The British Film Institute Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list has now been published. Undertaken every 10 years since 1962, this year I was flattered to be one of the contributors of 846 programmers, critics, academics and distributors. The big news in 2012 is that Citizen Kane has been knocked off the top spot for the first time since the list began, by Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo. I love both of these films, particularly Vertigo with its spiralling nightmare-ish plot of murder and obsession. But neither was on my submitted list. In fact, out of the BFI’s 50, I’ve only seen 24, and there are a number of titles I’ve never actually heard of!
Of course, there are many others on the list that I love, but when compiling my personal selection, I wanted to think of films that have had a big impact on me as well as films that I consider to be pushing boundaries in what cinema can achieve. I believe that all the films on my list are united by a personal vision of the filmmaker who went beyond the call of duty and against adversity to get them made. Many on my list had notoriously troubled shoots or were vilified on release (although awards have also been showered on some). Also, although I’m not a horror aficionado, 3 of my 10 choices could be deemed to fall into the horror category, which surprised me when I whittled the films down. But all 10 films have also affected me personally in my cinema-going life and I can watch them again and again. On the downside, all films are English language (mostly American), and the one German production was shot in the U.S. They also mostly fall in my teenage discovery years of watching 1970s cinema on VHS tapes or regularly visiting the Scala or National Film Theatre for a weekly fix of Scorsese or Lynch, but this gives the list a personal touch. But as one constantly watches films from every era, obviously masterpieces from years gone by come onto your radar; within the last year alone, I have been blown away by the Czech 1965 surrealist masterpiece Valerie and her Week of Wonders, the 1990 New York drag balls documentary Paris Is Burning, and the 1963 Joan Littlewood East End romp Sparrows Can’t Sing, to name just three that come to mind that had a big effect on me. And I’m not denying there are many great films made before 1965, plus the last two decades has seen foreign language cinema from across the globe far outdo American cinema in terms of creativity and original visions. Women filmmakers too have been making great works throughout the 2000s. And not forgetting the great documentaries.
But how has this selection below affected my job as a film programmer? As I mainly work with short film, it’s in shorts where filmmakers can take chances and be true to their visions. Many shorts are where filmmakers can cut their teeth with an outpouring of creativity and with no one to answer to; such works can really get a new talent noticed. As a programmer of around 15 years, I’m always on the look-out for such films. I have been blessed to see the early short film work of Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Andrew Kotting and watched their subsequent careers progress. So the list below, in alphabetical order, highlights filmmakers with a heightened sense of vision and originality, which definitely resonates with what I am looking for in short film.
APOCALYPSE NOW (Francis Ford Coppola, US 1979)
BUFFALO 66 (Vincent Gallo, US 1998)
THE DRAUGHTMAN’S CONTRACT (Peter Greenaway, UK 1982)
ERASERHEAD (David Lynch, US 1977)
FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (Russ Meyer, US 1965)
THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George A. Romero, US 1968)
PARIS, TEXAS (Wim Wenders, Germany 1984)
RAGING BULL (Martin Scorsese, US 1980)
TAXI DRIVER (Martin Scorsese, US 1976)
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (Tobe Hooper, US 1974)
As to how my list compares to the final BFI list, my number 1 (although my list is in alphabetical order, if asked, I always say that my favourite film is Taxi Driver) comes in at 31, although it was good to see it at number 2 on the directors list. Apocalypse Now is the only other film on the BFI list at 14, although I’m surprised Raging Bull is absent as this has constantly topped polls.
Lynch appears on the BFI list with Mulholland Drive at 28, and I would class him as one of the few contemporary directors that is constantly interesting and pushing in new directions (despite a couple of career blips). But I chose Eraserhead above the others, as it was the one that defined him, where the themes were put in place that he’s been developing ever since and the one where he really was working alone in areas no one had thought of.
The BFI list is also missing those auteurs working in trash, exploitation and alternative areas; Russ Meyer and John Waters have an incredible body of auteur driven work, where they’ve played by their own rules without interference. Waters’ defining masterpiece Pink Flamingos never made it to my final 10, but Meyer is represented by his black & white feminist fable Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.
The two obvious horror’s on my list both defined the genres they were working in: Romero’s Night of the Living Dead isn’t just another zombie flick, but, perhaps more than any other film, is a reflection of what America was experiencing in the late 60s with Vietnam, racism, and the rise of the counter culture, and has a final scene that is one of the bleakest in cinema; Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another mirror held up to society. Not overtly violent in what is seen on screen (despite its subject matter), it is a film that is steeped in grimness and misery throughout and watching it is a visceral experience. In that sense it’s comparable to Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract; this low budget British film masterpiece recreates 1694 rural Britain so much so that we feel like it was shot in that era with some weird time travel camera, in a similar way to seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a documentary about a gang of murderous cannibals! Both films go beyond the filmmaking process to take you into an unfamiliar world.
Like Eraserhead, Buffalo 66 is a labour of love that goes against the rules and defies convention to be the most recent film on my list; Gallo plays around with genres from the rom-com, to the gangster film, to the dysfunctional family drama. He brings in a killer supporting cast (Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston, Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette, Jan Michel Vincent), plus a leading lady in Christina Ricci who hated Gallo, the film, and every moment working on it. And don’t forget: a prog rock soundtrack! Rather than turn out a disaster as it should’ve done, the film is a perfectly formed highly original gem that is simply like nothing else committed to celluloid, and a truly erotic love story. Ricci tap-dancing to King Crimson in the bowling alley… well… it’s a scene etched on my mind.
The other obsessive love story on the list is Paris, Texas and probably for me, the odd one out in that it was my difficult number 10 (as so many other films could’ve been there – a Kubrick, a Herzog, a Powell & Pressburger, a Hitchcock, a Malick, an Allen, particularly Manhattan which I was pained to leave out). But Wenders’ love letter to America is echoed in Harry Dean Stanton’s lifelong love for his missing young bride Nastassia Kinski; the stunning cinematography by Robby Muller of the wide open spaces of America counterbalances the inner personal landscapes of Stanton as he walks out of the desert at the start of the film.
And finally, for me, the big three (two of which do make the BFI list); all made within the 1970s Hollywood system and all being highly personal works that are crowning moments for the directors in hand. There’s little to be added here that hasn’t already been written about Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull.
What does bind these films together, and it’s something I’ve noticed before when listing favourite films, is that they virtually all concern a lone male protagonist who is fighting against adversity with a singular vision that is out of step with normality. The poster tagline for Taxi Driver (on my wall above me as I write) is “He’s a lonely forgotten man desperate to prove that he’s alive”, with De Niro’s Travis Bickle as anti-hero. This is the same for Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Billy Brown (Buffalo 66), Henry (Eraserhead), Travis (Paris, Texas), Mr Neville (The Draughtman’s Contract) and both Colonel Kurtz and Captain Willard (Apocalypse Now). Thinking about it, both Vertigo and Citizen Kane offer the same kind of tortured male leads, which says a lot about the writers and directors of cinema being a male-centric world. In my own list, the women are there to be obsessed over, played by the likes of Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Christina Ricci, Nastassia Kinski and Cathy Moriarty, and Vertigo itself is the number one male obsession movie of all time as Kim Novak becomes the ultimate male fantasy. Bizarrely, the two blatant exploitation films on my list, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Faster Pussycat! are the two that feature strong female lead characters: the genuine feminist heroines of Varla, Rosie and Billie in Meyer’s stylish romp and Marilyn Burns as the surviving heroine who escapes the chainsaw wielding Leatherace. But film as the domain of the male is highlighted even more so on the BFI list, and there has been much written and said over recent years as to how this simply must change; things are moving forward, albeit slowly, so watch this space.
Finally, one further observation on my personal list that I only noticed later: Despite all films being of the more recent ‘modern’ variety (ie, post 1965), 4 are in black and white (5 if I had selected Manhattan). I have no answer to why that is, but it’s an interesting point to finish on.