John Kobal was an historian of the cinema and kept an important collection of photographs from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Around 1987 or thereabouts, he had the idea of asking critics and cinephiles from 22 countries what they considered the ten best films in history; among them were the Spaniards Ángel Fernández Santos and Manuel Hidalgo. The results were presented as a book one year later and published here in Spain in 1990 by Alianza Editorial; we‘re talking about the famous “Kobal list”, which sparked many debates and served as a guide for more than one young cinema buff. Naturally, it is not the only list, The British magazine Sight & Sound has been asking the same question since 1952 and, although the identity of those who were consulted has necessarily changed, its results offer the possibility of analyzing how the canon evolves and what impact new releases have on the commentators.
Here you can see the inevitable distortion produced by the temporal relation we establish with works in circulation: how to judge recent cinema? On Kobal’s list we find that Iain Johnston, a critic for the Sunday Times, who was then 34 years old, includes an unexpected trio among the ten best films ever: A Fish Named Wanda, Play Misty for Me, and The Graduate. Can you believe that? But he is not the only one: Marke Andrews, a young critic for the Vancouver Sun, thinks that This Is Spinal Tap, the amusing mockumentary by Rob Reiner, also deserves this honor. Other critics chose Heimat, the worthy series of films by Edgar Reitz, influenced, perhaps, by the fact that the work had been shown in Venice only four years before.
I´ll deal with the insurmountable difficulty of choosing the ten best films in history, however, at another time. If I bring the matter of lists up now, it’s because my friend Juan Francisco Ferré invited me a couple of months ago to participate in his annual survey on the best cinema of the year, which on this occasion he suggested we complement with a list of the best films of the decade. I took on the task with relish; to sit down to choose allows one to go over which films you have seen and to draw comparisons. In the last few years, however, it has become evident that part of the divergence in judgement among viewers is caused by the disarray in supply, which has been exacerbated even more, if possible, by the pandemic. It’s not clear who has seen what or when, nor what things they have failed to see. Until well into January, for instance, I couldn´t watch Lover’s Rock, which is by far the best of the TV films in the series Steve MacQueen did on the bitter fortunes of the Afro-Caribbean minority in the United Kingdom, and, as one reader of Sight & Sound said in a letter to the journal, the only one that would withstand being shown as is on the big screen.
By the same token, I only had access to First Cow —the excellent western by Kelley Richardt— because of the window of opportunity Filmin opened during one of those festivals that have taken refuge in digital platforms, to try to maintain a mínimum continuity until we return to a semblance of the old normality. And even though I had no doubt that it was one of the best films of 2020, did it deserve to be included in the report on the best films of the decade? I’d say so, but, did it not profit by its proximity, just as some films I had seen at the beginning of the decade and not gone back to suffered disadvantage? The truth is is that anyone who wants to draw up a rigorous list ought to devote a couple of weeks to re-viewing the 100 films he was most interested in over the last ten years, calculating some 10 per year in order to arrive at a definitive report on 10 or 20. You have to have a lot of free time or receive money from a patron in order to take on that exercise. There is an alternative, of course, to which some publications resort: make a list of 100 films. But what you gain in inclusivity you lose in the capacity to discriminate. More than engaging in an aesthetic judgement, one simply ends up enumerating films.
For the thing is, making lists, when done out of personal pleasure or analytical curiosity, requires a certain discipline. On the one hand, as said before, a lot of ground has to be covered: you can only claim that X is the best picture of the decade if you are familar with Y and Z, just as it speaks poorly for anyone who claims that Lorca is superior to the rest of Spanish poets if he has only read Lorca. For the rest, it is not enough to see American cinema or to limit oneself to films from Western countries. Yet, with few exceptions, one ends up sticking to the works that reach international circuits: festivals, new releases, editions in DVD or Blu-Ray. With this obstacle more or less out of the way, other questions arise: should one include the best films, our favourite films, or perhaps those we understand to be the most significant ones of the period? And shouldn’t we make some sort of an effort to increase the representativity of the different kinds of cinematography, so that, for example, we don’t include seven American films and three from the rest of the world? Given that so many films we consider valuable will have to be left out, maybe we should assign those that are included a certain substitutional function. That way, if we are asked to pick the ten best films in history, it would not make sense to include three American musicals; just as the quality of Asian cinema should not lead us to include in the decade’s report too many in that category.
