Alby James

Head of development, EON Screenwriters’ Workshop, Berlinale Talent Campus; head of Sediba Workshop, South Africa


Voted in the critics’ poll

Voted for

2001: A Space Odyssey


Stanley Kubrick

Battleship Potemkin


Sergei M Eisenstein

Bicycle Thieves, The


Vittorio de Sica



Jean-Luc Godard

Citizen Kane


Orson Welles



Jacques Tati



Lee Daniels

Règle du jeu, La


Jean Renoir

Separation, A


Asghar Farhadi



Alfred Hitchcock


When one approaches a task like this, one assumes it will be easy to make a few deletions to the existing list to make room for special films of the last few years, but when it comes down to it, cutting even one film from the existing list is hard to do and, in the final analysis, those films one wants to add may not measure up to the standard of those one wants to cut. So one has to labour over these decisions, going back and forth to check whether the older films are still worthy of being the crowning glories of the history of cinema or whether tastes and perspectives have so changed that some films no longer have the same impact. I have cut five films from the previous list of the top ten to make room for three films from the last decade and to add a film from each from the 1940s and 1960s that I think should be included. My criterion was fairly straightforward: to include films that are landmarks in the development of cinema, either for their technical brilliance or for their narrative content and bravado. Like for most people, for me Citizen Kane still stands heads and shoulders above other films for its innovation and brilliance in storytelling and style. It’s a story about a big man, a man with many flaws, passions and ambitions. He’s an antihero, and Orson Welles and his co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, make this dreadful man interesting by hanging the narrative on the investigation of the newspaper reporter, Thompson, who meets many people from Kane’s life to try and find out the meaning of Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud”. In addition to this narrative innovation, the film’s cinematography is also brilliant – and well documented. Citizen Kane deserves to remain in this list and will continue to be an inspiration to other filmmakers and audiences. La régle du jeu by Jean Renoir is in my list because it too makes fantastic use of deep focus photography and camera movements, as if they were using a steadicam to fluidly change the focus from one group of people, and because Renoir gives us an insight into the frivolous behaviour of the aristocracy at a time when the country was descending into war. It’s well known that Robert Altman paid tribute to this film as being the one that showed him how to do movies like Gosford Park. Essentially, a French farce, La régle du jeu occurs mainly in a country house and the environs of its estate and the people in the film are those you would expect to populate it. What I like most about the storytelling approach is that Renoir fashions a multi-protagonist film successfully not by having a major plot that unifies them all but by making each of the characters, their relationships and the events that happen to them funny and engaging. I am a story development specialist and I know how hard it is to make this work. The Bicycle Thieves is my next choice. I love it mostly for its simplicity. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the film that most inspired Iranian writer/director Majid Majidi to make the wonderful Children of Heaven (1997). The premise is very straightforward: Antonio Ricci, a young married man who has been suffering a long period of unemployment, is offered a job as a bill poster – the only problem is that he has to have a bicycle to do the job. Since he has pawned his for a little money to survive, his wife decides to pawn their sheets to get his bicycle back. But when it is stolen on the first day, he’s in trouble. So the rest of the movie is about his search for his bicycle across Rome, accompanied by his small son, Bruno. It’s a touching story that engages the audience’s emotions and has them rooting for the protagonists all the time. And it is told in the neorealist style that makes it very affecting. Such a film will always remain a great example for new filmmakers without large funds. It proves that a simple premise and characters that we can care about are all you need to make a story work. I have always loved my next choice, Breathless. I think it was the first film I watched when studying my A-level in French. This is a signature film that I have chosen to include instead of Fellini’s masterpieces, 8½ or La Dolce Vita, not because I don’t love those films (I do) but because I wanted to include two films that would speak to the youth of today, (the other film being Precious). Breathless is about posing, glamour and the excitement of committing crimes. Ultimately, it’s about anarchy, and the director, at the same time, is also putting two fingers up to filmmaking traditions. This is an exciting film with iconic lead characters, brilliantly played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. This is the film that established the French New Wave as a defining movement. A Separation by Asghar Farhadi is my next choice and it is there on merit, I believe, not just my taste. I nominated it for the Best Film and the Best Original Screenplay in the Baftas, not just as Best Film in a Foreign Language, because I truly believe it was last year’s best film. I have dissected the film many times and first came into contact with the project while sitting on the jury of the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund. What we have here is another brilliantly told multi-protagonist, multi-plot story in which we care deeply not just about Nader and Simin, the husband and wife who we first meet before a judge. Simin is suing divorce so she can take their daughter out of the country for her sake, but her husband will not agree to let her take their daughter with her unless she asks him to let her go. The daughter loves both parents and wants them to stay together, so this is a ploy agreed with her father to keep her mother with them. Also in this family is Nader’s senile father, who needs full-time care, and Nader will not leave the country until his father