Film Programmer, BFI London Film Festival & BFI Flare LGBTQIA+ Film Festival
|Singin' in the Rain
|Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
|Killer of Sheep
|Do the Right Thing
|The Watermelon Woman
|Paul Thomas Anderson
|Zeinabu irene Davis
Singin' in the Rain
While I don't know if this is emphatically my favourite musical of all time, it's undeniably the greatest – one of those films where everyone makes what they're doing look easy. The songs from Singin' in the Rain have become such a part of pop culture now, featured in everything from adverts to Britain's Got Talent performances, and if that's not indicative of an iconic film then I don't know what is…
There's little to say about Moonlight that I've not already said over the years, or people will most likely say better in this poll. In this day and age of fake 'meaningful' diversity and representation in film, Barry Jenkins does the impossible by making a story that's so specific (a gay Black man growing up in Florida) and make it feel universal, and reach beyond an arthouse audience all the way to the Oscars, despite using more experimental filmmaking techniques. It's both an ode to the filmmakers that Jenkins loves, like Wong Kar Wai and Claire Denis, and an ushering in of a new kind of cinema. Film history in the future will be hugely indebted to Moonlight, but it's important to remember just what a damn good film it is too.
I'm floored every time I watch this film. I'm not a huge documentary girly so don't claim to have a supreme knowledge of them but the way in which Riggs plays with the form to create a work that's striking, funny and so wildly creative is so incredible to behold. It's also a perfect example as cinema as activism – long after you finish watching this, you're filled with a rage (but also a joy and a sense of community) and a call to action. Riggs was one of our greatest filmmakers, and while it pains me to imagine just what heights his career could've reached, had he not sadly passed away from Aids, the works that he DID create are a testament to his skill and an incredible legacy to leave behind.
Killer of Sheep
The fact that this was Charles Burnett's debut is absolutely mad to me – some people could never create such a great piece of art as their ninth film, let alone their first!! There's such a gorgeous naturalism to this film that I'd happily watch the lives of Stan and his family long past its ending. While Henry G. Sanders is incredible in this (apparently he was cast because Burnett thought he was the saddest looking man he'd ever seen), I have to give a shout out to the late, great Kaycee Moore, who elevates a performance that could read on paper as 'a sad wife' to something so moving and beautiful. My friend Maria is adamant that this film is really a love story between Moore's character and her daughter (played by Burnett's daughter Angela), and I suspect she might be right…
Do the Right Thing
The AGONY that I found myself in trying to choose a Spike Lee film for this poll… While I believe that Malcolm X is his most staggering achievement, a film I'd show to any Lee naysayers, and one of the best biopics ever made, there's something that made me lean towards this, definitely one of my favourite Lee films, in the end. Something that people underestimate about Spike Lee is the way he knows how to tell a story - on the surface Do the Right Thing seems like a day in the life in Brooklyn, but in reality it's a perfectly thought out Greek tragedy (complete with its own chorus of neighbourhood 'bums' sitting against a characteristically Lee primary coloured red wall). The entire cast is on point here, working together to create a film that's still heartbreakingly resonant today, and so viscerally made that you can feel the heat beating down on you as you watch it. Plus… the best opening scene of all time.
The Watermelon Woman
So much of cinema is about being 'seen', and this is the first time that I ever saw myself, a queer Black woman obsessed with film and constantly questioning Black women's place in film history, represented. (Eternal thanks to one of the great mentors of my life/best people I know, So Mayer, for adding it to our curriculum when I was at university.) Also, it has one of the sexiest sex scenes I've seen, complete with a proper undeniable female gaze (Dunye directs, writes and stars – it's all her!). This is a film that loads of queer people I know ,love but it's also very much FUBU, with such specific jokes about queer and Black culture, such as a bookshop called Giovanni's Room, and the C.L.I.T (Centre for Lesbian Information Technology) – comedic perfection.
