Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The greatest films of all time? The 2022 Sight and Sound critics poll

Jeanne Dielman

The British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine has just released its once-a-decade critics' poll of the greatest films of all time. This is the eighth edition of the poll, and has some notable differences with earlier versions. [1]

But before I dive in, a brief preamble on the absurdity of "best of" lists, and especially best-of lists that compare works that are unlike (musical comedies, say, with documentaries), and most especially best-of lists that are numerically ranked. I'm not unaware that I've just finished providing lists of my favorite recordings, performances, books and movies enjoyed in 2022. But my lists make no claims that the works I've singled out as my favorites are "best" or "greatest," simply that, out of the tiny sample of the works I've personally experienced, they have given me the greatest pleasure—an obviously subjective and variable criterion. Also, my lists are generally not numerically ranked.

At most, ranked polls can provide a snapshot of the current average critical taste, but as we all know, critical tastes change, in part in response to cultural shifts. Of course, whose opinion the poll represents has also changed. In 1952 the poll was compiled from the ten-best lists of 63 critics from Britain, the U.S., and Europe; in 2022 the voting pool had expanded to "more than 1,600 of the most influential international film critics, academics, distributors, writers, curators, archivists and programmers," according to the BFI website. Finally, in 1952 it had been only 50 years since George Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (our distance from The Godfather and Cabaret); in 2022 the poll participants could select their ten best films from well over a century of world cinema. More than three-quarters of the films on the 2022 list had not yet been made in 1952.

So it's not surprising that in each decade the "greatest films of all time" change. Fully seven of the top 10 selected in 1952 are missing from the top 100 in 2022. These include Chaplin's The Gold Rush (#2 in 1952), Erich von Stroheim's Greed and Marcel Carné's Le jour se lève (tied at #7 in 1952), and David Lean's Brief Encounter (#10 in 1952). (Brief Encounter was one of my Favorites of 2011: Movies, and both it and The Gold Rush would be on the list of my favorite 100 films.)

Some changes, of course, are positive ones, and it's great to see women and Black filmmakers getting more recognition in the 2022 list. Making appearances for the first time:

  • Agnès Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7, #14; The Gleaners and I, #67)
  • Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, #16)
  • Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, #24, my choice for the true Best Picture of 1989)
  • Věra Chytilová (Daisies, #28, which I called "essential viewing")
  • Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady, #30, one of my Favorites of 2021: Movies)
  • Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, #43)
  • Barbara Loden (Wanda, #48) 
  • Jane Campion (The Piano, #50)
  • Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, #60)
  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, #60)
  • Jordan Peele (Get Out, #95, an honorable mention in my Favorites of 2017: Movies). 

I suspect that there are some highly-ranked films in the 2022 poll that won't maintain their current positions in future polls. Five among them (limiting my comments to films I've seen):

  • Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (#1): Laura Mulvey writes in her essay about this film, "Interest in gender in cinema and the objectification of women has gathered momentum, especially as awareness of the misogyny inherent in the industrial mode of production–what we call 'Hollywood'–has become widespread. [Of course, misogyny, sexual coercion and assault are rampant not only in 'Hollywood.'] Perhaps as the oppression of women in the film industry has attracted attention, fuelled by the #MeToo hashtag, so has the oppression of women on the screen itself, in its fictions and inscribed into film language." So perhaps #MeToo has now brought to the fore issues that Chantal Akerman depicted in Jeanne Dielman nearly half a century ago (although its importance has long been recognized; it was #73 in the 2002 poll and #36 in the 2012 poll). But is Jeanne Dielman the greatest film ever made, whatever that might mean? I have my doubts, and suspect that it is the "greatest film of all time" for our present moment.
  • David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (#8): My choice for the true Best Picture of 2001. I've written that it is "a dreamlike neo-noir that turns nightmarish. Lynch masterfully creates an atmosphere of suspense and dread." But the eighth-best movie ever made? I think even putting it in the top 100 might be a stretch.
  • John Ford's The Searchers (#15): Jonathan Lethem has written that "The Searchers is racist the way Huckleberry Finn is racist," and perhaps it is as complex and self-critical as he claims. Or perhaps another of his descriptions of the film, that it involves "giddy misogyny. . .[and] willful racism," is closer to the mark. I've only seen The Searchers once, when I was in college, and giddy misogyny and willful racism seem like pretty accurate descriptions of what I remember seeing that night. A film long overdue for critical re-evaluation.
  • Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire (#30): an excellent film, but is it really better than (to choose almost at random) Ugetsu Monogatari (#95), Modern Times (#78), Metropolis (#67), La Jetée (#67), Sherlock Jr. (#54), M (#36), or City Lights (#36)?
  • Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (#45): I think Kubrick's adaptation of Thackeray's novel is generally underrated and may deserve a place on this list, but in my version it would take the place of The Shining (#88). And while we're on the subject of Kubrick, why is Dr. Strangelove (#5 in 1982, and one of my ten favorite films) missing entirely?

