfect throughout, but for me at its best during Return of the King.
I wanted to cheat and include all three, but had to choose just this one.
I could have nearly populated this entire top five with Spielberg films, because no man has got more absolutely the power and potential of cinema than him. He has remained at the cutting edge of what is possible, while impressively avoiding becoming just another spectacle merchant, sacrificing plot for pixels.
Jurassic Park was one of my favourite films as a kid, watched over and over again on video and last year’s cinema re-release only confirmed that 8 year old me had impeccable taste when it came to this specific film. From the moment that theme tune kicked in I was hooked, just like I was as a kid, and I believe that is one of the best compliments I can pay Spielberg and this film.
Cinema has always been, for a lot of people, about escapism; about its ability to transport you to exciting and often magical places, to capture your imagination and strip away, if only briefly your cynicism.
It’s a film about spectacle, wonder and ambition, full of danger and drama, complimented by those little touches of humanity that make Spielberg perhaps the greatest director ever.
Jurassic Park makes it into my top five for being a film that inspires true childlike enthusiasm, without treating you like a child. It’s the kind of film that the cinema exists for.
Children of Men
This is the one I only remembered several hours too late for the Empire vote. I cast my vote for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and while I believe that is an incredible film, it would be better suited to a favourite film list than an objective greatest one.
Children of Men, on the other hand is one of my favourite films and one of the greatest cinematic efforts. Built off an impressive but now dated P. D. James book, director Alfonso Cuaron created in my opinion the greatest dystopian film ever.
As a technical exercise it is stunning, showcasing the skill that has since brought him such popular acclaim with ‘Gravity’, but for me Children of Men is a far superior offering to the Oscar winning space tale.
The film includes two of the great ‘one-take’ sequences in film history, action sequences that would be ambitious to pull off without limiting yourself to one continuous sequence, yet are so much stronger for it. But it also has heart in abundance and a plot that could keep you engaged without the pyrotechnics and showmanship.
The cast is excellent across the board and the music extremely well judged (The Court of the Crimson King sequence particularly stands out).
Best of all though it makes you think, it poses questions about humanity and what keeps us ticking along. The best films, the truly great, are films like Children of Men that don’t see asking the big questions and making an entertaining film as in any way mutually exclusive.
Toy Story 2
There had to be a Pixar film in this top five, I realised that early on. It didn’t take long for me to also realise that despite the qualities of Up or Wall-E, it was always going to be one of the Toy Story trilogy.
Toy Story 1 was a showcase of what Pixar was about to bring to the world, a great example of what an animated film could be. Its sequel though was the fulfilment of that potential. Toy Story 2 is the greatest sequel of all time for me, ahead of Godfather 2, Empire Strikes Back and Aliens. Contentious definitely, but it beats them all to a place in this top 5.
Visually still stunning 15 years on, the CGI holding up to this day, it has such incredible ambition. Not resting on its laurels after the success of the first film, Toy Story 2 takes risks, introducing new central characters and challenging the world the first film created by adding a toy villain, yet it maintains the sense of romanticism that eventually made the Toy Story franchise into one of the most loved (and successful) of all time.
It establishes so much of what has made Pixar films an almost guaranteed success in the past 15 years. There’s the jokes that will fly over a child’s head but amuse the parent with them, there’s the visual gags so perfectly executed it feels almost unfair and most importantly there is the heart. That’s the element that has seen Pixar become the dominant force it is today. The willingness to go to emotional places, to resist simply playing it safe and question issues of family, trust and friendship is why those films are so powerful. Jessie’s story is the perfect blueprint for so much of what Pixar have done since, hope tinged with sadness for a life left behind. It’s real, it’s at times more emotional than you might think you want from a ‘kids’ movie, but it is exactly what made Disney a success throughout the majority of the 20th century and why the Disney/Pixar collaboration is likely to be extremely productive and lucrative for the next few decades.
If you challenged me I could easily make an argument for either 1 or 3 being in this film’s place, but as with LOTR I had to choose one and in the end I settled for this as the most daring, most consistent and most fulfilling entrant in an incredible trilogy.
Saving Private Ryan
So this was the first film I put down on that initial piece of paper and my undisputed greatest film of all time.
I’ve already tried to explain why Spielberg is the greatest director in my opinion, so I will focus on what specifically sets this film apart.
This is the greatest war film ever made. It has plenty of strong completion; Apocalypse Now, Platoon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Days Of Glory, Stalingrad etc. However no film has captured, in my opinion, the simultaneous heroism and futility of war as well as Saving Private Ryan does.
The D-Day landing sequence is phenomenal, a master director at his absolute best, providing an unflinching portrayal of the randomness of war. People die constantly, brave or scared, good or bad, that sequence is one of the most honest ever put on film.
Then there’s the sequence with the captured German, a sequence that shows what Spielberg is capable of when he chooses to strip away the spectacle and focus on character. Every character is complex, their motives understandable and in Hanks, Spielberg has one of the greatest ever actors to communicate the desperate clinging to humanity that must be the experience of so many fighting in wars all over the world and throughout history.
Saving Private Ryan is in my opinion the greatest film ever made because it has action sequences that are a hundred times more effective than the majority of popcorn flicks each year, but combines it with true heart.
The good and the bad of humanity is on display in Saving Private Ryan and to the eternal credit of Spielberg, he repeatedly focuses on humanising both sides.
It is in my opinion the best film ever made. I can’t imagine a better war film ever being made. I struggle to imagine a better film full stop.
So that's my top five and I encourage anyone who reads this to go over to Empire's site and vote. Personally I hope that in 20 years my top 5 has a couple of new additions. I want to believe that for all the incredible films out there, there’s more to come.