It might be sacrilege to pick a later PTA film over his classic work, such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, or the universally acclaimed There Will Be Blood and The Master. And hey! They're all amazing films! But everything about Phantom Thread screams perfection to me – it's such a tightly controlled film, where a single shot is wasted. But unlike most tightly controlled films it's also accessible, funny (the number of hilarious lines in this film, my GOD), sexy and sumptuous. It serves as a beginning to a career (Vicky Krieps's breakthrough) and an end to one (Daniel Day-Lewis's final film), and I truly stand by the internet opinion that it's the greatest romantic comedy of recent years.
Any film is strong enough to sit in a Best Films of All Time list, such is her directorial power. And while I adore all her work, for me she is at her most powerful, most hauntingly beautiful but also most elliptical with Morvern Callar. Adapted very freely and sparsely from Alan Warner's novel, it's a film that reveals itself to me more and more with each watch – never exactly providing answers but always giving more something more, whether it's the film's sunbleached primary colours, Samantha Morton's gorgeous, halting performance, or the incredible soundtrack, to marvel at.
La Haine is, like so many other films that will probably feature on this list, a film that's been adopted by 'film bros' for beguiling reasons. With a lot of film bro films, they can keep them, but La Haine is a film that must be reclaimed to sit in its original status as a furious and striking political statement, and not just as a Criterion edition on a film student's shelf. Kassovitz throws everything at this film and so much of it shouldn't work... and yet it does. The film's stark black-and-white cinematography is still gorgeous, and the more creative flares – like its iconic aerial sequence and 'trombone shot' – still look amazing and revolutionary rather than trite. But strip away its techniques and at its heart is what makes La Haine so great – a day in a life of three young boys, played with amazing chemistry and heart by its three young leads, all searching for a way to diffuse their anger and a way to survive. The film's ending is still so shocking, even after watching having watched it umpteen times.
I watched this film for the first time in 2021 and was absolutely stunned – less so by Davis's work as a director, since everything she's made is incredible (her short A Powerful Thang is also very much worthy of a spot on this list), than by the utter uniqueness of this film, and the way in which it speaks to a history of Black filmmaking and culture and specifically, Black women's filmmaking. There's something so deep and layered about this film that only a Black woman could make it. And as a Black woman, I tap into that so easily. If you don't understand it, then sorry… you're not meant to. Anyway, this is endlessly inventive cinema, using the now obvious motif of the 'double' in different ways to investigate race, class, gender and stigma around deafness and HIV. If there's one film on my list that I believe every film student would benefit from seeing and which is probably not being included on film school curriculums, I would pick this one.
I feel so honoured to have been invited to vote on this list, but my GOD this has been stressful!!! The idea of a 'greatest films of all time' list has sent me into so many spirals. Am I, as a Black queer woman, being asked to vote in this poll because my identity, and the many diversity boxes that I tick, will validate the usual canon being selected? Does a woman of colour selecting, say 2001: A Space Odyssey give it more weight than if a white man does? Or, am I meant to bring my own specialism to this list – Sight and Sound WANT people to 'think outside the box' and bring their own definition of what a great film is, so they want diverse people to pick diverse films, to make their list more diverse. These questions, and so many more, lingered in my head while selecting my list. But in the end I had to be true to myself (or as true as felt right, because while of course I WANT to put Magic Mike XXL and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again on a greatest films of all time list, and I probably could argue them on to my list, do I really believe that they're the greatest films of all time?), and I'm happy with the list that I came up with. I toyed at points with doing a list entirely by Black directors, or entirely by women, but doing either of those felt like somewhat of an erasure of the films that have educated me over the years – I find just as much pleasure in Morvern Callar as I do in Moonlight, and being queer, Black and a woman doesn't mean I automatically have to pick one and not the other. I can have both!
So anyway all of this to say, thank you to Sight and Sound for the inclusion. It's heartening to see that people I know who have a radical, canon-busting approach to film have been invited to this shortlist, and I hope that all of their choices (and my own potentially dull ones) go on to create a list that feels genuine, and not diverse for the sake of being diverse and ticking boxes. And maybe by 2032, I'll have figured out a convincing enough argument to genuinely include Magic Mike XXL on my list…