Not only did Dr. Strangelove somehow fail to make the top 100, but the list is also lacking a number of other films and filmmakers. In alphabetical order, here are 15 directors that are absent from the list (and yes, I'm aware that they're all men):

  • Pedro Almodóvar, one of the most visually distinctive filmmakers of the past four decades. Are neither Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown nor All About My Mother, to name just two, worthy of inclusion?
  • Sergei Bondarchuk, War and Peace, one of my Favorites of 2019: Movies. This seven-hour, four-film epic includes vast spectacle—battle scenes featuring tens of thousands of extras—as well as emotionally intimate scenes where fates turn on a single remark or glance.
  • Luis Buñuel, the writer and director of, among others, Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or, Los Olvidados, The Exterminating Angel, Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire. A case could be made for any of these to be on the list.
  • René Clair, À nous la liberté! (Give us freedom!), "his great masterpiece," although it was Clair's Le Million that tied with Renoir's La Règle de jeu and Lean's Brief Encounter at #10 in 1952. (In the 2022 list La Règle de jeu is #13; Le Million and Brief Encounter do not appear at all.)
  • Jean Cocteau, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast). The images of the Beast's castle are utterly magical.
  • David Cronenberg, director of Naked Lunch, the brilliant film of William Burroughs' unfilmable novel, as well as The Fly, Crash, eXistenZ, and A History of Violence.
  • Jules Dassin, blacklist victim and director of The Naked City, Night and the City, and Rififi.
  • Louis Feuillade, writer-director of the silent-film serials Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex. If these were excluded because the episodes are not feature-length, I'll just point out that the great La Jetée (#67, and one of my ten favorite films) is less than half an hour long.
  • Wojciech Has, The Saragossa Manuscript, which realizes onscreen the intricate, looping narrative structure of Jan Potocki's great 1815 novel.
  • Werner Herzog, director of, among others, the movies Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and the documentaries Lessons of Darkness, The Transformation of the World into Music, Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, Grizzly Man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Wings of Hope, Wheel of Time, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
  • Jean-Pierre Melville, director of Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Samouraï, and Army of Shadows.
  • Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve, which I called "the best of Sturges' movies"—that is, one of the greatest of all Hollywood comedies.
  • Wim Wenders, director of Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, and the documentaries Pina and The Salt of the Earth.
  • Zhang Yimou, director of Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, and his masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern, as well as Hero and The House of Flying Daggers.

Of course, my questions about the poll don't end there. A number of movies that usually wind up on such lists are missing from this one, and for at least some of the following films I would correct the omission in my own favorites list:

