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What I’ve learned from watching the best films of all time.

Anna Karina in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

(A note: I have recently added YouTube links for several of the films I mention. Dip your toe in for free!)

I mentioned last month that I’ve recently acquired a new app for my Apple TV. The Criterion Channel is the streaming version of the Criterion Collection of super-elite movies that have been restored, saved or otherwise rescued from undeserved obscurity. For $99 a year you can watch the films, along with thousands of profiles, commentaries, interviews and other extras connected to them.

As a film buff, this has been comparable to my marriage or the birth of my children in terms of the degree to which it has improved my life.

A little background: my brother is an even bigger film fan than I am (he studied film at NYU), so as a teenager I’d end up sponging his enthusiasm for the true greats. I’d always been into the kind of mainstream movies you’d find down the local Odeon, but thanks to Andrew I was the only person in my school who had seen Citizen Kane, Les Enfants Du Paradis and The Seven Samurai.

I continued to watch great films when they became available, but that meant waiting for them to appear at one of London’s repertory cinemas, such as The Scala or the NFT, or on TV (often interrupted by ads), or on video (alas, I often had better things on which to spend a tenner). Years later, my wife and I would go to see Hiroshima Mon Amour or the NFT’s Carl Dreyer season, but once we had kids that became increasingly difficult.

So things went a little off the boil. My brother would ask me to bring Criterion Edition DVDs back from work trips to LA, but they now seemed dauntingly obscure, and there were almost too many to know where to begin rekindling my interest.

That all changed this year when HBO became HBO Max, incorporating a good chunk of Turner Classic Movies’ offerings (Cassavetes, Dr Zhivago, Giant etc.). I was surprised at the extent to which this thrilled me, but I was genuinely delighted at having dozens of proper classics available at the touch of a button, especially under cinema-free lockdown.

Then my film buff (screenwriter) neighbour reminded me of the Criterion Channel, which had launched a year earlier. I had a look, signed up for the free trial, and have barely watched anything else since.

I started off somewhat at random, checking out films I’d heard of but hadn’t quite got around to watching. The channel has a handy section called ‘Art-House Essentials’, so I could see what they regarded as the classics di tutti classics, and quickly got a bit obsessed by Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho The Bailiff, Ugetsu, 47 Ronin etc). I was surprised to discover that very, very slow Japanese films about making a decision to avenge a samurai master are indeed my jam.

After a few of those I decided I needed a bit more structure, so I looked up the famous Sight and Sound list of the top 100 films of all time. It’s a survey they take every decade, when the year ends in a ‘2’ (I’m already slightly giddy at the thought of the 2022 version), and incorporates a list voted for by international critics, and another 100 voted for by directors who aren’t Michael Bay.

I can’t remember how many of the two lists I hadn’t seen (many films make both lists, but there are quite a few that only feature in one or the other. For example, directors like John Cassavetes much more than critics do), but I think it was close to fifty, and included masterworks (obviously) from directors whose work I had never seen. Among these, Robert Bresson has three films on the lists, including Au Hasard Balthazar, Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. Antonioni has L’Avventura and L’Eclise. Tarkovsky has Andrei Rublev, Mirror and Stalker. The list literally goes on and on.

The really interesting ones were the one-offs from directors I hadn’t even heard of. Have you seen Satantango, Bela Tarr’s 7-hour-20-minute black-and-white Romanian film about the disintegration of a community farm? Of course not, but it’s fucking brilliant! Honestly! Or Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 3 1/2 hour film about the day-to-day routines of a Belgian housewife and occasional prostitute (also utterly brilliant)? Well, you’re missing out. Close Up, The Colour of Pomegranates, The Earrings of Madame de…, Yi Yi. The very best of Taiwan, Iran, Senegal, India…

It’s been a journey that has taught me much, so here are eleven lessons I’ve been able to take from The Criterion Channel to the rest of my life:

  1. Don’t judge a film by anything until you’ve seen it. Yes, I know avoiding Adam Sandler movies (except for Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems) is good advice, but if you let your preconceptions dictate your tastes, you’re going to miss out on a lot. Dismiss obvious dross, but if you can keep an open mind you might find yourself wondering why a film about the Romanian abortion system of the late-1980s is as affecting and heartbreaking as anything Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made.
  2. I was surprised at how many of these films were derided or even hated on their initial release (I read the Wikipedia page of each one). It might just be a difference of opinion, but the makers of movies whose work went unappreciated for years were often reassessed to the very top table decades later. So don’t worry if everyone thinks that what you do is shit; you might just be ahead of your time.
  3. The experiences of humans are universal. Films made long ago about stories set long ago in far-off locations can be just as relatable as films shot down the road this year. If you want proof try Andrei Rublev, a Russian film made in the sixties about a fifteenth-century painter of churches. It’s full of entirely understandable bravado, jealousy, risk, despair, shame, hope and triumph.
  4. Other people saying things are great forces you to look a bit deeper for that greatness. These films are what the biggest film fans, with the greatest contextual knowledge, consider to be the best of the best of the best of the best. They didn’t all float my boat, but there was at least something great to be found in each one. I have found the same with lists of great albums, or pictures in the National Gallery.
  5. Some of the films seemed to find themselves in this company accidentally. Sure, their makers set out to produce something good, but did the director of La Maman et la Putain think his work would be considered alongside The Godfather or Battleship Potemkin? Unlikely.
  6. Oddly, this exercise has really made me want to make a film of my own. Perhaps it’s a symptom of how easy the true greats make greatness appear to be, but I honestly come away from them thinking it seems quite possible to add my own little offering to the list (I am clearly deluded).
  7. I was writing a novel at the same time as watching these films, and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that immersing my mind in brilliant characters, masterful stories and irreverent structure was very helpful for steering my own work in better directions.
  8. Many of the greats are films that are unlike anything that came before, and in many cases, anything that came since. The degree of originality still obvious in 1929’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is jaw-dropping. I know it’s easier to be original in the earlier days of an art form, but some of these films would still be stunningly fresh today.
  9. Almost all of the films took me into a world I had never experienced: the charming insanity of A Woman Under The Influence (1970s LA); the terse choppiness of a disintegrating marriage in A Journey To Italy (1950s Naples); the inside of an alien something-or-other in Stalker (1970s Russia). Deeply immersive, one and all. If you’re feeling cooped up, escape into a great film.
  10. You can become cine-literate in a few months. Some days I watched three of the films (Buster Keaton’s work, Zero De Conduite and Partie de Campagne are all well under an hour). I have yet to manage the ten hours of Shoah, but that’s only because I can’t find it. One or two a day would help to flush the Star Wars prequels out of your system.
  11. Things change. Look back at previous versions of the list and you’ll see that fashions for certain directors have come and gone. I think the critics have become more international, as have tastes in general, so there’s less Chaplin and Keaton than there used to be. And of course newer films are added that didn’t exist ten years before. It’s fascinating to see which of those made the cut, especially as many passed me by, even in years that I considered myself an avid film buff.

But not as much of a film buff as I am today. Thanks, Criterion Channel, and all the filmmakers who have committed something so wonderful to celluloid.

So if you really love me say yes, but if you don’t, dear confess, and please don’t tell me perhaps, perhaps, the weekend.

Why Mizoguchi is one the great directors.

Wall art from any image.

How long after the sell-by date can you eat stuff?

Data viz of sci-fi tropes.

The cost of owning any product over time.

Big Boi’s favourite verse:

Well I run to the rock. Please hide me I run to the rock. Please hide me I run to the rock. Please hide me, Lord, all on the weekend.

Winners of the International Photography Awards.

Goodfellas at 30.

Rolling Stone has redone its top 500 albums of all time.

Terms and conditions that are easier to understand.

And a tool that shows you exactly how stalker-y every site is.

Find movies that are like the movies you like.

The best free online learning, ranked.

UnChien Andalou:

Baby, look at me and tell me what you see. You ain’t seen the best of me yet. Give me time, I’ll make you forget the weekend.

Quarantine movie marquees.

Why kids love Roald Dahl and adults don’t.

The addictive science of crisps.

The inventor of the Rubik’s Cube.

Practice touch typing by retyping entire classic novels.

Listen to sounds from different forests around the world.

Cruising after King of the Streets:

Macarena has a boyfriend named Vitorino’s last name. That the boy swears in the flag swear. He gave it to the weekend.

