This article has been inspired by Roger Ebert’s most recent journal entry on his difficulty with lists. You can read the article here.
Two weeks ago in the Free Film School here on CraveOnline, I discussed the reputation of Citizen Kane, and how it is, of all films, most commonly referred to as the greatest ever made. I mentioned that I have no problem with that reputation, as it truly a great film. You may personally disagree with its crown jewel status, but you do have to agree that it is a hugely impressive film.
I also mentioned in that article, that Sight & Sound, the British film journal, holds polls every ten years to determine the best movies ever made. Hundreds of professional critics and filmmakers are polled, and the films that receive the most mentions are included in that year’s Top 10. The last poll was conducted in 2002, so we’re due for another poll any day now. Going over the poll is a joyous experience and one hell of a time sink, as it’s fun to explore which of your favorite film directors voted for which movies. John Waters has some exciting ones on his list. He included The Tingler, and good for him. Last week I discussed the philosophy of bad movies. Perhaps it’s high time I discuss the notion of The Best.
Now I am not prestigious enough a critic to be included in the Sight & Sound poll (and I hope to be someday), but I do write about movies professionally, and I have seen numerous classics, so I would hope you, dear reader, find my opinion to be at least somewhat legitimate in this regard. Let’s dive in, shall we, and try to ponder what it means to have a canon of films.
The worst thing you can ask a film critic is what their favorite movie is. Some may have a ready title as an answer, but I suspect most critics will kind of wince at the question. Critics (at least the good ones) are constantly in search of greatness, and often encounter great films at an alarming rate. They rediscover old classics, ponder new hits, and generally have a good idea of what makes a great movie, but have long since stopped making mental checklists of the best; they no longer have a “favorite.” They just have a notion of what is great. These could be listed, of course, but better to just discuss single films.
I was the film critic for my college newspaper, The Puget Sound Trail, and, way back in 1997, I made a list of my 100 favorite movies. Like anyone that age, my list included a few recently-discovered classics (I had only recently seen Dr. Strangelove), a few new films that my peers had not seen (I was fond of the Three Colors Trilogy), and a few films I fell in love with in the 9th grade that I was unwilling to drop (oh yes, Evil Dead 2 was on there). As my film vocabulary increased, though (and as I, I would hope, became a better film writer), my list began to mutate and grow. A few years after college, my dad asked me to write down a list of my ten favorite films. I handed over a list of 200 titles. A mere ten was no longer an option. Any semi-serious film discussion, I felt, had to list films by genre, by director, by historical and dramatic significance. My dad graciously looked over the list, but I think he was upset that I couldn’t give him anything more easily consumed. Ten titles he could see casually over the course of a few months. 200 movies? Well, that was for film nuts like me.
I’m pretty sure any semi-serious film critic went through a similar journey when it came to their “favorites.” Sure, there will always be a few films that will be dear to you. There are some films that you can sit and watch and enjoy at any time, and will be rewarding each time. Some films only get better upon repeat viewings (I’ve found that Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo only becomes great on the second or even third viewing). But narrowing those films down to two or three will be impossible. Many film viewers’ favorite films may not even necessarily be in step with what they consider “the best.” I, for instance, can easily sit and watch some of my favorite comedies from the 1980s (The Princess Bride and UHF come to mind), but I would not consider those films to be of the ten best of all time.
Of course, a good critic should consider the best to be among their favorites, but we know that that’s not always the case. If you, as a serious critic, claim that Citizen Kane is the best movie of all time, shouldn’t it also be your personal favorite? It moved you, right? You admire it, right? I’m sure many critics leave Citizen Kane off of their Top 10 lists merely because it’s way too much of a “gimme.” It’s like listing Moby-Dick as a great novel, or The Beatles as a great band. The answer is universal, and doesn’t make for interesting discussion. And I think that’s what we’re really looking for when we attempt the dubious practice of constructing a Top 10 list: considering new things for canon status. If your goal is merely to construct a list of scientifically agreed-upon titles, well, then you’re not looking hard enough, and will have little to contribute to a spirited film debate.
Why do we even need Top 10 lists? Well, like all art forms, like all sport teams, like all activities, like everything, human beings have a mad and bloody-minded need to classify things. It’s the way our brains work, and it’s the way we make sense of the world. We need to put things into groups. We need to invent categories and sub-categories. It’s in our nature. If we have categories, we can judge and compare. It’s important for scholars, for fans, and for critics, to understand that there is a “canon” in the world; that is, an immutable group of films that we are going to use as the standard by which we judge all other films. As such, countdowns are pretty much everywhere on the internet. You can’t go to any website (including this one) wherein Top 10 and Top 5 lists aren’t published with regularity. Publishers love countdowns, as people usually take more time to read them, and they drive up hit counts. Readers love them, as it gives them a chance to think about a group of movies, and agree or disagree accordingly. Even critics often like brainstorming them, as it gives them a chance to, well, think about movies. But most critics, like me, see the lists as indefinite. These are certainly ten good ones, we might be saying, but my opinion may change.
