Philip Dodd

Editor Sight and Sound (1990-1997); chair of cultural agency Made in China UK Ltd (

Voted for

City Lights1931Charles Chaplin
The Passion of Joan of Arc1927Carl Th. Dreyer
Bringing Up Baby1938Howard Hawks
Olympia1938Leni Riefenstahl
MALU TIANSHI1937Yuan Muzhi
Singin' in the Rain1951Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Spring in a Small Town1948Fei Mu
Meshes of the Afternoon1943Maya Deren, Alexander Hackenschmied
The Innocents1961Jack Clayton
Shou Ji2003Feng Xiaogang


City Lights

1931 USA

Film is the most promiscuous and porous of arts - hence the inclusion of City Lights - a dance and movement film whose choreography of the human body makes Merce Cunningham's look like that of an amateur; a wilfully silent film at the start of the talkies-era; and a film in which the final sequence gives life to Wordsworth's line: "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears".

The Passion of Joan of Arc

1927 France

A film that belongs - or should belong - as much to the history of art as to cinema: the greatest 'portraiture' film in the history of cinema - think a German expressionist such as Max Beckman or, further back. Goya. A great film also because it is a religious film - something that makes old-fashioned securalists squirm with embarrassment. From Dreyer to Scorsese, Western film has been marinaded in religion and its iconography. And this is not even to mention how Buddhism has shaped Japanese cinema…

Bringing Up Baby

1938 USA

Comedy is largely undervalued - post-war European cinema was too often overpraised - it had a habit of confusing solemnity with seriousness.

This is as much a Hepburn/Grant film as a Howard Hawks (Sight and Sound asks us to name the diretor not the performers) - and yet film studies is happier talking about the star system than about performance. Did anyone better Grant in performing anxious masculinity?


1938 Germany

The most troubling film on the list - aesthetically blissful and poltically repugnant. What to do with such a film? Ban it? Or recognise that all works of art are also works of barbarism as Walter Benjamin said?

Olympia is also a reminder that documentary films - from sports films to films of war - are part of the history of film - even if too often ghettoised.


1937 People's Republic of China

Made the year before 'Olympia', Street Angel is one of the great 'Shanghai films' promiscuously moving without misgiving between melodrama, romance and comedy (the 30s were a glorious time globally for comedy). 'Street Angel' is a reminder that artists everywhere in the 30s often turned to film as the place to explore political possibilities.

A comic lower-depths film, with the iconic singer Zhou Xuan at its heart - it is also a reminder how important singers-as-performers are to film.

As denunciations of China increase in volume, and as China's 'difference' is emphasised on all sides, it is worth remembering China's cosmopolitan history - and that it has had its own complex history of modernisation.

Singin' in the Rain

1951 USA

Like opera buffa, Singing In the Rain has something of everything - song, dance, self reflexivity - and comedy. There are not many films where the filmmakers are credited with direction and choreography.

Like several other films in the list, Singing plays with silent film.

Francois Truffaut claimed that he had seen it so many times that he knew it frame by frame - and my wife's Italian grandmother, who left school at 14, knew it so well she could sing the songs without knowing any other English.

Singing in the Rain is an ode to joy.

Spring in a Small Town

1948 People's Republic of China

Spring in a Small Town ought to be hailed globally as a postwar masterpiece - the shadow of Sino-Japanese war, the repression/expression of desire, a towering performance by Wei wei as the wife, a less is more aesthetic - these are a few of the elements which make it a masterpiece. Made in the dying moments of the Chinese civil war, the director and writer refused the easy ending (where the would-be lovers join the revoluton tomorrow. It had to wait to the 80s (Mao died in '76) to be given the recognition within China it deserves.

Meshes of the Afternoon

1943 USA

Maya Deren was born in Ukraine, and grew up in the US - even it is the second part of this sentence that is better remembered than the first. As I write, one of her films can be seen in the global Surrealism show at Tate Modern - a sign that Deren's work is now as likely to find a home in a gallery as in a cinema. She is one of those figures who brought European thinking (not least about subjectivity) into American cinema. For a long time film has been less interested in the film theatre than film critics like to believe - just think of the Leger film Ballet Mechanique, all the way to the gallery films of Steve McQueen.

The Innocents

1961 USA, United Kingdom

It was Coleridge who when asked if he believed in the devil said that "it stops the mind from becoming too narrow." That riposte may be the best defence of horror films.

From Mary Shelly's Frankenstein onwards, the British imagination has had a gothic impulse - nowhere more so than in Clayton's retelling of Henry James's Turn of the screw (which Benjamin Britten turned into an opera). The wonder of The Innocence is that it is not what happens in the night that is terrifying but what takes place in the day.

Shou Ji

2003 People's Republic of China, Hong Kong

Another film in my list that is haunted by sound - with its shift from the news delivered by the megaphone in the village to the intimate betrayals that the mobile phone allow us.

Feng Xiaogang is often described as a great commercial Chinese director - which is a little like describing Dickens as a great commercial novelist.

Urban and contemporary, Cell Phone stands apart from the Chinese films of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, which once upon a time defined Chinese cinema for a global audience.

Comedic, dark - and biting - Cell Phone ought to be so much better-known and valued.

Further remarks

Despite Mr and Ms Google, amnesia is setting in - hence the emphasis in this list of films made before the 1960s - which doesn't mean that great films have not been made after that date. But we need to let a whiff of history into our deliberations.