Friday 29 January 2021

The 'BFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time’ revisited

I’m slowly rewatching Mark Cousins’ Women Make Film and it made me want to revisit the BFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time – their regular survey, done every ten years. It was last done in 2012 so clearly we are on the cusp of a new one. Of those hundred films 87 are directed by white men, 11 by Asian men (Japan, China, India, Iran and Taiwan) and 2 by women – one Belgian (Chantal Akerman) and one French (Claire Denis). To be clear I’ve seen nearly all the films and most of them I’ve either admired or loved at some point in my life; and, of course I understand that the history of cinema has been dominated by white men.

I thought about getting the numbers for the critics and directors who took part in the survey but life is too short! According to the BFI they tried to be much more democratic than ever before and “approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films” They also conduct a separate director’s poll and around 350 directors sent lists. I spent a little bit of time going through the contributors and though the BFI succeeded in including larger numbers of people from around the world, white men, again unsurprisingly, dominate. 
Their criteria was pleasingly open: “As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”

It seems to me fairly obvious that cineastes have a duty l to celebrate the voices and skills of women, of men and women of colour, as well as the LGBTQ community. Anyone’s definition of ‘best’ or of ‘historical importance’ is a matter of strategy, effort, rediscovery and critical thought – even when taking taste and personal preferences into account.

I decided to set myself some rules to create some Top 10 of All Time lists that had to include films directed by women and by men and women of colour. 

1. The first has to include a film from each decade since the 30s (30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s) allowing the tenth from 2020 or repeating any other decade. 
2. The second, easier, list has to include a film from every continent but with a slight adjustment – so at least one film from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the US and one from any other part of North or South America. Thus those without any knowledge of South American cinema can choose something from maybe Mexico or Canada. The other four could be from anywhere.
3. I appreciate that people who mostly confine their viewing to particular genres or Hollywood fare might find these too difficult and so the third and easiest was with no restrictions or rules.

In all the lists I leave it up to you to judge what is an acceptable number of white male directors! And yeah, I’m no slave to auteur theory but doing it by director is the easiest way to keep it relatively simple.

Need some help?

• The All-Time Greatest Films Directed by Women (indiewire)
• The 100 greatest films directed by women (BBC)
• Top 100 films directed by women: A new golden age of cinema? (BBC)
• Films Directed by Women (Mubi)
• The female gaze: 100 overlooked films directed by women (BFI)
• The Black Film Canon (Slate)
• Best films of the decade (by women of colour) (Offscreen) 
• 85 Compelling Films Starring and/or Directed By Women of Color: A List Created by Director Ava DuVernay & Friends on Twitter (Open Culture)  
• The Best Black Movies of the Last 30 Years (Complex) 
• Film HERstory: 75+ Classic Films Directed by Women (and Where You Can Watch Them) (Nitrate Diva)
• 10 great British films directed by women (BFI)
• The 100 best feminist films of all time (TimeOut)
• The 100 Best Films of the 1930s (Mubi)
• 10 Influential Female Directors From the Silent Film Era (Reel Rundown)
• The best Japanese film of every year – from 1925 to now (BFI)
• The 25 Best Latin American Films of the 2010s (remezcla)
• The 50 Best Latin American Films of the 2000s (remezcla)

The lists

List 1a – The Decades
1. 1939 - The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi)
2. 1947 - One Wonderful Sunday (Akira Kurosawa)
3. 1952 - Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen) 
4. 1966 – Daisies (Věra Chytilová)
5. 1979 – My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong)
6. 1985 – Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch)
7. 1999 – All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar)
8. 2004 - La Niña Santa (Lucretia Martel)
9. 2016 – Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) 
10. 2019 – You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

List 1b – The Decades
1. 1930 – The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg)
2. 1948 - Late Spring (Yasujirō Ozu)
3. 1957 – Pyaasa (Guru Dutt)
4. 1966 – The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
5. 1971 – A New Leaf (Elaine May)
6. 1983 – Sugar Cane Alley (Euzhan Palcy)
7. 1996 – Bound (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski)
8. 2008 - The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
9. 2015 – Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
10. 2019 – Portrait of a Woman on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

List 1c – The Decades
1. 1938 – Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
2. 1941 – The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)
3. 1954 – Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)
4. 1962 – Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda)
5. 1978 – Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)
6. 1989 –  Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
7. 1999 – Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
8. 2009 – Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
9. 2014 – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
10. 2018 – Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)

List 2a – The Continents 
1. Africa: Cairo Station (Youssef Chahine) (1958)
2. Asia: Maborosi (Hirokazu Kore-eda) (1995)
3. Australia: Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir) (1975)
4. Europe: Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson) (1981)
5. US: Selma (Ava DuVernay) (2015)
6. North/South America: Zama (Lucrecia Martel) (2017)
7. In the Cut (Jane Campion) (2003)
8. Queen and Slim (Melina Matsoukas)( (2019)
9. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) (1982)
10. D.E.B.S. (Angela Robinson) (2004)

List 2a – The Continents 
1. Africa: Abouna  (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun) (2002)
2. Asia: Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano) (1993)
3. Australia: The Piano (Jane Campion) (1993)
4. Europe: L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni) (1960)
5. US: Logan (James Mangold) (2017)
6. North/South America: Gloria (Sebastían Lelio) (2013)
7. Eve's Bayou (Kasi Lemmons) (1997)
8. The Long Kiss Goodnight (Renny Harlin) (1996)
9. But I'm a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit) (1999)
10. Vagabond (Agnès Varda) (1985) 

List 3a – Free for all
• Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki) (2001)
• Alien (Ridley Scott) (1979)
• Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade) (2015)
• Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda) (2018)
• Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner) (1940)
• Pariah (Dee Rees) (2011)
• 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) (2013) 
• Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami) (1997)
• The Apartment (Billy Wilder) (1960)
• Saint Maud (Rose Glass) (2019)

List 3b – Free for all
• Kill Bill: Vol I (Quentin Tarantino) (2001)
• Rocks (Sarah Gavron) (2020)
• Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash) (1991)
• Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa) (1950)
• Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) (2018)
• Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) (1968)
• Girlhood (Céline Sciamma) (2014)
• Audition (Takashi Miike) (1999)
• Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah) (1962)
• The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye) (1996)

These are honest, sincere lists of films I love and consider important. I could happily do this for hours – I’ve got ideas for dozens more combinations without any repetition of films. So far I've used well-known films too. Spend a little time on Letterboxd to get a sense of how many interesting films out there waiting to be rediscovered and reappraised.
It’s a good way to reflect on weaknesses in your film knowledge – for me that’s Africa, especially and films by African American creators pre 1980. But it’s also to see how hard it is to get hold of whole swathes of important films – loads of the films in Cousins’  Women Make Film are inaccessible or prohibitively expensive. Films like Sugar Cane Alley are just a fond, long lost memory from decades ago.  So, for many film enthusiasts even finding films beyond the white canon can be hugely challenging. 

One last thing occurred to me - an objection someone could make - if I continued making lists like this would I run out of films by women or people of colour whilst still leaving plenty of gems by white men unlisted? Maybe, but a better question.... is if films were easily available how long would it take me to watch all those films by women and people of colour and what gems would I find to fall in love with? Cousins' film makes me believe the answers would be a long time, and a lot.