On Writing My Top Ten For ‘Sight & Sound’

Today the British Film Institute’s ‘Sight & Sound Magazine’ announce their prestigious once-in-a-decade list of ‘The Greatest Films Of All Time’. It is widely considered to be the great grandfather of all lists. If you’ve never bought this very special issue before, please do.

I myself bought the 1992 edition and 2002 edition, featuring the exhaustive poll of film critics and film makers. The full list of individual top tens from film makers is a fantastic shopping list of cinema that needs to be seen. I am still making my way through all the suggestions for the last poll. It’s a lifetime pursuit and an incredible one at that.

And what’s more, this year, the team at ‘Sight & Sound’ asked me to contribute a top ten for this decade’s poll in. And I am in ridiculously illustrious company. This is both a huge honour and a source of incredible pain. Why? Because top tens are hard.

Do you go with your head or heart? Do you give further kudos to the accepted milestones of classic cinema or do you draw from your more personal list of favourite movies.

Both Roger Ebert and Michael Atkinson have written eloquently on the difficultly on writing any definitive list. I will admit that I struggled with my list (to be published in the September 2012 edition of ‘Sight & Sound’), trying to cover both works of undeniable wonder as well as my own true passions.

So is my top ten a straight split between five ‘greats’ and five ‘favourites’? Something like that…

Previous finalists that I do adore and admire but don’t actually crop up on my personal top ten list include ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Persona’, ‘The General’, ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Sunrise’.

Already, that is a lot of indelible classics to leave out. Some very nearly made the list, some I just haven’t seen enough and some I just still want to see on a big screen.

I scrawled an initial handwritten list of some potential inclusions for my own top ten list and the ones that didn’t make the grade absolutely pain me. And yes, you can laugh at my handwriting and highly pretentious choice of notepaper.

What to do? Share the wealth over more than a centenary of cinema? Spread your ten votes across all of world cinema? Have more than one work by the same director? (No). Have more than one film from the same genre? Be true to the movies you’ve seen a million times? Or the films that change your life with a single viewing?

So even as I am both honoured to be asked and excruciated by the process, it is a very high class problem to have. Either way, I cannot wait to see the final top ten itself.

Way back in 2008, Empire Magazine asked for a personal top ten to contribute to their list of ‘500 Greatest Movies Of All Times’. This resulted in a very different list to the one I submitted earlier this year to ‘Sight & Sound’. Maybe it was easier to pick ten greatest ‘movies’ instead of ten greatest ‘films’…

Here’s my blog from September 2008…

Worth noting that only four of the list below make my ‘Sight & Sound’ list.

Listzomania: The EMPIRE 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time

EMPIRE featuring a Top 500 chart polled from readers and writers / directors / producers etc.

If you buy the actual issue too you can see my handwritten Top Ten on page 101.

I struggled and strained with this list and made some painful omissions (no QT! No Leone! No Hitchcock).

What I came up with was this: a very personal list of favourites…


Above my number one and indeed above ranking was… RIKI OH: THE STORY OF RICKY

And scrawled below in the tiny space under my Top 10 list were these…


And I could have filled out another 481 easy too without having to think much.

A top ten list is way too tough, really.

  • retrogaming

    I have to take back that comment about not being a fan. I was conquered by Scott Pilgrim. Possibly the best film I’ve seen in 2012, at least one of the most entertaining, and one of the best and friendliest bunches of characters I’ve watched on screen for some time.

  • was it a condition that you couldn’t include any of the films you worked on, or are you all just too damm modest to admit that you make some real corkers?

  • Michael

    Sweet Charity is an interesting choice. Did you consider All That Jazz?

    One thing that has been interesting as these lists are getting released is that film-makers tend to go a bit more contemporary on the whole than critics/academics.

  • Jarrett_H

    Excellent lists. Top tens are so difficult. Mine would probably change a little bit every day, or even every hour. It might even be totally dependent on what the last meal I ate was.

    When asked about my faves/bests I just list the ones that come to mind first and move on with my day. When the list is being published in an international magazine I guess you have to give it a bit more thought than that though.

    Your handwriting has seriously deteriorated in the last four years 😛

  • I’m frankly just happy as Jackie Chan on an alcohol drunken fist bender that you have 36th Chamber scrawled somewhere.

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  • Great to see Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls on your list.
    A classic that was both of and ahead of its time!

  • retrogaming

    I’m surprised to see we have some film affinities (I’m not a fan of yours).