  • F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (#11) is on the list, but where is the horror classic Nosferatu?
  • Ingmar Bergman's Persona (#18) is his only film on the list, which omits art-house perennials Autumn Sonata, Fanny and Alexander, The Seventh Seal, Scenes from a Marriage (possibly ineligible because it was originally made for television), Smiles of a Summer Night, and Wild Strawberries (#10 in 1972).
  • Satyajit Ray is represented by Pather Panchali (#35), but Charulata, The Chess Players, Mahanagar, The Music Room, or The World of Apu could be additional choices. And while we're on the subject of Indian directors, shouldn't Bimal Roy (Parineeta, Devdas, Bandini) and Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (dance scenes; dialogue scenes directed by Abrar Alvi)) also receive recognition? That one of the largest and most vibrant film industries in the world is represented by one film by one director is a major oversight.
  • Noir is represented by Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (#78), Carol Reed's The Third Man (#63), and perhaps Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (#2), but also possibly worthy are Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (another of my ten favorite films), John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, Charles Vidor's Gilda, Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai, or Wilder's Double Indemnity, my choice for the true Best Picture of 1944.
  • Jean-Luc Godard's takes on the 1960s Pierrot le fou (#84) and Le Mépris (Contempt, #54) make the list, but should Mike Nichols' iconic The Graduate also find a place?

I can't help agreeing with the sentiments of the anonymous reviewer for the The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent Supplement in 1899, who wrote, "Most of the numerous attempts to draw up a list of the hundred best [works]. . .have been distressing failures." We can look forward to a Sight and Sound "greatest films of all time" list that fails differently in 2032.

Update 6 January 2023: The Guardian is reporting that Ni Zhen, the 84-year-old screenwriter of Raise the Red Lantern (1991), died last month. The cause of death was not announced, but the lede states that "A spate of deaths among celebrities and public figures across China has sparked concerns that the actual death toll from Covid-19 may be far higher than authorities are reporting."

  1. In this post I will follow the naming conventions of Sight and Sound, in which foreign-language titles are often (but not always) translated into English.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Favorites of 2022: Movies and television

Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) and Granny (Angela Lansbury) in The Company of Wolves. Image source: CBS News

Given the flow and ebb and flow of COVID cases and the couldn't-care-less approach to mask-wearing that has become widespread (and, no doubt, is spreading widely), we're not going back to movie theaters for the foreseeable future. The only other way to see current movies (as well as most television series) is to subscribe to streaming platforms, which we also don't do. DVD releases are delayed (often, it seems, permanently), and so it's becoming harder and harder for us to see films released in the past twelve months. 

Public libraries have come to the rescue (as they so often do) by providing some current offerings through services such as Kanopy and Hoopla. But for those of us still wedded to physical media these are rich days for hunting, as people dump their (or their parents') collections. So, as I've been picking up DVDs for a song at various sales, the past year for us has been one largely of rediscovery. In previous Favorites lists I have focussed almost exclusively on movies and television shows viewed for the first time in the past 12 months, but for 2022 that would leave me with a list only a few items long. So this year I am listing my favorite viewing over the past twelve months, whether it was a watch or a rewatch, ordered chronologically. Two of the films that made my list, The Company of Wolves and Goodfellas, were rewatched in tribute to actors who sadly passed away in 2022, Angela Lansbury and Ray Liotta.


City Lights (1931). Starring Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, and Harry Myers; written, directed, and score composed by Charlie Chaplin. (First seen in the early 1980s.)

Perhaps this is a film that needs no recommendation. It is #36 on the just-announced 2022 Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, and #11 on the 2007 version of the American Film Institute's "100 Years. . .100 movies" list (up from #76 on the 1998 poll, just behind (egad) Dances with Wolves). In case you somehow haven't seen it yet, the plot is simple, but describing it doesn't capture what makes the film so affecting.

Chaplin's Tramp saves a rich drunkard (Harry Myers) from suicide, and is befriended by him—at least, whenever he's drunk. When he sobers up, he no longer recognizes the Tramp and kicks him out of his house. One day on the street the Tramp encounters a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who mistakes him for a rich man; the Tramp falls in love. From these two threads Chaplin weaves an emotionally rich tapestry full of ironic contrasts: the selfish rich and the generous poor; the sighted who avoid seeing the suffering all about them, and the sightless who perceive it all too clearly. The film ends with one of the most pathos-filled scenes in cinema; if you can watch it with dry eyes, you are made of stronger stuff than I am.

