Last year, the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine conducted its once-a-decade poll to determine the greatest films of all time. As usual, the results were divided into two sections: one for the critics’ votes, and the other for the filmmakers’. The latter put Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey at the top, displacing Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which itself had displaced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The former had their own reign of Kane, which came to an end in 2012 with the rise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. All these pictures are well-known classics of cinema, and even if you haven’t seen them, you may feel as if you have. But did you have the same reaction to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles when it came out number one in the critics poll last year?
This month, the BFI published a new list of 101 films that make Jeanne Dielman look like Home Alone. Léontine’s Electric Battery, My Survival as an Aboriginal, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, Qabyo 2, and all the rest of these “hidden gems” received just one vote in the latest S&S poll, meaning that just one participating critic or filmmaker ranks it among the ten best films ever made.
“Hailing from every continent but Antarctica and spanning more than 120 years, this selection is, in its way, as representative of the riches of cinema history as that other list we released at the end of last year,” writes contributor Thomas Flew. “Fiction rubs shoulders with nonfiction, films made by collectives sit alongside hand-crafted animation, and a healthy dose of comedy sidles up to heartbreaking drama — and then there are the films that defy all categorization.”
On this list you’ll find lesser-known works from brand-name directors like Oliver Assayas, whose Cold Water is to cinema “what The Catcher in the Rye is to literature,” or Kathryn Bigelow, whose The Loveless, “set in a generic 1950s Americana landscape, is saturated with libido, candid charm and formal invention.” Other films come recommended by major auteurs: Apichatpong Weerasethakul describes Bruce Baillie’s Quick Billy as “Muybridge’s horse resurrected, experiencing death, rebirth and death once more”; Guy Maddin picks Desire Me, which had four different directors, and “all of them were foolish enough to take their names off this thing because it’s pretty wild”; the late Terence Davies praises Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed as a film in which “America has never seemed bleaker or less romantic.”
Perhaps you’re the type of cinephile who can imagine no more compelling recommendation than “David Lynch cites it as the first movie he remembers watching,” which Beatrice Loyaza writes of Henry King’s Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie. Or perhaps you’re more intrigued by Henry Blake’s endorsement of Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby: “If you can get past the incest and violence in the first 45 minutes of this film, it is an achingly powerful story about love and it urges the audience to never give up on anyone.” This is not to say that all of the BFI’s hidden gems are harrowing spectacles, though it’s a safe bet that none of them offer a viewing experience quite like any you’ve ever had before — except, perhaps, the earliest one, Le chat qui joue by cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, a “cat video” avant la lettre.
Explore the BFI’s list of hidden gems here.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.