Indeed, if you were to ask me what the ten best movies ever made are, I could give you ten different lists on ten different days, and not give any repeats.
Do any Top 10 lists reflect actual, scientific and definitive proof of the best? I would hastily say no. I think Sight & Sound has the best approach, in constructing a poll of the most knowledgeable of film experts, and forming a consensus. But lists change depending on who is being interviewed, and what is at stake. If we leave off a stringently ranked “Top 10” mentality, and focus on a mere canon of great films, you might have a better idea of where to start. To mention him again, Roger Ebert seems to have a good approach: He writes a bi-weekly feature for the Chicago Sun-Times called merely “Great Movies.” Not the “Greatest Movies,” mind you, but an ongoing list of great ones. It's a way to assemble a canon without resorting to the hair-splitting tactic of ranking.
I wonder how Top 10 lists will change as critics age out and new critics enter onto the scene. The Sight & Sound poll does seem to skew more toward older and foreign art film over more recent blockbusters, but will that change? We are currently living in a geek-heavy age, wherein certain genre films are lionized over older movies (and I cite the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 poll in this regard). I'm curious to see if certain blockbuster/cult films from the 1980s and 1990s will ever be beloved enough to enter onto top-10 lists. Will Ghostbusters, for instance, ever grace the Sight & Sound poll? The Princess Bride? The Big Lebowski? How about some audience darlings from the last ten years? Will Avatar be considered one of the best films of all time? How about The Dark Knight? Do any critics or filmmakers feel that The Lord of the Rings can be listed alongside heavy hitters like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and The Seventh Seal?
And where do we place camp in all this? I'm very fond of Paul Verhoeven's 1995 epic Showgirls, and can watch it any day of the week, but I enjoy it for camp reasons. I think the film is a fascinating object lesson, and proves to be a dissection of the way Hollywood thinks. But does that make it a great film? That can be argued. Few would say that Russ Meyer's boob fest Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a well-made film, but it represents so much in the culture of American exploitation movies. Some of those polled did list Faster, Pussycat. No one mentioned Showgirls. I may devote an entire Free Film School lecture to Showgirls someday, just so we can dissect the notion of a fiasco.
And, just to stand in a position of challenge, can there even be a notion of a film canon at all? Literary critics talk about a Western Canon of great literature. Can there be a canon of great films? Like a finite list of greats that everyone should see? Well, yes, of course. Anything that can be criticized can, I suppose, be granted a canon. Just like with books, though, once you start down a list, you may never stop. Any serious literary critic, if pressed to write a list, would likely include hundreds of titles, or perhaps lump in author's entire bodies of work. Same with film critics. If you really must compile a list, make a canon. Explain the various and myriad facets of the film form. Include a few great examples from each facet.
The ultimate purpose of any Top 10 list, of course, is not to assemble a scientific collection of “The Best,”though. It is to merely give strong recommendations. If you see anyone's Top 10 list of films, well, perhaps you ought to see them. If a friend loves these ten, and you've only seen seven of them, see the other three. Consider that they may be great. After all, the canon is potentially larger than you expect. Maybe that one obscure Japanese film that your friend loves may prove to really be one of the best.
But enough beating around the bush. If I were polled, what would my Top 10 be? Oh gosh. Really? You're asking me this? Well, Sight & Sound requires it, so let me see what kind of list I can come up with, ranked, from 1 to 10. Well, here are some arbitrary rules I'm setting for myself: I will not repeat directors, no matter how tempting. Certain filmmakers (Kurosawa, Bergman, Wilder) have made so many great films, I had to narrow their body of work down to a single film. I will make no attempt to include samples from every country. I will make no attempts to cite examples from every decade. I will try to include films that I feel are grand and significant, but that I also enjoy watching. I also want it to be openly acknowledged that I feel bad for leaving about thirty films off of this list. Yes, they are all older films. This is not to say there haven't been great films in the last decade. Indeed, I wrote an article on that very topic once.
But, like I said, ask me tomorrow and the list may change.
Here then, with no small amount of consternation, is my list of the ten best films of all time, ranked from 1 to 10.
1) Ikiru (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1952)
2) Persona (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
3) The Rules of the Game (dir. Jean Renoir, 1939)
4) 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
5) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (dir. Frank Capra, 1939)
6) Children of Paradise (dir. Marcel Carne, 1945)
7) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1972)
8) Sunset Boulevard (dir. Billy Wilder, 1950)
9) Eraserhead (dir. David Lynch, 1977)
10) The Tingler (dir. William Castle, 1959)
Homework for the Week:
A simple assignment: List the ten best films of all time. Post your lists below. It's not so easy, is it? Let me know what I left off.