The Company of Wolves (1984). Starring Sarah Patterson and Angela Lansbury; written by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan, based on Carter's short story "The Company of Wolves" from The Bloody Chamber and other adult tales (1979); directed by Jordan. (First seen in 1984.)

The Company of Wolves, like the Arabian Nights, nests stories within stories. Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), a girl on the brink of adulthood, falls asleep and dreams a series of fearful fairy tales recounted by her superstitious grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Her grandmother warns Rosaleen of the beasts that lurk within men, and the danger of straying from the path. But Rosaleen's mother (Tusse Silberg) assures her, "If there's a beast in men, it meets its match in women too." And what if Red Riding Hood encounters a devilishly handsome wolf. . .?

GoodFellas (1990). Starring Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro; written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, based on Pileggi's book Wiseguy; directed by Scorsese. (First seen in 1990.)

Speaking of devilishly handsome wolves, Ray Liotta gives one of the best performances of his career as Henry Hill, a mobster who can never become a "made man" because of his Irish, rather than Sicilian, origins. Liotta somehow makes Hill—a brutal, mercenary opportunist—an appealing figure. We watch him slowly rise through the ranks, a career made perilous not only because he could be arrested at any moment, but also because his own compatriots in the mob might turn against him at any time. The "Do you think I'm funny?" scene, where Hill laughs at a story being told by Joe Pesci's psychotic gangster Tommy DeVito, only for the mood to change in an instant to one of deadly seriousness, is chilling.

Would it be heresy to say that Goodfellas is Scorsese's best film? The 2022 Sight and Sound poll thinks that honor belongs to Taxi Driver (1976, #29), which is certainly memorable, and the 2007 version of AFI's "100 Years. . .100 movies" list thinks it's Raging Bull (1980, #4). But when contemplating another rewatch I think I would reach for Goodfellas instead of either of those more critically acclaimed films.

Honorable Mention:

Bad Education (2004). Starring Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, and Daniel Giménez Cacho; written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. (First seen in 2022.)

Drawing on elements of film noir, Almodóvar's Bad Education is filled with twists, turns, assumed identities, and obsession. Enrique (Fele Martínez), a film director looking for a new project, receives a visit from Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), an actor looking for work. Ignacio claims to be Enrique's first lover. The two met in boarding school and began a clandestine relationship, but were separated when Ignacio was expelled; they haven't seen each other since. Ignacio, now a transgender woman, has written a story entitled "The Visit," which he wants Enrique to make into a movie with himself as the star. "The Visit" details Ignacio's molestation at boarding school by a priest, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and his attempt as an adult to blackmail the priest for the money for gender-reassignment surgery. But despite Ignacio's intimate knowledge of Enrique's past, is he really who he claims to be? 

Bad Education echoes aspects of classic films noir such as Out of the Past (1947) and Vertigo (1958). But for me the film it most closely resembles is the neo-noir Mulholland Drive (2001). As in David Lynch's film, in Bad Education there are so many layers of fictionality that it can become unclear in which narrative a scene is taking place, whether in the frame story, "The Visit," or in the film that Enrique ultimately makes (and that we, evidently, are watching). Immediately after seeing the film my partner and I discovered that we had very different interpretations of certain scenes. A movie that probably needs to be rewatched several times to untangle.


Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides: Working with Time (2004). Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. (First seen in 2004.)

A fascinating look at the artist Andy Goldsworthy, who makes site-specific works entirely of found natural materials. We see Goldsworthy painstakingly creating both small-scale, ephemeral works, such as his icicle sculptures, as well as large-scale permanent installations such as his mortarless serpentine rock walls. Rivers and Tides, by allowing us to follow Goldsworthy's intricate process and by capturing both the creation and (often) disintegration of his environmental pieces, is a truer representation of his art than still photographs. Essential viewing if you are interested in art, or nature.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021). Written by Celeste Bell, Paul Sng, and Zoe Howe; directed by Bell and Sng. (First seen in 2022.)

