Imogen Sara Smith
Freelance film critic
|Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
|Trouble in Paradise
|Les Enfants du paradis
|I Know Where I’m Going!
|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|In a Lonely Place
|Cléo from 5 to 7
Buster Keaton has a strong claim to be the most gifted person ever to make movies, with an utterly singular vision, style, and sense of humour. I could have chosen almost any of his films, but Our Hospitality has everything: hilarious gags, a brilliantly sardonic central premise, death-defying stunts, gorgeous landscapes, a sweet romance, and perhaps the most breathtaking rescue in all of cinema. It has an exhilarating freshness, grace and wit: Keaton’s sublime cinematic eye is in everything from the grandest action scenes to the subtlest details, just as his performance is expressive in its most delicate gestures and most soaring flights of athleticism. For all its black humour, this is Keaton’s warmest, most hopeful film.
Trouble in Paradise
As perfect as any movie needs to be, this also stands in for the glories of 1930s Hollywood romantic comedy. The Lubitsch touch is all about elision and indirection, about the elegantly elliptical way he communicates information, so that by getting the joke we are invited into what the late, great film historian James Harvey called “the community of cleverness”. In Trouble in Paradise, the sense of dazzling mischief has an underlying ache of regret that lingers like perfume. It’s a deliciously amoral film that is also wise about human foibles, and realistic about what makes the world go round – money, at least as much as sex or romance. I could watch this every day.
No one achieved more in less time than Jean Vigo – how would the history of cinema be different if he had lived? For all its venerable status, L'Atalante remains raw, strange, radical and singular. You don’t watch it so much as you are immersed in it, swimming through visions like the lovesick barge captain when he plunges into the river in search of his lost bride. No film embodies more fully and purely the inherent fluidity, surrealism, realism, eroticism and ghostliness of cinema.
Les Enfants du paradis
Set just before the invention of photography, Children of Paradise presents a world already ruled by spectacle and the gaze, by masks and mirrors, the performer and the crowd. Jacques Prévert's script is a bottomless fount of ideas about art, love, crime, desire, envy, dreams and regret. With its monumental scope, lapidary dialogue and spectacularly detailed period setting, the film might lead you to expect conventional, classical storytelling, but instead it offers a world haunted by incompleteness, unfulfilment and unrequited longing. This is one of the essential statements of modernity as a condition of disconnection and isolation, which makes us all insatiable spectators.
I Know Where I’m Going!
Though I believe The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the Archers’ masterpiece, my heart belongs to IKWIG, with its wild enchantments of place, language and storytelling, its maddeningly wrong-headed heroine who nonetheless wins the love of a prince charming. The idea that falling in love is how you find yourself – and that for women in particular, the central decision in life is picking the right man – is a questionable core principle in love stories. Never has it been more persuasive than here, in a film where the happiest ending is to die in your chains.
In a Lonely Place
My favorite American film noir, In a Lonely Place lacks many of the genre elements people expect from noir: there are no guns, no gangsters, no femmes fatales, no private eyes, no dark alleys. Instead, there is a scalpel-fine, devastating anatomy of a last-chance love affair; a career-best performance by Bogart that bravely reveals the ugliness behind the cool, tough-guy façade; and a brilliant, funny, heartsick portrait of Hollywood and its religion of storytelling. There are few genuinely tragic endings in noir – pessimism and cynicism are a defence against pain – but Ray never hardened his heart, so he can break ours.
Cléo from 5 to 7
In her last film, Varda by Agnès, the director pinpoints the moment in Cleo from 5 to 7 when the title character goes from being a woman who is seen to a woman who sees. It may be trite to speak of the female gaze, but Varda here shows something perhaps no movie had acknowledged before, the way a woman can objectify herself, constructing herself as the object of an illusory gaze—and how she might be liberated from this condition, and with it from fear and solipsism. A great movie of flânerie, street life and inner life, filled with Varda's playful wit and intrepid curiosity.
Monicelli’s epic tragicomedy about the birth of the labour movement is the greatest treatment of his favourite subject: a group coming together for a common cause, and failing. The film’s sweeping scale is anchored by textured, tactile realism and by a Dickensian relish for individual characters, especially Mastroianni’s complex, ambiguous and delightfully unheroic Professor. The Organiser angered some leftists who were offended by the comic, non-idealised treatment of class struggle and collective action. But Monicelli’s comedy is intrinsic to his humanism: he sees people not ennobled by suffering, but irrepressible in their foolishness, imbued with the director's own vitality, tenderness and pessimism.
Naruse’s films, with their patient, lucid focus on the everyday, clear-sighted empathy for women, and disillusioned humanism, represent much that I love and admire most about Japanese cinema. This slow-burning film roots us in a mundane, disappointing, repetitive existence, then releases us into a fleeting, exhilarating dream of liberation. By the end, every shot becomes agonisingly beautiful and charged with feeling – climaxing in Hideko Takamine’s shattering final close-up. Note, I always thought Yearning was a perfect movie title, but when I learned the real meaning of the original title, Midareru – "to become dishevelled, confused, or shaken up, to fall into disarray" – the film took on new meaning. Naruse’s work resists simplification; its gift is to leave you feeling less certain, face to face with the intractable messiness of human feelings.
Tati's ruinously ambitious masterpiece starts as a satire of modern architecture and becomes a strangely beatific celebration of the way people move through public space. A film about minor embarrassments and fleeting connections between strangers, it begins in alienation and builds to a transcendent vision of communal harmony. The disastrous opening of a pretentious nightclub descends into chaos and turns into a fabulous party; for a topper, Tati turns one of life’s most hellish experiences – an airport traffic jam – into a joyous carousel ride. Gruelling labour went into each seemingly effortless grace note, as Tati the performer drifts in aimless bewilderment through the world that Tati the director obsessively controlled. In PlayTime, the movie screen is an idealised public space on which Tati’s people demonstrate the joys of being one-dimensional.
I am one of those who bemoan the way list-making dominates film discourse, and I always approach lists and rankings warily. I respect the venerable history and scope of the Sight and Sound poll, but choosing ten films was a task that felt at once agonising and absurd. I quickly abandoned any effort to define greatness, and simply chose films I deeply love and that represent what I care about most in cinema. This did not make it any easier, as I had to leave out both films I consider indisputably great – M, Citizen Kane, La Grande Illusion (how could I not have included La Grand Illusion??), as well as less obvious films I would have loved to put forward – Shimizu's Mr. Thank You, Henry King's State Fair, Larisa Shepitko's Wings – and any number of films I love as much as the ones I chose. What I see most clearly in looking at my list – aside from the fact that I am even more of a Francophile than I realised – is that humanism, a warmth and care for people, seems to be what I want most from movies right now.