Today, we’re going to talk about a little pet peeve of mine: lists. Not just any kind of list, no, I’m talking about lists that purport to name off the best films of all time.
I’ve complained about lists before, specifically how “Top Silent Films” lists tend to draw from the same pool of about twenty movies that, coincidentally, are also the viewing list for Film History 101. This time, I am setting my sights on a broader target: general film lists that promise more than they can deliver.
If you type “top movies of all time” into any search engine, you will get an abundance of results. Why not? The title is nicely dramatic and it makes the author look like an expert. I have three problems with these kinds of lists.
(Quick Disclaimer: I know that I am generalizing tremendously and there are exceptions but these observations are just patterns I have noticed. This is purely anecdotal, is my point.)
1. How do you measure art?
This is my biggest problem with “best” lists. When I list off my top films, I am careful to say that these are my personal favorites. Are they objectively better than other pictures? Who can say?
See, the art of moviemaking has technical elements but there are also artistic elements that are a matter of perspective. Further, there is this little spark, this tiny little oomph that turns a good or great film into a beloved favorite. Who can measure that? It’s different for every person, I dare say, and that’s why it’s fun to learn which films other people pick. I love hearing about other people’s favorite movies but when they start claiming that their picks are the bestest in the westest, I have my doubts. They’re the best to you. Accept that and we’ll get along fine.
2. So the movies started in 1962?
When a list claims to show the best “something” of all time, one takes it for granted that they mean of all time. Not so. In list after list, I see that most of the selections are from the past 30 years. Oh, there may be a title from the 1960s or even the 1930s but generally, the list is comprised of titles from the reviewers lifetime. The silent era? Never happened. You can imagine how happy this makes me.
3. So you’ve seen every movie in the history of ever?
This may seem pedantic but I have a problem with the whole “of all time” thing. It just seems a little arrogant to proclaim yourself able to judge certain films as being worthy for such a title unless, you know, you’ve seen every movie ever made. We can only judge based on our own viewing experience, which is limited by the tiny fact that our lifespans are limited to 70-115 years or so.
In general, the more an author qualifies their opinion, the more respect I have for that opinion. I am far more likely to give my attention to an author who lists “ten of my favorite romantic comedies” than one who says “these are the best romantic comedies ever and anyone who disagrees is a big dummy” or something like that.
Lists can be a fun way to spread the word about favorite films. Heck, I’ve written my share. However, the pursuit of clickbait article titles has led some movie critics and bloggers to promise something that cannot be delivered. The AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies list is a perfect example of all these complaints. No films prior to 1915? Check! Limited silent selection? Check! Claims that these are the 100 greatest films? Check!
What’s the point of all this? A little less hyperbole and a little more outside-the-box thinking would be wonderful. Better lists, better choices, everyone wins.