In my 2011 memorial post on Poly Styrene I wrote that "as a teenager she was the lead singer and songwriter for one of the best punk bands ever, X-Ray Spex. She was a nonconformist even among the rebels and misfits of punk rock: she was short, wore braces, wasn't rail-thin, designed her own clothes (often in bright colors, an anomaly in punk), and was multi-racial. She was smart, wickedly funny (her lyrics are great), and absolutely electrifying onstage. Her voice was and will remain unforgettable."

I Am a Cliché (named after the title of the B-side of X-Ray Spex's first single, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!") is a biographical documentary made by Poly Styrene's daughter Celeste Bell and collaborators. It's an attempt to come to terms with her mother's legacy: her brief period of notoriety with her band X-Ray Spex, followed by decades during which she was a Hare Krishna devotée and struggled with bipolar disorder. A compelling film on multiple levels, it adds another dimension to the excellent Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, one of my Favorites of 2022: Books.


Gentleman Jack (2019-22). Starring Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle, and Gemma Jones; created by Sally Wainwright, based on the books Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, and Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833–1836 by Jill Liddington. (First seen in 2022.)

Gentleman Jack dramatizes four key years in the life of Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), a Yorkshire estate owner whose coded diaries, once deciphered, revealed her sexual relationships with many of the single and married women of her acquaintance. Over the period covered by the series, Anne returns to her estate, Shibden Hall; meets, seduces, and makes a symbolic marriage with a local heiress, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle); and struggles against the suspicions of Ann's relatives and the hostility of their neighbors.

The series follows fairly closely what we know of Anne's life (and thanks to her diaries, that's a great deal), although it does add a number of unnecessary subplots in an attempt to heighten "dramatic interest," especially in Season 1; as the producers ultimately realized, Anne's story is fascinating enough by itself. I wrote in "No historical interest whatever: Anne Lister, part 6" that "a key reason to watch the show is the performance of Suranne Jones as Anne, who, naturally enough, is in virtually every scene of every episode. Unafraid to be unsympathetic (although the character softens a bit as the series progresses), Jones is an arresting presence onscreen. It's unfortunate that it looks as though Season 2 will be the last opportunity to see her dynamic portrayal of Anne Lister; in June it was announced that HBO would not renew Gentleman Jack."

Honorable mention:

The Best of Thunderbirds (1965-66). Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. (First seen a long time ago.)

"Thunderbirds are Go!" A product of the techno-optimism of the 1960s, the puppet series Thunderbirds ("Filmed in Videcolor and Supermarionation") mesmerized me as a young boy. Now that I'm a few years older, I am still amazed by the lavish detail of the sets, props, and special effects.

The immensely wealthy former astronaut Jeff Tracy has created the International Rescue team with his five sons Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, and John (any resemblance to the Mercury 7 astronauts Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grissom, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, and John Glenn is purely intentional). From their private Tracy Island in the South Pacific (um, isn't the South Pacific the farthest point on average from everyone on Earth?), International Rescue launches its fleet of Thunderbird machines—a swing-wing rocket plane (Thunderbird 1), a huge cargo plane (Thunderbird 2), a rocket (Thunderbird 3), and a submersible (Thunderbird 4)—whenever danger threatens. Their actions are coordinated by Thunderbird 5, a space station usually manned by John.

Of course, we're in a future world where, for example, Jeff thinks nothing of launching Thunderbird 3 to send Alan's girlfriend Tin-Tin to meet him Paris for the weekend (in the James-Bond-like episode "The Perils of Penelope"), and passenger airliners are powered by nuclear reactors ("Trapped in the Sky"). (My partner and I couldn't help wincing at the huge environmental impact of International Rescue.) Some of the episodes seem, in retrospect, eerily prescient: in "Sun Probe" a crew of solarnauts loses control of their ship and plummets helplessly into the sun, anticipating the Apollo 13 accident; and in "Terror in New York City" the Empire State Building collapses, a pre-echo of the destruction of the World Trade Center. If you can overlook the Orientalist tropes—one of the main villains in the series is Hood, a criminal mastermind with a Malaysian lair—the series can be enjoyed for its sophisticated, film-like mise-en-scène, pre-CGI props and special effects, and technologically preposterous storylines.

