A Year, a Decade, a Century

Agnès Varda with Corinne Marchand, star of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

We’ll turn to the latest surveys of the best of the decade and the year in a moment, but the top list of the week has to be the “100 greatest films directed by women,” the result of BBC Culture’s poll of 368 critics, journalists, programmers, and academics from eighty-four countries. Once the ballots were tallied, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as three Oscars, came out on top. “It’s an exquisitely beautiful film, from Michael Nyman’s score of somber and soaring piano and strings compositions to Holly Hunter’s performance,” writes Hannah Woodhead for the BBC. The story of a Scottish pianist (Hunter) sold off to a New Zealand frontiersman (Sam Neill) is “a fairytale, but one so steeped in the harshness of reality, it feels at once familiar and bracingly different from anything that came before it.”

The director scoring more votes than any other is the late, great Agnès Varda. “From her early days as a pioneer of the French New Wave to the retrospective biographical work, Varda by Agnès, completed in the final year of her life, the Belgian-born French director created resonant heroines, used innovative cinematic techniques, and inspired other women filmmakers,” writes Caryn James. In all, six of Varda’s films have been voted onto the list: Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, #2), Vagabond (1985, #13), Le bonheur (1965, #28), The Gleaners and I (2000, #31), One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977, #85), and The Beaches of Agnès (2008, #89).

Varda by Agnès is currently playing at Film at Lincoln Center in the run-up to FLC’s complete Agnès Varda retrospective, opening on December 20 and running through January 6. “Varda had a profound practice stemming from tactility and embodied an artisanal approach in all stages of production,” writes filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz (MS Slavic 7) in a piece on Varda by Agnès for the Notebook. “I began to see this final work as a strategy for her to process, experience, and come to terms with mortality.” On a related note, New York’s Metrograph has posted video of a half-hour interview with Varda and Susan Sontag conducted in 1969 when each of them had brought a film—Lions Love (. . . and Lies) and Duet for Cannibals, respectively—to the seventh New York Film Festival.

#3 on the BBC’s list is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). On the latest episode of Bow Down: Women in Art History, a new podcast hosted by frieze editor at large Jennifer Higgie, Laura Mulvey, the theorist probably best known for coining the term “the male gaze,” recalls the time Akerman was staying with her and her husband at the time, the filmmaker and theorist Peter Wollen. “There was just one incident which I think characterizes Chantal forever,” says Mulvey. When a women’s group that Mulvey was hosting adjourned so that members could catch the last buses and trains home, Akerman simply could not believe they’d break off just when the conversation was getting good. The following year, Mulvey saw Jeanne Dielman for the first time, and immediately “felt that there was a before and after Jeanne Dielman like there was a before and after Citizen Kane.” Akerman “never thought of herself as a feminist filmmaker,” says Mulvey, “but she undoubtedly created a women’s cinema, and she turned cinema upside down.”

The BBC has also posted notes on each of the top twenty-five titles by critics from around the world in a gallery featuring FLC’s Eugene Hernandez on Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992, #19), Jun Fujita Hirose on Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970, #16), Agustin Acevedo Kanopa on Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga (2001, #15), Aderinsola Ajao on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991, #10), and Elena Lazic on Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999, #4).


To pick up where we left off last week, it seems that many critics are opting to sort out the 2010s before writing up their 2019 top tens. New York Times chief film critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott have rolled out three alphabetical lists. Each picks a favorite ten, but not before they’ve argued the cases for ten films that have been the most influential over the past ten years, “whether we like them or not (and in some cases we very much did).” There’s a Marvel movie, of course, and an animated feature from Disney, but there’s also Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), “a blend of satire and horror so deft that it was hard to say which was which”; Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016), whose triumph at the Oscars “signaled a shift in the industry after decades of systemic racism”; and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017), “the Netflix release that shook up the industry, further blurring the divide between big and little screens.”

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that the “mumblecore generation” of the previous decade “has now entered, and in many ways transformed, the true mainstream of movies: Greta Gerwig, Terence Nance, Josephine Decker, Andrew Bujalski, Amy Seimetz, Barry Jenkins, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Adam Driver, Sophia Takal, Nathan Silver, Shane Carruth, David Lowery, Kate Lyn Sheil, Alex Ross Perry, Kentucker Audley, Lynn Shelton, Robert Greene, Ronald Bronstein, and the Safdie brothers, to name just a few.” At the same time, we’ve also seen “reliably surprising masterworks by established filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Frederick Wiseman, and Paul Thomas Anderson.” It’s telling that the two films at the top of Brody’s list of twenty-seven are Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline (2018).

Vanity Fair has posted two annotated lists. “Love, astonishment, and obsession were factors” in K. Austin Collins’s list of thirty titles. “‘Importance’ was not; ‘influence’ was not.” Richard Lawson’s list runs from George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) at #1 through Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd (2017) at #10. Meantime, TIFF Cinematheque has polled curators, archivists, and historians to compile a top ten that actually runs to nineteen titles—there are a lot of ties. Lucrecia Martel’s Zama takes the top spot. On Hyperallergic’s Art Movements podcast, Dessane Lopez Cassell, Dan Schindel, and Hrag Vartanian discuss their favorite films of the year, including Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Claire Denis’s High Life, while Sean Fennessey, Amanda Dobbins, and Chris Ryan discuss the Ringer’s top ten on the latest episode of The Big Picture. For more of the best films of the decade, see Esquire, the Independent, Glenn Kenny,Dan Sallitt, and Seventh Row.

Meantime, Arthur Jafa’s seven-minute video Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (2016) tops the ARTnews editors’ list of the most important artworks of the decade. “It’s hard to watch but even harder to stop,” writes Andy Battaglia, “and everyone winds up implicated in its mélange of moving images of Black pride and horrific violence handed down through the ages.”


Sight & Sound has polled one hundred of its contributors, and the editors declare themselves pleasantly surprised to find that Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir has ridden straight to the top of its list of the best fifty films of 2019. It’s “both a great film about filmmaking and the pursuit of the artistic life—and the struggles to find one’s true voice that can come with that life—and a moving tale of doomed love in the fine tradition of romantic melodramas from Max Ophuls outwards,” writes Jamie Bell in the introduction to the year-in-cinema feature in the forthcoming January 2020 issue. “It’s heartening that such a distinctive, uncompromised vision by a British female director has triumphed. At a time when the kind of personal cinema Hogg represents seems to be under threat, The Souvenir’s success feels defiant and vital.”

Sight & Sound has also polled twenty-nine critics and curators to come up with a list of the best Blu-ray and DVD releases of the year, and naturally, we’re pleased to see that not only have our Godzilla box set and our edition of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971) made the top ten but Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy has been voted right on up to #1.

Time’s Stephanie Zacharek has selected her top ten films and performances of the year, and there’s a clear single favorite here. Antonio Banderas “gives the performance of a lifetime” in Pain & Glory, she writes, and her pick for the best film of 2019 may also be Pedro Almodóvar’s “most resplendent and moving film, a panorama of vibrant paint-box colors and even more intense emotions—and a hymn to the mysterious whatever-it-is that keeps any of us going, in the years, months or days before our bodies betray us.”

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