Nick James


Voted for

Andrei Rublev1966Andrei Tarkovsky
A Brighter Summer Day1991Edward Yang
Hotel Terminus (Klaus Barbie, His Life and Times)1988Marcel Ophüls
In the Mood for Love2000Wong Kar Wai
Out of the Past1947Jacques Tourneur
A Matter of Life and Death1946Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
You Were Never Really Here2017Lynne Ramsay
Singin' in the Rain1951Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Toni Erdmann2016Maren Ade
The Passion of Joan of Arc1927Carl Th. Dreyer


Andrei Rublev

1966 USSR

Art's relationship to religion, society, power, money and violence has never been more graphically and poetically realised than in Tarkovsky's fragmentary portrait of Rublev the icon painter, who drifts through the trials of his turbulent 15th Century times with his eyes and ears wide open to the extraordinary, matching Tarkovsky's own ideal of himself.

A Brighter Summer Day

1991 Taiwan

The title comes from Elvis's song 'Are You Lonesome Tonight' and the Taiwanese teen tragedy the film obliquely describes is seared by a similar aching melancholy. Scraps of information gained through inference, long shots, and the beams of a flashlight construct a complex portrait of a time when teen gang wars intersect with the authoritative tensions caused by Taiwan's fragile history. As adopted by the youth here, the glamour of American culture becomes more poignant even than it is in West Side Story or Rebel Without a Cause. Every minute of its near four hours is riveting.

Hotel Terminus (Klaus Barbie, His Life and Times)

1988 USA

Ostensibly a talking-heads marathon about the background to the trial of Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, this gradual unpeeling of the layers of complicity that were wrapped like tissue paper around Barbie is the pretext for a deep intellectual delving into the moral unease that surrounds the most fundamental questions of personal guilt arising out of World War II. As the head of the city’s Gestapo from 1942-44, Barbie was responsible for many atrocities and yet he was allowed by the Allies to escape justice for 40 years until his extradition from Bolivia to France in 1983 and his trial in Lyon the following year. Ophuls’ sly wit and his unfazed approach when talking to the worst people makes this the most revelatory of documentaries.

In the Mood for Love

2000 Hong Kong, France

A daze of glamour and romance, heartache choreographed in tight spaces, colour coded in smoky reds and jade greens, a nocturnal passion of repression and cigarettes, of jewellery jingling and rice urns swinging, two perfect actors ripe for their time, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, playing people too beautiful to be as lonesome as they are. It's not a brief encounter: they're married neighbours left unaccountably alone until they discover what they have in common beyond their mutual attraction. A swoon of a film that resists analysis.

Out of the Past

1947 USA

This best of film noirs reconfigures elements of The Maltese Falcon, dropping all that film's gallery of grotesques to focus on a fatal attraction between detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and gangster's moll Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) that happens when he tracks her down in Mexico for gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) but then runs away with her. That part of the story is told in flashback after Jeff, having started a new life running a gas station in a remote mountain town with a 'decent' girlfriend, is dragged back by Sterling into the fever dream of that deadly passion. Mitchum and Greer are astonishing, and Greer's first entrance out of the Acapulco sun into a bar where Mitchum waits is cinema lighting's equivalent of Botticelli's Venus.

A Matter of Life and Death

1946 United Kingdom

For me there has to be a Powell & Pressburger film but I always haver over which one because their unique combination of visual splendour, mildly mocking amusement and quirky sensuality has me hooked on three titles. In 2002 I chose Black Narcissus perhaps because it's the most extreme example of their sensibility. In 2012 it was I Know Where I'm Going because it's the one that thrills me most. Now, however, in this moment when canons are likely to inspire derision, I have to go for the one that feels 'greatest'. There are more stunning ideas in this one film concerning a mistake made in heaven about a WW2 pilot who should be dead but isn't than the whole of British cinema can usually muster in a decade.

You Were Never Really Here

2017 France, United Kingdom, USA

A pulp fiction made vivid and lean. We're in the head of Joaquin Phoenix's PTSD-traumatised ex-military tracker of lost girls. The film veers in and out of focus as does his unreliable concentration. His ability with a violence carefully left off screen is symbolised by the domestic hammer he uses on the bad guys. Emotion screams from the quality of the images while the actors remain deadpan, shellshocked or zonked by terror and dope. This underrated film rewards many viewings.

Singin' in the Rain

1951 USA

The best satire of movie-making is also the best MGM musical, and there has to be one of those in a list like this. Funny, affecting, startling and addictive, it knows better than most films how to help us dream of a better life as it bears sharp witness to the absurdities attendant on the coming of sound to Hollywood. Stunningly conceived with tremendous imaginative elan and rich with terrific songs and set-pieces, Kelly and Donen's film holds belief and disbelief in show business in either hand and whenever those hands open, you never know which is in which. Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds make a superb team is one dazzling routine after another. The elocution lessons of Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) alone are worth the price of admission.

Toni Erdmann

2016 Germany, Austria, Romania, Monaco

Comedies almost never make lists like this one partly because most of them don't have the same impact when you rewatch them knowing the jokes and skits to come. I saw Toni Erdmann twice when it came out but I haven't watched it since and I don't need to because in all my years of watching films at screenings and festivals no other film had me laughing out loud throughout while never even suspecting what was likely to happen next. It's a work of genius with a wonderful cast on top form throughout, particularly Sandra Hüller as Toni's endlessly teased daughter.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

1927 France

This "prodigious fresco of heads", as André Bazin described it, is cinema's most illustrious paean to the power of the close-up and perhaps its most mutely expressive courtroom drama. The actress Falconetti, playing Joan, had her hair cut off and wore no make up to be surrounded by grotesque and mostly aged priests, monks and solidiery, her leering and winking accusers. Such simplification of imagery allows the constant attention shown to Falconetti's face to take on a monumental quality, as if you're looking at the moon. As such, small movements – the dilation of her nostrils or the slow falling of her eyelids - seem to bear the whole weight of her struggle of conviction and belief.

Further remarks

Before video, memory and discourse were the only means by which you could nurture an idea of what great cinema might be. That process brought about a consensus among cinephiles about pre-1980 cinema that has persistently clung to the same titles, a period from which the winner of this poll has always been drawn. It's going to be interesting, then, to see if the swelling anti-canonical and pro-identity politics currents in film discourse can change this. My experience in running this poll twice when I was S&S Editor makes me fear that that revolution will never come, because post-digital cinema culture encourages us not to remember but to binge and forget and consensus cannot emerge when people are so keen to be distinctive (or worse, virtue-signalling) in their choices of recent work. That said, I don't know how the list of voters has been drawn up this time, so I can still hope for a result that doesn't feel like this activity is stuck somehow in the 20th Century. My own choices always change, although three films persist in all three of my contributions since 2002, and if you asked for a ten in a months time the list would almost certainly be different.