It is harder to avoid the selection being conditioned by one’s concept of the cinema or of what is of value. As fond as I have been of Marvel or DC comics, for example, movies based on them are not of the slightest interest in my eyes and thus this type of cinema has no room at all among my preferences; there will be those who hold these films in high esteem and who can distinguish their infinite semantic nuances. Anyhow, in criticism from the English-speaking world it is becoming more and more common for the artistic value of recent cinema already to be measured not in terms of aesthetic criteria but rather in moral ones: the demand that the industry show diversity or embody certain moral values sometimes leads to the glorification of works whose capacity to make something “visible” does not measure up to its creative merit. For example, in light of the subject it takes on, who has not overrated His House, a British film about postcolonial terror? Atlantics, by the Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop, which uses a similar dramatic strategy with better results, seems more accomplished to me, although we will have to see what place this film holds in our memory five or ten years from now. It happens all the time in festivals: there are films that impress the viewer only because they put an end to a succession of fiascos. This type of distortion of judgement is unavoidable; anyhow, maybe the only thing one can do to fight it is to bear the problem in mind.
Most definitely, making lists is impossible. And nonetheless, one has to do it: they provide order in the conversation, they allow you to discuss the value of works, they facilitate comparison. And on top of it all, they are very entertaining. It’s a painful delight: to choose is to exclude.
So that we can get to know one another, in what follows I am reproducing the list of the best films of the decade which I prepared for my friend Ferré. I was so bold as to place them in numerical order, though from the fifth or sixth position onwards the hierarchy makes little sense. And although I sent it to him without further comment, I am including a few lines here on every choice I made:
- Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016). This film swept me off my feet ever since I first saw it in the Film Festival in Seville, which showed it after its success at Cannes; I wrote about it at length on another occasion. I rank it first because to make a perfect comedy, which revives the screwball tradition in a Central European context, which poses moral and political questions of the greatest interest and takes advantage of the Elizabethan tradition of a double identity, is much harder than to make other kinds of film. I, at least, think it has more merit.
- Mad Max Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). This colossal blockbuster is a perfect example of how important the movie theatre is: to see this film on television at home, no matter how big and flat the TV screen is, is nothing like seeing it in a big cinema with a sound quality — the great key to modern cinema— that is deafening. An updated dystopic adventure, Mad Max Fury Road is a marvel of rhythm and planning, a total spectacle in which, moreover, a convincing and attractive politico-mythological fantasy is created.
- The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2013). A few days after sending in my list, I saw Phantom Thread again and I wondered if I hadn´t been wrong in opting for the other great work by Paul Thomas Anderson (with no prejudice to his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice, which is dazzling especially when evoking the protagonist’s lost love). To tell you the truth, it is impossible to choose between the two: my preference for The Master can be justified by its exploration of American mythology and by the great performance turned in by the now deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman.
- Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012). This is another film I have dealt with elsewhere, and it continues to strike me as an immaculate exercise in formal exploration which is concerned with cinema itself, without losing sight of the fact that it is telling a story bound to provoke emotion in the viewer, in this case a tragic romance evoked by an old woman living in Lisbon who perhaps dreams or invents what we are seeing.
- Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011). Here is a work of fiction that perhaps might not be possible to release any longer: the story of a New York sexual addict who abandons himself to carnal pleasures, moved by a desperation triggered by a dark past of domestic abuse. Just as in Hunger, which preceded it, McQueen recruits Michael Fassbender to study the excesses of the body, in this case the headlong flight of someone who is incapable of maintaining an ordinary love relation. While demonstrating at all times considerable visual talent.
- Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011). The filmmaker of excess began the decade playing hardball with the first installment of his so-called “depression trilogy” (including also Antichrist and Nymphomaniac), which is also the best of the three: an anguished story that asks how we would behave if the world was to come to an end. Von Trier avails of Wagner and, nevertheless, he does not lose control: the title of the film is a good reflection of the tone of a narrative steeped in grey, in which desperation —the planet approaching Earth is the figure of death which everyday comes a bit closer to us— is almost dumb and never hysterical.
- The Irishman (Scorsese, 2019). Scorsese never stops and from 2013 to 2019 he has delivered three major works: the thrilling film The Wolf of Wall Street, the meditative Silence, and the funereal film The Irishman. He was 71 when the first one was released and 77 when the third came out; theorists of late creativity have their work cut out for them. The Irishman is an imperfect film: the technology of rejuvenation only works somewhat and the plot about Jimmy Hoffa is a dubious invention. But the potency of its final hour-and-a-half is unbeatable, anticipated from midway into the film by the accusing look of Anna Paquin in the role of the mafioso’s daughter: a staging of the devastating passage of time which suggests a bitter reflection on Scorsese’s part on the gangster cinema that earned him so many successes.
- A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). This film sits in the middle of a strong hand of three aces that also include About Elly and The Past, all inscribed in the rich tradition of Iranian film, whose most illustrious representative is Abbas Kiarostami. Supported by brilliant performances, A Separation poses an insurmountable moral conflict between two characters who operate under the authorities’ watchful eye, and it plays with the spectator, offering different points of view, in addition to a subtle —almost deceitful— meting out of available información.
- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019). Tarantino sets aside the adolescent violence that had undermined his recent films (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight) and turns in an indirect, autobiographical impression of Los Angeles in the 70s, centred on the world of television and B series films, told through the almost Fordian friendship between an aspiring star and his personal assistant. It all takes place in the run-up to the Manson family’s crimes, which would put an end to the hippie dream. And although the recourse to counterfactual storytelling in the denouement is debatable, it works better than in Inglourious Basterds, because here it makes more sense: the cinema can be an escapist fantasy and for Tarantino it has never stopped being so.
- The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018). Here we have a film that has been much less talked about than it deserves: a wonderful western that we have to be grateful for, to begin with, for keeping an essential genre going, besides making a significant contribution to it. So far as I know, the universe of the West had never been explicitly crossed with the early socialists’ hopes to create phalansteries where they could live on the margins of capitalist society. The film also joins the ranks of the restricted list of westerns that feature a beach on the Pacific coast and it benefits from the visual talent of Audiard, which shines in some magificent landscapes.
- Son of Saul (Lazslo Nemes, 2015). A controversial work about a prisoner’s experience in a Nazi death camp, blessed, nonetheless, by Claude Lanzmann himself, Son of Saul is another film that should at least be seen in the cinema: there you will appreciate how brutally effective the Hungarian director’s method is, when he glues the camera to the protagonist and follows him wherever he goes, allowing us to see what he sees and to grow a little more confused than the character. Thus we stumble along until the final outbreak of violence: the mass gunning down of the Jews triggers the prisoners’ desperate revolt.
- Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012). The enfant terrible of French cinema surprised his own people and outsiders with this hypnotic film, a homage to cinema as a fantastic artifact and an apology for fiction as a defense mechansim against the aggressions of the prosaic. Denis Lavant is outstanding in the role of a worker in the fantasy industry and Kylie Minogue’s appearance provides the occasion for a marvellous musical scene in an abandoned building.
- Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhang-Ke, 2018). The strength of Chinese cinema is beyond question and this thrilling story of the mafia and broken love in the context of a society experiencing an accelerated and uneven transformation is only one of the possible contenders for a place on my list. The author of Pickpocket and A Touch of Sin continues to favour provincial settings, scrutinizing the impact of modernization on characters who seem always to be on the verge of anomie and, nonetheless, manage to plow on.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014). A supreme stylist, a lover of detail, and a narrator with a gift for capturing extravagance at a clip worthy of 30s cinema, Wes Anderson created this memorable fantasy in which Zweig meets Lubitsch in a multicoloured Europe, full of aristocrats and hustlers, and taking us from the fanfare of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the gloom of the Communist republics.
