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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era