Philip Horne

Professor, UCL

Voted for

Tokyo Story1953Yasujirō Ozu
Seven Samurai1954Akira Kurosawa
Vertigo1958Alfred Hitchcock
Rear Window1954Alfred Hitchcock
It's a Wonderful Life1947Frank Capra
Cléo from 5 to 71962Agnès Varda
La Règle du jeu1939Jean Renoir
Citizen Kane1941Orson Welles
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp1943Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Taxi Driver1976Martin Scorsese


Tokyo Story

1953 Japan

These choices are all invidious, but at least Tokyo Story has an amplitude of scale and impact among Ozu's works that allows it to stand for them all in their wisdom and humanity, and their serenity which feels as if it is beyond hope and despair. I took a friend to see it in NFT1 earlier in 2022, and was awed yet again: it worked so powerfully on a terribly restless and chatty post-lockdown audience that by the end there was a communal hush of profound emotion.

Seven Samurai

1954 Japan

As Kurosawa said, ‘An action film can be a mere action film. But what a marvellous thing if it can at the same time strive to portray humanity.’ The action is breathtaking - styles of combat and styles of film-making in a rich counterpoint, conceived on a magnificent scale, yet moving with ruthless rapidity. But we're equally held by the dense interweaving of characters and values, which dramatises a tragic historical moment: Kurosawa himself was of the samurai class which had so destructively taken Japan to war, but his film stirs us by showing war-weary renegades from this aristocratic élite giving their lives to defend the peasantry they have traditionally despised.


1958 USA

Vertigo is a miracle of cinema, and alongside Psycho (which could easily have figured here) the summit of Hitchcock's heroic experimentation in the second half of the 1950s, repeatedly refusing to play safe. As he wrote to Maxwell Anderson of the phases the script went through, 'I still wonder that after all the years of one’s experience why construction is such a hard job' (even his sentence shows the strain). The structure is a hall of mirrors, and he felt his way to a profound reflection on romantic love and a bleak modernity, and on what cinema is, through a story that can easily seem preposterous (to one of the screenwriters, Samuel Taylor, 'It’s an absurd plot'). That it moves us so intensely is a tribute to two of the greatest screen performances ever, by James Stewart and Kim Novak, to Bernard Herrmann's score, and to the director's uncanny combination of intelligence and instinct.

Rear Window

1954 USA

In 2012 I restricted myself to one Hitchcock film in this list, Vertigo, but over the last decade have been won over by repeated exposure to the brilliance and perfection of Rear Window, which the late Peter Bogdanovich called Hitchcock's 'signature film', with its astonishingly complex and satisfying conception (in the Manhattan apartment courtyard) of a multiple-character narrative focused on the situation of a single watcher - and which opens up into such rich questions about solitude, love, evil, community, and of course cinema. It's both more glamorous and grubbier than Vertigo, and funnier. James Stewart's L.B. Jefferies is courageously vulnerable and at times nasty, Grace Kelly is extraordinarily affecting; and the choric construction allows it to say many true and painful and contradictory things at once. It offers both a glorious introduction to what cinema can do, and a mature commentary on what it does.

It's a Wonderful Life

1947 USA

Capra may be no Shakespeare, but It's a Wonderful Life, made in a difficult post-War moment when his achieved Hollywood fluency had been challenged by danger and the Holocaust, is like The Tempest or The Winter's Tale in pulling together elements from his earlier career - the bank run in American Madness and the suicide drama from Meet John Doe, for example - in a gloriously compacted way, dark and despairing as well as tender and hopeful. It's the greatest Christmas film, and a wholly satisfying exemplification of film's capacity to become a social ritual, because it confronts the unhappiness that makes Christmas difficult and yet necessary. James Stewart’s performance is a harrowing achievement.

Cléo from 5 to 7

1962 France, Italy

To my shame I had not seen Cléo de 5 à 7 in 2012, and it has been one of the most thrilling discoveries of the last decade. It is a declaration of independence in so many ways - of the regrettable maleness of the Cahiers crowd, among other things, much of whose work remains important - that I put it in the list to stand for the best of the Nouvelle Vague in its lightness and inclusiveness, its comedy and musicality, its Truffaut-like disconnections which feel like life's randomness but have a cumulative force.

