Susan Sontag’s 50 Favorite Films (and Her Own Cinematic Creations)

Susan Sontag’s fans would each describe her a little differently: many would call her a writer, of course, though some would opt for more specificity, calling her a novelist if they like her fiction or a critic if they don’t. Others, speaking more grandly, might prefer to simply call her an “intellectual.” Under this wide umbrella Sontag produced a variety of works for the page, the stage, and even the screen. Between 1969 and 1983, she made four films: 1969’s Duett för kannibaler (Duet for Cannibals), 1971’s Broder Carl (Brother Carl), 1974’s Promised Lands, and, above, 1983’s Unguided Tour, also known as Letter from Venice. Sontag adapted the Italian-language feature from her story of the same name, originally published in 1977 in the New YorkerPromised Lands, her only documentary, meditates on Arab-Israeli relations at the end of the Yom Kippur War. The Bergmanesque, symbolism-filled Brother Carl takes place, suitably, at a Swedish island resort.

And her debut Duet for Cannibals, according to Dangerous Minds, embodies — or, if you like, cinematizes — her touted distaste for the interpretation of artworks. Sontag, they say, “sought to liberate art from interpretation (which is a bit ironic, of course, for someone who was essentially an exalted critic). When it came to her own film, she made something that intended to deliberately confound the notion that there was any sort of underlying meaning beyond exactly what the audience was seeing on the screen directly in front of them.”

Sontag’s famous 1966 essay “Against Interpretation” counts here as essential reading, not just before you watch her own films, but also before you watch through her list of favorite films. Richard Brody, posting in the New Yorker, recommends accompanying it with “The Decay of Cinema,” which Sontag wrote three decades later in the New York Times, and in which she declares that “you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema’s glorious past).”

Reading over the top fifty films she considered the greatest back in 1977 (and published in her volume of journals As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh), we find plenty of evidence Sontag herself, unsurprisingly, had such a cinephilic love of and vast appetite for movies, especially for European filmmakers but also the best-known Japanese ones of the day:

1. Bresson, Pickpocket
2. Kubrick, 2001
3. Vidor, The Big Parade
4. Visconti, Ossessione
5. Kurosawa, High and Low
6. [Hans-Jürgen] Syberberg, Hitler
7. Godard, 2 ou 3 Choses …
8. Rossellini, Louis XIV
9. Renoir, La Règle du Jeu
10. Ozu, Tokyo Story
11. Dreyer, Gertrud
12. Eisenstein, Potemkin
13. Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel
14. Lang, Dr. Mabuse
15. Antonioni, L’Eclisse
16. Bresson, Un Condamné à Mort
17. Gance, Napoléon
18. Vertov, The Man with the [Movie] Camera
19. [Louis] Feuillade, Judex
20. Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
21. Godard, Vivre Sa Vie
22. Bellocchio, Pugni in Tasca
23. [Marcel] Carné, Les Enfants du Paradis
24. Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai
25. [Jacques] Tati, Playtime
26. Truffaut, L’Enfant Sauvage
27. [Jacques] Rivette, L’Amour Fou
28. Eisenstein, Strike
29. Von Stroheim, Greed
30. Straub, …Anna Magdalena Bach
31. Taviani bro[ther]s, Padre Padrone
32. Resnais, Muriel
33. [Jacques] Becker, Le Trou
34. Cocteau, La Belle et la Bête
35. Bergman, Persona
36. [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, … Petra von Kant
37. Griffith, Intolerance
38. Godard, Contempt
39. [Chris] Marker, La Jetée
40. Conner, Crossroads
41. Fassbinder, Chinese Roulette
42. Renoir, La Grande Illusion
43. [Max] Ophüls, The Earrings of Madame de …
44. [Iosif] Kheifits, The Lady with the Little Dog
45. Godard, Les Carabiniers
46. Bresson, Lancelot du Lac
47. Ford, The Searchers
48. Bertolucci, Prima della Rivoluzione
49. Pasolini, Teorema
50. [Leontine] Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform

“She was wrong,” Brody writes of Sontag’s epitaph for her kind of enthusiasm for film. “Cinephilia was there, but, for certain practical reasons, it was relatively quiet. It’s not quiet anymore, and great, distinctive movies were issuing from around the world.” As ever, “the narrative of nostalgia for a lost golden age is really one of the writer’s own nostalgia for youth” — but in her youth as well as afterward, Sontag saw some astonishing movies indeed.

Find a wide range of avant-garde films in our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

via The New Yorker

Related Content:

A Young Jean-Luc Godard Picks the 10 Best American Films Ever Made (1963)

Quentin Tarantino Lists the 12 Greatest Films of All Time: From Taxi Driver to The Bad News Bears

Woody Allen Lists the Greatest Films of All Time: Includes Classics by Bergman, Truffaut & Fellini

Martin Scorsese Reveals His 12 Favorite Movies (and Writes a New Essay on Film Preservation)

Stanley Kubrick’s List of Top 10 Films (The First and Only List He Ever Created)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.

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  • Bill White says:

    a carefully fabricated list, as conventional as it is prickly. all are safely culled from the pantheon, but the chosen titles rarely represent the directors’ best work. sontag’s choices point to an intellectually proper cinephile with no idea what makes one film better than another.

  • jrose says:

    I agree. It’s a snobby list – 50 impeccably-curated classics, no surprises. Of course it was written in 1977, before film critics were expected to acknowledge the pleasure of lowbrow movies, but Sontag’s later movie lists include predictable entries from Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. I would have believed her more if she included the occasional “Clueless” or “Die Hard”!

  • bkmtf says:

    “Of course it was written in 1977, before film critics were expected to acknowledge the pleasure of lowbrow movies”

    You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Sontag in 1964: “The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

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