From Stanley Kubrick to Jean-Luc Godard: Susan Sontag’s list of top 50 favourite films of all time
At a time when self-isolation and lockdown is testing our patience to scroll through the seemingly endless list of films on streaming platforms, we’re turning to the great Susan Sontag, the acclaimed writer, filmmaker and activist, who was widely regarded as one of America’s greatest cinephiles.
Having written extensively about photography, culture and media, activism and human rights among other things, Sontag would never shy away from the world’s major talking points and repeatedly travelled to areas of conflict, most notably the Vietnam War.
Once described as “one of the most influential critics of her generation,” Sontag repeatedly collected her thoughts in journals and essays which were published in later years. The journals, which included lists and manifests of Sontag’s most loved films, music, quotes and observations which were released by her son David Rieff who edited the content down.
When speaking of Sontag’s favoured films, a list that we’re focusing on, Rieff notes: “The list continues up to number 228, where SS abandons it,” when working on the 1977 essay which included her pivotal essays in film criticism.
Even though Sontag was heavily critical of film in her 1996 article ‘The Decay of Cinema‘, writing that films can only be great if they have “actual violations of the norms and practices that now govern movie making everywhere in the capitalist and would-be capitalist world—which is to say, everywhere,” Sontag was a lover of cinema in many different aspects.
She added: “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).”
Despite being heavily critical in the past, Sontag held a certain number of films close to her heart. Of the 228 originally outlined, the below list states 50 of her most loved.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972.
Intolerance – D. W. Griffith, 1916.
Contempt – Jean-Luc Godard, 1963.
La Jetée – Chris Marker, 1962.
Crossroads – Bruce Conner, 1976.
Chinese Roulette – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976.
The Grand Illusion – Jean Renoir, 1937.
The Earrings of Madame De… – Max Ophüls, 1953.
The Lady With the Little Dog – Iosif Kheifits, 1960.
Les Carabiniers – Jean-Luc Godard, 1963.
Lancelot of the Lake – Robert Bresson, 1974.
The Searchers – John Ford, 1956.
Before the Revolution – Bernardo Bertolucci, 1964.
Teorema – Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968.
Mädchen in Uniform – Leontine Sagan, 1931.
Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker about the list, referenced the words by Sontag by saying: “She was wrong,” in regards to he excitement 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.”
Below, enjoy Letter From Venice, Susan Sontag’s fourth and final film released in 1983.