Should you be interested in seeing the original of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's parody Team America: World Police (2004), the entire Thunderbirds series is available on YouTube, "free with ads."

Other Favorites of 2022:

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Favorites of 2022: Books

Ada Leverson Vittoria Tesi Anne Lister

This year I became involved in three extensive reading and research projects: the first on the Edwardian novelist Ada Leverson; the second on the the first black prima donna, the 18th-century contralto Vittoria Tesi; and the third on the 19th-century women-loving landowner Anne Lister.  So my list of favorite books first read this year is weighted more heavily towards nonfiction than usual. The list is alphabetical by author within each category, and titles link to the full E&I post if there is one.


Cover of The Little Ottleys

Ada Leverson: The Little Ottleys: Love's Shadow, Tenterhooks, Love at Second Sight (1908, 1912, 1916; Virago/Dial, 1983)

I feared that I would find Ada Leverson's novels of social and emotional dilemmas among the Edwardian privileged classes, who are depicted in all their insularity and entitlement, to be more annoying than amusing. But I needn't have worried: her portrait of the marital constraints that male vanity and obtuseness place on intelligent and deeply-feeling women is quietly devastating. Leverson, an intimate of Oscar Wilde, wrote with sharp wit and keen observation about characters who are torn between observing social proprieties and seizing their fleeting chances of happiness.

cover of The Romance of the Forest

Ann Radcliffe: The Romance of the Forest (1791; Oxford World's Classics, 1999)

Honorable mention:

Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794; Oxford World's Classics, 1980)

A young heroine is held against her will in a remote, decaying abbey, or mansion, or castle. She is at the mercy of a sinister older man with designs on her fortune, or person, or both. Subject to uncanny occurrences and apparitions, discovering secret documents and hidden doorways, she slowly unearths the fatal secrets hidden in the rooms, vaults, and labyrinthine passageways of her prison. One of Radcliffe's recurring devices is the heroine's ultimate recognition that the apparently supernatural phenomena she encounters all have rational explanations.

This template of the Gothic novel, so brilliantly parodied by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, was not invented by Radcliffe; Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron, 1777) had developed its elements first. But Radcliffe brought it to a kind of perfection in The Romance of the Forest.

While The Romance of the Forest made Radcliffe's reputation, it was her next novels, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), that won her a wide readership. As Austen's hero Henry Tilney says in Northanger Abbey, "'The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.'"

This past year I also read Udolpho, but I confess it took me considerably longer than two days. Udolpho, nearly twice as long as Romance, is padded with many more descriptions of sublime nature scenes. It also has some story lines that end anticlimactically—for example, when the heroine Emily finally manages to escape from the castle of Udolpho and her persecutor Montoni, but decides to give up the escape attempt and voluntarily return to captivity (one of several places in the book where it feels like Radcliffe had second thoughts). There is also the secret of the Black Veil, which is drawn out over the course of the novel to hold the reader in suspense, but whose revelation does not justify 400 pages of buildup. Ultimately I found Udolpho, despite its many effective scenes, to be a less-taut reworking of the elements of The Romance of the Forest.

Biggest disappointment:

Cover of Ripley Under Ground

Patricia Highsmith: Ripley Under Ground (1970; Everyman's Library, 1999)

I first read Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and its sequels about 20 years ago, and found their portrait of the psychopathic Tom Ripley to be weirdly compelling. Over the course of the five Ripley novels—The Talented Mr. Ripley was followed by Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley's Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991)—we see Ripley treating everyone he meets as either a means to an end (money, pleasure) or as a threat to be eliminated.

When I found the omnibus Everyman edition of the first three Ripley novels at a library sale, I thought it might be time to revisit the series. And at first I wasn't disappointed: The Talented Mr. Ripley largely held up. There are some unlikely phone conversations between friends of the missing Dickie Greenleaf and Ripley masquerading as Dickie; are Dickie's and Ripley's voices really so much alike? But Highsmith's brilliant technique is to make Ripley her protagonist, so that our readerly identification is with, and our anxiety centered on, a brutal and amoral murderer.

