The greatest films of all time

Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”
“That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”

Here is a list of the thirty greatest films of all time. They have been chosen using the precise critical method Miss Jean Brodie used to select Giotto, they are my favourites. I wrote out the film titles, listed them in chronological order and realised that they were made over a thirty year period. Thirty films in thirty years: why was the cinema of the sixties and seventies so good?

World cinema in this period was the era of the auteur: the film was the work of the director not the studio. Young gifted storytelling artist-directors could make the films they wanted to make. They employed new narrative approaches, the subversion of genre, the breaking of taboos of plot, experimentation and the abandonment of the tyranny of the uplifting moral ending. They were liberated by the emergence of new equipment. Lightweight 16mm cameras were easier to carry by hand, and faster film stock and lightweight sound recorders freed filmmakers to shoot outside in available light in real locations, freewheeling, often using non-professional actors. To be an author in control, films must be made cheaply and beautiful films could be shot on a low budget free of the philistine studio money men. Independent cinemas showed these new films which became intentional hits for the post-war generation with enough disposable income to make cinema going a regular cultural activity. Masterpieces were being released month after month. Salman Rushdie has spoken of the excitement his generation felt when week after week he and his friends would see new films released by Fellini, Visconti, Kurosawa, Loach, Kubrick, Ray. It made, he said, a significant contribution to the way he told his stories as a novelist.

I watched most of these films in my late teens and early twenties. In my sixth form I was an atheist, republican, socialist surrounded by Thatcherite wannabes. Whilst they were itching to go into the City and taste the fruits of the economic boom all I wanted was to go to the art house cinema and watch Greenaway and Antonioni, Truffaut and Russell. What was wrong with me? As the son of an army officer, sent to a private boarding school, chapel every week, church every Sunday, I needed a wider education and these films provided it. Bergman on women, Woody Allen on neurosis, Pasolini on bisexuality, Godard on the outsider, Pontecorvo on colonial politics. These films meant everything to me then and they still do now. They provided me with an ethics and a philosophy, a politics and an aesthetic. They made me who I am.

The studio system reasserted itself in the end, with the multiplex and the stifling of distribution and the suffocation of independent cinemas. Movies were reclaimed for the entertainment industry, for blockbusters and animation, for 3D and remakes and CGI. The Luke Skywalker doll from 1978 is available on eBay, in pristine condition, in its original box, for $399.

Smiles of a Summer Night, 1956 Ingmar Bergman (Sw)
A Bout de Souffle, 1959 Jean-Luc Godard (Fr)
L’Avventura, 1960 Michelangelo Antonioni (It)
Jules et Jim, 1961 Francois Truffaut (Fr)
The Exterminating Angel, 1962 Luis Bunuel (Sp)
Ivan’s Childhood, 1962 Andrei Tarkovsky (USSR)
Through a Glass Darkly, 1963 Bergman (Sw)
Dr Stranglove, 1963 Stanley Kubrick (US/Br)
Tom Jones, 1963 Tony Richardson (Br)
The Servant, 1963 Joseph Losey (Br/US)
Battle of Algiers, 1965 Gillo Pontecorvo (Fr/It)
Blow Up, 1966 Antonioni (It/Br)
Week-end, 1967 Godard (Fr)
If, 1968 Lindsey Anderson (Br)
Theorem, 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini (It)
The Joke, 1969 Jaromil Jires (Czechoslovakia)
Women in Love, 1969 Ken Russell (Br)
Walkabout, 1970 Nic Roag (Br)
Death in Venice, 1970 Luchino Visconti (It)
Five Easy Pieces, 1970 Bob Rafelson (US)
Sunday, Bloody Sunday, 1971 John Schlesinger (US/Br)
A Clockwork Orange, 1971 Kubrick (US/Br)
Cabaret, 1972 Bob Fosse (US)
Don’t Look Now, 1973 Nicolas Roeg (Br)
Barry Lyndon, 1975 Kubrick (Br/US)
Annie Hall, 1977 Woody Allen (US)
The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978 Rainer Fassbinder (Ger)
The Tin Drum, 1979 Volker Schlondorff (Ger)
Manhattan, 1979 Woody Allen (US)
The Draughtsman’s Contract, 1982 Peter Greenaway (Br)
Belly of an Architect, 1986 Greenaway (Br)


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