If anxiety, stress and obsession are common traits of the cinephile, one cannot add to this diagnosis reticence. The unacknowledged vein of criticism is autobiography, and if it’s true that films in their making reveal aspects of their author, it is equally true that the critic, in their judgement of the aesthetic standards of that work, reveal themselves also. I often find other critics to be like me; shy, self-conscious, withdrawn, and I learn more about them in their writing than I do from our initial conversations. I consider the art of list making to be our most personal statement. It is utterly unafraid. These are the artists we have chosen to represent us, whose voice and vision we find most challenging (or comforting). I think it is because of this that we take such a rigorous approach in their compilation. We are judged by omission. Limiting the list to ten makes the process harder, and I wonder how much of myself is really in it. “Fuck, no Hitchcock! Rivette! Mizoguchi! Should I even publish this?“
I was surprised to find German, Czech, Japanese, Italian, Russian and Hungarian cinema completely unrepresented by my list, nor anybody more contemporary than my #5, whose debut came out in 1996. I could have comprised this list of ten names whose body of work has been contained to my lifetime, a mere 21 years. It also seems strange that only 13 films from my current Top 50 are represented here. Some directors, like Wong Kar-wai, Jean Eustache and Shôhei Imamura, whose Chungking Express, My Little Loves and Profound Desires Of The Gods I admire greatly, did not make the cut for one of two reasons. One: I don’t like enough of their work besides that film to justify their inclusion. Two. Because I have not seen enough of their work to make even that call. So, who did make it in?
#10 Luis Buñuel
Who? Spanish-born director whose Un Chien Andalou, co-directed with artist Salvador Dalí, is the most famous surrealist film of all time. He sold gags to Chaplin in the US but made his best known work in France during the ’60s and ’70s, including Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1973. His memoir My Last Sigh is one of the best ever written by a director. Buñuel was also famous for his strongly atheist views, and religion often played a part in his work. He died in 1983, in Mexico City, but remains hugely influential.
Why? Because his films were the first to introduce me to surrealism, erotica and politics. I was very young when I first caught the scene in Belle de Jour of Catherine Deneuve being whipped in the woods, and some years later, after being hypnotized by Un Chien Andalou, I rediscovered the image and viewed the film it belonged to in its entirety. Buñuel was one of the first directors whose name I became interested in, so I dug into his work, first from the French period. The films blew me away, but their relevance became more pronounced over time as my aesthetic tastes and knowledge of politics deepened, and my own atheism became something I understood and wanted to challenge. He was one of the first directors who I began to analyse endlessly, and after many re-watches of his films – now including those from Mexico – the desire remains. For his place in my film history, his dedication to theme, his artistry and imagination, Buñuel deserves a place on this list.
#9 Éric Rohmer
Who? Cahiers du cinéma editor in the years 1957 – 1963, and co-author (with Claude Chabrol) of one of the seminal early volumes on Hitchcock. A member of the nouvelle vague during his time as editor, Rohmer made the most respected of his films after leaving the journal. Marked by their authentic dialogue, empathy and changing seasons, many on the topic of human relationships, his best works remain the Six Moral Tales, which include Claire’s Knee, My Night At Maud’s and Love In The Afternoon. He died in 2010 in Paris.
Why? It’s hard to pinpoint one reason, but Rohmer was the first member of the nouvelle vague who I related to on a personal level. Godard appealed to my love of genre and self-reflexivity, Resnais to concepts of construction and reality, Truffaut to the feeling of being a child in an adult’s world. But Rohmer was the one who spoke to where I was at my time of discovering him. He spoke about people and relationships, how we comfort and deceive each other, and how none of those things are black and white. His characters had depth that I hadn’t seen before, and held conversations on topics which excited me. I so wanted to be having these conversations, and living in the France he captured and evoked so well. No director has ever had a better grasp of the seasons – how glorious it was to see the sun dappling the water in Claire’s Knee, to actually feel the warmth of it on your face. It was the first film world I wanted to live in, so effortlessly better than my own. Thinking about it now, he was the first director I truly loved – someone who made me understand the world a little better. His grasp on human nature continues to entertain and astound me. He truly has a film for every mood and season.
