Head of Programme and Acquisitions
|2001: A Space Odyssey
|The Passion of Joan of Arc
|Carl Th. Dreyer
|Waad al-Kateab, Edward Watts
|Don't Look Now
2001: A Space Odyssey
Kubrick’s epic contemplation on the nature and origins of humanity remains one of cinema’s greatest technical feats, and one of its most poetic and awe inspiring. I’ve seen it dozens of times and still every time I’m astounded by its many, many moments of stark and simple beauty.
Ozu’s familial tale is a masterclass in simplicity and the definition of a style of cinematic story telling that is inherently Japanese. There is something tantalising and magical that happens between the formal rigour which which the film is made, and the power of the emotion that is conveyed in the story that shows us something universal about life, love and death.
Perhaps the ultimate film about cinema, Persona explores the art form’s possibilities through a genuinely poetic and beguiling story about two women or possibly one woman depending on interpretation. I love that it’s also a film about film itself, opening and closing with a projector, telling us what it is, and yet in between something visually and psychologically captivating.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Dreyer eschews almost entirely the techniques and language of narrative cinema to tell the story of the trial and torment of Joan of Arc almost entirely through close ups of faces. The result is an astonishingly intimate and unsettling cinematic experience, featuring one of the iconic performances in all of cinema from Renee Maria Falconetti.
Kurosawa’s epic siege thriller established numerous blueprints for action films, and still today retains all of its mesmerising suspense and emotive power. I love how this film unfolds, how Kurosawa introduces us to the dilemma at hand, a village under threat from ruthless bandits, and then to the forming of a kind of crazy gang of Samurai, all willing to commit to a likely suicidal cause. The climactic battle sequence is chaotic but in stark contrast to almost all of today’s on-screen battles in action cinema: it’s precise and operatic in its emotional heft.
Ridley Scott in his third film synthesised a perfect storm of elements to create possibly the most convincing and influential evocation of the future in all of cinema. I remember with strange clarity the first time I saw it and the exact feeling of epiphany as I took in the rain drenched, neon lit, near future Los Angeles; the strains of Vangelis's atmospheric, otherworldly electronic textures somehow affirming that this is what the future will look and sound like. I watched the film on a VHS, at my cousin's house when I was maybe 10 years old, completely against the rules of the house (my cousin had a serious collection of horror films on VHS that by no means was I allowed to see), and to this day it is probably the most exhilarating artistic experience I’ve ever had.
Barry Jenkins' story of a poor, gay black boy trying to make sense of a brutally hard life growing up in the Miami projects, surrounded by bullies and drug addiction, is created with rare precision. Jenkins style felt totally fresh when the film landed, with every aspect of filmmaking, the lyrical script, the visual flare of the cinematography, Nicholas Brittel’s ominous, crisply beautiful score, the astonishing performances, all finely tuned to something gloriously touching and powerful in a way that of all of the arts, only cinema can achieve. For me it's hands down the most important masterpiece of the 21st century.
I guess this pick might seem surprising. I’ve chosen it because I was thinking about my own personal experiences seeing these great films and I couldn’t stop thinking about how devastated I was when I left the cinema in Cannes having seen For Sama. I wept for long periods whilst watching it and to remember the film now still makes weep. I was shattered by it for days and days. I’ve been thinking about whether that makes it a great, great film, and I think it does. The film is a testament to the relentless bravery of al-Kateab, her husband Hamza and their fellow compatriots who refuse to leave Aleppo whilst it's being destroyed by war; but its also a deeply personal and brilliantly constructed cinematic endeavour and a powerful example of film as activism.
Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a joyous cinematic dream of a film. I must have seen it 20 times and every time I notice something new. It’s almost as if every painstakingly painted frame is rich with detail. The Alice in Wonderland story of young girl Chihiro, whose family get lost in the woods and enter a magical world of bizarre beings and characters, plays like a trippy morality tale. As well as the beauty with which its crafted, Miyazaki’s genius is to tap into the mind and emotions of his heroine, making it a story told through the lens of childhood. The fact it's about and made for young girls is rare and valuable. It’s been a film my daughter and I return to together, something which feels like a gift.
Don't Look Now
I wanted to include a horror on my list and it was extremely difficult to choose between this and The Shining. I love both films dearly but Don’t Look Now contains within it moments of pure cinema that are some of the greatest ever created. The opening alone is in my book the best of any film, and certainly one of the finest sequences in all of film history. On paper the plot of Don’t Look Now is nothing remarkable, it's Roeg’s mastery of montage that elevate the film so that it operates in the dark recesses of our psyche, somehow tapping in to the dread and awe we feel when we consider that the supernatural might actually be real.
This was so hard to do. Almost impossible. But I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity to think about great films, consider the history of cinema and somehow locate my own opinion alongside received wisdom.