Ripley Underground does enrich Ripley's world: we see him at his obsessively tasteful French country house, Belle Ombre, and learn of his ornamental, rich, bisexual and (probably) promiscuous French wife, Heloise (she is said to have her own "adventures" among her circle of friends). In her absolute self-involvement she seems the perfect complement to Ripley (and suspicions of his criminality may play a role in her attraction to him).

The plot centers on the threatened exposure of art forgery ring that Ripley has masterminded. But implausibilities abound, including oddly incurious police, a rudimentary but magically effective disguise, a miraculous escape from under two tons of wet earth, and the transportation of a blackened, bloody chunk of human remains to prove a death—an act that would surely result in immediate arrest. It feels as though Highsmith simply could not be bothered to imagine more convincing action. In particular, the cremation scene seems to exist primarily to rub the reader's face in gruesomeness; further evidence that Ripley is immune from ordinary feelings of horror or revulsion is hardly needed at this point. A big step down from the first novel in the series.


Cover of The Making of Jane Austen

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017)

All of Jane Austen's novels issued during her lifetime were published anonymously, and in their initial appearance achieved only modest success. After her death in 1817 her novels went out of print until the 1830s. And yet today, as scholar Claire Harman wrote in her own book on the posthumous creation of Austen's reputation, Jane's Fame (Henry Holt, 2009), "her six completed novels are among the best-known, best-loved, most-read works in the English language" (p. xv). How did this happen? 

Devoney Looser's The Making of Jane Austen traces her reception and adaptation from the first republication of her novels in the 1830s to modern-day film and television dramatizations. Along the way Looser identifies the first female illustrator of Austen's novels, tracks down a photo of the all-female cast of an 1899 theatrical performance of Pride and Prejudice at Wellesley College, documents the admiration of Austen by the suffragists, and highlights the irony that the suffragists' fiercest opponents were the Austen-loving conservative men who called themselves Janeites. Highly entertaining and informative.

Cover of I Know My Own Heart Cover of No Priest But Love

Anne Lister: I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, [1816–1824,], Helena Whitbread, ed. (Virago, 1988/2010 (as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister)).

Anne Lister: No Priest But Love: Excerpts from the Diaries of Anne Lister, 1824–1826, Helena Whitbread, ed. (New York University Press, 1992).

In 1970 Dr. Phyllis Ramsden, a scholar who had been working for over a decade on the diaries of 19th-century Halifax landowner Anne Lister, published an article in the Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society covering the entire period of the diaries as then known, "Anne Lister's Journal (1817-1840)." The diaries included extensive sections written in code, which Ramsden deciphered and asserted were "excruciatingly tedious to the modern mind. . .and of no historical interest whatever."

Her assertion was contradicted by Helena Whitbread's (re-)discovery and first publication of decoded excerpts from Anne Lister's diaries. They revealed that Lister had engaged in numerous short-term sexual relationships and long-term affairs with many of her female friends and acquaintances, single and married, starting in boarding school and continuing until her untimely death at age 49. While juggling multiple lovers, Lister also managed her estate, engaged in business and politics, and travelled the world (or at least Europe, Russia and the Caucasus). She was a fascinating woman, and for those interested in her—and who wouldn't be?—Whitbread's books are the place to start, in terms both of scholarly precedence and of the chronology of Lister's life.

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Emma Donoghue: Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801 (HarperCollins, 1993)

Emma Donoghue: Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Cleis, 2010)

Anne Lister is often called "the first modern lesbian." But Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women and Inseparable offer abundant evidence that in the 18th century (and earlier, and later) there were many women who adopted men's clothing and prerogatives and/or lived more-or-less openly with their female lovers.

