Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Choosing the Greatest Films I've Seen

Choosing the greatest films I've seen is quite a simple process. They are the ones that have made the biggest impact, the ones I enjoyed watching the most.

Let me expand on my approach towards and criteria for selection...

A work of art cannot be objectively great. Each person's opinion is fact enough. In any case, why try to create, from different perspectives, a vanishing point too far away to be embraced by any one individual? Objectivity is a phantom. My 'objective' analysis would be different from yours. Everything is filtered. 

Some say that technical brilliance, or rather technical proficiency - the ability to manipulate the resources and materials of film-making as you wish - is absolute and that such craft alone could qualify a film for praise and inclusion in lists like this. Yet there is a gulf between technical proficiency and a fine artistic product. Art is magical; it has a soul as well as a body. An expert in the tools of film may not have anything special to say and show with them. Why is a ten-minute tracking shot necessarily wonderful? Who decides on these rules?

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Anton Chekhov once said "I divide all literary works into two categories. Those I like and those I don't like. No  other criterion exists for me". My favourite films are the ones I consider the best ever made (writing "to me" or "in my opinion" is unnecessary). These are films I would recommend in the hope others will enjoy them as I do rather than films one 'should' see to have an overview of cinematic history or a familiarity with what has been canonised.

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It is sad when people apologise for what they like because it goes against the grain or the tyranny of the accepted : "I know it's no masterpiece but...", "guilty pleasures" etc.

Sometimes you don't know why you like something. That does not make what you think invalid. An opinion such as "this film sucks" or "this is awesome", though more interesting to others if it can be explained intelligently, does not need to be 'backed up'. Each person's opinion should be respected and cherished. I'm excited when I read someone say that they love an unpopular film or a film I don't like because I'm shown a different way in which it can be seen.

This is a sort of objectivity, the open-ness to allow others' experiences to bleed, often subconsciously, into your own.

There's a never-ending battle to be honest about what you like (even to yourself), to not pick something that you'd like to like or that would make you look knowledgeable. You also have to try not to smuggle in a left-field choice to flaunt your (therefore non-existent) open-mindedness.

I hope my Top 50 is entirely honest.

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I decided that a film doesn't have to 'bear repeat viewings' given that so much of what makes a story is the surprise and freshness of the big sweep and the small details.

For this reason films that I enjoyed as a child would not have to pass another test in adulthood. One's impressions of films change without seeing them again and as long as that memory of that impact is still strong now then that is enough. In this sense there is an element of something standing the test of time, though less in terms of being dated in style or politics or theme and more in terms of maintaining its grip on the imagination.

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Why make a list at all?

It is amusing when so many books and lists of 'Great Films' openly shy away from ranking their choices. They say 'how can you coldly and crudely separate films that are all brilliant in their own right? How can you reduce art to lists or to a rude contest?' They are more than able to separate the wheat from the chaff but then balk at separating the best from the even better.

If you evaluate more than one thing it's hard not to compare them, and once you've compared it's even harder not to rank them. It's natural.

The next post will be films 50-41.


  1. Cool, looking forward to it. I'm especially glad you're not going to be apologizing for any "guilty pleasures" - as I always say, if I like something, I don't really have any guilt about it.

    And the glimpses of those 2 likely inclusions here are tantalizing.

  2. Thanks Ed.

    I know I haven't seen as many films as others (nobody's seen everything) but I'll be happy if I can communicate some of why I've chosen what I've chosen.

  3. I'm looking forward to this as well. It will be fun. I usually like making lists when it comes to genres or directors.... but "Greatest Films" I usually avoid. It seems way to hard to figure out.....M.Roca

  4. Thank you Maurizio.

    "It seems way to hard to figure out..."

    I've always enjoyed ranking things and I've had lists like these in my head, ever-changing, since I was young. Also, as I said above, I'm not as voracious a film watcher as some of the people who are kind enough to comment here.

  5. I think your example of 'objectivity' is just subjectivity thrice glazed over, but everything else is perfectly sensible. It's so strange that these sorts of lists draw so much disapproval on the grounds of taste, but they do. Bizarre. Anyway, looking forward to the list. We will be sure to have diverging opinions, judging from these images, but that's the fun part.

  6. Jean,

    "I think your example of 'objectivity' is just subjectivity thrice glazed over..."

    I think you might be right(!)

    "Anyway, looking forward to the list. We will be sure to have diverging opinions, judging from these images, but that's the fun part."

    Thanks. I'd be wary about taking those images at face value...

  7. Oh, I see. The Phantom of Liberty image is certainly relevant in terms of the whole, 'One man's trash is another man's treasure' idea, if that's what you were going for. And if not,well, it works that way anyway. An image from life that reminds me of that is that of the Iraqis slapping Saddam's statue with the soles of their shoes - a great insult in their culture, but to me it really just meant that their feet were getting dirty.

  8. I chose the images as being representative of some of the joys of cinema - magical, unexpected, amusing.

    The second is really the reader settling down for the feast, not quite sure what to expect. It could work as you say.

  9. But - there's no feast coming in the second image! And the people settling down in that image know what to expect, and it's certainly not a feast. I don't know if the film is more amusing if it's willfully mocking cultural insensitivity or just embellishing cultural differences. Either way, the film essentially amounts to, "Laugh at people who have different customs." That's what documentaries are for, isn't it?

  10. This sounds really exciting, looking forward to your choices--I don't get to see half as many films as I'd like, but I sure do love reading the thoughts of others about them!

  11. Jean,

    It's been a while since I've seen the scene in its entirety. I suppose then that it's the viewer who doesn't know what to expect.

    I find Bunuel's films more amusing taken as a sketch show of strange happenings with a pinch of satire. As simple satire, or pointing up cultural differences through absurdity and surrealism, it falls a little flat.

  12. Rob,

    Thank you. I hope there's something to get your teeth into.

    "I don't get to see half as many films as I'd like, but I sure do love reading the thoughts of others about them!"

    It's much the same for me.

  13. “An opinion such as "this film sucks" or "this is awesome", though more interesting to others if it can be explained intelligently, does not need to be 'backed up'. Each person's opinion should be respected and cherished.”

    I’ll certainly (make an effort to) respect the fact that someone has an opinion–good or bad–about a film (or anything, for that matter), but I don’t see much point in respecting, let alone cherishing, the opinion itself when the individual makes no attempt to explain it.

    When someone just types or blurts out, “That movie was crap!” without making any effort to explain why, what good is it to anyone to even care? This is the main reason why I’ve drifted away from message boards like the IMDB into personal blog country, where you guys are all too eager to share your thoughts in detail. That’s what its all about.

    Anyways, looking forward to reading your list of favorites.

  14. It can be irritating if people give these one-line judgements as a way of dismissing discussion.

    What I find more irritating, though, and what I was trying to get at, is when others try to argue away those opinions. In other words, if you can't 'prove' what's good about it or articulate it well then it doesn't count.

    I hope my choices will be of interest, and not just to me.

  15. Stephen,

    I'm really sorry I haven't been catching up on blogs. This is simple terrific. And put in very radical terms. Will go through the posts now...


  16. JAFB,

    No need to apologise of course (you don't have to read my blog(!)), though I'm always glad to read your comments.