zerode – a sensibility


film, music, text, city, spectacle, pleasure

More on Must See Movies

The more I look at the issue of “must see” movies and try to assemble my own list, the more complications emerge. For one thing, there are so many lists already out there, from so many different perspectives, of “best” and “greatest” and  “must see” movies.

Wikipedia has a quite useful entry that provides links to various lists elsewhere, includes highlights from many of these lists, and summarizes some of the issues involved:

Films considered the greatest ever: While there is no general agreement upon the greatest film, many publications and organizations have tried to determine the films considered the greatest ever. The films mentioned in this article have all been mentioned in a notable survey — be it a popular poll or critics’ poll. Many of these sources focus on American films or were polls of English-speaking film goers, but those considered the greatest within their respective countries are also included here.

None of these citations should be viewed as scientific measures of the film-watching world. All the surveys are flawed in one way or another. They are often influenced by vote stacking or they survey a population with skewed demographics. Internet-based surveys have a self-selecting audience of unknown participants. The methodology of some surveys may be questionable. Sometimes (as in the case of the American Film Institute) voters were asked to select films from a limited list of entries…. (via Wikipedia.)

It’s interesting to see what various polls or authorities have named as “the greatest” – and to see whose opinions count on what is a “greatest” film. For instance, the BBC reported on a poll of 500 staff at the UCI cinema chain – they named The Poseidon Adventure (1972) the best disaster movie of all time. I’m fairly inclined to agree, and I suppose that there is a certain logic to polling movie theater workers for their opinions on films – most of the people I know who’ve worked at movie theaters, even as ushers or candy counter clerks, took those jobs because they were into movies. But even so, it’s not exactly a large, influential and informed group of critics and authorities.

There’s more obvious sense to privileging and taking seriously the lists and opinions of Sight & Sound magazine, the British Film Institute and the American Film Institute – or even the poll of Estonian film critics and journalists mentioned in the Wikipedia entry. (They selected Kevade (Spring, 1969) as the greatest Estonian film.)

Of course, in preferring, valuing more highly, the opinions and judgments of professional film critics – and film studies professors – over those of ticket takers from a British cinema chain, I am perhaps displaying an academic and elitist bias. I admit it – I do have such a bias. But I also think that people who make their livings watching and writing and thinking about films are more likely to render nuanced and balanced judgments that will be informative and useful for others.

Over on Movie Forums, many of the film fans there have posted lists of what they consider “must see” movies or of their favorite films. There are lots of surprises in these lists and they’re quite interesting to read and consider – it’s pleasurable to see the range and eclecticism of some of the what others have picked as their favorite films.

After I wrote the other day that I’d never seen How to Steal a Million on anyone else’s “best” list, I thought I’d actually go and have a look – and that’s what led me to Movie Forums, where one regular contributor listed it as #15 on her Royal 100 list of personal favorites, which she introduced thus:

Okay guys, I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, and I’ve finally got a list that I’m content with. Now, I haven’t been watching movies that long and I’m fairly young so this list is a little “temporary”. I’ve tried to maintain some variety, but it’s a personal list of my favorites. There are still SO many films that I want/need to see, but as of right now (2009) here is the Top 100. (via The Royal 100 – Movie Forums.)

When I went to look at the whole list of 100, though, I was at first a bit appalled – the inclusion of The Princess Diaries and Planes, Trains and Automobiles on the first page came as a shock to my refined sensibilities. But that was a silly response – a category error, mistaking a list of personal favorites for a list of “greats.” (And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the creator of The Royal 100 were just as shocked at Lake Placid being a favorite of mine.)

A “favorites” list is obviously a very, very different thing from a “must see” list, and not open to quibbling in the same way. And despite any issues I might have had with this or that movie on The Royal 100, I found the list helpful for thinking more openly about what people value in movies.

For instance, the creator of this list is obviously a big fan of Walter Matthau, who I enjoy but have no strong feelings about, and also of Kevin Costner, who I do have fairly strong feelings about (though I like a couple of his movies in spite of those feelings). She’s also a big fan of Cary Grant – a judgment obviously beyond reproach. But there is not a single musical on her list – which I found disappointing and surprising, but as she said, she hasn’t been watching movies that long.

The inclusion of so many Matthau films – and of Costner – and the absence of any musicals or foreign films was a salutary reminder of the very different exposures people have to films, and the different ways they respond to them – of the enormous differences there are in what people enjoy. I mean, there are even people who enjoy the Saw movies…

But that enormous range is a challenge for anyone who wants to construct, in the words of The Hal Blog, a list that “[does] justice to the art and entertainment of cinema.” Clearly, based on ticket sales and sequels, both Saw and The Princess Diaries have something to offer in the way of the “entertainment of cinema.”

But there only a few lists I can imagine including Saw – “movies I won’t watch,” most obviously. As an academic, I could see including Saw as part of an examination of the evolution of the American slasher movie. But I doubt I’d be willing to teach that syllabus – too many movies I have too little desire to see.  Though I have taught Halloween, Friday the 13th and Scream and found it interesting – particularly in light of Carol Clover’s seminal analysis, Men, Women and Chainsaws.

It gets back, in part, to that perhaps snobbish preference for the lists of film critics and film professionals. There’s no accounting for taste, horses for courses and all that, so there will be people who include Saw, The Princess Bride or (in my case) Ready to Rumble, Kelly’s Heroes and Lake Placid on their lists of favorite films.

But professional critics are precisely those people who are required to account for their tastes – or at least for the opinions and judgments they put forward in a professional capacity. If Roger Ebert included Ready to Rumble as one of his “great movies,” you’d expect him to explain why it merited that honor. And you’d stomp all over him with hobnailed boots for such a ridiculous failure of the critical faculties. If he said over a beer, “hey, it was a hoot…” that would be a different matter. (In fact, though, he hated it.)

I suppose the users and ticket takers of the UCI cinema chain occupy a middle ground – not simply movie-goers with their favorites, but not exactly film professionals either. In any case, though, they were right on about The Poseidon Adventure – at least if you consider disaster movies to be an essentially cheesy genre…

For more…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

tweeting my mind



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