One of the more exciting things to happen recently is that I got to contribute to the latest Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. (The poll has been conducted every decade since 1952 – more information about it here. And here are the latest results.) Even for someone who is list-agnostic, this was a fun exercise – and the first step in the enjoyment is to accept that list-making of this sort is a child’s game. Even a “500 favourite films” list couldn’t possibly be final or representative, but selecting only 10 films is a cosmic joke, especially when there are so many varied cinematic forms and cultures, from mainstream and “art” Hindi cinema to “world cinema” to old Hollywood to the Malayalam new wave etc etc. As I wrote in my note accompanying the poll (see below), the list would be very different if I made it an hour later, or in a slightly different mood, or…
Anyway, here are my submissions along with the brief note I sent about each film, and a more general summary where I cheekily listed an additional 40-odd films that I would have loved to include (even that extended list is very basic, and uses the one-director-one-film rule). Do go through it if you feel like, and get back with shouts of indignation, or even approval.
Director(s): Buster Keaton
Comment: For its prescient understanding of our relationship with the movies we watch; for the breath-taking gags and stunts; and for Buster the actor, so beautiful and expressive even at his most deadpan.
A Matter of Life and Death
Director(s): Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger
Comment: For how skilfully the entire cosmos, and everything that is important or worth arguing about, is brought down to the dimensions of a small makeshift operating theatre where life and love are at stake. For Powell-Pressburger doing beautiful things with colour AND black-and-white (which is one reason why I included this instead of one of their other 1940s masterpieces). For the set design and Allan Gray’s haunting score and the young Richard Attenborough saying “It’s Heaven… isn’t it.”
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Comment: The film that set me on the path to reading about cinema, thinking about it in ways I had never done before, understanding what “pure film” might mean. Part nasty comedy, part profound tragedy – and yes, of course it was ground-breaking for the horror genre too. The first half, anchored by Janet Leigh's superb performance and culminating in the parlour conversation between Norman Bates and Marion Crane, is magic.
Director(s): Kadiri Venkata Reddy
Comment: As a north Indian, I came to this classic quite late – but it has long had legendary status in south India, and for good reason. It takes a regional side-story from the great Indian epic Mahabharata and weaves from it a joyous musical-fantasy-drawing room comedy about the mischievous god Krishna teaming up with a demon prince to help ill-fated lovers. The mythological and the quotidian effortlessly come together here.
Director(s): Ramesh Sippy
Comment: This immortal “curry western” – much more sophisticated in execution than most other mainstream Hindi films of its time – borrows many elements from international films but harnesses them superbly. A pop-cultural touchstone for generations of Indian viewers. Impossible to convey how much this film meant to Hindi-movie-buffs of my age.
Director(s): Jacques Tati
Comment: For a long time, I admired PlayTime – as one of the most ambitious and meticulously constructed films ever made – but had also formed a memory of it as a deliberately cool, calculating work that was hard to take to one’s heart. Watching it again recently, I found a much warmer film than I’d remembered, and was moved by the not-quite-romance between the awkward Hulot and the sweet American tourist, passing each other like ships on a chaotic night.
Director(s): Lijo Jose Pellissery
Comment: Death as comedy and tragedy in this marvelously structured and performed film by a leading director of the Malayalam film industry – arguably India’s most exciting movie-making centre at the present time. I haven’t seen many other films that manage to be so funny, dignified and mournful at the same time, often achieving all these things within the same scene (depending on which part of the crowded frame you are looking at).
Director(s): Yasujiro Ozu
Comment: Perhaps the least seen of the three films in Ozu's "Noriko trilogy", but my personal favourite. This depiction of a large family hoping to get the daughter, Noriko, married (she is 28, past the right age!) reminds me in some ways of similar equations in the typical Indian joint family – but this is very much a work rooted in Japanese culture, and very much an Ozu film that employs his spare aesthetic and his gentle, knowing gaze. With the great Setsuko Hara in one of her finest roles.
Director(s): Mira Nair
Comment: Like Early Summer, this is about a large joint family and wedding preparations - but the tone here is often as rambunctious as the loudest Punjabi ceremonies and celebrations; at other times it is deathly still in its chronicling of buried tensions and its awareness of the class divide. One of my most cherished ensemble movies.
Director(s): Brian De Palma
Comment: A funny, savagely political work by my favourite of the 1970s American filmmakers. With the young De Niro in a role that in some ways points the way to Travis Bickle, but ALSO gives him a chance to play a nebbish Woody Allen type preparing for anarchist violence. Then there is "Be Black, Baby", the grainy, black-and-white film within this film, a kick in the solar plexus to wannabe liberals who want to support the underprivileged, but with minimum discomfort to themselves.
My further remarks
The usual caveats apply: there is no way a 10-film list could even pretend to be representative; I could list a different set of films an hour later, and then again the hour after that, and so on. Also, that I could find no place in this submission for some of my very favourite movies, directors or performers, and will experience deep regret about this or that exclusion the very second after I press “Submit”.
At a culture-specific level, I’d like to add this: as an Indian who grew up experiencing Hollywood and “world cinema” while also being surrounded by the many Indian cinemas (representing our cultures, storytelling forms and approaches, many of which I am still discovering), I could easily fill a list of 100 favourite films with just Indian titles and have plenty left over. That’s just to explain how hard this task is.
So, having got that out of the way: what is common to these 10 selections is that they all mean a great deal to me – a few of them I first watched as a child or adolescent, others I came to much more recently; but each of them has, in some way or the other, haunted my dreams and my waking life, while broadening my understanding of the medium and its many uses.
A few of them can be described as “canonical” (Sherlock Jr, Psycho and PlayTime in particular) – but that is a matter of secondary importance where I’m concerned. (Of course, what is canonical is also subjective. For Indians, Sholay – still arguably the most successful and popular mainstream Hindi film ever made – is a groaningly obvious choice for a list like this, and I toyed with the possibility of replacing it with a more recent epic such as Anurag Kashyap’s superb two-part Gangs of Wasseypur; but eventually I went with the film that had the bigger impact on me as a movie buff.)
Similarly, the fact that there are only two 21st century titles in the list (both Indian films set in very different milieus, but each in its way about family and community, masks and social rituals) doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens of films made in the 2000s that I love just as much; all it means is that there wasn’t enough space.
With deep apologies to hundreds of other films - but the ones I am most cut up about leaving out as I type this include: Pushpaka Vimana (1987), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mr India (1987), Mr Sampat (1952), Yojimbo (1961), Sullivan's Travels (1941), Eyes Without a Face (1960), The Seventh Victim (1943), Le Mepris (1963), Children of the Paradise (1945), Gun Crazy (1949), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Trip to the Moon (1903), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Winter Light (1963), Bringing up Baby (1938), Touch of Evil (1958), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Party (1984), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Harakiri (1962), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), A Canterbury Tale (1944), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1967), The Gold Rush (1925), Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Pulp Fiction (1994), Onibaba (1964), Biwi aur Makaan (1966), Haxan (1922), Maqbool (2003), Die Nibelungen (1924), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), Man With a Movie Camera (1929), My Darling Clementine (1946), Where is the Friend’s House? (1987), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Spartacus (1960), Charandas Chor (1975), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and There Will Be Blood (2007).