In fact, Anne Lister was aware of and even visited one such couple: the Ladies of Llangollen, Sarah Ponsonby and the Lady Eleanor Butler. The Ladies were Irish cousins who, in 1778, had donned men's clothes and eloped together. Pursued, recaptured, and separated by their families, they were ultimately able to win the freedom to move to Wales and live together. By the 1820s they were celebrities, and Anne Lister viewed them as a model of the sort of life she had hoped to lead with her longtime married lover Mariana Lawton. Anne wrote of the Ladies' relationship her diary, "I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself & doubt. I. . .hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship." Donoghue's books are filled with examples of women (both real and fictional) whose attachments to other women were more tender than friendship, outlining a hidden history of lesbian lives and representations.

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Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe: Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story (Omnibus Press, 2019)

In my 2011 memorial post on Poly Styrene I wrote, "As a teenager she was the lead singer and songwriter for one of the best punk bands ever, X-Ray Spex. She was a nonconformist even among the rebels and misfits of punk rock: she was short, wore braces, wasn't rail-thin, designed her own clothes (often in bright colors, an anomaly in punk), and was multi-racial. She was smart, wickedly funny (her lyrics are great), and absolutely electrifying onstage. Her voice was and will remain unforgettable."

Dayglo is a biographical narrative that draws on journal entries, interviews, and Celeste Bell's memories of growing up as the daughter of a brilliant but troubled artist who devoted the last three decades of her life to the Hare Krishna sect. Richly illustrated with photographs, posters, and lyric sheets, the bulk of the book focuses on the astonishing three years between X-Ray Spex's formation in early 1976 and its breakup in 1979, including the writing and recording of the single "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" and the album Germ-Free Adolescents (both utterly essential records). It also fills in details of the "missing" years between 1981 and her reunion with the band in the final years of her life. An excellent print companion to Bell and Howe's compelling documentary film Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (2021), which will feature in my Favorites of 2022: Movies and television.

From the Kowalski brothers' D.0.A.: A Rite of Passage (1980), Poly Styrene leading X-Ray Spex in the rehearsal studio and in concert:

Honorable Mention:

Cover of Major Labels

Kelefa Sanneh: Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres (Penguin, 2021)

Kelefa Sanneh's book appears at a time when genre may no longer define how popular music is made or heard, at least by people who came of age with YouTube (founded 2005), Spotify (founded 2006), and TikTok (founded 2016). The genres Sanneh chooses as his focus are rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and "pop," each of which receives a separate chapter. Of course, entire books can be (and have been) written about each of these genres, so Sanneh can only provide a broad overview of each. He is an excellent, thoughtful guide to a huge range of music: his taste is broad, and he has interesting things to say about each of the genres he covers.

However, I think his book inadvertently illustrates the truism that the popular music we listen to from the time we enter our teen years (when many of us first start developing our own tastes) until the time we're exiting young adulthood 15 or 20 years later (by which time our tastes have become more-or-less fixed) remains the most emotionally resonant for us. The two most energetic, engaged chapters of Major Labels focus on punk and rap, two genres that were achieving a second (or third) flowering in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Sanneh was a teenager.

In Major Labels developments of recent decades get much more attention than those of the more distant past. For some genres (pop, for example) he omits much of their history and focuses on songwriters, bands and styles that emerged after he started listening around 1985. Another odd omission for a history of popular music: Sanneh doesn't discuss in detail the exploitative economics of the music industry, which have come to the fore once again in recent years as it has become clear that streaming services pay to artists an infinitesimal fraction of the value of their music. It's a rich subject that Sanneh avoids almost entirely.

The sections of the book that deal with his own experiences and enthusiasms are highly engaging. I recommend Major Labels for its useful overviews of the past few decades' worth of developments in popular music, and especially for the experiences of a music obsessive who became a thoughtful critic for cultural arbiters such as the New York Times and the New Yorker at a time of fundamental change in the music industry. For in-depth analysis of specific musical artists and time periods, I'd suggest looking elsewhere.

For additional comments and a comparison of the Billboard Top 10 charts for 2021 and 1981, please see my full-length post on Major Labels. If you're interested, the post contains my personal list of the Top 20 songs of 1981, with links; click them while they're still working.

Other Favorites of 2022: