On Tuesday, the good folks at Film School Rejects posted a story immodestly if not unfairly titled “The 10 Greatest Movies of All Time (According to the Internet),” based on 40 or so all-time Top Ten lists from a variety of critics across the country. The end result assembled a list of titles that were mostly obvious, especially for a generation of critics and cinephiles who came of age in the 1980s or later: Although stalwart “best ever” movie Citizen Kane topped the list, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future followed not very far behind.
Here was their list:
1. Citizen Kane (73 points)
2. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (61)
3. The Godfather (57)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (53)
5. Casablanca (48)
6. 8 1/2 (44)
7. Back to the Future (44)
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (43)
9. Bicycle Thieves (41)
10. Vertigo (40)
Although I contributed to the article via my own Top Ten, I made the mistake of assuming that what FSR’s editors wanted was a list of favorites, not some objective, mathematical aggregate of titles curated by critics and film authorities as a collection of the “real” best films ever made. (My list, it must be said, did not feature a single title that made the final list of ten.) But what surprised me even more was that my colleagues, and an increasing number of friends, thought they were doing the same – insofar as they equated their favorite films with the all-time indisputable Best Movies Ever Made. And while I respect their passion and perspective, that’s quite frankly the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.
Last week, I wrote an editorial on Movies.com arguing that opinions can be wrong. Ultimately, my point was that liking or disliking something is always okay – our appetites and interests are what they are – but declaring a work of art good or bad means virtually nothing, and can almost never be right, because the point of view from which we approach it may be flawed, inaccurate, bereft of perspective or otherwise inappropriate. But to believe that your own “favorite” movies are the best ones ever made? That’s the kind of hubris that film critics could only, or best, indulge.
Admittedly, it’s absolutely within the realm of possibility for a person to see, sure, Citizen Kane and say that it’s their favorite movie of all time. But for the most part, the movies we love – that are our all-time favorites – seldom have the pedigree that would earn them a spot on a Top Ten for the entire pantheon of film history. As many of the contributors acknowledged, their choices were based on watchability, meaning they could sit down at any time, anywhere, and watch those movies from start to finish. But be honest, dear reader: would you rather sit down and watch, say, Dazed and Confused, a film which didn’t come within a country mile of FSR’s Top Ten, or 2001? Even having declared Stanley Kubrick my favorite director in cinema history, I would probably still say Richard Linklater’s ode to living in the 1970s. (And my examples are random; imagine some staple of your childhood or worn-out video from your earliest days as a collector and put that in the place of some esteemed entry on that list and ask that same question.)
It’s easy to claim expertise in a field in which the only requirement is having seen a metric ton of movies – at least by the standards of many entertainment sites. And there are among most of my colleagues genuine experts with real insights and deep understandings of the mechanics and language of moviemaking. But there’s a reason that Gene Siskel named Saturday Night Fever his favorite film of all time: it moved him in a way that no other movie did. His reasons don’t have to be anyone else’s reasons, and in fact they probably aren’t. And that’s because there’s an alchemy – a primal emotional reaction that viewers have to certain movies, or certain kinds of movies, that transcend how well or poorly they’re made, what they aspire to do, or how effective they might otherwise be. The Break-Up could be a person’s favorite movie of all time simply because they went through a terrible relationship at the same time in which they first saw it. Or The Goonies could be another person’s because it represents everything they wanted their childhood to be, but it wasn’t.
Admittedly, these things are not always known consciously; I don’t know what precisely it says about me that four out of five of my favorite movies are coming-of-age stories. But the connections we make with those movies seldom are based on the construction of a script or the choice of lenses or some other technical detail, which is typically criteria for these “best” lists. It’s about the visceral feeling we get while watching them – that laughing, crying, remembering and recognizing we do as we’re watching something.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that a film’s technical merits are irrelevant or unimportant in any way – and often without us knowing it, those are key reasons why we respond to something as strongly as we do. But I defy any person who contributed a Top Ten list to FSR’s story to tell me that every film they chose was BOTH the most technically well-executed they have ever seen, and equally the most enjoyable. And quite frankly, given some of the contributor’s suggestions for all-time best movies, including a few that came out only in the last few years (or even weekends), it seems either insincere or hopelessly provincial for them to think that these titles have stood the test of time or exerted an influence on audiences and filmmakers that runs deep and long. (Or arrogant to believe they know what will eventually survive and surpass the “established” greats.)
Ultimately, favorites and “best films” exist within a Venn diagram of possibilities, meaning there are plenty of movies that are a person’s favorite – Heat, The Sting, hell, Happy Gilmore – and then there are films whose impact and influence is simply undeniable within the canon of cinema’s greatest achievements. And occasionally, or even frequently for cinephiles, those two categories overlap. But just as it’s a mistake to confuse belief with fact, seldom are a person’s favorite movies actually the best ones ever made – and if they’re all on one of those lists by Sight and Sound or some other “reputable” compiler, then I honestly believe that person is trying to say what makes them sound smart or cool or insightful, and they’re not being honest with themselves. A “best” movie choice can be one of their favorites, but just because it’s their favorite doesn’t make it the best.
All that said, I would never suggest that a critic should come from a less than fully honest place about their opinion, even if making an argument about a movie is and never will be an objective, indisputable statement of truth. Interpretations can be right according to what a filmmaker says he or she intended, and influence can be documented via acknowledgment, verbal, visual or otherwise, but ultimately what’s better or worse than anything else is just a person’s opinion. I mean, what makes Citizen Kane better than Casablanca better than The Godfather? Subjectivity, and not much else. They’re all great movies, agreed upon more or less universally. All of which is why it ultimately comes down to intangible, emotional, undefinable preferences, which cannot be objectively measured or quantified, nor vetted for accuracy.
Ultimately, when I would rather watch a John Badham movie than one by Kubrick – per my “favorites” list – it seems egregiously unlikely that I’m not the only one who feels that way. Because I truly understand, appreciate and yeah, enjoy so many of the movies that are on my colleagues’ lists, but it’s just that I purely and unapologetically love other ones more. And if they disagree, that’s totally fine. But while it might be the most fun, exciting, inspiring time some of them have had in a theater, Back to the Future is in no way, shape or form one of the ten best movies ever made; rather, it’s evidence that confusing one’s favorite films with what’s best produces an end result that isn’t deserving of superlatives either way.
*In case you were wondering, here’s my Top Ten favorite films of all time:
1. Boogie Nights
3. Almost Famous
4. Empire of the Sun
5. Out of Sight
6. Saturday Night Fever
7. Eat Drink Man Woman
8. Reservoir Dogs
9. Mo’ Better Blues
10. To Live