List-making is an exercise in futility, but as futile exercises go, it’s one of the best. Over 10 brief bullet points, one maps out a condensed history of personal taste, a cartography of the canon made one’s own. I found it taxing and, by the end, exhausting, struck at every moment with crippling self-doubt. I wondered: Is my list exhaustive? Am I a victim of my own myopia? My confidence in these choices—which, truly, I love with all my heart—began to crumble under the pressure of a (I think universal) desire to not only be, but to seem worldly and omnivorous, to appear to have taken in everything and to conclude, finally, that these 10 films are definitively the best of all time. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I felt compelled to trade out canonical classics for idiosyncratic curveballs (though in the end I included a couple of both), but that while thinking through my favorites I couldn’t help but criticize myself for what was surely missing. Doubt gnaws away at you always, often like so: How much did I know about African cinema? Why are none of these 10 films directed by women? (Vagabond was a late and regrettable cut.) Why are there no silent films on my list? Are these films generally too recent? Should I feel guilty—and I mean this seriously—that each of these 10 films is an English-language narrative feature directed by a white male? What does that say about me as a person? Should I trade one of these films out for, say, Close-up, Paris Is Burning, or A Brighter Summer Day, each of which came extremely close to making the final cut but, alas, did not? The truth is that I don’t know. Maybe it makes me a shitty white critic with blinders on. But what I do know is this: I love these 10 films more than any other films in the world. I hope that’s enough.
10. Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994). Hoop Dreams is a four-hour documentary about the modest rise and fall of two teenaged basketball prodigies in inner-city Chicago. It’s also more classically well composed than 99% of conventional narrative fiction—in fact, a common (and correct) observation is that the story couldn’t have been any more interesting or dynamic had it been fabricated from nothing. Its pleasures seem nearly impossible to describe without resorting to simplistic declarations of awe: Indeed, Hoop Dreams really is riveting, arresting, thrilling, and unforgettable (all convenient pull quotes slathered across the film’s theatrical poster), which makes it sound like the explosive summer blockbuster it most assuredly isn’t. How often are issues like class, race, and (sometimes inadvertently) institutional oppression—all of them fundamental to the largely undiscussed operational mechanics of this country—engaged with deeply without being bogged down by finger-wagging didacticism?