- The Image Book (Godard, 2018). The eternal Godard, who has turned ninety already, keeps working with his home moviola and surprised everybody with this vigorous film essay, which links up with his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinéma and includes a stimulating visual reflection on orientalism. Its closing scene, in which his gravelly voice professes the will to keep working until the end, while we see the ending of Maupassant’s story about the masked dancer as filmed by Max Ophüls, is unforgettable. I talked about the film here.
- Shoplifters (Hirozaku Koreeda, 2018). A winner in Cannes, this moral fable by Koreeda decides not to offer any moral lesson at all: on telling us the story of a humble couple who devote themselves to picking up wayward children in Tokyo, the Japanese director begins by suggesting that family ties are not a matter of blood and he ends up casting a dense shadow on what we have seen when, in an astonishing finale, he reveals where the adoptive children have really come from.
- Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012). Little has been said about this enigmatic film, the final one in Abbas Kiarostami’s career, which takes place somewhere as unexpected as Japan: there a peculiar love or near-love triangle develops (hence the ambiguity of the title), made up of a female student of sociology working as an escort, an old professor interested in talking to her, and a mechanic who wants to marry her. Information is meted out wisely and the end is so mysterious that it is difficult after all to know what has happened.
- Eden (Mia Hansen-Love, 2014). This is one of two films by Mia Hansen-Love which could easily make the list; the other is Father of My Children, the apparent protagonist of which shoots himself halfway through the footage. Eden is different, while continuing to exemplify constants in the French director’s cinema: it tells the story of a young Parisian DJ from the house scene in the 90s who climbs from anonymity to success. What counts is not the story of course, but Hansen-Love’s way of putting it, telling the story with her customary, casual elegance to the beat of an impressive soundtrack and with an apparently light touch that is not superficiality but pure grace.
- Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014). With this film the German director completed one of the best recent variations on the theme of Vertigo: a man wishes to bring back his wife who disappeared, a Jew in World War II Germany, without realizing that he has her at his side. To the strains of “Speak Low”, Kurt Weil’s marvellous song about the fleeting nature of love, a tragic truth is revealed which Nina Hoss’s memorable performance helps to make credible.
- Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis, 2017). Although the great Claire Denis has signed off excellent films throughout the decade, like High Life or Bastards, I’ll take this one, an adaptation of Roland Barthes’s essay A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, an impossible task from which Denis emerges triumphant, speaking to us intelligently about the difficulty of love late in life. In a bold move that recalls the outstanding ending of Beau Travail, the film ends sublimely: we witness the personal conversation between two characters in a car whom we have not seen before, as if another film were beginning, until we discover that one of them (Gérard Depardieu) offers advice to the lovelorn protagonist (Juliette Binoche), with whom he maintains a sublime conversation that continues when the lights come back on.
It’s obvious that many films are missing from the list, but they didn’t all fit: Graduation, Cold War, Ema, Martin Eden, Happy Lazzaro, Snowpiercer, Lover’s Rock, The Turin Horse, Zama, La La Land, The Deep Blue Sea, Lover for a Day, Burning, Spring Breakers, Western, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Ghost Story, Train to Busan, Under the Skin, Dragged Across Concrete, Richard Jewell, The Souvenir, La Gomera, An Elephant Sitting Still, The Wild Goose Lake, Somewhere, First Cow… And Twin Peaks 3 is missing, a television product that deserves to show up here as hors catégorie. In Spain I’ll take La isla mínima [The Minimal Island], La reconquista [The Reconquest], La academia de las musas [The Academy of Muses], and Historia de mi muerte [Story of My Death].
This film plethora, which has given us so many hours of pleasure, is a sign of the medium’s vitality and the growing density of the international market. We will have to see where we are ten years from now, when the time comes to draw up another impossible list.