IIt’s May 2, 1945, and an airborne fighter pilot is reciting poetry with the cut-out speech of the British upper class. His plane descends rapidly over the English coast as he offers his last words to June, an American wireless operator he has never met, parked on the ground below. This is the memorable opening of A matter of life or deatha British romance that, despite its 76 years, continues to hold its critical place alongside the best films in the world.
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and starring David Niven, it is part of the canon of world cinema. And yet, many British moviegoers will never have watched its vivid glories.
Three nights ago, after a decade of waiting, the results of an influential poll of the world’s biggest films caused both shock and joy. Both Citizen Kane and vertigo, established as synonymous with the best the big screen has to offer, have been knocked off the top of the charts. The new winner, a relatively unknown feminist drama from Belgian director Chantal Akerman, is also the first film by a woman to break into the top 10. Powell and Pressburger’s A matter of life or death came in well below, at number 78, nine places behind their vibrant ballet drama, The Red Shoes.
This weekend, moviegoers seem happy to salute this new list of 100 illustrious titles, published by Sight and sound, the journal of the British Film Institute. It is a line-up compiled every 10 years from the votes of international directors, actors and critics, an expanded constituency this time to 1,639. Since the poll began in 1952, the results have been dominated by male directors, so the time had come, most agree, for a broader vision.
Admittedly, a few commentators quibble about the usurpation of recognized “great films” of the past in favor of more up-to-date offerings, such as 2019’s Oscar-winning Korean satire, Parasiteat number 90, the history of queer identity by Barry Jenkins, MoonlightAt 60, Jordan Peele’s Racially Clever Horror Debut get outnow number 95, and the remarkable rise of a three-year-old film, the film by Céline Sciamma Portrait of a lady on firenow 30 years old. Others have complained of a suspicious “box-ticking” instinct among voters, allegedly urging them to make sure more female directors succeed.
But as the dust settles and the list is analyzed for what it says about changing critical tastes, there’s good news for the continued power of British storytelling. Although there are now 69 different international directors, rather than 55, in the top 100, the talents of Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Powell and Pressburger are still well represented, not to mention Putney-born director Carol Reed , creator of this stylish favorite The third man in 1949. Seventy-three years later, he holds the 63rd place jointly with Freedmen and casablanca.
So the consistently high-rising British titles are quite different from the gritty, kitchen-sink dramas generally considered to characterize good British filmmaking. Acclaimed works such as those by Ken Loach Kes or Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake – which laid the foundations for British directors working today like Clio Barnard, Lynne Ramsay or Andrea Arnold – are not so visible across the world.
“There’s a colorful thread to British imaginative world-building that you can see in the directors still included in the poll,” said Isabel Stevens, editor-in-chief of Sight and sound. “It’s an almost theatrical tradition.”
Such an approach, born of variety acts and Gothic literary traditions, is evident even in the work of Ridley Scott, which comes in at number 54 with Blade runner. It can be summed up in the written lines that emerge through the clouds at the start of A matter of life or death: “It’s the story of two worlds, the one we know, and another that exists only in the mind.”
This also feeds, no doubt, the work of Christopher Nolan, creator of Dunkirk and Creationand even Edgar Wright, director of the horror comedy hit Shaun of the dead and last year’s Last night in Soho. Wright, who was present at the launch of the Southbank poll results in London, helped tabulate the votes of some well-known directors and said he was delighted to see that experimental director Peter Greenaway, best known for The draftsman’s contract, had unexpectedly selected Ridley Scott’s action films Gladiator and blade runner, and that the poetic British filmmaker Terence Davies opted for two films by Doris Day.
“The choices of other directors are so interesting,” agrees Stevens, who suggests Davies’ hypnotic Distant voices, still lifes is destined to climb the charts over the next decade. “I would also look for Nicolas Roeg, films like don’t look now and walkabout are gaining popularity. I also note Orlandodirected by Sally Potter, and Under the skinas well as Charlotte Wells’ recent fantasy film After Sun. They could all climb.
The lasting impact of British storytelling is even more impressive if you cheat a bit by including Stanley Kubrick, an American who moved to Britain in 1961 to make Dr Strangelove: Or how I learned to love the bomb with Peter Sellers, then stayed. His 2001: A Space Odyssey It was rumored that he made it to the top this time, but stayed at number six. (This time, however, he tops the parallel poll that only counts votes from directors.)
“He’s really British,” Stevens said. “His movies the brilliantat number 88, and Barry Lyndonat a joint 45 with Hitchcock’s from north to northwest, were all filmed here with British crews. And of course, 2001 was based on Arthur C Clarke’s book.
Dr Strangelovethis disturbing political comedy, one of Gary Oldman’s favourites, is clearly the ancestor of recent British satires such as that of Armando Iannucci Death of Stalin. Iannucci, by the way, chose the Monty Python Brian’s life as one of his 10. Among his other votes was the great dictator, directed by Chaplin, born in London, whom he watched with admiration as a teenager. Chaplin’s city lights make number 36 and Modern times is 78 years old. But then he had two films in the top three in the first poll in 1952.
These films are among the rare comedies in the top 100. The humor of the American immigrant Billy Wilder is there, with The apartment at age 54 and Some like it hot reach a joint 38 with Hitchcock rear window. And Jacques Tati won at 23 with Break. But Ealing’s beloved British comedies do less damage, a sadness perhaps for Stevens, who is the great-niece of British comedian actor Terry-Thomas: “It’s fascinating to see who has risen and who declined. David Lean entered the first top 10 with brief encounter, but seems to have dropped. Lean Lawrence of Arabiaonce so admired, yet got a vote from Roger Corman.
Some might be surprised by the growing esteem for the haunting the hunter’s night, directed by British actor Charles Laughton. With Robert Mitchum, he is now at 25, beating the first poll winner, Vittorio de Sica Bike thieves. It earned notable votes from directors Carol Morley and Oscar winner Martin McDonagh.
Yet Hitchcock remains the great British story. He dominates with vertigonow in second place, after winning in 2012, with rear window and from north to northwestand his psychology at 31 years old. It’s an impressive legacy for a boy born in Leytonstone, northeast London, and given that British directors weren’t in the top 10 in 1962, it also points to a growing appetite for his work.
British directors may have an advantage because they work in the same language as the Hollywood cinematic machine that still dominates the art form. As more and more foreign movies become accessible, things are likely to change.
Stevens just hopes the new poll sends people searching for new and old classics. However, like Tilda Swinton, she suggests that A matter of life or death is a great starting point for those who haven’t seen it yet. “It shows what cinema can really do.”