Solve your Rubik’s Cube the easy(ish) way.

Turn typing into handwriting.

Surprising fun with physics.

New and old car owners’ manuals.

The Almighty Loaf:

If I was a sculptor, but then again, no. Or a man who makes potions in the weekend.

Find out where your city was millions of years ago.

How to survive in any natural environment.

Which great album should you listen to? Let the computer decide.

Add to an ongoing work of fiction.

How many balloons do you need to float?

The top 100 films of all time:


The second part of my chat with Paul.

iTunes link, Soundcloud link, direct play button:

ITIAPTWC Episode 66 Part 1 – Paul Rothwell

Paul would be far too modes to say this, but if you watched a brilliant ad from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, there’s a decent chance he had something to do with it.

As one of the founders of Gorgeous (2.0 – Chris Palmer had already been running a pre-Paul Gorgeous for a few years before he asked Frank Budgen and Paul to join him), he oversaw a peerless run of commercial brilliance that took in Cannes Grands Prix (plural), dozens of D&AD Pencils and a couple of DGA awards.

By 2009 Gorgeous had the unique distinction of having topped the Gunn Report Consolidated League Table of Most Awarded Commercials Production Company in The World every single year since the awards’ inception (1999-2009).

And in 2012 Gorgeous, now 15 years old,  was ranked as the Most Awarded Commercials Production Company of the last 50 years, by D&AD.

This top ten all-time production companies includes three that Paul had a significant hand in (Gorgeous (1), RSA (2), Paul Weiland (7), and the one he worked most with as an agency producer, Park Village (5).

Paul was also awarded the Fellowship of The British Arrows:

But they also made the ads the we all loved, admired, and made many of us want to get into the business.

We discuss all that, along with his earlier years producing on the agency side at BMP, where he first met Frank, and his time with Frank at The Paul Weiland Film Company, and a year running RSA, where he took on Chris Cunningham.

There was so much to discuss, we had to do it in two parts: the years up to Gorgeous, then the Gorgeous years.

If you want to see the work we discussed, most of it can be found on the Gorgeous site, where Frank still has an archive. Meanwhile, here are a few pictures from his own personal collection (including Frank Budgen’s storyboard for Playstation Mountain):

The annual Gorgeous Calendar. Putting the Mm into commercials.
Sony Bravia ‘Play Doh’
This is the storyboard for ‘Mountain’.
“The round skyscraper is the one we built the top of the mountain on for real. We built a scaffold cone on top, approx 20m in diameter/height,
 and then cloaked this with 150 stunt men to get the final tip of the Mountain shots, filmed from a crane on the roof and a helicopter. I was 
happy when we got the whole unit safely to the ground that evening.
We had over 700 stunt man days on that job, and 1400 extras.”
NSPCC ‘Cartoon’
Skoda ‘Cake’
Chris Palmer, 2007
Frank Budgen 2002
Paul Rothwell, Frank Budgen and John Webster on the set of Miller Lite ‘Heavy’, 1985.
John Webster, Frank Budgen and Roger Woodburn on set of Miller Lite ‘Heavy’, 1985.

He’s a lovely bloke. We had a lovely chat. Enjoy…

iTunes link, Soundcloud link, and button you can press right here (Because of the fun weirdness of WordPress, if you like the direct play button, there will be a separate post just above this one with the second part of our chat. iTunes and Soundcloud will have both parts):

A lonely mother gazing out of the window, staring at a son that she just can’t touch. If at any time he’s in a jam, she’ll be by the weekend.

Watch Netflix films with the screenplay alongside (thanks, D).

What does boredom do to us and for us?

The Australian mullet festival (thanks, J).

Inside Radiohead’s archiving mission.

Best free education on the internet in nice neat categories.

All the ways nature solves problems.

Make custom purrs.

Remember I’m the same one that they used to laugh at. Now they pay me for a feature just to school em like a teacher. Had a dream like Martin Luther having flashbacks. Now it’s translated here to the weekend.

Picking 24 billion cherries in eight weeks.

Have a virtual vacation.

A handy IMDB rating breakdown for all episodes of a series.

The Hendrix of the ukelele:

How Tarantino keeps you hooked: