|Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
|Withnail & I
|Attack the Block
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains: sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy – it creates and moulds as well… Let’s examine closely, then, this dangerously evil creation, this new breed, encased and contained within the supple skin of woman… the softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female. The surface shiny and silken. The body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution – handle with care and don’t drop your guard! This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level! Any time! Anywhere! And with any body! Who are they? One might be your secretary! Your doctor’s receptionist! Or a dancer in a go-go club!”
Pink Flamingos. Polyester. Hairspray. Cry-Baby. Serial Mom. Pecker. Cecil B Demented. A Dirty Shame... I contemplated voting for ten films all directed by John Waters, but forced myself to be sensible. The cautionary tale of Dawn Davenport's Female Trouble remains a favourite not least for its stellar performance by Harris Glenn Milstead AKA Divine as the juvenile delinquent who ends up in the electric chair, but its repertory cast of the greatest Dreamlanders, including David Lochary, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Cookie Mueller, not to mention Waters' regular collaborators behind the camera. Predicting punk, Female Trouble is great fun, from the underground while evoking the melodramas and studio horrors of old Hollywood.
Ousting Jean Genet's silent short film Un Chant d'amour (1950) from my top ten, Scorpio Rising remains unbeaten in all of cinema history for its collision of film with pop music, not to mention the homoerotic lens through which Kenneth Anger – still alive at 95 – pictured the world of biker boys. Part of the Magick Lantern Cycle of short films, and one of the greatest.
Wow, what a film, seen one cold January afternoon in an otherwise empty cinema. Titane made me think about when Eraserhead opened in the UK in March 1979. The critics had struggled with Eraserhead, so Stephen Woolley programmed David Lynch's first feature with a contextualising repertory season called 'Cinema of the Bizarre' (after the book) described as "the destruction of logic, the release of desire, the irrelevance of the distinction between dreams and reality and the elicitation of the marvellous". The Scala's season ranged across genres, including anarchic comedy, shock effects and dream states. It was the perfect way to explain where Eraserhead had come from. More than 40 years later it's easier to see the roots of Julia Ducournau's Palme d'Or winning film, courtesy of Crash, The Brood, Tetsuo, Neon Demon, and of course Eraserhead itself. But what makes Titane unique among other 'body horrors' is its female sensibility, entirely owned by the director and the terrific lead performance by Agathe Rousselle. Bravo ladies.
Get in! I love a stylish, ingenious horror and the current wave of Black filmmakers excelling in the genre is a real cause for celebration. Both Get Out with its stunning central performance by British actor Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele's follow-up, Us, created a hunger for the forthcoming Nope, still tantalisingly coming soon. In the meantime I've switched on to Donald Glover's television series Atlanta with its similar ingredients of dystopian states, tonal shifts from comedy to the uncanny, and excellent cast including Get Out's Lakeith Stanfield.
Superb. With shades of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia alongside every folk horror we've ever loved but particularly The Wicker Man, something shocking, unique and brilliant emerged from the director of Hereditary. British actors Florence Pugh, Will Poulter and Ellora Torchia are part of the young cast with a cameo by Björn Andrésen (Tadzio in Visconti's Death in Venice and the subject of the upsetting documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, 2021).
Withnail & I
There's so much to love about Withnail and I, from its faltering first months in cinemas, through a repertory system which embraced the film and enabled it to find its audience, an ever-increasing student crowd who seemingly memorised every word of brilliant dialogue. But in the end it's the characters who embody the film's most enduring and endearing qualities, including the scrofulus Withnail, long-suffering Marwood, heartbroken predator Uncle Monty tormented by his oafish cat, and of course, Danny the Dealer. Set in the late 1960s and executive produced by George Harrison, it's a perfect and peerless British comedy.
Attack the Block
I just really like Attack the Block. It's funny, scary, truly London, and possesses a hugely powerful moment when the brilliant actor John Boyega's character Moses states his age and everything changes as you realise the man is a child. That's all.
It's a disgrace to only have one foreign-language film on my list. But La Jetée is perfection, its mysterious narrative gripping the viewer with an extraordinarily moving moment of release when the black and white still photographs from which the film is comprised come to life. Chris Marker proves that a 30-minute long film can be at least the intellectual and emotional equivalent or even superior of the much bigger, longer, more lavish and expensive time-trip sci-fi movies which came in La Jetée's wake.
In the 2012 poll I voted for Jaws, haunted by childhood memories of being too scared to paddle in Brighton beach after seeing the film and later entranced by film studies comparisons of Stephen Spielberg's 1975 film to Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play An Enemy of the People. In the same course we looked at the relationship of Star Wars to John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers, but the reason for including it in my list is far from academic. Two years after the V&A staged its stunning exhibition dedicated to David Bowie, it followed up with Savage Beauty, an exhibition of costumes by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen whose Vertigo-inspired dress suit I've never been able to afford. The emotional apex of the McQueen exhibition was a tiny, twirling Tinkerbelle-like hologram of Kate Moss made by Baillie Walsh who went on to create this year's ABBA Voyage, starring the band I loved as a child. It's all about audience and memory. And the hologram of Princess Leia asking for help is the reason why Star Wars gets my final vote.
What a difference a decade makes. Back in 2012 I was still running the BFI's Content department and focused on licensing films – usually revivals – for UK-wide theatrical and video release. I'd written about cinema but have never been a film critic so Sight and Sound's decision to open that poll up to people working in the film industry, and not just as directors, was bound to create change. My 2012 choices were based on personal preference, a desire to hold on to 10 films viewed repeatedly over the years which I'd happily watch again right that moment. My 2012 list was short on foreign-language films and diversity. It was a hard decision to include family entertainment over horror. There was no comedy, not much dancing and, worst of all, nothing under the age of 30. But there was a short film and at least one title deemed 'trash' by the hierarchy.
Ten years on the world has changed. Misogyny has been called out. People are starting to question bullying on an institutional level. Black and female filmmakers are getting more recognition. Brexit happened. The Covid virus caused widespread disruption. There's a war on. The summers are getting hotter. I lost my job, and the BFI has changed shape. So it's fitting that my list has also changed, with nine different titles. It's still short on foreign-language films and diversity, with only one directed by a woman and another by a Black director, but at least that's more than last time and nearly half are now under the age of 30. And the one title which remains the same? It's Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! because in the end one woman's trash is another's treasure.