Lecturer in Liberal Arts, King's College London
|West Side Story
|Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
|Looking for Langston
|The Watermelon Woman
|In the Mood for Love
|Wong Kar Wai
|Far from Heaven
|NAISSANCE DES PIEUVRES
The first time I remember falling head over heels in love with film – and with Ingrid Bergman.
I was probably introduced to Vertigo by the 2002 Sight and Sound poll. Of course it doesn't need my vote. It is an almost compulsive decision to include it now – in spite of myself. A film about the misogynistic imagination that can only perceive of women as threatening repetitions, reduced to doubles of one another? Or a misogynistic film? Perhaps, inevitably, both. But/and I think about Vertigo all the time. The images it has provoked and inspired in other filmmakers – including delicious queer and feminist visual critiques – could conjure a top-ten list of their own, an irresistible portfolio of cinephilic invention.
West Side Story
Agonisingly pondering which one to choose from my favourite musicals of all time, it felt disingenuous not to choose West Side Story. In spite of its casting – a wilful exclusion brilliantly confronted by Spielberg’s remake – I couldn’t leave this film out. Sondheim’s spiky lyrics have been the inadvertent accompaniment to so many moments of my life and Bernstein’s score an audacious, frenzied and tender soundtrack. Rita Moreno singing “A Boy Like That” made me feel something urgent even if, as a child, I didn’t quite understand it; Anybodys was a character I knew I identified with but couldn’t yet articulate why. No film, for me, has managed to bring choreography to life on screen like West Side Story, nor make a musical score feel visual. As the dancers rush towards you, it feels as though they’ll burst out of the screen and either crush you or gather you in their pace.
Looking for Langston
Isaac Julien stages a series of set pieces that feel both vivid and dream-like, both exquisitely beautiful and urgently polemical.
The Watermelon Woman
Earnest, witty and wry all at once, The Watermelon Woman seems to go to any lengths to offer its lesbian spectators a knowing smile. It is at once a celebration of community, of cinephilia and of the frustrations of the white male canon. It is a delicious DIY pleasure and its video store scenes are second to none.
In the Mood for Love
You could pause on any frame of this film and be caught up in its spell.
An absurdly entertaining, chilling and mesmerising film that revels in – and arguably sustains – a century of lesbian representational tropes, Mulholland Drive audaciously captures everything we already know about lesbian film and plays it back to us as a delicious cinematic fantasy of pathology, excess and seduction. It is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures for me since I feel as though I should be one step ahead of the representational game – except with Lynch, the game always turns to be different from the one you thought you were playing.
Far from Heaven
For the sets and the props, for Julianne Moore’s dresses, and for the colour palette – a lilac scarf against autumn leaves. The film that gave me the visual and then the critical language to understand what it is that melodrama does to us.
NAISSANCE DES PIEUVRES
Céline Sciamma’s debut feature brilliantly captures the ambiguity and ambivalence of adolescent friendship and the unruliness of desire as it traverses the lines of competition and identification.
Unlike many of the other films on this list, I first saw Appropriate Behaviour on the cinema screen in a crowd of queer spectators. Desiree Akhavan’s film is riotously funny, staging an ambivalent drama of sexuality, work, family and community with an uncompromising frankness and a wilful provocativeness. It is of its time and for its time, a film about the impossible expectations of queer and feminist social justice movements. A worthy successor to the New Queer Cinema, it manages to be about both shame and pleasure whilst making you laugh.
This is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? If we take it too seriously, we’ll tangle ourselves up in the weighty task of crowning yet another 'objective' list of greats, sustaining the audacious irrelevance of the stubborn canon and gesturing to apparently universal notions of aesthetic quality, technological ambition or even transformative politics. I’m not sure I’ve managed to conjure any of those things – nor have I managed to resist them. The films I know will end up in the top 100 regardless of my vote make me pause (does Hitchcock really need my endorsement?) and the films I know won’t make the cut suddenly feel embarrassingly idiosyncratic. God forbid should my list look like a bunch of 'favourite' rather than 'greatest' films.
So, after days of contemplation and taking the task far too seriously after all, this is a list of films that I guess I owe it to myself to include. They are films I could write about for days without prompt. In that way, perhaps they are the films I feel most qualified to vote for. Films whose images circulate in my mind all the time, with pleasure or provocation or fear or lust or – dare I admit it – nostalgia. Some are missing because I felt one musical was enough; because two melodramas were enough; because five films from the 21st century was than enough. My list (or this version of my list) is pretty queer but it's too American, too white, too male. My 7-year-old self would not have forgiven me for not including Casablanca, the first black-and-white film I watched as a child and the one that started a life-long love affair. It was an almost compulsive decision to include Vertigo – in spite of myself. It is a film I think about all the time. Wise and Robbins’ West Side Story got a lot wrong but, more than any other musical captured in film, brought choreography to life on screen and made a musical score feel visual. Many of the films on my list are implicitly or explicitly about the cinema – with radically different aesthetic strategies, The Watermelon Woman and Looking for Langston are about the frustrations and pleasures of having to imagine cinema otherwise. Far From Heaven and In the Mood for Love both left me dreaming and desiring, awash with their aesthetic virtuosity. Water Lilies and Appropriate Behaviour, in completely different ways, have each managed to capture the ambiguity and precariousness of queer desire. Mulholland Drive was the film that got me thinking differently about lesbian representability and through which I (ambivalently) reconciled myself to a love of Classical Hollywood.
When I first had a sense of myself as becoming a 'film buff', as a young teenager, I read the (probably 2002) S&S list and made my own. For around a year I made near-weekly adjustments to the running order, precociously including films I knew I was supposed to have seen (and then, over many years, proceeded to see, ticking them off as I went). This is not that list.