Film critic — Variety, The Observer, Film of the Week
|In the Mood for Love
|Wong Kar Wai
|Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
|The Passion of Joan of Arc
|Carl Th. Dreyer
|The Red Shoes
|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|Some Like It Hot
|The Spirit of the Beehive
|Under the Skin
A decade ago, I included what was then the most recent film by my favourite working filmmaker as a gesture of faith in contemporary cinema: honestly, I could happily have selected the thorny, ongoingly fascinating White Material today. But her sinuously queer, balletic, body-fixated Herman Melville riff increasingly feels like a touchstone art film of the current century, still carrying the unresolved political baggage of the last: the number of new films I see every year at festivals that feel palpably in thrall to its motion and image-making suggests to me it'll be with us for a long time yet.
In the Mood for Love
Another turn-of-the-century seduction that launched a thousand not-quite-as-iridescent imitations, but I'd be lying if I said I picked it on the basis of influentiality, or any academic considerations at all: it's here because few films conjure such immediate memories of sense and sensation – of colour and music and movement, yes, but also of the specific scents and tastes you somehow vividly associate with it – by the mere mention of its title. Cinema as sustained swoon, for two decades and counting.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Nearly half a century old, and Akerman's "love film for [her] mother" still cuts you to the quick with its modernity of form, perspective and politics: its granite-hard yet empathetic domestic realism is unyielding even as the film, with methodical linearity, transitions from kitchen-sink drudgery to less routine actions that almost any other filmmaker would present as sensational. Here, it's all equal in interest and consequence, and all in a day's work for its unremarkable and riveting heroine.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
I think it's in the last decade that Dreyer's somehow rapturously austere work of historical cinema shifted from being a film that enthralled me as a scholar to one that fully involved and moved me as a viewer – and of course, finally seeing it in an enveloping cinema environment, rather than a university lecture theatre or my own living room, was the instigating factor. You don't absolutely need to see every crisply restored pore on Falconetti's extraordinary face to viscerally feel her pain, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
At one point in my agonising deliberations for this year's poll, I decided to junk my 2012 selections entirely and choose an entirely fresh slate, but Bergman's cinematic Rorschach test, a literal smoke-and-mirrors exercise with none of the vacancy or vagueness usually implied by that phrase, was the major sticking point in that plan: there is no film canon I can conceive of that doesn't include its elastic games of identity doubled and halved, played out via a millefeuille mise en scène that clarifies what its contradicts, and vice versa.
The Red Shoes
Another holdover from my 2012 list, largely because every time I see it feels like the first: Powell and Pressburger's boldly metatextual Hans Christian Andersen adaptation always shocks anew with its audacious, shape-shifting storytelling, the sheer saturated heat of its colour work and the ever-startling anti-Disney brutality of its fairytale ending. It's perhaps the most painfully adult romance that can still enrapture a small child – as it once did me.
Some Like It Hot
I was about to write about the richly coded and deceptively generous queerness of Billy Wilder's immortal cross-dressing comedy, and would have been right to do so, but I also shouldn't overcomplicate things: it's here because it has always made me laugh like nothing else, and still does. For some reason that wasn't enough for me to include it a decade ago; I now can't think what that reason was.
The Spirit of the Beehive
I write this not long after the news dropped that loris-like Spanish auteur Erice is at last making his first feature film since 1992's The Quince Tree Sun, set to be released next year, at which time this indelible debut will be celebrating its golden anniversary. Unfolding like a waking dream, hushed and febrile and haunted by personal memory and national historical baggage, this tacit post-civil war portrait of a family and country parched by the Francoist regime also delivers, with its flickering interpolation of James Whale's Frankenstein, one of the medium's richest evocations of its own power to spur and scar imagination. If Erice's next one gives us a fraction as much, it'll be a treasure.
Under the Skin
I thought I had finalised my list, when I took another look at it and realised I could have submitted exactly the same one a decade ago – and while there's something to be said for making films pass some test of time, as a working critic, I like to believe the industry is still producing work that will be with us forever. After considering several favourites minted since the last poll, I settled on Glazer's dazzling, disquieting and strangely down-to-earth sci-fi nightmare, one of the rare recent genre films that trusts audiences to translate its visual language, saying something violently moving both about this world and the great beyond.
Sembène's scorching, riotous satire of spiralling governmental and institutional corruption in post-independence Senegal has lost none of its jagged currency or hilarious venom in nearly fifty years. If it remains virtually unmatched as a portrait of an African nation negotiating a new path between tradition and rotten western influence – as a South African, I wait and wait for a local filmmaker to make a Xala for the ANC's current era – it's just hard to think of any equivalently targeted political films from other continents that go this hard.
Faced with the impossible, even nonsensical, task of choosing ten films that somehow stand apart from all others in their greatness, I first tried to make things easier for myself with rashly imposed rules and strategies.
I initially thought to rule out everything I'd selected in the 2012 poll, as a calculated nod to the arbitrary nature of the exercise, and an opportunity to give more of the films I hold most dear a turn at bat – though while I mostly followed through on the idea, certain titles simply didn't feel right, in the moment, to leave out. (Apologies, however, to the abandoned Bonnie and Clyde, The 400 Blows, Gone with the Wind, Hannah and Her Sisters, Three Colours: Red, Vertigo and White Material, none of which I love any less when I plucked them from the pile ten years ago – nor any less than Persona, The Red Shoes and The Spirit of the Beehive, which somehow got lucky a second time.)
I also toyed with a ten entirely free of American films, though mounting a tacit, half-hearted protest against the States' cultural hegemony as a simple tactic of convenient elimination didn't feel entirely honest – least of all when any such drafts of the list I composed remained egregiously Eurocentric. (Should I still attempt to stick with that conviction at all, I suppose I could argue that my one American pick, Some Like It Hot, is by an immigrant filmmaker – though that, too, feels a disingenuous way to rationalise choosing the most purely joyous film on the list.)
Ultimately, ten films is too small a canvas to be satisfyingly representative on any aesthetic, political or even personal basis. Looking at the vast holes of genre, period, nationality and identity in my selection – ordered alphabetically, I hasten to add, since I am not glutton for further punishment – I'd be loath to recommend it to anyone as some kind of informative sampler of what cinema has to offer us. They're all great films and I love them: let's leave it at that, and talk again in 2032.