Patrick Russell

Senior curator, non-fiction, BFI National Archive


Voted in the critics’ poll

Voted for

Diary for Timothy, A


Humphrey Jennings

Gold Diggers of 1933


Mervyn LeRoy

I Think They Call Him John


John Krish

Lousiana Story


Robert J. Flaherty



Joris Ivens

Review 36th Year No.5




George Stevens

Shetland Experience, The


Derek Williams

They Were Expendable


John Ford



Victor Turin


Were I really facing shipwreck on an AV-equipped island, I’d make an ultra-narrow selection: ten favourite John Fords; ten fave industrial documentaries from Britain’s National Coal Board; ten of the Studio Ghibli features I’ve watched with my children, maybe; or ten Tex Avery shorts I first saw when I was their age. I hadn’t the guts to go that far here, but struggled with another point raised by these examples: whether disparate forms can meaningfully occupy the same list, or would amount to a criminal multiple-category error. Hence, no angst over definition of ‘greatest’ but plenty over definition of ‘film’. I’ve been shamelessly subjective (limiting myself to works mattering much to me personally, albeit ones with qualities that, up to a point and within their genres, are objectively defensible). But in interests of coherence I toyed with restricting myself first to ten features, then to ten shorts and so on, before settling on a clumsy compromise: a merger/edit of three ‘category’ top tens. So, here we have three fiction features (all Hollywood, as it happens, though culled from ten French, Japanese and British, as well as American titles); four choices from the international canon of non-fiction (one each from Netherlands, USSR, UK and US); and three favourites from the British tradition of short sponsored filmmaking (with which much of my working life happens to have been concerned). By no means am I making claims for works in this last category being as important or as ‘good’ as those in the others, though the modest Review is, in its way, as moving to me as anything on celluloid – the final issue of what was previously Mining Review, it’s a stiff-lipped swansong to an entire vanishing universe of Keynsian politics, economics and filmmaking. Timothy comes closest to bridging the parallel worlds (an internationally regarded, UK government-sponsored, 40-minute featurette that embraces documentary and dramatic elements). But I doubt meaningful comparison can be made between – rather than within – these forcibly merged mini-lists. As a top ten, then, this is too egocentric to interest many others, except perhaps by raising one salient point about the past/present/future of ‘film’. The narrative feature’s ascendancy over screencraft of all other forms, lengths and industrial contexts is in inexorable relative decline. I expect most 2012 contributors will happily stick with a 1952 sense of what (in that respect) counts as a ‘film’ worthy of the desert island. I’m less convinced this will be true of 2022’s, still less of 2052’s.

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