Usha Iyer

Assistant Professor, Film and Media Studies, Stanford University

Voted for

Atlantique2019Mati Diop
Om Shanti Om2007Farah Khan
Daughters of the Dust1991Julie Dash
The Watermelon Woman1997Cheryl Dunye
Rafiki2018Wanuri Kahiu
Do the Right Thing1989Spike Lee
Pyaasa1957Guru Dutt
Meghe Dhaka Tara1960Ritwik Ghatak
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone2006Tsai Ming-liang



2019 France, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Belgium

Searing commentary on the inequities of globalization, geopolitically-forced migration out of Africa, the differential risks involved for men and women, harnessing zombie storytelling and other traditions, beautifully shot and hauntingly narrated. A tour de force on the violence of the contemporary globalized world order.

Om Shanti Om

2007 India

A supremely assured homage to the Bollywood “cinema of attractions” or masala (spice mix) format that includes romantic melodrama, spectacular song-and-dance sequences, and fiery action scenes. A razor-sharp and sophisticated analysis of genre, stardom, and fandom.

Daughters of the Dust

1991 USA

First feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States. The lush cinematography and art direction are in the service of a radical politics of beauty, with Dash granting respect and honor to Black bodies, producing a new iconography of Black presence and resilience in the United States. Through a stunning choreography that braids Black labor, language, and landscape, the film celebrates Black women’s bodies as containers of history and memory, as keepers of deep sensory knowledges.

The Watermelon Woman

1997 USA

This playful, subversive, genre-bending “mockumentary” that combines the aesthetic strategies of fiction and documentary cinema is a sharp commentary on film production and on film history - who gets to make films? What do they do with the medium? Who is preserved in this history and who gets erased? As a Black lesbian filmmaker, Dunye weaves a self-reflexive cinematic search for ancestors like herself in the US film industry, queering the documentary form by undercutting its claims to truth and evidence, upending a “straight” story, and interrogating what counts as “historical rigor,” as defined by those with power over our stories and histories. This is a smart, smart film about film as process rather than as product.


2018 South Africa, France, Lebanon, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Kenya, USA, Sweden

Celebrated as Kenya’s “first lesbian film” in typical Euro film festival language, Rafiki is a sparkling gem that brings cinematically alive Kahiu’s Afrobubblegum aesthetic of making African films, music etc. that are “fun, fierce, and frivolous,” to move away from savior narratives around Africa. The mobile cinematography, Afro-pop soundtrack, and dazzling art direction contribute to the film’s radical politics of hope.

Do the Right Thing

1989 USA

The kinetic force of this Spike Lee film continues to energize new viewers, capturing the daily lives of the diverse inhabitants of the Brooklyn neighborhood of the film. The snappy dialog, hyper-kinetic camera, expert use of music, and fabulous performances all contribute to the film’s nuanced analysis of race in America.


2002 France, Germany, Morocco, Netherlands, USA

In film after film, Elia Suleiman asks the question, what is the cinematic language that can convey the violence, absurdity, repetitiveness of life under occupation. Yadon Ilaheyya employs absurdity and purposeful frivolity to suggest the deep wounds of historical trauma. Long shots and discordant actions capture daily acts of resistance, while spectacular fantasy sequences are mobilized as an aesthetic act of emancipation.


1957 India

This classic of 1950s’ Hindi cinema brings to a searing crescendo all the riches of cinematic melodrama – excess, intensity, expressivity, theatricality – to generate bitter and scathing social critique. The expert low key lighting by cinematographer, V. K. Murty, produces a moody mise-en-scène, with shadows playing a key formal and thematic role. Guru Dutt is the master of song “picturizations” with seamless coordination of music, lyrics, rhythmic editing, stark lighting, and fluid camera movement.

Meghe Dhaka Tara

1960 India

The lesser-known of the Indian auteurs, compared to Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak created a unique cinematic language featuring a dense overlay of visual and aural registers, and that employed epic and melodramatic traditions to comment on the state of the nation, and as aesthetic acts of public mourning. Through experimentation with camera angles, lighting composition, and an absolutely revolutionary soundtrack, Meghe Dhaka Tara communicates a very complex set of social, political, and emotional concerns.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

2006 France, Taiwan, Austria, United Kingdom

Like Tsai Ming Liang’s entire oeuvre of films, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone offers all the visual, tactile pleasures and perceptual learnings of “slow cinema,” producing as well through acts of lingering, loitering, drifting and stillness, a very particular queer temporality. The film is a nuanced and moving meditation on migration and labor in a world taken over by globalized capital.

Further remarks

It might be time for Sight and Sound to carry some self-reflexive articles on the problematic nature of "best film" lists that keep canonizing the same films and filmmakers, almost always from the West (with very few exceptions), almost always straight men. While "alternate" lists broaden the canon, they don't fundamentally question the marginalization and taste hierarchies that canons perpetuate.