#8 Stanley Kubrick
Who? The visionary American auteur behind Paths Of Glory, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, famous for his meticulous pre-production methods, punishingly long and tiring shoots, and harsh treatment of actors. A chess player and photographer in his early years, as a director Kubrick spent years planning projects – some, like his Napoleon biopic, never coming to fruition – and would do up to 100 takes of a scene he wasn’t happy with. He was nominated for Best Director four times, but never won. He died in 1999, shortly before the release of Eyes Wide Shut.
Why?Because you don’t spend two hours with a Kubrick film. You give your life to it. 2001 is a film often quoted as sitting uncomfortably with viewers on a first watch, but like all of Kubrick’s films it’s not designed to be instantly digestible. The Shining didn’t make sense to me for four years, but when it did I became obsessed with it, watching it three nights in a row in different cuts until I could map out the Overlook’s geography in my brain. His films were created from obsession, and they breed obsession; just look at the books, essays and films dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of his work. Each time I have finally come around to one of his films I have become lost in its world. 2001 is the only film besides Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) to instantly make me press play once more after the credits; both films blew my mind so much that I double-billed them with themselves, eager to relive the world which I never wanted to leave. He can be cold and clinical, as his detractors often remind us, but there are few films as harrowing as A Clockwork Orange, euphoric as 2001, beautiful as Barry Lyndon or effortlessly cool and absorbing as Eyes Wide Shut. His is a filmography rich for discovery even when you’ve seen each film in it three or four times, and his influence remains the most evident in contemporary cinema.
#7 Jean-Luc Godard
Who? L’enfant terrible of the nouvelle vague and another influential critic for the Cahiers du cinéma. In the years 1959 – 1967 (Breathless to Week End) he was the most innovative and daring director of his time, constantly referring to cinema in his tales of crime, romance and futuristic espionage. He, more than Roger Vadim, made an icon of Brigitte Bardot, and he built the most iconic screen valentine of all time, dedicated to and also starring Anna Karina. An icon and hero, but counterfeit money according to Herzog.
Why? Because his films changed my life and, like those of Rohmer, they continue to be a source of inspiration and comfort. Unfortunately, largely due to his dour and labored contemporary works, Godard has garnered a now-institutionalized reputation as a very dry and difficult filmmaker, but for me his films are defined by their boundless joy for the medium, and from Une Femme Est Une Femme, through Bande à part and Week End, his films are, for me, some of the most fun cinema has ever produced. Une Femme Est Une Femme, a quasi-musical, is his most purely enjoyable, with some of the most exquisite framing and lighting you’ll ever see. His commentary on relationships and filmmaking in Le Mépris is authentic and challenging, and his Pierrot le Fou is like living pop art, a film rich with layers and open to deconstruction. In his best period Godard was defined by his enthusiasm and employed the best actors of his time (Brialy, Belmondo, Leaud) to say and do the most interesting things, and time and time again his sense of style and probing of theme dazzles. I can’t think of a director whose work I plunge into with more regularity.
#6 Woody Allen
Who? New York neurotic and writer / director / actor. One of the most prolific directors of all time, turning out almost a film a year since 1971’s Bananas, his work has been some of the most varied, iconic and unpredictable in contemporary US cinema. Through surreal skit comedy, relationship dramas and murder mysteries his films have taken him from London to Rome, but his home remains New York which, along with Scorsese, he has made a definitive statement on in film. He has won four Oscars, most recently for Midnight In Paris, with Owen Wilson.
Why? Because there’s nobody funnier, nobody better on relationships, and nobody who can make conversations about metaphysics quite so unpretentious (“I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me“). It’s not just that nobody can make me laugh quite like Allen in his prime, it’s also that he’s been a consistently more interesting and innovative artist than he’s ever given credit for. Love & Death, as well as being the funniest film ever made, is also one of the most beautiful; shot by Ghislain Cloquet, who also lensed work by Resnais and Bresson, the image of Allen’s 18th Century dandy dancing through the woods with Death under a gentle orange sky is one of the best images in cinema, up there with the iconic bench shot in Manhattan. His searing, vérité divorce drama Husbands & Wives is one of the best directed films of the ’90s, the restless, often frenzied camerawork capturing an intensity which even Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) can’t match. His Bergman period (which produced films like September and Interiors) is packed with dazzling compositions, and insightful human drama. Allen knows his way around a film set as well as he does the funny bone and the human heart, and for twenty years he was a master of manipulating all three, releasing masterpiece after masterpiece.
Part 2 of this list will post a week today, on the 19th May.