The best of the "best of" lists

Why film critics' choices are far from simple.

Though top ten lists are often criticised for their perceived encouragement of critical myopia and crude categorisation, they can still offer illuminating insights into how different critics in different countries judge films. In this spirit, it is interesting to compare the best of 2010 polls from three leading film magazines: Britain's Sight and Sound, America's Film Comment and France's Cahiers du Cinéma.

There are immediate differences in the compilation of these lists, which must be acknowledged before making more general comments on them. Both Sight and Sound and Film Comment's lists are formed from critics' opinions taken from within their editorial team and from outside of it, and Sight and Sound's list also includes the choices of international critics (including some from Cahiers and Film Comment). Only one (Cahiers' house editorial only list) is actually a top ten, with Sight and Sound having a top 12 and Film Comment having a top 50 of 2010.

Having accepted these differences though the polls still offer tantalising comparisons. Several observations jump out when looking at the lists side by side. The first is the European predominance in both the Sight and Sound list (eight of the top 12 films) and Film Comment's list (six out of the top ten), and the contrary lack of European films in that most iconic of European film journals, Cahiers du Cinéma, which has five American films in its top ten and only three from Europe (a confirmation of Emilie Bickerton's pessimistic view of Cahiers'' current direction.) The second is the almost complete absence of documentary films from the lists (Sight and Sound has two documentaries in its top 12, Film Comment has one in its top ten and Cahiers has none), though given how poorly distributed documentaries are in both the US and Britain this is relatively unsurprising.

It is intriguing to look at Film Comment's top 20 unreleased films (i.e. films which have not yet come out in cinemas in America), a list often condemned for its connotations of cinéaste festival-circuit snobbery but one that is in fact very necessary, given the notoriously poor distribution of foreign films in America. This list is headed by the runaway winner of the Cahiers' poll (and runner up of Sight and Sound's list), Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Other interesting points include the high placing of Olivier Assayas's French produced terrorist biopic, Carlos, in both Film Comment's list (where it came out on top) and Sight and Sound's poll, where it was placed fourth, and its surprising absence from the Cahiers' top ten where it only featured in one of the thirteen separate writer's lists. This might be partially due to the fact that Carlos was originally shown on television in France, but it still seems a bizarre omission for such a blisteringly cinematic film.

Film Comment's and Cahiers' lists compare particularly oddly because many of the films on Film Comment's top 50 came out in 2009 in France (such as A Prophet and Wild Grass.) The absence of Werner Herzog's well received Bad Lieutenant from Sight and Sound's list is slightly odd, as is the high placing of Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme (as of yet unreleased in the UK) in all the polls. The three lists certainly give a good view of the contradictions and contentions at play in the world's film industry.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear