On August 1st the British Film Institute published its 2012 decennial list of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time. Well, any time another list is published film enthusiasts feel compelled or impelled to discuss, dispute or outright attack it.
One problem is that the most publicized lists serve a general audience. If you don’t fit that, then you’re left out. That’s where my appetite, which Netflix calls cerebral, falls. Any of those lists ignores or omits revered and beloved titles and does so for reasons that are just as often arbitrary as they are educated or elucidating. Roger Ebert explains this later in an excerpt. What’s more, few of them make an effort to include minorities’ stories.
If you’re an ambitious viewer, and far choosier than most, you set an ambitious, even daunting standard for your movie experience. You probably want to see innovation and risk-taking in the storytelling – excellence. Few, very few films satisfy that mixture of standards. The chronic problem or crisis with these lists is the very diverse bevy of memorable movies they leave out. From a sentimental point of view people like to see themselves represented, as when Dale Carnegie told his readers of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” that a person’s name is their favorite thing to hear.
This reminds me of when I was studying film history as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, and the question that I often heard while I waited in line at the dining hall of my dorm: “what’s your favorite film?” It irked me; after a while I came to hate it because, as with any “what’s your favorite…?” question, it forces you to make unjust and absurd choices. Those are also what make lists like the BFI’s decennial one.
There are so many genres and styles of movies that are made by many different kinds of peoples from cultures as different as they themselves are and who see the world in a bevy of ways, some of which Westerners don’t easily understand. Any of these lists can accommodate only a few titles. Fans are bound to feel their favorites films, and in-turn themselves, are left out. This harkens to Mr. Carnegie’s observation.
We rely on (hopefully) highly literate people, the critics who write about and discuss movies, and who have studied its history. Their experiences and studies have prepared them to write about and discuss movies effectively. One of them, Roger Ebert, takes pleasure in slamming most best- and worse-of lists, including the BFI’s decennial one.
Mr. Ebert, who earned the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 1975, has an iconoclastic point of view about best- and worst-of lists, which he described in Roger Ebert’s Journal from April 2012: “For years they had value only in the minds of feature editors fretting that their movie critics had too much free time.”
“All lists of the ‘greatest’ movies are propaganda. They have no deeper significance. It is useless to debate them. Even more useless to quarrel with their ordering of titles: Why is this film #11 and that one only #31? The most interesting lists are those by one person: What are Scorsese’s favorites, or Herzog’s? …The most respected poll, the only one I participate in, is the vote taken every 10 years by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, which asks a large number of filmmakers, writers, critics, scholars, archivists and film festival directors,” he wrote in Roger Ebert’s Journal in July 2009.
A commentator, Bim Adewunmi, at UK’s newspaper The Guardian provides an endearingly sardonic point of view, which complements Mr. Ebert’s “‘Best of’ lists – what are they good for? Absolutely nothing.’”
Best of lists are valuable up to a point. If you didn’t study film history, and have little time or energy to follow movies news or new releases, then maybe you want a nudge, that is some guidance. While it’s amusing to read or even peruse the BFI’s latest decennial list the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time, or another list, you the viewer still have to decide for yourself.