dies. This leads to them hiring extra help, a carer, whose little daughter and unemployed husband also come into a story that has our emotions moving back and forth as it unfolds. Farhardi directs with a documentary style that gives it a great sense of being true. The performances are all brilliant and the feelings and thoughts stay with you long after viewing. I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen in Leicester Square as a member of a school party (we were studying the novel for English). I have seen the film many times since and have used it in my teaching. I have always been interested in human nature and what the future may hold for mankind, and this film acutely takes us back to the origins of mankind’s aggression, when we were apes fighting other groups of apes for access to the water hole and when a simple diet of vegetation was no longer satisfying. To see the transition of the ape into being a perpetrator of pain and death with the help of a large bone, and then this large bone being tossed into the sky and transmuting into a spaceship, said everything that needed to be said about man’s innate aggression and where it would lead. Kubrick’s adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story is a work of genius and will always be one. It was so far ahead of its time that filmmakers have to be even more ingenious now to do something fresh in the area of science fiction. Play Time by Jacques Tati is the third French film on my list. I love all of Tati’s films and since I struggled with leaving both Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Buster Keaton’s The General off my list, it seemed to me that the best compromise was to select Tati’s own satire on modern life. One reason why I have appreciated the awards success of The Artist is because it reminds people that filmmaking is primarily about telling stories with moving pictures. The silent filmmakers were perfecting this technique when the talkies came in and I am delighted that artists such as Jacques Tati continued to work mainly in this form. But what I also love about his films is that he used them to uncover truths about human nature and society. My desire to see filmmakers have this purpose runs through all of my selections and, in Play Time especially, Tati was mainly interested in showing how people deal with technological developments. What Tati does in this film is expose how amazingly complicated modern innovations have become by having his regular character, Mr Hulot, follow a group of American women over 24 hours in Paris. I remembered this aspect of the film just the other day when buying a ticket from a machine in Nice for a train to Cannes. I had to go through an incredibly slow process to do this – it must have taken at least five minutes, as I had to go back to previous screens on three occasions. One of the things that cinema does well is show us the future. Sometimes, as we watch these films, we feel that we are already there. This is one of those films. Vertigo is my next choice. There had to be one Hitchcock film in my list and I chose this over Psycho because it brings every aspect of filmmaking and storytelling together brilliantly to tell a very affecting story. Scottie falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman whom he cannot have. When he finds another woman who looks so much like her that a few changes can bring her back to him, he has to pursue this goal. When he finds out that the woman he loved was a construct herself, his grasp on reality is totally confused. Hitchcock takes this dilemma to its tragic climax. The film plays constantly with truth and lies, or reality and dreams, using lighting, colours and camera positions to change the perspective. In the end, this is a story about the consequence of falling in love, which Hitchcock links with the fear of falling due to vertigo. Excellent! Precious is in my list because in my opinion it is the first film about black people in the ghetto that was both honest and life affirming. The central character, Claireece Precious Jones (who calls herself Precious, for short) is an obese, illiterate 16-year-old girl who is also mother to a four-year-old Down’s Syndrome daughter and is now pregnant again, both times as a consequence of being raped by her father. Precious is also psychologically and physically abused by her mother. Just saying this would usually mean that the story had no potential in the commercial cinema, but Lee Daniels and his screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, have worked together brilliantly to adapt the novel Push by the poet Sapphire, on which the film is based, to make it into a commercially viable film. Daniels, a former casting director, has also done superbly with the casting, finding newcomer Gabourey Sidibe to play Precious, comedienne Mo’Nique to play her worthless layabout of a mother and Paula Patton as her teacher at the alternative school where Precious enrols and who inspires her to believe in herself. Daniels even has Maria Carey as a tough-talking social worker and Lenny Kravitz as a sympathetic male nurse. Plus his treatment of the story – which is not unremittingly realistic, which would not work, but that uses heightened comedy at times and is artfully ugly at others – makes for a compelling melodrama. It pays off. The film connects with young audiences because it shows their world delivered in a palatable manner. Finally, Battleship Potemkin. There is little need to say anything about this film. It is on my list because it is one of the first films to show the power of cinema and what it could achieve. Everyone talks about its use of montage, and is fantastically done. But it is also Brechtian in form, ie it is didactic. It wants to move viewers to feel differently and to act differently as a result of what they experience. As a result, it has been banned in many places. This film will always move people.

Latest from the BFI

  • Latest from the BFI

    Latest news, features and opinion.

More information

Films, TV and people

  • Films, TV and people

    Film lists and highlights from BFI Player.

More information

Sight & Sound magazine

  • Sight & Sound magazine

    Reviews, interviews and features from the international film magazine.

More information

Back to the top