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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