James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columbia University.
Top ten what?
The ten films from the Criterion catalog that, when packaged together in an annotated list, serve as a kind of advertisement for one’s broad but nuanced taste, representing one in the coolest possible light? (Why does “taste,” and cinematic taste, so often function as the locus for the production and promotion of ego ideals and ideal egos?)
Or is it the ten films from the catalog that may not be one’s all-time favorites but for which one has a particular cinephilic fervor about getting other people to see them? (Does anyone really need to be reminded that The Rules of the Game is a great film? Isn’t cinephilia at heart the love of the un- or barely seen, such that cinephilic passion increases to the measure of the rarity of the cine-object?)
Or, perhaps, the ten films in the catalog that in fact do measure up, according to a variety of standards that may not all be one’s own but that can still be acknowledged as rightly, if loosely, binding for us members of the community of film lovers, films that make up a canon of common touchstones? (In which case, yes, it’s perfectly right, if a bit boring, to be reminded that The Rules of the Game is, indeed, a great film.)
So which top ten shall it be today? Well, in no particular order:
Are we bored with this list yet?
The first two hours of the film consist mainly of Danish farmers and craftspeople arguing about Christian theology in veritable slow motion; the final six minutes, unless you’re an alien replicant, will have you on your knees, eyes lifted in wonder to the screen.
Cinema is most often analogized with dreaming (see Hollywood as “dream factory”), but it is also a kind of remembering: it manufactures an immediate past, and thus makes us retrospectively and prospectively older. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries starts with a dream and ends with a memory, aligning its beauty with the beauty of its seventy-seven-year-old star, the great Swedish actor and director Victor Sjöström.
Another classic of world cinema with old people. Yawn.
Really? Another canonical film about an old guy? At least it costars a dog.
You probably haven’t seen this, which means you have not seen one of the all-time greatest films ever made! You must see it! I mean it!
See entry for The Rules of the Game.
This is supposed to be one of those good-for-you, demanding, feminist, kind-of-structuralist, avante-garde, check-it-off-the-list, Brown-semiotics-major-required-viewing films. Perhaps it’s all of those things. It’s also profoundly moving, original, and, weirdly, entertaining.
Close-up and Blow Out make a great double feature, mainly because their titles sound so cool together but also because you can’t find two better examples of wickedly smart and politically alive “self-referential” cinema that couldn’t be less doctrinaire. Also, because including Brian De Palma proves I’m not a total snob and allows me to plug one of the funniest and most intelligent books of film theory of the past decade, Chris Dumas’s Un-American Psycho.