Everyone loves lists of the best movies of all time. They’re not like periodic tables of the elements, because no two lists are alike. There’s metacritic’s list by critics. There’s metacritic’s list by users. There’s the AFI list from 1997. And then there’s the AFI list from 2007. There’s also Rotten Tomatoes’ list.
But when we’re talking All Time Best Movies in All Genres, with less American bias than the American Film Institute (though they still poach films like Lawrence of Arabia – go figure), we start with two other lists, that is the “Sight and Sound” list from 2012 and the current imdb.com list. The Sight and Sound list is compiled once every ten years, and represents as close as we can come to “the experts.” The site tells you their 846 names and (after some digging) who they voted for. They include directors, critics, producers, programmers, and various types of writers of and on film. The imdb list, on the other hand, is as close as we’re going to get to “the fans.” Sure, imdb is weighted toward Americans and fanboys who have time to vote on the site, but that’s probably an even greater problem on lesser-known sites like RT and metacritic. The Sight and Sound list has more than a touch of Western bias as well, despite their attempts to diversify. Nonetheless, look at these Top 20s and say what’s the first thing that jumps out at you:
Sight and Sound:
2. Citizen Kane
3. Tokyo Story
4. The Rules of the Game
5. Sunrise, or a Song of Two Humans
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. The Searchers
8. Man With a Movie Camera
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
10. 8 ½
11. Battleship Potemkin
14. Apocalypse Now
15. Late Spring
16. Au Hasard Balthazar
17. The Seven Samurai
20. Singin’ in the Rain
1. The Shawshank Redemption
2. The Godfather
3. The Godfather Part II
4. The Dark Knight
5. Pulp Fiction
6. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
7. Schindler’s List
8. 12 Angry Men
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
10. Fight Club
11. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
12. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
14. Forrest Gump
15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
17. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
18. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
19. The Matrix
20. The Seven Samurai
Here’s what you notice: They’re all different movies! Except for, at the last possible moment, The Seven Samurai coming to the rescue at imdb number 20. (Of course, the imdb list is fluid and something like The Lego Movie could knock out those samurai at any minute.) But the top 15s represent zero overlap – that’s two Top 15s consisting of 30 separate movies. Isn’t that something?
The fanboys on imdb might see this and go, “Wow, how stupid are those experts not to have The Godfather in their Top 20?” (It actually tied for #21.) But the incredulity works just as well the other way: no Citizen Kane or 2001 in the imdb top 20? (Nor Top 60. But let’s avoid going down that rabbit hole.) Are imdb voters too America-loving? Maybe, but then what’s a Sergio Leone film doing up there at #6? (There must be some French voters aussi, because The Intouchables is #37.) No matter how you slice it, this represents a pretty severe disconnect between experts and fans. Why? Well…
Looking at the Top 20s, it’s hard not to notice a difference in average-year. The Sight and Sound Top 20 has only one film made after 1968, that being Apocalypse Now (1979). The imdb Top 20 has only three films made before 1972, those being The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), 12 Angry Men (1957), and The Seven Samurai (1954)(again, barely).
The 846 people polled by Sight and Sound – including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Coppola, Clint Eastwood, and many other directors you know – skew older. Many of them came up during the waves of changes in the 1960s and 1970s, and are probably reluctant to cite their friends as “best of” material. Today’s fans have no such compunction. Today’s fans are also consumers targeted by a capitalist Hollywood that has a direct interest in making them believe that the latest Batman films are better than, say, anything ever made in France. And evidence seems to suggest that today’s fans like faster pacing, which is to say more edits and more “whoosh”-style scoring in their films. Sure.
But when we compare the big picture of movie experts versus movie fans, there’s a difference that’s a little more profound than editing preferences. Look for commonalities in the films in the imdb Top 20. It’s not that they’re about violence. It’s that they’re about excuses for violence. Almost all of them say: “okay, it’s a violent world, and this person is/was violent, but if you look at the broader context I’m showing you, that was justified, amiright?”
The 1927 Yankees were memorably described as a “Murderers Row” of hitters. The imdb list looks like what you’d get if you polled the real “murderers rows” of America’s prisons. (I thought they didn’t get the internet?) And of course, the lead characters of many of the films are a literal murderers row of whom we are asked to forgive or at least sympathize with. The imdb top 6 features Red, Don Corleone, Michael Corleone, The Joker, Vincent, Jules, and Blondie. The Sight and Sound Top 6 never asks us to justify killing – of those, only #1 (Vertigo) actually has a human killer, and we’re hardly asked to empathize with Gavin’s nefarious motives. I always thought that 12 Angry Men seemed like a bit of an outlier on the imdb list, but not so much when you consider that it’s about justifying the pre-meditated slaying of a person.
The natural retort might be: well, films should be about life and death, what’s more important than that? Okay, sure. Somehow, though, if you watch the Criterion Collection (you know, basically the best highbrow films), you’re going to see a lot more meditations on the meaning of life than meditations on one of our protagonists having ended one. Somehow, chump filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman managed to get through their careers without a lot of corpses on the screen, either caused by their characters or not.
The other day, Bill Simmons released one of his typically outstanding pieces, which began this way: “Before Steve McQueen, Hollywood didn’t produce action movies in the modern sense. You never saw John Wayne trapped on a luxury yacht with scheming terrorists, or Paul Newman tearing through Paris to find his kidnapped daughter. If you needed a testosterone fix, you survived on a never-ending slew of Westerns and war movies, or any plot in which our heroes took an inordinately long time to plan an escape.” Simmons came to praise dumb action films that will never show up on any kind of top 100 list, but are (he’s right) tremendous fun nevertheless. He begins the modern action era with Bullitt in 1968, without bothering to explain why.
The more I learn about the last 100 years of culture, the more I come back to the notion that the 1960s represented once-in-a-century shockwaves in so many cultural areas: civil rights, feminism, drugs, music, paranoia, space, war overreach, television saturation, reproductive freedom. Cinema is no exception, particularly considering it tries to reflect culture. Perhaps the 1960s’ combined (seeming) obsolescence of the studios and their rating system didn’t really make as much difference as you may have heard…perhaps a new, rawer language and new themes were coming anyway, in reaction to a newly televised violent world (JFK, the Freedom Riders, Malcolm X, Watts, Detroit, MLK, RFK, but especially Vietnam) meeting a newly polarized, stigmatized American public. More and more, it seems pre-1966 America was as different from post-1970 America as pre-1914 Europe was from post-1918 Europe. In reaction to real bloodshed and perceived grievances (everyone’s a victim now), we no longer ask fantasies if we’ll be violent at some point; we ask them to show us when and where our violent rage might find the most righteous outlet.
In the end, we won’t have to worry if the fans will overcome the experts (as seems to happen in so much of wired culture). The new experts probably won’t be like the old ones anyway. Right now, there are just enough people who grew up on the earlier side of the 60s to keep a certain Welles-Renoir-Ozu-Hitchcock flame burning. But it’s not hard to imagine a more Scorsese-Fincher-esque Sight and Sound list coming in a generation or so. Violence – even the violence of quick-cutting – is now celebrating its fifth decade as our preferred manner of a film saying something important. There’s no obvious end to this Dark Knight of our souls.