Every ten years since 1952, the world-renowned film magazine Sight & Sound has polled a wide international selection of film critics and directors on what they consider to be the ten greatest works of cinema ever made, and then compiled the results. The top fifty movies in the 2012 critics’ list, unveiled August 1, include twenty-five Criterion titles. In this series, we highlight those classic films.
We’ve saved the shortest and sweetest for last. Not only does Chris Marker’s twenty-eight-minute La Jetée have the briefest running time of any film in the Sight & Sound top fifty, it’s also certainly the only one made up almost exclusively of still photographs. Yet so much emotional and visual power is packed into Marker’s singular work of postapocalyptic science fiction that its inclusion on a list like this is compulsory. The eerily beautiful time-travel tale is set in the tunnels under Paris after a third World War has ravaged the city, though it occasionally flashes back to a brighter past, where a government guinea pig is sent to collect data that might help save the world. Once there, the man, already obsessed with an obscure, romantic memory from his personal past—of a mystery woman watching him from an airport jetty—discovers his own tragic fate. Watch this clip from Chris on Chris, critic Chris Darke’s short documentary on the career of the enigmatic Marker, in which Darke discusses the photographic beauty of this masterpiece in miniature—also featured are a few words from Terry Gilliam, who remade La Jetée as 12 Monkeys in 1995.
One of the most haunting passages in La Jetée, sending shiver after shiver up the spine, concerns a visit to a natural history museum. There, the man and the woman find themselves fascinated by a gallery of “ageless animals.” These stuffed hippos, giraffes, birds, and creatures of the deep remind the characters of their own mortality—as well as make perfect camera subjects for a film that, like them, is frozen in time.