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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis