|Portrait of a Lady on Fire
|Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark
|Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
|The Red Shoes
|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley
|Djibril Diop Mambéty
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Watching this film was a revelation; now, it’s like a precious but painful keepsake that I keep in a box and only look at on rare occasions. As a tragic love story its simultaneously intimate and epic. The cinematography and use of space are so beautifully interwoven as to feel almost seamless. And at its heart are queer (lesbian, bisexual) and straight women whose relationships are like nothing I’d seen onscreen before.
Get Out’s social commentary on race and gender politics had huge cultural impact. But what makes it stand-out for me is director Jordan Peele’s extraordinary ability to play with generic expectations. He up-ends the anticipated rhythms of horror by elongating suspense and throwing in jump scares at will, like a jazz drummer who’s so confident of the beat he’s simply decided to work around it.
One of the few films I’ve ever seen that lived up to its pre-release hype, The Matrix changed my conception of cinema’s technological past and its future possibilities. And, significantly, it told thirteen-year-old me something about the present, with what felt like a revolutionary approach to thinking about gender, power, the state, the internet, and more. It’s a film I return to over and over again when teaching, and it never fails to reveal something new on repeat viewings.
I watched Sleeping Beauty over and over again as a child, and not just for its fairytale narrative. I was entranced by the intricacies of its design, which, thanks to illustrator Eyvind Earle, look like something out of a gothic storybook. The stylised animation looked unlike cartoons, and from the fairy godmothers’ sloppy, disastrous cake to the forest of thorns, it was a textural delight. It’s a film that, though I didn’t know at the time, was an early experience of cinema’s haptic, multi-sensory possibilities.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
Watching early films in a freezing cold lecture theatre at 9am was sometimes a bit of a chore. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, however, gave me nothing but pleasure. It was one of my first experiences of early films in colour and I was mesmerised by the expressionist-style painted sets and its dark, gothic aesthetic. It was the start of an ongoing interest in how films communicate cultural anxiety and play a part in histories of conflict and trauma.
The Red Shoes
It’s hard to think of many other films that match The Red Shoes for its ferocity and passion, for in every costume, set, and streak of grease paint there is desire. Moira Shearer is a tour-de-force as ambitious ballerina Victoria Page. Jack Cardiff’s moody colour work takes on a life of its own onscreen. And the cinematography in the surreal, extended dance sequence is breath taking. This film taught me to love melodrama, and to understand ‘camp’ in new and complex ways.
The Circle was one of my first encounters with cinema from beyond Europe and North America at a time when the word ‘feminism’ belonged firmly in the past. I found its circular narrative utterly compelling, and its fictionalised account of women’s lives and struggles was a lesson in cinema’s profound ability to open up places, perspectives, and politics that in turn transformed how I understood the world.
It’s easy to dismiss Strictly Ballroom as a low-budget movie with a paint-by-numbers narrative and a niche audience. But it’s so much more. It’s a film that, for all its sequins and feathers and Shakespearean drama, offers a portrayal of the amateur ballroom and latin world that’s almost neorealist in its use of non-professional actors and attention to sub-cultural detail. And, with dancer Fran always remaining culturally true to herself, it’s a film that refuses to make a woman change to get her happy ending.
I remember seeing Suspense for the first time and being shocked by two things. First, its editing, for the film challenged my expectations about early cinema through its effective use of cross-cutting and a split-screen effect that conveys simultaneity and creates tension. Second: a film from 1913 had a woman director. That this is not so much of a shock to students now speaks volumes about progress in film education, but without Suspense that discovery would have come much later for me.
My appreciation of this film emerges from my love for the electrifying, modern European city symphony films of the 1920s. Contras City takes that filmmaking style and repurposes it, offering a riveting perspective that’s original (and sometimes funny) in its presentation of Dakar’s communities and architecture, while also being critical of the European colonial project. For me, it reveals a great deal about the complexities and tensions that emerge when doing the work of decolonising, while at the same time being a stand-out example of short, non-narrative film.
I have no desire to elevate some films above others as the 'greatest' in terms of their quality. My work as a lecturer and critic aims to push back against white, patriarchal notions of canon, 'classic' status and the privileging of one person's subjectivity over another. Thus, my approach to participating in the poll has been to reflect on films that transformed my understanding of cinema, self, and the world. I haven't selected overlooked movies or marginalised directors (though the thought did occur to me) but have chosen films that enabled me to seek out those overlooked movies and better appreciate marginalised directors, instead.
My ten films, then, pushed the boundaries of my expectations about cinema in terms of aesthetics, intellectual engagement, emotional response, or cultural bias. They represent any number of films that have affected me significantly over the years from a wide range of genres, periods, and cultures. And, in what felt like an important decision, my choices speak to different moments in my lifelong engagement with cinema; these are not just movies that I have decided are significant as a professional adult, but films that I have in some cases known and loved and learned from since childhood.