The Unspooled Podcast has wrapped up their coverage of the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time, but I still have 63 remaining. My weekly column will continue to cover my thoughts on these films and whether or not I think they belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week, I tackle the #1 film on the list: Citizen Kane (1941).
Citizen Kane is a perfect example of unrestrained ambition. Welles was given unprecedented artistic control over his debut film, and he utilized that control and his lack of experience to experiment with filmmaking techniques and storytelling structure. It’s a revolutionary film in so many different ways that it’s easy to see why, judging by its impact on the film industry alone, it’s often considered the single greatest film of all time. But does it live up to that title if you separate it from its context? No, of course not; no film could. But the knee-jerk reaction to label it “overrated” is dismissive and foolish, because the film still warrants evaluation and admiration, even if it’s already received plenty of both.
Though the filmmaking techniques may not be as astonishing today as they were nearly 80 years ago, the storytelling is still audacious. Welles layers many different complex narrative devices on top of each other: non-linear structure, multiple perspectives, unreliable narrators, and boldly starting the film with a 12-minute newsreel laying out the major moments in Charles Kane’s life. The most impressive feat amongst all of this is how, through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of different characters, he’s able to build a consistent emotional arc for Kane. The pieces of Kane’s life that we gather via those closest to him slowly build a complex representation of our ostensible protagonist: narcissistic, opportunistic, and power-hungry, but driven by a deep loneliness. The final moment, revealing the “mystery” perfectly underlines the humanity in Charles Kane which defies simple summarization.
Does It Belong on the List?
It isn’t my choice for the top spot, but it definitely belongs on the list.