Are these really the 100 best films?

To celebrate the 100th birthday of cinema, the BBC is dusting off its a rchives to bring us the best movies of all time ... or so it says. ryan gilbey br owses through Auntie's choices in an attempt to find something to please everyo ne

As cinema approaches its 100th birthday (on 13 February), you can hear a fierce scratching sound, like mice nibbling at the skirting-board. Actually, it's all the critics scribbling into their notebooks, raiding their libraries and coming over ana lly-retentive. In short, they're making lists. Bless 'em.

As usual, each of these lists will be arbitary and subjective, and ultimately as useless as any list which attempts to gather together the finest achievements of an art form. For how do you define "best"? The film you'd most like to grow old with? The one which inspired your career, or your life? The most technically proficient? Emotionally honest? The one which cheers you up? Brings you down? You may as well throw a stone at a shelf of videos and cherish the one you strike.

In their upcoming celebrations to mark the Centenary of Cinema, the BBC have got it easier than most. The 100 films which they have chosen to screen throughout 1995 don't make any claims to be the best films ever made. They are simply what Steve Jenkins,BBC2's Editor, Programme Acquisition, has selected as the finest features in the BBC's stock. That lets him off any disastrous omissions, of course (no Eisenstein?), although the list is, for the most part, as conservative as you'd expect.

Whether it makes you seethe or whoop, there's bound to be a few things here to delight everyone, which is surely the point of such a season. It also puts some of the more overblown "masterpieces" of recent times firmly in their place. So in a year which saw Kenneth Branagh defecating on Mary Shelley's text in the name of art, it's worth revisiting James Whale's 1935 classic The Bride of Frankenstein, if only to remember that a bravura piece of film-making can come from material which is both adaptation and sequel. Elsa Lanchester, silver-streaked hair piled on the back of her skull, is what most people remember about the film; the moments of dark, mischievous humour are worth cherishing too. The list is low on horror, with onl y Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie and Michael Reeves' disturbingWitchfinder General fitting that category.

By the bottom end of the century, the genre distinctions had made it harder to sort horror from thriller from psychological drama. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988) straddled all three and ended up being two of the most unsettling probes into the subconscious that cinema had ever produced. Lynch's film, which bettered even his own Eraserhead, concerned the nightmarish journey of a young American innocent into a world where sex and violence are interchangeable, and boasted moments derived from, and worthy of a place beside, Cocteau and Bunuel.

Cronenberg, meanwhile, was as biologically obsessed as ever ("They should have beauty contests for the inside of the body," says one character). He penned the screenplay, about twin brothers who become gynaecologists, while Jeremy Irons (as both twins) gave a performance of terrifying schizophrenia. Nearly a decade on, neither director has matched these triumphs.

If the list trades in some predictable areas - lashings of Bergman, a slab of Lean but rather less Huston than one might have hoped for - then at least many of those areas will provide a convergence of opinion. Nobody who sees Yasujiro's most accomplished and emotional work, Tokyo Story (1953), can fail to be affected by its raw, painful honesty. It's the tale of an elderly couple who discover that the world is moving on without them when they visit their children, all of whom consider them a nuisance. It's a long and leisurely piece, but immaculately constructed and sure to crack the hardest heart.

There are certain directors whose inclusion in any overview of cinema is assured but who have produced so much work of outstanding quality that no single selection can ever satisfy all admirers. Bunuel, Godard and our own Powell/Pressburger team all havetheir names carved in stone. Although you might argue with the choice of Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie over his L'Age d'Or, Un Chien Andalou or Belle de Jour, Weekend (1967) is probably the epitome of Godard's best, though - more quibbles - there must have been room to squeeze Pierrot le Fou or A Bout de Souffle in over Susan Siedelman's pleasant but unremarkable Desperately Seeking Susan.

Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Ford's The Searchers (1956) are also seasoned dwellers of most critics' "best of" lists, both of them apparently traditional, linear stories which gradually reveal sinister subtexts. Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), too, has

been voted Film of the Eighties on several occasions, and it's the director (not to mention De Niro, who seems on the point of combusting) at the peak of his powers, a height only recently returned to with The Age of Innocence.

One of the newest entries in the season, Takeshi Kitano's masterly Sonatine (1993), indicates where the kinetic cinema which was once exclusively Scorsese's domain might now be heading. We should hope Kitano can keep this standard up - his work so far has exhibited a discipline and visual excellence which Tarantino-wannabees, such as Danny Boyle, should look to. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) is, like Dead Ringers and Blue Velvet, a powerhouse piece of film-making which its director may never top. It's also a perfect indication of where black cinema was in the late Eighties. Throughout its study of one sweltering day in a predominantly black neighbourhood fraught with tension, it remains unsparing in its passion and invention. One of the surprises of the season, it should, like the list in general, anger, infuriate and inspire. Let the complaining begin...

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