BFI Head Librarian
|Portrait of a Lady on Fire
|Sleepless in Seattle
|Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
|The Wizard of Oz
|The Celluloid Closet
|Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
There are some films so sublime they affect you on a molecular level. When I emerged from the dark cinema into bright daylight after watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire for the first time I couldn't speak and I could hardly breathe. So much more than a story of love between women, yet that central love story is so devastingly imagined that it felt like I'd been changed irrevocably after witnessing it. Each viewing since leaves me in the same breathless, overwhelmed state. And I welcome it every time.
There might be thousands of miles and several decades that separated closeted teenage me from the women who fall in love in Deitch's wonderful 1950s-set lesbian drama, but when I watched it for the first time in secret, as it screened late at night on Channel 4 in the early 1990s, I finally felt seen and like I actually belonged in the world. Here was a film where women embraced their sexuality and were not punished for it in the end. It made being gay OK and did it with a killer country music soundtrack and some very erotic love scenes. Teenage me rejoiced.
Sleepless in Seattle
I've lost count of how many times I've seen this film. It always delivers, no matter what frame of mind you're in when you watch it. It's a reassuring hug on a dark night. It's a best friend cheering you up after a bad break-up. It's a night in sharing laughter with the girls. It makes you feel better about the world and all the people in it. It's just a perfect film, and the late, great Nora Ephron's finest work.
Frozen II has everything I love about cinema. Great songs that exhilarate and entertain you, powerful and brave women who rely on each other and don't play second fiddle to men, a story that digs in deep and takes you on an emotional journey with a great payoff at the end. I thought I was a huge fan of the first film, but I have to say I freaking love Frozen II. A sequel that surpasses its predecessor by a long way.
The book that Todd Haynes' sublime Carol is based on – Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt – is my favourite book of all time. And as a librarian I don't say those words lightly. Like a lot of Highsmith's novels, it lends itself to adaptation so well; her prose is incredibly cinematic and you can easily picture the film with each flick of the page. Or at least I had, for the better part of 20 years. When it was announced the book was finally being turned in to a film I waited anxiously, like the rest of the lesbian world, to see what had become of our beloved novel. Of course, there was no need to worry with Todd Haynes at the helm, a never-better Cate Blanchett as the eponymous heroine and a perfectly cast Rooney Mara as naive young Therese, who can't help falling in love with Carol. Just like I did when I first picked up the book. It's a glorious adaptation, faithful to the original but also its own creation. It's my favourite book of all time; it might well be my favourite film too.
The Wizard of Oz
It's one of the most enduring cultural phenomena of the 20th century, it launched Judy Garland's ascending stardom into the stratosphere and it is one of my earliest film memories. A joyous fantasy epic enjoyed every Christmas as a child, when you return to it as an adult you glimpse the darker story lurking under the surface, where motivations of good and evil are not so clear-cut and you begin to question whether there really is no place like home. Truly a timeless classic, but if you think it's all yellow bricks and shiny emeralds, look again.
It was a long time coming, but when Wonder Woman hit our big screens in 2017 life long fans of the DC comics character (and I am one of them) breathed a giant sigh of relief – it had definitely been worth the wait. In the incredibly capable hands of Monster director Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is a superhero film the likes of which we hadn't seen before, and I don't just mean because the XX chromosome was in charge. The action sequences are spectacular, but it's the emotional depth and pathos to the story in Wonder Woman that lifts it above the standard superhero fare. You don't expect to cry at a superhero movie (or at least I don't) yet with its poignant First World War setting and powerful anti-war message underpinning the action, Wonder Woman has you in tears. It's brilliant.
Having watched a lot of lesbian love stories in my time as a programmer for BFI Flare London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival, when one comes along that does something different with the genre, you sit up and take notice. This Swedish film from 2011 is an exquisite piece of filmmaking. It hits the mark on everything – a realistic and original screenplay that is character driven and delivers emotionally, a cast at the top of their game giving their all to the endeavour and the beautiful backdrop of a Swedish summer, with scenes that wouldn't look out of place in a Bergman film. I return to it often and it entertains each and every time.
Booksmart turns the high-school comedy genre on its head, smashing through teen stereotypes and exploring young adulthood in such a refreshing, original way. It refuses to fall down the Jocks vs Nerds story trope and instead celebrates everyone for their difference, no judgement allowed. One of those films that make you laugh out loud each and every time you watch it, an utter joy to behold.
The Celluloid Closet
This film has been a guiding light throughout my career, as well as a personal touchstone for me when I need to remind myself that things at the movies do get better for us queers. The amount of research that went into making this film – based on the seminal text by gay rights activist Vito Russo – is staggering. This is Queer Cinema History 101, packaged as a hugely entertaining documentary that never forgets the importance of representation, and why it is so important to get it right.
Well that was tremendous fun! Narrowing down my top ten choices of films was much easier than I thought it was going to be. A much more personal list than I expected to make – all of my choices have come from the heart. I surprised myself that some perennial favourites like Star Wars and Mary Poppins didn't make my final 10, but I wouldn't swap out any of the films I have ultimately chosen if you paid me.