    On a non-academic list, I would have put Evil Dead II as well; the movie I’ve seen the most, loved dearly for its unparalleled creativity. The first or second Indiana Jones would have made it, too, as well as 2001 or The Shining, and Argento, Peckinpah, De Palma, The Marx Brothers for good measure. I would have ended up wishing I had some space left for Carpenter and the Coen, but I could not have left out Kurosawa and Leone, and I might have tempted to add one or two more Japanese directors (Masaki Kobayashi or Hayao Miyazaki).

  • Meta

    Love to see Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky being mentioned. Without a doubt, one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. What do you exactly mean by saying it’s above ranking?

  • helen

    I think Metropolis movie should be on that list too. its like no other. its a movie of all times! you can check it out at metropolismovie.co.uk. Its a UK premier with bunch of cool soundtracks from Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Pet Benatar and others.

  • im amazed Star Wars didnt make it….

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  • I really like both of your lists. I’d like to think the Chateau Marmont notepaper comes pre-printed with SOMEWHERE on it now just for occasions like this.

    You are right and proper to include RAISING ARIZONA. Never gets old, says I.

    In the spirit of fair play, here’s my pretentious notepaper with a top ten on it, not at all created on a laptop WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPLY

  • Nice to see ‘Mulholland Drive’ made it somewhere on the page (if I’m reading that correctly).

    I was lucky enough to see the recent remaster of ‘The Red Shoes’ on the big screen. I hope you got to as well, it was incredible.

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  • Nat Clark

    I love that you qualified American Werewolf with (Not Paris) in your 2008 list. So pleased to see Boogie Nights in there too. It always pains me that most folk couldn’t see past the porn element, specifically the last shot of Dirk’s appendage (I mean they literally couldn’t see past it…ba-dum-tish) Stunning performances from all involved in that film. Honestly don’t think I could do this list task. Even looking at the films you mentioned I thought “Oh, I couldn’t leave that one out” and you didn’t even mention some of my faves.
    Looking forward to seeing the definitive list now!

  • I’d have to have THE SHINING and ALIEN in there. Both superb (for me). Kudos for the inclusion of THE THING.

  • AmberGrindstaff

    Great Variety of Flicks!
    *Like the hand for Carrie

  • How awesome isn’t the werewolf transformation in “An American Werewolf In London”?! and the make-up on Griffin/Jack and how it evolves is too cool! The movie has such a great balance of humor and terror. I’m glad it made the cut (:

  • No mention of ‘Red Dawn’, or ‘The Goonies’ – Ah, my heart breaks 🙁

    Still, glad ‘The Thing’ made it onto all your lists – brilliant!

  • Raven

    The Haunting – 1963
    The Hunter – Robert Mithum
    MoonStruck – CHER
    African Queen – Bogart/Hepburn
    The Thing /Kurt Russel
    Dawn of the dead
    Shaun of the dead
    Rocky Horror Picture Show
    Christmas Vacation /chase
    Grey – Liam Nelson
    Kung-Fu Hustle (funnest film I’ve ever seen) (2006)
    Wolf man – Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro
    Meeting Evil – S. Jackson
    The Cottage – Andy Serkis, Reece Shearsmith, Jennifer Ellison 2008
    (its funny, has gore a bit suspence try it. watch it all before making ur call)

  • So pleased to see The Driver on that draft list. It’s ridiculously underappreciated.

  • Mouiad Alshafi

    Driver? As in
    Ryan Gosling’s Driver?

    • No. As in Walter Hill’s ‘THE DRIVER’ (’78). A big influence on the Refn / Gosling film.

      • Ah ok. Gonna check it out for sure. Good to see Reservoir Dogs there too.

  • No British though maybe American Werewolf In London sort of qualifies?

    • Dutch

      Powell and pressburger are pretty bloody british. As is A Hard Days Night aside from Lester being born in philadelphia.

      • By the same token, Pressburger was Hungarian, but who ever calls “A Matter of Life & Death” Hungarian? Wrong people, that’s who.

    • I would say ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Hard Days Night’, ‘Don’t Look Now’ are all British. And both ‘2001’ and ‘American Werewolf’ were shot in Britain by US directors.

  • A fine list, but I feel bad for the Driver. That must have hurt to leave off, but I can’t fault you for it.

    Picking out a top ten list is a terrible thing to inflict on a person.

  • Jonny

    I’m delighted to see Driver getting some love here. These are both excellent top ten lists (although I haven’t seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).

    I’d probably have slipped Jaws in there somewhere though..