La Règle du jeu

1939 France

"Getting through to audiences, that's what I would have liked": these are the words of Octave, a failed conductor, played by Renoir himself; the director's masterpiece itself had trouble 'getting through', what with war and violent protests - but now it has established itself as probably his most remarkable achievement (there are rivals - including The River (1951), filmed with quasi-documentary vividness in India). It is a searing picture of French upper-class society on the eve of war, in Renoir's words "a society dancing on a volcano". Renoir's tragic motto in the film is uttered by Octave: "The terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons." What is most arresting is the inexorability of Renoir's double perspective: we see these people, he said later, "first in intimacy, then in the reality of their social roles... As a group, they are killers."

Citizen Kane

1941 USA

Welles continues to arouse strong feelings - as witness David Fincher's perverse but filially honourable Mank, based on his late father's screenplay, which acts as though the achievement of Kane was complete when the last i of the script was dotted (and as if Welles weren't a full collaborator in it). It is perhaps the most modernist of great films, with its labyrinthine structure and its virtuosic display of techniques pushed further at Welles's behest than ever before in its withering but exhilarating vision of triumphant media capitalism - and with Welles's own performance at its probably hollow heart. It's all too tempting to remember Kane as rather stodgy or academic, but start rewatching and it comes to exuberant ironic life again.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

1943 United Kingdom

Powell and Pressburger may well have set out to make a satirical propaganda film about the caricatured upper-class 'Colonel Blimps' of the British Army who needed to be cleared out for a new generation of thrusting technocrats better suited for 'Total War' against the Nazis; but when Laurence Olivier was unavailable and Roger Livesey with his husky, cigarette-tuned voice stepped in to play Clive Candy (the 'Blimp figure) opposite Anton Walbrook, an unexpectedly good German, the film magically became as much as an affectionate comedy and an elegy for a vanishing, lovable breed of ageing honourable schoolboys. The daring conceit of having young Deborah Kerr play three parts as Candy's love interest through the ages, offering critiques of his soldier's naïveté, equally turns it into an overwhelming romantic love story, so that the emotion of Blimp's 'Death' (not Candy's) at the end pulls together the multiple strands of this tonally bewildering masterpiece with the result that it transcends propaganda and becomes strangely tragic.

Taxi Driver

1976 USA

Nearly 50 years since it came out, Martin Scorsese's darkly funny, painfully embarrassing, potently brutal Taxi Driver is still on the move, as it were, still plying for hire - political violence in America, often seeming random or misdirected, has hardly gone away, New York is still a focus of cultural suspicion in much of the country, city life is no less fragmented. But it's not remotely dated either in its aesthetic: the combination of talents - Scorsese's direction, Schrader's script, De Niro's performance as Travis Bickle (and the whole cast), Michael Chapman's cinematography, Bernard Hermann's score - give rise to a mercurial complexity that never settles into a fixed meaning. On each rewatching, for example, the diner scenes (with first Cybill Shepherd and later Jodie Foster) are far richer and more unexpected even than one recalls - which is why the film remains so troubling and important.

Further remarks

In 2012 I said that "I have chosen films of balance, wisdom and complexity, films that reward repeated return visits, films whose oddities are inspired and satisfying"... That is still the case. Again I've found that ten is far from enough - and I feel uncomfortable about the exclusion of Bicycle Thieves, My Night with Maud and The Passion of Joan of Arc, which were on my 2012 list, and all of which I still treasure - in favour of Cléo de 5 a 7, Rear Window and Taxi Driver.

As last time, any such list can't help but feel arbitrary. I've left out some magnificent careers, and masterpieces. No Fritz Lang (The Big Heat), Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner), Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped), Jean Vigo (L'Atalante), Hawks (Rio Bravo), Ford (The Searchers), Pasolini (The Gospel According to Matthew), Fellini (8½), Kieslowski (Three Colours: Blue), Buñuel (Los Olvidados) or Kubrick (Barry Lyndon). Where are Truffaut’s 400 Coups, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Dickinson’s Queen of Spades, Keaton’s The General, Chaplin’s City Lights, Griffith’s Intolerance, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Boorman’s Deliverance, Polanski’s Chinatown, Carpenter’s Halloween or Fincher’s Zodiac? Great film-making nations don't figure - to single some out, invidiously, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Iran, Korea, China, the USSR - and genres like comedies, musicals, documentaries...

But the force of these lists is the positive power of recommendation - I know I feel personal gratitude in particular to the people who have recommended me to watch films that I had thought I might give a miss - and which when I saw them I was startled and deeply moved by. The Sight & Sound list, then, with its global reach and authority, will give a great deal of pleasure as well as enhancing the quality of the world's discussions of cinema - a medium still unsurpassed for communicating across great distances.