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The Best of the “Best of” Lists: The Troubling “Top Ten” Triffle…

So, Sight & Sound has conducted their “top fifty films of all time” poll, held once a decade since 1952. With two polls, one for directors and one for critics, it’s certainly an interesting way to measure the pulse of the cinematic establishment. This year, for example, Citizen Kane was vanquished from the top spot, replace by the critics with Vertigo and by the directors with Tokyo Story. The publication of such a list is always a great spark for cinematic debate and discussion – with some commentators describing the lists as conservative or humourless and some directors using it as an opportunity to publish their own lists. Personally, I always find such list-making fun, if ultimately a little pointless.

Raising Kane…

Admittedly, some of this is probably just personal bitterness. I’d by lying if I said I weren’t a little jealous of people who can construct such lists at the drop of a hat. I’m flighty and non-committal when it comes to the “top ten” syndrome. My list changes by the hour, if not by the minute. Ask me now, and you’ll likely get a different answer than you would have ten minutes ago. Sure, there are movies that are on there for personal reasons and that will likely always be there.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is unlikely not to get a look-in. Brazil will generally get an affectionate mention. The Godfatherwill usually have a place reserved – unless you ask me to specify which particular instalment I am talking about. Then the first two are likely to alternate on a regular basis, while the third waits outside in the cold. There’s not even room in the foyer. However, once you get past those sorts of favourites, it gets a bit tighter, and a lot more subject to change.

Hot debate…

Depending on my mood, The Big Lebowski might sneak in. I can’t commit to either Alien or Aliens. What about Michael Mann’s Heat? Or The Truman Show? The Prestige? So many choices, so little space. Every time I rhyme off the list, I find myself struggling to assign the last few places, and often I find myself reaching some sort of critical blue screen of death around the time I reach “no. 8.”

Sometimes, my hesitation is more palpable. My palms feel clammy. My throat catches. Surely I’m forgetting something?I ask myself, quietly, hoping my colleagues won’t catch on. I fear I’ll construct the list, and make a robust defence, only to realise hours later that I had refused to plead the case of a genuinely worthy classic, and that perhaps one less-than-worthy entry had slipped in under the radar.

A piece of work…

As I rhyme off the ten films that pop into my head, I’m wracked with second-guesses. Not about the “should” choices. I don’t really care about films that probably should get a place by reputation. Citizen Kane is perhaps the most important piece of cinema ever produced, but it never moved me. So it gets excluded. I don’t assign quotas by decade or genre or by “importance.” If a silent film gets a mention – like the superb Metropolis or Nosferatu – it’s because I hold it be personally important to me, not because of its perceived importance to the world of cinema.

Of course, you could argue the list is “best” and not “favourite.” As such, one might gingerly suggest, there’s some measure of objectivity about the whole thing. That is why, of course, these polls of procedures and voting regulations, and why most of these polls are treated so seriously – by both the people making them, and the people reading them. Nobody wants to read about the BFI’s “favourite” films, or the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 “favourite” films. We use a relatively objective term, so the list seems more important, and more po-faced, and more serious.

“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man…”

Perhaps there is a way to mathematically determine the “best” film, using strictly scientific terms. We can probably agree on what those measurements would not be. Most people would be loath to user financial earnings (inflated or not) to measure the “best” film. Beyond that, it’s hard to measure artistic or technical merit. Most would, for example, agree that Birth of a Nation was a profoundly influential and important film, but would also hesitate to assign the attribute “best” to it, due to its racist content. Tellingly, it does not appear on the BFI lists.

I think it’s reasonable to suggest that such lists are inevitably personal, and subjective. They can’t help but reflect the people constructing them. I’ve always rigidly adhered to the idea that one must find their own taste in cinema, and nobody’s opinion is any more or any less valid. I can’t stand Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but – if you can – more power to you. I can only respond to these lists from my own position, and can only comment on how these opinions differ from my own.

Reflecting on it all…

I, for example, find the BFI to be radically conservative and rather dry. I find it hard to believe that Mulholland Drive is the most recent English-language film produced to merit inclusion. That’s inevitable, I suppose, given the profile of the people voting, and it doesn’t make the list valid or invalid. It just makes it one that I would disagree with. And, of course, it provides the perfect starting point for discussion and debate – tell me your favourite films, and let’s talk about them.

In fact, I also think there’s one other important function of such lists, beyond sparking the inevitable discussion and debate. After all, such lists provide fairly solid jumping off points for people looking to get into film. There are, after all, a whole host of classic films out there and only so many times. Like viewers use reviews as recommendations to pick which modern films are worthy of their time, lists like this help point potential cinephiles towards older films.

Some classics still hang on in there…

Beyond that, a list is just a list. They’re fun to discuss and debate, but I’m always a little reluctant to see them etched in stone. And, inevitably, I think the “best of” lists tell us more about the people making them, than the films themselves. And that’s perhaps why I still find them so fascinating.

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4 Responses

  1. My top four tend to stick with the original Lost Horizon, Gone With The Wind, The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Laura. I think my tastes are more conventional and more romantic than yours!
    But I do love a lot of recent French movies (Le Havre and La Tete en Friche are up there) and Japanese films – 13 Assassins stands out. Anything John Woo or Clint Eastwood does interests me and, after Moon and Source Code, I adore Duncan Jones’ ideas.
    I am also a big Marvel fan. And I can watch Hitchcock movies again and again!
    Thanks for a great and thought-provoking piece.
    Vertigo and Citizen Kane? When I am tired and it’s late, Local Hero alway entertains me. Above all, I think movies should entertain.

    • I actually think Hitchcock is a wonderful example of a director who was largely dismissed by critics while he was workign, and only later did people really begin to appreciate what he was doing. I think that it’s fantastic that he has been rehabilitated in such manner. It’s just a shame that he had to wait decades for the prestige and recognition he deserved. (Again, because I think that – broadly speaking – there’s a distinctly conservative vibe in mainstream film criticism.)

  2. I’m glad you mentioned that there’s a difference between “best” and “favorite” (American spelling). There are many “great” films that I can’t stand, and some movies that profoundly entertain me are severely flawed. In order to make a “best” list, besides watching every movie ever made, a film must be technically and artistically brilliant in its direction, cinematography, editing, production values, etc.; have an original, well-constructed screenplay with phenomenal dialogue; impeccable acting; be innovative for its time and changed the way film is made; have long-lasting effects with its audience; and most importantly be entertaining. Many people (especially the young) think that any movie made before their lifetimes are implicitly bad simply because they’re “old” while film snobs can’t believe that anything new matches the quality of classic movies. Good films are good films, regardless of when they’re made. However, “good” is subjective, and without many qualifying factors, it’s hard to compare movies. In particular, a great science fiction movie cannot be easily compared to a great historical drama. Critics tend to dismiss genres that aren’t narrowly defined as “art”.

    • I agree entirely. As you said, good films are good films, regardless of when they’re made.

      I do think that there’s a prejudice against more “whimsical” genres like fantasy or science-fiction (or animation) in these sorts of critical circles.

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