One of the most annoying things about being a young critic – or just any young person who likes to talk about movies – is the pressure to pretend like you’ve already seen every great film ever made. Some of that is a purely self-imposed anxiety about sounding knowledgeable enough to justify your opinions, but mostly it’s the fairly explicit comments like “What!? How have you not seen X!?” or “Come back to me when you’ve watched Y, then maybe you’ll know what you’re talking about”.
But no one, not even Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino, has seen every great film ever made, even when you leave aside that anywhere between 70% and 90% of films made before 1929 are lost. The last time anyone could conceivably watch ever film every made was the early 1930s, and more great films have probably gone unnoticed or forgotten than will ever be recognised. People have families and friends and interests and jobs and also just can’t physically stare at screens for a long time with no breaks. Even if you could somehow make time to watch a film every day, not including new ones, it would take you years to make a dent in the canon of great American cinema, let alone every other country, let alone alternative, experimental and avant-garde film, let alone all the great movies that were dismissed on release and have yet to be rehabilitated by dorks like us.
You don’t have to pretend to have seen all the “great” or “important” films to think, speak or write about movies. We sure haven’t. You can find out our favourite new releases of the year when we post the Sundae Film Awards 2018 in March, but we’re ending 2017 with a look back on the best films we saw this year that didn’t come out this year.
These films are great, and you should watch them. But it’s not a big deal if you don’t.
City Lights (1931)
Ciara: “I watched all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature-length silent films this year, and I loved all of them, laughing and sobbing until my throat hurt. But out of all those brilliant, special films, City Lights stands apart as the most brilliant and most special. It was Chaplin’s first film made after the end of the silent era, and by rights, it should seem like it’s clinging to a vanished past, stubborn and nostalgic. Instead, it pushes forward: making use of sound effects and music without throwing out all the unique arts of silent film. It’s incredibly funny and romantic and sad. If you don’t cry at the end, you’re probably a monster.”
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Dean: “A Matter of Life and Death would be a great film if it was just blunt and beautiful spectacle. Its colours are so rich, its lighting so vibrant, and its set design so needlessly and gloriously excessive that it commands your attention from the first shot. But it’s a masterpiece because that visual beauty is in service of more than itself. It’s a shamelessly sentimental film – sweet, sappy, sincere – with lots of old-fashioned dry wit and good-hearted, decent characters. ‘Necessary’ is one of the most boring things you can call a film and A Matter of Life and Death is a good example of why. No one needed to make this film, but thank God they did.”
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Ciara: “Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s film about poverty in post-war Italy, is heart-wrenching. I watched it this year when I was working my way through the Vatican’s film list during Lent, where Bicycle Thieves is recommended under ‘Values’. That’s in part because it’s a film about how you shouldn’t steal, I guess, but I think it’s mostly because it’s about how societies punish people for being poor. Antonio pawns his bedsheets to buy a bicycle that he can’t get a job without, but all it takes is one bad break – like a kid stealing his bicycle – to ruin the small life he’s made for himself.”
Dean: “Yojimbo is maybe the best film ever made with nothing to say about the world. There is no deeper meaning to it than the sheer enjoyment of watching a story unfold – the plot exists to move the characters and the characters exist to move the plot. Everything about it is the way it is because it’s cool. The score is cool. The action is cool. Toshiro Mifune is exceptionally cool as the title character. People often use the notion of movies as ‘just entertainment’ to dismiss criticism of bad filmmaking in modern action films. Yojimbo is the counterpoint, a piece of undistilled entertainment and a work of pure art that instantly became one of my favourite movies of all time.”
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Ciara: “Midnight Cowboy has a Waiting for Godot quality, which is one of the best compliments I give: two men in poverty and desperation with nothing to cling onto but one another. A lot of people seem to think it has lost its impact over the years, but for my money, it’s as powerful as ever. The direction still feels inventive and disorientating, the writing and performances still intimate and heartbreaking. Tiny moments – Ratso saying ‘You know what they do to ya when… when they find out that you can’t walk,’ or when Joe wipes Ratso’s face with his shirttail (and Ratso clings to his exposed belly) – tear me up inside just to remember.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Ciara: “I watched Wrath of Khan immediately after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I loved The Motion Picture so much that I was afraid I wouldn’t like Wrath of Khan, because I like Star Trek slow-moving and philosophical, and the consensus that The Motion Picture sucks made me very wary of the consensus. But it turns out that Wrath of Khan is maybe-perfect. It’s great as a Star Trek – both in the sense of dealing with moral issues and in its portrayal of Kirk, Spock and McCoy – and great as a stand-alone film in its own right. I knew the ending before I watched it, but I still cried. And didn’t stop thinking about it for a week.”
Wings of Desire (1987)
Dean: “Sometimes you can see where directors get even their most bizarre ideas, and sometimes you’re watching Wings of Desire, the tale of two invisible mind-reading angels in Berlin who silently and powerlessly observe humanity…and Peter Falk, as himself, making a movie about the Holocaust. Wim Wenders’ strange serenade to his homeland’s capital was one of the more moving films I’ve seen this or any year, a story about the desperate need for connection, the sublime and transformative power of art, and the importance of libraries, where Columbo jokes and suicide exist side by side in perfect and perplexing harmony.”
They Live (1988)
Ciara: “Calling They Live an anti-capitalist satire is underselling it. It’s a horror film about a ruling class that demolish shanty towns and use subliminal messages to keep the underclass passive and go on TV to say that it’s morning in America. It would be a pretty amazing film even if it was all crap except for the gloriously long fist fight and the scene where Roddy Piper puts on the sunglasses that reveal the world as it truly is. But every second is extraordinary. Around about every ten minutes or so, I said, out loud to an empty room, ‘I love this film.’ It’s a masterpiece.”
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Dean: “I’ve never been much of a documentary guy, but I made time for a couple this year, and the one that most persuaded me to keep making time was Paris Is Burning, a snapshot of New York’s ball scene in the late 1980s, right before it was transformed by mainstream recognition (e.g. the popularisation of voguing). It’s many things: a historical record of drag traditions; a thoughtful look at how sexuality, gender, race and class interact; an account of artists trying to make it in the big city. But, at its core, it’s about poor black and Latino LGBT people trying (and, in at least one case, failing) to stay alive in Reagan’s America, a story that remains depressingly relevant almost thirty years later.”
Spring Breakers (2012)
Dean: “Springs Breakers is beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, but, more than anything, it’s probably the best-edited film I’ve seen this year. The plot is simple – four college students go to Florida for spring break, crime ensues – and each of the film’s three acts repeats the same basic narrative structure, only more so: the stakes get higher, the action more intense, the characters more disturbingly themselves. Voiceovers are reused and remixed in new contexts and combinations that change their meaning over time. Everything escalates and degrades all at once, until you barely recognise where it all began. I didn’t expect to love Spring Breakers, but it gripped me from the word go and I only fell deeper under its thrall the longer I watched.”